The following is an excerpt from OpinionJournal’s “Best of the Web” at WSJ written by the editor, James Taranto.
The Hazing of Scott Walker
Wisconsin’s Scott Walker, who since 2010 has won more elections as governor than any other Republican in America, has been making noises of late about running for president next year. Yesterday it became clear that the media regard him as a serious candidate, for a reporter asked him an unserious question. As the Associated Press reports (with, oddly, a Madison dateline): “Walker refused to say Wednesday whether he believes in the theory of evolution, dodging that question and several others about foreign policy after delivering a speech about global trade in London.”
The foreign-policy questions are serious ones, and he promised to get to them in due course: “ ‘I don’t think it’s polite to respond on policy in the United States when you’re in a foreign country,’ Walker said when asked about Islamic State. ‘That’s certainly something I’ll answer in the future.’ ”
But the evolution question—with which the AP story leads—is a silly one. To “believe in” a scientific theory is a contradiction in terms: A theory is not a doctrine to be accepted on faith, but a hypothesis to be tested empirically. That said, it’s fair to describe Walker’s answer at the press conference as a dodge: “I’m going to punt on that one,” he said. “That’s a question a politician shouldn’t be involved in one way or the other. So I’m going to leave that up to you.”
That prompted incoherent outrage from National Journal’s Ron Fournier. “Nobody who wants to be taken seriously for the presidency can duck a question like, ‘Do you believe in evolution[?]’ ” he wrote, using “can” to mean “should be able to.”
Why not? On that question, Fournier is a bit confused. On the one hand, he describes it as a political question of the utmost seriousness: “As a leader, Walker has a responsibility to explain to his supporters that evolution is fact and it’s not necessarily a contradiction of their religious faiths.” That’s just bunk: In a secular republic, it is decidedly not the responsibility of politicians to make authoritative pronouncements on theological questions. And the statement “evolution is fact” is more or less equivalent to “I believe in evolution.” It reflects such a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of science that it does not even rise to the level of falsehood.
On the other hand, Fournier acknowledges with a wink the question’s silliness: “There are virtually no questions that are out of bounds for a presidential candidate. Think of a campaign as a lengthy interview for a job with 300 million bosses, each with a singular set of standards for making a decision. What might be a stupid question to 99 percent of votes [sic] (‘Boxers or briefs?’) might matter to somebody.”
The Federalist’s Sean Davis tweeted at Fournier: “Since you ‘believe in science,’ . . . can you please square the Cambrian explosion w/ Darwinian gradualism?”—a serious question posed with facetious intent. It’s a very safe bet that Fournier’s knowledge of evolutionary science does not extend far beyond the textbook capsule summary of the theory, as evidenced by Fournier’s failure to answer Davis’s tweet (one of many directed at what Twitchy .com calls “self-righteous journos”).
Declarations like “I believe in evolution” or “evolution is fact” are not serious thoughts but badges of identity. As David Freddoso of the Washington Examiner observes in a tweet: “I’d rather see Walker say yes, he believes in evolution. But the Q as posed to a POTUS candidate is just a white-gentry-liberal dog whistle.” He elaborates: “For a certain kind of person—white, northeastern, high-income, college degree or more—it tells you whether someone is ‘our people.’ ”
When a reporter asks the question, it’s more a hazing ritual than a serious query. (Walker is being put through other forms of hazing as well; see today’s Washington Post story on “questions” that “linger” about his “college exit.” The answer, deep in the piece, is that Walker was “in good standing” when he left Marquette University.)
To this sort of question, the correct answer is one that demonstrates not one’s knowledge but one’s political acumen. Walker has little chance of winning votes from people whose identity is tied up with a “belief” in evolution. But he needs to avoid losing votes from those on the opposite side of that divide as well as from those who find self-righteous fundamentalism off-putting whether it is in the name of religion or science.
It must be acknowledged that Walker made a rookie mistake in answering the question “I’m going to punt on that one.” That showed he was unprepared for a question that—the press corps being what it is—he was bound to get asked sooner or later. But his follow-up on Twitter was skillful: “Both science & my faith dictate my belief that we are created by God. I believe faith & science are compatible, & go hand in hand.” Fournier isn’t satisfied, but that tells you more about Fournier than about Walker.
Meanwhile, the Federalist’s Mollie Hemingway tweets: “Years ago [I] suggested to [a] political reporter [that] pro-choice pols be asked when life begins. He was very confused why that would be a good question.” That ignorance is a product of the media’s lack of ideological diversity. It ill-serves liberal politicians, who don’t get the training conservative ones do in dealing with hostile questions.
Perhaps in an ideal world journalists would ask only thoughtful, well-informed questions. But if we’re stuck with these sorts of hazing queries, it would be better if they came from both sides.
For more “Best of the Web” click here and look for the “Best of the Web Today” link in the middle column below “Today’s Columnists.”