Insane Clown Posse Channels Walt Whitman

By Sean Carroll | October 13, 2010 11:50 am

Every astronomer knows this poem, not with any special fondness:

WHEN I heard the learn’d astronomer;
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me;
When I was shown the charts and the diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them;
When I, sitting, heard the astronomer, where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick;
Till rising and gliding out, I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

Now, I really like Walt Whitman, but this was not his finest moment. These days, the don’t-bother-me-with-explanations torch is carried by the Insane Clown Posse — two middle-aged white guys, Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope, who put on makeup and rap approvingly about violence and misogyny. (Sorry for the comparison, Walt, but you brought it on yourself.) They received a lot of scorn from scientists for their recent song Miracles, which featured the immortal lines

Fuckin’ magnets, how do they work?
And I don’t wanna talk to a scientist
Y’all motherfuckers lying and
getting me pissed.

Now there is a scary and illuminating interview with the duo by Jon Ronson in the Guardian, where they double down on their dislike of explanation and understanding. (Via Ezra Klein.) It’s all good, but here’s an especially clarifying moment:

“I did think,” I admit, “that fog constitutes quite a low threshold for miracles.”

“Fog?” Violent J says, surprised.

“Well,” I clarify, “I’ve lived around fog my whole life, so maybe I’m blasé.”

“Fog, to me, is awesome,” he replies. “Do you know why? Because I look at my five-year-old son and I’m explaining to him what fog is and he thinks it’s incredible.”

“Ah!” I gesticulate. “If you’re explaining to your five-year-old son what fog is, then why do you not want to meet scientists? Because they’re just like you, explaining things to people…”

“Well,” Violent J says, “science is… we don’t really… that’s like…” He pauses. Then he waves his hands as if to say, “OK, an analogy”: “If you’re trying to fuck a girl, but her mom’s home, fuck her mom! You understand? You want to fuck the girl, but her mom’s home? Fuck the mom. See?”

If you’re confused, Violent J doesn’t actually want to have sex with his paramour’s mother. He is simply advocating not changing your behavior just because a parent is in the house. One word serving many purposes.

Oh yes, and they are evangelical Christians. There are many different senses in which science and religion might come into conflict — personally I care about “religion makes claims about how the world works that aren’t true,” but there are certainly others. Here is one of them. As Shaggy puts it: “But since then, scientists go, ‘I’ve got an explanation for that.’ It’s like, fuck you! I like to believe it was something out of this world.”

I don’t think religion is causing these lovable mop-tops to rebel against the power of scientific explanation; that’s too cheap an explanation. Rather, there is an underlying attitude that both pushes them away from science, and toward religion: a strong preference in favor of believing a certain set of things about the world, well before any evidence is in. First we decide that rainbows and magnets and Stonehenge are miraculous and mysterious things that cannot be accounted for by ordinary, understandable processes; then we reject science and turn to religious beliefs because that’s what flatters our preconceptions. It’s hard to know how to reach people like that. I’m thinking Phil Plait and Brian Cox should put on clown makeup and start rapping about Maxwell’s equations.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science and Society
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  • Guillermo

    It may just be me, but I’ve tried several times now. I still don’t understand the analogy regarding his girl and her parent. What does not leaving the girl alone in the presence of her mother have to do with fog?

  • Ginger Yellow

    “It’s hard to know how to reach people like that. I’m thinking Phil Plait and Brian Cox should put on clown makeup and start rapping about Maxwell’s equations.”

    Oh dear God, no. Tim Minchin, on the other hand…

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    Guillermo, I could explain, but that would just ruin the magic.

  • Ginger Yellow

    “What does not leaving the girl alone in the presence of her mother have to do with fog?”

    The ICP are trying to get jiggy with the fog’s magical mystery you see, and the scientists are all: “Yo, that’s my naturally explicable daughter”. And the ICP are like: “Screw you, I’m trying to get it on with the mysterious chick.”

  • Sili

    I’m thinking Phil Plait and Brian Cox should put on clown makeup and start rapping about Maxwell’s equations.

    Okay … this is where this post went off the rails. Please reconsider coming back from your hiatus.

    I wouldn’t mind some homoerotically charged photoshoots with Cox and Ben Goldacre, though.

  • UncleLlama

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FGbdomlBnJM&feature=related

    SNL parody, in case anyone hasn’t seen it yet.

    Anyway, I think I get how magnets work… but WHY do magnets work? :-9

  • http://sarajdavis.net/ Non-Believer

    Yet these same clowns are wonderfully OK with using all the benefits of the science they don’t want to understand and make efforts to undermine. Do they think the many conveniences of modern life came from magic?
    If you want to believe in unicorns and magical fairies, OK. Fine. But at least reserve enough of your brain to recognize that you are living IN science. And if you degrade science, you are ultimately hurting your future and the future of your children. The fairies aren’t really going to help you with that.

  • Josh Neal

    I think they’re expressing an attitude that’s a lot of people feel – at least in the U.S. – but wouldn’t have the nerve to confess to. Really.

  • Chad Gardner

    I still always loved that poem despite my BS in astronomy. I think even the learn’d astronomer does exactly what Whitman did from time to time. There is an aesthetic appeal that the numbers will never quite convey. I think this is what the poem is about, not a glorification of ignorance chalked up as mysticism, but a basic, guttural reaction to the beauty and infinitude of the sky. I think those who know the stars will actually appreciate the starry sky all the more…

  • Tom Renbarger

    ‘The ICP are trying to get jiggy with the fog’s magical mystery you see, and the scientists are all: “Yo, that’s my naturally explicable daughter”. And the ICP are like: “Screw you, I’m trying to get it on with the mysterious chick.”’

    Magic = Ruined.

  • KWK

    Though (as far as I know) it wasn’t directed at Whitman specifically, Feynman had the most insightful response I’ve ever encountered to the “knowledge negates appreciation” idea:

    “The stars are made of the same atoms as the earth. I usually pick one small topic like this to give a lecture on. Poets say science takes away from the beauty of the stars – mere gobs of gas atoms. Nothing is “mere.” I too can see the stars on a desert night, and feel them. But do I see less or more? The vastness of the heavens stretches my imagination – stuck on this carousel my little eye can catch one-million-year-old light. A vast pattern – of which I am a part – perhaps my stuff was belched from some forgotten star, as one is belching there. Or see them with the greater eye of Palomar, rushing all apart from some common starting point when they were perhaps all together. What is the pattern, or the meaning, or the “why?” It does not do harm to the mystery to know a little about it. For far more marvelous is the truth than any artists of the past imagined! Why do the poets of the present not speak of it? What men are poets who can speak of Jupiter if he were like a man, but if he is an immense spinning sphere of methane and ammonia must be silent?”

  • Brian

    One of the more unhelpful analogies I’ve read in recent memory.

  • Ionic

    It’s interesting that science doesn’t really have anything enlightening to say about how magnets work. Saying that it’s due to intrinsic magnetism of electrons doesn’t really explain anything, it just transforms the problem slightly.

    This doesn’t mean that I support ICP morons.

  • Andrew C.
  • ChH

    I dispute that “they are evangelical Christians”. Aside from their many violations of Biblical commands to Christians, in their own words: “I don’t go to church or anything. I like to believe in God.”

    http://www2.metrotimes.com/music/story.asp?id=13394

  • Clerknerd

    As a musician/scientific-abstracter, I feel the gouge of ignorance felt by these “clowns of posse”. I couldn’t stand them in my not-to-distant-youth; nor, can I stomach them to this day. These pitiful “entertainers” are as sad as they are untalented.

    Music and science are all some of us have. And having people set in opposition to question these pillars of modern culture is quite natural; a way of checks and balances, if you will. But it’s truly sad that,they get opposed, by a bunch of clowns.

    I’m not beneath casting shame on the untalented; I didn’t make them stupid and lame, (the best part) science did. They must have had far too many mutations in their genetic-clown-makeup (zing). With that, ICP, you suck.

    Now, back to writing music, about science.
    The good fight is fought-

  • Dan Carney

    There’s also the unfortunate fact that a lot of people see science as “the man” giving them information that they are forced to accept as truth. Of course the point of doing science is the opposite, but not everybody is doing science.

  • Yoda

    Fuck scientists, you can’t.

  • viggen

    *sigh*

    I guess it’s no surprise why they wear the clown makeup. I would want to try to hide my identity too if I were working to make a living that way. He makes the assertion at the end of the articles that if Alanis Morrisette had made the ICP song “Miracles” it would be called genius. How these two read in print, I think probably not. Can’t consider yourself a creator if all you ever do is tear other people down.

    I didn’t make them stupid and lame, (the best part) science did

    While I understand what you’re saying, I think, I would like to point out that all science has done as explain possible reasons _why_ someone is stupid… I don’t think science has ever actually made someone stupid (except perhaps for the odd stress-induced cerebral hemorrhage felt by someone during their degree comprehensives at some point).

  • Rapguy

    Science is the truth (until the next version of the truth is “discovered”) sort of like rap lyrics….

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  • Brian137

    Whitman’s poem gushes bliss. I can always dry off later.

  • MT-LA

    I always wonder how people can have such a reflexive hatred towards scientists, or towards science in general. And then I open up my browser and read one of Sean’s posts and think “Oh. Well, they have a point.”

    Everyone likes being healthy until the doctor tells them to stop eating fried food. But people really hate it when the doctor makes fun of them for being fat, and then parades around in his little speedo.

    Get off your horse…the lowly masses aren’t nearly as dirty when you’re not so high up.

  • http://www.shaky.com Timon of Athens

    ” two middle-aged white guys, Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope, who put on makeup and rap approvingly about violence and misogyny.”

    Whew! That was close. Thank god there are no black guys rapping approvingly about violence and misogyny, eh?

  • Brian Too

    You all are wrong.

    ICP is appealing to their fan base. The rocker lifestyle and attitude, particularly for an “out there” group like Clown Posse, is the old sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll trinity. All authority figures are bad, and both science and scientists smack of The Man.

    The good news is that they’ll next write a put-down song about preachers, then school teachers, then politicians, then parents, then police, then economists, then accountants…

    The even better news is that most fans can’t really hear the lyrics, or if they can they don’t care. I mean, millions listen to rap music, but how many live the lifestyle? It’s mostly a safe way to experience the dark side and play with things your Mom told you not to. My cousin flirted with the gangsta attitude (briefly) and it was the funniest thing you ever saw. She was the farthest thing from gangsta you can imagine!

    ICP is a sideshow and this hand wringing is pointless. Remember when the Stones were “dangerous”? How about Kiss? Oh my goodness, Jefferson Airplane wrote a song about being high (or maybe not).

  • Marcos

    I agree with Chad Gardner’s interpretation of Whitman’s poem. I also enjoy the piece because I don’t think that Whitman was celebrating ignorance, but the unfiltered strength of observing Nature in all its glory.
    I’m doing a PhD in astrophysics, but I’m also an amateur astronomer, and I can see how the fascination felt from looking at the night sky is different, but complimentary, to the one experienced when doing science. This is also the line of reasoning of the comment with Feynman’s quote.
    The reason for this may be even biological; the night sky has been observed, revered, and feared, since the dawn of our species, so its beauty is more primal, and that’s maybe what’s being highlighted in the poem. Our current understanding of celestial phenomena gives us pleasure on a higher, more intellectual level, but it’s a separated experience.
    We have to be thankful for that primal fascination, because the roots of science are planted in that soil.

  • Chris W.

    On ICP, what Brian Too said.

    Sean, why did you waste bytes on these guys?

    [PS: I think they would be disowned by most evangelical Christians, as nothing but a couple of foul-mouthed poseurs.]

  • Valatan

    http://laughingsquid.com/the-sane-clown-posse/

    And Chad Gardner #10, I very much agree with you.

  • Derek R.

    ICP are idiots, but it seems a bit disingenuous to call them evangelical Christians, regardless of their statements in interviews. Most Chrsitians wouldn’t touch them with a 100 foot altar lighter.

  • OXO

    You are missing an important point.

    How do magnets work/ The standard explanation explains nothing. It posits more magical things to evoke an explanation.

    Why can’t science get the the nub of it? Because it’s beyond knowing.

  • psmith

    #28, Chris W. Said:
    “Sean, why did you waste bytes on these guys?”

    Yes indeed, why?
    The only answer that comes to mind is that Sean was looking for an opportunity to tag them as Evangelical Christians and therefore smear religion.
    Increasingly Sean’s writing shows evidence of this atheist creed:
    1. God does not exist
    2. I hate God
    What a pity he allows his Angry Atheist persona to distort his writing which otherwise shows so much insight and clarity.

  • Bitter postdoc

    I used to think that this attitude was prevalent only in third-world countries like India. It is unspeakably sad to see it in the US.

  • Cosmonut

    I agree with Chad and Marcos’ interpretation of the poem.
    I also think Whitman may have been referring to the presentation and atmosphere of a seminar, because I had a very similar experience as a grad student at U.Chicago some years back.

    Being an avid amateur astronomer, I decided to audit a course in astrophysics. In the very first lecture, the prof (who had a strong nasal twang) starts off with, “Supp(n)ose we have a st(n)aaar..” and starts scribbling on the board.
    Now there was nothing wrong with the material, and the prof was doing a decent job too, but I kept getting the feeling that something amazing and wonderful was being made mundane and pedestrian.

    A decidedly mixed feeling because I also know how science has revealed what magnificent entities stars really are, and technology has revealed astonishing beauty of the Universe totally inaccessible to our naked eyes.

    But there you are. I’d still much rather be in Bryce Canyon on a clear night rather than that class at U. Chicago.

  • dafodil sunshine

    ICP never calls themselves Evangelicals or Christians. The guy who wrote the Onion article did and now this website and many others picked up and ran with the story. The rest or your article about Whitman is fine but you should edit out the phony baloney stuff that your homeboy Ronson imagined in his head.

  • Charon

    When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child, and wondered, fuckin’ magnets, how do they work? But when I became a man, I put away childish things, and wondered, fuckin’ relativistic jets driven by magnetorotational instabilities in quasar accretion disks, how do they work?

  • jpd

    charon, LOL awesome

  • AL

    You are missing an important point.
    How do magnets work/ The standard explanation explains nothing. It posits more magical things to evoke an explanation.
    Why can’t science get the the nub of it? Because it’s beyond knowing.

    The “how” is just the description. Science can more than adequately describe magnetism, so science is capable of answering that question. If you are asking “why” in some metaphysical, teleological sense magnetism works the way it does and not some other way, then you are right that science doesn’t have an explanation for that. But really, any ICP-types who feel that science needs to account for metaphysical teleological questions of this sort must themselves account for the existence of metaphysical teleological entities FIRST, or else this line of inquiry is a meaningless non-starter.

  • http://funky49.com funky49

    Timely! I’m working on a song about electrons and in my second verse I take ICP to task

    next up what I’m telling all ya’ll
    why you can’t Shadowcat through walls
    magnetic field makin things solid
    ask a scientist – get some knowledge like
    lined up atoms spin like Sprees
    boost electron’s force like SHEESH!
    they can get a push, they can get a pull
    but I wouldn’t call all that a miracle
    insane clown disgraced lost cases
    I wanna defibrillate your faces
    J, Shaggy, you guys are jerks – its
    damn sexy knowing how things work
    ignorance is tragic, magnets
    are science, not magic – I’m
    hoping this verse costs me
    every single listener of Insane Clown Posse

    You may know me as funky49 from Fermilab’s “Particle Business” music video
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oaG6umMkbxg

  • http://www.funky49.com funky49

    I’m working on a song about electrons and in my second verse I take ICP to task:

    next up what I’m telling all ya’ll
    why you can’t Shadowcat through walls
    magnetic field makin things solid
    ask a scientist – get some knowledge like
    lined up atoms spin like Sprees
    boost electron’s force like SHEESH!
    they can get a push, they can get a pull
    but I wouldn’t call all that a miracle
    insane clown disgraced lost cases
    I wanna defibrillate your faces
    J, Shaggy, you guys are jerks – its
    damn sexy knowing how things work
    ignorance is tragic, magnets
    are science, not magic – I’m
    hoping this verse costs me
    every single listener of Insane Clown Posse

    You may know me as funky49 from Fermilab’s “Particle Business” music video
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oaG6umMkbxg

  • Pingback: Fucking Geomagnetism, How Does That Work? « Arcsecond()

  • vel

    one more bunch of childish idiots who glorify ignorance and want to think themselves special snowflakes who have a magical sky daddy that cares about them and only them.

  • PJD

    Agreed: Charon, you gave me the best laugh of the day!
    Hey- any REAL musician who fails to understand that music and mathematics are one and the same needs to quit the biz. And those who take musicians who depend on gimmicks to get noticed seriously…well, get a life. Tons of music being made by people who have science minds!

  • réalta fuar

    Gee, rappers who are idiots? who would have thunk it ? move along, nothing to see here. But a very nice, very cogent Feymann quote by KWK above, thanks. oh, and the Whitmann poem has never bothered this astronomer.

  • Brian137

    Back to Walt Whitman’s poem. You can view it as a freeze-frame comparison, which prefers the sublime grandeur of the night sky to the astronomer’s lecture. Then you could justly claim that the poet’s point of view is blind to the value and elegance of science – perhaps ungrateful also. Although I recognized the viability of such an interpretation, I chose to experience the poem as a succession of feelings rather than attitudes.

    After listening for a while, Whitman felt a boredom, bordering on a pall. Seeking to feel better, he slipped away to where he felt free, unassailed. He enjoyed the night air and the beauty of the stars. I have felt all these emotions: the tedium, the escape, the relief, the contentment. The work is a river rather than an ice cube.

  • ChH

    I looked through the Guardian article more carefully – ICP never called themselves Christian, and neither “Jesus” or “Christ” appears anywhere in the interview. ICP merely came out with a generic belief in God – or desire to believe in a God – which could indicate their alignment with any number of world religions. The label “Christian” – and especially “evangelical Christian” was applied to them by the ignorant or axe-grinding author of the article.

  • ChH

    dafodil sunshine – sorry – I obviously didn’t see your earlier post until now…

  • Per

    Now I stop reading Cosmicvariance.

  • davidt

    Sean, thanks for having the courage to expose the anti-intellectual demographic who couldn’t even record their infantile thoughts without utilizing magnets.

  • Paddy

    Many astronomers have an especial fondness for Whitman’s poem; I’ve seen it used as an introductory quotation in more than one PhD thesis. People who prefer the raw mystery of the night to seminar-room explanations make excellent observers. They happily spend their nights freezing at the telescope, and they do their Popperian best to knock down whatever theory Sean and his friends can throw at them.

    The rumour is that the Learn’d astronomer was Simon Newcomb. An hour of hardcore solar-system astrometry would give anyone a funny turn.

  • phoenix

    He didn’t mean not to change you’re behaviour because of the mom. It was like “Screw you mom!” “Screw you scientists!” You’re taking the magic outta this moment. You’re ruining things. Different scenario, same jist. Let me enjoy this amazing thing, this miracle, don’t ruin it for me by explaining HOW it works. Just that it is there is enough.

  • Rob R.

    Sean: “Oh yes, and they are evangelical Christians”

    There’s a sucker born every minute. *rolls eyes*

    Perhaps the blogging hiatus wasn’t such a bad idea after all.

  • Low Math, Meekly Interacting

    I am getting old and utterly unhip. Yet even I know that ICP are beneath contempt. As are their typical fans, who, mercifully, are not yet frighteningly numerous. André 3000 starts spewing this manure, then I get worried. These guys? A three-year-old who won’t stop saying “poopie” is more newsworthy.

  • Josh

    Holy crap it took me until now to realize that he was using the word “fuck” in two different ways in that quote. Damn, that was REALLY confusing when I first read this interview… and now it is all clear!

  • Josh Neal

    Those who think it is ridiculous that ICP claim to be evangelical Christians:

    They haven’t denied it. Any Jewish or Muslim believer certainly would have by now. What religion do you suppose they follow? Baha’i? My money is on Christianity, and, yes, the evangelical variety. They are, after all, *evangelizing*.

  • PJ KIng

    This article is a waste of bytes. Some of just don’t care what the inane Insane Clown Posse and their ignornat view of science. I think you need to find another field to work in Sean as you do not have the sense of logic it takes to write a scirntific blog-and I am sure that many readers agree.

  • jick

    Fuckin’ entertainment industry, how do they work?
    And I don’t wanna talk to a clown
    Y’all motherfuckers lying and
    getting me pissed.

    * In fact I’m not really pissed at them. (Insane Clown what? I have a gazillion better celebrities to hate about.) Consider it my artistic license.

  • that1juggalo

    i love how all of you think that you are better than us cuz you cant imagine that a group like icp has an actual fan base that doesnt care about what you guys think if you guys think that they are so bad and uncool then leave us alone we never asked to be on your radar or to get any press from any of you so just leave all of us alone leave the fam and the clowns and psychopathic records alone just get off our nuts and just go back to your fucking poetry readings and your fucking college coffee house and talk about your take on the meaning of life and let us have our fucking fun and just listen to a group just for the sake of listening to them so peace the fuck out
    mmwcfl
    down with the clown since 97

  • Chewy

    To all you people who seem to have nothing better to do other then talkin’ shit. Let me spell it out for you, to help better your perceptions. Science has become as much of a religion as Catholicism or Christianity. Look at Scientology for instance, it is a religion based around SCIENCE, and the belief that “science explains everything…” and dont tell me their arn’t fanatics out there who preach these rites, Because you know as well as I, that thats a lie. their no better or worse than our fellow Insane Clown Posse. Neither, you, or I, are any better or worse. People try to explain many things, certain things; we’ve come to accept as fact. Others have much room for deliberation! People have their theory’s… and that’s all they’ll be THEORYS. Not facts…

    Now, you people need to focus on more important topics… stay out of the Juggalo world. because WE DONT WANT YOU THERE. So Kindly… fuck off. Unless you’d like to understand the people, rather then take from it what you want, and exploit it for your own personal gain.

    Oh, and they dont outwrite claim to be anything… they believe in god. Many religions believe in god. Does that make them a christian? why are people so-g0d-damn stupid…

    Ignorant?! Ha, I wish I could be half as ignorant as most of you, maybe then I could go on with my miserable life laughing at others while they attempt to live their lives to the best of their abilitys…
    They’ve done somethin’ you can barely grasp.

  • juggaloboy6jc

    Alls I have to say is that if you have nothing better to do then go to a website, read an article with something in the title that you apparently don’t like and turn around and waste your time posting your opinion on it is beside me. Aren’t you all going to feel stupid when the aliens come tell us about how they have been manipulating man kind since the beginning of time and the world is based on their creations and inventions. Kinda funny how fucked up shit can get when half of what you “know” is based on assumptions.

  • juggaloboy6jc

    oh and whoop whoop (bitches)

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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .

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