Sunday, August 18, 2013

George F. Will gets it wrong, but, in 2008, he got it right, and then, wrong again.

In a recent op-ed about the state of Michigan's takeover of the bankrupt city of Detroit, columnist George F. Will managed to mangle the facts.

In "The one who would reinvent Detroit" (7 August 2013. Washington Post), Will wrote about Governor Rick Snyder and his plans for the city.

Against this litany of woes, Snyder happily illustrates the city’s revival by brandishing his shiny new wristwatch. It is a Shinola, manufactured here from Swiss parts, by a startup that also makes bicycles and other things. About the vacant land opened up as the population has contracted Snyder says: “Hops.” This grain [emphasis mine] is used to make beer, and microbreweries make, or at least often accompany, urban gentrification.

Correct on a connection between 'craft' breweries and urban renewal, Mr. Will is wrong on basic agronomy.

Homegrown hops

Hops (humulus lupulus) —despite many beer geeks' obsession with them— are not the grain that is used to make beer. They aren't grains at all. Hops are herbs, which, for hundreds of years, have been used as the primary flavoring, preservative, and bittering agents in beer. It is barley (hordeum vulgare) which is the principal cereal grain used to brew beer.


But, back in 2008, Mr. Will did get it right, at least about beer. In "Survival of the Sudsiest" (10 July 2008. Washington Post), he wrote:
It is closer to the truth to say: No beer, no civilization.

The development of civilization depended on urbanization, which depended on beer. To understand why, consult Steven Johnson's marvelous 2006 book, "The Ghost Map: The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic -- and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World." It is a great scientific detective story about how a horrific cholera outbreak was traced to a particular neighborhood pump for drinking water. And Johnson begins a mind-opening excursion into a related topic this way:

"The search for unpolluted drinking water is as old as civilization itself. As soon as there were mass human settlements, waterborne diseases like dysentery became a crucial population bottleneck. For much of human history, the solution to this chronic public-health issue was not purifying the water supply. The solution was to drink alcohol."

Then, in his summary, Mr. Will relapses.
So let there be no more loose talk -- especially not now, with summer arriving -- about beer not being essential. Benjamin Franklin was, as usual, on to something when he said, "Beer is living proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy." Or, less judgmentally, and for secular people who favor a wall of separation between church and tavern, beer is evidence that nature wants us to be.

Although Mr. Will and many of us may share that sentiment, Franklin never actually wrote those words. What he did write was a prolix encomium ... to wine.

Ah, the inconvenience of facts.

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