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NEW STRATEGY
Science still losing the battle for America's hearts

By John Steinberg | RAW STORY COLUMNIST

As regular readers (of this website, to be sure, but also regular readers in the broadest sense) know, science is under attack – in specific ways like the Administration’s dismissal of evidence of global warming, and in a more general sense, as evidenced by the way the current administration stacks advisory panels based on religious belief rather than domain expertise. But if there is a mutual Maginot Line in this battle, it is the conflict between literal interpretation of the Bible’s account of creation in Genesis and Satan’s embodiment in the form of evolution.

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For those who subscribe to the Darwinian view (and each of us should smack upside the head all who say they “believe in evolution,” a construction that cedes the high ground at the outset – “belief” has nothing to do with it), the news from the front is not good. Time and Newsweek seem to feature so many religious stories that they might as well have become in-flight magazines for Jesus Air. With rare exceptions, such as the recent scathing editorial in Scientific American, discussions of the religion-science collision are notable primarily for their unwillingness to offend true believers. Network television shows present End Times dramas without a shred of irony – the tag line for ads for NBC’s “Revelations” series is “Omnium Finis Imminet.” And school boards around the country are backing slowly way from the idea that public education should include anything not pre-approved by Jerry Falwell.

In short, science is losing the battle for the hearts and minds of Americans. A re-evaluation of strategy is therefore in order.

In the traditional long-term view of American politics, periods of conservatism are balanced by periods of liberalization. By this view, the pendulum that now gives us George Bush and James Dobson ascendant will eventually swing back and undo their excesses.

But one of the most important points argued in Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas? is that the pendulum may well be broken. The map of class struggle has been redrawn: cooption of social conservatism by the economic elite has aligned cynical wealth with religious poverty. Progressive politics is no longer seen as an ally of its logical beneficiaries. As a result, the restorative forces that once limited the extent to which the country has swung from centrist moorings may no longer apply.

So how do we fight back? Logic remains my weapon of choice, though our opponents seem largely immune to its effects. But I harbor the hope that we can still turn the tide with the essentials from the logical toolkit, such as the reductio ad absurdum: showing that an idea is probably false by first assuming its truth, and then showing how that truth leads to absurd conclusions that cannot possibly be true. It is the formal equivalent of “give them enough rope and they’ll (logically) hang themselves.”

I thought I had found the perfect application when I read a recent OpEd piece about the debate over evolution by Richard Cohen of the Washington Post. Cohen tees up by noting that, “19 states are considering proposals that would require schools to question evolution.”

I happen to be a big fan of skepticism. I think it is the most important skill our schools can teach – not the distrust part, exactly, but I do think that the ability to disassemble fallacious arguments and pick out their specific flaws is what separates man from sheep. (Well, that and Antonin Scalia. But I digress.)

Cohen wonders why the fundamentalist microscope is reserved for Darwinism. As part of his reductio argument, he asks: “Why not introduce such skepticism into astronomy and have the sun revolve around the Earth, or have the Earth stand still?”

I read these words and smiled – exactly, I thought. Unwashed heathen that I am, I was willing to bet that the Bible, written long before Copernicus showed otherwise, says that the sun revolves around the earth. And a quick online search confirmed I would have won the bet.

The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose. Ecclesiastes 1, verse 5.

And the sun stood still, and the moon stayed, until the people had avenged themselves upon their enemies. Is not this written in the book of Jasher? So the sun stood still in the midst of heaven, and hasted not to go down about a whole day. Joshua 10:13:

What we need, I mused while stroking my Snidely Whiplash moustache, is a subversive Yes Men-style program to lead a noisy challenge to heliocentrism. I saw visions of earnest young men, dressed to look like Mormon missionaries, spreading through Red State America, preaching the gospel of geocentrism. Let’s help the wingnuts re-establish God’s own cosmology and insist that our schools teach that the Earth is at the center of the universe. Give the kids two competing theories and let them decide.

Confronted with such abject silliness, the rubes will have to finally get the point – the point being that there must be some widely abandoned pre-modern “fact” in the Bible that is so idea so plainly at odds even with dumbed-down, man-in-the-street cosmology that the resulting collision of faith and common sense will wake the neighbors. Brilliant, if I do say so myself.

And then I woke up.

It turns out there is no need to create this stalking horse – there are Bible-thumpers out there who actually still believe that the earth is the center of the universe. Don’t take my word for it. Visit www.geocentricity.com, which is “devoted to the historical relationship between the Bible and astronomy,” and which “assumes that whenever the two are at variance, it is always astronomy…that is wrong.”

By way of proof, these (literal) flat-earthers cite authorities like Cardinal Bellarmine, (famous for threatening Galileo with the Inquisition), who rejected Galileo’s heresy thusly: "To assert that the earth revolves around the sun is as erroneous as to claim that Jesus Christ was not born of a virgin."

I guess that settles that.

These anti-science crusaders feel no need to explain the mountain of contrary evidence stretching from Galileo, the 17th century heretic, to Galileo, the spacecraft that orbited Jupiter in 2003. It should therefore come as no surprise that their brethren are untroubled by the geological evidence for natural selection, or by the conundrum posed by the existence of vestigial organs in their own bodies – the appendix, the tonsils, the cerebral cortex. They’re not quite sure what any of them are for, they know each of them can make them sick, and they conclude they would be better off without any of them. For fundamentalists, the Bible is a closed system, furnishing all relevant theories, evidence and conclusions.

So perhaps there simply isn’t a rope long enough out there for these folks to hang themselves with. The reductio ad absurdum might as well be spoken in tongues to people whose relationship with absurdity is essentially a common law marriage.

John Steinberg bloviates regularly at www.bluememe.blogspot.com.

 



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