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
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
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
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.
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.