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Bewildering Stories

Where the Action Is

by Don Webb

Analog editor Stanley Schmidt’s column in the October 2005 issue of his magazine is titled “Cowardice in the Classroom.” Such a hard-hitting title indicates how close the subject comes to Prof. Schmidt’s heart; he was at one time a member of a university science department. Dr. Schmidt opposes the confusion of religion and science in education, in particular the efforts made by proponents of “intelligent design” to undermine the teaching of evolution in biology, among other subjects.

To the extent that Dr. Schmidt’s editorial argues the difference between science and religion, it flogs a dead horse: the time has come to hear not from physical scientists and theocrats masquerading as physicists and biologists but from political scientists and social philosophers.

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I think Dr. Schmidt’s editorial falls into the same general area of concern as some of Jerry Wright’s: our publisher has editorialized here in Bewildering Stories about the state of education in the U.S., particularly as it is affected by a lack of discipline and even outright lawlessness in student behavior.

As I see it, Stanley Schmidt and Jerry are talking about two facets of the same thing: rejection of authority. The social phenomenon they describe amounts to what the French call a chahut, a revolt that takes place in a classroom where the students perceive that the instructor lacks the will or means to assert his authority. The consequences are the same whether we’re talking about student behavior or intellectual rigor: anarchy and a struggle for power.

And the struggle is joined. The President of the U.S. recently paid a political debt to the “Christian right” by publicly implying that “intelligent design” is the equivalent of evolution and that the two modes of thought ought to be taught together in order that students might choose between them. What next: equal time for astrology in astronomy courses? One imagines that our readers outside the U.S. will react with astonishment mingled with either amusement or alarm.

Dr. Schmidt takes some pains in his editorial to explain why “intelligent design” does not belong in a science course. I think he misses an opportunity to make his point trenchantly. One can say simply, “Intelligent design: so what? Science answers the question how, not why.”

Creationists and the proponents of “intelligent design” know that science and religion are two different things, yet they dismiss the fact as irrelevant. One may hear an echo of Pontius Pilate’s infamous snort: “What is truth?” Like the Roman procurator they have their own agenda and cannot abide conclusions that differ with it, even and especially those that come from science. Dr. Schmidt’s editorial thus ends at a beginning: the conflict between scientists and the proponents of “intelligent design” is not about philosophy but about political power.

The current mode in U.S. electoral campaigns is to attack not the opponent’s weaknesses but his strengths: repeat loudly and often that what’s true is false and what’s false is true until a subservient press and an uninformed and intimidated populace fall into line. Since that strategy seems to work in elections, why not elsewhere?

Science is education’s stronghold. Once “intelligent design” gains a foothold in science classrooms, the authority of science is undermined. In the ensuing anarchy, pressure groups that seize control of school boards and university governance can impose their agenda not only in science classrooms but in all others, as well. Engaging in intellectual argument with the proponents of “intelligent design” is therefore futile; the issue is an “academic question” par excellence, because only academics find it interesting. To paraphrase a politician’s inelegant byword: “It’s the politics, stupid.”

And yet we have to wonder: why is there such a hue and cry today? Again, we must remember that we are witnessing a battle of mentalities: the scientific draws conclusions from facts; the fundamentalist bends facts to fit preconceived notions. There are historical examples aplenty of the effects of fundamentalist thinking on science: Stalin required adherence to Lamarckian notions of “acquired characteristics” in biology because the scheme seemed to support the secular religion of Soviet communism. And Dr. Schmidt’s editorial concludes with a frightening example from today: an astronomy instructor appeared to have been so intimidated by political pressure that he omitted any discussion of stellar evolution in his course. That goes far beyond biology: the very concept of evolution had become taboo.

The same is not true everywhere. In the Canadian federal election of 2000, the Progressive-Conservative party leader, Stockwell Day, was revealed as believing in Creationism. Now, Creationists hold that the world was created in 4004 B.C., according to the timeline drawn up by Bishop Ussher. The Bishop, it must be said, was a formidably intelligent man and did the best he could with the knowledge available in the 17th century. Did he not expect like-minded scholars to improve on his work in the future?

However, Canadians were faced with the prospect that their next Prime Minister might travel the world making speeches about man’s walking hand in hand with the dinosaurs 6,000 years ago, about the same time as the invention of writing, it might be noted. More than half a million people signed an on-line petition that the candidate change his name to Doris Day. At that point the basic issue in the election had come down to: Who was going to be the laughingstock? The Canadian voters politely declined. Voters in other countries may be more of a mind to accept the distinction.

In a school district or university ruled by proponents of “intelligent design,” stellar evolution could not be taught if the very idea of evolution were anathema; in one ruled by Creationists, astronomy itself would be a dead subject: the universe, centered on the Earth, could be only 12,000 light-years in diameter although it might be expanding at the rate of one light-year per calendar year. That’s no exaggeration: the Creationists can’t have their dogma and reality, too.

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Religious fundamentalism is both old and new. The pages of Cyrano de Bergerac’s The Other World show dramatically how early modern science was supplanting fantastical religious physics in the 17th century. A case in point: in his novel, Cyrano travels airborne to the New World and holds an imaginary conversation with Governor Montmagny of New France. Now, Monsieur de Montmagny — a highly respected administrator — was a very pious gentleman, but he is depicted as quickly understanding and even drawing logical conclusions from Cyrano’s lessons in astrophysics and an infinite universe.

As Karen Armstrong emphasizes in The Battle for God, modern fundamentalism is only about 150 years old. Its basis is authoritarian utopia or dystopia, but it has disguised itself in rationalistic trappings. As a modern movement, it has adopted a Trojan Horse strategy that would defeat science by borrowing its words; hence “Creation science” and “intelligent design.”

The line is unbroken that leads from John Nelson Darby’s “Rapture” heresy in the mid-1800’s to the Scopes “monkey trial” of 1925 to the present day. In today’s terms it boils down to: “Science leaves us with only existential anguish, and scholarship seems to question our most cherished mythologies. Moreover, the social, political and economic order has left us feeling alienated. For reassurance, then, we shall pretend that we are scientists; and we shall seize political power, because we brook no contradiction.”

Dr. Schmidt reminds teachers that they have a solemn obligation to serve their calling and to oppose misguided authority. He calls for action in politics and the workplace and says it would be cowardly to fail to resist the imposition of unscientific dogma in the classroom. If such resistance leads to civil disobedience, it will be indeed courageous. In effect, Dr. Schmidt advocates taking action in no fewer than three of the five areas that Jane Jacobs cites as causes of an approaching dark age: the substitution of credentialing for educating, the subversion of professional self-policing, and the abandonment of science.

Might we be headed back to 1925 and re-runs of the Scopes trial? Possibly. But we are not going back to the 1650’s. Cyrano shows us rationalism winning the battle for science even as his contemporary, the physicist and mathematician Blaise Pascal, was winning the battle for faith. That war is over.

What we’re witnessing today is a desperate rear-guard action that comes more than three centuries too late. The real battles that lie ahead will be waged in an anarchic cauldron — a global chahut — of political, economic and religious sectarianism.

The discussion continues in issue 162...

Copyright © 2005 by Don Webb for Bewildering Stories

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