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Friday, June 29, 2012

The Fundies are Coming! The Fundies are Coming!

The Huffington Post, a news repackager privileged by AOL, has an interesting tidbit entitled:
Louisiana Private Schools Teach Loch Ness Monster Is Real In Effort To Disprove Evolution Theory

The story opens thusly:
Some students at private schools in Louisiana are being taught that Scotland's fabled Loch Ness monster is real, a claim that is then held as evidence disproving Charles Darwin's theory of evolution, the Scotsman reports [on 29 June 2012].
Heavens!  Nellie, bar the door!  "Some" students equals how many exactly?  A colleague of mine is a creationist -- and a Ph.D. chemist.  He is a gentle soul, and funds out of his own pocket a microlending bank in West Africa, helping African women become economically self-sufficient.  Truth to tell, I'd rather know such a man than a snarky atheist who does nothing to help. 

Evolution inaction
As far as I know, the theory of natural selection does not require that when a new species emerges that the old species must vanish in an instant.  The facts may tell us that no dinosaurs survived to human times, but the theory of natural selection does not.  I have seen people claim that "birds are dinosaurs," which is tantamount to the claim that men and dinosaurs have existed at the same time.  So I guess sometimes it's okay to make that claim. 

I don't know which is funnier: creationists who want to downgrade the Bible to a science text or people who get attacks of the vapors over creationism. 

The real puzzle is: Why should The Scotsman care about Louisiana private academies?  Well, the Loch Ness connection may be sufficient for a human interest story.  But where did The Scotsman get the story? 

Hard to say.  The Scottish Sun ran a similar story four days earlier, on 25 June, but it is only a precis.  And on 24 June, the Herald of Scotland ran the Scotsman story almost verbatim. 

The earliest report seems to be the Times Educational Supplement - Scotland, dated 31 July 2009, but "updated" on 28 June of this year.  It focuses on UK recognition of the curriculum rather than on Louisiana.  The TES quoted extensively from one "Jonny Scaramanga, a music lecturer who attended an ACE school in Bath as a child."  That is, given Scaramanga's age (27), the story is at least a decade and a half old.  And notice how the thrust changed from the UK approving the curriculum in TES in 2009 to "Louisiana" in 2012.

So why the sudden interest three years later?  There is a Romney connection. 
  • Romney advocates school vouchers
  • Some parents use vouchers to send their kids to schools using these books
  • These books have some mighty silly or obnoxious stuff in them.  
  • Therefore, we suppose, we should vote for Obama. 
HuffPo cited all "four" Scottish sources, although three of them seem to be simply cut 'n paste.  Curiously, no US sources were cited.   (A Google search on turned up numerous blogs repeating the story like a head cold at a day care center, but no independent confirmations that I saw.) 

The Scotsman story states:
Critics have slammed the content of the religious course books, labelling them “bizarre” and accusing them of promoting radical religious and political ideas.
Well, we can't have religious course books promoting religious and political ideas.  They should be more like regular text books which never do any such thing. 

But who were these unnamed "critics"? 

Who Are the Critics?
Apparently, the untermenschen teach that if the Flood happened only 4000 years ago, then a sea serpent could have survived.  Actually, it's hard to see how a flood at any time would bother a sea serpent at all.  What would it do, drown?  But then why is it necessary that dinosaurs perished in a Great Flood?  What in the story of the Flood, even if we take it at face value, requires that no other animals ever went extinct prior to it? (Remember, the Biblical clock starts running, as it were, with the beginning of human history; and that seems to have gotten rolling in the Middle East around 6000 years ago.) 

A little further on, The Scotsman tells us of "one former pupil, Jonny Scaramanga, 27, who ... now campaigns against Christian fundamentalism."  Hard to see how someone who campaigns against X would ever distort X, especially after his nervous breakdown.  This fellow is the only source mentioned in the Times Educational Supplement article. 

The other source mentioned in The Scotsman (and therefore in the Huffington Post) is one "Bruce Wilson, a researcher specializing in the American political religious right," who tells The Scotsman:
"It has little to do with science as we currently understand. It’s more like medieval scholasticism."  
The first thing to note is that "a researcher" apparently means someone who co-founds a blog as a sort of professional anti-rightist.  Calling him a "researcher" sounds so much more academic. 

The second thing is that this Wilson is also a blogger for ... (wait for it) ... none other than the Huffington Post.  This makes HuffPo blogger Laura Hibbard somewhat disingenuous when she refers to Wilson as a "researcher," if he were an outside source.   

And the third thing, which is what actually got my attention in the first place was that neither Wilson (who said it) or Hibbard (who "reported" it) seem to have a clue about medieval scholasticism.  They seem to think it has something to do with Late Modern, scientificalisitc fundamentalism. 


The scholastics, it is well to recall, had no reason to suppose that there were such a thing as evolution, having never seen an example of a new species arising.  In fact, all the kinds known to Aristotle were known to Darwin; and those known to Darwin within Aristotle's geographic scope were already known to Aristotle.  There is no reason to concoct a theory to explain a phenomenon that has never been observed. 

Tommy Aquinas
One scholastic who did consider the concept in passing was Thomas Aquinas (aka Da Man), who wrote:
Species, also, that are new, if any such appear, existed beforehand in various active powers; so that animals, and perhaps even new species of animals, are produced by putrefaction by the power which the stars and elements received at the beginning.
-- Summa theologica, Part I Q73 A1 reply3
IOW, if any new species ever did arise, they would do so through the immanent powers of nature actualizing the existing potentials.  (Much as the word "gat" exists beforehand in the word "cat," being actualized by a simple mutation/phonemic shift.)  Moderns, who do not believe in immanent natures, have a mechanical philosophy "in which nature is seen as a kind of unnatural composite of passive, unintelligent, preexisting matter, on which order has been extrinsically imposed."  This led inevitably to Paley and Dawkins. 

The Louisiana textbook material is further presented as saying:
"God created each type of fish, amphibian, and reptile as separate, unique animals." 
Gus Hippo
But there is nothing that actually requires this, and it is a belief that dates pretty much to the 19th century novelty sects.  If we go back a millennium and a half, we find Augustine (who was not a medieval scholastic, the middle age having not yet quite begun).  He wrote:
It is therefore, causally that Scripture has said that earth brought forth the crops and trees, in the sense that it received the power of bringing them forth.  In the earth from the beginning, in what I might call the roots of time, God created what was to be in times to come.
-- On the literal meanings of Genesis, Book V Ch. 4:11
IOW, various species need not have come into being at the same time, since God created "what was to be in times to come."  Not only that, but it was the "earth," that is, the natural world, which received from God the immanent power to do this, Gus citing the Bible as his source. 


Were I of a puckish frame of mind, I might even say that this means that evolution can be found in the Bible.  Fortunately, I am not; and so I will not. 
+ + +

This is too good.
On his blog, Wilson sheds crocodile tears because the fundamentalist textbooks he cites denigrate Catholicism and Mormonism, although they apparently do not say anything about them that atheists don't say as well.  (Fundies and atheists share a remarkable overlap of beliefs.)  He also finds it strange that Mr. Romney advocates school vouchers even though some parents use them to send their kids to schools that use books that disparage Mormonism.  He has apparently never heard the dictum "I may not agree with what you say, but I defend to the death your right to say it."  It's called freedom of speech; but in the circles inhabited by Mr. Wilson it is evidently considered normative to shut down any expression with which one disagrees. 

He goes on to write:
In the economic realm, as researcher Rachel Tabachnick describes, the texts "teach a radical laissez-faire capitalism. Government safety nets, regulation, minimum wage, and progressive taxes are described as contrary to the Bible."
This strays a bit from the narrative of scientific illiteracy into kvetching that the untermenschen do not share the orthodox belief in Marxism or the Bismarkian welfare state.  By associating these stances with creationism he apparently hopes to color opposition to laissez-faire capitalism with the aura of being scientificalistic.  Being a man of the left, he cannot imagine a safety net not held in government hands, or how nets can be used to entangle the prey in captivity.  But that is another question entirely and does not have a categorical, ideologically-defined answer. 

And there is the further irony that Darwinian evolution is clearly modeled on laissez-faire capitalism.




But notice we once more see a "researcher" being cited.  Wilson fails to mention that by an amazing coincidence "researcher Rachel Tabachnick" is his partner.  (Undoubtedly, Tabachnick also refers to the "researcher Bruce Wilson.")  This is a little like the old 60s gimmick in which a small group of activists would form several organizations, all with pretty much the same membership, so that the SDS could cite the MEVW and the YSL as being "in solidarity" with them. 

This whole thing reminds me of what Kissinger allegedly said about the Iran-Iraq war.  Why can't they both lose? 

6 comments:

  1. This reminds me of a book called "The Bermuda Triangle Mystery: Solved" in which a librarian traced all the supposed "mysteries" of the Bermuda Triangle and discovered that there actually was no mystery, only a lot of people repeating things without doing any research to discover the real facts, and then other people citing those repetitions as new corroborating evidence. Except that we expect that from crazy ufologists, but not from the supposedly über-rational and scientific elite over at The Scotsman and HuffPost.

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  2. It's the willingness to accept any slander (or, as Jameson would say. libel), however unlikely or too perfect, as long as it's directed at the right targets coupled with high moral and intellectual tone that galls me.

    How is it that papers are almost always wrong when they write about anything you already know about? It becomes tough to assume they're very often right about anything.

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  3. I recently saw an article on another site disparaging the creationist use of the Loch Ness in their text books. Thank you for such a well researched and balance article on the issue.

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  4. I don't understand, exactly how is the existence of Nessie (and I assume other cryptozoological life forms) disproving evolution again?

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    1. Beats me. I assume the reasoning proceeds as follows:

      a) Evolution says that dinosaurs died out long before humans appeared.
      b) Nessie is a holdover dinosaur.
      c) Dinosaurs therefore lived at the same time as humans.
      d) Therefore, evolution is falsified.

      It fails on a). "Evolution" does not say that dinosaurs died our long before humans. The facts -- the fossil record -- says that. It would remain true even if there was no evolution of new species from old. It only means that some species died off.
      It fails on b) because Nessie is not shown to exist at all, let alone that she is a relict dinosaur.
      It fails on d) because even if it could be shown that some dinosaurs persisted into times of recognizable humans, it would not mean that evolution (new species arise from older species) is wrong. It would simply mean that some older species lasted longer than previously thought. (Which would be kool. Remember the Coelacanth!) The emergence of a new species does not require the extinction of the old.

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    2. It is all cryptozoological life forms-- I don't know why, but I know I can't find a cryptid podcast that isn't done by Skeptics who talk about "creationists" the way that the Peering Into Darkness folks talk about demons and conspiracies.

      For some reason, the Skeptic movement seems to be getting obsessed with the idea that cryptozoology is based in creationism.

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