Saturday, February 17, 2007

Silly science Saturday.

Going through today's New York Times, I saw two items that led to the caption of this post. The first takes us, once again, to the Texas legislature. Lest it appear that I'm being unduly harsh to the Lone Star State, though, please note that the mischief here originated in the state of Georgia, with an organization called The Fair Education Foundation, Inc. (see here). What FEF is about is trying to get evolution banned from classrooms because it is based on religion; therefore, teaching it violates the constitutional separation of church and state. Others have made similar arguments, claiming that "scientism", "evolutionism" or "Darwinism" constitutes a "religion" because it rests upon unproven dogma that can only be affirmed through an act of faith. FEF, however, argues that the religious foundations of evolution are in the Jewish mystical tradition of Kabbalah. FEF doesn't cite any Kabbalistic underpinnings for Darwinian natural selection beyond the fact that rabbinical "sages" who contributed to the Kabbalah tradition, in their exegeses of Torah texts, made calculations of the time elapsed since the beginning of creation that anticipated, and are in striking accord with, estimates by modern cosmologists of time elapsed since the "big bang". By positing that the universe has been around for billions of years, instead of the mere six thousand it is constrained to by the exegesis of Genesis that FEF prefers, the Kabbalists and their cosmologist heirs allow sufficient time for evolution to have produced the flora and fauna we have today. Unstated in this argument, but hinted at because he is mentioned in the FEF text, is that Arno Penzias, a co-discoverer, along with his co-worker Robert Wilson, with whom he shared a Nobel Prize, of the cosmic background microwave radiation that evidences the big bang, is an observant Jew.

Incidentally, FEF doesn't stop at seeking to bar the teaching of evolution. They also want to throw out Copernicus. One thing you can say for them is that they have no use for dispensational millenialism, or, if you prefer, pre-millenialism (see here), so they give the back of the hand to Tim LaHaye fans. Unfortunately, they also are Holocaust deniers. Update: when I posted this nine years ago I had links to pages of the FEF website citing Kabbalah and denying Copernicus and the Holocaust. I see now that those pages are no longer accessible, although the one about pre-millenialism is still there.

Anyway, Ben Bridges, a member of the Georgia legislature, produced a one page memorandum summarizing FEF's constitutional argument against the teaching of evolution and distributed it to his colleagues. He also sent a copy to Warren Chisum, the second most powerful member of the Texas House of Representatives, who had it copied and distributed to his fellow legislators. When some of them complained about its substance, Mr. Chisum distanced himself from it, saying that the memo "does not reflect my opinion", and also that he regretted having "hurt or offended some groups including some of my dear friends." He also retained a former legislative colleague, Steven Wolens, who is Jewish, to help with damage control.

Making fun of FEF and its ilk has a fish-in-a-barrel quality (though it's sometimes irresistable), and it's hard to give any credence to the notion that such groups pose any serious threat, especially when we consider recent developments in Kansas. However, the other item that got my attention this morning is, I think, a real and insidious threat, having been endorsed by perhaps the pre-eminent figure in American pop culture. It's described in Maureen Dowd's column, which has the irresistable title, "A Giant Doom Magnet".

The column is about Oprah's latest fave rave: an Australian TV producer named Rhonda Byrne's book, The Secret. If you guessed (you being part of that infinitesimal minority of people who don't watch Oprah) that this is a text that gives you a simple principle by virtue of which you can transform your presently dreary life for the better, bingo. All one need do, saith Ms. Byrne, is to think positive thoughts, and good things will follow. If you're sufficiently into geezerdom, like me, this may strike a mystic chord of memory reaching back to a 1952 opus by The Reverend Norman Vincent Peale, as Dowd notes. If you're a student of modern European intellectual history, it may remind you of this worthy thinker.

According to Ms. Byrne, the converse also holds: negative thoughts beget negative results. Ms. Dowd's title for her column refelects her realization that her negative thoughts about the Bush administration's actions in Iraq serve to amplify the negativity of those actions.

According to Ms. Byrne's acolyte James Arthur Ray, interviewed by Oprah, this is all "very, very scientific." So was phrenology considered, in its time.

"Um, Claude," I can almost hear you, my faithful reader, saying, "what about that 'snark-free' guarantee you proffered in your last post?" What can I say? So sue me.

Addendum: I hate to take issue with a friend, but Rundeep's comment on this post compels me to say this: I love Texas. Yes, I love it in spite of its perhaps greater than average quotient of jingoistic and ultra-fundamentalist nutjobs. I love it for the likes of Ann Richards (see here), Barbara Jordan, and Molly Ivins (see here), as well as for having gotten drunk a few times with Kinky Friedman (see here) (who could sometimes be an asshole, but was always interesting) and Jim Hightower (see here) (who was always a gentleman, but never dull), and for having (at a fundraiser for Jim at the old Lone Star Cafe on 5th Avenue, when he was running for Chair of the Texas Railroad Commission) danced the "Cotton-Eyed Joe" with Cissy Farenthold (see here) and twenty or so other of her nearest and dearest friends. I love it for Terry Allen, Archie Bell and the Drells, Asleep at the Wheel, the Austin Lounge Lizards, the Big Bopper, Guy Clark, Alvin Crow and the Pleasant Valley Boys, Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup, Freddy Fender, Nanci Griffith, Carolyn Hester, Adolph Hofner, Buddy Holly, Lightnin' Hopkins, Flaco Jimenez, Janis Joplin, the Light Crust Doughboys (especially John "Knocky" Parker), Augie Meyer, Mouse and the Traps, Doug Sahm, Joe Tex, the Thirteenth Floor Elevators, Townes Van Zandt, Willie and Waylon and Jerry Jeff, and Bob Wills. I love it for Larry McMurtry. I love it for having spent a couple of formative years in San Antonio when my dad was stationed there in the Air Force, where my Pennsylvania bred mom learned to buy fresh tamales, wrapped in cornhusks, and serve them to us for dinner once a week, and where my fourth birthday present was a Billy the Kid outfit from Joske's.


  1. How could you hold back on that one? The flat-earthers are about the easiest targets imaginable.

    I'm neither a follower of Maureen nor Oprah, so I'm glad you passed this one on. But one of our guys is doing a public service in regard of the former.

    May comment more later. (It's bedtime just now, and I need to somehow scare up some positive thoughts.)


    ymtxy: Christ almighty!

  2. True story about Texas: for many reasons, part of my last job involved obtaining licenses from the Texas Securities Division for certain entities and people. The correspondence always came in an official envelope with a picture of the state in the return address corner with the statement: "Texas. It's like a whole other country."

    Even on the official mail, they recognize they ain't like the rest of us. Mr. Deep is headed to Dallas tomorrow to take a deposition in a major insurance coverage case. Not excited about being in "the land of idiots" for even 24 hours.

  3. Well, let me put it in perspective: he went to school with GWB.

  4. Say no more. I understand completely.

    Yesterday I took Liz to a movie with her friend Jamie. Jamie's dad, Jay, played the part of GWB in last summer's production of David Hare's Stuff Happens, at the Public Theater. When we took Jamie home, Jay invited us in and chatted with me while the kids played on Jamie's computer. Jay said that, in preparing for that role, he had spent so much time getting the speech and mannerisms down (having seen the play, I can attest to the great job he did) that, while watching Bush's latest speech on Iraq, he was able to give some of the lines almost before they had left the President's mouth. Scary.

  5. it frightens me a bit that anyone, in any public, elected office, anywhere would listen to these sort of people.

  6. Terrific post, Claude. It is indeed difficult to keep from poking fun at these folks, but then again, for sheer comedic value it'd be close to impossible to top their own website. Thanks for the links.

    And thanks also for the encouraging comments over on my blog. It's much appreciated.

    BTW, my father - a Florida alum and longtime Gators fan - is a retired scientist (who now lives in Georgia, of all places). Back in the 1980s he worked at Bell Labs in New Jersey, where his boss was... Arno Penzias. Small world.