No estimate of overall turnout for last weekend’s global March for Science is available, but it surely qualifies as a milestone event in President Trump’s first 100 days. A table showing attendance at a few dozen protests (out of the estimated 500 to 600 that took place around the planet) suggests the total to have been in the hundreds of thousands.
In Washington, at least, the demonstration had an urgent point of local emphasis: the severely slashed budgets the administration has proposed for the National Institutes for Health and the Environmental Protection Agency. With the EPA, the cuts amount to disemboweling the agency; the limbs can be sawed off later, presumably at leisure. But the line of defense was wider than that, as expressed by one of the march’s honorary co-chairs, known to a generation or two of public television viewers as Bill Nye the Science Guy. Speaking to The Washington Post, he said, “Somewhere along the way, there has developed this idea that if you believe something hard enough, it’s as true as things discovered through the process of science. And I will say that’s objectively wrong.”
Upon reading this, I noticed three responses click through my brain in rapid succession. First came full and immediate assent: “Yes, of course.” The next was in the nature of a sigh, its verbal equivalent being something like: “How messed up are things that someone not only feels the need to say this out loud but is compelled to do so as publicly as possible?”
And finally, what’s hardest to put into words: a kind of forceful reminder of the reality that politically weaponized ignorance is effective, well funded and (to go by every available indication) here to stay. This is unacceptable. More than that, it is extremely dangerous; resignation is not an option. But people who find comfort living in a cosmos of “alternative facts” aren’t going to leave it willingly. They tend to stand their ground.
Least of all are they going to be driven out by Antony Alumkal’s Paranoid Science: The Christian Right’s War on Reality, just published by NYU Press. The very title of the sermon ensures that nobody will attend but the choir -- and few besides the most fervent members, at that. That is unfortunate: the element of pamphleteering in the book proves less significant than its four case studies of bad ideas going out in search of rationales to entrench them.
Neither believers nor conservatives have a patent on that process, but Alumkal -- an associate professor of sociology of religion at the Iliff School of Theology in Denver -- is especially irked that evangelical Christianity and the right have become so tightly bound to one another. He reviews four seemingly unrelated developments: intelligent design (creationism rebranded); the milieu of so-called ex-gay ministries and therapies; Christian right bioethics (exemplified in opposition to stem-cell research); and those for whom the very idea of anthropogenic climate change shows a troubling lack of confidence in the divine plan.
Alumkal treats each as a movement trying to maneuver between an expressly theological opposition to some aspect of science, on the one hand, and an effort to show that “real science” happens to coincide with religious beliefs, on the other. Opposition to the theory of evolution through natural selection is an obvious example with a particularly interesting history. The effort to find an alternative has taken a couple of seemingly distinct forms, with the earlier version, “creation science,” proving effectively indistinguishable from a literal reading of the Book of Genesis.
The intelligent-design movement is more circumspect. It treats evolutionary theory as a kind of secular mythology (part of a religion it calls “naturalism”) which is not based on evidence and in no way preferable to thinking that life is the product of an intentional act of creation. Hence the role of a supreme being with a long-term plan is as scientific as any other theory.
This possesses at least the form of a rational argument, with nothing to imply a diorama showing Adam and Eve with a brontosaurus, though also nothing to rule it out, either. But the history of intelligent design over the past 30 or 40 years is one of persistent tension between its nondoctrinal framing (i.e., no credal statements about the designer) and the reality that specific religious concerns animate it.
Quoting numerous passages from the literature of intelligent design and the other movements he analyzes as well, Alumkal shows that hostility toward science -- including a kind of fearful contempt toward scientists -- is fairly palpable. “Militantly secular professors, intoxicated by the naturalistic doctrine of Darwinism,” are depicted as “bent on strengthening their dominance of American culture.” Not content with making godless secularism pretty much a condition of employment at the universities, the naturalistic elite also influence the mass media and even seek to make a religion out of concern for the environment: “It even has a special vocabulary, with words like ‘sustainability’ and ‘carbon neutral.’ Its communion is organic food. Its sacraments are sex, abortion and, when all else fails, sterilization. Its saints are Al Gore” and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
Does this seem like laying the caricature on a bit thick? I would agree, except for the fact that Alumkal is actually quoting from an anti-environmentalist tract. (Nor is it even the most unhinged passage he found there.) “When it comes to science,” he writes, “perhaps the key issue is the ease with which these individuals deny reality when they find it undesirable.” True, but it remains difficult to conceive why they’d choose to live in such an abject fantasy world instead.
Submitted by Jean Dimeo on April 19, 2017 - 6:00am
Inside Digital Learning asked ed tech experts if New York State's decision to pour millions of dollars into open education resources represents a breakthrough for OER. Here are their responses. Do you agree?
Picture yourself as a commercial traveler in Venice during a trade fair at the end of the 12th century. Business is booming, so you have to tune out a cacophony of accents and tongues while haggling with a merchant over a lot of well-made boots.
He agrees to a very good price if you buy a half dozen pairs. Jotting down a note to himself about the transaction -- VI shoes at IV gold coins each -- he then moves stone around on his abacus before recording the total price. (His abacus is a board -- the kind used in the Orient, with beads, strings and a frame, are rare but supposedly much more efficient.) You dig the necessary XXIV coins out of your purse and decide to keep one pair of boots for yourself.
Assuming the rest will sell for twice as much when you get back home, what is your profit on the transaction? Enough, you hope, to buy a secondhand abacus and hire someone to tutor the kids. Otherwise, there's a strong chance that you just know it was a good deal but not that you stand to net XVI coins from it.
Within a few years, the whole process of calculating and recording business transactions will change, thanks to one Leonardo of Pisa, who was born circa 1170 and alive as late as 1241. He is not to be confused with the considerably more famous Leonardo, who comes along in the 15th century. Indeed, for long time, there is all too little danger of mixing them up. The mathematician from Pisa's reputation fades into near total oblivion, even as his influence grows, almost exponentially, from one century to the next. For he not only advocated the Hindu-Arabic numerical system so effectively that it was adopted in Europe, but he also provided a comprehensive course of instruction on its use in performing calculations.
The advantages proved considerable. Roman numerals were ill suited for arithmetic (as our marketplace example may suggest) and well-nigh useless for solving the kinds of problems that the Islamic savants knew as al-jabr (algebra). The Hindu-Arabic system was, by contrast, a marvel of efficiency and processing power. Hence the title of Leonardo's enormous treatise Liber abbaci. First available in 1202 and issued in a revised edition in 1228, it was not a manual for using the abacus but rather a method for turning any blank piece of paper into a calculating machine. Conveying Liber abbaci’s impact to the general reader is Keith Devlin’s mission in Finding Fibonacci: The Quest to Rediscover the Forgotten Mathematical Genius Who Changed the World, from Princeton University Press. (Devlin is a senior research scientist at Stanford University and appears on National Public Radio as the Math Guy. Further, Liber abbaci is the title as Devlin gives it, though the doubled B is debatable. A quick JSTOR search shows Liber abaci used about three times as often.)
It turns out that Leonardo of Pisa was not quite erased from the history of mathematics after all. His posthumously bestowed nickname, Fibonacci (“son of Bonacci”) has been affixed to a well-known and much-studied numerical sequence that begins with zero and one and continues with each subsequent term being the sum of the previous two. Like so:
0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89 …
This series corresponds to certain patterns in nature; the number of petals on a flower, for example, will tend to be a Fibonacci number. And the longer the sequence goes on, the ratio between each term and its predecessor gets closer to an important constant (phi = 1.618 …) sometimes called the divine proportion or the golden ratio.
Leonardo of Pisa didn't discover the series (Indian mathematicians had been aware of it for centuries), nor did he single it out for particular attention -- and Devlin, for his part, regards it as an injustice of sorts that the greater accomplishment of Liber abbaci should be little known except to historians of mathematics. In 2011 he published a biography, The Man of Numbers: Fibonacci's Arithmetic Revolution, followed the same year by a Kindle ebook original called Leonardo and Steve: The Young Genius Who Beat Apple to Market by 800 Years.
With this third outing, Devlin has taken advocacy for the Italian mathematician's reputation as far as it can go, and then some. Reprising what he's written in the past, he adds the findings of subsequent scholarship on Fibonacci's likely influence on the world of finance and works up entries from his diary into a narrative of research that someone with a red pencil (or two) could have improved a great deal. By the end of the book -- when, apropos of not much in particular, Devlin reprints in full the first article on mathematics he ever published in a newspaper -- it seems clear that Finding Fibonacci has been padded as heavily as a box full of Fabergé eggs.
A fair analogy, I think: parts of the story are priceless, perhaps especially the chapter on how it came to pass that the late Laurence Sigler's translation of Liber abbaci was published in English in 2002 (800 years after the first version appeared in Latin) despite dire and even catastrophic developments that might have spelled the doom even of a project with much wider scholarly audience. Devlin also communicates something distinctive and remarkable about that book: how laboriously the author went about explaining how to write Hindu-Arabic numbers, carefully spacing the digits, lining them up neatly when making calculations … In short, instructing the reader at great and exacting length on skills it is now the job of primary-school teachers to impart.
"It is perhaps inevitable, though to my mind a little sad," Devlin writes in one of his book's best passages, "that the creations that turn out to be the most profound for our lives eventually become so commonplace that we no longer see them for the huge accomplishments they are." True -- when we even notice them at all.