Review of Antony Alumkal, 'Paranoid Science: The Christian Right's War on Reality'

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.

Editorial Tags: 
Is this diversity newsletter?: 

Controversy over Alice Goffman leads Pomona students to say her alleged racial insensitivities disqualify her from visiting professorship

Smart Title: 

Controversy over Alice Goffman's book lives on, with students at Pomona saying the sociologist's alleged racial insensitivities should disqualify her from a visiting professorship there.

Is New York's decision to spend $8 million on OER a turning point?

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?

Lumen and Follett team up to deliver open course content through bookstores

OER provider Lumen Learning joins with Follett to bring open course content to faculty through the campus bookstore.

Review of Keith Devlin, 'Finding Fibonacci: The Quest to Rediscover the Forgotten Mathematical Genius Who Changed the World'

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.

Editorial Tags: 
Is this diversity newsletter?: 

History journal apologizes for assigning review of book on urban education and inequality to someone viewed as a white supremacist

Smart Title: 

Leading history journal apologizes for assigning review of book on inequality and urban education issues to a professor viewed by many as a white supremacist.

Coloring book offers academics chance to be creative while poking fun at their lives

Smart Title: 

A coloring book from the University of Chicago Press? Yes, and it pokes fun at academe.

Review of Richard Murphy, "Dirty Secrets: How Tax Havens Destroy the Economy"

A march in Washington calling for the release of Donald Trump’s income tax returns is scheduled for April 15 -- putting turnout somewhat at the mercy of potential participants’ diligence about getting their own returns filed early. The demand is reasonable and has been called for by, at last report, 53 percent of voters, though that is no reason to expect the demonstration will have much effect. Whatever Trump needed to hide as a candidate obviously remains a vulnerability now that he is president.

His returns might yet enter the public record in the course of congressional (and other) investigations. But there is little chance of full disclosure even then, as Richard Murphy’s Dirty Secrets: How Tax Havens Destroy the Economy (Verso) has the indirect effect of reminding us. The available means for concealing assets -- whether from tax agents, creditors or the lawyers of former spouses -- are highly developed and amount to an alternative global economy in their own right.

Murphy, a professor of practice in International political economy at City, University of London, is both a chartered accountant and a co-founder of the Tax Justice Network, an international research and advocacy group. Of the five books he has published, this is the fourth on taxation; he mentions in passing that he wrote it in three months, almost certainly meaning last summer. (The endnotes tend to confirm this hunch: the latest articles and reports they cite are from August.) No discussion of taxation can be too short for the lay public, but Dirty Secrets puts muckraking and pedagogy in tandem to good effect.

The expression “tax haven” is still in general use, understood, Murphy writes, as “a place whose tax system provides an advantage to a person who is not resident in that place.” It calls to mind the discreet, friendly, uninquisitive accountants of Switzerland or the Bahamas, hiding cash in your name in a vault somewhere far from the authorities back home. But the somewhat broader term “secrecy jurisdiction” proves much more suitable for conveying both the range and the mechanics of the offshore economy.

“All the tax haven does,” Murphy explains, “is record the ownership of assets that are located in one place (which is not the tax haven) by a person who is themselves resident anywhere but the tax haven.” The ownership may be by a company or fund rather than an individual; the assets may be “title to lands and buildings” or such tangible wealth as “art, yachts and the like,” not just currency. “Nor,” the author explains, “are these investments usually managed from the tax haven in which their ownership is recorded. The decisions on where, and in what, the funds are ‘invested’ will, in all likelihood, be made by fund managers or share owners who are themselves almost certainly located ‘elsewhere.’”

For that matter, “very few banks [are] based in tax havens,” which instead host branches of international institutions (Deutsche Bank, Lloyds Bank, the Bank of Cyprus, etc.). Murphy’s own research into “the 60 secrecy jurisdictions studied as the basis of the first Tax Justice Network’s Financial Secrecy Index” in 2010 found that more than two-thirds of them had local offices of at least two of the world’s four leading accounting firms. (All four firms had offices in 33 of the countries studied.)

Determining how much wealth is involved -- or the economic impact of the loss of tax revenue, especially in the poorest countries -- requires great effort as well as considerable tolerance for wide margins in the final estimates. In 2011, Murphy’s analysis of World Bank data “estimated the total cost of tax evasion in the world as a whole at $3.1 trillion, or about 5 percent of world GDP at the time.”

A report released the following year by his colleagues in the Tax Justice Network used a number of methods to handle data from the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and numerous other sources to make an estimate of between  $21 trillion and $32 trillion “for global offshore financial assets as of 2010,” with “estimated annual loss of revenue at between $190 billion and $280 billion.” While not satisfied with the methodology of some researchers he cites, Murphy notes that they seem to converge on the figure of at least $200 billion a year of tax revenue lost to offshore concealment alone.

Very large numbers are easier to cite than to wrap the mind around, and they at best convey only a very general sense of the scale of the problem. The cumulative effect on public budgets around the world is obvious: Murphy treats the rise of secrecy jurisdictions as integral to the neoliberal agenda, with its ultimate ambition of ensuring that tax revenue is directed to funding police, prisons and the military while not a dime is spent for any other public purpose.

But Murphy also, surprisingly, regards tax havens as an affront to the power of the marketplace and their defeat as essential to saving capitalism from itself. I admit that this argument caught me off guard. Here is the author making it in brief.

If markets are to be efficient in the way that economists have described -- and as those who suggest they provide optimal solutions profess to believe they operate -- then there must be the highest-quality information available to all market participants so that they can act rationally, allocating resources to the person who is best able to use them to maximize return, and who exposes the provider of capital to the lowest risk in that process. Very obviously, tax havens undermine these principles. They are in fact designed to deny market participants the information they need to act rationally, allocate resources efficiently and minimize risk. … If risk is increased, then the required rate of return within marketplaces also increases. This means that the number of projects that can be invested in is reduced, so that the amount of capital committed is diminished. As a consequence, productivity declines, and along with it growth, output, wages and profits.

The suite of reforms Murphy proposes amount to a program of robust data collection by the European Union and other international actors combined with legislation that would, bit by bit, make access to secrecy jurisdictions more difficult and less profitable. The alternative is even more staggering levels of inequality than have already become the norm. Murphy’s trust in the possibility for reform would be easier to credit if the shadow economy were some kind of lamprey that had attached itself to an otherwise healthy organism; then it could be removed. But his book is too persuasive in its depiction of tax havens as tightly connected to banks, accounting firms and other established institutions. They seem to exist in a kind of symbiosis -- which can’t end well.

Editorial Tags: 
Is this diversity newsletter?: 

Review of Joseph Mitchell, "'Man -- With Variations': Interviews With Franz Boas and Colleagues, 1937"

“A newspaper can have no bigger nuisance than a reporter who is always trying to write literature,” Joseph Mitchell confessed in the opening pages of My Ears Are Bent (1938), a selection of the pieces that had, presumably, gotten him into trouble. “It is not easy,” as he also noted in passing, “to get an interview with Professor Franz Boas, the greatest anthropologist in the world, across a city desk.”

But in fact he had recently done so -- in a series of articles for The New York World-Telegraph that have only now been collected between covers as “Man -- With Variations”: Interviews With Franz Boas and Colleagues, 1937, published by Prickly Paradigm Press and distributed by the University of Chicago Press. The volume, best described as a pamphlet, was edited by Robert Brightman, a professor of Native American studies at Reed College, whose excellent introduction supplies not just context but also a thoughtful consideration of Mitchell’s place at the convergence of ethnography, journalism and memoir.

In 1938, Mitchell became a staff writer at The New Yorker, where he passed into legend as one of the pre-eminent literary journalists of all time. These earlier pieces are invaluable for understanding his work as a whole, and it's good to have them rescued from oblivion.

“Greatest anthropologist in the world” may sound like journalistic hyperbole, but much the same was said by Boas’s peers, and Mitchell was well within the bounds of fair comment in presenting the German-born professor to American readers as “the most dangerous enemy of Adolf Hitler’s racial concepts.” (The very concept of race he regarded as imprecise and scientifically dubious, while that of a “pure” or “superior” race was “impossible to countenance.”)

Beyond the topical significance of Boas’s work -- increasingly clear as the Nazi juggernaut was warming up -- Mitchell presented anthropology as the discipline that could, in effect, teach the world to recognize human nature within human variety, and vice versa.

A solemn priority -- not that Mitchell was po-faced about addressing it. In the third article, he pivoted from profiling Boas to describing the work done by the anthropologists he had trained, making the transition with what is the best sentence I have read so far this year, and probably for a longer while than that.

Nothing disgusts the average young anthropologist so much as the heroic stories in the newspaper about those African expeditions organized by well-heeled young gents whose mamas are willing to buy them yachts and tons of Abercrombie & Fitch equipment just to keep them from going on sit-down strikes in fancy gin mills or from getting themselves betrothed to fan dancers.

This is the first line -- in journalistic argot, the lead -- of the third of Mitchell’s six articles. Any lead tries to stake a claim on public attention somehow; that obligation grows exponentially more difficult if it is certain that quite a few readers will not have seen the earlier installments of a series. Mitchell goes about it with humor, obviously, but also with great rhetorical finesse.

Every word in the sentence is precisely chosen to elicit wry recognition from the newspaper-buying public of 1937. The reader today will share very little with the “imagined community” (to borrow a more recent anthropologist’s expression) for which Mitchell was writing. Yet after 80 years, his lead still works: scenes from some long-lost Marx brothers film flicker in the mind for just a second while reading it.

In 1937, the American high school graduation rate had not yet reached 50 percent, yet Mitchell was undertaking not just to explain anthropology to a heterogeneous public but also to convey to readers that Boas’s students and colleagues were dedicated and serious researchers. Two paragraphs after mentioning the fan dancers, he sketches a portrait of the anthropologist as a young penny-pincher.

If, for instance, he goes for a summer’s work on aboriginal linguistics he will not have much more than $500 to spend, and he will probably buy a used automobile to save traveling expenses, selling it when he returns, and he will eat scantily and live simply spending every possible copper on the problem he has set for himself.

How effective was this in convincing John and Jane Q. Public at the height of the Depression? It’s impossible to know, but with a few precise words in the best possible order, he conveyed a sense of fieldwork as work, rather than the pastime of dilettante playboys out to collect souvenirs. I don't know if his series qualifies as literature, but very little journalism reads this well after 80 years. Very little of anything does.

Editorial Tags: 
Is this diversity newsletter?: 

Author discusses his new book on vision, values and higher education

Smart Title: 

Author discusses new book about the importance of vision and values in higher education.


Subscribe to RSS - Books
Back to Top