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.
I was saddened last week to read about the suicide of Professor Will Moore at Arizona State University. Everyone’s path is different, but mine led me to attempt suicide last semester. Like Moore, I wrote a series of notes on social media and then did not expect to wake up. Waking up from a suicide attempt, the first thing I learned was that there is a latent social stigma around it that, in fact, protects suicide and helps it survive.
It struck me that Moore’s last note called out this “taboo” around suicide. He’s right. It is not to be talked about, especially in print. I experienced this in the first draft of this article, which was rejected by another publication that responded, “We receive dozens of manuscripts each week on all sorts of topics and have to make some tough choices.” Tough choices. Yes. Well, talking about suicide can even be difficult in therapy. I remember my therapist referring to it as “the overdose” with a bit of Southern charm -- suggesting that the issue wasn’t mental health, the norms of academe or a social system that has failed me but rather an unfortunate accident. My overdose was not an accident. And it had no charm.
I was teaching last semester, and halfway through I took pills. Specifically, a lot of pills. I took them on the weekend and woke up unexpectedly a day or so later. At some point early on, in the haze of consciousness and aliveness, I realized that I needed to prepare my lectures for the week. And so I did. I tried to kill myself on Saturday night, woke up on Sunday night and taught on Tuesday and Wednesday. In academe, that is part of the dysfunctional routine we normalize. We research and we teach, even when we have tried very hard to kill ourselves two days before. I think this is, dare I say, a fatal flaw in academe. So I wanted to note three things I have learned.
First, people might not understand the side effects from surviving trying to kill yourself. They are really terrible. If you go to the hospital, you might have a different experience because it is possible to pump your stomach, but I did not go to the hospital. I was worried about losing my job at the university if I did. What if they committed me? Who would teach my courses that week? Would this get out and be a mark against me in looking for future jobs?
So I stayed home and drank water. The results were physically devastating. I had difficulty walking and seeing for two weeks. I now have asthma and high blood pressure. Somehow I taught -- the way we all do when our friends tell us, “Whatever you do, don’t go in to work.” I stayed out of my colleagues’ way that week, got through my classes and went home to bed.
Second, there is no easy way to talk about mental-health events in the workplace. This truth was also echoed in the recent piece on Moore. How do you have a conversation that you have been systematically trained not to have? In our academic departments, we celebrate the arrival of new babies, we commemorate deaths, we bring cake for birthdays and we go out for drinks for promotions. We celebrate the positive but avoid confronting the often sad reality. Where does attempted suicide fit into this? Maybe it isn’t something to share. Maybe it is “too much information,” like domestic violence. Maybe this is another sad thing that is something to be silenced, hidden away -- assuming that next time, next time, it’ll be “successful.” That’s a much easier goal to have: death. It works for those who are suicidal and those who don’t want to have the conversation. Yet this uncomfortable situation betrays a truth that, in academe, this is a conversation literally dying to be had.
And, last, our students get it, yet we perpetuate a double standard. Our students experience mental-health issues, and we encourage them to talk and seek help. Our students attempt suicide and we give them support in class. It would never sink their future careers. When it is us, however, we shut down.
So we (the academy) should ask why we are tiptoeing around an issue that is part of the lived experience of our faculty and that, if unacknowledged, could lead to death. As many of us can attest, good mental health for all staff and faculty members is not a reality in most departments. I have written this piece using a pseudonym. As the Inside Higher Ed article on Moore noted, where you are in your career dramatically influences what you feel safe talking about. I am in the early part of my career, so I’m terrified of losing my employability.
Indeed, the real task falls to colleges and universities to step up on behalf of adjuncts, untenured professors and all other faculty and staff members. They should consider 2017 as an opportunity to engage not simply in suicide prevention but also suicide destigmatization. This is an affirmative step that should not wait for the death of another Moore or situations like mine. Because you cannot ask people who are suicidal to solve this problem -- that’s the whole point, we need help, and here we are, asking for it.
So I would leave you with this: very good people can have very bad days, and those people should not do what I did. They should go to the hospital, feel free to tell their colleagues and speak up about it before it is too late. Stigma is something we all reproduce or disrupt. Universities can be leaders here. Today.
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a free, confidential 24-7 service that can provide people in suicidal crisis or emotional distress, or those around them, with support, information and local resources. 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
The author works at a large public research university.