Tuesday, December 02, 2008

card-towers of Babel

The Evolution store in Soho, New York City.
Copyright (c) 2007 Wendee Holtcamp

So I started reading A Tale of Two Cities to Sam again tonight, with only mild protest. It has been at least a month if not more since we read it, and I opened to the chapter entitled, Monseigneur in Town, and thought I swear we've read this already. I recall distinctly how often the chapter repeats the word "Monseigneur" because it is a French word and I had no idea what the heck it was. Sam, however, didn't remember the word at all. "Is that the guy who ate the chocolate?" he asked. I had to laugh here because I remembered the scene with the guy being fed hot chocolate by four servants, but I did not recall it was the Monseigneur, but as I started reading (and yes we had read that chapter), sure enough it was the guy who had been fed hot chocolate. So I guess he IS paying more attention that either he or I thinks.

The chapter depicts the lavish wealth of the French aristocracy, which contrasts to the destitution faced by much of society at the time. It's a historical novel so although fictional it's based on historical truths. This bit made me stop short, because it reminded me of the current era a bit:

Military officers destitute of military knowledge. ... Doctors who made great fortunes out of dainty remedies for imaginary disorders that never existed... Unbelieving philosophers who were remodelling the worlds with words, and making card-towers of Babel to scale the skies with...In the outermost room were half-a-dozen exceptional people who had had, for a few years, some vague misgivings in them that things in general were going rather wrong.

Anyway, I won't get into what I see as the parallels... but needless to say, they exist. I will say the philosophers line definitely reminds me of the creationists of the day, particularly intelligent design proponents who make card-towers of Babel and try to remodel the world with their words. Dang, I think I need to use that line in my book.

I'm privy to some interesting conversations on these issues with colleagues about the great opposition to plate tectonic theory by the geologists of the day for many many years but finally the evidence overwhelmed and it became common knowledge. This contrasts sharply with the way IDists try to get their (false) "science" accepted, which has been to go directly to the public, appealing to a false argument that their "academic freedom" is being threatened. The way science works is that scientists plug away for years and years, publish in scientific journals and eventually paradigns shift.

Scientists do not get theories accepted into the public by writing popular books, having their ideas discussed in churches or by church organizations (like Focus on the Family), or getting the ideas taught in public schools before even a SINGLE peer-reviewed scientific publication has been published!!! Seriously!! And the whole debacle is made worse by the media, which often presents the "other side" as having any legitimacy. It does only as a cultural and religious debate, but not as a scientific one. There is no scientific opposition to evolution. None! And as one UT grad student said at the SBOE hearing, if he were to disprove evolution, he'd win the Nobel Prize, so bring it on! Unfortunately, intelligent design does not have any history of publication in any legitimate scientific journals. Nothing!

So here are a few interesting and ironic quotes about science from the halls of history. I use these when I teach biology, except for the last gem, which someone just shared. Enjoy!

"Louis Pasteur's theory of germs is ridiculous fiction."
--Pierre Pachet, Professor of Physiology at Toulouse, 1872

"If excessive smoking actually plays a role in the production of lung cancer, it seems to be a minor one."
-Dr. W.C. Heuper of the National Cancer Institute, as quoted in New York Times April 14, 1954.

"Agassiz says that when a new doctrine is presented, it must go through three stages. First, people say that it isn't true, then that it is against religion, and in the third stage, that it has long been known."
-- Karl Ernst von Baer (1792-1876), embryologist, referring to Swiss scientist Louis Agassiz (1807-1873). Agassiz founded the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology.

"Debating creationists on the topic of evolution is rather like trying to play chess with a pigeon -- it knocks the pieces over, craps on the board, and flies back to its flock to claim victory."
- S.D. Weitzenhoffer, in 2005

I'm rolling on the floor laughing at the last quote!!! Oh, did I mention I saw a rat or mouse in my garage the other day?! I have set a mouse trap. I hope my vegan friends don't get mad... I love mice and rats, I truly do (remember, I live-trapped such "small mammals" for many years during my undergrad and graduate research!) but I will have a cow if it crawls in my walls and croaks...


Miranda said...

Don't you know about Hav-a-Hart traps for rodents? It captures them painlessly and then you just take them out into the woods and open the trap door to free them.

Unknown said...

yes of course i did my research with them for years! I used to have like 25 of them but got rid of them... but I don't think you can just buy them, can you?? Anyway, the mouse hasn't taken the cheese... so maybe it skedaddled. Hopefully not into my walls!