Monday, April 16, 2018

The Wonderful World of Superstition: Then and Now

"In finding direction and measuring time, the Egyptian had only the same clues as the hunters and food gatherers of a bygone age: the rising and setting positions of the sun, moon and stars, the shadow of the sun by day and the rotation of star clusters around the Pole Star at night. Years of careful recording, however, enabled the Egyptian to make far better use of these clues. [...] Here we have real science; but many of the priestly drawings of ancient Egypt show the gods busy controlling the points of the compass or the hours of day and night. Along with real science they trailed a heavy load of superstition."

Lancelot Hogben - The Wonderful World of Mathematics
(copyright 1955)


First of all, let's acknowledge how totally rad and tubular a name like "Lancelot Hogben" is. If the kid's gonna get beaten up for his patronymic anyway, you might as well endow him with a pugnacious baptism to compensate.

I ran across the honorable Professor Hog-been's book last year while attempting to pick up my mathematical education where it left off around y2k and realizing I had to go all the way back to the dictionary like Homer Simpson. The Wonderful World of Mathematics proved a bit too basic, being a mere history of math aimed at junior high or maybe 9th/10th grade high-schoolers, but I was impressed with its delivery. It's one of those children's or young adult popularized science books so charmingly intoxicated with their subject matter as to draw young minds into unwitting edification.

It was published thirty years after the Scopes trial. (1955-30, come on, we're talking math here, do the arithmetic.) You've all heard of the famous Scopes Monkey Trial, I'm sure. The one with Gene Kelly in it? It sent the Bible-thumpers reeling for several decades, until they re-grouped back in the '70s and '80s to once again try sneaking Creationist superstition into public education. They haven't let up since. Much fewer of you, I'd wager, have heard of the monkey trial's modern reiteration: the 2005 Dover, Pennsylvania school district decision on so-called "Intelligent Design" or last decade's fashionable pseudonym for allah and brahma and ymir nose-twitching everything into being. The Nova documentary Judgment Day does a decent job of describing that courtroom drama comedy in its various lunacy (if you can stomach re-enactments; I can't) but I'd rather recommend the eugenial Dr. Scott's own presentations on the matter.

When I ran across Hogben's excerpt above, I did a double-take and immediately checked when and where the book was published, as I could not imagine such a statement about religion (even non-Christian religion) as "superstition" making it past editorial self-censorship in this day and age. In fact the usage of the term "superstition" (if Google is to be believed) has steadily declined since the Enlightenment. I'm somewhat encouraged by the slight rise in incidence since 2000, but half of that is probably just Bill Maher.
Well, I'm doing my part anyway: superstition!
(Have you insulted your fundie today?)

The Scopes trial was started (in true American fashion) for fame and fortune to "put Dayton on the map" with a media frenzy, and it worked. Boy howdy, did it ever work. Did I mention Gene Kelly? In its aftermath, authors like Hogben across the ocean could count on support for science from an American population which had realized it did not want to be portrayed as backward back-woods backbirths, as anti-scientific. For decades, the Scopes trial left the impression that the question had been settled: you can mumble whatever you want in church, but the res publica must be based in reality and public education reflected this.

The Dover trial had its 15 minutes of fame back in 2005 but was quickly eclipsed by the invention of funny cat videos, despite addressing pretty much the same issue in just as urgent a manner. Not only that but unlike in the wake of the Scopes trial, the fundamentalists quickly bounced back with new catch-phrases like "teach the controversy" (there is none, by the way) and other efforts to "wedge" science out of science education. More worrisome, while the Dayton challenge to education was a disingenuous, cold-blooded bid for publicity, the Dover school board seemed deadly earnest in its desire to burn evolution (literally; there was this mural, you see) and regress to the state of ignorant hillbillies.

The right wing has only grown more entrenched over the past century while the left wing, weakened by fifty years of post-modernist anti-intellectualism, can no longer put up a fight.

Come on, one more for the road:

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