Tuesday, December 02, 2008


Practical Science

I'm reading Richard Hofstadter's Anti-intellectualism in America and it is striking how little has changed in the last 45 years. One thing that seems fresh on Hofstadter's page is the way anti-intellectuals go about the business of marginalizing the life of the mind:

The case against intellect is founded upon a set of fictional and wholly abstract antagonisms. Intellect is pitted against feeling, on the ground that it is somehow inconsistent with warm emotion. It is pitted against character, because it is widely believed that intellect stands for mere cleverness, which transmutes easily into the sly or the diabolical. It is pitted against practicality, since theory is held to be opposed to practice, and the purely" theoretical mind is so much disesteemed. It is pitted against democracy, since intellect is felt to be a form of distinction that defies egalitarianism. Once the validity of these antagonisms is accepted, then the case for intellect, and by extension for the intellectual, is lost. Who cares to risk sacrificing warmth of emotion, solidity of character, practical capacity, or democratic sentiment in order to pay deference to a type of man who at best is deemed to be merely clever and at worst may even be dangerous?

It occurs to me that we may have been underestimating our opponents, at least when it comes to low cunning. Texas, in the midst of the ongoing creationist assault on the teaching of evolution, is only the latest place we have been repeatedly hearing the old canard that 'evolution is only a theory.' Frequently the trope is heard in the same company as charges of "elitism" made against scientists and educators.

Most of the time the reaction by the reality-based community is that the notion is merely a misunderstanding of what "theory" means in science or, at worst, a deliberate attempt to confuse evolution with the "man-in-the-street" meaning of the word as a wild-assed guess. But Hofstadter may be right here. "Theory," particularly one identified mostly with academia, could evoke more to the average American than merely an image of barroom speculation. Instead, it might conjure up images of devious drones who might even be enemies of the Republic peddling antidemocratic notions to the youth of America.

I have no magic bullet to counter this ploy, if that is what it is, but it might be well if all and sundry on science's side take every opportunity to emphasize not only the practical worth of evolution as a science but the value of a knowledge of it as an employment qualification for future job-seekers.


Just came across this recent book on somewhat the same topic:

Jacoby, Susan
The age of American unreason
New York : Pantheon Books, 2008

Tom S.
Heh. On the coincidence front, I was looking for Jacoby's book in my local library when I stumbled on the copy of Anti-intellectualism in America and had to choose which one to take. I eventually took Anti-intellectualism in America because I had long heard about it as one of the great studies in the field and figured Jacoby's book, being newer, would probably be easier to find later.
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