Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Why Does Dinesh D'Souza Continue Typing?

Over at Sadly, No, contributor Travis G. has a post in which he takes on Dinesh D'Souza's latest efforts to say something intelligent (no link; I don't link to right wing sites, but the piece is linked through Sadly, No, so you can find your way to the original there). In the first place, this is unfair to D'Souza because Travis, like the rest of the folks at S,N are smart, funny, and scathing, whereas D'Souza has a track record of obfuscation, stupidity, and no trace whatsoever of any humor at all. For one brief, shining moment in the age of High Republicanism, D'Souza made his mark, and continues to live off the residuals of a book now long forgotten, for good reason. Yet, one must give him credit for forging ahead despite many obstacles, not the least of which is the blatant inability to string together facts in a coherent manner; sometimes, he doesn't even get his facts straight, of course, for which he was well known a generation ago at Dartmouth, where, as editor of the school paper, he was known as "Distort D'Newsa".

The subject on which D'souza writes today is a subject near and dear to my heart - the conflict between science and religion. What is most interesting about the piece is that, technically, nothing D'Souza writes is factually inaccurate. The problem, however, is that his "facts" are incomplete; the point he is trying to make - the conflict between science and religion is the creation of militant atheists who have been discredited - has little to do with the partial facts he lists; and Travis' summation of D'Souza's "point", because it is logical, shows how utterly bereft D'Souza is.

Here is an example of the kind of "fact" that D'Souza uses to make his point:
According to the atheist narrative, the medieval Christians all believed that the earth was flat until the brilliant scientists showed up in the modern era to prove that it was round. In reality, educated people in the Middle Ages knew that the earth was round. In fact, the ancient Greeks in the fifth century B.C. knew the earth was a globe. They didn’t need modern science to point out the obvious.

First, the "flat earth" business was a popular notion, not an elite one. Since the bulk of the European population rarely traveled more than a few miles from their homes, and many spent their entire lives hemmed in either by mountains, or the great, open vistas of the north-central European plain from Britanny across Flanders, Wallachia, northern Germany and Poland and into the emptiness of Russia - few really thought to much about "the world" anyway. Those who did relied upon medieval maps in which Eden was the center of a flat map, with three "continents" - Asia, Africa, and Europa - hemmed in by the Tigris/Euphrates Rivers, the Mediterranean Sea, and the "Ocean" (the Atlantic). Sometimes, if a traveler had returned from India, say, or northern Europe, there would be tales of strange lands, including the ubiquitous Kingdom of Prester John, which was included on some European maps in to the 19th century.

Anyway, even though Ionian natural philosophers did work out a rough calculation of the size of the globe of the earth, this was lost in the general loss of Greek and Roman and Syrian and Coptic knowledge during the long run of the Dark Ages; when it was discovered, the knowledge had been independently rediscovered, and was an interesting tidbit more than a help in time of intellectual need.

So, in other words, D'Souza makes it seem that it was common knowledge the earth was round, when in fact he does not take in to account the Dark Age loss of intellectual information, or the presence, for close to a millennium, of church-based cartography, in which the center of the world was either Eden or Jerusalem. It's a nice bit of sleight-of-hand, but a moments' thought pretty much shows it is meaningless.

Another "point" D'Souza makes concerns the debate between Darwin popularizer THomas Henry Huxley and Bishop Samuel "Soapy Sam" Wilberforce:
We read in various books about the great debate between Darwin’s defender Thomas Henry Huxley and poor Bishop Wilberforce. As the story goes, Wilberforce inquired of Huxley whether he was descended from an ape on his father or mother’s side, and Huxley winningly responded that he would rather be descended from an ape than from an ignorant bishop who was misled people about the findings of science. A dramatic denouement, to be sure, but the only problem is that it never happened. There is no record of it in the proceedings of the society that held the debate, and Darwin’s friend Joseph Hooker who informed him about the debate said that Huxley made no rejoinder to Wilberforce’s arguments.

The last sentence may be true - it may be possible that Hooker either did not consider Huxley's response to Wilberforce's rhetorical question that important - but it misses the point that some such exchange did in fact take place. Through a helpful link Travis provides, we find that Huxley recalls his response, and while neither as dramatic nor as devastating as popularizers would have us believe, it does capture the essence of the popular version:
If then, said I, the question is put to me would I rather have a miserable ape for a grandfather or a man highly endowed by nature and possessed of great means of influence & yet who employs these faculties & that influence for the mere purpose of introducing ridicule into a grave scientific discussion, I unhesitatingly affirm my preference for the ape.

The summary of the debate, with or without the "dramatic denouement", follows:
All accounts agree that Huxley trounced Wilberforce in the debate, defending evolution as the best explanation yet advanced for species diversity.

This latter is the larger point that D'Souza does not deign to reference; Wilberforce, while a great churchman and a stalwart liberal and friend of the graet statesman of 19th century British politics, William Gladstone, was made a laughingstock by his performance at the debate.

While there is abundant evidence the so-called conflict between science and religion is overblown, there is no doubt there are conflicts between certain groups of anti-modernist fundamentalists and some scientific theories, and the scientific method (see the creation/ID versus evolution flaps that have erupted over the years for details). D'Souza won't mention this because it fails to defend whatever point he is attempting to make. The argument he ends up making is summed up by Travis as follows:
In summation, atheists published a book about 100 years ago that caused the Catholic church to find Galileo guilty during the Inquistion of breaking his promise not to tell people about something they already knew, because scientists are hotshots who think they know it all and also live in a nicer house than you.

Education is a terrible thing to waste on a closed mind.

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