Monday, November 23, 2009

And yet, it moves

By coincidence, the weekend brought the 150th anniversary of the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species and the publication of an Associated Press article, deservedly mocked at HeadsUp: The Blog, on claims that an analysis of letters on the Shroud of Turin establishes that it dates from the first century and is not a medieval forgery.

A century and a half of science have confirmed the integrity of the Darwinian explanation, despite disagreement over details. Oddly, it remains controversial, and some who espouse the Christian doctrine of creation have turned to the secular arm, provoking disputes on school boards and lawsuits determining whether and how evolution may be taught in public schools. A scientific analysis of the cloth of the Shroud performed twenty years ago determined that it dated from the 13th or 14th centuries.

I have no business ridiculing other people’s religious beliefs and customs, and the devout are free to revere the Shroud of Turin and to take the opening chapter of Genesis as, however improbably, a recounting of historical fact. But I would urge those who continue to resist Darwin to consider the example of Galileo. When the Church decides to oppose and suppress science, it damages itself.

I watched my son work out a diagram of celestial mechanics in his freshman year at St. John’s College in Annapolis. St. John’s teaches both the Ptolemaic and Copernican systems, as a means of showing how the mathematics can explain observed phenomena. But no one (I hope) thinks that the Ptolemaic system should be taught in the public schools as an equivalent explanation. Galileo may or may not have muttered, “Eppur, si muove” (nonetheless, it moves), but no one disputes today that the earth moves around the sun, though it was once thought to be fatal to religion to think so. We can read a writer’s conjectures about the Shroud of Turin, but there, too, sooner or later, we face facts.

At Headsup, “fev” finds the Shroud story, as presented in his local newspaper, symptomatic of the credulity and shallowness of our journalism and our public discourse. Since I cannot say it better myself, I’ll close with his remarks:

This isn't just a stupid, credulous story. At the metropolitan daily that still deigns to show up in driveways three days a week here, the teaser above [to the Shroud of Turin story] is the only international presence on today's front page, and the story itself is far and away the largest bit of news (700-plus words, to some 330 for the runner-up) from outside our little corner of the world. The looming Senate vote on health care is a four-graf brief. I don't see a word about either of the shooting wars the country is still involved in.

And that's the cherry-picking stuff. If you think California's higher-ed debacle might hold some lessons for the rather dire situation that looms up here, too bad for you. Are Iran or Honduras or any of the other 190-odd countries out there entering the sort of low boil that tends to spill all over the front page in a few weeks? You're just going to have to wait and see, aren't you?

No clueless wire story is going to bring the republic down by itself. But each blunder of this scale represents a missed chance to make people incrementally smarter, rather than incrementally stupider. The gasbags of the pundosphere excel at turning fictions into conventional wisdom. If you have a steady, reliable supply of actual news, it isn't hard to catch them out. If you don't, well — lots of luck with that representative democracy stuff.