Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Tell Me Why

Some useful observations were made in the comments thread to this post, along lines I neglected to address in writing it.

Nothing should be taboo in intellectual discussion. Every idea, however odious to anyone, is admissible, and it ought to be brought down on its merits -- is it internally consistent? Does it fit the facts? -- not because of the odium.

Saying "Only a racist would say that" is not a valid argument. But arguing some topics invariably becomes a nasty, bloody trade and not many academics are willing to take on the task.

Which only allows bad ideas to fester. Because there are some zombies out there, and unless you roll up your sleeves and beat the stake into them, they will continue to stalk the world.

There was no Holocaust. Slaves enjoyed their slavery. The Universe was made in seven days. They will be back, again and again, in different forms, for longer than any of us will be alive.

And a great deal of intelligence and skill will be devoted to proving these things. It isn't enough to just say "No, it's not." A creationist, for instance, will master a great deal of information about ocean salinity because he can build an argument there -- provided you don't know certain things that he's not going to tell you. The average geologist has moved on from that topic, regarding it as settled. In a debate, the creationist is likely to come out the winner, but not because he's right. In the 19th century, flat-earthers used to routinely win debates with the most reputable mainstream scientists.

And so some of the leading lights of their profession, like the late Stephen Jay Gould, have to spend chunks of their careers in small-town courtrooms, patiently explaining Darwin and the current state of biological theory to juries in Kansas and Pennsylvania as they weigh school district requirements for teaching creationism.

It may have been the best work he did. A rear-guard defense is as necessary to progress as a vanguard. Science and history ought to be challenged, regularly and often, to test the paradigms, to see if they can stand the shock.

When Michael Moore's movies come out, a lot of conservatives respond with fat jokes and hoots of derision. But the smart ones pay attention and patiently pull apart the shabby structure of the narratives for all to see.

On the matter of "do the Jews control America," "of course not" and "only an anti-Semite would insist they do" may be satisfying answers on the personal level, but the charges are serious, and they deserve a serious rebuttal.

An academy that is obsessed with consensus and acceptance rather than the rolicking sport of debate and truth-parsing serves itself poorly, and does no favors to the culture that supports it. Fight back once in a while. It won't kill you.