Wednesday, December 15, 2004

A Very Long Post in Which the Blogger Proves He is No Scientist, Nor Does He Play One on TV

This is something I must write, something to be done from personal need, from a deep compulsion.

And, wouldn't that sentence make a decent Neo-Victorian beginning for one of those first-person novels where the narrator is a psycho killer in whose Bruno Magli's you must now walk -- or creep -- for 500 pages? But in the screen version the focus is shifted, and the narrator is brought to justice by Morgan Freeman, though not so thoroughly brought to justice that the possibility of a sequel is foreclosed.

Reset. Begin again. Stop procrastinating.

One of the things about this kind of writing, bloggish but in some ways columnar but in either case driven by deadline, is how often a topic will pop into mind on which I have no particular opinions but about which I know I could easily generate some opinions: kids on the front page of the Chron last week wearing school uniforms -- I could write about that, possibly even write something thoughtful; or the mention of misletoe in a cartoon -- misletoe! mistletoe? there's an easy 400 words, some of which might even be funny.

I've already used the idea of "build it and they will come" once this month, but here it is again in a different context. Sometimes you know if you start to write about a particular "it" -- without a plan, without an aim, without foreknowledge of any kind -- you will stumble onto something, and your little essay will appear to be an acceptable exercise in expository writing of the vaguely discursive kind. And you don't have to have cared about the idea at all, and 24 hours later you can read what you wrote and be surprised -- I said what about what? -- without the slightest fear that Alzheimer's is at work. When Mr. Deadline is hungry, it appears he will eat almost anything.

But curse the topic you are actually drawn to, that you feel you must write about just to clear the debris away from the drain so that the storm sewer does not overflow. That kind of topic is a headache, particularly if the compulsion to write about it does not come from a desire to enlighten or to educate based on what you confidently and completely know, or from a justifiable wish to share a bit of wisdom or insight polished by long thought. The problem is when you just got to write it because the idea won't let you alone. You care about it, but you don't really know about it. It bites you and torments you. You keep thinking about it as if it were the irritating refrain from a song heard on the radio or, even worse, in a TV commercial. So let me do what I have to do so I can get back to being facile and insincere.

I told you (I told you) my new blog title might make me want to fit my subject matter to its demands. Several of youse -- and I say youse to court the elite NYC readership -- said, "You will now start writing about cats. Every other post will be about the antics of the pusses. I am telling you, Robertson, that when it comes to enjoying the antics of the pusses, not only do you have to be there, most people wouldn't enjoy it even if they were there. Put down the pusses, raise your hands over your head and back away. Back away! I've got a dog and I'll use it."

Not so. Bad prognostication. For I know better than most that the lives of cats are an anagram formed by only a handful letters, and the number of variations is limited. Their antics are delightful but of a sameness. Cat is languid. Day the cat gets a job and brings home a paycheck then you'll hear more about the cat.

What I actually feel compelled to write about is Darwin!

I can't just take the name without taking the blame, i.e., addressing the fact that millions of Americans say the Bible is the inerrant word of God -- the vein in my temple is already throbbing -- and that, following this idea to its end, they reject "evolution" as the explanation for the diversity of life on this planet.

One lousy word in the name of an obscure blog! But I feel the unremitting weight of these ignorant times on my shoulders. I've decided I'm wearing the bullseye. I imagine a confrontation with some inflamed fundamentalist eager to debate creation vs. evolution, a debate I must enter to maintain the pride and dignity of the blog. I imagine myself -- and here we see how egomania is a form of paranoia -- failing to hold up my end of the argument. As part of the process of preparing for this intellectual collision that will almost certainly never come -- even as you watch with the mildest of interest and the absence of fascination -- I am trying to clarify my thinking about this issue and how I might express it.

Though I've never commissioned a survey of my regular blog readers, I am confident that all of you are confirmed evolutionists, probably having had so little experience of the fundamentalist Christian mindset when it comes to evolutionary biology that it has never seemed necessary to do more than express contempt for its absurdity.

See this cartoon. It sums up how you feel. It sums up how I feel. But what if I am asked to press the argument against the anti-Darwinian point of view, which as a) a former fundamentalist Christian and b) one who has appropriated the name of Darwin to tart up this blog I feel obligated to do?

I begin to gather my thoughts. I will not make the mistake the Democrats made in the last election. I will consider my vocabulary, the terms of the discourse, so I do not lose the argument before I begin it. How shall I describe my position on evolutionary biology? My first impulse -- my unthinking liberal arts impulse -- is to say I believe evolution to be true. But I have copy edited and taught copy editing. I understand the importance of making distinctions in the use of the so-called "verbs of attribution" concerning which we will now embark on a fine long digression.

As I tell my copy editing students, the standard verb of attribution -- the word used to suggest nearby words came out of someone's mouth -- is "said." Said is neutral. It does not suggest an attitude on the part of the reporter toward the information that came out of the speaker's mouth. It is in the past tense, which adds the lovely implication that the utterance was of its moment and the speaker might very well say something different today, at the moment the reader is reading. Sometimes the reporter will come to the conclusion that the speaker is dealing with his or her first principles, with an idea almost certain not to change, with a core value, and will use "says" instead of said. But more often "says" appears when the story is a feature, not concerned so much with timely information but with narrative and characterization, tale-telling, the kind of story where immediacy has value. You've read this sort of story countless times: "Margo begins to leaf through the photo album. 'I regret nothing,' she says."

Additional difficulties arise when the journalist is paraphrasing rather than quoting directly. Paraphrasing is legitimate. Paraphrasing is necessary. But the conscientious journalist is naturally uncomfortable in the role of filter, not just selecting from what has been said but compressing it and drawing out its essence. The paraphrasing journalist may sometimes search for alternative verbs of attribution to suggest the tentativeness of what follows, the fact that this is a paraphrase and subject to the distortion that is a necessary part of all paraphrase. Three such "softer" verbs of attribution are not uncommon, and they are always in the present tense. They are "believes," "thinks" and "feels." More than once, I have seen them used as alternatives to he said/he says when the reporter is paraphrasing. Sometimes they are used to suggest the tentativeness of paraphrase, but sometimes they are used -- I fear I may have used them so -- as simple substitutes for "says," as a way of introducing variety.

Young reporters in particular are dissatisfied with said/says even when quoting directly, and find it irresistible to use stated, declared, claimed, averred, sneered, pontificated and so on and so on, apparently unaware that these substitutes color the way the reader receives the quotation or paraphrase. To these kids, there is also no difference between believing, thinking and feeling when they are searching for ways to characterize the information they have just paraphrased or summarized, particularly when believes, feels or thinks is used as the secondary verb of attribution, as is, "Robertson said he believes...." even though I have not used the word "believes."

Yet such a nice distinction exists among these three words. Let us say I am interviewing the president of the University of San Francisco, Rev. Steven Privett, S.J., to whom I am glad to give the ink, even in so long an essay in so obscure a blog. (Maybe this will be seen someday as his first step toward sainthood, maybe not.) Anyway, after a long conversation with him, I might say Privett said he believes God exists or thinks God exists or feels God exists. Choice of verb would depend on whether Privett's thoughts on this topic emphasized faith or rational analysis or emotional state. The verbs of summary attribution are commonly used as if they are interchangeable and, practically speaking, in most cases little if any meaning is lost. If I say, however, that I "believe in evolution," I am immediately surrendering to what I gather is one of the basic arguments of the creationist types, that evolution is equivalent to creationism because both are matters of faith.

So let me now say that I think evolutionary theory -- I think the term of art is macroevolutionary theory -- is an accurate description of what happened on earth over the last few billion years. (Odd isn't it that so many would rather say we believe something -- so absolute, so unempirical, so gauzy -- than say that we think something, which has somehow been demoted, shoved lower down in the hierarchy of ways of describing our judgments about the world.)

Why do I think evolution is the hypothesis of choice? For the same reason I think the earth orbits the sun. The institutions and the individuals who, as far as I can make out, use the scientific method -- and thus think that any conclusions about the external world are subject to falsification in the face of new evidence -- think it is the most probable conclusion based on the evidence. To the degree I understand the data and its interpretation, the "evolutionists" win. To the degree I understand the counter-arguments of the creationists and their fellow-travelers, the believers in the idea of intelligent design, the creationists and their fellow-travelers lose. Hey, I could be wrong. I think I could have a productive conversation with a creationist who would say the same: I could be wrong, too.

Having been raised as a fundamentalist Christian, I recall that "I could be wrong" was not a part of the fundamentalist Christian vocabulary when it came to facts about the physical universe that had to be a certain way because the Bible "said" they were a certain way. Still, next time I am challenged by an empiricist/fundamenatalist, I am ready to get it on, with the understanding that the argument will unfold like a chess-match-by-mail, with long pauses while I go look something up

To summarize -- for my own benefit, not yours -- I think that the scientific method is the most useful tool for understanding how the physical world works, and I think those individuals and those institutions who employ it are likely to have better conclusions -- better hypotheses, better theories -- than those who don't. At the end of the day, we all trust our experts, and we do well enough if we exercise some judgment in picking them. I am sensitive to the fact that scientists will sometimes lock onto conclusions too firmly and fail to apply the scientific method properly and that some explanations give way to better explanations only with generational change, when the old scientists die. Some scientists decide to start believing and stop thinking, one might say, sinking into the metaphorical tar pit of too-beloved a theory and fossilizing, as it were. Still, what that generational change in a particular theory emphasizes is the soundness of the scientific method, that the incomplete or inadequate theory had underlying it/implicit in it its own system of self-correction. The bad scientist says my data supports me. Look at it yourself. And someone does and the data does not support him. He was the one who said go look! But embrace of the scientific method is incidental to the fundamentalist Christians I am familiar with. The "use" of the scientific method is a rhetorical device to them if it is anything.

I am beginning to scratch my itch. I think I am pretty close to shutting this down. I began it only because I felt compelled to make my "Darwin declaration," and the first argument in favor of the general theory of evolution that came to mind was anecdotal and personal, and I was embarrassed since it was so personal, so limited in application. Still, it's one of the reasons I doubt many things and tend to think others are true. It is a simple way of looking at things: If the idiots believe one thing, it makes me think the opposite may well be true.

Let me take you back to Whooping Jesus Bible College, from which my wife and I got our degrees. We disliked it so much for so long, though it's more of a dull ache now than a running sore. My wife actually turned down the chance to make her degree from Georgia Tech an MFA because she wanted a B.S. so that she would never have to acknowledge that first degree from WJBC. WJBC is still on my official resume, but in more casual contexts I occasionally substiute my wife's last name. -- I say I graduated from Landrith College. My wife and I wish we had never heard the name of Whooping Jesus Bible College.

Except that was where we met.

I read "somewhere" -- the place from where so many of the really really entertaining ideas come -- that the strongest bond is forged when people hate the same things. Mark these words and this date: On August 2, 2005, many a fine Democrat baby will come screaming into the world....

Well, my wife and I meshed at WJBC, and that fact must be put in the balance when we talk about how much we dislike it. Just one anecdote, the one that popped into mind and thus began this Long Blog's Journey into Night. While we were students at WJBC in the Sixties, the greatest anti-evolutionist of the day came through to explain how Darwin and those who have refined and expanded his ideas were wrong. He made a speech in chapel. I remember none of it. What I do remember is that all the male members of the student body were called together that evening to hear the great man's secondary message, which was on the evils and dangers of masturbation. Now, the great man was not against sex, for sex made babies and babies were needed since had not Jesus or somebody told the world that there would be marrying and giving in marriage until his return? Sex, the great man, said was perfectly fine in marriage to produce babies. What's more it was appropriate at other times, too. On sentimental occasions, he said.

Like a wedding anniversary. He did not discuss the data he had accumulated to support this hypothesis.

I have spent my whole life trying to overcome certain antipathies the exercise of which can serve as a substitue for analytical thinking. Memories like this do not make it easy.


Pastor Kathy said...

Those of us Christians in the mainline area tend to take this view of creation: "In the beginning, God created..." (which can also be translated as "When God was beginning to create..." God created all things. Period. How the people who lived 6,000 years ago came to interpret that is a function of their ability to understand the world around them at their time in history. You don't explain Newton's Third Law of Thermodynamics (or whatever it is) to a four-year-old. I figure God explained it to those folks in terms that they would understand. Remember, they thought the earth was flat. I am pretty impressed that the writers of Genesis got the sequence of creation as close as they did to the understandings of twenty-first century science. And don't forget that there are two creation accounts in Genesis. Don't get me started on the documentary hypothesis.

....J.Michael Robertson said...

Now what you say, Paster Kathy, is an entirely different kettle of philosophical and intellectual fish. You have no more sympathy for the Creationists than I do. Indeed, you may have less, since their notion of what "faith" in God entails is so pinched and one-dimensional and contemptuous of the desire of human intellect to understand rather than fear the facts of the case, the facts being the tangible universe.

....J.Michael Robertson said...

Though no longer a Christian, I do have sympathy for Christians who try to negotiate the space between the scientific method and their sectarian metaphysics, the point of the negotiation being the consideration of the implications of Darwinism fact by fact rather than ignoring it not rant by rant. I think they call themselves theistic evolutionists. Here's an article from Christianity Today about various forms of "anti-naturalism" that doesn't arouse my ire:

I think I'm reading this right when I say that the writer is criticizing the Intelligent Design people for making common cause with the happy nonsense known as Creationism. I may be a Christian Atheist but otherwise I'm an agnostic. So ask good questions about everything. If there's a god, It's an It, other dimensional and probably unknowable and incapable of being understood with our sensory array. I'll take that bet to Vegas and double up.