America’s credulousness

This weekend again left me bewildered about how, in the 21st Century, American belief systems remain so knowingly blind to science and the exercise of reason. It’s almost as if the scientific revolution and the Age of Reason never really took hold.

The main impetus here comes from the results on science-related issues in a AP-Gfk poll taken last month. More than half (51%) of my fellow citizens have no confidence that the Big Bang was the origin of the universe. Meanwhile, 42% have no confidence that life evolved through natural selection. The flip side of the coin is equally discouraging. Only 21% and 31% of us, respectively, are extremely or very confident in those things. Likewise, only 27% of us are confident that the Earth is 4.5 billion years old. Perhaps any question this rejection of scientific knowledge stems from belief in the supernatural and not advocacy of some other physical cosmology is eliminated by the fact that 72% believe the only explanation for the complexity of the universe is “a supreme being.”

Also striking me was that, coincidentally, heaven was the subject of the biggest story on the front page of Sunday’s local daily. I know if was Easter (speaking of which, this is worth a look) but my views regarding heaven and nonfiction remain the same. Still, this is less egregious given it is more a matter of faith than something currently capable of proof or disproof like the items above.

Look, I’m not saying people who are religious are stupid. And despite my mention of heaven, I won’t complain (much) about the lack of evidence for many tenets. Yes, I understand what “faith” means but I simply can’t understand blind reliance on it in light of contrary objective evidence. What is most exasperating, though, is the extent to which such knowing rejection (or intentional ignorance) permeate American life and society.

I’m not any more skeptical about your religious beliefs than I am about every new scientific idea I hear about. But in my line of work, they’re called hypotheses, not inspiration and not revelation.

Carl Sagan, Contact

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Weekend Edition: 4-19

Interesting Reading in the Interweb Tubes

  • America: Stupidly stuck between religion and science (“So on one hand we have atheists whose views would have seemed old-hat under Queen Victoria but who see themselves as representing the apex of progressive modern thought, and on the other we have a modern twist on religion that pretends to be ancient or traditional. Biblical fundamentalism as we know it today is essentially a 19th-century British invention that took root among white rural Americans much later than that.”)

Blog Headline of the Week

Worst Irony of the Week

Dogs Are People Too

Legislative Idiocy of the Week

  • The Louisiana House of Representatives scheduled floor debate for Monday on a bill to make the Bible the “official state book

Bookish Linkage

Nonbookish Linkage

Nobody realizes that some people expend tremendous energy merely to be normal.

Albert Camus, Notebooks, 1942-1951

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Anniversary of a banned American classic

This week marked the 75th anniversary of the publication of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. Normally, what comes to mind is the book’s portrayal of the plight created by the Dust Bowl years of the Depression. Yet it stands for another object lesson about America. It was banned — and burned — in the California county in which the Joads ended their journey.

JohnSteinbeck_TheGrapesOfWrathThe Grapes of Wrath was virtually an instant success nationally. It topped the 1939 fiction bestsellers list for both Publisher’s Weekly and the New York Times. It was number eight on the Publisher’s Weekly list the following year. More important, it won the National Book Award and Pulitizer Prize in 1940. In awarding Steinbeck the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1962, the book was described as an “epic chronicle.”

It wasn’t well received everywhere, particularly Kern County, Cal. Kern County was among many areas swamped with migrants, straining its resources. At the same time, though, the influx led to the low wages and union busting Steinbeck writes about.

On August 21, 1939, the Kern County Board of Supervisors voted 4-1 to ban the book from the county’s public schools and libraries. Among its reasons: the book had derogatory terms (“Okies”), contained obscenity/profanity, “misrepresented conditions in the county,” and “blamed the local farmers for the plight of the indigent farmers.” According to the resolution, the book “offended our citizenry by falsely implying that many of our fine people are a low, ignorant, profane and blasphemous type living in a vicious, filthy manner.” Bill Camp, a rancher and head of Associated Farmers, a group of local landowners who opposed organized labor, said growers were angry “not because we were attacked but because we were attacked by a book obscene in the extreme sense of the word.”

pruett_grapesWanting to demonstrate just how offended people were, Camp recruited one of his workers, Clell Pruett. Three days after the board’s action, Pruett, standing with Camp and an Associated Farmers board member, lit a copy of the book on fire in a photo op. He then dropped it into a small metal trashcan and the three men watched the book burn. Pruett had not read the novel. He said his action came from a radio story he heard about it.

Not everyone in Kern County supported the ban. County librarian Gretchen Knief wrote the county supervisors asking them to reverse their decision. “It’s such a vicious and dangerous thing to begin,” she wrote. “Besides, banning books is so utterly hopeless and futile. Ideas don’t die because a book is forbidden reading.” The board stood by its vote a week later but, instead of discarding the library’s copies of the books, Knief offered them to other libraries in California. The Grapes of Wrath would remain banned in Kern County until January 1941 — although it supposedly would not be read in the curriculum at East Bakersfield High School in the Kern County School District until 1972 and the ban was not officially overturned by the Board of Supervisors until July 2002.

Sadly, Kern County wasn’t alone. In fact, Kern County’s action appeared to have been inspired by the Kansas City Board of Education removing the book from its schools because of “indecency, obscenity, abhorrence of the portrayal of women and for ‘portraying life in such a bestial way.’” Later, the public library in Buffalo, N.Y., banned it because it used “vulgar words.” In East St. Louis, Ill., meanwhile, the library board voted to burn the book in November 1939 but rescinded the action because of the uproar the vote created. That week, The Grapes of Wrath sold it most copies to that date and the East St. Louis librarian said the book had the longest waiting list in recent years.

As for Pruett, he reportedly read The Grapes of Wrath for the first time some six decades after burning it and said he had no regrets about his actions.

You’re bound to get idears if you go thinkin’ about stuff.

John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath

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Book Review: Imagine There’s No Heaven by Mitchell Stephens

Everyone knows curiosity killed the proverbial cat. Yet it likely also is responsible for the death of God, at least in many people. Although that death may not have been premeditated, it is the result of a natural human tendency to seek explanations. Moreover, Mitchell Stephens suggests, were it not for atheist thought, Western civilization may never have seen the scientific revolution or the “Age of Reason.”

Stephens makes a strong case for his view in Imagine There’s No Heaven: How Atheism Helped Create the Modern World, an exploration of the impact of atheist thought on Western civilization. Put simply, he shows that these ideas were engaged in a “virtuous cycle” with growing exploration and understanding of the natural world.

imagineAlthough Imagine There’s No Heaven examines several mainsprings of disbelief and their development, it seems clear the linchpin is our innate desire to understand the world around us. The same could even be said for religion. Even earliest man wanted explanations for why certain things happened or what caused them. Given the methods available, a god was as valid an explanation as anything. But knowledge is a formidable thing. We notice that seasons seem to be associated with movement of the Sun and the stars. We then ask why they are moving. As Galileo and others discovered, the correct answer may threaten religious beliefs. But a correct answer leads, in turn, to more questions, including efforts to validate or invalidate prior answers. As Stephens observes, “Questioning — doubt — is where atheism begins.”

Stephens looks at how, although perhaps slow to develop, this cycle led to what we now call “the scientific method.” Equally important, once Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica launched the scientific revolution, the cycle was even more active. As Neil deGrasse Tyson suggested in the opening episode of the reboot of Cosmos, two words may best describe the scientific method: “question everything.” That approach would necessarily encompass or involve gods and religious beliefs. “Religion explains. Science explains,” writes Stephens. “After Newton it became hard to deny that — on many subjects at least — science explains better.”

Yet Imagine There’s No Heaven also points out atheism’s impact beyond natural science. It explores how the writings of various atheists or similarly inclined individuals influenced political thought, especially prior to and after the French Revolution. These ideas were in part founded on tolerance and included justice, freedom, equal rights and other democratic ideals. This in turn reinforces the virtuous cycle because, as Stephens notes, tolerance requires taking a step back from our own beliefs. He is not blind, though, to the adverse effects some ideas had, pointing out the role some atheistic concepts played in the French Revolutions “Reign of Terror.”

In that respect, while Stephens is an advocate, he does not appear to be overly biased. There may be a few times he could be accused of overreaching and cherry picking, but Imagine There’s No Heaven is a thoughtful examination. Perhaps more important to the reader, the book explores its topic from pre-Grecian times to the 21st Century through the stories and ideas of specific individuals, some famous and some unknown to most. As such, it makes what could be a dry topic much more readable and easier to comprehend.

Ultimately, some may wonder why it takes a book to point out atheism’s impact on Western civilization if it, in fact, was as influential as Stephens claims. Wouldn’t it be part of our history classes or generally recognized? After all, we’re certainly aware of religion’s role in history. Here, Stephens makes a telling point.

Even if we ignore the destruction of “blasphemous” material throughout history, hand copying was necessary to reproduce texts before the printing press. Where was most of that copying done? In monasteries. Thus, early books, plays and other writings considered even slightly irreligious weren’t at the top of the reproduction list, making them few and far between by the time Gutenberg’s invention allowed mass distribution. For several centuries after that, the church dominated European society and life. As a result, comparatively speaking, atheism’s role in ideas and culture may appear to be only a recent development. Imagine There’s No Heaven is a strong step in correcting that record.

…tolerance is always easier to support when you need to be tolerated than when you are being asked to tolerate.

Mitchell Stephens, Imagine There’s No Heaven

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Weekend Edition: 4-12

Interesting Reading in the Interweb Tubes

  • I’m With The Banned (“My three kids have my blessing to read anything they want, and I absolutely encourage them to read banned books. Why? Because I respect them and think they’re smart, and because I want them to draw their own conclusions … I want my kids to be critical thinkers.”)
  • Why I Hate Shakespeare (“I’ve come to terms with my unpopular opinion. I no longer fear the judgment of others, and I unapologetically proclaim that, to me, Shakespeare is highly overrated.”)

Blog Headline of the Week

(Deplorable) Legal Theory of the Week

Bookish Links

Nonbookish Links

I may not have gone where I intended to go, but I think I have ended up where I needed to be.

Douglas Adams, The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul

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Book Review: The Word Exchange by Alena Graedon

By now, the printed word must feel like a mashup of Tom Sawyer and the movie Groundhog Day. For probably a couple decades now, it has attended its own funeral over and over and over and over, ad nauseum. But if we assume one of those countless pronouncements of death is correct, what about words and language generally? In Alena Graedon’s first novel, The Word Exchange, they’re endangered by technology and evil corporations.

word exchangeGraedon tells the story through two of a handful of main characters. At its center is Anana Johnson, who works with her father, Doug, the editor of the forthcoming new edition of the North American Dictionary of the English Language (NADEL).  The other narrator is “Bart,” the dictionary’s deputy editor and Doug’s protege, whose handwritten journal entries relate his view of events.  (Bart’s actual name is Horace Tate but he is referred to almost exclusively as Bart, short for the name “Bartleby” Graedon has Doug bestow upon him from Herman Melville’s short story, “Bartleby, the Scrivener.” ) Doug mysteriously disappears just days before the launch of the NADEL edition he’s been working on for years and Anana’s search for him, aided by Doug, is the vehicle for the story.

The core of The Word Exchange is the impact of technology, specifically something called the Meme. Sounding like an extremely powerful smartphone, the Meme uses adaptive wear to communicate with the brain through electrical signals.  It can instantly provide any information needed to communicate with others, study, buy things, get a cab, prove identity, and remember details about life, friends and family. In other words, it is the source for the information needed for and interactions of daily life.  The Meme can even predict or suggest courses of action, purchases and ideas. This has led an untold number of users to undergo off-label implantation of  microchips to enhance the Meme’s “neuronal efficiency.”

Like almost any virtually ubiquitous product, there are a variety of applications for the Meme creates a market for other companies, including the online Word Exchange. It provides Meme users immediate access to the definitions, synonyms and antonyms of words and, with the device’s predictive abilities, will supply words used in reading or conversing with others — for two cents a word.  Synchronic, the maker of the Meme and owner of the Word Exchange, has been so successful in buying publishers’ copyrights to printed dictionaries, thesauri and similar word reference works that the only printed dictionary that will remain is the new NADEL.

Some, including a mysterious underground group called The International Diachronic Society, believe the Meme reroutes pathways in the brain. They point out that, rather than being able to remember words, people now rely on the Word Exchange. They fear not only the consequences of the average American being unable to read most anything without resorting to the Word Exchange but also the company’s effective ownership of words. There are also rumors of occasional incidents of “word flu,” a condition of unknown origin that reduces the afflicted to speaking largely in gibberish.

Amidst all this, Synchronic — which also happens to be the name of a method of language study that directly contrasts with the diachronic method — is preparing to release a new device, the Nautilus, which will connect with the brain more directly. Another company is working to deploy a new game in which Meme users create new words and vote on them for future incorporation in the Word Exchange.  Synchronic recently bought the company, which was founded by Max King, who just happens to be not only Bart’s former college roommate but the longtime boyfriend who recently dumped Alana.

The Word Exchange‘s characters are lenses to examine both the societal impact of technology and the meaning of language and words. Bart is essentially a word nerd fascinated with Hegelian philosophy. Doug’s more traditional, almost anachronistic, love of the printed word represents one end of the spectrum while Max wants to be an integral part of the future. Anana and Bart, meanwhile, are akin to average Meme users but sufficiently conversant with the world of words to see both sides of the clash between past and future.

Because many of the characters are philologists, there is a tendency toward five-dollar words, particularly in Bart’s journals. In addition, extensive core information is presented by way of summary in an op-ed written by the Diachronic Society and a letter to Anana from Doug. Whether either is reasonable or a distraction will depend on the individual reader.

Graedon also uses more traditional tropes. One is Bart’s unrequited love for Alana and the reader knowing long before either of them that she has fallen in love with him. Likewise, as tends to happen in a struggle for primacy, there are the occasional very narrow escapes from danger and death. In fact, some seem akin to a character ignoring specific warnings (or the horror movie character who insists on opening the door everyone but them seems to know they shouldn’t) or even acting contrary to the picture Graedon has painted of them.

Mining dystopia, evil corporations, conspiracies and secret societies, the concept and framework of The Word Exchange are creditable.  Unfortunately, it is undermined in the execution.

The skills we once used for survival — scattered attention, diffuse concentration — have been adapted to finding glowing dots on screens, skimming pop-ups, beams, emails, video streams.

Alena Graedon, The Word Exchange

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