06.26.2017

William Pepperell Montague (1937; painted by Winifred Smith Rieber)

A few years ago, in the introduction to a special issue of the philosophy journal Synthese focusing on creationism, I wrote:

In the first wave of antievolution activity—the attempts during the 1920s to remove evolution from the classroom—philosophers were all but uninvolved in the debate. Although the impresario of the Scopes trial, George Rappelyea, hoped to get John Dewey to testify for the defense (de Camp 1968, p. 80), only experts in science and religion were selected, and in the event they were not permitted to testify (Larson 1997, pp. 170–193). Only [Alfred North] Whitehead, of the leading American philosophers of the day, reacted to the trial, according to a study of American intellectuals and Darwinism (Conkin 1998, p. 145). And his muted reaction took the form of a piece in the Atlantic Monthly, published after the trial, which mentioned evolution just once and Scopes, the law under which he was prosecuted, and the trial itself not at all (Whitehead 1925).

Well, I accurately reported what Paul K. Conkin said in When All the Gods Trembled, but both he and I seem to have overlooked someone!

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06.19.2017

John Augustine Zahm, via Wikimedia Commons

There are memorable lines aplenty in the beloved film The Princess Bride (1987), thanks to the screenwriter William Goldman, on whose 1973 novel it was based. Among them is the following, addressed to the villainous Vizzini (Wallace Shawn) by the fencer Inigo Montoya (Mandy Patinkin): “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” The word in question is “inconceivable,” which Vizzini uses so freely that his henchman is eventually forced to protest, and I was reminded of it when browsing through John Augustine Zahm’s The Catholic Church and Modern Science: A Lecture (1886). Zahm (right; 1851–1921) was a priest as well as a professor of physics and chemistry at the University of Notre Dame.

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Thomas Hawk, Heartbreak Hotel Restaurant, 2010

Summertime, in the words of the familiar song, and the livin’ is easy. It’s not as easy for science teachers as you might think, though. Sure, with schools out of session, they’re no longer spending their days in lecture and lab and their nights grading and in prep. But that doesn’t mean that they’re relaxing on the beach with a tall cool beverage of their choice—not that they wouldn’t be entitled to do so! No, diligent science teachers are updating their curricula and lesson plans, participating in professional development, and catching up on the latest science. Unfortunately, the Heartland Institute is continuing to inflict its climate change denial literature on science teachers across the country. (See “Don’t Let Heartland Fool Teachers!” and “A Perfect Storm of Silver Linings” for background.) Fortunately, the Heartland mailing continues to be greeted with skepticism and dismissed with scorn. Here’s a chronological summary of the highlights over the last month or so.

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05.26.2017

Erasmus Darwin, portrait by Joseph Wright, 1770. Via Wikimedia Commons.

In the 1974 film Young Frankenstein, directed by Mel Brooks, there is, as I recently realized, a surprisingly erudite joke. In a scene early in the film, Dr. Frankenstein—who, in order to distance himself from a notorious grandfather, pronounces his surname “Fronkenshteen”—is talking with a student. “Isn’t it true,” he is asked, “that Darwin preserved a piece of vermicelli in a glass case until, by some extraordinary means, it actually began to move with voluntary motion?” Frankenstein (played by the late Gene Wilder) replies, “Are you speaking of the worm or the spaghetti?” and then adds, “Yes, I did read something of that incident when I was a student, but you have to remember that a worm … with very few exceptions … is not a human being.” No argument there, although it would be interesting to hear about the exceptions!

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The Silver Lining

The Heartland Institute’s recent stunt of mailing unsolicited packets of propaganda to thousands of teachers across the nation continues to win further bad publicity for the climate-change-denying think tank. (Self-inflicted damage is something of a Heartland specialty: remember its 2013 billboard comparing “believers” in global warming to the Unabomber? As the Los Angeles Times (May 9, 2012) noted, it cost Heartland the support not only of allies who reject the scientific consensus on climate change but also of a number of wealthy corporate sponsors.) But Schadenfreude isn’t the only consequence. The stunt also seems to have invigorated a lot of educators, scientists, parents, environmentalists, and even legislators to speak up and speak out on the need to support climate education.

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