your father was a monkey:
martin gardner on science and pseudoscience

 
Did Adam and Eve Have Navels?
Martin Gardner
(Norton, 320 pages)
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did adam and eve have navels? cover
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In the last week of Canada's 2000 federal election, Alliance party leader Stockwell Day appeared on the CBC radio current affairs show, “As It Happens”. The host, Mary Lou Findlay, was asking him the usual, solipsistic questions about the combative “tone” of the campaign on her way to the big issue: Day’s Christian fundamentalist faith and the creationist worldview he apparently embraces. 

She finally got around to it at the blunt end of a query about the economy, the brain drain, research and development and the scientific community, and Day responded in quick, clearly coached outrage: “Mary Lou, I want to know if you would ask any other politician the same question?” His religious beliefs, the inference was clear, were immaterial to his political qualifications, and like a good (small-l) liberal, Findlay backpedalled gingerly. 

A more aggressive, outraged interviewer might have replied that they didn’t ask other politicians this question since, as far as they knew, no other politician - at least not since the spiritualist Mackenzie King - seeking the most important political office in the country held beliefs so patently lunatic and incompatible with the scientific reality that serious innovation and research demands. 

The liberal, entertainment-focused media is unsuited to the task of interrogating a creationist like Day for the simple reason that, while the notion of a six thousand year old universe seems fishy to them, they’re happy to cover acupuncture, astrology, homeopathy, reflexology and countless New Age fads with an only faintly ironic slant. Lacking a grounding in scientific principles, they’re generally unable to recognize pseudo-science when they see it, and work from a philosophical relativism that tends to respect any half-baked bagatelle in the spirit of an only subtly condescending tolerance.

Martin Gardner would be a better choice to take on someone like Day, if Day were actually willing to debate creationism as a component of his political credentials. The prolific American writer - over sixty books and counting - is a skeptic who has devoted much of his career to debunking, in plain language, the ludicrous claims of frauds, pseudo-science, the New Age, and “creation science”. Gardner is also a theist, a scientific rationalist who doesn’t discount the existence of God, albeit a God whose ways and means are beyond the scope of our science and theology to comprehend with any precision.

The title of his latest book is inspired by an age-old theological conundrum - still raging as recently as World War 2 - about the likelihood of God’s first humans posessing the medical traces of maternal birth, and his summary of the tortuous deliberations of various churches on the subject is classic Gardner; slyly funny and erudite. A collection of his columns from the Skeptical Inquirer magazine, it occasionally indulges in ad hominem attacks dependent on the reader embracing Gardner’s own skepticism, but shines when detailing, for instance, the millions spent by the American government, military and intelligence agencies on paranormal research. With the teaching of scientific evolution being made optional not only in Kansas but here in Ontario, there’s an urgency to Gardner’s mission to encourage clear, rational thinking that should overcome any squeamishness about a politician’s hurt feelings.

©2001, 2002 Rick McGinnis
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