Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Heresy Banned! Hurrah!

As we all know, scientific truth is established by power. When we're called upon to decide what's true and what's not, we appeal to authority, embodied in some truly powerful man such as Federal Judge John E. Jones III, and in due course he settles things forever. Judge Jones has let us know that, while "intelligent design" might well be true, it nonetheless is not science, and thus is not to be mentioned in science classes in the Dover, Pennsylvania schools. Evolution, you see, is accepted by all, and thus must be accepted by all, on pain of the wrath of a Federal judge. Charles Darwin -- may his name be ever praised! -- is not to be blasphemed in any government temple.

For some reason, this has gotten me to thinking about Galileo Galilei, 1564 - 1642, mathematician and natural philosopher. His brief biography, on the University of St. Andrews's excellent web site, fills in some of the background to the famous dust-up between Galileo and the church authorities of his day which is the only thing most of us know about him:

Galileo first turned his telescope on Saturn on 25 July 1610 and it appeared as three bodies (his telescope was not good enough to show the rings but made them appear as lobes on either side of the planet). Continued observations were puzzling indeed to Galileo as the bodies on either side of Saturn vanished when the ring system was edge on. Also in 1610 he discovered that, when seen in the telescope, the planet Venus showed phases like those of the Moon, and therefore must orbit the Sun not the Earth. This did not enable one to decide between the Copernican system, in which everything goes round the Sun, and that proposed by Tycho Brahe in which everything but the Earth (and Moon) goes round the Sun which in turn goes round the Earth. Most astronomers of the time in fact favoured Brahe's system and indeed distinguishing between the two by experiment was beyond the instruments of the day. However, Galileo knew that all his discoveries were evidence for Copernicanism, although not a proof. In fact it was his theory of falling bodies which was the most significant in this respect, for opponents of a moving Earth argued that if the Earth rotated and a body was dropped from a tower it should fall behind the tower as the Earth rotated while it fell. Since this was not observed in practice this was taken as strong evidence that the Earth was stationary. However Galileo already knew that a body would fall in the observed manner on a rotating Earth.

So: Galileo advocated the Copernican view of the organization of the solar system, to the displeasure of the authorities and against the consensus of the majority of his putative peers. The authorities served him a nice hot cup of Shut the Hell Up, and so he did. And now our authority, Federal Judge John E. Jones III, whose official bio reveals not the slightest hint of any scientific credential, has slapped down a few heretics by the exercise of pure, raw power, and again All Right-Thinking Folk are pleased. Hmmmmmm. If Marxism weren't out of style, I might ask the authorities and all right-thinking folk if they aren't concerned about being, perhaps, on the wrong side of history. But let's hear from Galileo himself: "In questions of science, the authority of a thousand is not worth the humble reasoning of a single individual."

A few other (related) things:

1. I'm not here to advocate for whatever is meant by "intelligent design" theory. For one thing, I know next to nothing about it; and for another, I have entirely insufficient interest to learn about it. When Federal Judge John E. Jones III asserts that it ain't science, I would guess that he's right; science is mathematical in character, and must be falsifiable by repeatable, controlled experiments. The same can certainly be said about the evolutionary account of the origin of life on Earth. In fact, in my as-always-humble opinion, biology itself isn't science; it's scholarship and categorization -- button-sorting and stamp-collecting, at least once it leaves the strict realm of organic chemistry. Physics is the true and fundamental science: the study of the intersection of mathematics and nature. The other sciences, to the extent that they are sciences, are best understood as particular applications of physics.

2. If this terrifying monolith of a nation still bore any resemblance whatever to a constitutional, federal republic, what pretense of authority would a federal judge have over the curricular decisions of a local school board? The First Amendment forbids the Congress to make laws "concerning an establishment of religion." That's plain language, surely; did the Congress do any such thing in the case in question? I didn't think so.

3. You evangelicals out there, who heeded the urgings of James Dobson, Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, et nauseating cetera, and re-elected Dubya because it was sooooooo important that "good" judges be appointed to the federal bench: rejoice and be glad! Federal Judge John E. Jones III was appointed by Our Amazing Christian President in 2002. Mission accomplished. Don't forget to vote in '08!


lemming said...

The creed I say each Sunday (and more often on my own) says that "by your will they were created" which, as far as I believe, says that ID is wrong but leaves room for evolution as directed by God.

Then again, faith means believing in things that might not make sense.

I do not want ID taught in science class, though it seems all right in a social sciences unit. (Creation stories and all of that therein.)

By the by, dear B, Happy New Year. I'm not sure how we met, but I do so enjoy your musings.

Bartleby said...

Lemming! Happy New Year to you also! And thank you for your kind words; coming from someone who writes as well as you do, they mean a lot to me.

Neither do I want ID taught in a science class or elsewhere (I think ... I don't really know anything about it, to speak of). Of more concern than that to me, though, is the tattered remnants of my country. Whatever else its founders may have had in mind, I'm fairly sure that the idea of a branch of the central government dictating to a local governing body what may and may not appear in its school curricula would not have amused them. And the idea of a (highly-placed) shyster lawyer making authoritative pronouncements on what's science and what's not makes me fairly bilious. I don't tell him how to pad his billable hours, do I?

As it happens, I have to get out of here now because my wife and I are heading down the road toward your fair city. (I bought her a ring there, and it turns out that I got the size wrong. So it goes ...)

Drop me a real email sometime: jcwetzel [at] mchsi [dot] com.

TW said...

I wasn't a bit surprised when I read #1 under the heading: "A few other (related) things:" Physics nerds all tend to think that the other sciences orbit around their science. The toughest part about that is that they appear to be right. ;o)

Bartleby said...

TW! Good to hear from you again.

Regrettably, you're quite right about physics types; we tend to have unduly-exalted opinions of ourselves. But look at it this way: if physics really is the basis of every other science, then everbody's a physicist! They just specialize in various areas of applied physics, that's all.

Don't be a stranger, now. Are you posting anywhere? Last I saw, the BQ certainly looked to be a thing of the past.

TW said...

I've worked with physics types for years so I've got you guys pegged pretty good. I just wish I'd been smarter about education when I was younger. I might have just turned into a physics nerd myself.

Damian at the BQ is threatening to open up again. I'll believe that when I see it. I'm not really sure if I care at this point. I've been posting some at a board Dain notified me by email of. I think he saw one of my comments at the little message board that's left at the TBQ site.

I stop in at your site here from time to time. I'm somewhat intermittent at it, but I'd guess that I leave a comment about half the time I stop in.

Hope you and your family had a nice holiday season. Best wishes for the coming year!