Thursday, May 2, 2013

A Penny for Your Thoughts

I picked up Susan Jacoby's book, The Age of American Unreason, for a pence, and so far that's about how much I think this book is worth.  Jacoby tries (so far in vain) to describe the anti-intellectualism that has grown out of all proportion in America.  She starts by chastising politicians for the use of "folks," which she sees as a dumbing down of the electorate.  She claims this term was rarely if ever used before Reagan in addressing the people of the United States, but since 1980 has become a favorite term.  Surprisingly, she does make an effort to equate folk with German "volk," which Hitler used widely.  Instead, she takes the tone of a schoolmarm in questioning other terms, such as "troop," which is now used widely in the place of "soldier."

But, her biggest peave is the refusal to accept evolution and other scientific theories by a large cross-section of Americans, which she blames on the rise of "Fundamentalism" in America.  She cites the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial, where Clarence Darrow may have won the battle, but William Jennings Bryan won the war, as states continue to make it difficult to teach evolution in the classroom, and several states have tried to introduce "intelligent design" as an alternate "theory."  She says this refusal to accept basic scientific theories puts us behind the learning curve of other developed countries and impedes our ability as a nation to come to terms with the technological society we live in.

But, scientists themselves can be held to blame, as Randy Olson engagingly pointed out in Flock of Dodos. They haven't made much effort to make science accessible to a broader cross section of the country.  Alan Alda has made it his task to push scientists to cut out the jargon and find better ways of explaining complex theories and processes so that a greater percentage of Americans can understand them.  Scientists could take a few pointers from Larry Gonick.

Jacoby  fails to mention that many of those who do accept Darwin's theory of natural selection do so largely on faith, as few have made the effort to read his seminal The Origin of Species, much less the other more accessible books that have been published over the years on Evolution.  Science has become an increasingly complex subject that has broken off into a myriad of disciplines.  It is a far cry from the study of Naturalism prevalent during Darwin's day.  We marvel at the breakthroughs, often viewing them as miracles because it simply takes too much effort to understand them.

Instead, Jacoby vents her anger on religion, claiming it has stultified the American mind and made society increasingly crass and unreasonable.  She also doesn't have very much positive to say about the media, which has played into debates like the evolution v. intelligent design debate in an effort to create stories rather than provide necessary background information.  I guess it depends largely on what you watch.

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