The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Knowledge politics

September 25, 2005

I’d like to think that the Duck’s patron saint Max Weber would have been slightly apoplectic after reading this story in this morning’s Washington Post about a new museum outside of Cincinnati dedicated to the promulgation of a “Young Earth Creationist” understanding of life, the universe, and everything: “It holds that the world and the universe are but 6,000 years old and that baby dinosaurs rode in Noah’s Ark.”

This would be laughable — indeed, it even sounds like a Daily Show skit — except for two very disturbing pieces of information:

1) the article points out that polls from last year show that 45% of Americans subscribe to some version of Young Earth Creationism, and that 65% want this view taught alongside of evolution.

2) the group that is constructing the museum, Answers in Genesis, raised $20 million to construct this museum. $20 million.

Fringe movement or wave of the future?

I wish I could be more sanguine about these kinds of things, and more optimistic that reasonable people would be able to see the difference between science and theology and keep each in their separate places. I’d like to think that more people would agree with the reverend Henry Brinton when he declares:

I believe that my faith, like any faith, is strongest when it answers the questions it is prepared to answer, and when it avoids the questions it cannot address. For me, and for many of my parishioners, a core religious conviction is that God is the creator of life and the one who gives it meaning and purpose. Any questions about the mechanics of life are best left to science.

Apparently, this is a point of view less widely accepted than I’d like to think. For whatever reason, large number of people are either unable or unwilling to distinguish between science and theology. What I think would drive Weber batty about this conflation is that it ignores the basic orientation of science as an instrument for making sense of the world in a rational, naturalistic manner. Here’s his scornful take on the “overgrown children” who commit this conflation:

. . . who imagines nowadays that a knowledge of astronomy or biology or physics of chemistry could teach us anything about the meaning of the world? How might we even begin to track down such a “meaning,” if indeed it exists? If anything at all, the natural sciences are more likely to ensure that the belief that the world has a “meaning” will wither at the root!

The “withering” of meaning that Weber envisions derives, I think, from the conflation of science and theology, such that scientific investigations into matters of fact could even conceivably be thought of as evidence for or against an element of religious faith. And the solution, of course, is to keep them separate.

But this museum transgresses another, related boundary: that between science and politics. By passing itself off as a scientific enterprise, Answers in Genesis is playing the same kind of game that fuels “research institutes” like the Heritage Foundation and the Center for American Progress. Both institutes (and there are countless others) produce strategic pieces of knowledge that are designed for only one purpose: to advance an ideological agenda. The point of reports published by such research institutes are not to enhance our knowledge of the world; they are to promote one or another political perspective on the world, and to discredit opposing perspectives.

Although the lines are blurred in practice, the philosophical difference between science and politics is quite stark. As Weber comments:

If you speak about democracy at a public meeting there is no need to make a secret of our personal point of view. On the contrary, you have to take one side or the other explicitly; that is your damned duty. The words you use are not the tools of academic analysis, but a way of winning others over to your political point of view. They are not plowshares to loosen the solid soil of contemplative thought, but swords to be used against your opponents: weapons, in short.

And the places where they produce such weapons? Let’s call them by their correct name: munitions factories. This new museum, scheduled to open in 2007, is thus a staging ground for a whole series of combat operations, and a place where weapons are forged and soldiers are commissioned (or strengthened in their political opposition to the whole project of modern science). That the belief that the museum promulgates is already so widely-shared is a reason for concern; that proponents of this belief will have an additional “scholarly source” to point to when trying to further promulgate their belief (a way, perhaps, of using the rhetorical power of the idea of science to help sway the undecided: “well, if there’s some scientific support for what you say . . .”) is extremely worrying.

Of course, it’s also disturbing that this kind of Young Earth Creationism makes “intelligent design” look downright moderate — especially when the Answers in Genesis people criticize intelligent design proponents for not going far enough. Bargaining theory 101 features plenty of examples of this stratagem, in which an extreme wing of a movement is used by the moderates as an implicit threat: “give us what we want or you’ll have to deal with the real radicals.” Far be it from me to attribute that much foresight to almost any political movement, but it’s certainly convenient for the intelligent design people to have an even more extreme point of view to which they can point as evidence of their moderation and reasonability.

As I said, I’d like to be more optimistic; I’d like to think that more people would be able to appreciate these maneuvers for what they are, and to see through them. Unfortunately, it seems like every day I am yet again proven wrong. It’s very worrying.

When science has been completely dismantled, completely collapsed into politics and theology, will we miss it? Will we even remember what to miss?

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Patrick Thaddeus Jackson is Professor of International Studies in the School of International Service, and also Director of the AU Honors program. He was formerly Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of International Relations and Development, and is currently Series Editor of the University of Michigan Press' book series Configurations: Critical Studies of World Politics.