18 May 2008

Letters to the Editor

My attention was caught by an exchange printed in the Naples Daily News. On the one hand, Ed Weilhoefer, possibly a retired professor of mathematics, wrote a letter to the editor criticizing the creationist propaganda film Expelled. On the other hand we have a "Guest Commentary" by V.J. Falcone, "an adjunct professor at the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut," complaining that "Ed Weilhoefer’s letter the other day was beyond the pale". Adjunct Professor Falcone poses as the voice of reason and moderation, but--

Ed Weilhoefer wrote:

The fact of the matter is that “Expelled” is a propaganda film, produced under false pretenses by a radical front for creationism. Joseph Goebbels’ ghost must be gleeful that his villainous art is alive and flourishing in the United States.
V. J. Falcone's response:
Finally, after some unsubstantiated statements which he calls "the fact of the matter," he claims that "Joseph Goebbels’ ghost must be gleeful that his villainous art is alive and well in the United States." Have you counted the number of letter writers who inject the Nazis into their essays? It’s de rigueur: If you disagree with me you are a Nazi, Nazi-like, Nazi-leaning, Nazi-wannabe.

Please. No more Nazi comparisons except when dealing with political issues that justify the allusion.

Nice evasion, Adjunct Professor Falcone, but what about dealing with the actual issue? or is it possible that you really don't know exactly who Joseph Goebbels was? I see that you "[lecture] graduate students in education on the U.S. Constitution, teaching controversial issues, morals and values, and 'thinking about thinking,'" so you certainly ought to know. In case you don't, however, let me inform you that Herr Goebbels is generally regarded as the gold standard for propaganda efforts, whether fake documentaries, fake academic studies, or fake histories. (Although in my opinion, having actually seen some of Goebbels' efforts, they are crude hack-work compared to the work of the Discovery Institute, or other think-tanks I could mention.) If you really didn't know this, you should be ashamed of yourself. Ed Weilhoefer's use does indeed deal with a political issue that justifies the allusion. If you do know, then you, Adjunct Professor Falcone, have gone way beyond the pale in misrepresenting what Ed Weilhoefer actually wrote.

Ed Weilhoefer goes on to refer to the deceptive tactics used by the film-makers to get interviews, and notes that "[t]he film is a diatribe against the American university system and an attempt to undermine science." To this V. J. Falcone has nothing to say. Then comes this passage:

Let’s face it: Americans trail far behind other Western nations in science education and that is one reason why we have so many weird religious beliefs inconsistent with basic science.
Here V. J. Falcone has at least half a point. "Any first-year logic student" he writes, "would know that statement is a post hoc fallacy." The United States of course does in fact trail behind many other Western nations in science education and it does indeed have many weird religious beliefs incompatible with the most basic science, but which is cause, and which is effect--who knows? The American tradition of anti-intellectualism probably has a lot to do with both, actually, but the two certainly feed on one another. Anyone who's been involved with one of the brushfires of ignorance breaking out through the country when religious fanatics try to dictate what gets taught in science classes is aware of the negative effect that "weird religious beliefs" have on science education in this country. And most of us who have been through what pass for science courses in the United States know just how bad this alleged education can be and how much that contributes to the craziness of the American religious scene.

Unfortunately V. J. Falcone doesn't stop with that. He goes on to write "By the way, we are behind in math, engineering and a myriad of other disciplines which I think is the result of teaching for 'self esteem' rather than for understanding." That line was old in the fifties, and has virtually nothing to recommend it. Bromides are not a substitute for thought.

Ed Weilhoefer continues:

It is laughable but very sad that Americans believe that the age of our planet is somewhere around 10,000 years.

It is indeed. Recent polls show that Americans do indeed believe this, and in large numbers. This really sets V. J. Falcone off: "I have taught thousands of students," he claims, and "know hundreds of academics and have not met one human being that believes what Mr. Weilhoefer states as fact." I can only suppose that Adjunct Professor Falcone travels in very rarefied circles; perhaps he needs to mix more with ordinary Americans. I've never had any problem running into people who believe exactly that, more's the pity, and to be honest, I really don't believe V. J. Falcone's claim. Maybe he hasn't inquired all that deeply into the beliefs of those thousands of students. Or maybe he's been very lucky in his classes. Back to the original letter:

Creationism or intelligent design is a Christian fundamentalist doctrine.

It's difficult to see how anybody could take exception to this statement, but V. J. Falcone does:

Not so. Intelligent design has been debated from antiquity to the present day.
Plato and Aristotle thought that it was a valid doctrine. Plato calls that power, not God, but an artificer "which causes things to exist, not previously existing ..., not some spontaneous and unintelligent cause."
I, personally, don’t know how life began, and I don’t think anyone else knows to an absolute certainty either.
All this jibber-jabber is beneath contempt. If the adjunct professor has a point, he has concealed it to perfection. Plato and Aristotle were pre-scientific thinkers and have absolutely nothing to do with the modern Intelligent Design™ movement, which is a pseudo-scientific disguise for fundamentalist theology. Shifting definitions in mid-stream is an old rhetorical trick, as I'm sure he knows quite well. Oh, yeah, and by the way, the only people who claim to know to a certainty how life began are Creationists, or Intelligent Design Proponents, or whatever they want to call themselves today.

Why the Naples Daily News thought this sub-par composition was worth publishing is beyond me.

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