Most people are hopefully aware of the very strong religious right movement to incorporate creationism (the belief that God created the world and everything in it in its present form) in science classes as valid topic of study alongside evolution (the reality that all living species evolved from ‘lower’ forms of life, and continue to evolve over timescales almost incomprehensible). This dishonest movement, now referred to as ‘intelligent design’ or ID to get past the religion ban in classrooms, has no evidence in its favor and consists almost entirely of negative arguments (“You can’t explain that? Then God did it!”). The biology website Pharyngula, written by PZ Myers, is a good place to get the latest scoop on creationist nonsense. And these things have potentially catastrophic consequences: a Presidential candidate, for instance, is on the record as saying he doesn’t believe in evolution, and has other ideas that are far out of the mainstream of reality.
Leafing through the collected science essays of H.P. Lovecraft (hey, that’s what I do for kicks), one finds that similar problems have been around before.
Before becoming prolific as a weird fiction writer, Lovecraft had an interest in astronomy, and wrote a regular column for a local paper. One week, an article by a practitioner of astronomy, on Mr. Hartmann, appeared in the place of Lovecraft’s column, provoking a reply and starting an increasingly intemperate dialog. Let’s quote from Mr. Hartmann’s article first (from The Collected Essays of H.P. Lovecraft, vol 3: Science, edited by scholar S.T. Joshi):
The vulgar prejudice against the noble science of astrology by otherwise learned men is greatly to be deplored.
Almost every author on astronomy, mythology, anthropology and philosophy, school teachers, professor of universities and the clergy, while willfully ignorant of astrology, yet never tire loading it with slurs and abuse, ridicule and misrepresentation, ever insinuating that astrologers must be fools or knaves.
It is only those who have never studied this science who in their self-sufficient conceit dare assume authority to condemn it.
There are three items very similar to the ID’er in this letter: the complaints of unfair treatment from mainstream scientists, the belief that scientists simply don’t understand astrology, and the accusations of ‘conceit’ from the scientific community.
Lovecraft’s response is really pretty spot-on perfect, and with a few words changed might as well be a response to an ID’er. I quote selected bits:
Science versus charlatanry
To the editor of the Evening News:
It is an unfortunate fact that every man who seeks to disseminate knowledge must contend not only against ignorance itself, but against false instruction as well. No sooner do we deem ourselves free from a particularly gross superstition, than we are confronted by some enemy to learning who would set aside all the intellectual progress of years, and plunge us back into the darkness of mediaeval disbelief.
While I entertain no doubt as to the sincerity of the author… [it is impossible] for me to comprehend how any person of judgment and education can now give credence to the doctrines of a false and ridiculous system completely exploded over 200 years ago. In this age of enlightenment it out not be necessary to shew the utter absurdity of the idea that our daily affairs can be governed by the mere apparent motions of infinitely distant bodies whose seeming arrangements and configurations, on which the calculations of judicial astrology are based, arise only from perspective as seen from our particular place in the universe. It seems very provoking that astronomers and other men of sense should be obliged to waste their time and energy in proving Astrology to be false, when there exists not the slightest reason to believe any part of it true…The fallacies of Astrology are like the many heads of the Lernean Hydra; chop off one, and two grow in its place.
I should not take up your time… if I did not consider Astrology a dangerous as well as a silly subject. In the minds of the masses it tends to become confused with Astronomy, and thereby to injure the reputation of that science.
As I’ve said, the similarities to the ID confusion of modern times is striking: “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” Also all too similar is the fact that this letter didn’t end the discussion, but lead to further arguments and an increasingly exasperated Lovecraft.
Fortunately, good sense won out in the end; astrology is now simply an amusing game for the vast majority of humanity, and one that is often openly mocked. This makes me optimistic that the same will happen to ID in the end. Hopefully I won’t be burned at the stake before that happens.