A Smithsonian Anti-Science Museum?

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The National Museum of the American Indian has opened in Washington, D.C. I haven't seen it, so I can't offer my own perspective, but this article in the Washington Post gives grounds for concern. According to Joel Achenbach, the great virtue of the Museum is that it does not attempt a scientific or technical understanding of the history or cultures of American Indians.

Initial disclaimers: of course American Indians have been mistreated historically, and subject to many kinds of discrimination and baseless and embarrassing attacks. Their religious views deserve as much respect as the religious views of Christian Europeans, and their history deserves as much respect.

But for Achenbach, that's not enough. Instead, the great thing about the Museum is that it "feels more like a cathedral than a museum." He explains:

[T]he National Museum of the American Indian has no anthropology department and likely never will. Gerald McMaster, a deputy assistant director for the museum and a Plains Cree, says, "Anthropology as a science is not practiced here. . .." Science is not going to be the final arbiter at the museum.

The article revels in post-modernist notions of "different ways of knowing:

"I think there is an indigenous way of thinking," [says museum curator Gabrielle Tayac]. She quickly notes that there's not a single native belief system, but there are ways of looking at the world that are common to native peoples throughout the hemisphere. "Things are looked at very cyclically, not in a linear way," she says. There's also "this idea that things are alive, that there's life in everything, that you are a part of it and you fit into it."

Such notions should disturb those of us who look upon the Smithsonian as a glorious monument to the scientific enterprise. Certainly any attempt to study a culture should be sensitive to that culture--that's good science as well as good ethics. But it is vital that such sensitivity not spill over into a subjectivism whereby all "ways of knowing" are considered equally valid--because they are not. Science is valid; superstition is not. Calling the scientific method by pejoratives like "linear" and speaking of (undefined) "alternative" ways of knowing as respecting an idea that "things are alive" does not undo this fact (or the fact that things not all things are alive!) As Meera Nanda writes,

[T]here is ample evidence to support the proposition that scientific rationality has become "our destiny." For better or for worse, and not minimizing the impact of colonialism on demolishing the self-confidence of non-Western societies in their own knowledge systems, it is an empirical fact that modern science has acquired a near universal appeal. One need not look beyond the desperate eagerness of Third World societies to emulate the success of technologically advanced societies (often with disastrous results) to be reminded of the deep appeal this cognitive style has come to exert. While one can have reservations about its desirability, the fact that we live in a world where one cognitive style is being sought and adopted by diverse cultures can hardly be denied.

Meera Nanda, The Science Question in Postcolonial Feminism, in The Flight from Science And Reason 426-27 (P. Gross, et al., eds.1996). See also Richard Dawkins, River Out of Eden 31-32 (1995) ("Show me a cultural relativist at thirty thousand feet and I'll show you a hypocrite. Airplanes built according to scientific principles work. They stay aloft, and they get you to a chosen destination. Airplanes built to tribal or mythological specifications, such as the dully planes of the cargo cults in jungle clearings or the beeswaxed wings of Icarus, don't.") Indeed, I would argue that scientific understanding is the only understanding on which genuine respect can be based. The alternative is an attitude of "you believe your thing, I'll believe mine" which is not really respect, but just mutual silence, which often can breed resentment. Certainly anyone concerned that American Indian children receive a strong education and thereby a serious chance at a successful and happy life does them no favors by failing to teach them with the rigors of science.

Again, I do not in the slightest mean to denigrate from the historical sufferings of American Indians. I am part Cherokee myself, as is my girlfriend; I am quite sensible of the crimes the American government committed against them. But those crimes are not redressed by abandoning scientific integrity and using federal money to create a "cathedral" and call it a Museum.

This brings up another serious concern--the precedent that this sets with regard to the First Amendment. The Supreme Court has long held that

The "establishment of religion" clause of the First Amendment means at least this: Neither a state nor the Federal Government can set up a church. Neither can pass laws which aid one religion, aid all religions, or prefer one religion over another. . .. No tax in any amount, large or small, can be levied to support any religious activities or institutions, whatever they may be called, or whatever from they may adopt to teach or practice religion. Neither a state nor the Federal Government can, openly or secretly, participate in the affairs of any religious organizations or groups and vice versa. In the words of Jefferson, the clause against establishment of religion by law was intended to erect "a wall of separation between Church and State."

Everson v. Board of Ed. of Ewing Tp., 330 U.S. 1, 15-16 (1947) (quoting Reynolds v. United States, 98 U.S. 145, 164 (1878).)

If Achenbach's description of the Museum is accurate, it could serve as a pretext for other religious groups to establish "museums" like the Answers in Genesis Creationism Museum to receive official government support. That is a disturbing prospect, indeed.

4 Comments

Boy, I thought that the Christian community finally had a semi-sensible science commentator in Kelly Hollowell. Then I started reading her drivel on World Nut Daily (hat tip PZMyers). I thought that her article about child anti-depressant over-medication wasn’t so bad, but then again it was pretty much what a lot of others had talked about. I looked on her www.scienceministries.org site, thinking at first there was a glimmer of hope, that the site was actually going to contain some conservative-ideology bioethics (hey, they have some points) and some sophisticated Intelligent Design junk for the biologically inclined. I haven’t really looked too far on the first front, but I did find some tidbits “for evolutionists.” They were written by Dr. Kent Hovind. Aaack!

“Well, Indians sometimes have a different way of looking at things, which I’m not saying is completely wrong. Science isn’t part of the Indian tradition.”

“Tom White Bear said his mother and dad told him not to believe all that stuff. But he said his grandmother whispered it was true anyway, so he believes it.”

He looks at me pleadingly. He really does want to know things sometimes. Being facetious is not being a very good father. “Sure,” I say, reversing myself, “I believe in ghosts too.”

Now John and Sylvia look at me peculiarly. I see I’m not going to get out of this one easily and brace myself for a long explanation.

“It’s completely natural,” I say, “to think of Europeans who believed in ghosts or Indians who believed in ghosts as ignorant. The scientific point of view has wiped out every other view to a point where they all seem primitive, so that if a person today talks about ghosts or spirits he is considered ignorant or maybe nutty. It’s just all but completely impossible to imagine a world where ghosts can actually exist.”

John nods affirmatively and I continue.

“My own opinion is that the intellect of modern man isn’t that superior. IQs aren’t that much different. Those Indians and medieval men were just as intelligent as we are, but the context in which they thought was completely different. Within that context of thought, ghosts and spirits are quite as real as atoms, particles, photons and quants are to a modern man. In that sense I believe in ghosts. Modern man has his ghosts and spirits too, you know.”

“What?”

“Oh, the laws of physics and of logic – the number system – the principle of algebraic substitution. These are ghosts. We just believe in them so thoroughly they seem real.

“They seem real to me,” John says.

“I don’t get it,” says Chris.

So I go on. “For example, it seems completely natural to presume that gravitation and the law of gravitation existed before Isaac Newton. It would sound nutty to think that until the seventeenth century there was no gravity.”

“Of course.”

“So when did this law start? Has it always existed?”

John is frowning, wondering what I am getting at.

“What I’m driving at,” I say, “is the notion that before the beginning of the earth, before the sun and the stars were formed, before the primal generation of anything, the law of gravity existed.”

“Sure.”

“Sitting there, having no mass of its own, no energy of its own, not in anyone’s mind because there wasn’t anyone, not in space because there was no space either, not anywhere…this law of gravity still existed?”

Now John seems not so sure.

“If that law of gravity existed,” I say, “I honestly don’t know what a thing has to do to be nonexistent. It seems to me that law of gravity has passed every test of nonexistence there is. You cannot think of a single attribute of nonexistence that that law of gravity didn’t have. Or a single scientific attribute of existence it did have. And yet it is still ‘common sense’ to believe that it existed.”

John says, “I guess I’d have to think about it.”

“Well, I predict that if you think about it long enough you will find yourself going round and round and round and round until you finally reach only one possible, rational, intelligent conclusion. The law of gravity and gravity itself did not exist before Isaac Newton. No other conclusion makes sense.

“And what that means,” I say before he can interrupt, “and what that means is that that law of gravity exists nowhere except in people’s heads! It’s a ghost! We are all of us very arrogant and conceited about running down other people’s ghosts but just as ignorant and barbaric and superstitious about our own.”

“Why does everybody believe in the law of gravity then?”

“Mass hypnosis. In a very orthodox form known as ‘education.”’

“You mean the teacher is hypnotizing the kids into believing the law of gravity?”

“Sure.”

“That’s absurd.”

“You’ve heard of the importance of eye contact in the classroom? Every educationist emphasizes it. No educationist explains it.”

John shakes his head and pours me another drink. He puts his hand over his mouth and in a mock aside says to Sylvia, “You know, most of the time he seems like such a normal guy.”

I counter, “That’s the first normal thing I’ve said in weeks. The rest of the time I’m feigning twentieth-

century lunacy just like you are. So as not to draw attention to myself.

“But I’ll repeat it for you,” I say. “We believe the disembodied words of Sir Isaac Newton were sitting in the middle of nowhere billions of years before he was born and that magically he discovered these words. They were always there, even when they applied to nothing. Gradually the world came into being and then they applied to it. In fact, those words themselves were what formed the world. That, John, is ridiculous.

“The problem, the contradiction the scientists are stuck with, is that of mind. Mind has no matter or energy but they can’t escape its predominance over everything they do. Logic exists in the mind. Numbers exist only in the mind. I don’t get upset when scientists say that ghosts exist in the mind. It’s that only that gets me. Science is only in your mind too, it’s just that that doesn’t make it bad. Or ghosts either.”

They are just looking at me so I continue: “Laws of nature are human inventions, like ghosts. Laws of logic, of mathematics are also human inventions, like ghosts. The whole blessed thing is a human invention, including the idea that it isn’t a human invention. The world has no existence whatsoever outside the human imagination. It’s all a ghost, and in antiquity was so recognized as a ghost, the whole blessed world we live in. It’s run by ghosts. We see what we see because these ghosts show it to us, ghosts of Moses and Christ and the Buddha, and Plato, and Descartes, and Rousseau and Jefferson and Lincoln, on and on and on. Isaac Newton is a very good ghost. One of the best. Your common sense is nothing more than the voices of thousands and thousands of these ghosts from the past. Ghosts and more ghosts. Ghosts trying to find their place among the living.”

John looks too much in thought to speak. But Sylvia is excited. “Where do you get all these ideas?” she asks.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenence by Robert Pirsig

Read it here: http://bonigv.tripod.com/toc.htm

It’s a longlong time since I read ZatAoMM; don’t think I realised then how stuck Pirsig was in the system he critiqued. Existence is not a predicate!

John wrote:

It’s a longlong time since I read ZatAoMM;

If you read the first edition, you might not have seen the Afterward in the 2nd edition: http://bonigv.tripod.com/chapters/afterword.htm

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This page contains a single entry by Timothy Sandefur published on October 2, 2004 2:01 PM.

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