Recently deceased NYU professor and postmodernist cultural critic Neil Postman (1931-2003) has a cult following for books such as Amusing Ourselves to Death and Technopoly. I have always been mystified by this, since Postman demonstrated again and again in his writings that he was actually remarkably ignorant of the technology he chose to criticize.
This week I picked up a copy of Postman’s 1988 book Conscientious Objections at a local book sale. Not surprisingly, Postman’s ignorance is on display again, this time about evolution.
In a chapter entitled “Columbusity”, Postman says “Like evolution, Creation Science purports to explain how the world and all that’s in it came to be…” No, it doesn’t. Evolution is only concerned with the biological world, and what happened after the first replicators appeared. Evolution doesn’t encompass cosmology, or geology, or even abiogenesis; those are different areas.
Postman advocates that creationism should be taught side-by-side with evolution and claims that “Good science has nothing to fear from bad science…” Unfortunately, it does. When incorrect or fraudulent results are published, they can lead other researchers astray for years. In medicine, bad science can have disastrous consequences – look at all the cancer victims who were persuaded to try worthless remedies like krebiozen and laetrile. By misleading those politicians who fund research, bad science can take money away from where it is genuinely needed – consider all the money wasted by Utah on cold fusion. And in the classroom, bad science can take valuable time away from coverage of genuine science. It’s not as if the biology curriculum is filled with unimportant concepts that can be dropped in favor of creationism.
Next, Postman writes “In the first place, Darwin’s explanation of how evolution happened is a theory. So is the updated version of Darwin. Even the ‘fact’ that evolution occurred is based on high levels of inference and supposition. Fossil remains, for example, are sometimes ambiguous in their meaning and have diverse interpretations. And there are peculiar gaps in the fossil record, which is something of an enigma if not an embarrassment to evolutionists.”
This ignorant commentary could have been taken directly from a creationist tract. His claim about the fossil record being an “embarrassment to evolutionists” was later echoed by Robert Bork, showing that ignorance can be found on both the political Right and Left.
If Postman were alive, I would tell him to read Mark Isaak’s Five Misconceptions About Evolution and Kathleen Hunt’s Transitional Vertebrate Fossils FAQ, which would go a long way in correcting his misconceptions.
There are many more examples of scientific ignorance awaiting the reader of Conscientious Objections, such as Postman’s endorsement of Alfred Korzybski, and his assertion that “modern physics tells us that a cup is made of billions of electrons in constant movement, undergoing continuous change”. But Postman’s remarks about evolution alone are enough for any reader to be skeptical about his ability to knowledgeably criticize science and technology.