DisComfort

It was Darwin’s birthday earlier this week, with lots of celebrations of the man and his work going on in many places (in addition to the year-long celebrations for Darwin year). On the other hand, there was at least one events last week that were rather sad and definitely not cause for celebration. You may have heard that evangelist Ray Comfort decided to launch an anti-science campaign on 100 university campuses by distributing copies of Darwin’s Origin of Species with a 54 page introduction written by Comfort which is basically a poorly written misleading piece of nonsense.

The day after this happened (I’d forgotten all about it as I am on a mission in Europe right now) I got an email from a USC student, Arvind Iyer, who was not only concerned about the content of what was being given out, but the very idea that such access could be given to the Comfort group. He wrote a letter to the campus newspaper, the Daily Trojan, about this, but they chose not to take up the issue at all. I’ll reprint it (with Arvind’s permission) and the end of this, and you are free to discuss with him in the comments what you think of his thoughts.

The issue of access (and freedom of speech, etc) aside for a moment, there is the issue of what kind of response is worthwhile. Most people just ignore the issue, saying that it does not matter, or that we should “live and let live”, etc., and in an ideal world where our society has a better grasp of basic science education, and where science and religion are not so tangled up in so many political discussions, I’d have agreed, but we do not live in that world. As a result, there needs to be some vigilance about the continued attempts to erode the position that reasoned argument and common sense ought to have established long ago (and has in so many other countries and societies to a greater extent).

Well, I am happy to say that some have done a lot about it, in the form of continued education about Darwin’s work, as well as direct action in response. For the former there was already since last year a Darwin Birthday celebration this Tuesday 24th planned for the USC campus in the College Commons series where we had a number of engaging speakers, including Randy Olson (who made the excellent educational film “Flock of Dodos” which was shown). For the latter, I learned from Chris and Sheril’s blog The Intersection that:

…In response, the National Center for Science Education has launched a campaign to counter the stunt: www.dontdisdarwin.com features resources, a anti-comfort_flyerdetailed analysis of the Comfort introduction, the NCSE Safety Bookmark (for use with Comfort’s edition of Origin) ….

Aha! So if you’re worried that several impressionable students have been misled by the “free gift” that was given out to them last week, consider getting hold of some of the materials that NCSE prepared (such as the flyer pictured on the right) and giving them out, or at least spreading the word about the materials, the website, and so forth.

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So I’ll end by handing over to Arvind through his letter with his thoughts about the events of Wednesday last week. Think of it as a guest post, and so in that spirit, let me introduce him properly, using his own words:

arvind_iyer“Arvind Iyer is a graduate student in Biomedical Engineering, working in the broad area of Computational Neuroscience and having a long-time interest in the history and philosophy of Science, as well as history and philosophy of Thought in general and is glad to be at the University of Southern California where pursuit of all these flourishes.”

He also sent me a couple of links to his blog for more of his thoughts on Darwin and for more of his world view in general. Do have a look at those if you wish. His letter (originally sent to the Daily Trojan) follows, and you are welcome to comment in response to his thoughts in the comment section below, or in response to mine made above (make it clear which you are responding to if you write). (For those who don’t know, Tommy Trojan is the statue of the USC mascot that is in the epicentre of the USC campus. He refers to it in the letter.)

Here’s Arvind:

Any student of the Life Sciences (or science-lover in general) who may have gleefully rushed to grab a free copy of Darwin’s seminal “ Origin of Species” at Tommy Trojan on Wednesday evening, would have been in for a rude shock to find 50 pages of unmistakable creationist propaganda sneaked into it. Unaware that the latest trick of creationists was to use Darwin’s book itself as a Trojan Horse for Creationism (under the very nose of Tommy Trojan!), I asked the volunteers offering the free copies of their affiliations and intentions. The volunteer claimed to be from the Hope Chapel at Hermosa Beach and said that this admittedly novel initiative was the brainchild of the well-known creationist author Ray Comfort and intended to ‘teach the controversy’ about evolution.

Think about this for a moment. Isn’t printing and distributing a copy of The Origin of Species with an introduction by an evolution-denier like Ray Comfort, somewhat like distributing free copies of Elie Wiesel’s or Viktor Frankl’s works with lambasting introductions by Holocaust-deniers? Yet this is the kind of travesty perpetrated in our own Trojan shrine with impunity. I wrote to the Office of Religious Life at USC and their representative responded saying that, “TT is a “free speech” area, so all sorts of evangelizing goes on there, off and on, year round. This is a “creative” form of it, to be sure – deceptive in that they are offering Darwin but sliding in a creationist message. We have ethical principles against that sort of behavior by on-campus religious groups, but this group is an off-campus entity operating in a “free speech” zone, where the standards are much lower.”

“Creative” isn’t exactly the word I would use for this surreptitious and insidious exercise, which campus authorities would expressly forbid for bona-fide students, but bizarrely allow for outsiders whose intentions are suspect. This raises a larger question about the campus policy on “free speech”. Bona-fide students in effect, have less freedom of speech than a chance visitor on campus whose intentions maybe vested at best, mala-fide at worst. Why is it that a student, whose role as an inquirer is the very function of the University, and who is available for counter-questioning and cross-examination; has effectively less freedom of speech than any pamphleteer who performs guerilla misinformation on campus? Is it too hard to imagine freedom of speech without this ‘license to misinform’ granted to evangelists of all persuasions?

-Arvind Iyer

(Sent to the Daily Trojan on 18th November 2009)

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So, as I said before, Arvind is interested in your thoughts, so feel free to give them in the comments.

-cvj

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7 Responses to DisComfort

  1. firdaus udwadia says:

    Dear Arvind,

    I concur with your point of view. Well written.

    best,
    firdaus

  2. GarboTalks says:

    I do question why students apparently have less freedom of speech than outsiders at TT. But I disagree that there should be some sort of ethics police deciding which type of speech might be too free. You said it when you called the propaganda “a poorly written misleading piece of nonsense.” This kind of blatant propaganda should outrage logical and intelligent students and might actually have the positive effect of stirring them out of complacency. Rather than targeting the dolts passing out pamphlets, energy could be better spend getting involved politically to make changes.

  3. Arvind Iyer says:

    @GarboTalks

    I agree that the abuse free speech is best countered not by muzzling by better articulated freethought. While following up on news items about how different campuses reacted to the ‘Origin into Schools’ stunt, I couldn’t help observing that some campuses were forewarned and better prepared than others and were able to stage their counter-programming simultaneously, while others were caught napping as it were. One way to realize ‘the positive effect of stirring us out of complacency’ would be to address the absence in USC of a suitable platform for skeptics with the kind of visibility faith-based organizations enjoy as a matter of course.

  4. Arvind Iyer says:

    My first sentence in the previous comment must read: ‘I agree that the abuse free speech is best countered not by muzzling, BUT by better articulated freethought.’

  5. Yvette says:

    These jerks were on our campus too fairly recently- never picked up a copy but they sent one to everyone in the faculty so I checked a copy out. My favorite part was how several things they said were addressed and proven false in The Origin of the Species, thus proving that no one had actually read the thing they’re so vehemently against!

  6. Tim says:

    At some point I just kind of stopped arguing with creationists. If that fable makes sense in their mind, then there is no amount of knowledge I could even attempt to convey in a conversation which could help. The desire to learn has to be self-motivated.

  7. Arvind Iyer says:

    While arguing with creationists is futile, reiterations of our stand cannot be neglected. Here’s why. It is true that ‘no amount of knowledge will help’ in convincing someone who keeps parroting “God made the Universe”. But what we can do is call them out when they parrot “Evolution is the accepted view in A SECTION OF the scientific community”, by reminding not just them but also the rest of the world that the stance of the scientific community is unanimous in this regard.