Friday, March 02, 2007

The Power of the Urban Myth

(H/T Telic Thoughts ... again!)

The Guardian proposes a new understanding of the polarisation of opinion in the UK today - three ways, between religious fundamentalists, atheistic fundamentalists, and the "enlightened, tolerant" crowd. This is, in my opinion, a healthy article, as it recognises the danger of atheistic intolerance to religious freedom. It reports on the current tensions between Christian unions and student unions in a fairly liberal way - certainly much more so than one might have expected given the newspaper's left-wing credentials. The article argues for reasoned debate to be conducted in a public arena, and concludes:
What should such a public square be like? It might not be Menckian, but it could be based on respectful understanding of others' most cherished beliefs, argues Spencer: "We should be more willing to treat other value systems as coherent, reasonable and even valuable rather than as primitive or grotesque mutations of liberal humanism to which every sane person adheres." It is, at least, a hope, albeit one, given our current climate, in which it would be foolish to place too much faith.
- a sentiment which I have a lot of time for - see also here.

However, what leads me to post is the fact that it presented again a kind of darwinist "urban myth" - or an "icon of darwinism", if you like.
In 1860, one year after the publication of Darwin's On the Origin of Species, the Bishop of Oxford, Samuel Wilberforce, and TH Huxley, the naturalist described as "Darwin's bulldog", went toe-to-toe at Oxford's Natural History Museum. According to a contemporary report in McMillan's magazine, "The bishop turned to his antagonist with smiling insolence. He begged to know, was it through his grandfather or his grandmother that he claimed his descent from a monkey? Huxley rose to reply ... He [said he] was not ashamed to have a monkey for his ancestor; but he would be ashamed to be connected with a man who used great gifts to obscure the truth ... One lady fainted and had to be carried out."
No case is really made from this, other than to suggest that the church was feeling threatened at the time. So from that point of view, I suppose you could argue that it doesn't really matter. But that's not how it was. Here is a more thoroughly researched account. To quote from it:
One of the most distinguished of the Darwinians was Joseph Hooker, Assistant Director of Kew gardens. But to read his account of the proceedings is to meet the view that Huxley had caused hardly a stir. He had not even had the strength of voice for his stinging reply to carry. According to Hooker the person who really won the day for the Darwinians was ... Hooker! In fact, the more closely we look at the legend the more suspect it becomes. The idea that Huxley won a famous victory was not even countenanced in Leonard Huxley's heroic Life. The result of the encounter, though a check to the anti-Darwinian sceptics, could not be represented as an "immediate and complete triumph for evolutionary doctrine". This was precluded by the "character and temper of the audience, most of whom were less capable of being convinced by the arguments than shocked by the boldness of the retort." One of Huxley's most recent and empathetic biographers, Adrian Desmond, agrees that talk of a victor is ridiculous. The Athenaeum put it rather well: the Bishop and Huxley "have each found foemen worthy of their steel, and made their charges and countercharges very much to their own satisfaction and the delight of their respective friends."

There is an additional, perhaps surprising, reason why we should not speak of victors. Instead of anti-Darwinians being converted by either Huxley or Hooker, we know that at least one Darwinian was de-converted in the debate.
The thing is, the more times an urban myth is repeated, especially in reputable places like the UK broadsheet newspapers, the harder it is (these days) to establish the truth - reliable accounts are swamped in search engines by the unreliable ones, more books are written presuming the unreliable accounts to be true, and so on.

There is no shortage of similar accounts where the truth ends up obscured by spin, of course - and perhaps hardly anywhere more so than in the religion/science debate. The "Inherit the Wind" version of the Scopes trial - which was actually used as a metaphor for McCarthyism - is far better known than the actual version, despite the actual version being a matter of public record. Compare the Brecht version of the trial of Galileo with the Dava Sobel version - again, it is the "religion versus science" one which is better known, and less factual. People will go on suggesting that Michael Behe thought that astrology was scientific - when that wasn't the point he was trying to get across in the Dover trial. People will make more of the fact that Judge Jones is "religious" and "a Republican" than the legal opinion that he did not have authority to define what science is. People will go on suggesting that Sternberg was wrong to do what he did in printing Meyer's article on the Cambrian Explosion, when as I understand it, due process has concluded that he acted properly. No doubt people on "the other side" will be as keen to point out occasions when people "on my side" have been guilty of spinning the truth as well.

There is such a thing as truth - true truth, that isn't just a case of "one person's story against another's". Both sides in any debate need to do what they can to present facts as accurately and openly as possible. The short-term expedient of winning a few people over to a distorted version of the truth can't be allowed to drive debates - people have to be presented with the most accurate available information, and allowed to make up their minds based on this. There is a part of me which fears, with the explosion of spin and distorted versions of events, that we are improbably on the verge of a new Dark Age, simply because nobody will really know anything any more.