Mark Reads ‘The Science of Discworld’: Chapter 22

In the twenty-second chapter of Darwin’s Watch, I learn about folk myths and how they shape our culture. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to read The Science of Discworld III. 

I don’t necessarily agree with everything in this chapter, and I think that comes less from what is stated than how it is stated. I’ll admit that on a meta level, I’m kinda amused that in all chapters, this is the one where the authors’ biases and prejudices come through, since the whole point of “Forget the Facts” is to discuss how cultural biases and prejudices affect our views of the world. Specifically, Cohen and Stewart address “folk” views of science, which are the popularized ideas about it that humans generally hold. We addressed that in chapter 20 in terms of genetics and evolution, and here, they start off by talking about how many scientific theories have been integrated into our lives so much that we just… don’t really think about them? On video, I gave the example of having a similar realization while working on my laptop the other day. But holy shit, even the fact that y’all are able to read this review from all over the world at pretty much the same time is RIDICULOUS. Yet that’s good, reliable science that got us to this point, and we just don’t really think about it or consider it “flashy” enough. But I would have LOVED to learn science by having everyday objects explained to me!!! I also bet I would have retained more of that knowledge if I had been taught in that manner. 

What I’m getting at—and what I think Cohen and Stewart are, too—is that the vehicle of information sometimes matters as much as the information itself. Popular science is distilled through various mediums, and there’s a whole part of this chapter that details the various fictional concepts of Mars that trickled down into our public consciousness. (Well, some of us, but more on that in a bit.) Bradbury and Heinlein wrote fiction, but their fiction about Mars had a lasting impact on how we thought of that planet, even if what we “knew” of it wasn’t actually factual at all. The most glaring example in this chapter? The image of the dodo. OH MY GOD, MY MENTAL IMAGE OF THAT BIRD IS BASED ON SIR JOHN TENNIEL’S DRAWING. Holy shit, WHAT?!?!?!? I assumed that that image was a real drawing, not a fictional illustration?

So, I believed that the authors had made their point, and boy, did they make it well. Unfortunately, I lost the thread just a bit after that, and it’s due to a complaint I’ve had before: there’s a very Western/white view of society, culture, and history that’s written into this book. Of all the books on Mars mentioned, they’re all by British and American white men, and there’s no talk of what other cultures thought of Mars outside those two nations. Did they write books about it? What was popular among those people? Surely there was fiction created about the cosmos outside of Britain and America, right? (I know there is, but just trying to make a point.)

This same bias appears when Cohen and Stewart conclude this chapter with a long bit about rationality in the human context. Based on what the text itself defines as terrorism, there seem to be only two groups of fundamentalists: extreme Muslims and Catholics. (Perhaps the “Thuggee worshippers” also counts.) The vast majority of references to terrorism are in conjunction with references to Islam, and there’s that truly unnecessary footnote about “Palestinian terrorists” that felt almost… cruel? It’s the only reference to Palestine in any of these books, and that is the one detail you’re going to pick out? 

This was written in a post-9/11 age, in a world where many nations were at war in the Middle East, though we’ve known for ages that it was largely based on a lie. So, I understand that there was a contextual reason for the focus here. But it seems too limiting to me, especially when there are so many other ways of thinking about our world that involve the actual majority of the people. It’s not like these two nations—the US and Britain—comprise most of the human race. We’re the minority! Thus, it’s all a bit too generalized for me, and that goes for the breakdown on rational faith, too. I don’t think you can break down human belief into authoritarian theists, deists, and then those who don’t believe. There are theists who aren’t authoritarian at all, so do they end up with the deists? How does that work? And look, I am a non-believer through and through, but this positing that the “thoughtful people who have given up on the idea of a personal, anthropomorphic God altogether” are at the top of this system feels real arrogant. Like, the whole line about being “happy to live on the same planet” as the deists was so aggressive? 

I don’t know, y’all, I feel like there’s an important discussion here. I certainly think that we, as a society, need to discuss how religion—certain religions, I should say—have affected our beliefs and our means of interacting with other people, particularly those who are not of the same belief system as us. Look at what is happening in America in 2019 in terms of religious belief and the bodily autonomy of women and people with uteruses. My country has to have a reckoning with the way it allowed a misogynistic, violent form of conservatism, wrapped up in Christian belief, to continue to thrive over so, so many decades. But I don’t know that there’s as potent a point in this chapter. It just seems to suggest that those who accept science and an impersonal God (or a non-existent one) are just better people? Meh.

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About Mark Oshiro

Perpetually unprepared since '09.
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