R. J. Riggins

Welcome to the Ghetto (of Scientific Illiteracy)

The ghetto.

It has an ugly sound, doesn't it? Originally, I understand, it was merely the Jewish quarter of a city, and as such, not necessarily poorer or more crowded or a place of imprisonment. In other times and places, however, the word took on more sinister connotations.

I suspect that most Americans first became aware of the term in WorldWar II, when the ghettos of Eastern Europe were thrust into our consciousness as indeed places of inhuman imprisonment, overcrowding, and starvation. In the sixties, the word came to mean the impoverished inner city, with its mostly black population. As a child of the sixties, I can attest that many of us then never knew that the ghetto had ever been anything but the mean streets of winos, heroin, and welfare (and the Elvis Presley song of that name).

But the term seems to have lost that usage. Nowadays we seem to have replaced it with 'inner city'. Maybe that's more 'politically correct', and in this case, it's probably justified, because ghetto always did sound more alien and imprisoning--like a place where 'they' are (and we sure are glad we are not in there with them). But inner city sounds like it's just in the city, and all of us live or could live in the city. Ghetto was just too ugly a word, and it lent its ugliness to people who lived in the ghetto.

Ghetto could be used metaphorically, however (I can't help it, I'm an English teacher), as whatever imprisons, or traps, or limits the opportunities of a group of people. It's their 'baggage' - the 'monkey on their backs'. For instance, a good case could be made that there is a ghetto of people who can only speak 'non-standard' English. It's not a ghetto of buildings and streets, but it's probably more limiting, and hangs stereotypes more heavily around one's neck than any home address could.

The point has been well made by others that we are now developing new stratifications of society--not of ethnicity or color (not that those have disappeared)--but of technological haves and have-nots, or of the computer literate and illiterate: new kinds of ghettos. I would suggest that we already have a ghetto--of the scientifically illiterate.

Some other ghettos were places of unwilling imprisonment--where the majority forced a minority to go and remain, as out of sight as possible. Many of the residents of this ghetto are self-imprisoned, and indeed work hard to draw and hold others in their impoverished, limited world (perhaps not unlike gang members who apparently relish the shoddy world of their "hood").

The gangsters in this "hood"; the pushers trying to expand their clientele; the pimps soliciting new "johns"; the tenement landlords who want vulnerable, frightened tenants, afraid to complain; the liquor store owners--are the creationists.

If a young person in an actual inner-city slum or ghetto is to 'find his way out', both physically and socially, he or she must first realize that there is an outside and that it is attainable. Then he has to want out, and have the moral courage to ignore those who want to hold him in, or resent his wanting out. Here's how the creationists trap young people in their ghetto. And this is what the young person growing up in that ghetto has to overcome.

Step 1:

There's really not much to it; it's simple but devastating: creationists teach that science itself is wrong--it's phony--it doesn't work--it's not the way to find out anything. The basic tenet of creationism is that if anything doesn't agree with their literalist interpretation of the Bible--no matter what the evidence--then it has to be wrong (check the oath signed by ICR members if you doubt this). That means any time you find anything out, through science or any other method, you have to check the Bible to see if it's OK to believe what you just discovered. If your discovery (no matter what the evidence) appears to contradict biblical literalism, then it's just not true, or you didn't look at it 'right', or you're deluded by Satan, or something--anything--but admitting that some parts of the Bible might not be literally accurate about the physical world.

Step 2:

Since science has found certain data and facts and laws and theories (however you define that) that don't jibe with fundamentalist ideas, and science stubbornly maintains that those findings are correct, then science is flat-out wrong about those things. Or so the creationists maintain. We have all seen them ridicule the most powerful and central ideas in science as 'silly', 'illogical', 'unprovable', 'ludicrous', and anything else they could find in the thesaurus. Now, many creationists will evince a 'respect' for scientific data that does not impinge upon their literalist worldview, but what is the message, delivered by those claiming God'sauthority, to young people?

It says this, loud and clear: Scientists are IDIOTS. They would have to be, wouldn't they, to believe such 'ludicrous and illogical' things? And of course science itself--the scientific method--is hopelessly flawed. Following it obviously does not help us approach truth. Truth is whatever scripture says, regardless of any amount of evidence to the contrary.

Step 3:

Given steps 1 & 2, why would any young person, brought up in this ghetto, ever want to leave it? He has been protected, as much as possible, from hearing what scientists have to say. When he has heard people he respects mention evolution at all, or anything else 'scientific', it has often been with sneering ridicule. And to cap it off, he has probably been told explicitly that to believe in evolution, or an ancient universe, or to doubt the literal truth of Genesis, is to no longer be a Christian, to reject salvation, to become an atheist, and to burn in Hell forever. Then why would a youngster, possibly a potential Einstein, ever even consider leaving his creationist ghetto and going into the sciences?

Why would he want to hang around with those pathetic fools? What limited fields of pure or even applied research could he go into, without quickly bumping up against data and theory that he just has to reject? To put it plainly, a young-earth creationist would have no future in modern research, even if he wanted it. It's a strange irony, however, that he might be hired by most public school systems in this country to teach 'science' to the next generations of potential ghetto denizens--without ever having been questioned on whether he accepts the central tenets of modern science, or the scientific method as the best way to find out about the physical world.

Step 4:

The trap has been sprung. The ghetto has a new victim, the tenement a new tenant, the 'hood' a new 'gangsta', and the pusher a new junkie. That new recruit to that ghetto of impoverished ideas will be convinced that his insular, anti-intellectual 'neighborhood' is the only 'cool' one. He will erect psychological defenses against those ugly ideas of evolution and the ugly people who believe them. He may proclaim them all to be 'educated idiots', 'humanist liberal commies', or Satan's dupes or willing henchmen. And of course, with a vested interest in his own ghetto, he may proselytize, seeking to recruit new residents as a psychological proof of the rightness of his beliefs. The pusher will recruit new junkies. He will practice acceptance rather than skepticism. He will come to view blind faith in the irrational and the rejection of 'worldly' science as virtues. He will repeat meaningless platitudes and hyperbolic slogans as obvious truths.

Step 5:

The street gang that recruits new members always runs a risk: they are drawing to themselves, and may be helping create, vicious sociopaths. Those are not stable, dependable allies, and are about as dangerous to each other as they are to the hated outsiders. Likewise, many of the recruits pulled into the creationist ghetto turn out not to be exactly what the recruiters had in mind. Trained to reject and mock intellectualism and rationality, and accept supernatural and miraculous events unquestioningly, a great many will go on to accept uncritically all sorts of things that the creationists did not have in mind when they recruited the newcomers. After all, if the world does work mainly by miracle and magic, then maybe there's more than the one kind of magic. Once the anti-scientific mindset is established, it's not hard at all to start believing in lucky charms, numerology, psychic powers, communication with the dead, UFO abductions, ad nauseum.

I know personally a fundamentalist/creationist pastor who sees nothing whatever amiss in consulting "moon signs" before making plans and decisions. And we can recall a recent President who at least gave lip-service to creationism--while his wife arranged his appointments on the advice of an astrologer. As the gang may come to regret a new member, and the pusher wish he'd never seen some of his junkies, the creationists are often hoist on their own petard.

And as a physical ghetto is a drain on the resources and moral climate of the whole society, the intellectual ghetto of creationism is a drain on us all. How much potential talent has been dissuaded from ever considering a scientific career? How much vital scientific knowledge and methodology has been kept from even non-creationist youngsters because of pressures from creationist parents, school board members, textbook censors, and classroom teachers? How much government funding has been denied to important research because it offended a creationist congressman or his creationist constituency? How far behind other nations have our children fallen in science scores? What percent of the slots in our post-graduate science programs are filled by citizens of other countries? How much will this ghetto ultimately cost us?

R. J. Riggins

Repost at your pleasure, just leave my name on it, please.


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