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I had a wonderful few moments with Michael Shermer last month, between his talk and book-signing. He and I have been communicating for years, and he seemed as happy to meet us as Bobbi and I were to finally put a face to his name.
Surely the most influential skeptic of our generation, Michael has the tough job of debunking myth in a way that draws our attention. This is the biggest challenge for skeptics, I think; James Randi was the first to break the attention span barrier in this field, and he's one tough act to follow.
In his latest book, "The Borderlands of Science," Michael starts off by showing us that science is not as cut-and-dried as we might think. Some knowledge is on very solid ground. The Theory of Evolution is rock solid, the basis not only of biology but several other branches of science.
Science might never discover what lies "beyond" or "before" the Big Bang. Victor Stenger speculates that there could be a "super universe," of which our universe is but one brief bubble. But since we cannot peek beyond our own universe, we can say only that nothing we know prevents us from speculating this way: it violates no known laws of science. We can neither prove nor disprove this idea. This is an example of the "borderlands of science": where science can know only so much.
After his introduction, Michael goes on to present another of his classic lists of myths and their debunking. What caught me is the Beautiful People myth: before White Europeans conquered any land, the noble savage lived in harmony with Nature.
Shermer then shows several historical cases where tribes rendered themselves extinct, depleting all their resources in an attempt to keep up with the population explosion. Sound familiar? What of the cries from environmentalists to "get back to the land" and "take what you need"?
The Beautiful People myth isn't the only angle bolstering environmentalism: "Jewish World Review" writer Don Feder whines of how "ecospiritualists ... scour Scriptures for verses that can be twisted" to make their case. Feder shows how "enviroclerics" play cut-and-paste with the context. I don't think our Rabbi's literal exegesis works any better than grabbing passages at random:
"The Bible begins with God creating the world and giving man ... dominion over it not to despoil, but to utilize with a sense of reverence for His handiwork."
In trying to find a sense of humankind's role on Earth, to take the Genesis myth at face value is indistinguishable from tossing darts at the page. Neither method looks at either the problem or the solution.
The only way that works consistently is to examine the situation and identify the problem. Then we figure out ways to solve the problem. Finally, we put those solutions into practice. This is science.
The orthodox, with his comprehensive and clear picture of what Scripture says, still looks only at scripture -- he fails to see the problem and so will not find a solution.
The environment is not a mystery and the solution is not magic. Shermer thinks we will avert the catastrophes which killed off the "Beautiful People." That solution, he says, will come through science.
Copyright ©2001 Cliff Walker; Portland, Oregon