Saturday, March 18, 2006

Special Blog Post:
The Message and the Message

Below is the screen capture of an e-mail message I received several days ago. The message seems nice enough: it's from a rather friendly sounding church in the community in which I live. This place has lots and lots of churches. A few are quite progressive, although most are not. The area is growing by leaps and bounds. Middle- and upper-class households are in abundance because of the huge financial services companies located here. Many of these upwardly mobile people consider themselves quite the progressives; but they're the minority. The tradition of this place is deeply conservative in a uniquely Middle America, Bible Belt way. Politics and religion are dominated by views that would probably infuriate most of the readers here.

So, is there a problem with the e-mail solicitation above? Not really.

Except that it came to me at my college e-mail address, a public school with excellent spam blockers on the servers. It is a near certainty that the school directly provided this church with the e-mail addresses of faculty members and then ensured that the spam blockers would not touch e-mail messages from this sender. What would otherwise be easy pickings for a good institutional system of policy filters slid through unmolested.

In other words, elements of a database of employees of a public institution were provided to a religious organization, and then the servers of the public institution were set to permit solicitations from that religious organization to pass through to those employees.

That might be appalling to some, but I'm used to such things. Last year, the weakling union was not just given the names and e-mail addresses of faculty members, but it also was given their home addresses. I received a solicitation in the mail to join the union. It was couched in the form of a "survey," but the message was clear, at least to me. The union that I was considering working to decertify because of its let's-not-cause-trouble negotiating style—leading as it has to an hourly equivalent wage for me of just about $10—knows exactly where I live. If I were the paranoid sort, I'd think the administration knew exactly what it was doing giving that database to the union.

This is obviously all petty stuff. To many, academia is still the last bastion of enlightenment—the repository where stands all the great knowledge that continues to be available even in the worst of this degraded but temporary time of ignorance and mendacity. The supporters of academia must certainly see it as the bulwark of the Age of Reason, the institutional setting where the irrationality of religious superstitions and cultural ignorance are set aside in favor of disciplined thought, processual integrity, and objective analysis.

Not that it matters, but I no longer believe that. You see, awhile back, I was in the common faculty area describing to an adjunct professor some trouble I'd gotten from a Christian student who didn't like me talking about evolution. The particulars of the incident with the kid had to do with my description of a computer program that autonomously designs self-replicating circuits. It seems that, as these circuits evolve generation over generation, they tend not to eliminate unused architecture from previous generations; instead, these evolving circuits retain "junk" they no longer find useful, and this is very much how DNA works: genetic-level structures that organisms no longer need, use, or express in traits don't vanish, even over millions and millions of years. Apparently, evolutionary processes have a principle of conservation, something that probably (among other uses) allows for rapid adaptation to environmental changes.

My conversation with the adjunct was in the presence of no fewer than three biology teachers at the college, who began to talk very loudly among themselves about how terrible it was that evolution was "still" believed by so many otherwise educated people. The conversation was specifically intended for my attention and consumption. I left quickly enough since I wasn't in the mood to try to overcome the certainty with which no fewer than three educators (all middle-aged) were declaring their position and affirming one another's belief system.

A few days later, my mention of the incident to a full-time, tenured faculty member who teaches biology was met with a polite, diplomatic, and altogether condescending rejoinder that I don't know about "everything that's going on" in the field of biology these days.

She was right, of course; but I surely know more now than I did when I thought academia would be the salvation of the Age of Reason.

The Dark Wraith watches the tide ebb.

This article is cross-posted from The Dark Wraith Forums.

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