A Fable for the Puzzled

Richard Sternberg, a staff scientist at the National Institutes of Health, is puzzled to find himself in the middle of a broader clash between religion and science—in popular culture, academia and politics.

Sternberg was the editor of an obscure scientific journal loosely affiliated with the Smithsonian Institution, where he is also a research associate. Last year, he published in the journal a peer-reviewed article by Stephen Meyer, a proponent of intelligent design, an idea which Sternberg himself believes is fatally flawed.

Let’s imagine you’re an English professor.

One day, as you prepare for class, a colleague—for no particular reason, we’ll call him Leroy—rushes in, glowing with excitement. He’s had an amazing insight! It will revolutionize the study of English literature and sell millions of books and government grants will spontaneously appear in his wallet and maybe women will talk to him!

You lean closer, dropping your frappuccino. What is this bold new idea? Leroy is glad you asked. He smiles giddily, drunk on his own cleverness. It has to do with James Joyce, he says. James Joyce was a leprechaun! And Finnegan’s Wake is a coded message intended to lead the careful reader to his stash of Lucky Charms!

There follows a long, uncomfortable pause. You don’t like to disappoint Leroy when he’s this happy. It feels like kicking a drooling, untrainable puppy. But you have studied Joyce for many years… he is, in fact, your specialty. And you know a million reasons why he couldn’t have been a leprechaun. Too tall, for one thing. So you begin, gently, to explain the facts… which roll off Leroy like water from a well-oiled duck. Your photos prove nothing! Optical illusions can make a six-inch-high fairy creature look fully grown! They’re all in black and white anyway, so how do you know he wasn’t green? Were you there?

Leroy has an answer for everything. Months pass and he still won’t shut up about his damn Lucky Charms theory. You’ve shown him mountains of research on Joyce, quoted the facts until you’re blue in the face, and he still, still insists that you take him seriously. After this had gone on long enough would you not lose the will to respectfully debate this impervious clown? Would he not become merely a joke?

Now let’s imagine that it’s not just Leroy. There’s a whole Lucky Charms movement out there, with a full cryptozoological cosmology. Shakespeare was an elf, Emily Dickinson a water sprite. William Faulkner was a goblin and Ernest Hemingway was a sort of manticore. These guys have been around for a hundred years, and in that time, they have done no useful research and come up with no new insights into English literature. They repeat the same few fallacious arguments over and over again, and you debunk them over and over again, and, all oblivious, they repeat them again and it all goes round in circles and you never make a dent. Would you not, eventually, get a wee bit impatient with this farce?

Now let’s imagine that the Lucky Charms movement has great public relations. They’re calling it Supernatural Authorship now, and they somehow manage to convince school boards to add it to the high school English curriculum. Thousands of students—eventually millions, if the Supernatural Authorship people have their way—will learn that Mark Twain and Virginia Woolf and Henry David Thoreau were elves, and that their works are nothing more than maps leading to their treasure hoards. The local high school is taking a field trip right now to Walden Pond to dig it up with a backhoe.

Would you not, at this point, start to lose your sense of humor? Would you not begin to be royally pissed off?

Yeah, so would I. Good thing this never happens in real life, right?