Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Everyone Feels Qualified to Comment

Precisely because evolution is commonly thought to have profound moral and spiritual consequences, everyone fancies him or herself competant to comment on the subject. The result is an almost endless series of brain-dead commentaries from people who must surely be aware they haven't the faintest idea what they are talking about.

For example, have a look at this column from Washington Post sports columnist Sally Jenkins.

P. Z. Myers has saved me the trouble of giving the column a proper fisking. I'll just comment on one brief excerpt:

Athletes do things that seem transcendental -- and they can also do things that are transcendentally stupid. They choke, trip and dope. Nevertheless, they possess a deep physical knowledge the rest of us can learn from, bound as we are by our ordinary, trudging, cumbersome selves. Ever get the feeling that they are in touch with something that we aren't? What is that thing? Could it be their random, mutant talent, or could it be evidence of, gulp, intelligent design?

First, you can dismiss out of hand any commentator who pretends she is doing something subversive by bringing up intelligent design. It's a sure sign that she's more interested in seeming open-minded and above-it-all than in saying anything intelligent about biology.

Second, what exactly is the implication here? That athletes have the abilities they do because God willed them to be that way? That great athletes are doing something supernatural?

Now, I am what you might call a casual sports fan. I'm usually aware of what's going on in the big four (baseball, basketball, football and hockey) and occasionally I even watch a sporting event on television. I especially like those World's Strongest Man competitions that seem to be on ESPN ten hours a day. I get back pain just watching the things that they do!

I've seen athletes do things that would leave me in traction for months were I to try them. Despite this, it has never once occurred to me to describe anything I've seen in a sporting event as transcendental. When I watch professional athletes I feel I am seeing the results of years of intense physical training. Probably they get an assist from good genes. But, alas, they are not in touch with anything that is not accessible to the rest of us.

But people really want it to be supernatural. People really want to believe that when they see Michael Jordan take off from the foul line and dunk the ball, they are seeing something utterly inexplicable. It's a very ego-soothing reaction. It can't be that athletes do incredible things because they have made the sacrifices and the committment necessary to achieve that level of skill. Certainly not. That would imply they have a strength of character that I lack. Their superiority to me in this area can only be the result of their God-given abilities; abilities God did not see fit to grant to me.

Of course, if there is a group of people in touch with transcendental abilities out of reach to ordinary mortals, then surely mathematicians are that group. Why, just the other day I was trying to explain the quadratic formula to a group of stern-looking undergraduates. Seemed trivial to me, but not so to my students. I may as well have been speaking in tongues when I got to the part where you bring the c to the other side, divide by a and then complete the square. Looked like magic to them.

So, I guess y'all better show me some friggin respect, or I'll smite you with a thunderbolt.


At 8:57 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Competence (not competAnce) in reading requires that you read with sufficient comprehension. This is not a piece about God. Why must you make it so?

At 6:33 AM, Blogger Jason said...

What does it mean to attribute an athelete's abilities to intelligent design if we're not talking about God?

At 7:56 AM, Anonymous JPD said...

Right on Jason! When I was a player, I worked damn hard to earn my baseball MVP. A "designer" had nothing to do with it.

At 10:35 AM, Anonymous Sherman said...

If intelligent design isn't about God, then what could it possibly be about? Nevermind reading comprehension you anonymous dolt. Try logical comprehension.

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At 3:11 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

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