letter for RD (fwd)

Leo Elliott (homeboy@esinet.net)
Wed, 21 Oct 1998 07:38:08 -0400 (EDT)

Date: Wed, 21 Oct 1998 07:38:08 -0400 (EDT)
From: Leo Elliott <homeboy@esinet.net>
To: memetics list <memetics@mmu.ac.uk>
Subject: letter for RD (fwd)

---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Sun, 22 Feb 1998 09:47:57 -0500 (EST)
From: Leo Elliott <homeboy@esinet.net>
To: Aaron Lynch <aaron@mcs.net>
Subject: letter for RD

Hello Aaron,

Would you be so kind as to fwd the attached to Dr. Dawkins? I had
an email addr for him which bounced, so then your name popped up as
a possible route. (We had some correspondence a few months ago on
your book, via the Skeptic mailing list.)

Thanks very much,

Leo Elliott

February 21, 1998
Charlottesville, VA

Dr. Richard Dawkins
Oxford University

Dear Dr. Dawkins,

I don't know when the last time anyone accused you of being overly naive,
but let me make an attempt. I have just finished reading your "Science,
Delusion, and the Appetite for Wonder", in the March/April 1998 edition of
_Skeptical Inquirer_, and will base my comments mostly therefrom.

Let me state first of all that I happen to be a great fan of yours, dating
I believe from an article you wrote for _SI_ some years ago, called "The
Awe Factor," about much the same material as this most recent article. At
which time I sat on the other side of the aisle, as it were; your writing in
that piece was instrumental in my subsequent intellectual migration (from
believer to skeptic, theist to agnostic/atheist). (I latter made some small
contributions to the linguistic analysis of a purported "revealed text,"
which appeared in Martin Gardner's _Urantia: The Great Cult Mystery_.)

I have also, as much as any non-biologically trained layman may, tried to
keep up with the ongoing debate between the camps of Dawkins/Dennett and
Gould, et al. I think that basically you and Prof. Dennett are barking up
exactly the right tree (the human capacity/need for wondrous explanations,
origin myths, etc.), but have grossly underestimated the capacity of the fox
you have repeatedly treed, to linguistically mutate into a flying squirrel,
leap to another tree, and escape once again.

You wonder in your article: "Who'd go back to astrology when they've
sampled the real thing -- astronomy." Well, I used to wonder about the same
thing when I saw some of the reaction of my old Urantia mates to how they
were able to dismiss what to me were incontrovertible disproofs of the
authenticity of their "epochal revelation," (from Gardner's refutation of
the science content to the linguistic evidence of plagiarism, etc.), but
such, I quickly learned, was the power of emotional attachment to the vivid
explanation over the verifiable one. In a nutshell, people simply will not
give up their stories, no matter how fallacious they are shown to be, unless
and until they are provided an even more captivating one. In the case you
mention of how could anyone "go back to astrology when they've sampled the
real thing", I would simply suggest that there is what I will call a
"stupefaction factor" which sets in when "real" scientific explanations are
presented (as in your example of using the soccer ball and so many paces to
represent the size of the solar system, etc.), and people are simply not
intellectually "geared" to engage such explanations, no matter how accurate
they may be, or how much they may enthrall some. This kind of explanation
simply makes for a poor meme, or rather, it loses out in competition to the
many marvelous-sounding memes which the newagers spout _ad nauseam_.

Earlier in your article you state: "Far from science not being useful, my
worry is that it is so useful as to overshadow and distract from its
inspirational and cultural value." I work as a System Administrator for a
small Unix installation which services about 50-60 users on a given day,
doing order processing, inventory control, accounting, etc., for the largest
importer of designer French linen into the U.S. market. As such (I have
been doing this now for 14 years), I have seen more than a few users and
their attitudes towards the technology they _use_ -- and all I can say after
this amount of time is that the average user couldn't care less about the
"inspirational and cultural value" of computerdom. All the average user
wants is to come into the office on a given day, turn on their PC or
terminal, input their data and get their outputs and use the database to
answer their queries, and that's it -- no concern whatsoever over the
"inspirational and cultural value" of the wondrous equipment that they are
using day in and day out.

To be sure, this effect is not lost on the marketeers of computer equipment,
as you may have noticed. For the "awe factor" of computing continues to be
played quite well by the marketeers of hardware and software to the
corporate elite charged with maintaining and "upgrading" their respective
"management information systems." And I would have to submit that it is the
marketeers' deftness at linguistically mutating their marvelous products
that enables them to flit from tree to tree once the initial utility of
their products becomes lost in a haze of techno-mystification and
obfuscation. The only difference is that users seem to realize, from long
exposure, how much hot air is involved in the marketeers' memes, whereas the
managerial types have a great deal of trouble admitting their ignorance.

You close by asking, "There is an appetite for wonder, and isn't true
science well qualified to feed it?" I would certainly tend to agree with
you, that science _is_ well qualified to sate the appetite for wonder, but
compared to the marvels and miracles which have been provided at the
bountiful meme-buffet hosted by our friends in the religion business, the
tasty but petite hors d'ouvres proffered by science seem a poor second to
the puffy sacharin pastries which load the spread of the religionists.

Not to say that this cannot change, nor that people's tastes cannot be
educated, but rather that it is all to easy to see how someone could simply
migrate, on being told of the intellectual hazards of the religious meme
they were ingesting, to the other side of the table, and start stuffing in
the pompous pastries once again.

It was H.L. Mencken who said:

"Well, let us not laugh. The believing mind is a curious thing.
It must absorb its endless rations of balderdash, or perish. . . "

I used to be amazed at how impervious believers were to the absurdities of
their belief, but I think Mencken has his finger on the problem. You may or
may not be familiar with the following case, which I have seen replicted
over and over again in my own studies of cults and "the believing mind":
the daughter of U.S. Congressman Leo Ryan, (gunned down on Nov. 18, 1978 in
the prelude to the Jonestown debacle), later ended up in the camp of Swami
Baghwan Sri Rajneesh, the onetime Oregon-guru and prophet of free love and

Why do people, such as Congressman Ryan's daughter, never seem to learn, and
go from camp to camp in search of "the big Truths", when all around there
are so many "little truths" of scientific value? Well, I submit again that
in any contest between the vivid and the verifiable, the vivid will win
hands down, in terms of which story people end up endorsing. People do not
want to _think-things-through_ -- this way leads to stupefaction. People
want to feel good, and the shorter the story which does this the better,
even if it is a complete fabrication.

I think scientists have a long way to go before this changes. For every
"Bill Nye, the Science Guy" (a very popular TV scientist in the US, who does
a very credible job in promoting scientific thinking and understanding on a
popular level), there are scores of Pat Robertsons, Jerry Falwells, and
their ilk who make millions (billions?) catering to and feeding off of the
"appetites for wonder" of their very fleeceable flocks.

But in any case, let me close nonetheless with my heartfelt thanks for the
job that you are doing to create and publicize intellectually-competent and
vividy _scientific_ metaphors and memes for an ever-credulous public. I have
a quote from Lafcadio Hearn pasted to my monitor which reads: "All the
best work is done the way ants do things -- by small, regular and untiring
additions." Your "additions" to my own work have been anything but small,
and I thank you for them.

your fellow ant,

Leo Elliott
1352 Dudley Mountain Rd.
Charlottesville, VA 22903


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