All kidding aside, let’s remember just who in academe actually takes gravity lightly

Today’s issue of The Onion contains a spoof of the Intelligent Design debate with an offering entitled “Evangelical Scientists Refute Gravity With New ‘Intelligent Falling’ Theory.” A salient quotation:

Proponents of Intelligent Falling assert that the different theories used by secular physicists to explain gravity are not internally consistent. Even critics of Intelligent Falling admit that Einstein’s ideas about gravity are mathematically irreconcilable with quantum mechanics. This fact, Intelligent Falling proponents say, proves that gravity is a theory in crisis. … Critics of Intelligent Falling point out that gravity is a provable law based on empirical observations of natural phenomena. Evangelical physicists, however, insist that there is no conflict between Newton’s mathematics and Holy Scripture.

As you can see, the article lacks not the famous Onion wit in applying reductio ad absurdum to Intelligent Design theorists, at least “evangelical” ones. Problem is, the satirical analogy doesn’t quite fit. There can be no “empirical observation” of the origins of the universe. There can be for gravity, of course; that’s the gag behind the fake article. To quote physicist Alan Sokal, “anyone who believes that the laws of physics are mere social conventions is invited to try transgressing those conventions from the windows of my apartment. (I live on the twenty-first floor.)”

But no one can test his theory of how the earth originated in such a real-time fashion.1

Sokal’s quote, by the way, comes from his revelation of the hoax he perpetrated on some Marxist academics at Duke, who unwittingly published his spoof of Marxist academic thought in their academic journal Social Text. They were too busy interesting themselves in “transgressive” theory to realize that Sokal had essentially written that gravity, physical reality, and even the external world itself are social constructs. As Sokal wrote,

I decided to try a modest (though admittedly uncontrolled) experiment: Would a leading North American journal of cultural studies — whose editorial collective includes such luminaries as Fredric Jameson and Andrew Ross — publish an article liberally salted with nonsense if (a) it sounded good and (b) it flattered the editors’ ideological preconceptions? The answer, unfortunately, is yes.

I’m fond of quoting Aristotle on the subject of satire: Humor is the only test of gravity, and gravity of humor, for a subject which will not bear raillery is suspicious, and a jest which will not bear serious examination is false wit.2 In my view, because the Onion spoof doesn’t truly reflect the Intelligent Design controversy, its humor is Aristotelian false wit. The core of the issue isn’t that Intelligent Design theorists deny empirically established facts; it is that they challenge the neo-Darwinists’ quasi-religious stridency over suppositional matters.

To quote from a letter in The Chronicle of Higher Education (subscriber site) by Stephen C. Meyer, Professor of the Conceptual Foundations of Science at Palm Beach Atlantic University and the director of the Center for Science and Culture at the Discovery Institute:

If all living systems look as though they were designed for a purpose, as neo-Darwinists have long acknowledged, and if neither neo-Darwinism nor any other materialistic evolutionary theory accounts for the most striking appearances of design in living systems (such as the cellular information-processing system), then perhaps living systems look designed because they really were.

Furthermore, I find it interesting that the Onion chose to spoof Intelligent Design theorists by portraying them as willing to sacrifice the empirically provable nature of gravity to their beliefs. There is already a group of academics who have been proven willing to do just that — the Marxist theorists, victims of Sokal’s hoax. The ones who were, in fact, willing to believe “an article liberally salted with nonsense if (a) it sounded good and (b) it flattered [their] ideological preconceptions.”

It’s unintentional, certainly, but the jesters at the Onion are essentially suggesting that an evangelical taken to the most absurd lengths would reach the levels of inanity already inhabited by academic Marxists.

Which, come to think of it, is quite funny indeed.


1. On second thought, I think you can test your theory in precisely that manner. If you fall 21 flights, you will upon impact receive either (a) confirmation of an Afterlife, which would mean there is an Intelligent Designer (Aristotle’s Prime Mover), or (b) nothing whatsoever, which would mean there was not. Take note, however, that the experiment suffers from a crippling flaw: the results, once obtained, will be incontrovertible — but they will also be just as impossible to communicate to anyone to whom they would be news. So don’t try it.

2. Don’t think I’m not enjoying the elegant pun on “gravity” in this context.