Evolution of a book launch

In just over a month from now, on October 23, it will be 6,014 years exactly since the earth was created. How do we know that? Well, that’s the date arrived at by James Ussher, who was Archbishop of Armagh in the mid-17th century. Taking Genesis as a factual, historical account, he calculated the exact date of creation by working backwards from other known dates. Before we start sniggering, it is appropriate to remember that Ussher was a genuine scholar, that he did not have archeological information of the kind we have now (though to be fair, I doubt it would have stopped him in his tracks), and that his primary starting point was theological rather than scientific. That doesn’t stop some people today from believing that Ussher’s date of 4004 BC is historically and scientifically accurate.

Of course the key problem with this belief is that almost nothing we now know in science is compatible with it. But in particular, if the earth came to be as recently as six thousand years ago, then clearly we couldn’t have had evolution as set out by Charles Darwin. And so the battleground for those who believe that the Bible’s Book of Genesis is an historical account (which does not include the overwhelming majority of Christians and Jews) is evolution. If evolution is true, then a literal interpretation of Genesis isn’t. And so there is a whole industry of people with some sort of fixed agenda trying to pick holes in evolution.

One particular attempt has become a recent subject of controversy in Ireland – though I’ll argue in a moment that the controversy is silly.  This attempt has taken the form of a book, with the title The Origin of Specious Nonsense, written by one John May. I’m not going to spend any time discussing the arguments used, in part because I haven’t seen the book itself an am relying on media summaries. Let us just accept that he doesn’t go with the idea of evolution, and that he has written a book explaining why. That book is to be launched today, and he invited his local TD to launch it; that TD happened to be Conor Lenihan, Minister for Science. All sorts of noise followed, with people suggesting that for Mr Lenihan to give the book credibility by launching it would be to undermine Ireland’s standing as a country keen to be at the forefront of scientific research. In the end Mr Lenihan withdrew, or perhaps was withdrawn by Mr. May.

What are we to make of all this? First, I would like to suggest that the summer is now over, and maybe we don’t need stuff like fruit bats and cod science clogging up the media any more. But there is another, more important, point: whatever we may think of Mr May’s arguments, he is entitled to make them. So I suspect we should stay absolutely calm, breathing in and out slowly, even if this book were launched by his constituency TD. I may consider – as I do – Mr May’s thesis to be a lot of rubbish, but I very much doubt that R&D-focused investors will leave Ireland in droves, or that our science professors will faint delicately, just because Mr May had the run of Buswells Hotel for a launch party, even one attended by Mr Lenihan. We need to be more confident of our credentials than that. So my advice to those who have been getting hot under the collar: just chill out a little.

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14 Comments on “Evolution of a book launch”

  1. Vincent Says:

    It’s the best bit of marketing I’ve seen in years. And a pure accident, I suspect.

  2. kevin denny Says:

    Suitably chilled, I think it was a bad mistake for Mr Lenihan to accept the invitation. There is no point in saying “Oh well he was just going as a TD” and “He hasn’t said he agreed with it”. He is the minister for science and launching a book which is effectively anti-science (I have read the bits provided on the web site) sends a terrible signal to the research community at home and abroad – and it was picked up internationally.
    Irish politicians don’t have a great reputation at the moment both domestically and internationally because of the current crisis. One would hope that they would try to enhance and not further erode their credibility.

  3. colummccaffery Says:

    The problem is that we are far too chilled, too timorous when it comes to controversy. “Everyone is entitled to an opinion” has somehow come close to meaning,”Nonsense can’t be challenged.” Never mind the impression created abroad; in Ireland we need questioning of unargued or poorly argued “alternatives”.

    Come on, GM research is banned while the VHI is allowed to pay reflexologists!

    http://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2010/09/13/alternative-health-insurance-well-pay-for-anything/


    • Well yes, I do agree with that – the bit about poorly argued or evidenced positions. Not sure, though, about the Irish being timorous; as far as I can tell almost every expression of anything generates bucketloads of contrary views.

  4. Pidge Says:

    I agree with the blog post. Bizarre thing to get exercised about. You can pretty easily imagine the Minister being asked by an assistant if he’d launch a constituent’s book about evolution, and him agreeing.

    The news seems to be exclusively populated with nonsense the past few days.

    • kevin denny Says:

      “Minister for Science agrees to launch mad anti-science book”. Actually its not bizarre to get exercised about at all. If the minister suffers any damage to his reputation it is because of his own bad judgment. Say someone was publishing a book claiming that Martians caused cancer (which makes as much sense as the book in question) and the Minister for Health agreed to launch it – because the author was a constituent. Would that be okay? No, I don’t think so.
      In general if you want a minister, even a junior one, to turn up for something you go through his office. They are pretty careful, partly as there are lots of claims on the minister’s time and because they don’t want some debacle. Almost certainly the office here was by-passed and it was done on a personal basis. No excuse ‘though.

  5. iainmacl Says:

    Just returning from meeting in France and you might be interested to know that the story has spread internationally. So far from being ‘storm in a tea cup’ Ireland has becoming a laughing (well, maybe a chuckle) stock. I know it has already passed, but it is an issue and the anti-evolution groups would love to be able to say Irish Science Minister launches such a book …

  6. Loretta Says:

    The Book of Genesis is factual and actually far more logical and scientific than the theory of evolution.


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