Addressing the Literary Questions: Question Four

Ahoy readers!  A minor window has at present come to open – merely enough that I may fold and slip this missive through it by the use of two hands on a body that indeed requires at best a doubling of such; for I am constantly awash in multiple disciplines, each owning seemingly infinite demands.  Let us not joke about then, and tackle directly question four of the literary questions existing in the back of Of Woodbridge and Hedgly, after the story has concluded.  This will be my second shot at the questions; the first – my examination of the seventh question – can be found here.

Spring time, ain’t it?

4.  Throughout the novel, the antagonists – a faction of Hedgely Particular Baptists and their agrarian laborers – have latched onto geological hypotheses and theories that were in the process of falling out of favor at the time (ex. Werner’s Neptunism).  Why did these men hold so fervently to these ideas?   Did each individual and socioeconomic class have its own reasons for this?

In addressing question four, we shall sail to the head of chapter four in the novel, which serves as an introduction to the antagonists’ propagandistic designs – those that confound Mr. Winter and Parson Moore throughout the story.  It is here that they – the antagonists, Preacher Edwards, Mr. Smith, and Mr. Wyatt – start to enthusiastically clap hold of obsolete geological theories, that, were these men not in the throes of rivalry, would have been found to be of little good by any of them.  Their tutor, and fellow they’ve hired to incorporate these weary ideas into counterarguments against our protagonists, goes by the name Princep – a man with credible talent for understanding natural philosophy but who possesses none of such regarding personal contributions to the discipline:

Mr. Princep was something of a fading grey dandy, haggard but well shaved, and missing a hand’s area of hair his junior self did once possess atop his forehead.  More importantly to his company though, was that he was a natural philosopher and Fellow of the Royal Society of London – the title everything to their wants – and it was neither here nor there that he was a most unproductive member, having contributed no articles to the Philosophical Transactions along his tenure. 

Mr. Princep represents those which are known in our modern era as ‘fake experts’:  Men that antagonize a right scientific theory with sophistry and who hold no viable alternative against it, but who gain a large misguided following for being highly advertised in the media, which is complicit in the manifestation of this antiscience propaganda.  An example of such is Professor Richard Lindzen who teaches atmospheric sciences at MIT.  His Lindzen and Choi ‘series’ (in quotations as he has rewritten this selfsame paper multiple times, trying to sneak it past peer review, which does never occur) entitled On the Observational Determination of Climate Sensitivity and Its Implications  seeks to argue climate sensitivity (the steady state temperature the air close to the surface of the Earth will own upon a doubling of CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere) is much lower than what the rest of his colleagues propose.  In the version I’ve linked above, the professor admits (after colleagues point such out during peer review) in the Feedback Formalism section of the paper that previous versions of the paper contained a novice error in the basic construction of his feedback algorithm.  Further the paper is riddled with unbacked assumptions which are explained by Skeptical Science here.  Lindzen is the most unsuccessful climate scientist of the modern era, and my character Mr. Pricep is in this respect modeled on him; he too having failed to publish anything substantial in the Royal Society’s Philosophical Transactions, the prestigious journal cataloguing the scientific discoveries of the day.  And just as science denialists prop up Lindzen by way of his position as a MIT professor, our antagonists wish to prop up Mr. Princep by way of his position as a member of the Royal Society – an ‘appeal to authority’ fallacy.

Let us hear what Mr. Princep has to say in our chapter of interest:

‘It is natural that he would be a champion of Hutton, having cut his teeth in Edinburgh’, said Mr. Princep to his dinner companions, Mr. Edwards and Mr. Wyatt.  ‘But it is poor form not to allow Cuvier and Werner their proper places, foreign as they are, and may I also note that Comte de Buffon retracted his findings regarding the age of the earth?’

Here we will break to note that Comte de Buffon only retracted his written ideas on an ‘aged earth’ – an earth he calculated to be 75,000 year old – because of pressure put on him by the powerful religious component that occupied Sorbonne (the former University of Paris), and not from some scientific revelation.  But our propagandist has communicated such to his audience  in a manner that makes it seem as though the latter could indeed be the true reason, and that their rival, who continues to use the retracted number, is in the wrong.  Mr. Princep is using the selfsame propaganda technique Fox News, or any of the climate denial blogs use:  They give the audience the rest of the story in a simple, quick, and elegant package, piquing their arrogance that they know something the othersthe simpletons – do not; agitating them in the process, that they may become active in the political process against the ‘charlatans’.

Mr. Princep continues to reel the men in with more on the Comte and age of the earth:

‘But the spots in the pudding have to do with this three million year number, supposedly entered into Buffon’s manuscript, based on his sediment observations; not because that too was self removed, as it did not appear in the published addition of Les époques de la nature, but because it varies so much from his first number, such that it is the like to an admission that he knows not a true figure.  Which is it?  Seventy five thousand or three million years?  If we subtract the latter by the former we have two million nine hundred and twenty five thousand years.  And if we subtract the former by the age of the earth then we have sixty nine thousand one hundred and seventy six.  There is a greater discrepancy between the man’s two numbers than there is between his formerly published number and the true age of the earth!  Would I had a quill and paper I could show you that the fractional difference between the division of his lesser and greater numbers and the true age and the greater number is quite insignificant.  He could just as well claim the earth to be but fifty years old and there would be little difference in such and what he has thus put forth.’

Here Princep offers some mathematical non sequiturs.  He tries to dismiss the growing evidence that the earth is older than what the Biblical generations infer by illuminating the large discrepancies in the earliest calculations on the subject.  As I was authoring this section of the novel, I was recollecting a particular mathematical non sequitur that was making the rounds in the low information climate denial community four or five years ago, which presented as the following:  ‘The difference in atmospheric concentration of CO2 concerning today’s readings and those of the preindustrial era only amounts to a 0.013% change.’  This number was billed as the ‘real’ number to ‘debunk’ the actual rise in concentration from 270 to 400 ppm (which works out to be 400-270/270 = 48%).  What the propagandists had done then was simply subtract the original atmospheric percentage from the present one:  400/1,000,000 – 270/1,000,000 x 100 = 0.013% (with respect to atmospheric diluent), or in other words, the CO2 concentration was 0.027% and now it is 0.040% (and this was supposed to ‘feel’ like a small, insignificant change to those without the capacity to question the effects of such).

After Princep riles the antagonists up into a righteous fever, he offers this:

‘You’ve told me of your parson’s account of Hutton, and now I will tell you of two equally compelling philosophical explanations of the origin of our world that vary considerably from The Theory of the Earth; one by each of these men:

‘First I must say that Steno’s superposition does govern all these men’s work – Smith, Cuvier,…; in this there is no divergence with the parson’s offerings.  Indeed, it can be rightly supposed that all these respective philosophers agree that stratification requires some measure of time to be accomplished.  But let us examine Werner who offers that all rock was indeed precipitated or deposited from a receding ocean, originally stocked with all the necessary elements that our strata presently contain.  On Werner’s earth, we start with an irregular solid body surrounded completely with a primitive ocean that is heavily saturated with these elements or minerals, who over time fall out in series based upon their particular qualities:  the primitive series precipitates first, still underwater, which contains our primeval rock – granite, granite gneiss and the like; a transition series then follows, universally depositing our most indurated limestone and seemingly intrusive interstices, by Hutton’s eye at least; after such comes our stratified series with our fossils, and then our sands, gravels, and clays which were deposited on land as the ocean permanently retreated; and lastly local lava flows.  I should add that these lava flows are not the product of some unproven, universal underground heat source, invented by a sprightly imagination to confound the sweeping of Hutton’s erroneous assumptions out the door.  Instead they are the consequence of local coal bed burning, which any man who’s warmed his hands by the material can readily understand:  I fancy the least burdensome explanation is quite often the most true, that I stand by such dogma fearlessly!’

‘Hear him!’ Mr. Wyatt generously applied to the room.  ‘Mr. Princep, a glass!’ he added emptying the decanter into each of the men’s glasses, they all suffering a boiling excitation arising from the discourse.  It wasn’t that the two staunch Baptists were suddenly great enthusiasts of Werner’s hypothesis, but that there existed such articulate opposition to what indeed was flowing out of the Woodbridge parish every other week.  ‘To ease in explanation’ was jollily toasted at such a barking fortissimo, that the serving maid presented some moment later, unprovoked, with a new decanter. 

After glasses were replenished, Mr. Edwards and Wyatt then reinvented conversations first had a few decades before, concerning the similarity of Werner’s all encompassing ocean and the Noahic Flood, each convincing the other that the hypothesis was evidence for the event and visa versa.  Mr. Princep then added a secondary piece of evidence by regaling the men of Cuvier’s interpretations of what he had found in the geologic column around Paris – a series of strata with alternating sea and freshwater fossils consistently ordered in the rock: such he found was the residuum of multiple singular and catastrophic events, each being followed by periods of stability in which a new succession of flora and fauna would repopulate the land.  The last of these catastrophic events, the naturalist explained, was what Cuvier believed to be the founding of Genesis, for the abrupt nature in which each series of fossil did appear over stratigraphic time, gave him cause to find no fault with biblical creation.

It should be noted here that Cuvier did not accept evolution (which is why he is plopped upon Princep’s dinner table), and at one point argued against his colleagues with respect to such by offering that they were relying too heavily on deep time to satisfy their desire for the success of the concept.  This has been wrongly inferred to mean that Cuvier was a proponent of the young earth hypothesis (derived from Archbishop Usher).  Indeed the father of modern geology, Charles Lyell, actively promoted this untruth, which one may read about here:  Rebuilding the Matrix: Science and Faith in the 21st Century (page 174).

But the plum in the pudding regarding Princep’s lecture is that the antagonists joyfully devour these ideas as they are presented, for they find merit in the function of their existence on a few counts:  Firstly, that they are in eloquent opposition to their rival’s position, and secondly, they can be sold in a facile fashion to not only their Hedgely flock, but to the Woodbridge community as well, as seemingly valid counterarguments against Mr. Moore’s scientific lectures, causing individuals to confusedly question the merit of the material from the parson.  That these outdated hypotheses are true or not is neither here nor there for their – the antagonists – part:  When immortal souls are at stake, or other issues of great importance, necessity compels the use of any devilish means.  This is the tragedy of holding fast to any rigid ideology, whether it be the religious conviction that Archbishop Usher was correct in his methodology and calculation of the age of the earth, or the religious conviction that greenhouse gas concentrations don’t affect the energy budget of the planet – at some point one will have to ally themselves with not merely untruths, but widely known and settled untruths, and look like a flat for doing so.

Break Time

I’ll be back later to talk of each antagonist’s motivations for conspiring against the Enlightenment, whether these be rigid ideologies, indifference to change, or perhaps a bit of romantic and business related rivalry for the part of one man.