May 09, 2005

Kansas: a joke?

To my utter amazement, some people out there in cyberspace read my post on linguists boycotting intelligent design hearings in Kansas and thought its claims were serious and true. I really shouldn't have to do this (there is nothing so plonkingly dull), but I think I'm going to have to carefully explain my joke. Sigh.

I'm not making this up: There really were people who were taken in. Follow these links, and read not just the main posts but, especially, some of the comments:

Some of these people definitely assumed (having perhaps not read carefully enough before they punched the Submit Comment button) that my post was a serious news report, or at least were initially undecided about or not I was serious (Mark tried to clarify things by doing a jokey follow-up post about Chomsky testifying for the anti-evolutionists, but knew enough by this time to add a statement that he was joking).

My post was drafted by simply copying and pasting actual current articles about the Kansas state board of education and falsifying them by inserting references to linguistics (insert "linguistic" before "evolution"; change "scientists" to "linguists"; change "the origin of life" to "the origin of the English language"; and so on). Yes, it was a joke.

The basis, though, was real news. The Kansas board of education really is under the control of conservatives again, and they really are determined to sneak religiously motivated anti-Darwinism into the curriculum again (they tried it six years ago), and they really are holding hearings this month on whether to require the teaching of intelligent design as an alternative view to natural selection in biology classes in the Kansas schools. Because the story about all this had just broken, I thought people would see what I was doing with my merry prank.

And scientists are boycotting the hearings: the American Association for the Advancement of Science, in particular, declined in writing to dignify the hearings with an official representative. They apparently don't want to lend any credence to the posturing of intelligent design advocates (who never publish papers in science journals clarifying their view or supporting it with evidence, but spend all their efforts on trying to sway the public, exerting influence on school boards, lobbying gullible politicians, etc. — not what scientists do with a serious theory).

I did use some real names in my spoof: Alexa Posny and George Griffith are genuine members of the Kansas education community, and I took their names from the real press coverage, e.g. the widely quoted UPI story repeated or excerpted all over the place in sources like Science Daily. But all the quotes from linguists are fake (Mark Liberman exists, but is not the utterer of any of the quotes I stuck mischievously in his mouth; the most recent president of the Linguistic Society of America really does work at the University of New Mexico, but she was not approached for comment).

"Immanuel Quierbaiter" is a pure invention, but of course he is designedly reminiscent of a real resident of Kansas, the ghastly Pastor Fred Phelps of Topeka, the bitter old maniac who took a busload of supporters from Kansas to the funeral of murdered gay student Matthew Shepard in Wyoming so that they could confront Matt's grieving mother with GOD HATES FAGS placards (how tasteful; how Christian). Phelps is (as far as I know) quite irrelevant to the current resurgence of the anti-evolution forces in Kansas schools, but he must bear some of the guilt if Kansas is becoming more generally a byword for intolerance, cruelty, and 19th-century intellectual attitudes.

It is not fair, of course, that the whole state of Kansas should be stereotyped as a place of cruel, homophobic, atavistic, bible-thumping, anti-scientific crackpots when most of the state's people are (I've been there) perfectly sensible. What's my excuse for contributing to such stereotyping? I believe that when people start pulling damaging political stunts like the one the conservatives on the board of education are currently pulling, risking irreparable harm to their own state's reputation for quality education, it will be marginally better for Kansas if we laugh at them than if we simply weep for America.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at May 9, 2005 05:05 PM