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On Exactitude

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June 9, 2011 by Steven Worden

To be asked to defend one’s work in an academic setting can be unnerving. I knew of one graduate student who underwent such an harrowing experience successfully defending his research at the University of Oregon that years later, if he had to drive from Portland, Oregon down to San Francisco on I -5, the main north-south freeway, he would detour miles out of his way on secondary roads, just to avoid driving through Eugene, Oregon, home of the U. of O. and the scene of the ordeal.

Part of this results from the fact that researchers have been taught to be skeptical. If you present a paper at any scientific meeting, be prepared for listeners to jump on your theory, methods, and logic. Researchers will seemingly go to any lengths to poke holes in your research and unfortunately, no study, no research project is without blemish. But, that’s how science as a communal project proceeds: through criticism. At meetings, it’s officially called organized skepticism. Unfortunately, some people become engulfed by this professional skepticism and spread it to all areas of their lives. At its worst, it degenerates into bitter cynicism and what Max Weber termed the “disenchantment” of modern life. Small wonder depression and anxiety have reached pandemic proportions in American society.

Cynicism has moved from being the preferred stance of angst-ridden teenagers to the default setting in society at large. How did we get so fragile? Probably some of it has to do with unrealistic expectations. In the area of religion, we have been told by numerous preachers that spiritual conversion solves all problems. Yet, in religious organizations, just as we are often drawn into them through our interactions with others, we can become disillusioned through interactions with others and withdraw from the community. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer pointed out, it is far easier to love the dream of the community than the real community, itself.

Frankly, religious organizations may be unique in our society in that they generally tend to be more inclusive than most organizations. Go to almost any church and you will find not only the affluent, the young and the attractive but also the pimpled, the overweight, the elderly, the noisy infant, the low income, and the less educated. They may vary in terms of proportion depending upon the church, but almost every church has its less-presentables, often dressed in an ill-fitting cheap suit, loud tie, and slicked down greasy hair. Sometimes, they even find themselves compelled to take on some of the most visible roles in the community. This democratic aspect of religion can be the most repellant quality of religion for the affluent, urbane sophisticate. Few so-called Southern “literary” magazines can go an issue without the ritual bashing of stereotyped, “feral” or primitive religion or even worse, the dreaded “fundamentalist.”

We can sense the offended sensibilities of our cynical “betters” in the coverage of the recently predicted judgment day of May 21st. Harold Camping, a long-faced, severe-looking 89 year-old radio broadcaster with amazingly long gray side burns, predicted that on that day, Jesus would return to earth and the righteous would fly up to heaven. He has since revised his prediction to reframe the judgment day as a spiritual, rather than physical judgment day. Cartoonists and columnists, predictably, had a field day, especially mocking his aged visage and hopeless ignorance.

Ironically, Mr. Camping has a B.S. in Civil Engineering from the University of California at Berkeley and he mustered his lifetime of experience in precise calculation in service of calculating judgment day. For example, his hypothesized day of rapture took into account such exact data as one synodic month being equal to 29.53059 days. That’s five decimal places! When his prediction was not supported by events, as a good researcher, he reportedly “returned to his work.”

Interestingly, one could argue that it was not Mr. Camping’s implied ignorance or backwardness that got him into trouble. In fact, it was his modern education and application of the methods of rational calculation to the data that led him astray and turned a dignified elderly man into the poster-child of feverish religion so eagerly devoured by the media. If only he would have had to present his work as a graduate thesis, things would have been so much simpler.

Steven Worden

PhD, is an associate professor in the Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice at the University of Arkansas

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