More Thoughts on Luddism and Creationism

You know who the Luddites were. Wikipedia informs us:

The Luddites were a social movement of 19th-century English textile artisans who protested — often by destroying mechanized looms — against the changes produced by the Industrial Revolution, that replaced them with less-skilled, low-wage labour, leaving them without work and changing their way of life. … The movement was named after Ned Ludd, a youth who had allegedly smashed two stocking frames thirty years earlier, and whose name had become emblematic of machine destroyers.

Three years ago, in Creationists — the New Luddites, we quoted that and said:

The Luddites mindlessly attacked machinery — the symbol of what they believed was destroying what they thought was an ideal, pre-industrial world. The creationists of today don’t have that kind of misinformed, anti-industrial motive, but they too are mindlessly attacking what they see as the symbol of what is changing their world — and their target is science.

[…]

So far, the creationists haven’t been rushing out of their trailer parks waiving their torches and pitchforks, on their way to burn down universities and research facilities. But could it happen? Given all the crazy anti-science propaganda they’re always getting from creationist websites (you know which ones we mean), we’re virtually certain that it will happen — at least sporadically.

From time to time we give some thought to the Luddism analogy, and today we suggest that the analogy of creationists to the Luddites is only one small example of a much larger phenomenon. As it was with the Luddite and the loom, and as it is with the creationist and evolution, so it also has been with the faith healer and the vaccine, or the guilds and the entrepreneurs, or the proverbial buggy whip makers and the automobile. Every innovation encounters resistance in a society accustomed to the earlier state of affairs.

But there is no progress without obsolescence. Version 2.0 of anything — if it’s better — must inevitably supersede version 1.0, and that always requires the inconvenience of upgrading.

In a scientific age where there are continuous improvements and innovations, there will also be continuous costs and difficulties for those whose skills and livelihoods were based on earlier ways of doing things. Progress almost always brings some pain. An age of continuous progress means continuous discomfort — and sometimes resentment.

The existence of a large (and ever-changing) group in a society that is experiencing anxiety creates an opportunity for a certain kind of politician, preacher, or other demagogue. Their natural constituents are those who resent the onward sweep of progress, and who see themselves as oppressed. Their opportunistic leaders oppose progress and promise to restore an imaginary golden age — which never existed — when everything was simple and everyone was happy. Their opponents, always described as wicked, greedy, or both, are society’s scientists, entrepreneurs, and other innovators, whose primary desire is for freedom — especially freedom from every kind of reactionary tyrant who would restrain them.

Thus our insight that creationism is but one small aspect of a far larger reality — one that will likely be with us forever. It makes sense to be aware of it, and not to be surprised when it appears.

What’s the solution? We don’t have one. Progress is desirable, but because it’s likely to be opposed, it isn’t inevitable. Efforts to restrain it should be expected, understood, and resisted.

Copyright © 2016. The Sensuous Curmudgeon. All rights reserved.

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25 responses to “More Thoughts on Luddism and Creationism

  1. Dave Luckett

    The weavers were not simply facing a loss of a comfortable situation. They were no longer able to sell their skills – and the result was that they were starving. It was the “hungry forties” in Britain. Literally.

    The potato blight in Ireland at approximately the same time was also the result of technological change – monoculture of a genetically identical species. It was possible to feed more people from an acre of potatoes, with a goat and maybe a hog fed on the scraps, than from the same amount of mixed farming, and it took less labour. So that was what happened. And when the inevitable pathogen arrived…

    The error is to say that technological change, being inevitable, should be welcomed, and allowed to wreak whatever economic effects ensue. Inevitable it might be; but its implications must be understood as far as possible, its effects measured, the good ones harvested, the bad ones ameliorated. The only mechanism for doing this is a competent, responsible and humane government – and a pox on laissez-faire capitalism!

  2. I would go beyond including just creationists and include republicans, tea party folks, and generally the conservative wings of America.

  3. …and also add those who believe we can all be millionaires by governmental decree. $500/hr. minimum wage, anyone?

  4. I confess to having used “Luddite” as our Curmudgeon uses it here–as shorthand for ‘reactionary opponent to progress’–but ceased doing so when a British historian (and author of some wonderful scholarly works on the Industrial Revolution) pointed out to me how inaccurate it was to do so.

    It’s a bit like using “Neanderthal” as shorthand for ‘brutish, stupid, and unteachable’: everyone will know what you mean when you call someone a Neanderthal and your point will be taken, but it’s not at all an accurate picture of who the Neanderthals likely were–and scientists who study them bristle at the popular usage of the term.

    Our Curmudgeon previously suggested

    The Luddites mindlessly attacked machinery — the symbol of what they believed was destroying what they thought was an ideal, pre-industrial world.

    But as Dave Luckett has well argued above, that really is a huge oversimplification of the Luddites. Their attacks were not on a “symbol of what they believed was destroying what they thought was an ideal, pre-industrial world”, but on concrete and immediate threats to their physical survival. There was nothing ‘symbolic’ about the profound impoverishment and social disruption wrought by technological changes in an era with very little provision for managing those impacts.

    And the subsequent measures that were developed to lessen the damage of the first wave of industrialisation (the parliamentary Reform Acts, repeal of the Corn Laws, and–eventually–some of the progressive proposals of the Chartists) are surely as much a product of the Enlightenment as the advances in science in technology.

  5. Megalonyx, whose comment was rescued from the spam filter into which it had inexplicably fallen, shows an understandable sympathy for the Neanderthal. Then he says, as did Dave Luckett, that the Luddites had genuine grievances beyond their opposition to mechanization of their jobs.

    All of that is true, and perhaps we’ve been linguistically unfair to the Luddites — but they were hooligans, and I don’t think their reputation is a serious misjudgment. Nevertheless, “Luddism” is a handy label for a special kind of rebellion that needs to be labeled. How would you label rebellion against progress? Finding a good term is difficult, because the behavior I’m talking about has so many causes and is manifest in so many different historical periods that there’s probably no one word that fits it neatly.

  6. Our Curmudgeon asks

    How would you label rebellion against progress? Finding a good term is difficult, because the behavior I’m talking about has so many causes and is manifest in so many different historical periods that there’s probably no one word that fits it neatly.

    What’s wrong with plain old-fashioned term, Reactionary?

    That’s the term our forefathers always used in the long-lost Golden Age, before young whippersnappers with all them new-fangled high-faultin’ godless materialistic homosexual cannibalistic Darwinist notions set to just a-stompin’ and a-tramplin’ on the Good Old Days.

  7. I’m going to use two words I rarely ever use: good and evil.

    Progress is by definition is good. Gaining and utilizing knowledge is pretty much the only mechanism the human race has for survival. Anything that encourages progress is also good: the scientific method, a secular world view, education, work ethic, the ability to cooperate AND the ability to compete, free markets etc.

    Conversely anything that retards or prevents progress is evil: a religious or utopian worldview, Ludditism, poor education, poor work ethic, authoritarian governments and economies etc.

    Two additional points:

    1. This does not imply we let displaced workers starve.

    2. Gov’t can aid in progress. In the last 60 yrs the US gov’t has had 2 very successful programs, DARPA and NASA.

  8. anevilmeme:
    “Gaining and utilizing knowledge is pretty much the only mechanism the human race has for survival.”

    Well said. We should add a modifier, however. Our utilization of knowledge must be beneficial for the entire human race, not just for a particular tribe or nation. Utilization of nuclear weapons could be the means of our own destruction, as could our overuse of fossil fuels.

    We must also gain and utilize the knowledge of peaceful coexistence. The basic essence of christianity could help here, if the church weren’t shackled by its own dogma.

  9. “Progress by definition is good.” This is either false, or vacuous. Consider the advances made over the past century in marketing cigarettes. I do not think that this is good. So we have a choice. We can *either* say that this is progress which is not good, showing the same and to be false, *or* we can say that since it is not good, it is not really progress. In the latter case, we are making goodness part of the criteria for progress, and thereby arbitrarily redefining a word.

    Nothing, apart from verbal convention, is ever what it is “by definition”.

    A final comment on the Luddites: the looms were replacing a capital asset which they owned (their skills) with one that was owned by those who had invested in looms. We see here an early example of the tendency of technological developments to increase inequality.

  10. Could this be a case where something is so obvious that only a few people can see it? What I mean is that, if “scientific” creationism of the 20th century is “Ludditism 2.0,” what has been evolving in the last few decades is “Ludditism 3.0.” And yes, I mean ID, and related “replacement scams” such as academic “freedom.” For all their similarities with 2.0, these scams have fundamental differences that make them much more “fit” in the long run. That is, “fit” in terms of fooling people, not in terms of ever qualifying as science. Promoters of 3.0 embrace much more science than promoters of, and certainly committed followers of, 2.0. But paradoxically, that makes them only more arbitrarily selective in what parts of science they embrace or reject. With the added bonus of flexibility; they can tailor it to the audience at hand. For example, when addressing audiences with above average science literacy, and not overly religious, they more freely admit such things as “~4 billion years of common descent.” To small, evangelical audiences they are more open with the designer’s identity, and more friendly toward origins stories that themselves find absurd (“go ahead and believe if it makes you feel good”). To large, general audiences, evasion is 3.0’s most trusty tool.

    Word gets around much faster in the Internet age, so it’s much easier than ever to find inconsistencies in 3.0’s message. But like a biological “arms race,” 3.0 is learning tactics to cover their tracks, mainly by being evasive wherever possible, and baiting critics into their word games, such as. “ID is not creationism,” and obsessing over the designer’s identity, instead of noting how much ground 3.0 has conceded to mainstream science. The media also inadvertently helps 3.0, by remaining obsessed with 2.0, even though its audience is relatively small, and would be committed to science-denial with or without “gurus” like Ken Ham. For the most part the media is still stuck in 1925, devoting more press to the “monkey trial” than to the 2005 trial that uncovered the “breathtaking inanity” of 3.0.

  11. Dave Luckett

    Another example of false progress is the aforementioned Irish potato blight of 1845-50. Potato cultivation was a means of supporting a much larger population than mixed farming, with less labour and less capital. Potatoes were prolific, tasty, and cheaply raised, and with only a small supplement from milk and bacon, with some wild crops, could furnish as well balanced a diet as any peasant had. Potato cultivation didn’t really take off until the middle of the eighteenth century in Ireland, but after that it supported a rapidly growing population – obviously it was progressive.

    They did not understand that all the potato cultivars were nearly genetically identical, and thus would be destroyed by the first serious pathogen to arrive, as one would, sooner or later. And so it did.

    The result of the blight, when it struck, was the collapse of the Irish population, which has not recovered to this day. Millions emigrated, but probably a million starved.

    All changes to society and technology always, inevitably, involve unforeseen and unforseeable consequences. What is called “progress” now might be cursed and deplored in times to come. The reasoned distrust of radical change, the strong aversion to putting all the eggs in one basket, the reluctance to unreservedly trust anything save that which has stood the test of substantial time – these may be decried, but they form the very bedrock of principled conservatism. Like all human treatments of reality, they are easily overstretched, but still there is sense in them.

  12. Paul Braterman says: “A final comment on the Luddites: the looms were replacing a capital asset which they owned (their skills) with one that was owned by those who had invested in looms. We see here an early example of the tendency of technological developments to increase inequality.”

    An interesting correlation of progress and inequality, with the implication that progress is therefore a bad thing. But when has humanity ever known literal equality? When we were hunter-gatherers, and there had not yet been any technological progress? Were we equal then, or were some better hunters than others? And when better methods of obtaining food were developed, and inequality increased, was the result better or worse for humanity?

  13. Strawman attack. I did not draw ” the implication that progress is therefore a bad thing”. I said that the tendency to increase inequality is a hidden cost of progress, but never claimed that this cost exceeded the overall benefits. Nor did I suggest that we attempt to abolish inequality, although in my opinion (Curmudgeon will probably disagree) we would do well to reduce it.

  14. Paul Braterman says:

    Strawman attack. I did not draw ” the implication that progress is therefore a bad thing”. I said that the tendency to increase inequality is a hidden cost of progress, but never claimed that this cost exceeded the overall benefits.

    It seems I misunderstood you. Some people confuse “equality under the law” (a good thing) and “equality of outcome,” which is incompatible with freedom.

  15. @DL: “The only mechanism for doing this is a competent, responsible and humane government – and a pox on laissez-faire capitalism!”
    Empirical evidence:

    From the interior of Suriname, resulting in widespread mercury pollution.

    http://www.adekusjournal.sr/adekusjournal/website/artikel.asp?sessionid=230C31BA72644B81A7E3E6104653D019&menuid=4&categorieid=3&artikelid=79

    I always think it funny when worshippiers of Adam Smith’ Invisible Hand close their eyes for things like this.

    @AEL: “Progress is by definition is good.”
    Unless this is just a tautology it is plain wrong. The step from Einsatzgruppe to Extermination Camps was progress (higher efficiency, lower psychological burden), but by no means good. And the step demanded “gaining and utilizing knowledge”.
    Ah, PB beat me to it. But I think my example better, because more extreme.

  16. On reflection, it seems to me there are some significant features about Creationism that really don’t map onto an analogy with Luddism–of which the principal one is, the quest by Creationists for the prestige of science to embellish their Oogity-Boogity.

    Of course, that is a Quixotic undertaking, requiring lethal doses of reality-denial and Byzantine labyrinths of word-lawyering.

    In Ham’s case, it means an idiosyncratic distinction between ‘observational science’ (which is sound, in his view, as it gives us technological goodies) and ‘historical science’ (which is unsound, because it contradicts Scripture, and anyway–were you there?)

    For the Disco’Tute, it means claiming that science really on their side, and to demonstrate they set up all the full monty of a Potemkin Village: captive ‘peer-reviewed’ journals, green-screen labs, seminars held at leading universities (actually in rented rooms, and not under the aegis of the university), and on and on. To describe Creationism as a Cargo Cult, as others have previously done here, is to my mind a much more apt analogy than to the Luddites

  17. IMHO, the most straightforward description – and it is not an analogy – is an advertising campaign – political-social advertising – and in particular, negative advertising. An advertising campaign is successful despite having nothing to say – indeed, some of the most successful are crafted to say nothing.

    We don’t need to resort to analogies. That is what the creationists thrive on. “A living thing is like a design.” etc. etc.

  18. An article I read the other day (Salon? I’ll look it up.) pointed out that it’s far worse than anti-science or ignorance, it’s anti-knowledge. This was see in Dover where one school board member was prepared to vote for the creationism standard “just to be done with it and move on” only to be told that science was only the first step. Next was social studies, language and mathematics. I know it sounds crazy but “these people” think all of the ills of the world would be solved by “getting God back in the schools” and, well, everywhere else, too.

    The article highlighted the perfect storm of televangelists of the 80’s using TV and radio to spread their “moral majority” message to what is now “the base” ** of older, white folks who were feeling disenfranchised by the social changes in the 70’s and their eroding economic power. The message was trust in God, distrust the government, distrust the egghead liberal university professors and scientists. Now, some 30 years later, we have an entire generation raised in the “conservative” (I put that in quotes because these radicals are anything but conservative) bubble, an echo chamber that only reflects and reinforces their own opinions, and they have gained political power. The so-called Tea Party represents a culmination of this toxic anti-knowledge upbringing and now they wield a significant amount of power.

  19. Here’s the article I mentioned over at Bill Moyers dot com.

  20. The Luddites feared for their jobs in a time when being unemployed could mean starving in the street. Creationists don’t need to fear anything—certainly not the loss of their jobs, except for the odd schoolteacher here or there who insist on teaching creationism in a public school science class despite both court rulings and explicit school district policies. And even that handful won’t find it hard to get new jobs at fundamentalist private schools, especially if they market themselves as victims of the satanic Darwinist conspiracy.

    Nor need creationists fear, as some of them claim they do, that teaching evolution destroys morality. There is no evidence that believers in Genesis are more moral, or even more law-abiding, than believers in evolution. Nor is there much that teaching Darwinian evolution promotes atheism or Communism; it’s worth remembering that under Stalin the Soviet Union actually rejected Darwinism (and made it illegal) in favor of the neo-Lamarckian ideas of Trofim D. Lysenko, who talked the dictator into believing that applying crackpot notions would boost Soviet agricultural productivity. That sure worked out well . . . !

    And while we’re on the subject of Lamarck, it’s interesting that creationists themselves are forced by their primitive reading of Scripture to embrace a form of Lamarckism—which, of course, was an early evolutionary theory—to explain how after the Flood in 2348 B.C. there so quickly came to be the present array of human races and animal and plant species, all from the limited variety preserved on the Ark. Indeed, we’re supposed to believe that Noah’s four sons wandered off to the four directions of the compass and each fathered a whole race. (We will pass over in silence the question of who the mothers were, if only seven individuals had survived.) Evidently, their descendants were supposed to have “adapted” at lightning speed by passing on, and adding to, characteristics acquired by their forebears, and never mind that such inheritance is seen nowhere in the living world today.

  21. @Eric Lipps
    Noah had three sons on the Ark. Although Genesis doesn’t tell us how many wives were on the Ark, the epistle 1 Peter 3:20 tells us that there were eight souls on the Ark.

  22. TomS: “An advertising campaign is successful despite having nothing to say – indeed, some of the most successful are crafted to say nothing.”

    Actually nearly all advertising is crafted to do exactly what creationism/ID does: be as selective with the facts as is necessary to convince a buyer to part with his money. Net effect, wealth is moved, nothing is produced. Now, before I get flamed, certainly some advertisers (marketers, salesmen, etc.) truly believe that they are informing, thus producing a service, and maybe a few actually do what they believe. But more often than not the net effect is just what Henry Ford called it (before he caved), economic waste. Given that all anti-evolution activists are “salesmen” – much more interested in what others must believe than what they themselves believe, the Biblical variety still engages in positive advertising – touting their product despite the risk that buyers will see through the hype. But ID “advertising” is strictly negative: tell the “customers” that evolution is bad, and let them choose whatever alternative they want. Just don’t let them know that you sell them all, and know that they’re all snake oil.

  23. @FrankJ: Not all advertising is a bad thing — take, for example, a company that comes up with an innovative new product that is truly superior to whatever else is in the market. You need to let the public know about it.

    With successful marketing, the customer gets a better product, it sells well, many people are employed in the manufacture and distribution of the product, the company’s stock goes up, and all of us retirees who depend on our pensions (which are heavily invested in stocks) can live a little better.

  24. @retiredsciguy
    Of course, there is a place for advertising.
    But …
    Advertising without a product?
    Negative advertising?
    Advertising which is not truthful? Advertising for something which is not good?

  25. @TomS:
    We agree. I was providing a counterpoint to Frank J’s comment that seemed to me to be anti- any advertising.