The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest: #ScienceMustFall

Credit: Anthony Hodge
Credit: Anthony Hodge

Written by: Chris Wheeler

“I can calculate the motion of heavenly bodies, but not the madness of people.” – Isaac Newton

The absurd comments made by a University of Cape Town fallist recently regarding science opened a Pandora’s box; the radical lesson is this: rather than fetishise decolonisation (whatever that memes), South Africa should ‘appropriate’ Enlightenment values.

Credit: Anthony Hodge
Credit: Anthony Hodge

“I was actually thinking about this coming here,” the young lady confesses in the beginning of the edited recording circulating online, “If I, personally, were committed to enforcing decolonisation [South Africa’s ‘endarkenment’], science as a whole is a product of western modernity, and the whole thing should be scratched off [laughter]…”

She then cited a community in KwaZulu-Natal that believes “black magic [matters]” has the power to direct white lightning and demanded to know how science could possibly explain such an extraordinary claim in the face of such extraordinary ‘evidence’ (Nkandla’s thatched roofs and faithful ‘firepool’ were not mentioned).

The ‘sacredness’ of the safe space was then violated when an audacious male — accused of suffering the ‘curse’ of western knowledge (“You see!”: “Don’t come here with that white tendency”) — interjected to debunk the woke mountebank’s sordid snake oil wholesale. He was chastised in a flash. The emcee sprung up to ‘address him directly’ and he chose to apologise rather than be removed.

The confused fallist then assaulted a straw man made from a dead white virgin and his apocryphal apple myth (aka Sir Isaac Newton, whose writings still gives “your personal astrophysicist” Neil deGrasse Tyson goosebumps: “The man was connected to the universe in ways that I’ve never seen another human being connected; it’s kind of spooky, actually.”), and attempted a live exorcism of Newton from the history of science through a sincere appeal to mass ignorance (ergo: #ScienceMustFall).

The fallists have hit intellectual and moral bedrock here with the shovel of a stupid statement, but South Africa’s online community was surprisingly united in the aftermath: there were jokes that she may not ‘fully realise the gravity of the situation,’ suggestions she struggled with science in school, modern technology and the Stone Age came up, and her belief in the existence of an Africanised Zeus lurking somewhere above the Zulu’s homeland was justly mocked.

“We wish to assure the public that they are not facing these natural disasters without a helping hand from the provincial government,” said KZN’s MEC in February after the number of lightning deaths in the province struck ten. (According to Environmental Affairs Minister Edna Molewa, South Africa has a “staggeringly high” number of lightning-related deaths.) Three of those KZN deaths came on Valentine’s Day (Sunday) when lightning struck the tree a Shembe church congregation were gathered around.

It is a mistake, however, to contemplate celebrating the country’s scientific literacy based on this lowest-hanging fruit (or to dismiss it as merely “a single ill-informed person’s comments on science and colonialism”), but the blowback thus far is the kind of counter-attitudinal advocacy worth stoking for (a) change.

Do you value the scientific way of thinking? Grasping gravity is child’s play relative to another dead giant South Africa has yet to fully shoulder, a fact so dangerous philosopher Daniel Dennett calls it “universal acid” because “it eats through just about every traditional concept, and leaves in its wake a revolutionized world-view”. Do you (or a potential mate) understand how homo sapiens evolved to be and the intellectually honest consequences of affirming that belief? It’s the perfect litmus test qua acid trip.

“Evolution is the highest ordering principle in biology… [Teaching it] provides children with access to ways of thinking that can make them more enlightened citizens and prepares them for tertiary-level study,” wrote Edith R. Dempster and Wayne Hugo in a 2006 paper, the title and date of which reveals the extent of the scandal: “Introducing the concept of evolution into South African schools.” Disturbingly: the curriculum statements analysed emphasised “the need to recognize alternative ways of knowing, including faith-based and indigenous knowledge systems.”

A more recent 2016 paper, “Creationist and evolutionist views of South African teachers with different religious affiliations,” also published in the South African Journal of Science, revealed how religious faith is hampering the empowerment of the next generation: “The clear differences linked to religion in our study illustrate a greater diversity of views with regard to evolution than that of other countries […] religious affiliation is more important than their subject of specialisation for teaching, or their level of teaching experience”⁠ according to Statistics SA’s General Household Survey 2015, 95% of South Africans are religious.

As neuroscientist and author Sam Harris continues to say in defence of reason and intellectual honesty, our choice during ‘interesting times’ is between dialogue and violence, that’s it: “And faith is a conversation stopper.”

Taking aim at Newton is pitiful, but what about Darwin’s dangerous idea? Where would the criticism have come from if she had referenced Darwin’s finches instead of Newton’s apple?

Author: Chris Wheeler is a freelance writer based in Cape Town who enjoys dead reckoning the borderlands between science, philosophy, art and education.