Friday, October 12, 2007

Ruining the pedantry game


Participants in a busy thread over at Pharyngula last weekend were treated to a display of oneupsmanship that bled all of the fun out of pedantry. Pedantry, as you may know, consists of the exhibition of excessively detailed knowledge. The line between erudition and pedantry depends on context. A graduate seminar is a great place to demonstrate command of subject-matter minutiae. A casual chat in the faculty break room probably is not (although pedantry is an occupational hazard for those of us in the teaching profession).

The Pharyngula thread began with a post by PZ Myers on the canonization case for the late Mother Teresa. He and several of his blog's devotees made mocking comments about the “miracle” of the disappearance (passing?) of a kidney stone being attributed to Mother Teresa's intervention. That's pretty small potatoes in the miracle hierarchy, demonstrating how far the Vatican is willing to lower the bar to expedite the canonization cause of the Calcutta nun. Our mockery was a bit much for Selina Morse, who took us to task:
[H]aving lurked here for a few months now, it seems (I could be wrong) that almost every religious story seems to merit debunking. Particularly Christian religious stories (whether that's a political decision or not I don't know).
It's a tribute to Morse's keen insight that she picked up on the general disdain for religion. Yes, Selina, every religious story merits debunking. That was quick, wasn't it? And most of the mockery goes toward Christianity because that's the dominant religion in our culture. Simple.

Had that been all, Morse's complaint would have already receded into the dim recesses of my memory. However, Selina decided to draw on her chops as a historian (although her degrees are in astrophysics and applied math) to lecture us on the deceptive nature of truth. How many wives did Henry VIII have? Who, she asked, was the first president of America?

If you offered “six” as the answer to her first question, and “George Washington” as your response to the second, Selina was ready to pounce.
Henry only had 2 wives. The rest were considered annulled (or at least not consumated). (OK this is a technical point, but it is a legal one nonetheless and it demonstrates that the facts we "know" are not necessarily true at all")

And George Washington was not the first president of America. Peyton Randolph was. Washington wqas the first President of the independant United States of America in 1789.
What hairsplitting foolishness. Such trivial technicalities provoke contempt. Henry's people arranged six separate marriages. It hardly matters that they variously ended in divorces, annulments, and/or beheadings. The man had six wives. If Morse wanted to make a fair game of it, she could have asked, “How many of Henry VIII's marriages were consummated?” or “How many of Henry VIII's marriages were not annulled?” But that would probably give away the game of gotcha. It wasn't really a test of historical knowledge.

As for Peyton Randolph, he was the first president of the Continental Congress in 1774. Did that make him “president of America”? It wasn't his title, was it?

Games like this give pedantry a bad name.

1 comment:

The Ridger, FCD said...

Has there ever been a "president of America"? If she can redefine it down to the Continental Congress, can't I redefine it up to the continents?