The following mini-drama played itself out in the March 2009 pages of Sky & Telescope . It concerned an exchange of verbal pot-shots on the biblical subject of the “Star of Bethlehem”, found in S&T articles and letters to the editor going all the way back to December 2007.
The critique you are reading here appears in Writing NOTES, rather than Summitlake’s Astronomy department, because the “Star of Bethlehem” subject was hijacked by the subtext. Those letters and columns were not primarily about stale rehashes of the perennially old debate. They were about a battle for intellectual dominance and crowd control. They were about “spin doctoring” in the Lee Atwater “Dirty Tricks” sense, scaled down to the palate of the Astronomy crowd.
Contributor: Unfortunately, I and my work on the Star have been maligned in what amounts to a personal attack. Since I am the injured party here, I get to substitute a fairness appeal for any substantive additions to my hypothesis.
Columnist: Others have misrepresented my research and ignored historical evidence. A book reviewed cited my work on the Star of Bethlehem as the “final word”. Unfortunately, others have ignored the historical evidence.
Was there really a Star of Bethlehem, or was it just invented out of whole cloth, or was it a misidentification of some other apparition, now understood, such as Venus or Halley’s Comet? Could it have been a supernova, even though we have neither a confirmed date nor independent observations from the courts of Chinese astronomers? Were there really Three Wise Men, and, if so, exactly how wise were they?
The fact seems to be that we simply can’t know. Except for the highly supercharged Biblical reference, such an alleged sighting wouldn’t even be remembered today.
Personal attacks are intolerable as a substitute for substantive argument. I dug into the Sky & Telescope articles and references with interest, looking for signs of slander. Finding no direct personal attacks, I found it interesting that the writer who came across as the pious psalm-singing defender of the faith was the one arguing that the Star of Bethlehem, historically, probably did not exist at all. The writer representing himself as the reasoned man of science was the one who concluded that the “Star” was, variously, either an astrological event, or just the “mundane Morning Star” [Venus].
Semantically, it’s worth noting that current popular usage of the word “unfortunately” has a different purpose than the mere confirmation of a regrettable fact. It’s used to hijack the conversation, to pre-empt it with a corrective change of context. And we need to be aware of that signal.
Old usage: Unfortunately, at that exact moment, Holmes dropped his pipe onto the doctor’s lap, setting Watson’s pants on fire.
New usage: Unfortunately, you don’t get to ask for an allowance this week, because you didn’t clean your room in 1957.
Or even: Unfortunately, you’re fired.
In other words, “unfortunately” isn’t used today so much to express regret, as to set you up for the show-stopper. It’s no accident that successful delivery of the catch-word is easily intoned to sound like a parent rebuking an unthinking child: you thought the conversation was about the allowance, but now you can see it’s really about who calls the shots here.
And what about the Star of Bethlehem?
In my personal opinion, when a conversation devolves into a verbal pissing match, it’s prima facie evidence that at least one party doesn’t know what he’s talking about, or has become bogged and befuddled in intellectual quicksand, and intends to derail the discussion. If possible, he intends to turn the situation around, from facts to appearances, so that an audience perceives the other side as the bad guy, and therefore, the loser. The spin artist becomes the default winner.
I watched “Boogie Man” on PBS last night, the Lee Atwater “Dirty Tricks” story of the small-town Southern boy who made it to the very top rungs of Washington society by smear and innuendo. Atwater was the one who cost Dukakis the election with the “Willie Horton” tactic. While Governor of Massachusetts, Dukakis signed a prison reform bill allowing furloughs for convicted felons. While out on furlough, Horton raped a woman after pistol-whipping and knifing her fiance. Atwater spun this to make Horton “a household name”, implying Dukakis pandered to rapists, even getting third parties to sponsor interviews with rape victims. Horton was also African-American, and it was no accident that his rise to national notoriety pandered to Southern racism too. America got the message this was what you could expect if they elected Dukakis instead of George H.W. Bush.
Dukakis explained retrospectively, in an interview near the end of the “Boogie Man” special, that he believed at the time the best defense against an unfair smear was to refuse to dignify it: to ignore it. In real life, this may sound like the high road, but, in politics, it’s suicide: Atwater hung him out to dry.
It turns out that this Massachusetts furlough program was modeled after a similar and seemingly successful progressive program in California, signed into law by then-Governor Ronald Reagan. But Dukakis never explained that to the press.
In retrospect, Dukakis admitted his best defense would have been to simply state the affirmative, and shut up.
In Astronomy, as in the greater and contentious world of academia and business, it seems the same ethics would apply. State the affirmative, shut up, skip the pissing matches, and get on with real business.
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