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The Open Field

Kris Schnee

Last Friday evening, we had a heretic on campus. His name was Phillip Johnson, law professor at Berkeley and author of several books including Darwin on Trial and The Wedge of Truth: Splitting the Foundations of Naturalism. You can guess the man’s philosophical alignment. He came to MIT to present us with a large block of Swiss cheese, a complex argument against the theory of evolution and scientific rationalism.

I won’t go through the numerous flaws in such arguments -- see The Tech’s opinion firestorm of Sept./Oct. 1999 or < Hangar/2437/> -- but Johnson raised valid questions and made a sensible request. He called for an open debate on the merits of his ideas of supernatural design, without anyone shutting their minds to arguments and evidence.

How open-minded are MIT students? Is there an open field for the testing of new (or old) ideas, and are people willing to listen to each other?

The evidence of last weekend alone answers both questions with a resounding yes. On Thursday, the night before Johnson’s talk, the Lecture Series Committee hosted a man who called himself Dr. Bengali, a hypnotist. Despite the snow, a few dozen people came to hear him speak on the nature of hypnotism. Bengali said that trance states are a useful way to improve concentration for mental and physical feats, and that they can even be a substitute for chemical painkillers.

More importantly, he offered proof of his claims. He stuck a pin in his arm and scorched himself with a lighter without flinching, then offered to levitate an audience member. This latter demonstration was less impressive, as by “levitate” he meant “have four people pick up.” Still, he presented an argument and tried to prove it, and MIT students were willing to listen, even if some of them were giggling during the group hypnotism session.

Johnson the Creationist drew a far larger crowd, filling most of 54-100. A big group of aspiring scientists and engineers were willing to trudge through snow, at night, to hear someone publicly denounce modern biology and ask, “Has Science Become the Religious Establishment?”

Instead of the traditional religious response to unorthodox ideas -- “Shut up or we’ll kill you” -- MIT students react by listening, asking hard questions, and thinking. On Saturday there were some people outside the Student Center waving their arms around in a strange manner. It turns out that they were members of Falun Gong (Dafa), a religious group with practitioners in America and China; MIT’s campus played host to an “experience-sharing conference” for the group. Not only were the practitioners doing their exercises out in the open, but several other members were passing out literature on the movement. The four-page brief gave a disclaimer that “we are by no means attempting to promote a disease-healing system, nor are we trying to make a scientific report,” followed by case studies such as a cancer patient for whom “her physical body indeed became purified from all illnesses.” There was even an attempt at a scientific survey. The group received a much warmer welcome here than it has from the Chinese government.

On Saturday and Sunday the MIT/Harvard Hippocratic Society held a biotechnology conference featuring such distinguished guests as author Lee Silver and Phillip Campbell, editor of Nature. One of the most interesting parts of the event was the issue of “patents on life,” the legal protection of discovered and invented DNA sequences and organisms. A speaker in one of Saturday’s talks complained that there was not enough of a public debate on the issue; why were Americans passively accepting the privatization of nature?

But at that same talk, a woman from MIT’s Social Justice Cooperative made it clear with some strong opinions that there is public interest in the patent issue. And the next day, a panelist stood to speak in favor of “life patents,” explaining how U.S. patent law allows claims over discoveries isolated from the wild, such as concentrated adrenaline. Both conference guests and members of the public were ready to speak out on both sides of a hotly contended issue.

Four times in as many days, the MIT community has proven its open-mindedness. We are not the intolerant people Phillip Johnson compared us to at all. We are not only willing, but eager, to go out of our way to listen to the new and strange, and to argue any issue someone cares to throw at us.