Hidden Figures — the true story of three brilliant African-American women who proved themselves in a 1960s NASA culture dominated by white men — is sure to inspire. The film is filled with emotive lessons, most powerfully a vindication of the hope that those who persevere honorably for a just cause will not be disappointed.
Another lesson, more pragmatic, occurred to me as the drama unfolded. Having migrated in my own career from the measurable-fact culture of engineering to the more descriptive culture of biology, I felt a tinge of nostalgia as I watched a roomful of nerds with their calculators and chalk boards working together to find the answer to a pressing question: How can we bring an orbiting astronaut back safely to Earth?
Notice the very pre-post-truth essence of that phrase find the answer. Engineers have always taken for granted that clearly posed questions have uniquely correct answers — there to be found by anyone with the skill to find them, and unambiguously recognized as correct when found. The joy of Hidden Figures is that it sweeps away our prejudicial attitudes as to who might have these requisite skills.
Evolutionary biology would have a hard time recognizing that kind of skill set. Darwin, born into the privileged life of English gentry, didn’t really have to solve practical problems. He had the luxury of concerning himself more with persuasion and influence than calculation or invention. More.
Nothing has changed, as it happns. Unlike the hidden figures, Darwin’s followers can arrange the facts to suit their convenience and the call in traditional media to admire them. Although the latter, come to think of it, are an ever-diminishing ally. Thee’s one cange that might prefigure other changes.
See also: Nature: “Unhelpful to exclude conservative voices from debate”
The alt right, popular media, and Darwin
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