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Plumage from Pegasus
by Paul Di Filippo

A Black Hole Ate My Homework

"Intelligent design posits that biological life is so complex that it must have been designed by an intelligent source. Its adherents say that they refrain from identifying the designer, and that it could even be aliens or a time traveler."
The New York Times, December 21, 2005
THE students filtered into my classroom, seemingly a bright and lively bunch. Many of them proudly wore IDU garb, sweatshirts, track pants, caps, and the like, bearing the crest of Intelligent Design University: a giant celestial hand whose forefinger was extended to poke and stir a globe of the Earth. Seeing these freshmen for the first time on this opening day of the fall semester, I was moved wistfully to speculate about which ones would be able to master the tricky essentials of this required introductory course—going on to a stellar four years in their chosen fields of study—and which ones would fail to make the grade, exhibiting the intractable, congenital rationality that would exclude them from sampling the wisdom gathered here at IDU.

Once the students had settled down and were regarding me with bright, curious gazes, I introduced myself and the course.

"Welcome, students. My name is Professor Ackerwitz, and this is Stefnal Thinking 101."

I waited for any students who had wandered in by mistake to jump up and dash out for their real destination, but no one did. A good sign.

"This course, as you all know, is a prerequisite for your continued studies here at IDU. It's graded solely on a pass/fail basis, so there's no need to heap on the extra-credit assignments. We're just concerned that you show a minimal proficiency in the basic mode of thinking which is the core of all disciplines here at IDU.

"I realize that this is a very large section—but then so are the other three. My attendence printout lists over one hundred enrollees, and my colleagues are equally swamped. But there should still be plenty of time for personal interaction, both in the classroom and outside. You'll find my office hours posted on my webpage.

"For this first hour, I thought I'd simply spell out the essence of Stefnal Thinking, outline the topics we'll be covering, and take some questions. Does that sound all right?"

A wordless murmuring and general head-bobbing signaled me to continue.

"Very well. The core approach of Stefnal Thinking can perhaps best be summed up by a famous quote: 'Not only is the universe stranger than we imagine—it is stranger than we can imagine.' In other words, Occam's Razor has no place in your intellectual toolbox while you're attending IDU. Any aspect of creation, of the physical universe and its daily workings, is presumed to have a highly esoteric and recomplicated origin, but one which is nonetheless capable of being speculated on wildly, almost ad infinitum in fact, by the properly trained mind."

I paused and looked around the room intently, seeing plenty of furrowed brows and note-taking hands. They seemed to be internalizing my words well, but I knew that the rocky passages still to come had thrown many a paddler from their intellectual kayak.

"The role of the student at IDU," I resumed, "is to cultivate his or her mind to such a state that dozens of exotic theories, seemingly improbable to the untrained, straitjacketed mind, yet possessing a thin veneer of scientific plausibility, can be offered for nearly any phenomenon which conventional science reduces to but a single clear and provable cause.

"Now, this task looks very hard at first. And it would be, if we had to invent such theories solely on our own. But luckily, we do not. We stand on the shoulders of giants, those thousands of men and women who have written science fiction over the past two centuries.

"Science fiction writers have spent their whole lives conjuring up wild and way-out scenarios that might underlie the workings of the universe. We here at IDU have codified their work and turned it into a methodology, a way of thinking that allows you, the student, to overturn any scientific consensus and replace it with your own explanations, for your own purposes.

"Are you following me so far?"

I waited expectantly while the students looked back and forth among themselves, waiting for someone to summon up the courage to answer. At last, a trim blond woman raised her hand. I gave her the go-ahead to speak.

"You're saying, Professor Ackerwitz, that by studying the novels and stories of the science fiction genre, we can adapt their far-out speculations for ideological goals, to reconfigure the public perception of reality…?"

A bright girl. I made a mental note to keep close track of her progress.

"Yes, precisely," I said. "The harmless thought experiments tossed off by these dabblers can be repurposed to support practically any partisan program. One vital quibble, however, with your answer, young lady. We will not be reading any actual stories and novels in this class. Those works are too long and too full of extraneous material, much of it unsettling and almost seditious. We have abstracted and refined the core ideas of the genre, catalogued and organized them into textbook form. You'll find this material available in the campus bookstore."

A beefy fellow who looked like he'd make a fine addition to IDU's trophy-winning football team said, "But Professor, why do we need to take a special course in this stuff? These ideas are all around us every day! You tell someone that the only way Apollo Thirteen coulda got back to Earth safe was that passing aliens pulled them home with a tractor beam, and everyone knows just what you mean already!"

I smiled in the properly condescending manner. It would do no good to let this attitude take hold.

"Certainly, the general public has a vague idea of the precepts of Stefnal Thinking, mostly derived from watered-down media representations of these ideas. Convincing them that dinosaurs and cavemen cohabited or that the Greenhouse Effect is caused by a malign race of beings inside the Hollow Earth is a slam-dunk! But our mission here at IDU is to become so sophisticated in our arguments that we are able to convert—or at least disturb the belief systems of—important movers and shakers educated at conventional colleges and universities. To enlist politicians and actual scientists on our side, we must master the higher levels of Stefnal Thinking, not just the primitive ones we've all been exposed to since we could watch our first episode of Star Trek.

"Therefore, you will soon be embarking on a close study of the theories put forth by such crackpot visionaries as A. E. van Vogt, Eric Frank Russell, Philip K. Dick and Rudy Rucker. Names as far removed as Charles Stross and Hugo Gernsback, James Blish and A. Merritt, John W. Campbell and H. P. Lovecraft will become as familiar to you as your parents'. My goal for all of you is that by the time the end of this semester rolls around, you should all be able to supply a dozen original fanciful and contradictory explanations for Newton's Laws in less time than than it takes to write his equations on a chalkboard!"

Spontaneous applause broke out then, and I basked in the warm glow of having broken through to so many young, impressionable minds. But to maintain the proper level of seriousness and discipline, I laid out their first assignment.

"Make sure you go to the store and get your textbooks today. I'll be giving a quiz about Dean Machines the next time we meet."

A communal groan met this announcement. The students began assembling their backpacks and sweaters for departure with a mixed air of resignation and excitement. But before any of them could exit, the sharp-witted blond woman asked a last question.

"Professor, what if between now and the next class our solar system enters a portion of the galaxy where the functioning of neurons is degraded in a marked but inexplicable fashion? Could we postpone the quiz?"

I could feel my face light up with pleasure. "Young lady, I'm going to make you my teaching assistant starting right now!"

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