The Waterboy and Ken Miller: Compartmentalization or No?

In my son’s continuing education of comedy movies from when I was younger, I watched The Waterboy with him. I had long relegated it to the “Adam Sandler after his prime” era of movies when I noticed one day that there seemed to be a great deal of love for the movie among people I worked with. This love is expressed most often by referencing or quoting the movie at appropriate times.

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There are a ton of not-great movies that somehow have massive quoteability: Joe Dirt is probably the top of that list, since it is a steaming pile of a film, yet people (yours truly included) will quote that movie ad nauseam under marginally acceptable circumstances. Zoolander is another one. Bad movie, love to hear it quoted. Dodgeball, Old School, Wedding Crashers and certain Will Ferrell movies (Talledega Nights, Anchorman, Step Brothers) fit this category as well, but they are too recent in my book; we just got over quoting these movies when they were “new”, and it will be another 5 or 6 years before we start quoting them again out of nostalgia.

Somehow, without my notice or approval, people have started quoting Adam Sandler’s less funny late 90s/ early 00s movies such as The Waterboy, Little Nicky, Big Daddy, Mr. Deeds, et cetera, et fucking cetera. As I said before, I have long regarded these as inferior product, mostly because I know the greatness that Sandler has been able to achieve in Billy Madison and Happy Gilmore. I didn’t really get it until I realized what was happening: their fondness of those movies is a function of their initial experiences with those movies, just as my love of Sandler’s early works is a reflection of my experience of watching them as a fifteen year old. It is a side effect of working with younger people I suppose. Nothing wrong with a good Little Nicky quote if the situation fits, however I may question your taste in movies, and rightly so.

Anyway, The Waterboy. Was watching it with my son and noticed something that didn’t make sense. Bobby Boucher knows science when it comes to water purification, but thinks that alligators are ornery because “they got all them teeth but no toothbrush.” He knows almost nothing else of modern science, but we see him boiling water to kill germs, displaying a knowledge of germ theory completely out of sync with his lifestyle. The movie explains this by saying Boucher’s father died because of dehydration or impurities in his water supply, inspiring young Bobby to learn everything he could about hydration technology and water purification. This makes enough sense in the context of the movie, but after thinking about it for much longer than anyone should, I can’t help but wonder why it is that Boucher can know so little of the rest of the world, and so much comparatively about water, and doesn’t it ever lead to moments of cognitive dissonance?

Compartmentalization

The answer is a concept known as compartmentalization. This is where people think differently about different things. One standard applies for one topic, but a different standard applies for something else.

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The first time I heard about this concept was in reference to Dr. Ken Miller. He’s an evolutionary biologist who is also a devout Christian. He was a key expert witness in the Kitzmiller v. Dover trial which outlawed teaching Creationism in schools and further defined Intelligent Design as a form of Creationism. In his book, Finding Darwin’s GodDr. Miller explains how his faith and his understanding of science are not in conflict. Far from it, Miller claims that his understanding of science and his faith complement one another. Here’s the blurb from the site that I think sums up the book:

To creationists, an acceptance of evolution cannot coexist with belief in a created world. Not only are the creationists wrong, argues a professor of biology who is also a Christian, they deny the possibility of human beings created free to choose right from wrong. Darwin’s theories, he says, can actually deepen our belief in a Creator.

To make his case, Miller spends the first several chapters explaining why evolution is true. Having read books by Coyne and Dawkins on the same subject, I was really impressed to see the variety of citations that can be made. This should be very instructive to people who doubt evolution. If there were only one experiment that keeps being cited that refuted a certain Creationist or Intelligent Design claim, you might see that as kind of a weak refutation. The fact is that there are tons and tons of papers and studies that not only refute general claims, but specifically address details of arguments against evolution.

In his arguments, Miller takes on Creationist claims first, then devotes a chapter to Intelligent Design. He goes after ID theorist Michael Behe specifically, which is fitting since Behe was sort of Miller’s opposite number in the Kitzmiller trial.

In the final chapter Miller outlines his position on faith and science, the central point of the book. I was impressed with the sincerity and the thoughtfulness of his position here. While I remain an atheist, I appreciate Miller’s approach. If there were more believers with his take on it, I would be just fine with that.

I recommend this book to anyone who is a fan of science, or grappling with the whole religion v. science thing. If you are a Creationist, Intelligent Design fan, or you believe in Teach The Controversy, this book will educate you and give you something to think about. The way Miller explains his faith should be very instructive to those who feel that their faith forbids them to accept evolution.

If there’s one criticism I could level at Dr. Miller’s work, it’s that it seems like a long build up to The Thing The Book Is About. If maybe the tagline of the book mentioned that it was also, in a big way, about the truth of evolution and debunking of Creationist and Intelligent Design arguments, it might be a little better. It may be the scenic route, but an enjoyable journey nonetheless.

What Was I Saying? Oh Yeah, Compartmentalization

In the end, I don’t think Dr. Miller is a legitimate example of compartmentalization. Many science advocates feel strongly that guys like Miller – that is, serious scientists that have religious beliefs – must compartmentalize to make sense of the world. After reading Finding Darwin’s God, I have to say I don’t think that’s the way it is. However, based on what we can know about Bobby Boucher, he makes an excellent example of compartmentalization.

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