Evolving Thoughts

Evolution, culture, philosophy and chocolate! John Wilkins' continuing struggle to come to terms with impermanence... "Humanus sum, nihil humanum a me alienum puto" - Terence

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Prescription versus description in the right wing mindset

There has been a lot of chat recently about a talk given by University of Texas ecologist Eric Pianka. Pianka said what many ecologists think, that it is inevitable, given our density of population, that there will be a major pandemic of some kind, because we have set up the preconditions for it, and that as much as 90% of the human species will be killed as a result.

I'm not able to assess Pianka's prediction - it seems to me that he misunderstands the nature of pandemics and the immunological response of a species to a new pathogen, but let's assume this is correct. What I find very interesting here is that the right wing reaction has been to accuse Pianka of a Nazi-style plan for a holocaust, and one particular creationist, Forrest Mims, has sicced the Heimatssicherheitabteilung (known in the US as the Department of Homeland Security) and the FBI onto Pianka, and threatens to sue his critics. Moreover, he intimates that Special Forces personnel are looking to exact retribution on him. Given the way the right wing in the US treats those who dissent from the official line of the Bush White House or the prevailing religion of their home state, Pinaka ought to be watching his back. You can follow the links here.

Now Mims is an interesting nutcase in his won right - claiming that he was denied a staff position at Scientific American because of his creationist views, and his claim to scientific fame is that he is the author of Radio Shack texts on electronics. But what is most interesting is the way it shows how the right wing in the US confuse description and prediction with prescription. This is also the reason why claims are made that Darwinism, whatever that means in their special idiolect, prescribes social Darwinism, whatever that might be.

Pianka is warning us of the future, and saying that if we do not take steps to prevent it, the natural world will inevitably cause a major depopulation due to the way diseases work. Darwin is saying that the way things are, competition for resources will select some variants of a species out of the gene pool (Darwin, of course, didn't use the term "gene pool" as that was a 20thC invention). Neither are saying this is something to be encouraged or actively promoted. They are saying this is the way things are. Deal with it.

Likewise the global warming problem. Whether it suits the political, economic, or religious agendas of the ruling elite, science tells us this is going to happen. In the Pianka case, he is saying that we have given pathogens a chance to evolve that will kill us until we reach an equilibrium of some kind. In Darwin's case, he is saying that we reach equilibria based on the elimination, in fact, not policy, of those varieties that are less competitive. Neither are saying that there is some moral or political implication here. Neither want this to happen - it's just happening. And the right wing do not want to hear this. When they get a message from science that they don't like the outcomes of, the only way they have to address it is to blame the messenger. Call the guy a Nazi; that'll work. Don't actually try to adapt to the way of the world, though.

So they "quote mine" the individual to spin what is said into what supports that attack. Mike Dunford, at The Questionable Authority documents how the Seguin Gazette-Enterprise, for which Mims writes, did this systematically to make Pianka sound like he was endorsing the death of billions. It's not coincidental that the paper took down some of its articles recently. If I were Pianka, I'd be suing them for defamation.

If you can't tell the difference between a moral prescription, and a prediction based on knowledge (or claimed to be), then you really shouldn't be in the public arena.

Late Edit. The paper didn't mean to take down the articles. Follow the link.