Forrest Mims: ‘crazy kook’, says Pianka

| 123 Comments | 5 TrackBacks

The wingnut echo chamber has recently gone insane over the idea that Eric Pianka, an distinguished and much-loved ecologist at UT, advocates mass genocide by ebola in order to bring down world population. The allegation was leveled by disgruntled creationist Forrest Mims, and rapidly spread to the blogosphere via places like Dembski’s blog (three posts!) and Telic Thoughts, and then went to the Drudge Report and caused a national media firestorm appearing in my local paper by Monday morning. I smelled a rat from the beginning, and now I have been proved right. KXAN News36 in Austin, TX, has just debunked the whole thing, and for good measure has posted a 20-minute unedited interview with Pianka which everyone must watch to realize the full depravity of what the wingnuts have done here. Pianka says several times that Mims is a “crazy kook” that “distorted and changed everything I said.” The death threats that have flooded Pianka and the Texas Academy of Sciences are also a nice touch.

Pianka is clearly an ecological alarmist, and his twin theses that (1) a population crash is coming and (2) a disease (not Ebola, says Pianka) will do it are both highly debatable (my own view is that population is leveling off as birthrates decline due to education, and that highly virulent diseases are more likely to burn themselves out than take out the majority of the population), but these are matters to debate scientifically. There is no way to get from that to saying, as Mims and hundreds of braindead, credulous moonbats did, that Pianka advocates genocide and that several hundred scientists at the Texas Academy of Sciences applauded him for it.

It’s too late at night for me to transcribe all of the worthy bits of the interview, but the most revealing part of the interview is at the end, when the (mostly clueless, by the way) reporter asks Pianka what he most wants the public to know about him. Pianka doesn’t talk about his own reputation or about the dastardly deeds of Forrest Mims – he talks about the importance of conservation and thinking ahead about the world we leave to our children! A real misanthrope, that Pianka.

If anyone sees any one of the various turkeys out there who freaked out over Pianka advocating genocide apologize and retract their statements, please post the link here. I suspect all we’re going to get is strained rationalizations, conspiracy theories that this is a coverup, and attempts to change the topic to the scientific questions.

PS: Oh yeah. Dembski helpfully reported Pianka to the Department of Homeland Security. Good job, Bill.

5 TrackBacks

Christians and Defamation from Threads from Henry's Web on April 4, 2006 8:15 AM

One who covers up hatred by lying, And one who spreads defamation is stupid. — Proverbs 10:18 (my translation, but try any version you like) I’m often interested in the portions of the Bible that some Christians think they must follow, an... Read More

Pianka speaks out. Nick Matzke has a good post on Pianka at the Thumb, addressing the smear campaign against him*. He links to an interview with the good Dr—what he's saying is simple sense, common in the biological community,... Read More

Kit Jarrell, known for applauding the bombings of US mosques, has stuck her shit-covered foot in her mouth again. In her post entitled Five Billion People Need to Die From Ebola, she writes: The title of the post is probably what brought you here. In ... Read More

...but just haven't had the time to do more extensive write-ups. So, a mini carnival of good stuff: First, as other Sciencebloggers have noted, Seed is sponsoring a writing contest. $1000 dollar top prize and publication in Seed to the... Read More

Stupid is as stupid does from The Inoculated Mind on April 7, 2006 2:41 AM

Is Forrest stupid or something? My momma says stupid is as stupid does. Well, Momma’s right again. ... Read More

123 Comments

What gets me in all of this is that nobody’s tossing out a soundbite to the effect of: population control does not mean killing people. People die on their own, what we need is to control the growth and reduction will ensue - without killing anybody! I presume those are the kinds of measure Pianka is talking about, but people are so stupid as to equate population control with genocide. Because this story has gone to the media (via creationists) it’s safe to say that these finer points have to be spelled out.

Uh, Nick, there were blog posts pointing out the creationist insanity very early on. See my “Mr. Hyperbole” Meets “Dr. Doom” (posted 02 Apr 2006 01:18 pm) and my Now in the “Do As We Say, Not As We Do” Dept. (02 Apr 2006 10:21 pm) post pointing out that the ID crowd trampled all over “academic freedom” in their haste to accomplish an intellectual mugging of Pianka.

PS: Oh yeah. Dembski helpfully reported Pianka to the Department of Homeland Security. Good job, Bill.

And blogs like Telic Thoughts remain tellingly silent on that issue.

I hereby acknowledge that Wes has the claim to priority in pointing out the silliness of Mims’s claims – his 1:18 pm blogpost on April 2 beat me to the punch by 83 minutes (assuming my April 2nd, 2006 at 2:41 pm comment on Telic Thoughts is marked in the same time zone).

My “I smelled a rat” comment was reacting to the firefight I seem to have started on TelicThoughts, where they were completely missing the obvious potential problems with Mims’s claims.

More importantly, it’s the middle of the night! We obviously need to go to bed!

The ID and ID-friendly sites’ comments on this issue demonstrate the limits of ethics in blogging. In his extended interview, Dr. Pianka says he doesn’t think he can sue for libel. I disagree. The story as usually reported has all three elements of libel – publication, identification of a person to be defamed, and defamation. Moreover, most of the commenters have failed to do any checking of facts, a situation that amounts to reckless disregard for the truth in many jurisdictions.

I hope the facts catch up to this story and cool it off. But there’s plenty of grist there for a legal mill, if someone wished to pursue a legal remedy, I think.

Perhaps this has been said somewhere, but isn’t Pianka’s claim just another “end times” warning that far-right wingnuts make all the time? Where were Dembski and Mims when Pat Robertson was saying all his fun stuff about the natural disasters?

population control is about sex and if there’s one thing fundamentalists hate it’s sex. Therefore it’s put in the same category as abortion, gay anything, HPV immunization, sex education, birth control, etc. etc. By the way, evolution is also about sex, (as is cloning).

The death threats that have flooded Pianka and the Texas Academy of Sciences are also a nice touch.

First they physically assault a professor. Then they graduate to threatening a federal judge. Now all they want is merely the extermination of a state’s best minds and thinkers. Pretty soon, we won’t need Ebola.

PS: Oh yeah. Dembski helpfully reported Pianka to the Department of Homeland Security. Good job, Bill.

And he did so on the basis of what Mims said Pianka said. Heresay in other words.

You’re a great guy, Bill Dembski.

Was mentioned prominently by Andrew Sullivan: http://time.blogs.com/daily_dish (scroll down to “Left Behind”) although he did later post (without further commentary) an email from a reader pointing out the inaccuracy.

The story has made it to the AP, where it rather uncritically includes commentary from Mims: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dy[…]0400695.html (free registration required)

Anyone have a link to the Windows-only video on the KXAN site?

Nick Matzke Wrote:

My “I smelled a rat” comment was reacting to the firefight I seem to have started on TelicThoughts, where they were completely missing the obvious potential problems with Mims’s claims.

That MikeGene is a prince, isn’t he?

Telic “Thoughts”

MikeGene Wrote:

As for Pianka advocating mass genocide, I did not say that in my blog. But it sure does look like Pianka takes pleasure in the idea of mass genocide. ***** So here is what I see. A leading scientist takes pleasure in the idea of 90% of the human population dying of a torturous viral infection.

It looks like he takes pleasure? “Looks”? Did Pianka maybe make the statement with “happy excitement”?

KXAN

KXAN Wrote:

“I don’t bear any ill will towards anybody,” Pianka said. ***** Pianka says he would never advocate genocide or extermination like some suggest he does.

“I’ve got two granddaughters, man. I’m putting money in a college fund for my granddaughters. I’m worried about them,” Pianka said. ***** After 50 years of ecological study and writing nearly 20 books, Pianka said he thinks the world’s in trouble and wants everyone to know.

Mike Gene at ARN

Mike Gene Wrote:

Why did G&F see fit to paint me as one who reported “with happy excitement?” If you think about it, they cannot possibly have known my emotional state at the time I wrote this essay. What’s worse, they are wrong — I did not report “with happy excitement.” Since G&F cannot possibly have known my emotional state at the time I wrote the article, where do these words, “with happy excitement,” come from? I did begin the essay stating, “It’s official” and I suspect that is what triggered their erroneous description. But that was part of the dynamics of forum debates, a provocative start designed to ruffle feathers and elicit reactions for follow-up debate.

And Pianka surely couldn’t have been trying to stir up debate about a serious problem that he wants everyone to know about.

Mike Gene Wrote:

I’d say that’s a common impression one would get from reading their account. And adding the words, “with happy excitement” was a way to help plant that very impression in the minds of the readers. In other words, it sure looks like F&G set out to embarrass me, yet to do this, they had to invoke an erroneous description.

The bottom line is that the description from F&G is in error. They could have left out the three words without taking anything away from their argument. They could have attempted to qualify their claim to make it clear they were speculating. Instead, they simply assert something about me that is not true. They convinced themselves of seeing something that was not there, never having any inclination to verify their perceptions by contacting me.

The only difference between the treatment of “Mike Gene” and Pianka is that without the erroneous description of Pianka as advocating genocide - there is no argument, no reason for outrage… oh, and no reason for death threats.

I guess, in all fairness, we can give Mike Gene half-credit for posing some questions that he would like to see Pianka answer, even if he doesn’t show any inclination to contact Pianka.

MikeGene Wrote:

As for Pianka, I’m not interested in any official spin; I would also like to see Pianka answer the following questions:

1. Do you think human life is more valuable than animal life? 2. Why do some of your students think you are advocating that ebola kill off most of the human race? 3. Would it be a good thing or a bad thing if ebola mutated and caused a pandemic, killing hundreds of millions of people? 4. Would it be wrong for some terrorists to unleash a deadly virus on people? If so, why?

Perhaps I’ll think of some more, but I have to hit the hay (and I don’t have much time for the blog during the week).

I would like to see Mike Gene answer some similar questions:

1. Does ID postulate that human life is more valuable than animal life? Please explain in detail. 2. Why do some IDists think that a virus that kills 9 of 10 people is designed? 3. Would it be a good thing or a bad thing if ebola mutated and caused a pandemic, killing hundreds of millions of people? 3a. If ebola mutated and caused a pandemic, killing hundreds of millions of people - would that be a Design event? 4. Would it be wrong for some Intelligent Designer to unleash a deadly virus on people? Please explain in detail.

JAllen

Those last questions could be easily answered if they asked “the designer” .….the catch is .….if “the designer” answers they’re schizophrenic.

Maybe they keep asking “the designer” over and over and have figured out that there is nothing there .……so they do any damn thing they damn well like and no “desgner” is going to get them.

So much for Fundy morality.

JAllen Wrote:

1. Does ID postulate that human life is more valuable than animal life? Please explain in detail.

I for one have never heard that from an IDer, what with their inordinate fondness for flagella.

While the IDers will simply evade your questions and trot out the usual misrepresentations of evolution, I will be glad to answer them in detail in the presence of classic creationists. When the latter (e.g. at AIG) really take the time to digest what ID says, as opposed to just seeking out the feel-good sound bites, they find that ID is not very comforting at all.

Is Forest Mims the guy who wrote those really good Radio Shack mini-manuals in the 1980s? I had no idea he was a fundie… he did get me into electronics though. :)

My questions are straightforward, if Pianka acted as some suggest, how will ID help with this impending biological disaster? What does it offer in understanding these diseases? Does ID give us insights into how we might combat these diseases? Does ID offer better methods in understanding the origin of these diseases and their subsequent ability to switch species?

If we are on the verge of another and more deadly pandemic, then significant resources should be directed in preventing this “reset” in the human population. ID is in a position to assist with this effort. If ID is truly interested in participating in the broader scientific arena this is their opportunity.

Delta Pi Gamma (Scientia et Fermentum)

Nick,

I’m curious why you think highly virulent diseases are more likely to burn themselves out than to take out the majority of the population.

I’m not a biologist, but…

My impression is that historically, that has typically happened, but largely due to infected people traveling more slowly than diseases kill them. Things have changed due to planes, trains, and automobiles.

A disease that kills you but makes you extremely contagious before you die will tend to kill its hosts “too quickly” before spreading far if the hosts are not very mobile.

But if enough of the hosts are highly mobile, the situation changes a lot. As long as enough infected people transmit the disease to uninfected people elsewhere, a virulent disease can continue to prosper just fine. The world is a whole lot “flatter” than it was 100 or 1000 years ago. Now that somebody can drive a sick family member into a city from a farm, and transmit the disease to somebody who’ll get on a plane for New York or New Delhi the next day, it’s not so clear to me that the old rules apply.

It seems to me that we have a units of selection problem here. Diseases “burn out” largely by group selection. It is in an individual bug’s best genetic interest to spread rapidly, even if it kills its host doing so, as long as there are enough fresh (and immunologically naive) hosts to infect. Within a mostly uninfected host group, virulence can thus be selected for by individual (or gene) selection, if the transmissibility advantage outweighs the death-of-host disadvantage, and the two are linked. (I.e., if what makes the disease contagious is what makes it lethal.)

What keeps this selection pressure in check is largely the isolation of groups of hosts. Presumably many virulent bugs have crossed over into (or evolved in) human populations, and mostly wiped out a family, or a village, or a town or a region… and stopped, at some granularity, due to isolation.

That isolation has largely disappeared in modern times, changing the fitness function.

I can’t find the 20 minute interview. Only the 2:31 news story. Is there a direct link?

A few comments about this story: Firstly, as some of you know, my own background is in economics and I have a specific interest in economic anthropology and history. This interest has led me to a significant interest in ecologically oriented anthropology. I have also taught a course on social/political ecology.

What alarms me about this criticism is how people are taking statements/ideas out of context. From a social/human perspective we do in fact value human life more highly than that of other animals (at least I do). From a biological perspective, Pianka is totally correct: evolution as far as we can tell, unless we assume some overall, inbuilt direction has no favored species. I don’t see the utility of such ideas to biology.

Also, a lot of what Pianka seems to be saying is old hat. A lot of people have said it before. For example Garrett Hardin predicted the deaths of a lot of people. Predicting an outbreak/collapse scenario is not the same as advocating an outbreak/collapse scenario. This point seems to be lost on his critics. In fact, predicting an outbreak/collapse scenario could be viewed as an effort to ward it off-a bit like Job preaching to Ninevah-if you will pardon the analogy.

Finally, it does strike me that Pianka is on one end of the spectrum and that his end of the spectrum is vulnerable to criticism. For example, the events of the 14th century in Europe and elsewhere can in part be viewed as an ecologically rooted “collapse”. Notably, overall mortality from the plagues (bubonic and pneumonic) was about 40-50%. It only approached 100% in some areas. While the events of the 14th century led to some pullingback, it’s short term impact did not lead to a complete collapse of agriculture and civilization. The ultimate result as we know was of course capitalism. So there is always a problem with straight up applications of Malthusian models to humans.

All that said, I think this is part of a concerted effort by the right to simply discredit any idea coming out the natural sciences that they don’t like. They are trying to make Pianka look like a raving lunatic, which judging from his website, he is clearly not.

All comments on this story are likely to be voided by new information in the coming days; it would appear that we are still in the upward trajectory of this particular news cycle, as the major news services are only now mobilizing themselves on it.

Still, this may prove to be Pianka’s Ward Churchill moment, whether deserved or not. Even, that is, if you take away the “advocacy” of genocide and replace it with a garden-variety, doomsday-scenario “warning,” and then give another allowance for an active sense of humor that, given the subject matter, is susceptible to being unfortunately misunderstood (as evidenced by Mims, not to mention a number of Pianka’s students and at least one other alleged witness to the recent seminar).

In Mims’ account, Pianka is a genocidal maniac. The more accurate picture that may yet emerge from this is of an ecological doomsayer and global misanthrope. The former does more damage to Pianka; the latter, in the long run, does more damage to science and to scientists in general. The faster this can be quashed, the better for everyone.

kay Wrote:

Is Forest Mims the guy who wrote those really good Radio Shack mini-manuals in the 1980s?

Yes. More famously for the evolution/creationism conflict, Mims also wrote three “The American Scientist” columns for Scientific American in 1990, before the magazine discovered he was a creationist and decided it was too embarrassing to be associated with him.

Yes, Forrest Mims is the guy who wrote the electronics circuit books for Radio Shack. As noted, he did some “American Scientist” articles for SciAm. Then he got up and made a speech touting creationism *and* made much of his connection with SciAm. At that point, SciAm told him to either not mention the conection in such contexts or they wouldn’t bring him on permanently. Mims refused and SciAm dropped him like a hot potato. Mims claimed that SciAm couldn’t do that becasue they’d promised him a job.

In the ensuing war of words, Mims supporters fed usenet messages supporting SciAm’s position to him and he used some of those messages to threaten at least one persons job.

He’s a good man. Current web page:

What nobody wants to hear, but everyone needs to know – Eric R. Pianka

http://uts.cc.utexas.edu/~varanus/Everybody.html

I don’t know. I think the most important thing here is to go back and figure out whether Nick or Wes started suspecting something fishy first.

The KXAN page doesn’t seem to load under Firefox. IE is slow but it eventually loads.

BTW, just for the record, note the intentionally manipulative and pejorative way the debate was framed and loaded by the wing-nut Sims and has been carried on with the framing through this tempest. By using the hot-button word “genocide,” Sims equates Dr. Pianka with immorality.

A plague that decimates a population is not genocide unless the plague was deliberately and intentionally sown by human devices with the intent to destroy a people, nation, ethnic group, etc. Ebola becoming an air born pathogen and killing 90% of the people on the earth isn’t genocide. It’s a damn nasty plague and you’d be lucky to survive it. But genocide it’s not, plain and simple.

I think the only thing anyone could say is that Dr. Pianka may be a bit Malthusian in his projections. And a case might be made that Dr. Pianka isn’t overly-sensitive to he human-centric worldview of the religious wing-nuts and stomps on “der poor widdle feewings” about how he perceives nature views humans (basically just part of the biomass).

But he’s not some genocidal maniac.

Yeah, the 20-minute clip of Pianka appears to have been taken down. Perhaps we swamped their website!

Isn’t there something about “Thou Shalt Not Bear False Witness” written in that there Bible? I seem to remember something along those lines. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe such a thing isn’t listed as one of the ten most important rules carved into stone by God himself for man to follow.

Syntax Error: mismatched tag at line 36, column 2, byte 4278 at /usr/local/lib/perl5/site_perl/5.12.3/mach/XML/Parser.pm line 187

Why does no footage of Pianka’s speech exist, then?

could be any of a dozen reasons.

should we take a guess at the one you prefer?

I have for many years been greatly concerned by the spread of Islamic fundamentalism. More recently I have been equally frightened by Christian fundamentalist dogma, seemingly endemic across middle USA. Perhaps the rise of the two is causally linked. In the “Pianka furore” we seem to be seeing here another example of blind dogma being used to rebut sound scientific observation and theory.

From a reasonably in-depth analysis of issues like peak oil, human ecological footprint and intergenerational fairness, I believe that you will find little expectation of anything other than the collapse in life as we know it, probably within 50 to 100 years. There is so much information around on these and related topics. If you have children, you owe to them and their children to make sustainability something other than a platitude.

“To spell it out for simpletons, advocating the reduction of the world’s population by 90% does NOT mean it has be be done ALL AT ONCE. People do die naturally, through old age, accident, etc.”

Human nature being as it is, I do not believe it is possible for such a reduction to occur in a time frame meaningful to the alleviation of the “plague” Pianka advocates as being otherwise inevitable, without the massacre of billions being undertaken. Within those constraints, there is no difference between the two concepts.

“Population control to reduce the population by 90%” and “genocide” are synonymous in reality.

It would behoove Mr. Pianka to say which mechanism of population control he prefers, the plague or genocide, since his “preferred” method of volutary reduction is not possible.

Yours, TDP, ml, msl, & pfpp

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This page contains a single entry by Nick Matzke published on April 4, 2006 2:20 AM.

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