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Dealing with Doctor Doom

02 April 2006

Special Editorial by the Executive Director

Dealing with Doctor Doom

Shawn Carlson, Ph.D.
MacArthur Fellow
Founder and Executive Director,
Society for Amateur Scientists
Creator, LABRats

Forrest M. Mims III has reported in a Special Feature in The Citizen Scientist ("Meeting Dr. Doom," 31 March 2006) on a lecture he recently heard at a meeting of the Texas Academy of Science. The Academy chose to honor one Professor Eric R. Pianka, an eminent ecologist who studies desert ecologies, with its 2006 Distinguished Texas Scientist Scientist award. Professor Pianka used the occasion to champion the notion, apparently without sanction of the Academy, that the Earth can only be saved if ninety percent of the human beings alive today are purged form the planet. He championed airborne Ebola as the most efficient virus to accomplish this. And while he stopped short of calling for terrorist action to bring this result about, he clearly implied that this was a right and proper future for our species and our planet. Astonishingly, after advocating for a future in which more than 5,000,000,000 persons would die a slow and agonizing death, many members of the Texas Academy of Science stood to their feet and applauded.

I want to answer two questions here. Do academic institutions like the Texas Academy of Science have a duty to provide Professor Pianka a forum to advance these ideas? And what might the consequences be of allowing him to do so? My answer to the first question is a resounding "no." Furthermore, I am convinced that continuing to allow Professor Pianka unfettered access to impressionable students could one day lead to a loss of life that could make the Killing Fields of Southeast Asia look like a picnic ground.

Let me explain.

First, do Pianka's opinions deserve protection under the rubric of academic freedom? Well, that depends on whether this ideas are truly academic—that is, that they are consistent with the best understanding of our world that science has established.

Now consider Pianka's arguments.

Pianka claims that the natural world would be "better off" if there weren't so many humans. To see if that's true, we have to figure out just what constitutes the "natural world"? As an evolutionist, I see human beings as the products of the same natural forces that shaped all other life on earth. Our brains evolved on this planet subject to the same kinds of natural selection pressures as those that shaped peacock feathers. The same can be said of all of our social structures, our religions and every other aspect of what we are that helped us secure resources and propagate our species (the hammer and anvil of natural selection). In short, our institutions and our technology are every bit as much a part of the natural world as elk mating rituals and beaver dams. In fact, by evolving the ability to adapt the world to fit us , human beings have become better at securing resources and procreating than any other vertebrate on the planet. By this measure, we are evolution's most successful creation (amongst vertebrates). If extraterrestrials were asked to select nature's most successful vertebrate on the Earth they would certainly point to us.

So it seems very strange to me for an evolutionist to identify one of evolution's most successful creations as somehow operating outside the natural order. To do so is to deny this undeniable truth of evolution.

Pianka, however, is an evolutionist who believes that humanity is not part of the natural world. Somehow, the fact our evolution led us to a point whereby we can adapt our environment to our bodies, rather than wait for our bodies to adapt to our environment, puts us in an inferior position in nature. In his mind, Homo sapiens are the despoilers, the corruptors of the natural order. This viewpoint is every bit as anthropocentric as those who would place humans in a superior position, saying that we are the "pinnacle of evolution" or "chosen by God." Only instead of lauding humanity's position in nature, Pianka denigrates it. Evolution supports neither camp.

Pianka is, of course, free to ignore the evidence and believe that humanity is, as he says, the "scourge" on the natural world. But this is a political opinion based on some vision he holds in his mind about the way the world ought to be. It is not a scientific fact. Indeed, it is a glaring scientific fallacy.

Pianka also argues that human beings are now so densely populated that they provide an idea vector for disease transmission, and he expects that microbes will "ultimately purge the Earth of the scourge of humanity." (Personal correspondence with Forrest Mims.)

The data stand utterly against this idea. Plagues have run rampant through human populations throughout time. Millions have died. Huge fractions of some populations have been wiped out. But the net death rate has never come close to the fractions that Pianka envisions. Virulent diseases that kill quickly tend to burn themselves out. Natural selection creates less lethal varieties because an organism can't spread if it kills its host before it can propagate. The flu pandemic of 1918 (the influenza virus is championed by Pianka) may have killed 50 million people, but that was only about 5 percent of those infected. Moreover, every year sees medical advancements—screening techniques improve, as do our methods of creating new vaccines and treating illness of all kinds. Not only that, a desperate situation would be met by desperate measures, including the implementation of martial law, the halting of all air and ground traffic except for emergency vehicles and so on, to stop contagion.

In short, there is no historical precedent that supports the notion that humanity could be ninety percent depopulated by a single disease. Moreover, as time goes on and our technology and awareness grows, the risk to humanity is steadily falling. Professor Pianka can believe that microbes will depopulate the earth if he wants, and such alarmist nonsense by some Ph.D.s sells lots of books. However, Pianka's viewpoint runs contrary to the best science.

Since neither of Pianka's foundational assertions are consistent with the best interpretation of the scientific evidence, his opinions on these matters are merely political rants. They therefore do not deserve protection under the doctrine of academic freedom, and scientific institutions like the Texas Academy of Science should have no problem refusing to provide speakers of his ilk a platform to publicly advance these positions.

The Society for Amateur Scientists would certainly not allow such ideas to be promulgated in any forum that we operate, and we hereby call on all other scientific institutions of conscious to do likewise.

Professor Pianka's Death Wish

But all this begs an important question. How could such an eminent ecologist, as Eric R. Pianka clearly is, be so solidly on the side of absurdity and death? His on online "obituary" is an independent indication of his fascination with death. This document, which is actually a brief autobiography, provides some important clues.

Professor Pianka describes himself as both a "hermit" and a "desert rat" who has spent years living in total isolation in various deserts while devoted to his studies of lizard ecology.

Now, what kind of man could forsake the company of his own kind for years? I certainly couldn't. Humans are, after all, communal animals. We are biologically programmed to seek out the company—the love and support and companionship—of our own species, and I feel that need very strongly. A happy hermit simply must not strongly feel this basic drive that lies at the very foundation of our sense of community and of our own humanity.

I can only conclude that years ago Eric Pianka must have lost touch with his essential humanity, that is, a strong emotional need for his own kind. Now, perhaps driven by that terrible depression that can occur in old men, he seems to have lost touch with reality.

I offer this under the touchstone of Ockham's razor: I think that depression provides the least remarkable explanation for Pianka's mental descent. According to his "obit," Professor Pianka was born in 1939, and depression can be a side effect of aging, especially in men. Moreover, men often express their depression by becoming angry at the world—the "grumpy old man" syndrome. And elderly depressed men often become fixated on death. Finally, these men often refuse to admit they have a problem, and so depressed men in Pianka's age group rarely seek treatment.

If this explanation is the right one, then he needs to be treated by a psychopharmacologist with expertise in depression. Until he does receive the necessary care, we must think of him as a person in pain, and as such Professor Pianka is certainly deserving of all of our compassion. But we must not allow our compassion to move us to complacency in light of grave and immediate danger of his message.

The Piankians

Some of my friends would prefer to simply dismiss Professor Pianka's philosophy as merely the rantings of an old coot; a wild-eyed mountain man who's compassion and judgment have deteriorated with age and long exposure to the torments of the desert sun. After all, they point out, the good doctor hasn't actually called for acts of terrorism. He hasn't declared that he wants people to bring about the painful deaths of over 5,000,000,000 human beings.

True enough. Professor Pianka has never, so far as I know, advocated that human beings should act to bring about the depopulation of the planet. He says only that he thinks that it will happen, that it has to happen if the earth is too survive, and he strongly implies that he thinks it would be a good thing if it did happen. So, is Pianka really a dangerous man?

Sadly, I think he is. You see, I'm old enough to remember another desert-living child of the '60s who once had followers. And Professor Pianka is much more charismatic than Charlie Manson ever was. Moreover, Pianka has access to captive audiences of impressionable young students in his college classes and lectures.

Will Pianka one day have his own "family" of followers living in the wild with him? Who is to say? But for an interesting take on this question, consider this blog post (scroll down to 9 March) by a new and young Piankian who became converted at his Texas Academy of Science lecture.

I simply remember history. Adolph Hitler did not invent social ideologies based on hatred of the Jews. He pulled the core of Nazi philosophy from certain influential German philosophers. Rather, Hitler's "final solution" merely took these perverted ideas farther than those philosophers could have imagined any sane person would take them.

I believe, with the terrible experience of the bloodiest century in human history behind us, that all men and women of conscious in the 2001st century must be proactive in our opposition to genocidal or apocalyptic philosophies before they have the chance to inspire some new champion with the will to take their conclusions to the next step.

The "Scourge" of the Earth

The more people who believe Professor Pianka's philosophy that humanity is the "scourge" of the earth, and that the earth would be better off if 5,000,000,000 of us were to die a painful death, the longer men and women of conscious allow this idea to go unchallenged, the greater is the likelihood some disturbed people will take it upon themselves to try to help realize that vision.

And there is plenty of precedent.

Do you recall the Egyptian Airline copilot who committed suicide by crashing a commercial airliner full of passengers into the Atlantic? What about the AIDS-infected dentist who became so depressed about his condition and angry with the world that he inoculated innocent patients with that terrible virus? Think about all the murder-suicides committed each year. Do you remember that California doomsday cult lead by an old cancer-riddled guru who convinced his followers that they could to ride a comet to Heaven? Snipers in clock towers… terrorist bombers… all people who were willing to kill themselves and many others because of some misguided notion that they were serving a higher cause.

So what if some Piankian disciple—a former student, perhaps, who works in a biological research or weapons laboratory—gains access to a deadly pathogen? What if that person becomes clinically depressed? His wife divorces him, his child dies, he discovers he's dying of cancer… Do you think a depressed and angry Piankian just might convince himself that releasing that agent would be a great service to the higher cause of saving the Earth? Do you think he might be able to infect himself, and then use his own body as the vector to infect others?

I do, too.

And that is why we cannot afford to ignore when academics stand and applaud a man who they just heard openly advocate that the world would be better off if over 5,000,000,000 human beings were to die as a result of a horrible disease.

The Citizen Scientist Community Must Respond

When the professional scientists have lost their sense of moral outrage of such ideologies, then it falls to America 's great community of citizen scientists to be the conscious of science. If we do nothing when others stand and applaud ideologies of pseudoscience and death, then history will hold us all to account for our failure to shake the very rafters in support of truth and human life.

Professor Pianka's ideas are horrifically and dangerously wrong. And they must be struggled against. I urge every reader of The Citizen Scientist to voice their serious concern over this matter in letters and phone calls to the Regents of the University of Texas and to the President of the Texas Academy of Science.

E-mail the Regents of the University of Texas here. Or write Regents of the University of Texas, 201 W. 7th Street, Suite 820, Austin, TX 78701-2981. Telephone: 512-499-4402. Fax: 512-499-4425.

E-mail the President of the Texas Academy of Science here. Or write Dr. David S. Marsh, President, Texas Academy of Science, Headquarters, USAF/DFB, 2355 Faculty Drive, Suite 2P389, United States Air Force Academy, CO 80840-6226. Telephone: 719-333-6031.

Members of the media may call Dr. Shawn Carlson at 401-487-1462.


Special Feature: Meeting Doctor Doom Forrest M. Mims III


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