Bioethics, healthcare policy, and related issues.
How much freedom of inquiry is too much? How outrageous do someone’s remarks have to be to call down censure? And what should the reaction of the scholarly community be to someone who seems clearly off the deep end on questions of policy, but is otherwise a respectable scholar?
Some on the right wing are taking perhaps-understandable exception to reported remarks of Dr. Eric Pianka, a herpetologist at UT Austin. Pianka was recently awarded the Texas Academy of Science’s Distinguished Scientist of 2006 award – and to all accounts deservedly, on the basis of his biological research. Pianka, however, is apparently kind of a “character”, and he offered remarks at the same session at which he received that award advocating a program of deliberate biological warfare with the goal of mass genocide of 90% of the human species. Which seems a bit extreme.
The speech was not recorded, apparently at Pianka’s request, but notes were taken by Forest Mims III, a well-respected amateur scientist with extensive scientific publishing and editing experience (and who is Chair of the Environmental Science Section of the Texas Academy of Science, but also an “Intelligent Design” proponent). His report paraphrasing Pianka’s remarks is here:
One of Pianka’s earliest points was a condemnation of anthropocentrism, or the idea that humankind occupies a privileged position in the Universe. He told a story about how a neighbor asked him what good the lizards are that he studies. He answered, “What good are you?”
Pianka hammered his point home by exclaiming, “We’re no better than bacteria!”
Pianka then began laying out his concerns about how human overpopulation is ruining the Earth. He presented a doomsday scenario in which he claimed that the sharp increase in human population since the beginning of the industrial age is devastating the planet. He warned that quick steps must be taken to restore the planet before it’s too late.
Saving the Earth with Ebola
Professor Pianka said the Earth as we know it will not survive without drastic measures. Then, and without presenting any data to justify this number, he asserted that the only feasible solution to saving the Earth is to reduce the population to 10 percent of the present number.
He then showed solutions for reducing the world’s population in the form of a slide depicting the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. War and famine would not do, he explained. Instead, disease offered the most efficient and fastest way to kill the billions that must soon die if the population crisis is to be solved. . . .
AIDS is not an efficient killer, he explained, because it is too slow. His favorite candidate for eliminating 90 percent of the world’s population is airborne Ebola ( Ebola Reston ), because it is both highly lethal and it kills in days, instead of years. However, Professor Pianka did not mention that Ebola victims die a slow and torturous death as the virus initiates a cascade of biological calamities inside the victim that eventually liquefy the internal organs.
After praising the Ebola virus for its efficiency at killing, Pianka paused, leaned over the lectern, looked at us and carefully said, “We’ve got airborne 90 percent mortality in humans. Killing humans. Think about that.” . . .
After a dramatic pause, Pianka returned to politics and environmentalism. But he revisited his call for mass death when he reflected on the oil situation.
“And the fossil fuels are running out,” he said, “so I think we may have to cut back to two billion, which would be about one-third as many people.” So the oil crisis alone may require eliminating two-third’s of the world’s population. . . .
The audience laughed [during the question period] when he said, “You know, the bird flu’s good, too.” They laughed again when he proposed, with a discernable note of glee in his voice that, “We need to sterilize everybody on the Earth.”
Mims professes outrage that such a person would be granted a science award by a reputable organization. Dr. Bevery Nuckols, of Lifeethics.org, has a more nuanced, but no less outraged, response:
In this case, if the “scientist” followed his own advice – or induces one of his impressionable followers to do so – however, he would set off a random killing of billions of our fellow human beings. For the leadership of the Texas Academy of Science to follow through with their award to this man on the day of his irresponsible speech does not impress me with either the intelligence, competence or responsibility of that organization.
Humans are the only species which discuss or act on moral ideas. We are the only protection men like Pianka – or our children of tomorrow – have. Does anyone believe that the remnant of humans who survived a world wide holocaust such as the one Pianka proposes would govern by democracy or representative democracy? Would they preserve the right to life and liberty, much less free speech?
As for me, I don’t know what to expect from post-apocalyptic humans, or why they would not value free speech or democracy as much as or more than we do. And I don’t see a direct link between a person’s political or moral beliefs and their scientific credentials, or a clear endorsement of the former in an award granted for the latter. I am inclined to support the right of researchers to shoot their mouths off – even controversially, even perhaps to some degree irresponsibly – on the policy implications of their professional knowledge. In fact, there may be greater freedom to do that on really outrageous topics – there is certainly little likelihood that anyone is actually going to die of Ebola sp. infection on the basis of Pianka’s suggestions. And, of course, the dangers of censorship and of academic tests for political correctness are well known. Excellent scholars have often been banned or otherwise met with hostility for taking controversial positions – Bertrand Russell, Peter Singer, and Linus Pauling are well-known examples; in historical perspective these acts seem obviously misguided, but the temptation remains strong to shut down unpopular thinkers (Singer, in particular, is still picketed and often prevented from speaking), and the effects on less-prominent academics are no doubt even worse.
On the other hand, it’s hard to take some things casually. Pianka’s apparent off-handed call for the deliberate mass-murder of 5 1/2 billion people is hardly a joking matter. To the extent that he’s serious, it’s unconscionable. But we must be careful about the grounds on which we react.
What’s wrong with Pianka’s suggestion, of course, is that it comprehends mass killing (and under painful circumstances, as Mims points out). But his ostensible grounds for making that suggestion are not irrational: the human species has wreaked incomprehensible environmental damage on the planet on a scale that has already caused what some regard as history’s 6th mass extinction, and which threatens the survival of innumerable non-human species. There is an open question what maximum human population level is compatible with environmental stability, and from a certain perspective you can also claim that the human species has no inherent value greater than that of any other (including bacteria). It is not an unreasonable position to suggest that the human species population ought to be very much smaller than it is, out of deference to some notion of relative species worth or to lessen our environmental impact. If Pianka had merely suggested that humans should allow their population to dwindle by 90% naturally, he would be dismissed as a crank but not as genocidal. Perhaps that is an impractical strategy, however – if so, his logical step to the idea of mass killing to achieve the same goal is understandable even if difficult to endorse. But the point is that there is nothing about this that is irrational, even if we regard it as wrong. And in order to preserve freedom for controversial points of view, we have to grant scholars – or anyone – the freedom to pursue even frightening or offensive lines of thought. And it is easy to see how important this is in the cases of such figures as Singer, Chomsky, or Russell – all brilliant thinkers who made major contributions to their fields, even outside their controversial suggestions, but whose more provocative policy recommendations were regarded as anathema by some, who then sought to suppress or punish them for it.
However, the same argument can be applied to nutcases like Holocaust deniers or racial-superiority advocates. We can debate their claims on grounds of fact and logic – and many have done so – but at some point we often feel that we are doing the troublemakers a favor by refuting them, in the sense of giving them the academic respectability of a voice on a subject on which there is no real debate. And, from a factual, rather than a moral perspective, the same is true of “Intelligent Design” advocates, whose claims are notably worthless on scientific grounds but who take every opportunity to put themselves in the limelight by provoking real scientists and science educators. Interestingly, Mims has been making hay for years out of the fact that he lost a writing gig at Scientific American when it became known he advocated ID, arguing that he should have the right to advocate on scientific grounds claims that virtually all scientists regard as nonsense; he has no compunction, though, about arguing that a distinguished scientist should not be honored for actual scientific work, by reason of statements he has made that are controversial on moral grounds. That seems ironic.
So it can be difficult to separate clearly nutty ideas from merely controversial ones, other than by debating them openly (and advocates of the suppression of certain ideas are conveniently in favor of open debate about their own nutty ones). That may not be a bad thing – debate and evidence are supposed to be the lifeblood of scholarship. But it sticks in the craw to debate clearly ridiculous ideas, especially offensive ones, and it is infuriating to see non-reputable ideas -whether ID or genocide – granted credence out of some procedural deference to debate alone.
I am tempted toward some lame fallback position like “everyone should be allowed to say what they want, but they have a responsibility to say only things that are true and morally responsible”. But what I really want is some clearer test for who is so far beyond the pale they don’t need to be granted a hearing, and who is merely so incompatible with the conventional wisdom that they should be. And I don’t know which camp Pianka falls into.
UPDATE: Please see my follow-on post on this same incident. It appears that initial reports on Dr. Pianka’s statements were distorted, possibly for ideological reasons.
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