Bioethics, healthcare policy, and related issues.
I previously posted on controversial remarks by UT biologist Eric Pianka regarding the advisability of a global pandemic that could kill up to 90% of the human species. Relying on an article written by respected amateur scientist and writer Forest M. Mims III, based on his notes of the public address, I accepted Mims’s report that Pianka had openly advocated the deliberate release of Ebola virus for the purpose of accomplishing this mass killing, on grounds that it was necessary to drastically reduce the human population to ensure the ecological stability of the planet. There are a few problems with this scenario, however.
First, Mims appears to be the only witness who believes that is what Pianka was saying that day. Pianka himself denies it, and others present give a different version of his message. Second, Mims’s article has been picked up by the right-wing blogosphere, with predictable results: Pianka has received death threats against himself and his family; many members of the Texas Academy of Science who had nothing whatsoever to do with Pianka or his beliefs have received illiterate, but angry and harrassing, messages, in one case filled with misspellings and all-caps references to the Nazis and, for some reason, the movie Soylent Green; there have been calls for disciplinary action by the university (which to its credit is standing firmly on academic freedom, with the exception of a few board members); and right-wing ideologue and “Intelligent Design” guru William Dembski has reported Pianka to the Department of Homeland Security as a terrorist. The Director of Mims’s parent organization, the Society for Amateur Scientists, has also published an inane and scientifically garbled essay claiming psychological insights into Pianka’s mental health, based on his reading of a second-hand paraphrasal of Pianka’s lecture (“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. . . . [D]epression can be a side effect of aging, especially in men. Moreover, men often express their depression by becoming angry at the world . . . elderly depressed men often become fixated on death. . . . 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 . . .”).
In other words, an ordinary display of scholarly debate from the right wing.
It is increasingly apparent that what Pianka was really saying was far less outrageous than what he is reported to have said. According to Pianka, what he said was that humans had so crowded the planet that a pandemic of some sort was likely – and that he thought that would be a good thing for the planet. He also discussed possible pandemic scenarios and the effects of various infectious agents in creating one. This may or may not be likely on scientific grounds, and there seems no disagreement that Pianka likes to be provocative, but there is also no evidence beyond Mims’s statement, which Pianka denies, that Pianka actually advocated biological genocide as a policy or suggested means of bringing it about deliberately.
Mims himself admits that Pianka disputed his account of the lecture before he went to press. Absurdly, however, he sticks by his own account, and offers for proof a quote from an online student evaluation at Pianka’s UT Web site that claims Pianka made similar claims in class (anyone who has taught at the undergraduate level will recognize the insanity of taking students’ reports of a professor’s remarks as evidence of what the professor actually said). Interestingly, though, Mims’s superior (the same one who conducts long-distance psychological evaluations of people he’s never met through the medium of Mims’s reporter’s notebook), while harshly condemning Pianka, simultaneously states unambiguously that Pianka’s remarks were exactly as Pianka claims:
[Pianka's supporters] 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 [to]survive, and he strongly implies that he thinks it would be a good thing if it did happen.
(He believes Pianka should be suppressed simply because others might get the wrong idea, based on his statements. Naturally, there was a Hitler comparison.)
So what is the dispute about? Not even Mims’s co-worker and direct superior believes him, and the attack on Pianka has partially shifted from “he’s a genocidal loon” to “he’s a provocateur, and some other genocidal loon could take it the wrong way”. Which is hardly an argument calculated to leave the political right wing in a good position.
As for myself, I am sorry I accepted Mims’s account at face value. I knew of his questionable ideological propensities, but also of his remarkable scientific output, and was willing to give him the benefit of doubt. Now it seems clear that Mims was mistaken or dishonest (though, to avoid making the same mistake twice, I should stipulate that there is really not enough evidence to prove either side of the case, although the preponderance appears to rest on Pianka’s side).
This also renders my original question of less importance. Pianka seems less a bomb-thrower than merely one who likes to indulge in provocative speculation – which is an honored scientific tradition. (Anyone who has seen the video of Dr. Jack Geiger’s “The Last Epidemic” speech, on the impact of a single nuclear blast in a crowded city, will recall to what powerful purposes such speculation can be put. No one would accuse him of advocating such a thing.) This does, however, reinforce my comments on the danger of allowing ideology to shut down scholarly inquiry on controversial topics. That appears to be the case here, to an even greater degree than I realized, and I am embarrassed to have dignified it by credulity.
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