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Amused Muse

Inspiring dissent and debate and the love of dissonance

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Master's Degree holder, telecommuting from the hot tub, proud Darwinian Dawkobot, and pirate librarian belly-dancer bohemian secret agent scribe on a mission to rescue bloggers from the wholesome clutches of the pious backstabbing girl fridays of the world.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

John West's Talk at the University of Minnesota, Part 2

The videos are posted! The entire presentation by John West, plus Borrello's rebuttal and the Q&A are now available. You can view them at Rev. Barking Nonsequitur's site. He is working on uploading a teaser to You Tube.

In the meantime, here are my thoughts of what I saw last night. And Rev. Barky wrote his thoughts, too.

What I took away from West’s speech is this:

Eugenics (in the broadest terms) was supported by many in the scientific community, including some of the elite scientists of the time. This is TRUE.

Scientists’ inordinate “power to influence government policy” caused eugenics laws (in the narrowest term of forced sterilization) to be passed in America, and stuffed down the throats of Americans, with the only opposition being the religious lobby. This is FALSE.

Eugenics laws were extremely popular amongst a wide cross-section of the public, just as anti-immigration sentiment is now, or the off-with-their-heads sentiment that has resulted in the imprisonment of minors in adult prison populations for serious crimes (a fad now being rethought in our country due to the higher rate of recidivism of imprisoned youngsters versus those held in juvenile lockup). I suppose someday scientists will be blamed for today's anti-immigrant sentiment, too. (Who was the Republican candidate who said that if abortion had been illegal, we'd now have plenty of [white] workers to do all those jobs done by Mexicans? Answer: Huckabee.)

Eugenics laws were actually being passed at a time when anti-evolution policies were being imposed on public schools. How does that equate eugenics with evolution, Darwin, or with the broader scientific “establishment”?

Eugenics isn’t even good science; it is largely based on “lookism,” and even the most commonly held misconception about lookism today (race) has really no genetic basis. And yet it is largely “evolution dissidents” who insist upon essentialist “racial differences” today (The Bell Curve, Ann Coulter’s Godless, etc.).

It seems that West, like Dembski, is fixated on targeting individual, “elite” scientists (as evidenced in his early characterization of PZ Myers as “the American Richard Dawkins,” as if Myers had no unique contribution of his own) to the exclusion of the scientific method, and wants also to tar broad scientific consensus as some sort of anti-intellectual conspiracy (more on this later). He argued that these anti-evolution policies for public school were insignificant in light of the support of eugenics by a few past “elite” scientists. Yet even these scientists did not agree with the forced sterilization of so-called “feeble-minded” people, a fact West left out.

The question I asked West was this: Although not part of a centralized eugenics program, several things I can think of disproportionately and unjustly affect the poor, people of color, and people in developing countries in the world: namely, global climate change, the availability of birth control, including abortion, and the fact that HIV denialism, the argument that HIV does not cause AIDS, has caused AIDS to devastate several African nations (namely South Africa, whose leader has refused to acknowledge the scientific reality of AIDS as a retrovirus).

I also mentioned to John West that two of his colleagues at the Discovery Institute were HIV denialists – Philip Johnson and Jonathan Wells, and asked him for his response to this, and to lay out a positive program for implementing justice in the world today, in light of these realities I listed.

Dr. West looked sandbagged for a moment. He stated that my question was “so far afield of what we’re discussing here.” Why? Aren’t policies that disproportionately affect the poor, people of color, and people in developing countries a form of eugenics? If not, what are these policies then? They come from somewhere.

Weren’t we after all listening to a presentation on values and how we, in light of the reality of the unjust eugenic laws in the past, should live today? If this has no application to today, why talk about all this stuff that happened in the past, then? Didn’t Dr. West just tell us that we should learn from this story? Didn’t West try to teach us that we should temper “elite” technical expertise with human compassion and valid scientific data? How to do that was precisely what I asked him. I mean, we’re talking about how to be a decent human being, aren’t we? Well, I’m concerned about that, and I thought he was, too. I want to see him as a nice guy, after all—as nice a guy as he kept admitting that Charles Darwin was.

John West said he was concerned about the underlying moral frameworks that support eugenicist ideas—well, so am I! Therefore I’m concerned about the underlying moral frameworks that support global warming denial, HIV denial, restriction of birth control availability, and misconceptions about evolution itself. Surely that’s reasonable.

Then Dr. West stated that he’s “never heard” Jonathan Wells deny that HIV caused AIDS, and that Philip Johnson was not a Discovery Institute fellow. Well. I don’t know how he could not know their relative positions on HIV, but at least now he cannot so easily claim ignorance a second time at another talk. And all he has to do is ask Johnson and Wells, for pete’s sake.

West stated that we should “Keep doing what we’re doing on AIDS.” I couldn’t help but wonder, what would that be? Continuing to withhold condoms? Continuing to substitute valid AIDS treatments with traditional African-centered witch doctors and magic potions? Because that is exactly what is being done in Africa!

But because I had said the word abortion, Dr. West jumped on that and railed against “the rhetoric of choice” as being code for “forced abortion,” apparently because he thinks women doing anything but carrying the baby to term is enslavement. He then stated that he was “not opposed to voluntary birth control.” Well, does that include abortion, then? Somehow I doubt it. I wouldn’t be surprised if his idea of “birth control” means the universal availability of the rhythm method. But of course he would not say that here.

And naturally, he didn’t touch on the global climate change part of my question at all. I knew he would not, and that’s why I brought the issue up. I mentioned it specifically because West had earlier pointed to eugenics as an example of scientists “out of control” and having “too much influence” on the government, just like the “scientific establishment’s present claims about stem cell research and global warming,” which he said “marginalized” those who dared—obviously him—to “disagree” with the overwhelming scientific consensus.

Get the picture of what he was doing, now? Just as those who West claims to have dissented about eugenics in the past, those who “dissent” from the scientific consensus on stem cell research, global warming, evolution, AIDS, and abortion are grassroots heroes! Whereas scientists who today accept the overwhelming evidence for global warming, evolution, the benefits of stem cell research and the availability of birth control and abortion, are out of control hyperintelligent snobbish elitists with too much power to influence government policy, just like those evil eugenicists!

I would laugh at this pettifoggery if the reality of the continued powerlessness of America’s scientists to influence politics wasn’t the tragedy that it has become for our nation.

Ironically, it was people just like Dr. John West who in the past supported eugenics. Eugenics is a pseudoscience. And as there were some otherwise legitimate scientists who also celebrated eugenics, there are today some otherwise legitimate scientists who declare themselves “global warming skeptics” and “are HIV dissenters” and who “dare to challenge the Darwinian materialist monopoly on scientific thought” (in some cases not because they believe it themselves, but because they smell money). These are also pseudosciences, and the scientists who profit from them are the real snobbish elitists in their cynical grab for dollars. These scientists are as wrong as those particular scientists who sided with the majority of the American public in celebrating a policy of forced sterilization.

And yet now the past pseudoscientists who supported eugenics are painted as the “establishment,” while today’s pseudoscientists who proclaim themselves “dissenters” about the HIV to AIDS link, global climate change, and evolution are being raised by Dr. West to the level of heroes fighting the present “establishment.”

And the supreme irony is that in the future, similar pseudoscientists who wish to push their own dubious agenda could likewise point right to today’s pseudoscientific heroes—and to their pseudoscientific agendas of global warming “skepticism,” HIV “dissent,” “the abortion-breast cancer link,” and “intelligent design”—and do the same thing as West did last night. Tomorrow’s pseudoscientists could very well get up in front of young people and claim,

“Kids, can you believe that mainstream scientists once believed in intelligent design, and a link between abortion and breast cancer, and that global warming was a hoax, and that HIV did not cause AIDS? Can you believe that the atheistic, materialist scientific establishment believed this nonsense? Well, nobody knows the secret history! And it was the people of faith who raised objections to these dogmas, who alone pushed for sound science regarding cancer, and proper treatment for AIDS, and limits on carbon emissions. And it was evangelicals who sounded the alarm about global warming, against the overwhelming consensus of the scientific establishment! It was George W. Bush who stood up to scientists and said, ‘Do something about global warming, and don’t teach intelligent design.’ You didn’t know that, did you, boys and girls? That’s not what you were told by the liberal media, is it? And that’s why we should never let scientists have too much power in public policy, ladies and gentlemen! That’s why nonscientists should always be free to dissent from the scientific elite!”

(Okay, that spectacle made me laugh.)

Ironic, wouldn’t it be? No wonder Mark Borrello got so mad after John West’s speech. ID advocates always point at anger as a manifestation of “intolerance.” Borrello got as mad as a relative of mine did when some ignoramus told her, “If we had never nuked Hiroshima and Nagasaki, then the Japanese would never have bombed Pearl Harbor.” (Yeah, there are some butt-stupid people out there!) If you heard that, wouldn’t that ass-backwards statement make you angry, too? Would it be fair to label you “intolerant and close-minded” then?

Well, that’s precisely the kind of revisionist history that John West cleverly presented in last night—using pseudoscience to point to earlier pseudoscience in order to tar the valid scientific community at the time which, in reality, had opposed the pseudoscience all along. That’s exactly the kind of crap the ID advocates are pushing when they say things like, “Once upon a time, scientists thought that the sun went around the earth!” as if the rest of society had not believed it too; as if the rest of society would not still be believing it were it not for those evil scientists.

Oh, that’s clever. That’s really clever. But it is not intellectual, nor is it convincing.

And it just is not true.

UPDATED: Bruce Chapman of the Discovery Institute is claiming that John West "won" on Friday night. My, how "Darwinian" these people are. ;-)

SECOND UPDATE: Rev. Barky and I did not get to the beer party beforehand, so I was wondering if anyone went to John West's subsequent presentation at Christ Presbyterian Church (sponsored by the Minnesota Family Council) the following day, Saturday. In light of his "answer" to my question I would really be curious as to what he had to say on, as is advertised about the second speech:

"The impact Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection, rooted in scientific materialism/naturalism and its negative impact on a wide range of human endeavors including:
Comprehensive sex education
the treatment of crime as mental illness

the use of eugenics, sterilization, and abortion to solve poverty problems
'survival of the fittest' business ethics"

and so on.

Too bad I couldn't go. I would have loved to have been able to ask him a follow-up question demanding how he could be for voluntary birth control but against comprehensive sex education, and if the man who held Hilary Clinton's campaign staff hostage should get mental health treatment or jail.

I've always said that creationism is dangerous, folks. I reiterate that stance now.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

(namely South Africa, whose leader has refused to acknowledge the scientific reality of AIDS as a retrovirus).

hmm, IIRC, he finally backed out of that contention a few months back. Might want to check the news archives.

still, I keep wondering how much damage could have been avoided had he never made the asinine contention to begin with.

December 01, 2007 10:55 PM  
Blogger Kristine said...

Mbeki backed off, yes, but then he reiterated it once more, so he didn't really back out. He also compared legitimate scientists to the Nazis.

But the real disaster was him placing Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang in charge.

The two of them have wreaked havoc on South Africa, and a real number has been done to the rest of Africa, too.

I don't get it. Does anyone care? Is this a joke to the Discovery Institute?

December 01, 2007 11:38 PM  
Blogger Kristine said...

How could I forget this? Dr. Tara's post Mbeki: Still in Denial. Even Christine Maggiore shows up!

December 02, 2007 12:02 AM  
Blogger kehrsam said...

Kristine: To be fair to West (now there's a sentence that rankles) check out the biology text used by John Scopes. It contains one chapter on "evolution," with the vast majority of the text dedicated to eugenics. Eugenics was also approved by Justice Holmes and the Supremems in Buck v Bell. Put that together with Piltdown Man and a few other clues and it is pretty clear that the science of evolution was seriously confused by pseudoscience in the early years of the 20th Century.

But here is where West's version stops making sense: It fixed itself. That's the nice thing about science, even when it falls into a dead end, the data will keep bringing it back to deal with reality. As opposed to Dr. West.

December 02, 2007 6:01 AM  
Blogger Kristine said...

It doesn't rankle me to be fair to West. As a matter of fact, I was accepting the majority of his presentation and running with it! If he's so worried about the poor, people of color, developing nations, etc., how can the Discovery Institute wed itself to the global warming denialist movement and, of all things, the HIV denialist movement?

He was trying to make the case that Darwin was "a nice guy" but that his theory was misused by "scientists" because they had no moral underpinnings (unlike the Pope). What hogwash. If anyone is confused and without moral underpinnings, its the folks at the Discovery Institute. They are not going to come out of this looking very well - and in the meantime, while they went around minding everyone else's business about whether or not we believed in God, this nation did nothing about global warming and could not use its incredible power and influence to promote sound AIDS information.

Yes, I think West is a "nice guy," and it's true that Scopes was largely teaching crap. But I have to question West's true motivation here.

December 02, 2007 1:14 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mark Borello did a great job of rebutting West's points --- especially with so little time to prepare.

I wonder, however, what would have happened if Mark had instead based his presentation on the religious leaders of the day who not only favored eugenics, but were leaders in the movement---and who invoked religious principles in support of eugenics. Therefore, if we should curb the power of scientists in policy matters, then should we not also curb the power of those who speak in the name of religion? And if scientists' support of eugenics impugns the truth of evolution, should not clerics' support of eugenics impugn the truth of their theology?

The talk was hosted by a religious student organization. Perhaps the Mars Hill attendees would have seen West's fallacies more clearly if West's same logic were applied to their own, rather than to the outsiders, the scientists. Just a thought.

(BTW, Kristine, do you know who was the older white-haired man in the back who identified himself as a lawyer and asked a wandering non-question that made a luke-warm defense of the DI?)

December 03, 2007 9:36 PM  
Blogger Kristine said...

I too think that Borrello did a fantastic job, and that more needs to be said about support for forced sterilization among the clergy - and opposition to it from the scientists (Dobzhansky and Huxley among them).

No, I don't know that guy - he came up and asked my boyfriend if he was PZ Myers!

December 04, 2007 12:30 AM  

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