Sep 14 2010

Irish Minister for Science in Anti-Science Scandal

I file this one under, “what the hell was he thinking?” The Irish Minister for Science had planned to attend the launching of an anti-intellectual, anti-scientific ignorant rant in book form and apparently did not see any problem with this until he was widely and publicly criticized. Then he withdrew – at the request of the author, it is rather dubiously claimed.

Conor Lenihan, the Minister of Science, wanted to support his friend and constituent, John May. Apart from being the leader of the V-resistance, May is also the author of a book called The Origin of Specious Nonsense, in which he calls evolution, “A Hoax”, “A Joke”, “A Fantasy”, “An Impossibility”, “A Fiction”, “A Fairytale For Adults”, “The greatest deceit in the history of science.” May’s book is a triumph of ignorance over information (more on that below).

Lenihan’s support for this book is nothing short of a Scandal. First, he is the Minister of Science and it is profoundly naive of him to think that he can personally support a book like May’s and separate his personal support from that of his office. Officials make this mistake all the time, and frankly I always have a hard time believing that they believe it. Rather I think it is either intellectually lazy or disingenuous. Those on the fringe are desperate for validation, and they will grasp at any apparent validation to promote themselves. So when a university sponsors a talk, the reputation of that university will be invoked to support the speaker. When an official recognizes the existence of a crank, that crank will use that recognition as official support. When a new program showcases a nutjob, that news program will forever be emblazoned on the nutjob’s website.

The Irishtimes reports:

Speaking from Galway earlier last night, Mr Lenihan said while he “remained to be convinced” by Mr May’s arguments, he would be attending the launch in a personal capacity and as he believed “diversity of opinion is a good thing”. However following Mr May’s request he has withdrawn from the launch.

“Remained to be convinced?” Anyone with a modicum of scientific literacy should recognize May’s books as an uninformed populist anti-intellectual screed, not a serious scientific argument. Lenihan has quite plainly demonstrated that he is not competent to hold his office.

He then makes the “diversity of opinion” gambit. This is the “teach the controversy” and “equal time” argument that creationists have been trying to sell for decades. It is the defense of populism against scholarship and intellectual quality control. Not all ideas in science are equal – some have more merit than others.  And it is not just a spectrum – some arguments are based upon logical fallacies or demonstrable misstatements of fact. There is no legitimate place in science or academia for political or theological opinions masquerading as scholarship.

May describes himself as:

“…like Abraham Lincoln, self-educated, and might be viewed as a polymath, left school young and commenced my real education”.

I have no problem with someone being self-educated, and in fact I think we should all spend our lives educating ourselves. But it is extremely difficult to master a complex and technical scientific discipline, even with a formal education. It becomes almost impossible to do it from the outside, without the benefit of mentors or years of formal education. I am not talking about just become competent, but mastering a discipline to the point where you can stand toe-to-toe with the experts and put your knowledge and opinions up against theirs.

Almost without exception (I am willing to admit the possibility of exceptions out there, but I am not aware of any), those who champion their self-education and attempt to argue that they are correct while the experts are all wrong are suffering from delusions of grandeur. They are ignorant of the profound level of their own ignorance.

It is easy to dismiss such a position as “elitist”, and that is the populist mantra. But it simply makes sense – of course those who study and practice for years have a better command of the science than those who have not. Also, people generally underestimate the value of continuity of expertise. It is why a country can maintain leadership in an area for decades – another country cannot simply manufacture a culture of expertise by reading books and articles.

The same is true in other areas of excellence as well. We don’t expect a self-trained gymnast to compete in the Olympics against those who have been trained by experts. Talent only takes you so far.

John May is a perfect example of all this. He has just enough knowledge and arrogance to make a jackass out of himself. Search on The Origin of Specious Nonsense and take a look for yourself – read the excerpt from his book and look at his YouTube rants. I know books are always sold with hyperbole, but he actually claims this is the most controversial book in decades. The truth is, it was wallowing in anonymity until the Lenihan scandal, and would have likely remained there.

May has nothing new to say. I have yet to detect an original argument or thought on his part. He makes the same tired claims that have failed creationists for decades. He spends a great deal of time going over the “gee whiz” complexity of biology, declaring everything a “mystery”. Much of what he is saying is only a mystery to May, not biologists who actually know the science. He declares the claims of scientists “bullshit” and dismisses them by raw assertion. He states that scientists simply guess at the ages of fossils, and makes no mention of dating methods actually used.

He also notes that fossils are always found “fully formed,” as if this is a blow to evolutionary theory. Clearly he harbors the same simplistic misconception that Banana Man Ray Comfort and his crocoduck lackey have, that evolutionary theory predicts the existence of half-formed monsters or impossible hybrids between members of distant evolutionary branches.

What May does not do, at least in the material found on his website, is confront the actual overwhelming evidence for evolution, leaving one with the impression that he is simply not aware of this evidence.

May is the finest example of the triumph of hubris and ignorance over education and enlightenment. He then champions that ignorance on his website and in his book, and arrogantly thinks that he is so brilliant, that even without a formal education he is going to single-handedly topple a well-established scientific theory that has stood the test of time for the last century or so.

What is even more amazing is that a man who is charged with the promotion  of science for a nation was unable to see May for what he is. Lenihan should resign in shame – he is clearly not competent to be the page-boy of science, let alone the Minister of Science.

20 responses so far

20 Responses to “Irish Minister for Science in Anti-Science Scandal”

  1. stompsfrogson 14 Sep 2010 at 9:43 am

    Perhaps he doesn’t think he’s “…going to single-handledly topple a well-established scientific theory…”. Perhaps he thinks he’s going to sell a bunch of books to idiots and fleece them of some money.

    Just sayin’.

    Also, WTF is up with this: ? Acai weight loss berries?

  2. donegalguy2on 14 Sep 2010 at 9:49 am

    lol that is hillarious acai weight loss berries. I agree completely with you Steven and coming from Ireland it is very embarrassing that we have a science minister with such poor judgment but coming on the day that our taoiseach/President goes on the radio drunk it is hardly surprising.

  3. titmouseon 14 Sep 2010 at 9:55 am

    A minister of science knowingly or unknowingly gets suckered into promoting anti-science wankery. That’s potentially a career-destroying move (though not for naturopath-friendly Dr. Josephine Briggs), so what’s up with Conor Lenihan? Why he do dat?

    Let’s round up the usual suspects. Then we can place bets on our favorites. Imma start:

    1. Dementia/brain damage
    2. Cake-and-eat-it-too character disorder heavy on the egocentrism
    3. The love that dare not speak its name
    4. Some reality-distorting cult/sub-culture/movement
    5. Blackmail/extortion

    If Lenihan is on the conservative side of the political spectrum, I vote for some combination of #3 and #5.

  4. titmouseon 14 Sep 2010 at 9:59 am

    That acai berry web page is likely the default for some domain name squatter business.

  5. stompsfrogson 14 Sep 2010 at 10:16 am

    I figured it didn’t have anything to do with the politician in question, but it’s one of the first things that google comes back with when you search his name. So you think Conor Lenihan didn’t want to buy from some squatter? They should take advantage of that… OR WE CAN! MUAHAHAHA!

    Well, not me, I’m lazy. Somebody could.

  6. Joeon 14 Sep 2010 at 12:55 pm

    There is a great article on the “arrogance of ignorance” here:

  7. eeanon 14 Sep 2010 at 1:34 pm

    One of the more useful things provided by my undergraduate education was realizing how ignorant I was of so many things. OTOH, sounds like this guy still thinks like a teenage hotshot.

  8. CrookedTimberon 14 Sep 2010 at 3:17 pm

    Clear take down as always Steve.
    But I have to say I admire the moxy it takes to declare oneself a polymath. I may have to add that to future business cards thusly:
    “CrookedTimber, esquire and one might even say polymath”

  9. Rikki-Tikki-Tavion 14 Sep 2010 at 4:07 pm

    I know we are all preaching to the choir here, but what got me, as an engineer (-to be) so much I need to let of a little steam was when (on youtube) he talks about the heart.

    How it can pump large amounts of liquid, and function for a hundred years, as an example of something that no engineer could make in that size.

    It seems he doesn’t even know, that the body constantly regenerates itself, that everything in the body gets gradually swapped out.

    And also: who says we can’t build a pump that size that runs for a hundred years? I mean sure, you’d need some premium materials (especially for the bearings), but I think it’s essentially doable.
    At least I strongly suspect he has never done any research before claiming it’s impossible.

  10. tortorificon 15 Sep 2010 at 4:02 am

    “Almost without exception (I am willing to admit the possibility of exceptions out there, but I am not aware of any), those who champion their self-education and attempt to argue that they are correct while the experts are all wrong are suffering from delusions of grandeur.”

    James Randi? He does happily tear apart PhD holding experts and sometimes those experts are talking about crackpot beliefs within their area of expertise. I know you were talking about beliefs that are held to be correct or at least highly plausible by the scientific community at large but still I think it’s a relevant point. Rigorous scientific training doesn’t make you not an idiot and sometimes the guy without the degree is the one talking sense.

  11. John2on 15 Sep 2010 at 4:24 am

    Tortorific, you give James Randi as an example of someone who claims that all the experts are wrong, but do you have a single example of him ever actually doing that?

    In which area would he even try to call the scientific consensus into doubt?

    I genuinely don’t understand what you are trying to say about the man, but this characterization of him seems very wrong.

  12. tortorificon 15 Sep 2010 at 5:42 am

    No, that’s not what I said. In fact I specifically differentiated Randi from people who go against the scientific consensus. I may not have been especially coherent due in part to a combination of illness and flu tablets but the second sentence

    “I know you were talking about beliefs that are held to be correct or at least highly plausible by the scientific community at large but still I think it’s a relevant point.”

    was meant to indicate that I know that Randi doesn’t argue against those things but I feel the point is still valid for the reasons discussed.

  13. SteveAon 15 Sep 2010 at 7:15 am

    Tortorific: “James Randi? He does happily tear apart PhD holding experts and sometimes those experts are talking about crackpot beliefs within their area of expertise.”

    I’ve obviously never listened to everything that Randi’s every said, but from what I’ve heard he does seems to stick to his own area of expertise ie stage magic and how intelligent people can get taken in by simple trickery being passed off as real.

  14. Steven Novellaon 15 Sep 2010 at 8:25 am

    The situation with Randi is different. He is not saying that as a self-taught man he knows better than the consensus of scientific opinion.

    Rather, he says that he has a specific areas of expertise, part of a tradition of expertise in magic and deception, that is sometimes relevant to scientific research. It is an expertise that scientists may lack and not even be aware they need for particular types of research. Randi’s examples generally involve researchers going outside their area of expertise and into Randi’s, without really knowing it.

    Really, no analogy there.

  15. sheajon 15 Sep 2010 at 9:33 am

    Hi Steven,

    I’m not attempting to give any credence to Mr May in anyway, but is there anything in his argument that there is no evidence for evolution at a biochemical level?

    I know there plenty of evidence in the genetic (mitochondrial DNA) and fossil areas and just like a crime scene, if you don’t have one form of evidence (e.g. eye-witness) does not negate any others that do exist (fingerprints, DNA, confession etc)

  16. jaranathon 15 Sep 2010 at 10:32 am

    I think totorific’s point is that we have to be careful not to automatically assume one must have qualifications as an authority in a given area to correctly disagree with authorities in said area, especially when they’re failing to think scientifically or skeptically.

    I agree it’s not directly relevant, but it’s a fair reminder.

  17. John2on 15 Sep 2010 at 11:55 am

    My point was that we can’t use Randi as an example of someone who is self taught and who holds that ALL the experts are wrong, because he’s never done that.

    It’s the arguing against the consensus as a non-expert that tends to mark one out as a bit of a loon, not arguing against one particular scientist who may or may not be incorrect.

    There are countless examples of people who do do the above, though. My old field of particle physics attracts a lot of cranks who fall into this category, people who are self taught who just think that the consensus can’t be right.

  18. BillyJoe7on 16 Sep 2010 at 12:22 am

    “My point was that we can’t use Randi as an example of someone who is self taught and who holds that ALL the experts are wrong, because he’s never done that.”

    Actually, that is incorrect. He has contradicted the consensus scientific view on climate change.

  19. tortorificon 16 Sep 2010 at 7:08 am

    Randi’s wishy washy on climate change, it’s a bit crap but not necessarily claiming the scientific community is wrong.

    I agree that the appeal to lack of authority is bogus but there are a lot of well educated idiots out there too.

    Sometimes experts make silly mistakes. All of us involved in science have read papers outside our field that were obviously wrong; where someone is doing dodgy sub group analysis, anomaly hunting or has just completely missed the point. I’ve gotten into arguments with people talking about these kinds of things where their counter argument has been very similar to what Dr Novella has said. Recently I was discussing Luc Montagnier’s paper on electromagnetic signals from bacterial DNA, it’s obvious that he’s anomaly hunting, even though I’m a physicist and know very little about bacterial DNA I can see the error that invalidates the paper, I don’t need the expertise in that field even though I’m disagreeing with a Nobel prize winner.

    I know there is a big difference between one crazy kook with excellent credentials and a consensus of opinion throughout the scientific community but you get my point. Maybe I’m nit picking or just taking out some of my annoyance over that argument out this article (sorry).

  20. rmcon 30 Sep 2010 at 12:09 am

    Re: the heart, “How it can pump large amounts of liquid, and function for a hundred years, as an example of something that no engineer could make in that size.”

    Function for a hundred years? An uncommon outcome for our hearts, actually. I’m always amazed at the stupidity of the “how could something so complex and perfect come about through a series of accidents, rather than by intelligent design?” argument. Eyes, perfect? Why are there so many LASIK surgeons then, and why do we deal with incurable macular degeneration in old age? Bipedalism? Why so do so many people grapple with foot and back disorders, if this feature was intelligently designed rather than a marginally effective modification from quadrupedalism? Yes, the human body is complex and fascinating and still houses many processes that can be described as mysteries… but intelligently designed?

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