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 However following Mr May’s request he has withdrawn from the launch.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.

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