Dr. Doom

By Sean Carroll | April 4, 2006 5:31 pm

This story is so amazing/silly/horrifying that it’s taken a few days to sink in. Short version: Dr. Eric Pianka of the University of Texas, an internationally recognized ecologist, goes around giving talks warning that the Earth is in major trouble. We’re headed for an ecological disaster, and human beings in particular are in serious danger of being wiped out by a deadly virus like Ebola, perhaps leading to the death of 90% of our current population. It might even be good for the environment over all (although bad for us, obviously). He’s an alarmist, no doubt about it, but it’s better to hear about such disaster scenarios than to simply ignore them.

And then — and here’s the part that is so bizarre that it takes a while to really believe it — “citizen scientist” and creationist Forrest Mims apparently heard Pianka give a talk, and decided that Pianka is advocating that we release a virus to kill 90% of the Earth’s population. Completely untrue, of course; just a simple-minded and mean-spirited twisting of the guy’s words. Even from the original story, you could tell that there was a serious disconnect between portrayal and reality — the actual quotes from Pianka didn’t measure up to the surrounding alarmist hysteria.

But the right-wing/creationist blogosphere has gone completely nutso over this. I thought my fellow left-wing/scientific friends might be exaggerating the reaction a bit, but it’s true — dozens of posts about the crazy “Dr. Doom” who longs to bring down our civilization through bioterrorism. ID advocate (and tireless defender of academic freedom!) William Dembski has taken the obvious step for someone who is unhinged but nevertheless concerned — he has reported Pianka to the Department of Homeland Security. A good summary of the craziness has been written by Nick Matzke at the Panda’s Thumb; more coverage from PZ Myers (and here), Ed Brayton, Wesley Elsberry (and here), and DarkSyde (and here).

There’s a lesson here, although damned if I can figure out what it is. PZ thinks that these people are just anti-academic, and that it’s part of a campaign to discredit the very notion of expertise. But I suspect that it’s less calculated than that — we’re talking about folks who find it completely plausible to imagine that liberal biology professors are eager to wipe out most of the human race. The basic cognitive short-circuit seems to be an inability to understand the difference between a sentiment of the form “A human population of one billion is more ecologically sustainable than one of six billion” and something like “I would like to personally murder five out of every six living people.” It’s the right-wing equivalent of people who think that the 9/11 attacks were orchestrated by Halliburton and/or the Mossad. Except that it’s not a fringe movement; the buzz is all over the right hemiblogosphere, and was straightforwardly reported by Matt Drudge and others.

Next time I mention that a decay of our vacuum state via bubble nucleation could wipe out life on Earth, I’ll make sure there aren’t any creationists in the audience. I can’t imagine explaining that to the Department of Homeland Security.

  • http://mixingmemory.blogspot.com Chris

    I’ve got to agree with your take: this is just what liberal, atheistic scientists, especially biologists, are supposed to be doing: advocating or carrying out the destruction of mankind. I honestly think that Dembski is (just) bright enough to suspect that there might be some untruth in Mims account, but Dembski is also (just) bright enough to recognize that this story will play to his audience’s stereotypes and paranoia, and further his own agenda.

  • Spatulated

    I saw this on digg.com. It’s ridiculous, one guy, one in a room of a few hundred (and that’s a number he gave himself) is the only one smart enough to notice the conspiracy of academia and the only one moral enough to be offended? Savior complex, anyone?

    oh and hi, i am new to this blog. love what i have read, i have been looking for a good science blog for a while and this one seems to fit pretty well.

  • Tom Ames

    It’s important to remember that last year the Discovery Institute hired Creative Response Concepts, the PR firm that helped the “Swift Boat Veterans” smear John Kerry.

    It’s quite possible that this latest assault is part of a coordinated campaign.

  • http://www.badastronomy.com/bablog Phil Plait, aka The Bad Astronomer

    I chimed in on this as well. Dembski sickens me.

  • http://motls.blogspot.com/ Lubos Motl

    If you have any doubts that Prof. Pianka has been preaching and teaching the extermination of 90% of people by Ebola for years, see my blog where I prove it.

  • bible burner

    right hemiblogosphere, LOL.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    Thanks, Phil; not sure how I missed that. And thanks, Lubos, for allowing us to see the mindset in action. People might otherwise suspect I was exaggerating.

  • hack

    If you have any doubts that Lubos Motl has descended into utter crackpotism, see his blog where he proves it.

  • StringyDude

    Thanks for covering this Sean.

    I saw it yesterday at some blog and smelled BS but I didn’t have time to chase it down.

  • Spatulated

    @lobos, you quote 1 student as proof? oh and i followed the links of 4 of your “sources” all of which talk about the situation, non of them have direct quotes unless they are quoting what Mims’s said that Pianka said. not much proof

  • http://iso42.blogspot.com Wolfgang

    > quote 1 student as proof?

    Actually two. The first student evaluating Pianka’s course wrote:
    “I don’t root for ebola, but maybe a ban on having more than one child.
    I agree . . . too many people ruining this planet. ”

    The second wrote:
    “Though I agree that convervation biology is of utmost importance to the world, I do not think that preaching that 90% of the human population should die of ebola is the most effective means of encouraging conservation awareness.”

    This was in 2004.

  • http://www.coyotemercury.com/blog1 James

    Unreal. I first heard about it from a few lefty blogs that had apparently only heard the spin from right blogistan. I guess Mark Twain was right: a lie can make it half way around the world while the truth is still tying its shoes. Sigh.

  • Elliot

    great now I have to worry about our vacuum state decaying. On top of everything else….

    Elliot

  • michaeld

    At first I thought this was just right-wing nonsense, but Brenna’s blog entry seems to be very strong evidence the other way.

    “In fact, his hope, if you can call it that, is that the ebola virus which attacks humans currently (but only through blood transmission) will mutate with the ebola virus that attacks monkeys airborne to create an airborne ebola virus that attacks humans. He’s a radical thinker, that one! I mean, he’s basically advocating for the death of all but 10% of the current population! And at the risk of sounding just as radical, I think he’s right.”
    http://brenmccnnll.blogspot.com/2006/03/dr.html

    I don’t know whether she accurately represented what he said but at any rate this demonstrates that the fact he’s advocating mass-death is not just a right-wing anti-environmentalist mirepresentation of his words – he has supporters who also think he’s saying that.

  • http://arunsmusings.blogspot.com Arun

    Perhaps at a minimum the following is true (from the students’ evaluations of Prof. P’s course):

    Pianka is so weird. I counldn’t stand him at first. I thought he was arrogant and racist but then I learned that he’s just upset at us Homo sapiens and he’s equally predjudiced to all classes of people.

    A misanthrope at best.

  • Cynthia

    Sean, thanks for sharing this post which aptly captures the profound ruthlessness of the ID culture. One primary goal of the ID movement is to design a social order with a citizenry devoid of open thoughts. Because one prominent facet of the science community cultivates free thinking outside the confines of social order, the ID movement perceives the science community as a significant barrier in their quest for social order. More specifically, the social engineers of this movement are preying upon the vulnerability of the religious arm of the right wing constituency – in turn – grooming them to become righteous soldiers in their quest to achieve maximum social order. This movement is training these soldiers of religion to direct their attacks upon the most challenging threat to social order: the free thinking realm of the science community. If you share my sentiment regarding this unjust smear campaign against the free thinking arm of the science community, I challenge a collective body of scientists to unite and develop a strategy to counter these preemptive assaults upon the scientific landscape – assaults which are aimed to curb the diversity of scientific thought. Once again, I will descend from my “virtual soapbox”.

  • http://electrogravity.blogspot.com/ Science

    Thanks Sean for this link http://uts.cc.utexas.edu/~varanus/eric.html which leads to http://uts.cc.utexas.edu/~varanus/Everybody.html :

    “Humans have overpopulated the Earth and in the process have created an ideal nutritional substrate on which bacteria and viruses (microbes) will grow and prosper. We are behaving like bacteria growing on an agar plate, flourishing until natural limits are reached or until another microbe colonizes and takes over, using them as their resource. In addition to our extremely high population density, we are social and mobile, exactly the conditions that favor growth and spread of pathogenic (disease-causing) microbes. … People just don’t want to hear it. …

    “I do not bear any ill will toward humanity. However, I am convinced that the world WOULD clearly be much better off without so many of us. Simply stopping the destruction of rainforests would help mediate some current planetary ills, including the release of previously unknown pathogens. …”

    Dr Erik Pianka is merely stating the obvious: there are too many people around and too much hot air coming out of them, too little useful action. People like Dr Lubos Motl are confused and potentially unhelpful.

  • http://iso42.blogspot.com Wolfgang

    > Dr Erik Pianka is merely stating the obvious: there are too many people around

    Do you agree Sean?

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    Heck if I know. It’s a difficult and important question, one we should be thinking about rationally. Pretending not to understand the difference (or, even worse, actually not understanding the difference) betwee “there are too many people around” and “therefore we should start exterminating the excess” is just silly.

  • http://iso42.blogspot.com Wolfgang

    Yes, but blurring the line between the two or defending people who do so would be worse than just silly…

  • Science

    Lethal H5N1 human-infecting bird flu has just been confirmed in a dead Swan here in Britain. Professor Hugh Pennington predicts that up to 2,000,000 could die if it spreads in humans like ordinary colds/flu: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/4345079.stm

    70% of people infected in Asia and Europe have died. It mutate and spread from person-to-person if someone infected with ordinary flu gets bird flu, and the viruses combine. In 1918, 50 million died.

    One of Dr Pianka’s points is that diseases from animals when humans invade their habitats. Ebola spread from bats and monkeys to humans, for example. Books by Jared Diamond and others Pianka cites explain that there are natural reservoirs of diseases in rainforests. When you move in, the diseases spread out, crossing species. Flu can start with reptiles, spread to birds such as wildfowl in the jungles of Vietnam or wherever, and then be carried across the world when birds migrate. It could spread to the U.S.

  • Cynthia

    Wolfgang, i think you are missing the “big picture” on this story. The ID movement has a well defined agenda. Their agenda is to weed-out ( at any cost ) any scientist who does not fit their political mold. Forrest Mims and company have simply spun the “deadly virus” story until the original content/context of the story was twisted beyond recognition. This tactic of “high-speed spin” is repeatedly used by the ID movement in order to bring destruction to the scientists who fall out of the ID political scope of practice. Therefore, the IDers are the ultimate exterminators of humans, not Dr. Pianka.

  • http://iso42.blogspot.com Wolfgang

    I do not see what Pianka’s ideas about overpopulation and ebola have to do with evolution or creationism. It is either just some tasteless and morbid talk or perhaps much worse.
    The two students, mentioned above, wrote their course evaluations in 2004 and were obviously not part of the evolution vs ID debate.

  • howard

    I can’t help but be horrified at Dr Pianka’s attitude “I am convinced that the world WOULD clearly be much better off without so many of us.” It is one thing to suggest that conditions are ripe for a pandemic which would decimate humanity. [Or worse, as he suggests we are ~10x overpopulated.] It is quite another to actively root for the disease. Dr Pianka says he doesn’t have any ill will towards humanity — but when he says 9 out of 10 have to go, it’s obvious that he doesn’t value human life.

    It is a small step from the above quotation to wondering just who are the excess persons. Perhaps the Chinese, as the most populous nation on Earth? Or Americans, as those who are the greatest consumers? Perhaps some other criterion – Texans? short people? atheists? blondes? [Sorry, I had to inject some humor into a grim topic. I love blondes, really I do.] It must be said that I haven’t seen any post indicating that Dr Pianka is advocating for/against any particular group here; but surely it’s not a great leap to imagine a demented person wishing to act “for the good of the world”. And there is no shortage of those with definite opinions about which groups are worthless. At any rate, a statement that there ought to be fewer of us humans immediately brings forth the question of how to reduce the population. Eugenics beckons. Or perhaps ethnic cleansing.

    Dr Pianka may well be correct that Nature will have Her way with us. As Bacon said, “Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed.” Dr Pianka again: “If we don’t, nature is going to do it for us in ways of her own choosing. By definition, these ways will not be ours and they won’t be much fun.” What it seems to come down to — if you accept Dr Pianka’s argument of inevitability — is that there will be a population reduction. This can either occur “accidentally” — via a modern plague, say Ebola — or via some planned action.

    I’m not convinced of the inevitability. We humans have become rather clever with regard to disease. But even if you accept that, given historical events, planned action scares me far worse than some sort of natural selection event.

  • Science

    “I am convinced that the world WOULD clearly be much better off without so many of us.”

    This remark I quoted is clearly in the long-term sense, he is suggesting that somehow future trends in human society reduce the number of people by 90% to reduce disease risks and to increase quality of life on a long-term plan basis.

    There are things called birth control methods, people they can still have a good quality of life without starting really massive families.

    Dr Pianka discussed disease risks and said that the world would be better if rainforests were protected, and he said diseases spread in overcrowded conditions. So he suggests the population should ideally fall to protect the environment, but then someone wanting to spread propaganda ‘misunderstands’ him, saying he is advocating that the desired long-term fall in population be accomplished quickly and deliberately by diseases.

    It’s the opposite, he’s saying you need to reduce the population over the long-term to prevent epidemics and the other hazards of overpopulation. If people could limit family sizes, that will decrease the population over the long term.

  • Cynthia

    This is a simple story of IDers masquerading as scientists. The aim of these masqueraders is to exterminate real scientists. Would the real scientists please stand up?

  • http://motls.blogspot.com/ Lubos Motl

    Dear Cynthia,

    Eric Pianka is not only a weird and morbid man but also a highly accomplished and cited biologist – an evolution expert and a lizard expert. See

    http://scholar.google.com/scholar?q=%22eric+pianka%22

    Your explanations won’t work. At any rate, it is kind of amusing that with the exception of Wolfgang, everyone else here needs at least 50 hours to understand that Pianka really thinks that the death of 5.8 billion people by Ebola, which should occur soon, will really improve the ecosystem. All those who have no problems with reading and understanding could have learned it within 2 minutes after they started to write my text about it.

    I wonder how many more days or years most of you guys need to decide what is the right politically correct answer to the question whether 5.8 billion people should be replaced by 5.9 billion bacteria – the latter are more valuable according to Pianka’s egalitarianism. What I am confident about is that there is a unique answer that all of you will eventually agree upon, even though none of you knows the answer by now.

    Good luck
    Lubos

  • Spatulated

    Lubos, you have yet to priovide any convincing evidance. maybe thats why we find it hard to accept. you know, being scientist, fact are important. the only thing you have done is cited some rediculous internet news sites, and google scholar (beta). the only to sources i have seen with huge amounts of credibility where your CNN and ABC news articles, both of which quote a creationist quoting Pianka, not pianka himself. oh and two students on a professor review site. of which he has probly had 100’s of students and it sounds most of them love his class and him. i am under the assumtion most people are sane, and if you could prove that Pianka actualy advocated the slow painful death of billions of people that i will join you in your crusade against him. but the problem is he didnt. he said there is potential, and he may have even made a joke about it. but you know what? jokes, as morbid as they are, are jokes and nothing more. i personaly find dead babie jokes to be hilarious, but i dont advocate the murduring of babies for amusment.
    just because Pianka hates the damage we as a humane race have done to this planet does not make him a threat to our society, nor is it worth ruining his reputation as a, and i quote “evolution expert and a lizard expert.”

    also, why was he aplauded by a huge group of people who i am sure most of which where sane. probly not because he advocated the death of billions, but because he is a powerful speaker and an expert in his field.

  • Spatulated

    oh and science makes many great points.

  • Cynthia

    Spatulated, thanks for coming to my rescue by challenging Lubos Logic.

  • http://arunsmusings.blogspot.com Arun

    Lubos Motl’s Reference Frame anagrams to Forms a Cerebellum Softener.

  • Elliot

    The new “reference frame”

    Take whatever position Lubos has articulated, rotate it 180 degrees and you are probably right.

    Elliot

  • Cynthia

    Elliot, highly perceptive use of reference framing!

  • Spatulated

    No problem Cynthia, i got your back! heh

  • http://www.pieterkok.com/index.html PK

    It seems that nobody has the actual quotes of Pianka, so any “proof” about his motives based on this particular lecture is built on second-hand information.

    However, if you accept the premise that humanity is not currently keeping a sustainable life style due to the sheer number of us around, then you can interpret Pianka as follows:

    1. Humanity should survive.
    2. Humanity needs an ecosystem that satisfies certain criteria.
    3. Overpopulation threatens to push the ecosystem outside this regime.
    4. Population reduction is inevitable either via natural causes or via human intervention.
    5. Given humanity’s track record, it’ll probably be natural causes.
    Let’s just hope that natural causes leave enough humans around to start the whole circus again (this time without monotheism please).

  • Ed Darrell

    I’ve read Pianka’s speech, and he’s no raving lunatic. It is false to claim he urges that anyone die.

    Quite to the contrary, Pianka laments the destruction of our planet, and the consequent destruction of humans. Anyone with an ounce of rationality would understand that from the speech.

    Hey, this is Texas. I don’t care how liberal a group of Texans you have, we sing the Star-Spangled Banner and salute the flag, love our country, apple pie, especially Mom, our spouses and the kids, and we don’t urge the death of billions. There were, by Mims’ account, a couple hundred Texans at that meeting. If Pianka got a standing ovation from that many Texans, you can bet your life that he was not advocating anyone’s death.

    The slandering and sliming of Dr. Pianka is just the latest episode in the right-wing’s war on science. Shame on them.

  • the amazing kim

    It could spread to the U.S.

    Ha, I like that.
    Never mind about the rest of the world, bird flu could affect the USA!!

    I know you probably didn’t mean it that way, but when you phrase it as if the worse thing that could possibly happen is if the disease spread to America…

  • Qubit

    Personally, I think that a natural occuring virus as got no chance of killing 90% of the worlds population, a virus gains no evolutionary advantage by killing a massive amount people in a small amount of time. It is also very unlikey that such a reduction would have any benefit for the planet, I believe such a reduction has happen before and may very well have created the overpopulation problem in the first place. The 10% left over could create a race, that could be immune to most viruses, and within 100,000 years you would have an even bigger population problem.

    The only type of virus that could come close to the 90% kill rate, would be one that remain dormant inside every person. Then when every person it can infect, is infected, it would activate using our comuncation system or entanglement. killing everyone in 48 hours, all around the world…

    The bubonic plagues that killed so many peolpe in europe crowed citys, from what i have read were probably cases Ergotism. Most of the plauges occured after a massive amount of rain and flooding, which would have infected the grain. I have read an account of people going crazy, in these outbreaks of so called bubonic plagues.

    From what I have seen today, is that viruses are using our immune systems and turning it against us, by the looks of it, viruses have change tactics. It really not the hard to fiqure out why.

    let say that; if a virus that can kill 90% of everyone on the planet, by boosting the immune system, was to infect the globe then the only people to survive, would if fact already be infected by AIDS or HIV, who would then die them selfs many years after. I would say we would in fact be facing extinction or a reduction of 98%. leaving about 128 million peolpe if we are lucky.

    Extinction in a natural fact, it is more probable that man, will become extinct rather than survive to see the human race leave our solar system, for another.

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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .

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