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.