Sunday, March 11, 2007


I guess I'll have to pile on. Over on Panda's Thumb, Burt Humburg wrote an excellent take-down of the latest nonsense to come out of Dr. Michael Egnor, a neurosurgeon who has managed to spout some unbelievably dumb things about evolution. Naturally, this makes him the Discovery Institute's new darling, not because he's said anything original or profound (he's just recycled old ID talking points, some of which are so bad that the other ID guys won't go near them), but because he's a brain surgeon and therefore must know what he's talking about. More on that in a bit.

Something that PZ wrote awhile back has kind of stuck with me, and that is that the biggest problem with creationists isn't that they're dumb or ignorant. Many of them are certainly not dumb (Egnor surely is not), and ignorance itself is not necessarily a problem. We all start off in a state of ignorance after all, and one thing that you learn when studying a given subject in depth is that no matter how much you know, it's only a tiny smidgen of all that there is to know. So we all carry some degree of ignorance. The important thing is that you're aware of it and that you adopt the requisite level of humility so that you can keep learning more.

And therein lies the problem with creationists: It's neither ignorance nor stupidity, it's arrogance. They think they already know everything, so therefore they can refute a large and complex body of scientific thought without bothering to familiarize themselves with the basics, much less mastering the details. The most jaw-dropping example of this I think I've ever seen is here, at the blog that William Dembski set up for high school kids, where some poster who is incapable of understanding technical scientific writing (which is forgivable) has been so infected with the arrogance of the ID movement that he actually believes that a section he quotes from an essay that appeared on Panda's Thumb was made up out of thin air (which is not forgivable), and then goes on to ask where those "so-called facts" came from when the citations are right there within the text he quoted (which is pathetic to the point of comedy). This is how the ID movement rots young minds. The level of arrogance is so extreme that a high school student is eager to believe that a senior pharmacologist must be making something up simply because he, the high schooler, can't understand the material. Arrogance of this kind breeds ignorance, which leads itself to more arrogance still. It is a defining characteristic not only of ID/creationism, but of anti-intellectualism in general.

Now back to Dr. Egnor. Egnor is just like the above high school kid but without the excuse of being young and foolish. He doesn't really know what he's talking about, but he doesn't feel he needs to. After all, when you already have all the answers, what's the point in understanding that which you deign to critique? Heck, ignorance should be worn like a badge of honor. All the better to disdain those hoity-toity experts who've spent their lives studying a subject that you won't debase yourself to learn anything about.

In spite of Dr. Humburg's quality refutation of Egnor's ignorant statements, there's something that I think has been missed. And that is what Egnor has told us about what he, and by extension the Discovery Institute which has seen fit to make him one of their spokespersons (an honor bestowed only upon those meeting the highest standards, such as Ann Coulter), have told us about just how seriously he deserves to be taken. Below is the meat and potatoes of Egnor's argument:

Doctors don't study evolution. Doctors never study it in medical school, and they never use evolutionary biology in their practice. There are no courses in medical school on evolution. There are no 'professors of evolution' in medical schools. There are no departments of evolutionary biology in medical schools.

As Burt shows, the above claims are untrue. In fact, most of them are untrue even for the medical school at which Egnor teaches! But while they are untrue in a general sense, they are probably perfectly true for Egnor himself, who -- as is so often the case with these guys -- can understand the world only through the lens of his own personal experience. I'll amend the above quote, slightly, to reflect what Egnor is actually telling us:

I don't study evolution. I never studied it in medical school, and I never use evolutionary biology in my practice. I never took courses in medical school on evolution. I studied under no 'professors of evolution' in medical school. I have no familiarity with departments of evolutionary biology.

Egnor just pulled the rug out from under himself. He freely admits that he knows nothing about evolution, and he's proud of it. And now he wants us to think that doctors in general are similarly ignorant. The DI has welcomed Egnor as a new commentator for their Media Complaints Division blog, but strangely enough, they didn't quite get the message that doctors are not qualified to comment on evolution. Doctors such as Egnor, according to Egnor, are never taught anything about the subject. They don't use the subject. They don't know anything about those who do. They're awash in a sea of ignorance.

By Egnor's own reasoning, he should be ignored. And on that narrow point, at least, I think he's right.

Update: I have a post up at the Panda's Thumb concerning a survey that Egnor and the Discovery Institute twisted beyond all reason. If you haven't read it already, go there and do so.