This week, my 70-something aunt said that she and my uncle weren’t concerned about coronavirus or the precautions in place to prevent its spread because she believes it is a Democratic Party hoax to take down Donald Trump after impeachment failed. She thinks the whole world is conspiring to fake the disease to hurt Trump. My father told me that a friend of his said his ex-wife has the same belief. As my aunt and uncle aged, they moved steadily to the right, going from blue collar Democrats who proudly framed photos of themselves with Clintons in the 1990s to staunch Republicans after 9/11 and becoming die-hard Trump supporters in 2016 thanks to a combination of nationalism, xenophobia, and cultural anxieties. So that’s where we are as a country. Regular Fox News consumers have developed bizarre ideas about what the network had called the “Virus Impeachment Scam” until late last week, and now there’s no good way to undo it.
This week, creationist Ken Ham threw a fit over a 2019 documentary, We Believe in Dinosaurs, which aired this month on PBS as part of the Independent Lens series. He accused the documentary of being biased against creationism because it depicted, accurately, the appearance of dinosaurs in Ham’s “Ark Encounter” recreation of Noah’s Ark in Kentucky. “It turned out to be an agenda-driven propaganda piece focusing on dinosaurs and the Ark Encounter, where dinosaurs represent only a tiny fraction of the exhibits at the Ark,” Ham wrote. That’s a bit like complaining that histories of Germany always mention that Hitler fellow even though he was only in power for 12 years.
For a few minutes, I thought I would write a lengthy analysis of Steven Pinker’s recent Twitter rant in which the Harvard psychologist and popular writer alleges that historians of science are biased against science and are actively working to destroy science’s claim to objectivity by forcing people to read about the history of science rather than its conclusions.
Before we begin today, let’s briefly discuss the ratings for the final episode of America Unearthed. The season finale pulled in 454,000 viewers, about on par with the season’s average, but losing 80,000 viewers from the rerun of Expedition Unknown that served as its lead-in. As of this writing, the Travel Channel had not announced whether it would cancel or renew the series. I’d have a hard time justifying renewing a show that brings in fewer viewers than a rerun, but the show does well on streaming services, which might make it a more attractive purchase. We’ll have to wait and see.
At the American Association of Physical Anthropology Conference in Cleveland last week, a team of researchers presented evidence that humans in Papua New Guinea may have interbred with a population of Denisovans as recently as 15,000 years ago, citing genetic evidence that genomes they tested contained evidence of two separate infusions of Denisovan DNA. The first came around 50,000 years ago. The second occurred sometime after, and the researchers suspect it occurred around 15,000 years ago. The scientists, led by Murray Cox of the Massey University in New Zealand, also said that the Denisovans living on the mainland in southeast Asia were as genetically different from the better-known Siberian Denisovans as they were from Neanderthals.
Due to prior commitments this week, some of my blog posts are going to be a bit on the short side. Today I want to discuss a recent presentation discussing the results of interviews with Flat Earth believers at two conferences in 2017 and 2018. Speaking Sunday at the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s annual meeting, researchers who spoke with more thirty attendees placed the blame squarely on YouTube for creating a community of Flat Earth believers and providing the means for Flat Earth leaders to propagandize a credulous audience. An article in the Guardian summarized their findings:
I spent a big chunk of my writing time yesterday at the doctor’s office waiting to be diagnosed with a viral sinus infection, presumably the same one my son picked up at his toddler play group a couple of weeks ago. Yesterday, the congestion and coughing had gotten quite bad and I had to try to do something about it. Unfortunately, the doctor said that there is almost nothing that can be done other than the usual treatments for cold-like symptoms. It has made it hard to focus and concentrate, which has made me something less than enthusiastic about writing.
Our Cosmic Ancestry in the Stars: The Panspermia Revolution and the Origins of Humanity
Chandra Wickramasinghe, Kamala Wickramasinghe, and Gensuke Tokoro | May 2019 | Bear & Company | 144 pages | ISBN: 978-1591433286 | $14.00
The idea that life on Earth originated in the stars is an old one, dating back in some sense to the Greeks, and pursued in earnest by a number of twentieth century scientists. It is a distinct possibility, although one for which evidence is currently lacking. In recent years, Chandra Wickramasinghe has pursued this line of thought in extreme and absurd directions, writing a number of books making very broad claims that panspermia isn’t just real but that viruses from space continue to infect and direct the development of Earth life even today. He has taken these claims to Ancient Aliens, where he recently appeared. In reading the new book he cowrote with Kamala Wickramasinghe and Gensuke Tokoro, Our Cosmic Ancestry in the Stars, I expected to read about these things, but I did not expect to read what was basically a New Age manifesto about how capitalism is the fault of evil demon viruses from space or a call to adopt a Buddhist-inflected form of communism as the one true scientific lifestyle.
Last week, Michael Shermer of Skeptic magazine published a column in Scientific American describing his view of moral philosophy, arguing against a heavily simplified form of utilitarianism and in favor of natural rights theory. This, in turn, garnered a response from philosopher Massimo Pigliucci, who pointed out Shermer’s gross oversimplification of the complexities of philosophy, and Shermer responded on Twitter by claiming to already know and understand the aspects of philosophy that Piglucci pointed out, but without explaining why he chose to ignore two centuries of philosophical development in order to rail against a version of utilitarianism that went out of fashion in the 1830s.
ENLIGHTENMENT NOW: THE CASE FOR SCIENCE, REASON, HUMANISM, AND PROGRESS
Steven Pinker | 543 pages | Viking | 2018 | ISBN: 9780525427575 | $35
Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now has been in stores for a few weeks now, and I need not devote much space in this review to detailing Pinker’s many failings. Other reviewers have more than adequately demonstrated that Pinker’s Pollyanna pronouncements on the utopian glory of modern society are shortsighted, and his grasp of the Enlightenment, the putative topic of his book, is incomplete at best. Pinker makes almost no mention of the individual philosophers of the Enlightenment, nor does he take time to note the differences among them, subsuming all of their many and varied opinions on reason and science to the skepticism of David Hume and the veiled atheism of Voltaire. He also fundamentally misunderstands the Enlightenment as the pursuit of pure reason against all emotion, a fact belied by no less a figure than Immanuel Kant, who literally wrote a book entitled Critique of Pure Reason (1781/1787) in which he stated that his purpose was to criticize “the faculty of reason in general, in respect of all knowledge after which it may strive independently of all experience.” More directly relevant, while Pinker claims Enlightenment figures bowed before reason, Hume actually discounted the power of reason to discover moral truth: “Reason is wholly inactive, and can never be the source of so active a principle as conscience, or a sense of morals” (Treatise, 126.96.36.199)
I'm an author and editor who has published on a range of topics, including archaeology, science, and horror fiction. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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