The Mad Scientist

Biologist and blogger PZ Myers speaks out on the war on science, intelligent design, and the sexual habits of giant squid

OBSERVED IN HIS NATURAL HABItat of the University of Minnesota in Morris, PZ Myers hardly seems like a firebrand. He is unabashedly proud of his work and of the Morris campus itself—regularly ranked by U.S. News & World Report as one of the country's best public liberal arts colleges. The town of Morris, population 5,000, lies about 160 miles from Minneapolis in a portion of the state that is flat and full of farms, the topographic kin of the neighboring Dakotas. (Fittingly enough, Morris is roughly halfway between the Twin Cities and Fargo.) The university is small, with an enrollment that usually hovers around 2,000, and so are the classes. Discussion groups in the freshman biology class that Myers teaches have as few as a half-dozen students apiece.

In the classroom, Myers aims to create a mood of levity. As he dispenses a two-page pop quiz, he is the opposite of the curmudgeonly professorial type. "This test is so hard you'll all be lying down and crying," he says with a laugh. "Then you'll get a four-day weekend." After the students finish and clear out of the classroom, Myers leads a brief tour of the campus, beginning with his lab. It is a small, somewhat cramped space, full of tanks teeming with adult zebrafish. Myers isn't especially interested in the adult fish; he keeps them as brood-stock for the embryos he and his students study. Because zebrafish are such prolific breeders, they make ideal research subjects. A separate tank contains some strange-looking white frogs. In explaining his experiments, Myers is unfailingly patient and thorough. His tone provides a striking contrast to his fighter's persona at Pharyngula—that is, until the subject comes back around to intelligent design.

"I have nothing but contempt for ID," Myers says. "The old-school creationists were people who just didn't know much and were sincere in their belief in their Bible. Fine. But the new school is people who have had training, scientists who know a little bit about biology and molecular biology and put on their lab coats and say all this ridiculous nonsense. I find that fundamentally dishonest."

Allen Beaulieu

In his opinion, most modern proponents of ID know full well that the open integration of religious beliefs into their argument would present constitutional troubles. So although they are predominantly fundamentalist Christians, ID defenders by and large do not speak the name of the designer. They simply insist that, as a matter of science, his existence is a legitimate theory.

As a committed nonbeliever, PZ Myers is offended by this. He doesn't care to drive by the giant Jesus billboards in his town, or hear the judgments passed on his fellow atheists. But it's dishonesty that sets him on fire. In ID, he sees a concerted attack on the scientific method, an attack funded through the same network of right-wing foundations and philanthropists that has underwritten corporate America's assaults on government regulation. If science loses on ID, for example, Myers wonders what will become of the subject of global warming. What will become of scientific method in general? "I go either way on that," Myers offers. "The U.S. has a very good scientific establishment that is still the envy of the world. On my good days, I can't imagine we'll throw that away. But when you look at the grass oots, you realize that this is pretty fragile and that it could be destroyed."

That attitude goes a long way in explaining Myers's frontal assaults on fellow academics who promote the ID agenda. It is not just far-flung figures such as Michael Behe and the Discovery Institute's Philip Johnson who have aroused his wrath. Just last week, Myers fired off formal letters of protest to University of Minnesota president Robert Bruininks and provost for academic affairs Tom Sullivan. The cause? A freshman seminar offered at the U's Twin Cities campus called "Life: By Chance or Design." Myers's objections to the course are myriad, beginning with the fact that the instructor, Christopher Macosko, has no particular expertise in either biology or evolution. Macosko, a born-again Christian, is a professor of chemical engineering. In denouncing the seminar, Myers minced no words in his post on Pharyngula:

"This is contemptible. Having academic freedom is not an excuse to tolerate incompetence and dishonesty in teaching our students, and Macosko has done a disservice to the young men and women in his class, as well as doing harm to the reputation of the university. I've said before that we have to tolerate some crackpottery in tenured faculty, but this changes my mind. This course should be removed from the books, Macosko should be censured, and there should be more review of the first-year seminar courses to make sure our students aren't getting fed false information by unqualified faculty. At the very least, courses like this should be evaluated by biologists, and a competent member of the discipline brought in to make sure the ideologue trying to run the show isn't screwing up."

ON THE EVENING OF OCTOBER 9, Myers made the long trip from Morris to the Alumni Center at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis to hear a lecture by journalist and author Chris Mooney. Mooney had come to town to talk about his book The Republican War on Science, which documents a series of attacks on scientific method and science-based government policy by the modern conservative movement. Mooney cited a number of troubling, if increasingly familiar, examples: the Bush administration's notorious excising of a global warming analysis in a report from the Environmental Protection Agency; its dubious claims of links between abortion and cancer; its unfounded claims about the effectiveness of abstinence-only sex education; and, of course, the president's explicit endorsement of adding ID to public school curricula.

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