The Mad Scientist

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

About 40 people showed up—a tiny fraction of the number that attended Michael Behe's Friday night appearance a couple of weeks earlier. And students were not foremost among them. Few of the people in Mooney's audience appeared to be under 30. When Mooney ended his speech, Myers was the first to stand with a question. Not long before, the New York Times had published a front-page story about creationists rafting through the Grand Canyon, where their guides offered biblical glosses on the many geologic marvels at hand. Myers was incensed by the story, incensed that the nation's leading newspaper would lend ink and credence to the roundly discredited "young earth" view held by many Christians. ("Young earth" views involve a literal belief that our planet was crafted by the hand of God just a few thousand years ago, as the Bible suggests.)

Myers's question for Mooney was simple: Why is so much science journalism so bad? The journalistic imperative of "balance," Mooney replied, has no parallel in the world of science. Consequently, the media's formulaic use of "he said/she said" reporting often generates a false sense of controversy about matters that scientists overwhelmingly count as settled.

A few questioners later, Myers rose again. He wanted to know what had become of the independent scientific panels that long served the government in advisory roles, like the Office of Technology Assessment. Established during the Nixon years, the OTA was eliminated in 1995 by the Gingrich Congress in what Mooney referred to as "a scientific lobotomy." That, as it happened, was the last question of the night. Mooney retired to the back of the room to sign copies of his book. Myers toted his edition to the table, had his picture snapped with Mooney, and made the 160-mile drive back to Morris. By 6:00 a.m. the next morning, he was back at his computer, throwing up yet another post at Pharyngula.

Allen Beaulieu

What makes Myers blog? He is, he admits, attracted to the flexibility of the medium. Myers can write about whatever strikes his fancy—from the evolution of the mammalian vagina to Buffy the Vampire Slayer to the latest outrage from Pat Robertson—with the knowledge that his musings will be read. Myers knows this because he hears from his readers. All the time. This presents quite a contrast to purely academic writings, which, he notes, frequently generate little or no comment. But it's more than an ego stroke. With science increasingly buffeted by political and religious forces, Myers points out, popular appreciation for the scientific method is more vital than ever. Blogs like Pharyngula provide the means to cultivate that appreciation. "We have to get good information out to the public," he says. "It can't be just me because if it's just me railing from the wilderness, we're doomed. But more and more, I'm seeing other people and other blogs coalescing around that idea."

The professor's efforts to bridge the metaphoric "town-gown divide"—the gap between Main Street and academia—are not restricted to his blogging. This fall, Myers organized the Morris chapter of Café Scientifique, an international movement in which scientists use informal settings such as coffee shops and bars to introduce their ideas to lay audiences. So far, Myers says, the Morris program has been a mixed success. The inaugural gathering, which was held at a downtown coffee shop, didn't attract a lot of non-university people, which was a main goal. There was another problem, too: The coffee shop that hosted the gathering is owned and operated by a consortium of Morris churches. As a stipulation, Myers was told to avoid "controversial" topics such as intelligent design and evolution. Not surprisingly, he immediately started looking for a new space. A bar would be good— "science and beer go well together," he says—but it's more likely the program will wind up at the Stevens County Historical Society. "There's no beer there either," Myers laughs, "but we'll cope."

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