Pharyngula

Easterbrook belongs on the Onion staff

I am not a fan of Gregg Easterbrook. He’s a pretentious twit who lectures Hawking on physics, calling him “kooky”, yet thinks Townes is wonderful and believes in an “invisible plane of existence: the spirit”. He makes ill-informed rants against atheists and Richard Dawkins, and has gone off on evolution before —he likes Intelligent Design.

His qualifications for these tirades on science? He’s a sports writer.

In the past, he’s been clear on finding this whole business of natural selection inadequate, preferring to preach that there is a loving god who has directed evolution.

The latter biological possibility is actually one of the reasons TMQ believes that human beings were made by a God who loves us. Why would natural selection have cared about reducing a person’s trauma at death? All natural selection cares about is fitness in passing down genes; if after replicating its DNA an organism dies in pain or panic, what’s that to evolution? In Darwinian terms, there would be no “selection pressure” favoring the peaceful death over the horrible death. Yet there appear to be biological mechanisms that help most people die peacefully. Why are such mechanisms in our physiologies? Maybe because somebody loves us.

Now Easterbrook has a post-Superbowl column in which he takes on evolution again. He’s got a new argument, though: that general evolution and selection stuff that he was arguing against before? It’s to be taken for granted.

That organisms evolve in response to changes in their environment is well-established—anyone who doubts this doesn’t know what he or she is talking about.

I think that’s what a sports commentator would call an “own goal”. Yeah, all that stuff Easterbrook has written on the subject before shows he doesn’t know what he is talking about.

His “new” argument is to insist over and over again that evolution provides no information on the origin of life, accompanied by much protestation that those other ID advocates, who must not be as smart as he is, don’t know how to use the word “theory” and are misstating everything.

Now a know-nothing Utah state representative has proposed this bill that “requires the State Board of Education to establish curriculum requirements and policies that stress that not all scientists agree on which theory regarding the origins of life…is correct.” Hey, Utah state legislature, there are no theories on the origin of life. A few biologists have made wild guesses involving RNA, clay or hot ocean vents, but no scientist has offered anything nothing remotely near the level of a testable theory. (The details on that point) Given the presence of life is so mysterious, a creator God may be why we are here. But please, science illiterates, stop attempting to enact rules about intelligent design; you are ruining the idea.

Oh, and the “details on that point” about models of abiogenesis? He references an article by himself in The New Republic. He’s wrong. There are good theories on the origin of life, and there are scientists working on them…this isn’t a matter of wild guesses.

Easterbrook is hardly worth dissecting, but as I was reading his column, the breathless tone, the skewed point of view, the clueless but confident statements that are almost right but have all the details wrong and show he really doesn’t know what he’s talking about…they reminded me of someone.

i-a399e5a11a0578780fb25b686bdb1324-harvey.jpg

i-9b6473dbe10ec2d938182f1f7f7418ba-easterbrook.jpg

I think Gregg Easterbrook is the Jackie Harvey of the Intelligent Design movement.

I’m flattering him. Guess who looks the more intelligent of the two?

Comments

  1. #1 Mnemosyne
    February 9, 2006

    In Darwinian terms, there would be no “selection pressure” favoring the peaceful death over the horrible death. Yet there appear to be biological mechanisms that help most people die peacefully. Why are such mechanisms in our physiologies? Maybe because somebody loves us.

    Er, animals die as peacefully as humans under the same circumstances. So arguing that a “peaceful death” proves that God loves humans most specially of all is bogus on its face.

  2. #2 Kristine
    February 9, 2006

    I was not aware that most humans or animals died peacefully. I know of a few people who died miserably, and I don’t think being eaten by a tiger is very “peaceful.” But I guess God doesn’t love us all equally and we should just accept, like abused children making excuses for their parents.

  3. #3 Yagur
    February 9, 2006

    I happen to be a fan of Gregg, and while I don’t agree with him this issue, I think he deserves slightly more respect than you give him, viz:

    His football column — which is really good, by the way — is a diversion from his day job, which is writing on religion, science and other public policy issues for The New Republic and others. He’s a very serious, responsible journalist — even if he is occasionally, as sometimes we all are, wrong. But he has often been right: for example, he was a very early and prescient critic of the Space Shuttle program, which he predicted (back in the 80s) would be a huge waste of money, would actually hold back our exploration of space, and would probably kill some people before it was done.

    As for abiogenesis: well, oddly enough, I’ve read lots of pop science writing on this topic, and I have to agree with him: nobody seems to be certain. Even Dawkins, on this topic, uses a lot of “Perhaps…” in his writing. And he is certainly right that while there are many hypotheses, there is no single theory — using theory as in, oh, say, the “Theory of evolution.”

    Because I’m an atheist/agnostic, I tend to say: we just haven’t found the answer yet. Because he is a religious person, he says, “It’s because the answer is, ultimately, God.” I don’t think that’s particularly offensive, or dangerous to science.

  4. #4 David Wilford
    February 9, 2006

    Um, there is selection pressure favoring the release of endorphins in the brain in response to severe pain, as it allows an animal to better cope with it, rather than be incapacitated. The fact that this also applies to pain felt at death is no great surprise. Easterbrook probably also thinks the female orgasm is a gift from a loving god also, but there is a more prosaic answer that that also…

  5. #5 Derek Lowe
    February 9, 2006

    Readers may remember the short-lived “Easterblog” site that he wrote at The New Republic, which was disastrous. Unfortunately, he often turned out to be the sort of person whose writing looked informative and provocative in inverse correlation to your familiarity with his subject matter.

  6. #6 Corey
    February 9, 2006

    There are, of course, biological mechanisms that act to suppress pain in extreme circumstances. They are useful in all kinds of life settings in which they would be acted on by selection pressure. It would be silly to imagine that the mechanisms that exist all your life would magically go away at death. The existence of these mechanisms at death is evidence for, not against, evolution. If they miraculously vanished at the end of life that would, however, be interesting evidence of a malevolent God.

    More generally, I have to agree that Easterbrook’s mix of sophistry, shifting arguments, and near-plagiarism hardly merit serious discussion.

  7. #7 Moses Cohen
    February 9, 2006

    As a football commmentator, he’s gotten worse and worse over the years. This last season I don’t think I read a third of what he wrote.

    More to the point, is that Easterbrook is an apparent anti-semite who got fired for his gig at ESPN over a bit of a racist blog entry at his blog “Easterblog.” Easterbrook later retracted the comment and applogized, but it was a lame appology to cover for his racist comments and one I don’t believe. I’ve also seen him pontificate in a luddite/wing-nutish way in other areas, so the creationist crap doesn’t surprise me.

  8. #8 Moses Cohen
    February 9, 2006

    Ooops. Cut out half my post when I rearranged it… Doesn’t read very well. Sorry. Should have used preview and been more careful.

    Anyway, my (one-time) point is that Easterbrook deserves no pedestal. He’s certainly not the kind of man that should make moral arguments. Because I don’t think he has them in the way he thinks he does (or that others may believe) and suffers greatly from hypocrisy and a certain amount of self-promtion.

    Additionally, the more you know about that of which he speaks, the more you realize, that of which he speaks he generally knows less than in the declaritive, one-sided positions from whence he acts.

  9. #9 pough
    February 9, 2006

    You’re definitely flattering him by the comparison to Mr. Outside Scoop. I’ve never heard of this Easterboob guy, but Jackie Harvey is a genius!

  10. #10 Timothy Chase
    February 9, 2006

    Oh, and the “details on that point” about models of abiogenesis? He references an article by himself in The New Republic. He’s wrong. There are good theories on the origin of life, and there are scientists working on them? this isn’t a matter of wild guesses.

    Hmmm. Along these lines, I have an article which I wrote a little while back which might be of interest to some, one which suggests the possibility of a science mini-course at the high school level. While the article briefly deals with evolution and the relationship between religion and science, the mini-course itself doesn’t actually focus on evolution or biology exactly. Some might find it of interest…

    A Test for Intelligent Design Proponents

  11. #11 Steve LaBonne
    February 9, 2006

    Regardless of what subject-on-which-he’s-uninformed he chooses to write about (his environmental stuff is “good”, also), Easterbrook is a complete tool, a poster child for the scandal of the right-wing mind. These people all operate according to the Reagan standard- “facts are stupid things.” But what’s even more irritating is that they not only make shit up at will to fit their ideology, but they’re damned proud of themselves for doing so. Easterbrook is merely a cleaned-up, more “presentable” elder counterpart of George Deutsch.

  12. #12 BJHokanson
    February 9, 2006

    Re: “own goal” :

    No, that’s not an American sports commentator would call it. It sounds too French.

  13. #13 noahpoah
    February 9, 2006

    His football column — which is really good, by the way

    Bleah. It’s only good until (a) you read it for more than a season or so, or (b) you notice that his ‘analysis’ is weak and self-contradictory. See, e.g., any of the TMQ discussion threads on footballoutsiders.com for lots of valid (and plenty of invalid) complaints about his football material.

    Easterbrook is an apparent anti-semite … a bit of a racist blog entry … his racist comments

    This I don’t get. The point he was making was that movie executives who supposedly held judeo-christian values should eschew making violent films like Kill Bill. The combination of poor wording on Easterbrook’s part and the fact that the movie executive responsible for Kill Bill is Jewish got a lot of overly sensitive folks’ panties in wads.

    What I don’t get is how he could possibly think Kill Bill is an example of the kind of violence we need to watch out for in movies. It’s incredibly cartoon-y and over the top, unlike most action flicks, which seem like better candidates for desensitization to violence.

    Oh, and I alomst emailed PZ with a link to Easterbrook’s Superb Owl article, but didn’t. I’m glad PZ noticed it through some other means, though, as I enjoy reading how much PZ dislikes Easterbrook. Thanks for a nice rant, PZ, and good job catching Easterbrook on his inconsistency over the years.

  14. #14 yagwara
    February 9, 2006

    “Yet there appear to be biological mechanisms that help most people die peacefully.”

    Thank dog I haven’t yet had a loved one die of cancer or other protracted illness, but if I had, I think I would be deeply offended by this sort of wishful thinking.

    This reminds me of the “nature as designer” sentiment often heard from people who seem otherwise reasonable: egalitarian, enivronmentalist, pro-science. That is, taking standard “god” statements and substituting “nature”, like “that’s just nature’s way of making it easier”. Not that there’s anything wrong with believing in a god, but smuggling It in under the rubric of nature seems a bit dishonest.

    Oops, that got off-track — just a pet peeve.

  15. #15 John
    February 9, 2006

    I was never quite sure whether Easterbrook was fired from ESPN for anti-semitism or for singling out Michael Eisner for criticism. Given the way his name and writings were immediately scrubbed from the ESPN website, I have taken it as more of the latter. But I might be wrong.

  16. #16 Mike B.
    February 9, 2006

    I was never quite sure whether Easterbrook was fired from ESPN for anti-semitism or for singling out Michael Eisner for criticism. Given the way his name and writings were immediately scrubbed from the ESPN website, I have taken it as more of the latter. But I might be wrong.

    I doubt it – the circumstances certainly look that way, and he has no anti-semitic history that I know of. I like some of what Gregg’s written – his column was a lot better before it got to NFL.com and was sanitized – but as a science writer he leaves a lot to be desired, like, uh, a sceince writer. I generally just tune out those parts, but he’s getting worse as they years go by. Creeping Conservatism, perhaps?

  17. #17 george cauldron
    February 9, 2006

    In Darwinian terms, there would be no “selection pressure” favoring the peaceful death over the horrible death. Yet there appear to be biological mechanisms that help most people die peacefully. Why are such mechanisms in our physiologies? Maybe because somebody loves us.

    I suspect that for most of the evolution of homo sapiens, until not all that long ago, humans did not usually die peacefully at all… And in great swathes of the world, of which this guy is happily ignorant, loads of people STILL don’t die peacefully. (Like, I dunno, Liberia, Iraq, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Sudan, Burundi…) But for most syndicated writers like this guy, if it didn’t happen in their part of America within the last hundred years, it doesn’t exist.

    Now a know-nothing Utah state representative has proposed this bill that “requires the State Board of Education to establish curriculum requirements and policies that stress that not all scientists agree on which theory regarding the origins of life�is correct.” Hey, Utah state legislature, there are no theories on the origin of life. A few biologists have made wild guesses involving RNA, clay or hot ocean vents, but no scientist has offered anything nothing remotely near the level of a testable theory. (The details on that point) Given the presence of life is so mysterious, a creator God may be why we are here. But please, science illiterates, stop attempting to enact rules about intelligent design

    As much eye rolling as this may induce, really, it’s as good as we’re gonna get from a syndicated sports writer.

  18. #18 Phila
    February 9, 2006
  19. #19 SEF
    February 9, 2006

    I had to look at the image properties to find out which one was supposed to be which person (not knowing either). It seems from the comments that I’m not missing much of any merit though.

  20. #20 Bayesian Bouffant, FCD
    February 9, 2006

    Easterbrook:

    Hey, Utah state legislature, there are no theories on the origin of life. A few biologists have made wild guesses involving RNA, clay or hot ocean vents, but no scientist has offered anything nothing remotely near the level of a testable theory. (The details on that point)

    That link leads to an earlier article by Easterbrook:

    But evolutionary theory does not give any clue regarding the manner in which life began, and it remains very, very hard to imagine how chance forces could have caused the leap from inanimate disorder to a living, self-organizing world. Bear in mind that Thomas R. Cech, a 1989 Nobel laureate in chemistry and author of the theory that the earliest self-reproducing cells were based on RNA, has said that the origin of life is so improbable it must have been a “near miracle.”

    That’s it? That’s the detail he promised? Immense shallowtude.

    For more depth on the evidence supporting the RNA World theory, find a better source, such as Stephen J. Freeland, Robin D. Knight, Laura F. Landweber
    “MOLECULAR EVOLUTION: Do Proteins Predate DNA?”
    Science, Volume 286, Number 5440 Issue of 22 Oct 1999, pp. 690 – 692

    Which covers catalytic RNA, common ancestry of ribonucleotide reductase in all branches of life, and the intimate involvement of RNA in the ribosome. Note that was in 1999, before the crystal structure ofthe ribosome confirmed that the catalytic core is indeed RNA.

  21. #21 Skemono
    February 9, 2006

    *sigh* I hate this stupid commenting that inserts end-tags at the end of the paragraph whether you wanted them there or not.

  22. #22 Ed Fitzgerald (unfutz)
    February 9, 2006

    Roger Keeling took on Easterbrook here.

  23. #23 Bayesian Bouffant, FCD
    February 9, 2006
  24. #24 PZ Myers
    February 9, 2006

    Ce n’est pas une spam.

  25. #25 Ross
    February 10, 2006

    “SPAM”

    Most…predictable…post…ever.

    PZ, shouldn’t it be “c’est magnifique, mais ce n’est pas la Spam!” (after Gen. Bosquet at the Charge of the light brigade) or am I missing your own US reference?

    I’m planning my trip to Austin (wherever that is) as soon as I finish writing..

  26. #26 Mike
    February 10, 2006

    Easterbrook has been an travesty as a “public intellectual” for a long time, as his writing is often informed not by reason, but by his particular faith. In his defense, he did link to my site in his TMQ column before the Super Bowl!

  27. #27 Berken
    February 11, 2006

    Ah . . . someone should break the news to Mr. Easterbrook: on nature, and in fact in most human societies, very few humans die peacefully.

    In nature they succumb to animal attacks, ugly diseases, starvation, flood, and accidents, most not even reaching the age of reproduction.

    In most human societies, half of all children born die before they reach adulthood, typically from diseases that take days to kill them, leaving their parents emotionally scarred for life.

    Adult humans in typical societies are far more likely to die of prolonged, painful diseases; war, starvation, and violent accidents long before they are old enough to die peacefully in their sleep.

  28. #28 Nan
    February 12, 2006

    Greg Easterbrook was one of the reasons I cancelled my subscription to the New Republic. The guy is an idiot. You could refute most of his arguments while reading the damn thing. No critical analysis necessary.

    I often wonder how goofs like Greg Easterbrook and Mickey Kaus get jobs at high profile publications. They must have connections.

  29. #29 Jimm
    February 12, 2006

    There are no convincing theories of the origin of life, though of course this doesn’t matter since the mystery and miracle come from the beginning of everything, not life, though life is pretty mysterious too.

    Easterbrook gets it all wrong, as usual. The miracle, or the mystery, is that there is a “here”, a person, a world, a cosmos, and that either it all began out of nothing – a miracle – or has always been here – another miracle.

    Life comes a lot later, and none of this has ever been an argument against evolution or for God. It has also not been an argument for evolution and against God. It’s just an observation, and I was the first in the blogosphere to spin the argument as a miracle this way, and it was in support of evolution, not against it, and certainly not for intelligent design.

    Since then, I’ve discovered that Augustine himeself philosophized on the miracle of “is”, of existence, of a cosmos, in terms of whether it began out of nothing (a miracle), or has always been (obviously a miracle), so clear-minded folks have been grappling with this for a long time (the Taoists had it pegged all along).

  30. #30 Itea
    February 12, 2006

    I worked at ESPN.com when Easterbrook was fired; it definitely had more to do with ruffling the wrong feathers than anything else.

    And I agree, Dr. Z is the best football writer on the planet with any kind of exposure.

    I took “Ce n’est pas une spam” as a Magritte reference?

    Easterbrook isn’t an idiot. Most people who write stupid shit aren’t idiots (Jonah Goldberg may be an exception). There’s nothing wrong with musing about various subjects in an entertaining manner. Easterbrook’s problem is that he implies that he is an authority on subjects where he is anything but. That said, I wonder what would happen if instead of trashing him on the blog, you sent him your valid criticisms in an otherwise short and succinct email? Have you tried this?

    I don’t know him personally, and I don’t have affection for him or his writing. However, when I read his stuff (very rarely, but even so) I don’t get the impression that he’s someone who would preemptively scorn further education on a subject.

    There’s a difference between being wrong and being an idiot.

  31. #31 Anonymous
    February 12, 2006

    Of course humans have cultural means of trying to avoid dying, peacefully or otherwise. Houses, walls, police, medicine, etc. Are we to infer that those developments were also “intelligently designed”? Is there ever an end to this unwillingness to let things be what they really are?

  32. #32 chris green
    February 12, 2006

    >That organisms evolve in response to changes in their environment is well-established—anyone who doubts this doesn’t know what he or she is talking about.

    I doubt this, and I know what I’m talking about. Organisms
    don’t evolve – populations do. What he describes is Lamarckism.

  33. #33 travis
    February 12, 2006

    Easterbrook has a self-disproving argument. He posits evolution as true, and at the end he implies that only testable theories are valid regarding the creation of life. However, the crux of his argument is a creator god who might have started up the whole thing. One of these things is not like the others.

    I had a brief hope that he would bring in a really wild superbowl-based argument on ID (e.g., “God is like an incompetent referee — sometimes he just misses things”), but he goes even farther off the rails with the potential of dating Maria Sharapova as an example of a theory. Are all parts of his brain on speaking terms with each other?

  34. #34 travis
    February 12, 2006

    Easterbrook has a self-disproving argument. He posits evolution as true, and at the end he implies that only testable theories are valid regarding the creation of life. However, the crux of his argument is a creator god who might have started up the whole thing. One of these things is not like the others.

    I had a brief hope that he would bring in a really wild superbowl-based argument on ID (e.g., “God is like an incompetent referee — sometimes he just misses things”), but he goes even farther off the rails with the potential of dating Maria Sharapova as an example of a theory. Are all parts of his brain on speaking terms with each other?

  35. #35 travis
    February 12, 2006

    Easterbrook has a self-disproving argument. He posits evolution as true, and at the end he implies that only testable theories are valid regarding the creation of life. However, the crux of his argument is a creator god who might have started up the whole thing. One of these things is not like the others.

    I had a brief hope that he would bring in a really wild superbowl-based argument on ID (e.g., “God is like an incompetent referee — sometimes he just misses things”), but he goes even farther off the rails with the potential of dating Maria Sharapova as an example of a theory. Are all parts of his brain on speaking terms with each other?

  36. #36 travis
    February 12, 2006

    Easterbrook has a self-disproving argument. He posits evolution as true, and at the end he implies that only testable theories are valid regarding the creation of life. However, the crux of his argument is a creator god who might have started up the whole thing. One of these things is not like the others.

    I had a brief hope that he would bring in a really wild superbowl-based argument on ID (e.g., “God is like an incompetent referee — sometimes he just misses things”), but he goes even farther off the rails with the potential of dating Maria Sharapova as an example of a theory. Are all parts of his brain on speaking terms with each other?

  37. #37 CS Lewis Jr.
    February 13, 2006

    It’s worth going back to the source here:

    TMQ is a churchgoer who believes there are higher powers and a life to come, but since the Bible tells us nothing about what the afterlife may be like, I don’t pretend to know details. I can note, however, that the dying in many places having similar mental experiences is not “impossible” absent the supernatural. There may be a perfectly natural reason why people facing mortality see hallways of peace or wisdom: because that is what culture conditions people to expect on death. (Let’s hope it’s right!) As for the bright lights the dying sometimes report experiencing, this article by Brendan Koerner explains mundane physical theories. Among them are that brain anoxia, or oxygen depravation, causes the optic nerves to sense white; and that at death the body releases all stored endorphins (no need to keep saving them) to stop mortal agony and create a sense of peace, making dying less traumatic.

    The latter biological possibility is actually one of the reasons TMQ believes that human beings were made by a God who loves us.

    Leaving aside the question of whether or not it’s possible to form an idea about The Afterlife (that means forever, and that’s a mighty long time) from the Bible…

    His point seems to be that, based on reports of near-death experiences, humans who manage to avoid violent or painful deaths experience feelings of well-being generated by mundane biological mechanisms, and therefore God must love us because evolution would not select for characteristics that have no bearing on reproduction.

    Which is why God arranged to have my favorite aunt undergo a horrible lingering death from brain tumor and stroke. All to get to that sweet anoxia goodness.

    I know Easterbrook is just a dime-a-dozen fatuous pious idiot, but when I read shit like this I really really want to punch the author in the face. Fuck you, Greg. Fuck you very much.

    Next time I attend a funeral, I’m shoving the priest in the grave.

  38. #38 Simon
    March 25, 2007

    Itea said: “That said, I wonder what would happen if instead of trashing him on the blog, you sent him your valid criticisms in an otherwise short and succinct email? Have you tried this?”

    I tried it and got no response (admittedly, my email wasn’t brief). My grievance with Easterbrook was with the following idiocy:

    “I suspect one reason the Iraq death toll elicits so little concern is that exaggerated estimates exist. Americans can say of the exaggerated estimates, “Oh, that’s way too high” and skip over thinking about the more probable numbers. The latest silly estimate comes from a new study in the British medical journal Lancet, which absurdly estimates that since March 2003 exactly 654,965 Iraqis have died as a consequence of American action. The study uses extremely loose methods of estimation, including attributing about half its total to “unknown causes.” The study also commits the logical offense of multiplying a series of estimates, then treating the result as precise. White House officials have dismissed the Lancet study, and they should. It’s gibberish.”

    There is so much wrong with the above that I barely knew where to begin. I sent an email politely detailing his misleading and incorrect statements and asking that he correct them. A few days later he published emails from readers who corrected him on other items in his column, however he ignored the Lancet topic completely. I haven’t read his TMQ column since.

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