Pharyngula

The daily egnorance: the mind reels

What are we going to do with Michael Egnor? He seems to be coming up with a new bit of foolishness every day, and babbling on and on. Should we ignore him (there really isn’t any substance there), or should we criticize him every time (although he’s probably capable of generating idiocy at a phenomenal rate—he’s got a real talent for it)?

I’m not going to link to the awful “Evolution News & Views” site, and I’ll make this brief. His latest gripe is with the recent Newsweek cover story (that I had some problems with, too), but his argument is silly.

This is your assignment. You are to read the mind of someone named “Lucy.” Actually, you are to find out where Lucy’s mind came from. You can’t meet Lucy. She’s been dead for 3.2 million years. Your only data will be a fragment of Lucy’s fossilized skull and genetic analysis of some apes, men, and lice.

This isn’t a bad dream. This is an exciting new branch of evolutionary biology, and it’s on the cover of Newsweek magazine. And they’re serious.

The article doesn’t claim to be able to read dead minds. It cites a few studies in paleoneurology, where some interesting correlations between hormones and brain-associated proteins with behavior might provide some general insights. If Egnor is going to build straw men, he could at least try to make the stuffing a little less obvious.

He also goes on and on about how he can’t read brains by looking at blood flow in his work. We know. No one claims that we can. Of course, Michael Egnor does use these indirect measures to diagnose general properties of the brain — broad function, health, injury, etc. Unless he wants to argue that the physical state of the brain has nothing to do with the individuals possessing it, in which case he is out of a job, it’s awfully strange for him to claim that we can’t learn anything by examining brains and the molecules associated with him…and the only way he can do it is by inventing this false claim that biologists are saying they can “read the mind”.

He’s going to have to do better than this dishonest junk. I’m getting bored with him already.

Comments

  1. #1 Dustin
    March 19, 2007

    It sounds like the creationists are having the same problem as the geocentrists of yore. The fact that there have been some 15 different species of intelligent hominids on this planet seems to disturb their little belief that we’re the center of all creation. Thus, they conclude, they must not have been all that bright.

    What a pathetic world they live in.

  2. #2 Christian Burnham
    March 19, 2007

    Indeed, and how do we know that Lucy was her real name anyway?

  3. #3 Ichthyic
    March 19, 2007

    I’m still waiting for the rest of Stony Brook to make some public statement.

    Their silence is deafening at this point.

  4. #4 Steven
    March 19, 2007

    Wow that guy isn’t just a dumbass he is an insipid jackass also.

  5. #5 factician
    March 19, 2007

    Christian Burnham,

    Heh, that comment made my day. Though the coffee up my nose stings a little…

  6. #6 Dustin
    March 19, 2007

    I’m still waiting for the rest of Stony Brook to make some public statement.

    Their silence is deafening at this point.

    Yeah it is. Didn’t they host a huge evolution conference just last summer?

  7. #7 Bastardinator
    March 19, 2007

    Yeah… I’m from Stony Brook…student.
    I hope to god[or not] they don’t make a statement, please for the love of god they need to keep this under wraps…
    At least until I get into grad school.
    Or fire him…that’s fine too.

    Otherwise, the article was OK…dramatized and a bit ignorant but fine for newsweek.

  8. #8 Dustin
    March 19, 2007

    To be fair, I don’t think he should be fired as long as he’s producing research in whatever area he’s supposed to be producing research in. As long as he’s doing that, he’s just an overconfident jerk who is issuing statements on something he doesn’t understand.

    And I doubt one screwball is going to wreck the reputation of a whole university, especially not one like Stony Brook. The only way it will look bad for you is if you pick him as some kind of advisor.

  9. #9 Ichthyic
    March 19, 2007

    Didn’t they host a huge evolution conference just last summer?

    yes, and not for the first time.

    also, the most used evo bio textbook is written by Futuyma, who is currently in residence at the eco and evo bio dept there.

    heck, one of the most strident selectionists of all time, GC Williams, is emeritus in that dept.

    I even wrote him an email wondering what his thoughts were on the issue of Egnor.

    no response.

    I can only conclude the issue is somehow below the threshold of their response radar.

    kind of why i keep posting these messages in the hope that someone at Stony will be motivated to explain what’s going on. Hopefully because they themselves saw the request, or that these constant reminders will spark all the major bloggers to write Stony and ask the same question themselves.

    I wonder if this is a case like that of John Davison, who started trying to teach his PEH while an instructor at UVM, and was quickly and quietly removed from his responsibilities.

    Egnor also seems to have suffered a similar mental break to that of Davison; he exhibits a LOT of the same symptoms and argues in much the same way as Davison does.

    Maybe Stony is simply hoping to keep this quiet, and wait for the furor to die down?

  10. #10 Ichthyic
    March 19, 2007

    To be fair, I don’t think he should be fired as long as he’s producing research in whatever area he’s supposed to be producing research in. As long as he’s doing that, he’s just an overconfident jerk who is issuing statements on something he doesn’t understand.

    he’s the head of the dept. of neurosurgery for christ’s sake! He has admitted to teaching historical revionism in his courses on biomedical ethics.

    fired? that would indeed be bad publicity for Stony.

    much more likely they would simply give him a golden parachute.

  11. #11 CalGeorge
    March 19, 2007

    Some people care more about getting attention than getting their facts straight.

    PZ, is it time for a monthly Egnorance Award? You could do a straw poll like they have a dKos.

    That would be fun!

  12. #12 Stuart Coleman
    March 19, 2007

    I’d think that your time is too valuable for the likes of him, especially since everybody in the evolution blogosphere is going overboard to disprove him. Frankly, I’m beginning to tire of reading about him, perhaps we should just label him an IDiot charlatan and be done with him.

  13. #13 Stanton
    March 19, 2007

    So, Dr Egnor thinks that “Paleoneurology” is about reading the minds of multi-million year old corpses?

    I bet the sound he makes while he’s talking is coming from the rocks rattling around in that head of his.

  14. #14 Dustin
    March 19, 2007

    I wonder if we should get a pool going to see how long it takes the DI to start calling it “Paleophrenology”.

    Of course, to engage in those kinds of polemics, they’d first have to declare that phrenology isn’t scientific and, since Behe has let us know that astrology is in fact a science under the DI definition, I doubt that’ll happen.

  15. #15 Capt. Broccoli
    March 19, 2007

    i was bored with this guy last week. i vote for egnoring him. although i do like the idea of naming an award for him, strictly for comedic purposes. how about the “Egnor Award for Achievement in Ignorance”.

  16. #16 justawriter
    March 19, 2007

    I wonder if the Egnorant one thinks those stupid pathologists can’t possibly diagnose a deadly disease with a tissue sample on a slide better than he can with a few chest thumps and having the patient say “Ah”? After all, he seems to think it’s impossible to gain any useful data without the entire body in hand.

  17. #17 Zombie
    March 19, 2007
  18. #18 Blake Stacey, OM
    March 19, 2007

    I can’t resist:

    Your assignment, should you choose to accept it, is to read the mind of someone named “Jesus.” Actually, you are to find out where Jesus‘s mind came from. You can’t meet Jesus. He’s been dead for two thousand years. Your only data will be a few fragments of ancient parchment full of inconsistent folk tales. No video, no audio, no pictures on coins, nothing even in his own handwriting.

    This isn’t a bad dream. This is what people claim to be the basis of all morality, and what they want to be the foundation of government.

    Ichthyic inquired,

    Maybe Stony is simply hoping to keep this quiet, and wait for the furor to die down?

    Sounds like what a school administration might well do. when it doubt, table the motion and let the brouhaha sort itself out.

  19. #19 Krystalline Apostate
    March 19, 2007

    Thanks, PZ, for setting this strawman ablaze.
    For anyone interested, I’ve put together an evolutionary tract – I’m curious as to whether this is a good idea, bad idea, ho-hum, & any input is appreciated.

  20. #20 Ron
    March 19, 2007

    “What are we going to do with Michael Egnor? ”

    Ignore him. Arenīt there more important things to talk about, like a number of really important issues raised by Gould in ‘Structure…’, or whether evo psyche is really just a bunch of pseudo-darwinist woo?

  21. #21 David Marjanovi?
    March 19, 2007

    The fact that there have been some 15 different species of intelligent hominids

    Eh, that depends on your species concept, and most of the 25-upwards species concepts are not applicable to fossils in the first place.

    Depending on the species concept, there are between 101 and 249 endemic bird species in Mexico…

  22. #22 David Marjanovi?
    March 19, 2007

    The fact that there have been some 15 different species of intelligent hominids

    Eh, that depends on your species concept, and most of the 25-upwards species concepts are not applicable to fossils in the first place.

    Depending on the species concept, there are between 101 and 249 endemic bird species in Mexico…

  23. #23 Orac
    March 19, 2007

    he’s the head of the dept. of neurosurgery for christ’s sake! He has admitted to teaching historical revionism in his courses on biomedical ethics.

    Actually, he’s not the head of the department. He’s the vice chair. I, too, would disagree strenously that Dr. Egnor should be fired, as long as he does his job well. Given what he is teaching in a medical ethics course, it would not be inappropriate to take that course teaching away from him, but other than that his ignorant pontificating on evolution should not be grounds for dismissal.

  24. #24 QrazyQat
    March 19, 2007

    Reassigning him would give him more time to teach about aspects of surgery he’s good at, doing everybody a favor. Firing, no.

    As for countering him, this is the age-old problem with pseudoscience. If you don’t counter it, it sounds good to a lot more people. If you do, it legitimizes it to some degree. And always, pseudoscience proponents can pump out far more of their stuff than you can counter, because spouting nonsense is fairly easy and requires little or no work or time, while countering it takes actual work and time. That’s part of the tactics of pseudoscience of any stripe.

  25. #25 Ichthyic
    March 19, 2007

    “It is not possible to awaken someone who is pretending to be asleep.” — Navajo proverb

    Is it possible that Egnor is simply playing a role here?

    that would explain why he hasn’t joined the DI talking heads before now. It would also explain why he chooses to completely ignore the thousands of articles published in contrast to what he is saying about the link between modern medicine and evolutionary biology.

    just to take another tack.

    as to firing someone; if that person is causing damage to the reputation of the university, let alone admitted to teaching historical revisionism in a biomedical ethics course, how far should free speech play a role there?

    I bet a lot of the people saying Egnor shouldn’t be relieved of duty said exactly the opposite of that high school teacher discussed on this blog a couple of months back.

    aside from that, just to be clear, the accepted response in situations like this is retirement (usually with incentives), rather than summary dismissal.

    hence “golden parachute”

  26. #26 Ichthyic
    March 19, 2007

    because spouting nonsense is fairly easy and requires little or no work or time, while countering it takes actual work and time. That’s part of the tactics of pseudoscience of any stripe.

    Exactly the reason this should be taken seriously, and not just dismissed as “a crazy bugger that should simply have his ethics class taken away”.

    the university should make a strong statement negating his nonsense at this point, otherwise it takes that much more effort to repair the damage he is causing.

    IIRC, there have been several similar cases at other universities. Would someone care to expound on what was done in those cases?

  27. #27 Carlie
    March 19, 2007

    The response of the university, should they choose to get involved, could be quite interesting. On one hand you have academic freedom, and if he were to be fired he’d immediately become the DI’s most famous martyr. On the other hand, though, he has admitted in print to proudly teaching absolute falsehoods in class.

    I think that his department should carefully analyze his syllabi and tests, perhaps do several in-class evaluations, and make sure that he knows what the facts are and what he has to teach, even to the point of sitting in on those particular lectures if need be. As for his extracurricular activities, I would imagine they’d be limited to publishing a disclaimer that his views do not represent those of the department as a whole.

  28. #28 Ichthyic
    March 19, 2007

    The response of the university, should they choose to get involved, could be quite interesting.

    since he is claiming to be a representative of that university, they are defacto already involved.

    they are simply choosing at this point not to respond, which IMO reflects poorly on Stony.

    maybe you’re right that they fear making a martyr of him, but by not responding, they denigrate the work of the luminaries in their own evo bio dept, which I’d be willing to bet draw far more money to the university (especially Futuyma) than Egnor does.

    I know I would be personally offended if the university I worked for wouldn’t bother defending my own profession against such idiocy by an obviously disturbed individual.

  29. #29 Paguroidea
    March 19, 2007

    I wonder how many students would actually believe his falsehoods. One would hope that word would spread quickly among the students about what is really happening.

  30. #30 Keith Douglas
    March 21, 2007

    QrazyQat: I think that’s why generally raising the quality of scientific instruction is the way to go, so people are less vulnerable to the hucksters and charlatans. (And the genuinely deluded become fewer, too.)

    Ichthyic: I think the “scorched earth” possibility is plausible here, too.

    All of that said, I think the ideal response would be to have relevant scholars publically criticize, particularly ones from his home institution.

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