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 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.

  2. #2 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?

  3. #3 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.

  4. #4 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.

  5. #5 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…

  6. #6 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…

  7. #7 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”

  8. #8 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?

  9. #9 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.

  10. #10 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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