'Dr. Doom' Under Siege

April 6, 2006

Environmental scientists haven't been the top targets of intelligent design advocates, who have generally focused on attacking evolutionary biologists. But an outspoken environmental scientist at the University of Texas at Austin -- whose research focuses on the damage modern society inflicts on the Earth -- has found his work suddenly under scrutiny from unexpected sources.

Since March -- in science and pseudo-science circles alike -- much has been made of a speech that Eric Pianka gave at the annual meeting of the Texas Academy of Science. Those familiar with Pianka’s work say they weren’t surprised by his presentation, which, they say, outlined some of humanity's ecological misdeeds, including overuse of petroleum. Scientists say Pianka regularly alludes to overpopulation and its ill effects on the ecological environment.

But his March speech -- which Pianka's colleagues say has been severely distorted by intelligent design supporters -- has led to death threats against the respected scientist.

Pianka, when reached on Wednesday, would not talk specifically about his speech, only saying that “the full story will come out soon.” 

One person who attended the event has already written a full story -- which, in turn, has been championed by several opponents of evolution. Forrest Mims, a science writer without a university affiliation, has detailed his version of the speech in an online publication he edits called The Citizen Scientist. In an article titled, “ Meeting Doctor Doom,” Mims wrote that Pianka "enthusiastically advocated the elimination of 90 percent of Earth's population by airborne Ebola." [The previous sentence clarifies an earlier version of this paragraph.]

Several people who attended the speech and are familiar with Pianka's ideas say that he intended no such thing. While he said that overpopulation creates serious environmental problems, he didn't call for the death of anyone, they say.

As a result of the professor’s speech, Mims says that he worries that a Pianka-worshipping student might someday become a professional academic with the ability to carry out an evil Ebola-inspired plot against humanity.

“I think this incident is a disgrace for the University of Texas, the Academies of Science, the state of Texas, and the United States,” Mims said Wednesday. He estimated that 95 percent of the crowd at the speech gave Pianka a standing ovation. “We’re not dealing with someone using theatrics to entertain students,” he added.

The Discovery Institute, a leading proponent of intelligent design, has posted Mims’s article in its online news analysis section.  

William Dembski, a professor of science and theology at Southern Seminary and a well-known advocate of intelligent design, said that the critiques of the professor are not based solely on philosophical differences. “It’s not a question of intelligent design, but of our shared humanity and its value,” he said.

Since the critiques have rolled in, Pianka has received several death threats, according to local press reports.

The Texas Academy has stood firm behind the embattled professor, and recently put out a press release rebutting Mims’s account. They also defended naming Pianka a 2006 Texas Academy of Science Distinguished Scholar.

“We would like to state ... that many of Dr. Pianka’s statements have been severely misconstrued and sensationalized,” David S. Marsh, president of the academy, said in the release. “The purpose of his presentation was to dramatize the precarious plight of the human population. He did nothing more than apply commonly accepted principles of animal population dynamics to humans; an application not unique to this presentation and one that can be surmised by any student of ecology.” 

John Hanson, a biology instructor at Texas Tech University who attended the speech, said that at no point was Pianka literally arguing that “humans are bad and we need to go away.” “Rather, he was talking about human impacts on the environment,” said Hanson. “From a nonanthropomorphic point of view, it probably would be best for the planet with less humans.”   

Some members of the Texas Academy have united to create a petition expressing their outrage regarding Mims’s actions and their support for Pianka. Dozens had signed as of Wednesday evening.

When asked whether he believed in Darwinian evolution, Mims would not provide an answer. Hanson, for one, found that strange, and said that most scientists he knows are pretty open about being evolutionists -- even ones who hold strong religious beliefs.  

"I think that the Pianka affair stems from a contingent set of circumstances, and that it is because Forrest Mims happens to be an intelligent design advocate that the intelligent design advocates are so involved in this incident," said Wesley R. Elsberry, a director with the National Center for Science Eduation. "In this case, he heard Pianka say some things that conflicted with his worldview, and through misunderstanding inferred things that just weren't part of Pianka's talk."

“I would like to make clear that Mims has dishonestly mischaracterized Dr. Pianka’s statements,” said Kathryn E. Perez, a postdoctoral fellow with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill department of biology, in the petition of support for Pianka. She personally believes that the Texas Academy should consider sanctioning Mims, who is a member of the organization, for what she calls “misleading propaganda.”

“I’m not entirely sure why intelligent design proponents would find this a good bandwagon to jump on," she added. “It just seems like they want to teach people not to trust scientists.”

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