To read about F's and my London trip, start here and click "newer post" to continue the story.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

This is a horrifying story. (via

Forrest Mims attended a speech at the Texas Academy of Science. The speech was not videotaped, so he took careful notes.

But there was a gravely disturbing side to that otherwise scientifically significant meeting, for I watched in amazement as a few hundred members of the Texas Academy of Science rose to their feet and gave a standing ovation to a speech that enthusiastically advocated the elimination of 90 percent of Earth's population by airborne Ebola. The speech was given by Dr. Eric R. Pianka (Fig. 1), the University of Texas evolutionary ecologist and lizard expert who the Academy named the 2006 Distinguished Texas Scientist.


Professor Pianka said the Earth as we know it will not survive without drastic measures. Then, and without presenting any data to justify this number, he asserted that the only feasible solution to saving the Earth is to reduce the population to 10 percent of the present number.

He then showed solutions for reducing the world's population in the form of a slide depicting the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. War and famine would not do, he explained. Instead, disease offered the most efficient and fastest way to kill the billions that must soon die if the population crisis is to be solved.

Well, life imitates art, I guess. Or to put it another way, SF writers anticipate all sorts of lovely and horrifying things, and they do it with poetry and poignancy that tends to be lacking when the real thing comes along. When I read this article I immediately thought of The Last Flight of Doctor Ain, James Tiptree's short story that was published in Galaxy in 1969. It's a haunting and beautifully written story, and I hope that whoever keeps track of such things has read it, and therefore keeps a close eye on Pianka.


JM O'Donnell said...

Since you last blogged about this the story has changed a little bit. It looks like Mims isn't quite as honest about what happened as some took him to be.

Although there is a lot about this entire affair, it's very telling that one of the first papers to report the story, the Seguin Gazette-Enterprise has actually width-drawn the story. Additionally, even partial transcripts and the vast majority of a second speech do not support the contention that Dr. Pianka actually ever did advocate or take pleasure in the concept of 90% of people dying.

It looks like Mims, who has a definite axe to grind against Dr. Pianka has heavily embellished the account. A petition being circulated by Kathryn Perez, who also attended the talk that Mims was at has been gaining signatures fast that strongly contradicts Mims' account.

It's going to be a bad time to be certain bloggers that jumped all over Dr. Pianka based on Mims account alone. One ID group ( have already issued a retraction on the matter.

This isn't the end of the affair by any stretch of the imagination though.

Laura(southernxyl) said...

Well, JM, as I've said before, I'm kind of turned off by people referring to people they don't agree with using terms like "wingnuts". I did read the first transcript that your site pointed to, and I am not filled with confidence.

Did you read the Tiptree story I linked to? "Bird flu is good too", Pianka is quoted as saying.

And then the student evaluations from 2004:

"This is not new intellectual territory for the professor. A Fall 2004 student evaluation from the University of Texas says, 'Though I agree that convervation [sic] biology is of utmost importance to the world, I do not think that preaching that 90% of the human population should die of ebola is the most effective means of encouraging conservation awareness.'

Another student comment from Fall 2004 says, 'I don't root for ebola, but maybe a ban on having more than one child. I agree . . . too many people ruining this planet.'"

I hope some student doesn't hear "who will rid me of these troublesome humans" in these lectures and have the wherewithal to act on it.

BTW, thanks for your last email - I didn't respond right away because I had to think about it. It didn't seem to make sense to me. I think you skipped over something that maybe you take for granted I would already know - remember I haven't studied this stuff. When you say it takes less energy not to make eyeballs, and that gives an advantage, you're talking about the fetus being more likely to survive to term and be born if it didn't have to form eyes, right? Because once an individual cavefish exists, the energy required to have or not have eyes shouldn't matter.

JM O'Donnell said...


I'll put the statements and thoughts of Dr. Pianka in more context. Compare what he is quoted as saying about Bird Flu against actual context:

This is an AIDS infected piece of a human. Each of those little round things is an HIV virulent that can infect a new human. Basically, they use their T-cells to they make copies of themselves.

HIV is a pandemic spread worldwide. It's increasing in frequency in a lot of places and it's a big concern to everybody. But, it's not gonna be the one that gets us cause HIV is too slow, it lets us live several years so it can pass itself on to new hosts.

Uh, it's no good, it's too slow.

Now when you get to these viruses — Ebola Zaire has potential. It kills nine out of ten humans. It's never gotten out of Africa cause its so virulent it kills everybody before they can move. I mean it kills you within a day or two.

Uh, you can only catch Ebola Zaire by contact with a human that's infected. It causes you to bleed. It breaks capillaries and you bleed out your orifices and if you go out and touch somebody who's sick with it you get it and you die, too — or nine times out of ten.

Ebola-Reston did get out of Africa and to the U.S. in the form of green monkeys that were imported for medical research and it's named after Reston, West Virginia where they have quarantine facility for these monkeys. And, uh, they had this epidemic and all the monkeys died but they didn't have contact with each other. But they were sharing a common, uh, ventilation system. So, this is in this room, air was circulating being pumped back, and so on. Uh, monkeys in a room that breathe the same air caught it.

Now it is only a matter of time until Ebola got here evolves and mutates a little and it will be airborne, and then I think we might finally get a take. And when it sweeps across the world — we're gonna have a lot of dead people. Every one of you that is lucky enough to survive gets to bury nine. Think about that. I doubt Ebola is gonna be the one that gets us. I think it will be, uh, something else.

But did you ever wonder why things like SARS and now what the Avian Flu are continually cropping up? They're cropping up because we were dumb enough to make a perfect epidemiological substrate for an epidemic. We bred our brains out, and now we're being pegged. The microbes are gonna take over. They're gonna control us as they have in the past. Think about that.

Here's a breath of fresh air: Aldo Leopold. This is the start of the tiny little up. You've got to the lowest of the low where the microbes are gonna get you. Now, were gonna try to come up a little bit. Aldo Leopold was a conservation biologist before anybody else was. He was in wildlife management at the University of Wisconsin back in the ‘50s. And Leopold died young, but his children have put together a collection of his essays and made this book, "A Sand County Almanac." I encourage all of you to read it. It brings tears to my eyes at some of the things in it. I mean I literally break down and weep.

But one of the things Leopold said was each generation doesn't know what it lost — the last generation remembers.

Basically in context it's clear he is nowhere advocating genocide, but rather he is warning of what will happen and which pathogens are most likely to bring this about. In context his statements are very different than what he has supposedly said.

That's taken from an except by the samed titled speech he gave at Austin, which basically makes all of the points that he is 'accused' of saying. The difference is, in the full context of what he is saying the message is very clear.

Now before going any further, I'll defend why I call them Wingnuts and it's because of comments like these left on the blog of the student Brenna (you mentioned her in the post). If you go looking for her blog, you won't find it anymore and why is that? Well because she got flooded by anonymous cowards making statements like these:

Excellent idea. I vote for Pianka and this blogger to be among the first to vacate the planet. Put your money where your mouth is.
-Anonymous coward 1

Yes, Brenna, you and Pianka please do start with yourselves, and serve as a sterling example to the 90% of the rest of us who need to die. We'll follow your lead! We promise. Think of what heroes you'll be to Mother Earth and all the bunnies and kittens!
-Anonymous coward 2

Your comments and those of Dr. Pianka are not just 'controversial' these comments are dangerous. My concern is that a convert will act on your idea. All good people have to stand up and denouce you and Dr. Pianka. I think you are an intelliectual bigot. I'm sure you and Dr. Pianka feel you are too gifted, important, and enlightened to be in anything but the 10% that remain. You think you are practicing science. I think you are guilty of hate crimes against humanity. It would be a waste of resources to have a trial and imprison you, so perhaps your suicide by ebola would be best for all of us.
-Anonymous coward 3.

And such forth for hundreds of comments. Essentially telling her to basically kill herself and they'll be pleased to see her gone (along with Dr. Pianka). Of course, the abject hypocrisy of such a position is immediately apparent.

Bear in mind this isn't Dr. Pianka, this is a student who simply got named on the wrong end of a witch-hunt. I can't see how what happened to her is either fair or ethical.

The student evaluations are also only 2 (yes only 2) that could be dredged up out of over 90 student evaluations. Very few other students have corroborated the allegations of Mims that Dr. Pianka actually directly advocates the death of anyone.

Actually, I'll quote the last part of the St. Edwards speech transcript, which has been preserved on the internet somewhere, google cache works (The original paper has run from the story as fast as it could...):

So he says in a stationary world as opposed to one that's grow, grow, grow where everybody has to elbow the other guy and compete to get to the front and be concerned about who's going to win and who's going to lose everyday in the stock market. And in a stationary world we can focus in on things that really matter. And he used a phrase that I really love — the art of living. We can work on the art of living. Think about that.

That's Dr. Pianka. Does that sound like a monster who delights in seeing 90% of humanity killed?

In one week the entire claim of Mims has fallen over. ID sites are retreating from the story, it's being retracted from mainstream press that presented it and a petition going around directly stating Mims distorted the speech has 100+ signatures (from people who were there, not just anybody).

Not to mention Mims has become incredibly hysterical. He's threatened lawsuits (where he has no ground to stand on) and he's actually threatend to 'expose' another student for the same wingnut Brenna M. treatment quoted above. This is a man who is supposed to be telling the truth? If the truth is on his side, why does he need to make threats about 'revealing' another student? Shouldn't that student come forward of their own will to defend Mims if Mims is right?

Something smells about Mims account and the more information we have, the less convincing his account gets.

Also, feel free to send me another email asking for clarification on certain points. I'll be more than happy to answer. Bear in mind that when I am talking about general 'energy', what I'm meaning is the metabolic demand of the animal. Basically, if you're not needing to maintain highly energetic cells (replacement, making new proteins etc) you don't need to eat as much food (less energy used means less food energy is required). So life becomes a lot easier.

Darren said...

This plot line has appeared in many books and movies over the years. Tom Clancy released a blockbuster about 7 or 8 years ago where a group of terrorist/scientists were attempting to wipe out most life on Earth. Their arguments were similar - for humanities own good, we're destroying the Earth etc. and I'm fairly sure they were planning to use an airborne strain of Ebola.

12 Monkeys - that first class film with Bruce Willis was about the after effects of a similar event. The plot is an old favourite of Sci-Fi writers, right up there with time travel and changing the future by changing the past.

JM O'Donnell said...

It's also, IMO a rather large amount of nonsense much in the same vein as the "Grey Goo" nanotech destruction of the planet. It's more science fiction than science fact and obscures real problems/concerns.

I wrote a bit about this on my blog:

But much of what I wrote doesn't exactly conform to Dr. Piankas views. So I intend to write a more comprehensive series of posts detailing science fiction vs. science fact behind the "doomsday virus".

Laura(southernxyl) said...

Well, there's other sci fi and just general fiction on this order. David Brin's Earth, which he published I think in 1985, is a good read if you're in the mood for dystopia. Tom Clancy's Executive Orders has Arab terrorists isolating an airborne Ebola and trying to start an outbreak in the US. It doesn't work only because the strain they have isn't quite robust enough to do more than kill a few people.

I agree that ebola doing the trick is not very likely. To say that the idea of it killing off 90% of the population is junk science isn't the same as saying that Pianka didn't say what he was reported as saying. And I wonder, if the people who reported on Pianka were not self-identified creationists and IDers, would you take them more seriously?

There's more junk science here than you've mentioned. For one, population growth here and in Europe is already slowing. We aren't replacing ourselves, except through immigration. For another, it's not like worldwide pandemics are a new thing, for pete's sake. Look at the tuberculosis pandemic of the 19th century - you find it in almost all of the literature of the era.

I guess what caught my attention in the original article was this:

Pianka: "Bird flu is good, too."

The fictional Dr. Ain:

They got him on a stretcher at Hamilton Air Base, and he went unconscious shortly after takeoff. Before he collapsed, he'd insisted on throwing the last of his birdseed on the field.

"Birds are, you know, warm-blooded," he confided to the agent who was handcuffing him to the stretcher. Then Ain smiled gently and lapsed into inertness. He stayed that way almost all the remaining ten days of his life. By then, of course, no one really cared. Both the government men had died quite early, after they finished analyzing the birdseed and throat-spray. The woman at Kennedy had just started feeling sick.

Okay, I know it's fiction, but I got a really strong feeling of deja vu when I read about Pianka.

JM O'Donnell said...

And I wonder, if the people who reported on Pianka were not self-identified creationists and IDers, would you take them more seriously?

It's a good reason to be extra sceptical but a better one is that there were ~400 individuals there, yet only a minor number have corroborated the account. Everyone else I have had correspondence with and other scientists there have strongly contradicted Mims account.

Funnily enough, it appears that assuming Mims may have been wrong was the right decision after all.

In fact, Mims account has been falling over considerably and it seems even the DI has retreated from it. I've also heard reports of Mims only being present in the lecture for 5 minutes.

Also, you can read the bird flu comment in context in the St. Edwards speech. It's clear from the full context exactly what Dr. Pianka means.

Additionally, anyone who is as prone to the rhetorical style and manner of speech that Dr. Pianka is can be easily misinterpreted. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised that a few people agree with Mims account as they may have misinterpreted Pianka as well. It's certainly been the case that he's been taken the wrong way previously.

Accounts from the vast majority of people who know Dr. Pianka, the vast majority of his students and again, the vast majority of those who were at the speech all say that Mims has grossly distorted what Dr. Pianka thinks.

It's almost certain with any kind of public speaking that someone can take what you say incorrectly. This is just one of those situations. The problem is that this 'misinterpretation' has led to viscious attacks on Dr. Pianka that are based on a hysterical account of an individual with an axe to grind. Additionally, Mims has seen to a student, Brenna McConnell being visciously attacked in the same manner, again on an unwarranted degree of hyperbole.

If Mims isn't fired or forced to resign for starting this unwarranted fiasco there will be something seriously wrong with the world.

JM O'Donnell said...

Haha! The articles from the Seguin Gazette-Enterprise are back and without Mims hysteria (which is nearly entirely gone):

And the biggest news? They have an entire and complete transcript. They'll be publishing it later in the week as well.

JM O'Donnell said...

Actually there is a better explanation than mine. I thought they were updated articles but they aren't. They are in fact older articles that got replaced, although their first one on the matter from April 2nd is still gone:

His explanation makes far more sense.

Laura(southernxyl) said...

Perhaps Pianka was misunderstood - I'd sure like to think so. I wonder if he was used to playing a nice little game of shock-the-innocent-college-students (I remember this well from my own college days) and lost sight of who his audience was.

I remember profs who acted like they thought it was their DUTY to shock us all out of the Bible-belt middle-class stupors they assumed we were in. They were so transparent. We didn't give them the satisfaction of responding, usually.