Commentary: Meet the real April fools
- 26 April 2008
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THE first flush of spring seems to energise people with a cause, and this year is no exception. Three major anti-science crusades have been launched this month. This could have been funny if even one had been followed by a cry of "April Fool!" But no. So let me do it for them with a belated trio of April Fools' Awards.
First prize goes to Ben Stein. When a former television game show host focuses on intelligence, it's time to worry. Stein, an actor famous for his deadpan role in the 1986 movie Ferris Bueller's Day Off, has decided to save the US educational system from the tyranny of Darwin through his involvement with a sad little documentary called Expelled: No intelligence allowed. It chronicles the problem of how to succeed in academia if one decides to attack science without a weapon which is not up to the task.
Stein focuses on some disgruntled academics: in particular, an editor for an unimportant biology journal who tried to publish, without peer review, an anti-evolution piece by philosopher Stephen Meyers of the Discovery Institute. Meyers has been leading the charge against teaching evolution in US schools, and it was he who coined the brilliant PR phrase "teach the controversy" on stage opposite me as he argued against teaching evolution in Ohio's schools. This phrase neatly presumes that there is a controversy. There is none.
Stein tries to further the myth of censorship by seeking out individuals denied their "rightful" place in the ivory tower in spite of their academic brilliance, just because they support intelligent design (ID). His problem is that he doesn't really find any. Instead, the film makers packed it with footage of Nazis, arguing that Darwin was essentially the philosophical father of the Holocaust.
There are also scenes of Stein lecturing to a rapt audience at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California. According to Skeptics Society founder Michael Shermer, who contacted Pepperdine, the audience was in fact paid extras. If this is true, shame on you Ben. I hope your movie quickly follows 99 per cent of Earth's long-forgotten species into extinction.
Stein has apparently strongly influenced Florida state senator Ronda Storms, who wins second prize. Her efforts to support the teaching of ID in Florida were thwarted when the Florida School Board introduced evolution into its curriculum for the first time. Storms is so concerned about academic freedom that she is pushing for legislation to protect teachers and students who decide to "objectively" attack the reality of evolution.
The only problem is that - as one Florida senate staff analysis concluded - not one teacher or student in Florida has claimed they were discriminated against because of their teaching or the coursework they completed. The analysis also notes that the bill fails to explain who determines what is "objective".
Finally, proving that if at first you don't succeed, try, try again, the third award goes to Walter Wagner, a lawyer, and his sidekick, Luis Sancho. Building on Wagner's failed efforts in 1999 to halt the opening of Brookhaven National Laboratory's Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider, this time they decided to save the world from the Large Hadron Collider.
Arguing that energetic collisions within these machines might produce real black holes that could engulf the planet, Wagner and Sancho filed a lawsuit in Hawaii seeking a temporary restraining order prohibiting CERN from proceeding with the accelerator until it has produced a new safety report and an environmental assessment. The pair's exploits rated a brief mention in this magazine (5 April, p 6) but made the front page of The New York Times.
When Wagner tried this before, a scientific panel convened by Brookhaven pointed out that for about 4.5 billion years, high-energy cosmic rays have been bombarding the Earth and the moon at much higher energies than will be produced by either accelerator. Look up at night and we still see the moon, which is pretty good evidence that black holes capable of destroying it and us are not so easily created.
We see the moon at night - good evidence that black holes are not so easily created