I had hardly completed my last post about Paul Greenberg‘s newest battle in his war on science when his hatchet man Mike Masterson (full title: opinion editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette‘s Northwest edition) entered the competition for the silliest display of ignorance. Gene Lyons thankfully alerted me to Masterson’s May 27 column which was mostly about the primary election but ended in a curious, off-topic paragraph excerpted in full for its sheer absurdity:
For readers who value rational thought over dreams and wishes, a friend recently sent this: “Mike: All living things on earth – including microbes, grass, elephants, blue whales and humans – reproduce using DNA. Although the creatures differ widely, the code that controls many of their characteristics is very stable and has served to maintain the distinction between each of them through the ages.” So, he continues, if creatures evolve, their DNA must switch between kinds to make an entirely different DNA strain to support a new living thing altogether. “Is there any evidence anywhere to show that’s happened, according to DNA? I’m not aware of it, are you?” Anyone out there aware of DNA shape-shifting from an amoeba into an elephant or a person?
It’s easy to make fun of that “argument”. How on earth did Masterson’s parents’ DNA “switch” to create something as unique as little Mikey? Every middle schooler who has paid the slightest bit of attention in biology class could explain to Masterson and his anonymous dummy friend that DNA is generally stable but not immutable. Mutation, sexual recombination and asexual recombination (as occurs between unicellular organisms like bacteria) provide for the genetic variety that enables descent with modification, which over many generations through natural selection gives rise to natural evolution. Mutations in the genetic code cause cancer and hereditary disease as well as the occasional lucky occurrence of a useful new trait. Mutation and genetic recombination enable the breeding of plant and animal varieties that humans have practiced for thousands of years, and explains the emergence of drug, herbicide and pesticide resistance.
If DNA were absolutely stable, none of this would be possible. No pet dogs. No agriculture. No need to worry about new strains of flu every year. No cancer. Of course, no individuality. The notion is so absurd that even most creationists and “Intelligent Design” proponents accept what they call micro-evolution. Masterson’s all-out attack on science is like waving a giant banner saying “I am ignorant and I am proud of it”. Maybe he is a scientific illiterate and genuinely thinks himself smart for raising what he thinks is a refutation of the whole scientific enterprise. Maybe (more likely I would say) he is a cynic whose job it is to spread misinformation and distrust among his scientifically illiterate readership. What stands out is the fact that a completely anti-scientific, flat-earth type of ideology is deemed respectable enough to be published in a “respectable” newspaper. The effect that this has on public discourse is that more and more Americans are convinced any opinion is as good as any other. Facts, logic, empirical reality don’t matter. And Masterson, though extreme, is hardly unique. Public discourse is dominated by a political class and a punditocracy inoculating American culture with anti-intellectualism on a permanent basis. Americans are being told day in day out that science and reason are worthless, that you can make up your own facts if you like, that evolution and climate science are just matters of opinion. This is why it has become virtually impossible in this country to have any kind of rational discourse about anything – whether the economy, birth control, evolution, or climate change. And that is really really worrying because Americans can choose to ignore reality but that doesn’t make it go away.
As an aside, part of Masterson’s musings, allegedly sent by an anonymous friend, is taken verbatim from a religious web site.