Mike Masterson: Ignorant And Proud Of It

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:

DNA deliberating
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.

Paul Greenberg: Ignorance Rules

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette opinion editor Paul Greenberg is frequently on the warpath against science and academia. That he attacks Black Studies – the academic discipline studying African-American culture and history – in a recent column (also available here) is hardly noteworthy but his transparently dishonesty is at least worth documenting. Here is what happened.

Naomi Schaefer Riley, a blogger at the Chronicle of Higher Education, a trade journal rather obscure to most of Greenberg’s readers, published an attack on Black Studies titled “The Most Persuasive Case for Eliminating Black Studies? Just Read the Dissertations“. In the blog post, Riley refers to three recent dissertations by Black Studies scholars as examples of “left-wing victimization claptrap”: about “historical black midwifery”, “Black Housing and the Urban Crisis of the 1970s”, and “black Republicanism”.

Here’s the catch: Schaefer Riley never read any of the works she attacked. She didn’t even look at the table of contents.
Continue reading

Paul Greenberg’s war on science and learning

The Arkansas Democrat Gazette dedicated today’s editorial  (free registration required) under the headline “What’s Crazy” to another attack on science as tiresome as it is unoriginal. It’s not hard to guess that it is another of editorial page editor Paul Greenberg’s attempts at showing off his ignorance in all matters academic. The editorial is dedicated to Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn’s yearly rant against the National Science Foundation (NSF). Every year or so, Coburn releases a report picking NSF projects that he doesn’t think are worth funding. You know what, there’s a reason why scientific funding decisions at the NSF are left to competent scientific reviewers rather than politicians: the Coburn approach (putting politicians in charge of science) has already been tried – in the Soviet Union, for example – and didn’t work out so well.

The editorial is titled “Eat the shrimp, people”, and its primary showcase of alleged waste is so embarrassing one wants to cry. It concerns a study titled “Impaired Metabolism and Performance in Crustaceans Exposed to Bacteria”, awarded to Karen Burnett at College of Charleston.  The researchers study the metabolism and immune response of crustaceans under stress from hypoxia and bacterial infections. What’s wrong with that? Honestly, I don’t know and I bet neither do comrades Greenberg and Coburn. Greenberg certainly doesn’t waste column space explaining why exactly he opposes studying crustacean metabolism. Instead he explains that shrimp should rather be cooked in skillets than studied in labs, thus proving his half-wits to the half-wits who think that’s a funny joke.

What’s crazy? The Arkansas Democrat Gazette inoculating its readership with anti-scientific sentiment to make sure none of them will ever understand the physical world around them nor even the need to use the tools of science to better understand reality. As long as they can live in the fantasy world brought to them by Fox News and the Arkansas Democrat Gazette, no need to understand shrimp as long as you can cook them in butter.

What’s crazy? A senator bought and paid for by the oil industry, and the corporate media hacks at the Arkansas Democrat Gazette, crying foul about research spending they don’t like while supporting tax-payer subsidies for Big Oil to the tune of billions a year.

To read more:

Attacks on science and Coburn’s ignorance

Sen. Coburn and GMA attack Science and the NSF

How a shrimp on a treadmill became a Web sensation

Coburn’s NSF Idiocy


Americans like to fret about the alleged under-performance of the public education system. Everybody’s favorite scapegoat these days are the teachers and their unions. Which makes sense until you think about it for two seconds: teachers have very little power in the system. They aren’t the ones who set education policy, they don’t get to write the curriculum, they have no power over funding levels and priorities, they don’t control how children spend most of their time. May I suggest that a large portion of the blame lies squarely with a political class and a punditocracy inoculating American culture with anti-intellectualism on a permanent basis.

Think about it. Today’s school children 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. The political and media discourse is to a large extent controlled by anti-intellectuals and science-haters like Coburn and Greenberg. What do we expect our school children to make of that? How would they develop an interest in learning and science in a culture that treats education as a handicap, learning as nerdiness, and disinterested research as government waste?