We are being told these days from various and sundry quarters that scientific illiteracy is a great dishonor to politicians. I can't help wondering: Is it also a great dishonor to biology professors? How about biology professors who have a PhD in Genetics and are writing in the New York Times?
Greg Hampikian, Professor of Biology at Boise State University (PhD in Genetics, University of Connecticut, 1990, recipient of a NSF International Centers of Excellence Postdoctoral award, 1990-91), has written a piece that is such utter, scientifically false rubbish that it leaves one gasping. The op-ed ("Men, Who Needs Them?" August 24, 2012) is filled not just with fumbles or mis-speakings, not just with speculation presented as fact, and certainly not with controverted but mainstream science, but with outright misinformation.
This is feminist biology, and it ain't a pretty sight. It's difficult to know where to start, but perhaps I'll mention this one first: Hampikian triumphantly informs us that men are unnecessary for reproduction! He literally states:
[W]omen are both necessary and sufficient for reproduction, and men are neither.
Now, where I do work in the academic milieu (analytic philosophy), words like "necessary" and "sufficient" have definite meaning, and given that meaning, this statement is false. As the succeeding sentences demonstrate, what Hampikian is actually referring to (I won't let him off the hook by saying "what he means") is the fact that a father can be physically absent while reproduction and gestation take place, since (inter alia) frozen sperm can be used for reproduction after a man is no longer around or even dead. (He also says that human cloning is "just around the corner," but that is a mere promissory note.) What he says is that women are, presently, sufficient for reproduction and that men are not necessary. If Hampikian were an English professor, or maybe an Education specialist, I would advise him to leave words like "necessary" and "sufficient" to the hard-edged fields like Philosophy and the sciences, because he's obviously not competent to use them and might hurt himself, but...oh, that's right. Hampikian supposedly is a scientist.
But the necessary and sufficient fiasco is really only one small part of this trainwreck. There's lots more here, and Hampikian always goes on at some length, driving each piece of misinformation firmly into the reader's mind. He actually says that each of us was once an unfertilized egg! He then uses this utter biological falsehood as a trope for two paragraphs.
Think about your own history. Your life as an egg actually started in your mother’s developing ovary, before she was born; you were wrapped in your mother’s fetal body as it developed within your grandmother.
After the two of you left Grandma’s womb, you enjoyed the protection of your mother’s prepubescent ovary. Then, sometime between 12 and 50 years after the two of you left your grandmother, you burst forth and were sucked by her fimbriae into the fallopian tube. You glided along the oviduct, surviving happily on the stored nutrients and genetic messages that Mom packed for you.
Yes, that's right. You read that right. Hampikian tells us to think about our own individual history. He then states that each of us began life as an unfertilized egg within our mother's body while she was an embryo in her own mother's body. He even says that two individuals, namely, your newborn mother and you, were born from your grandmother at the same time! He then says that you burst forth from your mother's ovary--remember, we're still talking about an unfertilized egg, here--and passed along the fallopian tube.
Note: The whole point of this is to argue that men are unimportant. We can't, therefore, excuse Hampikian's fantasy by saying that he's just being some sort of bizarre holist and saying that "you" once were everything that ever became a part of you or contributed to you. That would be silly enough, since it would imply that "you" once were a piece of dirt, a potato, and, oh, by the way, a sperm cell. But no, that interpretation won't do. Hampikian is insistent that you were once an unfertilized egg, but when he finally gets around to mentioning the father's sperm, this is what we get:
Then, at some point, your father spent a few minutes close by, but then left. A little while later, you encountered some very odd tiny cells that he had shed. They did not merge with you, or give you any cell membranes or nutrients — just an infinitesimally small packet of DNA, less than one-millionth of your mass.
So the sperm cells are just some unimportant, odd little thingies that your father "shed." Whatever else they were, they certainly weren't you. Remember: You are the egg. Repeat after me. You were once an egg. And according to Hampikian, the sperm doesn't "merge" with the egg, whatever the heck that means. (Here we might introduce Hampikian to some real embryology, but the misinformation he conveys is so extreme that we might as well not bother.)
Throughout this remarkable little paragraph, Hampikian engages in blatant sophistry, pretending that paternal DNA isn't really important. This, of course, is being done to bolster what he has already tried to foist on the reader to the effect that "you" already existed before your father "spent a few minutes close by." The incoherence of this is simply jaw-dropping, for we are at this point describing the very moment when and process by which "your father" became "your father," but Hampikian can't describe it accurately or admit the real importance of paternal DNA, because to do so would require admitting that you didn't exist before that point.
So what does he fall back on? The claim that the paternal contribution can't be very important, because the DNA packet is very small in mass compared to the size of the unfertilized egg! Yes, that's right: In our own age of microcomputing, when we have every reason to understand the importance of "very small" bits of information, in the age when the human genome is being sequenced at great expense, in the age when embryologists are able to describe in minute detail the steps of the process whereby paternal and maternal DNA fuse and, eventually, a baby is born of that union, we have a professor of biology with a PhD in Genetics telling us that fathers are unimportant because the paternal DNA packet is so small! Sure, that's what we want our young people to be taught scientifically. That will help them to become perceptive and knowledgeable biologists with a true scientific outlook. If they just believe that the size of DNA compared to something else tells us how important it is. That things that are really tiny compared to the mass of something else are pretty unimportant, and that relative size has some sort of relevance to embryology and the identity of an individual human organism. While we're beating our breasts and worrying about American competition in the world, is someone who can say this the sort of person you want educating future American biologists?
The systematic, inexcusable, anti-scientific disinformation here is simply staggering. Think for a minute what the implications would be of allowing a young person to read this article if he had not already been taught the actual facts about human reproduction! Such a student would be confused and miseducated, directly, by someone whom he would understandably take to be an authority on the subject. It would be less intellectually dishonest to teach that babies are brought down from heaven by the fairies and deposited under cabbage leaves for Mommy and Daddy to find! At least that bears its unscientific nature on its face, but this piece of feminist drivel pretends to be conveying actual biological facts while actually stating falsehoods. But remember: It's the scary right-wingers who want children to be ignorant about the facts of life.
Hampikian, of course, knows exactly what he's doing. He isn't misspeaking or innocently passing on something he understandably takes to be true which turns out to be unsubstantiated. He is allegedly the authority figure. He has all the credentials to prove it. And to add to the irony, Hampikian's other university appointment is in criminal justice. He works with the Idaho branch of the Innocence Project, which, of course, has plenty of contact with the importance of DNA evidence. If anybody knows the actual facts about an individual's DNA (e.g., that half of it comes from Daddy, that your unique DNA was not in existence in an unfertilized egg, that there would be no "you" if your mother's egg remained unfertilized), it's Hampikian.
I haven't even touched upon the sociologically questionable statements in the piece, such as that "the data for children raised by only females is encouraging." That's pretty dubious, but the biology is outright trash.
Sophistry is not dead, and Socrates would have recognized Thrasymachus immediately.
Next time I hear some self-satisfied fellow talking about how we need a political "science debate," I'm going to be much tempted to make a few suggestions of my own, viz.: How about if, first, scientists clean the Augean stable of the academy, booting out people like Hampikian who abuse their positions to convey outright misinformation in the service of a feminist political agenda? (Yes, I'm sure Hampikian has tenure. Perhaps his chairman could order him to teach a 4/4 load of large, undesirable courses for a few years to induce him to leave quietly. And then maybe no one else would hire him. We can always hope.) These are the experts who are supposed to be providing data that might be relevant to public policy decisions. Why, when articles like this can be published in allegedly respectable venues, do we act like the scientists have their house in order and are seated in the seat of Solomon to judge the scientific literacy of laymen? Why do Hampikian's colleagues in the scientific establishment not hold this sort of thing up to well-deserved ridicule? Why would the New York Times even consider publishing it? Have they no science editor who could have seen that it has more false statements than Swiss cheese has holes? Or are all the people involved so besotted with his agenda that they don't care?
And if so, why should we laymen trust them at all?