Monday, December 13, 2004

Limbaugh on Genetic Determinism

I was listening to Rush Limbaugh in my car today. He was discussing the work of Dean Hamer, author of The God Gene. Hamer claims to have identified a particular gene that makes people who possess it more likely to be spiritual.

I have not read Hamer's book, so I have no opinion on the merits of this claim. I find it plausible that religious belief has a genetic component and that is as far as I go.

Limbaugh, however, was in full dudgeon. After reading part of a newspaper article describing Hamer's work, (I turned on the radio when he was in the middle of this excerpt, so I do not know where the article came from), Limbaugh went off on a rant about how “arrogant, pointy-headed scientists” are trying to suggest that we are nothing but robots. This is all an attempt to eliminate any sense of right and wrong, or to absolve people of any responsibility for their actions. He repeated, several times, the idea that Hamer was claiming that people have no control at all over their religious beliefs, that you either have this gene or you do not and that is all there is to it.

Of course, the excerpt from the article Limbaugh read said nothing close to that. The article was perfectly clear that Hamer was claiming only that having this gene makes it more likely that you will have religious beliefs. Limbaugh subsequently played an audio clip of Hamer being interviewed on Fox News. Hamer made it perfectly clear that he was talking about likelihoods and predilections, not determinism. Indeed, that's what scientists always mean when they refer to “genes for” something or other.

But in his confusion and ignorance Limbaugh thought this constituted a weakness in Hamer's claims. If religious belief is all in the genes then what's all this business about probabilities, he thundered. The he heaped some random derision upon Hamer and scientists generally, claiming that this is how they react to anything they don't understand (religious faith, in this case), and that they won't be happy until they have shown that human beings are nothing more than soulless automatons.

He closed, I'm not kidding, by saying something very close to the following, “I keep telling you folks, once they start losing elections they just keep getting funnier and more desperate.” Lovely. Science is a liberal plot.

Now, it is safe to say that if you interpret the claim that there is a “gene for” some physical characteristic or behavior to mean that having or lacking that characteristic is determined entirely by possessing or lacking that gene, then you know nothing at all about genetics. That is a misunderstanding so basic and so fundamental that you immediately dismiss yourself from serious consideration just by making the claim. It is up there with asserting that the second law of thermodynamics contradicts evolution, or that in jumping into the air you are briefly violating the law of gravity.

Yet here is Limbaugh committing one scientific howler after another, and larding it up with a lot of smears and sterotypes of people who know vastly more about the subject than he does. Limbaugh is surely aware that he knows nothing about genetics, but he feels no shame in lecturing about the subject on national radio.

Twenty million people a day listen to Limbaugh's show, and most of them come away believing they know more after listening to him than they did before. These are people who believe that if on the one hand you have the entire scientific community saying that global warming is a real threat, and on the other you have Limbaugh saying that's all a lot of liberal nonsense (he has said precisely that on many occasions), then Limbaugh is the one who knows what he is talking about and the scientists are just liberal hacks. We are talking about a large segment of the population who don't know anything about anything, and haven't the faintest idea how to distinguish reliable sources of information from unreliable sources. Not about scientific issues anyway.

Remind me again why I should be optimistic about America's future.


At 4:25 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have always considered drug-addict draft-dodger Limbaugh to be one of the more ignorant of the right-wiing talk show zanies.

This just reinforces my original impression.

At 5:57 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Remind me again why I should be optimistic about America's future."

Maybe Limbaugh's just availing himself of that segment of the public that would never have learned any science anyway. One can hope.

At 10:28 PM, Blogger L said...

The thing that really worries me is that this problem seems to be growing exponentially. Our society is becoming more ignorant, not less.

At 1:58 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Seems like Limbaugh's brother, David, doesn't know much about genetics either, he comments on Hamer and 'The God Gene' in his most recent WingNutDaily column: The God gene & human pride

At 10:26 PM, Blogger Clay said...

Limbaugh is an extremist just like Michael Moore. Most Americans can take them at face value.

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