A former New Yorker fact-checker explains why she’s a creationist

July 13, 2013 • 6:52 am

According to Wikipedia, here are some facts about Virginia Heffernan (my emphasis):

Virginia Heffernan was born [1969] in Hanover, New Hampshire. She received her B.A. from the University of Virginia in 1991, and an English LiteratureMaster’s Degree and Ph.D from Harvard University, in 1993 and 2002, respectively.

Heffernan began her career as a fact-checker with The New Yorker magazine. She served as an editor at Harper’s and Talk magazines, and as TV critic for the online magazine Slate. In June 2002, the Columbia Journalism Review named Heffernan one of its “Ten Young Editors to Watch.” In September of the following year, Heffernan departed Slate to join The New York Times.

Which makes it all the more bizarre that Heffernan has become. . . a Biblical creationist. Or so she explains in a piece at Yahoo News, “Why I’m a creationist.” It’s a celebration of willful ignorance that begins with a denigration of scientists followed by some false modesty:

. . . the people I know who consider themselves scientists by nature seem to be super-skeptical types who can be counted on to denigrate religion, fear climate change and think most people—most Americans—are dopey sheep who believe in angels and know nothing about all the gross carbon they trail, like “Pig-Pen.”

I like most people. I don’t fear environmental apocalypse. And I don’t hate religion. Those scientists no doubt see me as a dopey sheep who believes in angels and is carbon-ignorant. I have to say that they may be right.

I’ve been around scientists all my life, and I don’t recognize the stereotype. Even though most scientists aren’t religious, they usually keep quiet about it, and I rarely hear a denigration of most Americans as “dopey sheep.”  The data do show, however, that between 60% and 70% of Americans believe in angels, so that’s not a stereotype. But most scientists aren’t even aware of that figure.

Here’s Heffernan’s explanation of how she came to creationism. In the end, she did it because the Bible tells a better story than evolutionary biology. Damn the facts—and this from a fact-checker!

I’ve put every lie or misconception in her explanation in bold:

Also, at heart, I am a creationist. There, I said it. At least you, dear readers, won’t now storm out of a restaurant like the last person I admitted that to. In New York City saying you’re a creationist is like confessing you think Ahmadinejad has a couple of good points. Maybe I’m the only creationist I know.

This is how I came to it. Like many people, I heard no end of Bible stories as a kid, but in the 1970s in New England they always came with the caveat that they were metaphors. So I read the metaphors of Genesis and Exodus and was amused and bugged and uplifted and moved by them. And then I guess I wanted to know the truth of how the world began, so I was handed the Big Bang. That wasn’t a metaphor, but it wasn’t fact either. It was something called a hypothesis. And it was only a sentence.  [JAC: the preceding sentence is a “deepity”.] I was amused and moved, but considerably less amused and moved by the character-free Big Bang story (“something exploded”) than by the twisted and picturesque misadventures of Eve and Adam and Cain and Abel and Abraham.

Later I read Thomas Malthus’ “Essay on the Principle of Population” and “The Origin of Species” by Charles Darwin, as well as probably a dozen books about evolution and atheism, from Stephen Jay Gould to Sam Harris.

The Darwin, with good reason, stuck with me. Though it’s sometimes poetic, “The Origin of Species” has an enchantingly arid English tone to it; this somber tone was part of a deliberate effort to mark it as science and not science fiction—the “Star Trek” of its time. The book also alights on a tautology that, like all tautologies, is gloriously unimpeachable: Whatever survives survives.

If she knew anything about evolution, she’d know this isn’t a tautology. For an explanation, see the discussion of “the tautology argument” at the TalkOrigins archive. With all the education Heffernan received, she can’t be bothered to keep educating herself.

But I still wasn’t sure why a book that never directly touches on human evolution, much less the idea of God, was seen as having unseated the story of creation. In short, “The Origin of Species” is not its own creation story. And while the fact that it stints on metaphor—so as to avoid being like H.G. Wells—neither is it bedrock fact. It’s another hypothesis. 

The Origin is full of facts—did she actually read it? No, it doesn’t touch on human evolution (Darwin didn’t do that till 1871), but there’s plenty of evidence for evolution in general: so much so that within a decade the book convinced virtually every thinking scientist of the truth of evolution.  And has Heffernan kept up with all the multifarious evidence for human evolution that has accumulated in the last 100 years? It’s absolutely unbelievable that someone so educated and intelligent can ignore that evidence. A trip to the American Museum, or the Smithsonian, would be most enlightening for her. Finally, she needs to learn the difference between a hypothesis and a theory.

Cut to now. I still read and read and listen and listen. And I have never found a more compelling story of our origins than the ones that involve God.

“Compelling” does not equal “true”, and that’s the big mistake that religion makes.

She adds that evolutionary psychology’s “just so stories” change all the time—that women used to be the monogamous gender and men the polygamous one; now evolutionary psychology tells us it’s the opposite (something I hadn’t heard). From this Heffernan concludes that you shouldn’t trust anything that science comes up with!  That’s a typical creationist ploy: if science was wrong before, as with continental drift, then we can’t trust its conclusions at all. That’s like saying that if one of your friends made a mistake, you can never trust her judgment again. That ploy is also used by Sophisticated Theologians to show the “limitations of science.” But I wasn’t aware that evolutionary psychologists had reversed their conclusions about the differences between the sexes in their variance in offspring number. Well, even if that’s not the case, we still have cold fusion and Piltdown Man. . .

Heffernan finishes with a flourish of remarkable ignorance.

All the while, the first books of the Bible are still hanging around. I guess I don’t “believe” that the world was created in a few days, but what do I know? Seems as plausible (to me) as theoretical astrophysics, and it’s certainly a livelier tale. As “Life of Pi” author Yann Martel once put it, summarizing his page-turner novel: “1) Life is a story. 2) You can choose your story. 3) A story with God is the better story.”

What a remarkable celebration of ignorance!  ”What do I know” indeed!! Well, maybe she could figure out what she knows if she’d acquaint herself with the facts, which show to all rational people that the world and its inhabitants were not created within a few days.

And no, you can’t choose your story—not if you want a true story. You can’t choose a story in which you never die, and you can’t choose a story in which you win the lottery.  Yes, those are better stories than the ones we have, but if we want to live in a rational world instead of some dopey la-la land, we’d better choose stories that are true. It’s the adherence to false stories, of course, that is the basis of all religious mischief that’s been inflicted on the world.

It reminds me of the verse in Hebrews 11:1:

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.

Rarely do we have someone of intelligence and education (a Ph.D from Harvard, for instance) showing themselves to truly be a “dopey sheep.” I wonder if Heffernan regrets what she wrote. I haven’t read the 300-odd comments after her piece, but I doubt she’ll find much agreement that we should ignore the facts and just believe “the better story.”

I wonder what Yann Martel thinks of evolution.

Virginia Heffernan
Virginia Heffernan
UPDATE: Carl Zimmer, remarkably patient, took on Heffernan’s nonsense on Twitter (see her thread here and a long response by Zimmer here). Here are two of her posts:
Screen shot 2013-07-13 at 7.19.30 AM
Screen shot 2013-07-13 at 7.20.01 AM
This is what comes from postmodernism. Forget the facts, who’s got the better narrative?

h/t: Alberto

194 thoughts on “A former New Yorker fact-checker explains why she’s a creationist

  1. “Finally, she needs to learn the difference between a hypothesis and a theory.”

    That one annoys the hell out of me.
    Why is it that these creationists keep getting their definition of hypothesis and theory all mixed up?

    This woman with her credentials in education should at least know the difference between the two. It makes wonder if she’s doing it on purpose.

  2. I’m not sure exactly how to link to twitter exchanges, but anyone interested in this should look up her back and forth with Carl Zimmer. She has some post-modern beauties:

    “Life did evolve” is a statement about reality? What do those three words together even mean?


    Yes! Evpsych has led to some weird, even toxic, courtship practices (see: The Game) but in goldfinches I accept evolution. Yet:


    We believe “life did not evolve” (like “life did evolve”) bears no relation to reality; holds no mirror to nature; is poetics


    Am I truly credulous? I see myself as skeptical: I doubt entirely that reality can be represented in language

    1. Am I truly credulous? I see myself as skeptical: I doubt entirely that reality can be represented in language.

      This is true however, you need mathematics to fully describe reality.

  3. She’s clearly willfully ignorant. She has all the tools not to be ignorant (skills of analysis and critical thinking she would have needed to acquire to be academically successful) yet she chooses to believe what she wants. How could she read “probably a dozen books about evolution and atheism, from Stephen Jay Gould to Sam Harris” and come up with such weird conclusions? Reading any one book by Gould and any one book by Harris would not result in the conclusions she has drawn without forcing her own ideas onto them.

    Sadly, I’ve known many like her. People with science degrees who think that wifi gives you cancer (not knowing the difference between ionizing and non ionizing radiation), people who become teachers but mock people who strive to obtain knowledge, intelligent friends who choose to believe in pseudo science. It’s terrible.

    Also, the whole “choose your story” theme of Life of Pi is what drove me completely crazy with that book. I believe there is one sentence where the protagonist says actually what happens and then asks us which we would prefer to believe. It was clever in the story but it annoyed me because it has the implicit message that it is better to remain ignorant & make up our own reality.

    1. On twitter, she answered your question about Gould and Harris with more postmodernism:

      “I did read Darwin as literature & Sam Harris &al as cultural docs but my training keeps me from seeing it as truth”

      1. Ha! I knew it! Well, she’s an embarrassment to Harvard and anyone with a Phd in English.

        1. Her training in what prevented her from seeing Gould & Harris as truth? English?

          Yes the willfully ignorant are amoung us all. Sigh..

          1. Heffernan’s story makes me a little more sympathetic to Lynette of yesterday. Lynette was probably indoctrinated at an early age and probably did not get all the advantages that Heffernan did. Heffernan has stuffed her head with BS very intentionally and at great expense. Oh woe is me.

        2. I wonder? Has anyone surveyed English PhDs regarding their knowledge of evolution, or even biology in general?

          1. I suspect science literacy amongst the Humanities may be low. My own alma mater was seeking opinions about how to improve the Humanities & I emailed them suggesting that both Science and Humanities needed to provide accessible courses for students in both disciplines since Arts & Sci degrees were elitist (a 95% entrance).

            1. Sorry, not sure I understand your last clause there. Probably my science training. 😀

              I’ve always looked at it from the other side–that biology faculties, for instance, should consider “Biology for Non-majors” to be the most important course they offer. Almost every lib arts major takes such a course to fulfill their science elective requirement. This is the chance to try to hammer home all the most important concepts of biology (of which none is more important than evolution) in what may be the student’s only exposure to them in higher ed. To that end the course should go to the most brilliant teachers available, when in fact it often goes to the newest guy/gal on the totem pole. (You artsy types will point out that that should be “lowest,” but in academia it’s pretty much the same thing.)

              I remember how sad I felt as an undergrad when I was taking a fantastic integrated bio course while my education-major roommate was plugging away in her non-majors course on something like the fine structure of the chloroplast. The worst part being that the only likely take-home message is that biology is difficult and dull. And hardly relevant. Alas!

              1. The arts & sci part? At least at my alma mater, you needed a 95% average to get into the arts & sci program and then you had to maintain that average, which meant most people didn’t get exposure to both disciplines. Also, in Humanities, you had to take one social science and I think that was about it so it is possible for people to have avoided the whole evolution exposure if they took sociology or psychology instead of anthropology which went into detail about evolution. There were no science requirements per se and my idea is to have a science course that wasn’t heavy on the math for Humanities students (it’s doable, I took a course like that) and have Humanities courses that were light on the writing for Science students. If anyone wants more they could take the core courses but this gives options for people who either suck at math/writing but like the disciplines or don’t have the time to do math/writing because they are busy with their own core courses.

                They liked my idea so I’m hoping the implement it. People aren’t literate enough when they graduate and then I have to work with them and sometimes accidentally call them stupid….”accidentally” (wink, wink) 🙂

              2. Ah, I see, what we generally refer to as GPA. Yes, definitely a problem. Of course the whole debate is ancient. All PhDs are not created equal. High school students avoid courses to up their chances of becoming valedictorian. Science-y Phi Beta Kappas (often Phi Kappa Phis, but who’s heard of them?) resent artsy PBKs, etc.

                FWIW, I take some offense at “have Humanities courses…light on writing” for sci majors. IME scientists are often superb writers, and I think this knock against them is mostly unfounded. Humanities courses light on the bullshit, though, I could see.


              3. It wasn’t meant to say that they aren’t good writers but I know many science undergrads that barely passed English courses. Math was their strength. I don’t think it’s a character flaw or a reflection of intelligence to be worse at something than many. I say this because conversely, I have dyscalculia. When I tell friends this the won’t believe me because they think of me as smart (and I am damn it) and in their minds someone who has a disability like this is dumb because they’ve only met dumb people.

                My learning disability gives me extraordinary language ability (I read at a university level while in elementary school – this was bad because I learned a lot of stuff I shouldn’t have waaaaay too early. After I asked my dad what certain dirty words meant, he had to go have a chat to the librarian about what I was allowed to borrow from the library. It was good that I could read like this because by grade 4 I already knew about evolution, Mendel’s pea experiments, dinosaurs, what whole human line of hominids looked like and I learned French easy (in Canada we started in grade 6 back then) and when taking an extra French class with my mom in evenings met a palaeontologist who was surprised that I actually knew what he did when none of the adults did :)).

                Annoyingly, what it also means is I have a hard time with analogue watches, tracking time, moving objects inside my head to know what something in 3D would look from another perspective and of course doing math. I still got decent math marks but I worked really hard at it and it was a good thing that I didn’t have to put extra time into French, Latin or German (I used to just do my homework at the board) because I sure spent a crazy amount of time doing math!

                So, I suspect there are more people like me than not in Humanities courses and I bet there are a lot of people in Science who struggle with the copious amount of writing and reading Humanities courses demand in (my science and engineering friends used to fear it) then courses need to be accessible for both groups.

              4. @ Diana @ 1:27pm (my time settings appear to be off–better make that x:27…)

                To the extent that there are valid cases of dyscalculia and dysgraphia, you no doubt have a point. I would tend to dispute your estimates as to their prevalence, however; esp. as I saw a significant amount of what appeared to be the misapplication of all sorts of learning disability diagnoses amongst my children’s grade school classmates, for reasons of convenience, competitive advantage, or profit. If we had solid frequency-of-occurrence numbers, I’d expect that these diagnoses represent only some portion of the tails of frequency distributions, and that the majority of the population fits between the endpoints of LD and prodigy. Please don’t take that personally–I believe you about your situation in particular!

                Similar interesting correlations have been drawn between math-affinity and males and Asperger’s Syndrome; at least, back when we had Asperger’s Syndrome as a syndrome…:rolls eyes:

                And in fact it’s the danger of assumption of gender* correlation here that sets off my alarm bells. I know you’re aware of just what stereotypes I’m alluding to, and how much of a self-fulfilling prophecy they can become. As the mother of a daughter, one finds that an inordinate amount of one’s time is spent fighting such conventional wisdom. CW that is largely spouted by women themselves, for that matter. (And again–I’m not talking about you, here! I’m picturing some very vocal members of the PTA, room-mothers, etc….)

                *I’m old enough to still wince at using the word this way, but smart enough to concede to what’s now universal usage.

              5. I’m hoping things are getting better with gender discrimination. No one really cared that I sucked at math and it was left up to me to help myself. I think they just accepted that for me, to quote Barbie, “math is hard” because I was a girl. Funny, now I work in a STEM job and yes I see a lot of issues with women here. Not overt ones. The men I work with are great but there are almost no women leaders and no women in the C levels. The company is 72% male. What I do notice is the 30 somethings are way less gender stereotyp-y which is why I enjoy working with them so much. I’ve never been at a place that is both so good for me as a woman and so bad at the same time!

            2. Yes, the scientific literacy rate may be low, which is (just barely) forgivable, given that they are spending their time studying other things.

              What is not forgivable is pride in the ignorance. I can’t remember where I read it, in Feynman or Gould maybe, where the author stated that many scientists are ignorant of Shakespeare, but none would ever boast about it, whereas you hear non-science, non-math people boasting all the time about how they are ignorant of science and/or math.

              1. I vaguely remember a study done maybe thirty or forty years ago which reported that science majors are far better acquainted with arts and humanities than vice verse. It’s been so long ago that I can’t cite chapter and verse.

              2. I know there is ignorance everywhere but I do remember being angrily vexed in a science fiction class (hurrah I thought – a whole class on science fiction only to have my hopes dashed) when the books we read were horrid due to scientific inaccuracies (no Asimov like I’d hoped). So many people in the class loved the WRONG books & I thought my head would explode!!

              3. I feel compelled to add, on further reflection, that the people we think of that say really silly things about science won’t know much about history either. Most likely, these are the same people who would call a socialist a fascist and I doubt they’d no anything about the Battle of Hastings or the Industrial Revolution or the forming of the city state! They’re just uneducated period.

                Among the educated, I think this is all fixable at the university level as long as courses are accessible.

              4. ^^^I think this is all fixable at the university level as long as courses are accessible.

                And not taught by Eric Hedin!

              5. @Diana McPherson
                “I know there is ignorance everywhere but I do remember being angrily vexed in a science fiction class (hurrah I thought – a whole class on science fiction only to have my hopes dashed) when the books we read were horrid due to scientific inaccuracies (no Asimov like I’d hoped).”
                I know the feeling. What we got in English [Lit] classes that passed for science fiction was H G Wells. Ugh. Not Asimov, not Arthur Clark, not John Wyndham, not even Conan Doyle’s Professor Challenger (even Doyle was far too recent to be Literature). Wells was a remarkably pompous writer. Put me off sci-fi for years.

      1. Yup. What actually happened on the lifeboat was so horrible that Pi decided to forget reality and make up a story that was easier to live with.

        1. I haven’t read the story but that is a valid alternative in the circumstances. If reality is intolerable insanity may be a better option.

          Of course, for the 99.9% of us who are fortunate enough to live in tolerable circumstances, Heffernan’s stance is just perverse.

    1. Rational people frequently believe irrational things.

      I heard Yann Martel speak a couple of years ago. His lecture was brilliant.

      Although discovering that someone I’ve found inspirational in one area but is seriously deficient in another no longer shocks me, I continue to be naively disappointed.

      It’s a good read, at your link. Thanks for posting it.

  4. Heffernan is somewhat well known online for being a little hard of thinking. Note that she says “scientists by nature” – I doubt she is staking a claim about scientists per se. She has been raked over the coals by technology folks who are less than tactful, particularly when she recommended a climate-change denialist blog during a dust-up over blog-network funding – see http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2010/07/30/could-virginia-heffernan-possi/

    It’s possible that she’s a creationist because she doesn’t understand the overall landscape, and she DOES remember that “evolutionists” were unkind to her. (Yes, Pharyngula is part of the science world, but the fans in this domain who kept this story alive in social media included a ton of contemptuous tech people.) I’m not complaining about this – few people do as much, as publicly, to earn this kind of contempt.

    The fact-checking thing is kind of a red herring. You don’t have to love facts to be a decent fact-checker – although it helps – you just have to know what the vetted sources are and match what’s in front of you to the sources. That said, she’s not a natural fact *investigator* – she does’t do a good job of learning stuff and getting the facts straight on her own.

    Anyway, long story short: she’s got form for this stuff.

    1. RE: this whole ‘they are mean to me’ thing, I have to wonder how it is that it is considered mean for an evolutionist to point out someone’s ignorance, perhaps even insult them while doing so, yet it is considered ‘loving’ when a creationist or conservative christian wishes an eternity of torment and suffering upon someone for not being like them?

    1. Eh, I have lots of fact-checking experience, and I find it pretty frustrating to be lumped in with Heffernan. As for “equivocation”: self-doubt is the single best trait in a fact-checker – it’s the quality that drives you to match to the source instead of just saying, “Oh yeah, I know that.”

      Like professional editing in general, though, it can seem very stylized from the outside – fact-checkers ensure something conforms to a cited source, but that source may not be the best one out there, and checkers may have no say in how the source is selected. And that’s just in environments that pay people to check facts – like copyediting in general, meaningful support for this activity is on the wane.

      1. What i find further frustrating is that reading a newspaper like the Herald Sun shows that fact checkers seem to fail dismally on a very regular basis with some pretty spectacular results. And no one notices thanks to the way its presented (Listen to drive time radio on any major radio network. Things in newspapers, that people cant immediately check in the paper itself or online because theyre driving..)

        Whether its done intentionally or just through laziness i wouldnt like to say (When its conspiracy vs stupidity always assume the latter)

      2. *Good* fact-checkers do have marvelous curiosity about facts and really open minds about their own knowledge. But the others (like Heffernan) mostly have far too much certainty about their own mastery. See Kahneman–the folks who do the worst job of understanding and basing decisions on facts are also the ones who have the least idea of how wrong they can be!

        1. Quite so! Once you hear about Dthe Dunning–Kruger effect, you can’t help but see it everywhere 😀

  5. Ouch! Ignorance doesn’t get more painful than this! That’s because with all her education she has no excuse. No excuse!

    I mean, I know high school drop outs who believe in evolution, and can even articulate why it is true. I consider them much better educated in science than she is.

    1. Brings to mind this Leo Tolstoy quote (1897):

      “The most difficult subjects can be explained to the most slow-witted man if he has not formed any idea of them already; but the simplest thing cannot be made clear to the most intelligent man if he is firmly persuaded that he knows already, without a shadow of doubt, what is laid before him.”

      Nice, eh?

  6. You would think a fact checker could at least get the title of Darwin’s book right.

    If one is curious about the decline in American journalism, one might start with who gets hired to check facts.

    1. Rest assured, its not just America.

      The hottest night on record in Melbourne in 2010, compared to the hottest night on record 3 years later which was 13 degrees lower. Both printed in the same high circulation tabloid newspaper. All comments on website or Facebook etc pointing out that fact were either deleted or never approved.

    2. A more root cause of the decline would be what fact checkers are paid. And even more basal–what value does society place on journalism these days?

      1. You aren’t kidding. I’ve qualified as a professional proofreader–but never took a proofreading job (which I would have loved–get paid to read and point out errors–I’m there!), simply because the pay was so abysmally low.

        1. And few things are more noticeably lacking these days than proof-reading!

          (Wish I’d proofed my closing italics tag.)

          1. The standard of journalism in our local paper the NZ Herald is appalling when it comes to anything technical.

            Just to make it even more conspicuous, they have a practice of accompanying every story with a photo. If they don’t have a photo of the actual scene they use a stock photo. I’d say well over half the photos they use are either completely irrelevant or flat-out wrong.

  7. Some people prefer to be a Princess (or Prince) of a fabulous world than one of 7 billion people in a natural world.

    1. I never heard of the evolution “controversy” until I was taking an anthropology course during my Master’s education. I was surprised that ID was considered valid because it was obvious to me that it is seriously flawed. When the professor was asked why ID was popular, his response was that evolution is not emotionally satisfying, and as such prompts some to seek alternative answers.

      1. “…When the professor was asked why ID was popular, his response was that evolution is not emotionally satisfying, and as such prompts some to seek alternative answers.”

        A discreet way of saying that the harsh reality of life is too much to bear for some.

        1. What is the choice?

          1) A fantasy that one will be immortal, see all those that passed before you as happy and whole and vigorous, joyful. And, in this promised heaven, be eternally blissful in an beautiful landscape, infused with justice to compensate for earthly injustices…

          or, 2) that life is short, unfair, and those that die, including oneself, will vanish, their consciousness and all their memories, sweet and sad, will vanish, become nothing to their former selves, as fast as a candle ceases to yield light before an earnest puff of air. You live briefly, forget most things, die in a way that is typically harsh, after a stint of disease or pain, and very unfair.

          Choosing, based on facts, or wishes?

          1. It isn’t necessarily a choice. Reality is what it is regardless of our feelings, and to many people that leave them with no choice in the matter.

            Depending on your definition of “emotionally satisfying” I’d argue that to many people evolution is emotionally satisfying.

            Of course you need more in your life than knowledge about the natural processes taht surrounds us, but so does everyone else. That’s just human.

            1. For people like our factchecker, “reality” is what you want it to be, rather than something undeniably surrounding us, such as the force of gravity.

              Since there are two distinct groups, regardless that one is rooted in reality, people direct themselves, align themselves, with the religious or the non-religious. The idea that evolution might be emotionally satisfying doesn’t matter to the religious, true though it may be. The largest, biggest, greatest concern of the religious, is preserving their immortality entitlement. All ancillary arguments are merely deeply-layered lines of defense protecting their immortality and heaven promise (see John 3:16, held up at football games).

              1. “The idea that evolution might be emotionally satisfying doesn’t matter to the religious, true though it may be.”

                That’s true.

                “(see John 3:16, held up at football games).”

                Ironically one mans dream is another mans nightmare.

                The concept of being alive or conscious for an eternity sounds absolutely dreadful for me.

                That’s bias for you. 🙂

              2. Nah, it would be just like Highlander complete with the Queen soundtrack!

              3. Haha, if only so.

                I’d much rather spend eternity downstairs drinking whiskey and shootin’ the breeze with Feynman, Adams, Lennon and Hitchens et al.

                That might be bearable. 🙂

        2. That’s a very likely explanation. I read the Craigslist science forum regularly and see the wishful thinkers stagger in, one after another, proposing one or another tired, discredited perpetual motion (or “free energy”) scheme. Point out to them that the laws of thermodynamics, which admit no exceptions, preclude any such scheme from working and the response is either a confused fluttering or outright silence or overt hostility.

          I’ve seen enough of these to conclude that the common thread is wishful thinking: wouldn’t it be neat if…

          A related issue are the ones who don’t seem to realize that Star Trek and Star Wars are fiction and ask why we don’t have warp speed space ships yet.

          It’s enough to drive a strong man to drink.

          1. “It’s enough to drive a strong man to drink.”

            Not that there’s something wrong with that.

      2. I find the idea of biblical literalism being emotionally more satisfying than science strange because of course I find it both intellectually and emotionally satisfying to better understand the world that I actually live in. I think there is also a component of comfort with uncertainty. Perhaps Heffernan is used to seeing the world as static facts that leave little room for rearrangement, caveats, new ideas. The lack of ambiguity in biblical abiogenesis is probably pretty comforting to anyone who is uncomfortable with uncertainty.

  8. How is it that even mildly intelligent people can read what – to any adult human reading for the first time – could widely be assumed to sound like a fairy tale, and assume it as fact?

    There is precisely zero evidence to suggest even the slightest validity of the creation story, and a “fact checker” rejects evolution because of it? Some people I will never understand.

  9. great article. I asked an English Professor friend about Heffenan, post-modernism and science. Got this interesting reply.

    My question (roughly): Is Heffernan’s ‘choose your facts’ representative of post-modernism?

    “Just a quick note in reply: no, of course not. It wasn’t true of Rorty or anyone else influenced by him I know of. It’s not true of anyone I’ve ever met in the humanities. So what’s going on here? My guess is the following. Over the past half century, there’s been a lot of philosophical critique of the standard rationalist claim that we can ground our beliefs or scientific findings in some foundational reality. Most of this, but not all, has occurred in Continental philosophy (e.g. Derrida). It seems that Niels Bohr, to take a really striking example, took a version of this view, arguing, as I understand it, that what physics describes is the world as it is accessible to human perception, perception that may or may not accord with what the world actually is. At one extreme of this group are people who consider themselves relativists, by which they mean little more than what I’ve said. All of these people believe in the possibility of moral decision making. Not one would give a moment’s thought to creationism. The important thing to understand is that this is a debate within scientific rationalism, not outside. Derrida, to invoke him again, was unambiguous on this point. In popular caricatures and in right wing fantasy, you sometimes see charges or embracing of this position in the way your case below describes. But no one who actually holds this position seriously would question evolution. “

    1. “Over the past half century, there’s been a lot of philosophical critique of the standard rationalist claim that we can ground our beliefs or scientific findings in some foundational reality.”

      Right. Post-modernism has nothing at all to do with rejection of reality-based beliefs. It just, um, criticizes the claim that there -are- reality-based beliefs. Totally different. 🙂

      I don’t know what serious post-modernists believe, but one way or the other they give a convenient blank check to people like Heffernan.

      “The important thing to understand is that this is a debate within scientific rationalism, not outside.”

      Only if “scientific rationalism” is redefined as something that happens in the humanities but not in science.

  10. Jerry,

    You are correct. Evolutionary psychologists have not reversed their conclusions. What Heffernan is referring to, in case it got by you, is the new book by Daniel Bergner (see the interview with Bergner at Salon).

    I think Bergner is mistaken on two counts (at least): he never says a word about pornography and prostitution (well, in this Salon interview he doesn’t; I haven’t read his book). This isn’t to say that some women don’t enjoy pornography, and it isn’t to say that no woman has ever hired a guy for sex. But I don’t believe it’s inaccurate of me to point out that pornography and prostitution exist primarily to serve and satisfy male sexual appetites and that this twin reality should tell us something about the larger picture.


    1. Not being in any sense current, I’m sure you’re right about whatever caught Heffernan’s attention on the subject.

      But for a few decades now I’ve been aware of data accruing from biology itself that the polygamy/monogamy picture is nowhere near what it was assumed to be. As soon as we could examine genetic contributions in offspring it started to become clear that in many species females were ‘sneaking around’ a lot more than had ever been thought. I seem to recall the first studies being done with birds…

      (As to the importance of porn and prostitution; I’d like to know how you can eliminate the possibility that the status quo simply results from a traditionally male-dominated social organization.)

      1. But then how do we account for the existence of the traditions? It it was simply random one would expect much greater variety, even with the existence of ‘sneaking around’.

        These are difficult problems to tease apart.

        1. Unequal balance of power. If you get killed for open promiscuity, you don’t pass on your genes.

          How did you get “simply random” out of anything I wrote?

          1. I didn’t get it directly out of what you wrote. I got it out of the history of the old nature/nurture argument. And perhaps by the implication that the words “simply results”. If you take some near-universal social patterns and argue that they are “simply” the consequence of cultural whim/accident/voodoo it suggests a broader position regarding the nature/nurture continuum. Maybe I was reading more into the comment than was there?

            1. Probably. More likely I’m too lazy to put the time into my replies so that they read as intended.

              But cultural “whim/accident/voodoo” is the opposite of what I mean. In general–there are evolutionary reasons human (and other animal) societies are male dominated. Under such a power balance only certain cultural traditions are allowed to ‘evolve,’ if you will. Nothing accidental about it. We do not know what sort of cultural attributes would arise in a human-female dominated society.

              1. You might like to check out Joan Slonczewski’s novel “A Door Into Ocean”, memorably described by one Amazon reviewer as “This is a book about lesbian Quaker anarchist communist pacifist mermaids from the Moon, and what happens when they’re invaded by the Holy Roman Empire.”

                Slonczewski is both a feminist and a biologist, and the book is a very good read; it does start from what seems to be the default position that whereas a male-dominated society will be hierarchically organized, a female-dominated society will be egalitarian, but it is not a simplistic novel (even if you can probably figure out where it’s going).

              2. I’m pretty sure the Mohawk (Iroquoian) are matriarchal….wonder what they have to say about all this.

              3. @ Mark Joseph–Thanks, looks interesting.

                @ Diana M.–Dunno much about that, but there does seem to be a lot more matriarchal tradition in other American Indian tribes as well. If you read Louise Erdrich, for example, you’ll find a very different inter-sexual banter.

                @gb–oh, no doubt. I find I’m almost always in agreement with you. 🙂 (And it was BL’s leap from porn & hookers to “larger picture” that got my goat.)

    2. The question to ask about the difference between male and female interest in sex is nature or nurture?

  11. I’m following a story about copyright infringement (Prenda) where a federal judge became so frustrated with the proceedings that he said in open court:

    You reach a point where an attorney, witness, or individual has lost so much credibility it’s a waste of time. This hearing’s over.

    File Ms. Heffernan’s assertions in that bin.
    I believe this falls into the corollary to Dunning-Kruger where people who are extremely knowledgeable about a particular subject believe that level of knowledge extends to all areas. I’ve see this demonstrated in engineers, who believe because they know everything about their field, that they also know everything about yours too.

    1. I followed that, too.

      I killed several afternoons (unintentionally) keeping up with that story as it unfolded at Popehat. Ken White’s reporting there was masterful.

    2. Even in their own field of engineering, engineers are generally rather narrowly expert. A civil engineer, for example, is not a hydrological engineer. The first may recommend dumping rip-rap at the bottom of an eroding seaside cliff to halt the erosion. The other will point out that rip-rap increases turbulence and hence will accelerate erosion.

      1. I used to work in a very large organization concerned with the generation and transmission of electricity; we had a lot of engineers of various stripes, mostly electrical or mechanical. I had a friend from Glasgow and, just to be sure, asked him what type of engineer he was: ‘Ahm a SCOTTISH engineer’ was the reply.

  12. There’s something I’ve never understood about creationsits and groups like “Answers in Genesis”. They spend unusual amounts of time discrediting Darwin and evolution — bringing to light, from their point of view, “missing links” in the fossil record, the unreliability of carbon dating, etc. We’ve all seen pages of creationist psuedo-science on the internet used to “disprove” actual science. As I said, these creationists groups spend an inordinate amount of time COUNTERING what they see as wrong-headed science.

    But when all is said and done these creationists ACCEPT SATAN DISGUISED AS A TALKING SNAKE IN THE GARDEN OF EDEN. No critical thinking is ever brought to bear on these scriptures. On their own terms, what happened to their critical thinking that was used on Darwin?? — Darwin was wrong-headed and misguided — yet the snake conversed with Eve, dinosaurs may or may not have frolicked with the happy couple in the Garden, and Noah built an Ark that housed every pair of animals on earth. What’s wrong with this picture?

    1. Their minds are made up; don’t bother them with the facts. Which is the theme of this thread, after all!

    2. It’s simple. Were they to critically assess the Satan snake story, they wouldn’t rake in their $30 million a year. By contrast, NCSE’s annual budget is around $6 million.

    3. It’s because religious belief is key to many people’s social life. Their lives revolve around their church and the other members of it, and being social apes, they resist to the bitter end anything that looks or smells like an attack on the socially cohesive church group they belong to.

  13. I have never found a more compelling story of our origins than the ones that involve God.

    “Recite in the name of your Lord who created, created man from clots of blood!” (Koran 96.1)

    Compelling! Now go put your burka on, you slut.

      1. Thank you. I’ve been trying to use “analytical jiu-jitsu” (especially, if they mention god, choose a different one, and see how ridiculous the assertion now becomes) as much as possible; most of it I’ve learned on this website, as a number of the regular commentators here, to say nothing of our esteemed host, are experts.

  14. You know, it seems to me that this whole notion of “science is in eternal flux but religion’s truths are timeless” is especially egregious.

    Just to follow one branch of the tree…first we had Judaism. Then we had Christianity. Then we had Islam. Then we had Eastern and Roman Orthodoxy. Then we had Protestantism. Then we had an explosion of Protestantism.

    Just within Catholicism in recent history, we’ve seen Purgatory and meatless Fridays and the Latin Mass come and go.

    And how many people change churches in their lifetimes?

    Science isn’t the one being fickle.



  15. Silly Darwin… if he had spent less time droning on about evidence, and more time on Billy and Scott, two Galapagos finches out on a whirlwind adventure, then Origin of Species would have been much more enjoyable, and thus be true.

  16. “I said I’m a creationist on aesthetic grounds.”

    Ah, she’s a “reality doesn’t matter” type then. Strange position for a (former) professional fact-checker.

  17. Casual postmodern relativism (I call it ‘whateversm’) is the foundational quicksand that ID Creationism is erected on, as ID patriarch, Philip Johnson, admitted long ago. He would be very pleased with Heffernan.

  18. I wonder how far Ms. Heffernan is willing to take her postmodern attitude about all of us getting to choose our own realities. Suppose, for example, it should turn out that bisphenol A (BPA) actually does leach out of water bottles made of polycarbonate plastics and is shown by stodgy ol’ science to cause ill-health effects in consumers, will Dow chemical get to claim that they get to “choose their own narrative” on the issue? Suppose that big dairy or poultry operations are asked to cease the widespread use of prophylactic antibiotics on cattle and chickens because they are contributing to evolution of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Do they get to invoke their own narrative too?

    No, Virginia, there is no Santa Claus. Invoking your own narrative and choosing to believe there is a Santa Claus is something we call insanity.

    1. Or choose to believe they can fly. Gravity is so unfulfilling, I want to believe I can defeat it at will and walk blissfully off a skyscraper roof. ahhhhhhhhhhh splat!

      1. Once again:

        “You can ignore reality, but you cannot ignore the consequences of ignoring reality.” (Ayn Rand)

        “For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled.” (Richard Feynman)

        The mere fact that she is not stepping off buildings and flying, or typing on a computer and having the words she wants to say actually show up in the printout or the post, refutes her thesis. Shame she’s not consistent enough in her thinking to see this.

      2. ACtually I recall numerous studies regarding coyotes and road runners and canyon. A coyote clearly runs off the edge of a canyon and runs though the air easily, until such time as it looks down and then it falls. These studies were developed into a series of cartoons to teach children these amazing findings.

      3. The edge of the Grand Canyon is a particularly propitious place to demonstrate the validity of that reality.

      4. Right. I once asked someone who was banging on about the then-popular new age “Vadic flying” whether anyone would be willing to try it off the George Washington bridge.

  19. Screw round earth theory. I’m a flat-earther from this point on. I just find the stories that imply a flat earth far more compelling.

    Besides this, the “facts” of geology keep changing. Geologists are just so unreliable.

    So this is why I’m a flat-earther.

    1. Yeah! It is way cooler to think that when you get to the edge of the earth, there be dragons!

      1. And highly applicable in this context, since in the morphogenic field of the Disc, belief could create real animate beings, people included. And, gods, whose existence and powers were dependent on the belief of their followers.

    2. Well, to a first-order approximation, and if the extent of your view is limited to a few hundred miles, the earth is flat. (In the same way that Newton’s laws of motion are valid for normal speeds and distances). Consider a contour map – it assumes that its base datum (sea level) is flat and the hills are superimposed on that. And as far as any user can tell this is absolutely valid.

      It’s only designers of aircraft navigation systems and ICBM targeting that need to take the curvature of the earth into account.

  20. Just ran across this quote in a Jack Vance novel, Showboat World and had to share it:

    “Consider the human mind! It is capable of amazing feats when used properly. Conversely, without exercise it atrophies to a lump of gray-yellow fat.”

      1. Thanks! Vance is so eminently quotable, and was consistently anti-religious. Nearly all of his Wikiquote page is due to yours truly. Here are three of my favorites (notice the self-restraint? ;-))

        “Down we go,” said Paddy. “Now pray to Saint Anthony if you be a good Catholic—”
        “I’m not,” snapped Fay, “and if you’ll give more mind to the boat and less to religion we’ll gain by it.”

        There are no absolute certainties in this universe. A man must try to whip order into a yelping pack of probabilities, and uniform success is impossible.

        “You must save yourselves,” Rogol Domedonfors told them. “You have ignored the ancient wisdom, you have been too indolent to learn, you have sought easy complacence from religion, rather than facing manfully to the world.”

  21. I have an acquaintance in common with Hefferman so I may run into her one day. If I do I will assure her that shes not a creationist. She accepts everything we’ve learned from science. If she tells me I’m wrong I’ll explain to her that I find the existence of an educated, intelligent, articulate person who expressed the opinions she does very disturbing, therefore I don’t believe it and no amount of evidence she presents ( including just telling me her opinions) will change my mind.

  22. Hefferman indeed is THE perfect example of why people cling to myth and superstition: blissful ignorance. She’s a poster child for stupidity and ignorance.

    But she’s not alone. She shares the views of the vast number of people in this country.

    It’s all so very sad to constantly witness this persistent level of ignorance.

    1. Harvard (and every other uni) could prevent these outcomes if they wanted to–say, with exit exams. Of course they’d shortly go out of business.

      Rather than blame a vast entity such as Harvard, put this at the feet of the science faculty. They could gather data–survey arts grads for their knowledge of science, identify holes, and devise the means to address these.* But academia being what it is, their priorities are only internal–grants & tenure.

      (And for such a change to come about, the education-buying public would have to desire it. My thinking is that they’re happier having the opportunity to attain lib-arts degrees with no scientific baggage.)

      *And then they’d have to restrain themselves from requiring the moon. KISS applies here–concentrate on what any student could be expected to remember 20 years down the road and work from there. Just be sure the instructors are enthusiastic and charismatic. Actually, maybe the marketing faculty should teach science…

    2. Harvard has been taking a beating lately. There was the Richwine dissertation thing, the Reinhart-Rogoff austerity paper, an undergrad cheating scandal.

  23. “Something exploded….” DA HECK? I hate how people dismiss the best scientific theories we have out there; evolution, Big Bang, climate change just because they can’t take the time to read up on what the theory actually states. What it HAS actually proven and what is mathematical predictions. They most likely try reading the first few sentences (like she said, it’s just a sentence) and can’t wrap their head around the “big words” so just give into the silly stories of the Bible. A book written 2,000 years ago by people who had absolutely no knowledge about how the world let alone the universe worked. They didn’t even know the world was a sphere. It’s sad.

    1. Yes, she really does need to read her books more carefully as she seems to have a very poor grasp of The Big Bang! I wonder if she has read any popular cosmology books or if she’s one of those Creationists that think all scientists equally know all science disciplines!

    2. I think it’s a huge stretch to expect everyone to be reading books about the Big Bang. This is where science populizers (often denigrated by academia) come into play.

  24. The component of her argument around climate change really sings home for me the reason why believing something because it “feels good” is unethical; can you imagine a world where public policy were established solely on the basis of those facts that politicians “liked”?

    I for one would cry out that a great many suffering persons would incur even greater harm if public policy were so decided–but hey, I suppose a politician priding themselves on holding only aesthetically appealing beliefs would simply be free to disregard all the suffering that results from their policies, too! “That’s just *your* story, folks! I like mine more!”

    What a privileged and self-serving world view.

    1. I’d also like to add how completely wrong she is about Darwin. When she writes:

      “But I still wasn’t sure why a book that never directly touches on human evolution, much less the idea of God, was seen as having unseated the story of creation. In short, “The Origin of Species” is not its own creation story. And while the fact that it stints on metaphor—so as to avoid being like H.G. Wells—neither is it bedrock fact. It’s another hypothesis.”

      Absolutely, On the Origin of Species is not a text about abiogenesis; nor did it upset folks as much as The Descent of Man did, since Victorians were anxious about the consequences of deep time long prior to its publication, as evidenced in texts like Robert Chambers’ Vestiges (1844), a muddled but earnest lay effort to try to find a place for religious narrative amid contradictory scientific evidence.

      But what gets me is when she writes “the fact that it stints on metaphor-so as to avoid being like H.G. Wells” is bull-pucky. A) Science fiction as we now understand the term was not nearly so well delineated a genre in the 19th century, so this most assuredly was not an anxiety for the age; just take a look at any of the surrounding realist novels, or speculative science stories in related periodicals, B) Wells’ prominent narratives would not emerge until the *late 19th century and early 20th century*, and C) literary analysts like Gillian Beer and George Levine make very strong cases for the metaphoric language in Darwin (of which there is plenty) having a distinctly Romantic character. This is certainly in keeping with other scientific texts of the period, too–like Robert Hunt’s 1848 “The Poetry of Science”, which emphatically references prominent Romantic poets when trying to present lay descriptions on the current understanding of cosmological, geophysical, and biochemical discovery.

      As a doctoral student of Victorian era scientific non-fiction, I’m probably more irked by this sloppy thinking than most others would be, but the Wells comment alone should rankle for most; for a fact-checker she REALLY has her chronology all in a muddle if she thinks 1890s writings would have caused Darwin to conscientiously style his 1859 text as he did! H. G. Wells wasn’t even BORN until 1866!

      Cheers, all!

  25. How terribly sad, Virginia Heffernan, — so young and bright and sufficiently well-educated to know better (or enabled to learn better) — choosing to reject (or to remain largely ignorant of) the colossal mountain of diverse, quality, thoroughly interlocking scientific (“forensic”) evidence that conciliatingly looks, waddles and quacks all the world like evolution…

    1. I’m not sure I’d go along with the adjective “bright” here. Seems intentionally dim to me.

  26. I have one question for Hefferman. How did Noah go round the entire globe and collect all living pairs of animals including the many thousands of dinosaurs without any tranquilizer weapons and heavy equipment to bring them back. I shouldn’t even wasted my time with this nonsense and went out early fossil hunting this morning.

  27. I wonder if she ever thinks about what happens when two people hold exactly diametrically opposite narratives about reality? Do they vanish together in a puff of energy, like an electron and a positron meeting? Or, quelle horreur, does reality rear its ugly head and sort things out based on what really is, and not what she wants to believe?

    1. No doubt she thinks that one thing can be true for you and another thing true for me. It is an alternate reality’s definition of truth.

  28. As an English Major, though thankfully not a doctor, this whole thing makes me ashamed. It is such a bad look, and it almost seems like her education in English has lead her to take the most idiotic stance.

    On the other hand, my much smaller education in English lead me to realize that the Bible was not only a story, but a archetypal one that holds little value as literature.

  29. Which makes it all the more bizarre that Heffernan has become. . . a Biblical creationist.

    Not really… if one wishes to get as far away from facts as possible, then one hits the end of the road with creationism.

  30. In the end, she did it because the Bible tells a better story than evolutionary biology.

    I so want to sell this woman a used car.

  31. For those surprised by this drivel from a former “fact-checker,” I would note that at least some of that profession earn the appellation mainly because they have strong, unshakable, and stridently expressed opinions about what is “right,” and only rarely because they have open minds and know how to accept facts that counter their opinions. This is clear in her willingness to say “what do I know?” when pretending to be open minded about biblical stories, but is unable to apply the same humility to her ability to understand science that runs counter to her personal story. Underneath it all, she *knows* what she *knows* and don’t try to challenge that with actual information.

  32. At the University of Texas many years ago I was talking to a PhD candidate, also in English.

    I had mentioned that I had gone to see paintings in the University museum to which she replied, “I have never seen a painting in my life”. She was proud of her ignorance.

    Hate to tell you this, but a PhD doesn’t mean much in terms of overall education. And perhaps what you are also seeing is the quality of student going into humanity programs.

    BTW, you think that’s something. Wait until you have a doctor (MD), who is a religious fundamentalist, and republican, AND gay ask you if you don’t think that GOD changed a few genes to make humans. I’ve been there and it was no joke from her.

  33. Big Bang story (“something exploded”)

    To borrow from the post, if Heffernan knew anything about cosmology, or even bothered to check her facts, she’d know there isn’t an explosion.

    The 3d sentence of Wikipedia’s article: “… the Universe was in an extremely hot and dense state and began expanding rapidly.” [My cursive]

    I’m glad postmodernism has become outdated. If only illiteracy would be!

  34. seems like Hefferman is a wannabee martyr. I find it rather curious that she would not mention who this person is that supposedly “stormed out” on her. She is just one more Christian who wants to have her science when it makes her comfy but to decry it when it shows her religion to be ridiculous. Alas, all that makes her is a pitiable hypocrite, depending on willful ignorance to retain her fantasy of being a special snowflake.

  35. Fact checkers can get you into a big heap of trouble. Case in point: Yesterday a local Fox affiliate in Oakland got a minor scoop by getting the names of the “pilots” involved in the Flight 214 (out of S. Korea) crash. The fact checker called the NTSB (who never gives out crew names) to confirm and spoke to a student intern who confirmed the names. Fox then aired a racially insensitive prank:


    All because a fact checker (or producer) didn’t do their job well.

      1. So many people thought this was funny. I have a good sense of humour. This was not funny. I suspect the intern has no sense of decorum or enough maturity to realize how it’s not funny to do something like this, especially when reporting on a tragic accident.

        1. It must be my bad taste because I thought it hilarious while I was watching that clip, not least because I ‘got the joke’ halfway through while the newsreader solemnly read them all out without even starting to suspect that there was SomeThing Wrong with the list. (Or maybe she did but had sufficient self-control not to let it show in her voice).

          I still empathise with the victims of the crash but, to me, this is a quite different matter from laughing at a news channel’s blunders.

          1. Having an *extremely* bizarre sense of humor, compared to most people I know… and of a particularly “gallows” type flavor, I sympathize. And I did appreciate what was happening to the FOX affiliate — the sequence of events that must have occurred to air this. (esp. with many close colleagues in broadcast journalism). Really, I did.

            Something about this split my brain in at least two major pieces – one being the screaming hilarity at what I was witnessing. The other bits were recoiling in abject horror — tragedy aside (that was another bit) — having to do with the deep, deep mess we are collectively in. I’m truly frightened of living in a theocratic fascist dictatorship, where media outlets are being eviscerated. And even our most sacred safety institutions (NTSB) seem to have to include the bubble-headed in their ranks. I try not to despair… but…

            …I’ve GOT to get the fuck out of here. Stuff like this makes me lose what little hope I thought I had.

  36. Gawker has taken note: “Yes Virginia, There Is a Darwin“. Her PhD in English might explain this, although Carl labors valiantly to save the honor of English majors.

    I’d noticed several years ago that the NY Times TV reviews (as opposed to, say, their movie reviews) were really bad– uninformative and unhelpful– and soon relized that they were coming from a writer named Virginia Heffernan. I began checking for the reviewer’s name, and wouldn’t bother to read pieces by Heffernan. She eventually got a tech column in the NYT Magazine that seemed even more clueless. Thankfully, both her reviews and column disappeared a while ago (although Alessandra Stanley isn’t much of an improvement).

    1. Best quote from the Gawker article: “It is not really “okay” to be a creationist technology writer, any more than it is okay to be a drunk schoolbus driver.”

      1. Also:
        “Creationists who have never had the benefit of a quality scientific education have a plausible explanation for their beliefs. Well-educated people who are still creationists have lost the plot somewhere along the line.”

        1. And this, from the comments:

          Her entire argument for Creationism is that the Bible is more entertaining than The Origin of Species. Okay, then I believe in faster-than-light travel because Star Trek is more entertaining than Einstein’s “On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies.”

      2. I found the comments on that article a pretty entertaining read. I particularly liked Yoloisback’s rant.

  37. Over a hundred comments and no one’s mentioned Templeton yet.
    She may not be a stupid as she lets on.

  38. There are some things that I encounter again and again on the Internet that are extremely frustrating. Some of those represented above include prejudice against scientists; the belief that the world is as it (in some sense, by personal preference) “should” be, irrespective of what facts, measurements, investigations, and rational argument imply; and a wish for “easy” truths.

    Feminism, astrology, homeopathy, …, provide many other examples.

    1. *Oh come on! We all know scientists are all in some secret club bent on world domination! To accomplish this, they deceive the uninitiated into believing in crazy things like evolution and quantum mechanics. They even make us think that airplanes come from the work of “science” when we all know airplanes fly because we pray to Jesus and he sends faeries down to lift the planes from beneath! 🙂

      *All sarcasm. Don’t quote mine!

    2. Oh, fuck. I couldn’t agree more that some strains of feminism have been ridden off the rails of rationalism recently, but the word and what it (at least used to) stand for is of so much importance to me that seeing it used in a list like that still elicits an emotional wallop.

    3. No matter what you think about feminism it has a basis in reality and includes several issues that need to be fixed within several nations including the United States.

      Astrology and homeopathy have no basis in reality.

      I’ve seen a few issues within feminism that are no better than male dominance but, even at that it isn’t properly included in a set with astrology and homeopathy.

      1. The basis for feminism today is very dubious; in particular, when considering that being pro-equality is not the same thing as being feminist. (Indeed, increasingly the feminist stance is anti-equality.) Almost all of the alleged wrongs against women in “advanced” countries today are simply not true or extremely exaggerated and/or have to be balanced by corresponding wrongs against men. A prime example is the 77-cents-on-the-dollar myth, which simply does not hold up after correcting for hours worked and similar factors.

        On the other hand, homeopathy was once a very promising branch of medicine that to some degree did better than “allopathy”. (Not through healing better, but through doing less damage, as it later turned out. Medicine does not have a glorious past…) In addition, homeopathy can bring some incidental benefits even today through a mixture of the placebo effect and a more patient-centric care.

        Astrology, meanwhile, was a pioneering proto-science, gave birth to astronomy, and did quite a lot for mathematics, before gradually turning into the pure and baseless fortune telling of today.

        The three also share a common mindset of putting reason aside, as originally stated—and of the three, homeopathy is the most scientific by some considerable distance. (Or “least unscientific”, if you prefer.)

        In conclusion: Grouping the three is by no means unfair to feminism.

          1. An excellent example of the type of problems that surround feminism (and the often the PC movement in general):

            o Factual arguments are replaced by rhetoric.

            o Arguments are not countered with other arguments. Instead opponents are discredited for lacking/having some characteristic (here for not being a woman) or for some other reason that does not actually invalidate the arguments—often something being a mere unfounded allegation.

            o There is common demand that the other party should “walk a mile in our shoes”—but no understanding that that particular sword cuts both ways.

            Thank you for making my point.

            1. tl, dr

              I had a look at your webpage, and now I know where you are coming from. There are plenty of places online already where you can hold forth on this matter; please do not do so here.

            2. Gee… the fact that Republican fundamentalists are spending all their time trying *literally* to take control of all bodies female, sure makes it feel like feminism still may be needed.

              Homeopathy and astrology? Probably not so much now…

            3. I will let the indepent reader judge those rather extreme statements of the above commenters compared to what I actually have written on my website on his/her/its own.

              For now: Thank you for the extra traffic—much appreciated.

  39. One tries to be empathetic and understanding, but the sad thing is, reading stuff like what she wrote …

    Let’s just say if somebody does not want to be seen as a “dopey sheep” by scientists, maybe they should try writing less dopey things.

    1. It appears she embraces the phrase as she says they are probably right to call her that. She WANTS to be seen as a dopey sheep.

  40. And now we’re back to that age-old question: how many angels can dance on a pinhead?

    I guess “fact checker” has become a NewSpeak euphemism for promoting some particular propaganda rather than what people would assume it meant which is to check the veracity of claims.

  41. … is like confessing you think Ahmadinejad has a couple of good points.

    Well, he’s got good hair. That’s important for a politician.

  42. I agree with an early comment that science courses for nonmajors are more important that courses for majors. At my university a major in other sciences, chemistry, physics, engineering, etc. would take no biology. So we turned out English, Music, and Art majors with more knowledge of biology than many of our scientists.

    I always taught these courses with the goal of the student thinking biology is important and interesting. Student evaluations showed me fairly successful.

    Friend was a music major at Harvard. He took a very good biology course taught by George Wald.

  43. I knew that nonsense in the Life Of Pi would just be used to justify belief in other nonsense.

    I really find it odd that people would use aesthetics as an epistemology. Is this one of those “other ways of knowing”?

  44. Ms. Heffernan could not have undermined her career any more effectively than what she has written. I hope she writes another attention getting piece confirming her abandonment of creationism and return to sanity. Perhaps it could be titled “A Former creationist and fact checker explains why she is now an atheist.” I, for one, would be interested enough to read it.

    1. Bummer, dude. Here are some others to avoid: Limbaugh, Akin, Santorum, Ham, Gish, Klinghoffer, Luskin, Perry, Bachmann, Coulter.

  45. Religion is for people who are fwightened of reality. Let them hide their faces in the skirts of the priests who say “There there, it will all be all right when you die.”

  46. Virginia Heffernan offers us a striking interpretation of Eve eating the Forbidden Fruit. The problem with this, it that it is inconsistent with a simultaneous display by Virginia Heffernan of Sincerity, Intelligence and Authority to advertise scripture or God’s Will.

  47. She should have taken Larry David’s advice. His comment on religious believers. “They go around as if it’s fact. It’s so insane. If I really believed that stuff I’d keep it to myself – lest somebody would think I was out of my mind.”

  48. Curvature of the earth is 0.6 ft/mile. If one is surveying for a uusual size house, one can shoot level lines without correcting for curvature. However, when survaying for an Interstate Highway, neglecting curvature correction will put you off by six feet of elevation for every 10 miles surveyed.

    I have not read the Life of Pi, but intend to do so. I have sread Edgar Rice Burroughs’ “The Lad and the Lion”, which has some similar plot elements. Does that count for anything?

    1. If that comment on curvature of the earth was in response to my post (about the earth being flat for local purposes), I’d point out that in our elementary surveying course (for engineers, not surveyors!) we were told to make the ‘backsight’ distance approximately equal to the ‘foresight’ distance – this would not only compensate for any slight off-calibration in the level(ling instrument), it would also compensate completely for any curvature of the earth.

      That said, and to quote against my own point, I remember standing on the shore of Penrhyn atoll in the Cook Islands and not being able to see the far shore ten miles away; I calculated (on the back of an envelope since I had no maths tables) that if the coconut trees on the far shore were no more than 30 feet high that would indeed be the case. But I submit that is a special case and for 99% of everyday uses, the assumption that the earth is flat works perfectly well. 😉

    2. By the way, that 0.66 feet per mile is only true for the first mile. As your distance of ‘shot’ increases (without any intermediate surveying stations) the error gets disproportionately greater. (I was going to say ‘exponentially greater’ but I doubt it’s exponential and I’m too rusty and lazy to work out what trigonometrical function it would follow).

Leave a Reply