The Sciences

Rant of the Day: Hitchens Slams Palin on Science

Reality BaseBy Melissa LafskyOct 28, 2008 1:15 AM


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Here at Reality Base, we've taken great pleasure in covering the irreligionist arguments of anti-theist writer Christopher Hitchens. We've also delved into the world of GOP VP nominee Sarah Palin, whose ruminations on science have been most...interesting. So when we saw that the former had taken on the latter today in Slate, on the subject of none other than science, we were about as thrilled as anyone with a 401K could be these days. Hitchens takes the well-heeled (literally) candidate to task for recently denouncing fruit-fly research as a wasteful and unnecessary—not to mention "un-American," since some of the research took place in France—expense. Fruit flies, or Drosophila, will likely ring a bell for most readers—as they should, since they're one of the great laboratories of all genetics research. As Hitchens points out, the fly can be easily grown in a lab and is a valuable research tool because it lives for a very short time, breeds vigorously, and displays plenty of genetic mutation in each generation. He writes:

[S]ince Gov. Palin was in Pittsburgh to talk about her signature "issue" of disability and special needs, she might even have had some researcher tell her that there is a Drosophila-based center for research into autism at the University of North Carolina. The fruit fly can also be a menace to American agriculture, so any financing of research into its habits and mutations is money well-spent.

He then goes on to lambast Palin's reported belief in creationism:

With Palin, however, the contempt for science may be something a little more sinister than the bluff, empty-headed plain-man's philistinism of McCain. We never get a chance to ask her in detail about these things, but she is known to favor the teaching of creationism in schools...and so it is at least probable that she believes all creatures from humans to fruit flies were created just as they are now. This would make DNA or any other kind of research pointless, whether conducted in Paris or not.

To conclude, he points a finger at the Republican party as a whole for "plac[ing] within reach of the Oval Office a woman who is a religious fanatic and a proud, boastful ignoramus." And then closes with a little bit of advice: "On Nov. 4, anyone who cares for the Constitution has a clear duty to repudiate this wickedness and stupidity." Hey, we're just quoting. UPDATE: The Loom blogger Carl Zimmer notes that there may be some confusion about the type of Drosophila Palin was referring to:

A lot of people thought at first that Palin was dismissing basic research on Drosophila melanogaster, which has yielded lots of profound insights about human biology. Palin herself hasn’t cleared up the issue, but on further reflection, the consensus is that she was complaining about research on the olive fruit fly. That insect is a nasty crop pest in the US. It’s also a pest in Europe, where people have been studying ways to control it–hence the need for funding research there.

So perhaps Hitchens' fire and brimstone was misplaced...though to be fair, we have no way of knowing whether Palin herself knew which type of insect she was referencing. Related: RB: Palin: Pro-Intelligent Design, or Just Anti-Thought? RB: Rumors Aside, Sarah Palin Is Still Butchering Science RB: Sarah Palin Still Butchering Science, Redux Discoblog: Fruit Fly Brains Stay Alive in a Dish, Teach us About Nerve Damage Discoblog: For Fruit Flies, Turning Off a Gene Means Turning On the Same-Sex Love

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