Three days ago I highlighted an anti-evolution essay by Virginia Heffernan, a formerly popular journalist who is now a correspondent for Yahoo News. Her piece, “Why I’m a creationist,” was a remarkably obtuse celebration of ignorance. In essence, Heffernan maintained that she was a creationist because the Bible told a better story than did Darwin, and that she found Darwin’s Origin unconvincing anyway because he adduced no facts to support his “hypothesis.”
As Carl Zimmer pointed out in an epic Twitter war with Heffernan, dismissing the evidence for evolution betrays a profound lack of curiosity. Their 140-character bits of back-and-forth show that she really does think of creationism and evolution merely as competing narratives: “What I believe is stories—hodgepodge of magic & facts—like what you believe. What I do is: aim to be kind.” (She apparently thought people who tweeted about evidence for evolution were being mean. Zimmer has devoted his career to telling excellent stories about evolution—stories that are true. He’s entitled to be incredulous.) Heffernan is simply wrong. There is no hodgepodge. Creationism and evolution aren’t equivalent stories to be believed or not. Creationism is magic and evolution is facts.
Now two people have suggested to me that Heffernan’s piece was not serious, and was intended only to shock. One Facebook friend wrote, “I think she’s tongue-in-cheek here. Virginia Heffernan is notorious for her subversive sense of humor.”
Was she pulling some kind of Sokal-style hoax?
Well, I pondered this possibility long and hard. After all, I went after her professed ignorance pretty strongly, and if it turned out to be some kind of hoax I was firing at a moving target. But in the end I concluded that Heffernan wasn’t joking.
First of all, if she intended to show “subversive humor,” she failed. The piece isn’t funny at all. And even if you knew it was a scam, it’s still—unlike Sokal’s wonderful parody—not funny at all. Anybody could have written the kind of dopey-sheep defense of creationism that Heffernan did.
Second, there is no sign, as there was in Sokal’s piece, that Heffernan’s was a parody. It just evokes the tired, old creationist tropes: Darwin’s theory was only a “hypothesis”; he didn’t adduce any facts to support that theory, and that science sometimes reverses its conclusions and therefore can’t be trusted. (Remember, Sokal used real quotes from postmodernists to support his bogus article.) There is no creativity in her piece to suggest it was a parody of creationism. If you’re writing a parody of something, its effectiveness depends on semi-savvy people being able to recognize it’s a parody.
Further, while Sokal’s piece was damaging to something that deserved damage—postmodern analysis that claims there is no such thing as objective truth—Heffernan’s damaged something worthwhile: scientific truth and the public understanding of science. All her piece will do is give succor to creationists who will say, “See? A smart, Harvard-educated woman is on our side.” If Heffernan was having a joke on us, it was a mean-spirited and harmful joke.
Subversive humor? I don’t think so, and neither does Carl Zimmer. Heffernan has simply made herself look like the “dopey sheep” she claims to be, and has damaged her scientific credibility enormously. Maybe in a few days she’ll realized that she screwed up, and announce that it was all a joke. But if so, it was a poor joke. And I wouldn’t believe her anyway.
The readers excoriated her, by the way. Here are just two comments from the first page: