Some of the responses to Republican Senate candidate Todd Akin’s “legitimate rape” comment are equally ridiculous. The opinion editor for the Berkeley Political Review, Alex Kravitz, suggests that members of the Senate should have to pass an intelligence test before assuming office. Charles Johnson, who operates the once respectable Little Green Footballs blog, is stunned that Akin “managed to reach adulthood with a completely non-functioning brain” and upon learning that Akin is a member of the House Science and Technology committee advised his readers to “weep for America.”
No one disputes that what Akin said was silly, wrong, and offensive.
However, the idea that certain elected officials should have to pass an intelligence test is also silly, wrong, and offensive. It seems to me that many of the people who would support such a test are the same people who complained in the past that intelligence tests are biased. Plus, isn't there a risk that it would lead to an intelligence test for voters? (In that case, why bother having elections?)
Nor does Todd Akin’s comment disqualify him from the Committee on Science, Space and Technology. The main purpose of the committee is not to determine the merit of scientific claims. It’s to discuss public policy and propose legislation.
Besides, even some of the greatest scientific minds in history embraced ideas that most people would consider irrational, stupid, or silly.
Isaac Newton, who discovered much of what is now considered the foundation of classical mechanics and who shares credit with Gottfried Leibniz for inventing calculus, was intensely interested in alchemy and biblical prophecy. Though admirers point out that such ideas were commonplace in Newton’s day, there’s no getting around the fact that Newton devoted considerable time and effort to what were clearly occult ideas.
Oliver Lodge, who was one of the first to prove the existence of electromagnetic waves, was President of the Society for Psychical Research and fervently believed in telepathic communication between the living and the dead.
Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the DNA double helix, suggested that the seeds of life were planted on Earth by an extraterrestrial civilization—a theory known as “directed panspermia.” Though Crick opposed creationism, his own theory evaded the question of how life originated, passing the buck to space aliens.
William Shockley, co-inventor of the transistor, warned that less intelligent people reproduce at a higher rate and that this was particularly a problem among blacks. Though Shockley shared the 1956 Nobel Prize in Physics with colleagues John Bardeen and Walter Brattain, he seemed determined to offend people with his theory of race and intelligence.
Raymond Damadian, the principal inventor of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), is a young earth creationist. Here is a man who believes that the Earth is no more than 10,000 years old despite massive evidence to the contrary. Yet he not only understood the science underlying MRI, he built the first full-body magnetic resonance scanner. In my opinion, more in doubt is the intelligence of the committee that denied him a share in the 2003 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.
Some prefer to believe in a binary universe in which people are either consistently scientific or consistently unscientific. But that’s not how the world actually works. It’s not only possible to be scientific about some things and irrational about others—it’s rather common.