A few weeks ago I wrote a post about how creationist “baramin” taxonomy was an example of amateurs aping what scientists do without actually understanding the science, all couched in the trappings of real science and in “sciencey”-sounding language. Almost as soon as that post came out, another example came to light that was noted by bloggers on Panda’s Thumb and Pharyngula and elsewhere. It starts with a silly video (complete with fancy production values and dramatic opening music) featuring ID creation “scientist” Ann Gauger, talking in front of what looks like a conventional biochemistry lab.
As Larry Moran, Ars Technica, and numerous commenters over at Panda’s Thumb pointed out, her discussion is complete gibberish that shows she had no understanding of evolution or genetics. She talks about “population genetics” and “common descent” as if they had something to do with one another. Even a second-year biology undergraduate knows the difference! Population genetics is the field that simulates the changes in gene frequencies through time in natural populations, with models of how changing selection pressures, mutation rates, etc. might affect gene frequencies over time. It is largely a mathematical modeling exercise, although its predictions have been abundantly tested and corroborated by many lab experiments. Population genetics is only a population-level process. It says nothing about the common ancestry of organisms, or their similarity in gene sequences, which is what Ann Gauger seems to think. Apparently, Gauger doesn’t know the difference between population genetics and phylogenetics, the field that does deal with the evidence of common ancestry. What the heck, if it begins with a “p” and ends with “genetics”, it must be the same thing, right?
The rest of the video is just as laughably confused and incompetent. She claims that “homoplasy” (also known as evolutionary convergence) is some sort of great mystery that scientists have been hiding from the public. If you take even the lowest level book in phylogenetic theory, there is abundant discussion of homoplasy, and how it should be addressed in a rigorous scientific context. As the distinguished University of Washington biologist Joe Felsenstein posted:
I must be totally confused. I wrote a book on reconstructing evolutionary trees — and it’s the standard textbook in that area. But it does not mention many basic population genetics concepts. I have another book (a free downloadable e-book) that is a textbook of theoretical population genetics. And it does not mention homoplasy at all.
So I must misunderstand what “population genetics” is. And here I’ve been giving courses on it for the last 44 years. At the university where Ann Gauger got her Ph.D. degree, for that matter.
The rest of the video is just as clueless and amateurish. She makes some sort of incoherent mention of the convergence of octopus and vertebrate eyes, and claimed they are so similar they couldn’t have evolved independently. False! This is no great mystery to evolutionary biologists: the similarities are due to constraints posed on camera-style eyeballs, and the fact that they are constructed in two completely different ways is just the prediction that evolution would make, not a prediction of creation (where there are no constraints on a divine designer predicted by creationists). She tosses out something about the chimpanzee genome, apparently unaware that it has been sequenced and demonstrates clearly the close evolutionary relationship between humans and both species of chimp. The crowd at Panda’s Thumb tore the rest of her gibberish to pieces with great glee. As several of them mentioned, this level of incompetence is so bad that if it were spoken by our graduate students in an oral exam, they would be flunked out of the program. Yet somehow “Dr. Ann Gauger” managed to get an M.S. at MIT, a Ph.D. at U. Washington, and a post-doc at Harvard. She must have done like Kurt Wise, Marcus Ross, and Jonathan Wells and other creationists who have earned legitimate science degrees: go through the motions to obtain the degree while secretly seething as they hide or downplay their creationist agenda, and avoid listening to or comprehending anything that threatens their creationist beliefs. Then they go out into the world of creationism to be welcomed with open arms as a “Ph.D. scientist” with a degree from a top university whom they can point to in their effort to sound legitimate. But scientific credibility doesn’t come from a piece of paper from a university—it comes from doing sound science and showing you understand the fundamentals of the science, which Gauger has flunked miserably.
But the crowning irony was revealed soon after Gauger’s video was posted. Several blog commenters noticed the lab background behind her seemed a bit suspicious: the computer looked to be about 20 years old and the lab equipment was not appropriate for molecular genetics research. Then someone did a bit of digging and found out that the “lab” behind her is a stock photo image from Shutterstock, Inc., and she recorded the whole thing in front of a green screen! Isn’t that symbolic of the whole pseudoscience of “ID creationism”? They never do any real research that would pass the scrutiny of peer review in real journals, only phony “research” that mimics the conventions of science but doesn’t understand the fundamentals (as in “baraminology”), which they then publish in their own journals. And the Discovery Institute, despite its huge budget, must resort to shooting the video in a green screen background, not actually filming Gauger working in her “lab” (as Nova or some other documentary filmmaker would). In a nutshell, the episode reveals how their whole operation is all for show, a scam, a flim flam, a PR exercise designed to impress those who can’t tell if a lab background is appropriate or not, and bears no resemblance to real science.
Naturally, when this embarrassing revelation came out, the Discovery Institute was indignant and immediately ran a picture of Ann Gauger in her “real lab” (but completely failed to address the criticisms that her speech was gibberish). Big deal! As P.Z. Myers points out, her “lab” is just a bunch of glassware and a fume hood, and each of his grad students has one too. The trappings of science don’t make the work done in the lab into science. Only the methods and the results do. Creationists are like those “cargo cults” in Polynesia that worshipped old objects left behind on their beaches by Americans as if those objects possessed magic powers that the American visitors had. More to the point, if the Discovery Institute were really about doing science rather than PR, they would support dozens of labs doing original research, and be included in the network of science labs around the world working on common problems in science. But no—as far as we can tell, the Discovery Institute has a room with glassware and a fume hood, and a Ph.D. is grossly incompetent and doesn’t know the basics of biology. What kind of research does Gauger do? No one can tell, because what she discusses in the video is stuff about octopus eyes and chimp genomes that she didn’t work on herself, and a garbled confusion of population genetics with phylogenetics that reveals her complete lack of understanding of the field. If that was all she was going to talk about, they could have dispensed with the lab background (fake or real) and the white lab coat, because she’s just repeating common creationist talking points she didn’t discover and doesn’t comprehend.
Apparently, the tendency to fakery is rife with the creationists. Watch this video of their superstar Stephen Meyer, supposedly in “the Cambridge library.” Pay attention to his hands. Either he’s a witch and his hands magically disappear at times—or he did it all in front of a green screen and they edited it in such a clumsy manner that they failed to notice when his hands went beyond his green-screen background. That’s creationism in a nutshell: fakery and incompetence.