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“Observational” vs. “historical” science? Pure bunk!

by Donald Prothero, Feb 26 2014

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One of the recurring themes at the Feb. 4 debate between Bill Nye and Ken Ham was Ham’s continuously harping on a supposed distinction between “observational science” (science we can observe in real time) and “historical science” (science that must be inferred from the past). This strange distinction is almost unique to Ken Ham, although I’m sure he borrowed from older creationist writings somewhere, since I remember reading about it when I researched creationism in the 1980s. Nevertheless, Ham kept pounding on it again and again, refusing to talk about any scientific evidence that couldn’t be witnessed in real time.

As many scientists have discussed, this distinction is complete bunk, and only Ken Ham and his followers seem to think that it makes any sense. Naturally, he pounds on this phony, self-serving, artificial distinction because it plays in his favor. Each time Bill pressed him on one point or another, Ham retreated behind his dodge of no one can know anything of “historical” past, then made the ridiculous assertion that the only reliable source of information about the past is the Bible. (Bill was too much of a gentleman to challenge him on this and ask Ken how he knows this. As Ham always says, “Were you there?”). Most of science tells us that the earth is old, that life has evolved, and so on. Ham wants to throw all this information away, so he creates a convenient but ridiculous distinction that serves his purposes—but bears no relation to what real scientists do or think. Continue reading…

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Hearts and minds

by Donald Prothero, Feb 12 2014

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I write this post just a few hours after watching the Ham on Nye “debate” last night. I’m still mulling over the details, and checking on line to see the evolving reactions to the events, but it’s running through my head so much now that it’s time to write it down so I can get back to work. Fittingly, it will post on February 12, Darwin’s 205th birthday. It couldn’t be more appropriate.

Let me start at the beginning. I was at Michael Shermer’s New Year’s Eve party last December 31st.  This is not just your average New Year’s Eve party: it’s in Shermer’s magnificent glass-walled view house at the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains with an amazing panorama of the lights of the city below.  He had his telescope out on the porch, and we all got a view of the four Galilean moons of Jupiter. The guests include Mr. Deity and “Lucy” (Brian Keith Dalton and Amy Rohren), D.J. Grothe of the James Randi Educational Foundation, lots of scientists including several JPL people, Shermer’s grad students—and Bill Nye. Late in the evening, Bill comes up to me and mentions that he had agreed to debate Ken Ham. He knew I’d beaten Duane Gish back in 1983, and that I was familiar with battling creationism over the past 35 years. After I talked to him and realized that the debate was set and he could not back out, I offered to help him prepare. Then about 3 weeks ago, he emailed me and we made arrangements. He spent a day in Oakland at the National Center for Science Education (NCSE), where a bunch of their staff helped him analyze Ham’s past debates and arguments (they have archives of every creationist out there), and suggest strategies. Since Ham had voluntarily  set the debate topic to defend the scientific value and truth of the Bible, Bill was not in the usual dilemma of having to defend and explain complex topics of evolution. Normally, creationists employ the “Gish Gallop” to keep the scientist on the defensive, trying to undo the mistaken ideas and lies the creationist has just said, and replace it with a more complex explanation. Instead, the NCSE staffers  recommended that Bill use this to his advantage, and do a “reverse Gish Gallop”: pile on the examples one after another, so that Ham wouldn’t have time or ability to answer them all. Continue reading…

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Is Debating Pseudoscience a Good Idea? Carl Sagan Weighs In

by Daniel Loxton, Feb 03 2014

Tomorrow, as many of you know, Bill Nye “the Science Guy” will take the stage with Answers in Genesis frontman Ken Ham to debate the topic of evolution. For those of you interested, the event may be watched streaming for free, live at 7 PM Eastern on February 4, 2014.

Are such debates a good idea? As you might gather from the many divergent opinions on Nye’s choice, the answer is far from clear. Too much depends upon the circumstances, format, and participants of the “debate.” Also, it is often argued—and I tend to agree with this argument—that there are figures too cynical to be fruitfully engaged in any format. (My initial gut feeling was that Ham may not be a fair-minded opponent, and that this particular debate may not have been a wise decision for Nye for that reason—though Randy Olson has almost brought me around with this thoughtful post.)

But the wider meta-question is not a new one. I thought it might be interesting to share a decades-old argument in favor of public engagement with fringe ideas and their proponents by a pioneering voice for modern scientific skepticism: Carl Sagan. It reminds me that “debating pseudoscience” is, when you get down to it, what skeptics do.

In December of 1969, a symposium on the topic of UFOs was hosted by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Organized by Sagan and Thornton Page, it almost didn’t happen at all. For over a year, the symposium faced passionate opposition from scientists who believed that hosting such an exchange would lend inappropriate legitimacy and stage time to the fringe, and all at the expense of the science. “A distinguished scientist once threatened to sic then Vice-President Spiro T. Agnew on me,” Sagan later recalled, “if I persisted in organizing a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in which both proponents and opponents of the extraterrestrial-spacecraft hypothesis of UFO origins would be permitted to speak.”1

Continue reading…

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Noah’s reality check

by Donald Prothero, Dec 11 2013
The grandiose "artist's conception" of the Ark Encounter. Already, many of these elements have been canceled due to problems in fundraising

The grandiose “artist’s conception” of the Ark Encounter. Already, many of these elements have been canceled due to problems in fundraising

A few weeks ago, I blogged about the problems that creationist minister Ken Ham is having with his proposed “Ark Encounter” project, to be built near his Creation “Museum” in northern Kentucky. Fundraising for the “Ark Park” is woefully behind schedule so his organization is trying to finance it with junk bonds. In the meanwhile, his original Creation “Museum” is losing more and more money as fewer visitors bother to show up to a carny act that is five years old and has nothing new to offer. His organization may have risen rapidly to become the loudest and biggest of all the major creationist ministries in the United States, but now it looks like they’ve gone beyond their level of competence. Not only do they mangle science with their “Museum”, but it appears they mangle finance as well.  Continue reading…

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Junk science and junk bonds

by Donald Prothero, Nov 20 2013

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In previous posts, I’ve written about creationist Ken Ham’s efforts to get an “Ark Encounter” theme park built near his Creation “Museum” in Petersburg, Kentucky. When it was first announced, they promised to make it the Seventh Wonder of the World, and even the Governor and State Legislature of Kentucky agreed to tax breaks and new roads to help them out. The Ark model will just be the centerpiece of a huge amusement park to sucker in the rubes. According to Mark Joseph Stern, writing for Slate.com:

Like most of Ham’s projects, Ark Encounter promises to be a heady combination of hands-on fun, perverse indoctrination, and apocalyptic terror. According to Ham’s fundraising newsletters, the ark itself will contain three levels of “edu-tainment” about Noah’s menagerie—which, as noted in his magnum opus Dinosaurs of Eden, included every species of dinosaur, even T. Rex. (How did they fit? As always, Ham has an answer: “When it came to the very few dinosaur kinds that grew to a very large size, God probably sent ‘teenagers,’ NOT ‘fully grown adults’ on the Ark.”) The ark’s exhibits will likely follow the lead of the Creation Museum, intertwining spectacularly weird animatronicscomically idiotic sophism, and menacing warnings of cultural decay.

Continue reading…

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Krakens and crackpots—again

by Donald Prothero, Nov 06 2013
The alleged "fossil kraken beak" touted by McMenamin as the beak of the giant kraken responsible for arranging ichthyosaur bones into art. The scale is in centimeters, so it is only 5 cm long, too small to belong to any giant squid. In addition, the preservation and other details of the specimen do not resemble a cephalopod beak but some other rock or concretion.

The alleged “fossil kraken beak” touted by McMenamin as the beak of the giant kraken responsible for arranging ichthyosaur bones into art. The scale is in centimeters, so it is only 5 cm long, too small to belong to any giant squid. In addition, the preservation and other details of the specimen do not resemble a cephalopod beak but some other rock or concretion.

Readers of this blog might remember a post two years ago, when I reported on the notorious crackpot paleontologist Mark McMenamin, and his claim that the ichthyosaur skeletons at Berlin-Ichthyosaur State Park in southwest Nevada were artistically arranged by some sort of huge “Kraken” squid. As I detailed in my post, the claim was laughably incompetent and ridiculous. McMenamin claimed that the arrangement of the vertebrae appeared to be deliberate, an arrangement satisfying the “artistic sense” of the giant squid. Clearly he does not know enough about the decay processes of vertebrate skeletons, which frequently leave the vertebral centra either lined up, or toppled over in rows just like we see in the Nevada ichthyosaurs. I vividly remember the buzz at the Geological Society of America (GSA) meeting in 2011, where McMenamin gave his presentation and people were openly laughing at its totally ridiculous claims—or not sure whether they were unwittingly part of an episode of “Punked” and Ashton Kutcher was going to pop out any moment. We all figured it was just another crazy idea by a notorious fringe scientist, and wrote it off to carelessness on the part of the committee that programmed the abstracts (they don’t really have the option of reviewing or rejecting them unless the abstract violates the basic formatting guidelines). The only sad consequence of this whole sordid episode is that the press and internet jumped all over this half-baked story, giving it all sorts of unwarranted coverage. As usual, the media don’t know (or don’t care) that meeting abstracts are unreviewed. They should not be given a lot of press coverage until they are peer reviewed and published. But in this age of 24/7 media coverage of junk, any sensational claim will make the news without any review or background checking or fact checking whatsoever—so McMenamin got his 15 minutes of fame for spewing junk science. Continue reading…

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Sham Science

by Donald Prothero, Oct 30 2013

In a previous post, I discussed the saga of the infamous “Bigfoot DNA” study by Melba Ketchum, a Texas veterinarian and staunch believer in Bigfoot. There was lots of gossip about it in the cryptozoology community for several years, then it was officially announced to the press (long before any supporting evidence was published) last fall. When it was finally “published” last spring, it was raised all sorts of red flags with the absurd claims that her Bigfoot samples were uncontaminated (yet all the evidence showed that it was), the lack of evidence that the hairs and tissues truly could be proven to come from Bigfoot, and the claim that Bigfoot was some sort of weird hybrid between modern humans and prehistoric populations. The study was highly suspect, because Ketchum self-published it in an online journal that she secretly owned, and there was no peer review. Her samples were finally analyzed by an independent genetics lab last summer, and the results were clear: her original analysis was completely incompetent, and she made all sorts of fundamental mistakes and false assumptions that no well-trained geneticist would make. After all that fanfare, her specimens  only showed a mix of  modern human hairs and tissues, along with those of other North American mammals, especially opossums.

Sharon Hill has pointed out that lots of pseudoscientists and followers of the paranormal try to act “sciencey”, or practice what she called “sham science”: they mimic the trappings of science (white lab coats, fancy lab equipment and glassware, exotic toys like night-vision goggles and camera traps), yet the fail to follow the basic methods of science. They are akin to the “cargo cults” in Polynesia at the end of World War II, whose islands became military bases and airstrips in service of the war effort. When the war ended and the military left, the islanders built imitation wooden  “airplanes”, “control towers” and even “radio masts”, thinking that if they reproduced the shape of these objects, they would magically bring back the military planes and all their cargo full of goodies. In the case of cryptozoology, there are many instances where these pseudoscientists fail to follow the basic methods of science, but the most obvious is that if an object is not yet explained, it is not necessarily paranormal!  The basic assumption in science is that the unexplained is not unexplainable, just not yet fully explained—but eventually these unexplained phenomena are explained by natural processes. We see this every time another object is claimed to be “Bigfoot hair” (rather than just hair that is not yet identified) or an image is touted as “an unexplained black shape that may be Bigfoot” (rather than “an unexplained black shape whose identity cannot be determined”). They jump to the conclusion and assume what is to be proved, rather than following the scientific method and reserving judgment until something is fully investigated. When they hear a strange sight or sound, they say “It’s Bigfoot!”, when the scientist would say “What is it? Let’s investigate all the possibilities.”

The same is true of creationists, who argue that if science hasn’t explained something yet (at least to their satisfaction), then it can’t be explained, and therefore God did it (the “God of the gaps” argument). They never seem to realize that as science explains more and more, their God becomes less and less useful, and the argument is ultimately a loser–as well as being unscientific. Continue reading…

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Bellybuttons and Testable science

by Donald Prothero, Oct 09 2013

What did Adam and Eve never have, yet they gave two of them to each of their children?

Answer: parents

—Old children’s riddle

A classic example of an untestable theory to explain nature was the “Omphalos” hypothesis of Philip Henry Gosse. He was a well-respected naturalist in early nineteenth-century England who had written best-selling books about natural history. He was also a very devout member of a Puritanical sect called the Plymouth Brethren. As a good naturalist, Gosse was finding more and more evidence that life had evolved (long before Darwin), but as a Biblical literalist, he felt obligated to follow creationism. Gosse resolved his problems by publishing Omphalos: An Attempt to Untie the Geological Knot in 1857, just two years before Darwin’s book was published. The curious title omphalos means “bellybutton” or “navel” in Greek, and refers to the common theological conundrum of the day: if Adam and Eve were specially created and did not have human parents (and therefore no umbilical cord), did they have a navel or bellybutton? Many religious artists avoided this issue by painting Adam and Eve with a fig leaf not only over their genitalia, but also over their midriffs. Gosse’s answer was yes, of course Adam and Eve had navels. According to Gosse, God created nature to look as if it had a history, to look as if it had evolved, but in reality it was created quite recently. In order for the world to be “functional” God would have created the earth with mountains and canyons, with trees that have growth rings, and with Adam and Eve with a navel. No evidence that indicates the presumed age of the earth or events in the past can be taken at face value. In this manner, Gosse felt that he had solved his own dilemmas about the fact that nature appears to have evolved, yet this solution allowed him to retain his creationist beliefs.

Continue reading…

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Cryptozoologists: just like creationists

by Donald Prothero, Oct 02 2013

When our new book, Abominable Science: Origins of the Yeti, Nessie, and Other Famous Cryptids, came out at TAM last July, Daniel and I were both wondering what kind of response we would get from the cryptozoology community. Daniel is always more optimistic about people than I am. He felt that at least some cryptozoologists attempt to follow the scientific method and want to be taken seriously as scientists, and they would give the book a fair hearing despite the mountains of evidence we compiled that demolishes their ideas. My expectation was a bit different. My hide is scarred by 40 years of battling creationists, and I’ve seen how facts and evidence and logic don’t matter to people when a skeptic challenges a belief that they hold deeply and which gives them meaning in their lives. We never made a formal bet on the outcome, but it’s been interesting now in the three months since the book has been out what kind of response it has received.

As expected, we got great reviews from the mainstream media and even from some high-profile scientific journals, like Nature, so we knew the book was properly focused and was effective for the general audience. (So far, we have 23 five-star and four-star reviews on its Amazon.com site, and only 5 one-star reviews from cryptozoologists). We even got a couple of half-decent or at least non-condemning reviews from some prominent cryptozoologists, and it was publicized on their websites such as www.cryptomundo.com, giving the cryptozoology community plenty of chance to notice it. But as I expected, more of the reviews from the cryptozoologists have been nasty, unfair, and full of venom, some of which Daniel has addressed in posts about Daniel Perez’s and Bill Munn’s attack on our treatment of Bigfoot, and Roland Watson’s attack on our demolition of the Loch Ness monster myth. Continue reading…

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Stephen Meyer’s Fumbling Bumbling Amateur Cambrian Follies

by Donald Prothero, Aug 28 2013

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A review of Darwin’s Doubt: The Explosive Origin of Animal Life and the Case for Intelligent Design by Stephen Meyer (HarperCollins, New York, 498 pp.)

In everything the prudent acts with knowledge, but a fool flaunts his folly.

—Proverbs 13:16

Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.

—Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man


The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.

—William Shakespeare, As You Like It

 

The Dunning-Kruger effect is a well-known phenomenon in psychology first named in 1998, but it has been recognized since before the Bible and Shakespeare. In a nutshell, it is (as Bertrand Russell put it) 
”The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt”. There is also another well-known psychological phenomenon: motivated reasoning. Our brains have many blind spots in them that allow us to reconcile the real world with the world as we want it to be, and reduce the clash of cognitive dissonance. The most familiar of these is confirmation bias, where we see only what we want to see, and ignore or forget anything that doesn’t fit our preferred world-view. When this bias emerges in argument, it takes the form of cherry-picking: finding a few facts out of context that seem to support what we want to believe, and ignoring everything else that contradicts what we are trying to promote.

The entire literature of creationism (and of its recent offspring, “intelligent design” creationism) works entirely on that principle: they don’t like any science that disagrees with their view of religion, so they pick tiny bits out of context that seem to support what they want to believe, and cherry-pick individual cases which fits their bias. In their writings, they are legendary for “quote-mining”: taking a quote out of context to mean the exact opposite of what the author clearly intended (sometimes unintentionally, but often deliberately and maliciously). They either cannot understand the scientific meaning of many fields from genetics to paleontology to geochronology, or their bias filters out all but tiny bits of a research subject that seems to comfort them, and they ignore all the rest. Continue reading…

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