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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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In the belly of the beast

by Donald Prothero, Jul 31 2013

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A Review of Among the Creationists: Dispatches from the Anti-Evolutionist Front Lines,

by Jason Rosenhouse

(Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2012, 256 pp.)

I’ve spent over 40 years of my life wrestling with the problem of creationism, while trying to maintain my research career, keep up with book deadlines, teach my classes, and take care of my family. As I described in my 2007 book Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why it Matters, battling the evolution deniers seems to be a thankless, never-ending task because no amount of effort in science education or good science in the media seems to make any difference. Their numbers (around 40% of Americans) have remained constant in the polls over many decades, no matter what approaches are tried. This is an endless source of frustration for many of us, since creationism is like the many-headed Hydra in the labors of Hercules: every time you cut off one head, it grows back two more. Science never seems to make any progress in blunting their efforts to contaminate schools with their religious dogma. At the end of my 2007 book, I tried my best to delve into the psychology and motivation of creationists, and to understand why they can deny obvious reality and tell outright lies over and over again without any guilt or self-awareness.

But I rarely spend much of my precious time reading their literature any more (I’ve read much of it over 40 years, and it never changes), let alone paying my hard-earned money to hear them speak day after day. Listening to the way they lie and distort the facts, and call professional scientists evil, is too much for me to sit through without getting upset. But Jason Rosenhouse has a much stronger stomach for their garbage than I. He attended one creation conference after another, calmly listening to their preaching and talking to the attendees while maintaining his cool. For that alone, I am in awe of him.

Rosenhouse is Associate Professor of Mathematics at James Madison University in Virginia, having previously taught at Kansas State University, so he is close to the epicenters of much of the creationist movement in this country. He regularly discusses the topic on his EvolutionBlog. As he describes, he is culturally Jewish but became an atheist, yet he has the patience of Job to sit through days and days of creationist drivel and read their atrocious books without getting angry. He is genuinely interested in understanding who they are and what motivates them, and why they can shut themselves out of so much of scientific reality and believe so much that is patently false.

Continue reading…

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zip lines and con jobs

by Donald Prothero, Jun 12 2013

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This week brings news from several different parts of the creationist battlefront. Even as Louisiana failed to overturn its recent law allowing the teaching of creationism in public schools (despite nationwide pressure led by student Zack Kopplin), there was some more revealing news from the two biggest creationist organizations in America:

1) In an earlier post, I discussed the decline in attendance and loss of money from Ken Ham’s “creation museum” in Kentucky. Now even they must pay attention to the problem, since the declining attendance has put a crimp in their budget and brought the fundraising for their “Ark encounter” to a standstill. Their problem, as I outlined before, is that their exhibit is 5 years old now and has not changed, so most of the local yokels who might want to visit it have done so. There’s no point to making the long trip and seeing the expensive “museum” again if there’s nothing new to see. (Unlike real science museums, which must change exhibits constantly not only to boost repeat attendance, but to reflect the changes in scientific thinking). As Mark Joseph Stern wrote on Slate.com:

There could be another explanation, though. A spectacle like the Creation Museum has a pretty limited audience. Sure, 46 percent of Americans profess to believe in creationism, but how many are enthusiastic enough to venture to Kentucky to spend nearly $30 per person to see a diorama of a little boy palling around with a vegetarian dinosaur? The museum’s target demographic might not be eager to lay down that much money: Belief in creationism correlates to less education, and less education correlates to lower income. Plus, there’s the possibility of just getting bored: After two pilgrimages to the museum, a family of four would have spent $260 to see the same human-made exhibits and Bible quote placards. Surely even the most devoted creationists would consider switching attractions for their next vacation. A visit to the Grand Canyon could potentially be much cheaper—even though it is tens of millions of years old.

So how did they deal with the attendance dilemma? Did they open some new galleries with “latest breakthroughs in creation research”? (No, that’s not possible because they don’t do research or learn anything new). No, they opted for the cheap and silly: make it into an amusement park with zip lines. Apparently, flying through the air for a few seconds suspended from a cable is the latest fad in amusements, so the Creation “Museum” has to have one to draw the crowds—and hope they can suck in a few visitors to blow $30 a head or more to see their stale old exhibits as well. Expect that by next year they’ll be a full-fledged amusement park with roller coasters and Tilt-a-whirls, just like so many other “Biblelands” do across the Deep South.

And what do ziplines have to do with creationism? As usual, they have a glib and non-responsive answer:

Zovath’s response to the museums critics who wonder how zip lining fits with their message?

“No matter what exhibit we add, the message stays the same,” Zovath said. “It’s all about God’s word and the authority of God’s word and showing that all of these things, whether it’s bugs, dinosaurs or dragons – it all fits with God’s word.”

I was hoping for something more imaginative and relevant, like “zip lines make you feel like an angel flying down from heaven.”

2) Our old friends at the Discovery Institute in Seattle (the main organization which once promoted the “intelligent design” argument until it died in court in 2005) are doing some very shady fundraising and bookkeeping. Their site is constantly beating the bushes to get religionists to contribute to them, and they have extensive funding from a number of right-wing foundations that want to promote religion in public society and get around the 1st Amendment separation of church and state. They have a budget that is ten times the size of what their main opponent, the tiny National Center for Science Education, has to spend. They claim to be a tax-exempt non-profit, yet they also claim not to be a religious organization.

So on what basis are they tax exempt? Are they really a charity which spends most of its funds on social welfare? The website Cenlamar.com dug into the 990 tax forms for the Discovery Institute, and found some remarkable things. Almost 90% of the money they raise goes to salaries of their “research fellows,” plus lawyers, lobbyists, administrators, overhead, and expenses. No more than 13% could go to what could charitably be called “research,” although they don’t actually publish ANY peer-reviewed research, only stuff for their own house journals, and PR documents to push their cause. As their founding document, the “Wedge Strategy”, pointed out at the beginning, their motive isn’t to discover new science; it is conduct a PR campaign to get their viewpoint equal time in public schools and elsewhere in the media and public discourse, and skip the hard, complicated process of doing the scientific research that might support their position. As Cenlamar.com points out, however, 90% spending on overhead and salaries is WAY out of line for a non-profit charity. By contrast, organizations like the BBB Wise Giving Allowance or American Institute of Philanthropy spend no more than 35-40% on the same thing, and the United Way spends only 20%. This is typical of most non-profit charities, and clearly the Discovery Institute is not following the normal guidelines for non-profts.

So how do they get away with it? They use a clever sleight-of-hand to dodge the IRS guidelines for tax-exempt charities. They make “grants” to something called the “Biologic Institute”, which is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Discovery Institute. Then the Biologic Institute spends this “grant” money for more salaries and overhead. Even though they claim to the IRS that they are funding grants, they are essentially sending the grant money to themselves to dodge the tax structure. I’m not familiar with the tax laws, but this sounds like a pretty shady deal which clearly violates the spirit if not the letter of the tax laws. As Cenlamar.com shows, it’s a “con-profit”, not a real non-profit. It’s a great con job which allows them to essentially spend all their money on their PR campaign and their staffers, with no obligation to do actual research, or to send money outside their own building.

So much for the honesty of these “Christian” creationists….

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Should we let the clowns run the circus?

by Donald Prothero, May 22 2013

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The saddest aspect of life right now is that science gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom
—Isaac Asimov

A few weeks ago, we heard in the news the chilling and alarming statement that Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), chair of the House Science and Technology Committee, wants to subject all the scientific research grants of the National Science Foundation (NSF) to political scrutiny. No longer was it sufficient that the NSF conduct peer review of grants by experts in the field to determine whether they are worthy of funding. No, the House Committee has decided that they are better judges of good science that the scientific community itself, and they ought to be able to override the decisions of scientists who work in the field.

We’ve seen this kind of political interference in science before, but never at such a high level. Even more disturbing, the GOP members of the House Science and Technology Committee are not the kind of people that most of us would want judging the quality of science. They are nearly all science deniers of one sort or another. This committee includes such luminaries as Rep. Paul Broun of Georgia (an M.D., even!), who said (in a recent speech at the Liberty Baptist Church Sportsman’s Banquet):

“God’s word is true. I’ve come to understand that. All that stuff I was taught about evolution, embryology, Big Bang theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of hell. It’s lies to try to keep me and all the folks who are taught that from understanding that they need a savior. There’s a lot of scientific data that I found out as a scientist [note: Broun is NOT a real scientist] that actually show that this is really a young Earth. I believe that the Earth is about 9,000 years old. I believe that it was created in six days as we know them. That’s what the Bible says. And what I’ve come to learn is that it’s the manufacturer’s handbook, is what I call it. It teaches us how to run our lives individually. How to run our families, how to run our churches. But it teaches us how to run all our public policy and everything in society. And that’s the reason, as your congressman, I hold the Holy Bible as being the major directions to me of how I vote in Washington, D.C., and I’ll continue to do that.”

Continue reading…

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Sex, dinosaurs, or chocolate

by Donald Prothero, Apr 03 2013
The workshop was held at NESCent, with modern facilities built inside classic old brick buildings that used to be warehouses on the Duke campus

The workshop was held at NESCent, with modern facilities built inside classic old brick buildings on the Duke campus that used to be warehouses

On the weekend of March 22-24, 2013, I was privileged to be part of an amazing workshop entitled “Reporting across the culture wars: engaging media on evolution.” Hosted by the NSF-sponsored think tank, the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center (NESCent) on the Duke University campus in Durham, North Carolina, it brought together some of the top names in both science and journalism, all experienced in the battle over evolution and creationism. It was organized and moderated by Lauri Lebo, the local reporter at the 2005 Dover, Pennsylvania, “Intelligent Design” trial who wrote a best-selling book, The Devil in Dover, about her experience, and by molecular biologist Dr. Norman Johnson of University of Massachusetts Amherst. These two organizers raised the funds to bring in a very diverse panel of experts, including Dr. Ken Miller of Brown University, one of the leading biologists battling creationism (he was the star of the Dover trial, and has beaten creationists in debates many times); Josh Rosenau of the National Center for Science Education (NCSE), who handles their efforts to support citizens fighting creationism in their schools; several authors of books about evolution and creationism, including yours truly, plus Dr. Michael Berkman of  Penn State, Dr. David Long of George Mason University, and Dr. Daniel Fairbanks of Utah Valley University; a distinguished group of biologists, including Dr. T. Ryan Gregory of Guelph University, Dr. Melissa Wilson Sayres of UC Berkeley, Dr. Craig McLain of NESCent, and Dr. David Hillis of the Univ. Texas Austin; anthropologists, including Dr. Holly Dunsworth of Univ. Rhode Island, Dr. David Long, and Dr. Briana Pobiner of the Smithsonian; and paleontologists including myself and Brian Switek of the Laelaps blog on Smithsonian.com. Among the journalists were Greg Bowers of the Univ. Missouri Journalism school, Lou DuBose of the Washington Spectator, Kate Sheppard of Mother Jones, as well as e-journalists such as Cara Santa Maria, the science editor of The Huffington Post (her regular podcast, “Talk Nerdy to Me”, is a big hit on HuffPo), and Danielle Lee and Bora Zivkovic of the Scientific American blog. In addition, there were local Public Information Officers (PIOs), who handle press relations for scientists, including Dr. Robin Smith of NESCent and Karl Bates of Duke University. In short, this panel brought both a lot of experience and a lot of brainpower to the discussion, with a panel ranging from freelance print journalists to e-journalists to science writers to distinguished scientists in biology, anthropology, and paleontology—and nearly everyone on the panel has their own blog.

Continue reading…

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Schadenfreude

by Donald Prothero, Mar 13 2013

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For those of us who have spent our lives fighting the never-ending creationism wars, small victories are precious, and give us hope that some day this will all be behind us. The Dover decision in 2005 was decisive, and the Discovery Institute has been ineffective ever since then, with no further school districts adopting “intelligent design” creationism. (Of course, creationism then morphed into the “teach the controversy/strength and weaknesses” strategy, which passed in Louisiana, Tennessee, and Kentucky). The clowns like Don McLeroy on the Texas State Board of Education who voted for all sorts of laws favoring creationism and other fundie distortions of science have been voted out of office, although not all their damage has been undone. The fundies in the Kansas State Board of Education were also voted out of office after they had embarrassed the good taxpayers of the Sunflower State enough times.

Likewise, every time another powerful creationist institution or preacher stumbles or declines, it gives us a bit of schadenfreude (“joy at the misfortune of others” auf Deutsch). A few years ago, the Institute of “Creation Research” seemed to be a powerful behemoth, which had a leading role in all the creationism battles of the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. But as I discovered when I visited their former headquarters in the suburbs of San Diego, they left their pathetic little “museum” behind (see this post), sold to a Jewish convert to radical Protestant fundamentalism, and relocated to Texas in 2007. Their founder, Henry Morris, died in 2006, and their master debater, Duane Gish, just passed away last week, and the ICR has fallen on hard times. Their efforts to get their master’s program accredited in their new home, fundie-friendly Texas, have failed, and they have vanished from the headlines of the creationism wars after having dominated for years. Many of the “big guns” of ICR have since moved on to other institutions, such as little Cedarville University in Ohio, where they engage in stealth creationism in geology meetings. Continue reading…

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Junk DNA and creationist lies

by Donald Prothero, Feb 27 2013

One of the common tropes you hear among modern creationists is the denial of the idea that there is any non-coding DNA, or “junk DNA.” To them, the idea that a large part of the genome is simply unread leftovers, carried along passively from generation to generation without doing anything, is clearly a contradiction with the idea of an “Intelligent Designer.” So the Discovery Institute and numerous other creationist organizations that are actually sophisticated enough to recognize the issue (including Georgia Purdom of Ken Ham’s “Answers in Genesis” organization) keep spreading propaganda that “junk DNA is a myth” or “every bit of DNA has function, even if we don’t know what it is.” Moonie Jonathan Wells, who has written crummy books misinterpreting fossils and embryology, wrote a whole book denying the subject—even though he hasn’t done any research in molecular biology since 1994. Do they actually do any research to explore this topic, or trying to test the hypothesis that all DNA is functional? No, their labs and their “research” are not that sophisticated. Instead, their entire output on the topic (just as in every other topic) is based on cherry-picking statements of the work of legitimate scientists, quote-mined to distort the meaning of the original scientific publication. Either they don’t understand what they are reading and their confirmation bias filters screen out all but a few words that seem to agree with them, or they are consciously lying and distorting the evidence—or both.

First, some background on the issue. Before 1966, nearly all biologists were “panselectionists,” convinced that every part of an organism was under the constant scrutiny of natural selection, even if we couldn’t detect it. Even in the 1970s, I had professors in evolutionary biology at Columbia University who were hard-core panselectionists, and could not imagine the possibility that nature was not very efficient, but could carry along structures from one generation to the next that either had no function, or were suboptimal in their function (as Stephen Jay Gould had been advocating). But as early as 1966, Lewontin and Hubby (using the then-new technique of gel electrophoresis, which has long since been replaced by direct DNA sequencing) showed that the variability in the protein sequences in many organisms was far in excess of what was needed to explain their anatomical complexity, and that there was no correlation between complexity and genetic information: there were simple worms with huge genomes, and complex organisms with small genomes. Continue reading…

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Creationist flim-flam

by Donald Prothero, Jan 09 2013

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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? Continue reading…

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