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Shindigs of Pseudoscience

by Donald Prothero, Jul 27 2011

Whenever I read about the conventions held by creationists, it is always staggering to see so much ignorance of science and scholarship on display. If you read through one of their programs or peruse the abstracts, your mind is boggled at the bizarre thinking and intellectual contortions these people must attempt, from weird ideas of how to fit all living thing into Noah’s ark to odd explanations of where the flood waters came from and where they went, to even weirder ideas of why the universe appears to be 13.7 billion years old (but is only really 6000 years old), or why radiometric dating doesn’t work or how to explain the complex geologic history of the earth with Bronze Age myths of superstitious shepherds. One paper after another is replete with special pleading, ad hoc and supernatural “explanations”, none of which would pass muster in even an introductory physics or geology class. As I discussed in my book Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters, these people are profoundly ignorant of real science and proud of it, because their faith comes first. Sadly, they have about 40% or so of the American public believing their anti-scientific view of the world.

No matter how weird their ideas seem to the outsider, we can at least understand their motivation. To the fundamentalist creationist, a literal interpretation of their version of the Bible is a life-or-death, salvation-or-damnation matter, which is why they invest so much energy confusing people with their distorted ideas about sciences like evolution, geology, anthropology, and astronomy.  If one truly believes that Darwinism will lead you to hell’s door, we can see what makes them think this way, no matter how wrong it seems to us. But, as we smugly assert, they are just fringe religious fanatics, and they are only fighting the most recent scientific battle over evolution (that still rages 152 years later). Surely, the great victories of science, such as the Copernican system of astronomy and the Einsteinian revolution in physics, are no longer disputed and even religious fanatics accept them. Right?

There you would be wrong. Literal interpretation of the Bible is not only inconsistent with evolution, but it also extends to other claims about the world as well. Google the term “Flat Earth Society” and you’ll find websites describing small but sincere groups of believers who are convinced that the earth is not a sphere but a flat disk. When confronted with photographs of the earth from space, they always claim that these images are fraudulent or doctored in some way. When the topic of the Moon landings is brought, up they claim it was all a NASA hoax filmed in a sound stage. Their insistence on a flat earth and a geocentric view of the world (with the earth, not the sun, at the center of the solar system) is based on biblical literalism. There are many verses in the Bible (e.g., Isaiah 11: 12, 40:22, 44:24) that say so, and they believe the Bible must be literally true. Most people find these people and their ideas amusing and silly, but their belief system is just as strongly held as the beliefs of many of their audience. Nevertheless, if you read their screeds, you find they are deadly serious and fanatical about their dogmas. The passage below from the Sept. 1988 issue of their journal (complete with their own bad grammar and spellings, and odd use of ALL CAPS) is typical:

“IN USA today, as in Russia in ’20s and NAZI Germany in ’40s full scale campaign to create USA ALSO A BEAST NATION… no God… no right no wrong no up no down 2 added to 2 is whatever scientists say it is… Adults today either jailed or shot down… at own homes for even teaching their own children… GOD EXISTS and Right and Wrong exists (State of Utah)… bells have been tolling for so long… for the helpless pitiful innocent ‘animals’ as they are tortured to death by priests of the State Religion ‘GREASE BALL SCIENCE’… now … 1988 … no use, too late… to send to see for whom the bell tolls… THE BELL TOLLS FOR THEE!”

Likewise, there is an entire group of religious fanatics who still believe that Copernicus and Galileo (and every astronomer since then) was wrong and the Church was right in insisting the earth was the center of the universe. They held a conference in November 2010, with dozens of speakers with impressive-sounding credentials (but none with any true scientific training in astronomy). If you look at the list of talk titles, they are a mix of weird science, paranoid conspiracy theories that claim the shots of earth from space are hoaxed, and apologists for the literal interpretation of the Bible (which does indeed claim the earth is the center of the universe, as all ancient cultures believed). Ironically, the Catholic Church has long ago apologized for its persecution of Galileo by the Inquisition, and for its long rejection of the heliocentric system, so clearly they do not endorse these views by “Catholics” who don’t follow their own Church’s teachings.

The latest convention of crackpots and crazies occurred on the weekend of July 6-9, 2011, when the “Natural Philosophy Alliance” held their 18th Annual Conference at the University of Maryland, claiming 269 participants with 138 abstracts. The term “Natural Philosophy” in the title is a clue, because that’s what people used to call investigations of nature (usually in the context of studying God’s handiwork) before the term “science” came along with its secular influences and emphasis on experiment and testability. The entire world of “natural philosophy” faded away slowly in the mid-nineteenth century as truly scientific ideas like evolution, modern chemistry and physics, and uniformitarian geology drove out the old-fashioned religion-based approach to the natural world.

So who are these “natural philosophers” in the 21st century world of modern science? If you scan down the list of named “scientists”, you’ll find a lot of writers, “independent researchers,” engineers, artists, film makers, a dairy farmer—but hardly any real scientists. Some claim the title “Dr.” in their biographies, but when you look closer, their “doctorates” are questionable ones from diploma mills. If their credentials are legit, their doctorate is in a field far from what they were talking about at the conference, such as philosophy or religion, not science. Almost none with doctorates seem to have ever held an academic position, so they were seldom exposed to the continuous challenge of skepticism, peer review, and scientific give and take that real scientists must continually deal with. Instead, most seem to have made their living outside of science where their ideas are not challenged.Their entire output seems to be abstracts for conferences like this one, or publications in their own journals, or self-published books. Clearly they are afraid of peer review by real scientists. A good indicator of the disreputable nature of the meeting is the large number of abstracts published “in absentia” with no speaker to deliver the paper or defend the abstract. This is not tolerated at real scientific meetings, where you are supposed to designate a backup speaker if you can’t attend, or withdraw your abstract. No hiding from your peers is allowed!

But let’s not resort to an ad hominem argument—maybe these people is actually on to something that scientists have missed. Unfortunately, a scan through their abstracts is even more discouraging. The program is a veritable smorgasbord of nearly every discredited idea that ended up on the scientific trash heap over the past 200 years. Most are attempts to restore “intuitive” notions about physics against the counter-intuitive world of modern physics and cosmology, from many attacks on Einstein and relativity (complete with “Neo-Newtonian theory”, even though we still use good old Newtonian mechanics in most everyday matters), to weird ideas about gravity and electromagnetism, to attempts to deny heliocentrism or the nature of the universe. The long-extinct concept of “ether” (debunked a century ago) makes its reappearance, which seems truly odd to anyone who is raised in modern science and has only heard of it as an historical mistake. Several of these presentations are actually modern versions of Velikovsky’s crackpot notions of planets violating the laws of physics as an attempt to explain biblical miracles. There were a handful of geological talks proclaiming weird ideas about the earth that no one has taken seriously in a century, and showing just how ignorant the speaker is about modern geology. Apparently, these folks don’t discuss biology much here, so the meeting focuses mostly on attacking modern physics, not evolutionary biology.

So what is going on here? If you read the abstracts carefully, you’ll find that a few of the authors reveal religious motivations or attempts to square reality with the Bible (as Velikovsky tried to do). But most seem to be old-fashioned Luddites, battling against modern physics and cosmology because it is counter-intuitive and not easy to understand without advanced training in physics and mathematics (which most of the speakers apparently lack). In contrast to a convention of creationists twisting the science to fit the Bible, most of these guys (almost none are women) are just old-fashioned cranks who think they have a great idea—but are unwilling to listen to any legitimate scientists who might prove them wrong. Thus, they preach to the converted and speak to conventions of other fringe scientists and crackpots, publish their non-peer-reviewed abstracts, and pad their “credentials” as if this would make their ideas any more credible or scientific.

We laugh at them and go on with our lives, thinking that their pathetic “convention” is of no consequence. But there are serious issues here. First, why was the University of Maryland renting out its space to crackpot pseudoscientists? There are lots of convention centers and hotels that will host meetings of any size regardless of affiliation—so why does a major research university allow these pseudoscientists on campus? I realize that state universities are desperate for money these days, but this is scandalous. Are they just selling out to the highest bidder to use their empty buildings in the summer? If so, they might as well rent their buildings to Neo-Nazis or con artists or fundamentalists doing revival meetings. Don’t they realize that each time a legitimate research university sells its soul to pseudoscientists for a few bucks, they are giving the cranks the appearance of legitimacy—and sullying their own reputation?

But there’s an even larger question. We may laugh at this gathering of 269 crazies once a year (or 2143 “scientists” their website claims for the “World Science Database”) as inconsequential. Yet there are a lot more of them out there. The office of the Skeptic Society gets letters and phone calls and emails from cranks several times a day, all claiming to have the latest “great idea” that they want Skeptic to publish. But even though they are not as numerous as the creationists, who hold 40% of the American population in the their thrall, these pseudoscientists are a clear example of why science has to stand up against nonsense, not ignore it. The creationists’ current favorite political tactic is “teach the controversy”, where their garbage is given “equal time” with legitimate science—and a large percentage of politicians and the American public agree with this and think it is only fair. What happens when a state with “equal time” legislation on the books (like Louisiana) decides to teach “the controversy” about geocentrism, ether, Velikovsky’s ideas, and attempts to discredit Einsteinian relativity and modern physics in their classes instead of teaching real physics?  All these anti-scientists need do is point to the “Natural Philosophy Association” and their many “published abstracts” and meetings, or get one of their “scientists” to testify—and then our students would be just as misled about physics or chemistry or geology as they currently are about modern biology.

We’ve all heard stories about crackpots like this—but they are much more numerous than you realize, and no longer isolated, but meeting at their own conventions and “publishing abstracts” so that a layperson wouldn’t know the difference between them and real scientists. That is no laughing matter.

20 Responses to “Shindigs of Pseudoscience”

  1. Peter Ozzie Jones says:

    Hello Prof Prothero
    down here at the University of Western Australia is Research Professor John G. Hartnett B.Sc (hons) PhD MAIP working on leading edge physics with many refereed papers, grants etc:

    Yet, at Creation Ministries:
    you will find links to “papers” such as “The Lawgiver is the biblical Creator God”

    Is he a real scientist or not?

    Puzzled, in Perth

    • Von Krieger says:

      Are you sure it’s not just two people named Josh Harnett?

      • Peter Ozzie Jones says:

        That of course is more likely with a name such as mine!

        But, sadly, it is two sides of the same person, one rational and the other, well . . .
        If you check the Creation Ministries entry it links back to the UWA Physics page and has his piccie and biog.

        I suppose it is still possible (if you want to be agnostic) that there are two people and one of them is trying to make a fool of the other?

      • LovleAnjel says:

        It appears his training in physics is in building & perfecting atomic clocks, and his “interest” in special relativity and cosmology is to try and disprove them so he can support the bible.

        So, he’s the blind watchmaker!

      • Donald Prothero says:

        There are a handful of legitimate physicists who hold creationist views, largely because they were already devout creationists before entering science, and their training in physics has never included any fields relevant to evolution like biology and geology. In fact, at TAM9 we had a guy come up to the Skeptic Booth and brag that the became a physicist BECAUSE he didn’t want to deal with evolution!

      • Peter Ozzie Jones says:

        Thanks for responding David, and thanks for others offering ideas.
        Love the “Blind Watchmaker” comment, spot on!

        You are probably correct in that his science training was after his belief formation.
        He actually attempts to distort the laws of physics to meet the creationists claims.
        Eg that the speed of light may have been vastly different in the past to what we observe today.

        But then you have Francis Collins who claims he was an atheist and now thinks that three frozen streams of water is enough for him to convert to . . . oh the religion in the culture he is embedded in!

      • Peter Ozzie Jones says:

        aargh, should have added that he is also climbing Mount Improbable!

        (repartee is having that ability to respond in real-time and not later)

      • Somite says:

        The problem is when your profession is unrelated to biology or evolution and you form a dilettante’s opinion on your own. Most deniers are engineers, physicists, MDs, dentists, or molecular biologists. You can be proficient and do well in each of those fields without understanding or accepting evolution.

        Molecular biologists are a special case because it requires missing the point of their field and be surrounded by evidence of evolution and still deny it. But you can work on a lab and publish work without having ever to reference evolution.

  2. Trimegistus says:

    At times I think the only people paying attention to Creationists nowadays are skeptics.

    • Beelzebud says:

      If that were the case, we wouldn’t see them trying to insert creationism in text books in Texas, and elsewhere…

  3. BillG says:

    It’s wise to avoid absolutes such as the universes’ age. I would hedge that 13.7 billion will be refined as all science does with more information.

    Naturally the scientific illiterate will fail to see this method and distinction, only using it as fodder to exploit fellow religious and like simpletons, thus in due time, proudly claiming the science inconsistent if not completely false. “The bell tolls” for reality.

  4. Persto says:

    Religious faith is the obstacle that needs to be hurdled. The historical, archaeological, and scientific inaccuracies of religious scriptures are not the predicament, but the faith inspired and required by these “holy” scriptures.

    The skeptical community can refute every religious concept and claim with concrete, factual evidence, but it would not discourage or alter the belief of religious individuals. Why? Because of faith. Faith is complete trust in something or someone without complete understanding of what you are confiding in. How does one fight faith with knowledge when faith necessitates ignorance? I am concerned the skeptical community is fighting an opponent it can not defeat. Religion, while declining, is far from dying. The assertions of these brainless madcaps only confirm my trepidations.

    I agree with Dr. Prothero’s contention that religious lunacy masquerading as science does not merit a position at the table of serious scientific discourse. However, I am frightened, but not convinced that disputing their claims only gives them credibility with certain segments of the American populace, particularly in the South. Some people see denial or repudiation of a religious claim by secular society as a validation of the claim’s truthfulness.

    Also, religious doctrine should not be taught in a science classroom. How many times have you seen or heard about a biologist protesting the contents of a church sermon? Never. It does not occur. However, religious individuals scream incessantly about the material covered in a biology classroom.

    • Persto says:

      PS My comments really do not have anything to do with the article just wanted to get that off my chest.

  5. Mario says:

    I’ve always wondered how many wackos like this really exist, I actually got pretty scared after watching the Jesus’ Camp documentary, and finding that most of US society was kind of OK with, like is not a big deal rather a bunch of crazy and delusional people but everything is pointing out that their numbers are growing.

    But the real worry for me comes from this pseudo scientists that line up with this wackos, since they kind of legitimate this positions at least enough to get covered by the media.

  6. Steelsheen11b says:

    The one and only bit of credit I will give creationists is at least they stand up for their nonsense unlike the IDers who hide behind mealy mouth words and semantics. I Don’t agree with any of it and they obfuscate like crazy but at least they don’t hide.

  7. Alan(UK) says:

    Dr John Hartnett of CMI is one and the same as Research Professor
    John G. Hartnett B.Sc (hons) PhD MAIP – one page links to the other.

  8. Kenneth Polit says:

    The question that comes to mind regarding creationism is, “How can they reject this mountain of evidence to believe such nonsense?”. However, the problem is, some people define themselves by their beliefs. To reject a belief is to reject a part of themselves. This can be very difficult to do for some people. I personally was raised Catholic and even though I’m an atheist, there is still a part of me that identifies as Catholic. I consider it a cultural thing. For example, when there is a discussion about the child sex scandals, there is a part of me that feels embarrassment, even though I was not personally involved. With the exception of weddings and funerals, I haven’t been in a church since my Confirmation in 1979, but I still think like a Catholic in some regard. Perhaps that is why some people will ignore all evidence to the contrary and insist that the story of Genesis is factual. To do otherwise is to reject their families and their culture.

  9. Linda Seebach says:

    The University of Maryland is public; it cannot refuse the use of its facilities on religious grounds (Rosenberger v. Virginia). If Dover v. Kitzmiller honored the principle that creationism is essentially religious, then refusing to host a creationist conference would be religious discrimination. Or anyway, close enough that the university would not want to risk defending, let alone losing, a lawsuit.

    • But the “natural philosophers” at the conference are not creationists, but claim to be non-religious (even if some have unspoken religious motives). They don’t deal with evolution and creationism at all, but attack modern physics. I don’t see how religious protections apply here…

  10. gary hines says:

    This is not a comment but a request for selfish reasons. I have written a unique correlation between the first few passages of the Old Testament and the source of gravitation. You will hate the religious connection to science but it is completely interesting and creatively (no pun intended) follows Judeo-Christian logic. If you are up to the challenge, please respond. It is definitely new thought on the subject. The 8 pages of text are clean, non-inflammatory and well presented.

    Give it a try. I would honestly be interested in your appraisal.