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Creationist flim-flam

by Donald Prothero, Jan 09 2013

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.

Silly me.

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.

21 Responses to “Creationist flim-flam”

  1. Other Paul says:

    Maybe I’m just cherry-picking my memory, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen letters after anybody’s name, used as an identifying caption, for an authority figure in a bona-fide documentary. That’s lawyers, scientists, religious ministers even, any of the professions. The only time you see such credentials is on adverts or, generally, where somebody’s trying to sell you something. But, as I say, I may be cherry-picking here. Must pay more attention.

    • starskeptic says:

      I went searching through screen shots from Nova on the google and I think you’re right: name and institution seems to be a common format.

      • Donald Prothero says:

        You are both right. In fact, most of us who DO have bona fide credentials insist on keeping them out of places where our names are listed; our professional title or institution is enough. What the creationists often do is classic “credential mongering”, whether on the Chyron letters in a video display or on a book jacket. Many of the outrageous and crackpot book titles out there do the same thing. A good rule of thumb is that if you have to impress people by waving your credentials at them, your arguments cannot stand on their own merits.

      • starskeptic says:

        Scientists don’t need no stinkin’ badges!

      • That’s good, because some of us have no useful or relevant credentials. :-)

      • starskeptic says:

        Being cute and fluffy is a lot to fall back on, Brian.

      • Max says:

        Not even from Thunderwood College?

      • Janet Camp says:

        But we have the good sense to read those who do–and to know the difference!

      • Gary Hurd says:

        I use the title doctor, and encourage other PhDs to do so when dealing with the fakes like “dr” Kent Hovend, or “dr” Carl Baugh. There is a reason these guys do this and we should not surrender our qualifications in a fit of reverse snobbery.

      • starskeptic says:

        But the point is the validity of the argument – not who’s making at…

      • Other Paul says:

        I think that’s fine. A caption of “Dr Mike Jones” or “Professor Helen Wilkes” stuck at the bottom of the screen when you’re doing your expert thing on the TV is a title and – where relevant – is entirely appropriate.

        But if I see “Dr Mike Jones, PhD” or “Professor Helen Wilkes, LL.D. AFIMA, WI it just rings that uh-oh bell in the back of my mind.

  2. Miles Rind says:

    If you listen to 0:25 et seq., you will notice that she speaks of using “T&A,” not “DNA.” She’s actually criticizing the use of tits and arse in population genetics.

  3. Love that the background is a stock photograph – certainly not unheard of due to the real-world exigencies of video production, but quite amusing given the context that no real lab would have let her in. :-)

  4. RCAF says:

    Ironically, this is the thing that fundementalist Chritians and fundementalist Muslims become the proverbial strange bedfellows.
    I wonder how they feel about that, or if they are even aware of it?

  5. d brown says:

    Fundamentalist Christians and Fundamentalist Muslims started with the same Jewish book. The Muslims are still following it the closest. Back before the GOP started killing them for fun and voters the Muslims said they had no problem with us because we both followed the same BOOK. Now they know we do not.

  6. Pete Moulton says:

    Whenever I think of cargo-cult ‘science’ from this episode forward, my brain’s going to call up a replay of Ann Gauger, her fake lab, and her complete ignorance of basic biological principles.

    In fairness to the ‘Tuters,I feel compelled to point out that they not only don’t do actual science, but in fact they can’t. Their own basic ‘idea’ prevents them from ever formulating any kind of falsifiable hypothesis, so they can’t even get started.

  7. Janet Camp says:

    Just how does this woman earn her living? Does she work for the Discovery Institute?

  8. dragonfly says:

    Part of this story made it into the Biologic Institute’s wikipedia page (near the end):

    Looks like it could use some expansion.

  9. Gilles says:

    BTW, the name of the show is “Enquête exclusive” (enquête = investigation)

  10. kj says:

    Today was my first visit to site. I’ve enjoyed it. I did have one issue with this post though. Green screen is extremely common, even in legitimate interviews. The individual being interviewed may or may not have any control over what image will be used later. Additionally, I would think an entire film crew might be disruptive or potentially hazardous in an actual lab.
    Just my 2 cents.