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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


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

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 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, 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

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

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

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

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 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 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 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


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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