Monday, 30 March 2015

Rightly dividing the words of scientific truth - how critical thinking shows a YEC video is likely to be unreliable

One of the fundamental problems with special creationist attacks on evolution is their inability to critically appraise and assess the information they use to justify these attacks. Given that evolution is regarded as one of the best-attested theories in science, the burden of proof lies exclusively on special creationists to show that the scientific consensus is misguided, and that requires information from credible, authoritative sources. Information sourced from fundamentalist Christian organisations or private websites of cranks is not going to pass master. Likewise, slick videos from fringe pseudoscientific organisations are hardly going to provide evidence that will overturn the foundations of modern biology.

For example, one would hardly take seriously claims by geocentrists that the entire universe rotates around the Earth and modern astronomy is a godless conspiracy to suppress what the Bible says about a fixed Earth. One would also hardly expect a slickly produced video by a fringe geocentrist organisation to be taken as an authoritative, reliable source of information that ‘proved’ modern astronomy was wrong to reject geocentrism. The Christadelphian who made these claims, parroted the assertions of these fringe groups, and touted such videos as evidence would quite rightly have his claims dismissed as being based on poor quality information. The same logic applies to those who claim that evolution is ‘science falsely so called’. Unfortunately, and to the shame of our community, the same degree of scepticism we would apply to the geocentrist claims vanished when it comes to the YEC claims, despite the fact that the YEC claims are just as vacuous.

While this is the inevitable consequence both an alarming trends towards fideism, where hyperliteral readings of the Bible (which are never justified but merely assumed) are privileged over hard evidence, and a rampant anti-intellectualism which manifests as a pathological hatred of science, this failure to properly appraise information may well represent a simple lack of critical thinking skills, particularly when applied to information which allegedly overturns evolution. In 1 Thess 5:21, Paul reminded us to prove all things, and hold fast to that which is good. Such a critical approach to information is desperately needed.

Critical appraisal of information is one of the first skills taught when you enter university, so those wanting to learn how to sort the wheat from the chaff would be well advised to learn from the many university websites which teach students how to master these skills. An example is always useful in order to demonstrate how to apply such critical skills in real life, and the example I will use is a recently released video “Evolution’s Achilles' Heels”. As this is a product for purchase, it is hardly unreasonable, irrespective of whether one is using it as an example to teach people how to critically evaluate information, to examine it to see if it is likely to be worth buying.

The UC Berkeley Library webpage on evaluating resources reminds students that in order to “make sense of the quality of resources and evaluate their authority and appropriateness”, one needs to assess factors such as suitability, authority, references cited by the article, objectivity, and whether it is primary or secondary research.

Is it suitable for the purpose?

Let’s begin with suitability:

Scope: The evidence for evolution comes from disciplines as disparate as palaeontology, comparative genomics, and biogeography, so a presentation lasting one hour is going to provide little more than a superficial overview of the subject. As the video also looks at unrelated areas such as abiogenesis, ethics, radiometric dating, and cosmology, the treatment of all these subjects is going to be superficial at best.
Audience: The target audience is clearly not working scientists in evolutionary biology, cosmology, geochemistry, or palaeontology, but lay Christians with little or no scientific training
Timeliness: The video was released in 2014, so there should be little excuse for the video presentation not to be based on fairly recent science.
Scholarly versus Popular: This is definitely not a scholarly presentation, which means it should be accessible to the layperson. However, whether the information in the video is authoritative and reliable is a separate question.

Is it Authoritative?

Let’s move onto the question of authority. Who are the authors, or in this case, the scientists being interviewed? What are their credentials? What else have they written? Certainly, the authors all have higher degrees in science, but scientific truth is not determined by appeal to authority, but rather via the scientific method, and that raises the question of whether these men with advanced degrees actually have professional experience in evolutionary biology, radiometric dating, palaeontology, ethics, and cosmology. Given the highly specialised nature of science, outside of a scientist’s narrow range of expertise, they may know no more about a particular discipline than an educated layperson. For the claims of these fifteen to be taken seriously, three things need to be satisfied:
  • They need to be working directly in the area of science they are criticising
  • They need to have a good history of research in that area
  • They need to have had their arguments against the consensus view taken seriously by other experts in the field.
It is quite easy to find contrarian views in science, but appealing to the lone astronomy PhD who is a geocentrist while ignoring the tens of thousands who regard geocentrism as rank pseudoscience is not going to win the day for geocentrism. The same applies for those appealing to fringe players to justify YEC. If those whom they cite don’t directly work in the field, and have not managed to persuade their peers, then there is no reason to take their claims seriously, no matter what qualification they have. The examples of Nobel Laureates Linus Pauling (orthomolecular medicine), Brian Josephson (parapsychology), and Kary Mullis (HIV denialism) show that nonsense is nonsense, irrespective of who peddles it.

Those involved in this presentation are:
  1. Don Batten: horticulturalist
  2. Peter Borger: not listed at the website, but apparently pharmacology
  3. Stuart Burgess: engineer
  4. Rob Carter: marine biologist
  5. David Catchpoole: plant physiologist
  6. John Hartnett: physics
  7. Mark Harwood: engineering
  8. Matti Leisola: biochemistry
  9. Jim Mason: engineering physics
  10. Marcus Ross: geoscience
  11. John Sanford: plant genetics
  12. Jonathan Sarfati: chemistry
  13. Emil Silvestru: geology
  14. Horace Skipper: soil microbiology
  15. Tas Walker: mechanical engineering
Three of these people (Walker, Harwood, and Burgess) can be removed from this list as they are engineers, and as such are not offering informed, authoritative opinions. Mason can be added to this list as his professional background after completion of his PhD was not cosmology, but defence electronics.

Sarfatis’ background is in physical chemistry, which again means he’s not speaking authoritatively in areas such as evolutionary biology, or cosmology. Hartnett’s areas of expertise are listed as on the CMI webpage as physics and cosmology, but given that his research interests (from the CMI webpage) are listed as “the development of ultra-stable cryocooled microwave oscillators based on a sapphire crystal, ultra-low-noise radar and ultra-stable optical cavities for advanced optical clocks” it would appear that he is an experimental physicist first and cosmologist second.

Catchpole and Batten, while having backgrounds in areas related to the life scientists (plant physiology and horticulture) are not evolutionary biologists. Skipper’s research interests are “microbes that benefit plant growth”, an area which by his own admission is of limited relevance to evolutionary biology: “In my years of research on biological nitrogen fixation with emphasis on soybeans and cowpeas, evolution was not a factor in our studies.” Carter’s background in marine biology is hardly as impressive as it would appear given that his doctoral work was in cnidarian fluorescent proteins. Borger’s background is absent from the CMI website, but some searching shows that it would appear to be in pharmacology, which hardly makes him an expert in evolutionary biology.

Ross’s doctoral degree is in environmental science, with a master’s degree in palaeontology, which would make him one of the few on the list whose post-graduate studies are in areas directly relevant to the subjects being discussed. Likewise, Silvestru is a geologist with experience in karst sedimentology, making him an expert in the geology of cave formation. Leisola, while hardly a leading figure in abiogenesis has a strong background in biochemistry, which would allow him to comment on the subject. Sanford has an excellent background in plant genetics, though more in the applied side of genetics, as evidenced by the fact his main claim to fame is the ‘gene gun’.

When critically examined, the list of fifteen scientists is less than impressive. Four of them are engineers, and not scientists, while one is a chemist. Another five, while having backgrounds in the life sciences (plant physiology, marine biology, pharmacology, microbiology) are not experts in evolutionary biology. That leaves only five people, Ross (geosciences), Hartnett (physics), Silvestru (geology), Leisola (biochemistry), and Sanford (genetics) who have backgrounds directly related to some of the subjects discussed in the video. Given that > 99% of biologists and geologist regard the evidence for evolution and an ancient Earth as being overwhelming, what anyone checking the claims made by these figures needs to find out is why an extreme minority view should be taken seriously.

Further problems come when we look at the eight areas on which these figures speak:
  • Natural Selection
  • Genetics and DNA
  • The Origin of Life
  • The Fossil Record
  • The Geologic Record
  • Radiometric Dating
  • Cosmology
  • Ethics and Morality
As none of the speakers are experts in evolutionary biology (natural selection), radiometric dating, or moral philosophy, there are only five out of eight areas where there are any speakers whose primary area of expertise allows them to even be considered as authoritative. When one looks further into the background of these five, serious barriers to taking their claims seriously emerge:

Sanford’s claims about genetic entropy are not taken seriously by respected population geneticists, and a detailed examination of his thesis found serious problems with it:
...James Crow and other scholars have expressed the belief that human genomes are deteriorating, but that pertains to MODERN TIMES ONLY. They state clearly that the reason they believe the human genome is deteriorating is that the world, especially the more industrialized segment, is now running something like a mutation accumulation experiment, with few children per family, and with these children kept alive by medical interventions, and with new chemical mutagens around. They do not believe that human genomes were deteriorating before now. Thus, this in no way supports Dr. Sanford’s key claim that all genomes are deteriorating all the time. James Crow has gone on record to clarify that “My comments had to do with only the recent past (a few thousand years).” 
As I noted in STAN-4, in his first reference to Crow (p. 45), Dr. Sanford acknowledges that Crow bases his concern on recent relaxed natural selection. However, that crucial factor is omitted in his subsequent references to Crow, which gives the impression that Crow agrees with Sanford that mutation accumulation is a general problem for the human race. Over a hundred pages later, in pp. 171-172, Dr. Sanford selects a whole page’s worth of quotes from Crow, focusing on the most alarming sentences. Dr. Sanford’s commentary is that Crow’s speculations amount to “an amazing confession about the reality of genomic degeneration.” This implies that Crow’s work in some way supports Sanford’s contention that the human genome is inevitably declining, with or without natural selection in operation. That is grossly misleading, but as of March, 2013, Dr. Sanford still does not admit that. 
The same goes for most of the other references cited by Dr. Sanford where he cites all sorts of dire quotes about genomic deterioration. Either they, like Crow, are simply noting that if you turn off natural selection in humans you get mutation accumulation, or they are observing that whatever simplistic genetics model they are working with did not match reality (i.e. the models showed uncontrollable buildup of deleterious mutations). Dr. Sanford’s mistake is to believe the model instead of observed reality. The proper response for a physical scientist is to fix his model.
Marcus Ross has contributed positively to the scientific literature - his PhD centred on mososaur distribution in the Cretaceous - but his genuine scientific work does not provide any support for YEC. The disparity between his genuine scientific work and his YEC belief, as well as the very real problem that laypeople may think that his scientific work gives a patina of authority to his YEC views has been pointed out by other scientists. As developmental biologist P.Z. Myers notes:
Joe Meert also attended that same conference, and attended a talk by Marcus Ross. Ross is the fellow who got his degree from the University of Rhode Island for work on the distribution of mosasaurs in the Cretaceous — over 65 million years ago — while simultaneously claiming at creationist church meetings that the earth was young. He did the same thing here, presenting a credible science talk about “using ammonites as a correlation tool to put his mosasaur fossils in a stronger temporal framework”. His entire talk was about putting the data together to confirm the timing to many millions of years ago! So Meert confronted Ross directly in the Q&A
After his talk, I asked the following question; “How do you harmonize this work with your belief in a 6000 year old earth on which a year long global flood took place?”. He was immediately flustered and then a bit tersely replied “My talk had nothing to do with a global flood or a 6000 year old earth so your question is irrelevant”. I then pointed out the fact that indeed his talk was completely counter to his public statements/creationist position because he showed correlation between strata/fossils, millions of year ages, evolution of mosasaurs and hiatuses in the rock record. He then replied (and I am paraphrasing to the best of my recollection) “Ok, for everyone in the audience who doesn’t know it, yes I am a young earth creationist who believes the Earth is 6000 years old and a global flood took place. However, I am not speaking as a young earth creationist here. When I speak at young earth creationist meetings I use a different framework than when I speak at the Geological Society of America meeting.” 
Shorter Marcus Ross: I am a hypocrite and a liar. 
I’m sure that the creationists will cry that he had to do this, because science defends a dogmatic orthodoxy and won’t let them speak otherwise. This is totally false. If someone wants to defend heterodox ideas, they should state them openly, not hide them and present theories they do not believe so they can acquire false authority in a field, as Ross tries to do, or so that they can lie and pretend that they had convinced an audience, as Austin did. 
And that’s all Marcus Ross is trying to do. He’s trying to build up credibility by presenting all of the data and interpreting it in a rational framework (he learned something at URI!) at scientific meetings, only so he can turn around and spend that reputation to endorse laughable absurdities at creationist meetings. It is contemptible.
Physical chemist and philosopher Janet Stemwedel, makes similar observations about the disconnection between the genuine science that YECs with science degrees do, and the YEC views they advocate:
Porter notes (as does Marcus Ross in his comments on this blog) that the research by young earth creationists that is well received by the geological community is completely conventional, using only the inferential machinery of geoscience and making no use of the assumptions of young earth creationism. But presenting work (or leading a field trip) with a young earth creationist subtext (i.e., possibly these observations can be interpreted as evidence of a really big flood of some kind …) to an audience of geologists, and then spinning a lack of loud objections to a conclusion you didn’t explicitly present as if it were endorsement of that conclusion by the geologists is a dishonest move.
When they do real science, it provides no support for their YEC views, and it is regrettable that they would imply that it does. Certainly, if Ross has evidence that shows the Earth to be young, the geological column to be a figment of the imagination, and the fossil record to support special creation, it is telling that no such evidence can be found in the scientific literature, and has been accepted by his peers as authoritative.

Physicist and astronomer W.T. Bridgman, in a critical examination of Hartnett’s cosmological ideas comments on how he appears to be using his peer-reviewed publications to give publicity to his fringe views on cosmology:
Hartnett is apparently using these works to gain him credibility in the creationist community as a professionally-published cosmologist. In his creationist publications, he has invoked redshift quantization as evidence of Galactocentrism, a feature of his young-universe cosmology. Some graphics similar to those from earlier versions of Hartnett's papers appear in his book Starlight, Time and the New Physics. 
Since the advent of the Fast Fourier Transform and the availability of fast personal computers, the ability to compute the power spectral density (PSD) of a dataset has become much easier. Unfortunately, this increased ease of use does not come with an increased understanding of just what the PSD does. In cases with large amounts of low noise data, the PSD can identify well-defined frequencies in the data with relative ease. In other cases, such 'intuitive' understandings of the PSD can easily lead one astray. 
Hartnett makes numerous erroneous statements on properties of PSD, suggesting he is relying on his 'intuition' on how the PSD works instead of actually testing the claim. Most researchers, myself included, must demonstrate that our test protocols work for datasets of known content before making such grandiose claims when applying the test to datasets of unknown content. In the abstract for Paper I, Hartnett states that his results "indicate that this is a real effect and not some observational artifact." Yet he has apparently conducted no tests to determine which characteristics of his results are analysis artifacts.
Silvestru’s attempt to explain mass extinction in the fossil record via a global flood has not been accepted by mainstream palaeontologists, with old earth creationist Greg Neyman pointing out that:
Silvestru's model for the extinctions, with the global Flood of Noah, is unworkable, and does not even agree with other young earth studies.
Matti Leisola's work has been touted by special creationists such as Bill Dembski as providing support for intelligent design, but the truth is somewhat different. Steve Reuland notes:
Looking at the paper, you wouldn’t know that it’s a “pro-ID” paper at all because it contains not one shred of evidence in favor of ID, nor does it even try directly arguing for ID (compare this to the Meyer paper, which while riddled with errors, at least put forth pro-ID arguments). On what basis could it possibly be a pro-ID paper? If it weren’t for the fact that Matti Leisola is a creationist, there would be no reason to believe it was intended as such at all. 
Nevertheless, Dembski apparently thinks that it’s a pro-ID paper on the basis of its content, presumably because he conflates rational design methodology as used in protein engineering with ID. Of course this is nonsense, and in reality the paper is merely a redundant review of the current state of protein engineering techniques, with most of the space dedicated to the very long list of successes enjoyed by evolutionary methods. There are much better reviews out there, but nevertheless Leisola and Turunen give a decent (if too limited) overview of directed evolution experiments. Then they proceed to argue that rational design methods will start working better once we have more detailed knowledge of the mechanism by which the primary sequence of a protein determines its structure and function. This is an obvious and noncontroversial conclusion, so one is still left wondering how this could possibly be spun as “pro-ID”. I’ll say more about that in a minute, but first let me give a quick overview of the state of protein engineering as it exists today.

There are generally two ways one can go about trying to engineer a protein. The first is to use what is commonly called “rational design”. As the name implies, this simply means taking what you know about the structure and function of a protein and trying to predict which changes you need to make in order to get a desired result. The problem with this approach is, first of all, that you need detailed knowledge of the protein’s structure and function. Not all proteins have had their structures solved, and many of their functions are either poorly characterized or not characterized at all. Obtaining this knowledge is an expensive and time consuming process. And secondly, no one really knows what the exact relationship is between sequence, structure, and function. Even if you know everything there is to know about a protein’s current structure and function, it is very difficult to predict what’s going to happen when you start changing things around.

So protein engineers employ a second technique known as “directed evolution”. Again, the name tells you essentially what the technique involves: you apply random mutagenesis to whole or part of your protein, you screen for the properties you’re looking for, and you repeat the process as necessary. In other words, you use the Darwinian mechanism, the very mechanism that ID advocates have spent the last decade fruitlessly arguing is incapable of doing the very things we see it doing in the lab. And as it turns out, directed evolution methods are generally superior to rational design methods, so much so that a number of successful biotech companies such as Diversa and Applied Molecular Evolution use directed evolution as their primary engineering tool.
As for Leisola's comments on abiogenesis, two things need to be remembered. The first is that the truth of common descent is independent of abiogenesis. The second is that mainstream scientists freely acknowledge that we have no robust theory of abiogenesis. It is disingenuous of special creationists both to imply that difficulties with the latter invalidates the former, and that current difficulties in determining a plausible mechanism for abiogenesis mean none exists. Given the advances that have been made by genuine, respected origin-of-life researchers, it would be a foolhardy special creationist who claimed that a robust theory of abiogenesis will never be found.

Given this, it is impossible to believe that this will be an authoritative examination of the issues given that one third are either not scientists, or have a background completely outside of the subjects being discussed, one third have backgrounds generally related to the life sciences but are hardly authorities in evolutionary biology, while the remaining five, genuine questions have been raised over their anti-evolution arguments, or the relevance of their genuine scientific work to their religiously-motivated special creationism.

Is it Objective?

The DVD is produced by an extreme YEC organisation Creation Ministries International, so there is no question that this is not a disinterested, objective presentation. Damningly, when one looks at their statement of faith, they declare that:
Facts are always subject to interpretation by fallible people who do not possess all information. By definition, therefore, no interpretation of facts in any field, including history and chronology, can be valid if it contradicts the scriptural record.
CMI of course simply assume a priori that a literal reading of the creation narratives is the default exegetical option, a view which is impossible to honesty reconcile with the first sentence in their statement of faith. Biblical facts, likewise are subject to interpretation by fallible people who do not possess all information, a view which if consistently applied would negate their absolutist, fundamentalist reading of the creation narratives.

Their claim that interpretation of facts cannot contradict the scriptural record is pure fideism, and is impossible to reconcile with the scientific method:

Put bluntly, anyone who assents to this statement of faith has lost the right to be called a scientist. This alone makes it impossible to view this DVD as anything other than fundamentalist apologetics, rather than a sober, scientific examination of the facts.

Study guide or indoctrination? A critical look at the DVD study guide.

While one needs to purchase the DVD, the study guide is freely available, and allows you to further assess its credibility. As the following points selected from the guide show, the DVD is likely to reflect gross distortion of the facts:
As some of these claims have been debunked for some years, it is clear that their 'research' was anything but robust. When the study guide to the DVD is so deeply, profoundly flawed, it is entirely reasonable to conclude that the DVD will not be an honest, informed discussion of the facts.


It is unreasonable to expect every believer interested in evolution and creation to obtain specialist scientific qualifications. However, critical thinking skills should be acquired by everyone in order to properly asses material aimed at the educated layperson. As we've seen, when we employ these tools to see whether a YEC video presentation is likely to be trustworthy, they show that it is quite likely to be error-ridden, partisan, and less than honest in examining the evidence.

For the believer wanting authoritative, informed reliable information on origins, the following sources are highly recommended. Coming from conservative Christian sources maintained by those who respect mainstream science, they are authoritative, while sensitive to the concerns of believers. One can hope that these will be the go-to sources for those looking for information.