Thursday, 30 April 2015

Why the ID Community is not taken seriously - Part 1: Stephen Meyer

It’s been ten years since Justice John E Jones III reminded us in his Kitzmiller v. Dover trial verdict that intelligent design is not science, something that anyone remotely acquainted with mainstream science would recognise. Despite this, many in our community still appeal to the discredited arguments of the ID community.

Discredited is not too strong a word. Take the philosopher Stephen Meyer. His arguments have been well and truly eviscerated by evolutionary biologists. His 2004 article “The origin of biological information and the higher taxonomic categories” which was smuggled into a peer-reviewed journal by a creationist sympathiser without proper peer-review [1] was criticised by palaeontologist Alan Gishlick, evolutionary biologist Nick Matzke, and marine biologist Wesley R. Elsberry who noted how Meyer “merely construct[ed] a rhetorical edifice out of omission of relevant facts, selective quoting, bad analogies, knocking down strawmen, and tendentious interpretations.” [2]

Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Five Characteristics of Science Denialism

Even setting evolution aside, basic geology disproves creationism

Even setting evolution aside, basic geology disproves creationism

David R Montgomery, University of Washington

In the ongoing conflict between science and creationism, evolution is usually a main point of contention. The idea that all life on Earth evolved from a common ancestor is a major problem for creationists. As a geologist, though, I think that the rocks beneath our feet offer even better arguments against creationism. For the creationist model doesn’t square with what you can see for yourself. And this has been known since before Darwin wrote a word about evolution.

Tuesday, 28 April 2015

How 'Historical Science' and 'Observational Science' both confirm the Earth is ancient

One frequently-peddled YEC lie is the assertion that there are two classes of science, 'historical science' and 'observational science', with the latter being trumpeted as the only true science. As I have posted elsewhere, this is a bogus distinction which is not recognised by mainstream scientists, but rather is a desperate YEC attempt to disparage geology which confirms the reality of an ancient Earth. Anyone who refers to 'historical science' and 'observational science' as if these distinctions actually existed is betraying both an uncritical acceptance of YEC propaganda, and a superficial grasp of scientific epistemology.

However, even if one accepts this bogus distinction for the sake of argument, a 2010 paper examining  crustal plate motion in south west Asia shows that geological slip rates determine from radiometric dating agree quite well with those directly measured by GPS methods, meaning that the results obtained from  'historical science' agree with those from 'observational science'. In other words, there is no 'historical science' or 'observational science'. There is just science, and what it does show is the utter falsity of the belief in a young Earth.

When YEC errors are publicly called out - the Stone Tool saga part IV

I've repeatedly commented on what happens when someone wades into a technical discussion in which they have no expertise or qualifications, and embarrass themselves and their faith tradition by speaking nonsense on the subject. Sadly, we've seen this happen in our community when a YEC waded into a discussion on stone tools, one in which he was definitely not qualified to offer an informed, expert opinion, and made anti-evolutionary arguments based on a mathematical error. A somewhat more informed poster observed both the YEC's posts at the website hosting the original article, and a science denialist Facebook group that the YEC frequents, and duly called him out for his many errors. This is what I mean by bringing our community into disrepute by endorsing pseudoscience. The comment follows:
MT, your comments here and on the Facebook page where you’re discussing this show you can use a calculator, but also show you don’t understand the actual subject of this article and the PlosOne article.
Firstly a mathematical error does not mean the PlosOne article is pseudoscience; the error to which you pointed is merely a calculation in an illustration of the evidence (in which calcuations are estimates based on assumptions, using “maximum figures”, not the figures actually represented in the data). It is not an argument on which the scientific case is based. On the other hand I can see plenty of pseudoscience in that Facebook forum, and you’re clearly responsible for some of it.

Monday, 27 April 2015

"Of what use is half an eye?" Plenty, actually. It's better than no eye at all

One of the classic one-liners employed by evolution denialists is "what use is half an eye?" Closely related to this is the claim that "there are no half-formed organs" in nature. Evidently, the evolution denialists have never encountered the nautilus. Here it is:

"Nautilus pompilius (head)" by © Hans Hillewaert. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Look at its eye. Unlike its fellow cephalopods, its eye does not have a lens. Instead, its eye has to make do with a pinhole lens:

An eye that lacks a lens definitely counts as a half-formed eye, but it is one that definitely works, and an eye with a pinhole lens is definitely much better than no eye at all.

Trillions of Stone Tools - a commenter rebuts a YEC spin

It is hardly surprising that YECs will do anything to try to wave away the overwhelming evidence for an ancient human and prehuman existence on this planet. The comments at Naturalis Historia with reference to the error in the PLoS ONE article show this YEC tendency in clear sight. This comment in particular caught my eye. It began by pointing out that one of the commenter who raised the question of errors in the PLoS ONE article was a YEC, then continued:
He’s currently discussing the calculation error in this paper at a creationist Facebook group (here:, where credulous readers will interpret it as a mighty blow against evolution. Unless they make some effort to look for your blog (which they’ll need to do, since Mark has not provided a link to it) members of the group will be left with the impression that Mark was the first to notice this error and that the article has been removed as a direct consequence of his intervention.
Mark is careful not to inform his readers that the error was already picked up by a commenter on your blog more than a month ago, that you responded to the pickup as soon as possible, and that he is therefore late to the party. Additionally, Mark has concealed from his readers the fact that you have followed up your original reply to him, explaining why the article will now remain on your blog.
In private correspondence with me, Mark has claimed that the identification of this error ‘removes one faulty argument in favour of evolution.’ I do not find his claim credible.

Sunday, 26 April 2015

Stone Tools in Africa and the Falsity of YEC - A Comment

Earlier, I commented on two posts by the biology professor Joel Duff on how the density of stone tool artifacts posed a major problem for the YEC belief that humans have been on the Earth for only 6000 years. Duff's article in turn was based in part on a 2015 PLoS ONE article by Foley and Lahr, which as some commenters noted had some problems. Duff acknowledged this, and revised the post. However, as Duff pointed out to one commenter, the stone artifact problem remains a massive problem for special creationists.
I did take the post down until I could revise it some. I have removed the specific numbers that are a problem. While the estimates could but are not necessarily wrong there isn’t enough support for their pyramid comparison in terms of real numbers. But I have examined plenty of papers on this topic and there is no doubt that that stone artifacts are astoundingly commonplace in many places in Africa. This is a serous problem to the young earth timeline. Thanks for pointing out the potential errors in that original research. Science isn’t always perfect but there are many independent people working on artificts in many locations of Africa. Many of these include thousands of hours of observations that leave no doubt about the amazing density and diversity of stone artifacts. 
This is a classic example of the scientific method in action - errors are acknowledged, and positions refined in light of better evidence. It stands in clear contrast to the YEC position where a literal reading of the Bible is privileged above all evidence, all evidence to the contrary is ignored, lying is rife and even when corrected, long-refuted positions are still advanced.

Duff's comment deserves to be highlighted again:

But I have examined plenty of papers on this topic and there is no doubt that that stone artifacts are astoundingly commonplace in many places in Africa. This is a serious problem to the young earth timeline.

One trusts that YECs would not have the intellectual and moral dishonesty to try to spin this into a refutation of mainstream science and evidence for a young earth.

Saturday, 25 April 2015

Ignorance without insight - the Dunning-Kruger Effect

The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it? - Jer 17:9 
The first principle is that you must not fool yourself--and you are the easiest person to fool. So you have to be very careful about that. After you've not fooled yourself, it's easy not to fool other scientists. You just have to be honest in a conventional way after that. - Richard Feynman. Caltech Commencement Address 1974 
In 1995, McArthur Wheeler walked into two Pittsburgh banks and robbed them in broad daylight, with no visible attempt at disguise. He was arrested later that night, less than an hour after videotapes of him taken .from surveillance cameras were broadcast on the 11 o'clock news. When police later showed him the surveillance tapes, Mr. Wheeler stared in incredulity. "But I wore the juice," he mumbled. Apparently, Mr. Wheeler was under the impression that rubbing one's face with lemon juice rendered it invisible to videotape cameras.  Kruger, Justin; Dunning, David (1999). "Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One's Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments" Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (1999) 77:1121–34
Our community often quotes Jeremiah 17:9 as a proof text for the view that human nature is ineradicably evil. It is puzzling then that those who quote it fail to consider the implication that that human reasoning likewise will lead us astray unless people take the time to cultivate critical thinking skills, and recognise the fact that the human mind is adept at self-deception in all areas, not just moral. The example of the stupid criminal who seriously thought that a layer of lemon juice would prevent surveillance cameras from recording his image may seem an extreme example, but is is hardly any worse in type than that of a layperson who pronounces himself competent not only to comment on highly technical disciplines well outside of his narrow area of professional expertise, but to declare that the consensus view in that area is utterly wrong. Admittedly, the former person will end up in prison for his lack of insight into his incompetence while the latter at worst will merely embarrass himself in the eyes of those who actually understand the subject, but in both cases, we have people who not only are utterly incompetent, but are completely without insight into this fact.

Friday, 24 April 2015

Smashing an icon of intelligent design - the evolution of the blood clotting cascade

Intelligent design advocates claim that biochemical systems such as the vertebrate blood clotting cascade are too complex to have evolved. Such claims betray considerable ignorance of the fact that mainstream scientific explanations for the evolution of the vertebrate blood clotting pathway exist. Russell Doolittle, the respected biochemist who literally wrote the book on the subject provides an accessible overview of the subject, and in the process comprehensively demolishes the ID claim. For those who have ears to hear, mainstream science sounds the death-knell for the pseudoscience of intelligent design, and shows that there is simply no such thing as 'irreducible complexity'.

There are too many stone tools in Africa to be the result of only 6000 years of stone tool manufacture

The earliest stone tools could be as old as three million years, a number which while not even being 0.1% of the total age of the Earth is still a fantastically long length of time. Given that stone tools are extremely durable, one would expect a considerable volume of stone tools to be lying on the surface of the undisturbed parts of Africa as a direct result of millions of years of stone tool manufacture. Conversely, if the human race was only six thousand years old, then the volume of stone tools produced would be relatively small. Unsurprisingly, when we look at stone tool density in Africa, we find it to be far too high to be the result of only a few thousand years of human industry. We now have yet another line of evidence that directly refutes the assertion that the human race, and the Earth are only a few thousand years old.

EDIT: Joel Duff points out that there are problems with the original PLos ONE article and has emended his blog article accordingly. This post has been edited to reflect this. The conclusion however is not affected. Any YEC who argues otherwise has the burden of proof which involves considerably more than prattling about 'arithmetic errors' on a science denialist website.

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

How science shook the faith of a YEC - for the better

Arguably the most pernicious aspect of young earth creationism is that it is one of the best ways to generate atheists. When you elevate denial of an ancient Earth and common descent to the status of inspired scripture, and demonise the reasoned, intelligent examination of the natural world by calling it the "wisdom of the world", you end up creating a generation of believers who when they enter the real world and discover the reality of evolution and an ancient Earth will take their faith tradition at its world when it says that one must choose between science or religion, and abandon their faith. As Jesus noted in Mark 9:42, anyone who causes a young one to stumble is placing themselves in a less than comfortable spot.

Thankfully, as I have noted previously, not every young person moves from indoctrinated YEC to embittered atheist as a result of discovering that YEC is poor science and even worse theology. A recent BioLogos blog post carries the deeply encouraging story of Connor Mooneyhan, a young man who grew up in a YEC world, but managed to survive the crisis of faith that inevitably comes when intelligent young people eventually confront the evidence that YEC reality denialists desperately try to hide from their flock. As similar crises of faith do occur in our community, these anecdotes show why ECACP and other similar Christadelphian sites serve a valuable role in our community, one that has been shamefully neglected by magazines such as The Christadelphian which as I have shown peddle science denialism and fundamentalism, and thereby contribute to such future crises of faith.

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

How special creationism has damaged the evangelical (and Christadelphian) mind

Evangelical historian of science Mark Noll's landmark book The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind sought to find the reason why evangelical Christianity had ceded the arts and science to the secular world and completely neglected to cultivate a life of the mind. Noll noted that one of the main problems that had lobotomised the evangelical world was creation science. 

The parallels between the Evangelical community and ours on this subject are clear and disturbing, and can be readily seen when we look at the degeneration of our community from the high-water mark of the early 20th century, when C.C. Walker freely acknowledged that if science confirmed the reality of large-scale morphological change in the fossil record, we would need to alter our understanding of Genesis, to the present, when YEC nonsense graces the front cover of The Christadelphian.

Sunday, 12 April 2015

Lucy and the baboon bone - or why it is critical to read the entire story.

Arguably the most famous fossil discovery in paleoanthropology is that of 'Lucy', a remarkably complete example of Australopithecus afarensis. Lucy is not the only specimen of Australopithecus afarensis that we have, but given its state of preservation, it position in paleoanthropology is eminently justified. 

Its capacity to surprise however has not diminished over the 40 years since its discovery. Colin Barras, writing in the popular science magazine New Scientist reports on an intriguing discovery that one of the vertebral bones may indeed be that of a gelada, a close relative of the baboon. If confirmed, this shows that unlike special creationism, which never admits its mistakes, science is inherently self-correcting. 

Saturday, 11 April 2015

The dangers of Google University - yet another reason why YEC claims on evolution cannot be trusted

The term 'Google University' or 'Google PhD' is frequently used by scholars to refer to a layperson who has confused the information accumulated from an uncritical online search with genuine expertise in that area. Usually, such laypeople do so in order to justify a fiercely-held opinion in which they have s significant emotional stake, such as climate change denialism, young earth creationism, or vaccine denialism. The sheer volume of information they have gathered often grants them the status of an 'expert' to other lay members of the community in which they belong, but what they and the community (which invariably is closed, allows no dissenting views and is self-reinforcing) forget is that mere accumulation of information is not the same thing as genuine scholarly expertise.

Behind this phenomena is the internet, which not only has ensured that the means of information dissemination is no long restricted to a select few with printing presses or television stations but to everyone with a website, but allowed people access to an incredible volume of information which previously would have been inaccessible to those not able to access university libraries. However, the need to critically appraise such information, and have the necessary intellectual background to properly understand technical information still remains, irrespective of whether information is gleaned over a pile of yellowing books in a library, or via an online search. This is where the graduate of Google University fails, by failing to have the technical background required to understand the nuances of some highly technical university, and uncritically accepting information from dubious sources if it confirms their prejudices.

Thursday, 9 April 2015

Evolutionary medicine (or why nothing in medicine makes sense except in the light of evolution)

There are many reasons why I accept the fact of evolution. One of the most powerful reasons for me as a doctor is that the evidence for evolution from human anatomy, genetics, and developmental biology is beyond rational dispute. Add to that the considerable utility evolution has for rational medical practice, and the case for the importance of evolution for medical studies is rock-solid. Evolutionary geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky famously said that nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution. The same can readily be said about medicine.

Emily Thompson, writing at the Panda's Thumb blog notes how the importance of evolutionary biology for medicine is increasingly being recognised:

Monday, 6 April 2015

The Christadelphian magazine and evolution. Part 2 - Robert Talbot

The second attack by The Christadelphian on evolutionary biology that focuses primarily on the science comes from Robert Talbot, a retired scientist from industry whose professional background, given his references to having worked in peroxide chemistry, would appear to be in chemistry or biochemistry. As with too many Christadelphian anti-evolutionists, his defence of special creation is based on the special creationist staple of the argument from personal incredulity, as well as misrepresentation of the basics of scientific epistemology, and allegations that the theory of evolution has been promoted fraudulently.

Underlying this, as with the attack by science educator Allan Harrison, is a failure to differentiate between evolution as fact and evolution as theory, and a conflation of evolution and abiogenesis. Furthermore, there is the implicit appeal to personal authority as a scientist, one which carries no weight given that scientific truth is not determined by mere appeal to authority. Given that the overwhelming majority of life scientists who have examined the evidence agree that it supports an evolutionary reading of natural history, one is entitled to ask why Talbot’s minority opinion should be given credence.

Sunday, 5 April 2015

What happens when a YEC with a physics degree strays outside of his limited area of competence?

The answer is simple. He demonstrates that he is woefully out of his depth when it comes to a subject such as evolutionary biology which is completely outside of his area of professional competence, and makes the sort of elementary blunders and mistakes that have been repeatedly called out and corrected. Par for the course for YECs, who make an idol of their human distortion of Bible and science, and ironically for those who constantly rail against the 'wisdom of this world' end up placing their faith and trust in a belief system that owes everything to human error and nothing to the Bible.

Crank Magnetism and Climate Change Denialism

Scratch a YEC, and odds are you'll find that he's also a climate change denialist. There's also a good chance he will believe vaccines cause autism, endorses homeopathy and naturopathy, and is a germ theory denialist. The phenomenon is called crank magnetism, and describes the not uncommon phenomenon where believers in one crank idea will also believe in many other fringe ideas. Given the multiple cognitive biases present in YECs that blind them to the flaws in YEC, it is hardly surprising that they will likewise fall for climate change denialism, another fringe view rejected by the overwhelming majority of qualified, competent scientists.

YECs are notorious for citing scientific research as evidence for their fringe views which in reality provides zero support for their position. The creationist abuse of Mary Schweitzer's discovery of soft tissue in dinosaur bones as I pointed out in the previous post is a classic example of this YEC habit of misrepresenting scientific research. The same habit of distorting research can be seen with climate denialists. An excellent example of this can be seen in the distortion of research by climate scientist Bjorn Stevens. At MediaMatters blog, Denise Robbins notes:

How Young Earth Creationists Distorted Mary Schweitzer's "Dinosaur Soft Tissue" Discovery

It's been over ten years since palaeontologist Mary Schweitzer's discovery that under certain conditions, soft tissue could be preserved in fossilised dinosaur. [1] Given that the last non-avian dinosaurs went extinct at the end of the Cretaceous 66 million years ago, this amazing discovery means that soft tissue preservation over tens of millions of years, under the right circumstances, is possible. 

Unsurprisingly, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and her findings were challenged by other scientists [2] who asserted that the soft tissue was more likely to be bacterial biofilms rather than preserved dinosaur tissue. However, that claim itself was challenged by other authors who stated that "biomolecular studies on soft-tissue extracts from fossil vertebrates have shown that the proposed alternative interpretation of primary soft-tissue as microbial biofilms is unlikely, biofilms may play a critical role in the preservation process." [3] Adding further weight to Schweitzer's original discovery was the fact that bone monoclonal antibodies bound to the dinosaur material. [4] Finally, Schweitzer advanced a mechanism for the preservation of soft tissue structures over millions of years of time in which iron and oxygen chemistry "contributes to preservation in deep time, perhaps by both free-radical-mediated fixation and anti-microbial activity". [5]

However, nowhere in reputable mainstream scientific discussion of the the question of dinosaur soft tissue preservation will you find any genuine scientists claiming that the existence of soft tissue proves that these fossils were buried thousands of years old, and therefore the Earth is young. The only people advancing this claim are the pseudoscientists from the YEC organisations such as CMI, whose fact-free tirades have lamentably been uncritically accepted by poorly informed YEC laypeople in our community who seem to prefer conspiracy theories and pseudoscience to scientific truth.

Saturday, 4 April 2015

The Lost World of Genesis One - Companion Posts to the BioLogos Book Club

John Walton's book The Lost World of Genesis One has for many readers opened their eyes both to the ancient Near Eastern world in which the authors and audience of the creation narrative lived, and the need to avoid misunderstanding the texts by reading them as a 'how-to" manual on how to make a universe, an approach that leads to the gross theological and scientific error of YEC. Currently, BioLogos is running a series of posts to accompany their spring book club accompanying Walton's book. Posts will be updated as new entries arrive.

Friday, 3 April 2015

Meet the latest member of the human evolutionary family tree - 'Little Foot'

Meet 'Little Foot', an Australopithecine discovered in the Sterkfontein cave system near Johannesburg in South Africa. 'Little Foot' was actually found by palaeoanthropologist Ronald Clarke nearly 20 years ago, but due to the fact that the skeleton is embedded in calcified rock, removing it has been a painstakingly slow process. What we do know is that it is one of the most complete hominin fossils to date, with around 90% of the skeleton intact.

We also know that it is quite old. Clarke and his colleagues have published an article in Nature [1] in which they state that 'Little Foot' at around 3.67 million years old. If this date is confirmed, this would place 'Little Foot' on a line ancestral to our species. Irrespective of the date, not only do we have yet another transitional fossil given its primitive skull, its more modern hands, and feet with ape-like and human-like features [2] but we have an astonishingly complete fossil. Special creationists who still peddle the claim that human evolution is based on a  handful of bone shards are hopelessly out of date. The genomic and fossil data confirm the reality of human-ape common ancestry, and show that our ancestry stretches back into the remote past, facts which our community can no longer honestly ignore.


1. Granger D.E. et al "New cosmogenic burial ages for Sterkfontein Member 2 Australopithecus and Member 5 Oldowan" Nature (2015) doi:10.1038/nature14268.

2. Balter M "'Little Foot' Fossil Could Be Human Ancestor" ScienceDaily 14th March 2014

Thursday, 2 April 2015

Fideism and the Bible do not mix - how not to read the Bible literally

The tired aphorism which states that fish don't have a word for water - the reason being that it is so pervasive that its presence is simply assumed - does however describe perfectly the fundamentalist attitude to their belief that a plain reading of the text is the default option. It is simply assumed, taken for granted, and never justified. Typical of this thought is this assertion by a Christadelphian fideist:
Firstly, it is not my ‘interpretation’, it is the plain narrative of the text and the evidence in it is in clear sight for everyone to read.
One of course could say the same thing about the instances of demon possession in the Gospels. The mainstream Christian who believes that demons are supernatural entities that can possess people and cause disease can readily appeal to these passages to justify his belief. Furthermore,in response to the Christadelphian who offers a rational explanation for them, he could justifiably claim that it is "not my ‘interpretation’, it is the plain narrative of the text and the evidence in it is in clear sight for everyone to read." Needless to say, it is special pleading by the fundamentalist Christadelphian to claim that his literal hermeneutic applies only to Genesis.