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.

The physicist in question is John Hartnett, an experimental physicist at the University of Western Australia, whose research interests include "ultra low-noise radar and ultra high stability cryogenic microwave oscillators and clocks based on a pure single-crystal sapphire resonators." He is also a YEC heavily involved in the pseudoscientific organisation Creation Ministries International, and as I mentioned in an earlier post, one of the people involved in the YEC propaganda video "Evolution's Achilles' Heels". Needless to say, the opinion of a YEC experimental physicist carries zero weight when it comes to his criticisms of evolutionary biology. The scientist taking apart Hartnett's claims is respected computer scientist and mathematician Jeffrey Shallit [1], who maintains a strong interest in evolutionary biology. [2]

Shallit begins his criticism of a recent blog post by Hartnett by noting:
Hartnett says, "If you say evolution happens, it is disingenuous, because you really mean that natural selection and mutations happen. This is part of operational biological science. But Darwinian goo-to-you evolution does not happen!" 
This is misleading in a number of ways. First, that's not what is meant by "evolution happens". Evolution is caused by many different kinds of processes, including sexual selection, genetic drift, founder effects, and others not mentioned by Hartnett. Second, biological evolution is generally understood to include claims like common descent.
Hartnett's assertion not only is misleading, as Shallit points out, but represents one of the fundamental blunders YECs make when criticising evolution, namely failing to differentiate between evolution as fact (common descent) and evolution as theory (the modern synthetic theory). We know that evolution has happened, given that multiple lines of evidence from palaeontology, comparative anatomy, developmental biology, molecular biology, comparative genomics, and biogeography demonstrate the reality of common descent. Outside of a tiny fundamentalist rump of evolution denialists whose objection is based purely on a biblicist distortion of the creation narratives, there is no doubt in the scientific community that common descent is real. Hartnett's failure to appreciate this fact does not make it vanish.

Hartnett's use of the bogus term 'operational biological science' also betrays the usual YEC distortion of scientific epistemology, with their use of the terms 'operational science' which were invented by YECs as a means of creating a hierarchy of sciences, with operational science privileged over historical science, in a desperate attempt to delegitimise the disciplines that refute the concept of a young universe. Certainly, this dichotomy is not recognised by credible philosophers of science, and Hartnett's repeated use of it betrays the tendentious nature of his argument:
Hartnett feels persecuted: "Last year I gave a lecture at my university “8 Reasons Why Evolution is Foolish” and after the event I got all sorts of negative comments coming back through my line manager. Apparently geologists and biologists (read ‘evolutionists’) complained to the Dean of the Faculty of Science, that I was even asking questions, let alone criticizing the science, in areas of biology, geology, cosmology etc., and that it looks bad for the university. It only looks bad because I was questioning their religion of science, not operational, experimental science."
Given that Hartnett is completely unqualified to comment on evolutionary biology, his peers who actually work in the earth and life scientists and unlike him are very much qualified to comment negatively on his ill-informed attacks on their discipline. That Hartnett chose to play the martyr card rather than provide a substantive defence of his claims is unfortunately standard operating procedure for YECs who seem curiously allergic to the cut and thrust of science when forced to defend their pseudoscience, a point Shallit makes forcefully:
Look, if you can't stand criticism, why are you in science? Criticism, even harsh criticism, is a standard part of the scientific process. Hasn't Hartnett ever attended a science conference? And if you think you're critiquing evolution by bringing up long-debunked arguments like "circular reasoning" is used to date fossils, then you're not doing science, you're just being an idiot. When you say "Information comes from an intelligent mind, not by random processes", you're just demonstrating that you know nothing at all about information theory. 
Hartnett shouldn't wonder why he gets no respect for his anti-evolution rants. It's because his arguments are worthless, ignorant, and have been debunked long ago. That's not the behavior of a scientist; it's the behavior of a religious fundamentalist. Big surprise.
The irony of Hartnett attacking mainstream scientists for believing in a 'religion of science' when his attacks on science are motivated by fundamentalist religion in its purest, most noxious form hardly needs to be stressed.


1. Shallit will be familiar to some Christadelphians for his dissection of the anti-evolutionary claims of John Bilello.
2. Shallit has co-authored a paper with Wesley Elsberry neatly skewering ID mathematician William Dembski's 'complex specified information'