Posts Tagged ‘answers in genesis’

The seduction of compatibilism

August 24, 2008

Dr. PZ Myers writes about a New York Times article about a science teacher in Florida with the gumption to teach evolution in the face of religious opposition. It’s a fascinating story, highlighting the teacher’s uncertainty of how to teach evolution without alienating the students, and the obstinance on the part of some of the students when faced directly with the evidence. The article also exposes the horrifying degree to which community groups attempt to undermine science education. Mention is made of a pastor who handed out copies of the Answers in Genesis tract “Evolution Exposed” to graduating seniors; the pamphlets, of course, ended up circulating in biology class.

As I will begin teaching a biology class of my own for the first time in a few weeks (gasp!), this stuff is especially terrifying to me.

The Pharyngula post, however, does not deal exclusively with the obstacles thrown in the paths of science educators. Rather, it ravages what Prof. Richard Dawkins has called the “seduction approach:” avoiding any offense of students’ faith by assuring them that evolution is compatible with religion. It certainly seems like a sensible approach. One of the creationists’ most handy tricks is to convince believers that accepting evolution leads to atheism, and is therefore a one-way ticket to hellfire. The most obvious counter to this tactic, it would seem, is to contradict it: evolution does not lead necessarily to atheism. This counterattack has the added benefit of being demonstrably true, as there are numerous religious believers who have no beef with evolution, including the oft-cited biologist and Roman Catholic Ken Miller, and the Pope himself.

Dr. Myers, like Prof. Dawkins, has no time for the compatibilist approach, and for good reason. He writes of the ubiquitous call to respect people’s beliefs in this country, and how that exemption from criticism of religion allows creationists to poison the well against evolution. He calls this “the dark evil gnawing at the heart of the American public,” and continues:

It’s an effective evil, too, since most people cower before it and fear to declare it the bane of public education. Even many who don’t believe are reluctant to call it out — it will antagonize the believers, they say, they won’t accept the all-important proximate message of science if we alienate them from their precious myths and superstitions. So we continue this game of science proponents edging delicately around the central issue while the advocates of religion feel no constraint at all, and attack reason by hammering our children with unrepentant, unapologetic lunacy.

Because religion is exempt from criticism, creationists are allowed to preach their ascientific rubbish to our children without rebuke, while those trying to teach good science come under fire. Dr. Myers holds, and I emphatically agree, that it’s time for the critical curtain to fall. Religious claims must be subject to the same rigorous scrutiny that we bring to bear on all other ideas, be they scientific, economic, political, etc. Then, and only then, will creationism die its deserved death, as alchemy and geocentrism have already done.



June 21, 2008

This is great stuff. As you know, Ken Ham recently spoke at the Pentagon. PZ Myers lamented the fact on his blog, Pharyngula. In the post, he called Mr. Ham a “wackaloon.”


Well, seeing as Mr. Ham is working to systematically destroy good science, you’d think he’d be used to insults like that by now. In fact, it seems to me that “wackaloon” should be on the gentler side of the names slung at him. However, judging by this post on his Answers in Genesis blog, he’s made of softer stuff than you would think. He lambastes Dr. Myers for his intolerance. (I would say he’s right about that: Dr. Myers is deeply intolerant. He refuses to tolerate attacks on science and science education. So do I, for what it’s worth.)

Dr. Myers responds in top form with this post. Therein, he encourages people to add whatever colorful insults they can think of in the comment section.

Now, I have said before that I do not go in for personal attacks and insults, and I am going to hold to that here. If someone’s position is demonstrably wrong, you should be able to point that out by refuting their argument, not by attacking them personally. So, rather than insult Mr. Ham, I’ll just say this. His arguments are stupid. His scientific understanding is trumped by that of your average middle school student. By his own admission he is not really interested in science, because he holds that the Bible is literal and foundational truth, and anything that contradicts it must be false, even if that which contradicts it is the whole of reality.

Does anyone listen to him who does not already believe that the Bible is inerrant? If so, things are worse for humanity than I thought.

E. coli evolutionary breakthrough

June 19, 2008

This is old news, so you can feel free to move on if you already know about it. (Unless you want to see me tear into Answers in Genesis at the end!)

Dr. Richard Lenski of Michigan State University (my mother’s alma mater! Represent!) has been observing 12 populations of E. coli bacteria for twenty years. Recently, one of these populations did something remarkable: it evolved the ability to metabolize a nutrient that is normally unusable by E. coli.

This is only the beginning of the excitement, however. When Lenski revived samples of that particular population that he had frozen periodically over the course of the experiment, he found that only the samples frozen after about 20,000 generations, or halfway through the experiment’s duration, evolved the new trait again. Some presumably unlikely mutation occurred which “primed” that population to evolve the trait. The other 11 populations have not evolved the trait, and presumably will not unless a similar mutation occurs within their numbers.

The experiment establishes the role of historical contingency in evolution. Organisms are never perfectly adapted to their environment, because the adaptations available to them are constrained by the changes that have happened in the past. Just like humans can’t evolve wings at the shoulders, because no structures exist there to give rise to wings, E. coli can’t evolve the ability to metabolize previously unusable nutrients unless some more fundamental change takes place first.

Of course, these results fly in the face of creationists who claim that such unlikely events simply can’t happen. Right on cue, Answers in Genesis released a statement on the research. I won’t do a point-by-point breakdown of the argument, because there really is only one point: this is an example of micro-evolution, not macro-evolution. The new bacteria are still bacteria, they’re not cows or dogs or peach trees. This cannot be taken as evidence for “molecules-to-man.”

My rebuttal? Until they demonstrate how small changes cannot add up to large changes over time, their argument is worthless. While they’re at it, they should also explain why one cannot walk to New York from LA, given enough steps, or how someone cannot deposit a thousand dollars in the bank, given enough pennies.

Enough of that. This is very exciting research. Next, scientists should try to produce a strain of E. coli that can metabolize dust and clutter; then I won’t have to clean ever again.

The Pentagon has strange advisors these days

June 19, 2008

I seem to be parroting Pharyngula a lot these days. Do I have original thoughts, or have I fallen simply to regurgitating PZ Myers’ articles like some kind of… article regurgitation machine?

We’ll leave that question for later. Here’s the article, and here’s its source. The news? Ken Ham was invited to speak at a prayer breakfast at the Pentagon.

Ken Ham, the scientifically illiterate fundamentalist whackadoo who befiles our nation’s pristine roadways, is going to give a presentation to the men and women who decide where the missiles go.

Ken Ham, the reality denialist nutcase who poisons children’s minds with Creation Museums and bogus research journals, was invited to speak by those who determine much of the fate of the free world.

The question I’d like answered is “Why?” Is it because so many of the people in power are fundamentalist Evangelicals like Bush? Are they reality denialists too? How can I stop myself from quaking in terror?

The rest of the AiG article goes into how the Bible proves there’s no life on other planets, or something. Glad he got that sorted out. Now all the astronomers and SETI researchers can stop looking! I’m sure they’ll be pleased to find out they’ve been wasting their time.

Ken Ham is polluting our nation’s highways

June 15, 2008

In case anyone is wondering why I didn’t make any posts yesterday, here’s the reason: I was on the road for fourteen hours.  That’s right, I drove nonstop from Montana to Vancouver, BC.  It’s a beautiful ride, with majestic mountains, fertile forests, and whimsical wildlife in view all the way.  But for one blemish, it would have been perfect.  Unfortunately, that one blemish was enough nearly to spoil the whole package.

Here’s the offender:

Right in my native Montana, too. I knew that Ken Ham, from atop his dark tower, had sent his minions of filth and ignorance far abroad, but I never imagined that they had penetrated the fair and fertile lands of the West. The war on science has reached our borders.

(I didn’t have a camera; the image comes from this blog.)

I wish I could afford to buy my own billboard:

On a serious note, it’s obvious what the real billboard above is trying to invoke: Atheists have no morals, because morality comes from God. This is transparently ridiculous to anyone who a) is an atheist, or b) knows an atheist. We all have a moral sense, believers and nonbelievers alike, and this sense of what kinds of actions are permissible and what kinds are not appears to be inborn, even if there is a good deal of cultural variation in which specific actions are considered moral. Further, if our morals came from God, those Christians and Jews among us would still be stoning children for talking back, and forcing rape victims to marry their attackers. It’s pretty clear that wherever our morals may come from, it’s not our respective religions.

The person responsible for the billboard should have known better. That makes him/her a liar. Ken Ham must have endorsed it, so he’s a liar too. “Thou shalt not bear false witness” my ass.

AiG: Did People Like Adam and Noah Really Live Over 900 Years of Age?

June 9, 2008

The Hovind Scale seems to have become the main draw of this blog, and because of that I’m introducing a new feature. Every Monday I will seek out a particularly rank bit of creationist twaddle, give it a quick review, and then calculate an appropriate Hovind Factor. Let’s call it Mendacity Monday! (I’m a little late today; I’ll try to keep it to Monday morning in the future.) The first lucky contestant will be an article from Answers in Genesis, entitled Did People Like Adam and Noah Really Live over 900 Years?

This one is a real gem. It begins with a line from Gershwin:

Methuselah lived 900 years… but these stories your liable to read in the Bible, they ain’t necessarily so.

I’m going to have to track down that song. Anyway, the article acknowledges Gershwin’s skepticism, and begins to make a case for the long life claimed in the Bible for Methuselah and his contemporaries. Of course, they do so by observing that no one lives that long today, and by proposing plausible, testable mechanisms by which people could achieve much longer lifespans in the past.

Just kidding. This is Answers in Genesis!

Actually, the article merely asserts that Bible account is authentic, because the Bible is simply true. This is in line with the AiG Statement of Faith, which holds that everything in the Bible is literally true, and any observation from reality that runs counter to it must be false. So, if the Bible says that Methuselah lived to be 969 years old, then he lived to be 969 years old, you stupid scientists.

The article does present a laughably pathetic attempt at “extrabiblical” (their word, not mine) evidence. They claim that the Sumerian Kings List, which provides a list of Sumerian kings before and after a flood and shows abnormally long lifespans, corroborates the biblical account. “Ah,” I hear you say, “but perhaps the Genesis story is drawn in part from the Sumerian Kings List?” You spoke too soon, my friend. AiG has it covered:

It is highly unlikely that the biblical account was derived from the Sumerian in view of the differences of the two accounts, and the obvious superiority of the Genesis record both in numerical precision, realism, completion, and moral and spiritual qualities.

Yes, the “obvious superiority” of the biblical account shows that it must have come first. (What are the obviously superior moral qualities? Do they come before or after God kills everything on the planet?) The AiG article quoted the above from something called the “CEN Technical Journal.” A Google search for the “CEN Technical Journal” pulls up a lot of pages from Answers in Genesis and Creation on the Web, but nothing that would tell me what the journal actually is.

Following this, the article goes into what is currently known about the process of aging, and gets it right to an admirable degree. It covers telomeres, the accumulation of deleterious mutations (despite slipping in an unsupported “All known mutations cause a loss of information”), and the fact that some tissues apparently don’t regenerate, such as heart muscle and nerve cells. There is a bit of dancing to avoid acknowledging evolution, however:

Evolution has a difficult time explaining aging and life span. Aging is often viewed as a default. Genes are selected on the basis of how they benefit an individual in their young reproductive years, or the “ ‘warranty period’ [which] is the time required to fulfill the Darwinian purpose of life in terms of successful reproduction for the continuation of generations.”12 However, these same genes may be harmful overall, leading to aging and eventually death.

The problem for evolution is that longevity genes are selected for. To deal with this seeming dichotomy, some evolutionists have suggested that selection of longevity genes serves a purpose in that long-lived individuals can care for more of their descendants, known as the “grandmother effect.”13 The problem is that any theory that is so flexible it can account for everything isn’t a very good theory.

The last sentence is the best part. Is there a better summary of creationism anywhere in print?

Of course the evolutionary cause for aging is not nailed down, but the accumulation of deleterious mutations is a perfectly plausible explanation. Further, there is no conflict with the idea that longevity is selected for, because the theory does not hold that the purpose of longevity is to allow the elderly person to have more children. Elderly people are most often assisted in their survival; this behavior may have evolved because elderly people were likely to have lived through disasters and thus knew what to do in the event one should arise, and because they often provide help in raising their parents children. They provide an indirect fitness benefit. Therefore deleterious mutations would not be penalized by selection once the person is beyond reproductive age, because by that time it benefits the person’s genes more to help raise her grandchildren than to have children of her own.

Now, on to the Hovind Factor! I’ll be using alltruism’s fantastic online calculator to crunch the numbers.

X = 2: Belief in scripture as the infallible word of God. Timeless, inerrant and absolute.

Duh. The sole evidence presented for the central claim of the article is the Bible, which is literally true because it says so.

4 – Rejection of basic scientific facts/laws/robust theories and/or denial of any evidence that contradicts scripture

AiG avoides a 5 this time, but only because they present some sound science and reference some respectable journals. The Hovind Scale cannot be blinded with science, however, and it is impossible to overlook the overt rejection of evolution and the age of the earth, and the lack of any understanding of the scientific method. The scientific way to approach the article’s scientific question would be to look for a plausible mechanism whereby people could live for nine centuries, and try to find evidence suggesting that that mechanism allowed people to live that long in the past. The most unscientific way I could think of is to simply assert that they lived longer in the past, and then try to explain why they don’t live so long now (hint: the Fall.)

i = 4 – rather funny in a slightly worrying sort of way

Ken Ham is not a stupid man. Deluded, dogmatic, and dishonest, perhaps, but not stupid, and the article in question does not betray any obvious stupidity. It’s fallacious and unscientific enough to earn a 4, however.

p = 0 – Statement is logical and self-consistent

I found nothing obviously self-contradictory in the article.

m = 1 – Statement maker knows they are telling enough of a porkie to try to mislead a generally credulous audience

The article cites the “CEN Technical Journal,” which carries articles with titles like “The Antediluvian Patriarchs and the Sumerian King List,” alongside Experimental Gerontology and TRENDS in Ecology and Evolution, as if the first is equally as veracious as the last two. This bit of bold-faced brazenness would not impress a scientifically literate person, but less educated people might be susceptible to it.

The Hovind Factor, therefore, is 20. It ends up low because of the low mendacity rating, which itself stems from the fact that the dishonesty at the core of the article is transparent and ridiculous enough to be of no danger at all.

Keep trying, Ken Ham! Keep the articles coming, and you’ll be up in the 90’s soon enough. Or perhaps, in defiance of all logic, you will join the ranks of Methuselah,and earn a Hovind Factor in the high 900’s.

Benchmark statements for Hovind Scale variables

May 26, 2008

Thanks again to qbsmd for the idea of creating tables that provided examples of statements corresponding to each value of the variables that make up a Hovind factor. Over the next few days I will be compiling such tables in this post, so watch this space!