Did the Universe Begin, and How? (Interview)

I recently had the pleasure of having an interview/conversation on the subject of Big Bang Cosmology and the implications for the universe having an absolute beginning. The question is also wrapped up with theistic claims that a god is a necessary precursor to the universe (or not). Also, some will argue that the Big Bang is just the scientists’ way of avoiding the conclusion that God made everything.

Now, some details of the very early (observable) universe are well-understood. Other parts aren’t. Also, theoretical arguments can be very technical and the limitations are sometimes misconstrued to reach some conclusion.

So, in this talk I get to dive into those issues, along with talking about my work and research on science explaining the Star of Bethlehem. You can listen using this link here or watching this YouTube video.

I want to thank Taylor Carr for the opportunity to have this chat, along with his work getting it up and ready for everyone. We may have another chance to do the same sort of thing in the future, so let him know if that’s a good idea. If you don’t, well… you don’t have to tell anyone.

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Thoughts on the Nye/Ham Creationism/Evolution Debate

The end is Nye!

Sorry, made that joke last time, but now it seems better suited.

So last night was the much-trafficked debate between Bill Nye, the Science Guy, and AiG founder Ken Ham. Now, I am obviously biased towards the scientific consensus; evidence tends to do that. However, I have to say that I was pessimistic about how the debate would go. I didn’t figure either side would really win, but rather it seemed there would be a lot of talking past each other. And while that happened to an extend, overall I think Nye handled things rather well.

To be less biased, check out this poll from Christianity Today, hardly a secularist haven. There, it says Bill one the debate; with nearly 25,000 votes, Bill has 92% of the vote in his favor. And this was even before was posted at Pharyngula, which likes to crash polls like this to show they are not scientific. The bias should have been expected in the opposite direction that what it is, so it seems among at least the tech savvy, Nye was perceived to be the winner.

Perhaps that was in part because Nye did well to present a slurry of observations that were inconsistent with a young earth or having a wooden boat carry itself and all animal “kinds”, while Ham did not present anything that was really evidence for earth’s lack of antiquity or why evolution doesn’t work. There was a bit about radiometric dating (I’ll get to that later), but his presentation was more focused on what he perceives to be the nature of science and how creationism is important to his world view. But perhaps the point that stands as the biggest highlight is the question from the Q&A session when Ham was asked what would convince him that he was wrong. Answer: a long pause, and basically saying he’s a Christian, so that’s that. Nye, on the other hand, clearly and concisely named several things that would be evidence against his views on evolution and geology. That must have been the most stark contrast between how these two people operate and understand things, and I’m not seeing people saying that that was a good talking point for Ham. For the record, I watched the debate at a meeting with Christians and non-believers, and while some were willing to find a better way to understanding Ham’s pause and final answer (suggesting he was at least thoughtful), it was still fairly obvious that it was antithetical to science and even good theology (and I agree).

If you want the blow-by-blow, here is one good synopsis for each part of the debate. PZ Myers also live-blogged the event. NBC’s Alan Boyle summarizes the event rather well. And you can watch the debate here if you are tempted.

Noteworthy: as of posting over 700,000 people watched this particular stream. Overall, at least a million people watched.

So, how about the arguments themselves? Now, Bill obviously focused on the science and facts that show there world to have greater antiquity that a mere 6000 years, but he did touch on something that I proposed to be the ideal method for this sort of debate: make a theological point to undermine the fundamentalist position. Nye did this in two ways: showing how millions, if not billions, of people have religious beliefs and accept evolution; and how the YEC position has to rely on the interpretation of texts and thus the interpreter’s own authority. Now, if Bill had a stronger background in the Bible and theology he could have expanded on this. It would also have helped to have Bill avoid making statements about how the Bible came about via the telephone game; it’s neither an accurate model nor something that his fundamentalist audience would appreciate. There are certainly translations issues, but we do have the books of the Bible in their original languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek), so we aren’t divorced so completely from the original text. However, knowing how ancient literature needs to be contextualized would be helpful. Considering there are several creation accounts and flood legends in the Ancient Near East, all written centuries or millennia before Genesis, that should affect how one reads the book and see that there is the use of a common literary trope, not a history report. If Nye could have done more to hold the feet of fundamentalist readings of the Bible to the fire, that would have made his case even stronger to his prospective crowd he wanted to convince.

On the other hand, there was Ham’s scientific case… Ham argued that creationism made predictions just like real science does, but his examples are both historically inauthentic and otherwise really what’s predicted by evolution and thus not in favor of creationism. For example, Ham says that the Bible tells us that all humans are of the same kind and thus there is one race. Well, evolution says all humans have a common ancestor, so that’s not really different. Ham also says how evolution is racist, as if racism didn’t exist before 1859; rather, there has been plenty of religiously-inspired racist attitude before and after. The “Curse of Ham” (not Ken, thought that is a pox on us all) was used to justify all sorts of terrible view related to racism and slavery, and it was based on biblical interpretation and bigoted attitudes. Moreover, followers of the Bible in the past were not that great and figuring out what to do with the Native Americans. There was a theological debate whether they were a separate creation from Adam and his descendants. Seems like the creation account with its global flood and thousands of years couldn’t account for two continents of people. This was “resolved” for some by claiming the American Indians were really Jews from the lost tribes, a main staple of Mormonism for example. Jason Colavito talks about this in a recent blog post.

The point here is that Ham’s model does not produce predictions like evolution does, and what he does claim to be predictions are already accounted for by evolution and in detail.

When Ham talks about radiometric dating (and he had prepared to talk about that with slides even before Nye took the stage it seems, and Nye hardly talked about this dating method in his 30-minute talk), he shows how incompetent or perhaps dishonest his cronies are. To counter the utility of radiometric dating methods, Ham talks about a layer of basalt laid in the ground by a lava flow. That lava flow went over some old tree stumps. The basalt had a date of millions of years using uranium or argon-based, but the tree, presumably at least as old if not older than the basalt, gave an age of around 45,000 years using Carbon-14 dating methods. Here is the problem: those trees had no carbon in them to date! How can I know that? Because the trees had to have been petrified. If it was still wood, it would have burned up when there was that lava flow. Moreover, the image Ham provided showed what looked like petrified wood to me. And if something is petrified, all of the organic materials are replaced by minerals and is thus mostly silicates. That is, all of the carbon has been pushed out of the tree, so there is no carbon 12 or carbon 14 to check for. At all. So no wonder they got a date of close to 50,000 years, the upper limit to what age C-14 dating can give answers; it’s been pegged at that range because of no signal. But the thing is, this data was given to Ham by Andrew Snelling, who has a PhD in geology. He must have known the trees were petrified and had no carbon in them. To date them using a method that cannot work no matter what date the trees were (again, because there was not fraking carbon in them) is either the height of incompetence or he was dishonest and had to get results to promote creationism even if they were based on a lie.

Bill unfortunately didn’t make this realization and gave an answer that wasn’t geologically feasible, and Ham also pointed out the trees were encased in the basalt, making Nye’s explanation more untenable. But it’s all based on either arrogant ignorance or right-out deception (though not necessarily by Ham, since he’s not a geologist).

But to focus on the debate, both sides were civil and professional. Since in science the debate looks like this:

the way it off Ham didn’t look like that. And he certainly didn’t give off the used care salesmen vibe that Kent Hovind did (before he went to jail for tax fraud). That is in some ways a victory for the creationist cause: it didn’t look stone age. Of course, Bill was able to make many good points to show that it was at least backward-thinking, and the question of what would change minds will perhaps be the biggest take-away rather than the number of ice core rings in Greenland. Often I think Bill gave this expression that is summarized by this new meme:

That may be a good summary right there.

So, I won’t claim Nye “won” the debate. As Joel Watts notes, each side sees their side as the one with the facts and on the side of right. However, Bill had the ability to call upon a great diversity of scientific knowledge and background, which he usually explained well (though not so well when it came to explaining sex and fish), and he made points about what we would have to have seen if we had such rapid speciation as Ham’s model claims to have. He prepared well. Ham, however, had little on that (and he even made it worse by claiming there were even fewer “kinds” on the Ark and thus making speciation problems greater by an order of magnitude), and instead he basically said that he was a presuppositionalist, starting from the Bible (that he magically knows how to interpret, including the parts that aren’t literal, like how God needs to rest, etc.).

And on the other hand, Nye’s main line of argument was that creationism undermines science education and makes the US a less competitive economic power. Nye reiterated that several times, but I think Ham’s video anecdotes from scientists who are creationists undermined that fairly strongly in some people’s eyes. Nye could have undermined that testimony by saying how none of them have used their creationist views to do their science, while geologists, physicists, astronomers, biologists, etc. all use their contra-creationist views to do good, published science. And Bill could have said how the historical sciences actually have helped us in our technology. For example, observations from astronomy are historical and they confirm general relativity; without GR, you can’t have a working GPS system. Evolutionary algorithms are used all the time for designing things, showing that the underlying idea behind Darwin’s theory has real-world application; how a creationist could say it works well in designing cars and autonomous robots but not bird wings can only be done through special pleading. Oh, and let’s not forget about vaccines for viruses that have to change to jump from farm animals or birds to humans; you can only understand that with genetics, mutations, and natural selection. But none of these points were made, and anecdotes are a powerful form of evidence to a person’s mind, even if they aren’t powerful in any statistical sense. While Nye was forceful on the need for students to learn the best science and thus exclude creationism from the science classroom, his case did receive a torpedo he would have deflected.

But Nye did do well in undermining Ham’s distinction between observational and historical science, noting how this isn’t what happens in the real world. No one saw the murder, but CSI makes a lock-solid case using circumstantial evidence all the time. Ham didn’t have any good response to this and could only repeat himself. The only way I can tease out something useful in Ham’s distinction is that he is differentiating between fact-gathering science and theoretical science. The past is given a hypothesis to explain the facts we now have, but that would all be applicable for current events. I don’t observe gravity, only its well-measured, highly-predictive effects. The ball falls from my hand with an acceleration of 9.8 m/s/s is the observation; gravity is the explanation. Similarly, the ratio of elements in a rock is such-and-such; the explanation is years of radioactive decay. You could claim that balls are pushed down by angels or Satan took out the argon in rocks to make them look older, but that is the far less conducive hypothesis. But the sorts of gathering facts and making explanations is done the same for current events as well as past ones; there is no distinction then between historical and observational science, except in so far as the evidence for things happening now are usually more certain and precisely measured.

Now, the last question: was it worth having this debate? I was skeptical before about this particular format, largely because this was set up in such a way to be a major cash cow from the struggling Creation Museum and their Ark Project. I am less certain of that now because, according to the reports I linked to above, the cost of the debate was much more than the ticket sales, at least by a factor of two. For all we know, Bill’s speaking fee was the price of all the tickets put together. As for publicity, creationism is already well-known and believed in the US, so I don’t think this really created much new exposure; the market is pretty much saturated, and there has been almost no movement in the numbers of who is a YEC in decades, so people knowing about this debate isn’t really going to help the YEC cause. But because Nye presented things well, it may have exposed many believers to some good science for once, and this to a group that has to be insular to the scientific and academic world. Penetrating that bubble is necessary, and I think Nye did that. So overall, I think this was a debate worth having and ultimately favored Team Science.

It wasn’t perfect, but Nye pretty much achieved his goals. Kudos.

Should There Be Creation/Evolution Debates? Thoughts on the Upcoming Nye/Ham Rumble

The end is … Nye?

Okay, so the news has been out for a while that Bill Nye, the persona behind one of the big science education TV shows of the 90s, a former vice president of the Planetary Society, and a big advocate for science literacy, will be debating what would appear to be his Bizzaro-world double, the famous creationist Ken Ham. Ham is perhaps best known for being the head of the organization Answers in Genesis and its Creation Museum in Kentucky.

The topic of the debate seems to be focused on the topic of what explains the world better: the modern scientific consensus on astronomy, geology, biology, and physics, or the position of a large number of people with little to no scientific background but have a peculiar reading of one Ancient Near Eastern text. However, in the minds of many on Ham’s side, this is really a battle between “True” Christianity and atheism. And many in the secular community look at this as the continuing fight between science and religion, which in a sense also makes this a debate about God rather than science.

More importantly for many atheists and other non-believers is the question if such a debate in principle should happen, let alone between Bill Nye and Ken Ham.

Some, such as Brian Magee of AHA, Dan Arel of RDF, and biologist Jerry Coyne, are very direct in how this entire venture is wrong-headed, both in in concept and in this particular instance. Richard Dawkins has said in numerous past statements that debating creationists in general is counter-productive. Others, such as Maggie Ardiente of AHA, find there to be more than just a silver lining; rather, it is a potentially great thing to happen. At the Thinking Atheist radio show, there was a great number of perspectives on this subject, as can be heard here:

While my sense is that the secular crowds are more against this debate than for it, I think it’s worth considering first the idea of having these debates in the abstract, and then come down on the points of how the upcoming debate is good or bad, based on the Platonic Form of the ideal debate. Continue reading

Creationist Education–Propaganda & Bad Pedagogy

This story has been out for a bit, but only more recently was it confirmed:

This was a quiz given to 4th graders in South Carolina. It was first posted up on Reddit  but the origins of the quiz were uncertain, and there was worthy skepticism if it was legitimate. It had the craziness of young-earth creationists, but was it really the sort of indoctrination they were using in the classroom? A lot of discussion happened at The Friendly Atheist’s blog, along with more anecdotes from the father of the child that took this quiz. (Apparently, the student had learned how to repeat creationists soundbites thoughtlessly.)

Well, it is declared confirmed by Snopes, and that is because Answers in Genesis (AiG) has “confessed” to being behind this, along with confirming the school that had the quiz administered. You can see this getting Internet press, including against at the Friendly Atheist and the Panda’s Thumb.

Do I have to say anything about how terrible this is from a science point of view? The Earth isn’t billions of years old? The Flood made all the fossils? Ahhh. AHHHH!

But what was surprising to me was the structure of the test from an educational point of view. From the point of pedagogy, it is the worst possible form of teaching and makes “learning” no more than memorizing bite-sized answers in disconnected fashion. Hell, a bunch of these questions that are multiple choice are stupidly made. When you produce and MC test, you not only provide a correct (or in this case, “correct”) answer, but you also need to provide distractors that will catch students that are not getting the material. But just look at the fossil question (#16): the possible causes of fossils are tornadoes, lightning, evolution, and a global flood? Tell me, who even thinks lightning makes fossils? And ‘evolution’ doesn’t even make sense as an answer. The way this question is made not only misinforms the student, it was created by someone that doesn’t even understand the question they are trying to ask!

The question designer has confused the fossil record as evidence for evolution into evolution making fossils (there can be fossils and evolution be false); the person has confused lightning as a possible element in forming early organic molecules and led to life and the creation of fossils; the person has also apparently confused the probability arguments about evolution, such that a DNA molecule coming together by chance is like a tornado going through a junk yard and forming a Boeing 747. That’s my best guess as to how they made such a stupid, stupid question. You have to know fuck-all about biology to be this bad. And this isn’t because the answer is creationist crap; it’s because to make a good multiple choice question you have to know not just the “right” answer but the students’ likely wrong answers. This question is not even wrong!

Or take a look at the written response question about fossils (#17). Fossils are “billions of dead things”? Wow, that’s so informative. All this quiz wanted was to see if the student could recite their soundbite. Never mind about how fossils are formed (minerals replacing organics), or under what conditions will you get fossils, or anything that could even be a science question. There is only the ability to repeat what was said, not connected to anything else. It’s just a creedal statement from the Council of Ni-I-don’t-see-evidence-for-evolution-ea. I also note the student misspelled ‘buried’ but didn’t get any points off. I guess it’s good enough that the student can make the anti-science noises. Screw literacy, it’s not like we need to read anything; just believe what Ken Ham tells you.

Now, it’s not clear who created this quiz, but given the name of it, the pictures used, and the form of the questions, I’m betting it was part of the curriculum package from AiG. On their webpage where it is sold it mentions a discussion package, so I’m going to make the reasonable guess that the teacher had this quiz from AiG and made photocopies for the class. Therefore I’m pinning this creation squarely on AiG; still, that the teacher thought it was a good DVD to show and a good quiz to administer doesn’t reflect well on him or her as an educator.

Ken Ham et al. — they know just about as much biology as they know about education. They think that learning is about memorizing a bunch of discombobulated garbage that must be regurgitated on demand. This is the lowest form of learning, and it shows no depth, no understanding, no transfer of knowledge, nothing that can actually be applied to anything else besides it being some dogma. Moreover, the things that are rote memorized, such as you can’t know about the distant past if you weren’t there, that cuts off actual inquiry and discovery. It’s learning about how to not explore, how to not learn. This quiz not only rams against the last 200 years of biology and geology, it plows past the last 100 years of educational research. I’m betting the people at AiG have as much scorn for Charles Darwin as they do for John Dewey. They know as much about the Cretaceous period as they do about constructivism.

Creationists: they’re not only undermining education at the factual level, they’re undermining the very notion of education itself. They only know dogma and all else is heresy. There is no thinking, just selling a product. Please note: educate =/= indoctrinate, and teaching =/= marketing.

And really, isn’t it sad if the whole of your theology can be learned in an afternoon by 4th graders? If reading and understanding the Bible is that easy, … geez, I can’t think of a worse insult for the Bible.

Creationism and Evolution on Trial–The $10,000 Challenge

There has been some talk about the recent story in the UK paper The Guardian about a California-based creationist arguing for a debate on the subject of evolution and creationism in a legal context with $10,000 on the line. To be clear, the question would not be if a god had anything to do with the origins and development of life, but the question is about the scientific accuracy of a literal reading of Genesis. So we are talking about something we have known to be wrong for about 200 years.

Actually, more than that. A true literal reading of Genesis implies a flat earth with a sky dome holding back the waters of heaven, while windows are in place there to let rain in, while the land itself and the sky dome are held up by pillars. This is the sort of cosmogony that the ancient Babylonians had:

But when most Young-Earth Creationists (YECs) say a literal reading, then don’t me that literal reading. Because that’s obviously false. Then again, most of the people over at Answers in Genesis cannot read the words in Hebrew, so their literal reading is about as good as my literal reading of Finnish sagas.

In fact, it is worse than that. There is really the problem that we moderns do not know how to read an ancient book. Why? Because the way people wrote then and assumed about their audiences is different than now. We don’t understand how those ancient writers used chronotope and stereotypes and other literary tropes of the times without a lot of study. It’s almost like you’d have to get a degree in the subject before you knew what you were talking about. Heck, it could be that the authors of these books didn’t mean anything literally at all, no more than Plato literally describes a dialogue in The Republic. Now, if I remember correctly, there was this guy who taught in parables a lot. Hmm… Well, best not think about that. That means you’d have to change your mind, and we all know, God hates it when you think about things.

Now, in the particular version of this “debate”, the way the question is formed is also so confused I must wonder if the person is a functioning illiterate. According to the article, the contest be won by the person that “will prove in front of a judge that science contradicts the literal interpretation of the book of Genesis.” Well, science is all about the consensus of experts on a subject. The experts have been almost unanimous in biology, geology, astronomy, and physics: YEC is wrong and not science. If we look at peer-reviewed publications, the number that support the YEC view over other theories: zip, zero, zilch. On that basis, can I have my 10 grand now?

As for the court room context, that’s also a loss before it begins. In courts, there is this thing called precedent: what decisions have been made before, especially by higher courts. Considering this issue of evolution and creationism has been before federal courts three times (including the Supreme Court), and in all three cases creationism was called religious and not science, while evolution did survive, then this lower court in this “minitrial” would have to agree based on that alone. So this shows that creationists understand neither science nor the law. All they want is the veneer of having the truth on their side. You can wear a lab coat, but that makes you nor more a scientist than when I put on a Batman costume it makes me a superhero. (BTW…I’m Batman *smoke bomb*)

But if all that wasn’t enough to make this a joke, apparently this same fool, Joseph Mastropaolo, has done this stunt before. Over at the Huffington Post, biologist and founder of the Clergy Letter Project Dr. Michael Zimmerman talks about his dealings with Mastropaolo in the past. Apparently, Mastropaolo will not actually use the definition of evolutionary scientists use of change in allele frequencies in populations over time, but instead he only wants to use his own convoluted mess of topics as the definition of evolution. In other words, he wants to make the debate subject the strawman he thinks it is right from the point of definition. As he wanted to define it, evolution was “the development of an organism from its chemicals to its primitive state to its present state.” Like Dr. Zimmerman, I don’t even know what this means. Then again, Mastropaolo doesn’t seem to know what an allele is since he thinks the definition scientists use (i.e. the real one) is “meaningless.” Well, considering there is an actual dictionary to use to define the word, that belies his ability to know what he’s talking about. (Note: an allele is simply a form of a gene, so allele changes can be seen at the DNA level; it is very measurable, and denying this is to deny DNA profiling and determining ancestors.)

After this point, it looks like any hope of a debate was killed when Mastropaolo said that the PhD biologist was not “competent to contend” for his prize. He also went on to say “Evolutionist hallucinators so out of touch with reality are psychotic by medical dictionary definition, and therefore not mentally competent to contend for the Life Science Prize.” So now, by his own admission, anyone that believes in evolution cannot attempt to win his prize money. Then again, he also shows he doesn’t know what words mean since he thinks psychotic people are out of touch and hallucinate. I guess that means he won’t be listening to the words of St. Paul who talks about having hallucinatory experiences, as did many in the churches he started and went to (cf. Galatians 1, 1 Corinthians 15).

So, this whole thing is a joke, at best. But it really just seems to be another example of how creationists are in fact dishonest. And in this case, not even a good one.

Update: PZ Myers also weighs in, showing that Mastropaolo is a well-rounded fool.

Duane Gish, Young Earth Creationist Chemist, Dead at 91

From the website Answers in Genesis (AiG), we have learned that one of the most influential Young Earth Creationists (YEC) of the 20th century, Duane Gish, died on March 5th at the age of 91.

Gish was born in White City, Kansas in 1921, so he was a young lad when the famous Scopes Monkey Trial took place in 1925. He was raised Methodist, but he became a fundamentalist Baptist later on. Gish earned a PhD. in biochemistry from Berkeley in 1953, and after reading creationist materials in the late 1950s he began to get involved in the YEC crusade. He was one of the best known figures for YEC debating scene, best known for putting out a large number of statements in quick succession that his opponent almost certainly could not refute in the time allotted. This has become known as the Gish Gallop, and it has been noted as a technique used by others in a debate: throw out many arguments, your opponents will be able to deal with only so many and not adequately, and you can claim one of your un-refuted arguments stands and that means you are right.

Gish also worked at the Institute for Creation Research (ICR), which was the largest creationist organization until AiG surpassed it. In a more humorous context, Gish was part of the story of Dave Gorman and following his Googlewhacks, which is a great comic adventure and live performance. Gish is survived by his wife, Lolly, four children, and several grandchildren according to AiG.

RationalWiki blog has more on Gish, but I have mentioned him here before. In my post about proponents of creationism being liars, I used Gish as an example. He had used the argument that the Bombardier beetle could not have evolved without going through a stage in which it would have exploded. He was proved to be false, he admitted his argument wasn’t right, but he did continue to use that same argument (and it gets repeated to this day by others). But even though there is one less Liar of Jesus out there, there are plenty to take his place; then again, it’s hard to get a YEC with decent academic qualifications rather than ones just made-up.

The Evolution of Creationism

Since I work in the area of physics, I don’t get so much push-back from creationists. There isn’t too much biology or evolution going on in my classroom, and that is too bad. Nonetheless. the people that follow along the idea of creationism, especially its young-earth formulation, are hindered from doing or understanding so much of science. It doesn’t help that much of the material out there is also dishonest.

A lot of young-earth creationists (YECs) believe what they are doing is believing in the Bible the way it was meant, but they probably don’t even realize the pedigree of their theology. How long has this sort of fundamentalism been around? Actually, it’s quite recent–early 20th century. The history of the movement is documented very well in Ronald Numbers’ The Creationists. However, in some ways the argument is much, much older than what started in the 19th century. There was some really good creation science back in the day, but by “back in the day” I mean the Roman era with people like the famous doctor Galen. (Those intellectual battles are discussed well in David Sedley’s Creationism and its Critics in Antiquity.)

Nonetheless, the creationism that has become so common today is really watered-down Seventh-Day Adventism. It is a strange thing that most (at least most intellectual) Christians at the end of the 19th century were okay with evolution (though they backed away from Darwin’s mechanism), but a heretical group with its own prophetess has become the mainstream for so many Protestant groups.

If you don’t have the time to read up on this interesting history, PZ Myers has a good talk that summarizes that history along with some debunking of creationist garbage.

If you want more of PZ debunking Intelligent Design and creationism, along with learning some interesting science, here is his talk from about a year ago concerning genes and junk DNA.

It’s a fact that a large chunk of our DNA does nothing to affect us other than waste some energy in copy-pasting old stuff from ages past (junk which also can be used to show who evolved from what, such as with endogenous retroviruses! see here) shows that our genome is not the economical system that creationists want. But if this is the prediction, that junk DNA has a purpose for the organism, then it is falsified. So, can we be done with this junk now?

Ancient Aliens Debunked: A Critical Review

Last month I gave a presentation about the significant problems with the ancient astronaut theory (AAT) and the people that promote it, and I am reasonably happy with what I put together. However, to really get at these folks that live and breath AAT, it would take a product with higher visual standards than a PowerPoint and one guy talking for an hour or so.

But also last month was the release of Ancient Aliens Debunked, which is a three hour(!) documentary that shows the claims from the Ancient Aliens TV show on the History Channel (or H2), along with a thorough debunking of those claims.

Continue reading

Billy Nye, Ken Ham, and the Living Dinosaur

In a prior blog post, I considered if creationist proponents were sometimes or often liars for their cause. But an interesting example of what appears to be significant dishonesty has come through the response to Bill Nye.

About a month ago, Bill Nye The Science Guy posted this video on Big Think:

And with that (and at this time 4.5+ million views), the creationists were in an uproar. Having one of the best known science educators in the US calling your entire educational program bad for children obviously isn’t going to sit well. But the more prominent response came from the people at Answers in Genesis, run by Ken Ham.

Making their own videos in a similar style to the Big Think, they tried to say Nye didn’t understand science, didn’t want children to think critically, that creationists didn’t fear evolution and teach it correctly, that evolution has nothing to do with engineering, and so on. All of which is laughably wrong, including the last statement.

And there is some joy in this video response to Ken Ham (though probably NSFW due to language and some female images).

I’m copying here the description in the video, in case it goes down and the good links and references get lost (as well as providing a buffer space to the video if you are at work).

Under normal circumstances I probably wouldn’t have addressed a video like this because it’s a little light on science, but since it was by one of the world’s top-tier fucktards who happened to be rubbishing one of the most beloved educators in the country I decided that it was a golden opportunity to give the Reverend Ham the verbal drubbing he’s been asking for for decades.
As I said, a little light on science for a regular HH, but nevertheless also a good opportunity to address some of the filthy creationist political propaganda that Mr. Ham was projectile spewing in his surpisingly amateurish video. Not sure whether there will be a censoring reaction to this, so please do what you can to help forestall, or failing that ameliorate, that eventuality as it’s not clear to me as yet that creationists are smart enough to have realized that censorship only results in the object of their ire being exposed to a vastly larger audience than it would have been had they acted like decent human beings.
For those who don’t know how, the video can be downloaded by pasting the URL into the box at http://www.keepvid.com.
If you feel the need to hear Ken Ham vomiting up his worthless opinions you can do so here:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JxX11c1cSWU
If you want to see the Reverend Ham lying to children about biblical glasses you can do so here:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C5d3AaAL10U
And if you want to have a laugh at Ken’s monkeys, whom I mention in the video, you can find them in their enclosure here:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r-AyDtD6sPA
Bill Nye’s Big Think video can be enjoyed here:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gHbYJfwFgOU
KnownNoMore’s channel is here (please watch and sub — he’s *excellent*):
http://www.youtube.com/knownnomore
Wisdominnature7’s channel (see note above regarding KnownNoMore — the same applies):
http://www.youtube.com/wisdominnature7
Scripts to this and all my other videos can be found here:
http://thelivingdinosaur.webs.com/transcripts.htm
Intro by the one-and-only ONESPECIES (check him out too!):
http://www.youtube.com/ONESPECIES
Music: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Symphony No. 9 in C major (K 73)
References:
Arias-Montaño , A. (2011). Evolutionary Algorithms Applied to Multi-Objective Aerodynamic Shape Optimization. Studies in Computational Intelligence 356: 211-240.
Asoutia , V.G. and Giannakogloua, K.C. (2009). Aerodynamic optimization using a parallel asynchronous evolutionary algorithm controlled by strongly interacting demes. Engineering Optimization 41: 241-257.
Berard, Y. (2003). Experiments with Hybridized Genetic Algorithms in Aerodynamics. EUROGEN 2003 International Congress on Evolutionary Methods for Design, Optimization and Control with Applications to Industrial Problems. pp 1-12.
Giannakoglou ,K.C. et al. (2006). Aerodynamic shape design using evolutionaryalgorithms and new gradient-assisted metamodels. Computer Methods in Applied Mechanics and Engineering 195: 6312–6329.
Jones, B.R. et al. (2000). Aerodynamic and Aeroacoustic Optimization of Rotorcraft Airfoils via a Parallel Genetic Algorithm. Journal of Aircraft 37: 1088-1096.
Obayashi, S. and Guruswamy, G.P., (1995). Convergence Acceleration of an Aeroelastic Navier-Stokes Solver. AIAA Journal 33: 1134-1141.
Obayashi, S. et al. (2000). Transonic Wing Shape Optimization Based on Evolutionary Algorithms. ISHPC ’00 Proceedings of the Third International Symposium on High Performance Computing. PP Pages 172–181.
Ong, Y.S. (2003). Global convergence of unconstrained and bound constrained surrogate-assisted evolutionary search in aerodynamic shape design. CEC ’03 The 2003 Congress on Evolutionary Computation. pp 1856-1863.
Oyama, A. et al. (1999). Fractional Factorial Design of Genetic Coding for Aerodynamic Optimization. AIAA Paper 99-3298.
Oyama, A et al. (2000). Aerodynamic Wing Optimization via Evolutionary Algorithms Based on Structured coding. CFD Journal 8: 570-577.
Sasaki, D. (2001). Aerodynamic Shape Optimization of Supersonic Wings by Adaptive Range Multiobjective Genetic Algorithms. EMO ’01 Proceedings of the First International Conference on Evolutionary Multi-Criterion Optimization. pp 639-652.
Tubbs, A.D. and Wolfe, A.M. (1980). Evidence for Large Scale Uniformity of Physical Laws. Astrophy. J. 236: L105-L108.
Webb, J. (2003). Are the laws of nature changing with time? Physics World 16(4): 33-38.

Are Creationists Liars?

Update: this post is now also featured at Skepticblogs.

Over the weekend, I was chatting with a good friend of mine, and he brought up the very interesting biographical story of Mary Schweitzer who started as a Young Earth Creationist (YEC) as a child, but because of interest in science became an influential paleontologist, showing how dinosaurs were likely warm-blooded and the ancestors to modern birds (which means when you eat chicken, you are eating a dinosaur!). I also added the interesting tangent that YECs have tried to use Schweitzer’s work on blood cells found in dino bones as proof of a young earth (or at least that fossils are not millions of years old), my friends had heard of as well. But this then got into the conversation of misinformation and if creationists are liars or simply misinformed.

Now, I definitely think that the vast majority of average folks that believe in YEC are not dishonest, nor do they think what facts they have are lies. They are two things: suffering confirmation bias (only hearing that which reinforces their beliefs) and misinformation (perhaps even propaganda). That will cause many people to truly and honestly think the science is on their side. It just has the irony factor that science can explain to a large degree why they don’t believe the science (something articulated in Chris Mooney’s The Republican Brain).

However, I think it better to focus on the people that make the claims to support creationism, from the creation scientists of old to the modern Intelligent Design proponents. Are they all liars? Some? Just a few bad apples?

In the opinion of one person that has dealt with creationists a lot, YouTube user (and now blogger) Aronra in his Foundational Falsehoods of Creationism along with subsequent videos tries to make the case that creationist proponents actively try to pull the wool over people’s eyes either for ideological or monetary reasons (or both). He even argues that biochemist Michael Behe, best known for defending irreducible complexity as evidence against evolution, was at least intellectually dishonest in his testimony at the Dover, Pennsylvania trial on Intelligent Design.

However, I won’t simply post the opinions of others, no matter how well-founded. Let’s consider this from two points: the prior probability that creationism is advanced by dishonesty, and examples of it in action.

First, how likely is it that good, Christian leaders could promote things that are positively false yet peddled as absolute truth? Isn’t there a significant disconnect between defending a system of morality and violating the 9th commandment?  Well, that is something that can be overcome with a bit of rationalization, and not much really. In the minds of YEC leaders, evolution is not simply a scientific theory, it is a force trying to undermine the whole of society. As is seen in this illustration from creationist literature, evolution supports Nazism, abortion, sexual perversion, racism, radical feminists, and more things seen as terrible. And Creation “Science” is the remedy, or so it seems. So whatever tool it takes to take down evolution is given great moral weight. Such a precedent can be seen in the Church historian Eusebius, who advocated (from the idea in Plato) it is sometimes necessary to use a lie for medicinal purposes, sort of speak. In another context, there is pseudo-historian David Barton who is now too widely considered a liar to be publishable by anyone with a reputation (which is why he has gone to Glen Beck). He really was a liar for Jesus, making up quotes and making claims such as the Founding Fathers had settled the evolution vs. creationism issue back in the day… even though they were most all dead before Charles Darwin could even read, let alone publish his Origin of Species.

Moreover, there is the point to consider of how a position such as YEC can survive when it was been falsified since the early 19th century. How can a position be supported by educated people, given the information resources of modern times, when each and every claim said to be indicative of a young earth and against common decent are not only proved false, but even nicely sorted against the claims? There are no facts one can point to that actually indicate the earth is less than 10,000 years old, while there are a significant number in favor of an earth million and billions of years old. Can someone, let alone numerous people research a topic and get their facts wrong time and again without intellectual dishonesty?

The problem becomes all the worse considering that many YEC organizations proudly put up their statements of faith. For example, Answers in Genesis (AiG) has a Statement of Faith that includes the following:

By definition, no apparent, perceived or claimed evidence in any field, including history and chronology, can be valid if it contradicts the scriptural record.

(And no, this is not the only example.) Such a statement indicates that from the start, no evidence can go against what is already believed. If you already “know” the “answer”, then the research becomes farcical. And while scientists can indeed fall into cognitive traps and fail to see evidence that undoes their own pet theories, they don’t make statements in advance of what the evidence must be.

So, initially we can see that there are potential motivators for being dishonest for the sake of taking down evolution. But what about actual cases where this happens? Let’s start early in history.

If we look to the beginning of the fight against Darwin’s theory, we ought to consider Sir Richard Owen, a brilliant anatomist and founder of the British Museum and the coiner of the word “dinosaur.” However, he was a staunch opponent of Darwin and a supporter of a theological interpretation of life’s past rather than the mechanistic account of Darwin and his bulldog Huxley. And so it seems that Owen invented the claim that a brain structure (the hippocampus minor) was only possessed by humans and not other primates, thus undercutting common ancestry. But investigations by others showed Owen to be wrong, and considering Owen’s prowess in anatomy, it becomes hard to believe he could make such a mistake. There was Huxley’s book written for those unexposed to advanced anatomy that these structures were indeed in both humans as well as monkeys, so the feature was rather obvious to all observers (including scientists such as Charles Lyell). That Owen evaded this, along with creating inaccurate drawings to hide other features of primate brains, had to further claim that the hippocampus minor was not only missing in lower primates and “idiot” further indicates his stubbornness to the obvious, and having been caught he finally admitted that the structure was in other primate brains (though with caveats), all indicates he was protecting other interests. This is detailed in the book Owen’s Ape and Darwin’s Bulldog and this rather good Wikipedia page on the subject. Also, this video:

In addition, Owen tried to discredit the usefulness of Archaeopteryx (discovered in 1861) as a transition between reptiles and bird by comparing the fossil to pterosaurs rather than dinosaurs. Again, hardly an innocent mistake since Owen had been the definer of dinosaurs, so this made it easy for Huxley to expose him again. (Obviously there wasn’t much love between these men.) Owen also was not a terribly moral man who squished those that got in his way, wrote letters in the third person to papers attacking his enemies and praising himself, and was also accused of plagiarism.

So, it seems in the case of Owen, he was willing to present falsehoods in order to advance his career and attack evolution, and he was widely considered towards the end of his life to have been a dishonest man. But he is hardly the only case to present. If we move on to the Scope Monkey Trial of 1925, we can see another case there it was seen as useful to take a position believed to be false in order to attack evolution. Here we had a titan of American politics, William Jennings Bryan, fighting for Christ and society against the great agnostic Clarence Darrow (though they were in fact friends and Darrow helped Bryan in his bids for the presidency). Now, an interesting fact that the movie and stage performance of the trial, Inherit the Wind, doesn’t properly represent is that Bryan was not a YEC, but instead he did not disagree with the geologists. However, when on the stand, he did try to argue for a young earth, citing the “research” of George McReady Price, the effective founder of Young Earth Creationism. Price was not a geologist or trained scientist, and also on the stand Bryan admitted the antiquity of the earth (see The Creationists, pp. 58, 89, 116-7). So again, we have a person willing to use research that was not only outside of the scientific mainstream but even at odds with his own beliefs, all for the sake of fighting Darwinism because of its perceived moral issues. Not unlike that seen in the illustration above: using “science” that supports creationism to stop some other evil.

However, these figures are long dead and do not promote things today, obviously. What about living proponents of creationism? As another case example, consider Duane Gish, a founding figure in creation “science” and a trained biochemist. So he ought to know basic biology and chemistry. As one of his famous cases against natural selection and the piecemeal origins of biological systems, he pointed to the bombardier beetle, a bug that can squirt a boiling liquid at predators for protection. Gish claimed that the chemicals in the liquid used by the beetle, hydrogen peroxide and hydroquinone, explode without an inhibitor; thus, the beetle could not have existed without the inhibitor, giving nothing for nature to select, thus meaning the creature had to be formed the way it was, otherwise Kaboom! But what happens if you do mix these chemicals together? Actually, no boom. At all. You can test this yourself with store-bought supplies.

Now, Gish made this claim in a book from 1977. In 1978, he was informed of this, and though he still thought it impossible for the beetle to have evolved, he agreed that the chemical combo was not explosive. And yet, in 1980, he still made the same argument. He should have known better before making the argument (he was a chemist), and he admitted to knowing better two years before making the same claim again. And to this day, it is still made by creationists without fixing the errors (though elsewhere they do agree the description is wrong). So we have here another example of dishonesty and knowingly so.

But we still haven’t gotten to perhaps the grand-daddy of the disingenuous, “Dr.” Kent Hovind. As you may have noticed, I don’t think him a doctor because his degree is fake, a printing from a diploma mill called Patriot Bible University (which is just this trailer house in Colorado), so his title is fake. Hovind is also currently in prison for tax fraud, so he is indeed a convicted liar. Other acts of being disingenuous include his $250,000 prize for any evidence of evolution which, upon inspection, can only be won by showing it is impossible in any way that God could have caused the evidence to be the way it appears. He also uses his own made-up definitions of evolution to further evade ever getting the evidence for the theory that biologists actually talk about.

But as an example of creating a falsehood to advance creationism over evolution, perhaps the best example is his case of a supposed conversation with a Berkeley professor while on an airplane. He never gives a name or department for this professor, and the professor’s description of the Big Bang is amazingly wrong. In fact, it appears to have been manufactures by Hovind using elementary/middle school science text books (start viewing from 3:30).

If you watched, you would notice that even Hovind’s slides show that he was mixing nebula collapse for star formation and the Big Bang, which he then uses for his angular momentum argument against the Big Bang. He is clearly off his rocker and is using an encounter that could not have happened unless such a person knew nothing of cosmology yet talked exactly like a children’s textbook. A collection of Hovind’s lies can be found using the wayback machine here. I should also include that Hovind’s ministry, Creation Science Evangelism, filed many false DMCA take-down notices of videos critical of his seminars, claiming copyright infringement even though on his lectures and on his website he states none of his stuff of copyrighted to help spread it around. Perhaps then it is no wonder that he is in jail for tax fraud and trying to disguise transactions that would have tipped off the feds. However, it is unfortunate that his son, Eric, has continued in his father’s line of work, selling the same bunk, just with better graphics.

And now for one last example: taken from the Dover trial about Intelligent Design (ID). In particular, consider two of the figures on the Dover school board, William (Bill) Buckingham and Alan Bonsell. These guys, and others, wanted to get straight-out creationism taught in the schools, even though it had been clearly found to be illegal by the Supreme Court in the 1987 case of Edwards v. Aguillard. So they searched for an alternative to avoid the legal issue using ID. Part of that process was the inclusion of a textbook called Of Pandas and People. After the school board had agreed to including ID, the books appeared out of nowhere, apparently, at the school for use in the library. Sixty copies, in fact. Buckingham and Bonsell both claimed in their sworn deposition that they had no idea where the books came from.

But that was a bald-faced lie. In fact, Buckingham had gotten up in front of his church to ask for donations to buy these textbooks. He then gave a check for the books to Bonsell, who gave it to his father, who then bought the books. That is a pretty amazing lie, and told under oath no less. When the judge got wind of this, he took over the interrogation of the witness and put Bonsell up for perjury charges; Judge Jones said that the two men repeatedly lied.

Here then we have a super-clear case of lying, under oath even, in order to get creationism into the classrooms.

Now, this post has already gotten long, but it is hardly complete. I haven’t considered the ever-present use of quote-mining in creationist literature, especially against Darwin and Stephen Jay Gould, or the dishonest editing of Dawkins or the propaganda film Expelled which tries to say evolutionary scientists are really Nazis. I haven’t touched the geologists like Andrew Snelling who gets a PhD in the subject and writes papers, but thinks all his work is false and promotes YEC to whomever he can. And I haven’t talked about ID which tries to hide what it is as subterfuge, avoiding legal barriers to teaching creationism while not providing anything that can get into peer-review (and they don’t even try). Heck, documentation shows that they really have the goal of doing all that they can to destroy “Darwinism” to make way for Christian scientific approaches (see the Wedge document). The blog site The Panda’s Thumb has also been tracking the falsehoods and dishonest for many years now. There is a massive industry of pseudo-science, and it truly looks like it cannot be advanced honestly.

Creationism is certainly advanced by ignorance of the facts. However, there does appear to be a significant factor of dis-ingenuousness on the part of proponents. And those that were actively listening to these false prophets do feel they were lied to after they realize how wrong they were. But still, nearly half the US buys into YEC teachings.

How best to combat this? You tell me!