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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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?