May 2014 Archives

In this short series, David MacMillan explains how misinformation and misconceptions allow creationists to maintain their beliefs even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. A former creationist blogger and writer, Mr. MacMillan earned his BS degree in physics from the University of North Alabama and now works as a technical writer when he isn’™t frequenting the PT comment boards. Since leaving creationism, he has written several columns discussing the public dialogue between creation and evolution. This series will outline the core beliefs creationists use as the basis for their reasoning while pointing out the challenges faced in re-educating against creationist misconceptions.

Note added July 16, approx. 4:30 p.m.: I have added links to all the articles subsequent to this one at the bottom of the page.

1. Introduction and overview: Philosophy of pseudoscience

During my tenure as an active young-earth creationist, I never once heard other creationists accurately describe what evolutionary theory is or how it is supposed to work. Nor did I understand it myself. Creationists often seem familiar with a lot of scientific terminology, but their understanding is filled with gross misinformation. Thus, a host of misconceptions is believed and taught throughout creationist circles, making it almost impossible for actual evidence to really sink in.

There are plenty of comprehensive lists of creationist claims with exhaustive refutations, such as the TalkOrigins archive. Rather than try to replicate those, I will attempt to explain why creationist claims persist in the face of contrary evidence, even when individuals are otherwise well-educated. To do so, I’m going to go over the major areas where creationists get the science itself completely wrong. My list doesn’t represent all such misconceptions, of course. These are the misconceptions I personally recall hearing or using myself. I’ve chosen not to provide specific examples of each misconception from the creationist literature, though they are all easy to find. Citations for my explanations can be found online by anyone who wants to see them; this series is not about any particular facts so much as it’s about how false beliefs are used to support false conclusions.

Geum aleppicum

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Photograph by Andrew Freeman.

Photography contest, Honorable Mention.

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Geum aleppicum – yellow avens, Pearl Lake, Colorado.

The National Center for Science Education will host a webinar, “Debunking and confronting science denial,” Wednesday, May 28, 4 PM EDT/1 PM PDT. Josh Rosenau of NCSE will moderate a panel that includes

Shauna Theel from the climate and energy project at Media Matters for America, John Cook of SkepticalScience.com and the University of Queensland’s Global Change Institute, and be moderated by NCSE’s Josh Rosenau. Shauna will discuss her work addressing media misstatements and how citizens can correct the record. John will describe the debunking resource SkepticalScience.com and the Debunking Handbook he co-authored, and Josh will talk about the experience he’s gained debunking science denial at NCSE.

More here; register here.

Kentucky geologist Daniel Phelps yesterday sent us a press release noting that AIG’s Allosaurus fossil will go on display this weekend; see the AP release by Dylan Lovan here. Mr. Lovan quotes Mr. Phelps to this effect:

Daniel Phelps, president of the Kentucky Paleontological Society, said in a release Thursday that the Creation Museum “has decided, without doing research, that the dinosaur fossil is evidence of Noah’s flood.”

What Mr. Lovan left out is far more interesting.

Apparently not at Bryan College (yes, that Bryan) in Dayton, Tennessee (yes, that Dayton), according to an article in yesterday’s Times. The college, founded in 1930, requires faculty to sign a statement agreeing to certain reactionary views on creation and evolution, including, “The origin of man was by fiat of God,” according to the article by Alan Blinder.

Several months ago, the college added a “clarification” to the effect that Adam and Eve “are historical persons created by God in a special formative act, and not from previously existing life-forms,” according to Blinder. There is a ray of hope, however: “Hundreds” of students out of a student body of approximately 700 petitioned the trustees and opposed the clarification. Two faculty members filed a lawsuit, arguing that the college charter does not permit the trustees to change the statement of belief. A biology professor, Brian Eisenback, called the clarification “scientifically untenable” and accepted a position at another Christian liberal arts college in Tennessee.

Others argue that a college is not a church and should not prescribe doctrine, but the trustees are determined to enforce their policy. The president, Stephen D. Livesay, noted

But this is Bryan College, and this is something that’s important to us. It’s in our DNA… [my italics].

I trust that I am not the only one who finds that allusion uproariously funny.

Sarracenia purpurea

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Photograph by Matthew Opel.

Photography contest, Honorable Mention.

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Sarracenia purpurea ssp. purpurea – purple pitcher plant, growing in a floating sphagnum bog in Tolland County, Connecticut.

… June 2. That is, we will accept entries from noon, June 2, to noon, June 16, where noon is defined by the Panda’s Thumb server, which thinks it is still in Central Standard Time, or UTC(GMT) – 5 h. The rules will be essentially the same as last year’s. We have not chosen categories yet, but please be assured that they will be all-inclusive. So grease your shutters and be ready!

Update, May 31: The theme of the contest is History of Evolution, by which we mean photographs of fruit flies, barnacles, pea plants; fossils, stromatolites; geological formations; anything related to how we know or have deduced common descent. We will also entertain entries in a General category.

Expanding the genetic alphabet

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By Gert Korthof.

“It is a very, very hard problem. Getting all the pieces to work means re-engineering 3.5 billion years of evolution. It’s so ambitious.” These are the words of a scientist 14 years ago [1]. He was talking about the project of inventing new bases to include in DNA and let the new DNA function in a living cell. Now an important milestone has been reached towards that goal. Scientists have succeeded in adding a new base pair, d5SICS (call it X) and dNaM (call it Y), to the DNA of the bacterium E. coli and let it replicate its DNA [2]. Furthermore, the growth rate of the bacterium was not significantly slowed down, and the DNA-repair system did not remove the new bases. These results give us hope for realistic answers to the so far speculative questions as to why evolution settled on only two base pairs in DNA. Could there be superior bases and superior DNA?

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Plasmid, modified from Wikipedia. The yellow dot is the new base pair.

This novel by Lauren Grodstein is about Andy, a once promising biology professor now languishing in the tenure-track of a third-rank university in New Jersey. Andy teaches a course nicknamed There Is No God, whose principles are these:

1: Evolution is the explanation for everything

2: Darwin is right

3: And people who don’t believe Darwin are wrong

That is about right, at least to first order and as far as biology is concerned, but naturally such an explicit statement is bound to attract attention. Indeed, it attracts the attention of Lionel, a Campus Crusade type who has received permission to take Andy’s course for a second time in order to make a case against Andy. More importantly, as it turns out, Lionel sets Andy up by encouraging another student, Melissa, to ask Andy to mentor her in a reading course on intelligent-design creationism. Andy resists but finally gives in, with predictably dire consequences.

Panthea sp.

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Panthea sp. – owlet moth, Boulder, Colorado, 2014. Acknowledgment. Thanks to Don Frack for the identification.

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Grant County News said today, with some exaggeration, “Ark construction begins.” In fact, Ark Encounter had a “Hammer and Peg” ceremony last week; actual groundbreaking will begin later this month.

I watched the ceremony for 40 excruciating minutes in real time. You can see it here on YouTube. I thought it would have been a very nice ceremony, but for the fact that they were talking nonsense. Indeed, the video begins with a picture of Noah or one of his sidekicks driving wooden pegs into the Ark. Want to bet that the Ark Park will use plenty of steel in their Bronze Age structure?

Chrysopa sp.

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Photograph by Adrian Thysse.

Photography contest, Honorable Mention.

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Chrysopa sp. – green lacewing.

By Steven Mahone.

Mr. Mahone tells us that he “had the day off and made the mistake of perusing the [Discovery Institute]’s website.” Mistake or not, the perusal inspired him to write the following interesting response, in which he argues that it makes no difference whether or not the Cosmos is all there is.

The Discovery Institute’s Casey Luskin says a lot more about his organization than he probably realizes with his latest article, which damns with faint praise the Cosmos series currently running on the Fox Network. On the one hand, Luskin claims that he is “glued to the screen” because of the fascinating science being presented by host Neil deGrasse Tyson, yet (there’s always a “yet”!) he is simply unable to contain his personal vendetta against anything that doesn’t explicitly acknowledge his intelligent-design agenda by asking, “But is that all?” Perhaps it’s just me, but isn’t Luskin really missing something here? He sort of reminds me of the story where a crusty old talent agent watches a potential client re-enact Moses at the Red Sea by parting the waters of a swimming pool on stage in full view of the audience. Through his chomped cigar, the unimpressed agent yells, “It’s been done. Next!”

Freshwater: Appeals to the U.S. Supreme Court

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John Freshwater, former middle school science teacher in Mt. Vernon, Ohio, has appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court for a writ of certiorari, asking the Court to review the decision of the Ohio Supreme Court that affirmed his termination. The appeal cites two grounds:

1. Whether firing a public school teacher for checking out and possessing school library books as a form of passive protest violates the First Amendment. 2. Whether firing a public school teacher for teaching the scientific strengths and weaknesses of biological evolution violates the First Amendment.

The application for cert is available from the Mount Vernon News site here.

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