Recently in Science and faith Category

Dan Phelps alerted us to the fact that AIG’s Allosaurus fossil had been donated by an organization headed by Michael Peroutka, a man affiliated with “a white supremacist, neo-Confederate and pro-secessionist organization that has been named a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.” Mr. Phelps now writes,

Interesting that this press release didn’t get any coverage when I sent out the information last year. The Creation Museum received an Allosaurus dinosaur fossil appraised at $1 million from a donor who was on the Board of Directors of the League of the South. Various politicians are returning donations from hate groups after the recent Charleston shooting. According to the Encyclopedia of Modern American Extremists and Extremist Groups (by Steven E. Atkins, 2002, Greenwood Press), “Close ties have been formed between the LOS [League of the South] and the Council of Conservative Citizens with a significant cross-membership” (p. 174). Horrifyingly, Dylann Roof received some of his inspiration from the Council of Conservative Citizens [a direct descendant of the White Citizens’ Councils that were established in the 1950’s, primarily to oppose school integration].

Answers in Genesis (the owners of the Creation Museum) admirably makes anti-racist statements at times, but has taken a valuable donation from Michael Peroutka, a former Board Member of the racist hate group known as the League of the South. Why doesn’t the Creation Museum return the fossil or give it to a real science museum?

School’s out, and I discovered a new website,, which appears to be a project of a group of Modern Orthodox Jews to promulgate their acceptance of higher criticism (also called historical criticism). In other words, these are scholars who practice Orthodox Judaism but are not Biblical literalists. Their website proclaims a need for a “historical and contextual approach” to Torah study. Amen, and good luck to them!

Most of the articles on the Website are of no particular interest to me, but two caught my eye. Under “Biblical Scholarship 101,” an article on Noah’s flood shows in considerable detail how the story is composed of two interwoven and sometimes contradictory tales. The argument is used to support what is often known as the Documentary Hypothesis. It is hard to see how anyone could argue that both tales are literally true, and indeed I once used a shorter version of the same argument on Panda’s Thumb. I consider the Documentary Hypothesis to be so convincing that it is frankly a fact that the Bible is composed of four or more threads. Which leads me to the second article that caught my eye, below the figurative fold.

“Measles vaccine protects against other deadly diseases,” proclaims an article in ScienceInsider. In reality, the protection is indirect: Getting measles disposes you to getting other potentially fatal diseases over the next several years. Evidently, measles, unlike, for example, whooping cough, not only weakens your immune system but also makes it “forget,” so you may even contract a disease that you already had and thought you were immune to. (As an aside, though it was supposedly impossible, I contracted mumps twice, as diagnosed both times by a physician. I now wonder whether I had contracted measles between the two cases of mumps.)

As described in the ScienceInsider article, Michael Mina and colleagues at the Emory University School of Medicine demonstrated a correlation between a child’s getting measles and subsequently dying of other diseases. Specifically, they showed that children who survive measles are especially vulnerable to contracting a fatal illness for an average of approximately 2.5 years after the measles infection. The result held true both before and after the widespread use of the measles vaccine. The researchers found no such vulnerability among children who had contracted whooping cough, so the result is apparently specific to measles.

Vaccination had practically eliminated measles from the United States by 2000. Since 2013 or so, we have experienced hundreds of cases, largely if not entirely due to the anti-vaccination movement (see, for example, MMR vaccine controversy, which details the fraudulent but influential paper by Andrew Wakefield). Little did we know that the anti-vaxxers have put children in danger of contracting not only measles (a serious disease on its own, incidentally), but also other serious and potentially fatal diseases as well.

Teachers first, scientists second


That is one of the disquieting results of a new survey, Enablers of doubt, by Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer. The two Penn State professors interviewed a total of 35 students on 4 Pennsylvania campuses in 2013. All the students were training to be biology teachers; many were not comfortable with the theory of evolution, and many were “concerned about their ability to navigate controversy initiated by a student, parent, administrator, or other members of the community.” Indeed, instead of relying on their knowledge of biology, they intended to fall back on classroom-management techniques to deal with creationist students. Notably, these were not education students, but rather biology students who “take a set of required courses in educational psychology, classroom management, and methods of instruction.” Their lack of expertise in science seems not to concern them; to the contrary, they thought they would use their skills at avoiding controversy to avoid any controversies.

PT readers may remember Professors Berkman and Plutzer for their book, Evolution, Creationism, and the Battle to Control America’s Classrooms, which we reviewed here a few years ago. The disquieting conclusion of that book was that only about 28 % of biology teachers actually teach evolution according to recognized standards. The present study may help explain why.

The students, who attended a large research university, an institution that granted degrees at the master’s level, a Catholic college, or a historically Black university (all unnamed), were interviewed in focus groups. The interviews lasted 50-65 min and were conducted by the authors. The focus groups do not provide a statistical sample, but the authors attempted to include several different kinds of educational institution, and they consider the findings “suggestive.” Below the fold, some representative comments.

Q&A in the WASP nest


By Steven Mahone.

What would happen if a dyed-in-the-wool secularist was given the opportunity to speak with students from one of the most religiously conservative school districts in the country? Well, I had the privilege of finding out first hand.

The Classical Academy (TCA) is an affluent, public charter high school in north Colorado Springs, so imagine my surprise at receiving an invitation to represent the secular and scientific viewpoint for a week-long seminar titled “Worldviews: The Scientific, Religious, and Cultural Underpinnings of Our Society”. The school is situated two miles from Focus on the Family (an evangelical stronghold for 19th century Christian “values”) and New Life Church, a 10,000-member mega-church that was once pastored by Ted Haggard. (You might recall that Haggard had a parking lot “altercation” with Richard Dawkins when Dawkins attempted to interview him for a BBC special. You can’t help but appreciate the irony when six months after he admonished Dawkins for living a lie behind the veil of science, Haggard was caught with methamphetamines and a male prostitute.) Also sharing the same zip code with the school are the corporate headquarters for Compassion International, The Association of Christian Schools International, and Cook Ministries. I bring this up only to set the stage for my mindset before I ever arrived at the school’s parking lot.


Credit: Abnormal Interests. Creative Commons copyright CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 US.

Kang Lee, a 2014 Ig Nobel Prize* winner, asks, “Have you ever seen the face of Jesus on toast? No? … Your brain is completely normal if you see nonexistent faces in everyday objects. In fact, if you don’t, your brain may actually lack the essential ingredients for a vivid imagination.”

The research was actually mildly interesting, if unsurprising. I could not read the original article, which was published in a proprietary journal, but I found synopses here and here. The gist, at any rate, seems to have been that when observers think they see a face, even in random noise, the face-recognition area in their brain lights up.

OK, it is normal to see patterns where none exist. More-imaginative people see more patterns. Fine.

But too many people who ought to know better think that such patterns are real.

*The Ig Nobel Prizes were awarded in September, but I did not catch up with them till a broadcast on NPR the other day. Dr. Lee added, by the way, “And I have some good news for you, for those without a good imagination, I just found out, you can buy a Jesus toaster on eBay .…” You may see him at about 19 min into the tape. For the record, seeing patterns where none exist is known as pareidolia.

On August 14, William Dembski spoke at the Computations in Science Seminar at the University of Chicago. Was this a sign that Dembski’s arguments for intelligent design were being taken seriously by computational scientists? Did he present new evidence? There was no new evidence, and the invitation seems to have come from Dembski’s Ph.D. advisor Leo Kadanoff. I wasn’t present, and you probably weren’t either, but fortunately we can all view the seminar, as a video of it has been posted here on Youtube.

It turns out that Dembski’s current argument is based on two of his previous papers with Robert Marks (available here and here) so the arguments are not new. They involve considering a simple model of evolution in which we have all possible genotypes, each of which has a fitness. It’s a simple model of evolution moving uphill on a fitness surface. Dembski and Marks argue that substantial evolutionary progress can only be made if the fitness surface is smooth enough, and that setting up a smooth enough fitness surface requires a Designer.

Briefly, here’s why I find their argument unconvincing:

  1. They conside all possible ways that the set of fitnesses can be assigned to the set of genotypes. Almost all of these look like random assigments of fitnesses to genotypes.
  2. Given that there is a random association of genotypes and fitnesses, Dembski is right to assert that it is very hard to make much progress in evolution. The fitness surface is a “white noise” surface that has a vast number of very sharp peaks. Evolution will make progress only until it climbs the nearest peak, and then it will stall. But …
  3. That is a very bad model for real biology, because in that case one mutation is as bad for you as changing all sites in your genome at the same time!
  4. Also, in such a model all parts of the genome interact extremely strongly, much more than they do in real organisms.
  5. Dembski and Marks acknowledge that if the fitness surface is smoother than that, progress can be made.
  6. They then argue that choosing a smooth enough fitness surface out of all possible ways of associating the fitnesses with the genotypes requires a Designer.
  7. But I argue that the ordinary laws of physics actually imply a surface a lot smoother than a random map of sequences to fitnesses. In particular if gene expression is separated in time and space, the genes are much less likely to interact strongly, and the fitness surface will be much smoother than the “white noise” surface.
  8. Dembski and Marks implicitly acknowledge, though perhaps just for the sake of argument, that natural selection can create adaptation. Their argument does not require design to occur once the fitness surface is chosen. It is thus a Theistic Evolution argument rather than one that argues for Design Intervention.

That’s a lot of argument to bite off in one chew. Let’s go into more detail below the fold …

The scare quotes are my gloss, but that is the headline of a credulous Dallas Morning News article on the “research” being conducted at the Institute for Creation “Research.” The article quotes Pat Robertson to the effect that it is silly – or, rather, looks silly – to deny the clear geologic record, but mostly the author appears to take the “research” seriously. Indeed, he makes the point that Charity Navigator gives ICR a 3-star rating, which, to my mind, means only that they waste contributions efficiently.

Buried at the tail end of the article, no doubt for “balance” (using a lot of scare quotes today; sorry), the author interviews Ron Wetherington, an anthropologist at Southern Methodist University. Professor Wetherington observes, correctly, that ICR puts the cart before the horse:

The problem is, they’re not scientists. They cherry-pick data in order to use it to justify the Genesis account of creation.

Sure enough, the ICR scientists claim that spiral galaxies, ocean salinity, and the (surprising) existence of soft tissue in dinosaur bones are clear evidence against what they call evolutionary naturalism. Real scientists, notes Prof. Wetherington, constantly test their hypotheses, rather than simply “line up facts to support a hypothesis.”

Professor Wetherington is careful not to disparage anyone else’s religion, which I suppose is a laudable position. But frankly when a scientist’s religion teaches something that is contrary to known fact and by his own admission prevents that scientist from getting a real job in a real research laboratory, then maybe it is time to admit that it is the religious view, not the science, that needs drastic modification.

Acknowledgment. Thanks are due again to Alert Reader for providing the link.

By David MacMillan.

8. New perspective. I think there are several different varieties of creationism activists. Some are obsessed with the presumed negative effects of evolution and secular humanism. Some are driven by suspicion for science and the certainty that a conspiracy must be afoot. Some use creationist apologetics to make themselves feel smarter and better-informed than the general public. Some are genuinely interested in science and want to know the truth.

I’d be lying if I said my motivations for arguing creationism were firmly in the last camp. I wasn’t much of a conspiracy theorist, but I certainly believed that there were inevitable negative consequences from the acceptance of evolution. I was definitely stuck-up about my “special” expertise. But deep down, I really did want to know the truth about the world. I loved being right, but I loved learning new things more.

By David MacMillan.

7. The religion of evolution.

The final set of creationist misconceptions about evolution surrounds its supposed religious, moral, and ethical implications. These objections prove difficult to address, simply because they have little or no objective basis and are almost purely philosophical or religious. This section will concentrate mostly on explaining the relationships and connections between these arguments, as systematically refuting them would delve deep into philosophy and theology and is far beyond the scope of a single post.

Michael Zimmerman reports today in the Huffington Post that the Presbyterian Church (USA) has declined to endorse the Clergy Letter Project and declare the second Sunday in February to be Evolution Sunday. Specifically, Reverend John Shuck, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in Elizabethton, Tennessee, and his congregation are longtime supporters of the Clergy Letter, and Reverend Shuck proposed that the General Assembly of the church vote to support Evolution Sunday. A subcommittee voted the proposal down by the astonishing margin of 47-2. Why am I not surprised?

While searching for the source of this cartoon, I ran across the website of Samuel Varg, a Swedish magician and skeptic. Mr. Varg has posted an interview with Kenneth Miller on YouTube and promises interviews with Candida Moss and John Safran.

Mr. Varg and his colleague Anders Hesselbom were unusually well prepared. Professor Miller, in turn, was an excellent spokesperson for theistic evolution, though I had to take issue with his claim that the universe is “overflowing” with the possibility for life. His position seems to me to be very close to deism, but you can listen to the interview and decide for yourself.

By David MacMillan.

6. Genetic evidence.

Revised July 4, 2014.

Perhaps one of the clearest and most obvious confirmations of evolution is the convergence between the evolutionary paths of descent determined by fossil evidence and the phylogenetic tree generated by algorithms analyzing genetic information. Because the tree of universal common descent is real, not invented, it leaves the same fingerprint in every part of nature that life touches. Matching trees can be found in global fossil distribution, in analysis of skeletal morphologies, in chromosome length, count, and banding, and in numerous common genetic sequences.

Not every genetic sequence yields a perfect branching tree. Evolutionary theory would not predict perfect branching trees, because random mutations scramble the relationships over time. Even though mutations provide the variation needed for diversification, their accumulation throughout that diversification can eventually obscure the evidence needed to reconstruct those relationships.

A follow-up on the Nye-Ham debate in the Reports of the National Center for Science Education: Andrew J. Petto said it wasn’t a real debate, which is sort of true, but the most interesting observations, to me, were those made by John W. Patterson. Prof. Patterson, an engineering professor, correctly gives Ken Ham credit for not obfuscating, for not pretending that creationism is based on anything but his interpretation of the Bible. He thinks that other creationists may fault Mr. Ham for his candor, but he argues that

there will be far less public confusion about the distinctions between legitimate evidence-based science and the faith-based biblical varieties so successfully propounded by creationist debaters. In contrast, Ham’s approach lays bare what’s really behind all creationism, from the young-Earth biblical literalism to the more inchoate ‘intelligent design’ models.

By David MacMillan.

5. Evolution of evolution.

Most creationists believe that the theory of evolution was developed out of an ideological commitment to explaining life apart from God. Explanations of the history of evolutionary theory often point out personal struggles in the lives of prominent scientists – Darwin most often, of course – in support of this belief. “Secular scientists wanted a way of explaining a world that didn’t require God, so they invented this ridiculous theory.” To creationists, this foundation offers an easy way of dismissing all the theoretical and observational bases of evolution. If evolution is just wishful thinking born of anti-theistic extremism, then all the “evidence” is reduced to ad hoc speculation.

Because of this misconception, creationists rarely understand the actual history of how geology, paleontology, and biology built upon each other to provide us with our understanding of the world. Mainstream geology emerged significantly ahead of Darwin’s work; many early geologists were Christians. Studying the distribution of rock layers around the globe allowed geologists to construct a complete geologic column and begin appreciating the incredible amount of time the column represents. Moreover, the regular progression of extinct species fossilized throughout the geologic column had been well-catalogued.

By David MacMillan.

4. Transitional fossils.

One of the most common and most frustrating creationist objections to evolution is the claim that there are no “missing links” or “transitional fossils” required by evolution. This claim is made without qualification, particularly in presentations to lay or church audiences. As unthinkable as it might seem, creationists really do believe that transitional fossils simply do not exist. On this basis, they conclude that evolution must be false.

They maintain this completely erroneous view by consistently misrepresenting what a transitional fossil actually is. Creationists don’t deny that Archaeopteryx, Pakicetus, Tiktaalik, Australopithecus, and similar prominent examples of transitional fossils exist; they rather argue that these are not “true” transitional fossils.

By David MacMillan

2. Variation and adaptation

The majority of modern creation science freely admits the existence of biological variation, adaptation, and speciation. Indeed, the recent-creation model – particularly the belief that all extant life descended from a small group of “kinds” present on Noah’s Ark which diversified into all families on Earth after a global flood – requires enormous adaptive variation and near-constant speciation. Creationists estimate that fewer than 10,000 pairs of land-dwelling, air-breathing animals on the Ark diversified to represent all families alive today. There are around 6.5 million land-dwelling species today, so millions of speciation events would have needed to take place over the past 44 centuries since their global flood.

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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.

Nye-Ham debate an hour away


And you may watch it here on NBC or here on WCPO, Cincinnati.

Piers Morgan will interview the debaters on CNN at 9:45 EST, and MSNBC will interview Bill Nye during the 10:00 hour, EST. C-Span will rebroadcast the event Wednesday, February 19 at 8 p.m. EST, according to WCPO.

If you cannot wait till the end of the debate, you may leave comments below at any time. I suggest that we allow comments from (many of) our creationist trolls, as long as they are coherent. I will not allow comments that are merely insulting.

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