Mt. Vernon: An open letter to a school board candidate

Mt. Vernon, Ohio, as most PT readers know, has been the site of three years of legal maneuvering over John Freshwater. As a consequence of that, several creationists are running for school board here. There are three vacancies with six candidates, including two incumbents who voted to terminate Freshwater. One candidate is Steve Kelly, an official with the local Salvation Army.

Kelly is obviously a creationist. In an email response to a questioner, he wrote

I do not believe that the opening chapters of the book of Genesis belong in a science classroom. I do, however, believe that there is considerable scientific evidence that challenges the assumptions of the old-earth/evolutionary model. There is also significant scientific evidence for which the theory of an intelligent designer seems to fit the evidence better than random chance over a lengthy period of time. (I will be happy to cite some examples if you so desire.)

Our students deserve to have all theories of the origin of the world and species presented, along with evidence for and against each theory. (Quotes from religious texts do not constitute “evidence”.) All presentations should be consistent with the Scientific Method. Students can then decide for themselves which evidence seems more convincing. This is teaching our children to be independent thinkers rather than just absorbers of official dogma.

That said, the School Board has no right to abridge or abrogate any curricular requirements set by the State of Ohio. Where requirements exist, I will , if elected, follow the law.

That last sentence is all well and good, but the preceding two paragraphs are real problematic. So another person pressed Kelly about those “examples.” In response Kelly wrote

Here is a link to a page at Conservapedia.com. While I do not necessarily endorse everything on that website, this is a helpful compilation of counterexamples to an old earth. See all of the references at the bottom of the page for source material. > > http://www.conservapedia.com/Counterexamples_to_an_Old_Earth

Gack! So I was forced to respond to Kelly’s claim in an open letter first published on Facebook (Parts 2-4 are in the comments to Part 1: Facebook posting limits and formatting regularly defeats me). I’ll reproduce that open letter below the fold with very light editing to correct a couple of typos and more substantial editing to correct an error.

An open letter to Steve Kelly

Dear Mr. Kelly:

In correspondence and conversations with several members of Concerned Mount Vernon City School District Citizens you have claimed that there is “considerable scientific evidence” against the proposition that the earth is old and that this purported evidence should be shown to students in the Mt. Vernon schools. You made that assertion, in one form or another, to Michelle Mood, Kent Woodward Ginther, and Joshua Ganz. In support of that claim you directed Joshua Ganz to a Conservapedia article on alleged counterexamples to an old earth.

A desirable goal for education is to produce critical thinkers, students who have the cognitive skills and resources to evaluate claims about the way the world works. So I thought I’d provide you with an example of critical thinking about the purported evidence to which you directed Joshua. This email is long, over 2,500 words, but I hope you’ll read it carefully since it directly addresses your claims about scientific evidence contradicting an old earth and your expressed plans for the schools here. Please see my request concerning distribution at the end of this email.

Who I am:

First, a little about me so you know the background from which I write. I have undergraduate degrees in anthropology and psychology and a doctorate in what would now be called cognitive science, an amalgam of cognitive psychology, neuroscience, and computer science, with a fair dose of philosophy of science on the side.

I have worked in science and techology for 50 years, starting in the aerospace and defense industry (the 1960s with the U.S. Navy, Control Data Corporation, and Honeywell’s Systems & Research Center); Kenyon College (professor of psychology in the 1970s and 1980s); and private industry (the most recent 20 years). For the last 20 years I have been directly involved in designing and building computer models of evolutionary processes in an applied context, and I have twice taught a course on evolutionary modeling at Kenyon College as a Visiting Professor of Biology. I also led a seminar on the history of the evolution/creationism controversy at Kenyon a couple of years ago. I am currently an Affiliated Scholar in Biology at Kenyon.

I first wrote on the evolution/creationism controversy in 1987 for the Committees of Correspondence on Evolution Education (7 published essays). Over the years I have read virtually all of the major creationist and intelligent design works, ranging from early “scientific” creationism like Morris and Whitcomb’s “The Genesis Flood”, Morris’s “Scientific Creationism”, and Duane Gish’s “Evolution: The Fossils Say No!” to recent intelligent design like Michael Behe’s “Darwin’s Black Box” and “The Edge of Evolution,” William Dembski’s “No Free Lunch” and Stephen Meyer’s “Signature in the Cell.” I daresay I’ve read more creationist and intelligent design material than have most creationists.

My expertise in science ranges from professional level (cognitive science, evolutionary modeling) to well informed layman (paleontology, geology, population genetics, etc.), to interested layman (cosmology, astrobiology, etc.). I have access to the professional research literature across the various scientific disciplines. So I deem myself reasonably well qualified to critically evaluate many scientific claims.

Conservapedia Article Introduction:

The Conservapedia article to which you referred Joshua Ganz is a listing of 37 purported counterexamples to the proposition that the earth is very old. (It says it has 38 counterexamples, but I count only 37 numbered specific claims.) You told Joshua that the references at the bottom of that page constitute the source material for your claim that there is evidence against an old earth. I haven’t the time to analyze all of the claims on the Conservapedia page, so I’ll use several examples to illustrate what a genuine critical thinker would do with those claims.

First, the second paragraph of the Conservapedia article claims that “The motivation for atheists to insist on falsely teaching that the Earth is old is to pull students away from God’s immediate presence, and to turn them away from Jesus Christ. Also, atheists are motivated, and biased, by the fact that their evolutionist theories require the world to be an implausible billions of years old.” A well-informed critical thinker would immediately know that the writer of the article is ignorant of the history of geology. As any competent historian of geology would tell you, the old earth hypothesis was originated mainly by Christians (many of them clergymen) in the 18th and 19th centuries. See, for example, this brief history of conceptions of the age of the earth. Those Christians came to that conclusion based on the evidence, not as a pre-conceived view, and they did so well before Darwin published–it was not proposed to allow time for evolution to have occurred. In fact, not a few of those who proposed an old earth of geological evidence did not accept Darwin’s theory of biological evolution. Their old-earth geology was independent of their view of biological evolution.

Scientists who are [Christian] believers from a wide range of Christian denominations, ranging from members of mainstream denominations through evangelical Christians, accept an old earth. Even Michael Behe, a leading proponent of so-called “intelligent design,” accepts an old earth and accepts common descent of all species including humans. Conservapedia’s framing of this issue as atheism vs. Christianity is a serious misrepresentation unless one classifies as heretics those Christians, scientists and lay people, who accept an old earth and biological evolution.

Footnote 1 to the introductory paragraphs of the Conservapedia article reads “Most of the “evidence” for an Old Earth is based on claims that lack testability, as in radiometric dating, and hence would not even satisfy minimum requirements for admissibility in a court of law.” Again, there is no reference to the scientific literature: this claim sits there by itself, unsupported. And it is false. For a good lay-friendly overview of radiometric dating see Radiometric Dating: A Christian Perspective by Dr. Roger C. Wiens. There you will learn why the Conservapedia claim about radiometric dating is false. Radiometric dating is eminently testable and passes those tests with ease.

So right from the beginning, a critical reader of the Conservapedia article would learn that its very first claims are not supported by reference to the scientific literature and are in fact false. It ignores the history of geology and misrepresents an important scientific methodology for measuring the age of the earth. That should induce some skepticism about the rest of the claims in that article. However, I will persevere for a while.

The Specific Conservapedia Claims:

Of the 37 purported counterexamples in the article, 13 have no references at all. For example, claim #6 under Astronomy says “The primary reaction in the Sun is the fusing of hydrogen to make helium, but the ratio of these is too high for the Sun to have been burning for millions of years.” No citation to the professional literature of solar physics is provided. However, a quick search of Google Scholar, which indexes a good deal of the professional scientific literature, yields 18,800 hits on [hydrogen helium ratio sun age]. But the Conservapedia article makes no reference to any of the scientific articles available. The reader has no idea what the scientific basis of the Conservapedia claim might be. It’s a naked claim, bereft of any scientific support. I won’t spend time assessing the claim here, but will only note that while there is extensive scientific research on the topic, the Conservapedia article doesn’t bother to even acknowledge its existence.

A dozen more of the purported counterexamples are similarly bereft of support, and so the critical reader will regard them with some suspicion. Just a little research shows some of them to be false. For example, counterexample #5 under Geology reads “The relative purity of underground well water, which should be a muddy slurry had millions of years of erosion taken place.” Baloney. We know that natural aquifers provide filtration of underground water. The very first hit in a Google search on [aquifer sand filtering natural] refers to the natural filtration of sediments and contaminants, and the 6th hit, from Idaho State University’s Museum of Natural History, explains how filtration works in natural aquifers. Evaluating this false counterexample took me less than 5 minutes.

Consider another supposed counterexample from Geology, #13: “The interior of the earth is heated by decay of radioactive isotopes, which could not possibly still be persisting in sufficient quantities after 5 billion, or even half a billion, years.” Again, a few minutes of research shows that claim to be false. A Google search on [isotopes half life table] produces this site on the first page, which lists all isotopes with a half life greater than 1,000 years. As one can plainly see, some isotopes have half lives in the billions of years or more and are also relatively common. For example, Uranium-238 has a half life of about 4.5 billion years, meaning that since the birth of the earth 4.5 billion years ago only half of the original U-238 has decayed. Similarly, Rubidium-87, Thorium-232, and 21 more radioactive isotopes have half lives greater than 4.75 billion years and are relatively common. Isotopes with half lives in the billions of years have persisted plenty long enough to continue to heat the earth’s interior–roughly 80% of the earth’s heat is produced that way (that took me less than a minute to find). Once again, the unsupported Conservapedia claim is shown to be false and it took less than 2 minutes to find the data that shows that it is false.

By this time a critical reader should have some considerable skepticism about the rest of the claims in the Conservapedia article, since the first few I examined were so easily shown to be false. But I’ll persevere a bit longer.

Consider an alleged counterexample that does cite some real science. Claim #1 under Astronomy reads “The Moon’s orbit is a very strong counterexample: the moon is receding from the Earth at a rate[3] [2] that would have placed it too close to the Earth merely four billion years ago, causing instability in its orbit, tidal catastrophes on Earth, and other problems that would have prevented the Earth and the Moon being as they are today.” Footnote ~~3~~ 2 refers us to an article on a NASA web site. It’s not really a scientific paper in the professional peer reviewed literature, but it is a little better than no reference to science at all. And sure enough, that article does say that the Moon is currently receding from the earth at 3.8 centimeters per year.

But is that a counterexample to an old earth? No. The moon is currently about 38.5 billion centimeters from the earth. A few moments with a calculator shows that at a rate of recession of 3.8 cm/year extrapolated back linearly, 4 billion years ago the Moon would have been 23.3 billion centimeters from the earth, 60.5% of its present distance. That would create one condition that the Conservapedia articles claims it would–tidal catastrophes, or at least massively impressive tides. But the Conservapedia article and the NASA article it references provide no support for the orbital instability claim. And a few minutes more spent searching produces a nice introduction to the dynamics of the earth-moon tidal system and the age of the earth that debunks the Conservapedia claim. Another claim down, this time in less than 10 minutes.

Added in edit: I screwed up the footnote numbers in the original letter. Footnote 3 in the next sentence of the Conservapedia claim refers us to a recent article in arXiv which describes research on changes in the eccentricity of the moon’s orbit. However, the changes are excruciatingly far below the magnitude necessary to support the Conservapedia claim that “… the moon’s orbit is becoming increasingly and unexpectedly eccentric, suggesting a lack of long-term stability,[3] which further disproves the theory of an Old Earth.” The measured anomaly in eccentricity amounts to 3.5 mm/yr-1 in perigee and apogee distance. To give that some scale, it’s about 1/8 of an inch. The average distance to the moon is 237,700 miles, or 16,961,472,000 inches. So the anomaly is 1/8 in 16,961,472,000 inches, or about one part in 136 billion. Even measuring the effect would have been impossible before laser reflectors were placed on the moon during the Apollo program. There is apparently no accepted explanation for the tiny change in eccentricity yet, but in any case it is so small as to render the Conservapedia claim of orbital instability sufficient to counter the old earth proposition ludicrous.

By now the critical reader should be more than skeptical of the Conservapedia claims, since those we’ve examined so far have all turned out to be false. At some point one reaches the conclusion that a source cannot be trusted, and our critical analysis of the Conservapedia article strongly suggests it can’t be trusted. I could spend another few hours analyzing the rest of the claims it makes, but life is finite and I have better things to do. Just this brief critical analysis of the Conservapedia article has provided strong evidence that it is untrustworthy. If you want students to be exposed to evidence that supposedly contradicts an old earth you are going to have to do much better than that Conservapedia article.

One use I can see for that Conservapedia article is that it could be very useful for teaching students how to effectively debunk creationist claims. After all, creationism is much more vulnerable to fasification via critical analysis than is genuine science, since hard critical analysis is central to the process of science. Creationists tell us that they want “critical analysis of evolution.” Well, what’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. It might be fun for a science teacher to help students find all of the logical errors, misrepresentations, and flatly false claims in the creationist Conservapedia article. Even 8th graders could find and recognize many of the falsehoods and misrepresentations in the article. That exercise would also help students learn about the dangers in trying to support a worldview with empirical claims that are so easily shown to be false. Only weak worldviews must depend on false empirical claims and misrepresentations of science. What happens to children’s religious beliefs when they learn that their pastors and parents have been misleading them, intentionally or not, about the scientific evidence as the Conservapedia article does?

Further, according to recent news (via private correspondence) from the National Research Council, evolution will be one of the four core organizing themes of the new high school biology Advanced Placement curriculum. Increased emphasis on evolution is also now being included in the MCAT, the entrance examination for medical school, as one of the four major biological competencies expected of medical students. Misrepresenting the state of evolutionary science to high school students would cripple their prospects for advanced education. That is not a desirable outcome for school board members to advocate.

A couple of other issues arose in your comments and correspondence. I’ll briefly touch on some of them here.

You told Michelle Mood that in your view, the Dover school board did not meet the standards you outlined, “… that only scientific evidence should be presented, without citation of religious texts. That is why they lost.” In fact, the Dover board’s policy did not cite religious texts. They lost because they explicitly made the religious motivations for their policy clear in several public venues. Moreover, the court found that the material they wanted to use–the book “Of Pandas and People”–was no more than recycled creationism disguised as “intelligent design”, and the Supreme Court 7-2 ruling in Edwards v. Aguillard in 1987 ruled out “scientific” creationism in the public schools because it is a sectarian religious doctrine, not science. Your Conservapedia article is even less presentable than “Of Pandas and People.”

Please don’t fool yourself. You and Jeff Cline have both made your religious motivations regarding the schools clear in public statements and conversations, just as did members of the Dover board. Look at the sole reference for your ‘evidence that contradicts an old earth’ claim: the Conservapedia article. The very first paragraphs of the article that you recommend presents the issue in overtly religious terms. All that is admissible in evidence, as the Dover trial demonstrated, and it would firmly establish violation of the “intention” prong of the Lemon test for violations of the Establishment clause of the First Amendment. You say that your primary focus is as a financial manager. A board that flirts with intelligent design creationism in any of its guises is not [on] a path to prudent financial management of the Mt. Vernon school district.

Finally, you remarked on the tension between the Establishment clause of the First Amendment and the Free Exercise clause. There is undoubtedly a tension there, and in our system of government the courts are charged with resolving that kind of tension in particular cases. I am not a lawyer, but in my understanding, by and large the courts have so far held that when it comes to agents of the state, including public school teachers, administrators, and board members, the Establishment clause takes precedence over the Free Exercise clause. Teachers, administrators, and board members in public schools are not permitted to freely exercise their religions when they are in their roles as agents of the state in the public schools. The history of First Amendment jurisprudence tends to support that claim, though individual differences among specific cases can sometimes shift the balance. Regardless of that, I would hate to see the Mt. Vernon City Schools add to the body of First Amendment case law by inviting expensive litigation in the federal courts. That is not a wise use of taxpayer resources. At the very least, I hope the board would get competent legal advice (more competent than John Freshwater had!) before sailing off into those stormy legal waters.

Please feel free to distribute this email as you wish, subject only to the condition that it be reproduced in full. I myself plan to post it on the web on a public site.

Regards, Richard B. Hoppe