07/23/14

Those Crazy Creationists


Alien JesusI know, I know, it’s the proverbial fish in a barrel when you critique creationists. They are just so easy to mock. But how can you help yourself when someone like Ken Ham opens his mouth in public? The media just love to pounce all over him. He must take his lessons in PR from Ann Coulter. And like with Ann, the controversy probably helps sell his books.

(And, from what I see, selling books is really what Ken is all about. But that’s not the point of this post.)*

Ken’s latest foray into looniness – a territory he has already explored well and thoroughly – came in reports of his demand for NASA to end the space program searching for signs of alien life because all aliens are going to Hell.

Well, that’s not exactly what he said. But he implied it when he wrote,

“…any aliens would also be affected by Adam’s sin, but because they are not Adam’s descendants, they can’t have salvation… You see, the Bible makes it clear that Adam’s sin affected the whole universe. This means that any aliens would also be affected by Adam’s sin, but because they are not Adam’s descendants, they can’t have salvation. One day, the whole universe will be judged by fire, and there will be a new heavens and earth… An understanding of the gospel makes it clear that salvation through Christ is only for the Adamic race—human beings who are all descendants of Adam.”

The theological argument might be a tad complex for an audience decreasingly schooled in complex ideas and critical thinking, and increasingly schooled in wardrobe malfunctions and nipple slips as “newsworthy” content, so the media boiled it down to a rather simplistic idea. I mean, after all, if you’re saved, you go to heaven, right? So logically in the Christian cosmos where do you go if you’re not saved? Right: hell.

No, Ham didn’t use those exact words, but it’s not hard to get the inference from what he did say. (and he’s almost mild compared to some of his fellow religionists – some Christians  won’t even admit other Christians into their heaven if they aren’t of the same denomination! I suppose it’s not terribly crowded up there, and the line-up for an espresso will be short…)

Aliens, therefore, are all doomed, just as much as any Earthy sinners (not to mention those of other religions or denominations), because Jesus couldn’t save them. Why not? Because Jesus was the saviour for this world only, not other worlds. So any ETs are doomed. Q.E.D.

Well, that is if there are aliens. Ham doesn’t actually believe in them – in fact he doesn’t believe in ANY sort of life outside this planet – and roundly criticized NASA for, as he sees it, wasting millions of dollars in a futile search for non-existent alien life. According to the HuffPost:

…Ham, president and CEO of Answers in Genesis and the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Ky., said we probably are alone. He wrote “earth was specially created,” and the entire hunt for extraterrestrials is “really driven by man’s rebellion against God in a desperate attempt to supposedly prove evolution!”

Gosh, our desperate attempt to prove a scientific fact. We’re all damned. Just like ET. Well, maybe not Ham and his fellow creationists, I presume.

To be fair, Ken made a video after his original post, this time encouraging NASA to continue its search (i.e. continue to waste money) because it would prove creationists right by not finding extraterrestrial life:

You have to chuckle over the prop. Looking for aliens in the midday sun using a hobbyist telescope. Cute.

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02/11/14

Feb. 12: Happy Darwin Day


Charles DarwinFebruary 12 is international Darwin Day, the day when we collectively celebrate science and reason. And, of course, we recognize Charles Darwin’s birthday: February 12, 1809 (the same birthdate as Abraham Lincoln, by the way).

If Collingwood made such declarations, I would propose we recognize the day in our municipality. Other Canadian municipalities have done so. Maybe we could raise a flag with Darwin’s face on it outside town hall.

Darwin Day was first celebrated in 1995 and has been growing in recognition and popularity ever since. As Darwinday.org tells us the celebration was:

…initiated by Dr. Robert (“Bob”) Stephens and took place at Stanford University. The first EVENT sponsored by the Stanford Humanists student group and the Humanist Community, was held on April 22, 1995. The famous anthropologist Dr. Donald Johanson, who discovered the early fossil human called ‘Lucy’, gave a lecture entitled “Darwin and Human Origins” to over 600 people in the Kresge Auditorium.

In subsequent years the location and date of the celebration was changed to coincide with Darwin’s birthday and was held on, or near, February 12 each year. The success of the venture is reflected in the list of speakers which include Richard Dawkins, 1996; Paul Berg, 1997; Robert Sapolsky, 1998; Douglas Hofstadter, 1999; Michael Shermer, 2001; Robert Stephens and Arthur Jackson, 2003; Robert and Lola Stephens, 2004; and Eugenie Scott, 2005.

And, as the site also adds, “Celebrating Science and Humanity within our various cultures throughout the world is an idea that is overdue…”

I would hope, too, that people would take some time out of their busy days to read something of Darwin’s, even if only a few pages. He wrote beautifully, albeit rather obtusely at times.

Of course, I don’t expect creationists will break out of their cult mentality and celebrate science today: they haven’t in more than 150 years since Darwin’s Origin of Species was published. But while we celebrate Darwin, we should give some thought to creationism on this day, not just to critical thinking, if for nothing else than to remind us that we still have a long way to go to get universal appreciation of science and reason.

Especially, it seems, in the USA, where 43 percent of Americans believe in young-earth creationism. Not entirely bad news, given that figure has dropped from 54 percent in 2009. But still very, very scary.*

On Facebook today there were a couple of links to articles about creationism worth reading on this Darwin Day.

Creationism museum displayFirst is a cutely risible piece on Buzzfeed called “45 Things I Learned At The Creation Museum.” For those who don’t know it, the Creation Museum in Kentucky is where Bill Nye recently successfully debated creationist Ken Ham. It’s probably the most strenuous effort to rationalize away science ever constructed.

If I ever get to Kentucky, I will pay a visit, but I expect I’ll get escorted out for laughing too loudly at the exhibits. And if you’re like me, you will probably enjoy the virtual tour in the Buzzfeed article more than actually being there, because you don’t risk being ejected. After all, how can you keep a straight face when confronted with a sign that claims all dinosaurs were vegetarians before Adam?

Uh, and those razor-edged, pointed, cutting, slashing teeth were for… broccoli? Okay, stop snickering or they won’t let you in the museum either.

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10/23/13

Survival of the Fittest


Herbert SpencerCharles Darwin has long been associated with the phrase, “survival of the fittest.” For a century and a half people have used it to refer to their understanding of his explanation of how species evolved.

But it wasn’t his. And it has obscured the understanding of Darwin’s own theory.

It came from a contemporary, Herbert Spencer. Spencer was a contemporary of Darwin – an English polymath:  philosopher, biologist, anthropologist, sociologist, economist liberal political theorist, utilitarian – and, by some accounts, an early libertarian. His ideas came from people like Malthus and Adam Smith (read more about his philosophy here). Wikipedia tells us:

For many, the name of Herbert Spencer would be virtually synonymous with Social Darwinism, a social theory that applies the law of the survival of the fittest to society; humanitarian impulses had to be resisted as nothing should be allowed to interfere with nature’s laws, including the social struggle for existence. Spencer desired the elimination of the unfit through their failure to reproduce, rather than coercion or state intervention to initiate their physical annihilation.

He wrote his interpretation of Darwin’s ideas in an 1864 textbook of biology:

“This survival of the fittest, which I have here sought to express in mechanical terms, is that which Mr. Darwin has called ‘natural selection’, or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life.”

Spencer was really trying to apply Darwin’s ideas to his own ideas about economics, class struggle, competition and politics. He also believed in Lamarckism – the inheritance of attributes gained in one generation by the next – which has long since been discredited. But whether you agree with Spencer’s views, his reduction of Darwin’s theory to a convenient axiom did the theory an injustice.

In the public mind, Darwin’s ideas about natural selection were confusing and challenging. They became conflated with Spencer’s ideas and somehow the phrase stuck – the Victoria era equivalent of a bumper sticker phrase. It became wildly popular, and was soon applied to social and political phenomena, not simply biological.

It was so popular as a catch phrase that in the 1869  fifth edition of his book, On the Origin of Species, Darwin – unfortunately – added this line:

“But the expression often used by Mr. Herbert Spencer, of the Survival of the Fittest, is more accurate, and is sometimes equally convenient.”

The problem is really in how the word “fittest” is defined. Like its sister term, theory, it has both a common and a scientific meaning.*

Survival of the FittestFittest, in Darwin’s sense, doesn’t mean the biggest, best, toughest, strongest or even the most competitive. It’s not the macho concept of superiority. It isn’t about power, control or brute force.

It means the “best suited for the immediate environment.” It has also been described as a “property of the relationship between the organism and the environment.” That might be a different colour, smaller size, less active. Whatever offers the best opportunity to survive and breed. Having offspring is key.

It’s a far more subtle notion than commonly used. As Wikipedia says:

Modern evolutionary theory defines fitness not by how long an organism lives, but by how successful it is at reproducing. If an organism lives half as long as others of its species, but has twice as many offspring surviving to adulthood, its genes will become more common in the adult population of the next generation.

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10/14/13

Why Creationists Don’t Win the Nobel Prize


Looking at the list of Nobel prizes awarded in 2013 for science, we see three prestigious entries:

The Nobel Prize in Physics 2013
François Englert and Peter W. Higgs

“For the theoretical discovery of a mechanism that contributes to our understanding of the origin of mass of subatomic particles, and which recently was confirmed through the discovery of the predicted fundamental particle, by the ATLAS and CMS experiments at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider.”

The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2013
Martin Karplus, Michael Levitt and Arieh Warshel

“For the development of multiscale models for complex chemical systems.”

The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2013
James E. Rothman, Randy W. Schekman and Thomas C. Südhof

“For their discoveries of machinery regulating vesicle traffic, a major transport system in our cells”

Impressive stuff. If you want more detail on why these three were chosen, read this National Geographic article.

Dinosaur flood jokeHmm. No ‘creation science”  in that list. In fact, not a single “creation scientist” was even nominated.

Not that the Nobel Prize hasn’t been without its controversies, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a list that showed a single creationist nominated for the award. Something along the line of “For proving dinosaurs and humans shared the planet before an angry, vengeful deity wiped out everything living including humans which it created only a few years earlier, except a pair each of  those creatures that could comfortably fit in a large boat, but on which dinosaurs and all but a single family of humans were not invited to board.”*

Probably because creationism isn’t science, not even when you try to gussy it up by labelling it “creation science.” It’s a political viewpoint based on a literalist take on Biblical mythology.”Creation science” is an oxymoron.**

You’d think if they had God (their particular god, not everyone’s god, mind you, and not every Christian’s god…) on their side, that God would belly up to the award committee bar and make sure at least one creationist won the damn prize. Not some folks doing experiments with particles no one can even see and that 99.9% of us don’t really understand.

But nope, creationists get shut out again.

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06/8/13

Creationism’s stench still lingers in American education


CreationismCreationism (and it’s dressed-up-in-drag younger brother, “intelligent” design) is the black mold of education. It’s an insidious infection of the mind, an intellectual parasite. And like real-life black mold, it creates a toxic environment – for learning and critical thinking.

This week, creationism again came up in American school board discussions. According to the HuffPost, the American Taliban* – the Tea Party – is behind the debate at a Springboro, Ohio, school board, to add the pseudoscience of creationist claptrap to the curriculum. The school board president, Kelly Kohls, is also head of the local Tea Party.

Hardly any surprises there.

It’s a sad, creepy tale. Creationism just won’t get cured. At least not by having such myopic fundamentalists in positions of authority. How do people with closed minds get on school boards in the first place?

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02/10/13

Sound and fury, signifying nothing


Creationists, not local bloggers...There’s a truly great moment in Shakespeare’s play, Macbeth, when Macbeth voices his last, and perhaps most moving, soliloquy about the fleetingness of life, and the meaning of what we do on this mortal coil. Life is devoid of meaning, he says, and our days are as short as a candle’f brief flame. The ignorant march onward, regardless:

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.
Macbeth, Act 5, Scene 5

A tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. What does that remind you of? (And I don’t mean in the local blogosphere. I’m talking about the real world.*)

It makes me think of the ongoing attempts by a group of right-wing, anti-science fundamentalists to force the teaching of mythology and superstition in US public schools instead of scientific fact. And, of course, they are always Republicans (what is it with them and creationism?) voicing that idiot’s tale.

Recently, Huffington Post reported on an attempt to both pave the way for creationism in public schools, and deny climate change science (taking responsibility for human activity’s impact on the planet is verboten among Republicans):

A Republican bill that would have paved the way for creationism to be taught in Colorado schools as well as encouraged teachers to deny the science of climate change was killed in committee on Monday, as expected.

What I have always found ironic is that the Republican fundamentalist views are eerily (and frighteningly) similar to the Taliban’s, just with a change in name for the particular Hairy Thunderer they worship. In fact, creationism is rearing its ugly head in even moderate Muslim countries like Turkey with similar arguments.

The Huffpost goes on to note that this has been a bad year for critical thinking in the USA:

…creationism legislation has been on the rise nationally in the last year, with Tennessee passing a bill similar to Kruse’s proposal, and several other states also proposing (though failing to pass) bills to teach creationism. Louisiana passed a “truth in education” bill in 2008. Earlier this year, former New Hampshire state Rep. Jerry Bergevin (R-Manchester) suggested that the teaching of evolution led to the Columbine massacre and the rise of the Nazi Party. Bergevin left office Wednesday after losing a bid for a second term. New Hampshire lawmakers overrode Gov. John Lynch’s (D) veto earlier this year of a bill that would allow parents to object to any part of the school curriculum and allow the teaching of an alternate curriculum.
A recent report found that students in Texas’ public schools are still learning that the Bible provides scientific evidence that the Earth is 6,000 years old, that astronauts have discovered “a day missing in space in elapsed time” that affirms biblical stories of the sun standing still and moving backwards, and that the United States was founded as a Christian nation based on biblical Christian principles.

So much codswallop in so few lines. Obviously Texas teachers use a different definition for “scientific evidence” than the rest of their nation. In fact, it’s different from the rest of the world. But it’s not surprising:

…according to a 2012 Gallup poll, 46 percent of Americans believe God created humans within the last 10,000 years. Only 15 percent of Americans believed God played no part in human evolution while 32 percent believed that humans had evolved, but that God played a part in that process.

So who is the chair of the Texas Board of Ed? A creationist who worries that the schools aren’t forcing more claptrap down the throats of students. The Dallas Observer ran a story with the headline, The Texas Board of Ed Chair is Upset Schools Aren’t Teaching Evolution “Alternatives”. The article included this quote from the chair, Barbara Cargill, (a Republican, of course) made to a Senate Education Committee:

“Our intent, as far as theories with the [curriculum standards], was to teach all sides of scientific explanations … But when I went on [to the CSCOPE website] last night, I couldn’t see anything that might be seen as another side to the theory of evolution,” she says, according to TFN’s transcript and brief video clip. “Every link, every lesson, every everything, you know, was taught as ‘this is how the origin of life happened, this is what the fossil record proves,’ and all that’s fine, but that’s only one side.”

Duh! There is no other scientific explanation to evolution. Just like there isn’t a scientific alternative for gravity, the speed of light, relativity, quantum physics and chaos theory. One side? You can’t have two sides of fact. Creationism isn’t a theory: it’s a fairy tale, like Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny.

In modern science, the term “theory” refers to scientific theories, a well-confirmed type of explanation of nature, made in a way consistent with scientific method, and fulfilling the criteria required by modern science. Such theories are described in such a way that any scientist in the field is in a position to understand and either provide empirical support (“verify”) or empirically contradict (“falsify”) it. Scientific theories are the most reliable, rigorous, and comprehensive form of scientific knowledge, in contrast to more common uses of the word “theory” that imply that something is unproven or speculative (which is better defined by the word ‘hypothesis’). Scientific theories are also distinguished from hypotheses, which are individual empirically testable conjectures, and scientific laws, which are descriptive accounts of how nature will behave under certain conditions.

Meanwhile, in Missouri, according to the Washington Monthly, another republican is trying to foist fantasy on students from elementary to college level. In the Riverfront Times, it notes:

Missouri Representative Rick Brattin, a Republican, has introduced a bill that would mandate schools across the state give “equal treatment” to the theory of evolution and so-called “intelligent design,” which is similar to creationism. Why? “I’m a science enthusiast,” he tells Daily RFT. “I’m a huge science buff.” He’s not, however, much of a Darwin fan.

He’s a fan of science, but not the scientists? He’s so much a science fan that he rejects one of the core tenets of biology in favour of the superstitious, pseudoscience twaddle called “intelligent” design.**

Brattin tells the paper he’s not just another creationist (really!) trying to force the state to teach his religious claptrap:

But his bill has nothing to do with religion, Brattin says. In fact — it is the opponents who are being religious in their stubborn support of evolution.

Nothing to do with religion? Snort. And calling scientists and teachers who support evolution as being “religious” is a canard. Or rather, a logical fallacy.

The good news in this depressing tale of medieval thinking comes in a small story in the Vail Daily, that noted,

Young adults have taken a dramatic leap from faith. These youthful Americans reject the religious right’s bossy, sanctimonious spirit.

Like Pontius Pilate, a third of adults under 30 have washed their hands evangelical politics.

They avoid religious affiliation whatsoever, reports the Pew Forum on Religious & Public Life. Pew polls indicate these religiously unaffiliated “overwhelmingly think the religious organizations are too concerned with money and power, too focused on rules and too involved in politics.”

The religious right’s political power peaked in the 2004 presidential election.

I don’t agree with that last sentence. I seen little proof that the fundamentalists – the American Taliban – have receded. The last Back in 2002, Slate predicted the “end of creationism” as a political force:

Intelligent design, as defined by its advocates, means nothing. This is the way creationism ends. Not with a bang, but with a whimper.

Hasn’t happened yet. I see the GOP pushing more mindless religious ideologues like Paul Broun into the spotlight to spout their own ridiculously embarrassing sound and fury:

During the 2012 campaign, Broun was most notable in a video segment that went viral when he gave a presentation in front of a wall mounted with a dozen deer heads and complained that evolution, embryology and the Big Bang theory were all “lies from the pit of hell.” Broun is on the House Committee of Science, Space and Technology.

As of Feb. 1, four US states were considering anti-science bills to force teaching creationism in their schools (Colorado’s bill was subsequently defeated, as noted above). But the real keynote in the story is towards the end:

A June 2012 Gallup poll asked some 1,000 Americans nationwide about their thoughts on the origin of human life. The survey revealed that 46 percent of Americans believe God created human beings. Numerous creation science advocates continue to hope that the Intelligent Design theory will make its way into US public schools, though they have not been very successful so far.

With such a high percentage of people who believe in pseudoscience rather than science, it will be difficult to change the current trend towards increasing the mass stupidity. Americans clearly don’t wish to be the pioneers of science, space exploration and medicine in the future.

I think we’ve still got a long way to go before we see the end of this particular idiot’s tale. I see little to hope for in American politics when wingnuts like the anti-science child of privilege, Paul Ryan, gets nominated for vice president. Maybe the new generation of American voters will change that, but I won’t hold my breath waiting.

~~~~~

* Okay, creationists are delusional and don’t really partake in the real world any more than some local bloggers. But they act on a larger stage and have real influence. Creationists join their NRA-gun-toting wingnuts as foolosophers (my comment on the fools of the gun debate is here).

** “Intelligent” design isn’t. It’s lipstick on the creationist pig (or more properly, a lab coat…). But like wearing a stethoscope around your neck won’t make anyone a doctor, calling superstition “science” won’t make it so, either.

Doonesbury cartoon