Monthly Archives: June 2015

Will this spread? 349 students at Scottish High School challenge Christianity’s monopoly

North Berwick High SchoolMore than a third of the students at North Berwick High have signed a petition challenging Christianity’s monopoly in Religious Observance and School Assemblies. In order to express their views more freely, they have set up their own newspaper, The Contender, of which the first two numbers are available on line here and here, and obtained a grant to pay for a print edition. These actions have attracted well-deserved media attention both locally and UK-wide, and are likely to be discussed by the Scottish Youth Parliament.

Here is what they’ve signed:

 Petition for the Secularisation or Religious Diversity of School Assemblies and/or Functions

By signing this petition you, as a North Berwick student, are agreeing that there should either be no religious influence (in assemblies, other events) in school or that all religious denominations should be represented, and that it is inappropriate for only one religion (Christianity) to be advocated, in particular the assemblies led by members of the Christian church.

Setting up a newspaper of the quality achieved at North Berwick is a major enterprise, but these days any group of students can publish articles expressing its views using WordPress or Blogger, and spread word of them through social media. Moreover, any group of students in any school can organise a petition like this one, and, as we shall see, would be right to do so.

It is inappropriate for only one religion (Christianity) to be advocated, in particular the assemblies led by members of the Christian church.

(North Berwick student petition)

Strange as it may seem, all the students are demanding is that the school act according to the policies stated in its own handbook, which are based on the Scottish Government’s current guidance letter. Both the handbook and the guidance letter say, in identical language, that “[M]any school communities contain pupils and staff from faiths other than Christianity or with no faith commitment, and this must be taken fully into account in supporting spiritual development. It is of central importance that all pupils and staff can participate with integrity in forms of religious observance without compromise to their personal faith” and that “There should be a clear distinction between assemblies devised for the purpose of religious observance and assemblies for other purposes such as celebrating success.”

There should be a clear distinction between assemblies devised for the purpose of religious observance and assemblies for other purposes such as celebrating success.

(School handbook; also official Scottish Government guidance)

The Church of Scotland has also expressed remarkably similar views. In a 2013 submission to the Public Petitions Committee, objecting to the Scottish Secular Society’s plea to change Religious Observance from opt-out to opt-in, it stated that “What is defined now as Religious Observance in Schools is a pluralist approach in a pluralist society”, that Religious Observance events are “a place to encounter different beliefs and points of view, which are fundamental in making sense of the pluralist society in which we live”, and that “Religious Observance is not, and should never be confessional in nature (it is not worship nor can it be).”

What is defined now as Religious Observance in Schools is a pluralist approach in a pluralist society.

(Church of Scotland, to Scottish Parliament)

I also found in the Handbook a list of the members of the school chaplaincy team, at least as it was at the time of the last posted handbook edition, which would seem to be 2012. And while official bodies will not tell you the affiliations of school chaplains, regarding this as confidential personal information, a web search quickly showed that all were committed Protestant Christians, ranging from Episcopalian to extreme Evangelical [1]. The Evangelicals meet on the school premises for Sunday morning worship, but there seems no reason to object to that so long as the school handles all requests for accommodation evenhandedly, and does not pressure students into attending.

North Berwick West Bay (Kim Traynor via Wikipedia)

Can such a team deliver the promised “pluralist approach in a pluralist society”? Not according to the latest (2011) census data. These show all non-Catholic Christians totalling 38% of the population, as against 44% for “no religion” or “no religion stated”. Even these numbers will underestimate dissent from religion, especially among the school’s students. The religious affiliations monitored by the Census do not necessarily imply religious practice or belief, and we also know that religiosity is greater among older Scots than among the young.

Two things follow. The students are merely asking that the school follow its own stated policies. And spiritual education, if indeed such a thing is possible, can no longer be left to churches in which so many of the students no longer believe.

The students’ representatives are also asking the School Administration to allow 16-year-old students to withdraw themselves directly from Religious Observance, without involving their parents. I find it strange that they even need to ask. We are talking about young people who are by law old enough to get married, or to vote in at least some crucial elections. The individuals we are discussing have also shown themselves capable of effective organisation, and of producing work clearly superior to their own local newspaper. And while the law may regard the decision to withdraw as one for the parents, the school has no legal right to enforce attendance on 16-year-olds anyway, so why should it even try to retain this right when it comes to one particular activity?

1] The Chaplaincy Team members, and their affiliations as revealed by an on-line search, are Rev Neil Dougall (St Andrew Blackadder Church of Scotland), Bill Nisbet (North Berwick Christian Fellowship) , Shiona Liddle (North Berwick Christian Youth Trust, Inspire), Rev Dr David Graham (Abbey Church of Scotland) and Rev John Lindsay (St Baldred’s Episcopalian). In addition, the local paper reporter covering the school is the Minister of Belhaven Parish Church, Rev Laurence Twaddle.

Inspire is a CofS/Fellowship joint venture, which gives out free rolls at its lunch club and is involved in the school play.

The Fellowship gives no details of its beliefs on its web page, but is affiliated to Scottish Network Churches, some at least of whose members believe in Noah’s Ark as a fact of history and the eternal punishment of unbelievers in the Lake of Fire.

Why the Sea Squirt Eats its Brains Out (Sort of)

Good to eat, in traditional Mediterranean and oriental cuisines. Good food for farmed fish, not that they (the fish, I mean) really have much choice in the matter. Good as a source of possible biofuels. And now good for almost £1,000,000 of research funding. Your sister, the sea squirt, actual species Ciona intestinalis, coming shortly to a fjord near you.

The sea squirt is the ultimate in middle-aged complacency. It starts off looking a little bit like a tadpole, with a brain (of sorts, “cerebral vesicle” in diagram), a tail with a nerve cord and a stiffening rod (the notochord), an eye (ocellus), and a balance organ (statocyst). The reason it looks like a tadpole at this stage is because it is like a tadpole. The notochord is related to the backbone in vertebrates, a spinal cord runs parallel to it along the flexible tail, and at the head end of the spinal cord there primitive brain coordinates sensory inputs.

Anatomy of larval tunicate (John Houseman via Wikimedia)

But when it matures, it sticks its head on a rock, and changes into its adult form, which is not much more than a mouth (branchial siphon), a stomach, and an exit tube (atrial siphon). It is a hermaphrodite, with one testis and one ovary. Both of these ejaculate into the exit tube, and there are rather complicated mechanisms to prevent self-fertilisation. It protects itself by growing an outer coat, or tunic, made of cellulose-like material, hence the scientific name name tunicate. The sea squirt eats, or to more exact reabsorbs, notochord, tail, sense organs and nervous system, since these are no longer needed, while it feeds by wafting water into its mouth cavity, and filtering out suspended particles. Hence the meme (whose evolution deserves a blog post to itself) that speaks of the sea squirt eating its brains out, comparing the process to a Professor gaining tenure (disclosure: I am myself a former tenured Professor).

Actually, it’s a bit more complicated (see Supplementary Reading, especially the 2005  article), which gives me a good excuse to drop the “Eat Your Brains Out” from the title of this blog, and replace it with the more readily understood “Primate’s Progress”.

Generalised anatomy of adult tunicate (loc. cit.) Note what isn’t there any more; original brain, nerve, moveable tail, and sense organs

Tunicates are the sister group to vertebrates, meaning that tunicates and vertebrates are more closely related to each other than to any other group. They may not look like it, and for many years it was thought that the closest group to the vertebrates were lancelets, animals with simple fish-like bodies that burrow into sand. However, one clue to the contrary was the fact that most vertebrates, and tunicates during their adventurous youth, have a sense of smell while lancelets don’t. (Whales don’t have a sense of smell either, not having any use for it. However, their DNA still contains a degraded version of the genes that in other mammals code for sense organs, inherited as we would expect if their terrestrial ancestors.)

The matter was not settled until 2006, when molecular phylogeny (basically the same kind of DNA testing used every day in the courts to establish paternity) showed that vertebrates like you and I, and tunicates like sea squirts, are more closely related, and are what biologists call sister groups, while the lancelets are merely cousins (for a detailed technical discussion, see here). The partings of the ways took place some 550 million years ago, and a lot has happened since to obscure matters. Tunicates now have the simplest genome, but this is the result of gene loss. That of vertebrates shows the effect of doubling and redoubling, one of the many ways in which evolution can give rise to new information.  However, evolution is not necessarily progress, nor are we more highly evolved than tunicates. We just happen to have evolved in what are, for us, more interesting directions.

So appearances can be deceptive. In fact, tunicates have quite a bewildering variety of life histories and reproductive strategies, including (for salps, which are close relatives of sea squirts) cloning, group sex, and a midlife sex change. Molecular comparisons between those tunicates that never settle down, and those that do, suggest that the sedentary habit has been discovered more than once, and that tunicates can evolve new body forms with unusual rapidity.


Tunicates raised at a research facility in Øygarden, Norway. (Photo: Bård Amundsen, from Norwegian Government press release)

The Norwegian government has just spent 8.7 million Norwegian krone on these creatures. Why, and what exactly do they hope to gain from it? The idea is to anchor huge sheets of plastic in selected Norwegian fjords, with buoys attached to the top to keep them vertical, and allow the chosen species of sea squirt to colonise them. The fjords are ideal in shape for this, being steep-sided drowned valleys, carved out by ice age glaciers. The sea squirts will require no feeding, because they get enough nutrition from suspended fragments of debris. They will not exhaust this food supply, as the water is replenished twice daily by the tides. Thanks to their cellulose-like tunics, they attract no predators, so harvesting them will not deprive any other species of its normal food, and as an overall accumulator of protein the project is predicted to be 100 times as efficient per unit area as grazing land animals. So you can harvest the sea squirts, grind them up, and use them as fish feed. This is potentially very big business, because Norway is the world’s leading producer of farmed salmon, which until now have needed to be fed, themselves, on fish. The sea squirts are even efficient accumulators of omega-3 fatty acids, produced by microorganisms, which end up in the salmon.

There is more. At the moment, biofuels are of two kinds; those derived from starch, and those from vegetable oils. Both of these compete directly with food. There is very serious doubt as to whether corn alcohol, so beloved of farmers in the American Midwest, actually contributes anything to reduction of global warming, after taking into account the energy spent growing and fertilizing the grain, and the fact that more food will need to be grown elsewhere. My own view is that biofuels will never make a real contribution to the world’s energy supply until we develop a good technology for making alcohol from cellulose. This is more difficult than making it from starch. Both starch and cellulose are polymers derived from glucose, the only difference being the way in which glucose units are joined up, and how to unravel cellulose and convert it into biofuel is a hot research topic. But, as the group funded by the Norwegian Research Council points out, cellulose from wood is blended with a tough polymer called lignin, which is even more indigestible. I would add that other plant sources of cellulose are also complex mixtures, and that in any case, land used to grow biofuel crops becomes unavailable for agriculture, or for natural carbon-fixing processes such as peat formation. So if cellulose biofuels do turn out to have a future, a marine source has many advantages.

Current developments are, I suspect, under wraps for commercial reasons, but the research group involved have already taken out patents on the production of biofuels from tunicates, and the use of tunicate material as feed for (non-human) animals.

Two questions remain unanswered. Can a good way be found, on a bulk scale, to remove the water which makes up 95% of the body mass of the sea squirts? And a further question of my own; what will the farmed salmon taste like?

An earlier version of this post appeared on 3 Quarks Daily. I thank Zen Faulks of UT Pan-American for critical discussion of the “Eat your brains out” concept.

Further reading:

The larval ascidian nervous system: the chordate brain from its small beginnings, A. Meinertzhagen and Y. Okamura, Trends in Neurosciences 24(7). 401-410(2001).

The nervous system in adult tunicates: current research directions, O. Mackie and P. Burighel, Canadian Journal of Zoology 83(1): 151-183, 2005

Deuterostome phylogeny, Sarah J. Bourlat et al., Nature, 444, 2006, 85 (2006).

A chordate with a difference, Linda Z. Holland, Nature, 447, 2007, 153 (2007).

The amphioxus genome, Nicholas H. Putnam and 35 other authors from 18 different institutes, Nature, 453,1064 (2008) (free download); Amphioxus unleashed, Henry Gee, Nature, 453, 999 (2008) [amphioxus, meaning “sharp at both ends”, is a term for lancelet]

A review of the life cycles and life-history adaptations of pelagic tunicates to environmental conditions, Don Diebel and Ben Lowen, ICES Journal of Marine Science, 2012, 358; free download.


To my Brazilian readers

Welcome. Who are you? How did you find me?

In the past couple of days, 10% of my page hits have come from Brazil. I’m delighted. Brazil is a battleground between the acceptors of scientific reality (who can claim some support from the Catholic Church) and invading Evangelicals and Seventh Day Adventists. These last are extreme creationists, not merely science-denying but science-distorting. They maintain that the entire geological record is due to Noah’s flood, that their own position differs from the scientific mainstream only in its choice of interpretation, and that mutations can only degrade and not create information. Students of creationism will recognise here all the worst features of Henry Morris’s Flood Geology, Ken Ham’s Answers in Genesis, and the intellectual distortions of the Intelligent Designers. So if this blog is service anywhere, it will be of service in Brazil.

It is clear why I want to be found by Brazilians, but why should Brazilians want to find me? I did have a public exchange with a creationist on the Brazilian Airforce Academy cultural website, Letras & e-Artes, and am told that my contribution was well received, but that was 18 months ago. I also, more recently, had a tedious Facebook debate with a self-styled Adventist theologian, who presented as if new coined arguments rebutted in the 1920s, but I doubt that her followers would be beating a path to my door.

And yet, I must be doing something that is of special value to readers in Brazil. What is it, and how do I set about doing the same elsewhere?

Why only Brazil?


100 Reasons the Earth is Old (reblogged from Age Of Rocks)

I am posting this page from Jonathan Baker’s Age of Rocks here for several reasons. It is an extremely useful resource, well researched and well-written; the author addresses creationists with humanity and respect, even as he demolishes their position; and the author himself is a committed Christian (why that should matter to me, a free-thinking atheist, is something I explain below).

Edinburgh to Siccar Point June-Jly 2012 048

Siccar Point. Horizontal Devonian sandstone over uptilted Silurian greywacke. Click and re-click to enlarge

The evidence presented ranges from tree rings to topography to sedimentology to physical geography to archaeology and anthropology to geochemistry to the fossil record to radiometric dating to astrophysics. Many of these are topics I have touched on, for example in my discussions of the unconformity at Siccar Point, and the slowly cooled multiple lava flows and palaeosols of the Giants’ Causeway.

In each case, the reasoning is briefly described, with links to more detailed discussions, many framed specifically to refute creationist claims. By relegating those claims to second place, the author avoids the common mistake of teaching the very error that he is warning against. At the same time, he pays a respectful attention to his opponents, for reasons that he explains elsewhere in his blog, even as he dismantles their arguments.

Like the authors of EvoAnth  and Leaving Fundamentalism, the author is at present a graduate student; welcome examples of how the web is democratising discourse, and how young scientists and educators are using the opportunity.

I commend this piece to all those who have to deal with creationism in schools and elsewhere, alongside such classics as 29+ Evidences for Macroevolution and Index to Creationist Claims, and hope that the author will continue to update and add to it as his own career progresses.


Giants’ Causeway: interbasaltic laterite palaeosol between lava flows at The Chimneys. Click and reclick to enlarge

Like Dennis Venema at Biologos and Robert Wiens at Radiometric Dating – A Christian Perspective, the author is a committed Christian, thus helping to give the lie to the claim Read the rest of this entry

Evolution, Creationism, and Christianity; what teachers need to know

I have assembled a team to help prepare materials about evolution for the use of non-biologists, and we would welcome comments and suggestions. The topic arises in Religious Education in particular, hence the title of this post. Most of the material here is borrowed from an article by the Reverend Michael Roberts, retired Anglican Vicar, field geologist, School Governor, historian of ideas, and part of the team. But first, some background.

Recent developments increase the importance of what Michael has to say. The Society for Biology made two recommendations in its recent evidence to the Scottish Parliament. One, now incorporated into the stated Governmental position, was that creationism not be taught in a science class since it is not a scientific theory. The other was expressed as follows:

We recognise that questions regarding creationism and intelligent design may arise in the classroom, for example as a result of individual faith and beliefs or media coverage…

Furthermore we urge the Scottish Government to provide teachers with appropriate training opportunities to develop the skills to answer controversial questions posed in science lessons in a clear and sensitive manner.

The issues raised here are not confined to the science classroom, nor to Scotland. Religious reactions to such nineteenth century discoveries as the antiquity of the Earth, and the evolutionary relationships between living things, are and should be topics for discussion in the study of religion and of the history of ideas. Indeed, Creationism is singled out as a sub-topic in Scottish schools, as part of the syllabus for Religious, Moral, and Philosophical Studies (RMPS). My own view is that an emphasis on Creationism in particular is unfortunate, since this is the most contentious, unhelpful, and indefensible of the various religious responses. There is also a real risk that discussion of the relationship between ideas might get sidetracked into irrelevant, and long since resolved, disputes about the underlying facts. But no doubt good teaching will supply the necessary balance.

Evolution is about to become part of the national curriculum in England, and non-specialist teachers there are urgently seeking helpful materials. No wonder, when one considers what is involved. Explaining evolution is a formidable task, not made any easier by the existence of a campaign of theologically motivated disinformation.

Teachers should of course be aware of the overwhelming scientific consensus in favour of accepting the facts of evolution and an ancient Earth, and know something of the lines of evidence that led to it, such as those mentioned by Michael below. It would also be an advantage to know something about the geological column, and radiometric dating. They should understand the concepts of natural selection and mutation, but preferably be aware that much if not most evolution is apparently neutral drift. Things being what they are, they must also be prepared to discuss the “objections” to evolution, such as why there are still monkeys, isn’t evolution only a theory, the alleged poverty of the fossil record, and the “problem” of the origin of new information. Here great care is needed. It is best for many reasons to let students come to their own conclusions, rather than be told what to think, and yet we are lying to them if we leave them with the impression that this is still an open controversy within science. Moreover, teaching with an emphasis on refuting arguments may prove counter-effective.

Finally, as if this were not enough, teachers should have some knowledge of the range of religious responses, and should realise that the Churches had generally accepted an ancient Earth and the fact of evolution by the end of the 19th Century.

Anyway, it is time to let Michael speak for himself, in the excerpts below. The full article is here. Michael is of course a Christian, and is mainly addressing his fellow-Christians, but I think that all of us can learn from what he has to say. There are things in his article that I like in it, and things that I don’t, and, in the spirit of intellectual enquiry, I will let interested readers work out for themselves which is which.

TAKING EVOLUTION AND CREATION SERIOUSLY (excerpted and lightly adapted from a blogpost by the Rev Michael Roberts, MA Geology, BA Theology, F.R. Hist. Soc, retired vicar, School Governor)


In essence, biological evolution means that all life is descended from a common ancestor, most popularly that we are descended from apes. Parodies and misunderstandings abound, and there is a prevalent view that evolution excludes creation and thus God.

The genius of Darwin in “The Origin of Species” (1859) was that he brought together previously unrelated aspects to biology; Variation and selection (leading to Natural Selection), the Geological Record, Geographical Distribution and the “Mutual Affinities of Organic Beings”. One of the main “gaps” in Darwin’s theory was the problem of inheritance or genetics. The solution to this was provided by Gregor Mendel in the 1860s but remained unknown until the turn of the century.

Genetics was what biologists were looking for and this resulted in the 1940s “Neodarwinian Synthesis” of Darwinianism and Mendelism. This has been further modified by such concepts as neutral drift (Kimura 1968), punctuated equilibrium (or stop-go evolution; Gould and Eldredge 1972), and molecular phylogeny (predominantly 1990s onwards). So our present science of evolution is far in advance of the original neo-Darwinian synthesis, let alone anything that Darwin himself could have imagined, and our appreciation of evolution has been both deepened and strengthened in the process. Evolution is regarded as much of a fact as the sphericity of the earth, – and rightly so!

To summarise the most obvious arguments for Evolution, these are

1) The Evidence of the Fossil Record.


The geological record shows a progressive “appearance” of life. ; invertebrates with shells at the base of the Cambrian (550m.y.); Vertebrates (fish) in the middle Ordovician (460 m.y.); leading up to Mammals in the Jurassic (180 m.y.); and finally “Man” a few million years ago.

2) “Mutual Affinities”

There are great number of mutual affinities between all forms of life. For example the structure of all vertebrates have much in common. If, say, the fore limbs of a bird, a whale, a dog and a human are compared, they all have the same basic structure and are said to be homologous, and point to a common ancestor. Here is a diagram of homologies



3) Geographical Distribution.

The oddities of geographical distribution were explained before Darwin by holding that God created different creatures in different places. Thus, for example in the Galapagos Islands, which Darwin visited when on the Beagle in 1834, God with would have created umpteen different finches on different islands. Evolutionarily this is seen as common ancestral finches living in isolation on different islands, and then diverging over subsequent generations. On a longer timescale lifeforms before the Mesozoic in Africa and South America were similar, but have diverged since then. The classic example is the Wallace Line in the middle of Indonesia. The reason became clear with the discovery of Continental Drift which demonstrated that the two continents started to move apart during the Mesozoic.


[To these one could add residual organs, evidence from embryology, defects of design, and the relationships shown by molecular biology, among other things, but this might overburden both class and teacher.]

This is a terribly brief summary of Evolution, but there are many excellent non-technical books, such as Why Evolution is True (Jerry Coyne), Your Inner Fish (Neil Shubin), and The Incredible Unlikeliness of Being (Alice Roberts).


Open any childrens’ Bible on the first page and you are usually confronted with an idealised picture of a giraffes and lions on Noah’s Ark.


Thus from an early age people are encouraged to believe in a literal six-24 hour day creation. This aids and abets youngsters to give up their faith at an early age, but the problem often persists to adulthood, leaving them with a nagging doubt that God could not have created the world, because Genesis is incompatible with science.

The Bible begins with the marvellous double “account” of Creation. I say double because Genesis 2 differs from Genesis 1. Genesis 1 is the best known with its structure of creation on six successive days. Approach it literally and you are in mess. Attempting to tie it in to scientific discovery always fails, as is inevitable as the Bible was “written” 3000 years before the rise of Geology. See it as a hymn to God the Creator and it comes to life. “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth”. The focus is on God, the Rock of Ages, not the ages of rocks. Again “And God said” occurs nine times as an introductory formula for God’s creativity. Ultimately Genesis One is a “Whodunnit” not a “Howdunnit”!


Genesis 1 and 2 are not the only parts of the bible, which speak of God the Creator. Take the last five chapters of the Book of Job, or Isaiah chapter 40 from verse 12, some of the Psalms especially 8, 19,and 95 (the Venite) to mention a few from the Old Testament, and John chapter 1 and Colossians Chapter 1 verses 15 to 20., both of which speak of a “Cosmic” Christ.

Taking Creation seriously is an affirmation that God is the Creator of all that is, with a realisation that the Bible gives no scientific explanation. Science will inform our understanding of Creation, not overthrow it.

Jacobus_ussher4004 B.C. AND ALL THAT.

In the margins of many old Bibles, we will find dates in years B.C. for the Old Testament. For Creation the date is 4004.B.C., and this date is usually ascribed to Archbishop Ussher of the seventeenth century. Up to 1650 most Jews and Christians reckoned the age of the earth to be a few thousands.

With the rise of scientists such as John Ray, Whiston and others before 1700 the earth was seen as somewhat older. The flowering of geology at the end of the eighteenth century, with Smith, Cuvier, de Saussure and Hutton, developed that further, and before long talk was of millions of years. Many of the early geologists were Anglican clergy and soon the churches took the vast age of the earth on board.

There were a minority of Christians who opposed geology, as did some of Faraday’s colleagues at the Royal Institution. However, by 1860 hardly any clergy or educated Christians believed in 4004.B.C. The Evangelical clergyman-astronomer Richard Main wrote, in 1862, “Some school-books still teach to the ignorant that the earth is 6,000 years old. No well-educated person of the present day shares that delusion.” (Alas, many share it in 2015!)

Bust of Hugh Miller (d. 1856) by William Brodie in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. Miller was a prominent member of the Free Church of Scotland, and a geologist whose Testimony of the Rocks discarded biblical literalism as incompatible with the testimony of nature

Putting actual dates to the age of the universe, the earth or rock strata proved difficult,
even after biblical chronology was dethroned. Late 19th Century geologists favoured an age of around 100 million years, but radiometric dating proved this time much too short. For forty years now the age of the earth has been unchallenged at 4,600 million years, the oldest rocks at a little over 4,000 million, and the base of the Cambrian at 550 million. Such numbers are mind-boggling, but then so are black holes and the structure of the atom.

(Recently, Creationists have tried to demonstrate that the geological methods are fatally flawed, and that the earth is but a few thousand years young. Not one of the Creationist arguments has any substance to it. It is sad to be so negative, but Creationism is a confused hot-potch of bad science, misunderstanding and misrepresentation.)

The problems some have over geology is caused by a too literal view of the Bible, and not allowing the pre-scientific biblical writers to communicate truth about God in a non-literal way. It also does not recognise that most educated Christians never took Genesis literally!

[Michael goes on to speak of the absurdities of literalism, the apparent belittlement of human life by incorporating it in the animal sphere, the concept of humankind as made “in the image of God”, the differences between methodological and philosophical naturalism (I have a piece of my own on this), and evolution’s dismissal of the concept of a designer, as in Dawkins’ book The Blind Watchmaker.]

An atheist will see “design” as a chance happening, a theist will see “design” as a recognition that God is above and behind all things: The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork (Psalm 19, verse 1)

However, not all “design” is beautiful; some is frankly horrific. Darwin could not see the work of a Benevolent Designer in the Ichneumon fly. This lovely little creature lays its eggs inside a caterpillar. The eggs hatch and proceed to eat the caterpillar alive, keeping it so until the larvae emerge. “Design” does not point conclusively to a Good God. Thus

Beauty of (apparent) design is a problem to the atheist; Suffering is a problem to the Theist.


Of the evolutionary picture Darwin said, “There is grandeur in this view of life”. But he should have added “AND DEATH”. The natural world is incredibly wasteful of life; just consider frogspawn. The spawn will produce hundreds of tadpoles, and if TWO survive to become frogs and breed, that is success. Three is a population explosion. The fate of the tadpoles is varied, some, to the horror of children, are eaten by other tadpoles. Then, one of my joys in late spring is to hear the Cuckoo calling. The music of the adult is not matched by the morality of its offspring casually heaving out its adopted kin. Life is shot through with suffering and death. Nature is Red in Tooth and Claw. Human life is also often cruel and short. Surely “an all powerful, all-loving God simply would not allow small children to die in screaming agony” (Michael Ruse, Taking Darwin Seriously)? Suffering is the great problem, whether personal, intellectual, or religious.

Contrast this with Milton’s view (Paradise Lost) that all suffering is the result of Adam and Eve’s sin. Since the rise of geology in 1800, this view has been untenable, but it has not always been possible to bury it, especially in popular Christianity. Very often Milton’s view is accepted as the traditional view. As the admirable Bishop Colenso said in 1863, “We literally groan, even in the present day, under the burden of Milton’s mythology.”

We still do.

[Michael continues his discussion of the problem of evil, in highly personal ways. Does it make sense to blame Adam and Eve for the fact that children are dying today of malaria? This lets God off the hook, but at what cost? He invites us, instead, to share Darwin’s contemplation of the tangled bank, and sees science as a way of understanding and appreciating the work of the Creator.]

Guest Post: Ex-oil man explains why he reported anti-fracking leaflets

It’s wrong when climate warming denialists tell lies, it’s wrong when Creationists tell lies, it’s wrong when anti-vaxxers tell lies, and it’s just as wrong when anti-frackers tell lies.

Cheap gas from fracking helps keep coal in the ground, and the industry is much more closely regulated than in the US. We can, and should, be discussing whether the environmental benefits outweigh the costs; gas only generates about half as much CO2 as its energy equivalent in coal, but any cheap fossil fuel undermines alternatives. We should also be examining the effectiveness and enforcement of environmental regulations, as for all major extraction and construction. Silly scare stories can only detract from these important debates.

h/t Michael Roberts


Former oil engineer, Ken Wilkinson, has made several complaints about anti-fracking material to the advertising watchdog, the Advertising Standards Authority. In this Guest Post, he describes what motivates his action.

View original post 451 more words

Global warming: Science-denying Senator tells scientist Pope to listen to scientists

Coat of arms of Franciscus.svg

Pope Francis’ Coat of Arms

Well, perhaps not quite a scientist, but Pope Francis really does have, on his CV, a chemistry lab technician’s diploma and related work experience. And Rick Santorum is not quite a Senator, either, more of an ex-Senator, having lost his seat in 2006, but nonetheless a candidate (yet again) for the Presidency of the United States.

Pope Francis also worked for a while as a nightclub bouncer. Nothing to do with the matter in hand, but I thought I’d mention it.

One further irony is that Santorum is a devout Catholic, who describes Catholicism as the source of his politics, and attends Mass almost daily.

Galileo Galilei, age 60, by Ottavio Leoni

As Santorum should know, Popes have for quite a while had a reasonably good record of listening to scientists. There was, of course, that unfortunate business of Galileo, but that was 380 years ago, his Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems was taken off the Index of Prohibited Books in 1835, and perhaps we should let bygones be bygones. More recently, the Big Bang Theory was first put forward by a Catholic priest, Georges Lemaître, working in a Catholic university. The Catholic Church has also accepted the fact of evolution for many decades, as laid out notably by John Paul II in his 1996 address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences.

Here, in contrast, is part of Santorum’s record of science denial. He was responsible for what became known as the Santorum Amendment. This said that students studying evolution in US publicly funded schools should also study the “controversy”, i.e. Creationism and Intelligent Design. This passed the Senate in 1991 by a vote of 92-8, but failed to become law, in part because of the opposition of a coalition including 96 scientific organisations.  Its spirit lives on, despite this opposition, in the “teach the controversy” campaign that continues to bedevil US science education.

However, it is not evolution that has led Santorum to upbraid the Pope, but the environment. Santorum stated during his last Presidential campaign that the idea of man-made climate change was

just patently absurd when you consider all of the other factors …  a beautifully concocted scheme because they know that the earth is gonna cool and warm… just an excuse for more government control of your life, and I’ve never been for any scheme or even accepted the junk science behind the whole narrative.

Obviously, Santorum, unlike the Pope, was able to come to a conclusion about climate change without consulting any scientists. But if he was unwilling to listen to the scientists, one might have hoped that he would by now at least have listened to the Pentagon, which warns that

Pentagon on global warming: “we are already beginning to see some of these impacts”

rising global temperatures, changing precipitation patterns, climbing sea levels, and more extreme weather events will intensify the challenges of global instability, hunger, poverty, and conflict. They will likely lead to food and water shortages, pandemic disease, disputes over refugees and resources, and destruction by natural disasters in regions across the globe.

In our defense strategy, we refer to climate change as a “threat multiplier” because it has the potential to exacerbate many of the challenges we are dealing with today – from infectious disease to terrorism. We are already beginning to see some of these impacts.

Santorum, however, knows better. So when Pope Francis recently said, regarding the damage we are dong to the environment,

We are Custodians of Creation. But when we exploit Creation we destroy the sign of God’s love for us, in destroying Creation … is sin! … Safeguard Creation. Because if we destroy Creation, Creation will destroy us! Never forget this!

(and there’s more to come; the pope is expected to release a strong statement on climate change in an encyclical by June 18)

Santorum felt it his duty to put His Holiness straight, by reminding him that

the church has gotten it wrong a few times on science, and I think that we probably are better off leaving science to the scientists and focusing on what we’re really good at, which is … theology and morality.

So there you have it. Santorum can denounce climate science as a leftist conspiracy. But the Church made a fool of itself over Galileo, so it should leave science to the scientists, and should therefore ignore what those same scientists say about the most pressing problem of our time.

rick-santorum-popeOne unexpected critic of Santorum’s position is Chris Wallace of Fox News Sunday, who reminded him that the Pope really does have a science qualification, and that 80-90 percent of scientists agree that humans contribute to climate change. [Actually, Wallace inflated the Pope’s diploma to a degree, and it’s more like 97% if we consider the scientists best placed to judge, but by Fox’s standards these are minor details].

Wallace: If he shouldn’t talk about it, should you?

Santorum: We have to make public policy with regard to the environmental policy. Whether we like it or not, people in government have to make decisions with respect to our public policy that affect American workers. The pope can talk about whatever he wants to talk about — I’m saying, what should the Pope use his moral authority for?

Wallace: He would say he’s protecting the Earth

Santorum: There are more pressing problems confronting the earth than climate change.

Such as Santorum’s Presidential bid, perhaps.

There is a scene in the BBC comedy Yes Minister, where a top civil servant is advising his Minister on how to react to a scientific report critcal of his policy.

The three main characters in the Minister’s Office of the Department of Administrative Affairs: from right, im Hacker, his private secretary Bernard Woolley, and Sir Humphrey Appleby,

Sir Humphrey, Civil Servant: Say there is debate among the scientists. Say more research is needed.

Jim Hacker, Minster for Adminstrative Affairs: But…

Sir Humphrey: I assure you, Minster, there is always debate among the scientists. And there is always a need for more research.

I do not know if Santorum has seen that episode, but when Wallace said that the science was settled, Santorum replied

Any time you hear a scientist say the science is settled, that’s political science, not real science, because no scientists in their right mind would say ever the science is settled.

One would like to be able to dismiss Santorum as lunatic fringe. Unfortunately, in the context of US presidential politics, he is nothing of the kind, as was can see from the following quotations, all from fellow-contenders for the 2016 Republican Presidential nomination.

Governor Jindal in 2015.jpg

Bobby Jindal, Governor of Louisiana, speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference in 2015

Among these, Marco Rubio, Junior Senator for Florida, thinks we shouldn’t do anything about climate change because “all science deserves scepticism”. Rubio, incidentally, currently chairs the Senate Subcommittee on Oceans and the Atmosphere, responsible for climate data. Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, who does actually have a university degree that includes biology, signed into law the Louisiana Science Education Act, which, in the spirit of the Santorum Amendment, states that

the teaching of some scientific subjects, such as biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming, and human cloning, can cause controversy, and that some teachers may be unsure of the expectations concerning how they should present information on such subjects

and extends permission to Louisiana’s teachers to

help students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories pertinent to the course being taught.

Those unfamiliar with US creationist tactics may not recognise what is really going on here, so let me spell it out. The Act allows teachers (and the school boards who employ them) to lie to children, by pretending that there are fundamental weaknesses in our understanding of evolution and global warming.

Mike Huckabee, former Governor of Arkasas, shows no such subtlety. In his own words,

 I think schools also ought to be fair to all views. Because, frankly, Darwinism is not an established scientific fact. It is a theory of evolution, that’s why it’s called the theory of evolution. And I think that what I’d be concerned with is that it should be taught as one of the views that’s held by people. But it’s not the only view that’s held. And any time you teach one thing as that it’s the only thing, then I think that has a real problem to it.

refer to captionAs for climate change, Huckabee has attacked President Obama for saying that climate change is a more serious than terrorism, on the grounds that “a beheading is much worse than sunburn.” Huckabee, apparently, doesn’t know his carbon dioxide from a hole in the ozone. Nor do I expect him to notice the exceptional extreme heat in India, officially described as having killed over 2,300 people before the merciful arrival of last week’s monsoon.

Rick Perry, Governor of Texas, said in a 2011 newspaper interview

I am a firm believer in intelligent design as a matter of faith and intellect, and I believe it should be presented in schools alongside the theories of evolution.

As for the environment, he also said, earlier the same year,

There are a substantial number of scientists who have manipulated data so that they will have dollars rolling into their projects

and, more recently,

I don’t believe that we have the settled science by any sense of the imagination to stop that kind of economic opportunity…Calling CO2 a pollutant is doing a disservice the country, and I believe a disservice to the world.

And so on. Jeb Bush, former Florida Governor, says

I don’t think the science is clear what percentage is man-made and what percentage is natural. It’s convoluted. And for the people to say the science is decided on, this is just really arrogant, to be honest with you.

Liberty University’s Vines Hall, where Ted Cruz announced his Presidential candidacy on March 23, 2015

And what of Ted Cruz, another Texan. He chose to launch his campaign at Liberty University, an academic atrocity that I have written about before, where a course on “Origins” (i.e. Creationism) is compulsory. Liberty, incidentally, is the alma mater of Pam Stenzel, whom Scottish readers may remember for her sex-ed disinformation horror show. Anyway, here’s what Cruz has to say about global warming:

I’m a big believer that we should follow the science and follow the evidence. If you look at global warming alarmists, they don’t like to look at the actual facts and the data. The satellite data demonstrate that there has been no significant warming whatsoever for 17 years…. Today the global warming alarmists are the equivalent of the flat-earthers. You know it used to be: ‘It is accepted scientific wisdom the Earth is flat.’ And this heretic named Galileo was branded a denier.

We have come full circle, back to Galileo. Ted Cruz tells us that Galileo was condemned for denying that the Earth was flat. But the trial was In 1633, 141 years after Columbus had sailed to America, 111 years after Magellan’s expedition completed the first circumnavigation of the globe, more than 1800 years after Eratosthenes had correctly calculated the Earth’s radius from the difference in the length of noonday shadows between Alexandria and Aswan, and over two millennia since the roundness of the Earth had become common educated knowledge.

Ted Cruz is Chair of the Senate Subcommittee on Science. And like all the politicians quoted here he has managed to find backers willing to put up millions to help him become the next President of the United States, and, as such, responsible for negotiating the US position in climate negotiations. Be afraid, be very afraid.

Latest updated predictions from NASA at

Scotland’s Verbose Expounditor of Geological Logorrhea

One of the pleasures of blogging is finding like-minded people. Recently, I wrote about a fossil discovery in Calgary, and the piece was picked up by Miksha, who lives there. Now Miksha has provided some extra insights about the greatest of Scots geologists, Hutton, whom I, an adoptive Scot, have discussed before, and I am happy to be able to return the compliment. But I think Hutton would have said “expositor”, and for my money, Lyell is a close competitor for longwindedness.

The Mountain Mystery

Pretty: along with The Flood, beauty was the principle concern of most pre-Hutton. geologistsPretty: Along with The Flood, beauty was the principle concern of most 17th century geologists.

James Hutton (1726-1797), Scotland’s most celebrated geologist, had a way with words. A rather awful way with words. But his scientific brilliance is uncontested. He is credited with moving geology away from the La-Z-Boy recliners of seventeenth century drawing rooms and onto the craggy cliffs where rocks are actually found. Until Hutton, gentleman-geologists were often preachers with parishes and parsonages to tend. They seldom ventured into the hills to study geology. If they collected rocks at all, it was the pretty ones they displayed in their cabinets. Such men philosophized about geology, Creation, and The Flood. They kept their fingernails clean. After Hutton, geology became the stuff of adventurers, travelers, experimenters, and above all, men and women with picks and hammers. Hutton was the founder of modern geology. He spurned divine intervention as the…

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