Monthly Archives: December 2015

Should Academics Stay Out of Political Activism?

(By a curious chance, I came across this post by Massimo Pigliucci less than three hours after posting the most politically partisan of all my own posts to date.)

The dispassionate scientist is a myth (or perhaps a Stoic’s ideal). We all show personal involvement in our theories and research programmes, and confirmation bias when evaluating them. But if we stay out of political activism, that will deprive the public of the best informed opinion.

And when we indulge in activism, then of course we should aim to do so competently. I consider public understanding of major issues to be a precondition for sane policy-making, and for this reason I regard my own efforts at public education as a form of activism.

http://www.philosophersmag.com/index.php/footnotes-to-plato/96-should-academics-stay-out-of-political-activism

Footnotes to Plato

ivory towerThat’s the question I tackled in a recent essay at The Philosophers’ Magazine online, prompted by a conversation over coffee with Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist at NYU with whom I’ve had a number of disagreements about the intersection of social science, politics, and philosophy.

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The reasons for the floods

Floods are inevitable. But the degree of damage that we are seeing today is the result of reckless cuts, perverse subsidies, and mindless deregulation.

First, a review of “savings” (that’s NewSpeak for “cuts”) on flood defences:Well, Labour would say that, wouldn’t they? But @LabourEoin gives fuller links; for instance, the last set of numbers comes from House of Commons Library Note “Flood spending in England”, SN/SC/5755, 19 November 2014.

Well, maybe the Government have learned better? Then why are they cutting 6700 firefighters, who are among first responders and prevention workers in floods?

Well, maybe it is necessary to save money? It would be difficult to think of a more expensive way of saving, where every £ saved costs somewhere between £6 and £24, depending on which estimate you accept. Even if you accept government forecasts of future flood damage as accurate estimates, it makes no sense that

Under the new rules brought in three years ago, the Department for Environment Food And Rural Affairs (Defra) wanted to see an average of £8 of damage avoided for every £1 they would spend on schemes.

Previously, projects were simply expected to deliver more than £1 of damage avoided for every £1 spent, with an average across all schemes of £5 of damage avoided for every £1 spent.

(Source: Rowena Mason in Guardian, commenting  on the Somerset Levels floods, in 2014; h/t Jonathan Minton)

But aren’t things like this terribly rare? In that case, why do they happen so often? As Nassim Nichoas Taleb has pointed out (and become extremely rich by acting on his own insight) extremely rare events are more common than you think. That’s because we form our expectations from the commonplace, constructing something like a bell curve of expectations based on the fluctuations that happen all the time, but rare events can also arise from rare combinations of circumstances. Five year floods can be expected to happen every five years or so, butwe have little experience of the statistics of hundred year floods, and they may well happen much more often than once every hundred years.

[Update: for more on the frequency of “100 year floods”, and of ministerial obliviousness to explicit warnings, see here]

But can the Government be blamed for natural disaster? Yes, when its policies have directly and foreseeably contributed to it. See this from George Monbiot, in January 2014:

“Drowning in money: the untold story of the crazy public spending that makes flooding inevitable”

And this in February 2014:

“How we ended up paying farmers to flood our homes”

Or very recently (29 December 2015) this:

“This flood was not only foretold – it was publicly subsidised” (which – Scottish friends note – mentions grouse moors)

(And more in the same vein; Google Monbiot Flooding Guardian and you will see the case argued, consistently and coherently, again and again.)

Not only is this Government cutting back disastrously on flood protection at the very time when climate change is increasing risk; it is spending lavishly on policies that help make sure that those floods will be as damaging as possible. The challenge of flooding is unavoidable, but the degree of disaster is man-made.

Intelligent Design or intricate deception? What I told students during the Kitzmiller trial

Unt

The University of North Texas, where I was teaching in 2005

Kitzmiller v Dover Area School District, in which judgment was pronounced on 20th December 2005, is the court case that established that Intelligent Design is not science, but a form of religiously motivated creationism, and as such may not be taught in publicly funded schools in the US. This is a shortened version of what I told the students at Texas Academy of Mathematics and Science, University of North Texas’s early admissions programme, whom I was privileged to be teaching at the time of the trial. I have omitted my discussion of the embarrassing Intelligent Design pseudotext, Of Pandas and People, and the even more embarrassing statement that the Dover School Board instructed teachers to read, for reasons of space and because I have discussed them here before.  I have tried to avoid rewriting in the light of what I have learnt since, but insert some comments for clarity, and links where relevant.

Pandas

Of Pandas and People, the pseudo-textbook at the centre of the Kitzmiller case

This is a rather unusual presentation.  It is the only presentation that I have ever given in response to a specific request from the [then] President of the United States, who has given as his opinion that Intelligent Design should be discussed in schools.  It is the only presentation in which you will see me, a chemistry professor, practicing philosophy and even biblical exegisis; and I should warn you that I am practicing without a license.  It is the only presentation I have ever given with the expectation that a number of people in the audience will be actively hostile to what I intend to say, because the point of view that I stand for is often misrepresented in this society as being hostile to religion.

But what is really extraordinary about this presentation is, that it is necessary at all.  Having been a hundred years in the making, the central notions of evolutionary biology erupted into public awareness a century and a half ago, and, over the following 50 years, the major religious groups of the industrialised world came to terms with these ideas.  The creationist challenge to what has been, for over a century, the central theoretical framework of biology, is a recent development, and, very specifically, a 20th-century American phenomenon.  Very recently, creationism has changed its name to Intelligent Design Theory, but this is a purely cosmetic change.

I expect that this talk will please no one.  I will, as you might expect, argue against Intelligent Design arguments.  Indeed, I will go much further, claiming that such arguments are part of a particular kind of mindset, which I will call literalism (although some call it fundamentalism), and that the rise of this mindset represents a most serious threat to knowledge.

When a majority of Americans polled reject the central concepts of mainstream modern biological science, something is very badly wrong.  I will also argue that the scientific establishment has contributed to this disaster (and when a majority of the American public deny the plain facts of biology, this is a disaster) through its own ineptitude and philosophically muddled teaching.  I will argue that literalism is a harking back to a prescientific mode of thought, that is systematically distorts the way in which its practitioners view the world, and that it represents a seriously impoverished approach at the spiritual level and the level of human affairs, as well as being completely hostile to the spirit and practice of science.

Linnaeus_-_Regnum_Animale_(1735)The standard picture of modern biology, as I will call it, stems from the work of Linnaeus who in 1737 establish the classification that we still follow into species, genera, et cetera.  It was not long before Buffon and others started explaining similarity in terms of family resemblance.  A critical stage in this development took place in the mid-19th century, with the idea that species originate through descent with variation, followed by competition between the different variants.  We associate this insight with Charles Darwin’s publication of The Origin of Species, but the fact that the same key ideas were independently discovered by Alfred Russel Wallace suggests that this was an idea for which the time was ripe.  The entire evolutionary position is still sometimes referred to as “Darwinism”, especially by its opponents, but this is completely unhistorical, and the expression should be reserved for the specific ideas put forward by Darwin, Wallace, Thomas Huxley, and others in the mid-19th century.  Current evolutionary theory is a much refined and altered version of this, much as present day atomic theory is a much refined and altered version of that used by mid-19th century chemists.

Darwin-Wallace_medal

The Darwin-Wallace medal awarded by the Linnaean Society

The immediate upshot of Darwin’s publication was intense debate between those who welcomed it as a major scientific advance, and those who saw it as a threat to established ideas in religion, and in particular to the authority of the Bible.  In Europe, and particularly in Britain, the debate was played out in the next few decades, and led to general acceptance by the churches of the correctness of the evolutionist position, and reinterpretation of Genesis in terms of allegory. Darwin himself lies buried in Westminster Abbey.

Since that time, the argument for evolution has enormously strengthened, in ways that Darwin and Wallace could not have foreseen. The work of Grigor Mendel and his successors gave us a science of genetics, which shows how it was possible for variations to be passed on undiluted from one generation to another.  We can understand how the necessary variation arises, because we know about mutations, and since the work of Franklin, Crick, and Watson in 1953, we even know the nature of the genetic material.  In Darwin’s time, there were massive gaps in the fossil record, so large in fact that Wallace continued to believe that humanity was a separate creation, rather than having common ancestry with the apes.  By now, we have a whole range of intermediate forms, so much so that there is held the ongoing debate among anthropologists and paleontologists as to which ones lie on our direct line of ancestry, and which represent evolutionary dead ends.  We have the discovery of deep time, necessary for evolution, and the development of about a dozen separate, mutually consistent, methods of radioactive dating, which enable us to assign dates to fossils, going back over 3 billion years. Finally, and most convincingly, we have the development of DNA sequencing, which makes it possible to give a quantitative estimate of how long different species have been developing separately, and the family relationships discovered in this way bear a remarkable closeness to the family resemblances observable when we classify present-day organisms, and to the distances between branches of the evolutionary tree, as displayed by similarity of features and the fossil record.

I was therefore amazed, on arriving in Texas in 1988, to discover that in the minds of many Americans these matters were still in dispute, and since then I have been appalled at the increasing expression, for largely political ends, of the view that evolution is seriously in doubt, and even that creationism should be offered in biology classes in schools.

I fear that the usual reaction of us scientists including myself until recently, has been to ask “How can anyone believe anything so stupid?”, and then not wait for an answer.  Or, alternatively, to put forward reasoned defenses of the evolutionist position, as I have spent the past few minutes doing, without stopping to examine the thinking of their opponents.  The result is an outpouring of writings by scientists, for scientists, which are either ignored by the creationists, or, worse, mined for phrases that can be used against us.  What I plan to do today and henceforth, is to take a rather different approach, to suggest that the opposition to evolutionist biology depends on what I shall call “literalism”, and to contrast the methods of literalism with those of science.  I shall argue that literalism extends far beyond the usual biblical context that we associate with the word, that literalists will regard as legitimate kinds of argument which to scientists seem downright dishonest, and that through failure to understand the nature of literalism, we scientists and science educators give ammunition to our enemies.  We are losing the public relations battle because we have not taken the trouble to understand what we are up against.

We (and by we, I mean the whole of mainstream science) are at war, and don’t know it.  This is why I am urging scientists to play attack, rather than defense.  If an adversary who is determined not to be convinced demands more evidence, there is no point in trying to give it to him.  He will complain of the inadequacy of any volume of evidence, and will always be able to ask for more, in much the same way that the coal companies keep on demanding more evidence for global warming.  For example, if you point the fossil record as evidence, the creationist will point out that there are times in the fossil record, and however detailed the evidence may be that you offer, there will still be gaps. If you fall for this ploy, you will always be on the defensive, and your opponent will always seem to an outsider to have the stronger case.  As I shall show later by example, what you should do is to ask the creationist why, in his scheme of things, there is any fossil record at all.

Firstly, let me define my terms.  By literalism, I mean the belief that it is possible to find out the truth about things by closely examining words.  By creationism, I mean the belief that separate species or groupings represent separate acts of divine intervention.  Since there is only one serious candidate for the role of Intelligent Designer, and since proponents of Intelligent Design never give us any details of how the designs come to be embodied, I think we must conclude that is simply a form of creationism that dare not speak its name. By absolutism, I mean the belief that it is possible to arrive at a final absolute statement of the truth.  Absolutists generally believe, although logically they do not really have to, that they themselves happen to be the ones in this fortunate position.

We need some terms for the contrary positions.  I shall refer to the opinion that all living things on Earth share a common ancestry as the standard picture.  I will use the term fallibilists for those who believe that, except perhaps in certain areas of mathematics or of direct experience, absolute certainty is not of this world, that some degree of uncertainty attaches itself to all their opinions, and that they are certainly wrong about many things, although they don’t know which.  In their working lives, at least, all scientists are fallibilists.  That is because we care about the facts, and our experience shows that the facts can prove us wrong.  This position leaves no room in science for absolutism or literalism.  Nor should we want there to be, since reality is more interesting, subtle, and complex than our ability to describe it.

I think you can already see how this is going to play out.  Scientists will, ideally at least, make carefully qualified statements, judiciously spelling out the degree of uncertainty in their opinions, and emphasising their willingness to change their beliefs in the face of new evidence. That’s because we care about the facts.  They will maintain, correctly, that literalist arguments are devoid of scientific merit, and will naïvely imagine that that settles the matter.  Literalists will often be absolutists, and will attribute the cautious way in which scientists use words to lack of conviction.  The literalist will freely quote the scientist out of context. The scientist will complain that this is dishonest, that his or her meaning is being distorted, but the literalist will reply, in all sincerity, that he cannot be faulted for simply citing what was actually said.  If the scientist regards the literalist at this point as dishonest, the literalist will regard the scientist as evasive.  The result is that we have a cottage industry based on literalist quotation mining, and a counter-industry in which the defenders of science try to keep up by mending the fractures, and putting the quotations back in context.

All this seems to me a symptom of a deeper problem.  The fallibilist will assume that the conversation is in the last resort a cooperative effort, a kind of conversation, with both parties interested in winding up a little bit closer to the truth.  The absolutist believes he knows the truth already.  For him, the conversation is a competitive debate, where the aim of each party is to vanquish the other.  The absolutist will therefore play by rules closer to those of the law court that the laboratory.  He knows the truth, and all he has to do is to make the case for it.  His job is to assemble all the materials, good, bad, and indifferent, that supports his own case and to trash any counter arguments made by their opponents.  Faced with these tactics, scientists will believe themselves to be the victims of conscious intellectual dishonesty, and may even withdraw from the debate.

Literalism has various attractive features, some of which I have already mentioned.  There is certainty, provided one can convince oneself that one has interpreted the text correctly.  There is power, if you can convince other people of your superior ability to interpret the sacred texts.  There is finality, since once something has been said, with sufficient authority, the issue is regarded as settled once and for all.  There is a sense of comradeship and shared purpose with those that use the same texts as you do. Some literalists go so far as to believe that everybody who agrees with them will go to heaven, and everyone who disagrees will go to hell.  A powerful consideration, which may well distort anyone’s judgment.  For American audiences in particular, there is the ever popular illusion of individualism; this is what I believe, dammit, and no pointy head is going to tell me different. Above all, literalism gives you an easy way of resolving complex issues.  It deals with words instead of dealing with things.  When presented with a thing, the literalist will put it in a box, put a label on the box, and then decide how to deal with the thing by reading the label.

I argued that literalism is intellectually bankrupt in the area of biblical exegesis, quoting 2 Corinthians 3:6: “the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life” and pointing, much in the spirit of Maimonides, to texts that surely were never meant to be taken literally. My first example was day and night on Day One of Genesis, but no sun and moon until the fourth day.

Maimonides01

Monument to Maimonides in Cordoba. Photo by Justojosemm through Wikimedia

How could you have alternating day and night before you had sun and moon?  I ran this argument by a literalist, with whom I had a long and informative correspondence, and he said, more or less, no problem: God can turn the lights on and off whenever He feels like it.  Fair enough, perhaps, but notice that if you argue like that, you cannot pretend to be doing science.  By invoking God’s will in this way, you can explain absolutely anything, you can never be proved wrong, and your idea can never be tested against the facts.

The poet John Donne gives, as an example of what humanity does not understand, “Why grass is green, or why our blood is red”.  Oddly enough, one of my own first scientific papers helped answer this very question.  But using Intelligent Design logic, there is nothing that needs to be explained.  Why is grass green, why is blood red?  Because the Intelligent Designer so designed it.  Why is blood green, why is grass red?  Same answer.  Intelligent Design theory can explain anything, which means that it explains nothing.  It leads to a total end of questioning, since all questions have the same answer.  And the death of questioning is the death of science.

I then considered other examples; God being said (Genesis 6:6, I Samuel 15:35) to have changed his mind and repeatedly in Exodus to have hardened Pharaoh’s heart. If you believe in a God who is all-knowing and just, these verses cannot mean what they say. Such arguments, I said, date back to the time of Maimonides, are independent of modern science, and serve to show that biblical literalism is bankrupt on its own terms. I have since discovered the existence of a broad swathe of religious opinion, displayed by Biologos, Evolution Weekend, and the American Scientific Affiliation, who argue in much the same way. I regard the believers in these groups as my natural allies in combating creationism, however much we may differ on other matters.

I said earlier that defenders of the standard picture should stop playing defense, and go on to the attack.  It is high time that I did so, and I will proceed by taking Intelligent Design at its word and evaluating it as I would any other scientific theory.

It is difficult to work out what Intelligent Design really means, because its advocates never tell us how it’s supposed to work, but I shall assume that it means that there is a Designer, capable of imposing his design on matter, and that this designer is extremely intelligent.  Regarded on its own terms of scientific theory, Intelligent Design theory does make one clear prediction. It predicts that organisms should be intelligently designed.  But they’re not.

I stand before you today as living proof of this sad fact.  If a freshman engineering student were to turn in my body plan as an assignment, he or she would be gently taken aside by the instructor, and advised to seek some other way of making a living.  I sprain my ankle and I twist my knee.  I have lower back pain as my disks are squeezed under the weight of my body.  My nose gets congested, and my sinuses, with no good way of draining, are a haven for germs.  My eyes are back to front, with the blood vessels in front of the retina, getting in the way of the light.  I had a dreadful time getting born and millions of children, some of whom I have known, have had an even harder time of it, and ended up permanently brain-damaged.

All of these things are exactly what you’d expect on the standard evolutionary account.  We have superposed upright posture on a skeleton originally evolved for walking on four legs.  The blood vessels in our eyes trace their ancestry back to the blood vessels of the skin, while the light sensitive cells of the retina are outgrowths of the brain.  Over the past few million years, all we simians have been living on our wits, in extremely complex social groups, producing strong evolutionary pressure to enlarge our brains, and in our species in particular this will have been intensified by the ability to make more complex sounds.  As a result, our brains have grown forward over our snouts, distorting the shape of our air passages, and pressing up against the constraints of the pelvic skeleton.  Evolution fits the facts, and may perhaps be correct.  Intelligent Design doesn’t fit the facts, and can’t be.

And how about the use of design as an explanation?  Let us take Paley’s (1802) classic example, a watch.  From the discovery of a watch, we would infer an intelligent designer.  But that is not the end of the matter.  We would have to further infer that this intelligent designer had access to processes, by which material could be shaped to match the design.  Invoking the designer would have to be the beginning of a chain of explanation, not the end of it.  Otherwise the whole process is what I have called antiscience, since it tells us to stop thinking when we come across something that we do not understand, which is just when things get really interesting.

This illustrates a general point, and one that I think is of great importance.  Advocates of Intelligent Design spend much time drawing our attention to aspects of biology where they see weaknesses in the conventional account.  We should be grateful to them for this, but our response should be the exact opposite of what they suggest.  We should not view these problems as defeats for naturalistic science, but as opportunities and challenges.  Thus several systems which a decade ago appeared irreducibly complex, now appear understandable in relation to simpler components.

Here, I suggest, we have a potent winning strategy; by staying true to ourselves as falllibilists, we make our opponents’ weapons turn against them.  We don’t pretend that we know the answer when we don’t, but we can look for it and may even find it.  The creationist, on the other hand, already has an answer. He has no need to look, and will find out nothing.

Science feeds on unexplained facts as opportunity and challenge.  Science questions. Intelligent Design answers all questions.  Therefore Intelligent Design makes science unnecessary.  Is that what we want?

In discussion, I predicted that the case would be appealed all the way to the Supreme Court. I was wrong. Judge E. Jones III’s ruling is only binding in the middle district of Pennsylvania, but is such powerful opinion that it is unlikely to be challenged unless at some later date the US Supreme Court acquires a creationist majority.

An earlier version of this post appeared on 3 Quarks Daily

The evolution of creationism; Kitzmiller 10 years on

December 20th is the tenth anniversary of the delivery of judgement in Kitzmiller v. Dover, an important anniversary for proponents of evolution science, and Nick Matzke, who coordinated the National Center for Science Education’s efforts at that trial, has celebrated it in the most appropriate possible manner. He has applied the methods of evolutionary tree building to the development of creationism itself in the intervening decade. The results are alarming.

Matzke_Figure

Phylogenetic relationships among creationism bills , courtesy Nick Matzke. AFA Academic freedom Act, SEA Science Education Act, further identification by year, State, and bill number

The case arose when Tammy Kitzmiller and the other parents challenged the decision of Dover Area School District Board to introduce the Intelligent Design pseudotext Of Pandas and People to their High School, along with a statement urging students to retain an open mind about Intelligent design as an alternative to Darwin’s theory”. Since the matter has been extensively discussed by me and numerous others, I will simply say that Pandas was an incoherent attack on evolution science, full of factual and logical errors, and that the statement to be read misdescribed evolution as a theory about the origin of life, and claimed that since it was a theory it was uncertain, and, moreover, that there were gaps missing from it. Drafts subpoenaed for the trial also showed that the text had originally referred to “creation science”, being hastily modified when an earlier case established that “creation science” was simply another name for religious creationism.

The case is significant as a test of the creationist claim that Intelligent Design is not a form of religious creationism, but, on the contrary, legitimate science. Judge Jones’s magnificent rejection of this claim runs to 139 legal pages; in brief, he found that this claim was baseless, the textbook error laden, the Designer no other than Christian God (in whom, incidentally, Judge Jones believes), and the arguments offered as evidence for Design scientifically worthless. For this and other reasons, he declared ID to be “a religious view, a mere re-labeling of creationism, and not a scientific theory.” It followed, under the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, that it should not be taught in any publicly funded school. Strictly, Judge Jones’s ruling is only binding in the Middle Circuit of the State of Pennsylvania, but such is the force of its arguments that I do not imagine any challenge elsewhere, unless the US Supreme Court at some future time falls into the hands of creationists.

The creationist response has been to seek yet another, less easily penetrated, form of disguise for their activities. Instead of promoting clearly defined positions, which could be subjected to legal scrutiny, they now speak of teaching the controversy, and put forward so-called Academic Freedom Bills, which invite critical examination of evolution. Who, after all, is opposed to freedom? Shouldn’t students be aware of controversy? And why should evolution be shielded from critical examination? Scientifically speaking, of course, there is no controversy, and neither teachers nor students require special legislative permission before critically examining any concept. So the purpose is, clearly, to provide a figleaf for those who want to claim that the basic concepts of evolution are uncertain, or that creationism provides a worthy alternative.

We have had, in the past decade, 71 of these Academic Freedom Bills introduced, in 16 separate states, and passed into law in 3, while the strategy has evolved as the creationist community has learned from its successes and failures. Matzke’s achievement has been to map this evolution. I imagine no one better qualified. He was the lead member of the National Center for Science Education teisam at the trial. Since then, he has attained a Ph.D. at University of California Berkeley, and spent two years as a post-doc at the National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis (NIMBioS), housed at the University of Tennessee. He is now recognised as a rising star in his field; a Discovery Early Career Researcher Award Fellow at the Australian National University and the author of some 30 scientific papers on topics related to evolution, with attention also to science education, and to the human impact on the environment.

Matzke has special expertise in molecular phylogeny, the technique by which differences in DNA are used to construct family trees. The basic principle is simple; that a mutation that became established in one species will, unless eliminated by chance, be found in its descendants. We can use such shared mutations to pick out groups of more closely related species, and the family relationships established in this way generally show excellent agreement with the relationships established long since on the basis of anatomical homologies and the fossil record.[1]

Not surprisingly, we can apply the same principle to manuscripts, and Dennis Venema, one of my favourite writers on evolution, has compared the two kinds of application in his series of articles, Genomes as Ancient Texts. But what did surprise me was to learn that the method was applied to mediaeval legal documents as early as 1827, although now texts are examined using programs and criteria of the same kind as those in use to establish DNA phylogenies (see Phylomemetics – Evolutionary Analysis beyond the Gene, free download here). Similar reasoning has been applied to languages since 1850, and both Charles Lyell and Charles Darwin drew attention to the similarities between biological and linguistic evolutionary trees.

What Matzke has now done is to apply the principle to the content of the antievolution bills discussed above. Unfortunately, the paper in which he presents his findings, in the prestigious journal Science, is behind a pay wall, although the National Center for Science Education has published a summary, and NIMBioS has put out a very informative press release, with further accounts in Scientific American podcasts, the Washington Post, and the media company Vocativ.

Anyway, here is what he says, and why it matters.

We can construct a family tree for these antiscience bills. Until around 2006, they were described as Academic Freedom Acts and discuss the teaching of evolution and the origin of life. (Logically, this is a total muddle, since biological evolution does not address the origins of life, any more than chemistry addresses the origin of atoms. Rhetorically, though, it’s a smart move. Creationists often accuse biology teachers of presenting as fact highly speculative theories regarding the origins of life, and although it is decades since biology textbooks did this, mud sticks.) In 2006, an extremely alarming development took place. Ouachita Parish, Louisiana (a Louisiana Parish is much the same thing as a County in other States) developed a policy, in what they renamed a Science Education Act, that lumped together evolution, the origins of life, global warming, and human cloning. The mention of human cloning is purely for effect; we are, and I hope we will choose to remain, a long way from being able to do any such thing, and if we do it will not be in the school science lab. However, it rightly raises alarm.

One truly insidious development is the addition of global warming to the mix. In the US, although not in the UK, the doctrinally conservatism that leaves to creationism is associated with extreme political conservatism, a deep devotion to free markets and suspicion of government, and rejection of the science of global warming, because it implies the need for government (and, worse, inter-government) action. Thus there is an excellent correlation, in the US, between evolution rejection by various faith groups and climate change rejection. Since the fall from power of Tony Abbott in Australia, the United States is I believe the only nation in which one major political party denies that global temperatures are rising, and that fossil fuel burning is responsible. Thus we have the embarrassing spectacle of scientifically illiterate congressmen holding hearings to which they invite cranks and outliers, and doing all they can to sabotage the outline climate agreement recently reached in Paris. As I have said here before, evolution denial is ridiculous but climate change denial is dangerous.

Even more worrying to me is the spread of voucher systems, under which the local government does not run the education system itself, but issues vouchers to all eligible schoolchildren, to pay for their education by non-government schools. MSNBC reports that there are hundreds of such schools teaching creationism as a taxpayer’s expense in nine States and the District of Columbia.

And worst of all is the fact that creationism happens because people want it to. Which means in turn that often there is no effective opposition, either in the community or in the classroom. According to an article in Science, Defeating Creationism in the Courtroom, But Not in the Classroom (2011, 331:404, paywall), timed to roughly match the 5th anniversary of Kitzmiller, around 11% of US biology teachers actually teach creationism, 28% teach evolution according to guidelines, and the remaining 60% avoid the topic because they do not feel prepared to deal with the hostile questioning that it will evoke. Top down imposition of evolution may, alas, be necessary, but it is certainly not sufficient.

Comic relief time: This work has not received universal approbation. At the mendaciously mistitled Evolution News and Views, no less a person than John G. West, political scientist, acolyte of C. S. Lewis, and Vice President of the Discovery Institute, goes to the heart of the matter:

Did Nick Matzke Misuse National Science Foundation Money Intended to Fund Science Research?

Professor West has done us all the great service of looking up the grants that funded Matzke during this work. One of them, he reveals, was earmarked for studying the phylogeny of shellfish. But creationists are not shellfish, so Nick has been very, very naughty. This is not the first time that Discovery Institute fellows have found it necessary to rebuke him. Casey Luskin has pointed out that he is known to have actually received money from the National Center for Science Education (he was employed by them at the time), so no wonder he supports evolution. And two days later David Berlinski criticised him for criticising Stephen Meyer for not using cladistics, because Berlinski thinks you shouldn’t use cladistics, because if you imagine that a cladogram is a geometrical, rather than merely a topological, representation, you can get the wrong answer. (As it happens, the only time I have met this mistake is in the pages of Of Pandas and People, which is roughly where we came in). You can find the whole shocking story here, and I hope that Nick takes these lessons to heart.

1] In the case of biological species, things can get a little more complicated, if only because we are dealing with interbreeding groups, within which genetic material is duplicated and shuffled, rather than unique copies. So species can split while still carrying more than one version of a gene. For example, the genes coding for Type A and Type B blood groups arose by mutation from a common ancestor, at some time more remote than the common ancestor of humans and chimpanzees, and both types were present on both sides of the chimp-human split. Thus a human with blood type A will, with respect to just that single gene, be more closely related to a chimp with the homologous blood type than to a human of blood type B. For this reason, all evolutionary trees are fuzzy. There is also the matter of horizontal transfer, in both biological and meme evoultion.

Do we need more studies on vaccines, GMOs, climate change, etc.?

An undefeatable strategy for delaying or doubting. As the Civil Servant Sir Humphrey advised Jim Hacker in Yes, Minister, when he wanted to avoid taking action about smoking, “Say the scientists disagree. Say there is a need for more research. Scientists always disagree with each other about something or other, and there is always a need for more research.”

The Logic of Science

anti-vaccers want more studies but refuse to accept studies memeI frequently encounter people who state that, “I’m not anti-vaccine/GMO, I just think that we need more studies” or “we need more research before we take major action on climate change.” I have, however, noticed that whenever someone declares, “I’m not X” they usually end the statement with some pathetic justification for why they are in fact X, and that is definitely the case in this situation. The cry for more studies on vaccines, GMOs, etc. is nearly always hypocritical and stems from a willful ignorance about just how many studies there actually are. The reality is that topics like vaccines have been so well studied that they have achieved the status of settled science. So, the problem isn’t that there aren’t enough studies; rather, the problem is that people refuse to read or accept the hundreds of studies that we already have. To be fair, I have occasionally encountered…

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Why I signed the “Keep Trump Out” petition

Update: for a powerfully argued expression of the counter-view, see https://kenanmalik.wordpress.com/2015/12/21/trump-namazie-islam-free-speech-and-the-left/

https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/114003 (you need to be a UK citizen or resident to sign). Well over half a million signatures to date.

After all, aren’t I supposed to be an advocate of free speech?

Here’s why:

“The United Kingdom is trying hard to disguise their massive Muslim problem. Everybody is wise to what is happening, very sad! Be honest.”
“We have places in London and other places that are so radicalised [by Muslims] that the police are afraid for their own lives. We have to be very smart and very vigilant.” [The Metropolitan Police, and Boris Johnson MP as Mayor of London, have both denounced this inflammatory falsehood]

These remarks are not merely disconnected from reality, but cross the line into hate speech, illegal in the UK. I do not think it should be, short of provocation of violence, but we do not have to provide a platform for it.

The counter-argument, however, also deserves respect: It would not be the UK as an entity but whoever invited Trump (if only himself), who provided the platform. It would be censorship to prevent him from mounting it. Trump, of course, is himself ill-placed to use such an argument, since he would ban all Muslims from entering the US, but that is not really the point.

I leave readers to choose between these two mutually exclusive positions. Each has its own set of problems, and there is no way to split the difference.

One final argument. To quote the petition itself:

The UK has banned entry to many individuals for hate speech. The same principles should apply to everyone who wishes to enter the UK.

If the United Kingdom is to continue applying the ‘unacceptable behaviour’ criteria to those who wish to enter its borders, it must be fairly applied to the rich as well as poor, and the weak as well as powerful.

And that. for me, is the clincher. Even if you think that governments should not be barring visitors with unpalatable and inflammatory opinions, they do. As long as such powers exist and are used, they should be used in this case also.

Conglomerate; rocks within rocks

Petition calling on NUS to desist from suppressing free speech

You can sign the petition here

Call on NUS to reform free-speech suppressing ‘safe space’ policies

“Freedom of expression for all, including non-believers, is a basic human right and one that universities of all places must unequivocally defend.

We feel that the current policy prescriptions the NUS espouses and which many SUs have adopted as a result, have consistently been shown to be at least ineffective and in many cases, actively suppressive of freedom of expression …”

I heard about this petition through my friend Chris French, himself a Professor at the University where these events took place, and signed it with the comment “No space, least of all a University space, should be free from disturbing ideas.” This morning, Prof. French confirmed to me that the account in the text of the petition, below, is generally correct, and gave permission to quote him to that effect. I am therefore inviting those of you who share our concerns about the erosion and suppression of free speech on University campuses to sign the petition here, and to publicise it to your own networks.

The petition is in the form of an open letter to the National Union of Students, and runs as follows:

Following the events at Goldsmiths University on Monday 30th of November, where members and friends of Goldsmiths Islamic Society (ISoc) tried and failed to intimidate, in order to silence, Iranian-born ex-Muslim and human rights activist Maryam Namazie from speaking on “Blasphemy, Apostasy and Free Expression in the age of ISIS” at our invitation, Goldsmiths University Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society (GUASHsoc) calls on the National Union of Students to respond.

For those who have not seen media reports, the ISoc president sent the GUASHsoc a thinly veiled threat demanding the talk was cancelled the night before, on the grounds that it supposedly violated the SU’s ‘safe space’ policy. When the event went ahead, some of the ISoc members and associates aggressively disrupted the event, continuously shouting and trying to intimidate Maryam and other attendees, turning off her projector and one disruptor allegedly made a death threat towards a friend of Maryam’s.

This debacle shows, ‘safe spaces’ are being used to silence dissent and stifle free expression. Whilst ‘safe spaces’ are legitimate options for those who have been victimised and discriminated against, universities by their very definition cannot be ‘safe spaces’. Few would disagree that, if anywhere, universities should be bastions of freedom of thought and ideas, but for this to hold any meaning whatsoever, they must be bastions for the freedom of all ideas – regardless of how popular they may be or whether they are deemed ‘controversial’ or even offensive, by some. Offence, may act as an impetus for argument, but it is not, in and of itself, an argument, nor grounds for suppression. It is essential to be able to hear ideas that make us uncomfortable; this is the essence of tolerance. There should be no ‘safe spaces’ for ideas to go unchallenged.

The claims often made against Maryam and other speakers alike, seem to insist that, because there is a climate of hatred towards Muslims from the far-right, we should not allow what some consider offensive criticism of Islam as a religious ideology, like any other. In the incident at Goldsmiths, the Feminist and LGBTQI+ societies shared anti-free speech sentiments by making statements of solidarity with the Isoc leadership’s position and as such, seemed to tacitly condone their actions. This is a response rooted in a convoluted and solipsistic notion of regressive identity politics that wrongly conflates criticisms of Islam as an ideology or Islamism as a political movement, with inciting hatred towards Muslims. It fails to see the dissent within minority communities and also implicitly assumes that a diverse body of people who follow the Islamic faith are all offended or intolerant of Maryam’s opinions. As was evident in the meeting itself, some of the women members of Isoc did not condone the intimidating behaviour of the male members; some Muslims in the audience apologised to Maryam for their behaviour making it clear that not all Muslims agree with this assumption. Also, rather than having any real concern for safe spaces, the ISoc leadership used this policy in order to make the event unsafe for all those who disagreed with them.

Such mischaracterisations have led to the abuse of ‘safe space’ policies in the past and a culture of suppression at the university towards views that are not in line with the SU or, as in this case, other politically oriented societies. This is a gross subversion. What is more important however, is that this incident is not isolated, nor is the response.

What must be more clearly stressed is that, whilst non-violent protest and challenging ideas should be actively encouraged at universities, what cannot be tolerated is making an attempt to stop speakers from speaking entirely, unless they are directly inciting violence. Whether this be through vague ‘blasphemy laws’ with little to no basis in established law, which exist in numerous SU external speaker policies or whether it be through ‘safe space’ policies, which often have similar rules open to abuse and are sometimes used for intimidation, as in this case. There are a plethora of cases similar to ours at other universities and with other speakers, where freedom of expression has been suppressed in all manner of forms.

SU’s responses have typically suggested that the issue lies in the misuse of these policies by individuals. Clearly, because this is a recurrent theme at universities, this is a structural problem which enables this to keep occurring. It is the policies themselves that need to be amended so as to ensure this does not continue to happen. Whilst our SU has not officially responded yet in regards to consequences from the events of Monday 30 November, we fear that a similar dismissive response will occur with no policy changes.

In the same way that we cannot champion free expression for some, but not others, we cannot champion the rights of those who believe and not champion the rights of those who choose not to believe. Freedom of expression for all, including non-believers, is a basic human right and one that universities of all places must unequivocally defend.

We feel that the current policy prescriptions the NUS espouses and which many SUs have adopted as a result, have consistently been shown to be at least ineffective and in many cases, actively suppressive of freedom of expression and we strongly urge the NUS, and Goldsmiths SU, to reform their policies.

As with similar events where External speaker policies and ‘safe space’ policies have been used to try to silence freedom of expression, public outcry has had a strong influence on the response of SUs, therefore, we are making this statement public but will also be pursuing formal channels of complaint to the NUS and we encourage them to respond in regards to further action.

We thank all those who have sent messages of support for our society including Muslims, ex-Muslims, believers and non-believers, students, lecturers, members of the public, secular organisations, religious organisations, people of different political persuasions, sexual orientations, genders, races and nationalities. We urge them to join us in pressuring the NUS to protect the right to free expression and reform the ‘safe space’ policies that are stifling free expression.

Thank you all for your support.

Asher A-F (GUASHsoc president)

Image from petition website

 

The banker who lost his head

If Isaac Newton is the father of modern physics, then Antoine Lavoisier is the father of modern chemistry. Newton was knighted, and died in his bed at age 84. Lavoisier died at age 50, on the guillotine.

LavoisierAndWifeA civil servant scientist

Lavoisier originally trained as a lawyer, but studied science at the same time, and set about earning admission to the Academy of Sciences. This he achieved at the remarkably young age of 25, with a combination of pure science (composition of gypsum), and applications (problems of street lighting and water supply). He invested his inherited fortune in membership of a curious body called the Company of Tax Farmers. This was involved in the collection of indirect taxes throughout the whole of France, while its members individually lent money to the Crown, thus simultaneously taking on the roles of bankers, administrative civil servants, and investors in government securities.

Lavoisier’s administrative responsibilities included supervising the Gunpowder Administration. Gunpowder is a mixture of sulphur, charcoal, and saltpetre (potassium nitrate). At the time, this last was obtained from fermenting organic matter with human and animal manure. French production had become haphazard, and lack of gunpowder was one reason for France’s defeat in the Seven Years War/French and Indian War of 1754 – 1763. The Dutch had developed a system using beds of manure mixed with rotting vegetation, which Lavoisier copied, to such good effect that within a few years France was able to supply the material to its allies. French exports of saltpetre played an essential role in the American Revolution, and Lavoisier was able to write “One can truly say that North America owes its independence to French gunpowder”.

Reform, Revolution, and the Terror

In the years leading to the French revolution, Lavoisier campaigned for moderate reform. Reform, however, either constitutional or financial, was impossible in the face of entrenched privilege. When, in 1789, the Estates General finally met, the tensions within it set in motion the series of events that was to end in revolutionary Terror and, eventually, Napoleonic autocracy.

At its height, the revolution had no time for moderates, especially moderates who had been involved in the previous regime. Lavoisier, despite his brilliant success at the job, was removed from the Gunpowder Administration in 1792. The Academy of Sciences won a temporary respite by dominating the newly established Advisory Office on Practical Arts and Trades. Lavoisier himself worked within this Office, and was involved in developing the metric system, drafting a national educational curriculum, and advising on methods for printing banknotes; not a trivial problem before synthetic dyes became available. However, even before the revolution, allies of the revolutionary Marat had condemned the Academy as “elitist”, and it was abolished by the Revolutionary Convention in 1793.

Wealthy bankers are rarely popular, especially during periods of economic unrest; tax collectors, never. Moreover, the members of the Company of Tax Farmers had exercised their functions in the service of the King. Lavoisier and other prominent members of the Company were charged with fraud and arrested. When no evidence of this fraud could be found, the Revolutionary Convention simply declared them guilty of conspiracy against the people, and sent off Lavoisier with twentyseven of his colleagues to the guillotine. Meantime, the armies of the fledgling Republic were driving back invaders from half a dozen nations, using the products of Lavoisier’s work at the Gunpowder Administration.

Three months later, the Convention itself had turned against and executed its extremist leadership, and the revolutionary Terror was over.

Guinea pig, mesmerism, and placebo

We start with two of Lavoisier’s minor scientific accomplishments. “Minor” is a relative term, and either of these alone would ensure him a place in history.

Guinea-pig-242520__180First, the guinea pig. Food in, heat out. Lavoisier put his guinea pig in the centre of a chamber surrounded by snow, weighed the amount of water melted by its body heat, and found that it matched the amount that could be melted by simply burning the food. He also knew animals needed oxygen to stay alive. He concluded, correctly, that respiration is simply slow combustion.

Next, mesmerism. Lavoisier was part of a committee set up by the Academy of Sciences to examine the phenomenon of “animal magnetism” (a visiting American called Benjamin Franklin was also on the committee). This was a lucrative piece of quackery devised by one Dr Franz Animal_magnetismAnton Mesmer, who induced fits in his patients by his “mesmerising” hand gestures. The effects could then be brought on again by ordinary magnets. The committee were unconvinced. They examined a group of Mesmer’s patients, who reacted as claimed to the magnets, then moved the magnets without telling the patients and examined them again. The patients produced the expected responses where they believed the magnets to be, not where they really were. The committee concluded that the patients were simply responding to suggestion, and that animal magnetism did not exist.[1]

None of this extinguished belief in animal magnetism. Mary Baker Eddy, founder of Christian Science, wrote that malicious animal magnetism was being used in mental assassination, and magnetic healing devices of no clinical value are “a billion-dollar boondoggle“.

Chemistry, elements, and The Elements of Chemistry; the importance of the balance

Below, left: a selection of Lavoisier’s instruments, as illustrated by his wife Marie-Anne Paulze for the textbook. Paulze was a scholar in her own right, translating and annotating scientific papers and keeping records of her husband’s experimental work.

LavoisuerInsrtruments2Lavoisier, a banker, understood the concept of balance and applied it to chemical change, making him the first to understand combustion. It had long been known that when some metals are heated in air, they are converted to a powdery substance, called a calx, and it had even been shown that the calx of tin weighed more than the original metal. Moreover, in 1772 Lavoisier himself showed that sulphur and phosphorus, on burning, gained considerably in weight. So, he inferred, burning meant extracting something from the air.

In 1774, Joseph Priestley in England found that while mercury is converted to its calx by heating in air, stronger heating of that calx would decompose it to the original metal, and to a gas which could support respiration longer than ordinary air. Lavoisier showed that formation of the calx involved uptake of this same “respirable air”.

With hindsight, all that remained was to join up the dots, and joining up the dots was inevitable. As to why it was Lavoisier who took the crucial step, it is worth recalling that he had been trained as a lawyer, a skill involving the precise use of unambiguous language. It is also worth noting the complaints he made about the way in which he himself had been taught chemistry. He contrasted the teaching of mathematics, where each step is shown to follow from the preceding, with that of chemistry where the standard presentations “make use of terms that have not been defined, and suppose the science to be understood by the very persons they are only beginning to teach.”[2]

For ElementsDoverthis reason, Lavoisier deliberately set about reforming the language of chemistry, an ambitious task that Thomas Jefferson, who knew of his project, regarded as premature. In the way of these things, what was originally intended as the formal record of a memoir, read by him to the Academy of Sciences in 1787, expanded into a full-scale textbook, The Elements of Chemistry, published just two years later (here again we can only admire Lavoisier’s energy).

If you want to reform the language of a subject, the obvious place to start is with the definition of its key concepts, and the key concept of chemistry, then as now, was that of an element. For the ancients, as Lavoisier pointed out, there had been the four elements of earth, air, fire, and water. To these, the alchemists had added salt and sulphur (he could also have mentioned mercury), while others had spoken of different kinds of “earth”. Faced with this, Lavoisier concluded that instead of attempting to find the nature of “those simple and indivisible atoms of which matter is composed”, we should define an element as a substance that cannot be broken down into simpler components. This provides we would now call an “operational definition”; an element is defined in terms of experimental tests. It also, as Lavoisier explicitly recognised, took account of the possibility of changing knowledge. Thus air had already been shown to contain more than one component, so it was not an element, and water also was shortly to suffer a demotion.

Things would now fall into place very quickly. “Respirable air” could not be broken down any further, nor could it be made from simpler components, so it qualified as an element. This Lavoisier called oxygen, producer of acidity, since from his work with phosphorus and sulphur he believed it to be a component of all acids. Calxes were compounds between their metals, and oxygen. Mercury was an element. So was carbon, the purest form of charcoal. Carbon reacted with oxygen to give “fixed air”, the same gas that John Black had produced in Glasgow by heating limestone, which was therefore not an element but a compound. In the reaction between charcoal and the calx of mercury, carbon was again converted into “fixed air”, this time by removing oxygen from the calx, leaving the metal free. This was the same kind of reaction as had been practiced, although not understood, for over 6,000 years, whenever metals were extracted from their ores using charcoal. Calxes were compounds between the various metals and oxygen, while the metals themselves were elements. So on moderate heating, mercury reacted with oxygen from the air to form an oxide, but stronger heating would decompose this oxide to its elements. Once oxygen had been extracted from the air, what remained was an inert residue, which Lavoisier named “azote”, or lifeless. This is still what it is called in French, although the modern English name is nitrogen, in recognition of its presence in nitre.

What about water? Lavoisier knew about “inflammable air”, a gas of low density formed when metals react with acids, and was indeed the first to suggest its use in balloons. Believing that its reaction with oxygen would produce another acid, Lavoisier in combination with Laplace (now best remembered as a mathematician) allowed oxygen and inflammable air from pressurised tanks to react within a glass bulb, and collected the liquid formed. To their surprise, it was nothing more nor less than pure water. Hence the name hydrogen, producer of water, for inflammable air. They were not the first to carry out this experiment, and to verify that the weight of water was equal to the combined weight of the reacting gases, but they were the first to recognise the significance. If water could be produced from two simpler substances, then whatever Aristotle may have said on the subject, it was not itself an element.

Not content with determining the nature of water by synthesis (combining elements together), Lavoisier verified his result by analysis. Again, he was not the first to carry out the crucial experiments, but the first to understand them. He reacted iron with water, collected the gas produced, and verified that this was indeed hydrogen by burning it and recovering the original material.

We can summarise the “new chemistry” that Lavoisier developed throughout the 1770s and 1780s as follows:

1) Combustion or calcination involves the formation of a compound with oxygen.

2) Air is a mixture of oxygen and azote.

3) Water is a compound of hydrogen and oxygen.

4) Heat is an elemental substance that is released during combustion.

5) Combination with oxygen produces acids, and all acids contain oxygen.

6) Matter is composed of simple bodies (i.e. elements) free or in combination. Bodies are regarded as simple as long as all efforts to simplify them further or to produce them by combining other bodies have failed.

7) Matter is conserved during chemical changes, as is the amount of each of the “material principles” i.e. elements.

8) A new notation was needed to express these facts.

In the rearview mirror

It’s worth a look at how well these conclusions have stood up over more than two centuries. (1) and (3) read as true today as they did when Lavoisier wrote his Elements. (2) is something like 99% true. In addition to nitrogen and oxygen, air contains about 1% argon and small but vitally important minor amounts of carbon dioxide, as well as traces of other gases. (4) was soon to be replaced by our modern view of heat as a form of energy

(5) seems a little bit strange, even from the perspective of the time, and we now know that many acids, such as hydrochloric, contain no oxygen at all. So we can regard (5) simply as an empirical generalisation, which seemed reasonable at the time, but which is now rejected in the face of fresh evidence. That’s how science works.

(6) is essentially what we think today, with a “simple body” being the same thing as what we call an element. Lavoisier himself listed 33 of these, of which 23 are still recognised as such. (7) is the law of conservation of mass, and was to provide the vital link between experimental chemistry and the atomic theory of the ancient philosophers.

As we have seen, Thomas Jefferson regarded (8) as a premature exercise. He was wrong, and much of Lavoisier’s nomenclature is still with us. Lavoisier spoke of metal oxides, and identified salts by reference to the metal and the acid that they contained. Thus what we call potassium nitrate is what he called nitrate of potash. Lavoisier’s stated aim was to establish an unambiguous nomenclature in which the names of substances were systematically related to their composition, as an aid to clarity of thought, and in this he was wholly successful.

If he had survived the Terror, Lavoisier would quite probably have lived another 20 years or more, long enough to witness and contribute to the next round of developments. His clarity of thought and language would have helped make clear the underlying issues, such as the difference between an atom and a molecule, and might well have saved the world of science half a century of confusion.

1] These days, of course, we ideally use double-blind experiments, in which neither the subjects, nor the experimenters in contact with them, know which drugs or procedures are genuine and which are controls.

2] Elements of Chemistry, Dover edition (1965), p. xix. I fear much the same could be said about the present-day introductory curriculum in chemistry, where students are immediately exposed to concepts derived from quantum mechanics and thermodynamics, without any basis in experience for these concepts.

Reposted from 3 Quarks Daily. An earlier version of this material appeared in From Stars to Stalagmites (World Scientific Press, 2012). Portrait of Lavoisier and wife by Jacques Louis David, in Metropolitan Museum of Art. Guinea pig from Pixabay. Animal magnetism from an 1863 work by Du Potet, via Occultopedia. Lavoisier’s instruments via Chemistry Explained website.

Fossil Wasp Cocoons in Dinosaur Eggs: Complex Ecology Contradicts YEC Flood Geology Hypothesis

Wasps eat spiders eat flies eat broken dinosaur eggs, a fascinating Cretaceous ecosystem. And proof, if such were needed, of the absurdity of the YEC view that dinosaur fossil beds were caused by the poor things getting caught in Noah’s Flood (yes, that really is what they do say: see here.)

Naturalis Historia

What happened to dinosaur eggs that were either abandoned or broke prematurely?  You might think that this is a question that is impossible to answer, but dinosaur eggs have been discovered with intriguing evidence of scavenging of many forms.   By studying the remains of organisms that are preserved in preserved dinosaur eggs paleontologists have discovered compelling evidence that a complex ecology existed during the time of the dinosaurs.

There are thousands of insects and other organisms that specialize in feeding on the eggs of reptiles and birds today.  Insects and other animals are attracted to old or broken eggs either to feed on the eggs themselves or to act as predators on some of these feeders.   One of the most complex relationships involves parasitic wasps that lay eggs on the back, or inside, of spiders or other insects.  When their eggs hatch the larva burrow into the host and consume them from the inside eventually using their carcasses to…

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