Monthly Archives: October 2016

Homage to Jack Chick, (April 13, 1924 – October 23, 2016); repost of How to lie about radiometric dating, evolution, and even nuclear physics

Now that he is dead, let us play Jack Chick the compliment of treating his ideas as seriously as we did when he was alive. I am sure he would not have wished otherwise.

And so, in his memory (he died on Sunday) I am reposting my analysis of one of his pieces that I found particularly interesting [update: Americans United for the Separation of Church and State have also reviewed his life and work, here]:

How to lie about radiometric dating, evolution, and even nuclear physics

Have you heard the one about the live snail with a carbon-14 age of 3000 years? Or the lava erupted in 1800 in Hawaii with a potassium-argon age in the millions? It’s all true, true I tell you. But does this signify a major problem with radiometric dating?

Spoiler: no.

I don’t know who first dug up these examples, but they were popularised by the creationist comic-book writer Jack Chick, in a publication called “Big Daddy”. The first page, available here, shows a well-primed creationist student arguing with a singularly ill-informed biology professor. The professor has been leading such a sheltered life that he’s never met these creationist arguments before. And he doesn’t understand anything about evolution or dating of rocks or embryology or indeed anything else. Surprise! the student wins! A skilled cartoonist, Jack Chick manages to squeeze the largest number of fallacies into the smallest number of words. There is a crib sheet at the end of this post, listing all the fallacies I spotted myself; I just reached double figures but there may be more.

Evoa

dating

gillarch

vestigial

Of course, it doesn’t help that the Professor doesn’t know anything about whale ancestors:

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Or that the student is allowed to make the most absurd statements unchallenged, on the basis of a video by Kent Hovind:

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But there’s more! At the end of page 1, which is also the end of your free sample I’m afraid, the student converts the Professor by pointing out that no one has ever actually seen gluons:

Gluons

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But fear not; an answer is at hand, in the very next frame:

Gluons3
So Jesus must be the force that holds the atomic nucleus together. Convinced by this reasoning, the Professor accepts Jesus, announces that as a result he can no longer teach evolution, and is sacked.

Jack Chick, by the way, has just published another comic book at the age of 92. In it, a bright young man from a good Christian (i.e. creationist) home is seduced by Satan into believing in evolution, and when we last see him is heading straight for damnation. In the words of one of Satan’s many horned helpers, “Joe trusted evolution, not God, and became a jobless party animal.” And a criminal and a drug addict, and covered himself with tattoos, and died and went to hell. Tragic, and so easily avoidable.

I never managed to get to Page 13 of Big Daddy, which is what we really need; link (if it works for you) here. It didn’t work for me, but you’ll find a description of the contents by someone called Honus at talkorigins, and I’ve seen some of the relevant cartoons reproduced elsewhere. So you can either take Honus’s and my word for it, or go online to Chick Publications and buy 25 copies (minimum purchase) of the tract, which I am not about to do.

The really remarkable thing about the tract is that it actually gives the primary literature references to the results that is discussing. And the briefest perusal of this primary literature will show why the papers that Chick refers to, far from undermining radiometric dating, actually reinforce it.

That snail was not 3000 years old, but that really was its apparent radiocarbon age, because it was exchanging calcium carbonate in its shell with mineral calcium carbonate. And that makes all the difference, so you need to take such features of the environment into account.

Many readers will be familiar with the principle of carbon-14 dating. Carbon-14 decays with a half-life of 5730 years. Nonetheless, the fraction of carbon-14 in the atmosphere stays roughly constant (or did before we started adding to it by nuclear weapons testing, and diluting it with carbon dioxide from fossil fuels). That is because the upper atmosphere is bombarded with cosmic rays, which cause nuclear reactions that convert nitrogen-14 (stable) to carbon-14. Mixing distributes this radiocarbon through the atmosphere, where it is taken up by plants and, in due course, animals. As long as you are alive, you are part of the circulating pool of carbon, but as soon as you die, the carbon-14 in your body starts decaying. Of course, cosmic ray intensity is not really constant over a long period, but we can calibrate carbon-14 dates by comparison with carbon in tree rings (dendrochronology). The tree ring correction is small for most purposes, but matters for things like precise dating of Egyptian dynasties.

The point, of course, is that the carbon in the lettuce being fed to the snails is part of the general pool, but the carbon in calcium carbonate minerals is radiochemically dead, having been out of circulation for a long time. What the paper really showed was that the snail exchanges carbonate in its shell with carbonate from dissolved minerals, giving a spurious depletion of radiocarbon in the snail. You will find the story in Science, 1963, p. 637 (paywall, sorry, but summary here).

What about these rocks in Hawaii? Here again the paper is behind a pay wall, but if you follow this link it will take you to the title and abstract, which is all you need. In fact, the title alone is all you need: “Radiogenic helium and argon in ultramafic inclusions from Hawaii”. Inclusions. And in case that’s not clear enough, the abstract tells you that the work is all about the dating of xenoliths. Xeno- foreign, as in xenophobia; lith rock, as in monolith. Look at the paper in more detail, if you can get access to it, and you will find that the excess argon is only found in bubbles of fluid within the rock, that bits of rock that aren’t bubbly don’t show any, and that there is circumstantial evidence that the argon comes from deep within the Earth’s mantle, not radioactive decay in the lava itself.

Anomalies happen all the time in geology. They are, in the original sense of the expression, exceptions that prove the rule; if there were no rule, we would not consider them exceptional. Uranium-lead and potassium-argon dates of rocks usually agree, but not if the rock has been so strongly heated that argon gas can escape. Whole rock dates can be misleading, as in the example of the Hawaiian volcano, if the rock has been contaminated from some source, in this case fluid from the mantle. So far from undermining the method, these anomalies add further information about the sample. In much the same way, radiocarbon dates will be anomalous if some of the carbon comes from inorganic sources, as in the case discussed above, and the anomaly might even be used to tell us something about the specimen’s history and diet.

Now here’s the bit that I really don’t understand. What is going on in Jack Chick’s mind, when he gives us this stuff? I assume that he is an honest person of goodwill, who is doing his best. He really believes that because I and most readers here accept the fact of evolution, we are going to be punished in hell for ever. Being a kindly man, he really doesn’t want that to happen, so he is doing his very best to convince us of the error of our ways.

So why does he do it by pointing us towards papers that say the very opposite of what he says they say? I can only speculate that this is the result of what psychologists call confirmation bias, which leads to interpreting new information, however perversely, in a way that supports what you already think. And when we come to creationism, the motivation for bias is extreme. Remember that we are talking about people who really believe (a) that if you don’t accept salvation through Jesus you are going to go to hell, and (b) that the doctrine of salvation through Jesus only makes sense if the biblical Fall is a historical fact. The papers I’ve mentioned above show that under certain rather special circumstances, radiometric dating will give you the wrong answer unless you take those circumstances into account. Young Earth creationists, knowing that their entire worldview depends on refuting radiometric dating, pounce on these examples as evidence that the method is unreliable. Which of course it is, if you don’t do it right. So what?

All of which gives me uncomfortable pause for two reasons. If creationists are so blinded by confirmation bias, what hope is there of reasoning with them? And if I see my intellectual opponents displaying confirmation bias, completely oblivious to what they are doing, what makes me think that I am any different?

h/t Sensuous Curmudgeon for tip-off about Jack Chick’s latest. Whale ancestors illustrated (Ambulocetus and Pakicetus) copyright JGM Thewissen; may be reproduced for non-commercial educational purposes.

IncredibleCrib sheet: Definition as obfuscation. Misdefinition of science to exclude all indirect inference (although even Young Earth creationists accept the fact of an Ice Age on geological evidence). Macroevolution, if the word means anything, means major change, and this takes more time than we have been watching. So of course we’ve never seen it. Similar fossils do indeed imply similar ages, but the order of these ages has been known for nearly 200 years on the basis of stratigraphy, and absolute ages established for over 100 years now by radiometric dating. Polystrate fossils were explained in 1868; the explanation is much the same today. New Scientist really did point out in 1997 that it is silly to carry on using Haeckel’s highly questionable drawings, as some still do, when we now have a much more detailed information. But, as explained in Alice Roberts’s Incredible Unlikeliness of Being and many other places, the gill folds on the human embryo really are homologous to the folds on that of a fish. They just develop rather differently, explaining such oddities as the tortuous path of our vagus nerves. As for the whale’s pelvis having “nothing to do with walking on land”, by 1999 we already had extensive series of fossils linking whales to their terrestrial ancestors; there is an excellent review here by one of the scientists involved in Evolution Education and Outreach (free download), and whales evolution also features in an excellent video here . The development of secondary functions (exaptation) is commonplace. Thus mammals’ ear bones are vestigial relics of reptiles’ rear jawbones. Creationists often argue, as here, that natural selection can only remove, and not add. This riddle was solved 120 years ago, with the discovery of mutation. Mutations supply novelty; selection winnows it. Creationists agree in explaining away pre-modern human fossils, such as Lucy and numerous others already known by 1999, as being either apes, or humans. Unfortunately, they can never agree on which is which. And, something that I think believers in particular should find offensive, the theological absurdities of the final frame.

This post originally appeared here in January, at https://paulbraterman.wordpress.com/2016/01/08/how-to-lie-about-radiometric-dating-evolution-and-even-nuclear-physics/

Clergy back call to remove unelected clergy from Council committees in Scotland

Petition “…to remove the constitutional anomaly that imposes unelected Church appointees on Local Authority Education Committees” (signatures still urgently needed; you can sign and comment here)

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Image from Clergy Letter Project website home page

This just in, to the Public Petitions Committee, from Michael Zimmerman, Executive Director of the Clergy Letter Project, which exists to promote the acceptance and celebration of science among believers. It states, more clearly than I could ever do, the reasons theological, educational, and ethical for removing the existing power of the Churches to nominate three representatives to Scottish Local Authority Education Committees; a large enough bloc to swing the balance of power on 19 of Scotland’s 32 such Committees:

I am writing in reference to “PE01623: Unelected church appointees on Local Authority Education Committees” and in my capacity as the Executive Director of The Clergy Letter Project.  The Clergy Letter Project is an organization of more than 15,000 ordained members of the clergy who believe that religion and science can be fully compatible.  Additionally, our members believe that religious doctrine should not influence the content of secular education.    The underlying premises of The Clergy Letter Project are two-fold.  On the one hand, many of those who are promoting a religious presence in secular educational institutions are doing so on very narrow grounds.  In other words, in almost every case, the specific educational goals being promoted are completely at odds with the religious beliefs of many other individuals.  On the other hand, many who are promoting a religious presence in secular educational institutions believe that their religious beliefs trump science when they see the two in conflict.  The thousands of religious leaders who comprise The Clergy Letter Project understand that the importance of religion lies in its spiritual value rather than in any particular pronouncements about the material world.

Mandating that three religious leaders must be appointed to each Local Authority Education Committee privileges religion in a manner that is likely to do damage to the educational opportunities open to students.  Let me hasten to say that there is absolutely nothing wrong with any particular religious leader serving on a Local Authority Education Committee, if that is the will of the community.  As citizens, religious leaders should have all the rights that every other member of the community has.  But mandating seats on the Committees for religious leaders simply because of their religious beliefs is unfair and runs the risk of severely compromising the very nature of the education the Local Committees were established to protect.

I urge you to take this petition very seriously and take steps to ensure that Scottish students receive the highest quality of education possible.

Michael Zimmerman

Executive Director The Clergy Letter Project

www.theclergyletterproject.org

mz@theclergyletterproject.org

Natural selection in our species during the last two millennia

Evolution science in action

Why Evolution Is True

A question I’m always asked in popular lectures on evolution is this: “Are humans still evolving?” The answer I give is “Yes, but we have good evidence for such evolution in only a handful of traits: evolution of earlier reproductive maturity in females, later menopause, and selection for reduced blood pressure and a few other traits related to heart disease.” That is based on longitudinal studies of human health over decades, observing changes in these traits and presumed estimates of the genetic basis of their variation.

Now, however, we can, by DNA sequencing, look at DNA directly, and with some fancy statistical footwork, get an idea of which genes have changed in frequency so fast that they must have been due to positive natural selection. That’s the subject of a new paper in Science by Yair Field et al. (reference and free download below).  The authors conclude that several…

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#ElectNotSelect; “Remove Church Appointees” makes front page of Herald

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From front page, [Glasgow] Herald, 7 Oct 2016; click to enlarge

You can sign here: https://www.parliament.scot/GettingInvolved/Petitions/ChurchAppointees

And you can see a fuller version of the story in the Herald online here.

Why sign? For the moment, I’ll just repeat what I said yesterday:

Three of the full voting members of every Local Authority Education Committee in Scotland are unelected nominees of the Churches, whether the voters or their elected representatives want them there or not.

And because this is Scotland, a country that regards its people with respect, the petition process means something. Enough, in this case, to actually change things. The petition will be discussed by Holyrood’s Public Petitions Committee, who will, we hope, pass it on to the Education and Skills Committee, the Government will be asked to state its position, the Educational Institute of Scotland, the Consortium of Scottish Local Authorities, and other interested parties will be written to …

What happens then? That depends very much on you. Hierarchies never give up power without a struggle. There will be mobilisation in defence of the indefensible, and no Government, and very few individual MSPs, will be willing to stand up for change unless we have shown them that there is a real demand for it. That is why your signature matters.

What more can you do? Firstly, and most effectively in terms of return on time spent, pass it on. Use your social accounts, Facebook, Twitter, whatever. Next, let your own MSPs know how you feel; you can contact them at http://www.parliament.scot/msps/current-msps.aspx. And keep your eyes on the newspapers and their comments sections; write to them if you feel so moved. Never have concerned individuals had so many ways of making their voices heard. Use them.

#ElectNotSelect; Remove Church appointees imposed on Scottish Education Committees

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Debating chamber at Holyrood. Photo Mogens Engelund via Wikipedia

Sign the petition here, and your signature will go straight to Holyrood, and help get rid of the absurd legal relic whereby

Three of the full voting members of every Local Authority Education Committee in Scotland are unelected nominees of the Churches, whether the voters or their elected representatives want them there or not.

The time is ripe for change. Our petition, Unelected church appointees on Local Authority Education Committees, has widespread cross-party support in principle among MSPs. But we need to show that there is public support for change, or timidity will triumph.

Click on link to see the full petition, and, if you agree, to sign. Remember that the Education Committees, on which these Church appointees sit, control a larger part of Council budgets than any other Committee. They are the ultimate employers of School Principals and teachers, as well as being represented on senior teacher selection panels.  They decide on the opening and closing of schools, and whether a school should be denominational or nondenominational, and control local practice in such matters as religious education, religious observance, and instruction about sex in human relationships. The Church appointees vote on these matters, and in addition discuss policy directly with Council officials. You will find a full listing of the appointees, how they came to be selected (e.g. only answer to a newspaper advertisement; nominated himself after losing an election), and which ones are known Young Earth creationists (half a dozen; many more probable) here.

Why are these appointees there? Because District Council Education Committees must, by law dating back to 1929, include three appointees of the Churches, nominated by Church hierarchies, and immune to the electoral process. These nominees actually hold the balance of power in 19 out of Scotland’s 32 Education Committees, whether anyone wants them there or not, and they don’t even need to declare their outside interests!

Who selects them? One is selected by the Church of Scotland, one by the Catholic Church, and one by a third religious organisation (it must be religious) chosen by the Council with regard to local demographics. Fringe creationist churches are overrepresented here, as are the Episcopalians, with a mere 25,000 communicants but ten allotted slots.

This blemish on our democracy is also a breach of our right to equal treatment under the law, because it creates positions of power within our system of government that are only open to certain believers. Believers, moreover, in dogmas no longer accepted* by most Scots young enough to have children within the school system.

Since we are dealing with the law on a devolved matter, education, the Scottish Parliament is the only body with the power to remove this constitutional anachronism, which is why the Scottish Secular Society is petitioning them to do so.

Our petition will initially be examined by the Public Petitions Committee, who are greatly influenced by the number of signatures, as well as by the content, and intellectual weight, of individual comments. They can close (i.e. kill) the petition, or write to interested parties, including the Scottish Government, and then forward it to the Education and Skills Committee. This latter Committee, on which we know we have support, can then require the Scottish Government to state and explain its policy.

This theocratic anachronism that has survived only because unexamined. Given the choice, we are sure that the present Scottish Government (any Government) would rather let sleeping dogs lie. Help us to deny them that choice.

Want to do more to help? Sign (obviously); showing professional titles and degrees will add weight, as will indicating if you have a special interest (e.g. parent, pupil, teacher, Minister).

Publicise on your social networks, using #ElectNotSelect, and sharing the petition link (here) and, if you like, the link to this blog post (here).

Write to your constituency and region MSPs. Keep it brief. The very fact of your writing is more important than the details of what is in your letter. Mention the petition by name and number, and the issue of democracy. Mention also any reason you may have for personal interest in the matter.

But keep to the constitutional aspects. Attacks on religion in general, or broadening the discussion to include its role in the educational system, gives ammunition to our opponents. And we will have opponents; no one gives up power without a struggle.

You can also send a comment to the Committee. Keep it brief, and we would ask you to stick to the issues of democracy and equality; see preceding paragraph. If you belong to any relevant professional organisations (e.g. teachers’ unions, parent-teacher councils), write to them as well.

When? As soon as possible. The more immediate support we can show, the more organisations will be willing to support us.

Notes: We will be accused of attempting to drive the Churches out of public life. On the contrary, our petition, explicitly, would leave Local Authorities free to consult or co-opt church representatives, much as they can and do co-opt representatives of parents and teachers, if they choose to do so.

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St Mary’s Edinburgh, seat of the Archbishop of Edinburgh and St Andrews. Photo Michael T R B Turnbull via Wikipedia

The Church appointees are non-party, but they are not non-partisan. Nor are they independent, since they owe their positions to their hierarchies.

The Churches have claimed that the system somehow broadens and strengthens the local roots of democracy. In reality, most Church appointments are made by remote hierarchies, with the Archbishop of Edinburgh and St Andrews making appointments from Highland to Dumfries and Galloway.

Scotland, we are often told, is a Christian country. To the extent that this is true, special representation of religion is unnecessary, because Christians vote, and are free to stand for election, just like everybody else.

The Scottish Secular Society is a faith-neutral body, and one of our Board members sits on Scotland’s Inter-Faith Council.

*Scottish Social Attitudes Survey 2014, Tabel 2.4, downloadable here, shows 68 percent of 18-24 -year-olds and 56 percent of 25-39 -year-olds describing themselves as “no religion”

You don’t really know your mind, or do you?

Reblogged from Plato’s footnote; a partial corrective to my own pessimism.

I commented, we ignore uncomfortable knowledge about our own minds, but then we ignore a lot of uncmfortable knowledge. But it is possible to be unconsciously influenced by a bias that one rationally reects, which is why orchestras audition beind screens to conceal the gender of the performer.

Footnotes to Plato

Recent psychological research has been interpreted as casting serious doubts on many crucial aspects of the human experience: that we have “free will” (it’s complicated, hence the scare quotes), that we are at the least capable of rational thinking, and even that we are conscious. Indeed, it has become both fashionable and a bit of a cottage industry to “show,” scientific data in hand, that all those facets of mentation simply do not exist, they are illusions, figments of our imagination (though nobody has really provided an account of why on earth we have them, as metabolically costly as the apparatus that makes them possible is). All of this, of course, despite the staggering crisis in the replicability of results from psychology, which ought to make anyone reading anything in that field a bit cautious before agreeing that we are lumbering rationalizing and self-deluded robots.

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