Author Archives: Paul Braterman

Tall el-Hammam; an airburst of gullibility; it gets worse

I shared the excitement when I read at https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-021-97778-3 that

in ~ 1650 BCE (~ 3600 years ago), a cosmic airburst destroyed Tall el-Hammam, a Middle-Bronze-Age city in the southern Jordan Valley northeast of the Dead Sea

File:Tall el-Hammam overlooking the Jordan Valley 2007.jpg
Tall el-Hammam, overlooking Jordan Valley. Dead Sea and Jerico beyond it on horizon, to left. Creative Commons via Wikipedia

and that this event could have given rise to the biblical account of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Then I learned that the work was conducted by a group based on an unaccredited Bible college (Trinity Southwestern University, TSU), that the world’s leading authority on airbursts has denounced the claims as impossible, that eight separate major research groups have questioned the assumptions, reproducibility, and factual accuracy of related earlier work by the corresponding author, that there is an unusually active thread criticisng the work on PubPeer, and that Retraction Watch, which says that criticism has engulfed the paper, is in correspondence with the Chief Editor of the journal, part of the Nature group, where the work appeared.

Figure 53
Boslough’s supercomputer 15-megaton model of the Tunguska airburst, as copied in the paper under discussion

Problems listed by acknowledged experts in PubPeer include misuse of Mark Boslough‘s account of airbursts (Boslough is a long-standing critic of the claims of the TSU group); and no clear evidence that the destrution of the palace walls was catastrophic, absence of qualified examination of skeletons, anatomically misdescribed bones, claims without evidence that bone damage was associated with traumatic death, rather than later damage, the mixing of kinds of debris is commonplace and not evidence of catastrophe, the connection of the carbon-14 dates to the alleged destruction is not established, and claims of burning of bone lack evidence and consistency (Megan Perry of the Petra North Ridge Project, who knows what this kind of stuff looks like.) There is undeclared image manipulation, eventually admitted, but described as without significance. And the account of diamond vs graphite in the paper

Each diamonoid typically contains carbon atoms that are sp3-bonded (i.e., 3 bonded carbon atoms), as in diamond, rather than with sp2 bonding (i.e., 2 bonded carbon atoms), typical of graphite

does not inspire conidence.

Figure 44c fromthe paper. Note direction of shadows and of direction pointer

In the paper’s Figure 44c, shadows are cast by a sun shining from the direction labelled North. This obviously cannot happen at Tall el-Hammam, giving rise to further concerns about the quality of the work.

My own browsing in what are for me odd places1 shows that other archaeologists, including Aren Maeir of Bar Ilan University, agree in finding nothing unusual in the report compared to “normal” destruction by fire or warfare) Maeir is quite explicit:

[T]he destruction the report described was not that unusual. “I see some things that remind me of phenomena that we have in the Iron Age IIA (1000–925 BC) destruction at Tell es-Safi/Gath (e.g. vitrified or “melted” bricks, ultra-high temperatures, and other things)—a destruction that is most likely caused by the conquest and destruction of the site by Hazael of Aram,” he said.

Mark Boslough, an expert on cataclysmic events who even has an asteroid named after him, tells me that he is tired of repeated rebuttal of what he considers to be obviously false claims, and of seeing his own theoretical analysis of the effect of airbursts invoked as an explanation of claims completely inconsistent with such a process, or perhaps any credible process. For this reason, rather than publishing yet another counterblast that will be ignored, he has taken to describing the controversy, extending over many years, on Twitter (see here, here, and subsequent threads, and PubPeer).

Phillip Silvia, the author from whom soil samples can be obtained, is an electrical engineer by training, who received his PhD training in archaeology at TSU, and published much of this material through TSU press in 2016 as a paperback, in which his PhD advisor, Steven Collins, strangely absent from the author list of this paper although not from an earlier abstract, states (Foreword, page x) that “the Genesis 19 description of Sodom’s destruction was about good a phenomenological description of a cosmic airburst as one could imagine” and describes Tall el-Hammam as “the site I had identified as Sodom based on geographical details embedded in the boblical text”.

Screenshot from Collins’ introduction to Silvia’s 2016 book

Like I suspect many of the journalists and interested readers who swooped on this story, I failed at first to notice that the paper was not, despite the link, an article in Nature but in Scientific Reports. This is one of the stable of less exclusive journals closely linked to Nature being published by Springer, now controlled by the publishing giant Hotlzbrinck, and profiting from Nature’s reputation for excellence. I was only vaguely aware of the authors’ long history of invoking airbursts, took the many kinds of evidence listed at face value, and did not even blink at the claim that “[a]n airburst-related influx of salt (~ 4 wt.%) [from the Dead Sea, apparently] produced hypersalinity”.

Temperature changes in the central region of Greenland’s ice sheet.From US Geological Survey

The authors have since described this work to a much larger audience in The Conversation, where they repeat their claim, also published in Scientific Reports, of a similar catastrophe at Abu Hureyra in what is now Syria, around 10,800 BCE, assert that “it almost certainly won’t be the last time a human city meets this fate”, claim that such events “pose a severe modern-day hazard”, and advise that “unless orbiting or ground-based telescopes detect these rogue objects, the world may have no warning, just like the people of Tall el-Hammam.” The Abu Hureya paper also repeats a litany of earlier claims that the Younger Dryas, a period of severe cold in the northern hemisphere from around 12,900 to 11,700  years Before Present [Present is fixed at 1950 CE],  was caused by a  series of impacts with cometary debris, spread over at least four continents. These claims have been severely disputed; see papers listed below.

There are numerous additional reasons for concern about the TSU researh group.

Image
Trinity Soutwestern University campus, aerial view

The paper tells us that “The project is under the aegis of the School of Archaeology, Veritas International University, Santa Ana, CA, and the College of Archaeology, Trinity Southwest University, Albuquerque, NM, under the auspices of the Department of Antiquities of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.” Veritas International University believes in “the full historicity and comprehensibility of the biblical record”. It is accredited by the Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools (TRACS), which I have discussed here before. Trinity Southwest University, which now operates from an office in a strip mall in Albuquerque, was formerly in Tulsa, Oklahoma, under the name Southwest Biblical Seminary, and rejects any government accreditation whatsoever as intrusive violation of the separation of Church and State. While the traditional site of Sodom is in Israel (and within the pre-1967 boundaries).

The corresponding author is Allen West, who has been publishing prolifically in this area since 2005 (Evidence for the Extinction of Mammoths by an Extraterrestrial Impact Event) and in 2006 co-authored a book, The Cycle of Cosmic Catastrophes: How a Stone-Age Comet Changed the Course of World Culture, which claims  that the debris of a shattered comet was responsible for  “a cosmic chain of events [that] began 41,000 years ago and culminated in a major global  catastrophe  28,000 years later.” These events include everything from the extinction of the mammoths to the landform of the Carolina Bays to the legend of Atlantis to a purported “mysterious layer of black sediment” found spanning North America to the Younger Dryas discussed in the Abu Hureya paper.  West has no academic qualifications or affiliations, and gives his address as Comet Research Group (CRG), Prescott, Arizona (several of the other authors are also members of this group, which is linked to the Rising Light Group, a 501(c)3, tax-exempt charitable organization with a clear Christian and biblical agenda, registered in Allen West’s name.). As detailed by Pacific Standard Magazine, discussing how thing stood regarding CRG’s work in 2017, there have been calls for a for a formal inquiry and

University of Wyoming archaeologist Todd Surovell and his colleagues couldn’t find increased magnetic spherules representing cosmic debris at seven Clovis sites. Nicholas Pinter and his colleagues at Southern Illinois University Carbondale argue the carbon spherules are organic residue of fungus or arthropod excrement. And Tyrone Daulton of Washington University in St. Louis and his colleagues reported that supposed nanodiamonds formed by the impact were misidentified.

On the other hand, in an acrimonious exchange with me in the Comments section of The Conversation, West pointed out that

Our group included, among many others: Dr. James Kennett, emeritus professor at UCSB, specializing in stratigraphy, micropaleontology, paleobiology. He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, which recognizes the contributions of just 0.1% of all scientists. Dr. Ted Bunch, former NASA section chief and a world-leading meteoriticist. Dr. Robert Hermes, retired from Los Alamos National Labs, world-recognized expert in trinitite or atomic glass. Dr. Wendy Wolbach, chemistry professor who discovered high-temperature soot at the K-Pg boundary.

I replied with a listing of some papers that I have examined criticising West’s own earlier work regarding airbursts, including sampling techniques and claimed evidence for very high temperatures:

Scott AC, Hardiman M, Pinter N, Anderson RS, Daulton TL, Ejarque A, Finch P, Carter-champion A (2017). “Interpreting palaeofire evidence from fluvial sediments: a case study from Santa Rosa Island, California, with implications for the Younger Dryas Impact Hypothesis”. Journal of Quaternary Science. 32 (1): 35–47. doi:10.1002/jqs.2914.

*Boslough M, Harris AW, Chapman C, Morrison D (November 2013). “Younger Dryas impact model confuses comet facts, defies airburst physics”. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 110 (45): E4170. doi:10.1073/pnas.1313495110.

*Boslough M (April 2013). “Faulty protocols yield contaminated samples, unconfirmed results”. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 110 (18): E1651. doi:10.1073/pnas.1220567110

Van Hoesel A, Hoek WZ, Pennock GM, Drury MR (2014). “The Younger Dryas impact hypothesis: a critical review”. Quaternary Science Reviews. 83: 95–114. doi:10.1016/j.quascirev.2013.10.033.

*Meltzer DJ, Holliday VT, Cannon MD, Miller DS (May 2014). “Chronological evidence fails to support claim of an isochronous widespread layer of cosmic impact indicators dated to 12,800 years ago”. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 111 (21): E2162-71. doi:10.1073/pnas.1401150111.

*Holliday VT (December 2015). “Problematic dating of claimed Younger Dryas boundary impact proxies”. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 112 (49): E6721. doi:10.1073/pnas.1518945112.

Thy P, Willcox G, Barfod GH, Fuller DQ (2015). “Anthropogenic origin of siliceous scoria droplets from Pleistocene and Holocene archaeological sites in northern Syria”. Journal of Archaeological Science. 54: 193–209. doi:10.1016/j.jas.2014.11.027.

*Van der Hammen T, Van Geel B (2016). “Charcoal in soils of the Allerød-Younger Dryas transition were the result of natural fires and not necessarily the effect of an extra-terrestrial impact”. Netherlands Journal of Geosciences. 87 (4): 359–361. doi:10.1016/j.jas.2014.11.027

See, however, in defence of the Younger Dryas impact theory, *Sweatman MB (2021). The Younger Dryas Impact hypothesis: Review of the impact evidence. Earth-Science Reviews. 218: 103677. doi:10.1016/j.earscirev.2021.103677. I thank Christopher R. Moore, one of the authors of the paper I am criticising, for drawing my attention to this review.

*Freely accessible via doi; for other papers, doi gives access to abstracts but not full text.

We await further developments with interest.

1] Bit for a rebuttal by a biblical archaeologist involved in the dig, though not an author on this paper, see here

An earlier edition of this post appeared on pandasthumb.org

Another side to Socrates

A marble head of Socrates
Marble head of Socrates, Roman, 1st Century CE, ?after Lysippos, 4th Century BCE, via Wikipedia

We all know the story. Socrates has been told by the oracle that he is wisest of men, but he considers that he himself knows nothing. Puzzled, he takes to cross-examining his fellow Athenians about their beliefs, and time and again finds that they will not bear examination. As a result, he is indicted on trumped-up charges of impiety and corrupting the young. After a trial in which he eloquently defends his behaviour, he is condemned to death. A martyr to freedom of expression, and a shocking example of democracy suppressing dissent. Surely there is more to the story than that? Indeed there is.

I am not about to commit the folly of denying the greatness of Socrates. We still, twentyfour cenuries later, praise his methods of investigation. I myself have used an argument taken directly from one of Plato’s Socratic dialogues. The topic was practical ethics, Socrates’ speciality; and the technique used, questioning assumed certainties, his favourite tactic.

Here’s what happened. A few years ago, I was involved in a moderately successful campaign  [1] to reduce the statutory role of the Churches in Scotland’s local authority education committees. The Church of Scotland attempted to justify its privileged position by pointing to its distinctive Christian ethos. In reply, I pointed out that to the extent that this ethos is generally shared, we do not need any Church to promote it, while to the extent that it is specific to Christianity, the Churches have no right to impose it on the rest of us.

My reasoning derives directly from Socrates, in The Euthyphro, where Socrates challenges Euthyphro to define pious behaviour.

Euthyphro, after a few false starts, defines it as the kind of behaviour that pleases the gods. Socrates then asks a question which reverberates to this day, and which undercuts any attempts to define morality by reference to authority; does such behavior please the gods because it is pious, in which case we still have to ask what it is that makes it pious, and we are back where we started. Or is it pious because it pleases the gods? In that case, piety depends merely on the divine whim.

For how Plato’s Socrates would define morality, we can turn to The Republic, in which he advocates a city ruled by an oligarchy of philosophers, qualified for their post by their superior insights, who give out the legend that they are of different descent from common clay, impose limits on public discussion, and ban poets and non-military music. It is easy to guess how long the sainted Socrates of common belief would have lasted within such a city.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/a9/Peloponnesian_war_alliances_431_BC.png
Alliances at the outset of the Peloponnesian War, US Army via Wikipedia

And what about the charge of corrupting the young? Here it makes sense to look at what we know about how Socrates’ disciples behaved during the period of his influence. This included the period of the Peloponnesian War   between Athens and Sparta, which had led to total defeat for Athens, and the temporary installation five years before the trial of a brutal oligarchy (the Thirty) operating under Spartan auspices. The War could be seen as part of an ongoing struggle between oligarchy and (severely limited) democracy. The overthrow of the Thirty speaks to Athenian resilience, despite which there had been a further oligarchic coup attempt just two years before the trial.

If there is a single person to blame for the defeat of Athens, it is Socrates’ disciple Alcibiades, who persuaded the Athenians to undertake a disastrous military operation in Sicily, defected to Sparta in the aftermath, and ended up advising Darius II of Persia on how to subvert the Greek city-states. Another prominent disciple of Socrates was Critias, a diehard oligarch who even after the overthrow of the Thirty had led a rearguard action that included the massacre of 300 people at Eleusis [2]. All these events would have been fresh in the memory of the Athenians at the time of the trial.

Alcibades being taught by Socrates, François-André Vincent.jpg
Alcibiades being taught by Socrates, François-André Vincent, 1776, Musée Fabre, via Wikipedia

Without in any way condoning the execution of Socrates, we might in the light of these events be able to come a little closer to understanding it. Unfortunately, the only contemporary accounts we have of the trial are derived from Plato, and from Xenophon who also clearly admired Socrates. So we have the case for the defence, but not the case for the prosecution. We have the wording of the indictment, but not the details of the allegations. Trying to find out what was really going on at the trial is a matter for an investigative journalist, and preferably one deeply committed to both free speech and democracy, who can help us understand why Socrates attracted less than universal admiration.

The Trial of Socrates

Fortunately, we have the results of exactly such an investigation, in the form of The Trial of Socrates, by I.F. Stone. Stone was an independent-minded investigative journalist, who avoided close contact with official sources and built his case on publicly available documents. He was a critic of Cold War policies, racism and anti-Semitism in the FBI, and much besides. During his career he worked for several different newspapers, and produced his newsletter, I. F. Stone’s Weekly, from 1953 until angina forced him to retire in 1971. At this point, he completed his long interrupted Bachelor’s degree in classical languages from the University of Pennsylvania, devoted himself to the study of classical Greek literature and thought, and over a ten-year period produced this book, which he completed a year before his death in 1981. What follows is his analysis of the trial and its significance, which I with my two years of schoolboy Greek am not qualified to improve on.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/9/9b/StoneApril1972.jpg/220px-StoneApril1972.jpg
I. F. Stone, aged 64. Image by Kzitelman via Wikipedia

As Stone reminds us, Socrates himself wrote nothing down, and everything you know about him is at second or third hand. There are some critical mentions in Aristotle, who was born 15 years after Socrates died, fiercely hostile satires staged many years before the trial in Aristophanes’ The Clouds and The Birds, and a defence of Socrates in Xenophon’s Memorabilia and Apology, but the most extensive source by far is Plato. Plato’s dialogues, centred on Socrates, are dramatic masterpieces through which Socrates emerges with still contemporary urgency. Scholars will continue to debate how much of this material may represent Socrates, and how much is Plato’s own, but unless there is reason to think otherwise, what we are usually discussing is Plato’s Socrates. However, in the case of the trial, we have the independent account by Xenophon, allowing us to check many crucial facts.

Let me start with Stone’s discussion of The Euthyphro, which occurs in the middle of the book, but goes to the heart of Stone’s critique. The dialogue is set as an encounter outside the courts, where Socrates is dealing with the preliminaries to his trial. It is usually presented, as I did myself earlier, as a triumphant example of Socrates’ probing demolition of Euthyphro’s unwarranted certainty. What we risk losing sight of is why Euthyphro and Socrates are having this discussion in the first place. Euthyphro has a real life dilemma. A labourer has killed one of his father’s slaves, whereupon his father left him in chains in a ditch while sending for legal advice. Three days later, the labourer was dead. Euthyphro has to decide whether it is more pious to be a good son and say nothing, or to be a good citizen and report the matter to the authorities, and he chooses the latter.

It should by now be no surprise that Socrates attacks this decision. Euthyphro has decided that in the circumstances piety requires him to inform against his own father, but under Socrates’ cross-examining, it turns out that he cannot even define piety. This is the background to Socrates’ unanswerable philosophical dilemma. Socrates is guided by the principle that questions can be decided by examining definitions, and it is the lack of a good definition that has led Euthyphro to what Socrates considers to be a perverse decision. I have long regarded The Euthyphro as showing Socrates at his best; but thanks to Stone, I can now see that it also shows him at his worst.

We cannot understand Socrates’ attitude without reference to its political context. Thus the word “labourer,” as Stone points out, was a technical term for the lowest class of freemen, those without property, who had won the right to full citizenship just two centuries earlier, and had suffered most under the oligarchies that Sparta had imposed on Athens. Classical Greek was proverbial for the subtlety of its vocabulary, and accordingly, here as elsewhere, Stone pays close attention to the actual words used, and shows us many shades of meaning that would otherwise be lost in translation. His discussion of the Euthyphro runs to 5 pages, and includes such relevant background detail as the changing fates of the landowners on the island of Naxos, where the episode had taken place, during the Peloponnesian War, and the disenfranchisement of labourers in the oligarchical interludes of the preceding decades.

Stone, a journalist remember, does not waste words, and I cannot possibly do justice here to what takes him 250 fact-filled pages plus footnotes. So I will select just four topics for discussion; what we know about Socrates chief accuser, Socrates’ mutually contradictory claims to ignorance and to superior insight, the full significance of the indictment brought against him, and his extraordinary conduct at the trial.

Socrates’ chief accuser was Anytus, a tanner by trade, but on occasion a general by necessity. We first meet him in The Meno, where Socrates belittles all of Athens’ leading political figures, including Pericles and Thucydides, and Anytus warns Socrates that he could get into trouble by insulting so many people. The Meno is set two years before the trial, and we cannot tell whether this exchange actually took place, or whether the report is Plato’s dramatic embroidering. The underlying issue here, as Stone points out, is not that Socrates takes this or that political position, but that he is antipolitical. He attacks oligarchs and democrats equally, because he does not regard the common herd as fit for self-government under either system. Anytus himself was no extreme democrat. He was a follower of Theramenes, who had attempted to moderate the policies of the Thirty, and been executed for this on the orders of Critias. At that point, Anytas himself had fled Athens, and joined the coalition that soon recaptured the city from the Thirty, Critias himself being slain in the final battle.

Anytus’ son had for a while been part of Socrates’ circle, but that did not last. As Stone puts it, “One might add that Anytus was not unreasonable in withdrawing his son from Socratic tutelage. Anytus had reason to fear that his son might have been turned by Socrates against his father, taught to despise the family business [3], and converted by his aristocratic associates into a pro-Spartan snob and a supporter of the Thirty.”

Socrates boasted of his own humility. The Oracle at Delphi had proclaimed him superior in wisdom to other men, and so, he said, he had interrogated others renowned for their wisdom, and to his dismay found them lacking. We have already met his dismissal from consideration of Athenian statesmen across the political spectrum. In his Apology [4] he refers to this without naming names. He then turns his attention to the poets (his contemporaries here would have included Euripides and Sophocles), but rejects them also because they cannot explain their own works to his satisfaction. Regarding skilled tradesmen, a group that included Anytus, he observed that “even the good artisans fell into the same error as the poets; because they were good workmen they thought that they also knew all sorts of high matters, and this defect in them overshadowed their wisdom.” No one, it seemed, could meet his high standards, and he had to conclude that he was indeed better off than anyone else was, being at least aware of his own ignorance. He was also better off in having access to his own daemon, or inner voice. This is not, as one might imagine, some kind of conscience or inner light, but a spiritual entity, as the Apology, especially in Xenophon [5], makes plain.

Now to the indictment. I had always thought that this included an accusation of “making the worse appear the better cause”. But those words are not those of his accusers. They are Socrates’ (or perhaps Plato’s) own, crafted to cast the trial in the context of suppression of dissent. As Stone convincingly shows, this interpretation was not generally expressed until several centuries later. The actual indictment refers to corrupting the young, and to not believing in the gods the state believes in, but in others.

As for corrupting the young, we have seen the examples of Alcibiades and Critias, and we can at least sympathise with a tanner faced with a Socrates who teaches his son that his father’s occupation is unworthy. We can also be more specific. Aristophanes, lampooning Socrates in his comedies, describes the young under his influence as having been socratified and, in The Birds, spartified. Fifteen years earlier, when The Birds was staged, that may have been a bit of a joke, but not in the aftermath of the Sparta-imposed dictatorship of the Thirty, and the even more recent coup attempt.

The rest of the indictment is the accusation that Socrates “does not believe in the gods the state believes in, but in other new spiritual beings.” According to Stone, what is important here is the reference to the gods that the Athenian state believes in, rather than to gods in general, although Socrates deliberately blurs this crucial distinction in his Apology. He readily establishes that he takes part in the customary rituals, but this could hardly be the point since everybody knew that anyway. Moreover, classical polytheism was indulgent to different views of the gods, and it is not until the rise of monotheism that we have the concepts of atheism and heresy as deviant. So if that is not what the indictment means, what does it mean?

Here we are forced to speculate, for lack of evidence. There are three specific deities that Stone mentions at this point. Firstly there is Hephaestus, god of the smithy, a divine craftsman highly revered in a city renowned for the quality of its workmanship. Yet Socrates disdains such material activities. Then there are two divinities singled out for mention by Athena herself in the final scene of Aeschylus’ Orestes trilogy. One of these is Zeus, but more specifically Zeus Agoraios, Zeus of the assembly, the titular divinity of its free debates. The other is Peitho, or Persuasion, personified as a goddess. Socrates, Stone is suggesting, is under attack for his failure to embrace the essential democratic spirit of participation in public life.

Socrates does indeed attempt to defend himself from such a charge, apparently sincerely but not very convincingly. He says that he had not spoken in the assemblies, for fear of being killed for his opinions. Yet he was expounding those same opinions in the Agora every day, to anyone who would listen, and Plato would continue to teach Socratic doctrine unmolested at his Academy in Athens for another 40 years. He mentions voting against the initial majority in an important trial, but he could hardly have evaded the duty to take part, having been chosen by lot to be among the judges, nor could he have been in danger in stating his opinion, since he persuaded the majority to his own point of view. And he mentions that he quietly ignored an order from the Thirty to take part in an unlawful arrest. Hardly a spectacular display of opposition, when he could have added his very well-known presence to the opposition forces then mustering outside the city.

And finally, to Socrates’ conduct at the trial, and his motivation. Socrates made it very clear to Xenophon’s informant, Hermogenes, that he had knowing set out on a course that would lead to his death. He eloquently laments his lack of eloquence, while claiming that minds have been poisoned against him, and insults the court for being open to rhetorical persuasion. His proud display of humility is calculated to offend the citizens judging him. He belittles the excellences of craftsmanship, poetry, and political debate, for which Athens was justly famous. He gives credibility to the charge of believing in different gods, by invoking his daemon and its preternatural insight. He rejects in advance the possibility of being conditionally acquitted if he stops teaching, although he had done exactly that when asked to under the Thirty. He is surprised – one might almost say offended – by the narrowness of the guilty verdict against him. When proceedings move on to the punishment phase, the prosecution offers, as foreseen, the death penalty, expecting the defence to come up with a serious alternative. Yet Socrates’ counteroffer is that he be awarded civic banquets for life, in recognition of his services to the city. And although he eventually modifies that to paying a small fine, it is hardly surprising that the majority in favour of the death penalty ends up being larger than it had been for the earlier guilty verdict. He was asking for it, after all.

The killing of Socrates was a crime. Socrates was a willing accomplice.

The Death of Socrates by Giambettino Cignaroli, early 18C, via Wikipedia

1] I helped present a petition to the Scottish Parliament asking them to revoke the long-standing legal requirement for Council Education Committees to include nominees of the Churches as voting members. In response, the Scottish Government reinterpreted the legislation so as to make their presence a matter for each separate Council to decide.
2] Xenophon, despite his sympathy for the oligarchic cause, confirms this atrocity. Critias appears, favourably, and without any mention of these events, in several of Plato’s dialogues, but these were written many years later.
3] In Xenophon’s version of Socrates’ Apology, Socrates says that Anytus’ enmity arose “because, seeing him deemed worthy of the highest honours of the state, I told him it ill became him to bring up his son in a tan-yard.”
4] The word of course is used here in its original sense of explanation and justification, the very opposite of common current usage. In this paragraph, I use Plato’s version of the Apology, although it was probably written much later, since it is more explicit here than Xenophon’s.
5] Here Xenophon is the more explicit: “I speak of a divinity, and in using that designation I claim to speak at once more exactly and more reverentially than they do who [using divination] ascribe the power of the gods to birds. And that I am not lying against the Godhead I have this as a proof: although I have reported to numbers of friends the counsels of heaven, I have never at any time been shown to be a deceiver or deceived [tumult in court].”

This article first appeared in 3 Quarks Daily.

Why creationism bears all the hallmarks of a conspiracy theory

A friend asked me why I bother about creationism. This article spells out my reasons. It has had some 150,000 reads since first published in The Conversation in February, and has been featured in Snopes and Yahoo! News, and attacked by Ken Ham and Bodie Hodge of Answers in Genesis, Jake Hebert Ph.D [sic] at the Institute for Creation Research, and others.

https://images.theconversation.com/files/381349/original/file-20210129-21-zsa3bk.jpg?ixlib=rb-1.1.0&rect=0%2C374%2C4031%2C2015&q=45&auto=format&w=1356&h=668&fit=crop
A replica of Noah’s Ark from the biblical tale at the Ark Encounter theme park in Kentucky. Lindasj22/Shutterstock

Many people around the world looked on aghast as they witnessed the harm done by conspiracy theories such as QAnon and the myth of the stolen US election that led to the attack on the US Capitol Building on January 6. Yet while these ideas will no doubt fade in time, there is arguably a much more enduring conspiracy theory that also pervades America in the form of young Earth creationism. And it’s one that we cannot ignore because it is dangerously opposed to science.

In the US today, up to 40% of adults agree with the young Earth creationist claim that all humans are descended from Adam and Eve within the past 10,000 years. They also believe that living creatures are the result of “special creation” rather than evolution and shared ancestry. And that Noah’s flood was worldwide and responsible for the sediments in the geologic column (layers of rock built up over millions of years), such as those exposed in the Grand Canyon.

Book cover of The Genesis Flood, The Biblical Flood and its Scientific Implications.

Such beliefs derive from the doctrine of biblical infallibility, long accepted as integral to the faith of numerous evangelical and Baptist churches throughout the world, including the Free Church of Scotland. But I would argue that the present-day creationist movement is a fully fledged conspiracy theory. It meets all the criteria, offering a complete parallel universe with its own organisations and rules of evidence, and claims that the scientific establishment promoting evolution is an arrogant and morally corrupt elite.

This so-called elite supposedly conspires to monopolise academic employment and research grants. Its alleged objective is to deny divine authority, and the ultimate beneficiary and prime mover is Satan.

Creationism re-emerged in this form in reaction to the mid-20th century emphasis on science education. Its key text is the long-time best seller, The Genesis Flood, by John C Whitcomb and Henry M Morris. This provided the inspiration for Morris’s own Institute for Creation Research, and for its offshoots, Answers in Genesis and Creation Ministries International. [Note added: Ken Ham points out in his rebuttal that Answers in Genesis arose independently of the Institute for Creation Research, and that his article concerning denial of divine authority, cited in the previous paragraph and below, does not mention Satan by name.]

Ken Ham, the founder and chief executive of Answers in Genesis, is also responsible for the highly lucrative Ark Encounter theme park and Creation Museum in Kentucky. As a visit to any of these websites will show, their creationism is completely hostile to science, while paradoxically claiming to be scientific.

Demonising and discrediting

These are common conspiracy theory tactics at play. Creationists go to great lengths to demonise the proponents of evolution, and to undermine the overwhelming evidence in its favour.

There are numerous organisations, among them Biologos, the American Scientific Affiliation, the Faraday Institute, and the Clergy Letter Project, which describes themselves as “an endeavour designed to demonstrate that religion and science can be compatible”, that is, promoting evolution science within the context of religious belief. Even so, creationists insist on linking together the separate topics of evolution, materialist philosophy, and the promotion of atheism.

According to Answers in Genesis, evolution science is a work of Satan, while former US Congressman Paul Broun has described it as “a lie straight from the pit of hell”. When he said that, by the way, he was a member of the House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space, and Technology.

Like other conspiracy theorists, creationists immunise themselves from fact-based criticism. They label the study of the past as based on unprovable assumptions, thus disqualifying in advance the plain evidence of geology.

They then attack other evidence by focusing on specific frauds, such as Piltdown man – a hoax skeleton purportedly of a missing link between humans and other apes that was debunked more than 60 years ago – or the dinosaur-bird amalgam “Archaeoraptor”, discredited by sharp-eyed scientists before ever making it into the peer-reviewed literature (although not before making it into National Geographic).

One favourite target is Ernst Haeckel, whose pictures of embryos, published in 1874, are now considered to be seriously inaccurate. However, they do correctly draw attention to what most matters here: the features shared during development by different organisms – including humans – such as gill arches, a long tail, and eyes on the side rather than the front of the head, confirming they have a common ancestry.

Haeckel’s name appears on the Answers in Genesis website 92 times. He is also the subject of a lengthy chapter in Jonathan Wells’ Icons of Evolution; Science or Myth?. This book, which even has its own high school study guide, was what first convinced me, back in 2013, that creationism was a conspiracy theory.

More from The Conversation’s Expert guide to conspiracy theories here.

It is a splendid example of creationist tactics, using long-rectified shortcomings (such as those in early studies on Darwinian evolution in peppered moths, in response to changing colours following reduced pollution) to imply that the entire science is fraudulent. Wells has a real PhD in biology, a PhD acquired with the specific goal of “destroying Darwinism” – meaning evolution science – from the inside.

Wells is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, a conservative thinktank which promotes creationism under the banner of “Intelligent Design”, and is also linked to other conspiracy theories, such as claims that the consensus on climate change is bogus, and that last November’s US presidential election was stolen. An article by a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute on the subject has now being removed from its website, but can be found here.

A series of graphics indicating seven contributing parts of a conspiracy theory.
How those fighting science denial break down reasoning of conspiracy theories. JohnCook@skepticalscience, Author provided

What next?

Conspiracy theories are always driven by some underlying concern or agenda. The theory that Obama’s birth certificate was a forgery, or that the 2020 US election was stolen, are about political legitimacy and will fade as the politicians promoting them fade from memory. The idea that COVID-19 does not exist is proving a little harder to dislodge, but scientists, such as those behind Respectful Insolence, are organising to fight back on science denial and misinformation.

I fear that the creationist conspiracy theory will not be so short-lived. It is driven by a deep-seated power struggle within religious communities, between modernists and literalists; between those who regard scripture as coming to us through human authors, however inspired, and those who regard it as a perfect supernatural revelation. And that is a struggle that will be with us for a long time to come.

Answers in Genesis, climate change, and vaccination

Audience
Forty days & nights of gospel music at the Ark – The Great Unmasked.

I was dismayed last Thursday to see the following paragraph posted by AiG under Ken Ham’s byline:

In the article [in The Conversation], the author uses the term science to refer to the so-called “scientific consensus” regarding things such as climate change alarmism, vaccinations, evolution, and a lack of “human exceptionalism.” But what the author is failing to recognize is the difference between observational and historical science. In other words, this author has a “difficult relationship with science” because the author doesn’t understand the word science.

For some time, Answers in Genesis has minimized the importance of human-made climate change, as have Creation Ministries International and the Discovery Institute, and this position of necessity involves denying the authority of a declared scientific consensus. However, Answers in Genesis has hitherto accepted the value of vaccines, and in two recent related articles, here and here, gives a detailed scientific account of how vaccines work, and praises their effectiveness in the context of the complexity of the immune system, which of course for AiG is evidence for creation.

The article in The Conversation, cited above, reports that “[p]eople with a libertarian or conservative worldview are more likely to reject climate change and evolution and are less likely to be vaccinated against COVID-19,” and in the US context relates such rejection of science and an exaggerated view of human exceptionalism, to religiosity.

The historical versus observation nonsense is familiar, as are the attacks on scientific consensus and on concern about climate change, and our models of climate change do indeed involve the “historical science” that uses ice cores and other techniques to map climate change throughout the Ice Ages and beyond. But including “vaccinations” in the areas of scientific consensus apparently to be rejected is alarming. The study of vaccine effectiveness is very much part of current observational science, and we can see no good reason for Answers in Genesis to be turning against it, even on their own terms. What we must fear is that AiG may be about to fall in line with other creationist institutions ranging from Grace Community Church to the Discovery Institute in minimizing the severity of an epidemic that is known to have killed 644,840 people in the US and 4,442,332 worldwide (as of August 22). AiG was from the outset ambivalent about masks, and even jokingly (or blasphemously) telling its readers not to be anxious about COVID just as Jesus told his disciples (Matthew 6:25-34) not to worry about the necessities of life. Despite a rash of articles in March and April of last year, arguing that the mutations giving rise to COVID were not really examples of evolution, AiG has published nothing of significance on the subject since that time.

This does not bode well.

This piece appeared first on PandasThumb. Thanks to Dan Phelps and to the Sensuous Curmudgeon for alerting us to the AIG post, and to Dan Phelps for unearthing the photograph from Ken Ham’s tweet lead.

Why I wear a mask

Face Masks for Coronavirus COVID-19 | Lindare Medical

It isn’t for me, it’s for you. It’s also virtue signalling, and nothing wrong with that. And finally, I’m glad to say, it’s what the law is where I live. There is of course a libertarian argument against mask wearing, just like there’s a libertarian argument against drunk driving. So what?

We have known for months that the main way COVID-19 spreads is through aerial droplets. When these dry out, they form an infective aerosol. So the best way to stop this happening is to catch them before they dry out. That’s the real function of the mask. It give some protection to the wearers, but much more important is the protection it gives to those around them.

SARS-CoV-2 virus particles, isolated from a patient. Image by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, via Washington Post

But I’m double vaccinated; how could I possibly be infectious? Very easily. We know that vaccines are not 100% effective against COVID-19, although they greatly reduce the chance of diagnosable infection, as well as the chance of such infection becoming serious or lethal. It follows that there might be quite a number of us wandering around harbouring the virus but completely unaware of it, especially if we have been vaccinated. And live vaccine has been recovered from the noses of vaccinated subjects. We also know that our vaccines are less effective against the relatively new Delta variant that they are against the older strains from which they were developed,  and the laws of mutation and evolution mean that new variants are emerging all the time, and being selected for their ability to spread even in a largely vaccinated population.

I also know that if people see those around them wearing masks, they are more likely to mask up themselves. That’s good for them, and good for those around them. This is what used to be called setting a good example, but that expression seems of gone out of fashion. Now it’s likely to be called virtue signalling, which actually means exactly the same thing, but is turned into an insulting attack on my sincerity. Too bad. I really don’t care whether or not strangers on a bus think that I’m virtuous. But I do care enough about them to want to see them keeping each other safe.

House of Commons debate on Afghanistan, 18 August 2021, via Daily Mail

In Scotland, as I write, mask mandates are in force in indoor environments where people from different households mix, with exceptions for the small minority for whom mask wearing is a problem. It isn’t for me, although I’m officially asthmatic and have been diagnosed with Level 2 Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease. In England, by contrast, Alexander Boris dePfeffel Johnson dropped mask mandates in England while at the same time telling everyone that mask wearing was desirable. As it was, I thought his position completely in character, as was today’s spectacle of unmasked MPs in the crowded Chamber on his side of the House. However, I can only look on with astonishment when people like Governor Greg Abbott of Texas move to prevent local authorities, and schools, from imposing mask mandates in their own jurisdiction. I confess I was delighted to hear that Abbott himself has just tested positive for coronavirus. It is unlikely that he will come to any harm, since he is double vaccinated and no doubt, unlike many Americans, carries excellent health-insurance at the taxpayer’s expense, but there is every chance that during the pre-symptomatic phase of the infection he passed it on to others, who may not be so fortunate.

People hold signs as they listen to a speech in Bayonne
Protest in Bayonne, south-west France, against plans to require a health pass to enter a cafe or use intercity trains. Photograph: Bob Edme/AP via Guardian

But what about the libertarian argument against making mask wearing (or, indeed, vaccination) compulsory? This is an argument that for deep cultural reasons has appeal in the US, and I am surprised to see it echoed to the point of mass demonstrations in the UK and France. The argument is, presumably, that I am the best judge of my own circumstances, and the government (or as it is sometimes called the nanny state) should not be making my decisions for me.

An interesting argument. Surely I am better able than anyone else to evaluate the effect of alcohol on my driving, rather than imposing arbitrary limits based on the amount of alcohol in my blood, with no regard to how superbly well I personally happen to be able to carry my liquor. I also know better than anybody else just how well the brakes on my car need to work, given the way I drive; how dare government force me the obligation to spend my own money to have this checked by strangers? And so on.

Or perhaps I’d better keep such thoughts to myself, in case they resurface on GB News. And after all, if you really don’t care about what’s happening to the people around you, I can’t make you.

This week, Northern Ireland’s First Minister is Young Earth Creationist

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Northern Ireland is home to the Giant’s Causeway, one of the world’s most spectacular geological phenomena. This is part of an enormous lava field that was first produced when the modern North Atlantic began to open, and is still growing at the Mid-Atlantic Ridge and, most spectacularly, in Iceland. Fragments of the initial outpouring were separated from each other as the Eurasian and North American plates moved apart to form the Atlantic Ocean, and now can be found in locations from Greenland and Denmark. The Causeway itself consists of the basalt formed by the solidification of massive successive outpourings of lava. The slow cooling of this rock forced it contract, fracturing as it did so into hexagonal columns up to 10 m high. Tens of thousands of years must have passed between successive outpourings, because we can see, in between the basalt layers, the baked remains of soil formed by weathering of the lower one.

The Antrim Lava field shown within the British Tertiary Volcanic Province, itself part of the North Atlantic Lava Field. By Hazel Muzzy (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons
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“The Chimneys,” columnar structures on skyline. Note additional columnar sructures to right and beneath. Click to enlarge

Careful examination shows a complex succession of processes:

  • The formation of the lowest basalts in 11 separate episodes
  • A pause of at least 100,000 years, during which the first interbasaltic soil layer was formed by weathering. This weathering was accompanied by the erosion of stream valleys,
  • Changes in chemical composition beneath the crust in the lavas feeding the eruptions
  • The formation of the middle basalts, slightly different in chemical composition from the lowest
  • Their slow cooling to give more than 40,000 regular columns
  • More weathering, to give the second interbasaltic layer
  • Formation of the upper basalts, which ever since have been more slowly modified by weathering and erosion.
  • As shown by radiometric dating, all this happened between 50 and 60 million years ago.
P1000074
Interbasaltic layer beneath The Chimneys. Click and click again to magnify: note uneven upper contact surface between weathered layer and basalt, due to erosion of palaeosol, and holes (“giants’ eyes”) in the layer where incompletely weathered basalt chunks have been dislodged.

Or was it more like 4,369 years ago? That is the view held by Answers in Genesis, the world’s leading creationist organisation, which assigns the opening of the Atlantic Ocean to the convulsions formed, around that date, by Noah’s Flood. The date itself is arrived at by adding up the time intervals listed in the biblical book of Genesis. There is, of course, nothing in the biblical flood account that even hints at such convulsions. We can trace the idea to the Seventh-day Adventists prophetess Ellen B. White, whose views indirectly influenced the 1961 book, The Genesis Flood, foundational text for the 20th-century revival of Young Earth creationism. “Creation science” has since been further modified to take account of plate tectonics. The trouble, of course, is that the entire geological record must, according to Young Earth dogma, be shoehorned into a 6000 year interval. This leads to numerous absurdities, such as continents moving as fast as rowing boats, and an ice age that reached its peak during the lifetimes of Abraham and Isaac, but none of this seems to bother Young Earth creationism’s true believers.

Readers may be surprised to learn that these true believers include among them some of Northern Ireland’s most influential politicians.

Mervyn Storey, MLA  (Member of the [ Northern Ireland]  Legislative Assembly), who from 2008 until 2014 was Chair of the Northern Ireland Assembly Education Committee, is a former vice-chairman of the Caleb Foundation. This body rejects the whole of modern geology as well as evolutionary biology, and claimed credit (if that is the correct word) for temporarily persuading the National Trust visitor centre at the Causeway to give Young Earth creationism parity of treatment with scientific geology. The resulting outrage led to a letter writing campaign with its own Facebook page (which survives as a discussion forum), and eventual removal of the offending language. Amongother prominent MLAs, Edwin Poots and Paul Givan are also closely associated with Caleb. Poots was briefly (from 28 May this year until 22 June) leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, and in that capacity nominated Givan to be Northern Ireland’s First Minister.

Paul Givan MLA.jpg

Givan was first mentioned in this blog almost exactly 4 years ago, .in connection with his work, along with Poots, in persuading Lisburn City Council to advocate the teaching of creationism. I am happy to say that the schools, both Catholic and non-Catholic, wrote back to point out that Lisburn City Council had no authority over school curricula, that these curricula were generated in consultation with the Northern Ireland Department  of Education, and that the schools themselves had highly professional trained staff, who would not take kindly to this suggestion.

Givan assumed office on 14 June. Within days it became clear that his position was untenable, and at the time of writing we expect to see Donaldson announce his successor very shortly. I have criticized Donaldson before for many reasons (see here), but at least advocacy of creationism is not among them.

Site photographs by the author. Givan image, official photograph (2016)

TH Huxley’s legacy, a campus college renaming controversy, and appeal for signatures

Western Washington University, a well-respected publicly funded university in Bellingham, WA, is conducting a review of the naming of its buildings, in the course of which demands were expressed for the renaming of the [TH] Huxley College of the Environment, and as a result the University’s Legacy Review Task Force has invited comment. Background information including links to solicited academic comment is available at https://president.wwu.edu/research-and-resources.

My own initial reaction was outrage, but closer examination convinced me that serious engagement is a more appropriate response, given aspects of Huxley’s legacy of which I was not aware. There is no doubt, however, that the movement to rename is seriously misguided, and can be traced back to the long-standing creationist tradition of pretending that evolution science is responsible for racism. The attack on Huxley, as spelt out in a submission by one member of the Task Force (Why is TH Huxley Problematic?) has therefore evoked a detailed rebuttal by Glenn Branch of the [US] National Center for Science Education.

With the encouragement of a WWU faculty member, I have drafted the following letter, for which I invite signatures. If you wish to add your name, and especially if you have some academic, educational, or related standing, and please let me know, either by comment here or by email to me at psbratermanATyahooDOTcom, giving me your name, and position(s) held. I will then include you among the signatories when I forward the letter to Paul Dunn dunnp3@wwu.edu – President’s Chief of Staff and Chair of the Task Force, with copy to Sabah Randhawa randhaws@wwu.edu – President of the University. Alternatively, you may wish to write to them directly as an individual.

We welcome the opportunity to comment on the proposed renaming of Huxley College of the Environment.

We are used to making allowances for people of the past, on the grounds that their behavior was conditioned by their time and place. For example, your own University, and the State that it serves, are named after a slave-owner. But Huxley, his detractors may be surprised to hear, requires no such forgiveness. Like most Englishmen, and most scientists, of his time, he believed in the racial superiority of Europeans, and this misguided perspective affected his anthropological studies. It did not, however, affect his progressive social outlook, and as the evidence submitted to the Task Force shows, he was deeply opposed to slavery and to all forms of unequal treatment and discrimination, argued in favor of equal treatment for women and against Spenserian  “Social Darwinism”, and campaigned vigorously on behalf of Abolition during the American Civil War. 

The attack on Huxley has deep roots, and is part of a wider creationist strategy to discredit evolution science. For this reason, the case has attracted attention from as far away as Scotland and New Zealand. The creationist connection accounts for the presence, among critics of Huxley cited in support of renaming, of the creationist Discovery Institute, and of Jerry Bergman, associated with Creation Ministries International, among other suspect sources. Ironically in this context, Bergman once wrote for support to the National Association for the Advancement of White People.

However, despite these tainted connections, current discussion of renaming at Western Washington is part of a praiseworthy worldwide process of re-evaluation, and student involvement in this is to be commended. It may therefore be helpful to display prominently in the Huxley Building a brief summary of his achievements, including his campaigning against slavery, and on behalf of equal treatment for women, in which he was far ahead of his time.

Sincerely,

File:Western Washington University Looking North.jpg
Western Washington University looking north over Bellingham; Nick Kelly / Faithlife Corporation via Wikipedia

NCSE letter

This is the letter referred to in the post “TH Huxley’s legacy, a campus building renaming controversy, and appeal for signatures”

Legacy Review Task Force 
Western Washington University 

Dear members of the Legacy Review Task Force, 

May 20, 2021 

I write on behalf of the National Center for Science Education, a non-profit organization affiliated with  the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the National Science Teachers 
Association that works to promote and defend the integrity of science education.  

NCSE applauds Western Washington University’s thoughtful and considered approach to studying the  question of the naming of its Huxley College and appreciates the invitation to the public to offer input.  

On the basis of its extensive experience and expertise with organizing opposition to pseudoscientific  attacks on science education, particularly evolution and climate change, NCSE wishes to emphasize  the importance of attending only to reliable and objective scholarship in considering Thomas Henry  Huxley’s significance.   

Because Huxley was so important in the history of science, his beliefs and actions have often been 
misrepresented, taken out of context, or exaggerated by ideologues with axes to grind. Unfortunately,  especially in the era of the Internet, it is easy for well-intentioned but ill-informed readers to be misled  by the writings of such ideologues. 

In particular, Laura Wagner’s “Why is TH Huxley Problematic?” (to be found on the Research and 
Resources section of the Legacy Review Task Force material) cites the following problematic 
resources: 

· “Richard Owen and Charles Darwin on Race: A study in contrast,” a blog post that appeared on 
a website styling itself Evolution News & Science Today. That website is operated by the 
Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture, the de facto institutional home of 
“intelligent design,” the latest incarnation of creationism. 

· “T. H. Huxley’s Hideous Revolution in Science,” an essay that appeared in Executive Intelligence 
Review, a newsletter published by the political movement founded by Lyndon LaRouche, 
infamous for, among other things, denying the harmful effects on the environment of DDT, 
chlorofluorocarbons, and greenhouse gases. 

· The Darwin Effect, a book published by a creationist publisher and written by a young-earth 
creationist who himself, in 1985, complained that he was the victim of reverse discrimination in 

a letter to the newsletter of David Duke’s National Association for the Advancement of White 
People (see http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/bergman-and-racism.html). 

To be sure, the fact that the authors of these problematic resources have scientifically indefensible  views and a record of promoting them through assassinating the characters of their opponents 
does not, of itself, show that their specific claims about Huxley are mistaken. But it strongly 
suggests that they are not worth taking seriously. 

Instead, what ought to be taken seriously are the views of qualified scholars, and it is laudable that  the Legacy Review Task Force solicited observations about Huxley’s significance from such 

scholars as White, Lyons, Reidy, and Rupke. These observations do not of themselves settle the 
question of the naming of Huxley College, but they, and similarly reliable and objective scholarship,  rather than ideologically motivated attacks on Huxley, should be at the basis of any decision. 

NCSE would be happy to discuss the provenance of the problematic resources with you further if 
needed. In any case, we hope that the Legacy Review Task Force arrives at a satisfactory resolution  to the question it faces. 

Sincerely,  

Glenn Branch 

Deputy Director, NCSE  branch@ncse.ngo 

More musings on Kitzmiller

Inline image

Courtroom Sketch of Ken Miller testifying at the Dover trial, via betterrightthanhappy

The lesson of Kitzmiller: Science bridges divides, by Nathan H. Lents and S. Joshua Swamidass, Dec 28, 2020 , shows how the Kitzmiller trial itself, and, more generally, the defence of science against obscurantism, bridges the gulf between believers and nonbelievers. My own view is that the deeper gulf is one found within all three Abrahamic religions, between those who are willing to accommodate their reading of the sacred texts to scientific (and I would add historical) reality, and those who insist that these texts, literally interpreted, are the infallible word of God.

Ken Miller, Genie Scott & Barbara Forrest: 15 Years After Dover, by Faizal Ali, Dec 26, 2020, with links to interviews of three major participants; Ken Miller, Eugenie Scott, and Barbara Forrest. As many readers will know, Ken Miller, biology professor and major textbook author, has been defending evolution against creationist attacks for 40 years, Eugenie Scott was at the time director of the (US) National Center for Science Education, which acted as consultant to the plaintiffs and was instrumental in forming the legal strategy, and Barbara Forrest, philosopher, testified that the trial that Intelligent Design should not be considered science because of its reliance on the supernatural.

As this blog piece points out, that last argument (technically: intrinsic methodological naturalism) should give us pause, and is now rejected by many philosophers and scientists, including me, in favour of a provisional methodological naturalism that would be willing to examine supernaturalist explanations on their merits, if they had any. Indeed, the piece argues that judge Jones’ blistering verdict in this case was only made possible by the incompetence of the School Board, who made their religious motivation obvious.

The Discovery Institute continues to claim that Kitzmiller was wrongly decided, and even that “recent scientific discoveries have confirmed and extended the concept of irreducible complexity.” https://www.discovery.org/2019/01/revolutionary-michael-behes-intelligent-design-documentary-is-now-free-online/ Most recently, to mark the 15th anniversary of the trial, the DI featured a debate on the issues https://www.discovery.org/v/the-kitzmiller-v-dover-trial-and-intelligent-design-fifteen-years-on/ between Michael Behe and Joshua Swamidass. While I have a poor opinion of Behe’s ideas, I admire his willingness to discuss them. I would also praise him for not abandoning his post at the trial when things got difficult, unlike several of his Discovery Institute colleagues.

I was curious to see what are the major creationist organisations had to say about the trial, even though they were not directly involved. Answers in Genesis mentions Kitzmiller as part of a recent (December 2020) long discussion of US court cases, claiming that “The Kitzmiller ruling has stifled debate in classrooms and prevented full discussion of topics related to biological origins. The result is that indoctrination has replaced education, at least in this one area.” No need to spell out my own reaction to that claim. Also in December 2020, Creation Ministries International offers us a review, by Jerry Bergman, of Ron Milliner’s Fake Evidence: A look at evolutionary evidence for over 90 years in the court cases from Scopes to Kitzmiller, Elm Hill (Elm Hill Books appears to be a self-publishing service under the umbrella of HarperCollins Christian Publishing). This review is not yet available to non-subscribers, but it seems clear from elsewhere that the book’s title is a fair summary of its thesis, that it is yet another example of the evolution-is-a-conspiracy genre, and that Jerry Bergman can be expected to approve.

‘God intended it as a disposable planet’: meet the US pastor preaching climate change denial

Grace Community Church Worship.jpg
Service at Grace Community Church. Lukasinia own work via Wikipedia

Every so often you come across a piece of writing so extraordinary that you cannot help but share it. One such piece is a sermon on global warming by American pastor John MacArthur. Full of beautifully constructed rhetorical flourishes, it is forcefully delivered by an experienced and impassioned preacher to a large and appreciative audience.

For me, as a man of science, it is the most complete compilation of unsound arguments, factual errors and misleading analogies as I have seen in discussions of this subject. But it’s important because climate change is a big election issue this November in the US, where there is a growing movement of evangelical Christians who deny its existence, while Joe Biden promises a “clean air revolution”.


Read more: Faith and politics mix to drive evangelical Christians’ climate change denial


The minister of the COVID-denying, law-defying Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, California – which has encouraged worshippers to congregate as normal despite state COVID-19 restrictions – MacArthur is an impressive figure whose Study Bible has sold almost 2 million copies.

He regards the infallibility of the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, as essential to his faith, and his sermon about global warming can only be understood in that context. MacArthur’s rejection of the science is shared by other major US ministries and organisations such as Answers in Genesis, Creation Ministries International and the Discovery Institute.

In this sermon, MacArthur paraphrases “a scientist at Cal Tech” (except not a scientist at all, but the novelist Michael Crichton, best known for Jurassic Park), as saying in a lecture:

Consensus science is the first refuge of scoundrels … invoked only in situations where there is a political, social, financial agenda but no scientific support.

The reverend has the most serious reasons possible for rejecting the scientific consensus concerning the age of the Earth, the origins of humankind, the history and prehistory of the ancient near East and the peopling of continents: it is totally incompatible with the Genesis account of creation, Adam and Eve, the flood and the dispersion of peoples from the Tower of Babel.

Error, denial and misunderstanding

As for global warming itself, the reverend channels standard climate change denial, but all his arguments are unsound and have been convincingly refuted to the satisfaction of an overwhelming consensus of climate scientists (see in-depth discussion at Skeptical Science). He understates the amount of global warming, incorrectly describes the full record as dating back only 30 years, and cites the Little Ice Age as evidence that the changes currently taking place are natural. There’s more:

Here’s the key, friends, this is the real deal. Legitimate science recognises a close correlation between sunspots and climate change … The sun is the source of temperature changes because of its infrared variations. … There is absolutely no evidence that CO₂ contributes to warming. On the contrary the opposite is true. Warming produces CO₂ … It’s the other way round.

Here we have a collection of half-truths and misunderstandings, typical of denialists claiming to represent “legitimate science”. As the graph below shows, the 11-year sunspot cycle is a minor deviation, and the temperature increase since 1980 has occurred despite the fact that over that period the amount of solar energy falling on Earth has gone down slightly. Incidentally, this solar energy input is concentrated mainly in the visible, not the infrared, region of the spectrum, and it is the roughly balancing heat outflow from the Earth that is in the infrared.

Graph showing global temperature change between 1980 and 2015
NASA, Author provided

MacArthur offers a false dichotomy between saying that CO₂ warms the oceans, and warmer oceans release more CO₂. Unfortunately, both these statements are true. There is a positive feedback loop: human-released CO₂ is the primary driver, but its effect is amplified by the fact that yet more CO₂ is then released from non-human sources. Regarding CO₂ itself, MacArthur seems to be even more confused:

By the way, plants produce CO₂. What man produces is marginal … Industry doesn’t affect CO₂ in the environment or atmosphere.

Plants do produce CO₂ but they absorb more than they emit. However, when it comes to humans, their activity may cause only a small imbalance each year between CO₂ emission and natural uptake, but this imbalance is cumulative. CO₂ levels are now 50% above pre-industrial, and subtle atomic differences clearly show that fossil fuel is the source. But according to MacArthur, “There is no scientific reason to believe that ice caps are melting”.

Despite the Arctic Monitoring and Assement Programme’s video on this subject, the reverend does not think that the evidence for ice-cap melting is scientific, and that other factors are at play:

This is all political [and] financial agendas, class warfare, class envy … By the way, US$100 billion has been spent to make a case for global warming … driven by the socialist mentality … even some of the feminist mentality that resents male success.

All is now clear. Talk of global warming is part of a politically motivated conspiracy. But US$100 billion? That’s 600 years’ worth of all federal climate research spending. Clearly, those pesky socialists and feminists are formidable fundraisers. However, none of this matters because environmentalism is fundamentally misplaced. As MacArthur puts it, citing Revelation and the integrity of scripture:

God intended us to use this planet, to fill this planet for the benefit of man. Never was it intended to be a permanent planet. It is a disposable planet. Christians ought to know that.

And that is a statement that would leave anybody who cares about this world speechless.

This piece first appeared in The Conversation, where it has had over 300,000 reads. I thank my editor there, Jane Wright, for many helpful suggestions.

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