Category Archives: Creationism

Transgender bathrooms, creationism, climate change denial, and the Ten Commandments

Toilet signs

Toilet signs, Ebay

Why does North Carolina want to force transgender persons to use the wrong public toilet? Why the steady stream of foredoomed bills demanding evenhanded treatment of evolution and creationism? And why endless attempts to mount official displays of the Ten Commandments, when such displays have repeatedly been ruled to breach the wall between Church and State?

Toilet etiquette is where prudery meets absurdity. Your chance of being embarrassed, let alone molested, by a transgender person in a US public toilet is probably zero, and certainly less than your chance of being shot dead at home by a toddler playing with a gun; after all, the only public display of genitalia is at the men’s urinal, and you can always use a booth if you prefer.

(It is said that an undergrad once asked Sir John Pentland Mahaffy, Provost of Trinity College Dublin, where he might find a lavatory. “At the end of the corridor,” Mahaffy grandly gestured, “you will find a door marked GENTLEMEN; but don’t let that stop you.” In the UK, of which Dublin was still part at the time, class trumps gender. Incidentally, Trinity had been admitting female undergraduates since 1903, 74 years before Harvard; I assume that sanitary arrangements were instituted to cope with this.)

It is established law in the US that the teaching of creationism serves a religious, rather than scientific or educational, purpose. It follows (Edwards v. Aguillard) that such teaching is unconstitutional in US public schools, since it violates the First Amendment separation of Church and State. There is no prospect of this ruling being overturned, unless we ever get a US Supreme Court packed by a creationist President.

It has also been repeatedly established that display of the Ten Commandments on State government property violates the US Constitution, for much the same reasons.

So why do we have States bringing in transgender bathroom laws, scientifically baseless (as discussed here by my friend Faye Flam), whose only effect would be to inconvenience and offend one particular small minority? Why did this monumental non-issue even spill over into the moronic drivelfest of the Republican Party’s nomination debate? Or attract so much attention that Pres. Obama’s statement of the obvious on the subject has been hailed as “historic”?

Why do we have a whole evolving family of “sound science teaching” bills, which would single out evolution, together with climate change, as subjects concerning which students should be taught “both sides”, or the “strengths and weaknesses” of what is in fact well established science?

And why should the current Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court keep on asserting his right to display the Ten Commandments in his courthouse? Does he really think it necessary to inform litigants that God brought them out of Egypt, wants them to be nice to their parents, and disapproves of graven images?

Stupidity? No, strategy. And a strategy that is highly evolved, if not indeed intelligently designed.

Consider how much these issues have in common. For a start, there is nostalgia for an imagined era of moral clarity and biblical belief. This feeds in to what is, I suspect, the most powerful of all political motivators, namely the sense of identity. We think as we do and vote as we do because of the kind of person we think we are, or at any rate would like to be. And these three issues translate as assertions of a very American kind of Christian identity. As a corollary, they define an enemy; the smug Liberal sneering at those who disagree with him (would that this image lacked validity). They are timeless, unlike the real issues of foreign policy and budgets; they will still be with us ten budget cycles and three foreign entanglements down the road.

And they work as attention grabbers, and as group identifiers. The major US retail chain Target thought it worthwhile to issue a statement inviting people to use the toilets fitting their self-description rather than their birth certificates; in retaliation, a group calling itself the American Family Association has launched a boycott petition that has gathered, so far, over 850,000 signatures. I do not know what evils the AFA plan to blame on Target, but they are among those who blame Darwin for Hitler, so they’ll think of something. AFA regards calls to action on climate change as impious, since the planet is in God’s hands. It also defends public display of the Ten Commandments, on the grounds that “the Ten Commandments are the basis of all of our laws.” These views form an identity cluster, and the inclusion of climate change denial is no accident.


Crabs washed up on a beach in Oregon after suffocating in low-oxygen waters. Credit: Elizabeth Gates, courtesy of PISCO, via NSF (click to magnify)

And finally, by the same token, they are perfect distractions from reality. American readers, at least, could hardly have failed to notice the transgender toilet controversy. But how many of us are even aware of evidence published earlier this month that warming is already reducing the availability of oxygen in the oceans, and that this effect will probably be widespread by the 2030s?

We could be talking about the erosion of democracy, looming water shortages in the US and Asia, the unstable world banking system, climate change, and the facts of economic inequality. Or we could be talking about who is allowed to use which bathroom. If you were a North Carolina legislator, which would you prefer?

Mahaffey anecdote from Sorenson h/t Abbas Raza. An earlier version of this piece appeared in 3 Quarks Daily.

LibDem Holyrood hopeful wants to keep Church nominees on Council Committees

I asked Robert Brown, top Glasgow Region LibDem list candidate, former Deputy Minister for Education and Young People, and current South Lanarkshire Councillor

Should we continue to leave in place the pre-devolution requirement for all Local Authority Education Committees to include three individuals selected by the Churches, sitting and voting alongside the Councillor members selected by the voters?

[Yes, I’m afraid that means what it says. Three of the members of your Council Education Committee were put there by the Churches, not the votersThis despite the fact that most Scots describe themselves as having no religion]


Robert Brown: “on the whole valuable to have the Churches involved”

His reply [emphasis added]:

I am not particularly exercised by this. I think it is on the whole valuable to have the Churches involved but I have not sat on an Education Committee and don’t really know how it works out in practice.

It is linked to the broader question of the nature of religious observance and religious education in schools. As you may know, a new, more inclusive, Code of Practice on Religious observance was developed about 4 or 5 years back* which has, I think, proved satisfactory. I can’t say any of this is an issue on which I have had any representations from constituents over the years.

I should add that school communities are increasingly diverse in both religious and cultural background and this has to be reflected in the arrangements made on these things.

TruthBeTold (2)

Book handed out to all school assembly participants at Kirktonholme Primary, South Lanarkshire, during Robert Brown’s time as Councillor

I am appalled. Here we have a former Deputy Minister of the Education, and current South Lanarkshire Councillor, saying that “I am not particularly exercised” about this, and “… don’t really know how it works out in practice.” So he tells us that he doesn’t know and doesn’t care about this gross affront to democracy, despite its effect on the governance of the schools for which he formerly had Ministerial responsibility. This effect is real; the Church nominated members sit alongside the elected councillors, and hold the balance of power on 19 out of Scotland’s 32 Education Committees. He next attempts to distract attention from this highly specific issue by smothering it in the broader general context of religious observance in Scottish schools. Finally, he states that in his view the situation in recent years “has … proved satisfactory.”


The Creation Museum, Kentucky, where Dr Iskander has lectured, presents Lucy (Australopithecus afarensis) from a biblical standpoint


From Truth be Told, Chapter 7, Dinosaurs and Man

This despite two major 2013 scandals in the schools of the very region for which he had then just taken his seat as Councillor. First we had the exposure of Nagy Iskander, then a member of the Chaplaincy Committee at Calderwood Academy, as an internationally recognised six-day creationist, Then, a few months later, we had the scandal at Kirktonholme, where an Alabama-based US fundamentalist sect distributed in School Assembly their own textbooks, showing humans using dinosaurs as farm animals; it was subsequently discovered that they had been influencing the school curriculum for eight years. That sect is no longer active in South Lanarkshire schools, but Dr Iskander continues to sit on South Lanarkshire’s Education Committee, having been appointed by his own Church, the biblical infallibilist Westwoodhill Evangelical.

The Scottish Secular Society will be seeking action on the issue of Church seats on Education Committees during the life of the new Parliament. We have collected data on how the Church nominees are appointed, and find arbitrary and inefficient recruitment mechanisms, gross overrepresentation of Noah’s Ark hellfire creationist churches, and bizarre cases such as that of North Lanarkshire, where an outgoing Councillor, having been soundly defeated at the polls in 2013, now sits on the Education Committee as representative of the Boys Brigade.

More in due course

*Mr Brown seems to be referring to the 2004 report on Religious Observance, and subsequent (2011) Government guidance, which recommends that Religious Observance be non-confessional. The recommendation is non-binding, generally ignored, and did nothing to prevent the Kirktonholme scqndal of which he seems strangely unaware.

Learning from creationists; radiocarbon dating

Radiocarbon dating only takes us back some 50,000 years. This makes it a much smaller threat to Young Earth creationists than, say, lead-uranium dating, which takes us back billions of years. So why do creationists single it out for attack? Because there are indeed problems with the most simple-minded application of the method, and it does not matter to the creationist that these problems have long since been solved. Creationists think, and argue, more like lawyers than like scientists. In the courtroom, changing your story under cross-examination will destroy your credibility, and yet this is what scientists do all the time. Scientists accept that even the most well-established findings are subject to revision and refinement; lawyers, like theologians, seek certainty whether the data justify it or not.


Leonard Sym’s presentation to Glasgow Skeptics in the Pub, 21 March 2016

This post is derived from a talk given by my friend Leonard Sym to Glasgow Skeptics in the Pub, and like Leonard I will follow Rapoport’s rules for debate, which specify that one should first summarise one’s opponents’ position in terms they would accept, next, list points of agreement, then point out what one has learnt from one’sopponents, and only at that stage embark on criticism.

I start with a simplified summary of the principles behind radiocarbon dating, without which the discussion would be meaningless. Most radiometric methods depend on measuring the amount of a parent radioactive isotope present in the sample, and the amount of the daughter into which it decays. Add up the amount of parent still present and the amount of daughter, and that gives you the amount of parent present initially.[1] If you know the rate constant for the decay, you now have enough information to work out how long has passed since the parent material was put in place. You can determine the rate constant by taking a known amount of parent, and counting the number of decays per second, as measured with a Geiger counter or a more reliable and up-to-date instrument such as fluorescence counter.

In the case of radiocarbon dating, the parent is carbon-14 and the daughter is nitrogen-14, which is lost from the sample.[2] So we can’t find the initial amount of parent in the way described above, because we don’t know the amount of daughter. This seems like a dead end, until we remember where carbon-14 comes from. Carbon-14 is formed in the upper atmosphere by the effects of cosmic ray bombardment on nitrogen, is rapidly converted to carbon-14 dioxide, and then mingles with the rest of the CO2 in the atmosphere (see Figure). If we assume a steady rate of bombardment, that means we will have a steady rate of production of carbon-14, and a steady state abundance of carbon-14 in the atmosphere, where the amount decaying each year is equal to the amount being formed.

Now consider what happens during the life of an organism, and after its death. As long as it is alive and metabolising, it will exchange carbon with its environment, taking it in directly as carbon dioxide by photosynthesis (for a plant) or indirectly as food (for an animal). At this stage, the proportion of carbon present as carbon-14 will be directly dependent on that in the atmosphere. But as soon as it stops metabolising, it stops exchanging, and the proportion present starts decaying according to the radioactive decay law, with a halflife of 5730 years. So it looks as if we can just use the proportion present in the atmosphere right now as a measure of the initial proportion, and compare it with the proportion remaining.


Production and decay of carbon-14**

So far, so good. Now let me list the creationists’ objections:

1) As in all radiometric dating, the decay rate is assumed to be constant. What if this isn’t true?

2) The production rate is assumed constant. But this is unrealistic, since the intensity of cosmic ray bombardment is known to change over time

3) For 150 years, and especially in the last 50 years, we have been adding carbon dioxide from fossil fuels to the atmosphere, diluting the radiocarbon since all the radiocarbon in the fossil fuels will have long since decayed

4) Considerable amounts of carbon-14 were added to the atmosphere by nuclear testing in the 1950s, further undermining the assumptions

5) What if carbon-14 is less readily taken up than carbon-12 by plants? Won’t this undermine the reasoning?

6) We can check the method by applying it to materials whose age we know, but this will only serve where we have a good historical record, and this record only goes back, at best, some 5000 years

7) The Genesis flood, which in Young Earth accounts is responsible for the formation of our fossil fuel deposits, would have further upset the clock by burying huge amounts of carbon-12. Moreover, it could have been associated with an increase in the rate of carbon-14 production, making pre-flood specimens look much older than they really are.

LibbyBookWith the exception of the first and last, all these objections have some degree of plausibility, but unfortunately for the creationists they have all long since been answered, many of the answers being set out by Willard F. Libby, inventor of the method, in his 1955 book on the subject.

1) Radiometric decay constants are just not the kind of thing that could change, unless everything else changes at the same time. We have known since the work of George Gamow in 1928 that radioactive decay is what is known as a quantum mechanical tunnelling effect, and that its rates depends on such things as the strength of nuclear and electrical forces, the mass of fundamental particles, and Planck’s Constant h, which gives the scale for all quantum mechanical phenomena. If any of these had been different, we would not have had the same kind of physics and chemistry that we have today. But we know from their structure that ancient rocks were formed under the same rules as we have today, because they contain the same kinds of elements combined to make the same kinds of minerals. The creationists have published theoretical curves for changes in decay constants, but these have no basis in science, and are generated merely to make observations fit the biblical timeline.

2) From the outset, radiocarbon dating has relied on calibration, using objects for which dates were known from historical records, then tree ring counting extending back 10,000 years. This method works because all but the outermost layers of a tree are metabolically inert, and out of circulation. The most recent calibration comes from organic debris in varves (annual layers of sediment) deposited in a lake (Lake Suigetsu, in Japan) that happens to be free of turbulent inflows. This has made possible the establishment of a calibration curve going back 52,800  years.


Near doubling of atmospheric C14 in the Southern hemisphere, as the result of nuclear testing

3) and (4) There have indeed been major disruptions since 1950, but no one uses radiocarbon dating for such recent material. The situation in 1950 is regarded as a baseline, material from that year is the standard for comparison, and 1950 is the “present” in conventional dating of “years before present”

5) It will surprise many people to learn that plants really do take up carbon-14 less readily than carbon-12. One of the lies you were probably told at school is that all isotopes of the same element have precisely the same chemical properties. This is not true, and generally speaking, heavier isotopes are slightly more sluggish in their chemical reactions. this gives rise to the process known as isotopic fractionation.


These North Ronaldsay sheep, which feed on seaweed, will show different isotopic fraction from sheep fed on grass

This effect has been measured for photosynthesis. In addition to very small amounts of radiocarbon, atmospheric carbon dioxide contains roughly 1% of the stable isotope carbon-13, the remainder being carbon-12. Carbon dioxide in plants is, as expected, slightly depleted in carbon-13 relative to carbon-12, and the effect is far from trivial; around 27 thousands of carbon-13 abundance for most kinds of plant. We expect the effect to be twice as large for carbon-14, which, using the known 5730 year halflife of carbon-14, corresponds to 435 years; not trivial when dating historical artefacts. However, exactly the same effect will apply to the material used to set up the calibration, and the errors will systematically cancel out. Ideally, the fractional abundance of carbon-13 should be measured, as well as that of carbon-12, to calibrate out any minor fractionation effects, and this is less arduous than it sounds because nowadays carbon-14 abundance is measured by direct counting in a mass spectrometer rather than, as in the original studies, indirectly inferred from sample radioactivity.

For plants, it is straightforward to match like with like. Not so for material derived from animals, where the total amount of isotopic fractionation will depend on their diets, and also on what they have been eating.

6) This objection would have had some force in 1946, when the method was newly developed. However, as already explained, we now have direct calibration back to 52,800 years before present, beyond which the amount of remaining carbon-14 is so small that using current techniques the method becomes useless.

7) This is pure special pleading. If carbon-12 had been buried in the flood, the appropriate amount of carbon-14 would have been buried with it. And the ideas of a changed rate of production or decay have been dealt with under (1) and (2) above.

There are other “objections” based on the obvious fact that organisms like cave water snails, alive right now but deriving their carbon from limestone, will have radiocarbon apparent ages measured in thousands of years. I have discussed this before. And marine specimens will always contain less carbon-14 than terrestrial specimens of the same age, because of the time it takes for mixing between the atmosphere and surface waters, and again between surface waters and the depths.

So how should we respond to the self-styled “creation scientist”? The first, and most difficult, thing is to realise that he is been perfectly sincere. He is certain that his reading of the Bible is true; but the facts of geology are also true; and it is therefore his mission to create an account that reconciles the two. If this means the mountains must have skipped like rams, then that is how they must have skipped. He will feel no more absurd at this point, than the cosmologist feels in invoking a time when our Universe was smaller than a tennis ball and its temperature was trillions of degrees. Counter-arguments will be dismissed as so many minor anomalies that will no doubt be explained away in due course. If the creationist repeats long-refuted claims, that is because he believes that there are refutations of the refutation, even if he cannot immediately call them to mind, or does not have time to explain them properly. He will remember the weaknesses of his opponents’ arguments, and attack them, while suppressing the recollection of their strengths, and in the process he will create, and then triumphantly destroy, a series of straw men. You and I of course would never do such things, but your friends might when it comes to defending emotionally precious but logically fragile beliefs; consider, for example, what passes for political discussion in your favourite pub or chatroom.

And what does this mean for debating with creationists? Simply this: don’t do it. Such a debate, unlike a discussion between people willing to learn from each other, is a zero-sum game. He will project simplicity, sincerity, and certainty, and when you come to reply, you will sound as if you are making excuses. He will present anomalies (did I mention those 2000-year-old water snails?), and when you explain the special circumstances, you will be the one who seems guilty of special pleading. His followers will end up confirmed in their convictions, as will yours, and those in the middle will come away confirmed in their own initial conviction that there are two sides to the story, both worth hearing. Which there aren’t.

But does that mean that we can learn nothing from the creationists? Not at all. In terms of Rappaport’s rules of debate, the scientific community had already come up with arguments (1) through (6), and taken the necessary countermeasures, and so cannot be said to have learnt from the creationists. But both Leonard and I have learnt a great deal from examining the creationist claims. Be smart, and learn from everyone.*

1] It is of course necessary to eliminate errors caused by the movement of material, or the presence of daughter in the initial material. There are standard techniques for doing this, for instance by measuring non-radiogenic isotopes of the daughter material, and, these days, by microsampling of single crystalline grains

2] Even if it is not lost as N2 gas, it will be undetectable against the background of organic nitrogen compounds already present

*Ben Zomah, Mishnah Pirkei Avot 4a

** extra credit for spotting (a) the misleading labelling in the diagram (h/t John Gribbin), (b) the reference in the text to Psalm 114

There are other creationist objections to radiocarbon dating, based on sample contamination or simple misinterpretation of data, but these have been discussed elsewhere  and need not detain us.

Lecture scene from Glasgow Skeptics in the Pub Facebook page. Atmospheric carbon-14 diagram public domain, by Hokanomono via Wikipedia. North Ronaldsay sheep by Liz Burke, CC BY-SA 2.0, Radiocarbon cycle schematic from ANU Radiocarbon Dating Lab materials

Intelligent Design is not Design!

A lengthy scholarly discussion by my friend Michael Roberts of the concept of design, from Paley to the present day, making important distinctions between different concepts of design, and placing the Intelligent Design (ID) movement in context. The author, a geologist and historian (and CofE priest), argues that Paley’s concept of the individual design of organisms was obsolete long before Darwin, given the discoveries of deep time and the rich sequential fossil record. Present-day ID is a curious hybrid, and its evolution is discussed in some detail. However, neither the refutation of Paley nor the demolition of ID affect broader design arguments, such as that from fine-tuning or the glory of the natural world. (Disclosure: as my friends will know, I do not find these latter arguments convincing, but I do consider them worthy of respect, and have criticised attempts to use them as justification for evolution-denying creationism, which is not.)

Peddling and Scaling God and Darwin

Old Scratch



The first thing I should do is to define what Design is. That would be no easy task as the word is used in so many different ways to mean so many different things. I hope some of the variety of meanings comes clear in this paper. Part of the confusion is that Design can be synonymous with the teleological argument for the existence of God, but often it is more restricted to biological structures. Hence Design means different things to different people. Distinguishing between these meanings is important as confusion reigns when one switches from one to another. To give a rough typology there are four types of design;

1 Design of the universe; – front-loading or teleological (fine tuning)

2. Guidance of natural processes through history; Asa Gray

3. Ahistorical recognition of biological structures as designed; Hooke, Paley,


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Religious privilege in Scottish schools increasing, says Glasgow University report

Denominational schools in Scotland are run according to a century-old Concordat between the British government and the Catholic Church. During that century, the influence of the other Churches within non-denominational schools has grown, even as their worshippers deserted them. The result is a mosaic of mutually contradictory objectives and provisions. Our children deserve better.

Religion-in-Scots-Law-header (1)Glasgow University has just published its long-awaited report, sponsored by Humanist Society Scotland, into the role of religion in Scots law. The full report runs to 355 pages, and the summary to 11. It is limited to discussion of the law, but my commentary here also includes in some places what is known about actual practice. I will concentrate on the three areas covered are greatest length; the legal status of the Church of Scotland, religion and marriage, and, above all, education. The report covers several other areas where the law gives special recognition to religion. There are, for example, some tax advantages for ministers in accommodation provided by their Church, but these are minor matters in comparison.


Church of Scotland offices, Edinburgh

Firstly, what about the Church of Scotland? Is it, for instance, an established church? And what beliefs does it subscribe to? There is no consensus on this. The 1921 Declaratory Act, which was supposed to resolve this issue, contains an attachment in which the Church describes itself as “a national Church representative of the Christian faith of the Scottish people”, but since almost all its privileges are shared with other denominations, it is not clear what, if anything, this means. Church of Scotland ministers are automatically entitled to solemnise marriages, but since celebrants may just as easily come from other denominations, and even from groups such as the Humanists, this distinction is purely ceremonial. The Sovereign is represented at the Church’s General Assembly, and while she worships as an Anglican at Windsor, she attends Church of Scotland services when at Balmoral. However, she does not choose the Moderator, whereas she does, notionally and on the advice of the Prime Minister, choose the Archbishop of Canterbury.

The Church of Scotland subscribes to the Westminster Confession (apart from its anti-Catholic clauses, which it removed in 1986). Thus it is nominally committed to the belief that I, and most of my readers, will be physically tormented in hell for eternity and serve us right. It has, however, declared itself free to interpret (i.e. ignore) its own doctrine. A saving grace, if I may so put it.

The area where the legal connections between church and state has the greatest practical importance is education, and this is the one area where is the entrenched power of religion has actually grown over time. The Scottish publicly funded school system arose in two steps, the 1872 nationalisation of schools that had hitherto been the responsibility of Presbyteries, and the 1918 nationalisation of the Catholic school system. The first of these led to the establishment of notionally non-denominational schools, in whose running the churches did not have a formal role, while the latter led to the establishment of denominational schools, within which the power of the denominational hierarchy was formidable. I was surprised at how well entrenched religious privilege has since become, in non-denominational as well as in denominational schools, how recent much of this privilege is, and how much it conflicts with the principles of a democratic state.

The 1929 Local Government (Scotland) Act, Para. 12:4, required Local Authority Education Committees to include two representatives of religion, chosen by discussion among local churches. The current requirement, for three such representatives – one Church of Scotland, one Catholic, and one other – was only formalised in 1973 (here, Sec. 124,  repeated here in 1994, Sec. 31. Notice the increase in the number of representatives, and the clearer formal role of the two favoured specific denominations. Notice also that all this is pre-devolution.


St Andrew’s Cathedral, seat of the Catholic Archbishop of Glasgow

The Church of Scotland and the Catholic Church each have one nominee on the General Teaching Council, the professional body responsible for maintaining standards of training and conduct among schoolteachers (here, Schedule 2).

For denominational schools, Parent Councils are required by 2006 legislation (here) to include at least one nominee of (note the choice of words) “the church or denominational body in whose interest the school is conducted” [emphasis added]. This “in whose interest” language first appears in the 1918 legislation, but continues to be used in legislation and official guidance documents regarding denominational schools. As I have remarked elsewhere, this is very strange language indeed, suggesting that the church has an “interest” in the school, over and above its duties to pupils and the wider community.

Regarding religious instruction and observance, two opposed trends have been at work. Throughout the twentieth century, the role of religious observance, in non-denominational as well as denominational schools, has been strengthened. However, the idea of religious instruction (teaching, as true, the beliefs of one particular religion) has largely been replaced by that of religious education (learning about religion in our philosophical and cultural context). Recently, in response to public concerns, guidelines on the nature of religious observance have shifted in favour of reflection on shared values, rather than formal worship. All this, however, remains very much at the discretion of the headteacher in non-denominational schools. In denominational schools, religious observance and religious education remain firmly under the control of the religious body in whose interest the school is conducted.

Many non-denominational schools have chaplains, or even chaplaincy teams, but there is no obligation to do so. The Church of Scotland receives no special legal preference, and I almost wish that it did, since extreme evangelical groups make it their business to get involved in school chaplaincies, as in the notorious Kirktonholme fiasco, when all pupils were given “textbooks”, describing evolution as a wicked lie, by a chaplain from an extremist sect who had been advising about the school’s curriculum for eight years.

Collecting information about chaplaincy teams is difficult, except when the school chooses to display it in its Handbook. Freedom of Information requests to schools, like all such requests, are forwarded to the Council, but the Council may not have all the relevant information, and some Councils even regard this information as personal and confidential. In denominational schools, chaplains are effectively church nominees.

The 1872 Act allowed schools to continue “instruction in religion”, but did not require it. It also recognised the rights of parents “without forfeiting any of the other advantages of the schools, to elect that their children should not receive such instruction”, and more recent legislation applies this right to both Religious Observance and Religious Education. Current guidance goes further, in requiring the school to provide an educational activity of value to pupils during the time that they are withdrawn from religious activities, although it would be prudent for the parent to make this easy for the school, for example by supplying reading materials.

Note that the right to withdraw rests with the parents, although in practice many schools allow senior pupils, at least, to withdraw themselves.

The obligation to have religious observance in non-denominational schools only dates from the 1946 Act. Under this Act, a local authority can only remove this requirement when authorised to do so by a ballot of all constituents, not merely those directly involved with the school system. No authority has ever seriously considered such a ballot, despite a petition to that effect a few years ago from the Edinburgh Secular Society.

Details of religious observance and religious instruction are a matter of policy, not legislation. In 1991, the Scottish Government issued a circular saying that there should be religious observance in primary schools at least once a week, and in secondary schools at least once a month, and that this should have “a broadly Christian character”.

A major 2004 consultation, the Report of the Religious Observance Review Group (Edinburgh: The Scottish Executive, 2004), made major changes in official policy. Religious observance is now said to consist of ”community acts which aim to promote the spiritual development of all members of the school community and express and celebrate the shared values of the school community”. This could be an act of worship, if the school community corresponds to the faith community. The Report also make clear the distinction between Religious Observance and Religious Education. The form of RO is very much up to the individual school and “Head teachers are encouraged to engage in full discussion with chaplains and other faith group leaders in the planning and implementation of religious observance” (here, para. 13)

The Scottish Government is committed to ensuring that parents are made aware of their right to opt out. How much this commitment is worth, is another matter. At one time guidance clearly stated that the school Handbook should tell parents of their right to opt out, but many of them do not, and there is considerable anecdotal evidence of schools discouraging opting out, by requiring a formal letter or an interview with the head teacher, or even by telling parents that their children’s education will suffer.

The content of Religious and Moral Education (or, for Catholic schools, religious education)  is again a matter of policy, not legislation. Current policy (The 2011 “religious instruction” circular, Curriculum for Excellence – Provision of religious and moral education in non-denominational schools and religious education in Roman Catholic schools) lays out ambitious goals, including “well planned experiences and outcomes across Christianity, world religions and developing beliefs and values”. The details are left to the curriculum setting and examining bodies, and to the textbook writers. This could have unfortunate consequences; one topic properly discussed in RME is religiously motivated creationism, but this may be the only encounter that pupils (and RME teachers) have with evolution, and it would be going against the admirable spirit of RME to tell pupils which one they should prefer.

That European Convention on Human Rights specifies a universal right to education, and that “the State shall respect the right of parents to ensure such education and teaching is in conformity with their own religious and philosophical convictions.” However, the United Kingdom signed the treaty with the reservation that this clause only applies in so far as “it is compatible with the provision of efficient instruction and training, and the avoidance of unreasonable public expenditure”. This is as well, since otherwise it might be open to a parent to demand that their children not be taught about evolution. Even so, the ECHR would no doubt be quoted in support of the continued existence of denominational schools, should this ever be called into question.

Denominational schools are deeply rooted in history. In 1872, with legal restrictions on Catholics still a fresh memory, their schools stood aloof from the state system, but merged with it under financial pressure in 1918. The education (Scotland) Act, 1918, which accomplished this, contained guarantees still in force regarding ethos, the vetting of teachers, and religious observance and instruction in state-funded denominational schools. Denominational schools are usually but not necessarily Catholic; in addition to the 366 Catholic denominational schools, according to Government sources there are at present one Jewish primary, and three Episcopalian schools.   Admissions policies to denominational schools are a matter for the local authority, which can allow them to take account of religious adherence. This situation has recently arisen in Falkirk, where the Catholic school is oversubscribed. There is a specific exemption (here, Schedule 11 para 5) in the UK 2010 Equalities Act, to make this possible.

The Scottish Government’s 2011 circular on religious instruction states that “In Roman Catholic schools the experiences and outcomes should be delivered in line with the guidance provided by the Scottish Catholic 168 Education Service.” Parents still have a right to withdraw pupils, but “in choosing a denominational school for their child’s education, they choose to opt in to the school’s ethos and practice which is imbued with religious faith and it is therefore more difficult to extricate a pupil from all experiences which are influenced by the school’s faith character.” My own view, unfashionable in some circles that I move in, is that if you don’t want your child to have a Catholic education, you shouldn’t send them to a Catholic school. The situation here in Scotland is different from that which has recently been engineered in England, where nondenominational alternatives may simply be unavailable.

The 1918 Act specified that teachers in denominational schools must be “approved as regards their religious belief and character by representatives of the church or denominational body in whose interest the school has been conducted”. The 1980 Act inherited this requirement, although the reasons for objecting to an applicant must be stated in writing. According to the Scottish Catholic Education Service, a person’s faith and character could be vouched for by their priest, if they are Catholics, or by some other suitable person if they are not. I find this interesting, since it implies that being a Catholic is not a necessary condition of employment as a teacher in a Catholic school, yet (anecdotal evidence) this criterion seems to apply in practice. It also continues the right of the denomination to appoint a supervisor of religious instruction. This seemingly innocuous provision has serious effects, since in Catholic schools teaching about human sexual behaviour is included as part of the “Made for Love” module of Religious Instruction. Thus education on this topic is under the direction of the Council of Bishops, a committee of middle-aged middle management males pledged to lifelong celibacy.

I rest my case.

Reference: Callum G Brown, Thomas Green and Jane Mair, Religion in Scots Law: The Report of an Audit at the University of Glasgow: Sponsored by Humanist Society Scotland (Edinburgh, HSS, 2016),


Selected media reports:



Christianity Today:


National Secular Society newsletter:

Will Storr’s The Heretics [US: Unpersuadables], 1: Full Frontal Creationism, and other kinds of unreason

the-heretics-978033053586101Is this book worthy of your time and attention? Yes. But this is not a book review, so much as a conversation with myself, triggered by reading it, and what follows is as much mine as his, especially as I have focused on those chapters that overlap my own concerns. There is no shortage of writings debunking creationism, or homoeopathy, or others covered here, beliefs that fly in the face of massive evidence, and yet this evidence has no effect at all on their believers. Why is this, Storr asks. What is going on? And what makes us think that we ourselves are so different?

Storr starts by telling us of his meeting with John Mackay, a Young Earth creationist, who was talking to an appreciative audience in a small town in Queensland. This seems to have been his first encounter with the full-blooded version of modern creationism, according to which evolution science and old Earth geology are fundamentally unsound, and the Bible is the infallible word of God. At the end of Genesis 1, God speaks of His work as being “very good”. “Very good” must mean no pain, and no death. It follows that tigers and tyrannosaurs coexisted happily with Adam and Eve in Eden, all of them adhering to strictly vegetarian diets, until the Fall went and spoiled everything. And “Tonight, the choice you have to face up to is this – do you put your faith in Darwin, who wasn’t there? Or in God, who was?”


Jurassic Ark theme park activities, Gympie, Australia, where Storr met Mackay. From Creation Research website.

Mackay claims to be able to feel the presence of God. What turned him against evolution, he says, was a biology textbook he was reading as an adolescent, which followed its exposition of evolution with a chapter advocating atheism. Unfortunately, he does not tell us which textbook he was referring to, giving me no way of checking his perspective, although such a chapter would of course be completely out of place in a biology textbook.

Mackay’s audience were universally sympathetic, a fact that Storr observed with bemusement that turned to dismay when, the following Sunday, Mackay mounted the pulpit to deliver a scathing attack on the wickedness of homosexuals and the compromising Churches who countenance their activities.

Mackay speaks proudly of debating with ordinary sane scientists or, as he would call them, evolutionists: “We frequently win public debates… They presume they will be fighting against theologians with no science degrees.” He himself has a degree in geology from Queensland, where he also took a class in genetics. As a teacher in a private school, he was able to promote creationism under the guise of “critical thinking”, comparing the claims of evolution and creationism as he saw them.  He met up with Ken Ham, a kindred spirit, and together they set up the Creation Science Foundation. Mackay was forced out after some bitter infighting, and now directs a relatively small outfit known as Creation Research. The Creation Science Foundation, meantime, has turned into Answers in Genesis, a multi-million organisation based mainly in the US, famous for its Creation Museum and Ark Encounter Theme Park.

I have no doubt of Mackay’s sincerity. His arguments against creationism will be depressingly familiar to anyone who has studied the subject. Didn’t Darwin himself complain about the inadequacy of the fossil record? Why don’t we ever observe intermediate species? What about polystrate fossils, tree trunks that project upwards through different geological layers, supposedly separated from them by huge banks of time?

“The first dinosaurs look like dinosaurs… The last ones look like dinosaurs too. So within that timeframe – even if you did put in a millions of years – they produce their own kind, just as Genesis says.”

Let me invite the reader to respond to Mackay’s arguments, and to answer a question of my own: if your last common ancestor with a flatfish was 430 million years ago, how long ago, roughly, was the last common ancestor of a flatfish and a frog? (Answers at end)

Storr is in no doubt that Mackay is completely misguided. And yet, he says of Mackay and others pursuing the unreasonable,

“There is something noble about their bald defiance of the ordinary, something heroic about the deep outsider-territories that they wilfully inhabit… I feel a kind of kinship with them. I am drawn to the wrong.”

Storr gives us, later, more detail about his own past than I intend to divulge about mine, beyond saying that I too have explored strange places of the mind, and entertained bizarre beliefs.

Later Storr discusses Mackay with Nathan Lo, an Assistant Professor at the University of Sydney, who describes creationism as appealing because very easy to understand, unlike evolution which requires time and thought. Lo dismisses the leaders of the creationist movement as just in it for the money, prompting the kind of observation that makes this book so interesting:

“Nathan Lo and I… see ourselves as the rational ones, the clean-sighted bringers of 21st-century reason. And yet both of us, I have come to believe, are mistaken. We are wrong about the wrong.”

He joins a group who are taking part in a 10-day programme of extremely rigorous meditation. Halfway through, a woman participant starts screaming in distress, but he does nothing to go to her aid. Why not? Excessive obedience to authority. Later, he compares himself to participants in Stanley Milgram’s famous electric shock experiment. Here, subjects were told that they were taking part in an experiment on the effects of punishment on learning, and believed that they were administering electric shocks to the learner, who was in the next room. The subjects obediently administered increasing shocks, even when the person in the next room (an actor) started screaming, and many went all the way up to levels of shock clearly labelled as lethal and not to be used. Then there was the strip-search scam, where a bogus policeman claims be investigating a reported theft, gives a vague description that the management applies to one of the waitresses, and that waitress is then told to strip naked and cavort, kiss the “policeman”, and even submit to spankings, in front of the manager, and her boyfriend acting as chaperone. And does what she is told, with neither manager nor boyfriend raising any questions. And this performance has been repeated in over 70 diners throughout the United States.

Excessive obedience, according to Storr, is but one of the many ways in which our brains differ from the standards of rational judgement that we naïvely believe ourselves to be applying. Notice that I said “differ from”, not “fall short of”. We are evolved animals, and the brain has more investment (if I may so put it) in seeing us survive and prosper in our societies, than in making us aware of objective truth. We are influenced by others, and if enough of our neighbours say so, we will actually come to see one line as being longer than another, even when our eyes plainly tell us that it is not.[1]

That’s the least of it. Storr finds himself forced to confront a much larger question, perhaps the largest question in the whole of philosophy: what really goes on inside our minds (or our brains; for me, as for Storr, these come to much the same thing) and how well does that enable us to cope with reality?

Storr deals with this question in a tightly argued (but, given the difficulty of the subject matter, surprisingly readable) chapter, of which I can do no more than convey the general favour. He quotes from Bruce Wexler’s book, Brain and Culture, which describes the brain and mind as highly plastic and shaping themselves to the environment, until early adulthood. From that stage onwards, the process is reversed, and “much of the [brain] activity is devoted to making the environment conformed to the established structures.” From which Storr draws the unpalatable conclusion:

“Your brain is surprisingly reluctant to change its mind. Rather than going through the difficulties involved in rearranging itself to reflect the truth, it often prefers to fool you. So it distorts. It forgets. It projects. It lies.”

This is true for the brain of the deluded creationist. And Storr’s brain. And yours. And mine. Our brains spend most of their time satisfying themselves that things are as we expect them to be, and spring into action (and denial) when this comfortable belief is disturbed.

Our entire sensory world is a construct. We see in three-colour vision, and our inner worlds are that extent richer than those of a skate, which has no colour vision at all, but poorer in ways we cannot even imagine than those of birds and insects that have up to six separate kinds of colour receptor. So colour is not something in the world, but a construct that we impose on it. Light itself has wavelength, but no colour. (Here Storr seems to me to be making a common philosophical error. When we are seeing normally, our colour vision is causally determined by the wavelengths of light impinging on our eyes, as well as by the way our brains process that information. Colour vision may encode only part of the information out there, and the particular code may be specific to humans, or even to individuals, but that does not invalidate the information obtained. But perhaps this is nitpicking.) Storr goes on to describe our inner world of perceptions as “A vision. A useful guess about what the [external] world might look like, that is built well enough that we are able to negotiate it successfully.” The point is that we do not handle reality, which is far too complex, but the model we make of it. Accuracy beyond what is needed is irrelevant for the serious business of surviving and reproducing, or even harmfully distracting.

Even our emotions are constructs, based on expectation. Depending on your culture, you will when drunk become more convivial, or more aggressive, or more sexually uninhibited, and some of these effects (I trust that no one tested for the last one I mentioned) can even be produced by alcohol-free fake drinks.

We deceive ourselves to protect our expectations without ever realising it. When told that a male applicant for the job of police chief has qualification A, while a female applicant has qualification B, most people will choose A as the more important qualification. Reverse the details, and most people will choose B. Ask them for their reasoning, and they will discuss the finely balanced choice between A and B on its merits, with no mention of gender. From the outside, it is clear that they regard police chief as a man’s kind of job, and pick the criterion that best fits this preconception, but they do not know that this is what they are doing.

We scrutinise arguments attacking our position much more closely, and reject them on much slimmer grounds, than those that support us. And if, in the end and, we cannot avoid the realisation of conflict, we experience the discomfort known as cognitive dissonance. We now have three choices; we can deny that the conflict really exists, or we can change our minds to accommodate the new evidence (the least likely outcome), or we can build a fence round our preconceptions, and hold on to our initial beliefs with more fervour than ever. This helps explain why debates about such topics as creationism, or the reality of global warming, get nowhere, and anyone who has taken part in such a debate will realise how annoyingly the arguments that we direct at the other side merely boomerang. It’s not fair. You just can’t reason with them. The most infuriating thing is that they actually seem to enjoy taking such absurd positions. And, if fMRI results are to be trusted, they don’t merely seem; when we strike a partisan posture, the pleasure centres in our brain light up. We are all, to use it Storr’s expression, “deluded egotists”, and, worst of all, we like it that way.

Storr’s next chapter is about a group of people that I belong to. He does not like them, and gives good reason for this. But that will have to wait for another post.

Appendix: And what about those objections to evolution?


Vogt, C. 1880. Archaeopteryx macrura, an Intermediate Form between Birds and Reptiles. Ibis 4:434-456, via Wikipedia

Yes, Darwin complained of the inadequacy of the fossil record and the lack of intermediate forms, but we have dug up a lot of new information since 1859, when the first edition of The Origin of Species was published. By 1863, in time for the fourth edition, we had the discovery of Archaeopteryx and its identification as intermediate between birds and their reptilian ancestors. In fact, we now know Archaeopteryx to be a great-uncle, rather than a direct ancestor, of modern birds, but that is by comparison with hundreds of other intermediate forms, enabling us to establish a bird family tree rooted among one particular group of dinosaurs, with both extinct and surviving branches. There will always, of course, be missing links in the chain, but the existence of the chain itself is now undeniable. So far from being a criticism of the evolutionary account, Darwin’s complaint should be heralded as an implicit prediction, one that has been amply fulfilled.

Polystrate fossils are the expected results of rapid sedimentation, but so what? At one time there was thought to be a conflict between catastrophism, in which geological processes occurred with terrifying rapidity, and a uniformitarian gradualism according to which they were always slow, but both of these extremes had been abandoned by 1865.

And the time elapsed between the last common ancestor of a flatfish and a frog is exactly the same as the time elapsed since the last common ancestor of a flatfish and you, some 430 million years. If you don’t believe me, go to the Timetree website and check. Your last common ancestor with a frog is somewhat more recent, at around 355 million years before present, and deserves to be called a proto-amphibian because it superficially resembles the frog much more than it resembles you, but you and the frog have both, by definition, been evolving for the same length of time since then. True, the changes in your line of descent have been more dramatic, including the ability to give birth on land, development inside the womb, warmbloodedness, and big brains, but your now extinct reptile-like and lemur-like ancestors are intermediate, not between you and the present-day frog, but between you and that remote proto-amphibian common ancestor. The distinction is important but subtle, part of why evolution is so often misundertood.

As for Mackay’s claim that a dinosaur is a dinosaur is a dinosaur, this can only be based on self-inflicted ignorance. Diplodocus, Triceratops, and Tyrannosaur are at least as obviously different as a cow, a zebra, and a tiger. But for Mackay, these are all small matters, compared with his eternal salvation.

1] This is based on the behaviour of groups of students, asked to judge which of two lines was longer, and how the judgements were influenced by the opinions expressed by stooges pretending to be fellow-subjects. Storr refers to fMRI work suggesting that the students really were persuaded by their supposed colleagues, rather than deciding to go along with them, but as he says much of this kind of work is still highly controversial.

Adapted from an earlier post in 3 Quarks Daily


An affront to democracy; unelected Church nominees sit and vote on Council Education Committees in Scotland (and England)

A question for your Holyrood candidates

I will be asking my Scottish parliamentary candidates how, in their view, Council Education Committees ought to be selected.  Should they simply consist of elected councillors, plus others (e.g. teachers) that they vote to co-opt? If not, what arrangement would the candidate prefer? And readers may also want to ask about this; I would love to hear the candidates’ answers. Why I am asking this strange question? Because of these strange facts:

The scandal


Edinburgh HQ of Church of Scotland, which appoints 33 Committee members

By pre-devolution law, all Council Education Committees must include three individuals nominated by Churches. One nominee is from the Catholic Church, and one from the Church of Scotland. The third is from a religious body selected by the Council, having regard to local demographics. The elected councillors themselves have no further say in the matter, nor do those they represent. Non-believers, and members of any other than the three privileged denominations, need not apply. Nor need experts in curriculum development, child health, social planning, or any other form of worldly expertise.

And just in case any of my English friends are thinking “silly old Scotland again”, did you realise that there are two such nominees on every English Local Authority Education Committee, one Church of England and one Catholic? Presumably the larger number in Scotland reflects the more fractious nature of our ecclesiastical politics:

Churches_of_Scotland_timeline.svg (1)

Education Committees 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 Episcopal Church, with 25,000 communicants, was offered 10 places on Committees and has filled 7 of them

The requirement for representatives of religion on these Committees dates back through Acts in 1994 and 1973 to the 1929 reorganisation of local government in Scotland, and the earlier provisions on which it was based. To a time when the formation of the public education system was fresh in the memory, and when the population of Scotland was overwhelmingly religious.*

Almost a century later, none of this is still true. According to the 2011 census figures, the largest single religious category is “None”, while only 54% of the population describe themselves as Christian. These numbers vary greatly from region to region; the legal requirement does not. The 2014 Scottish Government Social Attitudes Survey shows 68 percent of 18-24 -year-olds and 56 percent of 25-39 -year-olds describing themselves as “no religion”. So the Nones are an actual majority in the age cohorts now beginning to send their children to school. And surely no one would claim that the pre-1918 system gives the Churches an inherited right over education. We are talking about children, not property.

The role of the Church nominees is real, not ceremonial. According to the Church of Scotland itself, they hold the balance of power in 19 of Scotland’s 32 Education Committees, so that in an actual majority of Councils, the wishes of the controlling party or coalition can be overridden if these nominees side with the opposition. Given, moreover, the admirably conversational tone of much Scottish politics, their influence will not be limited to such formal occasions. And from time to time they represent the Council on teacher selection panels.

Why this matters

Space does not permit full elaboration of the case for abolition of these privileged positions, so the following incomplete summary must suffice:

The arrangement violates human rights. It excludes nonbelievers, and followers of any belief system other than the three represented, from equal participation in the process of government

It is anti-democratic. It places part of the machinery of government under the influence of individuals in whose appointment the electorate has no say. The point here is not that these individuals are religious; so indeed many elected councillors. It is that they are unelected. They sit and vote on the most important of all local authority committees, having completely bypassed the democratic process

It assumes a consensus in favour of religion that no longer exists. Nonbelievers are now the single largest group in Scotland, and an actual majority among the young

It restricts the ability of elected Councillors to co-opt individuals of their own choosing, since both law and common sense require that the Committees have a majority of elected members

It has proved difficult if not impossible to follow in practice. Freedom of Information request found that, as of July 2015, seven councils had failed to fill all positions; one (Orkney) had appointed no religious representatives; eight had filled the third Church Representative position by newspaper advertisements that had attracted only one applicant; one representative had nominated himself when asked to consult with colleagues; and for these or other reasons, in 18 out of 32 councils the process had clearly proved defective.


The Rev. David Fraser’s church quotes experts 99.9% sure that they have found Noah’s Ark (this, from his Church’s web site, is just a scale model). The Rev. David Fraser, who sits,unelected, on Clackmannanshire’s Education Committee, believes (see website) that “The vast majority of those dying are entering hell.”

It gives power to unelected individuals with extreme and unrepresentative views. I blogged on this in 2013, and the situation has not changed. The haphazard procedures described above make it easy for extreme Churches to gain the right to nominate a representative. Thus, from the limited information available on Church websites, we know that there are at least six representatives of Churches (in Clackmannanshire, Highland, Inverclyde, Na h-Eileanan Siar, North Ayrshire and Souh Lanarkshire) who believe that the prescribed Earth and Life Sciences syllabus is a pack of lies, the same number believing in the literal physical eternal punishment of those who reject Jesus, and one who believes in the curing of physical ailments by laying on of hands. For the nominees of these Churches, holding these extreme views becomes a job requirement for Education Committee membership, despite the science content of the Curriculum and the educational goals of tolerance and inclusiveness

It risks placing teachers and school management teams in an impossible position. I know of cases where a six-day creationist is simultaneously a member of school chaplaincy teams, and of the Education Committee overseeing these same schools. Consider the dilemma of a science teacher who may wish to confront him

It gives double representation to specific privileged viewpoints. If a concern arises related to the special interests of one particular religious group, constituents belonging to that group can appeal, both to their own council members, and to the relevant Church nominee

Finally, it gives the Councils an unwanted and unwarranted voice in the internal affairs of religion itself. They are forced to nominate one from the numerous religious organisations in their area, at the expense of all the others. And in the event of schism within a Church, for which there is precedent, they would be required to choose between rival claimants.

The simple remedy

A one-paragraph Act, revoking one clause of the existing legislation, is all that is needed to remove the offending requirement. If the elected councillors still wished to co-opt representatives of Churches, or the public chose to elect them to office, they would, of course, be free to do so. But imposed Church nominees on Education Committees are an indefensible anachronism, incompatible with the realities and aspirations of a modern democratic Scotland. It is time for them to go.


Adapted from my op-ed in The Scotsman, which attracted this comment:

It’s a simple argument. Council education committees currently have unelected special interest members, this a legacy quid pro quo from when the churches handed over their schools to be run by the state. The issue should not be that these members are religious but that they have not been elected. Only those who have been elected should have voting rights.

* Parallel legislation regarding England specifies two representatives of religion, one from the Church of England and the other from the Catholic Church; the difference between England and Scotland presumably reflects the more fractious nature of religion in Scotland; the 1929 Act was presumably drafted just before the (partial) healing of the Great Disruption that had split the Church of Scotland since 1843.

Church of Scotland offices by Kim Traynor via Wikipedia under Creative Commons licence. Committee membership as of September 2015, from FoI responses by Councils. Church history diagram by Hogweard via Wikipedia, public domain; click to enlarge or see here for full scale view. St Mary’s cathedral Church, Edinburgh, by Finlay McWalter via Wikipedia under GNU licence; church membership figures for Episcopalians as of 2013, from Church Times

Even on his birthday, don’t say Darwin unless you mean it


From Darwin’s Notebook B, 1837

How Darwin’s name is taken in vain, with mini-reviews of some of the worst offenders

Don’t say Darwin unless you mean it. Above all, don’t say “Darwin” when you mean “evolution”. It’s like saying “Dalton” when you mean atoms. Our understanding of atoms has moved on enormously since Dalton’s time, and our understanding of evolution has moved on similarly since Darwin’s. Neither of them knew, or could have known, the first thing regarding what they were talking about, and both would be delighted at how thoroughly their own work has been superseded. (Dalton of course deserves further discussion in his own right, which I will be providing in a few weeks time.)


From John Dalton’s A New System of Chemical Philosophy (1808)

Imagine if a lot of people decided that atomic theory was against their religion. We would see a parallel world of sacred science, in which molecules were “intelligently constructed”, and real chemistry would be referred to as Daltonism, or possibly, these days, neo-Daltonism. The scientific dissidents from Daltonism would invoke Dalton’s name on every possible occasion, and draw attention to the many inadequacies of atomic theory as he presented it in 1808. Dalton didn’t know anything about the forces that hold atoms together, which depend on electrons and quantum mechanics. In fact, he didn’t even know about electrons. He was muddled about the difference between a molecule of hydrogen and an atom of hydrogen. He thought that the simplest compound between two different elements A and B would have the formula AB, so that water must be HO, not H2O. And of course he knew nothing about the origin of atoms, a problem not solved until the 1950s, over a century after his death. Obvious nonsense, the lot of it!

Darwin was ignorant of transitional fossils, and in words still quoted by creationists deplored their absence as the greatest objection to his theory. He was equally ignorant about the origin of biological novelty, which comes from mutating genes. In fact, he didn’t even know about genes. And because he did not realise that inheritance occurred through genes, he could not explain why favourable variations were not simply diluted out. It would be decades after his death before we could even speculate coherently about the origins of life, and despite tantalising clues it remains a largely unsolved problem. But despite this, we have learnt an enormous amount since the publication of On The Origin of Species, and everything that we have learnt is consistent with, indeed requires, the key concepts of evolution and common descent.

ExploreEvolutionSo why is discussion of evolution still saturated with Darwin’s name? In part, I think, because that’s the way his opponents want it. By identifying evolution with Darwin, they continue to breathe life into the controversies of the mid-19th century. At the same time, it helps them pretend that modern biology is just one individual’s point of view, rather than a mature science based on the work of thousands of investigators. Very recently, creationists have taken to invoking Darwin himself for their cause, in such titles as Darwin’s Doubt and Darwin Strikes Back. This is an extremely powerful rhetorical tool; if Darwin was puzzled by [whatever], is that not a puzzle to us “Darwinists”? Closely related is the device of presenting creationism under the guise of even-handed debate, as when a creationist pseudo-textbook (which mentions Darwin on almost every page, but not in the index) calls itself Explore Evolution; the arguments for and against neo-Darwinism, or in the list below, where a creationist comic goes by the name, What’s Darwin got to do with it? A friendly discussion …

And while we’re on the subject of unhelpful language, don’t say “theory of evolution” when you mean the well-established facts of historical and continuing change over time, and of common ancestry. And if you find yourself in the position of explaining the difference between a scientific theory (coherent intellectual structure developed to explain a range of observations), and the use of the word “theory” in everyday use (provisional hypothesis), you have blundered into a morass. Back out again.

BlackBoxBut back to Darwin. You can see what I mean if you just look at the names of the books written by the enemies of scientific biology, from Darwin’s Doubt (Meyer, 2013) back to Darwin’s Black Box (Behe, 1996) and beyond. There are other examples, such as The Darwin Conspiracy (Roy Davies, 2006), which portrays Darwin as a plagiarist, and, while checking its details, I discovered an even more lurid book of the same name by John Darnton, which portrays him as a murderer. To be fair, Darnton does not pretend that he is writing anything other than fiction, although surely he was writing with half an eye on the creationist market.

To further test my idea, I went online to, and typed “Darwin” and “Darwinism” in the search window (I regularly search on Amazon, but prefer to buy from The Book Depository or Wordery). Here are some of the books by creationists that I came up with; a lot of the names were all too familiar, but I never realized that Rick Santorum had actually got his name on a book.  There were also references to  “materialist neo-Darwinism”, but since I don’t pretend to know what a “materialist” is, and whether I or for that matter Darwin would qualify, I decided to let those ones go.

Darwin's DoubtGod vs. Darwin: The Logical Supremacy of Intelligent Design Creationism Over Evolution (M. S. King, 2015): “Ever since its inception, the edifice of Evolutionary Darwinism has rested upon a foundation of sand, propped up solely by media hype, public ignorance and extreme intellectual bullying.”

Darwin’s Doubt (Meyer, 2013) For the fashioning of this phrase in the creationist quote mine, see here. For Donald Prothero‘s devastating review of the book, see here.

Dehumanization: A Product of Darwinism (David Campbell, 2012)

The Dark Side of Charles Darwin (Jerry Bergman, 2011) Blurb: “A single man stands behind the greatest deception in history.”

Evolution by Intelligent Design: Debate is Over – Darwinism is Extinct (Gabor Lingauer, 2011)

The Deniable Darwin and Other Essays (David Berlinski, 2010; I have written about Berlinski here)

What Darwin Got Wrong (Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini, 2010) Apparently based on confusion between mutation, source of novelty, and selection, imposer of value.

The Darwin Myth: The Life and Lies of Charles Darwin (Benjamin Wiker, 2009) 

Exposing Darwinism’s Weakest Link: Why Evolution Can’t Explain Human Existence (Kenneth Poppe, 2008)

Explore Evolution: The Arguments For and Against NeoDarwinism, (Stephen C. Meyer, Scott Minnich, Jonathan Moneymaker and Paul A. Nelson, 2007; this fraudulently misnamed creationist pseudo-texbook is discussed further here)

Darwin’s Plantation: Evolution’s Racist Roots (Ken Ham and A. Charles Ware, 2007)

The Edge of Evolution: The Search for the Limits of Darwinism (Michael Behe, 2007; since Behe clearly believes that biological complexity is the work of a designer who operates independently of natural laws, I include him as a creationist, although he would deny this)

DarwinDayDarwin Day In America: How Our Politics and Culture Have Been Dehumanized in the Name of Science  John G. West, 2007)

Doubts About Darwin: A History of Intelligent Design (Thomas Woodward, 2007)

Darwin’s Nemesis: Phillip Johnson and the Intelligent Design Movement (William A. Dembski and Rick Santorum, 2006)

Darwin Strikes Back: Defending the Science of Intelligent Design (Thomas Woodward and William Dembski , 2006)

The Politically Incorrect Guide to Darwinism and Intelligent Design (Jonathan Wells, 2006)

Reclaiming Science from Darwinism: A Clear Understanding of Creation, Evolution, and Intelligent Design, (Kenneth Poppe, 2006)

The Naked Emperor: Darwinism Exposed (Antony Latham, 2005)

Uncommon Dissent: Intellectuals Who Find Darwinism Unconvincing (William A. Dembski, 2004)

What Darwin Didn’t Know: A Doctor Dissects the Theory of Evolution (Geoffrey Simmons, 2004) Blurb: What Darwin Didn’t Know shows the human body to be a marvelous system constructed by an infinitely wise Designer.

darwinismDesignDarwinism, Design and Public Education (John Angus Campbell and Stephen C. Meyer, 2003) Blurb: if science education is to be other than state-sponsored propaganda, a distinction must be drawn between empirical science and materialist philosophy.

Darwinism and the Rise of Degenerate Science (Paul Back, 2003) Blurb: many of the constructs of evolution are based on fantasies devoid of scientific credibility.

The Collapse of Darwinism: Or The Rise of a Realist Theory of Life (Graeme D. Snooks, 2003)

Human Devolution: A Vedic Alternative to Darwin’s Theory (Michael A. Cremo, 2003)

The Case Against Darwin: Why the Evidence Should Be Examined (James Perloff, 2002)

Moral Darwinism: How We Became Hedonists (Benjamin Wiker and William Dembski (Jul 12, 2002) Abortion. Euthanasia. Infanticide. Sexual promiscuity. And it’s all Darwin’s fault.

Darwinism Under The Microscope: How recent scientific evidence points to divine design (James P. Gills, 2002)

Darwin’s God: Evolution and the Problem of Evil (Cornelius G. Hunter, 2002) It’s just an excuse for atheism.

Darwin’s Demise (Md. Comninellis Nicholas and Joe White, 2001)

Shattering the Myths of Darwinism (Richard Milton, 2000)

WhatsDarwinGotWhat’s Darwin Got to Do with It?: A Friendly Discussion About Evolution (between a bright young creationist and a stuffy stooge; Robert C. Newman, John L. Wiester and Janet Moneymaker, 2000)

Darwinism Defeated? (J. I. Packer, Phillip E. Johnson and Denis O. Lamoureux, 1999) (Lamoureux says no, by the way)

Evolution Deceit: The Scientific Collapse of Darwinism (Harun Yahya and Mustapha Ahmad, 1999)

Tornado in a Junkyard: The Relentless Myth of Darwinism (James Perloff, 1999)

Darwin’s Leap of Faith: Exposing the False Religion of Evolution (John Ankerberg and John Weldon, 1998)

Darwin’s Enigma (Luther Sunderland, 1998) Blurb: No legitimate fossil evidence exists that shows one species changing into another

Defeating Darwinism by Opening Minds (Phillip E. Johnson, 1997)

Darwin’s Black Box (Michael Behe, 1996)

In the Minds of Men: Darwin and the New World Order (Ian T. Taylor, 1996) Blurb: Creation Moments is pleased to bring you what has been hailed as the classic work on the creation-evolution issue!

Darwinism, Science or Philosophy? (Phillip E. Johnson et al., 1994)

Darwin on Trial (Phillip E. Johnson, 1991)

Darwinism : The Refutation of a Myth (Soren Lovtrup, 1987)

And so on, all the way back to The Refutation of Darwinism: And the Converse Theory of Development; Based Exclusively Upon Darwin’s Facts (T Warren O’Neill, 1879)

A shorter version of this post appeared here in June 2013

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 if you’re lucky (the links to Chick Publications only seem to work at random), 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.





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


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


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:



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

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.

Casey Luskin leaves Discovery Institute; I will miss him

Center_for_Science_and_Culture_(logo)Casey Luskin has just announced his departure from the Discovery Institute, in order to further his studies. We will miss the enlightenment that he brings. For example, in his farewell piece, he tells us that

Evolutionary biologists are now admitting we need “post-Darwinian” models to explain the Cambrian explosion.

Casey is right; we really do need “post-Darwinian” models to explain the Cambrian explosion. Things like Mendelian inheritance, mutation, population genetics, and, in this context, palaeogeochemistry, which is why evolutionary biologists have been decidedly post-Darwinian since around 1905.

Casey does not tell us what he is going to study, but I rather hope that it will be chemistry. Then, in due course, he will be fully equipped to explain to us that Dalton couldn’t even get the structure of water right, that Faraday’s electrical theory of bonding needs to be revised in the light of quantum mechanics, that many of the postulated intermediates in chemical reactions have never even been observed, that (as predicted by Intelligent Alchemy) many of Lavoisier’s elements turn out not to be elements at all, and that our schools should allow students to evaluate for themselves the unwarranted metaphysical assumptions of chemical materialism, and the merits of the phlogiston theory.

Disclosure: unlike many far better people, I have been insulted by Casey only once, when he accused me and the British Centre for Science Education of concealing our atheism for tactical reasons. Guilty as charged; we conceal it so well that one of BCSE’s most prominent members at the time, now its official spokesman, is an Anglican priest. Devious, these evolutionists. You need to watch them.

Casey, you will be sadly missed.

Update; more here: The word is that he will be replaced by Ann Gauger, who knows more biochemistry and therefore has, and uses, a  much greater capacity for misunderstanding.

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