Category Archives: Education

Science and politics at the Creation Museum

Repost of https://3quarksdaily.com/3quarksdaily/2022/08/science-and-politics-at-the-creation-museum.html. This piece also appeared at https://rightingamerica.net/science-and-politics-at-the-creation-museum/, with book authors’ comment: “Below is Dr. Paul Braterman’s review of Righting America at the Creation Museum. For us, the best part of this generous review is that Braterman covers and understands all parts of our argument. More than this, we appreciate his scientific interventions, and we absolutely agree that we should have included Henry Morris’ biblical racism in our book.”

Do we really need 230 pages of at times closely argued text, followed by 70 pages of footnotes, just to tell us about Kentucky’s intellectually bankrupt Creation Museum and the authoritarian organisation, Answers in Genesis, that brings it to us? The answer, I fear, is yes.

For instance, this book will tell you that Ebenezer the Allosaurus, prize exhibit at Answers in Genesis’s Creation Museum in Kentucky, was donated by the Peroutka Foundation. It will also tell you that Michael Peroutka, in a 2013 speech still available on youtube, states that government schools indoctrinate children away from Christian ideas (a theme that recurs throughout this book), and that this is what they were designed to do. The book also points out that he served on the Board of Directors of the League of the South, whose chairman had defined southern people as white. I recently learned that Peroutka is the official Republican Party candidate for the post of attorney general of the State of Maryland in the November 2022 elections. We had better pay attention.

Front of Museum in 2007

There is no shortage of books refuting antiscientific creationism, but this volume nonetheless manages to find many new and important things to say about the subject, as manifested at the Museum. Susan Trollinger is an Associate Professor (now Professor) of English at the University of Dayton, Ohio, and author of Selling the Amish: The Tourism of Nostalgia, while William is Professor of History at the same university, and author of God’s Empire: William Bell Riley and Midwestern Fundamentalism. Both are committed Christians and critical Catholics. Thus they are unusually well-placed to analyse the rhetorical devices, the historical roots, and the theological assumptions and moral universe of the Museum, and its parent organisation, Answers in Genesis. On their blog, they have applied much the same critique to the Museum’s sister attraction, the Ark Encounter, which was under construction when this book went to press and features here in an epilogue.

I have been watching Answers in Genesis myself for some time, and my own additional comments here are in [brackets].

We already have abundant material rebutting creationism on scientific grounds, but the Trollingers explicitly refrain from discussing the science. What they do instead is much more interesting. In an extended and detailed analysis, they apply the Museum’s own criteria to the Museum’s own display. It does not fare well.

We start with a short history of creationism, including the events leading up to the formation of Answers in Genesis (henceforth AiG),1 and an account of that organisation’s other activities and prolific outpourings. The Museum itself had topped a total of 2 million visitors by 2015, and claims that the average visitor has a college or advanced degree. There is much more about AiG’s extended campaigns and their political implications in the last chapter of the book, and I would have welcomed clearer signalling of this early on, to avoid the risk of burying the lede. I would also have liked to be told more about the deep connections, going back a century, between US creationism and right-wing politics, a subject on which one of the authors is an expert. Relatedly, I regret that AiG’s repeated denial of the importance of human-caused global warming is barely mentioned, not only because of the importance of the topic but because it illustrates how committed AiG is to the use of the Bible in forwarding the American Right’s political agenda. However, these criticisms serve only to underline the book’s ongoing importance.

As the book points out, all museums are rhetorical devices. Modern2 Natural History museums emerged from the private collections of cabinets of curiosities as part of the democratising and educational efforts of the late 19th-century. Their function was not merely to display, but to educate, and convey a sense of scientific mastery. Dioramas were used to impart a sense of immediacy, while simultaneously imposing one particular view of the world; typically, male animals would dominate the scene, with smaller females playing a lesser role. Dioramas also impart a spurious sense of objectivity, since visitors see with their own eyes, without being aware that what they are seeing is a highly edited version of reality. The museum further conveys its message, by leading visitors through numbered rooms in a particular order, in order to enhance its narrative.

Contemporary2 museums have come to challenge this top-down narrative. Current educational thinking requires visitors to be free to examine objects in their own way, in their own chosen order, and often with hands-on exhibits, in order to construct their own personal narratives. The goal is to make the visitor an active partner in the creation of knowledge, rather than its passive recipient.

The Creation Museum has all the trappings of a contemporary museum. It is technically sophisticated, with sound effects accompanying dioramas, animatronic human and dinosaur figures, and special effects including a movie theatre with seats that shake. Moreover, it claims to be offering visitors their own free choice between its own Young Earth evolution denial, and mainstream science. This claim is reinforced by one of the early dioramas, in which two men are shown excavating a dinosaur skeleton. A narrator tells us that one of these is an evolutionist and the other a creationist, but that both are scientists. This claim is central to the AiG version of creationism, which argues that biblical and evolutionist perspectives are equally valid. The next room reiterates the same point, proclaiming “Same Facts, but Different Views… Why?”, explicitly asking visitors to choose between God’s Word and “their own arbitrary philosophy”. Ken Ham, founder and CEO of AiG, and his son-in-law Bodie Hodge, have in interviews both stressed the claim that they “give both sides”.

The wrecking ball of “Millions of Years” destroys the foundation of the church

A good-faith discussion of such a choice would require an evenhanded depiction of the two contrasting worldviews, but this is not what happens. Instead, as the book enumerates, we have a sequence of displays presenting Young Earth creationism, claiming the authority of biblical figures, and speaking of a culture in crisis as the wrecking ball of “Millions of Years” destroys the foundation of the church (that last image occurs repeatedly in AiG publications). We are shown a peaceful Eden, with humans (just two of them, of course) and dinosaurs peacefully coexisting, until T. rex is transformed into a fearsome predator by the Fall, which allows Death into the world. We have animatronic scenes from the building of the Ark, and an exposition of Flood geology with the Flood responsible for the breakup of the continents and the formation of their features, and also for subsequent cooling (in their publications, AiG does admit the existence of one Ice Age). This, visitors are told, led to the formation by natural selection of today’s diversity of species from the smaller number of kinds present in the Ark (in AiG’s private language, such natural selection does not count as “evolution”). At various points there are photographs, videos, and displays showing the wonders of nature, to prove that “there has to be a powerful Intelligence behind the universe.” Evolution is indeed presented, or rather misrepresented, in such a way as not to be believed, an approach that is also advocated on the AiG website and elsewhere.

The Museum’s own account of past, present, and future is embodied in the 7 Cs of Creation, Corruption (the Fall), Catastrophe (the Flood), Confusion (Tower of Babel), Christ, the Cross, and Consummation (when Earth will be restored to the perfection it had had before the Fall). Running through all of this, we have the recurring theme of human disobedience to God’s word, bringing down His punishment. Our present social problems are manifestations of this disobedience, as is the acceptance of evolution by compromising churches. The visitor moves along a predetermined path illustrating this narrative, with a simple clear overarching message of salvation for the faithful, and well-deserved damnation for the rest. As in the days of Noah, so today. The presentation and trappings of the Museum belong to the 21st century, but its authoritarian top-down control of movement and message places it firmly in an older era.

This is particularly clear in the Voyage of the Ark room, which shows the misery of those trapped by rising waters, from the perspective of the saved. The message is clear. Go through the open door and be saved, or it will be shut on you and misery and death will follow. As other exhibits make clear, a direct analogy is being drawn between the wickedness of the Flood generation and the moral depravity of our own times. The visitor has two clear options; to accept God’s word, or to stand among those condemned.

Here as elsewhere, the Bible itself is massaged, manipulated, and misquoted. Crucially for AiG’s theodicy, we are told that drowned humanity had ignored Noah’s warnings, and thus lost the chance to enter the Ark with him, but biblically there was no such chance and no warning. We are shown an animatronic Methuselah telling us how Noah attempted to warn the people, but there is no reference to any such thing in Genesis. Noah is described as a preacher, although there is no biblical basis for this either. There are even textual changes; in Genesis 11:2, “They journeyed from the East” becomes “They moved down from the mountains of Ararat”, to impose AiG’s smoothed out Flood-to-Babel narrative. There are also some strange interpretations. For example, in Genesis 3, the ground brings forth thorns as part of Adam’s punishment, therefore thorns were created during the lifetime of humanity. But we find thorns alongside dinosaurs in the fossil record. Therefore dinosaurs must have coexisted with humans. And since creation was “very good”, death could not have existed before the Fall, therefore all these dinosaurs were originally vegetarians.

Diorama; Adam naming the animals (Genesis 2:20)

A Natural History museum is rich in actual objects, such as fossils or stuffed animals. The Creation Museum is much poorer in actual objects, but derives its emotional impact from meticulously detailed dioramas, allowing us peepholes into the worlds of Adam and Eve or Noah. The real subject matter of the Museum is, then, not creation as a whole, but Genesis 1 – 11, treated as actual history.

Next, the book discusses AiG’s central claim to be presenting science. The core argument here is based on a distinction between “observational science”, which depends on repeatable experiments, and “historical science”, which according to Ham lacks any such secure foundation, since the past is not repeatable and the attempt to discover it therefore depends on unverifiable assumptions. This same argument occurs ad nauseam throughout the whole of AiG’s output, and is implicit in the presentation and objects in the Museum. Placards repeatedly state (emphasis in originals) “The evidence is in the present. But what happened in the past?”

It is not difficult to show (I have done so myself) that the elevation of observational over historical science is so much pseudophilosophical twaddle. But again, this book follows the more interesting path of applying the Museum’s criteria to its own exhibits.

If the only kind of science with objective weight is observational science, that is what the Museum should be presenting. But where is it? AiG claims that such evidence is to be found in the Museum’s planetarium, and in the rooms dedicated to the Wonders of Creation, and the presentation of Flood Geology. This book examines those claims, and finds them wanting. The planetarium tells us of the vastness and beauty of the cosmos, but even if this is taken as evidence of a Creator, that is no proof of a biblical God, let alone a recent six-day creation. Blue stars, we are told, cannot last for billions of years (true), therefore the universe cannot be billions of years old (false; the very same science that tells us that such stars cannot last also tells us that they are continually being generated). The planetarium also speaks of unspecified theoretical problems, and claims that star formation has never been observed. These are not convincing arguments.3

Of 38 placards in the Flood Geology room, 15 represent theoretical models of past events, and are thus, by the Museum’s criteria, not science at all. However, 26 placards to display some kind of scientific information. But much of that information is merely historical science. The Mt. St Helens eruption, 1980, is presented as a model of rapid catastrophic change, but all the data here are firmly in the past and unrepeatable. There is genuine observational science describing for example blind cave fish, but arguing (more historical science!) that these represent adaptation through loss of genetic information. It is implied without any justification that all adaptation is of this kind, and the diversity of species is then explained away in terms of such adaptation. Thus all canids (dogs, wolves, jackals, foxes etc) have been adapted by information loss from an original created canid “kind”. This concept of a kind is crucial to flood geology, in order to explain how the ancestors of all existing animals could have been squeezed into the Ark.

Ebenezer the Allosaurus

We share in the authors’ glee when they point out how thoroughly one of the Museum’s prize examples violates the Museum’s own logic. This is the skeleton of the Allosaurus nicknamed Ebenezer, who, we are told, was drowned, and his body then swept away among sedimentary debris, quickly buried lying on his left side, and rapidly fossilised. But none of this is observational science. Even the fact that the skeleton was buried on his left side is strictly speaking historical science, since it has now been moved, so that the observation cannot be repeated. No one has ever observed the rapid fossilisation of a skeleton, so that’s not observational science either, there is no evidence that the Allosaurus drowned, and the idea that sedimentary debris would be swept along by a current of water is exactly the kind of extrapolation from present to past that AiG is fundamentally opposed to.

The Museum also relies heavily on the word “suggests”. For example, we are told that the fact that the Coconino Sandstone is several hundred feet thick “suggests rapid, thick deposition.” Why should it, when we are later told that thin layers also “suggest” rapid processes? [Actual examination of the sandstone suggest no such thing, since it shows every sign of gradual wind-driven deposition with very occasional rainfall, including round pitted grains, cross-bedding, ripple marks, drying cracks, and animal footprints, completely inconsistent with a flood origin.] Here, and in case after case, as the authors show, we are presented with suppression of crucial data, and the imposition of far-fetched models (the Museum’s own word), that bring the observations into line with biblical literalism. And so the Museum lives up to its promise of seeing the data through the prism of Young Earth biblical literalism. But this means that the data are not allowed to tell us anything except the predetermined narrative, and the entire programme of enlisting scientific observation in support of creationism is a cheat.

At this point, the book reminds us of what the Bible actually says on scientific topics. It is very much what you would expect, given its time and place. The Earth is a flat disc, with a lower world beneath it. The sun, moon, and stars are set in a dome or firmament, which the sun traverses daily from East to West before returning beneath the Earth at night. The upper waters are beyond the firmament, and heaven itself beyond that.

Unsurprisingly, you will not find this out at the Museum. On the contrary, the Museum repeatedly shows the Earth as a rotating sphere, part of the solar system, embedded within the Milky Way galaxy. Our modern cosmology is presented throughout all the exhibits described as evidence for the biblical account, even though biblical and modern cosmologies are completely incompatible.

Next, the book discusses how the Museum uses the Bible. It is of course presented as absolute truth, so that any falling away from this is compromise and corruption. In particular, Genesis 1 through 11 (from creation to the Tower of Babel) is straightforward narrative history. For AiG, there must have been a literal Adam and Eve and a literal Fall, otherwise the atonement through Christ’s death on the Cross makes no sense. The authors illustrate this in a footnote through copious quotations, but I think the point also deserves heavier emphasis in the main text. Theologically, AiG agrees on this point with the Rev John MacArthur, whom AiG quote copiously with approval, and who says that “in an important sense, everything Scripture says about our salvation through Jesus Christ hinges on the literal truth of what Genesis 1-3 teaches about Adam’s creation and fall. There is no more pivotal passage of Scripture.”

The most remarkable fact is that there is not a single Bible accessible, not even Genesis 1 – 11 is quoted in full, passages are presented with undeclared omissions, and single verses are presented in a manner totally unrelated to their actual context. Videos and diverse illustrations ranging from the solar system to the double helix to birds and fishes to aeroplanes are said, according to the Museum’s official guidebook, to “scientifically confirm” creationism. We have “15 Amazing Science Videos on the six Days of Creation”, coupled with quotations based on New Testament verses, to prove that “men are Without Excuse” if they fail to recognise this. There is endless attention-grabbing and distraction, more like scanning the Internet than serious discussion, with every obstacle placed in the way of thoughtful engagement.

AiG claims that its own viewpoint is beyond question, because it is directly based on the plan text, without added interpretation. Yet exposition always implies interpretation, all the more strongly when dealing with a text written in an ancient language thousands of years ago. The Museum, preparing to denounce the heresy of Old Earth creationists, discusses and rejects the possibility that the Hebrew word yom could mean anything other than a 24 hour day. But it passes over in silence the controversy surrounding word bara, second word of the text, and conventionally translated as “created”. Does this mean, as has been suggested, creation out of nothing, or the imparting of orderliness to a pre-existing chaos, or fashioning to some specific form or purpose? The Museum bypasses all such discussion, quoting the assertion in the Westminster Confession of Faith that it means creation out of nothing, implying that this interpretation is in the Bible. But it is not. [The controversy even extends to the very first word, Bereishith, as a comparison of translations will show.]

In the Museum’s Biblical Reference room, we don’t have any bibles, but we do have a list of those who wrongly chose human reason as opposed to God’s Word. Descartes is in there, along with Francis Bacon, Galileo, and Darwin, condemned as we would expect for their appeal to human reason, but so is C. I. Scofield of the Scofield Reference Bible, much favoured by creationists a century ago. This is,we are told, represents “Scripture Abandoned”, leading directly to the horrors displayed in the Museum’s Graffiti Alley; terrorism, school shootings, gay marriage, drug abuse, and the Church compromising with evolution.

So what was Scofield’s offence? He advocated an Old Earth interpretation of Genesis, with an unstated time gap implicit in the early verses. Literalism indeed, but not as the Museum understands it, and for this he is justly condemned.

But does the Museum live up to its own standards? I fear not. It shows a rotating earth, and this, as Cardinal Bellarmine reminded Galileo, flatly contradicts Joshua 10:12-13, which says that “the sun stood still in the midst of heaven”. The Museum has already been criticised for this by the Association for Biblical Astronomy, and, as the book shows at some length, AiG’s self-defence is clearly a departure from its own standards of literalism. Playfully, the authors imagine a future in which AiG’s own approach is denounced as compromise, and treated as scornfully as the Scofield Bible is here, by some future even more rigorous creationist organisation. [I would add that these days, AiG also feels the need to defend itself against a well-argued Bible-based flat-earthism.]

The Starting Points room at the beginning of the Bible Walkway Experience poses a question that is central to the Museum’s claims, and AiG’s entire programme; God’s Word, or human reason. And anything that disagrees with God’s Word, as interpreted by AiG, is at best misguided, at worst damnable. This is a doctrine with massive political implications. People must be saved from the corrupt doctrines of secular education, and we even have a film in which two angels take on the job of rescuing one particular individual. In the process, they triumph over a nerdy but strangely ill-informed science teacher at Enlightenment High School by producing arguments (actually, extremely bad and long debunked arguments) for rejecting deep time geology. Thus faith and common sense are enough to expose the godless elitism of the scientific establishment.

For Ham and his colleagues, the regular scientific narrative is “the religion of atheism” designed to “explain the universe and life without God,” so that in public schools “sadly those of the teachers… are the high priests of this religion imposing an anti-God worldview on generations of students.” Evolution teaches that “young people are just animals in a struggle for survival” and this is what accounts for school shootings.

The Museum’s Graffiti Alley laments the removal of prayer from US schools, the legality of abortion, assisted suicide laws, and the decision to turn off life support for a brain-dead patient. This, together with origin of life research and study of prehuman fossils is linked to “The Decline and Fall of Christian America.” For AiG, the US was founded on Christian principles, by founding fathers who believed in the truth of the Bible, and to invoke the separation of Church and State is to attack Christianity. Graffiti Alley also has numerous newspaper headlines regarding gay teens and gay marriage, although when challenged the Museum disingenuously pointed out that none of its own signage was anti-gay. Vast inequalities of wealth, the plight of the poor, and corporate malfeasance are absent from Graffiti Alley, and the only specific teaching of Jesus that seems to concern AiG is his use of Genesis in his teaching regarding marriage.

In the Bible Walk-through Experience, the Tower of Babel exhibit tells us that the Bible teaches that we are all one race, one blood. This is contrasted with evolutionary thinking, described as a recent excuse to reject God’s Word. The only image of a slave in the Museum is juxtaposed with a quotation from Stephen Jay Gould, “Biological arguments for racism may have been common before 1859, but they increase by orders of magnitude following the acceptance of evolutionary theory.”4 It is as if 1859 had been the start of slavery in the US, as opposed to being within six years of its abolition, and as if the Bible had not been used even into the late 20th century to justify racism, antisemitism, and segregation. [I would mention here Henry Morris’ own explicit racism, in The Beginning of the World, reprinted 2005 and now also available on Kindle, according to which (1977) the descendants of Ham (said to include Africans and Chinese, among others) are racially (or in the 1991 printing genetically) restricted to material matters, in contrast to the spiritual and intellectual destinies of the other two brothers. Henry Morris, as many readers will know, was co-author of The Genesis Food, foundational document of modern Young Earth creationism, and founder of the Institute for Creation research, with which in 1991 Ken Ham was himself associated.]

When challenged as to why the Bible does not explicitly forbid to slavery, but on the contrary incorporates it as an institution, AiG replies that “neither slavery in New Testament times nor slavery under the Mosaic covenant had anything to do with the sort of slavery where ‘Black’ people were bought and sold as property by ‘White’ people in the well-known slave trade over the last few centuries,” refers to “the extreme kindness to be shown to slaves/servants commanded in the Bible” (where?), points out that Hebrew slaves were held in bondage for only six years, and assert that “Biblical Christians led the fight against slavery”.

This is an extremely selective reading of history. Those who fought to retain slavery in the Americas were also, like most of their contemporaries, biblical Christians, and biblical Christians were prominent in the defence of segregation in post-World War II America (see e.g. Mississippi Praying, cited by the Trollingers). So these excuses are not perhaps very convincing. But even if they were, that would not help AiG’s cause, since a sincere literalist has no business making any excuses at all.

Ken Ham maintains that a large section of the Museum is devoted to combating racism, but the reality is that his “one race” strategy is dedicated to ignoring the racism still present in American society and forgetting the reality of the civil rights struggle. Ham’s Darwin’s Plantation is described on Amazon as a “thorough history of the effect of the theory of evolution on the history of the United States, including slavery and the civil rights movement”, but that book devotes less than two pages the civil rights movement, does not even mention Martin Luther King Jr., and devotes 18 pages to attacking the use of human rights language to advance the “homosexual agenda”. [I would add that eight weeks after the murder of George Floyd, Ken Ham showed on his blog images linking Black Lives Matter to Angela Davis and Karl Marx.]

The final chapter before the Epilogue is entitled “Judgment”, and focuses on the Museum’s teachings regarding judgement, atonement, and redemption. Here the Museum’s film, The Last Adam, describes Jesus as expiatory sacrifice. Lots of blood. And to emphasise the seriousness of sin, and of the shedding of blood to atone for it, the young Mary is made by her parents to witness the gory annual sacrifice and slaughter by a priest, in her village, of one of her father’s lambs. Sin has terrible consequences, and atonement comes at a terrible price.

As the authors point out, there is absolutely nothing in the Bible to suggest any such event. [Indeed, they are far too kind here. The events described could not possibly have happened. The annual atonement sacrifice, as anyone familiar with the Day of Atonement ritual knows, was a goat (or rather one of two goats, the other one, the scapegoat, being cast out into the wilderness), and all such sacrifices had been centralised at the Temple in Jerusalem for several hundred years before the time of Jesus, and, according to biblical literalists, since the time of Solomon.] Whatever is going on here, it is decidedly unbiblical. However, all too biblical is a verse from Revelation, shown on-screen directly after the depiction of the crucifixion, “And whoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire.” The flames are heard crackling.

The Dragon Hall Bookstore derives its name from rhetorical suggestions that legendary dragons, and of course the unidentified beasts in the Book of Job, could have been dinosaurs. The bookstore’s offerings include the MacArthur Study Bible (I have discussed John MacArthur above, and elsewhere), copious offerings from AiG and from Henry Morris, and books and DVDs supporting traditional sex roles and the belief that America is based on Christian principles, and attacks on climate change science and on public schools as an institution. Materials designed for schools, homeschooling, and church study groups include textbooks showing God’s special grace to the United States, and how science supports the biblical record. This is only part of what is available through AiG’s online store, including online college courses for credit. All of this, AiG tells us (and we would be foolish not to believe them), is in support of a “spiritual war… In our homes, churches … schools (whether public or private it), workplaces, courts”, for which AiG the is providing “advanced ‘weaponry’ ” and “Christian ‘patriot missiles’ .“ Ominous enough when this book was written, how much more so now.

This spiritual war is being pursued far beyond the Museum. AiG had, while the book was being written, twenty-five available speakers in the US, and seven in the UK, and gave 48 presentations in a four-month period, including the UK Creation Mega Conference in the English Midlands. 39 of the presentations were in churches, mainly Baptist or nondenominational. The authors attended one such presentation in a rural Ohio church, given by Bob Gillespie (now with his own Creation’s Hope Ministries), a graduate of Cedarville University, a private Baptist university with 4,700 students. Gillespie asked the audience how many had been to the Creation Museum. About 2/3 raised their hands. He emphasised the importance of the Museum’s Starting Points room, explaining that the reason some people are atheist is because they do not want to obey God’s rules. He then launched into a rapid, detailed exposition of creation science, reminiscent of the Museum itself in its level of overload.  Dinosaurs could indeed have been fitted on the Ark, since there were only 50 or so different kinds, so this makes sense once “we put our biblical glasses on.” Besides, there is biblical and folklore evidence for dinosaurs. When science disagrees with the Bible, the evidence later proves that the science was wrong. Examples include the pig’s tooth offered in evidence at the Scopes Trial [actually it wasn’t, because of its dubious scientific status] and junk DNA which isn’t junk at all [actually it is; for an amusing proof of this, see here]. Current cosmology is “just belief”, macroevolution is impossible because it would require the addition of “new information”, evolution is refuted in a three-minute video that he showed, observational science will someday provide the answer to the “distant starlight” problem, and according to a slide that he showed, hundreds of physical processes (actually the slide, on screen for under half a minute, listed just 56) set limits to the age of the world. As to how these processes, such as “tight bends in rocks”, “Stone Age burials”, and the inevitable “radiohalos” entailed a young Earth, there was no chance to ask. While Gillespie made little effort to establish rapport with the audience, the audience were very eager to establish their rapport with him, as allies against the evolutionist enemy.

Ham has devoted one book, Already Compromised, to lamenting the fact that even colleges identifying as Christian do not share his view of what Christianity entails, and another, Six Days: The Age of the Earth and the Decline of the Church, to his claim that such compromise, especially within the church, unlocks the door to disbelief. AiG seeks to correct this at the Museum, in its outreach activities, in its educational programs available to home schoolers and Christian schools. It even provides a list of questions to probe the credentials of what claims to be a Christian college [for my own take on colleges that meet Ham’s criteria, see here], and has a close relationship with Cedarville University (already mentioned as Bob Gillespie’s alma mater), the first to offer a geology program that “teaches young-earth and world-wide flood cataclysm.”

The Trollingers cite Cedarville as an example of what happens when a College aspires to meeting AiG’s standards. In the period between 2012 and 2015, during all of which AiG was in close contact with Cedarville, it carried out a purge of faculty, removing a theology professor who believes in a literal Adam and Eve but for the wrong reasons, getting rid of the philosophy department altogether, triggering the exodus of 43 faculty and staff and 15 trustees, and leading to the resignation of one Bible Professor when the school ruled that women should not teach theology classes that included men, because of what St Paul said about men’s and women’s roles.

They also cite the example of Bryan College. In 2010, Ham attacked Bryan College by name for compromise, because it was teaching textbook evolution science in conjunction with separate discussions of other views, saying that it was about time that such colleges were held accountable for undermining Scripture. He did not need to wait long for such accountability. In 2014, the trustees issued a “clarification” of their College’s Statement of Belief, replacing “that the origin of man was by fiat of God in the act of creation as related in the book of Genesis” with “We believe all humanity is descended from Adam and Eve. They are historical persons created by God in a special formative act, and not from previously existing life forms.” This led to the departure of at least nine instructors, four board members, and additional staff cuts.

[I see that Ham received an honorary degree from Bryan in 2017; the AiG website tells us of this, under the modest headline Recognizing the World’s Foremost Authority for Creation.

Meantime, AiG campaigns on behalf of laws designed to protect the right to teach creationism and climate science denial, in the name of academic freedom. It is a big mistake to imagine that creationists are going to play fair. They don’t.]

The book tells us of AiG’s other campaigns, such as that against Calvin College, and the organisation BioLogos. BioLogos, which is funded by the Templeton Foundation, is an organisation founded by Francis Collins, bringing together mainly evangelical Christians who seek to understand what they call “evolution creationism” in a Christian context. [I would add that one of the clearest expositions of evolution science that I have seen is that given by Dennis Venema on the Biologos website.] Ham has rejected an offer to meet with BioLogos president Deborah Haarsma, describes BioLogos as “helping the devil in leading this and coming generations away from the truth of God’s Word,” and warns that, along with churches that accept same-sex marriage, it will have to face God’s judgement for doing so.

In conclusion the authors lament that the Museum, and AiG’s entire programme, are based on a stultifying doctrine of God’s fierce judgement based on salvation through belief, with the whole of religion reduced to a simple binary based purely on acceptance or rejection of one particular interpretation of the Bible. The Jesus of Matthew 25, who identified himself with the stranger, the hungry, thirsty, naked, and imprisoned, is nowhere to be found, nor is any of Christianity’s rich intellectual and social justice tradition, from Augustine to Bonhoeffer.

“Sad indeed. For all of us,” they conclude. I can only agree.

I thank Glenn Branch, Gary Hurd, Nick Matzke, Andrew Petto, and the Reverend Michael Roberts for suggestions and comments.

1] Including juicy details not present in the more compressed account in Ronald Numbers’ classic, The Creationists.

2] Here “modern” and “contemporary” should be seen as technical terms used by historians, so that “modern” here means roughly the style dominant from the 19th into the first half of the 20th centuries, as opposed to the more recent “contemporary”. I would have preferred a different choice of words, since in this context “modern” means “old-fashioned” rather than “up-to-date”.

3] This is a common style of creationist argument. For example, creationists argue that since comets are relatively short lived (this is true), the existence of comments proves that the solar system is young, as if we did not know that new comets are being generated all the time. Science is complicated, and our knowledge does indeed have gaps, but “God of the gaps” arguments have been ridiculed by theologians themselves for over a century. And in the nature of things we could not have directly observed processes, such as the formation of a new biological genus, that take more time than the length of time we have been observing.

4] Gould is of course correct. As long as educated opinion accepted biblical creationism, racism was justified on biblical grounds. When this view was replaced by evolution, then naturally racists began to use biological arguments to justify their position.

Museum images under Creative Commons, via Wikipedia

Damage limitation at Imperial

The Royal College of Science building, now home to part of Imperial’s Chemistry Department

Disaster has been averted at Imperial. But much damage has been done, the group appointed to implement the decisions taken faces an impossible task, and the process has aggravated the very problem that it was meant to address.

For months, as I described elsewhere earlier,  Imperial College has been contemplating the possibility of dis-honouring T. H.  Huxley, one of its founders, on the basis of early remarks that we would now condemn as racist, but did no more than express the general assumptions of his time and place.  This despite the fact that Huxley was a lifelong opponent of all forms of discrimination, a fierce opponent of slavery at a time when many cultivated Englishmen were sympathetic to the Confederate cause, and clearly changed his views about race over time.

https://victorianweb.org/victorian/sculpture/misc/huxley2b.jpg

The President and the Provost have both been urging a whitewashing (if I can use this term) of the College’s history by such measures as removing Huxley’s name and bust from one of Imperial’s most prominent buildings.  As I explained earlier, they attempted to accomplish this using a deeply flawed process.  A History Group lacking in any higher level expertise in Huxley’s own areas of biology and palaeontology was set up, with the College archivist restricted to a consultative role, as was the Imperial faculty member best qualified to comment on historical matters. Two outside historians were consulted, but their areas of expertise did not really include Huxley.1 Adrian Desmond, Huxley’s biographer, was consulted but as I documented in my earlier article, his unambiguous vindication of Huxley was completely ignored. In October (revised version November), the History Group’s report recommended that Huxley’s name be removed from the Huxley Building, and his bust on display there relegated to a museum.

A request for comments on this report drew over 200 submissions.  Despite earlier commitments, the Provost refused to publish these, alleging confidentiality, and instead a summary was prepared by two outside facilitators from Goldsmith College’s Department of Social, Therapeutic, and Community Studies, neither of them biologists nor historians.  As might be predicted, this summary was obviously bad, suppressing all quantitative information about the general thrust of the submissions and giving equal weight to views that did, or did not, reflect historical reality.  This summary was then made available to the President’s Board, a group of senior advisers to the President, with whom the final decision rested. Board members also had access to the full submissions, but as we now know these add up to around 90,000 words, and one wonders how many people at such a level of seniority could possibly have found time to read them all.

Fortunately, loud voices had been raised in protest both inside and outside Imperial, the tenor of a forum held to discuss the History Group report was unmistakable, and I know that at least some Board members were directly lobbied by academic staff opposed to the removal proposals. It may also be relevant that the President, a firm advocate of removal, is now in the last few months of her term of office, and has been further weakened by other controversies.

The board met on February 21, and an official account of its conclusions was published on February 25.  According to this account, its main recommendations were as follows:

Optical fibres; image via Wikipedia article on Kapany

The Board committed to finding new ways to mark the impact and contributions of brilliant figures from underrepresented groups, having connections to Imperial, such as the Nobel Prize physicist Professor Abdus Salam , Dr Margaret Fishenden, who conducted seminal studies of combustion and heat transfer at Imperial , and Dr Narinder Singh Kapany, known as the father of fibre optics. This recommendation had met with widespread approval.

A working group has been established to implement these recommendations, and “To establish new ways for the Imperial community to continue to expose, engage with and learn from its history.”

The name and bust of TH Huxley will be retained, but put in context. This makes sense, provided the contextualising material comes from someone well informed about its subject matter. The submission to the History Group by Adrian Desmond, Huxley’s most noted biographer, would be a good start. The College will also consider a joint name for the building, linking Huxley to “a pathbreaking scientist from a Black, Asian or other minority ethnic background.”2 Here the working group faces a daunting challenge.  There are very few scientists of any background whose names could be linked to Huxley’s without suffering by comparison, let alone if consideration is restricted to the underrepresented.

Similar recommendations made regarding commemoration of the Beit brothers, whose profits from mines in South Africa did much to finance the College, seem to me sensible although I have no expertise in this area. Specifically, the College will seek to direct its Beit scholarships to African scientists. Other de-naming recommendations seem to have been quietly dropped.

The Board also decided to release an anonymised version of the written submissions. This has the effect of showing the degree of distortion in the previously publicised summary. For example, the summary says that “Some participants felt such items [statues, busts, and historical artifacts] should be removed when possible as they are a daily reminder of enslavement and colonial legacy and not a reflection of the College current values.” In the full version, slavery (or slave, enslavement, etc.) is explicitly mentioned in 45 submissions. Two of these deal with a side-issue, the slave owner Sir Henry de la Beche. (Here the first version of the report was criticised for being too kind, but the matter had by then already been dealt with with at the Department level by removing his name from an award, renaming the geology society, and archiving his bust ) . Of the remaining 43, only 5 favour removing existing names or statues, 2 are ambiguous, and 36 are opposed to removal. 26 mention Huxley by name and all but twoof these oppose removal, with frequent mention of his enlightened attitudes and opposition to slavery. (It took me less than half an hour to establish all this, using simple word searching to scan the relevant submissions, which were generally quite unambiguous.)

Again, according to the summary,

Other [respondents] said they felt unwelcomed and rejected by Huxley’s links to eugenics, leading to feelings of marginalisation, disrespect, hurt and offence. Some that marking his legacy without this context had a negative effect on Imperial’s aspirations to equality and inclusion and its global standing.

This is flat out untrue.

By my count, 20 separate submissions mentioned eugenics. Of these, only one was in favour of renaming. 19 were opposed, and of these 18 mentioned Huxley by name, many pointing out that nothing in his writings could be said to support eugenics. As one respondent put it, capturing the general flavour of the responses, “taking down Huxley because his work contributed to eugenics is about as logical as cancelling Jesus because his name has been used to justify crusades.” Others also pointed out that to link Huxley to eugenics is unhistorical, since we can date the very term to Galton’s writing in 1883, some years after the work for which Huxley is chiefly remembered. (I would further add, since such charges are often raised by creationists against evolution science as a whole, that eugenics was deeply rooted in older beliefs2  about hereditary inferiority.

So how did the summary come to say what it did? Its authors, remember, were from Goldsmith College’s Department of Social, Therapeutic, and Community Studies, with no expertise either in history or in the relevant science. I must presume that, as non-experts, they wrongly imagined that the History Group spoke from a position of expertise, and allowed their perspective to be influenced accordingly. I emphasise this point because it helps explain the very real harm that this process has done to the College, and to the reputation of science in general.

Consider the History Group’s overall impact. To quote its own report,

The Group’s project was set up as part of a series of initiatives to address racial injustice.  An important rationale for the project was to develop an understanding of how Imperial is perceived by a wide range of stakeholders, how this is influenced by its history (or perception of its history) and the extent to which this perception will hinder our ambition to establish a truly inclusive environment which allows all to flourish and to feel at home.

How well has the History Group succeeded in attaining these objectives? Not very.  The recommendation to dis-honour Huxley achieved the rare distinction of being attacked both by the strongly Conservative Telegraph and the left-leaning Observer, sister paper to the Guardian. The Telegraph printed   and re-echoed the letter of protest by 40 academics that the journal Nature had refused to publish. In the Observer , Kenan Malik, who himself studied at Imperial and is, for what it is worth, himself a member of a minority ethnic group, criticised the entire notion that real inequalities were being usefully addressed by such symbolic actions, while pouring scorn on a process that treated Huxley, an agent of scientific and social progress, in the same way as the slave trader Colston whose statue had been thrown into Bristol Harbour (or, I would add in the context of Imperial, the slave owner de la Beche discussed above). As Malik puts it,

Damning both equally as racists who do not deserve commemoration is to abandon historical evaluation for a crude mode of moral judgment.

The Times also gave sympathetic treatment to criticism of the history group report from within Imperial.

By the time the College’s decision was announced, Russia had invaded Ukraine, moving public attention away from this, as with so many other matters.  The only newspaper accounts of the decision that I could find were in the Daily Mail online and, again, the Times.

The headline in the Daily Mail reads

Ethnic minority scientist’s name will be added to Imperial College building named in honour of Thomas Henry Huxley after claims that biologist who discovered birds were descended from dinosaurs was racist

Its bulleted summary states that the History Group had accused Huxley of ‘scientific racism’, while the full article reports academics’ rebuttal and praise of him as a role model.

The Times article, however, is extraordinary, not only restating the refuted claim that Huxley’s work had somehow led to eugenics, but describing him as a eugenicist himself.

Times article, March 3 2022, under the byline of “James Beal, Social Affairs editor”

Notice that this article appeared under the byline, not of a reporter, but of the Social Affairs editor. I can only surmise that it is playing a role in some wider agenda.

So, returning to the history group’s objectives, how will all this activity have affectedhow Imperial is perceived” and the worthy “ambition to establish a truly inclusive environment which allows all to flourish and to feel at home”? Not, I fear, very well. The College has given us a shameful exhibition of poor scholarship, and besmeared the reputation of its founder. It created a false impression of impartiality and expertise in the setting up and naming of the History Group, thus enhancing the opprobrium it will attract from some for ignoring its recommendations. For those who, like the vast majority of historians, life science scholars, and respondents to the call for submissions, the accusations against Huxley were ill-informed and misguided, the exercise will leave them dismayed by the History Group’s recommendedations. For those, if there are any, who do really feel excluded and less able to flourish because of Huxley’s belief, in 1865, in a hierarchy of races, they will be dismayed that the Group’s central recommendation was not implemented, and will be feeling more excluded than ever. Who can blame them when the report itself and its Press coverage have given them so much cause?

One final irony. Within the UK at least, the biggest single cause of imbalances of power and education between groups is social class. Imperial itself is well aware of this problem, and includes this factor among others in its ambitious plans to widen access. What better role model, then, than a child forced by family poverty to leave school at age 10, who rose to the highest levels of accomplishment, whose scientific achievements continue to earn our admiration 150 years later, and who did more perhaps than any other person of his time to broaden educational opportunity? I give you

Thomas Henry Huxley

This article first appeared on 3 Quarks Daily, as an update of my earlier Intellectual Disgrace at Imperial College. As before, I thank numerous colleagues for discussions and relevant information, including Joe Felsenstein, Steve Hollenhorst, Nick Matzke, Andrew Petto, Betty Smokovitis, and members of Imperial’s academic staff. RCS Building image, Barabbas1312, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons. Bust of Huxley, photograph George P. Landau, via https://victorianweb.org/victorian/religion/agnos.html . Huxley sketch by his daughter, Marian, via Wikipedia

***

1] To be fair, there was some overlap with the other main target for reconsideration, the Beit brothers, major donors towards the College, whose wealth derived from South African mines.  Imperial College has no history department at such, but the academic staff member best qualified to pronounce on historical matters was also relegated to a consultative role.

2] Pet peeve: I wish people would not say “minority” when they clearly mean “underrepresented”.  Albert Einstein came from a minority ethnic background, and as a result had to flee his country of birth, but I do not think that is what the College has in mind.

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

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.

Evolution, creationism, and US VP Mike Pence

trump walter reed

Mike Pence is a highly intelligent and extremely able trial lawyer, and a committed creationist. As I write, he is one heartbeat (or should we now say one breath?) away from being President of the United States, and in the event that Donald Trump manages to retain power in November, will be his heir apparent. Here is what I wrote about his stated views on creationism and evolution not long after he was sworn in as Vice-President. I hope that four weeks from today all of this will be of historical interest only, and am reposting this in order to help make that happen.

Above: Donald Trump risen from his hospital bed to reveal himself to his followers (Getty Images via Business Insider)

The now Vice-President of the United States stands accused of having said that evolution is “just a theory”; see here and here. No he did not say that. What he did say (full text below, with notes) was far, far worse. Much more detailed, much more closely argued, and much more dangerous. Read the rest of this entry

Timefulness: How thinking like a geologist can help save the world (review; long)

Timefulness: How thinking like a geologist can help save the world, Marcia Bjornerud, Princeton University Press, 2018/2020

There are many excellent overviews for the general reader of how life on Earth has changed over time (see, for a recent example, Neil Shubin’s Some Assembly Required, which I reviewed here recently. The history of the Earth itself has not been so well served, and Timefulness; How Thinking Like a Geologist Can Help Save the World, by Marcia Bjornerud, Professor of Geology and environmental Sciences at Lawrence University, is a welcome and timely addition to this badly under-represented genre. [1] The book is beautifully written, in plain language, with complex ideas explained with great simplicity and the use of strikingly appropriate verbal imagery. Behind this transparency of language lies a deep love and knowledge of her subject. The book should appeal to anyone looking for an overview of the Earth as the abode of life, or a perspective on our place in time, and how recklessly we are compressing the tempo of natural change.

The author presents her book as an argument for what she calls timefulness, the perception of ourselves as living in and constrained by time, of time itself as having both extension and texture, of the acceptance of our own mortality, and of our own responsibilities. This she sees as severely lacking in our society. We expect people to know something about distances on the map, but Read the rest of this entry

Relevant again; Why Michael Gove is not fit to lead anything

Gove

Gove claiming that EU regulations prevent us from keeping out terrorists. Dylan Martinez via Daily Telegraph

“People in this country have had enough of experts,” said Michael Gove. The experts who tell us that Brexit will be damaging and a no-deal Brexit devastating; that human-caused global warming is a clear and present danger [Correction: Michael Gove does accept the expert consensus on climate change]; that physics teachers know more about physics (and about teaching) than Michael Gove did when telling them what and how to teach and getting it wrong from beginning to end; that actions have consequences; that reality matters.

And so, regretfully, for the third time, why Michael Gove is not fit to lead an Easter egg hunt, let alone a nation on the brink of the most catastrophic decision since 1914.

And since among other things that decision may well force us to submit to whatever trading arrangements the Tramp Administration chooses to impose on us, I would also draw attention to Miles King’s Michael Gove and the American Neoconservatives.

Anyway,here we go again:

SteamTurbine

Thermodynamics: turbines

The [then] Education Secretary said “What [students] need is a rooting in the basic scientific principles, Newton’s laws of thermodynamics and Boyle’s law.” [reported here]. He has been widely criticized for this (e.g. here and here), but it’s still worth discussing exactly why what he said is so appallingly wrong, on at least four separate counts. In the unlikely event that Mr. Gove ever reads this, he may learn something. Muddling up the laws of motion with the laws of thermodynamics is bad enough. Muddling up an almost incidental observation, like Boyle’s Law, is even worse, especially when this muddle comes from someone in charge of our educational system [well, not mine actually; I’m glad to say I live in Scotland], and in the very act of his telling teachers and examiners what is, and what is not, important.

ships_fluyt

Newton’s Laws: sailing ships

Okay, from the top. Newton’s laws; Gove probably meant (if he meant anything) Newton’s laws of motion, but he may also have been thinking of Newton’s law (note singular) of gravity. [I went on to summarise both Newton’s laws, and Newton’s law, and to explain how the combination of these explained the hitherto mysterious phenomenon of planetary motion and related it to the motion of falling bodies on Earth; an intellectual achievement not equalled until Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity]

But what about the laws of thermodynamics? These weren’t discovered until the 19th century, the century of the steam engine… [I briefly described them]

If you don’t immediately realize that Newton’s laws and the laws of thermodynamics belong to different stages of technology, the age of sail as opposed to the age of steam, and to different levels of scientific understanding, the individual and macroscopic as opposed to the statistical and submicroscopic, then you don’t know what you’re talking about. Gove’s blunder has been compared to confusing Shakespeare with Dickens. It is far, far worse than that. It is – I am at a loss for an adequate simile. All I can say is that it is as bad as confusing Newton’s laws with the laws of thermodynamics, and I can’t say worse than that.

And regarding Gove’s description of Boyle’s Law as “basic”, I had this to say:

He [Gove] has been justly mocked for confusing Newton’s laws with the laws of thermodynamics. But the kind of ignorance involved in describing Boyle’s Law as a “basic scientific principle” is far more damaging.

Disclosure: I taught Boyle’s Law for over 40 years, and it gets three index entries in my book, From Stars to Stalagmites.

Bottom line: Boyle’s Law is not basic. It is a secondary consequence of the kinetic theory of gases, which is basic. The difference is enormous, and matters. Anyone who thinks that Boyle’s Law is a principle doesn’t know what a principle is. (So Gove doesn’t know what a principle is? That figures.)

Mathematically, the Law is simply stated, which may be why Mr Gove thinks it is basic: volume is inversely proportional to pressure, which gives you a nice simple equation (P x V = a constant) that even a Cabinet Minister can understand. But on its own, it is of no educational value whatsoever. It only acquires value if you put it in its context [in the kinetic theory of gases], but this involves a concept of education that seems to be beyond his understanding…

Educationally, context is everything, the key to understanding and to making that understanding worthwhile. A person who decries the study of context is unfit for involvement with education.

Even at Cabinet level.

And, I would now add, completely unfit for making major decisions in these interesting times.

Steam turbine blade Siemens via Wikipedia. Sailing ship image from Pirate King website

Teaching evolution in Kentucky, 2: The Case of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker

The thing about teaching is we are never sure we are making a difference.

Jim Krupa takes evolution as his central theme when he teaches biology to non-majors at the University of Kentucky, where the students are most unlikely to have heard about evolution in school, but may well have been warned about its wickedness in church. With his permission, I am posting an article that he wrote in Orion Magazine describing his experiences. The first part dealt with the challenges he faces. This second part describes his response, which centres on a discussion of the nature of scientific reasoning, followed by the case study (described in greater detail[1]in’s American Biology Teacher), and concludes with a discussion of outcomes. Notice how many misconceptions Jim demolishes on the way, including confusion about the  role of theory in science, the curious but widespread belief that evolution science is without practical application, and (particularly important in his local context) the claim that accepting evolution is incompatible with religion.

Jim teaches, and touches the lives of, 1800 students a year – enough, over time, to flip a good few school districts and make a real difference to the cultural climate of the State. And we can be sure that his students will have plenty to talk about with their friends.

Defending Darwin (continued)

By James Krupa

Ivorybill

The (now-extinct) Ivory-build Woodpecker, central to Prof Krupa’s case study

ONCE I LAY DOWN the basics of science, I introduce the Darwinian theories of evolution. Charles Darwin was by no means the first or only to put forth evolution; others came before him including his grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, who wrote about descent with modification. Later, while Charles was amassing evidence in England for natural selection, one of the most eloquent scientific theories ever, Alfred Russel Wallace was also developing the same theory during his travels in Indonesia. But it was Charles Darwin alone who advanced the theory of descent with modification, with his bold idea that all species belong to the same tree of life and thus share a common ancestor. He also gave us sexual selection theory, which explains how evolution is shaped by competition for mates as well as choice of mates. Too often only natural selection and descent with modification are emphasized in introductory biology classes. I also cover Darwin’s theories of gradualism (including the nuance of punctuated equilibrium); descent from a common ancestor; multiplication of species; and sexual selection. I emphasize that five of the theories explain the patterns of evolution, while natural and sexual selection are the mechanisms that drive evolution. Read the rest of this entry

Teaching evolution to creationists in Kentucky (by one who does it for a living)

Evolution and scientific logic lie at the heart of Prof Jim Krupa’s award-winning biology course at the University of Kentucky, conveyed by a mixture of story-telling, the Socratic method, and student engagement in a case study close to his heart as a naturalist. Jim has kindly agreed to let me post his article in Orion Magazine. The first part (here) describes the  hostile cultural environment in which he is working, why evolution is at the core of his teaching, and how he begins his course by clearing away semantic nonsense, and analysing the concept of scientific theory.

You will find more detail about this in one of his articles in The American Biology Teacher [1]. Jim uses the National Academies definition of a scientific theory as well-attested by observation, but, as he explains there, he is well aware of its limitations, and  anatomises “the” theory of evolution into its separate independent components, before bringing them to bear on the case study that I will be describing the second part of this two-part series.

Defending Darwin

By James Krupa

I’M OFTEN ASKED what I do for a living. My answer, that I am a professor at the University of Kentucky, inevitably prompts a second question: “What do you teach?” Responding to such a question should be easy and invite polite conversation, but I usually brace for a negative reaction. At least half the time the person flinches with disapproval when I answer “evolution,” and often the conversation simply terminates once the “e-word” has been spoken. Occasionally, someone will retort: “But there is no evidence for evolution.” Or insist: “It’s just a theory, so why teach it?”

File:WilliamtyounglibraryUK.JPG

University of Kentucky library building

At this point I should walk away, but the educator in me can’t. I generally take the bait, explaining that evolution is an established fact and the foundation of all biology. If in a feisty mood, I’ll leave them with this caution: the fewer who understand evolution, the more who will die. Sometimes, when a person is still keen to prove me wrong, I’m more than happy to share with him an avalanche of evidence demonstrating I’m not.

Some colleagues ask why I bother, as if I’m the one who’s the provocateur. I remind them that evolution is the foundation of our science, and we simply can’t shy away from explaining it. We don’t avoid using the “g-word” when talking about gravitational theory, nor do we avoid the “c-word” when talking about cell theory. So why avoid talking about evolution, let alone defending it? After all, as a biologist, the mission of advancing evolution education is the most important aspect of my job.

an institution steeped in the history of defending evolution education

TO TEACH EVOLUTION at the University of Kentucky is to teach at an institution steeped in the history of defending evolution education. The first effort to pass an anti-evolution law (led by William Jennings Bryan) happened in Kentucky in 1921. It proposed making the teaching of evolution illegal. The university’s president at that time, Frank McVey, saw this bill as a threat to academic freedom. Three faculty members—William Funkhouser, a zoologist; Arthur Miller, a geologist who taught evolution; and Glanville Terrell, a philosopher—joined McVey in the battle to prevent the bill from becoming law. They put their jobs on the line. Through their efforts, the anti-evolution bill was defeated by a forty-two to forty-one vote in the state legislature. Consequently, the movement turned its attention toward Tennessee.

File:Funkhouser building.jpg

The Funkhouser building. Funkhouser, then Professor of Zoology, was among those who successfully campaigned against a 1921 State bill that wold have made the teaching of evolution illegal.

John Thomas Scopes was a student at the University of Kentucky then and watched the efforts of his three favorite teachers and President McVey. The reason the “Scopes Monkey Trial” occurred several years later in Dayton, Tennessee—where Scopes was a substitute teacher and volunteered to be prosecuted—was in good part due to the influence of his mentors, particularly Funkhouser. As Scopes writes in his memoir, Center of the Storm: “Teachers rather than subject matter rekindled my interest in science. Dr. Funkhouser . . . was a man without airs [who] taught zoology so flawlessly that there was no need to cram for the final examination; at the end of the term there was a thorough, fundamental grasp of the subject in bold relief in the student’s mind, where Funkhouser had left it.”

I was originally reluctant to take my job at the university when offered it twenty years ago. It required teaching three sections of non-majors biology classes, with three hundred students per section, and as many as eighteen hundred students each year. I wasn’t particularly keen on lecturing to an auditorium of students whose interest in biology was questionable given that the class was a freshman requirement.

Then I heard an interview with the renowned evolutionary biologist E. O. Wilson in which he addressed why, as a senior professor—and one of the most famous biologists in the world—he continued to teach non-majors biology at Harvard. Wilson explained that non-majors biology is the most important science class that one could teach. He felt many of the future leaders of this nation would take the class, and that this was the last chance to convey to them an appreciation for biology and science. Moved by Wilson’s words, and with the knowledge that William Funkhouser once held the job I was now contemplating, I accepted the position. The need to do well was unnerving, however, considering that if I failed as a teacher, a future Scopes might leave my class uninspired.

I quickly came to the conclusion that, since evolution is the foundation upon which all biology rests, it should be taught at the beginning of a course, and as a recurring theme throughout the semester.

I realized early on that many instructors teach introductory biology classes incorrectly. Too often evolution is the last section to be taught, an autonomous unit at the end of the semester. I quickly came to the conclusion that, since evolution is the foundation upon which all biology rests, it should be taught at the beginning of a course, and as a recurring theme throughout the semester. As the renowned geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky said: “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.” In other words, how else can we explain why the DNA of chimps and humans is nearly 99 percent identical, and that the blood and muscle proteins of chimps and humans are nearly identical as well? Why are these same proteins slightly less similar to gorillas and orangu­tans, while much less similar to goldfish? Only evolution can shed light on these questions: we humans are great apes; we and the other great apes (gibbons, chimps, gorillas, bonobos, and orangutans) all evolved from a common ancestor.

Soon, every topic and lecture in my class was built on an evolutionary foundation and explained from an evolutionary perspective. My basic biology for non-majors became evolution for non-majors. It didn’t take long before I started to hear from a vocal minority of students who strongly objected: “I am very offended by your lectures on evolution! Those who believe in creation are not ignorant of science! You had no right to try and force evolution on us. Your job was to teach it as a theory and not as a fact that all smart people believe in!!” And: “Evolution is not a proven fact. It should not be taught as if it is. It cannot be observed in any quantitative form and, therefore, isn’t really science.”

We live in a nation where public acceptance of evolution is the second lowest of thirty-four developed countries, just ahead of Turkey. Roughly half of Americans reject some aspect of evolution, believe the earth is less than ten thousand years old, and that humans coexisted with dinosaurs. Where I live, many believe evolution to be synonymous with atheism, and there are those who strongly feel I am teaching heresy to thousands of students. A local pastor, whom I’ve never met, wrote an article in The University Christian complaining that, not only was I teaching evolution and ignoring creationism, I was teaching it as a non-Christian, alternative religion.

There are students who enroll in my courses and already accept evolution. Although not yet particularly knowledgeable on the subject, they are eager to learn more. Then there are the students whose minds are already sealed shut to the possibility that evolution exists, but need to take my class to fulfill a college requirement. And then there are the students who have no opinion one way or the other but are open-minded. These are the students I most hope to reach by presenting them with convincing and overwhelming evidence without offending or alienating them.

a question I’ve heard many times: “If we evolved from monkeys, why are there still monkeys?”

Some students take offense very easily. During one lecture, a student asked a question I’ve heard many times: “If we evolved from monkeys, why are there still monkeys?” My response was and is always the same: we didn’t evolve from monkeys. Humans and monkeys evolved from a common ancestor. One ancestral population evolved in one direction toward modern-day monkeys, while another evolved toward humans. The explanation clicked for most students, but not all, so I tried another. I asked the students to consider this: Catholics are the oldest Christian denomination, and so if Protestants evolved from Catholics, why are there still Catholics? Some students laughed, some found it a clarifying example, and others were clearly offended. Two days later, a student walked down to the lectern after class and informed me that I was wrong about Catholics. He said Baptists were the first Christians and that this is clearly explained in the Bible. His mother told him so. I asked where this was explained in the Bible. He glared at me and said, “John the Baptist, duh!” and then walked away.

a biology colleague asked … if I would be teaching evolution as a theory or a fact.

To truly understand evolution, you must first understand science. Unfortunately, one of the most misused words today is also one of the most important to science: theory. Many incorrectly see theory as the opposite of fact. The National Academy of Sciences provides concise definitions of these critical words: A fact is a scientific explanation that has been tested and confirmed so many times that there is no longer a compelling reason to keep testing it; a theory is a comprehensive explanation of some aspect of nature that is supported by a vast body of evidence generating testable and falsifiable predictions.

In science, something can be both theory and fact. We know the existence of pathogens is a fact; germ theory provides testable explanations concerning the nature of disease. We know the existence of cells is a fact, and that cell theory provides testable explanations of how cells function. Similarly, we know evolution is a fact, and that evolutionary theories explain biological patterns and mechanisms. The late Stephen Jay Gould said it best: “Evolution is a theory. It is also a fact. And facts and theories are different things, not rungs in a hierarchy of increasing certainty. Facts are the world’s data. Theories are structures of ideas that explain and interpret facts.”

Theory is the most powerful and important tool science has, but nonscientists have perverted and diluted the word to mean a hunch, notion, or idea. Thus, all too many people interpret the phrase “evolutionary theory” to mean “evolutionary hunch.”

Not surprisingly, I spend the first week of class differentiating theory from fact, as well as defining other critical terms. But I’m appalled by some of my colleagues who, despite being scientists, do not understand the meaning of theory. As I was preparing to teach a sophomore evolution class a few years ago, a biology colleague asked how I was going to approach teaching evolution. Specifically, he asked if I would be teaching evolution as a theory or a fact. “I will teach evolution as both theory and fact,” I said, trying hard to conceal my frustration. No matter. My colleague simply walked away, likely questioning my competence to teach the class.

Hear a conversation with James J. Krupa about his experience teaching evolution.

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Why Michael Gove is not fit to lead anything

Reposting because relevant

Primate's Progress

GoveThere are mistakes due to ignorance. There are mistakes due to misunderstanding. And finally, there are mistakes that show ignorance, misunderstanding, complacency, and arrogance.

The news that Michael Gove wants to lead the country sent me back to what I wrote about him almost exactly 3 years ago. He was, of course, talking through his hat, and we all do that from time to time. But he did this while telling the rest of us, in his then capacity of Education Secretary, what to do and how to teach. Now it may not matter that Michael Gove has only a limited grasp of physics (actually, I think it does, when the physics of climate change underlie the most important single challenge facing us), but it matters enormously that a would-be future Prime Minister considers his ignorance a qualification.

Anyway, here is the gist of what I wrote back then

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