I will be giving the Sunday Lecture to the Conway Hall Ethical Society at 11:00 on 16th March 2014. Attached is my draft publicity material. Comments and suggestions welcome.
“Creation science” is a 20th century heresy, albeit with far older roots. Its central claim is that beliefs compatible with biblically inspired creationism are in fact scientifically superior to mainstream views on evolution and an old earth. Its arguments for supernatural intervention range from the ludicrous to the highly sophisticated; from “Flood geology” to the origin of biological information; from Jehovah’s Witnesses pamphlets to seemingly scholarly works invoking cellular complexity or the so-called Cambrian Explosion. The creationists themselves are not necessarily stupid, nor ill-informed, nor (in other matters) deluded. In all cases, their deep motivation is the wish to preserve the supernatural role of God the Creator, and a particular view of the man-God relationship.
There are several interlocking organisations active in the UK to promote creationism. These include Glasgow’s own Centre for Intelligent Design (closely linked to the Seattle-based Discovery Institute and its notorious Wedge Strategy), Truth in Science, and The World Around Us/The Genesis Agendum, who between them have links to Brethren churches, the Christian Schools Trust, Answers in Genesis, and Creation Ministries International.
I will be discussing the attempts by such organizations to infiltrate the educational system, the inadequacies of official attempts to prevent this, and possible countermeasures. I will also be giving my own views on why creationist arguments are appealing to those without detailed background knowledge, and how we should respond.
Paul Braterman is an Honorary Senior Research Fellow at GlasgowUniversity, and former Regents Professor at the University of North Texas, where his research related to the origins of life was funded by the National Science Foundation and NASA’s Astrobiology program. He is a committee member of the British Centre for Science Education, and of the Scottish Secular Society, and has been following creationist infiltration into education in the UK for some years. He is a regular contributor to 3 Quarks Daily, and his most recent book, From Stars to Stalagmites, discusses aspects of chemistry in their historical and everyday contexts.
[This post got over 50 hits from Singapore, home of WSPC, on its first working day up]
Librarians, do not buy this book. University-based readers, please pass on these concerns to your librarian. Why World Scientific expects anyone to pay $139 for the volume is beyond me, unless they regard university libraries as a captive audience for whatever misrepresents itself as significant new material. Readers with any working relationship with World Scientific, if you agree with me please share your concerns with your contacts there.
The misrepresentation starts with the volume’s self-description: Proceedings of the Symposium Cornell University, USA, 31 May – 3 June 2011
So was this event organized or sponsored by CornellUniversity? No. They just hired a hall. Was it a symposium? Only if you can dignify with that name a gathering of the faithful, called together by invitation and without prior publicity.
It gets worse.
The “new perspectives” turn out to be nothing more than a regurgitation of long-refuted arguments from well-known creationists. (All chapters, by the way, are open access here, so any reader with the patience can go to the book, and refute what I am saying here chapter and verse.)
Nick Matzke originally reviewed the volume here on pandasthumb. At that stage, it was scheduled for publication by Springer, who reconsidered in remarkably short order; for the subsequent history, and reaction from the Discovery Institute, see here. We do not know how it came about that the volume is now scheduled for publication next month by World Scientific, but this, together with another extraordinary pending publication, gives great cause for anxiety about the health of a once-respected publishing house.
[Disclosure; World Scientific were the publishers for my own first non-technical book, From Stars to Stalagmites]
There is little that I can add to Matzke’s review. The book is based on the crucial refusal by the Intelligent Design movement to understand the process by which random change (generating novelty) followed by selection (filtering for function) gives rise to significant new information. This despite the fact that this process can be seen at every level from the creation within a computer of genetic algorithms, to the path-optimising activities of an ant hill. The contributors’ names are generally all too familiar; many readers of this piece will not need to be reminded, for example, what Dembski does for a living. However, I did spot one name that may be less familiar outside the UK; Andy McIntosh, of the creationist group Truth in Science, well known to the British Centre for Science Education for its attempts to sabotage the teaching of evolution in schools, and famous to his friends for his eccentric interpretation of the Second Law of Thermodynamics.
Presumably, World Scientific were aware of the concerns surrounding this volume. Nonetheless, they decided to publish. I can think of only three possible explanations:
1) An idealistic resolve to give due publicity to a particular point of view, however unfashionable. I think we can dismiss this, since World Scientific has not yet taken to publishing books about how aliens landed at Roswell, or the faking of the moon landings. Moreover, the Discovery Institute has adequate publication channels of its own.
2) Creationist infiltration. I would like to dismiss this as an unfounded conspiracy theory, were it not for the existence of another upcoming publication, about which I have already expressed my concerns on this blog. (I am currently in correspondence with World Scientific about that publication, and will be giving an updated report later this week.)
3) Utter incompetence. I would include in this category any cynical commercial decision to go ahead with full knowledge of the demerits of the work, since the damage to World Scientific’s reputation must surely outweigh the few thousands that would accrue from its publication.
Whatever the detailed explanation, I can only appeal to World Scientific, even at this late stage, to think again.
The reasoning behind Stephen Meyer’s latest offering will not stand up to examination. However, the Discovery Institute have proudly announced that it has been endorsed by one of Britain’s leading scientists. It turns out, however, that the leading scientist is actually a doctor, not an evolutionary biologist, that he has been deeply involved with the Discovery Institute for many years, and that he required no convincing of the book’s central claim that biological information is the work of a designer. Nor, perhaps, is he the right person to evaluate Meyer’s critique of evolutionary science, because he never accepted evolutionary science in the first place. He believes that the Bible is the inerrant word of God, that Genesis I through XI is a historically accurate account, and that biological information actually originated on Days Three through Six of Creation, some 6000 years ago, at God’s say-so.
Darwin’s Doubt has been billed by the Discovery Institute as a game changer, but it is not clear what game is supposed to have been changed. Certainly not the game as played by the Discovery Institute, which continues to rely on various publicity stunts, and on its readers’ (and perhaps its writers’) ignorance of the underlying science.
Meyer’s argument rests on two pillars; that there was a sudden unexplained explosion of multiplicity of body plans around 500 million years ago (the “Cambrian explosion”), and that this is just a special case of a more general phenomenon, namely that evolution cannot generate information as complex as that found within living things.
It would be chutzpah on my part to claim any originality in my refutation of these claims, when the job has been done so expertly in a pandasthumb posting by Nick Matzke, written as he finishes graduate school. To summarise Matzke’s argument, the “explosion” was not a sudden event at all, but part of a complex sequence, and so far from the simultaneous de novo appearance of numerous unrelated body types, we have detailed knowledge of the family connections between them. As for the argument that evolution cannot generate new complexities, it is simply wrong. We see it happening all the time. Matzke actually knows something about this sort of thing, having written important papers on the origins of the bacterial flagellum and, more recently, the timing of the endosymbiotic events that gave rise to mitochondria.
What I want to talk about here is the latest publicity stunt. I have already written about the earlier pre-launch stunt of passing the hat round the Discovery Institute’s supporters in order to buy media coverage. What the DI have now done is to trumpet the endorsement of the book by Prof Norman Nevin, a leading biological scientist, as an example of a leading scientist who has been swayed by the book’s arguments.
There are just a few things wrong with this claim. Prof Nevin is not an evolutionary scientist at all. He is a medical geneticist, and if I wanted advice on whether it would be wise for me to marry my cousin, he would certainly be the right person to go to. However, that does not magically give him any deeper insight than anyone else into the origins of the deleterious genes that might manifest themselves in our offspring. (As we shall see later, he does claim such an insight, but not one that many readers here would accept.) He is not an independent judge of the Discovery Institute’s activities, since he is Chairman of Glasgow’s own Centre for Intelligent Design (C4ID), which derives materials, arguments, and prominent speakers from the Discovery Institute, and whose very foundation was inspired by a visit to the UK of Phillip Johnson, the DI’s original creator. Finally, we can be completely confident that Prof Nevin’s acceptance of Intelligent Design is not the result of what Stephen Meyer has just written. His chairmanship of the Centre, which exists precisely to promote it, goes back to its foundation in 2010, and his acceptance of Intelligent Design derives, not from scientific argument, but from parochial religious obscurantism.
I am now going to resort to an ad hominem argument. Some people will say this is very wrong of me, and indeed I have been barred from posting comments on the C4ID FaceBook page for doing it. However, I will use the playground excuse of “they started it”. It is the Discovery Institute that invoked Prof Nevin’s authority in the first place, and so it is fair play to subject that authority to scrutiny.
Prof Nevin has told us what he thinks, at considerable length, in a series of sermons given at Bethany Church, Belfast. You will find his views on Adam and Eve here and here, and on the historical reality of Noah’s flood here. Or, if you’re not willing to sit and suffer for two hours, you can find a few representative quotations on the British Centre for Science Education website:
I believe the first eleven chapters of Genesis as the word of god and as historical fact.
Genesis is the foundation of God’s word and I believe that it is crucial to our understanding of the rest of scripture.
Indeed the eleven chapters, the first eleven chapter of the Book of Genesis, are referred to in the New Testament. So the Book of Genesis is foundational to the word of God.
So the Lord Jesus Christ looked upon Adam and Eve, he looked upon Abel and Cain as historical figures… and when he discusses the Flood and Noah… the Lord Jesus Christ looked upon these early chapters as historical fact.
And what’s good enough for the Lord Jesus Christ is good enough for Norman Nevin. So there!
I must admit that here Prof Nevin has the advantage of me. I do not claim to know exactly what was said in Judaea almost 2000 years ago. And even if I did, I wouldn’t know whether references to older texts implied that they were to be understood literally or allegorically, a distinction already well-developed in the rabbinical tradition of the time.
And what about those genetic defects, on which Prof Nevin really is an expert, which irrevocably condemn a child to the slow choking death of cystic fibrosis, or an adult to the mental degeneration of Huntingdon’s? How could it possibly be their fault? Again, Prof Levin has the answer. The world, as created, was “very good”, as Genesis 1:31 assures us. So all these nasty things were not in the world as created, and must be the result of something that happened later. Of course, the Fall! The choking child, the confused and twitching adult, deserve everything that is happening to them because of something their remote ancestors did 6000 years ago. So that dreadful Something really must have happened, as a matter of historical fact, and everything those nasty evolutionists and Darwinians are telling you is wrong.
If you can believe that, no wonder you can believe that Stephen Meyer’s ramblings are superb science.
By Paul Braterman and Mark Edon. This piece first appeared on November 30, 2012, on the BCSE website.
We write here as individual non-believers in support of the “accommodationist” position taken by the British Centre for Science Education (BCSE), on whose committee both of us serve. We consider that there are over-riding tactical and strategic reasons for this position. As non-believers defending science, we are being unreasonable if we criticise the godly for failing to combat Creationism, and then, for fear of ideological impurity, refuse to link arms with them when they do.
Followers of the political & religious controversy surrounding evolution  will be aware of a subsidiary debate amongst those who do accept modern science, that encompasses such issues as; “Is it possible to believe in god and accept the science?”, “Should the objective of the debate be the acceptance of science or the rejection of god?” and “What is the best way to get people to accept the science?”
The British Centre for Science Education (BCSE), comprising volunteers from science, education and business backgrounds, is a single purpose organisation. Our objective, shared by our members regardless of their religious position, is to keep Creationism out of UK schools. The simple fact is that the Government (in its policy statements at least), other mainstream political parties in the UK, the established Church and other mainstream churches all agree on this. In the UK, only a minority of self-identified Christians think that creationism should be taught, while Young Earth creationists complain that the vast majority of evangelicals reject their doctrine.
The current Coalition Government Free School and Academy programs have given Creationists in the UK opportunities that they had never previously dreamt of and, through what we sincerely hope is mere oversight, July 2012 saw the first crypto-Creationist free school applications approved. They will be getting tax payers’ money to teach children, at the expense of the local authority education budget, although the local authority will have no control over them and at this stage no-one knows what they will teach.
The BCSE wants to campaign against Creationism in a way that unites the widest possible range of opinion and so we don’t campaign for or against any of the following; atheism, religion, faith schools, free schools or academies, although many members and committee members hold strong views on many of these issues.
If you look at the activities of Creationists here in the UK you can see that their main campaigning tactic is to present themselves as Christians making perfectly reasonable requests about education policy, all in the spirit of fairness, whilst being attacked by militant atheists.
So it is in these circumstances that the BCSE campaigns against Creationism with all and any who will agree with us on this issue, regardless of any disagreement on other issues. This means we are neutral on matters of religion and we are glad to work with the religious and non-religious alike. The CrISIS campaign, in which we took part last year, which culminated in a letter to Michael Gove signed by the National Secular Society, Richard Dawkins, Jim Al-Khalili, Susan Blackmore, Andrew Colman, David Colquhoun, Christopher French, Adam Hart -Davis, Julian Huppert MP, The Rev Canon Theologian David Jennings, Steve Jones, Dr Stephen Law, Clifford Longley, the Rev Michael Roberts, Simon Singh MBE, Canon Theologian Keith Ward, and education lecturer James D. Williams, exemplifies this, as did a similarly broad-based subsequent campaign, which we supported, by the British Humanist Association.
BCSE’s experience of working with representatives of the clear majority of the religious population in the UK that accept the science, and our knowledge that UK Creationists unremittingly promote an “Atheists versus Christians” narrative during recruitment and campaigning, has lead us to often repeat the fact that the majority of religious people have no problem with the science.
These two aspects of what we do: 1) working with the religious and non-religious alike, 2) pointing out that accepting the science is fine with the established church and the large majority of the religious, are far from protecting us against criticism.
Creationists still accuse us of promoting an atheistic ideology, and even level this charge against ordained ministers and other committed believers amongst our members but then they do the same to that vast majority of Christians who accept the science, and even the (outgoing) Archbishop of Canterbury is not spared. Some nonbelievers label us “accommodationists” for working with the religious and for not arguing against the existence of god, claiming that because religion is correlated with Creationism the only way to counter Creationism is to campaign against religion. For want of a better label, we will refer to nonbelievers in this camp as “anti-theists”, in the belief that many already call themselves this and that it doesn’t offend or mislead. This seems less clumsy than “anti-accommodationists”. If a better label exists we will happily adopt it. Whilst we are on the subject of labels, we reserve the term “Creationists” for those who deny the well-established science of evolution and common descent, and, in many cases, of an ancient earth and even more ancient Universe. This is quite different from the philosophical creationism that accepts these realities, but sees them as, ultimately, the work of a deity. Some who should know better seem unsure of the difference between these positions and thereby play into the hands of the enemies of reason.
Unfortunately, anti-theists or those who can be labelled as such, when campaigning against Creationism, are vulnerable to the line invariably taken by Creationists that they are just Atheists persecuting Christians. Thus our good friend Richy Thomson, BHAFaithSchools and Education campaigner, found himself outmanoeuvred in a radio phone-in discussion of a proposed Creationist school in Sheffield, when the advocate of Creationism change the terms of debate by pointing out that his opponent was against faith schools and religion in general. Similarly, when a Creationist on Radio Five was asked to say if he wanted Creationism taught in science classes or not, he ignored the question and claimed that the BHA was prejudiced when evaluating the scientific evidence and wanted to restrict the rights of the religious. The correct response would be to point out that the large majority of religious people think that Creationism is silly too, perhaps with some examples but again the point at issue was lost. While only a very tiny minority of people are pushing Creationism into UK schools, they create the illusion of broad support by such muddling of issues.
It is worth stating plainly here that the BCSE neither calls for the religious to give up their faith (indeed, how could it, given the range of opinions in its membership?) nor for the anti-theists to stop campaigning against it.
It seems to us that the Creationists adopt the “Atheist versus Christians” tactic at every available opportunity for two good reasons.
First of all, the conflict and persecution narrative aids recruitment and engenders zeal, especially among the many potential recruits who are at difficult points in their own lives. Creationist organisers know that being part of a valiant band struggling against the odds offers both a sense of belonging and the chance for the leaders to prove their honesty and intelligence by accurately predicting ridicule and rudeness from people outside the group. In this way the weirder the claims, the stronger the ridicule, and the more strongly members are driven into the group. This is why you find so many Creationist groups publicising the fact of their opponents calling them names.
Secondly, and more at issue here, the conflict narrative very often means the public debate can be swiftly moved away from “Creationism is daft” to genuine Atheist versus Christian issues such as faith schools. Creationists know that in such debates they are part of a much larger and more respectable group and readily identify themselves as simply “Christians”.
So how should we proceed?
There seems to be agreement amongst anti-theists and accommodationists that some Creationists can be won over to accept the science, although both sides currently see this as a rare event and base their claims upon anecdotes . Is loss of faith or is accommodation of science with religious belief the reason for such changes of mind? Well, the anecdotes suggest both are possible paths that individuals do travel. However we still have no quantitative data on the reasons why, despite this obviously being of great interest to all.
A recent paper in Evolution Education and Outreach by Southcott and Downie  does give us some hints at data on this topic, but not much more than a reason for more research.
The data relates to biology students at GlasgowUniversity between 1987 and 2011 who rejected evolution. Here are a few highlights but please go and read the thing for yourselves if you are interested.
First of all things that anti-theists and accommodationists agree on:
From the abstract.
“Evolution rejection was closely related to accepting a religion-based alternative, whereas acceptance was related to finding the evidence convincing. Although many religious students accepted evolution, 50% of Islamic students were rejecters, compared to 25% of Christians.”
Anti-theists seem to go on from this to deduce that as Creationism comes from religion you must counter religious belief to counter Creationism. This simply does not follow.
“A question testing acceptance of several scientific propositions showed no evidence that evolution rejecters were generally more skeptical of science than accepters.”
That is surprising, although it could be that evolution rejecters were simply unaware of the full implications of their position. Moving on.
“A breakdown of evolution into three components (human origins, macroevolution, and microevolution) found that some evolution rejecters accepted some components, with microevolution having the highest acceptance and human origins the lowest. These findings are discussed in terms of strategies for evolution education and the phenomenon of evolution rejection worldwide.”
This reflects the common Creationist tactics of claiming to accept micro evolution so as to avoid the appearance of rejecting all evidence out of hand.
Now some highlights from the rest of the paper. Rejection of evolution at GlasgowUniversity is running at between 3.9% and 4.4% in samples taken irregularly between 1987 and 2011 (they used some data from previous studies for comparison) and from the small numbers available it seems that Islamic students are about twice as likely as Christian students to reject evolution.
The overall level of students with a religion was down over the various study years and the association of religion with evolution denial strengthened.
This next bit made us sit up and pay attention (our emphasis);
“All level 4 [now in their final year at uni] rejectors belonged to “low evolution” degree programs. It is clear that for most of them, no amount of scientific evidence would overcome their beliefs, a more entrenched position even than that taken by level 1 rejecters.” (“Low evolution” here describes courses such as psychology or pharmacology, as opposed to, say, zoology.)
So it would appear that logical and evidence based argument is futile with these folks.
This next bit was also very interesting.
“By level 4, our evolution rejection sample size was very small, but the importance of a belief precluding evolution remained the main factor. Our sample size for switching from rejection to acceptance was also small (n=7), but it is fascinating that these students were less affected by scientific evidence than by a realization that evolution and their religious beliefs were not in conflict.”
So for these students in Glasgow, reaching some kind of personal accommodation between the science and their faith was the path to accepting evolution.
This next finding fits in with recent survey findings for the UK population as a whole.
“It is worth emphasizing that, although evolution rejection was strongly associated with holding a religious belief, the majority of believers accepted evolution.”
These are the results of just a few surveys in one university and more research will be required to inform appropriate educational strategies.
In the meantime we have a political battle on our hands and this article lays out the reasons why opponents of Creationism in publicly funded schools in the UK should think carefully about their tactics.
In summary, the reasons for even the most dedicated opponents of religion to adopt accommodationism in the political fight against Creationism are twofold.
- Tactical advantage gained by appealing to a huge majority support by including the religious non Creationists.
- Strategic advantage as the Creationists are denied one of their main recruitment and retention tactics and we give ourselves the best chance of reducing their hardcore support.
Anti-theist groups need no permission from us to continue their own wider campaigns and agendas but they should seriously consider working with an accommodationist umbrella group like the BCSE to maximise their political effectiveness in this particular fight.
As for the situation at the time of writing, BCSE strongly supports the BHA campaign of protest against the recent decision to allow Creationist groups to open Free Schools, while (in accord with the spirit of this article) drawing attention to the fact that the issue here is not religion versus irreligion, but science versus the denial of science.
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1 but which on examination includes the denial of such vast swathes of modern science including physics, earth sciences and cosmology as they all speak to an old earth, plus so many other related disciplines, that one might as well say that such deniers simply reject science.
3 Southcott, R. & Downie, J., Evolution and Religion: Attitudes of Scottish Bioscience Students to the Teaching of Evolutionary Biology, Evolution: Education and Outreach, Springer New York, 1936-6426, pp. 1-11, http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s12052-012-0419-9 , Doi: 10.1007/s12052-012-0419-9