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Creationism in the classroom; in 2 minutes you can help stop it; here’s how and why

Readers in England in particular, please write to your MP in support of the BHA campaign to combat Creationism, including Creationism in publicly funded schools; details here. The rest of this post is an explanation of why, shockingly, such action is necessary. In post-principle politics, it would be naive to suggest that this or perhaps any feasible alternative Government is really interested in the merits. The Creationists are a coherent constituency, who make their voices heard. Defenders of scientific reality (regardless of their position on religious matters) must do likewise. Dr Evan Harris assures us, and he should know, that 20 letters to an MP are a lot (Glasgow Skeptics 2011). So the readership of this column, alone, is enough to make a real contribution. Do it. And ask your friends to do likewise.

 The school “will retain its right to censor papers, under agreed conditions.”

Jewish faith school caught censoring questions on science exam papersYesodey Hatorah (Charedi Jewish) Senior Girls School blacked out questions about evolution on pupils’ science exams in 2013. One wonders how this was even possible, given that exam papers are supposed to be sealed until opened at the specified time in the presence of the pupils. However, when the relevant Examination Board, OCR, investigated, they were satisfied that no students had received an unfair advantage, and took no action. The Board now tells Ofqual, the government agency responsible for the integrity of examinations, that it intends “to come to an agreement with the centres concerned which will … respect their need to do this in view of their religious beliefs.” And OCR’s chief executive says the case has “significantly wider implications and could apply to other faith schools.

It gets worse; or perhaps it doesn’t. The school now says that it does teach evolution, but in Jewish Studies, that “there are minute elements within the curriculum which are considered culturally and halachically [in terms of Jewish law] questionable” (evolution a minute element!), that “This system has successfully been in place within the charedi schools throughout England for many years,” and that “we (the school) have now come to an agreement with OCR to ensure that the school will retain its right to censor papers, under agreed conditions.” The latest word, however, is that this agreement, and Ofqual’s acquiescence, may be unravelling under scrutiny, illustrating the importance of public awareness and response.

 Creationist Noah’s Ark Zoo Farm claims 15,000 school visitors annually and boasts of Government body award

Noah's Ark Zoo Farm, Bristol, England, UK         File:NHA.jpg

Noah’s Ark Zoo Farm, near Bristol, which claims to be visited by 15,000 schoolchildren annually, promulgates the view that Noah’s Ark is historic (and indeed, pre-historic), displays posters arguing that apes and humans are too distinct to share a common ancestor, and suggesting how the different kinds of animal could have been housed in the Ark, which it regards as historical (Professor Alice Roberts reported on her own visit last December; I have discussed the Zoo Farm’s reaction to her account) . The giraffes, for instance, would according to one poster have been housed in the highest part of the vessel, next to the T. Rex (Hayley Stevens, private communication).

 This Zoo Farm recently received an award from the Council for Learning Outside the Curriculum, which justified itself by referring to”education that challenges assumptions and allows them to experience a range of viewpoints; giving them the tools needed to be proactive in their own learning and develop skills to enable them to make well informed decisions.” Connoisseurs of creationism will recognise this as a variant of the “teach the controversy” argument, which advocates presenting creationism and real science as alternatives both worthy of consideration, and inviting schoolchildren to choose between them.

 “We do not expect creationism, intelligent design and similar ideas to be taught as valid scientific theories in any state funded school.”

Evolution will become part of the National Curriculum in 2014. However, that curriculum is not binding on Academies or Free Schools. The Government assures us that this is not a problem, because all schools need to prepare for external exams, and these exams, of course, include evolution. Exams that the schools have now been openly invited to censor. There is supposedly clear guidance for state-funded schools in England. Michael Gove, Education Secretary, has declared himself  “crystal clear that teaching creationism is at odds with scientific fact”, and official guidance to Free School applicants states “We would expect to see evolution and its foundation topics fully included in any science curriculum. We do not expect creationism, intelligent design and similar ideas to be taught as valid scientific theories in any state funded school.”

The reality however is that what are clearly creationist establishments do get government funding. Creationist preschools, to which the guidance does not apply, can and do receive public money through nursery vouchers, while being run by organisations such as ACE (see below) that openly teach rigid biblical creationism along with even more rigid gender roles. BHA knows of 67 nursery schools that are run by Creationist or other organizations that openly reject the basics of biology. Some of these directly teach Adam-and-Eve history as fact that must be believed, and Government funding to these nursery schools may also be indirectly underwriting primary and secondary schools run by the same organizations.

 “We will teach creation as a scientific theory” 

In addition, a number of Academies and Free Schools have been licensed despite clear warning signals. Grindon Hall Christian School , formerly private, was licensed to receive public funding in 2012, despite a record of teaching creationism, and a website Creation Policy, hastily deleted after it received public attention, which stated “We will teach creation as a scientific theory”. Newark School of Enterprise, until recently expected to open in 2014, is a thinly disguised relabelling of Everyday Champions Church School, which was originally denied licensing because of its obvious links to a creationist church. (Last month, it was announced that the Government had withdrawn support for the school on other grounds.) Ibrahim Hewitt, of the Association of Muslim Schools, has said that his members’ schools, including six state-funded ones, taught children about Darwin, because they had to, but they also taught a different, Koranic view. The ill-fated al-Madinah School originally specified “Darwinism” as un-Koranic on its website, but under “curriculum” now says only “We are committed to providing a broad and balanced curriculum for all our pupils.  Further information will be available in due course.”

Pray for CST In the private sector, we have Christian Schools Trust (CST), with 42 schools. Some of these are applying for “Free Schools” status; so far unsuccessfully, but Tyndale Community School, which has been approved, is run by Oxfordshire Community Churches which also runs the CST Kings School in Whitney. CST schools teach Genesis as historical fact, with the Fall as the source of all evil, and discuss evolution in such a way as to make it seem incredible. According to the Ph.D. thesis of Sylvia Baker, founder and core team member of CST, 75% of students end up believing in Noah’s ark. Dr Baker, author of Bone of Contention and other creationist works,  is also directly linked to Genesis Agendum, a “creation science” website, and language in her style appears in the related WorldAroundUs “virtual museum”, which claims to show that

                               Book cover image: Bone of Contention

evolution and old Earth geology are outdated scientific paradigms in the process of crumbling (for a detailed analysis of the museum’s arguments, see here, where I describe it as a “museum of horrors”). Since 2008, CST and the Association of Muslim Schools have shared their own special inspectorate, of which Sylvia Baker is a board member. So the foxes placed in charge of the hen house have under two successive Governments been entrusted with the task of evaluating their own stewardship.

World Around Us

“…. towards a post-Darwinian view: some of the evidence”

 “…a body of recent, peer-reviewed scientific evidence is presented which suggests that all is not well with a number of aspects of evolutionary theory. Is this a paradigm crisis?
Organisms reveal levels of interdependence, and are therefore irreducibly complex.
Many of the rock formations result from catastrophic rather than gradual uniformitarian processes
The principles on which radioactive dating is based can be questioned”

In an even grosser scandal, NARIC, the National Academic Recognition Information Centre, has approved the ICCE advanced certificate, based on Accelerated Creation Education (ACE), as equivalent to A-level. ACE has claimed, and in the US still does claim, that Nessie is evidence for a persistence of dinosaurs, and teaches that evolution has been scientifically proven false, and that those who accept its “impossible claims” do so in order to reject God. This in a text that prepares students for a certificate that NARIC would have us accept as preparation for the study of biology at university. And NARIC is the body that provides information on qualifications on behalf of the UK Government.

The Hopeful Monster Theory

The ACE curriculum’s straw man version of evolution

In all these cases, the actual offence is compounded by official complacency or collusion. I can only guess at why is this allowed to happen, but among relevant factors may be official concerned with procedures rather than outcomes, scientific illiteracy among decision-makers, free market forces (the exam boards, after all, are competing for the schools’ business), misplaced respect for differences, and electoral calculation. Religious zealots form an organised political pressure group, while their reality-orientated co-religionists are far too slow to condemn them. Ironically, these co-religionists have even more to lose than the rest of us, as their institutions are subverted from inside, and their faith brought into disrepute.

In response, those of us who oppose the forces of endarkenment must become recognised as a constituency, not necessarily in any formal sense, but in the sense that politicians are aware of the depth of our concerns. Numbers are increasingly on our side, since young people are more sceptical than their elders, and Humanists, secularists, Skeptics, and even geeks are our natural allies. And so, on this issue, are liberal-minded believers from all faiths. There is need for coordinated public pressure, through teachers’ organisations, other educational bodies and learned societies, publicity and protests after specific cases revealed, and campaigns such as the BHA letter-writing campaign that is the subject of this post. So here, once more, is the BHA link: Use it.

For other posts on the issues discussed here, as they apply in England and Scotland, see Evolution censored from exam questions in publicly funded English schools, with government permission; PhD Thesis of Sylvia Baker, founder of “Christian” (i.e. Creationist) Schools Trust; Noah’s Ark Zoo Farm Responds to Criticism; ACE Infantile creationist burblings rated equivalent to UK A-level (school leaving; University entrance) exams; and Young Earth Creationist books handed out in a Scottish state school. Poster displayed at Noah’s Ark Zoo Farm, image by Pip through Wikipedia Commons. This post is based on a talk I gave to the Conway Hall Ethical Society on March 16, 2014.

Why I do NOT “believe in Darwin’s theory of evolution”

File:Origin of Species title page.jpgFact not theory; 150 years on from Darwin’s watershed publication; evidence not belief. Words matter.

A recent Harris poll asked Americans “Do you believe in Darwin’s theory of evolution?” Others more eminent have commented on the answers; I would like to comment on the question.

Darwin, of course, never used the word “evolution,” but let that pass. As for the rest, it would be difficult to cram a larger number of serious errors into so small a space. Errors of presentation, of logic, and of scientific and historical fact, all of which play into the hands of our Creationist opponents.

Start with the obvious, the word “theory.” In common language a theory always involves speculation. In academic discourse, it means a coherent set of ideas that explain the facts. Calling something a theory in this sense tells you nothing at all about how certain it is. A theory can be wrong (phlogiston theory), known to be approximate from the outset (ideal gas theory), very close to the truth but since improved on (Newton’s theory of planetary motions), or as certain as human knowledge ever can be (number theory in mathematics). Of course you can explain all this, but you should not put yourself in such a vulnerable position in the first place. It wastes time in debate, or in the classroom. It puts you on the defensive, and thus, paradoxically, confers legitimacy on the attack. It allows the focus to shift from what we know about the world to the words we use to talk about it. This takes us away from science to the domain of the philosophers, lawyers, and expositors of Scripture who are fighting on behalf of Creationism.

And so it distracts from what you should be talking about, namely the facts. Evolution, whether we mean changes in the genetic make-up of populations over time, or the common descent of living things on earth, is a fact. It is supported by, and explains, innumerable more specific facts concerning the fossil record, molecular phylogeny (the same kind of evidence that is used every day in DNA paternity tests), the frozen-in historical accidents of organs that have lost or changed their function, the distribution of species throughout space and time, and much more besides. Creationism cannot explain these facts, except by appeal to the whims of the Creator.

Next “Darwin’s.” Darwin did indeed have a theory, as independently had Wallace, which was that different species had arisen gradually by natural selection operating on variation. This he supported by meticulous observation, but the range of evidence available to him was far more limited than what we have today. He lamented the poverty of the then known fossil record, laments that Creationists echo to this day as if nothing had changed. He knew nothing about mutations or even about the existence of specific genes, and so he had no idea how new variants could arise and spread. His assumption of gradualism is in contrast to later ideas such as punctuated equilibrium, and we now know that much if not indeed most variation arises through neutral drift. Thus not only do we know far more facts about evolution than Darwin could have dreamt of, but our theories, too, incorporate numerous additional concepts.

Finally, worst of all, “believe in.” Believing always carries with it the feeling that disbelief is an option. Some members of the jury believe the witness, others don’t. Some people believe that Hillary Clinton will be the next President of the United States, but no one would say they “believe” that Barak Obama is the current incumbent, because no sane person doubts it. I don’t “believe in” atoms, or gravity, or quantum mechanics, because I regard them as established beyond dispute, although our notions about them will no doubt continue to change as we learn more. And exactly the same is true of evolution.

Does it matter? Yes, it matters enormously. Creationists often maintain that evolution and Creation are both beliefs, whose respective advocates differ, not about observable facts, but about how those facts are to be interpreted. They obsess about Darwin, referring to evolution as “Darwinism,” and to those who accept this reality as “Darwinists.” The aim here is to bypass 150 years of experimental and intellectual discoveries, to bog us down in the day disputes of the late 19th century, or even (“Darwin’s doubt,” see here and here) to enlist Darwin himself as an unwitting ally.  And they contrast evolution, as “only” a theory, with facts or even with scientific laws, in order to claim that it is far from certain and that different views deserve a hearing.

Most people have not thought long and hard about evolution. And in the US at least, much of what they have heard about it will have come from its theologically motivated opponents. These opponents, whether through “statements of faith” that make obscurantism a virtue, or through “academic freedom bills” that disguise telling lies to children as open intellectual debate, use carefully crafted words to stake spurious claims to the moral high ground.

We should not, ourselves, be using words that help them do this.

Evolution censored from exam questions in publicly funded English schools, with government permission

Jewish faith school caught censoring questions on science exam papersEngland’s largest examination board, OCR, has agreed to let publicly funded schools censor (“redact” in official sanitised language) examination questions involving evolution if they offend the religious sensibilities of the schools concerned. You will find more details here and here and here. The Sunday Times story on the subject neglects to mention the key fact of Government involvement, but quotes further disturbing comment from the exam board.

Last summer, Yesodey Hatorah Senior Girls’ High School in north London blacked out questions on evolution from science exams. OCR investigated the matter, concluded that no student had gained any unfair advantage from this procedure, and took no further action. Yesodey Hatorah follows Charedi Judaism, an extreme sect that does not allow access to television or social media, and does not encourage its daughters to take part in further education.

We now have the exam board’s explanation of their position, and the explanation is far worse than the offence. It is a pre-emptive cringe in the face of censorship. The Government colludes, confirming long-standing fears that its official commitment to teaching real science is a hollow sham.

We know all this because the National Secular Society raised the Yesodey Hatorah incident with England’s Department for Education under the Freedom of Information Act, and was told that a “proportional and reasonable response” had been agreed with the school. According to the NSS,

 The Department’s response reveals that that faith schools will still be permitted to redact questions they don’t approve of as long as this is done in collaboration with the exam board. Setting out the response to the uncovering of exam malpractice, OCR wrote to the [governmental] exam regulator Ofqual, stating:

 “In our deliberations we have reached the conclusion the most proportionate and reasonable approach would be to come to an agreement with the centres concerned which will protect the future integrity of our examinations – by stipulating how, when and where the redactions take place – but at the same time respect their need to do this in view of their religious beliefs. We believe we need to be mindful of the fact that if we do not come to an agreement with the centres we could be seen as creating a barrier to accessing the examinations for the candidates.”

 But maybe this is just a one-off? No. As the Sunday Times reports, the Chief Executive of OCR also said that such redaction had

 “significantly wider implications and could apply to other faith schools”

 So the right of these schools to censor exams is to be respected, provided exam board agrees, but the exam board, as a prelude to negotiating with the schools, has announced that it is going to respect their need to censor in view of their religious beliefs, because otherwise

 “we could be seen as creating a barrier to accessing the examinations for the candidates.”

 There ought to be “a barrier to accessing the examinations for the candidates,” and for the best of all possible reasons. One of the most important functions of the exam system is to impose generally recognised standards on the schools whose students take those exams. To allow schools to censor the exposure of their students to the central concept of the life sciences is to default on this vital function.

Indeed, Government policy relies on the examination boards carrying out this function. The Education Minister assures us that as of this September, Yesodey Hatorah, a voluntary aided school, will be required to teach evolution because it is part of the National Curriculum. However, the Free Schools being so recklessly created at the moment are not required to follow that Curriculum. The Government tells us that such a requirement is unnecessary, because the Free Schools will have to follow good educational policy, in order to prepare their pupils for exams.

Exams which, as is now clear, the schools will be allowed to censor.

 

Creationism and Evolution; An Open Letter to a Misleadingly Quote-mining Minister

[E-mailed and snail-mailed to Tron Church; no reply received as of 4 weeks later. If I ever get one, I’ll give it its own post and publicise] Dear Dr Philip; You are misleading your congregation on a matter of fact. I address you both publicly and privately, and promise to publicise your reply.

In a recent web post, entitled “The Inhumanity of Humanism,” you say [a reader points out that these words and the others I cite below are not the Rev’s own, but his father’s, embedded and quoted at length with approval] I am not human because I have not been saved by Jesus[1]. You are entitled to that opinion. But you are not entitled to the manipulative misrepresentation of a distinguished evolutionary scientist, on which you base your completely unwarranted claim that the science of evolution is based on a decision to exclude God. You seem unaware of the long array of distinguished evolutionary scientists who have believed in God, including Charles Darwin at the time when he wrote On The Origin Of Species, but let that pass.

You write:

FtMthumb_WP

It [humanism] does not start with scientific evidence; it starts with an objection to God, and by a process of rationalisation transfers the antipathy towards God to so-called scientific arguments against his existence. This is what I meant earlier by saying that as an argument this is not very scientific, any more than another noted scientist, Professor D.M.S. Watson, is, when he says: “Evolution itself is accepted by zoologists not because it has been observed to occur, or….can be proved by logically coherent evidence to be true, but because the only alternative, special creation, is clearly incredible”. Well, well! So this is science. This is keeping God out with a vengeance! It scarcely commends “the scientific attitude” however, to thinking people, and it gives us leave to question whether the “assured results” of modern science are always as assured as they might be.

Here you have moved from an attack on Humanism to one on the science of evolution. In order to do so, you are putting into Watson’s mouth the claim that evolution is accepted without evidence merely because special creation is ruled out in advance as incredible. You then use his alleged position to launch a broad attack on those who claim to be embracing “the scientific attitude,” whatever you imagine that to be (in my experience, there are as many attitudes as there are scientists), and specifically to call into question the assured results of evolutionary science. I do not know why you do this, since I see nothing in evolutionary science that conflicts with your own Church’s statement of faith.

I will be charitable, and assume that you are unaware of the fact that you are echoing a well-known misrepresentation of Watson’s position. Indeed it is so well known that it has its own Wikipedia link. I have checked, as you evidently have not, the actual quotation, publicly accessible here (p. 95, halfway down), and find that it does indeed speak of “the Theory of Evolution itself, a theory universally accepted, not because it can be proved by logically coherent evidence to be true, but because the only alternative, special creation, is clearly incredible.” However, this is a partial recapitulation of the fuller statement on p. 88, which reads:

Evolution itself is accepted by zoologists not because it has been observed to occur or is supported by logically coherent arguments, but because it does fit all the facts of Taxonomy, of Palaeontology, and of Geographical Distribution, and because no alternative explanation is credible.

But whilst the fact of evolution is accepted by every biologist the mode in which it has occurred and the mechanism by which it has been brought about are still disputable.

Watson, remember, was writing in 1929, when the evidence available was far scantier, the interrelationship between genetics and evolution still being worked out, the nature of the genetic material unknown, and the very existence of the gene as a material entity the subject of controversy. What he is doing is stating the inadequacy, in 1929, of biologists’ understanding of the mode and mechanism of evolution. He refers correctly to evolution as a fact even then established by the evidence, and rejects alternatives because they give no credible explanation of the data. In the rest of his article, he goes on to ask good questions about the process by which evolution occurs, questions that have received good answers aplenty in the intervening 85 years (some of them ably expounded by Dennis Venema, himself an evangelical Christian, here). D. M. S. Watson most emphatically does not do what you accuse him of doing, namely ruling out creationism because he wishes to exclude God. I have no idea what his views were on the existence of God, nor do I see how they are relevant once his words are honestly examined in their actual context.

I hope you will disabuse your congregation of the error that you have, no doubt I unknowingly, helped propagate, and I undertake to publicise any reply you make as extensively as I am publicising this letter.

Respectfully,

Prof Paul S. Braterman, MA, DPhil., DSc.

[1] The actual words are: “It is not possible to be human (or humanist, rightly understood) without being saved into humanity by the God Who gave Himself for us in Jesus Christ.”  It has occurred to me, since sending this piece to the Reverend, that he may be a Universalist who believes I have been saved despite my lack of belief, but I do not think this likely.

How NOT To Defend Evolution; With Friends Like These Who Needs Enemies?

File:Tree of life SVG.svg Evolution is fact as well as theory. There is no scientific controversy about this. It has advanced way beyond what Darwin could have imagined, and well-meaning commentators who forget this risk doing more harm than good.  (And come to think of it, have I too misframed the problem by using the word “defend”, as if there were something that could sensibly be attacked?)

On Friday, the Forbes Magazine website carried an article entitled Creationism Has No Place In A Science Class. While sincerely intended as a defence of evolution, this article is so laden with rhetorical, logical, historical, and scientific errors that it plays straight into the hands of the creationists. If anyone were to defend atomic theory in the same way that this article defends evolution, the absurdities would be obvious. It is a sad comment on the extent to which we have allowed the enemies of reason to dictate the agenda, that articles like this continue to see the light of day.

To begin at the beginning:

 More than 150 years since Darwin published his Theory of Evolution, it still has the capacity to stir controversy.

 Wrong, wrong, and wrong again. Evolution happened, and continues to happen, and that is fact, not theory. We have theories of how it happens, and all or nearly all of these rely on Darwin’s seminal insights, but we also have direct information that Darwin could not even have dreamed of. It is not evolution itself that stirs controversy, but the nonscientific opposition to it, based entirely on religious obscurantism. And while the article does not define creationism, the only kind of creationism that pretends to a place in the science classroom is the late 20th century absurdity of “creation science,” and its pretentious relative, “Intelligent Design.”

The author goes on to describe a UK academic study of attitudes towards evolution as a “contribution to the debate.” The study’s authors would be horrified, since they themselves take the truth of evolution for granted. The debate to which they are contributing is not about whether we should teach creationism. On the very contrary, it is about how to teach evolution to students who are drawn to creationism for reasons that had nothing to do with science.

The article tells how the Christian Schools Trust claim to teach creationism “in a balanced way.” A little digging would have shown that the Trust has a policy, publicly available through its founder’s Ph.D. dissertation, of teaching evolution in such a way that it will not be believed (I have commented on this dissertation before; see here).

The final paragraph reads:

Critics of evolution claim that it is just a theory for which there is no proof. It is true there is no definitive proof, and nor is there likely to be, but there is a vast amount of evidence in its favour. Whether you choose to believe it is sufficient is up to you, but it is there. By contrast, there is no scientific evidence for creationism. It may be true, but it is a matter of belief and its proper place in schools is in religious studies class. Creationism is not science, and has no place in a science class.

This is even worse than the beginning. Science does not do proof, in the sense of mathematical certainty, but it can and does do proof beyond all reasonable doubt, and that we have for evolution. Consider the fossil record, vestigial organs, frozen in bad design, meticulously detailed anatomical homologies, DNA evolutionary trees that match those based on comparative anatomy, evolution in the laboratory, in nature and under our direction in the farmyard, and the way in which different species are distributed. Any one of these (and there are more) would be enough to convince, were it not for religiously motivated opposition. If this evidence is not sufficiently definitive, I can only wonder what definitive evidence could possibly look like.

And I do not understand the claim that creationism “may be true.” Philosophical creationism, the idea that a god or gods created and guide the universe as a whole, is indeed a belief worth examining in the religious studies class. Creationism as opposed to evolution is something quite different. It is the belief that different kinds of living things owe their existence to separate miraculous acts of creation. Not only is this contrary to the evidence, but it reduces God to the level of an incompetent trickster who needs to keep on cheating. In itself, deserves no more respect than any other intellectual pathology, and the only debate is about how to reach those misled by it.

Image: Phylogenetic tree of life, by Ivica Letunic after iTOL through Wikimedia commons. Vertebrates to left of top centre.

Young Earth Creationist books handed out in a Scottish state school; worse and worse!

(All the more reason, my Sottish friends, to  write to your MSPs; see here)

I reviewed these books earlier. Diogenes, an expert on creationist quackery, has drawn my attention to a couple of further detailed absurdities.

Truth to Tell contains the usual attack on Haeckel, with the usual claim that this invalidates all the developmental evidence we now have for evolution, some 130 years later. As Diogenes surmised (see his comments on the earlier post), this is accompanied by a completely meaningless image meant to represent a human foetus. The accompanying text makes clear the real agenda: “A human embryo starts as a human, ends as a human, and is a human the entire time.” The figure (click for full scale view), and accompanying text, speaks for itself:

TruthToTellEmbryo

The reference to human footprints in coal, pp l03 – 104, doesn’t even get the dates of the Carboniferous right:

 “As an example, according to evolutionists, the coal in the Upper Carboniferous layer is supposed to be 250 million years old. Humans did not evolve, according to this theory, until about 3 million years ago. Yet we have found human footprints in coal layers that are supposed to be 250 million years old.”

 As Diogenes reminds us, the Carboniferous ended 299 million years ago. The number 250 million, the claim that the impressions are human footprints, and the description of 250 million years ago as Carboniferous, probably come via John C. Whitcomb and Henry Morris, The Genesis Flood, p. 172. The footprints, if such they be, were described in a 1940 Scientific American article, which concluded, however, that they were probably carvings, or, if not, footprints of some as yet unrecognized species, see here for more details. However, that article did contain the rhetorical hypothetical

 “If man, or even his ape ancestor’s early mammalian ancestor, existed as far back as the Carboniferous Period in any shape, then the whole science of geology is so completely wrong that all the geologists will resign their jobs and take up truck driving.”

 Of course, that was meant to be a reductio ad absurdum, but Creationists have no sense of irony, and this is the kind of thing they really jump on. Indeed, Apologetics Press, publishers of the books in question, quote-mines the article in a separate posting here, with fanciful chalked in foot shapes.

Truth be Told continues:

 “How could the coal layers be 250 million years old, if the humans who made tracks in them did not evolve until 247 million years after coal formed? The truth is, neither humans nor coal are millions of years old. After the Flood, Noah or his descendants could have left their footprints in the coal while it was just beginning to form a few thousand years ago. In summary, coal forms when plants are buried very quickly.The upright trees in coal prove this [there are other references to polystrate fossils, of course.]Scientists are now able to form coal in the laboratory in only a few months, so we know it does not take millions of years to form. Furthermore, things like human footprints show that the coal is not millions of years old.”

No references anywhere in the book, but there is a true/false question in the Chapter Review, “Human footprints have been found in coal that evolutionists date to be 250 million years old.” Guess what the answer is supposed to be.

A detailed analysis of all the errors would require a book as long as the original, so I’ll leave it there.

No evidence for evolution, says the Reverend

The Rev David Blunt is Minister at North Uist and Grimsay Free Church of Scotland (Continuing), Bayhead, North Uist, not to be confused (Heaven forbid!) with the benighted folks at North Uist, Grimsay, and Berneray Free Church of Scotland, Carinish.

He subscribes to a catechism that states that unless God arbitrarily decides otherwise, I (he, too, come to think of it) am “foreordained to dishonour and wrath, … to the praise of the glory of his (God’s,not the Reverend’s) justice” because of the guilt of Adam’s first sin, rendering us liable to “everlasting separation from the comfortable presence of God, and most grievous torments in soul and body, without intermission, in hell-fire for ever.”

If he really believes that  that is what he believes and preaches, that is no one’s business but his own and his congregations (although I would have grave misgivings should he be preaching such sadistic doctrine to children.)

The Reverend also believes that the devil seeks to confuse us through the teaching of evolution, and  that everything was created over a period of six days, and in order to justify this belief he takes from time to time to the pages of the Hebridean News, where he tells us that

The notion that evolution is responsible for a process of development in living things, beginning with microbes and leading ultimately to men, must be rejected as there is not a single proven fact to support it.

I initially responded,

The Rev David Blunt says that “there is not a single proven fact” to support evolution. If he goes to the website http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/comdesc/ he will find, spelt out in detail, 29 separate arguments and hundreds of supporting facts that show that evolution is true. If he goes to the Biologs website, and looks up Dennis Venema, he will find a brilliant explanation of all this by a  devout evangelical.

If the Rev does not choose to inform himself about the facts,that is his business. But he denies their existence, he is bearing false witness.

The Reverend is clearly a fast reader, since within two days he had digested the 60 or so sections in talkorigins, and Dennis Venema’s excellent 28-part series. And so he was able to reply:

The sort of ‘facts’ which are essential for the theory of evolution to be true include the following: the existence of mutations representing the increase in genetic information necessary to arrive at more advanced life forms; the existence of life forms (extant or extinct) which are obviously transitional in character; the existence of billions of years of time.

Mutations … overwhelmingly detrimental… We still look in vain for specimens which are intermediate between one life form and another. The fossil record, which Darwin expected to provide examples of missing links, has yet to yield them.

Aeons of time are crucial to the theory of evolution yet it cannot be proved that the earth is billions of years old: indeed many scientific facts point to a much younger earth… [Evolution] must be able to account not simply for microbes to men but molecules to men – or even more precisely – particles to people. In other words it must be able to explain how life can arise from non-life. That is a real leap of faith!

There is no observable evidence for the theory of evolution. It is not testable over time and cannot be verified.

My response:

To pretend that biological evolution has to include an explanation of the origins of life is at best mistaken, at worst dishonest. Consider that before the 1950s, we did not know the origin of atoms. Nonetheless, atomic theory had been the central concept of chemistry since before the 1820s. Similarly, we do not know the origins of life, but evolution has been the central concept of biology since before the 1870s.

No one doubts that most mutations are harmful. A few of them do increase fitness. Harmful mutations are bred out, while fitness-enhancing mutations spread. It’s really that simple. Indeed, the whole of plant and animal breeding is one vast demonstration of evolution, albeit evolution directed by us rather than by the pressures of the natural environment. The Rev Blunt admits the occurrence of evolution under the pressure of artificial selection. How then can he claim that it is in principle impossible under natural selection, or that evolution has never been verified?

Australopithecus afarensis skull, through www.sculpturegallery.com
Museums are full of intermediate forms, if not the great-great-grandparents of living species, then at any rate their great-uncles. If the Rev cares to visit http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs12052-009-0135-2  (free article) he will find a whole series of intermediates between land mammals and present-day whales. If he visits the Smithsonian museum‘s site at http://humanorigins.si.edu/evidence/human-fossils/species, he will find out about over a dozen extinct species intermediate between apes and modern humans. If evolution is not true, why were these intermediates ever created?The age of the Earth is dated at over 4 billion years using some half-dozen different radiometric techniques. These the Rev Blunt will find explained, by an evangelical Christian, at “Radiometric Dating – A Christian Perspective“. We have known since 1928 that radioactive decay rates depend on the general laws of physics. If these had been different 4 billion years ago, the rocks wouldn’t have formed in the first place. If they had been almost 1000 fold faster in the past, as Young Earth creationists must claim, the rocks would have been melted by the heat produced.

doi.org/10.1016/j.ympev.2012.10.012

I conclude by pointing out that the fossil record clearly shows that whales are descended from land mammals. Yet Genesis states that whales were created on Day 5, and land mammals on Day 6. One of two things follows. Either Genesis is not, and was never meant to be, a science textbook. Or God has deliberately deceived us by creating a highly detailed but totally misleading fossil record.
This is a choice that each of us has to make in our own way. There are no alternatives.
I predict that the Reverend will reply, challenging me to turn a bacterium into a biochemist within the timescale of a research grant.
Update: Actually, rereading his material, I see that he did better than that, accusing me of clutching at whiskers (that’s a good line, I think I’ll use it) in my discussion of whale phylogeny, repeating the claim, long since refuted,  that data from Mt St Helen’s shows radiometric dating to be unreliable, and finally asserting that the only valid evidence is eye-witness evidence.
There is no eye-witness evidence of the Ice Ages, which helped shape the mountains of North Uist. Does the reverend therefore think they never happened?
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Creationism As Conspiracy Theory – The Case Of The Peppered Moth

Originally posted on 3 Quarks Daily on August 12 2013; on that same day, a school board member in Nebraska used slides of Well’s Icons of Evolution to argue that the school should teach “the evidence for and against neo-Darwinian evolution;” details here and here.

 

Lichte_en_zwarte_versie_berkenspanner

Comparison of carbonaria and typica mounted against post-industrial treetrunk, 2006. Licenced under GFDL by
the author, Martinowski at nl.wikipedia. [Click image to enlarge.]

 

The peppered mothprovides a textbook example of industrial melanism and its reversal. Once a classroom classic, then much criticised, and finally rehabilitated through further observation, the story also shows how real science works. The response of the creationist and “Intelligent Design” community provides a textbook example of a conspiracy theory in action, with cherry-picked quotations, allegations of collusion and fraud, and refusal to acknowledge new evidence.

This moth comes in two main varieties, mottled pale (typica), and dark-coloured (carbonaria). The dark form was first noticed, as a rarety, in 1848. Then came widescale industrialisation and grime. By 1895, 98% of the peppered moths in Manchester were dark, and in 1896 Read the rest of this entry

“Intelligible Design”; an encouraging response from World Scientific; but hopes dashed

Update July 23: this book has been absent for a week from the WSPC web site. I am told that the matter is under consideration by WSPC management. In the circumstances, I have taken down my posts on the subject, and hope not to have to reinstate them.
Update: World Scientific asked me for a full review of the book. I have sent it to them, with a cover note saying that I hope never to have occasion to publish it. All that fine invective, never to see the light of day! But fair’s fair.

Update Sept 27; It’s back on the menu. Too puerile to require rebuttal, too insignificant to be worth publicising by protest. So I’ll leave it at that, and simply bear in mind that World Scientific’s imprimatur is now worthless.

Anti-Creationists need to think about tactics

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 [1] 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 [2].  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 [3] 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.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

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.

2 See Richard Dawkins converts corner for examples of loss of faith and the BCSE community forum for examples of both kinds.

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

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