Charter schools open door for creationism

Government plans to establish charter schools look like providing a way for creationists to get their teachings into New Zealand’s classrooms (Dominion Post, 19 August).

The Manukau Charitable Christian Trust is planning to team up with the Manukau Christian School to teach a “philosophy” titled ‘In God’s World’, to be marked against the Cambridge curriculum.

The philosophy encourages every subject to be taught so students “discover” how God made the world, and upholds and governs it.

Trust chairman Tony Bracefield said it planned to open a number of junior classes at churches, feeding up to senior classes on Manukau Christian School’s grounds. He said the school would use non-qualified teachers, and teach about 200 children in the long term.

Post Primary Teachers Association president Robin Duff said the types of people who appeared to be interested in charter schools would not have made it through teacher education.

” In the case of the trust, we’d be concerned if an organisation with a ‘statement of faith’ that denies evolution and claims creation according to the Bible is a historical event, were to receive state funding.”

He said the trust could be grouped with religious organisations like Destiny Church and the Maharishi Foundation, which had both expressed interest in charter schools, and which delivered education that denied scientific principles.

Associate Education Minister John Banks said he would not comment on the trust’s charter plans.

A day later, the NZ Herald (20 August) reported Banks had told Radio Rhema he has no doubts the first chapters of Genesis are true. “That’s what I believe, but I’m not going to impose my beliefs on other people, especially in this post-Christian society that we live in, especially in these lamentable times. There are reactionaries out there, humanists in particular, that overrun the bureaucracies in Wellington and state education.”

Racist creationists upset Kawerau

Meanwhile, many residents of Kawerau have been upset by a creationist pamphlet mail drop in the small Bay of Plenty town (NZ Herald, 22 September).

“Are you a racist? You are if you believe in evolution!” the pamphlet states. “Kids are taught in school that man evolved (changed) from a chimp. So I ask you who changed the most from a black chimp with black hair and brown eyes? A black man with black hair and brown eyes? Or a white man with blond hair and blue eyes?”

People who received the pamphlet should “rip it up and bin it,” said Vicki Hall, a spokeswoman for the Race Relations Commissioner. “The commission’s position is that the pamphlet is clearly offensive. However, there is no law that prevents someone from publishing it.”

While the pamphlet accuses those who “believe in evolution” of racism, it is based on the racist premise that black people look more like chimps than white people do. Yet two of the three chimp subspecies have fair skin, and Caucasians tend to be hairier than other peoples. The similarity between chimps and people of colour is all in the minds of the pamphlet’s producers, and the citizens of Kawerau were right to pick these mealy-mouthed hypocrites as racists.

Death’s link to vaccine ‘convoluted pseudoscience’

The likelihood of an Upper Hutt teenager having died as a result of the cervical cancer vaccine has been rejected as convoluted pseudoscience by Helen Petousi-Harris, of Auckland University’s Immunisation Advisory Centre (Dominion Post, 21 September).

Jasmine Renata, 18, died in her sleep in September 2009, six months after completing the programme for cervical cancer vaccine Gardasil.

She suffered from runny noses, headaches, warts, tiredness, a racing heart and other symptoms. During an inquest in August, her parents said they believed the vaccine was the cause of their daughter’s failing health and eventual death.

Canadian neuroscientist Christopher Shaw and US pathologist Sin Hang Lee told the inquest heavy aluminium staining in Ms Renata’s brain tissue could have acted as a “trojan horse”, bringing the human papillomavirus into her brain.

But Dr Petousis-Harris said on 20 September that the doctors’ arguments were convoluted and not based on scientific evidence. “I find that quite concerning, given the gravity of the issue here. Anyone who has had the vaccine may become worried, and anyone planning to have it may also become worried. But it’s based on no evidence at all, which is not good. You have got to make your decisions based on good science.”

It was important to discuss the weaknesses in the research so parents and possible vaccine recipients had all the information, she said.

There is further commentary on this case at Http://

Medium to ‘help heal’ Pike River pain

Australian medium Deb Webber, of Sensing Murder fame is once again in this country using a tragedy to promote her business (Greymouth Star, 16 August).

Webber, who caused anger in 2009 by raising the case of missing Auckland toddler Aisling Symes while plugging her shows on breakfast television (Aisling’s body was recovered from a stormwater pipe a few days later), has announced that this spring she will meet with family of Pike River disaster victims to help heal their pain with readings in a private session.

“I have been flooded with emails from family members so it will be nice to help them out,” Webber’s publicist said.

Given that Webber has no psychic ability (see NZ Skeptic 104), it’s uncertain exactly how she is going to be able to help at all.

Didgeridoo healing reaches NZ

Back in NZ Skeptic 102 Alison Campbell reported on how didgeridoos could be used to clear emotional and energetic stagnation, and help ” to quantum manifest healing and the co-creation of our universe.” Now this amazing medical breakthrough is available in New Zealand (Stuff, 6 September), thanks to yet more visitors from across the Tasman.

Australia-based psychic double act K and Dr Michael appeared in Auckland on 18 September. The US-born Dr Michael bills himself as a “vibrational healer with the didgeridoo” and a reiki master who “gives energy healing with past life and spirit healing messages”.

K on the other hand is “blessed with psychic abilities since childhood” and is said to be “one of Australia’s most sought after clairvoyants”. Must have been quite a night.

More Dunedin ghosts

Dunedin is emerging as the haunted capital of New Zealand. Following a series of ghostly events at Otago University’s Cumberland College ( NZ Skeptic 104) spirits are now reported to be occupying the nearby Globe Theatre ( Otago Daily Times, 2 July).

Five members of paranormal investigation group The Other Side Paranormal visited the theatre to follow up earlier research into three spirits believed to be there. The spirits were said to be those of Robert Blackadder, who lived in the building in the 19th century before it became a theatre, a girl called Mary Elizabeth Richmond who lived in the building in the 1860s, and former theatre caretaker Frank Grayson, who died in the 1980s.

“I think it’s safe to say the caretaker Frank is still there. He is just there looking after the place, basically. We’ve found a few things on our video footage … a few light anomalies,” said investigator Kelly Cavanagh.

There was also an “incident” when a person felt someone sit down next to them, and a photo revealed “energy” beside them. Other information gathered from an electromagnetic field reader, temperature gauge, and voice recorder would be analysed over the next week, Ms Cavanagh said. “We’ve definitely got some results and we are quite happy with what we’ve found.”

Creationism in Wellington schools

Creationism is not a new problem in New Zealand schools, as this article excerpt from NZ Skeptic 18 (December 1990) illustrates.

A report of a survey conducted in 1988

In order to ascertain to what extent creationist ideas and influence have penetrated secondary school science courses, we sent the following questionnaire to secondary schools in the Wellington region.

  1. Approximately how many hours are devoted to the teaching of evolution in your school and what proportion of pupils are taught it?

  2. Are creationist ideas being taught at your school as part of a science course?

  3. Do any science teachers in your school use Creationist literature with their classes?

Nine replies were received from about 35 schools circulated. Although this provides only a small sample, and few generalisations can be made, the replies represent a good cross section, from central city large schools to “suburban” schools, and single sex and co-ed schools.

Most teachers made no comment of any concern they may have felt about the influence of Creationism in our schools, but 2 teachers specifically stated they felt there is a problem and that they are concerned about it. Most teachers expressed confidence that their 7th form pupils were able to decide for themselves on the merits or otherwise of the Creationist arguments, but one teacher specifically stated a concern that some pupils had already been “indoctrinated” and that few pupils had “the scientific background to adequately evaluate Creationist literature.” Two schools said their science teaching staff included a Creationist (and a third school, from which no reply was received, is known to us). Hence, 3 out of 10 schools have Creationists on their science teaching staff.

Evolution is clearly absent altogether from lower Form (Forms 3-5) courses, and comprises a minor part, if any, of the 6th Form Biology course. In Form 7 it constitutes a major part (generally 20-35 hours) of the Biology course, which is taken by about 20-30% of the 7th Form. This presumably represents about 3% of the school role.

In total, 4 of the 9 schools expose their pupils to Creationist ideas in the teaching of evolution – generally as a “stimulus for discussion” but, in 2 cases, to show that there are “alternatives that many people accept”. Students are encouraged to discuss the question and to “decide for themselves”. Two mentioned that they had taken classes to hear Dr Wilder-Smith (a prominent Creationist spokesman) talk, during his recent visit to New Zealand.

Roger Cooper (Paleontologist, NZ Geological Survey)
Gordon Hewitt (Biologist, School of Health Sciences, Central Institute of Technology)
Frank Andrews (Astronomer, Carter Observatory(
Dave Burton (Zoologist, Victoria University(

So who are these ‘‘scientists anonymous’’?

Alison Campbell finds the creationists are still trying to get into our schools.

A friend of mine, who happens to be a biology teacher, recently forwarded me an email. Quite apart from the fact that the sender had sent it to what looks like every secondary school in the country and didn’t have the courtesy to bcc the mailing list, there are a number of issues around it that give me some concern.

But first, the email:

TO: Faculty Head of Science / Head of Biology Department

Please find attached a new resource (pp. 12-14) by Dr Jerry Bergman on the left recurrent laryngeal nerve (RLN) for the teaching and learning of Senior Science/Biology (human evolution). [Edit: The original email had a link to the article on RLN, which was on the Institute for Creation Research website.]

• Much evidence exists that the present design results from developmental constraints.

• There are indications that this design serves to fine-tune laryngeal functions.

• The nerve serves to innervate other organs after it branches from the vagus on its way to the larynx.

• The design provides backup innervation to the larynx in case another nerve is damaged.

• No evidence exists that the design causes any disadvantage.

Freely share this resource with the teaching staff in your faculty/department.

Yours sincerely,

Scientists Anonymous (NZ)

PRIVACY ACT/DISCLAIMER Dissemination of extraordinary science resources will be made once or twice a year at the most (opt out).

All replies will be read but not necessarily acknowledged (no-reply policy applies).

The distribution of resources through this mailing system is not by the Publishers.

It’s immediately obvious that this is a thinly disguised attempt by cdesign proponentsists to get ‘intelligent design’ materials into the classroom [Those unfamiliar with the term ‘cdesign proponentsists’ please use Google – ed.]. The use of the word ‘design’ is a dead giveaway there. The arrangement of the laryngeal nerves has been noted by biologists as an example of poor ‘design’ as it doesn’t follow a straightforward path to the organs it innervates (and in fact follows an extremely lengthy detour in giraffes!), leading to the question, why would a ‘designer’ use such poor planning? (There’s a good YouTube clip on the subject.) That the ID proponents now seem to be arguing that poor design is actually purposeful and thus still evidence of a designer smacks of grasping at straws. Furthermore, the article that the email originally linked to is mounted on the Institute for Creation Research website – it’s not published in a peer-reviewed journal. So there’s nothing “extraordinary” about this particular “resource”.

Of more significance, I think, is the identity of the originators of this message (and I note they promise others in future; at least one can opt out!). “Scientists Anonymous”. This is an attempt at an appeal to authority – a bunch of scientists say so, so we should give it some weight.

But we shouldn’t – because we don’t know who they are. No-one’s publicly signed their name to this stuff, so why should we accept their authority in this matter? Are there really any practising scientists there? Are any of them biologists? Who knows… but it adds no weight to their proclaimed position on this issue. The only person mentioned by name, Jerry Bergman, is indeed a biologist by training, for whom the first Google entries are citations by Answer in Genesis and CreationWiki. Google Scholar indicates that his recent publications are not in the area of biological sciences but promote anti-evolution ideas including the one that Darwin’s writings influenced Hitler’s attitudes to various racial groups (an idea that’s been throroughly debunked elsewhere).

A search for ‘scientists anonymous’ brings up a students’ Facebook site and a book of the same name about women scientists. So who, exactly, are these ‘Scientists Anonymous’ who are behind the email to schools, and why aren’t they prepared to put their names to the document?


Fault is with Creationism

Bernard Beckett (Skeptic 95 , p8) says the ability of Creationism to make the same predictions as evolutionary psychology shows that the latter is not a scientific process. But the same is equally true of evolutionary biology. (“God made cats resemble tigers, and apples resemble pears, because He felt like it.”) The fault is with Creationism, not evolution. An omnipotent Creator can be used to explain/predict absolutely anything, not only the universe as it is, but any other universe, possible or im-. You might say that Creationism, like Nostradamus and astrology, is very good for predicting the past. That is their fundamental failing.

Billy Joel’s daughter (p18) obviously had quite the wrong idea about what an overdose in homeopathy is. If she had sniffed the closed bottle, she would certainly have died as she wished. Homeopathy patients should be warned.

Hugh Young
Pukerua Bay

The great continental demolition derby

When creationists try to harmonise their worldview with certain inescapable facts of geology, the result is chaos.
Recently I had forwarded to me a document bearing the title Debunking Evolution: problems, errors, and lies exposed, in plain language for non-scientists.
The content was depressingly familiar, and can largely be guessed from the title, although the way it crams in so many technical, sciencey-sounding terms into its almost 15,000 words rather works against its claim to be “plain language”. The author is given as one John Michael Fischer; despite this tract being widely disseminated across the internet (often copied and pasted into forum discussion threads) I have not been able to find any information on him or his background.

A full rebuttal of all this material would be even longer than the original; there’s certainly not enough space for it in this publication. In any case, most of it is standard creationist fare that’s been refuted over and over again – no macroevolution (only microevolution), irreducible complexity, the tornado in a junkyard (or a minor variant), no fossil ancestors for Cambrian species, no transitional fossils, the demise of the Tree of Life (as reported in a New Scientist cover story), Ernst Haeckel’s embryo drawings, lack of true vestigial organs, and how the Second Law of Thermodynamics precludes evolution.

Only a couple of arguments are comparatively new. Fischer gets very excited about recent findings that “increasing biological complexity is correlated with an increasing number of non-protein-coding DNA sequences and not, as previously assumed, with an increasing number of protein-coding genes.” Cells contain many short sequences of RNA which don’t code for functional proteins but play a variety of roles in regulating cellular processes and protein synthesis. He concludes from this that the ‘junk’ DNA which makes up most of the genome isn’t really junk after all, but must have been inserted by a Designer to fulfill essential biological functions.

Developmental biologist and blogger PZ Myers disagrees, and as usual is not shy about saying why( Most of the RNA transcripts are from regions of DNA near known genes, suggesting that they’re artefacts, like an extended transcription of a gene. Occasionally one of them may be co-opted for a new function, but there’s no indication of design; the genome is still mostly dead in transcription terms. “Don’t look for demolition of the concept of junk DNA here,” Myers says.

This is all very well, but once Fischer has single-handedly demolished evolutionary theory, what would he replace it with? The answer is on his website (, which is the ultimate source for Debunking Evolution. Navigating around the site is a bit of a challenge, but it’s clear his real passion is for geology, rather than biology, though he shows no greater aptitude for that discipline.

The home page bears the title ‘Shock Dynamics’, which Fischer describes as “[a] new geology theory featuring impact-powered rapid continental drift as an alternative to plate tectonics. The key to creation geology.” What he is proposing is that in the few thousand years of the Earth’s history allowed by the creationists’ timescale, our planet has been subjected to three major meteoritic events, one involving multiple impacts. The most recent of these was “in the time of Peleg” (Gen. 10:25), in whose days, the Bible tells us, “the Earth was divided”. An enormous meteorite, Fischer says, struck the Earth just north of what is now Madagascar, driving the initially joined continents to their present locations in a matter of hours.

According to Bishop Ussher’s chronology, Peleg was born in 2247 BC, 101 years after the Flood, and lived 339 years. To put this in perspective, the Pyramid of Djoser in Egypt was built between 2630 and 2611 BC.

Continental Drift is a big issue for creationists. If all land animals are really descended from a single boatload that landed on a mountaintop in eastern Turkey, then explaining how they all got to their current locations takes some doing. How did kiwi and moa get to New Zealand? Or lemurs to Madagascar, or sloths to the Amazon? The problem looks slightly less insuperable if, at the time of the Flood, all the world’s land masses were joined. The 1000-plus landsnail species found only in New Zealand could then simply have crawled here, being careful not to leave any relatives along the way. Several creationists have therefore tried to come up with scenarios in which rapid, post-Flood continental movement may have occurred.

Fischer argues the energy of an incoming meteorite triggered the continents to slide up to 9000km (in the case of Australia) over a period of 26 hours. Yes, that’s right. Australia must have averaged a speed of almost 350 km/hr; given that accelerating and decelerating a continental landmass must take a while, the maximum velocity must have been considerably greater. How was this achieved? Fischer suggests a phenomenon called acoustic fluidisation may be involved. In this process vibrations from landslides, earthquakes or meteorite impacts “fluidise” loose debris so that it flows like a liquid. It’s a real phenomenon, and has been used to explain the effects of some earthquakes, or the long distances landslides sometimes flow across plains from their points of origin. Here then is Fischer’s scenario:

“The giant meteorite explodes, penetrating the continental crust. The force pushes up low mountains, and the landmass slides away like a ship on water, fluidizing the contact layer. Behind the landmass, a surface layer of oceanic crust is melting and cooling to form the mid-ocean spreading ridge with transform faults, pulled open by the landmass.
“When the leading edge loses enough energy, the contact layer at the leading edge solidifies. The momentum of the landmass carries it forward like a car hitting a wall, piling up high mountains. The formerly fluidized contact layer in front is a Benioff zone, called subduction zones in Plate Tectonics.”

Strictly speaking a Benioff zone is a deep, active seismic area within a subduction zone, but we know what he means.
One thing he doesn’t explain is why other meteorite impacts didn’t produce the same effect. And this is a problem, because Fischer invokes lots of big meteorites. The Flood was brought about by a whole swarm of meteorite strikes. As these struck the ocean they raised enormous splashes, which Noah interpreted as “the fountains of the deep” (Fischer differs from other creationists in asserting that the Flood story is an eyewitness account written by Noah, rather than divinely authored). They also unleashed the enormous volcanic event of the Siberian Traps (generally regarded as 250 million years old) and collapsed the waters above the heavens referred to in the first chapter of Genesis (Fischer calls the waters a “vapor canopy”), the ultimate cause of the Flood. This is an interesting one, because according to Psalm 148, those waters are still there:

“Praise him, ye heavens of heavens, and ye waters that be above the heavens.
“Let them praise the name of the LORD: for he commanded and they were created.

“He hath also stablished them for ever and ever: he hath made a decree which shall not pass.” (KJV)

So we have the ultimate irony: in order to uphold the literal truth of one part of the Bible, Fischer piles absurdity on absurdity, and in the end only succeeds in contradicting another part. (The vapour canopy, by the way, is pretty much standard creationist doctrine these days; few creationists ever seem to read anything in their Bibles beyond Genesis.)

But Fischer doesn’t stop there. The Flood kills off the dinosaurs, which are on a different landmass – people only live on Mesopotamia, or possibly East Antarctica, where dinosaur remains have not been found. I’m not sure how the landmasses can be undivided and yet there are two of them. Successive waves of ocean water deposit massive amounts of sediment, forming the geological column and fossil record. After the Flood the Chicxulub meteorite (generally credited with the demise of the dinosaurs) hits the Earth, but doesn’t seem to do much except spread around some iridium and shocked quartz.

The Flood survivors spread and multiply for several hundred years. Then the Shock Dynamics meteorite scatters the continents, raises all the mountain chains (the landmasses used to be low-lying; the Flood story describes how the tops of the mountains could be seen as the waters receded, but I think we can assume they were only little mountains) and wipes out many large mammal species. The force of the impact is enough to speed up the Earth’s rotation, so that the number of days in a year increases from 360 to 365.2. All those sliding continents heat the oceans, which causes massive evaporation, which in turn causes cooling, bringing on the Ice Ages. You’d think the Chinese, the Egyptians, and the other civilisations of the time would have noticed.

Other scenarios

The internet (and creationist literature) is awash with material like this. Shock Dynamics theory is not merely the work of a lone crackpot, but a fairly representative example of a mode of thought that remains very widespread. Fischer is not the only one pushing a literal division of the Earth in the time of Peleg, although other creationists have come up with different mechanisms.

The Associates for Spiritual Knowledge, for example ( favour an expanding Earth pushing the continents apart. The Associates for Biblical Research (< A HREF=””> ) don’t propose a mechanism at all, merely suggesting the continents drifted apart during Peleg’s lifetime.

Other creationists disagree. These include the most active group locally, Creation Ministries International (CMI), who maintain the division in Peleg’s time was purely a cultural one. They say the continents were separated at the time of the Flood (, and the animals later migrated via land bridges during the post-Flood Ice Age, or were moved around by people. This, they argue, avoids the problem of another (post-Flood) catastrophe that would accompany such a division, and destroy most land life. Those sloths dragged themselves across Siberia and over a Bering Strait land bridge to get to the Amazon, apparently. Or maybe the first Americans took them along as pets, packing plenty of Cecropia leaves to feed them on the journey.

One way rapid continental drift may have been triggered at the time of the Flood is set out in something called Hydroplate Theory, the brainchild of one Dr Walt Brown, who explains all in his book In the Beginning. This states that before the Flood there was a massive amount of water underneath the crust. Pressure on the water caused the plates to break and separate; the escaping water then flooded the whole earth, and the continental plates flew apart at speeds of up to 72 km/hr ( Others believe the Earth is hollow ( Rodney M Cluff, author of World Top Secret: Our Earth Is Hollow! claims:

“Located at 87.7 degrees North and South Latitude are Polar Openings that lead into the hollow interior of our planet where the Lost Ten Tribes of Israel today dwell in perfect harmony, with life spans equal to those of the Methuselahs of the Bible, whose only desire is to live in peace. Their flying saucers in defense of their country at times are seen on our surface world. They don’t come to destroy, they are waiting… Waiting for us to discover that world peace is the only answer, not without God, but WITH Him.” [ellipsis and emphasis in original]

Then there are the geocentrists. A 1999 Gallup poll found 18 percent of Americans, when asked whether the Earth revolved around the sun or the sun around the Earth, picked the latter, while another three percent had no opinion. Poll results in Britain and Germany are similar. Probably for most of these people it’s just not a question they’ve given much thought to, but the Association for Biblical Astronomy ( have devoted a lot of time and effort to it. In their view, whenever the Bible and astronomy are at variance, it is always astronomy “- that is, our ‘reading’ of the ‘Book of Nature,’ not our reading of the Holy Bible – that is wrong.” Key passages in the Bible indicate the Earth is motionless at the centre of the universe and that’s the end of it; the Earth neither rotates daily nor revolves around the sun. The geocentrists regard more liberal groups, such as the Institute for Creation Research, CMI and Answers in Genesis, as accommodationists.

Though they may disagree vehemently among themselves, all these groups are united by their belief in the inerrancy of the Bible. What’s more, they insist that only faith in the infallibility of scripture can provide the philosophical underpinnings that allow a person to avoid straying into error. CMI’s Jonathan Sarfati, for example, writes:

“[W]e are not merely asking opponents to consider biblical presuppositions as an alternative way of looking at the evidence. Nor are we merely saying that they are ‘nicer’, nor even that they provide a superior framework that better explains the data (although both of these are true as well). Rather, the claim is even stronger: that the biblical framework is the only one that provides the foundation for science, voluntary will, logic and morality.”

This just doesn’t wash. The clearest sign that “biblical presuppositions” are no foundation for science and logic is the plethora of nonsensical scenarios that creationists have concocted in their attempts to harmonise the evidence of geology with their preconceived notions of a Flood, a six-day creation and a 6000-year-old Earth. Science, which allows the freedom to adapt our views on the Earth’s history in the light of fresh information, remains the best philosophical framework for investigating the world around us. ‘Creation science’ is no alternative.

Clones in space: Responses to the Dominion Post science column

At last year’s NZ Skeptics conference Bob Brockie reflected on his career as a newspaper columnist and explained why he has no future with the Mormon Church.

After spending most of my life as a scientist, at the age of 69 I became a weekly science columnist for the Dominion Post and Evening Post. I’ve written about 500 articles now and people ask where I get my stuff from. Mostly I get it from trawling through weekly scientific magazines, from the other side of the world. I like to bring the curious or obscure, gee-whiz stories to public attention.

The media is overrun by stories on climate change, pollution and conservation. I write about anything but those subjects. That’s not news to me; I report other things.

Alien DNA

In 2003 I wrote about an amazing group of people called the Raelians and their claim to have cloned a little girl called Eve. Rael is a French former sports-car journalist who claims he was abducted by little aliens, who told him that 40,000 years ago they came to Earth and produced these little Eve-like creatures. At any moment, the Raelians say, they will present their DNA to the scientific community.

I didn’t get any response from this article from local people, but I did get an invitation from the Australian chapter of the Rael-ians to attend their next gathering three hours north of Sydney, where a white robe would await me.

A pox on alternative practitioners

I often report on experiments to test alternative medicines of one kind or another. One I did was on a fellow who had chicken pox. The doctor told him there was nothing he could do for it, other than staying home and keeping away from people for 10 days. He was a bit of a skeptic and went along to some alternative practitioners. The first one told him his stomach was too acid and gave him some homeopathic water to drink. The second hooked him up to a contraption and told him he had been raped as a child. The third one said he had Ross River fever. They all charged from $50 to $100.

I’ve also written about experiments with acupuncture, which works just as well if you stick the needles in at random.

These pieces invariably attract writers defending the treatment and accusing me of having a closed mind. The disgruntled people usually argue that acupuncture, iridology or homeopathy worked for them or their husband or their wife, and that’s the end of it.

Cosmic energies down on the farm

Then there’s biodynamics. The stars and planets rain down astral energies, which are absorbed through cow’s horns buried in the ground. This radiates out and makes everything grow. The colour of roses is controlled by Venus, and the colour of cornflowers by Saturn. In the Wellington public library there are four copies of Rudolf Steiner’s book, published in the 1920s, and they’re out all the time. Steiner really was the father of organic farming, but the organic people get very angry at me when I point this out. I get an enormous response if I write about Steiner, not only from his followers, but also from organic farmers who think they are above this sort of thing.

Genetic Engineering: yesterday’s issue?

I’ve done three or four articles on genetic engineering over the years, reporting on various experiments. Living in New Zealand you’d think the entire GE field was being closed down, but in fact in all continents of the world it is spreading at a huge rate. The peasants in China and Africa who are producing genetically engineered crops find they don’t have to use so many pesticides. But when I wrote about this in 2001 I got a tremendous response from angry people who wanted to keep New Zealand GE-free. And two years later, the same thing happened. The next time I wrote about it there were not so many letters, and when I wrote a pro-GE article early in 2009 I didn’t receive a single letter. So things have gradually quietened down; GE is no longer the terrible thing that people perceived it to be.

The Mormon blacklist

Generally I try to keep off religion but occasionally I stray in that direction. I got into big trouble when I wrote about the Mormon Church. The Mormons claim that Jesus went to North America and converted the inhabitants to Christianity 2000 years ago. They also believe that the Red Indians are one of the tribes of Israel, although DNA studies show there’s no possible connection.

I wrote about that, but I also found that Joseph Smith, the founder, was a complete rascal and charlatan. He was expelled from the Methodist Church for dealing with necromancy, enchantments and believing in ghosts, and fined for being a disorderly person and impostor. At age 38 a mob of vigilantes enraged by Smith’s arrogance, monetary deals and promiscuity – he ran off with all the best looking girls in the congregation – shot him dead in an Illinois jail. The Mormons of course think he was a martyr to his cause. At any one time the Mormon church is building at least 200 churches around the world.

I thought this was worth reporting, because at the time there were some men on Norfolk Island in trouble with the law for playing up with the girls. I made the mistake of saying it was no wonder they were acting so strangely, because they were all Mormons up there. They were very quick to point out that they were in fact Seventh Day Adventists. I had to write a grovelling apology, but found that I’d been put on the Mormon blacklist. When I consulted the list to see who else was there I saw I was in very good company with all sorts of famous people, including Richard Dawkins. I’m afraid I’ve got no future with the Mormons.

The power of prayer

One of the biggest responses I got was when I wrote about unanswered prayers. America’s Templeton Foundation are very interested in the relationship between science and spirituality; they raised $2.5 million to finance an experiment in which several doctors chose 1800 patients who were due for bypass surgery. They then arranged for a team of people, a mix of Protestants, Catholics and Jews, to pray for half these patients anonymously.

They were alarmed to find that the ones they prayed for did worse than the ones who were not prayed for.

I also mentioned the famous study by Charles Darwin’s cousin, Francis Galton, who wrote a book about the efficacy of prayer. He asked who gets prayed for most – Queen Victoria of course. She was prayed for every Sunday as were all the sovereign heads of Europe. His figures showed that, despite all the praying, sovereigns lived shorter lives than army officers, traders, merchants, doctors, and the gentry. And he famously concluded that the prayers therefore have no efficacy. Well. The letters still keep coming. I got letters saying that faith can’t be scientifically analysed, that God’s way of working is a mystery, and that science can’t determine the effects of prayer at all. Someone else said people of faith don’t need prayers to know that prayers work. One argued that some of the people having operations would have had extra prayers – they prayed for themselves. Other critics said they had used the wrong prayers, in the wrong language, that they didn’t pray hard enough, or that they didn’t adopt the best posture for saying prayers.

A local priest wrote to me twice, explaining in great detail that there are two sorts of prayers. There are petitionary prayers, where you beg God’s intercession, which hardly ever work, and adorational prayers, where you simply praise God. If you want to get results, he said, do this. Don’t ask for favours. It sounds as if the Muslims are on the right track; all you have to say is God is great. On the scientific evidence, if you’re in line for heart surgery, stop people praying for you.

Tourism on Ararat

In Auckland a couple of years ago two young men developed a system for making maps from satellite imagery. They’d been looking closely at Mt Ararat and some Americans were financing them to go there to see if they could find Noah’s Ark. The story in all the newspapers was all about these pioneers going to a really difficult place, breaking new ground, and how nobody had done this sort of work before. I pointed out that for 2000 years people had been going up Mt Ararat and there are hotels and a monastery up there. There’s a well-worn track; thousands of people go up and down all the time. A whole tourist industry has been developed there.

The difficulty with this, of course, is that no boat can accommodate 5000 species of mammals, 8700 birds, 30,000 worms, and two million insects. The column of beetles would be 240km long, and Noah and his family must have each carried 100 diseases from anthrax to syphilis. How Noah coped with food for the animals, the ventilation, the waste disposal, disembarkation on to a dead Earth, and how the platypus got from Mt Ararat to Australia are all very difficult to explain. A retired clergyman wrote me several, quite substantial letters as a result.

A letter from the Hamster

I’ve written one or two columns on the Creation Museum in Kentucky. In it are depictions of life in the Garden of Eden, and of a happy Adam and Eve, wandering around among the dinosaurs. I gather that 40 percent of Americans believe that humans and dinosaurs were on the Earth at the same time. I produced a column on the museum last year, which generated no response here, but someone at the museum itself must have read it. Ken Ham, the Australian who runs it, was upset. He replied, point by point, to all the mistakes I’d made. I had made one or two mistakes but they were trivial. I said he’d raised US$27 million to build it; he said he didn’t raise the money, a trust raised the money. I said he had a radio station and broadcast stuff around the world; he said he didn’t have a radio station, he just produced programmes. These are run by 287 other radio stations around the world. He wrote a letter to the editor of the paper and suggested I get the sack for my mistakes.

Filthy sex aids and the end of the world

I once wrote about the beginning of the world, and got an 11-page letter telling me when the world is going to end. The letter was from none other than God and his wife. They told me that the Earth would end shortly before January 31 in the year 5000. Owing to the mental and physical condition of humanity and filthy sex aids, mankind become unable to reproduce about then. There was lots of other advice as well, about divorce and the number 7777 and how the true church is the Salvation Army. Sadly, I couldn’t reply to God, because there was no forwarding address. I did notice it was sent from a post office down in Manners St, Wellington, however.

Scientific gossip

Why do I write this stuff? Well, $170 a week is very welcome, but I think that a vast amount of science goes unreported, and it gives me quite a buzz to bring news of this. I feel a bit like a postman, bringing news of developments and scientific gossip to the public. Also, there’s a sense of obligation to the public who paid for me to work as a scientist for most of my life. I feel a duty to let them know what they’re getting for their money. We’re floating around in a miasma of superstition, with people believing preposterous things with great intensity. I can’t help but challenge them in some way: ask them, how can you justify this, where do you get these ideas from?

I derive a lot of joy from writing these articles. It’s very different from writing for scientific journals. There you sweat blood and tears and produce a piece, which is then published years after you submitted it. Eighteen months later somebody in Mozambique or the Canary Islands asks for a reprint. With these newspaper articles I write it today and it’s published tomorrow. And people are on the phone or writing complaining letters the next day.

A tribal occasion

When Richard Dawkins made a flying visit to New Zealand in March he attracted people from all over the country – including three from this household. Tickets to all events were quickly snapped up, but fortunately friends in the Auckland Univeristy Alumni Association put some aside for us.

The information content of a one-hour lecture (with about 20 minutes for questions) is not that great. And there wasn’t much in his presentation that anyone familiar with his work wouldn’t have encountered before, although he concluded with some ideas on the origins of religion that were new to me. For not much more than the $30 admission fee (less than half what Kelvin Cruickshank charges for an evening, I had to note) you could buy one of his many books, which would keep you busy for days.

But the evening wasn’t really about learning new stuff. It was a gathering of the tribe, of sorts, though admittedly it’s a rather odd tribe. It’s one that doesn’t really have leaders, but to paraphrase Terry Pratchett, Richard Dawkins is one of the most highly regarded of the leaders we don’t have. It was just good for one’s cosmic energy levels, to be in the same room, and breathe the same air for a while.

One gratifying feature of the evening was the age range in attendance. Grey, balding heads and beards would once have overwhelmingly predominated at an event like this, but there were good numbers of university age in the audience, and a much more even gender ratio than would have prevailed 20 years ago. Our 19-year-old daughter received jealous comments when she had to graciously decline an invitation to a steampunk party the same night.

And as a bonus, we picked up several free copies of The Origin of Species – the edition with the “Special Introduction” by New Zealand-born creationist Ray Comfort, which were being handed out on the street nearby. He’s gone out of his way to make Darwin’s words inaccessible: I didn’t know they made typefaces that small, although of course his introduction is impeccably laid out, with lots of amusing 19th century caricatures of Darwin. But I can’t help thinking that distributing this book to people who otherwise would never go near a copy is not a brilliant strategy, especially now he’s been made to call in his original version that was missing crucial chapters. Poor old Ray was never the sharpest knife in the drawer – check out his clip on YouTube about how the banana is an atheist’s worst nightmare. This latest stunt of his will no doubt create further amusement, but few converts, unless they’re in an unintended direction.

Eve bites off too much

Ian Wishart is one of New Zealand’s more prominent creationists. In a recent book he takes on evolutionary biology, a task for which he seems ill-equipped.

In his latest book, Eve’s Bite (2007), Investigate magazine managing editor Ian Wishart has a chapter titled The Beagle Boys (sub-titled Darwinism’s last stand). In it he again attacks the well established edifice of organic evolution. He heads the chapter with a quote from Ann Coulter’s Godless: The Church of Liberalism, which is worthwhile reproducing here in full because it clearly reflects the key elements of Wishart’s (false) assessment of the scientific status of evolution:

Liberal’s creation myth is Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, which is about one notch above Scientology in scientific rigor. It’s a make-believe story, based on a theory that is a tautology, with no proof in the scientist’s laboratory or the fossil record – and that’s after 150 years of very determined looking. We wouldn’t still be talking about it but for the fact that liberals think evolution disproves God.

Are Ann Coulter and Ian Wishart right? Is evolution a myth based on a tautology (the theory of natural selection)? Does evolution lack proof in the laboratory or in the fossil record? Does it disprove God?

The theory of natural selection (defined as “survival of the fittest”), claim anti-evolutionists, is a tautology because it is merely saying those who are fittest are the ones that survive. However, this is not how most biologists now view the term ‘fittest’. In brief, the fittest organisms are the ones possessing heritable features that enable them to leave the most offspring in a particular environment, physical and biological. In other words, there are criteria of fitness that are independent of survival.

Much of the confusion perpetrated by anti-evolutionists emanates from a too-simplistic notion of natural selection. “Survival of the fittest” is best regarded as a shorthand for a complex process. (Incidentally, it is Herbert Spencer’s phrase, not Darwin’s, although Darwin did eventually incorporate it into later editions of the Origin.) In fact, the theory of natural selection is far from being tautologous. For example, it can lead to testable hypotheses (predictions) relating to particular traits. As one evolutionist, Jason Rosenhouse, has observed, “there is nothing tautological about saying…that moths possessing dark coloration will be less visible than light colored moths to predatory birds when resting on dark-colored trees.” If the theory of natural selection is a mere tautology, supplementary testable hypotheses such as this one would be non-existent. Most importantly, regardless of how evolution has occurred, the evidence for it is overwhelming.

Evidence for the process, derived from laboratory observations and experiments, emanates from several fields of research, such as comparative anatomy (from an examination of fossil and extant organisms), embryology, molecular biology and genetics.

As for the fossil record, it is a treasure trove of evidence that evolution has occurred. Not only does it reveal morphological and other details of numerous creatures from the past, it also shows an overall pattern of similarity pointing to the reality of descent with modification. In addition, numerous transitional forms have been discovered (see below).


Does evolution disprove God? It is important to realise, in the current context, that biologists in doing science are practising methodological naturalism, so that supernatural explanations, because they are empirically non-testable, can have no role to play in science; they are scientifically worthless. Therefore the accusation by anti-evolutionists that evolutionists are deliberately atheistic (that in promoting evolution they are intentionally promoting atheism) is unwarranted. In fact, not all evolutionists are atheists.

It comes as no surprise, given her take on evolution, that Coulter, a lawyer and a conservative columnist, has drawn on what she calls “the generous tutoring” of intelligent design (ID) luminaries, Michael Behe, David Berlinski and William Dembski. If she genuinely wishes to learn something about evolution, the last people she should seek help from are ID proponents. In quoting Coulter, Wishart has set the tone and the level of argument of his chapter attacking evolution.

Wishart has adopted a familiar strategy used by anti-evolutionists in general – quoting eminent scientists purporting to be demonstrating that evolution itself is in crisis. It’s not, of course, but let’s see how he tries to convince his readers that it is, and that intelligent design is the only logical successor to an apparently discredited scientific theory.

But first, a point of clarification. It is necessary to distinguish between Darwin’s theory of descent with modification, establishing the reality of the process, and his theory of natural selection. The distinction is important because, almost invariably, scientists are quoted by anti-evolutionists questioning aspects of theories relating to the mechanism(s) of evolution. But it suits Wishart (and others) to convey the impression that evolution itself is in serious doubt in scientific circles (hence his subheading: “Darwinism’s last stand”).

A passage by Niles Eldridge (American Museum of Natural History), a prominent opponent of ID creationism, extracted from his 1995 book, Reinventing Darwin (p. 95), according to Wishart, is supposed to demonstrate “the lack of fossil support” for evolution. It reads in part as follows:

No wonder paleontologists shied away from evolution for so long. It never seems to happen. Assiduous collecting yields…the very slight accumulation of change-over millions of years, at a rate too slow to really account for all the prodigious change that has occurred in evolutionary history. When we do see the introduction of evolutionary novelty, it usually shows up with a bang, and often with no firm evidence that the organisms did not evolve elsewhere! Yet that’s how the fossil record has struck many a forlorn paleontologist looking to learn something about evolution.

On the face of it, pretty damning comment surely? To understand what really concerns Eldridge we need to consider the above passage in context. It appears in a chapter devoted to a discussion of the Eldridge/Gould concept of punctuated equilibria which, as Eldridge himself describes it, “is a melding, in essence, of the pattern of stasis [as revealed in the fossil record] with the recognition that most evolutionary change seems bound up with the origin of new species-the process of speciation.” By ‘stasis’ is meant the tendency for species not to change very much, often over millions of years. Long periods of stasis (or stability) are punctuated by shorter periods of comparatively rapid change, the process of speciation. Because of its somewhat short duration (geologically speaking) in small populations on the outskirts of an ancestral species’ range, the chance of recording a speciation ‘event’ in the record of the rocks is substantially reduced.

Two points to note here. Eldridge is not denying the reality of evolutionary change-that new species and groups arise over time through the influence, essentially, of natural selection. What Eldridge and Gould have brought to the attention of fellow evolutionists is that it is possible to reconcile what palaeontologists have observed in the fossil record, in Eldridge’s words “its gappiness, and uncertainties about where its fossilized animals and plants might have come from”, with how species originate over time. This reconciliatory theory brings into question the view of gradual (imperceptible) change over eons of time in the production of new species. Most importantly, the theory of punctuated equilibria is very much concerned with rates of change, the tempo of evolution.

To repeat, what it does not bring into question is the reality of evolution itself. This is not the place, nor is it necessary, to discuss the merits or otherwise of punctuated equilibria theory or of phyletic gradualism. What the theory has done (going back to Eldredge’s statement quoted above) is show that palaeontologists do have a role to play in the elucidation of the mechanisms and patterns of evolutionary change. And we should not overlook the role long played by palaeontologists in the discovery and painstaking excavation and preparation of numerous fossils that have provided such a rich lode of evidence for the ‘fact’ of evolution.

Transitional fossils

Which brings us to Wishart’s take on the subject of transitional fossils as evidence for evolution. There aren’t any, he contends, among the 250,000 fossil species now identified and catalogued: “Nowhere, are there fossils that show a weasel-cat, or a deer-giraffe, or any other of the alleged half-breed species said to have existed. In fact, a search of the literature on giraffe evolution has failed to find a single example of a short-necked giraffe at all. The long ones just suddenly appeared.”

Let’s briefly examine each of these examples. First the ‘weasel-cat’. Weasels and cats belong to different families within the mammalian Order Carnivora (Mustelidae and Felidae respectively). Should we expect these two families to be linked by a transitional ‘weasel-cat’? Well, no. The fossil and morphological evidence together point to separate ancestral groups among the earlier carnivores. What about a deer-giraffe link? Such a link between the Cervidae and Giraffidae is conceivable, but the inter-relationships of these two families are not firmly established. The apparent absence of such a link in the fossil record does not, of course, rule out a possible future discovery.

Is Wishart correct? Is there no example of a short-necked giraffe fossil? Here Wishart really comes to grief. He couldn’t have searched very far. Here is what Prothero (New Scientist, 1 March 2008) has to say: “Most fossil giraffes looked more like the short-necked okapi, a shy white-and-brown-striped denizen of the African rain forests, and the only other living giraffid.” More recently, a fossil giraffe has been described from the late Miocene and early Pliocene. “Its neck is a perfect intermediate between the short-neck ancestors and their long-neck descendants.”

Wishart somewhat sarcastically refers to “half-breeds”. However, “half-breed” is best regarded as an offensive term pertaining to a person whose parents are of different ‘races’. The term has nothing whatever to do with transitional or intermediate forms. In fact, the fossil record contains numerous examples of transitional forms, between species and between higher groups.

Before we leave the subject of transitional fossils, a brief word about whale evolution. Wishart continues to ignore the impressive fossil evidence-a series of forms beginning with a semi-aquatic predator (Pakicetus), probably derived from the hippo-pig lineage of artiodactyls, and ending with modern whales.

The Cambrian Explosion

He again raises what is colloquially called the Cambrian explosion. The Cambrian period saw the first appearance in the fossil record of many of the major phyla of multi-cellular animals. Naturally, creationists like to take ‘explosion’ literally, depicting this period as a time of sudden or instant creation, and hence supporting the creationist scenario. (The fact that many groups preceded them, and many have arisen subsequently, seems not to concern them!) It was nothing of the sort. In brief, new groups appeared in the Cambrian over tens of millions of years. One of the chief reasons for the variety of new fossils during this period is clearly the arrival of hard-shelled invertebrates conducive to fossilisation.

There are many more examples of misconceptions and distortions about evolution in Wishart’s chapter, too numerous to expose here. The key message to take away from this critique: if you decide to read Ian Wishart or Ann Coulter on evolution, or any other ID proponent on the same subject, keep a salt cellar handy!

For previous critiques of Ian Wishart on evolution, see NZ Skeptic, winter 2002; summer 2003.

Recommended additional reading: Donald R. Prothero (2007). Evolution. What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters. Columbia University Press, New York.

A Little Light Reading

Jim Ring finds some material to pass the time on a recent flight.

Queensland is the home of young-earth creationism in Australia so it was perhaps not surprising that I found Creation Magazine for sale in the Brisbane airport. None of the other four Australian airports we visited displayed it. Curiosity overcame my reluctance to provide money for their cause.

This was volume 27 but I feel sure it has not been running for 27 years in this format. “Peer reviewed by leading creationary (sic) experts”. As there are no adverts there is no legal necessity for listing the numbers of copies sold or estimated readership. I would like to know these figures.

The cover picture with a caption “DINGO: Australia’s Wild Native Dog” suggested a wild-life theme and the glossy cover was just like hundreds of other magazines on the rack. However a few key words-fossil, God, Darwin, massive flood, evolution, suggested otherwise. Not to mention the web page address for Answers in Genesis (branches outside of the US have recently re-branded themselves as Creation Ministries International-ed.).

With all the present attention on Intelligent Design it is worth reminding ourselves that young-earth creationists are still very much around.

A letter page called Feedback (borrowed from New Scientist?) gives some indication of the readership. A letter from Lower Hutt thinks pet budgies prove a creator. I cannot quite follow the argument but apparently teaching one to say “Hello, God made me” is important.

The editorial attacks other publications-National Geographic, Time, and Scientific American, because they do not take creationist views seriously. I imagine these editors are trembling in their shoes. In contrast the editor remembers a young farmer who said, “When I drive around the countryside I see evidence for Noah’s flood everywhere.”

A number of news items taken (with acknowledgment) from New Scientist, Science, Nature, etc have the theme that new discoveries discredit science by proving that older ideas were wrong. If one believes that all answers lie in Genesis I suppose this is logical, but to me it is an entirely alien idea.

An article on UFOs and aliens surprised me but perhaps belief in a completely unsupportable worldview opens one’s mind to more nonsense. Some famous pictures described as “genuinely unexplained sightings” help to plug a book for AiG. This apparently links abductions with demonology, and shows how “belief in evolution has opened the door to alien visitations.” The book is claimed to provide answers for Christians puzzled by UFO phenomena.

The lead article on Dingoes is quite good until it gets to the historical problem. When did humans and dingoes actually arrive in Australia? Australians convinced that the earth is only about 6000 years old have huge problems in compressing their history to make it fit.

The second major article is on how the (Irish) Giant’s Causeway was produced by the biblical flood about 4500BP over a very short period. This is hilarious because it is obviously meant to be serious. The author is a staffer at AiG with a BSc (Hons) in geology and the article has references to recent geological articles and journals. However he brushes over the problem of geological dates with “Once we realise the dates assigned to the causeway are not measured, but just someone’s opinion, we can look at the evidence in a different light.” He is in agreement with modern opinion that the Causeway was produced by a huge eruption followed by a flood. However, according to Richard Fortey in The Earth: An Intimate History that flood was the opening of the Atlantic Ocean.

All this is benign but three pages of material towards the back are not. The headlines for three articles:

  • Darwin’s Impact-The Bloodstained Legacy of Evolution
  • Evolution and Social Evil
  • America’s Evolutionists: Hitler’s Inspiration?

-would disgrace any publication.

While A Timeline of Evolution Inspired Terror features Karl Marx, Leon Trotsky, Joseph Stalin, Adolf Hitler, and Pol Pot. I am not sure how Mao escaped here but he is mentioned in the text. Somehow Darwin is responsible for the behaviour of these men.

This would be funny if it was not serious; it is a timely reminder that it is important to keep creationists out of schools.