Opening Pandora’s Box

Demands for equal time cut both ways.

Armies of the night, science-writer and novelist Isaac Asimov once called them. He was referring to the countless millions of evangelicals who believe the book of Genesis to be literally true and therefore reject any evidence to the contrary.

President Bush is one of them. So is Michael Drake, principal of Auckland’s Carey College.

As reported in the Weekend Herald (27 August), Drake believes that one can provide dates for the main events in the history of the universe by adding up all the ‘begats’ in the Bible. The date of creation turns out to be just over 4000 BC, and that of Noah’s Flood about 2400 BC.

What can these young-earth creationists say when confronted by scientific evidence that the universe began more than 12 billion years ago, that life began over 4 billion years ago, that dinosaurs became extinct some 63 million years ago, or that fossils of our hominid ancestors are shown by potassiumargon dating to be more than three million years old?

Their best ploy is to say that God created the universe with all this contrary evidence built into it. This, says Drake, is “perfectly possible”. It seems not to bother him that this hypothesis makes God, not just a Great Designer, but a Great Deceiver as well.

And what about the ancient civilisations whose historical and archaeological records spitefully ignore the Flood and the death of all living creatures, other than the inhabitants of the ark? Clearly, God must have even more tricks up his sleeve. After all, as Drake points out, tautologically, “God is God.”

Most mainstream Christians outside the US would reject this version of intelligent design. Like fifth century St Augustine, they would say that biblical literalists deserve to be “laughed to scorn” for their “utterly foolish and obviously untrue statements.”

Adopting Augustine’s figurative interpretation of Genesis, liberal Christians believe they can accommodate the findings of science and history. Thus those who call themselves theistic evolutionists can, without contradiction, accept Darwin’s laws of natural selection as one of the laws of nature — along with those of physics and chemistry — with which God endowed his creation at the outset. No need for him to intervene on this account.

Enter a third version, one that reintroduces elements of evangelical creationism into the evolutionary story. Michael Behe, in his 1996 book Darwin’s Black Box, claimed that although evolutionary mechanisms can explain a lot, they can’t explain the emergence of certain highly complex biological systems. His examples include the flagellum of E. coli, and the human immune system.

These systems, Behe argues, are “irreducibly complex” in the sense that none of their simpler parts would have survival value until they were assembled in the right way by the intervention of a supernatural deity. Unlike theistic evolutionists, Behe believes God has to tinker with his initial design.

How scientific is all this? Well, Behe himself is a scientist. And scientists certainly do find complexity in the biological world, especially at the molecular level.

But is there scientific evidence that this complexity is irreducible? Scientists can literally see complexity. But they can’t see irreducibility. Behe has to argue for it. And his arguments have been found wanting by both philosophers and scientists.

Philosophers disparage his argument’s form: “We don’t yet understand how these complex forms could have emerged, so God must have created them”. It is a rehash of the ‘God of the Gaps’ fallacy. Flawed faith-based reasoning. Not sound evidence-based science.

Meanwhile scientists continue to plug those gaps with accounts of the evolutionary pathways that generated these supposedly irreducible systems. What becomes of Behe’s argument for an intelligent designer if all the gaps get filled?

Now to the important question: Should intelligent design be taught in schools? If so, which version?

Mary Chamberlain, curriculum manager for the Ministry of Education, says science classes should allow for some version or other. She seems to echo Bush’s recent call for ‘equal time’ for those who oppose evolution.

Equal time counts both ways. If equal time is to be given to those who think there are arguments against evolution, then it should also be given to those who think there are arguments against intelligent design. But then we get into what philosophers call “the problem of natural evil.”

If you think an intelligent designer designed the universe, then think about the unsavoury aspects of his design. Think of diseases like Alzheimers, cancer, smallpox, and those caused by Behe’s favourite, E. coli. Think of disasters like tsunamis, hurricanes, and earthquakes. If complex design demonstrates intelligence, then by the same token the “god-awful” nature of much of God’s design demonstrates defective or malevolent intelligence.

On reflection, do its promoters really want intelligent design analysed and evaluated in schools? And if so, by whom? Do they really want to open Pandora’s box?

Forum

Efficacy of Prayer – an update

Since I wrote my piece (NZ Skeptic 75) based on Bruce Flamm’s article in Skeptical Inquirer concerning a research paper on the efficacy of prayer, Dr Flamm has reported ‘significant development’. Lest you jump to the conclusion that the authors, journal and university have acknowledged their serious error and have retracted the paper, be at once disabused. The significance of these developments, to my mind, is their minuscule and peripheral nature; nothing has really changed. One could reasonably grant a significant development to Wirth; he pleaded guilty to a 46-page indictment and is in jail for five years. Concerning the ‘lead’ author, Lobo, the journal later printed, at the bottom of the back page, an Erratum, that this name had been included ‘in error’. Young researchers often complain that senior colleagues insist on their names appearing on papers unjustifiably. In the topsy-turvy world of this journal, people find their names put unknowingly on papers they have had nothing to do with!

Despite never acknowledging any enquiries about this paper, and printing no comments, the author Cha was eventually given space for an extended, and misleading, response to the criticisms (which the readers knew of only from other sources).

The university set up a committee to investigate the research, but, on Dr Lobo withdrawing his name from the paper, disbanded the committee, saying it was no longer needed. So, despite all the unsavoury aspects of this matter, no one is admitting their mistake, and this nonsensical paper remains in the medical literature as ‘evidence’ of the efficacy of prayer.

Bernard Howard

Christchurch

Colour therapy – ’tis no puzzlement

Some weeks ago I met up with an old golfing friend I hadn’t seen in years. He was fit and well and is one of the few men I’ve ever met ageing better than I am. He is a retired mathematician with very good UK degrees, a solid skeptic, a fine golfer (handicap 8), down-to-earth and fun company. Another fellow, a man clearly unwell, whom I had also known as a professional colleague, accompanied us for the round. Afterwards, Roy and I caught up on the 28 years since we had worked in the same organisation and the topic of health arose. Our mutual friend, said Roy, had been given remission of his prostate cancer through colour therapy.

“Rubbish!” I responded. “Furthermore,” Roy continued, “I’ve used the process myself to alleviate the continuing effects of a bout of flu or bronchitis which I couldn’t shake off for months.” I demanded more information.

Roy then explained how, with some cynicism, he had been connected electrically to the colour-therapist’s machine for about six hours while the device operated with a strand of red-dyed material (wool?) in an electrically-charged stainless-steel cup. Afterwards, said Roy, his symptoms were gone and have not recurred. He roundly denied the placebo effect… A short while later, on another golf course, I met an old man practising chipping. After we got talking we discovered that we were both of a mind about the game, so played together a couple of times. Bob told me that he had recently recovered from a debilitating and life-threatening illness he’d contracted due to varnishing his house floor with a modern two-pot mixture. For two years he’d been in and out of hospital, talked to endless specialists and finally had begun to recover bodyweight when certain (unspecified) aspects of his diet were changed. I was invited to his home a little later and to my surprise discovered his wife is a colour therapist with a roomfull of equipment and walls covered with charts. At no time did Bob suggest his wife ever was able to give him relief using her machine or techniques.

What do I take from these admittedly flimsy accounts? The overwhelming thing I see is that alternate techniques are generally tried when all else has failed, by which time it is very likely that orthodox treatment is at last working in conjunction with that great healer, time.

Clive Shaw

Thames

Greenhouse Skeptics and Creationists no comparison

I am aware that the global warming subject has been ‘done to death’. However, the Keith Garratt item on skeptical environmentalism included several criticisms of my work which must be answered. In the interests of brevity, I will respond only to the most insulting (insulting to me as a skeptic).

He compares global warming skeptics to evolution skeptics. This is utter balderdash. Deniers of evolution are led by religious nutters. Global warming skepticism is led by climate scientists, and there are literally hundreds of professional climate researchers who have expressed their disquiet at the current paradigm.

Lance Kennedy

(And that really is the last word! -ed.)

Darwin and religion

Following the article by Alison Campbell in the Autumn 2005 Skeptic I got on to the Waikato University website and clicked ‘Darwin and Religion’ and was surprised to find a long article which completely failed to mention Darwin’s attitude to religion, or the difficulty in reconciling evolution with religious belief.

Darwin was an unusually honest scientist. He came to realise that human evolution was not essentially different from the evolution of any other creature, and that humans could not therefore claim the exclusive privilege of a supervising deity or of an afterlife. Only one of his scientific colleagues, Joseph Hooker, was prepared to support this view, and it was opposed by his wife and family. In Charles Darwin’s autobiography, published posthumously, his son Francis deleted the section on religion with the excuse:

“It will be easily understood that in a narrative of a personal and intimate kind written for his wife and children, passages should occur which must here be omitted; and I have not thought it necessary to indicate where such omissions are made.”

It was only in 1958 in the uncensored edition published by his granddaughter, Nora, Lady Barlow, that we were allowed to read Darwin’s true opinions on religion, which were as follows:

“I was very unwilling to give up my belief… But I found it more and more difficult to invent evidence to convince me. Thus disbelief crept over me at a very slow rate, but was at last complete.”

“…the constant inculcation in a belief in God on the minds of children producing so strong and perhaps an inherited effect on their brains not yet fully developed, that it would be as difficult for them to throw off their belief in God as for a monkey to throw off its instinctive fear and hatred of a snake.”

“I for one must be content to remain an Agnostic.”

In an interview with Edward Aveling in September 1881, the following retort took place:

Aveling: “‘Agnostic’ is but ‘Atheist’ writ respectable.”

Darwin: “‘Atheist’ is but ‘Agnostic’ writ aggressive.”

Many people have sought to distort Darwinism to remove Darwin’s insistence that man is just another animal. The most influential was Julian Huxley in his Evolution: The Modern Synthesis (1942) who claimed that humans were ‘different’ and ‘unique’; so, presumably, qualifying them for divine guidance, life after death, and dominion over all other organisms.

Vincent Gray

Wellington

Creationists in Our Midst Again

Answering Answers in Genesis

The young earth creationists have been active again … the Australian-based group Answers in Genesis (AIG), has been doing the circuit in New Zealand. Warnings on the Skeptics email list had alerted us to the fact that Carl Wieland, the head of AIG, was coming over to pollute young Kiwi minds so this was an opportunity we couldn’t and shouldn’t miss. Wieland is very influential in creationist circles, having produced many books, pamphlets and videos, and is really the driving force behind their main publications Creation Ex Nihilo and the impressively, but inappropriately, named Technical Journal (or “TJ” as they lovingly refer to it). It thus promised to be a good chance to see Wieland in action first hand and to get some clues as to how to handle him next time he appears on our shores.

The Practice Sessions

There was an opportunity to get a little practice in before the big event as their New Zealand CEO, Adrian Bates, was doing a run around some of the churches on the Coromandel at the end of March. I went along to both of his church meetings one Sunday, one in Whitianga and one in Coromandel. Bates was a little surprised to find a skeptic in church (so was I!), but kept smiling ever so sweetly as he tried to explain to me just how the two kiwis from the beached Ark managed to walk all the way from Mt Ararat to NZ (just how did the worms manage to outrun them and breed fast enough to provide enough food?). I found that once I asked a slightly (alright, very) heretical question then others in the audience plucked up the courage to query some of his comments also, which was very encouraging.

So Bates was easy, but I knew that Wieland was a consummate professional and would be a bit more savvy re skeptics and their stupid questions. Nevertheless it was good to go along and pick up some of their publications (there’s now one of their videos in the Skeptics Video Library). Also they tend to use the same overheads from talk to talk so it’s all good preparation for the next time.

The Big Ones

Wieland’s meetings in Auckland at the end of May were really big time. Held over two days the first one was billed as a six hour seminar and took place in the huge Greenlane Christian Centre. It was packed — about 250 people I estimated, and only 4 skeptics. Where were they all, I kept thinking. Megan Mills competently represented the Auckland Skeptics, and veteran creationist busters, David Riddell and Annette Taylor from the Waikato joined me in the lion’s den yet again. It was an interesting session. Wieland proved to be, as we expected, a well-practised and confident speaker and soon had the audience lapping it all up. They especially liked the bits where he ridiculed science and scientists with funny(?) cartoons and snide remarks and slogans (“from goo to you via the zoo”). This one thing perhaps riled me more than anything — you don’t mind them just being stupid, but when they try and make scientists look like a bunch of ignorant idiots I feel one has to stand up and be counted. The anti-science lobby in New Zealand is strong enough without some Aussie idiot coming over here to further poison our children’s minds with this drivel.

Wieland was a much better speaker than his colleague, a Steve Kumar, who held forth for an hour or so between Wieland’s sessions and I noticed a few of the faithful nodding off as he spoke. No doubt they’ll be punished in due course!

For the last session Wieland was in charge again and he rather worryingly asked for questions to be written on pieces of paper and placed in a box on stage to be answered before he would take questions from the floor (“if there was time”). After all there was a room full of publications, videos, games, CDs, puzzles, magazines, etc. that people had to have a chance to purchase. And they did! Time and again they ran out of “special” packs of his little paperback books at $125 a piece. I was flabbergasted — the turnover for the weekend must have been in excess of $10,000 I would estimate. Not to mention the donations in the offering buckets (I saw many $20 bills) and all the subscriptions to Creation ex Nihilo he signed up — a huge ongoing source of funds for this highly profitable, non-taxed multinational business (“non-profit” — yeah, right!).

Anyway, back to the questions. We decided that we would take our chances and try for questions from the floor rather than risk having them censored from the box. To his credit Wieland did answer a few curly ones from the box, but there were quite a few that he read to himself on stage and then quickly put right back as they were “the same as the last one”. Not very original, I thought! Finally the time did come for questions from the floor and I think we skeptics achieved some success. We did manage to dominate the question session and got to engage Wieland in debate from the floor at length. And again, to his credit, Wieland didn’t cut us off short and I was a bit unprepared for that! Whether we changed any minds amongst the believers is debatable. However, I do think we served as a good foil to his unquestioning dogma and I do believe that we may have stopped some people from swallowing his slick show hook, line and sinker.

The three meetings the next day were just as big and the last one had over 350 people in attendance. Interestingly, no questions were allowed from the floor for any of them. I also noted that Wieland did tone down some of the outrageous things he had been saying that we had challenged him on but that was probably only because I made sure he could see me watching him from the audience!

Is It Worth It?

So was it all worth the effort? I do believe so. It’s only the fence sitters that we have a chance of saving, but that alone is worth the seven-hour return drive, the costs, and time spent doing research on their techniques and ideas, etc. What’s the point of being a NZ Skeptic if all we do is talk amongst ourselves … there’s serious work to be done. They are after our children. I learnt at the Coromandel meeting that the pastor of the Elim church, who hosted Adrian Bates, is now the head of the Coromandel Area School BOT and has instigated little lunchtime religious chats for the kids. The science department is furious, as one would expect. So there’s lots for us to do. We must be vigilant and regularly scan the local church notices to see who’s coming to town. These creationists are not just a wacky overseas problem; they are in our community and in our schools right now. We all need to get involved and perhaps get sufficiently organised nationally so that no creationist meeting anywhere in NZ is without at least one skeptic in the audience.

Some Useful Websites

In Defense of Intelligent Design

In New Zealand Skeptic No. 64, Warwick Don critiqued Ian Wishart’s article Walking with Beasts, published in Investigate, June 2002. This is Wishart’s response.

Having just read Warwick Don’s critique of my article on Intelligent Design in your winter edition, I wonder if I might offer some observations.

Firstly, there is some fudging on the use of the word “Creationist” that needs clearing up if this issue is going to be intelligently debated by anyone. As I pointed out right at the start of my article in Investigate, the use of the word “Creationist” in that article primarily referred to people who believe there is evidence of intelligent design in the natural world. Belief that the Universe was created does not, of itself, require that one subscribes to the Biblical or any other version of creation. Cosmologist Stephen Hawking published a paper this year postulating the existence of a deistic creator, yet one would hardly call Hawking a “Creationist” in the way Warwick bandies the term around.

To discuss the scientific evidence for and against the existence of intelligent design in the universe is not, of itself, to become embroiled in a theological debate. It is more analogous to a naturalist finding indentations on a forest track and debating whether they are natural ground undulations or footprints. This is a perfectly legitimate scientific exercise.

Warwick talks of a need to avoid discussion of the bigger picture when he says, “…the undoubted problems associated with the origin of the universe or with the origin of the very first life forms on this planet are irrelevant as far as organic evolution is concerned.”

With respect, I submit Warwick’s approach is fundamentally flawed, and here’s why: The distinctions we humans draw between the different scientific disciplines are artificial. We have made the delineation that says biology is a complete science, physics is a separate science, chemistry is a separate science and so on. In the real world, all the sciences are ingredients of the others.

To approach the study of organic evolution as though the rest of it has no bearing is akin to a group of biologists locking themselves in a biosphere forever and never opening the door to the wider world, never daring to question how the organisms in the biosphere actually got there. Without knowing the “how” of it, the organisms could, for all they know, have spontaneously generated (chemical evolution), been introduced from outside (alien seeding) or been miraculously created on the sixth day! The point is, whatever the origin, biologists locked into this mindset will never find the answer because they refuse to look for it.

With respect, that’s taking good honest skepticism way beyond the rational and into the Three Wise Monkeys territory.

Warwick is concerned that opening the door to intelligent design in schools means opening the door to exam papers quoting Genesis and Job. Not so, and again this confusion arises from a failure to drill down to the absolute core of the argument. Sure, intelligent design science can be used to support Biblical creationism, but as Warwick correctly points out there is a “distinction between acceptance of evolution [intelligent design] and non-scientific implications derived from it.”

In his own critique, Warwick cites further examples that unwittingly display the current problems of evolutionary theory: after having a go at my skepticism on ancient whales, he firstly supports the ancient whale trail I was doubtful of then adds “Incidentally, based on new fossil evidence, the mantle of whale ancestor has shifted from the mesonychids (alluded to above) to a related group, the artiodactyls, and more specifically to the hippopotami.”

Which is it? Mesonychids or hippopotami? Trying to nail alleged fossil ancestors to support the theory of evolution is like trying to pin the tail on a donkey moving at very high speed. After 150 years we’re all still arguing about whether Archaeopteryx is the transitional fossil or not.

Objective skepticism recognises that the best way for the truth to emerge is through vigorous debate and presentation of evidence. Anything less is not skepticism but dogma, similar in form to the anti-science dogma of the Catholic church in the middle ages. As the old evolutionary saying goes: “Two dogmas don’t make a dog, Ma.”

Warwick appeals to Eugenie Scott’s “necessary methodological materialism” as sound philosophical basis for shutting out any evidence that might point to an Intelligent Designer. But who voted and made Eugenie Scott the world’s leading expert on the boundary between science and philosophy? In short, no one.

If an Intelligent Designer does, in fact, exist, but our system of science as proposed by Eugenie Scott is unable to accept this even if said Designer suddenly appeared in the clouds at 3pm one Tuesday and spoke to the entire world in a thundery voice, then our system of scientific inquiry is flawed. “You can’t put God in a test tube” says Scott, therefore you have to ignore it. How exactly can one justify ignoring such an event, where a supernatural entity interacts directly in our space time universe in a way that can be measured? And if one can’t defend the position of ignoring that particular event, on what philosophical or scientific basis do we ignore the evidence pointing towards a Designer at more subtle levels? Surely it becomes a matter of the degree of evidence required before we start dusting off the test tubes and setting a God-trap.

And if it is only a matter of degree, then on what basis can we then justify ignoring even the slightest evidence for the existence of a Designer, if over a period of time the accumulation of slight evidence could lead to irrevocable proof? That would be akin to paleontologists throwing away individual T-Rex bones as useless, and only keeping a complete skeleton if you’re lucky enough to find one.

The intelligent design movement is not asking scientists to become theists, it is merely asking science to follow the evidence wherever it leads, without introducing presumptive biases such as those advocated by Eugenie Scott and Warwick Don. Let scientists do the digging unfettered by religious or anti-religious bias, and let theologians argue over the implications in another arena. In other words, let the facts speak for themselves, whatever they may tell us.

[See Warwick Don’s response]

Warwick Don replies

I deny any fudging on the use of the word “creationist”. I make a clear distinction between young-earth creationism and intelligent design (ID) creationism, at the same time indicating a link between the two. In my article in Investigate magazine (November 2002), I write: “there are several types of anti-evolutionary creationists”, implying that there are also pro-evolutionary creationists. So I object to being accused of bandying the term (creationist) around.

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Are we who we think we are?

Skeptics – always in two minds about something…

You may recall I mentioned in the last issue of the NZ Skeptic that we were surveying members to see if we were all still on roughly the same wavelength. We were spurred on to do this by the 4th World Skeptics Conference which saw long-time CSICOP leader Paul Kurtz call for Skeptics to take on religion, economics and politics as well as ghosts, UFOs, aliens, iridologists and the like.

It’s a big issue in the US, where they seem to feel under siege by the forces of religion and where a number of the Centres for Inquiry have been established in conjunction with the Humanist movement.

In discussing the issue with my Australian confreres, I felt, as did they, that our antipodean organisations had a different view as to what our core ideas should be, and it didn’t include assuming that all our members were Humanist Democrats! However, like any Skeptic worth his or her salt, I was prepared to change my mind should I be shown to be out of step with everyone else, hence the survey.

The results are now in (my thanks to the 15% of you who responded via post and online), and provide some food for thought.

As you will all have seen in our fine print and elsewhere, you officially belong to the New Zealand Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (NZCSICOP) Inc. The name is something of an historical accident, modelled as we were on the US-based CSICOP from whence all things sprang.

And, as noted in our Constitution, our aim is to examine critically the paranormal (e.g. psychic phenomena) and pseudo-science (eg astrology, creation science).

In more recent years, we have become known informally as the New Zealand Skeptics. While it’s a lot easier to say on radio and takes up less column-inches in the newspaper, it does mean that we are often assumed to be sceptical about all things, including general religious beliefs, political movements and economic predictions.

This has meant that, on occasion, we have been castigated by various outsiders for not getting stuck into anything and everything.

So where do we sit? I suspect in the classic fence-sitters’ position, somewhere in between the two…

How Do We Define Who We Are?

Traditionally we have tended to regard our focus as being defined by those areas in which scientifically testable claims are made or where empirically-based evidence is presented.

Thus we don’t target, say, Christian beliefs per se, except where you have people who claim they have discovered a piece of the Ark (let’s test it!) or who assert that the Earth really is only 6000 years old (where’s the evidence?). Beliefs are perfectly valid in a church setting, but if you want to bring them into a science classroom, then you have to meet the sort of standards and criteria demanded of any legitimate science.

This can mean that from time to time, we are sceptical of claims which appear to be legitimate, accepted science. It is through questioning both received and revealed wisdom that we learn more about our world. And it does mean that we have to be prepared to change our minds in the light of convincing evidence.

This distinction we have made between the world of belief and the world of evidence is one which appears to have strong support. Of the survey respondents, just about all of you are happy with this distinction, with virtually everyone giving it a 1 or 2, “strongly agree” rating.

In the initial years of the Society, much of the focus was on the spoon-benders and mind-readers that were the popular New Age figures of the day. While we still search for any signs that they really do have special powers, over the past ten years or so NZCSICOP has tended to focus on those areas with the greatest potential for harm either for individuals or for society. This has certainly informed your committee’s discussions regarding Bent Spoon Award nominations and areas where we have made public comment.

Thus we have typically said that we’re not out to castigate Granny for reading the tea leaves, but we are concerned where people are exploited by those asserting some form of objective, testable reality to dubious practices or claims. Where the potential for harm exists – whether physical, mental, emotional, moral or economic – the Skeptics have considered it unethical not to challenge such claims.

It looks like this stance has been reflected in some of the survey results relating to what you perceive as our core areas of interest, which led to what some might see as surprising results. Two strong basic aspects of critical thinking were regarded as highly important – academic freedom and misuse of statistics.

The First Circle of Skepticism

The topical areas of core interest were identified as:

  • alternative medicine
  • creation science/intelligent design
  • repressed/false memory
  • global warming research
  • GE/GM issues

This represents an interesting mix of the “easy” skeptical subjects and ones which are likely to include a broad range of opinions and hence be more problematic.

As your chair-entity, I am relatively sanguine about commenting on claims made by alternative practitioners – one can test many of the claims they make, cite sound research and generally put such areas through the rigor of the scientific process to see what comes out the other side.

Creation science, and its more recent evolution into intelligent design, has been a topic with us from the first. Again, it’s an area which makes readily testable assertions, and where the errors and manipulations of its proponents can be easily identified. This is not to say that it is a simple thing to deal with!

The latter three in that list, to some extent, represent topical concerns, and ones which can be particularly contentious. One respondent referred to them as “dangerous, expensive themes”. I am hoping that we have seen the peak in enthusiasm for repressed memory – it certainly caused a great deal of damage to a large number of individuals and families when at its height – but I think that sufficient skepticism and the weight of evidence against it may well see it relegated to the role of psychological fad.

Global warming and GE/GM issues are much more likely to stay with us as we work through the complexities of the science involved, and the even greater complexities of how we as individuals and as members of a broader society deal with these things. I know that our membership has a diverse range of views in this area – after all we count Green members, organic farmers, ecologists, RMA consultants and a whole host of people in our midst.

As topics, global warming and GE/GM fall well outside the realm of the paranormal, but there is more than enough room for debating the evidence from either end of the environmental and political spectrum and anywhere between! Personally, I don’t think this area is one where the ultimate decisions are necessarily going to be based on the science involved or the evidence presented. As a consequence, in my official capacity, I prefer, as our primer suggests, to “maintain a position of uncertainty where there is insufficient or ambiguous evidence”.

(And if you want to write and tell me I’m a wishy-washy fence-sitter, or convince me you know what’s going to happen with global warming or GE/GM, or provide me with material you think would help inform me, you’re welcome to do so. What I’d really like to hear, though, is how you think this re-lates to NZCSICOP and its aims.)

The Second Circle of Skepticism

This is the one which intrigued me, containing as it does many of the traditional areas of skeptical interest. It wasn’t until I worked my way through all the comments that I felt I saw the reasoning behind why such topics as astrology, ghosts, psychic phenomena and UFOs/aliens were regarded as second-tier interests.”

Many of you said you considered these topics to be dead issues”, easy targets, to be past the point where anyone takes them seriously anymore. The relatively low impact these topics have on society at large, and the unlikelihood of personal harm arising from them may well have played a part in their lesser rating. As one respondent put it:

“I used to be interested in paranormal phenomena, but I now think pseudo- and anti-science pose greater threats to our future, and that is where my interests now lie.”

Of course, one cannot be too complacent. We have seen deaths arise from UFO cults, and we know that thousands of dollars are taken in by psychic hotlines every month in this country. A salutary point to note is that while these results were being collated – and “scams and cons” graded into this section – the Press was giving lead coverage to a local businessman who had sent around $1 million to Nigeria in the hope of gaining untold millions in return…

Three other topics hit this second circle: counselling, organic/biodynamic agriculture and food scares.

The Outer Circle

It didn’t particularly surprise me to find meditation and economic predictions fall into the outer circle of skeptical interests. There are aspects of the meditation industry that may well attract our attention, and we’d all probably be sceptical of economic predictions regardless of whether we are members of NZSCICOP or not! But in general, they are not prime targets.

The one which did interest me was that of religious beliefs/faiths, as the responses to this one tended to be highly polarised, with scores of one or ten, with very few in between. Of those who did see it as a core interest, a number mentioned that belief systems are important in pushing people to promulgate misinformation, and so were therefore fair game. It should be noted that the respondents who graded religious beliefs with a one (core interest), tended to grade everything as a core interest.

However, the final results were unambiguous in putting religion per se outside our main brief. There are organisations which exist for those who want to directly challenge religions of whatever stripe, and many Skeptics have also been members of the Rationalists, Humanists, Atheist Society, Secular Students Club and the like. From the early-morning discussions I have had at various conferences, NZSCICOP members have as great a variety of religious/spiritual beliefs as they do political. I think that we are the stronger for that.

Predicting the Future for NZCSICOP

I think that our future is a fairly clear one, and one which ideally will have us all contributing in whatever fashion we can. We are planning some practical activities as a result of this survey.

We’ll be putting more resources online for people to have easy access to things like information flyers and useful databases (and we’ll be using some of that material in the NZ Skeptic for those of you without internet access).

We’re planning a competition for teachers, which will help us to establish and develop practical resources for the teaching of critical thinking across a range of levels in the education system.

We’re looking for more ways to be proactive in our approach, as many of you mentioned that as an important point to consider. Increasing contacts with like-minded organisations overseas will help in that regard, providing information and opportunities. Darwin Day, on February 12, provides one chance for us to take part in international celebrations of science, humanity and thought (see www.darwinday.org for more information).

We know what we need to do. We need to:

  • communicate the im-portance of asking questions and looking for evidence
  • encourage more critical thinking in our media and our youth
  • keep a sense of humour and an open mind

“Intelligent Design” in the Science Classroom

A critique of “Walking with Beasts”, by Ian Wishart, Investigate Magazine, June 2002

A Prominent English state school, Emmanuel City Technological College, has recently decided to include creationism as a viable alternative to evolution in the science classroom. In the wake of this, Ian Wishart of Investigate magazine has written an article, “Walking With Beasts”, in which he conveys the impression that the status of organic evolution is very fragile indeed. Therefore he asks: “If Darwin’s Theory of Evolution is on such shaky ground in the upper reaches of science, why are New Zealand high school students still being taught the subject without any reference to the many controversies now dogging it?”

The article is a mixture of the old and the new – arguments against evolution which have long been the province of young-earth creationism and some from the most recent version of creationism, Intelligent Design (ID) theory. ID theory has its roots in creation “science”, which probably accounts for the retention of some of the arguments associated with that movement, and in some ways it can be regarded as a more sophisticated version of its predecessor. Most significantly, when examined closely, it turns out to be the old Argument from Design in modern garb. At its core is the view that Darwinian theory is unable to account for life’s complexity – hence an Intelligent Designer must be invoked.

Sound familiar? William Paley’s watch immediately springs to mind. The only real difference between Paley and modern IDers is the incorporation of factors and processes at the biochemical and cellular levels of which Paley, of course, was unaware. Prominent names in the ID movement are Phillip Johnson (Darwin On Trial), Michael Behe (Darwin’s Black Box), Jonathan Wells (Icons of Evolution) and William Dembski (Intelligent Design: The Bridge Between Science and Theology).

A major contention of Wishart’s article is that “scientists are increasingly doubting the theory of evolution”. Unfortunately, he never really distinguishes clearly between the occurrence of evolution and its proposed mechanism, of which natural selection (Darwinism) is generally regarded as the chief agent of change. Consequently, the article switches from one aspect to the other in disconcerting fashion, such that, to the uninitiated, evolution itself appears seriously in doubt. Argument – the sign of a healthy science, not one in decline – now pertains to the “how” of the process.

The idea that evolution is on its last legs will be familiar to those conversant with creationist attacks over the years. The article repeats the hoary and long discounted argument that the fossil record lacks the expected transitional forms. “Nowhere,” writes Wishart, “are there fossils that show a cat-monkey, or a horse-giraffe, or any other of the alleged half-breed species said to have existed.” Setting aside such ludicrous caricatures, excellent examples of transitional forms between major groups do exist (see Evolution: the fossils say YES! NZ Skeptic, Summer 2001).

Somewhat ironically, Wishart sheds extreme doubt on the possibility of modern whales originating from a “carnivorous, cow-like creature about the size of a wolf … in a short period of geological time”. Apart from the “short period” amounting to at least 20 million years, the record of the rocks has revealed a fascinating series of forms, from whales with functional legs and ears like those of land mammals, to amphibious, wading and diving forms. (See Scientific American, May 2002). [Incidentally, based on new fossil evidence, the mantle of whale ancestor has shifted from the mesonychids (alluded to above) to a related group, the artiodactyls, and more specifically to the hippopotami.]

He is equally astray when he refers to “the lack of evidence for human evolution”. Apparently, he is unaware of early ape-like hominids, such as Ardipithecus ramidus, Australopithecus anamensis, and A. afarensis (“Lucy”), let alone later members of Australopithecus and early members of the genus Homo, the genus to which our species belongs. He is similarly dismissive of early bird evolution. Worth noting in this regard is a recent burst of fossil discoveries which has revealed a great diversity of Mesozoic birds; even older finds of feathered dinosaurs have corroborated prediction. Scientists await in keen anticipation further plugging of gaps in these and other transitional phases of vertebrate evolution.

Evolution well-supported

Has evolution occurred? The answer is a resounding “yes”! Darwin himself established this fact, based on an impressive consilience of evidence from several independent lines of inquiry: comparative morphology, embryology and geographical distribution, to name just a few. Since Darwin’s day, new research areas such as genetics, cell biology and molecular biology have only strengthened the level of consilience, as have many significant finds in the fossil record. Contrary to the impression continually being conveyed by anti-evolutionists, the occurrence of evolution is no longer an issue in biological science. The comparatively few scientists who seemingly question its validity are those who seem to have allowed their philosophical and religious beliefs to cloud their scientific judgment, to the extent, in some cases, of even advocating what amounts to the teaching of “theistic science”, and hence threatening the integrity of science in the classroom.

The key reason why ID and other forms of creationism must be kept out of science education is that the former have, as an inherent element, an appeal to an entity which lies outside the scope of science, whereas science deals with that part of reality amenable to empirical inquiry. Alternative explanations must be testable against the natural world. As Eugenie Scott, an American anthropologist and science educationist, has pointed out, science today is based on a necessary methodological materialism, which is not to be confused with philosophical materialism or naturalism, to which scientists and others may or may not adhere. (Wishart, to his credit, does seem to recognise the distinction between acceptance of evolution and non-scientific implications derived from it. Unfortunately, this distinction, like that between the reality of evolution and the “how” of the process, tends to become blurred in the writing.) Scott continually stresses that science neither denies nor opposes the supernatural, but ignores it for methodological reasons. She has expressed this necessary approach in colourful fashion: “You can’t put God in a test tube (or keep it out of one).” (For “God”, in the current context, read “Intelligent Designer”.)

Other points of confusion in the article are the conflation of “the origin of life” and “Big Bang theory” with organic evolution. There is a postulated continuity linking all aspects of an evolutionary universe, but each phase presents its own set of problems and requires its own specialised methodology. The conclusion that evolution has taken place, for example, rests on the evidence for it; the undoubted problems associated with the origin of the universe or with the origin of the very first life forms on this planet are irrelevant as far as organic evolution is concerned.

God of the Gaps

ID proponents tend to focus on such problem areas, which is akin to the God of the Gaps argument of earlier times. This unscientific approach is particularly apparent when a cornerstone (a very unstable one, I might add) of the ID movement is examined, namely, the idea of irreducible complexity, an idea alluded to in Wishart’s article. “By irreducibly complex”, writes Michael Behe, “I mean a single system composed of several well-matched, interacting parts that contribute to the basic function, wherein the removal of any one of the parts causes the system to effectively stop functioning”. He cites as examples of irreducible complexity, blood clotting and the movement of flagella (whiplike structures used by many microscopic organisms as swimming organelles). Such irreducibly complex structures and mechanisms, maintain IDers, could not have evolved in functional steps. The answer: intelligent design.

A Return to Paley

Setting aside the fact that reasonable naturalistic explanations do exist for many of these systems and structures (not yet satisfactorily formulated in other cases, admittedly), readers, I trust, will recognise a return to Paley in the whole idea of irreducible complexity. Drawing a line beyond which science is presumed unable to proceed is antithetical to the spirit of unfettered scientific inquiry. Is this the attitude we would wish to instil in developing and inquiring minds? And, as if this restriction were not enough, IDers would invoke some mysterious outsider as the “answer” to allegedly insoluble problems. (See the reviews of Darwin’s Black Box: Nature 383: 227-228; American Scientist 85: 474-475.)

The use of selective quotations is a favourite ploy of creationists. They are lifted from the evolutionary literature in such a way as to convey meanings not intended by their authors. In his article, Wishart provides several quotations intended to show that all is not well in evolutionary circles. Space restriction allows extended discussion of only two. However, these will serve to illustrate how misleading some selective quotations can be.

Lynn Margulis, Distinguished University Professor of Botany at the University of Massachusetts at Amhurst, is regarded in evolutionary circles as both innovator and maverick. She has been lauded for her work on cellular evolution, but her almost fanatical support of the Gaia hypothesis, considered by many scientists as unscientific, has not met with universal approval. In the article under review, several quotes by Margulis are gleaned from a profile article on her in Science 19 April 1991: 378-381. Here is how two of her statements (in italics for clarity) appear in Wishart’s article: “Darwinists, she goads, wallow in their zoological, capitalistic, competitive, cost-benefit interpretation of Darwin…Neo-Darwinism, which insists on [the slow accrual of mutation] is in a complete funk.”

The Statements in Context

Now let us consider Margulis’ first statement (in italics) in context: “Margulis defends herself and Gaia with the rhetorical verve that has long startled her colleagues. Her critics, she said in 1988, just wallow in their zoological, capitalistic, competitive, cost-benefit interpretation of Darwin – having mistaken him.” Note that Wishart makes no mention of Gaia; yet it is clearly its rejection on this occasion which particularly annoyed her and prompted this tirade. Such verbal salvoes may be grist for the creationist mill (especially when misused), but what really matters in the end is that disputes of this kind are generally resolved by the self-correcting mechanism of science.

The second statement (shown again in italics below) is preceded in the Science article with a brief discussion of Margulis’ valuable contribution to evolutionary change at the bacterial level. The writer then points out that “the controversial part of Margulis’ argument comes after that [with] her insistence that such changes could not have come through the slow buildup of chance mutations, and that therefore neo-Darwinism, which insists on that, is in a complete funk.” Addressing an audience at the University of Massachusetts, Margulis continues: “I have seen no evidence whatsoever that these changes can occur through the accumulation of gradual mutations. There’s no doubt, of course that they exist, but the major source of evolutionary novelty is the acquisition of symbionts – the whole thing then edited by natural selection. It is never just the accumulation of mutations.” [By acquisition of symbionts is meant the incorporation of free-living bacteria (e.g. mitochondria) into other bacteria to form a more complex organism.]

Original Setting Important

The above examples emphasize how vital it is to read selective quotations in creationist writings in their original setting. With reference to the second quotation, Margulis is not jettisoning natural selection entirely, merely playing down its influence as far as the production of evolutionary novelty is concerned. In this she is at odds with prominent evolutionists, a point which is stressed in the Science article. Most significantly, contrary to what might be concluded from Wishart’s article, she is not questioning evolution itself. In spite of differences with her colleagues, she is still very much an evolutionist. It is worth noting that in Wishart’s article the two quotations are linked, even though they were uttered about three years apart!

Hopeful Monsters

Wishart repeats the creationist mantra that the theory of punctuated equilibria “is similar to what became dubbed ‘the hopeful monster theory’ of the 1940s, whereby a dinosaur laid an egg and out of it hatched a bird.” This, continues Wishart, “is tantamount to admitting a miracle – divine intervention – according to creationists”. But, as Stephen Jay Gould, co-author of the punctuated equilibria theory, has observed, “the theory advances no defenses for saltational models of speciation…” (Saltation is postulated abrupt change resulting from a major mutation, that can give rise to a new class or type.)

The writer refers to the “many controversies” within evolutionary theory, which in his opinion receive curt coverage in the science curriculum. Certainly, if it is true that debate at 7th form bursary level is limited to “Darwin vs Lamarck”, then such concern is justified. However, what really concerns Wishart is revealed by the following: “Lamarck was an evolutionist like Darwin with a slightly different spin on the process. He wasn’t a Creationist.” (Emphasis added). Clearly, he wants ID creationism taught alongside evolution as an alternative explanation for biological reality.

People, of course, should be free to believe what they like, but when beliefs which are clearly non-scientific, such as the belief in an intelligent designer, are promoted as legitimate alternatives to evolution in a science curriculum, any opposition to such a move is entirely justified. It surely is the duty of educators and others genuinely concerned with the quality of science education, to resist any such intrusions and so uphold the integrity of science in the classroom.

The Answer’’s not 42

Hamilton is a progressive place where the difficult issues are tackled. Rather than being a cow town (we’re not! we’re not!), we sit around of a Friday evening and debate the Big Questions.

We had a phone call awhile back from someone from the Methodist Centre who wanted a skeptic to contribute to an evening entitled, “What Is Truth?” With four days’ notice, we politely declined. However, a talk was coming up the following month looking at scientific and religious perspectives on the origin of the universe. And the month after that it was creation vs evolution.

We toddled along to the first of these and my other half David was keen to get his teeth into the next one. So we found ourselves, one recent wintery evening, ensconced amongst a group of fundamentalists. We did have support – two Coromandel skeptics came and cheered, as did some Auckland friends.

Rather than go into the evidence, David’s plan was to explain how creationists really are not interested in this at all – for them the word of God is the yardstick by which all truth is measured and all evidence has to be harmonised with it. (See the Answers In Genesis Statement of Faith). It’s also important not to dignify the creationist position by giving the impression that there is a serious scientific debate about its validity.

The previous month someone from the local astronomical society had tried to encapsulate 15 billion years of cosmic history in 20 minutes, which led one person in the audience to say that it would take more faith to believe all that than the simple message in Genesis. It’s fair to say most people didn’t understand one word.

So – how did we do. Well, of course we won outright. But seriously – there was a lively, mostly enjoyable, discussion following and I got the feeling that a few people were jarred out of their former complacency. Pointing out that the human eye, rather than being an example of Intelligent Design, is in fact very poorly designed, had particular impact. A fun night was had by all, but is it worth doing this kind of thing? The answer has to be yes, if only to keep abreast of creationist tactics. They are an increasingly active bunch and it’s necessary to counter their twaddle if scientific standards are to be maintained (see Warwick Don’s article, this issue).

The annual conference is, of course, not far off now and if you haven’t done so already, you really need to book. It’s promising to be another rip-snorter, and kicks off on Friday the 13th! Black cats not welcome. See here for the registration form. So go to it.

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Tackling the Dumb Mysteries

Vicki Hyde reports from the 4th World Skeptics Conference

I knew Someone was smiling on me – there I was going to be stuck in Los Angeles for three days waiting for a flight back across the Pacific – and what should chance to be on at that time, in the neighbourhood, but the 4th World Skeptics Conference…

The theme was “Prospects for Skepticism – the Next 25 Years”, with sessions on evolution and intelligent design, fringe psychotherapies, urban legends, medical claims, skeptical investigations and more – it sounded like my kind of conference.

As with most skeptics conferences, national and international, the real buzz was in being there amongst a group of (mostly) like-minded people, opinionated, informed, inquiring minds.

The notion of inquiry was one taken up by Paul Kurtz, a founding father and Chair of CSICOP, who argued that perhaps it was time to get away from the “skeptical” label and rebrand ourselves as “inquirers”. It’s an argument which has its merits – there is a lot of “baggage” associated with the term skeptic, as many of us know. All too often it is taken as a synonym for cynic, or to represent a dogmatic, close-minded authoritarian view of the world.

However, I have to confess to being a little dismayed at hearing Paul call for organised skeptics to take on all areas of inquiry, including the areas of religion, economics and politics. He had made similar comments at the 3rd World Conference in Sydney in 2000, and clearly this is an important issue for him personally. Judging by discussions outside the sessions, he doesn’t have unanimous support for that, despite the apparent presumption at the conference that skeptics, by definition, had to be vociferous humanistic, if not atheistic, Democrats. It made more than just me uncomfortable, particularly when a challenge to this was knocked back rather harshly.

(As a consequence, we’re looking at finding out what our members here believe should be our core functions and focus. I suspect that we are a more diverse group than in the US, and I urge you to take part in our survey within this issue or online, to see if we have some basis for that belief!)

Those questions of who we are and what are our interests were reflected, in some respects, in the opening session, Don’t Get Taken, which saw a focus on scams, ranging from the kerbside cons of three-card monte to those of Wall Street. Amongst the sleight-of-hand and financial analysis, came a thought-provoking comment from CSICOP fellow Ray Hyman.

In discussing how con artists rely on the confidence people place in one another and in the general level of trust within a society, Ray noted that the only societies which did not see scams or cons were totalitarian ones because under such systems, trust is non-existent.

Therefore, he concluded, scams are a sign of a healthy democracy…

The next morning, it was hard to drag myself away from the wonderful range of books available from the Prometheus Books display to get to the first session on Evolution and Intelligent Design. It was worth it, as it turned out to be one of the liveliest sessions of the whole conference, putting two supporters of each approach on the stage and on the spot.

It would be hard to remain complacent about the forces behind intelligent design having seen the “Wedge” document which outlines the strong, well-supported campaign to have it taught and accepted throughout US society. It appears that the “research” component of this campaign has evaporated (apparently in response to problems associated in proving intelligent design concepts…), but there’s good evidence that the political push has been taken up with enthusiasm.

Take a look at the document (a copy is at www.antievolution.org/features/wedge.html). It’s very impressive as a strategic planning document; it’s chilling in its thoroughness and implications.

Ironically, given the public image of skeptics as dogmatic and dictatorial, the only person who came across as that was William Dembski, described as associate research professor in the conceptual foundations of science at Baylor University and senior fellow with Discovery Institute’s Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture (where renewal basically means defeating the forces of godless evolution).You can get the flavour of his presentation with the following rhetoric:

“What’s a skeptic to do against this onslaught [ie the fact that intelligent design is broadly accepted], especially when there’s a whole political dimension to the debate in which a public tired of being bullied by an intellectual elite find in intelligent design a tool for liberation?”

There were lots of untenable assertions like this, which you can read for yourself at www.discovery.org/viewDB/index.php3?command=view&id= 1185&program=CRSC

Paul Nelson, editor of Origins & Design, came across as more reasonable until the Q&A session when he was asked directly if he accepted the fact that the world was more than 10,000 years old. He paused, he squirmed, he attempted to deflect it by saying that geology had nothing to do with biology(!), he attempted further digression, until he finally had to admit to being a proponent of the young-Earth theory…

I have to confess to bailing out halfway through the next session on fringe psychotherapies. Three-hour-long sessions, small hard seating and persistent problems with the technology made even those with long attention spans vulnerable to the seduction of the comfy chairs and conversations outside.

We were lured back in by the evening address from Marvin Minsky, but his disappointingly rambling address didn’t hit the spot except for this line:

“We [ie Skeptics] love mysteries too – we just want to get rid of the dumb ones.”

Saturday started off with Urban Legends, including the great researcher and raconteur Jan Brunvand (author of The Vanishing Hitchhiker), and a presentation by the online urban legend folk from snopes.com (David and Barbara Mikkelson).

Then came the hard choice – concurrent sessions on medical claims and skeptical investigation. I knew the latter would be immensely entertaining and interesting. After all, with the likes of long-time investigator Joe Nickell and the ebullient Richard Wiseman, it could not fail, but I had heard them both speak in Sydney and so headed for the medical session.

The speakers included Wallace Sampson, editor of the Scientific Review of Alternative Medicine; Stephen Barrett of quackwatch.com fame; and Marcia Angell, Harvard lecturer and former editor of the New England Journal of Medicine. It was the strongest line-up of the conference and one of the meatiest subjects. One of the most memorable comments came from Stephen Barrett:

“Complementary medicine is not a form of medicine – it is a marketing slogan.”

Now how can we get that spread as a general cultural meme?!

The evening banquet was entertaining if only because we had the famously egotistic Harlan Ellison dash over to our table to grovel at the feet of a bemused-looking Jan Brunvand. Harlan was being honoured for his services to skepticism or, as noted in the conference programme, for his attempt to become the “biggest pain in the ass in the Western Hemisphere”.

And so to Sunday, when the conference concluded with concurrent morning sessions on Educating our Future and Paranormal Around the World. I would have liked to have heard of the experiences of our counterparts in India, China, Peru, Mexico and Germany, but I had been commandeered by the highly energetic Amanda Chesworth for the education session.

So I ended up on the stage, abetted by Diane Swanson, author of Nibbling on Einstein’s Brain, a book for teaching the scientific method to children.

Chemistry professor Charles Wynn, author of Quantum Leaps in the Wrong Direction, had some very promising research showing how his honours colloquium on teaching skeptical thought made a big impact on his students. Almost all questionable beliefs showed a significant drop amongst his honours students by the end of his course, but the sobering thing was just how much effort was involved in shifting those beliefs. It would be great to find out which of the various techniques were the most effective; clearly more research is required…

Biases apart, I do think that this session had the greatest relevance to the conference theme and deserved better placement, particularly when Amanda began to outline the highly ambitious programme she is running as director of the Young Skeptics and Darwin Day initiatives. We, the New Zealand Skeptics, will have a part to play in those initiatives as a result of contacts made at the conference, and I confidently predict that the next 25 years will see good prospects for us all.

Conference Highlights

  • Being pounced upon by a Fox TV crew in search of exotic accents as an example of international skepticism.
  • Figuring out a card trick top-flight magician Bob Steiner did for me, looking for the “smoking gun” move when he repeated the trick at the conference opener…and not seeing the move I expected.
  • Arguing about adverbs, religion, gun laws, science fiction movies, wines, medical treatments, with all arguments characterised by strong opinion and even stronger humour.
  • Waving goodbye to Joe Nickell as he headed off to examine what was claimed to be a genuine vampire hunting kit (we were just down the road from Universal Studios…)
  • Hearing a great example from Diane Swanson about how to get sampling errors across to school children (something our media needs help in understanding!)
  • Being able to say a heartfelt personal thank you to all those folk who provide such great online resources that make my life easier as Chair-entity of the NZCSICOP, such as Quackwatch, Snopes, Skeptic’s Dictionary, Young Skeptics, Skeptiseum.

Skeptical Surfing

Netsurfer Science is a website every skeptic should bookmark. It provides a good lead-in to many science and skeptic-related sites and issues on the web. Here are a couple of recent items.

Howling at the Moon

Do we believe everything the government tells us? Of course not. But, we think that some conspiracies would be so unmanageable that they’d implode faster than an empty soda can in the Marianas Trench. The fake moon landing is one of our favorite confabulations. Under this theory, NASA didn’t land on the moon – and its own photos prove it. Now, to the extent that anyone cares, once we stop chuckling about how little the hoax proponents actually know about the science they claim to defend, this sort of nonsense also makes us angry, because it diminishes not only the breath-taking courage of people like the Armstrongs and Lovells of this world, but also the heart-breaking sacrifices of the Grissoms and McAuliffes. People (and television networks) who propagate this foolishness at least owe it to those pioneers to get their science right. Phil Plait, whose very admirable Bad Astronomy site has made Netsurfer lists before, tackles the so-called evidence point by point. Even if you don’t care about the accusations, take a look at the science. It’s instructional in reminding us how very alien even our own lunar environment is. In his personal pages, planetary scientist Jim Scotti covers much the same territory, though he deals equally with a hoax site.

Bad Astronomy:
http://www.badastronomy.com/bad/tv/foxapollo.html

Scotti:
http://pirlwww.lpl.arizona.edu/~jscotti/NOT_faked/

Marianas Trench:
http://www.geocities.com/thesciencefiles/marianas/trench.html
http://www.cnmi-guide.com/info/sketches/marianastrench.html

Evolution, Again

Before we hear from the creationist watchdogs, we’ll tell you what our position is. Does Netsurfer Science (NSS) believe in the Biblical version of the origins of life? No. We do, however, believe in its illustrative grace and power. (The only subject to provoke more correspondence was the NSS error that misplaced a college hoops team in a rival conference. Now, that was brutal.) In Science and Creationism, the National Academy of Sciences puts forward an authoritative synthesis of the issues involved. In our experience, many of creationism’s criticisms of evolution are either inaccurate or outdated. The NAS deals with the most frequently cited arguments and discusses the problems. More than that, though, the academy takes the very clear position that creationism “has no place in any science curriculum at any level”. This site is the text of an academy booklet that explains the current scientific understanding of biological evolution. The National Center for Science Education is a nonprofit organisation with the sole mission of protecting the teaching of evolution against sectarian proponents of such propositions as scientific creationism. In addition to other services, the center tracks legislation relating to the teaching of science.

National Center for Science Education:
http://www.ncseweb.org/

National Academy of Science:
http://bob.nap.edu/html/creationism/

Evolution: The Fossils Say YES!

The old creationist claim that there are no transitional forms in the fossil record is starting to look a bit tired

A perennial contention of creationists opposed to evolution is that transitions or intermediates between the major groups (classes) of vertebrates (animals with backbones) do not exist. The most persistent critic of the part played by the fossil record in providing evidence for evolution is Dr Duane Gish of the Institute for Creation Research in the United States. His arguments are expressed in two books, Evolution: The Fossils Say No! and the updated version, Evolution: The Challenge of the Fossil Record. The aim of this paper is to show that the above contention is without foundation. A classic example of a transitional form (the ancient bird, Archaeopteryx lithographica) will be examined, as well as an example of evolutionary transformation, the evolution of ear bones in vertebrates.

Discovered in 1860, one year after publication of the Origin, Archaeopteryx is of late Jurassic age. About the size of a magpie, it lived some 150 million years ago. The species is represented by seven skeletons and one isolated feather. Close examination reveals a mixture of reptilian and bird features with many more of the former than the latter. (The table below lists some of the key features). In fact, two specimens in which the feathers were not immediately recognized were initially misidentified as Compsognathus, a small bipedal dinosaur. It is often stated that if it were not for its feathers, Archaeopteryx would be classified as a small dinosaur. A transitional form between major groups is defined as a fossil which possesses a mixture (or a mosaic) of features usually associated with each of the two groups, one set ancestral (“old”), the other derived (“new”). Archaeopteryx fits the bill perfectly. Its reptilian ancestry is patently obvious.

Bird features Reptilian features
Feathers (the defining bird feature) Long bony tail
Toothed jaws
Three functional fingers with grasping claws
Feathered wings Clavicle (wishbone) boomerang-shaped as in some dinosaurs
Pelvis more reptilian in shape than in later birds
Table 1. Characteristics of Archaeopteryx

But not according to the creationists. In spite of the evidence outlined above and more fully discussed in advanced textbooks, they continue to proclaim that “a bird, is a bird, is a bird”. Thus Dr Morris: “The Archaeopteryx is a bird – not a reptile-bird transition.” And Dr Gish: “It was not a half-way bird, it was a bird”. In this regard it should be emphasized that a fossil does not have to be exactly intermediate in its features in order to be considered transitional. A mixture of definitive features, old and new, is sufficient. The period of transition between bony fish and the first amphibians, for example, is characterized by forms in which the mosaic patterns show varying rates of change of specific features in different genera.

Archaeopteryx hit the headlines a few years ago with the allegation that it was a fraud.

This assertion was made by the astronomer, Sir Fred Hoyle. He claimed that a forger had tampered with the fossilized skeleton of Compsognathus, adding impressions of feathers. This prompted scientific testing at the Museum of Natural History in London. Hoyle’s view, which must have been welcomed as grist to the anti-evolutionary mill, was proved groundless. The feather impressions were naturally formed. This early bird is still the de luxe example of a transitional form.

Now to a classic example of evolutionary transformation, a process whereby a structure becomes modified over time and changes in its primary function. Mammals almost certainly arose from a group of reptiles, aptly named the mammal-like reptiles, some 200 million years ago. The more advanced of these reptiles show trends towards the mammals in a number of features, such as improved locomotion by adopting an upright posture and differentiation of the teeth for the efficient exploitation of food sources. Palaeontologists normally are restricted to skeletal features for classifying a fossil. Soft tissues are seldom fossilized. The lower jaw or mandible in mammals is a single bone (the dentary which carries the teeth), in contrast to that of reptiles which comprises several bones. In addition, the middle ear of mammals contains three ear bones; reptiles have but one, the stapes.

The stapes can be traced to the fish stage of vertebrate evolution. (See fig. 1). The first fishes lacked true jaws. Hence many were filter feeders, extracting food from the stream of water entering the mouth and filling the pharynx. The filtered water then passed out through holes (gill slits) in the wall of the pharynx. The regions between the slits were supported by a basket of linked bones forming the branchial or gill arches. Jaws probably arose from a pair of these arches (another example of transformation). The upper element of the arch immediately behind the jaws eventually became transformed from an unspecialized part of a gill arch into a prop (the hyomandibular) to support the jaws at their region of articulation. It was thus ideally positioned, given its upper attachment to that region of the braincase which housed the organs of balance and hearing, to become a specialized sound transmitter, a potential realized later in the amphibians. The stapes (the transformed hyomandibular) greatly improved hearing on land.

The origin of the other two ear bones in mammals is even more intriguing. During the evolution of the mammal-like reptiles, the dentary bone in the lower jaw expanded greatly in order to provide greater surface area for the attachment of more powerful jaw muscles. At the same time the canines enlarged as efficient instruments for capturing and dismembering prey. Fig.2 shows the lower jaw of an advanced mammal-like reptile, Cynognathus For the sake of clarity the articular bone of the lower jaw is shown detached from the quadrate bone of the skull. In life these two bones form the jaw joint of reptiles. The expansion of the dentary involved two regions, the ascending coronoid process and the triangular articular process at the back (not to be confused with the articular bone).

In some mammal-like reptiles the articular process had grown back to the point where it touched the skull itself. This development created the potential for a new jaw joint formed by the dentary of the lower jaw and the squamosal bone of the skull. In fact, there are several examples of varying degrees of development of the “new” jaw joint, from rudimentary to fully functional, perfect examples of transitional stages, making the classification of such forms (reptile or mammal?) difficult. Should we be concerned? Not at all. Such “tricky” forms are to be expected in evolution. There is a continuity here which negates the creationist thesis of there being no transitional forms in the fossil record.

But the story is not yet over. The “new” mammalian jaw joint, once it became fully functional, rendered the “old” reptilian one superfluous. The bones of the “old” joint now relieved from a jaw articulation function were free to assume a new primary role. In this case it was not strictly a change of function but an enhancement of an existing minor function – sound transmission. The articular and quadrate bones were already somewhat inefficient conductors of sound to the inner ear in the early land vertebrates. The two bones underwent transformation to become ear bones and joined the stapes or stirrup in the middle ear to form a trio of efficient sound transmitters, greatly improving the conduction and amplification of sound waves from the outer to the inner ear. The quadrate became the incus (anvil) and the articular became the malleus (hammer). The improvement in hearing is linked to the importance of this faculty (along with smell) in promoting the survival of the first mammals as small nocturnal animals in a world dominated by large and aggressive dinosaurs.

What has Gish to say on the subject? He refers to the “unbridged gap between reptile and mammal” and questions how the “intermediates” managed to hear while the changes described above were going on. He seems to have overlooked the fact that the stapes was still present. In addition, as was pointed out above, the “old” jaw joint bones were already sound conductors. He also expresses concern as to how the animals continued to chew while the changes were in progress. But there was never a time when an “intermediate” was without functional jaws. The sequence of change with respect to jaw joints was: Old > Old + New > New.

Diarthrognathus epitomises the transition from reptile to mammal. In this animal, not only was the “old” reptilian joint between a reduced quadrate and articular present, but also a “new” and fully functional mammalian one. To cite a further example, Probainognathus also possessed a double articulation between skull and jaw. Furthermore, the quadrate bone, now only loosely joined to the rest of the skull, was intimately articulated with the stapes bone of the middle ear.

On the above evidence I rest my case. Transitional fossils between major groups of vertebrates do exist and lend powerful support to the reality of evolution.

Teaching Evolution to the Alienated

Presenting the evidence just isn’t enough

Bill Peddie

In his book Unpopular Essays, Bertrand Russell claims that although he was fully aware of the notion that the human is a rational animal, despite years of searching for supporting evidence for that assertion, he could find none. For those hoping to batter the creationist opponents of evolution into submission with logical rational argument, Bertrand Russell’s comment should at the very least sound a note of caution.

As a second year student in zoology at Canterbury University, more years ago than I care to remember, I went armed with my genetics evolution notes to a lecture which had the intriguing title Darwin Debunked. The lecturer was the Roman catholic chaplain and Thomist scholar, Father George Duggan – and his talk even today would stand as a good example of creation science at its thoughtful best. What puzzled me was how, after his talk, despite having the zoologists and geologists in the audience tear his arguments asunder with devastating counter examples, this Rhodes scholar and trained Catholic thinker was totally unmoved.

It was much later that I gradually came to realise that where matters of faith and cultural belief are concerned, there is too much at stake for conventional argument to produce a shift in position.

Let me illustrate with three examples.

On several occasions, Jehovah’s Witnesses have arrived at my door and unsuspectingly offered me literature which I have previously checked out for myself. The pattern has usually been that sometime later they escape in disarray, I suspect thankfully, promising to return with the answers to the questions raised. They do not return – and yet it is a hollow victory because my visitors can be seen with the same neat little sports jackets, the same briefcases no doubt still containing the same flawed literature; and wearing the same smile of the truly saved, walking up the front paths of houses in the same neighbourhood the very next weekend. One-on-one tutorial teaching does not necessarily lead to total success.

My second example is from a transcript from an interview I had with a seventh form Polynesian pupil. The transcript included the following exchange.

Me: How old do you think the earth is?
Pupil: Six thousand years old.
Me: And the universe?
Pupil: The same.
Me: If someone was to give you very strong evidence that the world was older than that – and that for example there was geological evidence there was no flood of the size that would cover the world – how would you react?
Pupil: Evidence like what?
Me: Annual tree ring data going back seven or eight thousand years for the bristlecone pine – examples of annual deposits of ice layers which when counted give values into many thousands of years, fossils which from every test appear very ancient and radioactive dating of rocks leading to estimates of not millions but billions of years: – those sorts of things for the age of the earth. And then for Noah’s flood – the fact that the scientists have calculated that you would need to have three or four times the total amount of water in the sea, atmosphere and under the earth in order to cover the highest mountains like Mount Everest.
Pupil: (there was a pause, then…) Well, I would have to say that God is greater than that. But I am glad you told me about that – because if someone had hit me with that on the street – if I was, say witnessing – I would have been stuck dumb. I don’t know about that sort of thing. Now I can get ready with an answer.
Me: But it wouldn’t change what you think about the age of the Earth.
Pupil: No!

My third example of another attempt to educate those with a built-in resistance, comes from a few years ago by courtesy of physiologist professor Roger Short of Monash University. After discovering 27 percent of his first year medical students held a creationist view, he gave eight lessons on evolution to his class and retested them. Despite having completed an assignment on the subject matter of the lectures he found no change in the creationist views.

What crystallised my thinking on the nature of the problem was an interview I did when I was a few months into my PhD study into the nature of the creation/evolution debate. In the course of this interview a Maori studies lecturer made the comment that the ultimate in alienation would be to be a Maori evolutionist.

When I protested this with the counter example of Rangi Walker’s son who is a well known zoologist and one who as far as I know still accepts a concept of evolution my informant’s reply was instructive.

“To the extent he believes in evolution he is not a Maori.”

Group Identity

This reply suggests a way of looking at the debate. For many, the position taken on the debate is more one of identity with a group who are associated with a viewpoint than it is with a rationally constructed, evidence based position. I am not even convinced that this is itself entirely irrational behaviour. After all if your family – your whanau – has a discernible set of characterising beliefs, and you think it is important to identify with that family, that religion, that culture, is it simply a question of logical analysis to cut yourself off from the group by questioning what you believe to be one of its underlying major tenets? In today’s politically correct age it is ironic that those who bay for the creationist blood of fundamentalist Christians fall uncomfortably silent when asked to consider the creationism so much part of the thinking of many Maori and Polynesians.

Not the Desired Effect

As already stated, the first surprise for the teacher with creationist pupils of the more extreme sort, is that the usual classroom rehearsing of a few well chosen facts supporting evolution does not have the desired effect on those alienated by their belief system. The second problem is that such is the fervour of the strict creationist camp that their leaders have taken the trouble to assemble the most detailed and documented case which is both technical in flavour and at least superficially plausible. They will, for example, quote figures to cast doubt as to the reliability of radioactive decay figures, talk glibly about astrophysicists’ problems with the speed of light, and quote examples where apparently old rocks show signs of recent formation. And they have amongst their number some surprisingly well educated and well qualified supporters. It is true that they have few who are actually doing research or who are specialists in the areas they quote, but criticising them for basing their case on much that is second hand and interpreting science in amateur ways is not the way to deliver the knockout punch.

With some degree of embarrassment, might I dare suggest that familiarity with research and logical analysis may not even always be a central plank of the acquired wisdom of the proevolutionary camp. After all even amongst the Skeptics I am prepared to guess that there are some who would accept the validity of radiochemical dating of rocks – and yet perhaps never have handled a Geiger counter – or without having the faintest idea as to the relative merits, limitations and likely error bars of carbon dating or of Potassium-Argon dating, Uranium Lead dating or fission track analysis. There would be those who accept the idea of pre-hominid ancestors without having seen the fossil collections – or even without having the faintest idea of how the process of identification is made.

Methods of Study

Let’s face it – a huge percentage of our knowledge comes from received, predigested knowledge. The sources of knowledge for the “creation scientist” are admittedly different but the methods of study are proabably sufficiently similar to explain why apparently otherwise well educated people can be found sincerely claiming that the Earth is of the order of six thousand years old. It is important to remember that this hard-won so called knowledge is based on hours of study of a different literature and unquestioning acceptance of the textbook assertions of such worthies as Duane Gish, Henry Morris, Ken Ham or for that matter the apparently authoritative and profusely referenced claims by the anonymous authors of those nicely printed Watchtower publications.

Unfortunately, although in my view science teachers may know their conventional science in their subject disciplines from university they are ill prepared to identify the characteristics or for that matter the dangers of the pseudoscience of creationism as it is sometimes introduced into our schools. For example I received an extraordinary document through the mail the other day entitled “Understanding The Young Earth Model”. Yes I have spotted plenty of serious errors and misinterpretations of mainstream science in this publication which incidentally is called a “science teacher resource booklet”. But you have to remember I have a relatively recent PhD in the topic. A first encounter with the claims – especially by one unfamiliar with the quoted sources may well produce understandable confusion. Many of our science teachers have no geology in their degrees and it is possible to get right through a university science course without coming up against the raft of evidence which supports such things as an acceptance of the ancient past for the universe and the old Earth.

They are not to know that the PhD in the qualifications cited by an author come from the same university that Ian Plimer once told me had, for the not inconsiderable sum of US$19, inadvertently awarded a Doctor of Divinity to the slobbery blue heeler that belonged to his next door neighbour. Unless they are very well read, nor are the teachers likely to know which of the creationist assertions are founded on thoroughly discredited experiments or total misrepresentations of the literature.

Human and Dinosaur Footprints

For example a few years ago impressions of human footprints were reported as being found beside dinosaur footprints in the Paluxy River area in Texas. The creation science case was not helped when one of the creation science assistants reported that he had witnessed the Reverend Dr Carl Baugh carving out some new fossil human footprints by torchlight. The Paluxy River findings of human footprints are now considered of no consequence by the paleontologists but they still surface in creationist literature.

In a number of instances I encountered evidence of what is at worst deliberate intellectual dishonesty or at best extremely sloppy and ill-informed research techniques on the part of the leading creationists. In one of his recent lectures in Auckland, John MacKay supported his case by quoting from a book by Derek Ager entitled The New Catastrophism. He underlined the significance of Ager’s comments by stressing the authority of the book, posing a rhetorical qustion: “Who of you has had a book published by Oxford University Press?” Unfortunately for Mackay, the copy in the University of Auckland (which incidentally claims to be published by the Cambridge University Press) has a preface. There in bold type is the disclaimer –

“…in view of the misuse my words have been put to in the past, I wish to say that nothing in this book should be taken out of context and thought in any way to support the views of the “creationist”, who I refuse to call “scientific”.”

The existence of creationist influences in our schools raises some fundamental questions about the role of the school as an agent of society. If you are teaching in a comfortable white middle class suburb away from a bible belt enclave or marae the worst you are likely to encounter is a weekend missionary visit offering you a chance for spiritual enlightenment. If you are teaching at the type of school which demands a signature attesting a fundamentalist acceptance of bible literalism as a prerequisite for employment – or you are teaching in an area where the parental customer base represents unquestioning acceptance of Adam and Eve and the Noah flood and the board of trustees is known to have a bible literalist or creationist stance, it is legitimate to question how far you should take heed of in loco parentis. For me with my training in science – and a formal higher degree in science education with a focus on this very debate, there is normally no contest. I am totally convinced in the case for evolution. I personally find the evidence overwhelming as I believe is the case for believing the Earth was created vastly earlier than 6000 years ago. In making room for a discussion of the extreme form of “creation science” it is a little like being asked to condone those wishing to waste my pupils time with a case for the flat Earth, fake cures for cancer or career guidance by astrology, I do however concede that since we have to teach pupils as they are rather than as they should be, the probability they have either already encountered or at least are likely to encounter this set of beliefs make it more reasonable to tackle the problem. Since they have to learn what constitutes pseudoscience as well as good science there is also a case for arguing for creation science as a case study.

I also believe that as a science teacher I have a responsibility to fairly represent mainstream science views and attitudes and not imply a justifiable case where none exists. But when it comes to deciding – as I had to decide a few years ago – whether or not I should share my understanding with four Exclusive Brethren pupils when I knew that the penalty for heresy for them might be being ostracised by their family, I was less confident. The point is that even if the teacher sees “creation science” as being almost devoid of redeeming features, I believe we owe pupils and their families the right to choose their own religion and own place in society. I must also stress that for many teachers the debate is likely to be a non-issue. It is really only in those schools where the contributing community contains a significant number of creationists or vehement creationists intent on spreading their message in the schools that there is likely to be an issue for the teacher.

The regulations governing what happens in schools are of little help. While the education act safeguards the right of university lecturers to raise controversial issues and question cherished beliefs (with the possible exception of revisionist histories of the holocaust) there is no such clear direction for teachers at the secondary level.

What then should the teacher do to deal with someone offering creationist literature to the school or offering to come in and share creationist assertions with his or her pupils.

My main word of advice is that the teachers should make themselves thoroughly familiar with the nature of the literature. I first entered the arena assuming it was just a question of assembling the conventional evidence a la the prescription and thereby overwhelm the counter case. I rapidly discovered that there is a difference between evidence derived from a pseudoscience and that of the more conventional scientific literature. I find it helpful to my students to teach them how to read such evidence critically. The way I now use such material in the classroom is to demonstrate how science can be misrepresented.

I also believe that as teachers we should be sensitive to the fact that we may be dealing here with matters of religious or cultural belief and avoid direct confrontation where it is possible to do so. My personal answer is to introduce some geological and astronomical principles early on to my pupils and leave the evolution of man till much later in the piece. My own preferred strategy is to show a variety of simple methods for establishing the world is very old and inviting the pupils to draw their own conclusions as well as conveying the majority point of view. This might include showing photographs of varves, annual and daily ring formation in coral deposits, speed of light data from distant stars and galaxies and a highly simplified account of radioactive dating.

I give examples of variation in species, then examples of observed speciation. In the senior school I use the examples of new species including the cichlid fishes, Primula kewensis and the ring species of the Black-backed Gulls and Herring Gulls.

I find even fifth form pupils are fascinated by skeleton photos of related species and hominid and prehominid fossils.

I also give simplified accounts of protolife experiments such as those of Urey and Miller – and the Fox experiments.

After this I believe the pupils are more ready to make some of their own judgements about evolution when it is formally studied.

I also think that whatever the religious belief of the teacher it does no harm to point out that most mainstream religious believers now accept evolution. If I am asked I make no secret of the fact that I am a lay preacher in the Methodist church and have no problems with reconciling my interpretation of the bible with my scientific understanding of an ancient Earth and processes of evolution.

I think that whatever the constraints of the exam prescription, as science teachers my colleagues and I have an obligation to teach the difference between pseudo science and science. Where creation science is helpful is to highlight for senior pupils how science can be misrepresented.

Finally rather than lament the entanglement of science, education and entrenched world view we might do worse than allow the last word to John C Greene.

“I am convinced that science, ideology and world view will forever be interwined and interacting. As a citizen concerned for the welfare of science and of mankind generally, however, I cannot help but hope that scientists will recognise where science ends and other things begin.”