A Skeptic at the Video Shop

Is there anything on television worth watching? Maybe.

Who has the most dangerous job in prime-time TV and at the movies? Police officers? Soldiers? Private detectives? None of the above, according to one survey of occupational groups in entertainment – it’s scientists who are mad, bad and dangerous to know.

In a survey taken in 1987, broadcast critic George Gerbner found some disturbing tendencies in our on-screen scientists. At that time, ten per cent of scientists featured in prime-time television entertainment got killed and five per cent killed someone. Take horror films, and scientists are second only to psychotics as the primary troublemakers, and apparently cause more problems than zombies, werewolves and mummies combined.

I’m concerned with the image of scientists here because they are usually the only ones who show any glimmer of critical thinking, however misguided.

For the last fifty years or so it has been the role of the skeptic and the scientist to act as the fall guys. They’re the ones who are too busy scoffing to notice the werewolf creeping up on them, the alien aiming a death ray, the dinosaur in the rear vision mirror. And it’s their hubris which tends to cause disaster to befall their companions, if not imperil life on Earth itself.

The plotlines have followed the same formula since the 1950s:

Take one scientist with an obsession.

Add some radiation, lightning, spare body parts or somesuch and you’ve got a monstrous menacing creation.

Said creation escapes or goes out of control, often with the assistance, unwitting or otherwise of the deformed or aged assistant.

Enter the potential victims, usually children – or a young couple, if you need a love interest. They often try to warn people about the threat, setting up the skeptical unbeliever for body snatching, disembowelment or demon possession.

But eventually these innocents save the day, often with the assistance of the local police, military, villagers with burning torches etc.

The Good Old Days

At least during the 50s, when mad scientists were busy unleashing all manner of Things, blobs, giant tarantulas, flying piranhas, killer tomatoes and other horrors on the planet, there were some good scientists who were able to figure out ways of dealing with the critters.

These days scientists can’t even do that. Instead they’re usually presented as either incompetent fall guys who have to be outwitted by benign laypeople, or evil amoralists willing to do anything in the name of science.

I’m not sure whether I feel reassured or not by the latest take on Frankenstein. Speaking of his recent movie version, Kenneth Branagh said that he wanted Victor Frankenstein to be seen, “not as a mad scientist but as a dangerously sane one”.

But perhaps we’re being too precious. After all, to paraphrase Michael Crichton, everyone gets short shrift in the movies – politicians are invariably corrupt, businessmen are crooks, lawyers are unscrupulous. It’s part of telling a story – you have to have heroes and villains, and most general-release movies demand simple plots and cardboard characterisation.

Part of the problem is that skepticism can get in the way of a good story. Who wants to hear about an old house that isn’t haunted (see page 18)? Or a dinosaur park where they design decent containment systems? Where’s the entertainment in that?

Yet all is not lost. There have been some wonderful moments of film footage which could be considered dear to a skeptical heart.

Cold reading is an important skill for any self-respecting psychic – using those valuable clues of context, body language and the general similarity of people to reflect back to them their hopes and fears.

The classic “Wizard of Oz” has a great example of this, and one of my favourites as it doesn’t take a genius to figure out what’s going on when Dorothy is running away from home and meets the fortune-telling professor. In case his quick glance at her suitcase is too subtle, he goes on to rifle her basket in a well-intentioned search for clues that he can turn into a psychic reading which will turn Dorothy’s footsteps home.

A more sophisticated version can be seen in the fun Steve Martin film “Leap of Faith”. Here he plays Jonas Nightingale, the head of a travelling preacher show, complete with convoy, choir and all the razamatazz of the circus.

It opens with him doing a cold reading on a cop who has stopped his convoy for speeding, picking up on all sorts of clues to get out of a ticket. There’s nothing subtle about this – just before he gets off the bus, where his crew are laying bets on his ability, one of the newcomers asks plaintively “what’s a cold reading?”.

Nightingale goes on later to wow the locals of a small town with his miraculous abilities to know their troubles, utilising old-fashioned eavesdropping and the technological support of a good database and radio communications. It’s a great movie based in part on the real-life cons run by US preachers like Peter Popoff.

Human nature

Of course it seems to be a part of human nature to want to believe, and that’s what these sorts of preachers, psychics and snake-oil salesmen take advantage of. Disney’s “Pete’s Dragon” has a great demonstration of where the desire to believe overpowers initial skepticism, helped along with a little show biz, as the good people of Passamaquoddy are convinced to forget their bad experiences in the past with two dubious characters and sign up for their latest nostrums.

I can reveal that the snake oil salesmen come to a bad end, albeit a comic one (this is Disney after all).

Ironically, in looking for positive images of skepticism, the bulk of the ones I have come across have been in children’s programmes.

Scooby Doo Where Are You?

Many of us have grown up with the derring-do of Scooby Doo, but I hadn’t thought hard about the storylines in this long-running cartoon series until a couple of years ago. The storyline is fairly constant – some kind of ghost or werewolf or Bigfoot or other paranormal phenomenon scares the Scooby Doo team until at the last it’s revealed to be a hoax.

I do wonder if they hadn’t a closet skeptic in the scriptwriting department. Sadly, the thing which jogged my memory of this was a cri de coeur from a poor skeptic, Tim Madigan, who wailed that the most recent movie had sold out.

“No longer do the intrepid investigators prove that the paranormal is all a ruse. In their latest incarnation, Daphne is now a TV reporter for an Entertainment Tonight-type show. She goes to New Orleans to look into reported hauntings, bringing her old friends along. She and the other members are once again beset by a ghost of a pirate, as well as assorted zombies, werewolves and vampires. But this time, when Fred and Velma present possible rational explanations for the weird events, they are pooh-poohed by Daphne, who goes so far as to tell Fred “you’re not a skeptic, you’re in denial.”

As Tim goes on to say, “it’s all such a sad betrayal of the original show’s glorious skeptical tradition.”

Perhaps there’s hope in other cartoon shows – my kids are addicted to the “Magic Schoolbus” series, which focuses on teaching science. I think they killed two birds with one stone in a recent show covering the concepts of buoyancy and pressure, while revealing the media-inspired hoax behind a would-be Loch Ness monster.

Another nice thing about the Magic Schoolbus is that each episode ends with kids critically questioning what’s shown – the Magic School bus can’t really grow fins and go under water – and the show producers explaining where they have taken liberties and why.

Larry Zimmerman, an anthropology lecturer at the University of Iowa, gets his students to think critically about documentaries like “In Search of Ancient Astronauts” and “UFOs; The First Encounter” and “The Mysterious Origins of Man” to critically examine how evidence is presented and what techniques are used to try and make cult archaeology and creationism credible.

Handy Questions

The questions are handy ones to bear in mind should you find your nearest and dearest riveted by the wisdom of that famous Old Testament researcher Charlton Heston. Things like:

Why do you suppose that certain sites or evidence always seems to show up in these videos?

What clues are there that some of the segments are used out of context?

How is the choice of narrator used to boost the credibility of the video?

You don’t have to be a Stage One anthropology student to get something out of a discussion along these lines. I’ve had similar conversations with my eight and 6-year-old about things they see on TV.

Of course, it does help to know what they are viewing.

A popular phenomenon of recent years has been Pokemon, some 150 horribly over-commercialised little creatures brought to your television screens courtesy of Japanese game company Nintendo.

For those of you who have had to endure seeing your children or grandchildren addicted to collecting Pokemon games, trading cards, models, t-shirts and all the other paraphernalia of fandom, I can now reveal that all has not necessarily been in vain.

One of the premises of the Pokemon world is that these cute wee things evolve. They adapt to their environment, with the fittest surviving and dominant traits coming to the fore. It’s not strictly Darwinian but there’s enough evolution there to offend Southern Baptists and Saudi Arabian muftis alike, both of whom have censured the programme for introducing the word “evolution” to 5-year-olds.

In this day and age things tend to move very fast, so you might say that Pokemon demonstrate an accelerated form of punctuated equilibrium at an individual level. That is, each individual Pokemon evolves into a different form.

One such Pokemon is called Abra. The Pokemon website notes that though it is psychic, it lacks any useful abilities except for the ability to teleport out of trouble.

Now bearing in mind that this Pokemon is called Abra, would anyone care to hazard a guess what the evolved form might be? Kadabra – right!

Again, according to the stilted English on the website, Kadabra “doesn’t have a powerful body, but relies on a strong mind to win. It can send out waves of mental energy that cause headaches at close range.”

In addition to a mental attack, this Pokemon sports a rather surprising weapon. Not exactly an M16, but something no self-respecting psychic Pokemon would be seen without, it appears….Yes, it carries a bent spoon…

When Kadabra evolves into yet another higher life form, his weaponry increases, and he becomes known as Alakazam…

Now you mightn’t take this very seriously, but Uri Geller has been spitting tacks over this utensil-wielding creature and has filed suit against Nintendo for $100 million. Apparently when he visited Japan he was mobbed by people wanting his autograph on their Pokemon trading cards. Of course, it didn’t help that in Japan, Kadabra is known as Un Geller…

“Nintendo turned me into an evil, occult Pokemon character,” Geller complained. “Nintendo stole my identity by using my name and my signature image of a bent spoon.”

My heart bleeds…It was quite interesting seeing the response of the Pokemon fans to this news. Many of them had never heard of Geller – hardly surprising as the bulk of fans are under 15, but the chat rooms and news announcements variously described Geller as:

a “self-proclaimed psychic and magician”,

an “internationally renowned con artist”

and an “all-around creepy guy”

One particularly perceptive and indignant young fan remarked “if Geller really is psychic, how come he didn’t know there was a Pokemon based on him out already before he saw the card?”

I sometimes wonder if our so-called innocent credulous children are actually the most skeptical of us all, and that we lose this as we get older. Maybe there’s something in the hormones which confers an evolutionary advantage to gullibility.

In “Secrets of the Super Psychics”, skeptical researchers Dr Richard Wiseman has a group of adults jumping out of their seats when glowing objects start to move and float above a table in a dark séance room. What they can’t see (and we can, thanks to the right film) is that these things are being moved by the alleged psychic and an assistant, cloaked by the darkness.

Although programmes like “Secrets of the Super Psychics” are far outnumbered by the plethora of “unsolved mysteries, “believe it or not” and “in search of..” efforts, I think that few people will forget Richard Wiseman’s séance set-up once seen, and they may well be more critical if ever encountering that particular scam in the future.

At least I’d like to think that.

We’ve argued for many years back and forth about whether something as straightforward as violence on television actually affects people. How are we to determine the far more tricky question of television’s role in producing a gullible society?

It may not come as a complete surprise that there appears to be a correlation between television viewing and levels of credulity. Those addicted to “Oprah”, “The X Files”, the “Holmes” show, reality television and other areas considered entertaining viewing are more likely than infrequent viewers to hold negative views on science and positive ones towards the paranormal or pseudoscience.

They’re more likely to believe in astrology and think it scientific; more likely to think science dangerous; more likely to consider scientists as odd and peculiar.

This is not a simple expression of education levels, age, gender or any of the other factors likely to influence attitudes, as the study which produced these findings took those into account and still demonstrated that TV fans think scientists are mad, bad and dangerous to know.

Communications professor William Evans has argued that increasingly, film and television entertainment portrays science as useless in solving problems. It is seen as a handicap to use reason and to think skeptically.

Skepticism is all too-often used as a synonym for closed-mindedness. Take Agent Scully in “The X Files” – any self-respecting skeptical scientist confronted with quite that much unequivocal evidence for paranormal events would just have to stop and wonder. If I was her, I’d be off to get James Randi’s one-million-dollar prize like a shot.

One could argue that there isn’t necessarily a direct causal relationship between what is shown on the screen and the poor image of skepticism and of science, but I think it’s safe to say that television and film provide a welcoming environment for the paranormal and pseudo-science. It gets far more sympathetic coverage, with little in the way of challenge, than that of science in general.

We had a psychic story in the Christchurch Press a few weeks ago. A psychic in Ashburton had managed to find not one, but two missing dogs. The first, lost on a farm, was predicted to be found somewhere near water; the second, apparently lost on a hiking trail, was divined as likely to be found near a tree. And you know what? He was right! Astonishing stuff.

This was considered sufficiently newsworthy to be given two columns and a photo in the Press; TVNZ went one better and sent a film crew down to Ashburton and then out to see me. All I can say is it must have been a very slow news day…see film at 10…

My thanks to Graham Hill and Alastair Brickell for their information, suggestions and videos.

Some Videos of Note

  • Leap of Faith
  • The Magic Schoolbus
  • Pete’s Dragon
  • Scooby Doo
  • Secrets of the Super Psychics
  • Wizard of Oz

Interesting Articles

Because Cowards get Cancer too

Because Cowards get Cancer too, by John Diamond, Random House, 1998

So John Diamond is dead; at age 47 killed by his tongue cancer. He may not be well known in New Zealand, but was a popular newspaper columnist and broadcaster in Britain. Soon after developing cancer in 1997 he used his weekly columns in the Times and the Daily Telegraph to report the course of his disease. This book, written after he had endured some terrible experiences, appeared when he was still unsure whether he was “cured”. Of the many books I have reviewed, this is the first to bring tears to my eyes.

Of special interest to Skeptics is that, to put it mildly, he was critical of “alternative” therapies. “…where I stand on alternative medicine is roughly where the Pope stands on getting drunk on the communion wine and pulling a couple of nuns.” Because of his public position, his candour on this brought in many letters of advice and abuse. He was particularly enraged by those which told him to take “a positive attitude”, or to “take control of his illness”.

The trouble started with a lump. No need to worry, said the doctors, you have a 92% chance it’s harmless. Unfortunately, Diamond was of the other 8%. The lump became a tumour; no need to worry, said the doctors again, radiotherapy will give you an x% chance of a cure. Again unfortunately, Diamond was of the (100-x)%. And so, to the surgery, described in almost unbearable detail. Because of the effect of the surgery on his speech and ability to swallow, this man, who previously had spent much of his working day in a broadcasting studio or on the telephone, was reduced, in his words, to “a honking, dribbling fool”. A dreadful fate.

Despite the fact that conventional medicine did not, in the long run, save him, Diamond never accepted that alternative treatments would serve him better. Although he earlier admitted that, in extremis, he might visit “that well of alternative solace”, there is no sign that he ever wavered in his opposition to those he called “scatterers of pixie dust”.

Diamond’s writing is full of insights expressed with wit. What text-book could explain for the general reader the difference between cancer cells and normal cells as pithily as this:- “A cancer cell is the one that never grows up…[it] bears all the nastier traits of reckless youth…[a member] of some wacky religious cult obsessed with immortality.” And metastasis: “.. spreading the good word round the body…to share the secret of eternal cellular life with other cells.” These apparently light-hearted words were written by the “honking, dribbling fool”.

He disliked the warlike metaphors used in discussing disease; “battle” and “brave” he avoided in his writing, claiming that this stigmatised those who succumbed to the disease as cowards or losers.

The Canterbury Public Library has five copies of this book, and I have had to join a longish queue of borrowers. It is gratifying that the author’s views and experiences are being widely read; I hope readers are as impressed as I, and accept the message. No doubt some of us who hold “alternative medicine” in derision will also die of cancer. Let us look to John Diamond as our inspiration when courage and steadfastness may falter.

Telling Lies for Father Moon

Reviewed by Bernard Howard with acknowledgement to Ian Plimer

Icons of Evolution: Science or Myth? Why Much of What We Teach About Evolution is Wrong, by Jonathan Wells

This is an important book. Look out for it, for example, in places where young minds could be influenced, such as high school libraries, or other places where creationists might care to spend US$27.95. The text may be unremarkable, the usual misquotations, selective omission, distortions, etc. The important thing is the credentials of the author; surely the holder of a doctorate in biology from one of the USA’s finest universities cannot be wrong?

However, there is more to Dr Wells than his biography in the book tells. Thanks to some astute websearching on the part of the biologist who reviewed it for Nature, we are now aware of the following:

  1. Wells has been a member of the Unification Church (the Moonies) for upward of 25 years.
  2. He was chosen by the founder of the church, Sun Myung Moon, to study for a Ph.D., in preparation for his life’s work, destroying Darwinism.
  3. He appears to have gone through the entire post-graduate programme of course work and a substantial research project without his teachers or supervisor knowing of his beliefs and intentions.

Distasteful though it may seem, it could be possible for a student to go through an undergraduate course, passing examinations on existing knowledge without accepting its validity. The situation is greatly different when tackling a research project for a post-graduate qualification. Those of us who have been through this academic mill know the dedication required, not only of time, but of the mind, to the search for new knowledge. I find it hard to credit that one could do research in developmental biology, as Wells did, while believing that growth of a life is something quite different.

But perhaps one should not be surprised. With the example of Australian geologist Dr Andrew Snelling before us, who believes the Earth is billions of years old when writing for geological journals, but only a few thousand when concocting creationist literature, the capacity of creationists for deception or self-deception seems limitless.

In preparing this note, I am indebted to Dr J. Coyne, University of Chicago, for his excellent review in Nature, and for subsequent correspondence.

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.

New Ideas on Old Life

The Crucible of Creation: The Burgess Shale and the Rise of Animals, by Simon Conway Morris. Oxford University Press.
Cradle of Life: The Discovery of Earth’s Earliest Fossils, by J William Schopf. Princeton University Press.

The Burgess Shale has attained iconic status among those interested in the early history of life. It has been the subject of several books, most notably Wonderful Life, by Stephen Jay Gould, who portayed the Burgess fauna as one with a broader range of phyla, or major animal groups, than exists today. The eventual dominance of the vertebrates, he argued, was dependant on the contingencies of history, and could not have been predicted from their minor status in the Cambrian.

Morris, who has done much of the groundwork on the Burgess Shale and other Cambrian soft-bodied faunas, argues that more recent findings indicate that the diversity of Burgess phyla has been overstated, and in fact show the basic unity of groups which today we consider very distinct. The Halkieriids, for example, appear to link the molluscs, annelids, the Burgess animal Wiwaxia, and even the brachiopods.

William Schopf, on the other hand, has devoted his life to the Precambrian. A mere 30 years ago, almost nothing was known of the first three quarters of the history of life. The problem was, says Schopf, we were looking in the wrong places. Once the right kind of rocks were identified, a range of single-celled and other simple fossils were discovered, including his own record-breaking find of three and a half billion year-old cyanobacteria in Australia, the oldest fossils known.

Schopf was also brought in to advise on the purportedly fossil-bearing Martian meteorite, and he explains clearly why these structures are most likely non-biological.

Both books are highly readable accounts by leading authorities in their fields. Recommended reading.

Scientific Creationism

We need to immunise ourselves against this virus too.

Abridged by Owen McShane from Creationism: Why the Controversy by Brian Henderson

“Scientific” creationism claims to have every bit as much scientific evidence to back it as evolution and, according to some adherents, much more. “Scientific” creationists claim that science is suppressing the evidence of their hypothesis, in order to back up evolution, which in turn supports all manner of atheistic world-views, including New Age beliefs, communism, humanism and a myriad of other perceived evils. According to Tim LaHaye, a fundamentalist minister very much involved in the creationist movement, “Much of the evils in the world today can be traced to humanism, which has taken over our government, the UN, education, TV, and most of the other influential things in life.”

Duane Gish, vice-president of the Institute for Creation Research sums it up best when he says: “The scientific case for special creation, is much stronger than the case for evolution. The more I study and the more I learn, the more I become convinced that evolution is a false theory and that special creation offers a much more satisfactory interpretive framework for correlating and explaining the scientific evidence related to origins.”

He apparently has a rather strange definition of the word science, however, as he has this to say in Evolution? The Fossils Say No!: “We do not know how the Creator created, [or] what processes He used, for He used processes which are not now operating anywhere in the natural universe. This is why we refer to creation as special creation. We cannot discover by scientific investigation anything about the processes used by the Creator.”

So which is it? Is creationism scientific, as in the first quote, or inherently religious, as in the second? It seems that either is used depending on the intended audience. In 1974, Dr. Henry Morris, director of the Institute for Creation Research, wrote a science textbook intended for public school use. He really wrote two texts, one for public schools and one for private, Christian schools. The difference? The private school version had an additional chapter citing Biblical support for creationism. Despite repeated claims to the contrary, it seems clear that there is no substantive difference between Biblical, religious creationism and so-called “scientific” creationism.

But the question ultimately comes down to “is creationism scientific”? If, as Gish claims above, we cannot learn anything about the creative methods used, then creationism fails to be scientific. Even if we do not currently know, to say that we “can never” know will immediately remove creationism from the table of scientific endeavour.

However, perhaps Gish simply meant that we do not currently know anything about how the creation occurred, but believes that we can learn through scientific inquiry. If so, we come to our second part of the question, “How does science operate?” Scientists spend much of their time engaged in research and performing experiments to help better understand the workings of the universe. Do creationists perform similar research and experimentation designed to show how and why creation happened? Absolutely not! The amount of genuine scientific inquiry that has been performed by creationists over the past 20 years can be computed on the fingers of one hand. Most of their efforts are directed to discrediting evolution, as if by somehow doing so, the piecemeal ideas of “scientific creationism” will some how become scientifically valid.

On the evidence creationists are amateur, anachronistic philosophers of science, acting to alter the content of scientific knowledge piecemeal through plebiscite and lawsuit rather than systematically through influencing professional debates and research activities.

Ultimately, the purpose of scepticism is not, as has been suggested, to deny inquiry into “outside” realms of knowledge, for we would be as hypocritical as the pseudo-scientists if we did so. The purpose of scepticism should be to keep claims and claimants in all areas of inquiry, be it pseudo-science or scientific research, honest and even-handed. The record shows that “scientific” creationism has left forever the realm of scientific inquiry, and has headed forever down the road of scientific failure.

Songs from the Skeptical Choir

Yes, Rhesus Monkey

(Tune: “Yes, Jesus Loves Me”)

Rhesus monkey, this I know,
that the Bible Belt must go.
Trusting to authority
must give way to “test and see”.

Yes, rhesus monkey,
Yes, rhesus monkey,
Yes, rhesus monkey,
The Bible Belt must go.

Rhesus monkeys in the jung-
-gle think Darwin’s work was bung-
-gled, for evolution’ry
progress seems delusion’ry.

Yes, rhesus monkey, (x3)
The Bible Belt must go.

Rhesus monkey, don’t get madder;
evolution is no ladder.
It’s a bush and we are twigs —
you of dates, and we of figs.

Yes, rhesus monkey, (x3)
The Bible Belt must go.

Rhesus monkeys in the lab
wonder who picks up the tab;
ask, Who put man at the top,
Who says we must get the chop?

Yes, rhesus monkey, (x3)
The Bible Belt must go.

Rhesus monkey, give us time,
Homo sap. has far to climb,
Evolutionists are giants
compared with creation “science”.

Yes, rhesus monkey, (x3)
The Bible Belt must go.


by Hugh Young

Finding Fossils

Peter Lange mentions in his review a common creationist claim — the lack of intermediate fossil forms. Someone whose name I’ve lost, recently wrote the following on sci.skeptic about the subject:

We have fossil records of transitional forms out the wazoo [i.e., there are lots of them – translator]. The reason that this fact hardly causes a creationist neuron to fire is that they play a little game with an unfalsifiability engine, sometimes called Gish’s Law.

It goes a little bit like this:

E: A evolved into B.
C: Hah! There is no transitional form between A and B.
E: Sure there is. It’s called A1.
C: Hah! There is no transitional form between A and A1.
E: Sure there is. It’s called A1a.
C: Hah! There is no transitional form between A and A1a.

and so on.

There are three termination conditions to this game:

  1. The subdivision goes on to the point where, by random chance, there is no corresponding form in the fossil record. The creationist wins.
  2. The subdivision goes on to the point where the two forms being compared are close enough for the creationist to decide that they are the same “kind”. The creationist wins.
  3. The evolutionist decides that the creationist is an insufferable blithering idiot and gives up. The creationist wins.