Birds of a Feather

So, by now you’ve all heard about the guys who brought guns, including an assault rifle, to a public event held by the President, ostensibly to exercise their right to bear arms. I could quibble about spheres of appropriateness–seems like bringing guns to a political event with the President could be curtailed quite justifiably under the law–but I don’t have to. Apparently, part of the event was staged by (surprise, surprise) some guy who supported and defended an anti-government militia in the ’90s. He’s a 9/11 conspiracist, thinks Waco was some kind of government fabrication, and designed the cuckoobananas “Ron Paul rEVOLution” logo. So, you know, an all-around nut.

Well, I managed to catch a bit of video from that event, and happened to notice a big banner in the back reading “VACCINES = POISON.” It’s interesting to see how insanity is apparently magnetic. It’s a nice reminder that irrational beliefs often tend to beget more irrational beliefs. There are many different pathways that one can take to any belief, but when the belief is unsupported by facts, evidence, or reason, it seems like the paths are much more numerous and intertwined. Most antivaxxers seem to have arrived at that point through fearmongering and arguments from ignorance and false authority, but some arrive there through acceptance of anti-science or anti-medicine positions, others arrive there through conspiracy theories and anti-government ideologies, others still arrive through religious convictions.

Following reason, science, and evidence is difficult, but it leads you on paths that converge asymptotically on stable answers. Following pseudoscience and unreason can take you absolutely anywhere, and the vast majority of the destinations are completely wrong.

But I guess at least you’ll have company there.

I can hear you, just barely hear you, I can just barely hear you

I have tinnitus in my left ear. At least, I think that’s what I have; my attempts to get the condition diagnosed have generally been unsatisfying. For me, it manifests as a static sound, accompanied by a feeling of movement or pressure or something in my ear canal. It comes and goes, and it usually accompanies sounds, but not with any particular pattern I’ve been able to discern. Naturally, it never seems to happen when I’m getting tested, so I’m sure that’s contributed to the vagueness of my diagnoses. It’s a nuisance, more than anything, but I’d certainly like to be rid of it.

So, recently I’ve heard this commercial on my local Air America affiliate. It starts with some overly dramatic voices–“Do you hear it?” “I hear it all the time!” “It’s annoying.” “It keeps me awake at night.”–and so forth. There’s an annoying sound in the background, which rises in intensity as the voices rise in desperation, and if that portion of the commercial were to escalate any further, I’d expect it to head for some desperate Lovecraftian or Poeian declaration of insanity–“‘TIS THE BEATING OF HIS HIDEOUS HEART!” or something.

Cue the soothing sales pitch, saying that you can “hear the silence” with Quietus, an all-natural herbal remedy for tinnitus. My first reaction was one of sardonic literary geekery: yes, I imagine that quietus is a cure for a great many ailments. All of them, in fact. I just wonder if they make it with a bare bodkin.

That lame English major joke would have been the end of this post, but that “all-natural herbal” tagline in the commercial seemed like an opening for copious amounts of woo, so I dug a little deeper. Lo and behold, when I found their website (such as it is–it’s just a one-page ad with no information about the composition), the woo ran hot and cold like pure water:
I suppose it'd cause quietus if you drank enough of it.
That’s right, it’s homeopathic. For the two of you who don’t know, homeopathy is a pseudoscientific alternative medicine modality based around the “Law of Similars”–that if you have some symptom, the way to cure it is by taking small amounts of substances that cause that symptom. In order to achieve those small amounts, one part of the allegedly curative substance is diluted in ten or one hundred parts of water, which is then shaken in a particular way. This procedure may be repeated several times, giving incredibly dilute solutions. And by “incredibly dilute,” I mean “well beyond Avogadro’s Number, so diluted that none of the solute remains in the solution.” This is okay, because the water has memory, and shaking it causes something about the vibrations of the substance to yadda yadda. The point being that if it worked the way homeopaths claim, it would require us to completely rewrite the laws of physics. Thankfully for the physicists, homeopathic remedies consistently fail all well-designed tests of efficacy.

Now, it’s possible that Quietus uses one of the more potent dilutions–1X, for instance, would be a 1/10 dilution, which is quite potent for some substances. I don’t know, because the website doesn’t include any information on the product.

But what the website does have is a phone number. I decided that this blog fodder was too rich to pass up, especially since it hit so close to home. So I gave them a call. I stayed on hold for awhile, jotting down the questions I wanted to make sure to ask. Eventually a representative picked up–we’ll call him Dane–and asked me basic information about my name and condition. I was completely honest, describing my symptoms just as I did above, and mentioning that I’ve had them since about sixth grade or so.

He explained that Quietus is a chewable tablet that you take twice a day; over the course of the conversation, he further explained that most people show an effect in seven to ten days, and that you should wean yourself off of it once your symptoms are gone. But he was also careful to note that this isn’t a cure for tinnitus, but it will cause the symptoms to go away, or it will cause you to stop noticing the symptoms–that much wasn’t entirely clear.

Dane mentioned in the early part of the call that Quietus is a proprietary mix of various herbal remedies “proven” to relieve the buzzing, ringing, etc., associated with tinnitus. He also noted that it was “certified effective by the FDA Homeopathic Pharmacopoeia.” When I could, I asked if he’d be able to tell me the ingredients–I wouldn’t want to risk an allergic reaction, after all. He listed off a bunch of ingredients: Potassium blends, sodium, salicylic acid, iodide, and something called “cenosha” or “senosha” bark. I’ve tried looking up the latter on Google in a variety of spellings, but I can’t find anything even close. After each substance, he mentioned that it has been “proved” to be effective on tinnitus symptoms.

I then moved on to the only question I had to really play dumb for: “You mentioned it’s certified effective by the FDA Homeopathic…what did you say? I’ve heard of homeopathic stuff before, what is it?” Dane explained that it was the branch of the FDA in charge of vitamins and supplements. I understand what he meant, but he really wasn’t answering anything even remotely like the question I asked. It was also clear that he either didn’t know what homeopathy was, or really didn’t want to say–and I suspect the former.

Finally, I asked, since it had been certified effective by the FDA, if there were any clinical trials. He answered that they had been proved effective, and that it had been proved for five years to be safe and effective. I asked if the results would be published anywhere, and if that information was available; Dane said that the literature that would be included with the pills would have testimonials and such. I may have cut him off a bit there; “I was thinking more like medical journals or something like that.” He replied that he was pretty much just a salesman, and wasn’t sure about anything like that. Obviously, I understood that.

Given that, I said that I wasn’t sure if he’d be able to answer the other question–“What mechanism it works through, like the biochemistry of it?” He really didn’t know, and I didn’t blame him. At one point he’d said that the remedies enter the body and cause the brain (or ear) to no longer recognize the noise, but it was unclear how this happened.

Dane realized at that point that he hadn’t even told me how much it cost–$59.95 for one bottle of 64 pills (I think that was the number), and discounts for more bottles, plus a 100% money-back guarantee if I’m not satisfied. I explained that I’d have to do a little more research first, and that I’d call him back. I realized the call wouldn’t end there, because I’m sure he gets paid on commission. He asked whether it was a cost issue, or if I was just skeptical about whether or not it worked; I answered that it was a little of both. Dane suggested that the best way to find out if it works is to try it yourself, and I really held back the torrent that that Doggerel could unleash. I said “sure,” and Dane said that everyone was different, so even if you look at all the trials, it won’t tell whether or not it’ll work for you. I agreed, but said that I know there are also cognitive biases that I wouldn’t want to fall into, and so I’d like to do a little more research before I make a decision. Dane said that he thought we could both agree that the best idea would be to do some more research, look at the information, and try it myself. I chuckled a little and said that I agreed, and I figured I’d do the first step and call him back for the second. I thanked him for the information, and he more or less hung up.

I don’t want to say anything disparaging about Dane, he was a nice guy, not really pushy at all, and I only wish he was a little more knowledgeable about the product. I feel a little bad for him; I wasn’t going to be dropping $60 on homeopathic pills, regardless of the dosage, and so I did kind of waste his time. It’s not his fault that homeopathy is bunk; he’s just the guy answering the phones, and he wasn’t prepared for some skeptic blogger to call and bother him for twenty minutes. Then again, that wouldn’t be a concern if his employers weren’t peddling pseudoscience as real treatment. Thinking back, I would have liked to have asked him about the dilution, but that would have tipped my hand as someone who knew a thing or two about homeopathy. I also would have liked to know if there were any expected side effects, and I’m kicking myself a little for not thinking of that in the first place.

I want to hit on that “proved” word which kept coming up in the conversation. Now, if it were a normal drug, then I would expect that word to refer to a multi-phase series of clinical trials, the results of which would be published in medical journals and available to anyone with the appropriate subscription. What “proving” means, apparently, in homeopathy is “homeopaths showing that a given substance causes a given symptom at some dosage.” I don’t know that this is what Dane meant in particular (and I don’t know if he’d have known either), but I do find the repetition of that particular word to be interesting, since it does have such significance in homeopathy. In any case, the fact that it’s in the Homeopathic Pharmacopoeia really doesn’t mean anything to me; the FDA’s regulations governing homeopathy are almost nonexistent, a problem exposed most recently by the Zicam scandal. If Quietus went through tests to demonstrate safety, as Dane suggested, then it went above and beyond what’s necessary under FDA guidelines.

What all this comes down to is that tinnitus is really the perfect woo-friendly ailment. The symptoms are entirely subjective, which opens the door to some significant psychological effects. At least in my case, the symptoms also come and go irregularly and unpredictably, and I’d be a little surprised if even chronic tinnitus didn’t wax and wane in severity over time. Not only does this open the door to confirmation bias, post hoc ergo propter hoc thinking, and regression fallacies, but it explicitly suggests that the latter is to be expected as a normal effect of treatment. Quietus isn’t a cure, and Dane specifically recommended keeping some pills on-hand in case symptoms recurred. Therefore, any improvement in symptoms–even if that improvement is just normal, expected regression to the mean–would be attributed to the pills’ effectiveness, and any restoration of symptoms has already been explained away as normal, expected, and reason to use more pills. I think the only fault in this scheme is the relatively small pool of sufferers–which I think accounts for the $60 bottles, as opposed to a more Zicam-esque $15 or so–but even then, since there is no actual cure, they’ve got a chance of snagging quite a large portion of those sufferers.

I can’t say, without knowing a little more, whether or not this is a scam. After all, it might have therapeutic dosages of the substances in question, and they might be effective. What I can say that there’s not a chance that I’ll be dropping $60 on tinnitus remedies anytime soon, and that “try it for yourself” is about the last method I’d choose to evaluate the efficacy of such a drug.

Great view, but terrible atmosphere

Apparently CNN’s website had a poll yesterday to coincide with the launch of the LRO, which should be taking some neat pictures of the moon and doing an impact study to see what lies below the surface. One of the stated purposes of the mission is apparently to scout out potential sites for lunar colonies, which I’m sure is what inspired the CNN poll.

I didn’t get a chance to vote before the poll disappeared from the CNN site, but I think I can sum up my answer thusly:

Incidentally, I have similarly expressed positions on maintaining a healthy fantasy life, methods for combating insomnia, and how best to handle fowl.


This post was brought to you by Wonkette (notice), Pillow Astronaut (image), and the letter N.

Singling Out people who talk through their asses

Hey, world, guess what: if you stake your children’s lives on medical advice from these people:
This is how I always picture Jenny McCarthy: hard at work squeezing out her next book.I really tried to find one of the butt-talking shots, but my Google-fu is weak.
Then congratulations, you’re a giant moron. Somehow, you’ve decided that the word of two celebrities whose popularity averages out to C-list (at best) trumps the mountains upon mountains of actual scientific evidence from actual scientists.

I can hear the cries now: “but Jenny and Jim have scientists on their side!” Yes, and so do the flat-Earthers, the Creationists, and (to co-opt the antivax crowd’s favorite example) the tobacco companies. What Jenny and Jim and Generation Rescue and Age of Autism and the other pro-disease groups don’t have is anything resembling a preponderance of evidence to support their hypotheses. They don’t even have enough evidence to make their hypothesis seem like a worthwhile and plausible research avenue. After the MMR/Autism link was demonstrated to be the result of an interest-conflicted researcher gaming the data from small poorly-controlled studies using analysis from a compromised lab, the antivax crowd changed the hypothesis–now the connection was proposed to be the mercury in thimerosal, not the measles virus in MMR. So the real scientists rolled up their sleeves again, the legal process bent over backwards to accommodate the antivaxxers’ suspicions, and thimerosal was removed from childhood vaccines while scientists tested the hypothesis. Study after study, data set after data set, have refuted the purported link between thimerosal and autism, and oh by the way, there’s no proposed mechanism for such a link anyway, given what we already know about how ethylmercury compounds like thimerosal interact with the body. Now the antivaxxers have shifted the goalposts again, retreating to that refuge of scoundrels and charlatans, the vague and unscientific notion of “toxins.” They throw out terms designed to baffle and frighten the chemistry-illiterate public and intentionally fail to understand the important role of dosage in determining a substance’s toxicity. And despite this failure to comprehend basic things like measurement, they augment this toxin gambit with a mantra of “too many, too soon.” Yes, curse those doctors for giving our children too many attenuated viruses and viral protein fragments before they can be exposed to the real things. I mean, surely nature, which is fluffy and nice and clean and wonderful to all living things would be much more forgiving with its exposure schedule. How well we remember those halcyon days of tooth enamel-destroying fevers and iron lungs. If it weren’t for the fact that “toxins” is sufficiently vague and untestable and unfalsifiable as a complaint–so much so that it’s ubiquitous among woo-woo garbage–I would expect the next antivax meme to be about the “energy” of the vaccines causing autism.

This constant goalpost-shifting is not a hallmark of a scientific hypothesis. It’s not the sign of rational examination of claims or a desire to actually determine whether or not one’s convictions are true. It’s the tactic of the true believer, the unsinkable rubber ducks whose certainty insulates their beliefs from criticism, evidence, and any harsh contact with reality. Good science has invalidated each of their hypotheses in turn, demonstrating that their proposed causal link is borne out of fallacious post-hoc thinking and unscientific ideology. The scientific method is to abandon mistaken hypotheses, not to make them vaguer and less prone to falsification until they lack any explanatory power at all. This is what the antivax crowd has done; this is emphatically not scientific.

Jenny McCarthy trusts her “mommy instinct” and her Google-based research, but neither of these are reliable sources of truth. The Internet is wonderful in that it gives everyone a voice, and terrible in that it lacks any quality control or fact-checking requirement. “Mommy instincts” are great for skinned knees and stormy nights, but they aren’t reliable sources of truth–just ask any geeky kid whose mom says he’s the handsomest boy in his school, or any mom who thinks her college-bound daughter is pure and virginal as the driven snow. If “mommy instinct” were as reliable as Jenny seems to think, then there would be no need for pediatricians.

But she is a celebrity, and so is her boyfriend, and so they have the means and prestige to promote their arrogant, dangerous ignorance to a humongous audience of credulous people, and they are given equal standing with actual scientists, their ignorance pitted against actual evidence as though the two had similar claims to the truth. I’m all for celebrities having and sharing their opinions; what they shouldn’t be doing (and what our media shouldn’t be complicit in allowing them to do) is pretending that their SAG memberships make them authorities on anything more complicated than method acting. I applaud celebrities like Amanda Peet for standing up and giving the side of reason and science a voice, but I deplore a system and a society where the side with the most famous people on it is commonly believed to be the side with the truth.

So go ahead, put your kids at risk for dozens of debilitating, easily preventable diseases by putting your trust in this asshole:That's right, Batman fucking Forever.
Me, I’ll stick to science.

And we thought “The Unborn” was bad

So after much anticipation dread, Jon and I finally watched Expelled. I definitely thought about liveblogging it, but honestly, it’s been done better by other people already. I have nothing new to add. It’s exactly as bad as you’ve been told, if not a little worse, and I’m glad that I’ve read the accounts of the interviewees beforehand. I’m also glad that I had the lie-correction subtitles open on my computer (haven’t quite figured out how to get them onto a copy of the disc yet).

The whole film is an exercise in dishonesty, logical fallacies, projection, and the celebration of ignorance. The only time evidence was ever mentioned was in how the “Darwinists” are “distorting” it; there’s no discussion of evidence for ID (or why that would even be a concern), nor is there any real discussion of the typical Creationist talking points against the fossil record, radiometric dating, and so forth. There’s a concerted effort to avoid talking about evidence at all, which I imagine is because even considering it causes the film’s thesis to fall apart.

The movie, as you know, posits a conspiracy–explicitly including “The Academy,” “Watchdog Groups,” “The Media,” and “The Courts”–which is keeping people from even asking the relevant questions about Design and campaigning to keep these crusading Intelligent Design advocates out of the system. It goes against all our American values of freedom and democracy, but the conspiracy goes beyond America. It’s a global confederation that controls science and is against religion, even though ID isn’t actually religious. This conspiracy is massively well-funded and powerful, though prominent scientists, thinkers, and politicians all over the world are questioning the Darwinist dogma. The whole concept is ridiculous–who makes up this conspiracy? How efficient must it be that it can operate so broadly and so powerfully when it seemingly requires its entire contingency to be atheists? Somehow, the tiny number of scientifically-minded atheists is able to subjugate and persecute the vast billions of religious people. It’s global apartheid! And somehow, this massive global conspiracy can’t stop this movie (or the books involved, or the interviews with scientists) from being produced; somehow, this conspiracy doesn’t see the value in pandering to those religious billions. How much more funding would be available if the Big Science conspirators were investigating Creationist and Biblical principles?

The interviews themselves may be the most painful bit of the film. I’ve never seen such dishonest questioning tactics and interviews so shallow due to editing tricks. The questions are frequently leading or loaded, often non sequitur, and repetitive–dear FSM, are they repetitive. Michael Shermer noted in his review that Stein asked him the same question a dozen different ways, clearly fishing for some particular response. This is blatantly obvious in his interview with Dawkins, where he asks “do you believe in God” in at least a dozen different and increasingly frustrating ways. I can only imagine how this might have influenced Dawkins’ other comments; if someone’s being that intentionally obtuse and thick-headed, I can imagine it might lead to some bristling and irritation.

The film is awful in every measurement. It makes Michael Moore’s worst offenses look positively fair by comparison, and I’m pretty sure it invents new ways to be dishonest.

One of the worst things, though, is that the movie really confirmed a lot of my suspicions and misgivings regarding Religulous. Aside from the dishonesty in setting up the interviews, the shallow interviews (largely due to butcher-quality editing), the unnecessary stock footage, the largely out-of-place tone shift toward the end, all echo the tactics used in Expelled. Religulous is still the much better film on all those issues (far fewer digressions into stock footage, the interviews and thoughtful threads are more deeply explored, the leading questions were more clearly attempts to elicit humor rather than objectionable statements), and wins out by virtue of not exploiting the Holocaust to make an invalid point. Even so, I really wish that the comparison of tactics wasn’t so easy and so apt.

So, um, yeah. It’s not an experience I’d recommend. If you’re going to watch it, do it when there’s no chance that you’ll wake sleeping people by screaming at the TV, move any desks and hard furniture out of range of your forehead, and remember the buddy system. Good luck.

The Good Fight

You may have noticed in the sidebar that I’ve been reading Autism’s False Prophets by Dr. Paul Offit. I’m happy to say that I’ve finished it, and it’s fantastic. The book lays out the autism situation and the battle against the antivaccinationists in great detail, and it’s really well-written to boot. Go out and get a copy of it now–bookstore or library, as long as you read it. You’ll laugh, you’ll get mad, you’ll want to strangle dangerous quacks like Andrew Wakefield, and if you’re like me, you’ll want to send Dr. Offit a letter of thanks afterward.

…And some have Grey-ness thrust upon ’em

So, Alan Grey provided some musings on the Evolution/Creation “debate” at his blog, at my request. I figured I ought to draft a response, since I’ve got a bit of time now, and since Ty seems to want to know what my perspective is. Let’s jump right in, shall we?

Thomas Kuhn, in his famous work ‘The structure of scientific revolutions’ brought the wider worldview concept of his day into understanding science. His (and Polanyi’s) concept of paradigmic science, where scientific investigation is done within a wider ‘paradigm’ moved the debate over what exactly science is towards real science requiring two things
1) An overarching paradigm which shapes how scientists view data (i.e. theory laden science)
2) Solving problems within that paradigm

I think I’ve talked about The Structure of Scientific Revolutions here or elsewhere in the skeptosphere before. I really need to give it another read, but at the time I read it (freshman year of undergrad) I found it to be one of the densest, most confusing jargon-laden texts I’ve ever slogged through for a class. Now that I have a better understanding of science and the underlying philosophies, I really ought to give it another try. I’d just rather read more interesting stuff first.

Reading the Wikipedia article on the book, just to get a better idea of Kuhn’s arguments, gives me a little feeling of validation about my initial impressions all those years ago. See, my biggest problem with Structure–and I think I wrote a short essay to this effect for the class–was that Kuhn never offered a clear definition of what a “paradigm” was. Apparently my criticism wasn’t unique:

Margaret Masterman, a computer scientist working in computational linguistics, produced a critique of Kuhn’s definition of “paradigm” in which she noted that Kuhn had used the word in at least 21 subtly different ways. While she said she generally agreed with Kuhn’s argument, she claimed that this ambiguity contributed to misunderstandings on the part of philosophically-inclined critics of his book, thereby undermining his argument’s effectiveness.

That makes me feel a bit less stupid.

Kuhn claimed that Karl Popper’s ‘falsification criteria’ for science was not accurate, as there were many historical cases where a result occurred that could be considered as falsifying the theory, yet the theory was not discarded as the scientists merely created additional ad hoc hypothesis to explain the problems.

It is through the view of Kuhnian paradigms that I view the evolution and creation debate.

And I think that’s the first problem. To suggest that only Kuhn or only Popper has all the answers when it comes to the philosophy of science–which may not be entirely what Grey is doing here, but is certainly suggested by this passage–is a vast oversimplification. Kuhn’s paradigmatic model of science ignores to large degree the actual methods of science; arguably, Popper’s view presents an ideal situation that ignores the human element to science, and denies that there exists such a thing as confirmation in science–which again, may be due to ignoring the human element. The paradigmatic view is useful; it reminds us that the human ability to develop conceptual models is partially influenced by cultural factors, and that scientists must be diligent about examining their preconceptions, biases, and tendencies toward human error (such as ad hoc justifications) if they are to conduct accurate science. Falsificationism is also useful; it provides a metric by which to judge scientific statements on the basis of testability, and demonstrates one ideal to which the scientific method can asymptotically approach. But to try to view all of science through one lens or another is myopic at best. Just as science is neither purely deductive nor purely inductive, neither purely theoretical nor purely experimental, it is certainly not purely paradigmatic nor purely falsificationist.

One thing to keep in mind, though, is Grey’s brief mention of ad hoc hypotheses used to smooth out potentially-falsifying anomalies. While I’m sure that has happened and continues to happen, it’d be a mistake to think that any time an anomaly is smoothed over, it’s the result of ad-hocking. The whole process of theory-making is designed to continually review the theory, examine the evidence, and alter the theory to fit the evidence if necessary. We’re seeing a time, for instance, where our concept of how old and large the universe is may be undergoing revision, as (if I recall correctly) new evidence suggests that there are objects beyond the veil affecting objects that we can see. That doesn’t necessarily represent an ad hoc hypothesis; it represents a known unknown in the current model of the universe. Ad hocking would require positing some explanation without sufficient justification.

(Curiously, Karl Popper obliquely referred to Kuhn’s scientific paradigm concept when he said “Darwinism is not a testable scientific theory but a metaphysical research programme.” )

It’s been awhile since my quote mine alarm went off. It never fails. The quote is misleading at best, especially the way you’ve used it here, and somewhat wrong-headed at worst, as even Popper later acknowledged.

Here I define evolution (Common Descent Evolution or CDE) as: The theory that all life on earth evolved from a common ancestor over billions of years via the unguided natural processes of mutation and selection (and ‘drift’) and creation (Young earth creation or YEC) as: The theory that various kinds of life were created under 10,000 years ago and variation within these kinds occurs within limits via mutation and select (and ‘drift’).

I can’t see anything in there to disagree with. Yet, anyway.

I believe CDE and YEC can both be properly and most accurately defined as being scientific paradigms.

While this seems problematic. CDE, certainly, may be a scientific paradigm (though as usual, I’d like that term to be pinned down to a more specific definition). Why on Earth would YEC be a scientific paradigm? Going back to Wikipedia, that font of all knowledge:

Kuhn defines a scientific paradigm as:

  • what is to be observed and scrutinized
  • the kind of questions that are supposed to be asked and probed for answers in relation to this subject
  • how these questions are to be structured
  • how the results of scientific investigations should be interpreted

Alternatively, the Oxford English Dictionary defines paradigm as “a pattern or model, an exemplar.” Thus an additional component of Kuhn’s definition of paradigm is:

  • how is an experiment to be conducted, and what equipment is available to conduct the experiment.

So I can see, under a Creationist paradigm, that one might have different priorities for observations (searching, for instance, for the Garden of Eden or examining evidence for a Global Flood). I certainly understand the matter of formulating questions–we see this in debates with Creationists all the time: “who created the universe,” “why does the universe seem so fine-tuned to our existence,” and so forth. These questions imply what form their answers will take: the first suggests that there must have been an agent involved in the creation of the universe, the latter interprets the causal relationship in a human-centered, teleological fashion. If there’s one thing I’ve learned over years of experience with these debates, it’s the importance of asking the right questions in the right ways. Certainly when scientists were largely laboring under a YEC paradigm, and certainly Creationists and ID proponents looking at various lines of evidence, are interpreting those lines of evidence in particular ways: ID proponents see everything in terms of engineering–machines, codes, programs, and so forth. I’m not entirely sure how a YEC paradigm would affect the available scientific equipment, though.

So I can see how YEC is a paradigm; I’m just not sure how it’s a scientific one. I mean, I can adopt a Pastafarian paradigm of looking at the world, and it may influence how I interpret scientific findings, but that doesn’t give it any scientific value or credence. A scientific paradigm, it seems to me, ought to develop out of science; allowing any paradigm to act as a justified scientific paradigm seems to me to be a little more postmodernist than is valid in science.

Whilst CDE proponents claim that CDE is falsifiable

And Popper, too.

(E.g. Haldane and Dawkins saying a fossil Rabbit in the Precambrian era would falsify CDE), it is easy to see how the theory laden-ness of science makes such a find unlikely.

Um…how? A find is a find, regardless of how theory-laden the scientists are. And it’s not as though evolution hasn’t had its share of moments of potential falsification. Darwin was unaware of genes; his theory was missing a mechanism of transmission. Were we to discover that genes were not prone to the sorts of mutations and variation and drift that Darwinian evolution predicts, the theory would have been worthless. But the study of genes validated Darwin. If we had discovered that DNA replication was not prone to errors and problems, that would have been a major nail in the coffin for Darwinian evolution, but instead the DNA replication process supported the theory. If our studies of the genome had revealed vast differences between apparently related species, with broken genes and junk DNA and retroviral DNA in wildly different places in otherwise-close species, that would be a serious problem for evolutionary theory. Instead, the presence and drift of such genetic bits are perhaps the best evidence available for evolution, and give us a sort of genetic clock stretching backwards along the timeline. It could have been that the genetic evidence wildly contradicted the fossil evidence, but instead we find confirmation and further explanation of the existing lines.

Classification of rock strata was initially (and still commonly) done via the presence of index fossils. (Note: The designation of these fossils as representing a certain historical period was done within the CDE paradigm)

Bzzt! Simply untrue. There do exist index fossils–fossils which only occur in one strata–which can be used to verify the dates of some strata. However, those dates have already been determined through other methods–radiometric dating, which ones are on top of others, and so forth.

Incidentally, if anyone ever gets a chance to look into the various dating methods we have, I highly recommend it. I taught a lesson on it last Spring, and it’s really interesting stuff. You’d never believe how important trees are.

The finding of a fossil Rabbit in a rock strata would almost certainly result in classification of the strata as something other than pre-cambrian, or the inclusion of other ad hoc explanations for the fossil (Overthrusts, reworking etc).

No, I’m afraid that’s simply not the case. If a fossil rabbit were found in a Precambrian stratum, that was below the Cambrian stratum, and both the stratum and the fossil could be reasonably dated back to the Precambrian (through methods like radiometric dating), it would not simply force the redefinition of the stratum. Because then one would have to explain the presence of one geological stratum beneath several others that, chronologically, came earlier, and why there are other Precambrian fossils in this Postcambrian stratum. Either way, the result is an insurmountable anomaly.

Granted, there could be alternate hypotheses to explain how the rabbit got there. Maybe there was a hole in the ground, and some poor rabbit managed to fall in, die, and get fossilized. But then we wouldn’t have a Precambrian rabbit, we’d have a Postcambrian rabbit in a hole, and there ought to be other signs which could demonstrate that (not the least of which that the rabbit shouldn’t date back to the Precambrian radiometrically, and the strata above it, closing off the hole, should be out of place with regard to the rest of the strata. In order to call the stratum the result of an overthrust or erosion or something, there would have to be other evidence for that. Geological folding and erosion, so far as I know, would not affect one fossilized rabbit without leaving other signs behind.

It is worth noting that many smaller (only 200 million year) similar type surprises are happily integrated within CDE. (A recent example is pushing back gecko’s 40 million years in time)

I’d like to see more examples and sources for this. I read the gecko article, and I don’t see where it’s at all what you’re suggesting. This is not an example of a clearly out-of-place animal in the wrong era, it’s an example of there being an earlier ancestor of a modern species than what we knew of before. The preserved gecko is a new genus and species–it’s not as though it’s a modern gecko running around at the time of the dinosaurs–and it’s from a time when lizards and reptiles were common. The point of the “rabbit in the Precambrian” example is that there were no mammals in the Precambrian era. Multicellular life was more or less limited to various soft-bodied things and small shelled creatures; most of the fossils we find from the precambrian are tough to pin down to a kingdom, let alone a genus and species like Sylvilagus floridanus, for instance. There’s a world of difference between finding a near-modern mammal in a period 750 million years before anything resembling mammals existed, and finding a lizard during a lizard- and reptile-dominated time 40 million years before your earliest fossil in that line. There was nothing in the theory or the knowledge preventing a gecko from palling around with dinosaurs, there was just no evidence for it.

The main point here is that the claimed falsification is not a falsification of CDE, but merely falsifies the assumption that fossils are always buried in a chronological fashion. CDE can clearly survive as a theory even if only most fossils are buried in chronological fashion.

That may be closer to the case, as there is a wealth of other evidence for common descent and evolution to pull from. However, the Precambrian rabbit would call into question all fossil evidence, as well as the concept of geological stratification. It would require a serious reexamination of the evidences for evolution.

Many other events and observations exist which could be said to falsify evolution (e.g. the origin of life, soft tissue remaining in dinosaur fossils), but are happily left as unsolved issues.

How would the origin of life falsify evolution? Currently, while there are several models, there’s no prevailing theory of how abiogenesis occurred on Earth. It’s not “happily left as an unsolved issue;” scientists in a variety of fields have spent decades examining that question. Heck, the Miller-Urey experiments, though based on an inaccurate model of the early Earth’s composition, were recently re-examined and found to be more fruitful and valid than originally thought. The matter of soft tissue in dinosaur fossils has been widely misunderstood, largely due to a scientifically-illiterate media (for instance, this article which glosses over the softening process). It’s not like we found intact Tyrannosaurus meat; scientists had to remove the minerals from the substance in order to soften it, and even then the tissue may not be original to the Tyrannosaurus.

It is because of these types of occurrences that I suggest CDE is properly assigned as a scientific paradigm. Which is to say that CDE is not viewed as falsified by these unexpected observations, but instead these problems within CDE are viewed as the grist for the mill for making hypothesis and evaluating hypothesis within the paradigm.

Except that nothing you’ve mentioned satisfies the criteria for falsifiability. For any scientific theory or hypothesis, we can state a number of findings that would constitute falsification. “Rabbits in the precambrian” is one example, certainly, but origins of life? Softenable tissue in dino fossils? Previous gecko ancestors? The only way any of those would falsify evolution would be if we found out that life began suddenly a few thousand years ago, or somesuch. So far, no such discovery has been made, while progress continues on formulating a model of how life began on the Earth four-odd billion years ago.

In other words, you’ve equated any surprises or unanswered questions to falsification, when that’s not, nor has it ever been, the case.

YEC can also be properly identified as a scientific paradigm although significantly less well funded and so significantly less able to do research into the problems that existing observations create within the paradigm.

Yes, if only Creationists had more funding–say, tax-exempt funding from fundamentalist religious organizations, or $27 million dollars that might otherwise be spent on a museum trumpeting their claims–they’d be able to do the research to explain away the geological, physical, and astronomical evidence for a billions-of-years-old universe; the biological, genetic, and paleontological evidence for common descent; the lack of any apparent barriers that would keep evolutionary changes confined to some small areas; and ultimately, the lack of evidence for the existence of an omnipotent, unparsimonious entity who created this whole shebang. It’s a lack of funding that’s the problem.

One such example of research done is the RATE project. Specifically the helium diffusion study which predicted levels of helium in zircons to be approximately 100,000 times higher than expected if CDE were true.

Further reading on RATE. I’m sure the shoddy data and the conclusions that don’t actually support YEC are due to lack of funding as well.

What placing YEC and CDE as scientific paradigms does is make sense of the argument. CDE proponents (properly) place significant problems within CDE as being something that will be solved in the future (E.g. origin of life) within the CDE paradigm. YEC can also do the same (E.g. Endogenous Retroviral Inserts).

Except that the origin of life isn’t a serious problem for evolution; evolution’s concerned with what happened afterward. That’s like saying that (hypothetical) evidence against the Big Bang theory would be a problem for the Doppler Effect. You’ve presented nothing presently that would falsify evolution, while there are already oodles of existing observations to falsify the YEC model. Moreover, you’ve apparently ignored the differences in supporting evidence between the two paradigms; i.e., that evolution has lots of it, while YEC’s is paltry and sketchy at best, and nonexistent at worst. It can’t just be a matter of funding; the YEC paradigm reigned for centuries until Darwin, Lord Kelvin, and the like. Why isn’t there leftover evidence from those days, when they had all the funding? What evidence is there to support the YEC paradigm, that would make it anything like the equal of the evolutionary one?

Comments
1) Ideas like Stephen Gould’s non-overlapping Magistra (NOMA) are self-evidently false. If God did create the universe 7000 years ago, there will definitely be implications for science.

More or less agreed; the case can always be made for Last Thursdayism and the point that an omnipotent God could have created the universe in media res, but such claims are unfalsifiable and unparsimonious.

2) Ruling out a supernatural God as a possible causative agent is not valid. As with (1) such an activity is detectable for significant events (like creation of the world/life) and so can be investigated by science.

I’m not entirely clear on what you’re saying here. I think you’re suggesting that if a supernatural God has observable effects on the universe, then it would be subject to science inquiry. If that’s the case, I again agree. And a supernatural God who has no observable effects on the universe is indistinguishable from a nonexistent one.

a. To argue otherwise is essentially claim that science is not looking for truth, but merely the best naturalistic explanation. If this is the case, then science cannot disprove God, nor can science make a case that YEC is wrong.

Here’s where we part company. First, the idea that science is looking for “truth” really depends on what you mean by “truth.” In the sense of a 1:1 perfect correlation between our conceptual models and reality, truth may in fact be an asymptote, one which science continually strives for but recognizes as probably unattainable. There will never be a day when science “ends,” where we stop and declare that we have a perfect and complete understanding of the universe. Scientific knowledge, by definition, is tentative, and carries the assumption that new evidence may be discovered that will require the current knowledge to be revised or discarded. Until the end of time, there’s the possibility of receiving new evidence, so scientific knowledge will almost certainly never be complete.

As far as methodological naturalism goes, it doesn’t necessarily preclude the existence of supernatural agents, but anything that can cause observable effects in nature ought to be part of the naturalistic view. As soon as we discover something supernatural that has observable effects in nature, it can be studied, and thus can be included in the methodological naturalism of science.

Even if all this were not the case, science can certainly have a position on the truth or falsehood of YEC. YEC makes testable claims about the nature of reality; if those claims are contradicted by the evidence, then that suggests that YEC is not true. So far, many of YEC’s claims have been evaluated in precisely this fashion. While science is less equipped to determine whether or not there is a supernatural omnipotent god who lives outside the universe and is, by fiat, unknowable by human means, science is quite well equipped to determine the age of the Earth and the development of life, both areas where YEC makes testable, and incorrect, predictions.

b. Anthony Flew, famous atheist turned deist makes the point quite clearly when talking about his reasons for becoming a deist

“It was empirical evidence, the evidence uncovered by the sciences. But it was a philosophical inference drawn from the evidence. Scientists as scientists cannot make these kinds of philosophical inferences. They have to speak as philosophers when they study the philosophical implications of empirical evidence.”

What? We have very different definitions of “quite clearly.” Not sure why you’re citing Flew here, since he’s not talking about any particular evidence, since he has no particular expertise with the scientific questions involved, and since he’s certainly not a Young Earth Creationist, nor is his First Cause god consistent with the claims of YEC. I’m curious, though, where this quotation comes from, because despite the claim here that his conversion to Deism was based on evidence, the history of Flew’s conversion story cites mostly a lack of empirical evidence–specifically with regard to the origins of life–as his reason for believing in a First Cause God.

Flew’s comments highlight another significant issue. The role of inference. Especially in ‘historical’ (I prefer the term ‘non-experimental’) science.

You may prefer the term. It is not accurate. The nature of experimentation in historical sciences tends to be different from operational science, but it exists, is useful, and is valid nonetheless.

Much rhetorical use is given to the notion that YEC proponents discard the science that gave us planes, toasters and let us visit the moon (sometimes called ‘operational’…I prefer ‘experimental’ science). Yet CDE is not the same type of science that gave us these things.

No, CDE is the type of science that gives us more efficient breeding and genetic engineering techniques, a thorough understanding of how infectious entities adapt to medication and strategies for ameliorating the problems that presents, genetic algorithms, and a framework for understanding how and why many of the things we already take for granted in biology are able to work. It just happens to be based on the same principles and methodologies as the science that gave us toasters and lunar landers.

Incidentally, the determination of the age of the universe and the Earth is based on precisely the same science that allowed us to go to the moon and make airplanes. Or, more specifically, the science that allows us to power many of our space exploration devices and homes and allows us to view very distant objects.

CDE is making claims about the distant past by using present observations and there is a real disconnect when doing this.

It’s also making claims about the present by using present observations. Evolution is a continuous process.

One of the chief functions of experiment is to rule out other possible explanations (causes) for the occurrence being studied. Variables are carefully controlled in multiple experiments to do this. The ability to rule out competing explanations is severally degraded when dealing with historical science because you cannot repeat and control variables.

Fair enough. It’s similar to surgical medicine in that regard.

You may be able to repeat an observation, but there is no control over the variables for the historical event you are studying.

“No control” is another oversimplification. We can control what location we’re looking at, time period and time frame, and a variety of other factors. It’s certainly not as tight as operational science, but there are controls and experiments in the primarily-observational sciences.

Not that it matters, because experiments are not the be-all, end-all of science. Predictions, observations, and mathematical models are important too. Science in general has much more to do with repeated observation than with experimentation. And yes, repeated observation is enough (in fact, it’s the only thing) to determine cause and effect.

Scientists dealing with non-experimental science have to deal with this problem, and they generally do so by making assumptions (sometimes well founded, sometimes not).

Guh? You act like they just come up with these assumptions without any justification.

A couple of clear examples are uniformitarianism (Geological processes happening today, happened the same way, the same rate in the past) and the idea that similarity implies ancestry.

Okay, two problems. One: if we were to hypothesize that geological processes happened somehow differently in the past, one would have to provide some evidence to justify that hypothesis. Without evidence, it would be unparsimonious to assume that things functioned differently in the past. As far as all the evidence indicates, the laws of physics are generally constant in time and space, and those geological processes and whatnot operate according to those laws.

The idea that similarity implies ancestry is not a scientific one. While that may have been a way of thinking about it early on in evolutionary sciences, it does not actually represent science now. Similarity may imply relationship, but there are enough instances of analogous evolution to give the lie to the idea that scientists think similarity = ancestry.

A couple of quotes will make my point for me.

Doubtful.

Henry Gee chief science writer for Nature wrote “No fossil is buried with its birth certificate” … and “the intervals of time that separate fossils are so huge that we cannot say anything definite about their possible connection through ancestry and descent.”

Poor Henry Gee; first quote-mined in Jonathan Wells’ Icons of Evolution, now by you. What’s interesting here is that you’ve actually quote-mined Gee’s response to Wells and the DI for quote-mining him! (Which, I realize, you’re aware of, but I read this largely as I was writing the response) Here’s the full context:

That it is impossible to trace direct lineages of ancestry and descent from the fossil record should be self-evident. Ancestors must exist, of course — but we can never attribute ancestry to any particular fossil we might find. Just try this thought experiment — let’s say you find a fossil of a hominid, an ancient member of the human family. You can recognize various attributes that suggest kinship to humanity, but you would never know whether this particular fossil represented your lineal ancestor – even if that were actually the case. The reason is that fossils are never buried with their birth certificates. Again, this is a logical constraint that must apply even if evolution were true — which is not in doubt, because if we didn’t have ancestors, then we wouldn’t be here. Neither does this mean that fossils exhibiting transitional structures do not exist, nor that it is impossible to reconstruct what happened in evolution. Unfortunately, many paleontologists believe that ancestor/descendent lineages can be traced from the fossil record, and my book is intended to debunk this view. However, this disagreement is hardly evidence of some great scientific coverup — religious fundamentalists such as the DI — who live by dictatorial fiat — fail to understand that scientific disagreement is a mark of health rather than decay. However, the point of IN SEARCH OF DEEP TIME, ironically, is that old-style, traditional evolutionary biology — the type that feels it must tell a story, and is therefore more appealing to news reporters and makers of documentaries — is unscientific.

What Gee is criticizing here and in his book, as his response and further information here (4.14, 4.16) make clear, is the tendency among some scientists and journalists to interpret the evidence in terms of narratives and to see life as a linear progression, when in fact it’s more of a branching tree with many limbs. It’s impossible from fossil evidence alone to determine whether two animals are ancestor and descendant, or cousins, or whatever.

See, the problem with letting quotes make your point for you is that they often do no such thing.

Gee’s response to this quote of him supports my point

No, you’ve simply misunderstood it. The fact that you’ve read Icons, somehow find it valid, and somehow think it supports a YEC view, speaks volumes about your credibility.

Colin Paterson’s infamous quote about the lack of transitional fossils makes the same point. “The reason is that statements about ancestry and descent are not applicable in the fossil record. Is Archaeopteryx the ancestor of all birds? Perhaps yes, perhaps no: there is no way of answering the question.”

My quote mine alarm is getting quite a workout today, but I have a distinct suspicion that Patterson is talking about precisely what Gee was: that from the fossil evidence alone, we cannot determine whether archaeopteryx is the ancestor of all birds, or an offshoot of the lineage that produced birds. And a very brief look reveals precisely what I suspected. This isn’t the problem for evolution that you seem to think it is.

A simple thought experiment highlights this concept. Assuming at some point in the future, scientists find some scientific knowledge that makes the naturalistic origin of life a more plausible possibility given the time constraints. (For instance…given completely arbitrary probabilities, say there is a 15% chance of OOL from unliving chemicals driven by natural processes in the lifetime of the earth to date) Does this mean that it must of happened that way in the past? Clearly the answer is no.

No, it doesn’t mean it must have happened that way in the past. However, we can show ways it may have happened, or ways that it was likely to have happened. Merely showing a likely way for the origin of life to have occurred given the conditions on Earth four-odd billion years ago puts abiogenesis far ahead of the creationist hypothesis, due to their lack of parsimony.

Incidentally, as Dawkins explained in The God Delusion, the actual life-generating event needn’t be particularly likely to occur. After all, it’s only happened once in the history of the planet Earth, so far as we’re aware. Given the variety of condition and the timespan involved, that’s something of a low probability.

But even claims of certainty about experimental science is unjustified. The history of science contains many examples of widely held scientific beliefs being overturned. Phlogiston is probably the most famous, but geosynclinal theory (preceding plate techtonics) is a more non-experimental science example. So even claims about experimental science should be made with this in mind, evoking a more humble stance. Comments about CDE being a ‘fact’ or being on par with gravity are unfounded and display a profound ignorance of science and history. Such comments are not scientific, but faith based.

Wrong, wrong, wrong. You’re conflating an awful lot of things here, particularly with regard to scientific terminology. First, as I said above, scientific knowledge is tentative and admittedly so. Scientists are human, and are certainly prone in some cases to overstating their certainty about one given theory or another, but in general we recognize that our knowledge is subject to revision as future evidence becomes available. There is no 100% certainty in science.

Here’s the point where definitions would be important. In science, a “fact” is something that can be observed–an object, a process, etc. A “law” is a (usually) mathematical description of some process or fact. A “theory” is a model that explains how facts and laws work, and makes predictions of future observations that can be used to validate or falsify it. Gravity is a fact, a law, and a theory. The fact of gravity is that things with mass can be observed to be attracted to one another; the law of gravity is F=G*[(m1*m2)/R^2]; the (relativistic) theory of gravity is that massive objects warp spacetime, causing changes in the motion of other massive objects. Evolution is similar: the fact of evolution is the process of mutation and selection that can be observed and has been observed under a variety of different levels of control; the theory of evolution by natural selection is that organisms are descended with modification from a common ancestor through an ongoing selection process consisting of various natural forces and occurrences.

The claims by Gould and others that evolution is a fact are referring to the observable process of evolution. Your argument here amounts to suggesting that since scientists were wrong about phlogiston, they cannot claim with any certainty that things burn.

So how to evaluate between the two paradigms?

Reason and evidence?

This is the question that matters… Controversially, Kuhn claimed that choosing between paradigms was not a rational process.

…?

Whilst not subscribing to complete relativism, I believe there is a real subjective nature between paradigms. Objective problems play a part, but how much those problems are weighted seems to be a fairly subjective decision.

From my perspective, the cascading failure of many of the evidences used to infer CDE is a clear indication of the marginal superiority of the (admittedly immature) YEC paradigm.

False dichotomy. Try again. Evidence against evolution–which, I remind, you have not provided–is not evidence for YEC. Nor is it evidence for OEC or ID or Hindu Creation Stories or Pastafarianism. Each of those things requires its own evidence if it is to stand as a viable scientific paradigm.

Incidentally, you might actually want to look at some of the evidence for evolution before declaring any kind of “cascading failure.” You might also want to look at the evidence for creationism.

Chief examples are things such as embryonic recapitulation (found to be a fraud),

Found by scientists to be a fraud; never central to evolutionary theory.

the fossil record (Found to exhibit mostly stasis and significant convergence),

Source? Experts disagree.

the genetic evidence (Found to exhibit massive homoplasy).

Source? Experts disagree.

Update: And the disagreement between molecular and morphological data.

Nothing in the article you’ve linked suggests any problems for evolution. It merely shows how useful the genetic and molecular analyses are in distinguishing species and discovering exactly how organisms are related; I think you’ll find that most biologists agree with that sentiment, which is part of why there’s so much more focus on genetic evidence than fossil evidence now. Heck, as long as we’re quoting, here’s Francis Collins:

“Yes, evolution by descent from a common ancestor is clearly true. If there was any lingering doubt about the evidence from the fossil record, the study of DNA provides the strongest possible proof of our relatedness to all other living things.”

It is curious however, that even with the near monopoly of the CDE paradigm in science education in America, that only a small fraction believe it. (CDE hovers around 10%, whilst 50+% accept YEC and the remainder Theistic evolution) This certainly indicates to me, that perhaps it is CDE that is not as compelling an explanation than YEC.

So, an appeal to popularity? Yeah, that’s valid. Yes, evolution is believed by a fraction of the laity. Although your numbers suggest it’s about half–theistic evolution is still evolution, and evangelical Francis Collins agrees far more with Richard Dawkins than Duane Gish. Strangely enough, among scientists–you know, the people who have actually examined the evidence, regardless of their religious beliefs–it’s believed by the vast majority. What does that suggest?

Whatever the decision, it is more appropriate to say that YEC is the “better inferred explanation” than CDE or vice versa. Such an understanding of the debate leads to a far more productive discourse and avoids the insults, derision and anger that seems to be so prevalent.

I’m afraid you’ve lost me, so I’ll sum up. Your position is based on an examination of the situation that ignores the complete lack of evidence for the “YEC paradigm” and inflates perceived flaws in the “CDE paradigm” in order to make them appear to be somewhat equal. From there, you ignore the basic lack of parsimony in the “YEC paradigm” and make appeals to logical fallacies in order to declare it the more likely explanation.

Alan, you’re clearly a fairly intelligent guy, but that more or less amounts to your argument having a larger proportion of big words than the average creationist’s. Your use of false dichotomy and argumentum ad populum as though they had any value to science, your quote-mining to make your point, your misinterpretation of popular science articles and assumption that they refute a century of peer-reviewed journals, your ignorance of the actual evidence for evolution, and your postmodernist take on the whole debate, are all standard creationist tactics. You’re clearly intelligent enough and interested enough to correct your misconceptions and your errors in thinking, Alan, and I hope you take this chance to examine the evidence with an open mind and understand that scientific theories are based on positive evidence, not negative evidence against a competing theory. Thanks for the article!

Creationism in my Classroom

I’m going to take a brief break from politics, morality, and not blogging about GenCon to actually blog about something that happened to me a couple of weeks back. As you may or may not be aware, I’ve started student teaching. At this point, I feel like I ought to step up the anonymity; I don’t want to infringe on anyone’s privacy, nor do I want to make myself a pariah. So excuse me if I’m a bit vague; it’s intentional. Also, if it becomes necessary, I may invoke some pseudonyms. Buffy-related ones, no doubt.

Today, a substitute teacher was filling in for my mentor teacher. We’ll call him Mr. Ted. He’s well-known and well-liked by the students. I knew he was a local pastor of some flavor, and whatever, he’s a nice guy and it’s a small midwestern town. I’m not an idiot; I know what’s to be expected.

I did the bulk of the instruction, which mostly consisted of following my mentor teacher’s plans and corralling the unruly high schoolers, while Mr. Ted read some preachery book and helped out as necessary. Now, I figure this is well within his legal rights; I know teachers are allowed to wear cross or Star of David necklaces and other religious paraphernalia, and I would be surprised if they’d be barred from reading religious materials in the classroom. Still, and maybe it’s just because I don’t want to rock the boat or bring unnecessary complications into my life, I wouldn’t sit down and read The God Delusion or Atheism: The Case Against God or something during free time in the classroom. For me, that’d be at least one step too close to endorsing a religious position while acting in the capacity of an authority figure under the state’s employ. But I’m the kind of person who puts a lot of thought and concern into that sort of thing, and one of the privileges of being in the majority is that you really don’t have to. My views and reading materials are more likely to cause problems and offend my students than Mr. Ted’s. And that’s not where Mr. Ted and I ran into trouble; other than the fact that it caused me to mull over the ethical question of what a teacher ought to be able to read in a public school classroom, I didn’t have any qualms about Mr. Ted’s reading material.

No, the real situation is a little more depressing, and a lot closer to illegal. The bell rang to dismiss my fourth-hour class, which is the one right before my lunch break. One of my students, a quiet girl who we’ll call Faith, stayed behind to chat with Mr. Ted. I was busy picking stuff up and packing up so I could go eat, so I wasn’t really paying attention to what they were talking about halfway across the room.

That is, until I caught a snippet of Faith saying “…really believes we came from monkeys.” That gave me some pause, and the next thing I heard was Mr. Ted saying something about how evolution could be “scientifically disproven,” but “they” wouldn’t let it get taught in the classrooms. This, sadly, confirmed that they were having precisely the conversation I feared they were having.

Faith said something along the lines of “he told us” (and by “he,” I assume she meant her Biology teacher) and then launched into a pretty decent explanation of Darwin’s finches. It was slightly muddled, as you might expect from an average high school student, but she definitely had a handle on the concepts. Mr. Ted interrupted her, literally handwaving (as I recall) and gave the standard line–changes, but no they can’t change between species.

At this point, I chime in. “Actually, they’ve observed speciation in the laboratory,” or something to that effect. I’ll be honest here in saying that while I remember broad swaths of the conversation, I have very little idea what was said in what order. That’s not a matter of it being over a week since the event occurred; even immediately after the conversation, I realized that I didn’t know the details. More on the reasons for that in a moment. Anyway, I’m going to do my best to present things as a rough progression, but I guarantee it’s not particularly accurate.

At this point, I think, is when I looked directly at Faith and suggested that she go to TalkOrigins.org, which can answer any and all questions she has about biological evolution.

Here, I think, is where Mr. Ted upped the ante–no longer was it just that some scientists had scientifically disproved evolution, but he has a friend who is a “deep scientist,” who says he can scientifically disprove evolution. I left aside the question about what a “deep scientist” was (he said it like you might say “deep undercover”) and asked instead what field his friend worked in. Mr. Ted replied (after what I recall as a brief hesitation) that he was a biologist. I asked where his disproof has been published; Mr. Ted said that “they” won’t let him.

If I’d had a moment or two more to think, I might have mentioned that the Institute of Creation Research has a journal, the Discovery Institute has publications, why couldn’t his “scientist friend” go to one of them? Certainly they’d be open to his contributions. Instead, I turned up the sarcasm and said “Yes, because science is so rigid and dogmatic,” with emphasis on the last word. Mr. Ted shook his said, and said something that sounded like “I wish…” which I assumed was going toward “I wish it weren’t, but…”

I cut him off at the pass, and said that if someone could disprove evolution, they’d win a Nobel Prize, because it would open up vast new lines of research. If they managed to prove what I’m sure Mr. Ted believes, they’d be up for a certain million dollar prize as well.

I’m not entirely certain where the discussion went right then. Somehow, Mr. Ted started giving his perspective on evolution. “According to evolution [or something like that], with these billions of years that are supposed to have happened, but there’s no proof for–“

I interjected, “which can be shown through multiple lines of evidence.”

He continued, “we should see all kinds of different [species, variations, or something along those lines], and we don’t.” I thought of the vast tapestry of life, the tens (or hundreds) of millions of different known species, with all their subtle differences, tied to one another by the threads of common ancestry and shared genetics, and wondered how anyone could say such a myopically ignorant thing. Unfortunately, my only response was an incredulous “Yes we do!” He then (slightly stammering) reiterated the point about evolution not being able to make new species. If I’d had time to think, or if I’d remembered (or if I’d memorized the Index to Creationist Claims) I might have mentioned the new species of mosquito that evolved in the London Underground, or Helacyton gartleri or something; instead, I said “just recently, in an experiment, bacteria–E. coli bacteria–evolved the ability to digest citrate” (referencing, of course, Richard Lenski’s long-term E. coli experiment). To be quite honest, I think I was wrong that that’s an instance of speciation in the laboratory, but I’m also not entirely sure how they define “species” at the level of unicellular organisms that reproduce asexually.

I want to say that this is where Mr. Ted said “Well, I don’t think that’s the case,” or something along those lines. I know my response to that was along the lines of “you can think whatever you want, but the facts say you’re wrong.” Mr. Ted said “that’s what I’m talking about–scientific facts.” He then said something about DNA, though it wasn’t even a complete thought. If he’d continued on that, I’m not sure where I would have gone. Should I explain that DNA was a fantastic test of evolutionary theory, and could have refuted it when it was discovered, but instead has supported the theory and changed the face of evolutionary science by providing the mechanisms of mutation and evolution, and by giving us a much clearer and more solid picture of how organisms are related to one another? Should I bring up Francis Collins, former head of the Human Genome Project and current evangelical Christian, who says that the DNA evidence alone proves common descent? Should I talk about specific things, like the broken vitamin-C-producing gene that helps prove common ancestry between humans and other primates?

Thankfully (or not) Mr. Ted spared me the choice, instead saying (something like), “just watch ‘Expelled.'” If I’d had another two seconds to think, I would have said “sorry, I don’t believe everything I see in movies,” or something to that effect. Instead, I was just floored–I honestly couldn’t believe there was anyone who wouldn’t have seen through the blatant tactics and idiocy of that film. So I sputtered “watch ‘Expelled’? Oh, I’ll watch ‘Expelled’.” It was not the highlight of my debate career. I moved on, “‘Expelled’ is full of lies, distortions, and misinformation,” or something to that effect. Mr. Ted just sighed or chuckled or sighckled or something, and I think he said something dismissive. That’s about when he left the room.

Shortly thereafter, Faith came up to me. I think she was there the whole time, and I have no idea how that all played out to her. She asked me “so, are you a science teacher, or…” or something to that effect–a legitimate question, since I’m teaching English. I explained that my undergraduate degree was in English and Physics, and that I’d be certified to teach English and all the high school sciences. I think that was met with a nodding “oh,” and she more or less left the room.

I continued gathering my things in order to go on my now-abbreviated lunch. I shut the door when I left the classroom, and passed Mr. Ted in the hallway. In the spirit of having to work with him for another three hours, I wished him a good lunch, and went to get my things from the teachers’ lounge. When I passed the classroom again, I noticed the door was open. I looked in to see Mr. Ted, eating his sandwich at the desk, alone in the dark.

In terms of education, I’m not sure how successful I was. I certainly don’t think I made Mr. Ted think at all, but at least I gave Faith an alternate perspective and a good resource for her questions. The fact that she asked about my background seemed positive to me, though I don’t think I’d suggest that it was a victory for science and reason. She’s quiet, so I don’t see much difference in her conduct toward me since then, but she also doesn’t seem to think I’m the godless devil incarnate.

What I learned from the experience, though, was why I don’t generally participate in face-to-face arguments of this sort. I was shaking–full-body shaking–from just a few moments into the discussion, and throughout most of my lunch period thereafter. Part of it was nervousness–it was my first week as a teacher in that district; I had no idea (and still have pretty much no idea) what the general consensus was regarding evolution and science and whatnot, nor did I have any idea what Mr. Ted might say to my colleagues while I was out to lunch. I didn’t know what impression this would make on Faith, or what she might thereafter say to her classmates. I don’t know how quickly they would make the equivocation of “evolutionist” and “atheist” in this small town, nor do I know what that would do to my relationship with my mentor teacher and my supervisor, nor do I know how that might affect my evaluation and job prospects. Sure, it’s entirely possible that I could be totally open and honest with my colleagues and suffer no ill effects, but I’d rather do so when I’m operating as an employee rather than a student. I needed to walk the line of science education, to not be dismissive of the beliefs that Mr. Ted and Faith likely shared (since that would no doubt sink my credibility), while also explaining that the evidence disagreed with their faith. I had to present myself as knowledgeable on a subject that is not the focus of my expertise, while also trying not to come off as the stereotypical condescending, arrogant atheist scientist boogieman.

More than that, I was on the spot; normally when I have arguments like this one, I can walk away, get a sandwich, do research, mull over what I’ve written and change it if necessary, link to sources, respond point-by-point, and generally take precisely as much time as I want to draft a response to the average asinine woo or creationist or whatever. I’m used to point-by-point debates without real time constraints, not face-to-face, heat of the moment debates. Debating by text loses a lot of the inflection and emphasis that help convey meaning in normal communication, but I’ll take it any day over the alternative; the parameters, such as they are, ensure a more honest exchange and allow for a much easier presentation of research and evidence. There’s a reason that the Gish Gallop is more useful face-to-face than online: you can’t baffle the audience with bullshit when your opponent has the ability to clean it up as thoroughly as you toss it out. I can’t pull up all the information to respond to creationist claims at a moment’s notice out of my memory with full citations, but I can do it on Google.

The other thing that feeds into that is that I was angry, and desperately trying to hide it (to be honest, I think the nervousness kind of outweighed it anyway). I’ve gotten angry in debates before, but like I said above, I’ve usually got the option of standing up and walking away from the computer. I can cool off for as long as I want, then return to the discussion when my demeanor is more cool and rational. But I couldn’t exactly walk away from Mr. Ted and Faith, any more than I could let him spread his arrogant ignorance without opposition. It upset me to see a schoolteacher flaunting the Constitution and decades of case law in order to promote a worldview that’s as thoroughly debunked as geocentrism or phlogiston. It made me angry that he apparently thought nothing of flatly dismissing and contradicting the teaching of a colleague in the building, when he has no expertise on the subject. It made me angry to think that it’s the twenty-first damn century, and we’re still beating the dessicated corpse of an argument that was settled in the nineteenth. And yet, if I’d lost my cool, I’d have lost the argument.

I’m not sure what to think about the whole event. I certainly don’t think it was a victory for science and reason, but I’m glad I stood up and said my piece. If nothing else, I refused to let misinformation go unchallenged, so that’s something.

Incidentally, Mr. Ted’s subbing for my class again on Wednesday. I’ve taken over the teaching, so he shouldn’t be doing much, but it’ll be interesting to see what happens. Regardless, I’m going to bone up a bit on speciation.

For the Cause!

Everybody’s doing it, I might as well too.

Define “Success”

Apparently, Expelled was a success at the box office this weekend. At least, that’s what Randy Olson and Chris Mooney say. Ed Brayton tells a different story. It seems that no one has a clear idea of what “success” means.

On one hand, it opened at 9th place over the weekend, and that $3.5 million weekend makes it number 8 on the list of top grossing political documentaries of all time. Not too shabby for a film plagued by plagiarism and unlicensed music.

On the other hand, it opened far beneath films that have been out for multiple weeks, like “Horton Hears a Who” and “Nim’s Island.” Hell, even “Prom Night” did better. Take a quick look at the other films on that list of top grossing political documentaries; it’s just above a movie that opened in one theater, and just below one that opened in two. Granted, these numbers reflect the per-theater income, but when a movie opening in over a thousand theaters can’t do better per theater than one that opened in two, that seems to be saying something. Moreover, $3.5 million might cover the cost of the film itself, but certainly not the publicity and the “we’ll pay you to go” campaign they had with religious schools. Even the producers’ own gauge for success (apparently 2 million tickets sold) was missed by a wide margin.

Before Expelled came out, people were comparing it to “The Passion of the Christ” (and its $83.8 million opening weekend). The same marketing firm worked on both, and the marketing directly to churches and friendly audiences was certainly similar. When I first started hearing these comparisons, I immediately thought of another recent movie that was repeatedly compared to “The Passion”: “The Nativity Story.” “Nativity” couldn’t move the churchgoers into the seats, and is widely considered a flop.

“The Nativity Story” made $8 million in its opening weekend.

Now, why is a movie marketed toward much the same audience, in much the same way, which made over twice as much, considered a flop, while ScienceBloggers are conceding defeat to the success juggernaut that is Expelled? Is it just because it’s a documentary? Is that what sets the “incredible success” bar so low?

Expelled certainly did better than I’d hoped, but I’m more than a little disheartened to see folks like Olson and Mooney essentially conceding defeat at this point. Instead of calling for people to make responses, and lauding the creationists for their superior framing and marketing abilities, and criticizing the scientific community for not doing enough, why not fucking do something about it? What purpose does it serve for a scientist to say “Meet Ben Stein, the New Spokesman for the Field of Evolution”? What kind of framing is that?

And what is the expected scientific response supposed to be? An equally high-budget movie responding to their claims as if they’re claims that deserve a response? Yeah, that’s good framing, letting your opponents determine the terms of the debate. A direct-to-DVD release explaining all the problems? How well do the anti-Michael Moore direct-to-DVD flicks do compared to the Michael Moore films? Why is it that the people who claim to be trying to improve scientific communication are the ones falling over themselves to declare victory for the other side?

I’ll be curious to see how “successful” Expelled is in the coming weeks, as the initial church-rush dies down.