Thursday, December 29, 2011

Nice argument for the age of the earth | Pharyngula

Nice argument for the age of the earth | Pharyngula: Nice argument for the age of the earth
December 29, 2011 at 4:39 pm PZ Myers

"Geoffrey Pearce sent me this argument he uses with creationists, and I thought others might find it useful, too.

I am regularly approached by young Earth creationists (yes, even in the bedlam of sin that is Montreal…) both on the street and at home. If I have the time I try to engage them on the age of Earth, since Earth is something whose existence them and I agree upon. They will tell me that Earth is somewhere between 6,000 – 10,000 years old, and, when prompted, that the rest of the universe is the same age as well. I have taken the approach of responding to this assertion by pulling out a print of the far side of the Moon (attached, from"
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Wednesday, December 28, 2011

What Scientists Do and Creationists Don't

By Skip @ Panda's Thumb

What Scientists Do and Creationists Don't:
A favorite creationist mantra these days, and one you especially hear from young earthers, is that creationists and scientists both have the same facts, they just look at them differently. To laypeople that may sound reasonable. The handful of guys at Answers in Genesis look at the Grand Canyon and say it was formed by a flood about 4400 years ago when God got all pissed off at humans. The 24,000 members of the Geological Society of America (and virtually every member of the literally dozens of geological organizations listed at their web site*) look at the Grand Canyon and say it was formed over millions of years by natural processes that continue today.

Same facts; different conclusions. Some of us laypeople often hear these two positions and see them as equally valid positions on either side of a debate. But some of us scratch the surface, and it doesn’t take a very deep scratch to see a significant difference. Scientists do science and creationists don’t.

I’m currently making my way through the December 2010 Evolution: Education & Outreach, a special issue dealing with the teaching of phylogenetics. On page 507 in an article titled “How to Read a Phylogenetic Tree,” by Deborah A. McLennan, I came across the following. “…butterflies can be distinguished from cats and people because they have an exoskeleton made out of chitin (a tough, waterproof derivative of glucose).” This was one of those “how do they know that” moments for me. Having read Genetics for Dummies and other books in my efforts to start getting a handle on genetics, I’m really getting into how genetic relationships reveal evolutionary history. Could this be another one of those cases?

But first I wanted to at least know what chitin is. Wikipedia says it “is the main component of the cell walls of fungi, the exoskeletons of arthropods such as crustaceans.” Interesting enough. It also says in terms of function it’s comparable to the protein keratin, and that it has several useful medical and industrial applications. Neat-o! But what about evolution? Does evolution have anything to say about where this stuff came from?

Plugging “evolution of chitin” in Google returns a bunch of links, and the very first one I clicked on said, “[a]nalysis of a group of invertebrate proteins, including chitinases and peritrophic matrix proteins, reveals the presence of chitin-binding domains that share significant amino acid sequence similarity. The data suggest that these domains evolved from a common ancestor which may be a protein containing a single chitin-binding domain.” So it looks like these researchers have a pretty good idea about chitin’s history, and where it came from.

But the abstract also says that “comparisons indicated that invertebrate and plant chitin binding domains do not share significant amino acid sequence similarity, suggesting that they are not coancestral…We propose that the invertebrate and the plant chitin-binding domains share similar mechanisms for folding and saccharide binding and that they evolved by convergent evolution.”

So this research concludes that chitin in invertebrates evolved from a common ancestor, but invertebrate and plant chitin evolved independently.

Want to know more? how about a possible history of the stuff in humans traced all the way back “to the time of the bilaterian expansion (approx. 550 mya).” Furthermore, this paper documents some real twists and turns in chitin’s history: “The family expanded in the chitinous protostomes C. elegans and D. melanogaster, declined in early deuterostomes as chitin synthesis disappeared, and expanded again in late deuterostomes with a significant increase in gene number after the avian/mammalian split.” Someone has clearly done their homework!

This little exercise took me about 15 minutes, and I learned a little bit about chitin: what it is and got a glimpse into where it came from and how scientists are learning its history. Scientists doing science.

What do creationists say about chitin? I plugged the term in the search engine at Answers in Genesis and found an article called “What a Body!” by Professor Wolfgang Kuhn, who describes chitin as a “wonder substance” composed of protein and sugar. He further describes it as a “miracle body” and says that “even if we could produce chitin itself, all our modern technology would be unable to imitate this fine microstructure so as to make a sports car body out of it, for instance.”

What is the takeaway message of Kuhn’s article? “Next time you see this humble beetle, consider the incredible amount of programmed information needed just to construct this super-high-tech marvel, its outer coat. Such information is passed on generation after generation, silent testimony to the Master Programmer.”

Creationism is so easy! When the earth is only a few thousand years old, and plants, animals, everything on earth has no real history or past different from the present, it’s enough to call things “wonder substance” and “miracle body”. Poof! God did it… class dismissed.

I’ve often read creationists complain about the amounts of funding real scientists receive and how much is distributed by the NIH and the NSF. If only creationists had this kind of funding, they could do amazing research! But would they?

Answers in Genesis, perhaps the most visible and well-funded anti-evolution organization in the country, spent approximately $27 million building its creation “museum” in Kentucky. AiG is presently raising money for their latest venture, a Noah’s Ark theme park, estimated to cost $24.5 million when completed. I have a suggestion for Ken Ham and the folks at AiG. Why not spend a fraction of that 24 and a half million to actually do a scientific experiment? For instance: build a real ark, fill it with animals just like Noah is claimed to have done and float it out in the ocean for a year to test the hypothesis. Think of all the converts that would win when it worked! Hell, I’d get saved myself!

I emailed Dr. John Hawks at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and asked him about funding scientific research and he replied, “Last year NIH spent $8 million on the Cancer Genome Atlas, bringing it to a total of $43 million. This project works on the principle that cancer cells are engaged in an evolutionary process in the body that will often be convergent in different people, so that building a systematic atlas of the genes involved will help us understand and find effective strategies to treat different cancers.”

So for less than the cost of two huge, embarrassing testaments to ignorance and misinformation AiG could have funded something like the entire Cancer Genome Atlas. But then again, at the creation “museum” they have a Triceratops with a saddle!

It’s clear that for a fraction of what the creationist organizations spend on propaganda, they could easily fund lab work and research to publish evidence of their claims. But what they do publish is nothing more than distortions of real research. PZ Myers exposes a typical example about, coincidentally, chitin.

Even some lower-tier creationists pull down some pretty serious dough. Eric Hovind, son of federal prison inmate and notorious huckster Kent Hovind, is raising $1.5 million to make a film about the book of Genesis. In the 2011 Winter issue of his publication Creation Today, Son of Hovind claims he’s raised over $255,000.

Well, Eric Hovind has a high tech studio he makes his videos in, and I bet he has a few computers around there. What more does he need? Reed Cartwright, Biodesign Institute at Arizona State University, tells me, “For a lot of computational genomics research, the data is already available and the only costs are for computers and salaries. And purchasing time on supercomputers is currently cheap.” So here’s another suggestion: Why doesn’t Hovind fund a couple of creationist geneticists to do some research when his computers are otherwise unoccupied? I’m sure he’d discover that every species on earth went through a genetic bottleneck about 4400 years ago that reduced the entire population to just two individuals … on a boat. Right, Eric?

Opportunities abound for creationists to fund real scientific research. Nick Matzke sent me this link. Use the Award Search feature and spend a few minutes checking out all the great research done on much smaller budgets than a theme park, or feature length film production.

Maybe scientists and creationists have the same facts. But if they do, it’s because one of those groups actually cared enough about truth to find out what the facts were. It’s not the creationists. Only one of those groups selfishly obsesses over their personal beliefs to the point of ignoring and distorting legitimate scientific research to further a social and theological agenda. And it’s not the scientists.
Note: As has been pointed out to me, what I have discovered in these papers is research on the evolution of chitin-binding proteins, not chitin itself. This layperson has learned that chitin is made from and digested by proteins that do evolve, and that’s what the research I found was all about. 
* I say ‘virtually’ because with the tens, or hundreds, of thousands of members across all those organizations there are probably a couple of young-earthers. But I’ll bet you can’t find one geologist, anywhere, who thinks the earth is six thousand years old who doesn’t regard the Bible (or whatever their favorite holy text is) as without error.
(Finally, this piece is cross-posted to my brand new blog,, so come on over to my place and give me some of your Internet love, you bunch of bad low motor scooters.)

Over 65 Million Years, North American Mammal Evolution Has Tracked With Climate Change

ScienceDaily (Dec. 27, 2011) — Climate changes profoundly influenced the rise and fall of six distinct, successive waves of mammal species diversity in North America over the last 65 million years, shows a novel statistical analysis led by Brown University evolutionary biologists. Warming and cooling periods, in two cases confounded by species migrations, marked the transition from one dominant grouping to the next.
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Saturday, December 24, 2011

Dinosaur Denialism by Donald Prothero

Dinosaur Denialism:

I have written frequently in these blogposts about the numerous forms of denial of science and reality that are out there, from global warming denialism, to AIDS denialism, anti-vaxxers, and creationism. They all have a lot in common, from their insular exclusionary attitude that refuses to accept evidence that doesn’t fit their world view, to the various strategies they use to reduce cognitive dissonance and fight against reality, all borrowed from the Holocaust deniers. These include: quoting out of context (“quote-mining”) to dishonestly suggest that the quoted person agrees with them, cherry-picking data to show the exact opposite of what the data really show, making phony lists of “experts” who agree with them, picking on the small differences within the scientific community as evidence that the “science is not settled”, picking on one small factoid (usually misinterpreted and out of context) as evidence that the whole of science is false, and so on. Usually, these obvious strategies to deny an overwhelming body of evidence are so transparently self-delusional that we can laugh at them.

But then I ran into something that staggered even my sense of how low these people can go. We are all familiar with how creationists use ad hoc explanations and special pleading to rescue the absurdities of their world view, from trying to cram all of the animals into Noah’s ark and dismissing the huge numbers problem through their non-biological concept of “created kinds”, to doing all sorts of violence to the geologic record to justify the Noah’s flood story, to even insisting that men have one less rib than do women (the last one is easy to check, but they don’t). As I have discussed in several previous posts, the more extreme Biblical literalists also believe in a flat earth and reject the heliocentric solar system. But I was flabbergasted to read of a whole group of extreme creationists who deny that dinosaurs existed! Usually, the creationists not only come to terms with the evidence of dinosaurs, but many have even tried to co-opt their popularity with kids under 10 by making them a prominent part of their propaganda (as does Ken Ham of the “Answers in Genesis” ministry and the “Creation Museum” in Petersburg, Kentucky). With something as widely accepted and exciting and popular as dinosaurs, which anyone can see for themselves in their local museum, how could any person in the 21st century argue they are not real?

Yet that is exactly the position of this bizarre creationist subcult, which would be unknown and invisible to most of us were it not for their web presence (and their web design is not as garishly bad as most crackpot websites). You can scan their website linked above and see just far off the deep end of batshit crazy they have plunged. A representative quote for how these paranoid people argue that paleontologists are creating fraudulent dinosaur fossils is as follows:

What would be the motivation for such a deceptive endeavor? Obvious motivations include trying to prove evolution, trying to disprove or cast doubt on the Christian Bible and the existence of the Christian God, and trying to disprove the “young-earth theory”. Yes, there are major political and religious ramifications.

The dinosaur concept could imply that if God exists, he may have tinkered with his idea of dinosaurs for awhile, then perhaps discarded or became tired of this creation and then went on to create man. The presented dinosaur historical timeline could suggest an imperfect God who came up with the idea of man as an afterthought, thus demoting the biblical idea that God created man in His own image. Dinosaurs are not mentioned in the Hebrew Bible.

Highly rewarding financial and economic benefits to museums, educational and research organizations, university departments of paleontology, discoverers and owners of dinosaur bones, and the book, television, movie and media industries may cause sufficient motivation for ridiculing of open questioning and for suppression of honest investigation. [That's a real laugher! Most paleontologists are poorly paid and cannot even get a job in paleontology!]

So, based on the premise that dinosaurs are a fiction designed to disprove creationism and drive us away from God, the writers of this website go into extremely bizarre thinking about dinosaurs and paleontology. There is a long section, using quotes out of context from the Berkeley evolution website, that claims that scientists dreamed up the whole thing as a big scam to undermine religion. Never mind the fact that all the early dinosaur discoveries were made by religious people such as Gideon Mantell, Rev. William Buckland, Mary Anning, and Richard Owen, and many later paleontologists (like Edward D. Cope) were also quite religious. This writer knows how to clip little bits of simplistic web histories out of context, but doesn’t know enough history to know the difference.

The next section on the website is another long, bizarre example of quote mining, where the author clearly knows nothing whatsoever about fossils and how they are found. The author jumps from one paranoid speculation to another, all in an attempt to suggest that dinosaur bones are forgeries planted in the outcrop by crooked paleontologists, and there is no way they could have gotten there without fraud. The list of mistakes and lies and misconceptions about fossils and geology is so long that I don’t have space to even begin listing them all. Because fossil skeletons are incomplete in the field, it is common practice to mold replicas to complete the skeleton for display. But the author of this website then jumps to the absurd conclusion that all the bones in every dinosaur skeleton on display are faked!

From there, this crazy site goes into the old shopworn (and long debunked) creationist attacks on radiometric dating and geology, using the classic tactic of quoting out of context to show the opposite of what the text really intended. Then the author savages other crazy creationists, including those who use the great size of dinosaurs to justify an expanding earth with stronger gravity today than in the past, and others who quote the passages about the “Behemoth” in the Book of Job as evidence that the Bible talks about dinosaurs.

Then the site jumps into other crackpot ideas, like Tom Gold’s abiogenic origin of petroleum (long ago falsified), and presents a list of 19th century naturalists who talked about dinosaurs because they allegedly made up their discoveries in order to promote evolution! Once again, this doofus is so ignorant of history that he has no idea that half that list consisted of devout individuals who were “creationists” and most of them worked on dinosaurs in a religious context. Not only that, but they were not trying to “prove evolution”—their work was done decades before Darwin’s book came out in 1859. Give this guy an “F” in history….

Finally, he trots out the laughable idea that paleontologists concocted this whole forgery to get rich, but clearly he knows nothing about real paleontology. Most of my colleagues have turned down more lucrative careers in law or medicine or business to work on fossils at a mere fraction of the salary that they could be getting elsewhere. Nor do professional paleontologists get rich from selling their fossils, either—only the commercial collectors who are not professionally trained or doing research. but simply in it for the money do so.

So how can anyone become so delusional and get so many things wrong that are easy to check? As we discussed in my Nov. 16 post, many creationist communities are highly insular and not only avoid secular media, but only hear and read what their church leaders tell them to. If you read only creationist crap for a long time, and surf websites looking for things that you can quote out of context, you too can become the kind of crackpot who can manage to get every fact in the article 100% wrong! As long as your faith in Biblical literalism is more important than checking the facts out for yourself, you can twist anything to suit this delusional world view.

So read this website if you dare. You need a strong stomach for lies and self-deception, and hopefully you will not be shocked by the low view of humanity that emerges from reading it….