Sep 28 2012

Responding to Creationists Responding to Bill Nye

Bill Nye (the Science Guy) has a YouTube video that is part of the Big Think series, in which he makes the argument that teaching children creationism rather than evolutionary theory does them a great disservice. He makes a very good point with some supporting arguments. The Creation Museum has decided to put out a response video that is, as you might guess, fantastically lame and both logically and factually challenged. As I am fond of pointing out, the denial of evolution by creationists is so profoundly at odds with reality, they have no choice but to play it loose with facts and logic. It does occasionally make for an entertaining spectacle, and is a target-rich environment for “teaching moments.”

The video begins with Dr. David Menton, who has a PhD in Biology and works at Brown University, addressing Nye’s opening statement. Nye, unfortunately, did begin his video with a poor choice of words – he said that denial of evolution is unique to the United States, which is not true. It is clear from what he says next the point he was trying to make. There is an interesting dichotomy in the US in that we are a technologically advanced country with great intellectual capital in science and technology, and yet evolution denial is very prominent in the US. The US may be unique for the extent of this contrast, and I think that’s what Nye was going for. (Only Turkey has a greater percentage of the population that denies evolution.)

Menton uses Nye’s statement as an opportunity to make what is essentially an argument from popularity, detailing how many people around the world deny evolution (including, apparently, mooslums, whoever they are – perhaps some cow-worshipping sect? I know, too easy.). Popular support or denial of evolution is completely irrelevant to whether or not evolution is scientifically valid. If anything, the popularity of evolution denial supports Nye’s position that teaching children pseudoscience is a real problem.

Next we hear from Dr. Georgia Purdom, PhD Molecular Genetics, Ohio State University. She opens with a lovely non-sequitur – she attempts to counter Nye’s main point that parents should not teach their children evolution by saying that she and other Christian parents do teach their children how wrong evolutionary theory is. See, they teach “both sides.”

It is difficult to miss a point more completely than Purdom. Nye is warning against evolution denial. Teaching denial of evolution (by telling children intellectually bankrupt false “problems” with the theory) is not a defense.

Purdom is a geneticist, so she gives as an example of the “inherent flaws” in evolutionary theory, the:

“Lack of a genetic mechanism that allows organisms to gain genetic information to go from simple to complex over time.”

This is a great example of the pseudoscientific evolution denial that Nye was referencing. It is an old argument that has already been thoroughly trashed by evolutionary biologists, and it is astounding that Purdom can make such an argument (more on that later). One thoroughly documented mechanism by which organisms can gain genetic information over time is gene duplication or even partial or complete chromosomal duplication.

Sometimes in the copying process a gene or group of genes will be copied an extra time. The child organism now has an extra copy of the gene. One copy is free to mutate and evolve in novel directions, while the second copy can continue the original function of the gene. You end up with a branching tree of related genes – a mini evolutionary tree inside each cell, indicating relationships among groups of genes and showing patterns of relationships across species.

There is overwhelming evidence that gene duplication is a common event in evolutionary history, and this represents a simple mechanism for gaining genetic information over time. Purdom is simply wrong in her assertion, and dramatically proves Nye’s premise.

In fact Nye’s next point is that, if one denies evolution, the world becomes a fantastically complicated place. Menton tries to respond to this but completely misses the point. He argues that evolution is complex, because you have to believe that the parts of a hummingbird came together through random purposeless chance and natural selection. Again, this is an old and tired creationist canard. The parts of a hummingbird did not “come together,” they evolved together and adapted over time from ancestors that were fully functional.

Creationists try to dismiss variation and natural selection as “random” and just “differential survival” which misunderstands and downplays the core concept of the primary mechanism of evolution. Variation is random, but survival is decidedly non-random. Variation provides copious raw material, while selection is a non-random creative force.

Menton, rather than responding to Nye, simply makes a standard creationist snipe at evolutionary theory. What Nye was actually saying was that denial of evolution makes the world complicated because it requires you to engage in countless acts of special pleading to explain away the mountains of evidence across multiple disciplines of science that argue for an ancient and evolved universe, not a recent created one.

Purdom herself, in her previous comment, provides an excellent example of this. She is a geneticist who must somehow study genetics without acknowledging that gene duplication would increase genetic information over time. The cognitive dissonance must be fantastic – and complex. People are good at special pleading, or motivated reasoning, making up nonsensical but satisfying explanations for contradictory or reality-challenged ideas.

Not content with grossly misunderstanding genetics, Purdom goes on to misrepresent entire fields of science. She makes the bizarre argument that historical sciences are mutually exclusive to observational sciences. She says that she calls observational science, “Here and now science that gives us technology like computers and vaccines.” She calls it this, not scientists in general, because it’s wrong.

Observational science is distinguished from experimental science. The former makes observations about the world in order to find correlations, make inferences, and test hypotheses. The latter conducts experiments, for the same purposes as making observations, but with protocols that control for specific variables and involve one or more interventions. These are complementary scientific methods for gathering information about the world and testing ideas.

Purdom, rather, draws a false dichotomy between observational science and historical sciences. This is an old creationist strategy as well (they really do lack imagination and keep recycling the same exhausted arguments), it’s a post creation-science strategy. The creation science strategy was to argue that the scientific evidence supports biblical creationism and contradicts evolutionary theory. The problem with this approach is that it’s demonstrably wrong. In the arena of science, creationism loses hands down. Creation-scientists were unable to convince the scientific community or the courts of their position, so they moved on. If creationism cannot beat evolution as a science, they can always argue that neither are truly scientific by denying the scientific status of all historical sciences.

That’s right – any attempt to understand the past cannot be scientific in the mind of a creationist. This way, if creationism isn’t scientific, then at least neither is evolution. So they invent their false dichotomy and deny historical science.

Of course, you can make observations about the past, because the remnants of the past can be found in the present. You can even do experiments, on fossils or genes, for example. You can experimentally test evolutionary processes and mechanisms (the wonderful Richard Lenski E. coli experiments, for example).

As long as you are testing hypotheses, you are doing science. You can do this with historical questions using observational and experimental methods.

Purdom is, quite frankly, talking creationist made-up nonsense, a mythology they invested to dismiss the science of evolution. She even admits her error and contradicts herself by saying that, “We see fossils and distant stars,” (in other words we can make observations about the past), but then tries to dismiss these observations by saying, “but the history of how they got here depends on our world view.”

That is the core creationist fiction they use to dismiss historical sciences. They want creation vs evolution to be a dichotomy between man and god, not a contest of evidence and logic. Purdom says that you can begin with the ideas of man, which leads to evolution, or you can start with the bible, which leads to creation. These are nothing more, she is saying, than competing “world views” not amenable to science.

Wanting to have it both ways, Purdom then concludes with the stunning claim that “Observational science confirms the literal history in genesis.” Wait a minute – I thought her premise was that observational science cannot address such claims.

Thank you, Dr. Purdom, for so thoroughly proving Bill Nye’s central point – that creationism saps otherwise intelligent people of their ability to think scientifically, logically, and even consistently.

Menton gets the closing logical fallacy – another non sequitur. He is good at thoroughly missing the point, in this case that evolution is fundamental to the life sciences. I agree with Nye (and the scientific community) that evolution is the unifying theory of all life sciences. If you deny evolution, you will miss all the grandeur of this elegant theory that makes sense of all the details of biology.

Purdom, again, provides an excellent example of this. She is a geneticist but apparently doesn’t understand basic underlying concepts like gene duplication and the phylogenetic relatedness among different genes.

Menton argues that evolution is not fundamental, and supports that with a quote. (I have long suspected that creationists are so fond of defending positions with quotes rather than references to evidence because they are used to thinking like biblical literalists, where passages from the bible are used as evidence.)

Here is how he misses the point, and Bill Nye is exactly correct. A unifying theory, like evolution to biology or plate tectonics to geology (the example Nye gives) is unifying because it is deeper. It ties various observations and theories together by anchoring them to an underlying deeper reality.

Creationists are fond of giving examples and opinions that essentially amount to the ability to conduct narrow technical research without reference to evolution. Sure – you can study the mineral composition of certain rocks without embedding that knowledge in a deeper understanding of planetary evoluti0n. You can study the mechanism of genetics without understanding how that mechanism arose.

Menton argues that evolution is superfluous to the life sciences – well, only if you stick to the superficial level of understanding we had pre-evolution. If you want to understand anything about the life sciences on a deeper level, you have to understand evolution.

Creationism, of course, provides no depth of understanding to biology. Saying that life arose through magic, that it has no history and arose without reference to any physical laws or processes, is a completely useless notion. It is not even wrong – it’s not scientific because it cannot be tested by any means. An infinitely powerful being could create life to appear as anything they wish – so all evidence for evolutionary history is simply how god chose to make life, according to that view.

Menton and Purdom do a wonderful job of ironically supporting Bill Nye’s core thesis – that there is harm in teaching children the mental gymnastics of illogic and denial necessary to deny evolution. They systematically distort science and logic, contradict themselves, and misrepresent the facts. They demonstrate a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of science itself, showing that evolution denial has negative consequences beyond evolution itself.

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30 responses so far

30 Responses to “Responding to Creationists Responding to Bill Nye”

  1. SteveAon 28 Sep 2012 at 7:27 am

    Great post. Blistering.

    (Couple of typos ‘Creaetionists’ and ‘evoluti0n’).

  2. BillyJoe7on 28 Sep 2012 at 8:30 am

    By a remarkable coincidence, the universe god created looks exactly as it would look if evolution was true.

  3. ConspicuousCarlon 28 Sep 2012 at 9:02 am

    For those who need more of the awesome Bill Nye, here he is talking about this to Penn Jillette:

    http://www.podtrac.com/pts/redirect.mp3/traffic.libsyn.com/pennsundayschool/_Penn.12.09.09.SS.mp3

  4. superdaveon 28 Sep 2012 at 9:09 am

    People who use the complexity argument tend to see complex things as having arrived in a linear progression from simple to less simple to somewhat complex to complex. But it doesn’t work that way. Complex systems can form from very simple rules, or a small number of simple systems can combine to yield a complex one given the right circumstances.

  5. bluedevilRAon 28 Sep 2012 at 9:23 am

    I saw this posted the other day by a creationist facebook friend:

    http://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=466704623351792&set=a.319731858049070.75108.316611381694451&type=1&theater

    Now I finally understand the context (there wasn’t a youtube link when I first saw the cartoon). I knew it was mocking Bill Nye, but I didn’t know why.

  6. JennieLon 28 Sep 2012 at 10:53 am

    Thanks for this great analysis…I’m having a hard time understanding how a molecular geneticist lives with this degree of cognitive dissonance. I work for a hospital molecular diagnostics lab and our director sounds very similar…he’s OK with “micro-evolution” but not “macro-evolution.” In his terms macro = humans, micro = bacterial/fungal/viral but I can’t pin him down on where the split was for supernatural involvement…slime molds? Vertebrates? It makes work hugely uncomfortable for me because a basis in evolutionary biology organizes my understanding of relevant topics like cancer, immunology, and antibiotic resistance. Since my boss and I don’t agree on the fundamentals, we often end “discussions” with him asserting authority based on his position. It gripes me, but I’m pretty sure I’ll need to find other employment soon. Is it wrong to expect a finer understanding of biology from molecular geneticists?

  7. Bronze Dogon 28 Sep 2012 at 11:35 am

    Complex systems can form from very simple rules, or a small number of simple systems can combine to yield a complex one given the right circumstances.

    One analogy I’m fond of is Go. It’s a board game with relatively simple rules, but we haven’t been able to program a computer to play it well. I don’t play myself, but it’s my understanding that humans are superior players in part because we’re capable of thinking at higher level abstractions about the formations of stones and how their arrangements will influence the game in progress.

    On the topic of unifying principles, evolution lets us understand what would otherwise be a chaotic mess of unrelated facts. Creationism so often amounts to an assertion that chaos is the true order: We can’t know the mind of their god, therefore there’s no point in trying to make sense of it all. “God’s chaotic whimsy” becomes the answer for everything we don’t know. It’s pretty much a rejection of the possibility of understanding. It’s an anti-epistemology.

  8. PHIGuyon 28 Sep 2012 at 12:51 pm

    I couldn’t help but notice that comments were disabled on the response video. Let’s see, they seek to “teach both sides” and to have a conversation and open evolution up to criticism, but won’t take any comments on their video.
    Hmmm, hypocritical perhaps?

  9. locutusbrgon 28 Sep 2012 at 4:16 pm

    Steve
    Yes these are tired old arguments recycled, and yes they don’t change. What concerns me is that they work on the casual person. That is why they keep recycling them. Like most cognitive dissonance it is just enough of wedge in the door to make a person gloss over and not face reality. If it was a little more wacko like Reptiods, or Rods there would be little ground support. Your exposure of the fantasy is just about as concise as can be. It is just so frustrating how easy this nonsense rolls off the assembly line, and how much more work it is to defend. Star Wars reference warning. “Is the dark side stronger? No no no just quicker, easier, more seductive”.

  10. SARAon 28 Sep 2012 at 6:25 pm

    Cognitive Dissonance, another evolutionary outcome gone wrong.

    Among religious folks there is a vast range of beliefs in the words of the bible. Some have decided to take it literally, they say. But in reality, even the literal believers actually cherry pick what they consider literal.

    For example, all most all the literal ones would tell you slavery is wrong, but their God actually set up rules for it.

    Most of the Christians I know are far more liberal in their belief. They accept evolution and have sketched a view of God in their mind and then they cherry pick the verses that support it.

    Most people choose God’s traits like lawyers choose juries.

  11. dregstudioson 28 Sep 2012 at 6:33 pm

    Here in TN, they have taken steps though new legislation to allow creationism back into the classroom. This law turns the clock back nearly 100 years here in the seemingly unprogressive South and is simply embarrassing. There is no argument against the Theory of Evolution other than that of religious doctrine. The Monkey Law only opens the door for fanatic Christianity to creep its way back into our classrooms. You can see my visual response as a Tennessean to this absurd law on my artist’s blog at http://dregstudiosart.blogspot.com/2012/04/pulpit-in-classroom-biblical-agenda-in.html with some evolutionary art and a little bit of simple logic.

  12. mepeterser2451on 28 Sep 2012 at 7:47 pm

    we need some stupid people around

  13. mepeterser2451on 28 Sep 2012 at 7:50 pm

    actually, i wholeheartedly support evolution as a biologist, but I’m not so sure intelligent design isn’t scientifically possible. no man in the clouds, but sometimes i think existence & non-existence is too coincidental. definitely a subject that I think real scientists should think about & explore.

  14. mepeterser2451on 28 Sep 2012 at 7:53 pm

    also, i don’t think creationism should be banned or shunned as bill nye states. there’s a reason why parents preach to their children about being good for ol’ santa claus. if you’re straight up with the kids, you’re going to have chaos.

  15. jeremy mageeon 28 Sep 2012 at 8:39 pm

    Docter Novella,

    U use big fancified werds like: science ant theory, the and apostrophes…..well…..Oh, yeah!!

    Much respect for what you and you compatriots do in this seemingly Dark Age of Enlightenment. Your words and sometimes the words of a drunken Welshman(lol) help me through:

    Do not go gentle into that good night
    Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
    ― Dylan Thomas

    Paraphrased for my benefit

  16. jugaon 29 Sep 2012 at 9:30 am

    Bill Nye is right, of course, but he doesn’t help his case by making easily contradicted statements. He says parents should not bring their children up to be creationists because the country “needs engineers to build things”. I would imagine there is not a scrap of evidence that creationists make worse engineers than evolutionists. Engineering doesn’t involve knowledge of evolution or the age of the universe. This, like his incorrect statement that the US is the only country that denies evolution, just plays into the hands of creationists. Why should anyone believe anything Bill Nye says when he is so loose and unscientific with his words?

    This is particularly important because Nye is arguing that children should be taught what is true. He cannot support that view by using arguments that are irrelevant and he should know better.

  17. Quineon 29 Sep 2012 at 2:14 pm

    Thank you, Dr. Novella, for this excellent post in support of Bill Nye. Bill has done so much to help the public (especially the young public) understand the science community, so I think it is time for each of us to stand up and back him up.

  18. BillyJoe7on 29 Sep 2012 at 4:36 pm

    “Is the dark side stronger? No no no just quicker, easier, more seductive”.

    Believing in creationism is like having quick easy sex?

  19. BillyJoe7on 29 Sep 2012 at 4:43 pm

    Juga,

    What he means is that if you are so unscientific or anti scientific as to accept creationism, you are unlikely to become a scientist or technologist. I think there is evidence to support that view.

    Also, are saying that, if you make one mistake, your whole argument can be ignored?

  20. rationaldocon 30 Sep 2012 at 2:44 am

    Menton doesn’t work for Brown – he got his PhD there in 1966. He retired from Washington University and works for Answers in Genesis and the Creation Museum. Purdom is “science director for Answers in Genesis” (an oxymoronic title if ever there was one) – hardly a working geneticist.
    It’s like the old line from med school –
    Q: what do you call the student who graduates at the bottom of the class, with the least skill and knowledge?
    A: Doctor.

  21. Ray984954on 30 Sep 2012 at 5:15 pm

    Juga, you’re acting like creaturds who look for the ever so slightest sliver of error to refute the entire body of evolution. Read what he has written on the subject. I’m sure that anyone who speaks in public does not say ‘exactly’ what they mean, but folks can get the gist of what they’re saying. I understand your point about speaking with exactness and all that, but Bill Nye spoke no jargon that I could see, and we both know that ‘jargon’ is precise and grammatically correct, filled with buzzwirds that are positive to certain groups but it almost always fails, as it depends not on the facts but on who is speaking and their popularity(politicians are good at this). Used car salemen have it down just what they want to say, however superficial, but behind what they say is almost devoid of anything other than their wanting you to buy a car from them. Macreationism is based on religion and Evolution is notny know about Bill Nye ‘The Science Guy’ and so know that he is not selling a bill of goods, and even those who don’t know him can still get the gist that religion is about the supernatural and science is not. Creationism taught as a viable alternatvie to Evolution is dishonest and plain wrong as it despoils human knowledge and reverses any gains made therough The Enlightenment that brought humans out of the dark ages of church authority and into the independent understanding of the natural world. I forgive Nye and I’m sure his knowing of his error will help him to do better next time.

  22. etatroon 30 Sep 2012 at 5:29 pm

    This post caught my eye because Georgia Purdom got her PHD at Ohio State, my alma mater. I did some more digging and she’s a teaching prof at Mt Vernon Nazarene (a christian sect that I think is more popular in rural midwest) University, in rural Ohio. They do not offer any graduate degrees in any science.

    Their biology course curriculum does not contain the word “evolution.”

    The educational goals of the BS Biology major are as follows:

    1. know the concepts, theories, and language of biology from historical and contemporary view points
    2. actively integrate a knowledge of biology and the Christian faith to clarify the impact of Scripture on the field of biology both morally and ethically
    3. give evidence of the knowledge of how to be good stewards of creation
    4. appreciate the diversity and function of life
    5. demonstrate the knowledge and skills to become professional educators, health care providers and environmentalists and serve God within the global community.

    It just blows my mind. I cannot fathom that this is passing for biology education.

  23. daemonowneron 30 Sep 2012 at 10:51 pm

    The funny thing about that cartoon is that Noah apparently made a very crap engineer, as would anyone in his place, because we know for sure that Noah’s Ark could not possibly have worked. Skeptoid, among thousands of others, have adressed exactly why. I typically adress it from the view of “where did the shit go? Muscular dystrophy.. etc”, but the problem of God apparently poofing construction materials into existence de novo (due to lack of multiple forests) and the manpower required and the inherent structural weaknesses of boats that size made of wood etc are pretty good approaches too. The creationists seem to have assumed that Noah’s Ark is a true story, and used it to deny Nye’s argument about creationists making bad scientists (and engineers). Congrats..

  24. eiskrystalon 01 Oct 2012 at 4:21 am

    In the game “Go” you are free to put a piece pretty much anywhere. This means that brute force checking of all possiblilities hits a wall pretty quickly. Without the deeper underlying understanding of the patterns you won’t get anywhere.

    Creationists haven’t got anywhere.

  25. Kawarthajonon 01 Oct 2012 at 9:25 am

    I am “baffled” by Dr. Purdom’s nonsense. Why get a PhD in molecular genetics when you are only going to travel around the world preaching about creationism? I would suggest that she would not be able to enjoy the same level of popularity and notoriety if she had actually worked as a scientist. Instead, with a PhD in molecular genetics, she can be used by the creationists to lend some credibility to their nonsensical views (i.e. “We have a female molecular geneticist who supports our views, WOOHOO!!”) and she can make a living as a public speaker, instead of being stuck in a lab studying DNA.

  26. Enzoon 01 Oct 2012 at 3:27 pm

    I had the displeasure of going to graduate school with one of these degree seeking creationists. The amount of eye rolling induced was enough to cause headaches. It was such a nuisance. The degree was awarded and it is certainly possible to study and do good biology without ever acknowledging evolution.

    Which leads me to a question for Dr. Novella and the readers. Should graduate programs allow those who deny evolution on religious grounds (and therefore disregard the rules of evidence) to obtain degrees? This is just a philosophical argument because I can’t imagine ever introducing a system of censorship into science, but honestly it’s an interesting question. We wouldn’t think twice about failing someone who showed a consistent pattern of misinterpreting data outside of this context.

  27. steve12on 01 Oct 2012 at 5:40 pm

    “actually, i wholeheartedly support evolution as a biologist, but I’m not so sure intelligent design isn’t scientifically possible. ”

    It’s not scientifically possible because it’s untestable. It can’t even theorietically be falsified, so it is not amenable to scientific inquiry. It is not even a scientific hypothesis. It’s classic ‘not even wrong’.

  28. Quineon 01 Oct 2012 at 6:09 pm

    Enzo, that question depends on how the “deny evolution on religious grounds” is done. In theory, one could learn all the material, and do research, “as if” evolution were true, but still hold the faith position that somehow it is none the less the result of divine intervention. Or, deny because it is the official position of your church even though you know it is true (something like the Catholics who support the RCC stand on birth control as if they believed it, even though they use birth control in the privacy of their own lives). However, if the graduate student hands in papers full of bogus challenges, faulty logic or misstatements of facts, that can’t be allowed to pass.

  29. chemist.joneson 07 Oct 2012 at 10:48 am

    Enzo – as long as the requirements are fulfilled, yes. The truth is every person, no matter the level of skepticism they purport to have, will approach every problem with certain assumptions. Many of those will be wrong. A researcher in any field can hold onto whatever faith, false assumptions, etc. all they want. However, they must not represent it in their research. They must approach their research free (or, more correctly, as free as possible) from all assumptions.

  30. Thadiuson 09 Oct 2012 at 1:08 pm

    Enzo-

    I believe that in higher education involving sciences like biology it is appropriate to dismiss those who do not have an understanding of basic concepts in those fields. A physics student could not earn a degree if he/she did not “believe”, accept or understand the Newtonian laws of motion at non-relativistic speeds. That is if that student expressed these positions in academic work without providing sound scientific evidence and reasoning for those positions (evidence which has never been given by anyone thus far in any academic work). So why would it bee different in the case of evolution?

    To put it another way: Would you want a mechanic working on your car who believed that small green monsters caused mechanical problems? Would that not hinder that mechanics ability to competently fix your car?

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