Dec 20 2012

Disco-Tute – Fake

The Orwellian-named “Discovery Institute” is an organization dedicated to the promotion of Intelligent Design (ID), which is little more than a superficial repackaging of long-discredited creationist arguments against evolutionary theory.They do not have a legitimate scientific program, although they desperately try to create the impression that they do.

In my opinion the Disco-Tute is founded on intellectual dishonesty. They are primarily a propaganda machine for pseudoscience. You might recall they funded the movie Expelled – which was an exercise in intellectual dishonesty from beginning to end. They deceived many of the scientists who they interviewed for the film, even going to the extent of creating a dummy production company as a front. The result was a hack-job of transparent propaganda.

Now another example of Disco-tute intellectual dishonesty has come to light, exposed by The Panda’s Thumb blog. This started with a critique of a new Disco-tute video on population genetics. It was noticed that the video is a green-screen shot with the Disco-tute scientician in front of an image of a laboratory. We are apparently meant to assume that she is in the Disco-tute labs where actual research is conducted. However, the image is a stock photo.

OK – this is a small deception, the kind of thing many video producers would do to create the right “look” for the video. It’s part of the culture of film-making – it doesn’t matter if it’s real, as long as it looks good. But this is not a sufficient excuse.

Credibility and intellectual honesty trumps the needs of film-making. There are things that are allowable when making a film that are not allowable when making a documentary, or when doing journalism. There have been cases, for example, of Photoshopped photos being used in news reports, and this practice has been highly criticized. You can’t fake an image to make it look good for the news. Similarly when creating a science video you should not fake credibility by having your spokesperson in front of a stock image of a lab, giving an impression that is deceptive.

Worse than the poorly done green-screen shot in front of a stock photo, however, is the actual content of the video. Biologist Ann Gauger, PhD, hosts the video. She works for the Biologic Institute, which is funded by the Disco-tute. It is basically just an extension of the Disco-tute, with the purpose of finding evidence for intelligent design.

For some reason the video is titled as, “How accurate are the models currently used in population genetics.” The video, however, has nothing to do with population genetics, but with phylogenetic analysis. The content is the typical denialist strategy of manufacturing doubt and confusion by misrepresenting the science.  The main point of the video is the same as this article by Gauger published on the Biologic Institute website, essentially that evolutionary biologists are building their phylogenetic tress based upon the assumption of common descent.

This is only partly true (which seems to be as close to true as ID proponents get). We are long passed the point where the basic concept of evolution has been established as a scientific fact. We can now proceed from that established fact to develop more and more detailed theories of how evolution works, and more detailed pictures of evolutionary history. That is how science works. We don’t have to keep asking the same question over and over again – but of course that is the question that creationists want to dwell on because they don’t like the answer that science has already provided.

However, if a premise turns out to be false it will likely still come to light from later research because any research based upon that premise will run into serious problems, paradoxes, or limitations, forcing a rethinking of the basic premise. This happens in science all the time also.

Evolutionary theory, despite the Disco-tute’s desperate attempts to argue otherwise, is a fantastically successful theory that is doing just fine. The denialist strategy, however, is to confuse arguments about the details of how evolution proceeds and the details of evolutionary history with the basic question of whether or not life evolved. Gauger gives us an excellent example of this confusion. She quotes a 1998 commentary by Maley and Marshall:

To be confident in our hypotheses of relations among the animal phyla we need to gather more DNA sequences, especially from undersampled phyla; develop better methods of DNA analysis on the basis of more realistic models of DNA evolution; and develop independent data sets using morphological, developmental, and other molecular data (to corroborate or falsify specific hypotheses or to combine in total-evidence analyses. Work is currently under way on all these fronts, which promise more secure hypotheses of the relationships among the animal phyla and, through them, a better understanding of the causes of major morphological innovation.

What they are doing, like good scientists, is confronting the difficulties and potential sources of error in constructing the deep or ancient phylogenetic tree of life from genetic analysis.  They point out several challenges, such as homoplasy (different evolutionary lines evolving similar genetic sequences independently), horizontal gene transfer from insertions, deletions (loss of genetic information), the lack of sufficient data for some phyla, and the complexity of statistical analysis of gene sequences. In other words, its complex and messy. Welcome to real science.

Despite this genetic analysis, overall, has still resulted in a consistent phylogenetic tree of nested hierarchies – what is predicted by evolutionary history. Scientists are still pursuing genetic analysis to build their tree of life because the process is working quite well. What Maley and Marshall are talking about is two things – what we need to do to progress the field further, and perhaps ultimate limitations on the resolution of this approach. In fact Gauger quote mines a 2010 study by Rokas and Carroll which states:

“Here we examine how the combination of the spacing of cladogenetic events and the high frequency of independently evolved characters (homoplasy) limit the resolution of ancient divergences.”

They are talking about “resolution” – how clearly and confidently can we reconstruct evolutionary events that happened hundreds of millions of years ago by current genetic evidence? The information we need may simply not exist, or have been altered by events that tend to obscure the evolutionary relationships. This does not mean, and none of these researchers are saying, that the evidence calls into doubt common descent, or that it points to a different reconstruction, as Gauger suggests. She is using the old creationist strategy of taking quotes out of context and misusing them to imply something the scientists are not saying.

Gauger is also focusing on the deep phylogenetic tree because this is where the evidence is most problematic. The closer we get to present day, the easier it is to construct the tree of life from the genes of living creatures. The resolution gets better because there is less noise in the genetic information, and we have access to more information.

Ironicaly, the evidence from molecular analysis is the most robust line of evidence for common descent. Talk Origins reviews 30 major predictions of common descent and the evidence that validates all of them. Here’s a quick version – if we look at the amino acid sequence of specific proteins, or the DNA nucleic acid sequence that codes for those amino acids, across different species we see an exquisite evolutionary pattern – no matter what gene or protein we look at. The key is that there are different sequences of three base pairs that code for an individual amino acid, and different amino acid substitutions that still result in essentially the same protein, so these changes are largely silent and subject to genetic drift.

This means, first of all, there is no reason for the same base pair or amino acid sequence to occur even in functionally identical proteins in different species, unless those species are related through evolution.  If we assume a common creator (designer) then they could be identical. But when we compare, for example, a horse protein to the same human protein we do not find that they are either identical (or almost identical, allowing for, say, 10,000 years of genetic drift), nor do we find that they have no relationship at all. What we find is that they are a little different, as if genetic drift has been introducing silent changes to the base pair and amino acid sequence since the split between humans and horses. The amount of difference follows a basic phylogenetic pattern, for every protein of every species we have examined. Sure, sometimes the details are different from what we expected, but not the big picture – one of nested hierarchies.

Creationists, however, want to distract you from this big, clear, and completely unambiguous picture by focusing down on the tiny details where noise predominates. They do this to obscure the picture science has created, to manufacture false doubt and confusion.

What they are doing is not science – it’s denialism. It’s fake science. It’s appropriate that they are spouting their fake science in front of a fake green screen of a fake lab.



The Disco-tute has responded to criticism of their video. Of course, they respond only to the green screen criticism, and entirely missed the point about integrity. The tried to fob it off as just a video convention.

But I do agree, as I said above, that this is really just a minor, if humorous, issue. The real point is that the content of the video is utter rubbish. Here is what they write (please unplug your irony meters before reading):

Gauger, a PhD in developmental biology who was a post-doctoral fellow at Harvard, has the science on her side. It’s a typical Darwinist feint: When you don’t have the arguments and you don’t have the science, change the subject and pile on the red herrings. Casey Johnson, who dismisses our little video as a “nonsensical rant,” can’t reply to Dr. Gauger on the merits. If she could, she would.

Who’s feinting now? Gauger’s arguments are incoherent psseudoscientific nonsense that would fail a high school biology class, let alone challenge the prevailing scientific consensus.

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