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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