Tag Archives: Science

Creationists can’t be scientists

Creationism is back in the news, following the Ken Ham/Bill Nye debate and the recently released HBO documentary, “Questioning Darwin.” Many writers, including myself, have argued that creationism is neither religion nor science, but rather a thinly veiled political doctrine. In contrast, William Saletan sees creationism as “harmless” because scientists who espouse it can “compartmentalize” their beliefs. He recognizes its absurdity, but writes that, “You can be a perfectly good satellite engineer while believing total nonsense about the origins of life.” But creationism is part of the larger crusade within the religious right to make “biblical literalism” Christian doctrine and federal law. To espouse it is to preclude practicing science.

Saletan believes that a distinction between historical science and modern science is what exculpates the creationist:

The core of Ham’s worldview, which Nye attacked again and again, is a distinction between “origins or historical science” (the fictional stuff) and “experimental or observational science” (the real stuff). “Bill and I all have the same observational science,” said Ham. He spoke with perfectly modern delight about satellites, mobile phones, and vaccines.

But this distinction actually obfuscates the deeply political motives of the creation movement, expressed by Ham here:

As the creation foundation is removed, we see the Godly institutions also start to collapse. On the other hand, as the evolution foundation remains firm, the structures built on that foundation — lawlessness, homosexuality, abortion, etc — logically increase. We must understand this connection.

This statement shows the operative premise of the young-earth creationist, and from where such creationists draw their power: a literal interpretation of the Bible. Augustine warned of these charlatans, writing of men who, “try to defend their rash and obviously untrue statements by quoting a shower of words from Scripture and even recite from memory passages which they think will support their case.” While Saletan thinks that creationism can be largely “compartmentalized” and that a young-earth creationist can still happily vaccinate his or her children, I am far more fearful than he that such an approach to science could easily bleed into the realm of something like vaccines or climate change (as it already has). Ken Ham argues in “Questioning Darwin” that to accept evolution is to abandon absolutes, which will bring a host of sins upon the world, (one wonders how war, rape and murder existed before Darwin).

What should make us terrified of the creationist movement is this political mobilization. The movement is deeply intertwined with right-wing fundamentalism. Among the terrors Ham worries about are abortion and gay marriage.  Across the country creationism has tried toforce itself into science curriculums, with political maneuvering and outright lies. But Saletan glosses over this concern, mentioning only briefly that seeing creationism as harmless “doesn’t mean we should teach creationism in schools or pretend it’s a scientific theory.” I agree we shouldn’t, but the creationist movement is trying to do exactly that.

To believe that someone whose starting premise is profoundly unscientific will practice good science could well be dangerous. Saletan argues that,

From the standpoint of scientific literacy, it’s galling to listen to absurdities about the distant past. But what matters in daily life isn’t whether you believe humans and apes evolved from a common ancestor. What matters is whether you’ll agree not to use antibiotics for your kid’s sinus infection after your doctor explains how germs, under the selective pressure of these drugs, evolve resistance.

But modern biology is based on evolution. Modern astronomy requires a scientist to understand that the universe is far more than 6,000 years old. In order to make creationism work, Ham has to deny radiometric dating. Paleontology is functionally impossible if you accept the disaster-based explanations that creationists offer. The fields of linguistics and psychology are intimately tied to evolution, as is the field of neuroscience.

“Questioning Darwin” makes clear the distinction between those, like Pastor Peter LaRuffa, who states, “If somewhere within the Bible I were to find a passage that said 2+2 =5, I wouldn’t question what I’m reading in the Bible, I would believe it, accept it as true and then do my best to work it out and understand it” and Darwin, who says, “I have steadily endeavored to keep my mind free so as to give up any hypothesis, however much beloved (and I cannot resist forming one on every subject), as soon as facts are shown to be opposed to it.” One is the mindset of free inquiry, the other of dogmatic quackery. Science requires ambiguity. A scientist must weigh competing claims and she must understand complex systems. Creationism rejects all of this. In one telling quote, Angel Dague says, “I can’t even fathom coming from this little thing that crawled on the ground to apes, to being human, it just doesn’t, it sounds crazy to me.”

Consider the story of Kurt Wise, a brilliant student of geology (he studied under the eminent Stephen Jay Gould). Wise writes that in high school he dreamed of a Ph.D from Harvard.  He studied evolution intently but struggled to reconcile it with his literal reading of the Bible. Eventually he went through the entire Bible and cut out every verse that he felt could not be true if evolution were true. He concluded,

With the cover of the Bible taken off, I attempted to physically lift the Bible from the bed between two fingers. Yet, try as I might, and even with the benefit of intact margins throughout the pages of Scripture, I found it impossible to pick up the Bible without it being rent in two. I had to make a decision between evolution and Scripture… With that, in great sorrow, I tossed into the fire all my dreams and hopes in science.

That is not someone who has compartmentalized his creationism. It is someone for whom creationism is the overarching lens through which he sees the world. Given how much one must give up to be a creationist (legitimacy, honors, awards, respect), could holding onto these beliefs really be a small detail for scientists? I suspect very much the opposite. Saletan concludes that while “Nye portrayed creationism as a cancer” which threatens scientific institutions, in fact, “It doesn’t. You can be a perfectly good satellite engineer while believing total nonsense about the origins of life… Just don’t let it mess with your day job.” Given that creationists like Wise have agonizingly determined that this is not true, I think we should take them at their word. At the end of “Questioning Darwin,” the narrator says, “Darwin himself never stopped asking questions about his science and about God.” Creationists have, and that is why they cannot be scientists.

Originally published on Salon.

John Lennox is an idiot and other musings on intelligent design

Intelligent designers are hilarious, because they have all the blustering certainty and assholery that comes from being really smart and knowing it, without the actually being smart. Most of them come from scientific fields not associated with biology (Lennox, for instance, is a mathematician) and they regularly say hilariously idiotic things. I remember watching Lennox speak and he said, “There were three great thinkers of the 20th century, Marx, Freud and Darwin. Two have fallen, when will the third?” Obviously, only one of those men lived in the 20th century, and Darwin’s theories were pretty well-established within the scientific community before the turn of the 20th century, but we’ll skip over that. Have Marx and Freud fallen? Really!? I know it’s all in vogue to be like, all past Freud or whatever, but what happens here is that Marx or Freud are vulgarized (i.e. oh, Marx thought capitalism sucked and it was doomed and Freud that you could explain all human actions in terms of penises) and then kick the shit out of that vulgarization. To a large extent, this is what the ID community (which is creationism, let’s stop with the B.S.) does to Darwin. But if the idea that Freud and Marx could be dead given that every serious thinker has to grapple with them is absurd, the idea that Darwin could die is even more absurd. To even do biology, you have to accept Darwin’s theories. Important disciplines (paleontology and neuroscience come to mind) rely of Darwinian mechanisms. There are even fields dedicated strictly to a applying Darwinian methods more broadly (i.e. evolutionary psychology). Have we in many ways transcended Darwin? Not quite as much as with Freud and Marx, but certainly there have been modifications, brought about by fields like genetics, neuroscience and paleontology, but broadly speaking, even those who move beyond Darwin (say a Dawkins or a Gould) owe him a huge debt.

An unedited, likely heretical and certainly underinformed answer to Mike MacRae

Mike MacRae asked me on Twitter:

First off, I don’t accept a literal reading of the New Testament, I also read the New Testament as a document influenced by the culture and politics of its time. The interpretation of the New Testament was further influenced by politics (see: Arianism and Constantine). I don’t really worry that much about the “historical Jesus,” nor do I worry about the “historical Plato.” All of these seem to me to be side discussions. I also try to be non-parochial about my approach to religion. My Christianity, as I’ve noted elsewhere has been influenced by Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Muhammad, Tagore, Confucius, Marx and Wilde (among others).

So, onto the question at hand. My definition of “quackery” is adapted from Mencken, who writes,

The agents of such quackeries gain their converts by the simple process of reducing the inordinately complex to the absurdly simple.  Unless a man is already equipped with a considerable knowledge of chemistry, bacteriology and physiology, no one can ever hope to make him understand what is meant by the term anaphylaxis, but any man, if only he be idiot enough, can grasp the whole theory of chiropractic in twenty minutes.

So I’m referring to a specific thing – in modern society we have to trust experts to explain incredibly complex systems. Quacks are people who just throw this all out of the window. They say, global warming? Nah man, that’s just the sun! Evolution? Nah man, that’s just God. That’s what I think is dumb and quacky and needs to be condemned. Okay Sean, but what about people who accept evolution by natural selection and say God guided the process. Why? We know about Mendelian genetics. We know about how natural selection and the environment produces gradual changes. Is our God so small he has to tinker with mundane things (Oh shit! I have to go make some minor adjustments so a giraffe can eat). I see no reason to add this belief other than to make God banal.

Anyhow, why is the Resurrection not quackery? My understanding is that it is a metaphysical one-off. Now, if some scientist developed a way to bring people back to life, and a bunch of Christians said, no, you aren’t bringing people back to life, God is doing that they would be quacks. I think religion concerns itself with metaphysical, not physical claims. So if you want to say that the Son of God, a metaphysical being, came back to life, that is fine. If you want to claim that he is what causes volcanoes to explode, you are a quack (this is my NOMA coming out). The Catholic Church says we have souls. I can’t disprove that with science. Ken Ham claims the Earth is 6,000 years old. I can disprove that with science (that’s why he relies on this weird historical science bullshit). Some (most) Christians say a divine being walked among us, was killed and was raised from the dead. Well, I think we can say that a human couldn’t do that. But Christians don’t claim a human did it. I don’t think you can prove it happened, and you can certainly use a Humian logic to say it’s pretty unlikely, but I don’t think you can disprove it. You can accept the scientific method and believe the resurrection. You can’t accept the scientific method and accept creation.

Biblical literalism is quackery because it does exactly what Mencken warns us about, it “reduc[es] the inordinately complex to the absurdly simple.” The Biblical literalist says anyone can open the Bible and read it and instantly understand it without any work or training or thinking. I worry that this way of reading the Bible is primarily concerned with what I call “weaponizing Christianity.” At the risk of vulgarizing my own position, I read the Bible to begin an investigation of deeper truths, not end one.That’s what separates me from Ham. Can I make the claim that this “true Christianity”? As Nietzsche remarked, “there was only one Christian, and he died on the cross.” I gave an example of how you weaponize Christianity in the Salon piece:

The fundamentalist is not interested in deeper truths, but rather weaponizing the Bible. A perfect example is women having authority in church. The verse fundamentalists cite to support this view is from, 1 Corinthians 14, where Paul tells the church of Corinth that women should be silent during the service. In many fundamentalist churches, this verse is used to deny women the right to become pastor, or even pray aloud during the service. Biblical scholar Ken Bailey notes that during this time in the Middle East, services were often held in classical Arabic, which women could not understand (most spoke a local dialect). Throughout the service they would begin to gossip, often so loudly that the minister would ask them to be silent. Paul, Bailey argues, was repeating this injunction in his letter. As Nye notes in the debate, Ham and other fundamentalists are rather selective with the verses they choose to interpret literally. The Rev. Cornel West put it bluntly, “Fundamentalists want to be fundamental about everything except, ‘love thy neighbor.’”

So, two answers. I think people who really wrestle with these questions deserve praise, it’s very clear Ham doesn’t. Ham and these guys read the Bible as a series of true or false, entirely testable propositions. I see the Bible as the beginning of deeper investigation into what it means to be human. I see religion as a humanism (As Bacon noted, ‘”If a man will begin with certainties, he shall end in doubts; but if he will be content to begin with doubts, he shall end in certainties.”) I also think you can entirely accept science and the scientific method and believe in the Resurrection, because it’s not a claim about the natural world that is testable and repeatable. But if someone were to say, hey, we should ignore medicine because God can raise people from the dead. I would say that is quackery. That’s what Ham is asking us to do; he wants us to throw out biology because of the creation narrative.  But maybe I’m a quack.


Yes Virginia, The GOP Is Anti-Science

The Atlantic published an article on Tuesday by Mischa Fisher arguing that, Republicans have been unfairly characterized as “anti-science.” The piece begins with the lofty assertion that, “Republicans, conservatives, and the religious are no more uniquely “anti-science” than any other demographic or political group. It’s just that “anti-science” has been defined using a limited set of issues that make the right wing and religious look relatively worse.”

It’s another faux-moderate piece where “everyone is to blame,” for underfunding and misunderstanding science. Fisher calls himself a “centrist” which is hard to square with his bio: “Mischa Fisher is a former Republican science-policy staffer and legislative director in the House of Representatives.”

But let’s look at the case. Fisher starts with global warming, arguing that “the vast majority” of Republicans accept anthropogenic climate change, the problem is, “Conservatives believe many of the policies put forward to address the problem will lead to unacceptable levels of economic hardship. It’s not inherently anti-scientific to oppose cap and trade or carbon taxes.” This statement is dubious on three grounds.

First, it’s not true. As ThinkProgress notes, “almost 58 percent — of congressional Republicans refuse to accept it [global warming].” Second, global warming entails vast andunequal economic consequences, meaning that if we have to sacrifice some economic growth today for more in the future, that is a reasonable decision. And third, Republicans have opposed every Democratic-lead initiative to fight climate change, from Waxman-Markey, to carbon taxes to regulation through the EPA (that were based on the estimated cost per ton of carbon dioxide). If Fisher really wants to argue that Republicans understand the science of global warming, he needs to prove they’ve done something other than oppose every effort to stop global warming on the dubious grounds that it will harm economic growth.

The next argument is classic. Fisher argues that for every right-wing denial of science, there’s a hippie lefty denial:

Left-wing ideologues also frequently espouse an irrational fear of nuclear power, genetic modification, and industrial and agricultural chemistry—even though all of these scientific breakthroughs have enriched lives, lengthened lifespans, and produced substantial economic growth over the last century.

This argument rests on a false equivalence. The science of global warming is accepted by 97 percent of climatologists.  In contrast, nuclear energy is still a very alive debate withinthe scientific community. I would happily debate Fisher on the merits of nuclear power (I’m still undecided) but it’s misleading to compare the two. Fisher also neglects the fact that many Democratic politicians are behind nuclear power (including Obama…), so the point is moot, anyhow. As for GMOs, I’m unaware of any bills ever introduced by Congressional Democrats to ban their use (the bill Fisher cites is about labelling – and it was bipartisan), and it certainly isn’t in the Democratic platform — while the 2012 Republican platform explicitly dismisses climate science and any attempts to curtail global warming.There certainly is an anti-scientific left, but it hasn’t gained control of the Democratic party. The practicality of organic farming, like the nuclear power issue, remains a live debate in scientific circles (again, certainly not at the threshold of universal acceptance that global warming has reached).

For good measure, Fisher throws in a Solyndra reference:

Yet at the same time, billions of stimulus dollars were being lost on failed investments in the alternative-energy sector. Just the failed loans to Solyndra and Abound Solar would have kept the Tevatron operating for a decade.

First off, this is a question of politics and economics, not science. Alternative energy is an important part of Obama’s all-of-the-above strategy (which, remember, includes the nuclear power Fisher is so excited about) and stimulus spending was justified because of the recession. Scientific research is an important part of what the Congress does, but its not stimulative. So it would be absurd for the stimulus package to include money to keep the Tevatron open. Instead the stimulus package invested in energy efficiency ($29 b), renewable energy ($21 b), high speed railway ($18 b), research into carbon capture ($3 b) among other investments.

Solyndra was one of many investments, and it’s expected that some of the companies that received a loan guarantee would fail, but the number of bankrupt firms has actually been rather low. As it happens, often research projects fail to produce results, but we don’t stop performing research. Fisher’s argument here appears to be that Obama should look into the future and determine which investments and research projects will reap rewards.

Fisher argues that it is not Republicans, but rather Obama (!) who is underfunding the basic sciences (with another Solyndra reference!):

For every cheap shot a Republican member of Congress like Senator Tom Coburn has taken at National Science Foundation grants (see the unfairly maligned robo-squirrel), there are areas where Obama has undercut American leadership in basic science by favoring loan guarantees and industrial subsidies to the alternative-energy industry at the expense of science elsewhere.

We’ve seen this in his proposed cuts to high-energy physics, nuclear physics, planetary science, and other areas of research. Even in the much-maligned “Tea Party-dominated” House of Representatives, the GOP budget proposals provided more funding for the NSF than those of the Senate Democrats for the current 2013 fiscal year.”

Again we have the (entirely unfounded) assertion that the stimulus package investments in green jobs came at the expense of “science elsewhere.” This is a policy/economics question, not a science denial question. Many scientists support a move towards a greener economy, and alternative energy is a necessary investment to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and move away from fossil fuels. But, if we are talking politics, Obama has fought to get rid of the sequestration cuts that are decimating research. His budgetsregularly include far more money for science research than the Republican budgets do. In contrast, Republicans are working to cut science spending. Reuters reports that, “The Republican [2014] proposals also would cut NASA’s budget by $928 million compared to last year, cut another $198 million from the Department of Commerce and $259 million from the National Science Foundation, which funds an array of scientific research projects.”

Here’s how Science magazine reported on the sequestration:

The science committee of the U.S. House of Representatives has a long history of expressing bipartisan support for research. But science lobbyists have grumbled that the panel has become highly partisan in recent years, stacked with conservative Republicans who don’t necessarily believe that research spending is a high priority.

It’s ironic that Fisher is bringing up the NSF (National Science Foundation) now, since six days before his article was published, Nature reported that, “calling for the National Science Foundation (NSF) to justify every grant it awards as being in the ‘national interest’… scientists raised concerns that ‘national interest’ was defined much too narrowly.”

Throughout the article Fisher throws in snipes like: “Set aside the fact that twice as many Democrats as Republicans believe in astrology, a pseudoscientific medieval farce.” Great, but the argument is about policy and policymakers, and when a Democrat goes on Meet The Press to advocate for teaching astrology in the schools, I’ll happily concede the point. But right now, it’s Republicans spinning crazy anti-scientific theories about birth control,stem-cell researchabortion and creationism and trying to enshrine them as policy.

Towards the end of the essay, Fisher makes a surprising concession:

Supporters of federal science funding, a group of which I am a card-carrying member, can ill afford to lose Republican support for science. But if it is perceived as a partisan litmus test, it will not continue to exist in its current state as the government’s other financial obligations continue to grow. This may be stupid or petty and perhaps it ought not to matter whether or not it’s perceived as a partisan issue, but I’ve been on the Hill and this is how politics works.

Translation: if we don’t all close our eyes and pretend the Republicans are playing fair, we’ll lose it all. This is essentially the same argument Very Serious People are making on tax reform, immigration reform, gun control and deficits – pretend the Republicans are moderates, or else you don’t get anything.

The last paragraph is positively bonkers,

So if you count yourself a supporter of NASA, a supporter of the National Science Foundation, a supporter of the NIH, or a supporter of the Department of Energy’s science facilities and particle accelerators, don’t be goaded into a false dichotomy between those who support science and who oppose it. As Thomas Huxley said, “Science commits suicide when it adopts a creed.”

What is the false dichotomy between those who support science and those who oppose it? Scientists should actively war with any administration or politicians who opposes science. The Bush administration, for instance, happily filled up federal bureaucracies with partisans, and 60 scientists (including 20 Nobel Laureates) wrote a letter criticizing him for “distorting and suppressing findings that contradict administration policies, stacking panels with like-minded and underqualified scientists with ties to industry, and eliminating some advisory committees altogether.” In contrast, the Obama administration has poured money into mapping the brain and political capital into fighting climate change (perhaps one reason 68 Nobel-Prize winning scientists signed a letter endorsing Obama).

There is a real dichotomy between those who support science and those who don’t — and those who don’t are generally on the Republican side. 131 members of the Republican caucus deny the science behind climate change. A disturbing 17 of those Republican members are on the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology. As to the Huxley quote, scientists need to treat themselves like any other lobby, and support candidates and policies that promote their profession and research. That means supporting Democrats, as most of them do (only 6 percent of scientists identify as Republicans). The false equivalence that blames both parties for the cuts to science funding, the lack of research and our inadequate response to global warming will only make it harder to shame the party responsible for its intransigence.  The idea that Republicans are anti-science isn’t it a caricature. It’s a sad fact.