Thursday, January 19, 2017

David MacMillan on Homo naledi, Ken Ham and Creationism

Over at Panda's Thumb, David MacMillan has taken to the pen again to examine the world-view of young earth creationism.  He writes:
As I expected at the time, creationists were quick to insist that H. naledi couldn’t possibly be evidence for human evolution. However, though they all predictably agreed that it wasn’t a transitional form, they were completely unable to agree on what it was. Some saw the apparently intentional burial in a cave (which would have required the use of fire for artificial light) as undeniable evidence of humanity, while others pointed to the small cranial size and numerous australopithecine traits as an argument against this. Dr. Joel Duff of Naturalis Historia wrote a series of posts as the various responses emerged, illustrating the utter inability of creationists to reach any sort of resolution.

The controversy gives us outsiders a glimpse into just what makes these groups tick. Creationist organizations are less focused on research and more focused on presenting a veneer of authority, as this earns the greatest amount of loyalty from their followers. So it was important for them to present an authoritative-sounding answer; after all, if there really are no “missing links”, then the true nature of a discovery like H. naledi should be readily apparent. The disagreement in their collective responses, however, only demonstrated what mainstream science already recognized: H. naledi really did have a mixture of modern and plesiomorphic traits.
It is this mix of traits, just like the mix you find in other fossils from all over the range of human history, that demonstrate the nature of evolution and how new traits arise. MacMillan has written, as have I, that as long as the focus is on individuals as representations, and not on the traits, themselves, then the constant flow of evolution will be completely invisible. This is the critical teaching of systematics.You don't follow the individuals.  They might not go anywhere.  You follow the traits.

He then has high praise for Todd Wood, someone who I have admired within the creationist sphere as just about the only person who treats the evidence honestly:
Dr. Todd Wood is one of the few creationists who seems to make a genuine effort to approach evidence logically and honestly. In fact, Wood’s honesty about the positive evidence for evolution is one of the reasons I originally felt like I could be genuine in my own examination of the evidence, which ultimately led to my accepting science. Wood responded to the discovery of H. naledi rather differently than the larger creationist organizations. Rather than immediately claiming to know what the new species really was, he withheld judgment and advocated systematic research.
Wood has tangled not just with AiG, but also with Reasons to Believe, Hugh Ross' OEC organization, about whom he suggests that we cannot trust.  He has done so every time with integrity and honesty.  It is his dogmatic approach to the scriptures that I find troubling, but that is not the subject of this post.  MacMillan details an exchange between Wood and AiG that leaves him, like the rest of us, convinced that AiG is completely lacking in intellectual honesty:
One of AiG’s researchers, writing under the pseudonym of “Jean O’Micks”, initially agreed with Wood’s conclusions that H. naledi had too many human features to be considered an ape, but then reversed his view in a second article to match AiG’s initial claims. In response, Wood submitted an article to the Answers Research Journal pointing out that O’Micks reached this conclusion by excluding inconvenient data.

While I obviously disagree with Wood’s views on origins and the age of the Earth, this paper was nonetheless an excellent example of using sound research principles to identify poor scholarship. What’s most interesting, though, is how AiG responded.

AiG accepted Wood’s submission to ARJ, but only after O’Micks had an opportunity to write a rebuttal. Then, they posted the rebuttal on their website first, ahead of Wood’s article...Now, I only have minimal experience publishing in scientific journals, but this is highly irregular. A reputable journal would either allow a letter to the editor in a later issue, or they would require a rebuttal to be submitted as a full peer-reviewed research project in a later issue. Posting a concurrent rebuttal demonstrates that ARJ’s claims of academic integrity and peer review are pure nonsense.
Todd Wood weighed in on this:
Ouch.  No.  Not even close.  First of all, my response was written as a letter to the editor.  I only provided an abstract after the editor, Andrew Snelling, requested it.  Letters to the editor in journals are frequently published simultaneously with a response, and they often do not undergo the same sort of peer review as a full paper would.  See any letter in Science or Nature for example.  That's exactly what happened here.  These papers were posted simultaneously on December 28 with mine first in the queue.  You can even see this in the journal page numbering: My paper is pp. 369-372 and O'Micks's response is pp. 373-375.  MacMillan is just wrong.
Wood continues, in his defense of creationist journals:
After criticizing O'Micks's response as hasty, error-filled, and special pleading, MacMillan concludes that our exchange shows that all creationist journals "lack any actual rigorous peer-review process." Since MacMillan doesn't seem to have any firsthand experience with creationist peer review, that's a bold claim to make. Frankly, I've had more hassle from some creationist reviewers at JCTS than I've had publishing in some noncreationist journals. Creationist journals aren't all one thing, and they definitely aren't created "as a way to legitimize their claims of scientific and doctrinal authority." That's also nonsense. JCTS was designed for specialty publications in the area of baraminology and related creation biology that would be of little interest to the broader creationist community. In my experience, no one is impressed by my articles on carnivorous plants or bootstrapping in baraminology.
Wood is, perhaps, correct that creationist journals are not all one thing but my experience with many different creationist journals is that they all suffer from the same failing: inability or unwillingness to treat the science with integrity and in an honest fashion.

Having said that, MacMillan seems to have misunderstood what went on and so Wood's correction is duly noted.  Wood writes, in a follow-up post:
I think we all have a higher calling, though.  As a Christian, I definitely have a higher calling.  I have a genuine interest in seeing creationists improve the work that they do and the articles that they write.  That's why I publish the critiques that I do.  I know that I've done a lousy job in the past, and I genuinely want to improve that aspect of my work.  Too often, I've let sarcasm and passion take over, and I've burned (nuked, really) bridges that shouldn't have been.  Shame on me.
So I want to learn from the Panda's Thumb.  I want to ponder my writing a lot more.  I want to think carefully about how I respond as much as I think about what I say.  Tactics matter.  That's the lesson I'm learning here.  It's not enough to be on the right side.
There is certainly a lot of sarcasm and passion to go around. Interestingly, Wood accuses Panda's Thumb of being of singular intent: criticizing creationists. Therefore, he argues, they do not necessarily care if they get some facts wrong. I have never known the writers of Panda's Thumb to knowingly misstate facts. It is likely that some assumptions were made in this exchange that were not entirely correct.  However, I have also known from my own investigations, that there is more than enough of this to go around.

For example, from time to time, AiG has posted articles on human evolution by Elizabeth Mitchell or David Menton. They are routinely awful.  Filled with logical and observational errors, they are deceptive and they drip with sarcasm. This is also true with the ICR's Acts and Facts, an organization that routinely gets basic facts wrong.  Further, sites such as Carl Wieland's Creation Ministries International have articles that are replete with errors. In my experience, these writers have no interest in getting their facts correct.  They, further, often have no interest in understanding the basics of science and routinely misstate fundamental tenets and concepts (see Ken Ham's complete misunderstanding of the importance of historical science here). 

While there is certainly a great deal of animosity and sarcasm coming out of the anti-creationist camp, much of it arises from the issues outlined in the previous paragraph.  Does that excuse the sarcasm and vitriol?  No, it doesn't, but after playing whack-a-mole for awhile, the lack of civility becomes a bit more understandable.  Wood has been almost a single, lone voice in the wilderness and has not been reticent about taking on fellow creationists for their sloppy science.  More of his compatriots need to follow his lead. 

1 comment:

  1. There has been a further post by MacMillan. About to take a look.