Tuesday, January 31, 2017

New Book by Dennis Venema and Scott McKnight: Adam and the Genome

Dennis Venema and Scott McKnight have released a new book called Adam and the Genome.  From the BioLogos blurb:
This week on the blog we’ll have a series of reflections on the book from people across a range of views. Tomorrow will feature Pete Enns of Eastern University (and former BioLogos Senior Fellow);  later in the week we'll hear from Ken Keathley of Southeastern Baptist Seminary and Denis Alexander of the Faraday Institute at Cambridge University. We’ve invited Venema and McKnight to respond to these posts on the blog next week. Today I’ll give an overview of the book—hopefully just enough to whet your appetite to get the book and read the whole thing.

The BioLogos statement of beliefs doesn’t mention Adam and Eve (neither do the historic creeds of the church), and different members of our community come to different conclusions on the topic. We think it is important for there to be continued conversations among informed and committed Christians on this and other important issues.
Here is the cover.
Hopefully, there will be a Kindle version soon. I am still wading through John Walton's book on Genesis 1, after having finished David Mongomery's The Rocks Don't Lie and Joel Edmund Anderson's The Heresy of Ham, both of which I highly recommend.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Update on the South Dakota Bill

The Argus Leader is running a story about the South Dakota “Strengths and Weaknesses” bill being bandied about.
Deb Wolf, a high school science instructional coach for the Sioux Falls School District, worries the bill would also undermine school boards' ability to enforce the curriculum they've approved.

"This is horrible, but let's say I believe in eugenics," Wolf said. "(SB 55) says that I couldn't be prohibited, I couldn't be stopped from teaching that as long as I did it in an objective scientific manner, and it doesn't specify what that means."

The bill now moves to the House where, if passed, it will go to the governor's desk for final approval.

Rachelle Smith, who has two children at John Harris Elementary School, was in disbelief that the bill was even under consideration.

Smith worries the bill, if passed, would cause parents to try to avoid certain teachers or request to change classes if a teacher strayed from science curriculum.

She also worries that her second-grade daughter, who loves studying science, won't be learning the subject properly.
The passage of any of these bills would set a terrible precedent. Science is not like any other discipline.  You are not entitled to your own set of facts.  That simply is not how the world works. 

The Hill: New wave of anti-evolution bills hit states

The Hill has a report on new legislation that has evolution, once more, in the crosshairs.  These bills are being floated in South Dakota, Oklahoma and Indiana.  There are subtle differences, however:
The bills represent something of an evolution themselves: They do not specifically mention creationism or intelligent design, two alternatives to evolution theory advanced by religious conservatives. Instead, they allow teachers to address the “strengths and weaknesses” of material being taught to students.

Glenn Branch, deputy director of the National Center for Science Education, said the new effort aims to undermine evolution by preventing school districts from blocking teachers who question scientific consensus.

“They’re no longer trying to ban teaching evolution. They’re no longer trying to balance teaching evolution. They’re now trying to belittle evolution,” Branch said.

Proponents of the measures say they do not allow teachers to inject religion into science classes. Model bills make clear that teachers are to question theories in an “objective” measure by focusing on “scientific information.”
This is subterfuge on a grand scale. What theories do you suppose they will question?  Do you think they will question gravitational theory?  What about cell theory? Atomic theory?  Likely, these theories will not be examined for their “scientific information.” All of the focus will be on evolution.  What makes these bills so insidious is that they are very hard to repel:
Science groups worry that the new measures will be more difficult to challenge in court. While earlier attempts have been shot down, the new bills are crafted to withstand facial challenges, Branch said.

“It makes the bills very hard to challenge on the basis that they’re unconstitutional, because they’re not requiring anyone to do anything,” he said.

The bills would also put school boards in the untenable position of being open to lawsuits from teachers, if they try to block the presentation of alternative ideas, and from parents, if they allow those alternative ideas to be presented.
One can only hope that these bills will be killed in committee.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

David MacMillan Responds to Todd Wood

David MacMillan, writing at Panda's Thumb, responds to Todd Wood regarding the issue of peer-review of creationist literature.  He writes:
Wood also stated that both the articles I referenced in my original post were, in fact, letters to the editor rather than full refereed journal articles, and thus it isn’t irregular to publish them simultaneously. Here’s where it gets a bit dicey, not because I doubt his explanation, but because ARJ’s editor, Andrew Snelling, apparently made no effort whatsoever to distinguish between letters to the editor and actual articles. That’s a problem.
The whole point of peer review is that it identifies scholarship which has been evaluated by peers. Scientists and researchers learn to trust peer review because they know it has been read and examined with a critical eye, both for careless errors and for systematic errors. Peer review is the dam which holds back the flood of pseudoscientific nonsense (although this doesn’t prevent creationists from trying their damnedest to slip things in). Creationist publications like the Answers Research Journal are creationism’s way of claiming legitimacy.
That’s not to say that individual creationists who submit to publications like ARJ are insincere. Nor are their submissions useless; in many cases, as in the debate over H. naledi, the breadth of discussion illustrates very well the earnest attempt to make their models work. Creationist organizations now make a practice of referring to their “professional, peer-reviewed technical journal(s)” and claiming that “evolutionists are unaware of our scientific literature”. It is because the models do not, in fact, work that we have an opportunity to use their own work against them, highlighting clearly where the different models proposed by different authors are plainly incompatible. Creationists are trying to fit a 4-billion-year-old peg into a 6-thousand-year-old hole, and it shows.
Perhaps the best example of this that I have read in recent memory is the work of Phil Senter, in using flood geologists to invalidate their own models.Young earth creationists want to have their research taken seriously, but since none of their models hold up under scrutiny, and they seem to spend the vast majority of their time trying to poke holes in established science, this has not been forthcoming from the science establishment.  I also question Todd Wood's assertion that scientists are not aware of creationist research.  There are people that do nothing but read what comes out of AiG, CMI and the ICR with an eye for critical science.  Even the work that comes out of the Discovery Institute is put under a microscope.

Snelling should have been absolutely up front about the fact that the responses were letters to the editor.  MacMillan makes the point that the failure to distinguish this smacks of being arbitrary.  More to the point, it allows unvetted opinions and statements to creep in without proper backstopping.  As noted in my previous post, however, my experience is that this has never stopped many young-earth creationists before. 

Monday, January 23, 2017

Stealth Bill in Oklahoma

Another &ldauo;strenghts and weaknesses” bill has been put forth in Oklahoma. NCSE has the story:
Senate Bill 393 (PDF), styled the Oklahoma Science Education Act, is the latest antievolution bill in the Sooner State. SB 393 would, if enacted, in effect encourage science teachers with idiosyncratic opinions to teach anything they pleased — proponents of creationism and climate change denial are the usual intended beneficiaries of such bills — and discourage responsible educational authorities from intervening. No scientific topics are specifically identified as controversial, but the fact that the sole sponsor of SB 393 is Josh Brecheen (R-District 6), who introduced similar legislation that directly targeted evolution in previous legislative sessions, is suggestive.
Why is it suggestive? It is suggestive because every other bill that has dealt with “strengths and weaknesses” has been aimed specifically at evolution.This is a common tactic and one can only hope this one goes down in flames. 

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. 

Friday, January 06, 2017

Ken Ham and the Missing Dinosaurs

Ken Ham got into a twitter war with the WaPo, after one of its writers posted an article in which it was written that all of the dinosaurs died out during Noah's flood.  The WaPo has since updated the article to correct the view.  It mostly serves as a vehicle for promoting the film "We Believe in Dinosaurs," which is an examination of creationism in the US.   Here is part of what Vicky Hallett wrote:
[David MacMillan] joined the directors of “We Believe in Dinosaurs” for a recent Reddit AMA (Ask Me Anything) to explain why some people accept “creation science.”

One key question: Why is it called “science”?

The label is popular with creationists, MacMillan writes, because it allows them “to set themselves up as participants in an equal controversy, as if there are two equal sides to choose from.” To bolster that idea, he adds, “some creationists also try to mimic the appearance of hypotheses, research, and so forth.”

When a child is raised with creationism — as MacMillan was — it’s the default position. If that’s what’s taught in school, the curriculum limits exposure to the mainstream evidence that life on Earth is far older than some Bible-based believers insist it is.

“The whole focus of organized creationism is advancing the idea that all the evidence can be interpreted in a variety of ways and everyone is biased,” MacMillan writes. “Plausible deniability, you know?”
This is not so unlike the Hammish one's insistence that there is no such thing as "historical science" because nobody was there to observe what happened. "Were you there?" is his catchphrase for that.While there is uncertainty in the scientific world, the idea that there are always two ways of interpreting evidence is nonsense.  Often, there is so much evidence supporting one particular interpretation that the alternatives are thrown in the dustbin of history.  Phlogisten, spontaneous generation, inheritance of acquired characteristics are examples of these.

So is creation science.

As Hugh Ross once pointed out (paraphrased), every single young earth creation argument suffers from one or more of three main problems: faulty assumptions, faulty reasoning, and failure to consider alternatives.  For Ken Ham, the earth was created 6ooo years ago.  There can be no alternative to this viewpoint.  All of the evidence has to point in that direction.  (This is where the heresy comes in).

Anyway, Ken Ham responded to the original WaPo article with the following tweets:
Hey @washingtonpost we at @ArkEncounter have NEVER said Dinosaurs were wiped out during Flood-get your facts right 

I challenge @washingtonpost to show ONE instance where @arkencounter supposedly says Dinos died out during Flood! 
None of this, of course, helps Ham.  Now he has to defend the argument that, somehow, in the last four thousand years, dinosaurs disembarked from the ark, mysteriously all of them died out and No Written Records of Their Existence Were Kept.

David MacMillan took to the pages of Panda's Thumb to address young-earth creationism and his role in it. Critical to this account is that he is a former young-earth creationist. He suggests that Ken Ham's response to the WaPo article is not surprising:
Ken Ham gains an advantage by playing the persecuted saint; he has recently even compared his movement to Martin Luther and the Reformation. But more immediately, he takes offense because he has invested so heavily in one specific, defined, detailed narrative, to the point that getting these kinds of explanations “correct” becomes a central religious necessity. To most of us, it might not seem to make much of a difference whether he’s claiming dinosaurs died during the mythical flood or immediately after, but to stridently religious creationists like Ham, the Post article might as well have claimed he believes in the world of Harry Potter.

Most ironic, however, is that the Post article wasn’t nearly so incorrect as Ham insisted. True, the Ark Encounter features numerous caged dinosaur pairs – I’ve seen them in person – but their Flood narrative is invoked to explain why dinosaurs went extinct. In fact, the Flood is their automatic explanation for virtually everything we observe, particularly the mountains of evidence that run contrary to a 6,000-year-old world.
About the focus of young-earth creationism, he has this to say:
Creationists construct a dizzying array of ad hoc explanations for every possible piece of evidence, because at the root, they aren’t actually interested in developing testable models or creating useful theories. What’s important to them is presenting an appearance of the scientific process in order to maintain their authoritative position. That’s why organized creationism has thus far been largely impervious to scientific debunking: it’s not about science, it’s about faith, faith in the rigid system of beliefs they present to their followers.
It is this viewpoint that allows Ken Ham to castigate all other forms of creationism and insinuate that his version of events is the only Christian one. For those interested in how David MacMillan came to part ways with this movement, there is a multi-part post in the Panda's Thumb in which he discusses how the movement works.

Thursday, January 05, 2017

Ken Ham's Ark Taken Up To Heaven!

That is one of the stories from the satirical Christian website The Babylon Bee.  From the story:
In what is being called a stunning miracle, apologist Ken Ham’s controversial $100 million replica of Noah’s Ark was reportedly taken into heaven in the sight of attendees just several days into the park’s opening.

Witnesses claim they heard a voice from the heavens booming, “This is my beloved ark, in which I am well pleased,” before a loud rumbling begin to reverberate all around the attraction. Then, onlookers watched in amazement as the clouds parted and the great wooden ship began ascending toward the skies.

Sources state that within several minutes, the ark had disappeared into the clouds, having been taken into the presence of the Almighty.
If only.  That, and other stories at the site had me in tears this evening.  If your Christianity can stand a sense of humor, this is the site for you.  In many ways, it is like the old Wittenberg Door, a satirical newspaper that was popular in the 1980s.  Enjoy.