Debunking Denialism

Defending science against the forces of irrationality.

Tag Archives: creationism

In Defense of Paranormal Debunking – Part III: Nature of Skepticism

Winston Wu

In the two previous installments, we have explored a large number of skeptical principles and exposed the various deceptive ways that Winston Wu has falsely characterized them. Confidence in a proposition should be proportional to the evidence for that proposition. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Models that make fewer evidence-free assumptions should be preferred to models that are overly complex because they are more likely. The burden of evidence rests on the person advancing the position that is less likely with respect to the background information. Anecdotal evidence, although useful for generating hypotheses for future research, is not scientific evidence as it lacks independent support, is subject to cognitive biases and maybe be non-representative due to cherry-picking. Human memory is fallible and there are hundreds of people who have been falsely convicted on eyewitness testimony alone. Scientific skepticism is not about the automatic dismissal of supernatural claims. Rather, it is based on the fact that supernatural claims usually have little to no evidence supporting them, and plenty of evidence against them.

In this third installment, we will investigate how Wu misunderstands five additional skeptical principles and stances. Just because something currently lacks a scientific explanation does not mean that it is unexplainable or that supernatural “explanations” automatically win even though they lack evidence. Wu also equivocates between “beliefs” in the general sense of having opinions or accepting positions with the specific sense of holding evidence-free positions about the world. Scientific skepticism is about using accumulated scientific knowledge and rational arguments to investigate claims. It is not the same as philosophical skepticism or cynicism. Contrary to Wu, pointing out that some people’s beliefs are irrational or that they have a primitive form of thinking is not a personal attack, but an intellectually honest assessment of reality.

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Mailbag: Creationism and Moving the Goalposts


Time to respond to yet another reader feedback email! If you want to send me a question, comment or any other kind of feedback, please do so using the contact form on the about page. For more answers to feedback emails, see the mailbag category.

When we last saw Joe, he had sent me a feedback email were he deployed some common creationist complaints about the mainstream science of modern evolutionary biology: chiefly the equivocation of the “theory” concept, faulty appeals to the second law of thermodynamics and the “random chance” gambit. I explained the flaws in these assertions in greater detail here. After my previous response to him was posted, he decided to send me another feedback email. He starts off by thanking me for my response:

Firstly, I would like to thank you for answering my previous questions. I would like to ask a couple more questions.

Joe thanks me for answering his previous questions. Yet he neither address any of the arguments I made, nor does he state that he now accepts that his creationist objections to modern evolutionary biology are wrong. Instead, he wishes to ask more questions. This is a classic creationist debating strategy: never accept that your arguments have been debunked and keep moving onto other alleged creationist “problems” with evolution. Never retreat, just advance in a different direction. The intellectually honest approach would be to accept that those arguments were wrong and never use them again in any discussion about evolution. However, the typical creationist complain about evolution is very old: the same arguments (like the equivocation of the “theory” concept or appeals to the second law of thermodynamics) are often recycled over and over. Read more of this post

Intelligent Design Creationists Still Abuse NFL Theorems

Uncommon Descent and NFL

Creationists rarely come up with any new arguments. Rather, they keep repeating the same flawed assertions that have been disproved thousands of times in the past. Sometimes, however, they attempt to reinvent themselves. Not by discovering evidence or presenting new arguments, but by dressing up previous arguments in a cheap tuxedo. Claims about “what use is half a wing or half an eye?” gets changed to “what use is half a flagella?”, claims about evolution somehow contradicting the second law of thermodynamics gets replaced by appeals to an imaginary conservation law about information and so on. Another common creationist trope is asserting that evolution is just “random chance”. Since random chance cannot produce complex adaptations, creationists argue that there has to be an intelligent designer behind life. In reality, selection is a non-random process and it is the generation of genetic variation that is essentially random. Because this creationist trope can readily be debunked, they had to throw out some smokescreens in an effort to rehabilitate this approach.

That smokescreen is the abuse of the so-called No Free Lunch (NFL) theorems. Simplified, intelligent design creationists claim that these show that no evolutionary algorithm can outperform a random search, so therefore, evolution is not better than “random chance” and since “random chance” cannot produce complex adaptations, evolution cannot do it either. However, this is based on a key misunderstanding of the NFL theorems. Mark Perakh (2004, p. 102) explains:

The NFL theorems establish that performance of all algorithms is the same if averaged over all possible fitness functions. Dembski illegitimately applies this results to the algorithms’ performance on specific fitness functions where different algorithms can (and do) perform very differently. Dembski’s assertion that no evolutionary algorithm can outperform a random search because of the NFL theorems and that therefore Darwinian evolution is impossible is absurd. The NFL theorems in no way prohibit Darwinian evolution.

In other words, one evolutionary algorithms cannot outperform another averaged over all possible fitness landscapes. However, real-world evolution occurs on a specific subset of fitness landscapes not averaged over all theoretically possible fitness landscapes.

Even David Wolpert, one of the discoverer of the original NFL theorems, rejects Dembski’s false characterization:

Perhaps the most glaring example of this is that neo-Darwinian evolution of ecosystems does not involve a set of genomes all searching the same, fixed fitness function, the situation considered by the NFL theorems. Rather it is a co-evolutionary process. Roughly speaking, as each genome changes from one generation to the next, it modifies the surfaces that the other genomes are searching. And recent results indicate that NFL results do not hold in co-evolution.

The fitness landscape is thus not independent of the evolutionary algorithm, and the NFL theorems do not apply.

Recently, the pseudonym scordova wrote a post on the intelligent design creationist blog Uncommon Descent (UD) about the NFL theorems and Dawkins’ Weasel algorithm (another classic creationist obsession). Because the UD post shows (1) that intelligent design creationists, like their ideological predecessors, continue to appeal to claims that have long since been debunked and (2) that there is a large overlap between scientific creationists and intelligent design creationists in terms of what kind of arguments they use, let us go through it point-by-point. Read more of this post

Khalid Elmekki and “Questioning Evolution” Redux

Questioning evolution

It is fascinating how creationists, despite having had their errors explained to them in exquisite detail, continue to insist that their trivial misunderstandings of biology threatens to undermine evolution. If they were really interested in learning more about the world that science shows us, a simple Google search would reveal their errors. Instead, they prefer to wallow in their own ignorance.

One such example is Khalid Elmekki. Elmekki and his false claims about evolution has been refuted previously on this website after he make a video where he tried to lay out some of the reasons for why he rejected evolutionary biology. He later removed the video, presumably because of the backlash to some of the more embarrassing statements he made. Elmekki has also a number of other questionable videos on his Youtube channel where he claims that the U.S is a communist regime and promotes Illuminati conspiracy theories and so on.

Recently, Elmekki put up a re-make video were he attempts to discuss some of the “problems” that he sees with modern evolutionary. Elmekki has stopped using some of the most ludicrous arguments that could be seen in his previous video on the subject. He no longer states that he rejects evolution because it feels disgusting. He has also left out a lot of the material about phylogeny and systematics, such as the claim that birds evolved from pterodactyls. Unfortunately, a lot of creationist claims remain: such as the “if we evolved from apes…” and the feeble attempt to connect Charles Darwin to racism and ethnic cleansing. Despite denying that he is a creationist, Elmekki also throws in a couple of classic creationist falsehoods that he did not talk about before such as the equivocation of the theory concept and the denial of scientific evidence. Interestingly, he even produces some home-made arguments, such as claiming that cicadas are almost extinct because they have a long life-cycle and that humans and other apes cannot share a common ancestor because there are no non-human apes listed in human genealogies. For what it is worth, at least Elmekki tries to be original. Read more of this post

Mailbag: Creationism, Scientific Theories and Entropy

Feedback email

Time to respond to yet another reader feedback email! If you want to send me a question, comment or any other kind of feedback, please do so using the contact form on the about page. For more answers to feedback emails, see the mailbag category.

This time, I got a feedback message from Joe who seems to have some issues with modern evolutionary biology. Unfortunately and unsurprisingly, the problems Joe sees with this scientific discipline is based on the same old creationist misunderstandings that have been discussed and destroyed thousands of times before: the equivocation of the term “theory”, flawed ideas about entropy and evolution, misunderstandings of taxonomy and the impact of culture on intelligence. Read more of this post

Elizabeth Mitchell’s Flawed Defense of a Creationist “Science” Quiz

screenshot of the article

Back in April of 2013, some photos of a 4th grade science quiz given at Blue Ridge Christian Academy made rounds on the Internet. It was not any ordinary science quiz by any means. Rather, it was a creationist propaganda tool masquerading as a science quiz. It was handed out to students after the screening of a creationist video that attempted to “teach children the history of the universe from the Bible, with a special emphasis on teaching dinosaurs from a biblical perspective” (source).

The quiz in question contained 18 questions and the images showed it filled in my a young student. Examples of questions included “The earth is billions of years old” (the student answered “false”), “Dinosaurs lived with people” (the student answered “true”), “What did people and animals eat in the beginning?” (student answered “plants”), “What caused there to be fossils” (the student circled “global flood”), “the next time someone says that the earth is billions (or millions) of years old, what can you say?” (to which the student wrote the creationist classic “were you there?”).

Astonishingly, the teacher gave the student full marks.

The information leaked when a concerned friend of one of the parents saw it and posted it on Reddit. Instead of publicly acknowledging the problem, Answers in Genesis decided to dig their heals in and state that the information provided in the video was of high scientific quality. In fact, AiG has written several articles on the issue on their website. In this blog post, we will be taking a look at one of them (“Shenanigans” or “Scientifically Sound Answers with Eternal Significance”?) written by Dr. Elizabeth M. Mitchell and can be found here.

The contamination of K-12 science education by creationist propaganda

Dr. Mitchell starts of her defense of teaching creationism as science by describing what Diane Baker (school director) has to say:

Baker says the school does teach students mainstream science but does so from a biblical perspective.

There is no such thing as mainstream science “but from a biblical perspective”. What is actually happening is that they are letting biblical creationism contaminate the teaching of mainstream science. When a teacher shows creationist video material to children and make them take tests were the rejection of mainstream science and the uncritical regurgitation of vacuous creationist talking-points is awarded, then what is being taught is not mainstream science but creationist propaganda.

The school does not demand that students or parents agree with their worldview. “We are teaching kids how to think. Part of what we do in every class is to teach kids to articulate what they believe,” says Baker. “Our students are well versed,” explains board member Joy Hartsell. “They know evolution. The big bang theory. They are taught what the world believes. We believe the Bible and we teach from that context.”

Indoctrinating children with creationist falsehoods about science is not even remotely similar to teaching kids critical thinking. Feeding their brains with scientific error is not the same as teaching kids to articulate what they believe. Telling them creationist misinterpretations of evolution and the big bang is not the same as teaching them mainstream science. In science class, children should be taught science, not the religious dogma that is creationism Read more of this post

The Current Creationist Abuse of ENCODE and “junk DNA”

encode and junk

The creationist blogosphere is set ablaze by the popular media claim that “biochemical functions for 80% of the genome”. For instance, Barry Arrington at the intelligent design creationist blog Uncommon Descent calls it a vindication of intelligent design proponents.

Not so fast! An article on Nature News Blog, aptly entitled “fighting about ENCODE and junk”, clarifies the situation in detail. To make a long story short, the researchers used an extremely broad definition of functional that included almost any biochemical activity.

Here is the creationist and media narrative: Read more of this post

Dr. Wile’s Tirade Against Evolution Continues…

Dr. Wile's website

Earlier this month, I wrote a criticism of a couple of videos produced by the Creation Museum that attacked a video made by the engineer and science educator Bill Nye. A commenter alerted me to a response by a Dr. Wile in the comment section on his blog. Dr. Wile is a young-earth creationist with a PhD in nuclear chemistry from the University of Rochester, who has experience with education (having written a couple of homeschooling textbooks on science as well as taught courses in science). In response, I wrote another response rebutting the claims made by Dr Wile.

Now, Dr. Wile has graciously taken the time to write a reply to my second post. It demonstrates the typical rhetoric and debating methods of creationists together with well-known evasion tactics. Let’s examine it in detail. Read more of this post

Bill Nye Under Creationist Siege: A Reply to Dr. Jay L. Wile


A commenter on this blog alerted me to a creationist response to me previous blog post on The Uninformed Creationist Assault on Bill Nye. It is written by the young-earth creationist Dr. Jay L. Wile, who has a PhD in nuclear chemistry from University of Rochester and can be found here. He also has experience with teaching and writing science textbooks for homeschooling.

As we will see, it is extremely generous to call it “a response”. It is mostly a garbled list of assertions (some just repeating what the young earth creationists said) with links to creationist websites that themselves have little to offer in terms of intellectual content.

Let’s take it on.

1. Denial of Evolution in the U. S.

The author tries to make an excuse for Nye’s patently false statement in the beginning. He claims, “In this sense, the U. S. stands out: despite its technological level, it has a very low acceptance of evolution.” But that’s not what Nye said. Nye said that denial of evolution is unique to the United States.

That is not only a quote out of context, it is really uncharitable to mark words and not try to understand the meaning of what is being said. To do that, context is required. Let me post what Bill Nye said, word for word:

Denial of evolution is unique to the United States. We are the world’s most advanced technological — I mean you can say Japan, but generally, United States is where most of the innovation still happens. People still move to the United States. And that is largely because of the intellectual capital — the general understanding of science. When you have a portion of population doesn’t believe in it, it holds everyone back.

So Bill Nye is not making the naive claim that denial of evolution is unique to the United States in the sense that it does not exist anywhere else, but rather the claim that United States is unique in being a highly technologically advanced society, yet have a large proportion of the population being creationist. The graph in Miller et. al. (2006) illustrates this well: despite being a large scientific superpower, U. S. finds itself among the bottom countries on the list. This is what makes United States unique. Obviously creationists exists in other technologically advanced nations, but the problem is not as big there as it is in the United States. The latest figure show that 46% of people in the U. S. is creationist (Gallup, 2012). It is this prevalence, together with being a scientific superpower, that makes the situation in U. S. unique. Read more of this post

The Uninformed Creationist Assault on Bill Nye

Bill Nye

Big Think is “a knowledge forum featuring the ideas, lessons, stories and advice of leading experts from around the world”. They often post videos with scientists such as Stephen Pinker and Neil deGrasse Tyson, talking about various issues. A video was posted on the Big Think Youtube channel featuring Bill Nye, a scientist and a popular science educator. The video topic is creationism and how it is inappropriate for children. As far as I can tell, most of the things that Bill Nye said was completely rational and evidence-based. However, among young-earth creationists, this sparked vitriolic attacks, culminating in the production of not just one, but two video responses. One of them was from Dr. David Menton and Dr. Georgia Purdom at the Creation Museum. According to the video, both have PhDs in life science. The second video response is from Ken Ham, the president of Answers in Genesis and the Creation Museum.

This post will outline the statements made by Bill Nye, the rebuttals by the young-earth creationists and why they fail.

What arguments did Bill Nye make?

More specifically, the arguments and points made by Bill Nye are the following:

  1. Denial of evolution is unique to the United States, as it is one of the most technologically advanced nations with a lot of intellectual capital in the form of the general understanding of science.
  2. Evolutionary biology is the grand unified explanation of biology much in the same way that plate tectonics is the grand unified explanation for geology.
  3. The worldview of creationists is “fantastically complicated” and “untenable”.
  4. If you want to rejection evolution, that is fine. But do not indoctrinate your children into creationism as the future needs scientifically literate individuals (e. g. “voters”, “taxpayers”, “engineers”).
  5. There is no evidence for creationism.

As far as I could tell, these were the substantive points made in Bill Nye’s video.

Were Bill Nye’s arguments reasonable?

Evolution is the grand unified explanation of life science and creationism does not reasonably explain a lot of the observations we see around us, such as distant starts or nested hierarchies, at least not without a credulous flood of ad hoc assertions. There is no evidence in favor of creationism and it seems reasonable to suppose that scientific literacy matters for the direction of a society. So far so good.

The only statement that I found to be debatable was the first. I can think of two possible interpretations: (1) creationism is unique to the U. S. in the sense that it is not widespread outside of the country or (2) U. S. is unique in being a technologically advanced society at the same time that a large proportion of the population are creationists. The first interpretation is wrong. Creationism is quite prevalent in the Middle East and creationist have a noticeable presence in other geographical areas as well, such as Australia, Great Britain, Switzerland, Austria, Germany and Turkey (Numbers, 2006; Numbers, 2009). The second interpretation is more reasonable. The graph Nye is probably thinking of is the one from Miller et. al. (2006) that depicts the acceptance of evolution in 34 countries, where the U. S. finishes at the bottom of the list, just above Turkey. In this sense, the U. S. stands out: despite its technological level, it has a very low acceptance of evolution. It is not entirely clear which of the two interpretations that is closest to what Bill Nye said or meant (others like Gould and Lewontin has made the claim in the first interpretation), but one could charitably assume that it was the second.

So in summary, the claims made by Bill Nye hold up pretty well.

The creationist retorts and their flaws

The two videos made by the creationists at the Creation Museum can be found here and here. In rough order, the arguments made by the creationists are as follows:

1. The first argument is an attack on the first interpretation of the uniqueness of creationism argument. It can be countered by noting that the second interpretation is probably closer to what Bill Nye meant, and so the creationist argument is really a straw man.

2. The second argument is a standard false balance argument: children should be taught both evolution and creationism. This can be rejected by noting that it is unfair to teach scientific falsehoods as if they were evidence-based facts. As Glenn Branch explains in Scott and Branch (2006, p. 135):

The power of the appeal to fairness is so strong that it is wisest to reply in kind: there is nothing fair about the creationist ambition for public education. It is not fair to citizens of a republic in which a basic constitutional principle is the government’s religious neutrality. It is not fair to tax payers , who run the risk of footing the legal bills due to lawsuit over actions that compromise the teaching of evolution. It is not fair to teachers, who have a professional duty to teach in accordance with the scientific consensus. Most important, it is not fair to the students, whose scientific literacy is on the line.

3. The third assertion is the classic “there are no mechanisms to gain genetic information” to become more complex over time. This astoundingly erroneous assertion was delivered by Dr. Purdom, PhD in molecular genetics. Gene duplication with subsequent adaptive divergence fulfills any potentially relevant definition of “genetic information” in biology. Read more of this post


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