Debunking Denialism

Defending science against the forces of irrationality.

Tag Archives: creationism

The Triumph of the Peppered Moths and the Failure of Creationism

Peppered Moths

The peppered moth, Biston betularia, is a species of nocturnal moths that can be found across the Northern hemisphere. In Britain, the two most common morphs are called typica (white with dark irregular patches and spots) and carbonaria (dark melanic). There is also an intermediate morph that is known as insularia.

Before the early 1800s, the melanic morph was unknown. About a hundred years later, this morph completely dominated the population. This coincided with the industrial pollution of forests, thereby depriving the white morph of its good camouflage and allowing the melanic morph to better hide in the surroundings, since trees had been darkened by soot and a lot of lichens died due to sulfur dioxide. This became known as industrial melanism. From the 1960s and to the present, this trend has been reversed. As the air and the environment became less polluted, the melanic morph fell in prevalence and the white morph rose again.

Research of the prevalence of different morphs at different places and times can be found in many scientific papers, such as Kettlewell (1956), Grant, Owen and Clark (1996) and Cook and Saccheri (2003).

Why are peppered moths a case of natural selection in the wild?

This is a fantastic example of natural selection in the wild, because there was a shift in the prevalence of the two forms due to selection from the environment and this occurred both during increased and decreased pollution. This has also been observed in many locations in both Europe and North America, further solidifying the case.

Later research showed that the major mechanism behind this change turned out to be bird predation. Before the pollution, white morphs had a good camouflage against light trees. During the strong pollution era, these were easier to spot by birds against the blackened background, whereas now the melanic morphs had a better ability to hide. As the environment improved, the situation was reversed again.

Creationists try to spread misinformation about these mechanistic details and how frequent these moths rests on different parts of the trees, but whatever they claim, their assertions do not disprove the fundamental fact that natural selection caused the shift in the prevalence of different morphs over time.

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In Defense of Paranormal Debunking – Part VI: Aliens and Creationism

Note: This is the sixth and final installment of an article series refuting claims made by the online book “Debunking PseudoSkeptical Arguments of Paranormal Debunkers” written by Winston Wu. For all posts in this series, see the index post here.

Winston Wu

Previously, we have examined the many problems in the thirty-part online text “Debunking PseudoSkeptical Arguments of Paranormal Debunkers” by Winston Wu. Concepts that have been explored are deceptive methods used by alleged psychics, flawed experiments that purport to show evidence of paranormal abilities, the statistical ignorance of a belief in prophetic dreams, the problems with alternative medicine and the skeptical relevance of principles such as Occam’s Razor and extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

In this sixth and final installment, we will take a closer look at the purported evidence for aliens and UFOs, common creationist misunderstandings of evolution as well as Wu’s claims about The James Randi Million Dollar Challenge.

Misunderstood principle #26: Innateness

Wu starts by misrepresenting the mainstream scientific position on why people have paranormal beliefs. Instead of discussing the myriad of different contributing factors that actual research has uncovered, he merely presents a single one (“Paranormal beliefs are childish fantasies for dealing with a cold uncaring world.”) and does a poor job at explaining the idea. Wu completely ignores research on cultural, social and cognitive psychology.

His major argument in this section is that the deity of Christianity must be true because he thinks a belief in such a deity is innate. But there are hundreds of beliefs that are innate (operationalized as being often held by children) and completely wrong, such as intuition-based physics about astronomy, magnetism, vision, weather, measurement, space and so on:

– Stars and constellations appear in the same place in the sky every night.
– The sun rises exactly in the east and sets exactly in the west every day.
– The sun is always directly south at 12:00 noon.
– The tip of a shadow always moves along an east-west line.
– We experience seasons because of the earth’s changing distance from the sun (closer in the summer, farther in the winter).
– The earth is the center of the solar system. (The planets, sun and moon revolve around the earth.)
– The moon can only be seen during the night.

[…]

– The only “natural” motion is for an object to be at rest.
– If an object is at rest, no forces are acting on the object.
– A rigid solid cannot be compressed or stretched.
– Only animate objects can exert a force. Thus, if an object is at rest on a table, no forces are acting upon it.
– Force is a property of an object. An object has force and when it runs out of force it stops moving.
– The motion of an object is always in the direction of the net force applied to the object.

etc.

These are obviously not true simply because children hold them as “innate beliefs”.

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

Note: This is the third installment of an article series refuting claims made by the online book “Debunking PseudoSkeptical Arguments of Paranormal Debunkers” written by Winston Wu. For all posts in this series, see the index post here.

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

Mailbag

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

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