Archive for the ‘creationists’ Category

Belief without evidence (2 of 6): A skeptic’s inventory


The previous post introduced the topic of skeptical “beliefs without evidence”. This post gets to the meat of it by identifying three beliefs that I hold without evidence or sound reasons to back them up.

The most thoroughgoing logical, rational system of beliefs must start with some assumptions. In this post, I will go through three claims about the nature of the universe – you might call them my metaphysical beliefs – that I have identified as the basis of my consciously-held humanist worldview. In the following post, I will add to these two basic value statements.

1: The inductive principle

The inductive principle is the idea that the past is a useful guide to the future. If a light comes on every time we flip a switch, we are reasonably justified in expecting that the next time we flip the switch, the light will come on. If the sun has come up consistently every morning for my whole life, I can expect it to come up tomorrow morning too.

The thing is, there really is no way to demonstrate that this is a good form of reasoning, without assuming that this is a good form of reasoning. It’s tempting to argue, “The inductive principle is sound, because it has always worked in the past.” But this amounts to saying that if you assume the past (successful uses of the inductive principle) is a good guide to the future (future uses of the principle), then you have good reason to conclude that the past is a good guide to the future. It’s circular.

Pragmatically, of course, the inductive principle is a must-have. Even those who engage in the most heinous special pleading (“Oh, but you don’t *know* that the laws of physics were the same back then, so maybe the Earth *is* only 6000 years old!”) will use the inductive principle in every important aspect of their lives. They are only inclined to dismiss it when it points away from their cherished beliefs.

This is a point of faith that we all share. Even acknowledging that it will sometimes fail us (consider the poor turkey in this story), and applying the principle with due care, we have to live as if the inductive principle works most of the time.

2: Other people exist

I don’t have it in me to be a solipsist. Just because I can only experience the world as me, I don’t assume I’m the only one experiencing the world. I think it is a psychological imperative for mentally healthy social creatures such as humans to accept this dictum. But I cannot imagine a context where evidence could demonstrate this to be true. (Or false.)

3: Non-just-nowism

Call it the non-perversity of reality. I assume that the world is not so perversely arranged as to give systematic evidence contrary to reality. For those who haven’t come across it, “Just-nowism” is a somewhat tongue-in-cheek belief that the universe was just created, moments ago, so that everything in it – the physical evidence, our memories, everything – would make us think that it had actually been around a lot longer.

It seems to be a response to the Omphalos hypothesis (from the Greek word for navel – a reference to Adam’s belly button), originally by nineteenth-century apologist Henry Philip Gosse. It’s still sometimes promoted by creationists: the idea that all the scientific evidence of an old earth, of evolution, and so forth, is just put there by God to test their faith. Or, perhaps, by Satan to destroy their faith.

Either way, the Just-nowist/Omphalos hypothesis is the ultimate conspiracy theory: any evidence you see is simply proof that such evidence has been faked. There is no argument against it; that is why my non-just-nowism is a dogmatic belief. It’s also a useless way of facing the world, so I’m happy to remain a non-just-nowist. (Also note that just-nowism would undermine the inductive principle mentioned above.)

So there you have my three “faith-based” beliefs about the real world: induction works, other people exist, and the world is not perversely arranged to mislead us.

Next, I cover a couple of values that complement these metaphysical beliefs.

Archaeologists versus believers


A friend of mine pointed out this (Dutch) story to me (an English translation is given here).  In the Netherlands – which many consider a bastion of reason and liberalism – there is a town council objecting to a scientific report because it contradicts their religious beliefs.

Staphorst is a community of very religious people (mostly Calvinists, according to Wikipedia).  Like all Dutch towns, they are required to produce a survey of archaeological sites in their jurisdiction (for a comprehensive nation-wide map of such sites).

Naturally, the survey was conducted by actual archaeologists.  It contained references to settlements 12000 years old.  That’s what the scientific evidence suggests, and I think that’s pretty cool.  Imagine learning that there are twelve thousand years of human heritage in your hometown!

But the council members (and most of the people in the town) are young-earth creationists.  That’s their right, of course.  But they want the report amended to acknowledge their beliefs – that the countryside, the planet, and the whole universe are less than ten thousand years old.

They want a report based on demonstrable, objective, scientific evidence to acknowledge beliefs that are based on religious faith.

This is repugnant to me, but rather than start flinging emotion-laden abuse around, I invite them (and any who sympathize with their actions) to consider this:

How would they feel if someone asked them to post a notice at their church pointing out that the physical evidence for a 4-billion-year-old Earth is far more comprehensive than the physical evidence for any of the amazing claims in the Bible?

I’m guessing they’d say “no”.  And that’s their right – a church is a place for building and maintaining a community  of common belief, and they should not be obliged to confront opposing beliefs within its confines (however well-grounded those opposing beliefs might be).

If they want to reject science and seek truth some other way, that’s their right.  But they have no right to insist that their unscientific beliefs be given voice in a scientific venue.

Defending Dawkins (2)


This is a further entry in a back-and-forth between me and bettynoirbettyblanc (henceforth “Betty”), on evolution and Richard Dawkins. It began in this post of hers, to which I responded here. She followed up with a response here. The following will make more sense if you have read those posts first.

Betty, I can certainly understand your dislike of Richard Dawkins. He often neglects to soften his critique of religious ideas (individually and collectively), and it is natural that many religious people feel that he misrepresents them. Some of their complaints – your complaints – are justified.

However, I feel that your response ignores or misses many of the key points I was trying to convey, and exaggerates Dawkins’ faults beyond reason.

First, I did not accuse you of denying evolution. You will notice, if you look again at my post, that I direct my criticisms on that point at creationists.The language of your original post leaves plenty of room for people to assume that you are more sympathetic to the creationist perspective than the scientific perspective, but I was (and continue to be) careful not to pigeonhole you unjustly.

You say “I would guard against listening to anyone who claims they are an expert on something just because they have a few ladybird guides on their shelf.” You certainly shouldn’t believe me, just because I’ve read some popular science books on evolution. Nor should you even take an expert’s opinion as incontrovertible fact. As I said:

These outreach biologists (Dawkins, Gould, Wilson, etc) don’t make arguments of the form “I believe this, and I’m and expert so just take my word for it.” They make arguments of the form “Here’s some evidence. Here’s why it supports evolution.” With plenty of references to original research so that you can independently verify their claims if you don’t trust them. 

As for Dawkins’ “obsession” with religion – you make a valid point. Much of his online presence seems to be centred around religion. I offered a possible explanation, which is supported by an excerpt from Dawkins’ new book – an explanation which you seem to have ignored. I’ll reiterate it here, as I think it is important. Dawkins is a biologist, and studies evolution. One of the greatest forces opposing science education is the creationist movement, which undermines the teaching of evolution in schools. By far the most common motivation for this opposition is a particular literal take on the Abramic creation story. Thus, Dawkins is well-motivated to oppose this particular version of religion. He recognizes that it is not the whole of religion. Here are his own words (talking about his new book):

The Archbishop of Canterbury has no problem with evolution, nor does the Pope (give or take the odd wobble over the precise palaeontological juncture when the human soul was injected), nor do educated priests and professors of theology. The Greatest Show on Earth is a book about the positive evidence that evolution is a fact. It is not intended as an anti-religious book. I’ve done that, it’s another T-shirt, this is not the place to wear it again. Bishops and theologians who have attended to the evidence for evolution have given up the struggle against it. Some may do so reluctantly, some, like Richard Harries, enthusiastically, but all except the woefully uninformed are forced to accept the fact of evolution. 

Note that he’s explicitly stepping out of his role as a critic of religion in this book.

In that same article (I encourage you to read it, so that you can see the context for yourself), Dawkins explains his use of the Holocaust-denier comparison – a comparison that you, Betty, seem particularly offended by. You ask, in your response post, “The Friendly Humanist says this [is] accurate, but says he would not use this analogy himself. Why not? Could it be that comparing creationists to Holocaust deniers is grossly offensive?”

First, you are right: the reason I would not use the analogy is because it is offensive. Holocaust-denial is associated with more than just a denial of historical facts; it is associated (rightly) with an evil political and social ideology. Here is what I said in defense of his analogy:

First, it is accurate inasmuch as both holocaust-deniers and evolution-deniers reject the overwhelming preponderance of evidence in favour of a position that is based entirely on ideology. 

A better analogy, which shares this important characteristic while not being so offensive, might be to moon-hoaxers – people who believe that humans have never stepped on the Moon, and that the Apollo landings were an elaborate deceit.

You also suggest that supporters of evolution harbour “smug assumptions which lurk not too far from the surface: ‘we are smart, they are not’ followed by ‘we are European and sophisticated, they are American and primitive’ or ‘we are Western and progressive, they are Middle Eastern or Oriental, and barbaric’.”

I can only respond that I have never come across this attitude, either explicitly or implicitly. As I said in my post, the biologists I’ve read point to the evidence, explain how it was interpreted, and draw their conclusions. The claim, then, is “we have followed the evidence, they have not”. Is this smug? Perhaps, but only to the extent that anyone is smug who defends one position based on the evidence, in the knowledge that some people sincerely hold another.

I realize that you are not interested in getting into a debate over evolution, and I don’t intend to engage you in one. I am not a biologist, after all, just a fan of science.

For all that I sometimes disagree with the tone (and occasionally the content) of his writings, I feel that you have misrepresented Dawkins in your posts, Betty. He is not a diplomat, but he is not the mean, attention-mongering anti-theist that you make him out to be. He works together with religious people on causes of common interest (as noted in the aforementioned excerpt from his new book). He acknowledges the literary value of the Bible (in The God Delusion). He objected to the title of his BBC documentary, The Root of all Evil, because he recognizes that religion is not the root of all evil.

Of course, he remains an atheist. He has reasons for his position, and he shares them in books and articles. He makes money from his writing. You are free to continue to dislike him for this or any reason. You are even free to be skeptical of evolution if you are so inclined. But I implore you, if you do read anything he writes, to do so with a more sympathetic eye. Give him the benefit of the doubt. He may disappoint you in places, but I think it will be far less frequently than you expect.

Defending Dawkins


I recently came across Bettynoirbettyblanc’s blog, and this post in particular, where she discusses her problem with Richard Dawkins. I was composing a response to post in the discussion, but it grew into something a little long for a comment. Here it is, with relevant excerpts from her post.

In the post, Betty discusses her take on Richard Dawkins – a man who, for good or ill, is the first person people think of when atheism is mentioned in Britain, especially in connection with evolution. I encourage you to read what she writes before continuing here, as I will not cover all of what she says, nor present her thoughts in the order she does.

Why do I find him interesting? I just wonder about his dogged obsession with religion and with those that practice it. He is a scientist and yet he seems to spend [much] of his time trying to argue that following a religion is at best ridiculous and at worst positively harmful. I just don’t understand why.

I’ve read several of Dawkins’ books, and I think that this misrepresents him. While I think his tone regarding religion is not particularly helpful, it’s worth noting that of the ten popular books he has written, only one is about religion (yes, it’s The God Delusion).* Not exactly a dogged obsession. More of an unavoidable side-note for someone in his field who wishes to engage the public.

A whopping 40% of Americans are creationists and Dawkins compares them to holocaust deniers. This is highly offensive. A holocaust denier is someone who twists the facts of the historical record in order to bolster a racist agenda. These people are motivated by their hatred of Jews. The facts do not matter. For a creationist, evolution has not been proven beyond reasonable doubt. There are questions about the theory that they believe have not been adequately answered. They believe the story of creation not in order to further a hate campaign, but as part of a belief system.

While I wouldn’t personally choose to compare evolution-deniers to Holocaust-deniers, I understand Dawkins’ choice of such an analogy. First, it is accurate inasmuch as both holocaust-deniers and evolution-deniers reject the overwhelming preponderance of evidence in favour of a position that is based entirely on ideology. As Betty says, they “twist the facts of the historical record in order to bolster an agenda. … The facts do not matter.” At least that part applies equally well to both sorts of deniers.

For someone in Dawkins’ position – someone who has spent his life working to learn more about our biological origins – it is certainly understandable that he will view creationists as the enemy. He feels passionately about his work. Every one of his books that I have read (even, at times, The God Delusion) bursts with enthusiasm about what we, as a species, have learned about our origins through dogged scientific effort. He has committed his life to this pursuit. He has submitted himself to the scientific community, which tends to be ruthless in its attempts to disprove new ideas, and which only accepts them after repeated failures to disprove them. (One prominent example is the idea introduced in the mid-19th-century that the diversity of species is due to the accumulation of small changes accumulated over time and channelled by natural selection.)

Not only that, but for much of Dawkins’ career he has also engaged in the admirable task of sharing this wonder and these discoveries with the public, in his very readable and accessible books of science.

Creationists belittle not only Dawkins’ work, but the careful work of hundreds (thousands?) of scientists leading back to Darwin. They belittle it without any good arguments, without any good evidence, and usually with a complete failure to grasp the evidence they’re trying to refute.

They are not interested in submitting themselves to the rigours of science. They are not interested in letting the evidence rule on which answer is right. Their actions suggest that they are only interested in convincing everyone that the scientists are wrong (and/or evil) and that we should set science aside in favour of their ideological commitment to a disproven belief. (I’m referring there to young-earth creationism and ID, not religion in general.)

Either he wants people to know about evolution and to ‘convert’ the creationists or he just wants a nice argument to bolster his book sales. I think if it was the former then he would be wise to act in a more conciliatory manner, and watch his language (ie the use of the word ‘ignorant’, I would also like to point out at this point that some of the people I know who are most knowledgeable about evolution are in fact creationists).

While it may not be nice of him to call evolution-deniers “ignorant”, it is difficult to see how the term is wrong. The only way to confidently proclaim evolution false is to set aside (deliberately or in ignorance) the entire geological, molecular, geographical, and experimental bodies of evidence that support evolution. Though I’m sure most creationists’ motivation for this is simply to carry on believing what they wish to believe, not to promote hate (has Dawkins or anyone else ever claimed that?), that doesn’t change the facts. One has to remain ignorant (ie, not knowing of or understanding the evidence) to honestly deny evolution. (I can’t say much about the claim that “some of the people [Betty knows] who are most knowledgeable about evolution are in fact creationists”. Would they seem knowledgeable to a biologist, or only to someone like Betty who confesses little understanding of or interest in the science behind this “debate”?)

I can’t verify much of what he says because I don’t have access to the research or fully understand the terms and the processes involved. It’s been a long time since I did higher biology and chemistry! I suspect that for most of his vociferous cheerleaders on websites and forums across the globe, this is also the case. Perhaps they don’t wish to seem stupid for questioning?

In this respect, I find his followers similar to those of religious faiths. They are taking what he says at face value because they believe in him. They may well be correct – I don’t know. The argument seems reasonable, but who knows?

Is that a rhetorical question, “who knows?” Because there’s an obvious answer. The actual biologists (ie, people who dedicate their lives to understanding this stuff) know. And a good number of them have produced books that Betty and I and any of our readers can understand. These outreach biologists (Dawkins, Gould, Wilson, etc) don’t make arguments of the form “I believe this, and I’m and expert so just take my word for it.” They make arguments of the form “Here’s some evidence. Here’s why it supports evolution.” With plenty of references to original research so that you can independently verify their claims if you don’t trust them.

On the other side of the issue, I have read creationist apologists like Lee Strobel and John Blanchard argue for an evolution-denying ideology. They consistently fail to accurately represent the case for evolution, and then inexpertly demolish the straw men they have invented. (I’ve discussed Blanchard’s attempt here. Strobel is being taken apart in exquisite detail by Ebonmuse here.)

So, the supporters of evolution rely on the evidence, occasionally spending some time pointing out the flaws in the deniers’ arguments. The deniers of evolution paint caricatures of the evidence, attack the caricatures, and pretend that they’re doing science too. They don’t do real science: they don’t make falsifiable predictions, and they certainly don’t do experiments to test them.

When I read Dawkins, I can trust that most of what he says about science is based on the scientific method. He’s reporting conclusions that have been carefully tested, which qualified people have tried and failed to disprove. I take what he says at face value because I trust the procedure that has been followed to arrive at those conclusions. When I look further, the people who are qualified to understand the evidence all tend to agree with him.

On the other hand, he clearly isn’t speaking as a scientist in many of his comments about religion, and so I don’t take them at face value. In fact, I often disagree with him, vocally, in settings where that sets me apart (ie, among other humanists). I’m not treated as stupid for questioning because my humanist acquaintances – like Dawkins, like most atheists and humanists – value questioning. We believe that any claim should be open to question, no matter how popular it is. If the question has nothing to back it up – no evidence to motivate a shift in our beliefs, then we set it aside. But if the questioner has a sound reason for dissenting from popular opinion and solid evidence to back up their dissent, then that dissent spreads.

It was that sort of questioning that led to Darwin’s great breakthroughs. It is that sort of questioning that has led to every refinement and revision in the theory of evolution since then. It is that sort of questioning that has driven science for the past few centuries, with countless concrete benefits as proof of the process.

And, although religion is not uniformly anti-knowledge or anti-progress, the opponents of science have almost uniformly been religious.

Worse, I believe his words convert more people to fundamentalist ideas than anything else as they engender a sense of victimhood and persecution amongst those who don’t agree with what he says.

I would object to the use of the term “fundamentalist” here, as it seems completely divorced from any useful definition I’ve come across. But yes, to the extent that he overstates the religious antipathy to science, and exaggerates the incompatibility of science and religion, he does encourage an unhelpful us-versus-them mentality among atheists, and it’s one that I try to combat where I can. There are many, many religious believers who have nothing wrong with atheists or with evolution. Many of them are acquaintances and friends of mine.

Recent centuries and decades have seen a dramatic reduction in institutional discrimination against the non-religious. Keep in mind, however, that “victimhood” is not always an inappropriate feeling. Sometimes you are a victim, and you need to be aware of it. Some laws favouring religious over non-religious belief still remain, even in the enlightened West (even in uber-secular Finland). Dawkins is a scientist, and as Betty says, 40% of Americans deny the evidence that is at the foundation of his field. To the extent that they try to challenge the teaching of that science in schools, and seek to warp people’s perceptions of it in universities (for example, see this development), there is a concerted attack on precisely the field of knowledge Dawkins has devoted his life to. It’s worth noticing and acknowledging that scientists (and everyone who benefits from their work) are victims of the creationists’ campaign of science-denial. That way we can do something constructive to counter it.

I really don’t like my first mention of such an apparently pleasant person as Betty to come off so negative and critical. (I enjoyed this post of hers, and this one.) I hope that I have made it clear that Dawkins has by no means a free pass to my credulity, particularly when he talks about religion. Whether that helps encourage her to look deeper into the whole evolution/creation thing is up to her.

I hope Betty will respond to what I’ve said, either in the comments here or on her own blog post (where I’ll point her to this post). And of course, anyone else who agrees or disagrees with either of us is invited to comment too.


* From the same list of publications, using just the titles as a guide, I count no more than 8 of 16 popular articles dealing with religion (at least 11 of the 16 have a scientific slant), and only 3 of 30 academic articles can plausibly be said to be about religion, the remainder being biological. So, out of 56 items listed, no more than 12, or about 21%, are about religion – most of these being popular articles. At least 48, or about 86%, deal primarily or exclusively with science. (Totals exceed 100% because some articles seem to deal with both science and religion. Also note that I think one or two articles appear both in the scientific and the popular list.) Readers can decide whether this amounts to a “dogged obsession with religion”. Perhaps the dogged obsession belongs to those apologists who wish to diminish his influence, Dawkins being a well-known and widely-respected public figure.

What does Blanchard teach us? (5 of 5)


This is the fifth and final part in a series discussing John Blanchard’s book, Does God Believe in Atheists? In this post, I wrap up the discussion and try to derive a positive lesson from it all. The previous posts can be found here, here, here, and here.

Blanchard’s complete disregard for the other side of the story has completely turned me off. He doesn’t really try to understand evolution before attacking it. He doesn’t really try to understand humanism before attacking it. He gives only a cursory pass at each of the religions he dismisses as deeply flawed.

And so I have no interest in reading on to see why he thinks his own beliefs are so much better.

Blanchard uses his impressively extensive reading as a way to gather quotes around which to build straw men. I suspect that he generally doesn’t realize he’s doing this. He probably believes that folks like me really do hold the mickey-mouse philosophy he labels “humanism”. But that’s no excuse: it’s his job, as an author aiming to engage me, to actually know where I’m coming from. He doesn’t have to agree with me; I enjoy a couple of blogs by committed Christians who I often disagree with. But he does have to show some effort to understand where I’m coming from.

I (along with most atheists) am not certain there is no god. I have come across credible humanist approaches to the idea of “truth” in a largely material model of consciousness. I invite Blanchard to try reading any of the accessible introductions to Humanism that have appeared recently. Try On Humanism by Richard Norman (my own first exposure to the philosophy of Humanism). Try What’s it all about? by Julian Baggini. Heck, even try reading (really reading) The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins – even that has a more plausible and nuanced atheist perspective than the one Blanchard conjures up to attack.

What Blanchard teaches me is not that Christians, or religious people, are lazy thinkers. It’s not that humanists are superior to folks like him. We’re not.

The lesson is that humans are lazy thinkers. I have fallen prey to the same types of errors that I have criticized in Blanchard’s book, and I am bound to do so again. (See here for a recent example on this very blog.)

We (humans) like to give the benefit of the doubt to arguments whose conclusions we already agree with, and we like to see the worst in arguments that lead where we don’t want to follow. I’m more likely to double-check sources when I disagree with someone than when I agree with them. Hopefully, the knowledge that our critics are watching, combined with the conviction that we are fallible, will teach us all to be more careful in avoiding these errors.

Another reason for these posts is that, sometimes, I simply need to vent. Although I want to present as positive a face to the world as possible – to exhibit “exemplary behaviour”, as my parents always exhorted me growing up – I also want to present an honest face. I want you, my faithful reader, to know that I sometimes get pissed off. I get angry when someone trashes my beliefs.

But please also note that, when I get angry, I try to respond with reason and compassion. I have tried to give Blanchard the benefit of the doubt – though sometimes that means assuming he’s lazy rather than malicious. I have tried to produce coherent, logical arguments for my position, with pointers to good-quality references where relevant.

For some non-partisan discussion of some of the issues raised here – such as the nature of humanism, the religious implications of the evidence for our biological history (evolution), and details on other religions, I heartily recommend It is run by the Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance, a team of individuals with different religious beliefs, who seek to promote tolerance through understanding. Have a poke around there for more details.

And, as always, the comments are open. If I’m wrong in what I say above, tell me.

Does Blanchard understand evolution? (2 of 5)


This is the second part in a series discussing John Blanchard’s book, Does God Believe in Atheists? In this post, I discuss his presentation of the theory of evolution. If you missed it, you may want to read the introductory post first.

In order to keep this post as short as possible, I provide links from this post to two of the most accessible and useful online sources of information on evolution: Wikipedia and the Talk Origins Archive. Links to the Talk Origins pages use a small (TO). All other links in this section are to Wikipedia articles. Please follow them for substantiation of my claims.

The scientific consensus on the basics of evolution is sound. It is based on mountains of empirical evidence, including molecular (genetic) evidence, comparative physiology and geographical distributions, and fossil evidence.

Even so, some people – particularly members of certain religious groups – remain unpersuaded. Blanchard is one of those people.

At one level, the existence of a god is a completely separate question from the manner in which life has developed over Earth’s history. So for someone to raise the topic of evolution in an argument against atheism means one of two things: either they believe in a conception of a god that conflicts with the physical evidence on which evolutionary theory is based, or they have an impression of the theory of evolution as something other than what it actually is. Or both.

It’s clear early on that Blanchard is guilty of at least the second error:

No longer limited to biology, evolution has become a total philosophy which claims to explain the origin and development of everything within a closed universe, and thereby to rule out the existence of God. (p83) 

No, no, and no.

No, the theory of biological evolution that got its start with Darwin and Wallace has not become a philosophy, nor come to encompass other disciplines. It remains a theory about how species change over time. Other uses of the term evolution in science include chemical evolution (abiogenesis) (TO), stellar evolution, and galaxy formation and evolution. These are separate topics; the evidence supporting them is largely separate from the evidence supporting (biological) evolution.

No, none of these theories, either individually or taken together, explains the origin and development of everything. That is one of the goals of science, but no credible scientist claims to have achieved it yet.

And no, sciences do not rule out the existence of God (TO). They may, in their progress, disprove (or cast reasonable doubt on) certain claims made by humans on behalf of God – such as a geocentric universe, a young Earth, separate creation of similar species, and so forth. And of course, people can extrapolate beyond the science. Dawkins points out that “Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist,” because it revealed an alternative to the argument from design.

Blanchard goes on to present misleading arguments that are tiresomely familiar to those who care to learn about evolution.

For example, he describes Piltdown Man (TO) and Nebraska Man (TO) – famous hoax fossils. He plays down the fact that it was scientists, judging the evidence in light of evolutionary theory, who established them as hoaxes. With these and other examples, Blanchard declares that the fossil evidence is not enough to establish common descent.

I suspect he’s wrong, but whether he is or not, there’s a far more obvious flaw in his reasoning.

He’s implying that fossils are the crucial evidence for evolution. They aren’t. They never have been. In the The Origin of Species, Darwin focused on morphological patterns of relatedness and geographical distribution in modern species and genera (see here and here) – patterns which remain unexplained except in the light of common descent. Modern biologists spend much of their time with molecules: the genetic code confirms patterns of descent predicted by Darwin’s earlier methods.

Fossils are wonderful. They invariably support an evolutionary explanation of species development. And, in showing what animals (and occasionally plants) actually looked like, they satisfy human desires for a physical manifestation of the past. But organisms only fossilize under particular, rare conditions (TO). So we expect “gaps”. Even Darwin was aware of them, and (correctly) didn’t feel they undermined his argument. Fossils neither make nor break evolutionary theory; they simply support it.

In summary, Blanchard colossally fails to demonstrate a basic knowledge of why evolution is accepted by biologists. Without that knowledge, he has no hope of persuading a moderately-informed audience that there are deep flaws in evolutionary theory.

So far, he’s failing to engage this atheist; he’s just making me seriously doubt the rigour of his research.

Next up: Does Blanchard understand humanism?

Expelled Exposed


I try to avoid dwelling on the negative points of religion here – I’m the Friendly Humanist, after all.

But sometimes, people use religion as an excuse to do mind-numbingly stupid things. I mean literally mind-numbing, as in “blunting the power of their own and others’ minds”.

There is a brand of religious creationism trying to brand itself as “science” in order to undermine what its proponents see as the harmful and oppressive truth of evolution. Maybe you’ve heard of it? It currently goes by the name “Intelligent Design“, or ID. And a recent development in the non-scientific argument to accept ID as science is the American film Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, which by all reports combines bad science, bad history, and bad cinematography into an appeal to force scientists to consider ID alongside actual fact-based theories.

I won’t bore you with that – you can read all about it (and recent irony-laden incidents) on any number of blogs.

The main point of this post is to follow the suggestion Skepchick Rebecca posted yesterday about the new website, Expelled Exposed, published by the American National Center for Science Education. This website provides scientific responses to the distortions and untruths promoted in the film.

I encourage other bloggers and web-present scientists to link to the site. As Rebecca says, “if you have a blog or a web site please link to it! Let’s increase the traffic and bump it up in Google, so that the next time someone searches for more info on Expelled, they get the truth.”

Mooning over creationists


I don’t usually like their way of deciding the answers, but creationists sometimes ask very thought-provoking questions.

I was checking the website of our very own Edinburgh Creation Group, and found a link to a site asking How did the Moon get into orbit? It’s a fun little simulation. Try it out.

I love games based on orbital motion.

Now, the fact is that the Moon did get into orbit. But it’s still worth asking why.

The simulation on the site is quite simple, and seems to involve some fairly straightforward orbital mechanics. And it seems to be impossible to get the moon into orbit unless it’s already in orbit.

So tell me, what is the answer? Wikipedia’s article on the Moon confirms that “Computer simulations modelling this impact are consistent with measurements of the angular momentum of the Earth–Moon system, as well as the small size of the lunar core.” So what (if anything) is wrong with the simulation the creationists point to?

I confess, I’d rather accept a scientist’s assertions over a creationist’s any day. But better than simply accepting, and what separates thoughtful from dogmatic Humanists (or thoughtful from dogmatic people in general), is to simply accept nothing – to actually ask for the proof, and think about it.


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