Skeptical News Roundup

Some quick hits!

Steve Thoms from Skeptic North has posted an excellent summary of the WiFi scare, detailing why you shouldn’t worry too much about EMF.

This wonderful Pharyngula post was recently nominated for the 2011 edition of The Open Laboratory. This provides me with an excuse to link to it, which I’ve been meaning to do for months. Give it a read. Seriously, it’s excellent.

Diana Goods of the Humanist Association of Manitoba wrote a nice letter to the editor explaining why Steinbach’s newest megachurch isn’t anything to get excited about. Hat tip to Jeff Olsson.

Also from Pharyngula comes the tale of this new lunacy from Orson Scott Card. Apparently Card’s 2008 rewrite of Hamlet depicts the ghostly king as an evil paedophile who turns everyone gay. I’m not making this up.

And finally, on a lighter note, Felicia Day linked to this on Google+:

Also, these watches are awesomely geeky. That is all.

Evidence for Creationism? Nope!

Here we go again.

So creationist David Buckna has been hanging out in the comments section of the Winnipeg Skeptics blog for the last few days. Rather than have my replies buried deep in the comments section, I like to use them as the opportunity for blog-fodder, especially when they begin to exceed the character limits imposed on comments by the various blogging platforms that we use.

Here is Buckna’s most recent comment:

Gem wrote: “If your only means of supporting your position is to attempt to poke holes in the position of your opponents, you demonstrate that your own position is untenable. Please present evidence for your position.”

You are not obliged in science to come up with an alternative theory for a theory you are criticizing. There is no rule like that in science.

That said, there is ample evidence and related inferences for creation/intelligent design, but evolutionists choose to ignore them because evolutionists interpret evidence and data through the lense of philosophical naturalism. Why _is_ evolution the one subject skeptics aren’t skeptical about?

Evidence for creation/intelligent design include: the universe is a Tri-Universe,

http://www.icr.org/articles/view/2590/215/

earth’s geologic features appear to have been fashioned by rapid, catastrophic processes on a global and regional scale, the fossil record (eg. the Cambrian explosion), man and apes have a separate ancestry, natural selection (a creationist’s idea), the design inference,
rapidly nuclear-decay-generated helium escapes from radioactive crystals
http://www.icr.org/article/new-rate-data-support-young-world/
irreducible complexity, the complexity of living cells, etc.

Click to access 464664a.pdf

Maybe it’s time for the evolutionists to read Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962)

Are we on the verge of another great paradigm shift?

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Structure_of_Scientific_Revolutions

“In any community of scientists, Kuhn states, there are some individuals who are bolder than most. These scientists, judging that a crisis exists, embark on what Thomas Kuhn calls revolutionary science, exploring alternatives to long-held, obvious-seeming assumptions. Occasionally this generates a rival to the established framework of thought. The new candidate paradigm will appear to be accompanied by numerous anomalies, partly because it is still so new and incomplete. The majority of the scientific community will oppose any conceptual change, and, Kuhn emphasizes, so they should. To fulfill its potential, a scientific community needs to contain both individuals who are bold and individuals who are conservative. There are many examples in the history of science in which confidence in the established frame of thought was eventually vindicated. Whether the anomalies of a candidate for a new paradigm will be resolvable is almost impossible to predict. Those scientists who possess an exceptional ability to recognize a theory’s potential will be the first whose preference is likely to shift in favour of the challenging paradigm. There typically follows a period in which there are adherents of both paradigms. In time, if the challenging paradigm is solidified and unified, it will replace the old paradigm, and a paradigm shift will have occurred.”

Is it any wonder that I keep having to dig these out of the spam filter?

In any event, I’ll try to address each claim one by one.

You are not obliged in science to come up with an alternative theory for a theory you are criticizing. There is no rule like that in science.

I agree with you, and I made no such claim. I’ll repeat what I said, as it seems like you weren’t listening: “Critiquing evolution does provide evidence for the creationist position.”

So sure, feel free to critique evolution. That’s fine. But you should understand that if you are advocating an alternative hypothesis (as creationists are), you are obliged to provide evidence for it.

Obviously.

Evidence for creation/intelligent design include: the universe is a Tri-Universe,

http://www.icr.org/articles/view/2590/215/

This is evidence? That article is hilarious! It contains nothing but wild assertions and Biblical quotations. The author seems to think that because the universe is composed “of Space, Matter, and Time, each permeating and representing the whole”, this somehow provides evidence that it was created by a triune God.

In support of his thesis, Morris states that “in fact, many scientists speak of it as a Space-Matter-Time continuum.” Actually, they don’t. From what little I understand of the topic, space and time speak to the dimensionality of our universe. Our universe is composed of matter and energy (which are interchangeable). Why not then speak of a “space-matter-time-energy continuum”, you might ask? Because that wouldn’t fit the pattern of the trinity, of course!

And scientists speak of it as a “space-time continuum”; it’s creationists who speak of it as a “space-matter-time continuum” (here, let me Google that for you).

earth’s geologic features appear to have been fashioned by rapid, catastrophic processes on a global and regional scale, the fossil record (eg. the Cambrian explosion), man and apes have a separate ancestry, natural selection (a creationist’s idea), the design inference,

So you look at the “geological features” of the planet and infer catastrophism “on a global and regional scale”? You were not specific, probably because you’d like to maintain a position of unfalsifiability. Perhaps you’re referring to the Grand Canyon? It’s features are not consistent with a global flood. The geologic column? Ditto. Fossil sorting? Nope.

And “the fossil record (eg. the Cambrian explosion)”? What’s that supposed to mean? Presumably that complex life forms appeared suddenly, with no ancestral fossils? That is false. The Cambrian “explosion” was “sudden” on a geological timescale, but actually took place over an estimated 70–80 million years, and is in no way inconsistent with an evolutionary understanding of speciation. The Wikipedia article provides a useful summary of the Cambrian explosion for anyone interested.

As for “man and apes have a separate ancestry”, you’d be wrong. Humans are apes. If you want to present evidence to the contrary, be my guest. Until then, citation needed.

You say that natural selection is “a creationist’s idea”. Perhaps you’re referring to Gregor Mendel’s theories of inheritence? The term “natural selection” was first coined by Darwin in Origin, but even if it had originated with a creationist, that’s a nonsequitur. If you would kindly limit yourself to arguments that make sense, I’m sure that we’d all appreciate it.

I won’t waste anyone’s time discussing the “design inference”, as it has been more than adequately addressed elswhere, most notably at Iron Chariots and at Talk Origins’ Index to Creationist Claims. If you’re interested, you know where to look.

Maybe it’s time for the evolutionists to read Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962)

Are we on the verge of another great paradigm shift?

I’m familiar with Kuhn. But paradigm shifts are rare, and I’m not convinced that we’re on the verge of one. There are also many insightful criticisms of Kuhn’s work, some of which are summarised here. But I think that PZ Myers addresses this claim quite adequately here.

[M]ainstream journalists play this game with scientists, and some scientists play it up as well; but the real masters are the creationists. It’s all they’ve got: rhetoric that tries to put them in the role of the brave, noble, clever underdog trying to overcome the stifling influence of a stagnant scientific orthodoxy. It’s even more false, but it does appeal to the media.

Can we just get something straight? Science builds on past discoveries. You don’t get to cherry pick what bits you want to include in your theory — successful new theories don’t throw away old evidence, they extend and strengthen and reinforce, and offer new insights. There may be new theories that follow the theory of evolution … but they will all incorporate the basic facts of earth’s history — its age, common descent, the relationships between species, etc. — and will not be any more appealing to creationists than what we’ve got now.

So you’ve thrown a veritable Gish Gallop of nonsense at the wall, hoping that some of it will stick. What a waste of time.

Look, Buckna: I have neither the time no the inclination to deal with any more of your foolishness. I have two jobs, a family, and a community of friends with whom I’d like to spend more time. I do this in my free time, which is scarce enough, and I have other projects on which I’d like to work. So unless you can come up with something interesting, instead of just throwing out wild assertions and long-debunked creationist canards, I’m not going to waste any more time on you.

I Get Mail: Creationism Edition!

I recently wrote an Introduction to Creationism over at SkepticsOnThe.Net, a new resource site that aims to be the premier directory for skeptical groups, blogs, and podcasts. When I cross-posted it to Startled Disbelief, it garnered some immediate feedback.


Cross-posted from Startled Disbelief.

That was fast.

I just received the following email from David Buckna, who I think is probably also the anonymous commenter from my previous post about creationism. [Edit: Nope, apparently it wasn’t him.]

Subject: Evolution: The Creation Myth of Our Culture

Gem:

Programmers utilized complex codes to create software. The genetic code, which is more sophisticated, controls the physical processes of life and is accompanied by elaborate transmission and duplication systems.

How does evolution, using natural processes and chance, solve the problem of complex information sequencing without intelligence?

My first question is this: In what way is the genetic code “more sophisticated” than, say, C++ or SmallTalk or Python or MATLAB? (Okay, I’ll grant you MATLAB.)

The theory of evolution proposes that mutations (insertions, deletions, changes) to the genetic “code” are acted upon by natural selection. Those that are advantageous are more likely to be passed on to the next generation.

It’s important to keep in mind that this code is does not constitute information in any abstract or absolute sense; it only constitutes a “code” in the context of the biological processes involved in reading and replicating it.

Similarly, the code “buffer = ( char* ) malloc ( i + 1 );” is meaningful in the context of C but meaningless in the context of Java. If C had never been invented, that code segment would be gibberish. And here’s the important bit: genetic “code” (e.g., “ATA CTG”) outside of the context of DNA is also meaningless gibberish.

I recognise that Buckna’s question was probably disingenuous: he’s not looking for an answer; he’s looking to play “stump the evolutionist”. But it’s possible that others may learn when proponents of science respond to his ramblings.

It’s interesting to note that this is probably also the same creationist who attempted to insert his propaganda into Jeff Proling’s Dinosauria On-Line. The story is enlightening. He’s also been trolling PZ Myers and the folks at Radio Freethinker, so I’m in good company.


Addendum (11 July 2011): After the 40+ comments that this response has garnered so far, it occurs to me that I should make a few things clear.

The original question that was posed to me (“How does evolution, using natural processes and chance, solve the problem of complex information sequencing without intelligence?”) should be better addressed to an evolutionary biologist. I briefly addressed some of the premises of Buckna’s argument from the perspective of a software developer, but I’m no expert in evolution, nor have I ever claimed to be. It seems to me that the combination of random variation and selection adequately explains increasing information content over time (as can be trivially demonstrated via computer simulation).

But let’s suppose for a moment that the answer was, “I don’t know. I don’t know how evolution accounts for that.” So what? The argument “Since evolution can’t explain X, creationism is true!” is fallacious. I’m told that there was a time before we understood how electrostatic discharges worked (although I wasn’t there). However, to assert that since science couldn’t explain lightning it therefore must have been a manifestation of Zeus’ divine will would be to appeal to a god of the gaps.

The evidence for special creation is non-existent, while the evidence for evolution is legion. (Look here if you’d like some examples.) That said, even if there were no convincing evidence for evolution, or if all evidence for evolution were convincingly falsified, that would not somehow make special creation a plausible alternative hypothesis—to promote this idea is to commit the fallacy of the false dilemma. Critiquing evolution does provide evidence for the creationist position.

If your only means of supporting your position is to attempt to poke holes in the position of your opponents, you demonstrate that your own position is untenable. Please present evidence for your position.

Escape to Reality

The Humanist Association of Manitoba and the Winnipeg Skeptics were joint sponsors of an informational booth at the Red River Exhibition that ran 17–26 June 2011. Surrounded as we were by booths from the Gideons, the Winnipeg League for Life, the Church of Scientology, and folks hawking knock-off Power Balance wristbands, we called the booth “Escape to Reality”.

I spent a fair portion of my free time over the last week staffing the booth (along with the indefatigable and demonstrably more dedicated Donna Harris and others), and generally had a lot of fun. We even got a shout-out from PZ, which is always appreciated. We had many enjoyable conversations with believers and skeptics of all stripes.

Donna, Laura, and I chatted at length with a few creationists, who were apparently offended that one of our signs put “Young Earth Creationism” in the same evidential category as “The Easter Bunny”. When pressed, they could provide no positive evidence for their position, and seemed to forget several of their own talking points. Apparently there are no beneficial mutations, evolution cannot add information to the genome, and Darwinism predicts that species will just get stronger, smarter, and better over time, while we’re clearly just getting sicker and sicker.

When I tried to explain that evolution only predicts increasing adaptation to the species’ environment, I was smugly informed that I did not understand evolution. When I tried to explain precisely how mutations can add “information” in a genetic sequence, bringing up insertions, deletions, transpositions, and point mutations, I was met with blank stares. I pulled out a sheet of paper and wrote out some codons (ATG CTG TAG…), changing or crossing out letters to illustrate the replication or replacement of one or more nucleotides.

“I’m going to stop you there,” one of the creationists said. “What are all those letters supposed to mean?”

Sorry, I thought, my mistake. I assumed that because you so arrogantly asserted that mutations were incapable of adding new information to a genome, you were at least passingly familiar with what “information” means in the context of genetics. I decided to cut my losses and move on.

There were times that they stumbled over their own talking points, which I found amusing. For example, they brought up Mount St. Helens several times, but couldn’t seem to remember why it was so important for their case. I reminded them that Steven Austin had rock from a new lava flow at Mount St. Helens dated, and the potassium-argon dating showed the rock to be hundreds of thousands of years old—unfortunately, it is well established that Austin (either knowingly or in ignorance) used the incorrect radiometric dating methods. The various types of radiometric dating are accurate for varying (and overlapping) ranges of time. They are validated not only against each other, but also by other dating methods, such as dendrochronology, which uses tree rings.

Wait a second, it says here that God created humanity, not Darwin...

Of course, the creationists weren’t the only people we met whose beliefs took a sharp right turn when confronted with reality. A young woman who seemed very interested in our booth asked me, “Do you guys believe in energy?” “Sure!” I said. “Energy is the capacity of a system to perform work.” She seemed a little nonplussed by this. “No,” she said. “How we’re all connected by energy. It’s all about science. There’s this movie you should see…” “Ah!” I said. “You’re talking about What the Bleep Do We Know?.” And then I told her, as gently as I could, precisely what I thought of that particular quantum fantasy film.

We spent much of our time at the Ex promoting SkeptiCamp Winnipeg, which is coming up on September 17th at Aqua Books, and the MASH Film Festival, on August 14th at the Park Theatre. Both events garnered a lot of interest.

We also did a few demonstrations. I’m told that the fellow hawking “Energy Balance” bracelets ($30 rubber bands—with “ions”!) threatened to call security on Ashlyn as she calmly explained to his marks how all of his tricks could easily be faked. Hypothetically, of course. She wasn’t calling him a fraud. It’s all about the consumer protection, folks! (Richard Saunders explains the tricks here.)

On Thursday night, Scott and I went to get “stress tests” at the Dianetics booth run by the Church of Scientology. There, we were asked personal questions while we held tin cans connected to a volt meter. I found that if you squeezed the cans, the needle would jump, which led to some amusing shenanigans.

Pictured: Science.

There, we learned that L. Ron Hubbard had apparently been both a renowned physicist and a research psychologist. “Through his research,” I was told, “he discovered that humans are spiritual beings.” Fascinating! We were told that Scientologists were first responders in Haiti and Japan. “Oh,” I said, “that’s great! How did they help?” I was informed that these “first responders” were trained in Touch Assist, a form of energy healing.

The recruiters told Scott and I that one of the greatest boons that Dianetics has to offer is increased mental discipline and help to those who suffer from mental illness. “You know how Einstein said that you only use this much of your brain?” my recruiter said, holding her hands about an inch apart. “Well, with Dianetics…” She spread her arms wide, presumably indicating that Dianetics would allow me to meet my intellectual potential.

“So Dianetics is about mental health,” I said slowly. “That’s exactly right,” she told me.

“Oh,” I said. “Like psychiatry.”

She stared at me as though I’d slapped her. Recovering quickly, she launched into a conspiracy-mongering diatribe about drug dependency and the Big Psychiatry smear campaign against the Church of Scientology. Scientologist successfully trolled. I’m such a bastard.

My favourite quotation of the night: “Dianetics is a science. It’s like gravity. You can’t disprove it.” Fact.

A big thank-you to everyone who helped out with planning and staffing the booth, and to those who stopped by for a chat!