Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Rebutting the Creationists at the Evolution Exhibit

Just for fun, I thought I would take the creationist criticisms from the "At evolution exhibit" article (see earlier post) and rebut them one at a time.

1. "these students ... believe God created the Earth in a week, some 6,000 years ago."

The geology of the earth clearly shows that it is billions, not thousands of years old.  Archaeological evidence shows that not only were there modern humans, but organized civilizations thriving before 4004 BCE.  The law of superposition states that older sedimentary layers underlie younger.  Fossils within the layers show that hundreds of feet of sedimentary layers containing evidence of life preceded the first evidence of humans.  If Genesis were true, all life-forms that occur in the fossil record, including humans, would be in the bottom layer.

2. "210 million years, that's arbitrary. They put that time to make up for what they don't know,"

The above quote refers to the age of the Morganucodon rat, considered our first mammalian ancestor.  This date is not in doubt.  In addition to relative dating methods like superposition (if A is deeper than B, A is older than B), and biochronology where associated fossils in a layer are compared to biological forms that are known to precede or follow them, absolute dating methods like thermoluminescence and radiometric dating may be used.  Thermoluminecence dating requires the sample to be heated until it releases electrons in the form of light that can be measured indicating the last time the sample was heated.  Radiometric dating involves the analysis of radioactive decay of elements in the sample.  Decay occurs at a steady rate converting a radioactive element always to its non-radioactive counterpart element making it easy to measure the ratio and determine age.  Some radioactive elements do not fully decay for billions of years.  By the way, the advent of mass spectrometry has made it possible in recent years to get even greater accuracy with smaller samples.

3. "There is no scientific, biological genetic way that this, this rat, could become you,"

There is no scientifically proven way other than evolution.  If this creationist student had actually read the exhibit, I suspect he would know the scientific, biological genetic way.

4. "In order to be the best creationist, you have to be the best evolutionist you can be," said Marcus Ross, who teaches paleontology and says of Adam and Eve: "I feel they were real people, they were the first people."

Evolutionist?  I do not think this word means what he thinks this word means.  As I said before, there is no geological or paleontological evidence for biblical creation.  If the evidence were there, scientists with other religious backgrounds would reach the same conclusion as creationists.  That just isn't happening.

Also, if Adam and Eve were the first people, they would be more than 10 times as old as the creationists' earth and they would have lived in Africa, not central Asia where Eden is usually placed.

5.  "Creationism and evolutionism have different ways of explaining the evidence. The creationist way recognizes the importance of Biblical records," said Ross.

OK.  The goal of the scientific method is to filter out preconceptions and biases and reach conclusions based purely on the objective evidence -- all the evidence.  The biblical records fall under the categories of preconceptions and biases.  Creationists glom onto the bits of evidence that appears to support their interpretation of  the book of Genesis and discard anything that doesn't fit.  For example, creationists frequently say there is evidence of Noah's flood because sedimentary rocks cover the earth.  However, they disregard the fact that the sedimentary layers, as they appear on Earth, could not have been deposited in a single flood event or even in only 6 to 10,000 years.  Nor can they explain why fossils separated into different, consistent layers or why a flood would kill more marine species than terrestrial species.

6. "He says carbon-dating techniques that have been used to suggest the Earth is in fact billions of years old are simply not reliable. "

First of all radiometric dating with isotopes other than carbon date the Earth to about 4.5 billion years old.  Carbon 14 dating has been the whipping boy of creationists for a long time, but is actually very reliable.  It is however good to only about 60,000 years due to its rate of radioactive decay.  Creationists have always been happy to accept C14 dates that appear to corroborate bible stories, but they insist that it doesn't work past 6000 years ago.  Coincidentally, 6000 years is about the half-life of C14, but the decay of one half-life doesn't end its usefulness.  Creationist have also claimed the C14 would be useless after 12,000 years because you'd have 6000 for a half-life  plus 6000 for the other half.  Nope.  Half of the C14 decays, then half of the remaing C14 decays, then half of that decays, etc., until the remaining sample is too small to measure; at about 60,000 years.

Creationist literature also likes to list reasons that C14 cannot be dated accurately.  A little research by the reader will make it clear that the listed problems are taken directly from scientific papers that explain the methods by which a scientist can eliminate or compensate for the problems.

By the way, the age of the earth is corroborated by astronomical observations.  Visible stars have been measured at more than 4.5 billion light-years distance.  A light-year being the distance light travels in a year, any light we see from that source has been traveling for at least 4.5 billion years.  If the stars had been created the same week as Adam and Eve, 6 to 10,000 years ago, there could be no visible stars of more than 10,000 light-years away.

7. "He doesn't reject one prominent theory that dinosaurs were wiped out by a massive asteroid that collided into Earth, but suggests the collision coincided with the Biblical flood."

Although the asteroid theory isn't universally accepted within the paleontology community, the presence of a world-wide layer rich in iridium that coincides with the end of the Cretaceous and beginning of the Tertiary Period (hence the name C-T boundry layer) is universally acknowledged.  The problem for the creationist teacher is that everyone agrees this occurred 65 million years ago and that much of the C-T layer material was deposited on dry land.  So, it's clear that the creationist doesn't really believe the asteroid theory at all; he just agrees that an asteroid hitting the earth is a good way to explain mass extinction, but, unfortunately it doesn't explain the survival of Noah.

Texas Board of Education is Preventing Education

The good news is you will probably be more learned than the next generation.  The bad news is you will probably be more learned than the next generation.  Thanks to the conservative majority on the Texas Board of Education who wish to rewrite history to reflect the way our nation should have been founded, the Texas school curriculum will no longer include some of those inconvenient facts, like those in the US Constitution, that might cause students to think that our founders hadn't intended the US to be an ultra-conservative theocracy.  They tried earlier to insert creationist dogma into the science curriculum without success, but they've achieved some of their goals by filtering out some of the extraneous and irrelevant characters like the author of the Constitution and third US president, Thomas Jefferson.  “I reject the notion by the left of a constitutional separation of church and state,” said David Bradley.

This might not be such a big deal if this enforced ignorance were only limited to the state of Texas, but this has national implications.  Unlike most states, Texas buys the same books for the entire state public school system, making them one of the biggest school book purchasers in the US.  All the textbook publishers want to win that contract, so they write their text books to cater to the desires of the TX BOE.  For the rest of the country, the textbooks available for them to purchase will be slanted toward the bias of Texans.  Parents at the other end of the nation may not even realize that their kids' school books have had historical facts replaced with evangelical conservative dogma.

The problem is, as Steven Colbert pointed out, "facts have a liberal bias."  Ever since the conservative evangelicals have become a strong voting bloc, they have tried to insert their beliefs into the government and educational system in defiance of the Constitution and the laws.  The result is a conservative political policy that reflects the fundamentalist mindset of, "If I believe it, it's true, and no amount of evidence can change my mind."  The efforts to inject creationism and Xian ceremonies into the public schools has been part of this, as has been the need for politicians to flaunt their Xian credentials in order to get elected.

We are reaching a point in American culture where actual facts have no value.  The dogma handed down by religious leaders and the talking points presented by politicians carry more weight and verisimilitude than all the observable data and documentation that can be presented.  To a large percentage of the US population (for young earth creationism, some surveys suggest 40%), Pat Robertson, the TV evangelist, knows more about geology and biology than doctors who have spent their lives actually studying and testing the data, and Rush Limbaugh, the conservative pundit knows more about global warming than the scientists who've been measuring the increasing CO2 % in the air and the decreasing size and thickness of glaciers for decades.  A lot of people are only willing to listen to information that reinforces their preconceptions.  They rail against opposing views and may react violently to anyone demonstrating the invalidity of their beliefs.  And they refuse to learn.

That is the legacy too many people are trying to insure we pass on to our children.  Learning to think critcally and analytically is discouraged. Unquestioningly accepting the words of leaders is encouraged.  Chastising the intellectually superior while canonizing the dull witted athlete is the norm.  Then when the nation turns to crap and other nations become technologically and academically dominant everyone can blame it on the liberals with their elitist, commie, homo, atheist agenda, oh, and the need for more religious zeal.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

An 18 Year Old High-Schooler is Destroying America, Apparently

 18 year old Constance McMillen was the subject of an AP article today because she requested that she and her gay girlfriend, another student in the same school, be allowed to attend the prom as a couple.  The school, in Jackson, MS has a rule that prom couples must be a boy and a girl.  When McMillen's request was denied, she sued, with the backing of the ACLU.  The school's response was to cancel the prom for everyone rather than allow two girls to dance together.  Of course everyone knows why the prom was canceled so this girl is likely to be the target of anger from her fellow students.

People in Mississippi have demonstrated their bigotry and willingness to deny people their civil rights many times before, so this event isn't surprising, but the bigots always end up losing in court.  So, when will experience teach them that people they dislike have just as many rights as those they like?

The prejudice against homosexuals is completely irrational, any way.  No one just decides one day that they would like to be shunned, avoided, and have the crap beaten out of them by fellow students, co-workers and neighbors just because it might be fun to share a bed with someone of the same sex.  The only reason the anti-gay people can present to rationalize their hatred is their religious beliefs supported by cherry-picked lines from their favorite book.

Religious beliefs, however, are not civil law.  If these people want to deny homosexuals access to their religious ceremonies, that's OK.  If persons choose not to act on their own homosexual urges, because their religion doesn't allow it, that's fine too.  But, when one leaves the religious environment and enters the secular, as, for instance, a public school, civil law applies and insisting that persons outside of the religious community must abide by rules that apply only within the religious community, is not only ridiculous, it's illegal.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Creationists Go to Smithsonian and Learn Nothing

I just read a truly awful article in the Yahoo News entitled; "At evolution exhibit, creationists are unswayed". The article wasn't awful because creationists were unswayed, that's to be expected. It was awful because the author, Virginie Montet, was incredibly ignorant about evolution and wrote as if evolution and creationism were equally scientifically valid.

The article is about a group of biology students and instructors from Liberty University in Tenn. who traveled to the (presumably Smithsonian) Natural History Museum in Wash DC to view an exhibit on evolution and came away from it thinking that the national museum of the United States (and all other legitimate natural history museums in the world) were wrong because they differed with the teachings of a podunk fundy xian school in Tennessee. The creationists quoted in the article regurgitated the usual ID claptrap, including the odious, misleading assertion that they use the same evidence to reach different conclusions, to support their views.

The folks from Liberty U can't help the way they are. The instructors are paid to deliver fundamentalist dogma and students, or their parents, choose the school specifically because they are guaranteed to be insulated from all those inconvenient facts that might tempt them to choose reality over religion. I don't, however, understand how they can ever learn any science. Science is about assessing ALL the available evidence to reach the best conclusion. These guys treat scientific evidence like the bible in that they think they can pull a statement or 2 out of context and use it to support their position and disregard everything else. If the students don't understand the most fundamental thing about scientific method, they can't possibly be any better at physics and chemistry than they are at biology and geology, yet at least one of these kids is planning to be a doctor (stay the hell away from my pancreas).

As I say, the students can't help it, as for the writer of the article, getting the facts straight is only her job! She refers to creationism as a theory, as if it had the same scientific weight as the theory of evolution. There should be a rule that no person can write about evolution until they can recite the definition of "scientific theory".

The writer goes on to say "But Darwin's explanation for why giraffes have long necks -- that they evolved over time so they could reach higher foliage -- ...failed to sway them." This is not Darwin's explanation for anything, nor does it represent any aspect of Darwinian evolution. This is the most commonly used example of Lamarck's "inheritance of aquired characteristics" where Lamarck got evolution wrong; animals don't evolve characteristics to fulfill a desire for something. Darwin's explanation would be more like -- a random genetic mutation caused part of a proto-giraffe population to have a longer neck. The longer necks allowed the animals to exploit a niche, higher foliage, where there was less competition and, as a result, reproduce so the long-neck-mutated-gene was carried into later generations -- or something like that.

I have mixed emotions about other parts of the article. Virginie Montet writes for AFP, a world news service based in France, so people all over the world will read about these creationist collegiates, that 44 to 46% of Americans believe the world is 6 to 10,000 years old, and that the Smithsonian Institute is apparently so lame that it can't present enough evidence to change the minds of the ignorant.

At the end of article Marcus Ross, who teaches at Liberty U, was quoted as saying, "The attitude is when you are a creationist you are ignorant of the facts." That's not quite true for me. I believe they are willfully ignorant; that is, they actively avoid and disregard any facts that don't fit their preconceptions, rather that analyzing all available data before reaching a conclusion.