Category Archives: biology

Creationists prefer numerology to real scientific research

Ian Wishart is a local “investigative’ journalist and well-known conspiracy theorist from way back. He’s dabbled in climate change, creationism, health, political, crime, and other issues. He’s a firm creationist and so it’s no surprise he has picked up on a recently published paper Scientists dumbstruck: signs of intelligent design in DNA code. No surprise because it’s currently being promoted by creationists and the Discovery Institute as some sort of proof of intelligent design. And Wishart is part of that echo chamber.

The paper itself is extremely dense – probably only fully intelligible to computational biologists and similar specialists. Fortunately, local science blogger Grant Jacobs, who has skills in this area,  has been through the paper and explains it in an article that is accessible to most people – see Investigate magazine struck dumb by numerology of genetic code. Have a read, you can see what the paper really says, what the problems are with it and make up your own mind about the degree to which Ian Wishart, and other creationists, have been fooled by it.

“Design inference” and “reinterpretation research”

I think there is a bit of a lesson here. Grant describes a basic problem with the paper.

“it rests on a false comparison of two options:

  1. Created by random chance
  2. Created by space aliens

This is set up so that if the first is unlikely, the second “must” be right.

The setting is rigged because these two aren’t all the possibilities. There is at least one more:

  1. Created by a non-random natural process (e.g. evolved)

To declare any one the ‘preferred’ choice they’d have to investigate all three possibilities, then compare what was found. But they don’t: they only look at the first then declare the second as the ‘winner’ without ever looking at the third.”

Anyone who has followed the so-called research carried out by intelligent design proponents may recognise this pattern. Discovery Institute senior fellow William A. Dembski even formulates the pattern as a basic way of detecting intelligent design. Creationists often call it the Design Filter. (He describes it in his book  The Design Inference: Eliminating Chance through Small Probabilities).

Usually the “design inference” boils down to:

  1. Reject chance – easy to set up statistics to show probabilities are extremely low. (For example, the chance of all atoms randomly combining to form a molecule of DNA at one instant is remote);
  2. Analyse any existing scientific explanation or mechanism to show it is wrong. (Easy to do by misrepresentation, choosing old research, ignoring alternatives, etc.);
  3. Accept design as the only, default, alternative. Therefore claim design has been “proved.”

Now, combine that approach with the other leg of intelligent design research – reinterpretation research.” This has extremely low overheads as it only involves taking published work, rubbishing it by misinterpretation, etc., and inventing a different interpretation of the facts to “prove” design.

In essence this is what all intelligent design “research” boils down to. At best it can only find possible problems in current understanding (which is surely the purpose of all research). It cannot support an alternative hypothesis.

So you can see the basic character of all the intelligent design publications they claim. Work which investigates possible problems with existing ideas in evolutionary science without offering, or even considering,  alternative hypotheses. Plenty of that around – put it on the list.

But they ignore the normal honest research approach. They never advance a structured hypothesis, one that is consistent with intelligent design. They therefore never submit such hypothesis to any testing or validation.

Yet they want to claim their ideas as science – and want to teach it to children in science classes!

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From evolution to belief

How reliable do you think your cognitive facilities are? Your eyes, ears, etc? Your brain,  memory and mental processes? According to philosopher of religion Alvin Plantinga, not very good. He asserts any belief you form using these facilities is as likely to be untrue as it is to be true. “A probability of 0.5” he says – like a magician pulling a rabbit out of hat.

But it gets worse. For some reason he thinks your beliefs are formed randomly – so “If I have one thousand independent beliefs, for example, the probability (under these conditions) that three quarters or more of these beliefs are true will be less than 10–58.” When he considers only 100 independent beliefs “the probability that three-quarters of them are true, given that the probability of any one’s being true is one half, is very low, something like .000001.”

So, you wonder – how the hell do you get by? You are in the middle of the road, a bus is speeding towards you, but the chance of your cognitive facilities leading you to believe you are in danger is minuscule. You are just as likely to belief you are having a pleasant bath – or a gazillion other things.

Guided evolution

That doesn’t sound right, does it? Something is fishy here. Surely natural selection will have weeded out organisms which had such poor cognitive facilities millions of years ago. Well, according to Plantinga, no! Unless evolution was guided by his god! He just thinks that unguided evolution is incapable of producing reliable cognitive facilities. In fact, he claims evolutionary science supports him saying: “The scientific theory of evolution just as such is entirely compatible with the thought that God has guided and orchestrated the course of evolution, planned and directed it, in such a way as to achieve the ends he intends.”

He argues that unguided evolution is “prohibitively improbable.” Not surprising to see that he has a soft spot for Michael Behe‘s irreducible complexity argument against evolutionary science (and for “intelligent design”). Plantinga’s recent book ( Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism) is full of theological pretzel twisting, motivated logic, unsupported logical possibilities, probability assumptions, cherry-picked quotations, and bald statements supporting his claims. But, unhappily for many of this theological supporters, he is also very careful to include qualifications for almost all his claims and arguments. This gives him deniability, wriggle room, but makes it difficult for his supporters to find supporting evidence for his claims.

Here I will deal with just his claim that evolution via inherited variation and natural section is incapable of producing reliable cognitive facilities. Even here he claims he is not arguing: “that unguided evolution could not produce creatures with reliable belief-producing faculties; I very much doubt that it could, but that it couldn’t is neither a premise nor the conclusion of my argument.”

Still, that is exactly what he does argue. He says “it is improbable, given naturalism and evolution, that our cognitive faculties are reliable.” That his god “could have brought it about that our cognitive faculties evolve by natural selection, and evolve in such a way that it is natural for us to form beliefs about the supernatural in general and God himself in particular.” “that God has created us in such a way that we come to know him; and the function of the cognitive processes, whatever they are, that ordinarily produce belief in God in us is to provide us with true belief.” And “According to John Calvin, God has created us with a “sensus divinitatis,” a natural tendency to form belief in God.”

So you can see where he is going with this. Belief in a god seems to be an indicator that your cognitive system is working well, whereas non-belief shows its not! You atheists have something missing from your brain.

Naive survival argument

Plantinga’s argument centres on a naive interpretation of natural selection:

“We might think that our evolutionary origin guarantees or strongly supports the thought that our basic cognitive faculties are reliable: if they weren’t, how could we have survived and reproduced? But this is clearly an error,  . . . . . Natural selection is interested in adaptive behavior, behavior that conduces to survival and reproduction; it has no interest in our having true beliefs.”

And his followers see that as a key premise in his argument.

However, if a particular inheritable variation is selected because it aids survival or increases number of offspring this does not prevent that particular variation contributing to the life of the organism in other ways.  A cat’s paw enables it to move, to pursue prey and avoid predators but this in no way prevent cats from using their paws in grooming.

We can understand how selected variations in our ancestors perception organs, brains, and the rest of their body, would have had survival and reproduction values.  Tool-making abilities, a thickened pre-frontal cortex, language abilities, self-reflection and recall of memories would have contributed greatly to the natural selection of our ancestors.

But once selected, not only did our ancestors become more social, more able to communicate and more able to change their environment with the tools they created. They also were able to use their perception and cognitive faculties in a more advanced way. To formulate more detailed pictures of their environment and to check out the accuracy of those ideas or beliefs. And to pass on this knowledge to their offspring.

It is just overwhelmingly naive not to recognise the wider implications of variations selected by the evolutionary process beyond survival and reproduction. And it is dishonest to cherry-pick, as Plantinga does, quotes from evolutionary scientists and philosophers which stress the role of survival and reproduction in natural selection as if there were no other consequences for the evolution of the selected organisms.

Why is it so hard to see the natural selection of intelligence in our ancestors has lead to huge technological and cultural changes quite above and beyond its value for survival and reproduction? Why should Plantinga accept that unguided evolution can lead to intelligence for its value in survival and reproduction but drag in the concept of guided evolution by his god to explain the resulting cultural, technological and social changes?

Reliability of cognitive facilities – something more than chance.

I find weird Plantinga’s idea that guidance of evolution by his god is necessary for our cognitive faculties to produce reliable results. Even weirder that in the absence of such guidance natural selection would produce cognitive faculties which caused us to adopt beliefs completely randomly. Surely such faulty cognitive faculties would have been selected against? And those organisms whose cognitive faculties produced a sufficiently reliable picture of reality (or belief) to enable survival and reproduction would have been selected for.

Plantinga confuses his argument by steadfastly referring to “belief” and “true belief” whereas the day-to-day life of an organism requires (usually unconscious) perception or knowledge of its environment and reaction to what it perceives. In effect, the organism, and particularly a species like humans, is continually forming a mental image or model of its environment. The accuracy of this model relies on the abilities of the perception organs, the unconscious aggregation of perceptions and memories to form a mental image and the amount of conscious deliberation. We can be sure that this knowledge never amounts to a completely accurate model of reality. All sorts of practical assumptions are made for the sake of efficiency. And animals like us are just not able to perceive bacteria and molecules, let alone atoms or subatomic particles.

So our mental model of reality will always be imperfect. It can never be identified with Plantinga’s “true belief.” But it is good enough for what we are doing – surviving, reproducing, making tools, telling stories, formulating theories, etc. And we quite naturally pay special attention when we need to fill out details. Or we can resort to tools and instruments which aid our perceptions.

If natural selection working on genetic variation has produced animals capable of surviving and reproducing by using their perception organs, intelligence, memory and imagination why should it be impossible (as Plantinga claims) for such animals to form “belief”, or knowledge about reality, which, for all practical purposes, can be considered “true?” Why does he claim guidance by his god is necessary?

Theistic evolution?

When I hear this term “theistic evolution” used I never know what is intended. At one end it could just be that a person who claims to believe in theistic evolution is only saying they accept evolutionary science, while at the same time they are a Christian. Perhaps its just a way of avoiding criticism from their fellow church members. An assurance that their acceptance of evolutionary science does not signal rejection of their faith.

The adjective “theistic” is actually unnecessary – except for social purposes. One could equally say they believed in “theistic gravity,” “theistic chemical reactions,” etc. Sounds silly – but I guess social pressure produces silly conventions and scientifically meaningless terms.

At the other end of the spectrum I think the person is actually claiming a belief similar to Plantinga’s. That evolution is actually impossible without divine interference, specifically guidance from their god. They may imagine that their god actually fiddles with the atoms in an organism’s DNA, or aids selection with a flood, collision of an asteroid or a volcanic eruption or two. Even, as some of these people claim, the divine injection of determinism into quantum indeterminacy

Of course, people who claim such guidance is required for evolution to work just don’t accept the current scientific understanding of the evolutionary process which is very much unguided (except through the natural selection process). If adherents of “theistic evolution” mean this, something like Plantinga’s “evolution” then they don’t accept evolutionary science.

And that’s why I just don’t like the term “theistic evolution” and am always suspicious of people who describe themselves that way.

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Reclaiming ‘intelligent design’

Intelligence Design by Lisa Boulanger (fac), Dept. of Molecular Biology and Princeton Neuroscience Institute


This is a pyramidal neuron from the hippocampus, a part of the brain where some kinds of memories are formed. This neuron has been labeled with fluorescent antibodies so that we can visualize microtubules (shown in green), which form a structural network inside the neuron, and insulin receptors (shown in red), which are cell surface proteins that instruct neurons to make connections with other neurons. These connections, called synapses, become stronger or weaker as memories are constructed.

This is one of the photos from The Art of Science contest at Princeton University. The contest includes some of the the most beautiful and coolest of the images produced at the university in the course of scientific research.

An annual event, the organisers chose this year the theme of “intelligent design.” Intentionally, to be provocative. The organisers are hoping to push scientists to reclaim the term from those who attack evolutionary science. To remind one another of its other possible connotations: the intelligently designed product of a thoughtful engineer, or the clever new simulation from a creative computer scientist.

The image above attracted me – but it was not one of the prize winners. There is a gallery of over 50 great images entered into the contest at the Art of Science website.

Thanks to: CultureLab: Reclaiming ‘intelligent design’ with stunning photos.

A reminder of reality’s magic

This is really a reminder about another sciency book for the kids – especially with Christmas coming up.

Back in May I posted on a new book by Richard Dawkins (see The Magic of Reality for young people). I am posting again on this because the book, The Magic of Reality: How We Know What’s Really True, will be released this month in the UK (October 4 in the US).

It’s bound to be excellent, given Richard’s well known literary and science communication skills. And the illustrator, Dave McKean, has illustrated many award-winning books.

And the recommendations are good. Lawrence Krauss describes it as ”
“Exhilarating. The clearest and most beautifully written introduction to science I’ve ever read.” As for Ricky Gervais – he says: “I wanted to write this book but I wasn’t clever enough. Now I’ve read it, I am.”

Looks like the book is aimed at the older child and teenager, and appears suitable for adults as well.

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Martydom of the priveliged

It never ceases to amaze me how some people who have gained a privilege through an accident of history will whine and moan when they fear their privileges may be removed. We saw this recently in local politics when the idea of introducing a capital gains tax was floated.

I guess it’s not surprising. Many people think with their wallet.

But I also saw this last week at the NZ Diversity Forum on The State and Religion. There was a discussion on the fact that while New Zealand is largely a secular country with freedom of religion and belief, Christians still had some historical privileges over other religions and over the non-religious. Several Christians there argued that the parliamentary prayer be retained – because they “believed in a god.” To hell with what other people believed.

But this defense of privilege gets really childish when conservative Christians present any attempt at removal of privilege or discrimination as an attack on their religion. As an attempt at “eradication of religion from public life.”

I have seen a local theologian, Matt from MandM, seriously argue that evolutionary science should not be taught in schools because a fundamentalist family with children attending the school would be offended! Everyone else should suffer because a fundamentalist might be offended by reality!

Now that takes a real sense of privelige!

Parliamentary prayers

The same person attacked the NZ Rationalist and Humanist (NZARH) document The Tolerant Secular State for pointing out the “New Zealand parliament opens with a Christian prayer rather than having a secular statement that allows all politicians to reflect on why they are they are there.” He claims this “states religious prayers should be banned from parliament”. He sees introduction of an inclusive ceremony as an attack on Christianity – what warped thinking.

I guess this is the same as those men who opposed universal suffrage because they saw it as an attack on men. Or marriage equality whoicxh recognises same-sex marriage as somehow an attack on heterosexual marriage!

Another privilege described in The Tolerant Secular State is “the advancement of religion as a charitable purpose. This gives religious/supernatural beliefs an advantage over other beliefs in being subsidised by the taxpayer.” My experience is that this is a privilege conservative Christians will defend to the last. They bring all their theological training, their mental gymnastics and obfuscation, into play when they see that threatened.

Wallets as well as dogma – a powerful combination!

Secular education

Madeleine at MandM has also attacked The Tolerant Secular State – using the same tactics of misrepresentation and distortion. She particularly likes to distort the meaning of the word “secular” (meaning neutrality towards religion) into somehow meaning anti-religious or atheist.

Therefore she refers to The Tolerant Secular State statement “The NZARH strongly believes that public education should be free, secular and available equally to all children” as somehow being anti-religious. She says it means “Taxpayer dollars of all citizens must only be used to support their secular viewpoint and their viewpoint alone” (Here she uses “their” to mean NZARH). And whines: “What about citizens (like me) who do not want their tax payer dollars going towards secular schools?”

Perhaps she doesn’t want to pay for children to learn anything – except religious indoctrination which of course is not secular. Actually she is specific – she considers secular education to suppress her “right to manifest one’s religion including the raising of children. This gets overridden by the practice of sex education in schools.” She opts her son out of those classes. Does she also opt her son out of mathematics, science, history, social studies, and all the other secular subjects.

Poor kid.

Madeleine claims that the  NZARH don’t want schools to talk at all about religion. Ignoring completely the document which says:

“While public education should remain free from religious observance and instruction, it is fine to educate about religion. Teaching about different belief systems, both religious and non-religious, is important. Doing so encourages greater tolerance by broadening students understanding of other beliefs, and challenging the notion that any currently held beliefs are somehow superior to other beliefs.”

And Matt  also has a go at “secular eduction.” He claims that “religious parents are required by law to fund a secular education they disagree with and do not use.”

So religious parents and their children do not use their education in mathematics, science, social studies, history, etc.? All those subjects dealing with the real world and therefore defined as secular?

Matt plays the martyrdom card by claiming that “parents who want to teach there child a religious education pay twice, first they are compelled on threat of jail to pay for other peoples children to be given a secular education, and then on top of that they pay for their own childrens religious education.”

Well Matt, any parent wishing to give their children an agnostic, atheist, Marxist, or any other ideological education must do the same. Pay for the secular education (which is required by law and is neutral towards these ideological and religious beliefs) and on weekends or after school give the ideological education they desire.

Matt finally concludes that New Zealand discriminates against religious parents!

See what a mess you can get into when you start distorting the meaning of words.

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Another book for the kids

This looks like another great sciency book for young kids. Ankylosaur Attack (Tales of Prehistoric Life) is aimed at an age level of 4 and up. It should really appeal to the kid already interested in dinosaurs.

The author is Daniel Loxton. He is also  the author and illustrator of Evolution: How We and All Living Things Came to Be which I reviewed in One for the kids. That book is a finalist for Canada’s largest children’s non-fiction prize, the Norma Fleck Award. (Winner to be announced Oct 4, 2011.)

Here is the book description for Ankylosaur Attack:

“This mind-blowing feast for the eye uses photo-realistic, computer-generated images to illustrate what dinosaurs might have looked like in their natural environment. Complementing the extraordinary images is an exciting, scientifically accurate story about a young ankylosaur (a plant-eating, heavy-plated dinosaur) living along the banks of a grassy lake. When he encounters an old ankylosaur, he gently endeavours to make contact, only to be rebuffed. Then a T. rex attacks, and the youngster knows the old dinosaur is in grave danger. Will the T. rex triumph? It looks that way, until the young ankylosaur comes to the rescue, tail club swinging. Ankylosaur Attack is book one in the Tales of Prehistoric Life series. Dramatic stories + eyepopping visuals = a surefire hit with young dinosaur lovers.”

Publication date is September 1, 2011.

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