A polite creationist writes in, explaining why evolution can’t work

November 24, 2020 • 12:30 pm

Here’s one of the emails I get from creationists, telling me why I’m wrong in saying “Evolution is true.” (Happily, they’re becoming fewer.)

This letter, however, is polite, and about as thoughtful as is possible for a Biblical creationist to be. But it’s also riddled with flaws and misconceptions. I’ve put the email up though I’ve redacted the name of the student. The misspellings and other errors are as they appeared in the email.

I could write REAMS of responses to this email, giving evidence for common ancestry that could not be due to a designer (e.g., similar “dead” genes in similar positions, or genealogies made from neutral DNA sites that match genealogies made from visible characters).  I could talk about predicted transitional forms that have later been found, radiometric dating, and so on.  But I don’t have time.

So once again I’m crowdsourcing. By now most of the readers should be able to point out many of the flaws in the reasoning below. I suggest you pick one assertion and answer it rather than take on the whole email. Or address the student directly (I will send him the link and the comments within a day or two). But above all please be polite. This student, though mired in muddled argument, was polite and thoughtful, and we should be as well. There are of course answers to all of this (including the “moon dust” and “salty sea” arguments), and you could supply the person with some links.

Have at it:

My name is REDACTED.  I am a current college student majoring in zoology.  I hope you are well and healthy in this interesting time.

This year I read your book Why Evolution is True despite being a Christian for all my life and a young-earth creationist for as long as I have thought about the issue.  This was the first full book I have read on the topic from an atheistic/evolutionist stance (though I have read chapters of Dawkin’s The God Delusion and Dawin’s Origin of Species).  I am glad I picked up your book.  Before I can say anything else I must acknowledge that the book is a well-written explanation of evolution and the evidence used to support it.  I admit I was fairly confident in my faith before picking up your book but I’d like to say I did not have a “closed mind” necessarily.  If you are willing to give me a bit of your time I would love to offer a few reasons I still do not accept atheistic humanism as an alternative to my faith in God.  I will start with a couple objections to evolution and then explain why Creationism might explain some of the evidence you present.  Obviously I cannot cover everything you address in your book.

First, my problem with evolution.  I cannot see how natural selection and mutations are enough to explain the evolution of life.  Natural selection, as I understand it, is a process of selecting the fittest of a species.  I would be a fool to deny that natural selection exists or that it can significantly change/improve a species by allowing the fittest to survive and reproduce while killing off the unfit (I am ashamed that there are creationists who do).  But in order to change one kind of animal into another there needs to be, as I understand it, the development of new traits.  How does this happen?  I do not think it can.  To illustrate this problem, let’s say there is a sandcastle building competition.  The judge of the competition decides that only purple sandcastles can win the contest.  Of course, if the competitors can only use sand, water, and a bucket, none of the sandcastles will be purple.  The selection process, then, can’t proceed because the trait being selected doesn’t exist yet.  Now to apply this idea to evolution: I understand how reptiles can evolve into birds if some reptiles have feathers and wings.  But at some point no reptiles had feathers or wings.  How did those desirable traits develop in order to be selected?  Every example of natural selection that is observed in nature involves a trait that already exists in a population.  Take the famous speckled moths.  They didn’t change, they simply died out while the dark moths reproduced.  No new traits developed.  To me, natural selection makes perfect sense.  It is a brilliant theory I give Darwin and Wallace all the credit in the world for discovering.  But in order for evolution to occur, the traits that are selected need to develop.  How does this occur?  I anticipate that the go-to response is mutations.  But beneficial mutations that add a new trait are so rare in nature I am skeptical that they could explain the diversity of life even if given millions of years.  Are there even mutations that we know of that give new traits to an organism that did not exist in the population in any form at all?  Sometimes I feel like “mutations” has become the evolutionist’s version of the “god of the gaps” argument; they explain away evolution’s problems without offering concrete evidence.  Where are the beneficial mutations?  In summary, it takes too much faith for me to accept that the diversity of life can be explained by natural selection, despite the evidence (which I accept!) that natural selection is a very efficient process.  Natural selection is, however, merely a sorting/selection process, not a designer.

Now, here is my explanation of some of the evidence you presented.  I would happily discuss each chapter of your book, but here I will just address the evidence for convergent evolution, homology, and the fossil record.  I think I can explain a lot of the evidence for evolution with this one idea.  Feal free to correct me if I did not do so.

Now, people are designers.  We build and create and produce.  And our creations often have similar designs.  Consider transportation.  People have invented ways to travel across land, sea, and sky.  Our vehicles of transportation vary, but they all have similar elements to them.  Whether it is a plane, car, truck, boat, submarine, or helicopter, it has an engine, a steering wheel, and a way of burning fuel to produce energy.  They all are made of metal and function in a way that allows humans to use them (they have seats, levers, buttons, and other controls).  In other words, they share certain universal features.  This does not mean all these vehicles have a common ancestor.  In this case, it means that they were designed according to the conditions they are meant to exist in.  They vary depending on their “habitat” but they also share similarities because they exist in the same world and perform the same function: transportation.  Knowing this, one could predict that should there be a Creator behind nature, then there would similarly be a variation but also a similarity in design among creation.  Like vehicles, animals inhabit the same planet and so share similar structures like a common bone design in the wing/arm/leg/flipper.  But they inhabit different parts of the world and are thus designed differently (birds have wings, humans arms, horses legs, and whales flippers).  I hope you can see how this could indicate that life was designed by a Creator who had both their universal biosphere and their individual, specific niches in mind.

I find that this is a consistent area in which evolutionists and creationists part was when it comes to interpreting the fossil record.  Evolutionists interpret the evidence with common ancestry in mind, so if you find an extinct species with similarities of two different animal groups, you infer common ancestry, while creationists (having intelligent design in mind) infer a common habitat, or niche, that a Creator specifically designed the creature to inhabit.  Both interpretations require a little faith (since we didn’t see the creature evolve/get created).  Archaeopteryx, for example, was indisputably a reptile with wings.  What if, instead of an extinct evolutionary branch as you proposed in your book (not an ancestor of birds but a relative), “ancient wing” is a creature designed to live on the ground but given the ability to glide to escape enemies?  We see a lot of this in nature (colugos, flying squirrels, etc.).  Instead of convergent evolution, could it be that like our vehicles of locomotion these creatures were designed with intentional similarities because this helps them navigate the world and to thrive better?  I would love to hear your thoughts on why the evidence exclusively supports evolution and leaves no room for a designer.  Thank you.

I’d like to end with a brief challenge.  Every year, the moon collects slightly more dust and moves slightly farther away from earth.  Every year, the oceans get slightly saltier.  If the earth and moon are millions of years old, shouldn’t the moon be much larger than it is today and also way farther from the earth?  And wouldn’t the oceans be more salt than water by now?  Millions of years is an insanely long amount of time.  How is it that we still have a moon and an ocean the way they are?  I hope you don’t see this as an attack but as a genuine question about your interpretation of the evidence we see in the universe.  Thanks for reading!

Once again, your book was very enlightening and left me with a lot to think about, so for that I thank you.  You are a very captivating writer and speaker.  Thanks for your time, and if you do not mind me saying, God bless😊

The Discovery Institute goddies go after determinism again

October 24, 2020 • 11:15 am

Those who claim that hardly anybody believes in “contracausal” free will, in which the human mind alone can affect the body, giving one the ability to make any of several decisions at a single instant of time, forget how deeply embedded contracausal free will is in the Abrahamic religions. After all, if you can’t “freely” choose your religion or your savior, but are at the mercy of the laws of physics, of what use is Heaven or Hell? The whole Christian myth involves your ability to freely choose what to believe.

And if you believe in contracausal free will, then you must reject physical determinism, for physics is the “cause” to which your decision is “contra”. That’s why so many fundamentalist believers reject determinism, and why the creationist Discovery Institute (DI), peopled with true believers, is lately on an anti-determinism kick, going after determinists like me who attribute all behavior and decisions to the laws of physics rather than some immaterial “will” that interacts with matter. (I’m assuming that virtually all the readers here who espouse compatibilism are also determinists.) Since the DI has failed to overturn the teaching of evolution, they’re turning their attention to free will. But their arguments against determinism are no better than their arguments against evolution.

I pretty much ignore the DI’s bloviations on free will, for there’s a religious motivation for their denial of determinism, but when physicist Sabine Hossenfelder made a no-nonsense post and a video arguing that there was no free will because we’re subject to physical law, that was too much for the DI. (See my take on Hossenfelder’s views, with which I pretty much align, here.) The DI, along with many devout believers, absolutely detest that kind of materialism—I call it “naturalism”, but it’s the same thing—and so they’ve been going after both of us. The latest attack came from the DI’s Evolution News site, with a post by David Klinghoffer called “Science as Oracle—where it gets weird“. And they enlisted Cornelius Hunter, DI Fellow, creationist, and adjunct professor at the evangelical Christian school Biola University, to make a 24-minute video going after both Hossenfelder and me. Klinghoffer simply repeats Hunter, so I’ll deal with the video.

Watch and enjoy! I’ll have a few remarks below. But Hunter really should learn how to pronounce my name. It’s not “Cohen” but “Coyne,” pronounced like “coin.”

 

Hunter goes off on all kinds of antievolution tangents in this video, failing to stick to the promised critique of determinism. That’s probably because his critique can be summed up very simply: “There’s no evidence for determinism—it’s just a weird and bizarre pronouncement of scientists like Cohen, and constitutes “scientism.”

And that’s pretty much it. Hunter considers determinism “anti-empirical” because of the supposed lack of evidence for it, and, curiously, argues that it also “demolishes epistemology”. Why? Because there’s no guarantee that the laws of physics acting on humans would guarantee that we’d find the truth (is he referring to Jesus?). Ergo we’re not only determined by the laws of physics to say that we have no free will, making that claim unreliable, but we’re liable to make all kinds of false statements because the laws of physics have no obvious connection to finding truth.

I can rebut both of these claims very briefly.

There’s no evidence for determinism. This claim is absurd. The response is that everything on Earth, and, as far as we can tell, in the solar system, in the Milky Way galaxy, and in Universe, has uniformly obeyed the laws of physics since the Big Bang. That’s not a speculation, but an empirical conclusion (see here for some of the evidence). And if everything we know obeys physical laws (we need confine our observations only to Earth, since that’s where God’s Creatures live), then there’s no reason to think that our brains don’t as well. End of rebuttal.

What is odd is that these guys attack physical determinism on the false basis that there’s no evidence for it, but then pull ancient mythologies out of their nether parts and not only claim that they’re true, but base their whole lives and belief systems on them. Biola University is founded on unevidenced but comforting Christian superstition from ancient, redacted, and contradictory scriptures. Well, I’m much more comfortable thinking that the speed of light in a vacuum is the same everywhere in our solar system than I am thinking that Jesus rose from the dead.  I find it vastly amusing that people like Hunter are slaves to religious superstition and yet use a supposed lack of evidence to attack determinism.

Oh yes, and Hunter says that there’s plenty of evidence for contracausal free will! What is it? Merely the observation that we make what looks like “free” decisions!  I don’t need to rebut that, because these “free decisions” are illusions; they don’t rebut determinism.

We can have no confidence that we can find truth if determinism be true. The rebuttal of this can be conveyed in two words: natural selection. Animals, including us, could hardly survive if we had sensory systems that didn’t give us a fairly accurate representation of reality: where the dangers lie, where the food is, what happens if we jump off a cliff. But of course we can be fooled as well: I give plenty of examples in Faith Versus Fact of how our evolved sensory systems, or our beliefs, can be fooled by things we didn’t encounter during our evolution. (A lot of people think, for example, that if you whirl an object around your head on a string, it will continue to travel in a spiral when you let go. And of course there are optical illusions.)

After making a few tepid attempts to rebut determinism, Hunter goes off the rails and takes out after evolution instead, giving two examples of convergent evolution: similar toxic peptides in a tree and in some animals, as well as the possibility of the independent origin of synapses and neurons in ctenophores on the one hand and cnidarian/bilaterians on the other.

I’ve put the two articles he cites below so you can see them (they’re free; click on the screenshots).

In one of the more ludicrous claims that Hunter makes (he doesn’t accept evolution), he argues that convergent evolution—the independent evolution of similar features in independent lineages—is not consistent with evolution, for evolution supposedly claims that structures are “lineage specific”. If features evolve several times independently, he argues, we don’t need the theory of evolution. This is arrant nonsense. There is nothing in evolutionary theory that bars similar features from appearing in two or more independently evolving lineages.

Of course he ignores the copious evidence that the independent lineages EVOLVED as independent. For example, marsupials and placentals, which, according to both molecular evidence and the fossil record had a common ancestor, have nevertheless evolved several examples of convergence in their descendants. The marsupial flying squirrel or mole, for example, bears striking similarities to the placental flying squirrel or mole.

In other words, Hunter’s claim about what evolution is “supposed” to do rests on denying evolution in the first place. He also ignores the idea that common ancestors constrain the materials that can be used for evolution in their descendants, as well as the notion that there are physical and biological niches that often evoke similar responses in independent lineages, like the resemblance of shape and fins in three independent lineages: fish, marine mammals like porpoises, and ichthyosaurs.

Finally, in the paper on neurons, Hunter attacks one sentence because it’s supposedly violates evolutionary theory as well:  “animals frequently use different molecular toolkits to achieve similar functional outcomes”. He gloms onto the word “achieves”, arguing that the word implies that evolution has goals, and of course evolution isn’t goal oriented—which is true. But “achieves” in that sentence simply means that natural selection uses different molecular pathways when a similar adaptation arises. The scientists in the second paper are certainly not talking about teleology!

But the connection between free will and evolution is tenuous here, and I’m not sure why Hunter goes off on a siding, with the Numinous Express, apparently bound for Naturalism Town, suddenly takes the track towards Evolutionville.

Hunter’s mask slips at the end when he tries to explain out why so many smart people—I’m flattered that he puts both me and Hossenfelder in that class—believe in weird and bizarre things like determinism. His answer? He cites 2 Corinthians 4, verses 3 and 4, to wit (from the King James Bible):

But if our gospel be hid, it is hid to them that are lost:
In whom the god of this world hath blinded the minds of them which believe not, lest the light of the glorious gospel of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine unto them.

Yep, Hossenfelder and I, along with every other physicist and determinist on the planet, have been blinded to the truth of free will because we don’t believe in the Christian God. I’m not sure if Hossenfelder is Jewish—though I suspect from her name she’s of Jewish ancestry—but if she is, well, that explains why both she and I might be particularly blind to the truth of the Gospels, and susceptible to Satan’s blandishments about free will.

Jebus, what an argument! Now since the DI people read this website, desperately wanting to discredit me, they’ll see this post as well. They will have an answer to it, too, for their God has given them the truth, and they can’t let a couple of upstart cultural Jews overturn it.

Jason Rosenhouse discredits new Intelligent Design paper

October 7, 2020 • 10:00 am

Update: Reader Mike below called my attention to a notice about the paper on Retraction Watch (click on screenshot below). It notes that author Thorvaldsen is an advocate and sympathizer to Intelligent design. The Journal of Theoretical BIology has issued the statement below:

The Journal of Theoretical Biology and its co-Chief Editors do not endorse in any way the ideology of nor reasoning behind the concept of intelligent design. Since the publication of the paper it has now become evident that the authors are connected to a creationist group (although their addresses are given on the paper as departments in bona fide universities). We were unaware of this fact while the paper was being reviewed. Moreover, the keywords “intelligent design” were added by the authors after the review process during the proofing stage and we were unaware of this action by the authors. We have removed these from the online version of this paper. We believe that intelligent design is not in any way a suitable topic for the Journal of Theoretical Biology.

Too little and too late!  There’s also a statement by Glenn Branch, head of the National Center for Science Education.

______________

The Discovery Institute and its ID flacks are crowing about a new intelligent-design paper that got published in a reputable journal. The paper is below, and it’s really nothing new: just a reiteration of the supposed unlikelihood of evolving complex biological systems via natural selection (click on screenshot to get the paper, free if you have the Unpaywall app):

I read the paper very quickly, and decided there was really no there there: it’s a reiteration of the work and thought of IDers like Dembski, Axe, Meyer, and Behe, all of whom have claimed that the evolution of stuff like protein structure, protein folding, protein complexes, RNA translation systems, and so on, are so unlikely that they couldn’t have evolved by Darwinian processes. And of course all of this work has been previously and thoroughly rebutted by real scientists, many of whom have pointed out the flawed assumptions, including making probability calculations starting from scratch rather than using previously evolved and less “complex” systems. Sadly, almost none of the critiques by real scientists are even cited in this paper, which appears to be science-y sounding publicity for Intelligent Design. The failure to cite counterarguments alone should have rendered the Thornvaldsen and Hössjer paper unpublishable.

As for “fine-tuning”, that’s what the authors call “improbable appearance”—that is, a system that, they say “is unlikely to have occurred by chance” and also show “conform[ity] to an independent or detached specification”.  It is, in effect, the “irreducible complexity” touted by Behe, and is not the same thing as the “fine tuning” of the physical Universe—involving the supposed specificity of many physical constants—also touted as evidence for a Great Designer.

Several readers sent me this paper, apparently wanting me to go after it. I just have said my piece, but this is but a cursory take. I didn’t want to put in the time to refute something that’s been refuted before. As for why a good journal accepted such a shoddy paper, your guess is as good as mine. But the IDers see it as a gold mine, because they’ve gotten a peer reviewed ID paper into a journal!

Well, fortunately, someone has discredited this paper much better than I could. It’s good old Jason Rosenhouse, who dealt with it at The Panda’s Thumb, a site that’s been very quiet lately (probably because ID creationism is on its last legs). Jason’s take on the Thorvaldsen and Hössjer paper is at the site below (click on screenshot). His take isn’t either positive or pretty. He concludes that the paper is bullshit (my words, not his), and that it shouldn’t have been accepted in the journal. He gives reasons for this conclusion. Rosenhouse is a math professor as well as someone who knows a ton about both biology and creationism, and so is well qualified to assess the paper’s claims.

I’ll quote just a few bits from the paper. One of Jason’s main beefs is that “fine tuning” isn’t well defined for these biological systems. Further, biological systems don’t evolve the way the authors say, and if you want to calculate probabilities, you have to do it using the way evolution works: sequentially, acting on pre-existing adaptive systems. But I am characterizing his argument. Let me give a few quotes:

The situation only gets worse when [the authors of the paper above] turn to biology. Here their primary example of fine-tuning comes from so-called “irreducibly complex” systems in biology. They even coin the term “Behe-system” after biochemist Michael Behe, who developed the idea in its modern form. The authors write, “[William] Dembski applies the term ‘Discrete Combinatorial Object’ to any of the biomolecular systems which have been defined by Behe as having ‘irreducible complexity’.” Mimicking the approach taken by Dembski in his book No Free Lunch, they go on to write, “Then the probability of a protein complex is the multiplicative product of the probabilities of the origination of its constituent parts, the localization of those parts in one place, and the configuration of those parts into the resulting system (contact topology).” There then follows a bona fide equation, complete with Greek letters, subscripts, and even a big pi to indicate a product.

This is the point where a legitimate peer-reviewer would have thrown the paper aside, refusing to read any further, because every word is nonsense. Complex systems do not evolve through three distinct phases of origination, localization, and configuration, for heaven’s sake. But let’s leave that aside and play along for a moment.

Yes, the equations are nothing but ways to show how one calculates probabilities. The question, as we know, is whether the assumptions behind the calculations are sound and, if they are, do we have good estimates of the probabilities. The answers are “no” and “no” respectively.

Considering Dembski’s ludicrous assumption that probabilities should be calculated de novo, not using the way evolution works, versus they way they should be calculated—by “imagining the correct configuration arising gradually through a sequence of less effective systems until the modern form appears”—Jason says this:

In No Free Lunch, William Dembski effectively chose the former option in each of these questions, which is why everyone laughed at him. But we obviously need to consider the latter, and we equally obviously have no hope of assigning numbers to any of the relevant variables. Incredibly, the authors even acknowledge this point, writing, “Modeling the formation of structures like protein complexes via this three-part process … is of course problematic because the parameters in the model are very difficult to estimate.” But having just admitted to wasting the reader’s time developing a useless equation, they claim nonetheless that it has heuristic value. It does not, because this three-fold process has precisely zero connection to any real biological process.

Here’s a rule of thumb for you: If an author says he will address the question of whether a complex system could have arisen through evolution by natural selection, and then later says he will use probability theory to address the issue, then you can stop reading right there, because everything that comes next will be nonsense. Probability theory is just flatly the wrong tool for this job because there is no hope of defining a proper probability space within which to carry out a calculation.

But go over to Panda’s Thumb and, if you’re interested in why the new ID paper is garbage, read Jason’s entire review. I must, however, quote his acrid conclusion:

Desirous of keeping this post to a reasonable length, I have focused on what I take to be the absolutely fatal flaw of this paper. The authors claim to have used probability theory to establish a scientifically rigorous and useful notion of “fine-tuning,” but they have failed because we have nothing like the information we would need to carry out meaningful probability calculations. Done.

But I don’t think I’ve adequately communicated just how bad this paper is. The authors are constantly tossing out bits of mathematical jargon and notation, but then they do nothing with them. There is a frustrating lack of precision, as when they variously describe fine-tuning as an object, an entity, a method, and an attribute of a system, all on the first page of the paper. They constantly cite creationist references, with only the most glancing mention that any of this work has been strongly and cogently criticized. They say we should give fair consideration to a “design model” for the origination of complex structures, but they give not the beginning of a clue as to what such a model entails.

In short, it’s hard to believe this paper could have gotten through an honest peer-review process (as opposed to one in which ideology played a big role). Whatever happened behind the scenes, it’s a huge black eye for the journal.

I’m not sure what the Journal of Theoretical Biology will do in the face of objections like Jason’s; clearly other people must have contacted the journal as well. But it is a black eye for the journal, and the paper’s publication should by no means be seen as giving ID any more credibility.

Speaking of which, this is how far ID advocates have fallen. The piece below appeared at the Discovery Institute website Evolution News. (The article also cites the new ID paper.) I find it interesting that that site doesn’t allow comments.

 

Egnor: We need to pray during this pandemic

March 9, 2020 • 11:30 am

Once again the creationist neurosurgeon Michael Egnor can’t resist scrutinizing my website and trying to find flaws in what I say. I suppose this is because he and his Discovery Institute colleagues, despite their confident assurances of two decades ago, have failed to make progress in getting the scientific community to accept Intelligent Design. So, like a frustrated pigeon pecking at a leaf, he pecks at me.

He’s really surpassed himself this time, though, for in his latest diatribe he claims to show that a.) prayer works during a pandemic, despite my mocking Mike Pence’s coronavirus response team praying together; b). Science’s rejection of gods, or at least its failure to seriously entertain divine actions in science—is circular and wrong; and c.) There’s strong proof that there’s a God.

This article appears in the site Mind Matters, which is run by the creationist Discovery Institute. Its theme appears to be that materialism (what I call “naturalism”) is false and that science can’t explain the material phenomena of the world. The usual guff! Click on the screenshot for a good laugh:

Let’s take Egnor’s three claims in order. Since he’s drunk the Kool-Aid, it’s easy to respond.

1.)  Prayer works in a pandemic. Egnor’s claims are indented.

The wisdom and efficacy of prayer in a crisis depends wholly on one question: is the prayer directed to Someone who is real, or is prayer based on a delusion?

If the Object of supplication is real, then prayer is probably the first thing you want to do in a crisis. A plea to the Boss is a fine preamble to the grunt work of managing a crisis. I’m a neurosurgeon, and I pray before each operation. It really helps.

If there is no real Object of supplication, then prayer is based on a delusion. But it’s interesting to note that, as historian Rodney Stark has pointed out, prayer and Christian faith during ancient epidemics saved lives because faithful Christians stuck around during epidemics. They provided care to afflicted neighbors who would not have survived except that they had kindly courageous friends to nurse them. St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital—the world’s leading cancer center for children, was founded because of a prayer. So the focus and compassion evoked by prayer saves lives, whether or not God is there to hear the prayer.

This is Pascal’s Wager applied to prayer.  First of all, what evidence does Egnor have that prayer “really helps” when he operates? And whom does it help? If it helps Egnor operate, fine; a New Ager could also be calmed by rubbing crystals before an operation.

But the true test is whether it helps the patient. I doubt Egnor has any evidence for that, as it would require controlled tests. Do religious neurosurgeons who pray before an operation have better outcomes than nonbelieving surgeons? I doubt it, but the onus is on Egnor to show it. The only really good test of the efficacy of intercessory prayer in healing—the Templeton-funded study of healing in cardiac patients—showed no effect at all of prayer in healing, not even an effect in the right direction. The only significant effect was in the direction opposite to that prediction—intercessory prayer hurt the patients in one measure of healing!

And we don’t need a Christian community now during a pandemic: that’s been replaced by epidemiologists and, most of all, medicine and medical care, all based on materialistic science. 

Finally, has Dr. Egnor asked himself this: if praying to God stops people from dying, so God has the power to cure, why did God allow coronavirus to spread in the first place? It’s not just killing off evil people, you know: it’s taking babies who haven’t even had the chance to do evil, or learn about the salvific effects of accepting Jesus.  In fact, pandemics are one bit of evidence against the existence of any god who is powerful and empathic.

2.) Science’s rejection of God and divine intervention in nature is wrong because it’s circular. This is Egnor’s dumbest argument:

Of course, if God does not exist, Coyne is right to imply that prayer is based on a delusion. But here’s the point: if God does exist, prayer is essential.

So, I ask Coyne, does God exist? Coyne’s answers to the pivotal question have been puerile. His arguments center on an astonishing line of reasoning:

1) [S]cience is about finding material explanations of the world
2) Only materialistic explanations have been found by science
3) Therefore, no non-material explanations for nature are needed.

So Coyne uses science that expunges theism to refute theism. In short, he concludes that atheism is true by using a scientific method that presupposes atheism. Oddly, Coyne finds this logic compelling.

There’s no circularity here. Science is perfectly capable of sussing out supernatural explanations for things, as I discuss in Faith Versus Fact. If prayer worked, that would be one hint of a god or gods, and you can test that (n.b., it doesn’t work). If only CHRISTIAN prayers worked and not those of Jews or Muslims, that would be even more evidence for a god. And I discuss scenarios in my book which would convince many, including me, that there was a god. It’s just too bad for Egnor that none of this evidence has ever come to light.

In fact, there was a time when the supernatural and religion were part of science: when Newton thought God’s twiddling was necessary to keep the planets in their orbits, because Newton thought their orbits were otherwise unstable. Then Laplace showed that a naturalistic explanation explained the stability. There was a time when everyone thought the remarkable adaptations of plants and animals, as well as their origins, required a divine creator. Then Darwin came along and gave the correct naturalistic explanation. Over the history of humanity, one divine explanation after another for things like lightning, diseases, and plagues have been replaced by naturalistic explanation.

So here’s the lesson, which I’ll put in bold.  Science doesn’t reject divine or supernatural explanations because we rule them out in advance. We reject them because they haven’t been shown to work. (Sadly, my Ph.D. advisor Dick Lewontin once gave an unwise quote that has served repeatedly as ammunition for creationists who claim that scientists are sworn not to accept any evidence for gods, divinity or the supernatural. We’re not! Science investigates supernatural claims all the time.)

3.) Finally, Egnor says that the arguments for God’s existence are convincing. Here’s how he proves God:

It is noteworthy that Coyne’s efforts to refute the actual arguments for God’s existence consist of his insistence that he really isn’t so stupid and he provides a few links. He obviously doesn’t understand the arguments, nor does he wish to learn them.

If God exists, prayer in crisis is warranted and even essential. The arguments for God’s existence are irrefutable. Aquina’s Five Ways are a handy summary:

Aquinas’ First Way and a Stack of Books

Irrefutable, Impeccable, Inescapable: Aquinas’ Second Way

Aquinas’ Third Way: An Analogy to Moonlight

Evidence for the existence of God, as provided by Aquinas, actually consists of the same logical and evidentiary process as science itself, only with much stronger logic and more abundant evidence than any other scientific theory.

And, as Porky said,

And it is all. If there are going to be arguments for god that are convincing, they will have to be empirical ones, not theoretical lucubrations of ancient theologians.

Trump’s new chief of staff is a young-earth creationist who lied to the government and helps promulgate lies to children

March 8, 2020 • 10:00 am

One thing that’s been missing from this election cycle—as it’s been missed in nearly every Presidential election—is questioning the candidates about their acceptance of evolution. In fact, I don’t remember Trump ever being asked this question. In 2016, the other Republican candidates mostly ducked the question (see also here), and for the life of me I can’t say that any of the Democratic candidates have “endorsed” evolution, though I suspect they would. Republicans, of course, lose nothing by denying evolution or evading its discussion, since most Americans don’t accept evolution either, and Republicans are more averse to it than Democrats. Here’s a table from a Pew Research study in 2014:

While the figures are still disappointing vis-à-vis Democrats, 27% of whom believe in young-earth creationism, that’s still more than 20 points lower than Republicans; and I can’t help but think that a Democrat who denied or waffled about evolution would hurt their candidacy. Because the evidence for evolution is so strong, asking candidates about it—like asking them about global warming—is a measure of how closely they adhere to the facts rather than to a conservative and tribalistic orthodoxy.

Nevertheless, it’s not surprising when a Republican comes out denying or questioning evolution. And now one of them, Mark Meadows, whom Donald Trump just appointed as his chief of staff, replacing Mick Mulvaney, appears to be a full-blown young-earth creationist, one who participated actively in fostering creationist lies to children by helping Ken Ham’s Answers in Genesis organization.

Meadows has been a conservative Congressman from North Carolina since 2013, and will now help run the White House. The details of his creationism are given in this story from last October’s New Yorker. It’s a bit long and tedious (there’s a shorter version here), but I’ll give the gist below. (Click on the screenshot to read the piece.)

1.) Meadows acquired a 134-acre piece of property in Colorado some time ago, and then sold it in 2014 for $200,000 to Answers in Genesis (AIG). The property was in fact in the city of Dinosaur, Colorado named because the area, and Meadows’s property, is rich in dinosaur fossils.

2.) Why are creationists so interested in dinosaurs, whose existence would seem to refute Biblical creationism? Because they maintain that dinos and humans existed at the same time—not that long ago—and not only survived the Flood, but were aboard the Ark. Here’s a summary of the AIG view (my emphasis):

Dinosaurs were created by God on Day 6 of creation, approximately 6,000 years ago, and were originally vegetarian. During the global Flood, many were buried and fossilized but two of each kind survived on Noah’s Ark. They eventually died out, due to human activity, climate changes, or other factors.

Don’t ask me how they got the big ones aboard the Ark, and how they loaded enough vegetation aboard to feed them all. (In a video above, Ken Ham suggests that it was only baby dinosaurs were on the Ark, and there were only about 50 Biblical “kinds” of dinos, which nevertheless included the T. rex “kind”.) Then, after Adam and Eve sinned, many dinosaurs, because of the Fall, became carnivorous (this is how ridiculous it gets).  Then they went extinct, which is why we don’t see them today.

3.) Creationists want dinosaur skeletons to put on display in the Creation Museum to impress the kids and promulgate lies. The most famous one found on the property that became Meadows’s is this skeleton of the large and carnivorous (after the Flood) Allosaurus in the Creation Museum.

4.) The Allosaurus is the subject of a lot of the New Yorker piece, as AIG claims it was largely excavated by homeschooled creationist children, while the facts suggest that this wasn’t the case and it was professionally excavated. (Why this is so important to the article is a mystery.) At any rate, AIG made a one-hour movie about it, called “Raising the Allosaur”, which you can still find on Vimeo. I’ve put it below but haven’t watched it. Meadows is in it.

5.) Meadows did not report his ownership of the property, nor its sale, to the House Ethics committee, which is required. It’s not clear why he evaded this responsibility, but it may be to hide his connection with Answers in Genesis. That’s the official species of lying.

6.) Here’s what the New Yorker article says about Meadows’s faith; this, along with his sale of the property to AiG, is sufficient for me to accept that he’s a young-earth creationist, although he’s never openly admitted he’s one:

Meadows is very open about his faith and has been an outspoken advocate for homeschooling as a congressman. When he first ran for Congress, he was endorsed by Michael Farris, the founder of the Home School Legal Defense Association, where Doug Phillips worked before creating Vision Forum. (Farris distanced himself from Phillips following the reports of Phillips’s relationship with his nanny; Farris also insisted that he was “uncomfortable” with Phillips’s “patriarchy theory” for years, though this has been disputed.) “I think he’s one of the best members of Congress, by far,” Farris told me, of Meadows. “He’s stood up for religious freedom. He has a backbone, and he’s stood by the issues that he campaigned on.” Farris is also the founder of Patrick Henry College, which mandates the teaching of creationism and also touts the number of White House internships that its students receive. Meadows’s son is a graduate; Meadows delivered a commencement address there last year. I asked Farris whether he knew anything about Meadows’s views on the age of the Earth. “We’ve never talked about creationism, but I would assume that he, like me, believes in creation,” Farris said.

So be it. Another likely creationist high up in the government.

We still don’t know if Trump accepts evolution (he’d never admit it even if he was smart enough to understand it and accept the evidence), but it would be amusing to see a good reporter ask him about this. Imagine the brain-dumpy verbiage that would ensue! Readers may want to amuse themselves by imagining what Trump would say, and putting their speculations it in the comments.

h/t: Don

 

A librarian classifies Ken Ham’s book on dinosaurs

February 9, 2020 • 9:15 am

With the exception of a few censorious individuals (see here and here), I am a big fan of librarians—especially school librarians and public librarians. They regularly refuse to censor or remove controversial books from their libraries, put on displays of banned books, and are, in general, adamant proponents of free expression. One example, which I love, is this one just published in Intellectual Freedom Blog, from the Office of Intellectual Freedom of the American Library Association (what a great place to work!). It’s about a librarian who was asked to remove or reshelve a book on dinosaurs by Ken Ham. (This was, of course, a creationist screed.) Click on the screenshot below to read the story:

Jacqui Higgins-Dailey is a librarian who works for both the Phoenix (Arizona) Public Library and is an adjunct faculty member at Glendale Community College. In the former job she got an unusual request, and the seriousness with which she took it, and the research she did in deciding where to put that book, is admirable. Here’s what Ms. Higgins-Dailey writes:

Phoenix Public Library gets very few requests for reconsideration each year but most of them are for children’s materials, which is not a surprise. Parents are concerned about the materials that their children consume, as they should be – but oftentimes this results in their desire to remove materials for all children.

Dinosaurs for Kids by Ken Ham

As it happens, there was a request for reconsideration waiting for me to research on my first day of work in the collection development department. The title was Dinosaurs for Kids by Ken Ham. The request came from a parent concerned about being misled by the book’s title. The book was shelved in 567.9 (dinosaurs) but the information within the book was a biblical interpretation of the timeline of when dinosaurs walked the earth. The parent was concerned that it was shelved with the other books about dinosaurs from a scientific perspective and requested that the library remove the book or shelve in a religious section.

This was a tricky question because it is imperative, as public librarians, we offer materials for people who ascribe to a variety of different belief systems. But, the title in question did not fit with the standard scientific theories on when dinosaurs walked the earth, claimed that humans and dinosaurs walked the earth together, and that dinosaurs were created on Day 6, when God created animals.

So, I did what librarians do best – I researched. I read the entire book and confirmed it was a religious interpretation of dinosaurs from a biblical perspective. I noted that it specifically gave tips on how to refute scientific theories on evolution. Then, I looked at where this item was shelved in other libraries, using WorldCat to find other systems in AZ that had this title, and found that they were shelved in the religious section – either 231.7 (divine law and miracles) or 220.859 (biblical animals).

It went to “biblical animals”. LOL!

With this information, I consulted with our collection manager and we both determined it would make the most sense to shelve the title in 220.859. I crafted a letter to share our determination with the customer who made the request.

In my time in the role of children & teen collection development librarian, we have not removed any materials from the library. As librarians, we know removing offending materials isn’t a feasible solution and usually explaining our selection policies and reasons we will retain the book is enough to satisfy our customers. This has been the case, so far, with all of the titles that have come across my desk with requests for removal.

I agree with Ms. Higgins-Dailey that these books should not be censored or removed from the library. A public library is one place where freedom of speech—or, in this case, writing—is an imperative. How else can people judge creationism unless they can read its arguments and assertions?

Now since creationism isn’t science but a form of religion, those books needn’t be placed in the science section, but they need to be available. This librarian’s diligence is admirable, and her decision on the mark. Therefore, I give her the WEIT nod as Librarian of the Year, even though the year’s barely started.

Jacqui Higgins-Dailey

h/t: Ginger K

Creationist to lead Brazilian higher education agency

January 29, 2020 • 1:00 pm

by Greg Mayer

Science Insider reports that Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has appointed Benedito Aguiar, a creationist, as head of CAPES, an agency which oversees graduate training in Brazil and funds thousands of graduate students. According to Science Insider, he is

. . . an electrical engineer by training, previously served as the rector of Mackenzie Presbyterian University (MPU), a private religious school here. It advocates the teaching and study of intelligent design (ID), an outgrowth of biblical creationism that argues that life is too complex to have evolved by Darwinian evolution, and so required an intelligent designer.

And, he takes his creationism seriously:

Aguiar Neto was recently quoted in an MPU press release as saying that ID should be introduced into Brazil’s basic education curricula as “a counterpoint to the theory of evolution,” and so that creationism could be supported by “scientific arguments.” He made the comments prior to the second Congress on Intelligent Design, which was held at Mackenzie in October 2019. The event was organized by Discovery Mackenzie, a research center created by MPU in 2017 to mirror the Discovery Institute in Seattle, which also promotes ID.

Evangelical Christians are strong supporters of Bolsonaro, and this is the second active creationist he has appointed. (The other is the minister of family, women, and human rights.)

Evolutionary biologists in Brazil are protesting. Evolutionary biology has long been an active area of research in Brazil, going back at least to the era of scientific exploration in the 18th and 19th centuries, when the country’s great biodiversity was documented. These discoveries, in turn, had an important influence on the biogeographic and systematic evidence for descent with modification. Beginning in 1943, Theodosius Dobzhansky began influencing and collaborating with Brazilian geneticists, helping to develop evolutionary genetics as an ongoing discipline in Brazil, and studies of biodiversity continue to be a strength. (One of the leaders in the latter, the herpetologist Paulo Vanzolini, whom I knew, was also one of Brazil’s greatest samba composers!)

h/t: Brian Leiter

A creationist writes in espousing the Argument from Incredulity

December 20, 2019 • 12:30 pm

Here we have, from San Diego (of course), an email from a man who is an ardent exponent of the Argument for God from Incredulity. I’ve omitted his name so as not to embarrass him.  I appear to have been the sole recipient of the email, but given its salutation, it was probably sent to other scientists considered as deluded as I. The theme of this screed is the claim that some animal behaviors are so complex that they could not have evolved by a Darwinian step-by-step process.  Ergo, God did it. (You will recognize this argument as the basis for Intelligent Design.) On top of this is laid the idea that an animal, when performing an adaptive act, has to “know” what it’s doing, and animals just don’t have brains like that.

This is a longish email so I’ll briefly discuss only two examples, parasitic larvae keeping their hosts alive by eating only non-essential organs, and the archerfish, which spits water at prey above the water (mostly insects) and is amazingly accurate. In both cases I’ll propose an adaptive pathway that eliminates the necessity for invoking divine intervention.

The email (the bold bits are mine):

To Those of Evolutionary Bent:

This is the story of a wasp (Pompilidae) and a spider (Ctenizidae), or the trap-door spider. The two have a peculiar relationship: the wasp uses the spider as a larder for its young, laying its eggs (or one egg) on or inside the living spider, placing the paralyzed creature back inside its burrow until the wasp larva can hatch out and consume its still-living host.

But this is no easy task. First, the wasp must find the well-camouflaged spider residence. A very good sense of smell, and observation of possible spider burrows from the air or on the ground, depending on the habits of the particular wasp specie, are certainly necessary to the work. Still, considering the area that must be reconnoitered by the wasp to find a spider ensconced in a camouflaged hole in the ground, it is a task that would put many military intelligence workers to shame.

Then the wasp attacks: sometimes is merely pulls on alarm-webbing that surrounds the burrow. This will bring the spider out into the open, expecting a ready-made meal. If the wasp is quick enough, it can sting the spider, perhaps in the midsection, before the creature can react. The spiders, for their part, boast long, deadly (to insects) fangs, dripping with paralyzing poison. The spider may recognize the danger and duck back into its fortress. If it successfully closes the trapdoor, the wasp will be shut out; the spider can hold the door shut with two or four legs, and hold on to its home’s wall with the other four. No problem: the wasp merely chews off the door’s hinges, and comes face-to-face with an angry spider! Then, we have a problem: how the wasp will deal with the spider head-on. Some wasps have a talent for hypnosis; they appear to stroke the spider with their antennae, putting it into a restive state. In other cases, the wasp merely turns her back on the monster Arachnid, and stabs it in the head with her formidable stinger: end of combat. But the beginning of a paralyzed end for the spider.

Then, the wasp can lay its egg; sometimes on and, for other species, inside the spider. Then we have another question: how does the larval wasp, when hatched, know to eat only non-essential parts of the paralyzed spider, in order to keep it alive until it can pupate and become a living, flying wasp? For it certainly eats everything except the vital organs, leaving the best ’til last, when it can gnaw its way to freedom and spread its wings to find a mate and then go spider-hunting.

So all this, the wasp, the unfortunate spider, and their dueling interactions, were brought about by Biological Evolution, a la Charles Darwin or some other foolish inquisitor. Really? You’ll excuse me in my dubiousness. We must add this paradigm to many others: the construction of the mammalian eye and function of the rods and cones; the need for the brain to turn the upside-down image transmitted to it, right-side up. Then there’s the Archerfish (Toxotes), which can “shoot”, via spitting jets of water at its insect prey from an underwater perch, compensating easily for the water’s refraction, even at odd angles. And the Cleaner Wrasse fish (Lambroides dimidiatus) that pops into the mouths of large and dangerous predator-fish to clean them of parasites and dead tissue, even excess mucus; and can “service” up to 2000 “customers” in a four-hour feeding period. Yet, they remain uneaten by sometimes hungry patrons visiting the “cleaning station ” on the reef.

Indeed, there are hundreds, if not thousands of such stories, each more mysterious than the last: all pointing to a Creator, certainly not One Who would use a “dog-eat-dog” process like evolution. But certainly One Who left His fingerprints on all of His work in the creation as we have come to know it.

And what of the variations that occur in the known species, as Darwin himself pointed out in the birds of the Galapagos Islands? Is this, too, “evolution”? Different colors, different beaks, different diets, different sizes and breeding habits– these are all adaptations afforded them for their continued survival in a world where “climate change,” earthquakes, volcanoes, and man’s activities can cause conditions to change. No one so far has noted Darwin’s birds changing into other species or non-avian creatures. Not very likely, I think.

The fact is, that Biological Evolution, of whatever description or fancy, is a Scientific dodge to avoid calling for the creation– and the Creator– in their theories and hypotheses. It is a gigantic academic hoax, that in fact has played a major role in political axioms like Nazism, Communism, and Fascism which have resulted in the deaths of hundreds of millions human beings. And I challenge these scientists who insist that it “must be true” to answer the facts presented here or by numerous other critics to give evidence in support of their positions. We seek the truth of the matter, not mere theories, hypotheses, or suppositions. So far the Scientific World has been unable or unwilling to come up with it.’

Name redacted

Let’s take the larval wasp first.  The way to address the incredulity argument is to postulate a plausible step-by-step process in which each step is adaptive. And then couple that with variation in the trait under consideration—variation due to mutation. If the nonadaptive variants leave no offspring, but the adaptive variants do, then you get evolution by natural selection. There’s not necessarily any “knowing” here on the part of the animal, at least in the cognitive sense—just different behaviors that can be performed automatically. A microbe doesn’t “know” to move towards a food source: to paraphrase Jessica Rabbit, it’s just evolved that way.

In the case of the wasp, all that is required is that different larvae have different propensities to eat the organs of the spider. How could this happen? Well, presumably the different organs of a spider can be perceived differently by the larval wasp, either by their location or, more plausibly, by the fact that they “taste” different. If different wasps prefer different “tastes” (or internal locations), and some of that variation is based on variation in genes, then the problem is solved. That’s because those wasps with a taste for the vital organs, or for indiscriminate eating, will kill their hosts early and stand less of a chance of surviving (if you kill your spider host too early, it decays and will not constitute good, fresh food, so that you may die or be malnourished).  On the other hand, those larvae having less of a taste for the vital bits of the spider host, and thus which eat those bits last, will be the ones most likely to survive and leave offspring.  Over time, this results in the evolution of a behavior in which all wasps eat the nonessential organs first, only finishing up with the vital ones when they’re about to pupate. Note that there is no conscious “knowing” here: all that’s required is variation in how you eat your host, and you need no cognition for that—only an attraction to eating some organs more than others. And this is not implausible.

That takes care of the wasp. How about the archerfish? Well, all you need is a starting behavior that can be improved and refined so that fish can not only spit water at prey above the water, but do it accurately. Of course that seems implausible because it requires that one envision fish that have some tendency to spit water in the first place, and of what use is that?

First, let’s look at how these amazing animals operate:

 

How could that evolve? While it’s not difficult to see that once you can acquire food by squirting insects and knocking them into the water, natural selection will then improve your aim, enabling you to judge distance, compensate for refraction, and so on. In fact, not just evolution (which involves no “knowing”), but there is also real learning here, as, if you do a bit of Googling, you find that young archerfish are pretty lousy at knocking down their prey, and have to improve their skills with practice. That may be real knowing.

But how did the whole scenario get started? A little more Googling shows that at least some archerfish use a similar technique to displace silt beneath the water, uncovering hidden prey.  That’s pretty easy to explain, as you’re not really aiming but foraging, and you already have the equipment to do that: producing jets of water outside of your mouth, which is apparently common in fish. The New Scientist article that I found in about a minute of Googline says this (I’ve put a possible “solution” in bold):

To their surprise, the researchers found that the archerfish were able to alter the length and type of water blast to suit the type of sediment. Their shots were shortest if the sediment was coarse-grained and increased in length as the sand became finer.

“The big question is: how did they know beforehand which type of silt was which, and so how long they should blast it for?” asks [Stefan] Schuster. The answer might be that they are adept underwater shooters in the wild, too.

Which came first – aerial or underwater shooting – also remains to be established.

“Perhaps some tendency to produce underwater jets might have been there first, because this is widespread among fish,” says Schuster. Triggerfish use jets to turn round sea urchins to get access to their soft parts, for example, and lionfish use jets to orient small prey fish for easier swallowing.

“Many other fish and invertebrates forage by disturbing the ground, and this is probably the ancestral condition,” says Alex Kacelnik of the University of Oxford. “Archerfish probably thus started with this ordinary skill then transitioned to targets probably at, or narrowly above, the surface and this created new selective pressures to focus and aim water jets at ever higher targets.”

“It’s a lovely example of the incremental and interactive process of evolution of complex traits through natural selection,” he says.

Schuster says the two techniques might have evolved in parallel, with the fish building on and adapting their skills according to their habitat.

So here we have an initial condition whose evolution isn’t hard to understand. Once you squirt at the silt below you to uncover prey, selection would improve that ability, as would learning, and maybe you’d start homing in on things that you see in the sediment.  You then have the ability to be a living squirt gun. If a mutant fish then simply squirted at an object it could see, but one at the surface or above the water, a successful squirt would bring you food, and, importantly, reproduction. You might in fact get more food than other individuals in the population who aren’t aiming at insects directly but just foraging willy-nilly, with most of their squirts being fruitless. And if that were the case, both selection and learning (apparently fish can learn!) would work together to improve the ability of archerfish to squirt at prey above the water. The compensation for refraction, intensity of squirt, and so on, would then be honed by both selection and learning.

Now I don’t know if this scenario really happened, or if both types of squirting evolved together (which is also plausible given that there’s a general advantage to squirting), but we can envision the first steps in the evolution of archerfish behavior—adaptive steps. And the rest, as they say, is commentary (i.e., improvement by selection). No need to default to God.

The rest of the email, including the claims that we see microevolution but not macroevolution, and that Darwinism begat Nazism, Communism, and so on, doesn’t deserve rebuttal here; I’ve done that many times before.  And I’m not going to write a personal answer to this fellow (yes, he’s male), as that would mire me in a back-and-forth exchange that would be totally unproductive. I just wanted to give some examples of how the Argument from Incredulity, which of course is the basis for Intelligent Design Creationism, can be addressed by thinking of plausible and adaptive intermediate steps in the evolution of a trait.  If you can do that, then there’s no need to posit a God, since ID and the kind of creationism espoused above require that one cannot conceive of an adaptive pathway for the evolution of a trait. If you can, then the whole ID/creationist enterprise, which of course requires the additional postulate of a complex Designer for which there’s no evidence, becomes unparsimonious and superfluous.

Ohio House passes bill apparently allowing students to give wrong answers if those answers are based on religious conviction

November 15, 2019 • 10:45 am

Here we go again. It’s fairly normal procedure for evolutionary biologists to tell their creationist students that they don’t have to accept the evolution they’re taught in class, but they must at least regurgitate the correct answers on exams. But the House part of the Ohio state legislature has apparently gone further—they’ve passed a bill mandating that students cannot be penalized (or rewarded) for giving answers on tests or assignments that comport with their religion.

Read this report at Cleveland.com (click on screenshot):

From the site:

The Ohio House sent to the Senate on Wednesday a measure that would prohibit public schools from penalizing students for some work that contains religious beliefs.

Critics have called the bill unnecessary or valuing religion over secularism. One critic said under the bill, if a student turned in homework saying the earth is 10,000 years old – a belief held by some creationists — they couldn’t get docked in their grade. However, the bill’s sponsor said it was more nuanced than that.

House Bill 164 passed the House 61 to 31.

Now I can’t access the bill since the ship won’t let me, but I’m trying to get a copy from someone. In the meantime, you can read it for yourself, and I’ll rely on a summary given by the site. (UPDATE: I’ve now been able to see the bill and have added a few more of its stipulations.)

HB 164, known as the Ohio Student Religious Liberties Act of 2019:

  • Requires public schools to give students the same access to facilities if they want to meet for religious expression as they’d give secular groups.
  • Removes a provision that allows school districts to limit religious expression to lunch periods or other non-instructional times.
  • Allows students to engage in religious expression before, during and after school hours to the same extent as a student in secular activities or expression.
  • Prohibits schools from restricting a student from engaging in religious expression in completion of homework, artwork and other assignments.

It also specifies a daily “moment of silence for all students”: “for prayer, reflection, or meditation upon a moral, philosophical, or patriotic theme”, but adds that no student will be required to participate. But a student who doesn’t remain silent will surely be demonized, so this is bizarre. Its purpose, though, is clear: it’s a Christian ploy to get students to start the school day with a prayer. 

The bill is worrisome because of course the second and fourth parts are clear violations of the First Amendment. None of us have problems with schools giving religious groups the same rights as secular groups, which in fact is required by the First Amendment. Religious expression during instructional times impedes student education, and where there’s a conflict like this between religious wishes and governmental requirements, it’s almost always resolved in favor of the government (religious exemptions for vaccinations, allowed in many states, is an exception). Rendering unto Caesar is standard practice.

The fourth bit—the subject of this post and the Ohio bill—is especially worrisome, because it allows students to give wrong answers if those wrong answers comport with their faith. That, too, is inimical to the public welfare, and to the duty of public education, in the service of religion. While the bill is said to be more “nuanced” than that, I don’t know how, and even the bill’s supporters aren’t sure.

Here’s what that bit says in the bill:

Sec. 3320.03. No school district board of education, governing authority of a community school established under Chapter 3314. of the Revised Code, governing body of a STEM school established under Chapter 3326. of the Revised Code, or board of trustees of a college-preparatory boarding school established under Chapter 3328. of the Revised Code shall prohibit a student from engaging in religious expression in the completion of homework, artwork, or other written or oral assignments. Assignment grades and scores shall be calculated using ordinary academic standards of substance and relevance, including any legitimate pedagogical concerns, and shall not penalize or reward a student based on the religious content of a student’s work.

You can see the ambiguity here. On the one hand the code permits students to use religious expression to do homework or answer test questions, and to do so without penalty (or reward); on the other hand it says that assignments will be graded “using ordinary academic standards of substance and relevance.” That gives no guidelines about what to do when a student says that the Bible says that the Earth is 10,000 years old, or that all animals and plants were created within a day or two because that’s what Genesis says. This is a bill that’s simply begging for a lawsuit.

How do the sponsors justify such a ridiculous incursion in public education—an incursion that, if legal, would presumably apply not just in secondary schools, but in state colleges and universities? Here’s the justification:

Children these days face pressures over drug use, student violence and increasing rates of depression and suicide, said bill sposnor Rep. Timothy Ginter, Youngstown-area Republican.

“We live in a day when our young people are experiencing stress and danger and challenges we never experienced growing up,” he said.

Ginter said he’s convinced that allowing religious self-expression would be positive.

Well, there’s plenty of chance for religious self-expression after school or in church. And there’s no excuse for impeding students’ education by giving them credit for religious answers that are wrong—or failing to tell them that they’re wrong, even if you don’t penalize them. If you want religious answers to be acceptable, have your kids home-schooled—or send them to religious schools.

But would the bill allow students to get credit for wrong answers that buttress their faith? It’s not clear; that might depend on the results of later First-Amendment lawsuits. The Cleveland.com website says this:

ACLU [American Civil Liberties Union] of Ohio Chief Lobbyist Gary Daniels called HB 164 a mixed bag. On the one hand it removes some restrictions on students’ religious rights.

I think Daniels is a bit off the mark here. Those “restrictions on students’ religious rights” are already prohibited by the First Amendment (first and third points above). So what’s new?

Here’s the ambiguous bit:

On the other hand, Daniels said that if a student submitted biology homework saying the earth is 10,000 years old, as some creationists believe, the teacher cannot dock points.

“Under HB 164, the answer is ‘no,’ as this legislation clearly states the instructor ‘shall not penalize or reward a student based on the religious content of a student’s work,” he said.

Well, that’s confusing! If you can neither penalize nor reward students for arguing that, for example, the Earth is 10,000 years old, what can you do? If you give them credit, you’re rewarding them. If you give them no credit, you’re penalizing them.

Amber Epling, a spokeswoman for Ohio House Democrats, said that in an analysis of the bill by the legislature’s nonpartisan staff, “they cannot be rewarded or penalized for the religious content in their assignments.”

She believes the bill could result in teachers accepting assignments that fly in the face of science.

But I think it’s more likely that teachers would avoid this whole issue by not asking questions that could lead to religiously-inspired answers. But that means no evolutionary biology at all, and not many biology teachers want to avoid teaching evolution, even in the American South. To deprive students of this wondrous (and true!) theory by catering to students’ faiths would be to do them a profound disservice. After all, is religion so different from other unsubstantiated faiths like Holocaust denialism? Does Scientology and its crazy claims about Xenu and thetans get “respected” too? That way lies madness.

And here’s some more madness. Sponsor Gintis says that the bill’s “nuances” prohibit students from getting credit for wrong but religiously-inspired answers, but then undermines what he said by asserting that Moses was a historical figure and you could get credit for writing about Moses as if he existed.

But Ginter, the bill’s sponsor, said that the student would get a lesser grade in a biology class for an evolution assignment. Even if the student doesn’t believe in evolutionary theory, the student must turn in work that accurately reflects what is taught.

“It will be graded using ordinary academic standards of using substance and relevance,” he said.

However, if students were assigned a report based on historic figures, they could turn in a paper on a historical figure, such as Moses or Mohammed, Ginter said.

What, exactly, is the extra-Biblical evidence for the historical existence of Moses? It’s exactly as thin as extra-Biblical evidence for the historical evidence for a Jesus figure—i.e., NO evidence.

If you’re an Ohio resident, please read the bill and then, if you object (and I’m guessing you will), write to your state senator and your governor. Though the bill has already passed the state House by a 2/3 majority, it must still pass the state Senate and then be signed into law by Governor Mike DeWine.

h/t: Woody, Fred, Kit

Trump nominates a creationist as a Ninth Circuit appellate judge

September 26, 2019 • 9:00 am

The Ninth Circuit comprises the following “judicial districts” in the western U.S., including Alaska and Hawaii; it is only one step below the Supreme Court in its power, and the Circuit’s inclusion of California makes its decisions especially important.

Brian Leiter, a professor at the University of Chicago Law School, reported that Trump appointed nominated former Solicitor General Lawrence VanDyke as a justice to this court, a nomination pronounced by the Las Vegas Review-Journal as a “stellar choice.”

Well it isn’t. Regardless of his legal views, Leiter reports that VanDyke is a creationist, and, as noted on Brian Leiter’s Law School Reports, an unrepentant and obdurate creationist:

As a student at Harvard Law School fifteen years ago, Lawrence VanDyke (Trump’s nominee) published an incompetent apologia for Intelligent Design creationism, under the guise of a “review” of a book shilling for creationism, in the Harvard Law Review.  I excoriated it on my philosophy blog, while further efforts by Mr. VanDyke to defend himself only resulted in his digging his hole deeper.

Of course, an intellectually disgraceful book review fifteen years ago shouldn’t be disqualifying, but surely Senators will want to find out if Mr. VanDyke is still a shill for creationism and how that might effect his rulings.

You can follow the links (some of them don’t work) to see VanDyke’s approbation of Intelligent-Design creationism , but it appears that VanDyke, who wrote a note favoring ID for the Harvard Law Review (???), has dug in, hardening his criticisms of evolutionary theory after Leiter went after him.  Granted, VanDyke’s initial publication was in 2004, but it’s still worrisome that nominated Federal judges can be creationists.

Indeed, unlike Leiter, I think that adherence to creationism or its gussied-up twin Intelligent Design creationism, should be disqualifying for a judge. After all, what if a judge said he didn’t believe in gravity, or bacteria? Wouldn’t that count as strong evidence about his ability to adjudicate evidence? And it’s not a certainty that more court cases about the teaching of creationism could arise. (Sometimes I quail when I think of the U.S. Supreme Court revisiting them, just as it may revisit Roe v. Wade.)

Yes, I hope the Senators responsible for VanDyke’s confirmation ask him about his creationism. In fact, this question should be asked of Trump as well (I have no idea what he’d say, but it’s guaranteed to be gibberish), as well of all the Democratic Presidential candidates (I suspect they all adhere to established science).

Acceptance of evolution is a touchstone of rationality in modern society, as is accepting the safety and efficacy of vaccinations, and since these are both matters that have been of legal interest, they’re fair game.

VanDyke (center). Photo: Lido Vizzutti, AP

h/t: Greg Mayer