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The Extraordinary Dishonesty of Creationists

I watched only a little bit of the Ken Ham – Bill Nye creationism “debate,” enough to be highly irritated by both participants. But one part of what I did watch really jumped out at me from Ham, his ridiculous attempt to dismiss the results of a brilliant experiment by Richard Lenski. Let me give some background first.

Lenski set up 12 different isolated environments (flasks, essentially) in his lab and put an equal amount of E. coli in each one, with the contents of those flasks being the same initially. Over time, he changed the environment in the flasks and let the bacteria reproduce. Every 500 generations, he removed a sample from each of the flasks and froze it, then let the rest continue to reproduce. Whenever something interesting happened — say, a big bloom in one of the flasks that indicates that something happened that facilitated greater reproduction — they could then take the current population, sequence the DNA and compare it to the frozen samples from that flask. This allows them to identify specific mutations that took place and when they took place (since they had samples from each flask every 500 generations).

One of the fascinating things that happened a few years ago is that one of the flask populations developed the ability to metabolize citrate (citric acid), meaning use it as food to fuel growth and reproduction. In the wild, E. coli can’t metabolize citrate if oxygen is present, but sub-population #3 in the lab had developed that ability, an obviously beneficial adaptation that would allow E. coli to survive and thrive in new environments when other sources of nutrients are not available. They were able to trace the development of that trait to a pair of mutations that took place at about 20,000 generations.

Ken Ham brought that experiment up and tried to debunk it by presenting a short video clip from Andrew Fabich, who teaches microbiology at Liberty University. Fabich spent the first 40 seconds giving his resume, then offered this profoundly lame response:

When I look at the evidence that people cite of E. coli supposedly evolving over 30 years, over 30,000 generations in the lab, and people say it is now able to grow on citrate, I don’t deny that it grows on citrate, but it’s not any kind of new information, the information is already there and it’s just a switch that gets turned on and off. That’s what they reported and there’s nothing new.

This is gibberish. The word “information” is utterly meaningless. What happened in that experiment is that two mutations took place that created an entirely new trait in the population in one of the 12 flasks, the ability to metabolize citrate. Those mutations made it possible for the bacteria to pull citrate molecules through its membrane. All this talk of “new information” is just hand-waving, an attempt to confuse the issue and distract attention away from the fact that an entirely new trait evolved on its own in a remarkably short period of time.

I should also note that this is exactly what Michael Behe claims can’t happen. By Behe’s definition, that new trait is “irreducibly complex” because the first mutation conferred very little survival advantage, if any (those bacteria in that flask that had the first mutation were still totally outcompeted by their glucose-metabolizing colleagues). It was only when the second mutation occurred, increasing the efficiency of the metabolizing process, that the citrate-eating bacteria took over the flask in huge numbers. Behe claims that can’t happen, yet it did.

Comments

  1. says

    Oh, sure, you Liberal Athiests pretend to worship science and respect experts, but you insist on ignoring, mocking and oppressing our experts simply because they don’t know what the fuck they’re talking about!

  2. kevinalexander says

    Behe could claim that god was watching the experiment and decided to mess with your mind.

  3. eric says

    The general consensus seems to be that Ham lost because he stuck largely to ‘because the bible tells me so’ reasoning while Nye talked evidence.

    Evidently some of the better moments came in the Q&A. They got a couple of questions of the “how do you explain X” sort. Ham answered ‘the Bible’ while Nye answered ‘We don’t know…but come join us doing science, and we’ll find out.’ Then someone asked “what would change your mind” and Ham answered “Nothing,” while Nye answered “Evidence.” The difference really doesn’t get clearer than that, folks.

  4. says

    Yeah, because there are only 4 codons (A,C,T,G) the information-limit to life is 4!!! TAKE THAT, GOD!!!! GOD was FORCED to build all the LIFE on EARTH using only 4 FACTS!

    Oh, you mean the arrangement and number of codons is what matters?
    But, we’ve observed that they can get rearranged, transposed, and double-spliced! OMG!

  5. says

    By the way, since computers only use ON/OFF as signals, the information-limit to computers is two! If you’re a creationist, I suppose you believe that a computer can only produce more versions of whatever documents that it already comes with. Because it’s not possible to add “information” – well, maybe that’s true if the information is coming via a creationist banging keys at the keyboard.

    It’s just ON and OFF, what matters is the length of the ONs and OFFs and their sequence, as well as the way the machine interprets them. I guess creationists aren’t smart enough to realize how utterly Alan Turing pwnd them.

  6. cswella says

    I watched only a little bit of the Ken Ham – Bill Nye creationism “debate,” enough to be highly irritated by both participants.

    Bill made a couple of bad jokes, but I think overall he did better than most people were expecting. Certainly better with the audience he had than Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens would have done, if we consider personality.

  7. Reginald Selkirk says

    Marcus Ranum: Yeah, because there are only 4 codons (A,C,T,G)

    There are 4 bases which can be arranged in 64 codons of 3 bases each.

  8. a_ray_in_dilbert_space says

    Actually, the “evolution can’t create new information” argument is one that is gaining in popularity among creationists–mainly because it is new and the meaning is sufficiently vague that there isn’t a standard slam-dunk refutation.

    It reminds me of the conversation between Claude Shannon and John von Neumann when Shannon was trying to come up with a name for the information content of a message that he had worked out.

    von Neumann: “You should call it entropy, for two reasons. In the first place your uncertainty function has been used in statistical mechanics under that name, so it already has a name. In the second place, and more important, no one really knows what entropy really is, so in a debate you will always have the advantage.”

    The reason why this is bullshit is that the “information” in the genetic code is merely the number of base pairs specified. To increase the information, you would have to change the numbers of base pairs–few mutations actually do this. However, if you substitute one base pair for another, you’ve changed the information, albeit not it’s amount. It is as if they are trying to say all sentences containing 50 letters have the same meaning. It’s a garbage argument.

    Evolution consists of the organism asking its environment: Do you like this? How about now? You have to be pretty dishonest with yourself not to understand that.

  9. says

    There are 4 bases which can be arranged in 64 codons of 3 bases each.

    (wail) NO! You can’t add “information”!!!

    (thanks, as you can see, I’m not up on my genes)

  10. D. C. Sessions says

    It’s just ON and OFF, what matters is the length of the ONs and OFFs and their sequence, as well as the way the machine interprets them. I guess creationists aren’t smart enough to realize how utterly Alan Turing pwnd them.

    They don’t need to pay any attention to Turing — that was just homosexual science.

  11. zenlike says

    10 a_ray_in_dilbert_space

    Actually, the “evolution can’t create new information” argument is one that is gaining in popularity among creationists–mainly because it is new and the meaning is sufficiently vague that there isn’t a standard slam-dunk refutation.

    Depends on what you mean by ‘new‘. I do think it was one of the last ‘inventions’ of the ID movement, since then, nothing. But yeah, it was wrong when it was first proposed, and it is wrong now.

  12. gshelley says

    I read this claim and it seemed unlikely, but it was not immediately clear what the mutations were that enabled the use of citrate
    http://sandwalk.blogspot.com/2013/12/lenskis-long-term-evolution-experiment.html

    there are three steps in the evolution of the cit+ clade: potentiation, actualization, and refinement. The actualization step involved a tandem duplication of part of the genome that included the citT gene. This is the gene that encodes the citrate transporter (citrate/succinate antiporter), the protein responsible for taking up citrate from the external medium. Normal wild-type E. coli do not express this gene under aerobic conditions so they are unable to utilize citrate. The citT gene is part of an operon that’s under the control of an upstream promoter to the left of the citG gene
    The duplication results in the fusion of the 3′ end of the citG gene to the 5′ end of the rnk gene. This brings the new copy of the citT gene under the control of the rnk promoter resulting in constitutive expression of CitT (citrate transporter) and uptake of citrate from the medium. Thus, the mutant bacteria are able to use citrate as a carbon source under aerobic conditions.

    The selective advantage of the initial tandem duplication was weak. The new cit+ phenotype conferred only a 1% growth advantage over the parental cit- strain. Previous results from the long-term evolution experiment suggest that this is not sufficient to take over the culture under the conditions of the experiment.

    So for this part, the Creationists seem to be acurate as far as it goes – it was a pre-existing gene being turned on. As of the writing of that blog it wasn’t known what the other mutations were that enabled the bacteria to take advantage of the new ability to import citrate. Until those are identified, they can still claim that there is no new “information” just genes being turned on or off (though if they are going to claim that isn’t new information, they should really give a very detailed explanation of what they mean by information and why it is biologically relevent. And why it doesn’t apply to the other cases where a gene has gained a new function through mutation)

  13. Dave, ex-Kwisatz Haderach says

    And once again, Modusoperandi wins the Internet for the day.

    Are they still awarding that? I thought Modus won it for all time a while ago.

  14. eric says

    gshelley

    So for this part, the Creationists seem to be acurate as far as it goes – it was a pre-existing gene being turned on.

    No, IMO they miss or represent the key point. There was no on switch to turn. What made the gene express was a mutation. To try and stick with the analogy, yes there might have been wiring in the walls leading to the overhead light. But it wasn’t connected to the circuitbreaker. It took a mutation – a novel change in the genome to punch a hole in the wall, strip the wires, and link them up to the house electricity. That sort of construction is something IDers claim evolution can’t produce.

    Is it less impressive than a saltational change, in which some genetic mutation “installs the entire wiring” all at once? Yes. But even the smaller change is stil an example of what creationists claim can’t occur – a random mutation leading to an increase in developmental complexity or function.

  15. Reginald Selkirk says

    a_ray_in_dilbert _space #10: The reason why this is bullshit is that the “information” in the genetic code is merely the number of base pairs specified.

    That’s much too straightforward, and so does not serve the purpose of obfuscation. Instead, we must invent a concept called “complex specified information,” define it only vaguely, and change the definition when weaknesses are pointed out.
    Otherwise it would be obvious that duplicating a gene increases information, even though the creationists will insist that it doesn’t.

  16. cptdoom says

    Instead of watching the “debate” I chose to watch a documentary from PBS’ NOVA show, called “What Darwin Didn’t Know” that explored the latest advances in evolutionary theory, including the finding that genetic switches are a key part of the evolutionary process, allowing different species to use or not use certain genes that are basic to all life forms. Thus snakes and whales, which evolved from animals with legs, still have the genes for leg develop and have leg buds as feti, but the switches ensure those legs don’t develop. The process of evolution is not just mutations in genes, but also in differences in how, when and for how long DNA switches activate. Thus, if the argument against evolution is, “it was just a switch,” they’re basically confirming evolutionary theory.

  17. Nick Gotts says

    To increase the information, you would have to change the numbers of base pairs–few mutations actually do this. – a_ray_in_dilbert_space

    Not so – duplications (and excisions) are quite common, and a duplication was in fact involved in the Lenski experiment – see the quote @15.

  18. gshelley says

    Eric

    No, IMO they miss or represent the key point. There was no on switch to turn.

    I take your point, but for them, I thin that might be semantics. From what I could see, the promoter itself existed and the gene existed, it was just putting them together and then duplicating it that was novel. They cold probably claim that this counts as a gene being turned on – ie one that was always there.
    I think this matters to them because they want to believe no new functions can evolve. And presumably no increase in function (ie a protein becoming more efficient)). I don’t know what mechanism they are proposing to ensure this – whether god steps in to block it, or they just think that statistically, the chances of such mutations are too low (despite having been seen in actual research)

  19. Michael Heath says

    Did Bill Nye convincingly refute Ken Ham’s false claims? If not, that’s illustrative on why Mr. Nye shouldn’t be debating creationists.

  20. waldteufel says

    Anything opined by a “scientist” at Liberty University can be safely dismissed as just made up bullshit and/or a bald faced lie. Creationists seem to be hard-wired to lie.

  21. colnago80 says

    As Jerry Coyne pointed out, Ham shot himself in the foot when he said that no evidence would convince him that he was wrong. Compare that with the response of J. B. S. Haldane when asked by an overeager Popperian what finding would falsify evolution responded a rabbit in the pre-Cambrian strata.

  22. raven says

    The actualization step involved a tandem duplication of part of the genome that included the citT gene. This is the gene that encodes the citrate transporter (citrate/succinate antiporter), the protein responsible for taking up citrate from the external medium.

    Gshelly, this right here is an increase in information. The citT gene is duplicated.

    The duplication results in the fusion of the 3′ end of the citG gene to the 5′ end of the rnk gene.

    A large increase in information. You have created a new gene by fusion. Since this is by gene duplication, probably the original copy is intact.

    The claim of the creationists that no new information has been created is simply, blatantly false. We see it every day in biology. It’s one of the main drivers of oncogenesis, a process that will kill one third of the world’s population.

    FWIW, gene duplications are one of the most common types of mutation in both bacteria and eukaryotes. There is nothing the least bit unusual about them.

  23. raven says

    FWIW, the creationist claim that evolution can’t produce new information is empirically false. It can and we see it easily and often.

    1. Duplications, gene duplications, and in the case of plants, whole genome duplications are common. One of our common wheats is a hexaploid, a combination of 3 genomes from more than one species.

    2. One of the most common evolution events we see is…cancer. Cancer is a Darwinian disease. Cells lose growth control, become immortal, evade immune surveillance, metastasize, become resistant to chemo, radiation, biologicals.

    It’s a long pathway. We can compare the host progenitor with the end stage cancer cells by DNA sequencing. Typically there are around 100 different mutations, maybe 10 or 15 of which are causal to the cancer cell phenotype.

    This is evolution, somatic cell evolution, in real time. It’s common enough that 2.3 billion of the 7 billion people alive to day will die of it.

  24. Michael Heath says

    Anyone here watch much or all of this debate? If so, I’d appreciate feedback on whether it’s worth it not.

    The perspective I seek wouldn’t be my own, but instead that of a smart teenager whose being indoctrinated to be a fundie and creationist. Would such a teenager be provided with information by Mr. Nye that reveals how science falsifies some of the key assertions made by creationists? Would such a teenager be provided with information about evolution that conservative Christians strive to keep from young people, e.g., the existence of ERVs in mammals and the implications of our observations relative to common descent? Does Mr. Nye use a wealth of facts to falsify Mr. Ham’s arguments?

  25. says

    Compare that with the response of J. B. S. Haldane when asked by an overeager Popperian what finding would falsify evolution responded a rabbit in the pre-Cambrian strata.

    Which is a stupid answer. (Maybe that was your point?) It is like saying “What would falsify gravity? Well, if the Reverend Al Sharpton floated off the planet, that would falsify gravity!” There are no Precambrian rabbits is about as much of a meaningful prediction as Al Sharpton won’t float away.

    At this point I suspect (the opinion of a non-expert) there isn’t much that would outright falsify evolution. That is not a criticism–in the regime where it is applicable, there isn’t much that would falsify Newtonian mechanics either. The sign of mature sciences, Popper not withstanding.

  26. says

    that came from just using compiled computer code

    It’s still ONEs and ZEROs — I’ll believe in your “evolution” when your computer starts using a whole new “kind” of number – like THREEs.

  27. says

    Makes sense. Thousands of scientists present information that shows you to be incorrect: “La la la la, we can’t hear you.”

    One short video-clip of a scientist seems to agree with you: “See, we’re right!”

  28. davideriksen says

    Mr. Heath,

    I did watch the majority of the debate and so I’ll offer you my opinion of it. Mr. Nye attempted to keep things relatively simple for the most part. His arguments were focused more on the scientific basis for the age of the earth, illustrated with dendrochronology, ice cores, sea floor spreading, etc. If I had to guess at his strategy for the debate, it would be that he was trying to sow seeds of doubt about the veracity of Creationism and tempt people with the great mysteries left in science coupled with the thrill of discovery. He actively encouraged the listeners to learn and help us find answers (outside of Genesis).

    If you’re looking for a detailed exposition of how we know that evolution is true, you won’t find it presented here. Mr. Nye’s lack of experience in debating people like Mr. Ham was clear and he missed several opportunities for making Ham and his experts look as ignorant as they are. For example, Ham brought up a basalt formation dated to some number of millions of years old that contained bits of wood that were carbon dated to 45K years old Mr. Nye either did not understand what Mr. Ham was describing or simply failed to point out that carbon dating is absolutely useless for anything older than 50K. When Mr. Ham suggested that perhaps radioactivity happened faster in the past (shorter half-lives), Mr. Nye failed to capitalize and point out that the math on that has already been done.

    That being said, Mr. Nye did a much better job than I was expecting. A young curious teenager will not get information about why we believe evolution to be true but there was plenty of information about how we know creationism to be false.

  29. krubozumo says

    The most egregious thing about this “debate” is that the createn museum was enabled to raise about $24k from the rubes who paid to see it live and will make even more selling their DVDs and other propaganda. Worse still they really need the money. Their ark attraction is falling far short of the needed funding even with a kentucky muni issuing bonds for them.

    IMO the uniform response to these challenges to debate should be – there is nothing to debate, creationism isn’t science, never has been and never will be. To paraphrase Huck Finn – creationism is believin’ what you know ain’t so.

    Thus the only significant thing to happen here was that the liars for jebus got a good payday. It would have been better if Nye had done something coordinated with NCSE to get ‘Cliff Notes’ published geared to high school level biology clearly outlining the principles and evidence of evolution and pass them out to anyone
    who wants them. Like high school libraries.

    Anybody here think those DVDs and other propaganda that will result from this will NOT be selectively edited? Anybody here in the market for a nice bridge?

  30. says

    The word “information” is utterly meaningless.

    Silly atheist poopyhead, it has to be COMPLEX and SPECIFIED information. Oh wait, that’s utterly meaningless too. Never mind.

  31. davideriksen says

    At this point, I’m not sure those DVDs will ever be released. They would have to be edited so much that Mr. Nye was almost completely removed from them. However, Mr. Ham did make it quite clear that he was willing to quote mine Mr. Nye right in front of him.

    While we’re on the topic of AIG needing funds, did anyone else notice how ill-fitting Mr. Ham’s suit jacket was? For some reason that bugged me the entire time.

  32. davideriksen says

    @Raging Bee

    It’s not meaningless. The DiscoTute is just busy at the moment but they promise they’ll get back to you about what the definition of CSI is as soon as they have time. It’ll be any decade now.

  33. gshelley says

    Raven

    Gshelly, this right here is an increase in information. The citT gene is duplicated.

    I think you are confusing the mathematical meaning of information with the special meaning the Creationists have

  34. says

    Marcus Ranum (#5, #6) –

    Yeah, because there are only 4 codons (A,C,T,G) the information-limit to life is 4!!! TAKE THAT, GOD!!!! GOD was FORCED to build all the LIFE on EARTH using only 4 FACTS!

    That’s to be expected from people who “think” there are only four elements: earth, air, fire and water. One could say that have no imagination for possibilities, but then, their entire believe system is imaginary.

    .

    D. C. Sessions (#12) –

    They don’t need to pay any attention to Turing — that was just homosexual science.

    Just to clarify: Were you deliberately or accidentally referencing Godwin with that statement (re: Einstein and jews)? I definitely agree with your disdain for them.

  35. scenario says

    I wonder if Bill Nye might be a good choice for this debate. A lot of religious people are authoritarians and authoritarians respond better to authority figures that they trust. I doubt any of them would trust someone like Richard Dawkins. Bill Nye might come across a lot better.

  36. eric says

    At this point, I’m not sure those DVDs will ever be released. They would have to be edited so much that Mr. Nye was almost completely removed from them.

    Michael Heath,
    In a pragmatic sense, that kinda answers your question. If the creationists will not release the DVDs without extreme editing because the unedited versions make them look that bad…do you think it’s worth having teens interested in this subject watch it?

  37. eric says

    Heddle:

    Which is a stupid answer. (Maybe that was your point?) It is like saying “What would falsify gravity? Well, if the Reverend Al Sharpton floated off the planet, that would falsify gravity!” There are no Precambrian rabbits is about as much of a meaningful prediction as Al Sharpton won’t float away.

    I somewhat disagree and somewhat agree with your commentary. It’s not a meaningful prediction for people who accept evolution because the massive support for evolution to date makes us highly skeptical that we would ever find such a thing. However, (1) fossil order was a very strong test it passed in past, and (2) creationists have really never come up with a cogent and credible reason why we shouldn’t find them. The lack of precambrian rabbits is still a problem for them.

    Another example might be the fact that all life on earth shares a common genetic code and method of passing on inherited info. It didn’t have to be that way. A common inheritance mechanism was an incredibly radical and powerful prediction of the TOE. Plants and humans use the same heritability mechanism??? That’s frakking insane in terms of 19th century understanding. Just because the mainstream takes it for granted now does not mean it’s not a theoretical problem for creationism. They must still struggle with the question of why God would choose to make us vulnerable to animal diseases when there is no prima facie reason why he couldn’t have given us radically different systems.

  38. Brain Hertz says

    I have some quibbles with a few things here:

    This is gibberish. The word “information” is utterly meaningless.
    What happened in that experiment is that two mutations took place that created
    an entirely new trait in the population in one of the 12 flasks,
    the ability to metabolize citrate. Those mutations made it possible for
    the bacteria to pull citrate molecules through its membrane. All this talk
    of “new information” is just hand-waving, an attempt to confuse the issue and
    distract attention away from the fact that an entirely new trait evolved on its
    own in a remarkably short period of time.

    I wouldn’t say the “new information” part is gibberish, exactly. He’s just wrong.
    There is information being added by the mutations.

    a_ray_in_dilbert_space @10:

    The reason why this is bullshit is that the “information” in the genetic
    code is merely the number of base pairs specified. To increase the information, you
    would have to change the numbers of base pairs–few mutations actually do this.
    However, if you substitute one base pair for another, you’ve changed the information,
    albeit not it’s amount. It is as if they are trying to say all sentences containing
    50 letters have the same meaning. It’s a garbage argument.

    I disagree. The quantity of information cannot be determined just by counting the number of base pairs; that would only tell you the maximum information content. To determine the actual information contained, you need to know something about the statistics of the process that created it. The number of base pairs only tells you how much data there is, not how much information is contained in that data.

    Substituting one base pair for another can change the quantity of information. In the general case, in fact, any random change is going to increase the information content of a message, and will never reduce it.

    raven @27:

    A large increase in information. You have created a new gene by fusion.
    Since this is by gene duplication, probably the original copy is intact.

    Actually, a duplication doesn’t generate all that much information (although it generates
    a lot more data). If there is a process which either causes a duplication or doesn’t do so
    with equal probability (the maximum case) it only generates one bit of information per event.

    The claim of the creationists that no new information has been created is simply,
    blatantly false. We see it every day in biology. It’s one of the main drivers of oncogenesis,
    a process that will kill one third of the world’s population.

    Yes, the claim is, as you say, simply, blatantly false. Even more so than you seem to be
    suggesting; every mutation is information generating.

    One more, in response to one of the creationist questions posted elsewhere:

    What mechanism has science discovered that evidences an increase of
    genetic information seen in any genetic mutation or evolutionary process?

    Information theory, as developed over the last half century and used extensively in the
    design of communication systems (including your cellphone, WiFi and the Internet) has
    a very clear answer to this: every process which causes genetic mutation necessarily
    generates information. This is an unavoidable consequence of stochastic processes which
    produce measurable outputs. For further reading, you could start here:

    http://iest2.ie.cuhk.edu.hk/~whyeung/book2/

    There’s a free to download PDF of the book available. It covers quite a lot of
    ground, but most of the general answers to these kind of questions are covered quite early
    in the book.

  39. Brain Hertz says

    Ahh, looks like the book I linked to isn’t generally freely available. It links straight through to a PDF from my work laptop because we have a Springer subscription. I’ll find a more generally available reference.

  40. Amphiox says

    It is like saying “What would falsify gravity? Well, if the Reverend Al Sharpton floated off the planet, that would falsify gravity!” There are no Precambrian rabbits is about as much of a meaningful prediction as Al Sharpton won’t float away.

    This analogy is dead wrong.

    Because new fossils are searched for and found all the time, and the investigation and examination of new fossils is one of the standard methods by which evolutionary theories are tested in real life.

    The prediction that there are no Precambrian rabbits is in fact an EXTREMELY meaningful prediction of evolutionary theory. It is a simplified example of predictions of shapes of the trees of common descent, which are major predictions that evolutionary theory routinely generates.

    The proper analogy would not be Al Sharpton floating off the planet, it would be Al Sharpton being found to fall on earth at a rate different from 9.8 m/s2 after jumping off a plane, even as Rachel Maddow, the control, DID fall at 9.8 m/s2 while jumping off the same plane at the same time, once the effects of wind resistance are canceled out.

  41. daemonios says

    The whole debate was kind of lame. Nothing new or surprising from Ken Ham, and Bill Nye was a disappointment.

    He was stumped by some of Ham’s “sound-byte” arguments, for which he should have been prepared.

    He never addressed the idiotic “historical science vs. observational science” argument directly.

    He dismissed logic for a teleological argument a number of times, asking viewers to think of what will happen to science in America if creationism is taught in schools (he’s right, of course, but that, in and of itself, doesn’t address Ham’s positions).

    He missed the opportunity to rebut Ham’s alleged “predictions” based on the Bible, none of which were predictions at all.

    While I admire Nye’s guts to debate Ken Ham, and sincerely sympathize with his concern about what creationists could do to American scientific literacy, I hope he and other potential debaters learned something here and will do a better job next time.

  42. Crudely Wrott says

    Shorter Ham/Behe:

    Last night I saw upon the stair
    A little man who wasn’t there.
    He wasn’t there again today.
    Oh, how I wish he’d go away.

    I don’t know which is more tiresome. That these guys shill for insipidy and credulity or that others must be warned that such claims are full of maximum bogosity.

    Really. It’s like trying to tell little children not to eat the turds they find on the ground. Yet eat them they will, if only for novelty’s sake..

    Is the problem centered on the Hams and the Behes or is it centered on those who just nod and accept without reflection?

    I’m getting so tired of explaining this to my progeny. Sometimes I think they’d learn as well if I ignored their disgusted faces when they eat shit. That may be a better dissuasion than scorn or long winded upbraiding.

    *rolls over and tries to ignore the gathering gloom*

  43. Nick Gotts says

    Which is a stupid answer. – heddle

    No, it isn’t. It’s a simple illustration of the fact that there are countless findings that would show that evolutionary processes cannot account for the distribution of organisms through time.

  44. colnago80 says

    Re Heddle @ #30

    Others have responded to the issue of the fossil rabbit in the pre-Cambrian strata. Clearly, if such a fossil was found, evolution would, at the least, have some explaining to do. Similar to the issue of the fusion of ape chromosomes 12 and 13. If evidence of the fusion was not found in the human genome, as Ken Miller puts it, evolution would have some explaining to do.

    However, although I suspect that the Al Sharpton reference was facetious, a good example of what would amount to falsification would be time dilation. Special relativity makes a prediction, namely that clocks run slower in moving frames of reference. At the time of Einstein’s 1905 paper, this prediction was not observable. However, with the development of the synchrotron in the late 1940s, the ability to produce fast muons became available and it was observed that fast muons had longer mean lifetimes then slow muons. If that had not been observed, if, instead, it was found that fast muons and slow muons had the same mean lifetimes, special relativity would have some explaining to do as this is an unequivocal prediction.

  45. says

    The Precambrian rabbit is meaningless as a falsification by the following test.

    If you can come up with a reasonable experiment that will falsify an established theory you can easily receive funding. No agency would fund an experiment to search Precambrian strata for rabbit fossils, anymore than they would fund an experiment to follow Al Sharpton around to see if he floats away.

    That the fusing of human chromosomes to give us 23 pairs rather than 24 should be detectable, now that was a meaningful test.

    For mature theories you either test them in regimes where they haven’t been tested, or you look for small deviations from their predictions. You don’t perform crude, first order tests. That ship has sailed.

  46. eric says

    Heddle:

    The Precambrian rabbit is meaningless as a falsification by the following test.

    If you can come up with a reasonable experiment that will falsify an established theory you can easily receive funding. No agency would fund an experiment to search Precambrian strata for rabbit fossils

    That’s incredibly naive, heddle. Just because you can come up with a legitimate test of some theory doesn’t automatically mean someone will fund it. Funding agencies consider potential ROI, risk, and opportunity cost. The reason they will turn down rabbit searches is NOT because its meaningless, but because no mainstream scientist thinks such a test will return much for the money invested. The scientists reviewing a rabbit search proposal are gonig to say, “if we give that dollar to Eric for his tiktaalik search rather than Heddle for his rabbit search, we have a much better chance of it paying off.”

    Now, that doesn’t mean scientists will ignore the results if someone finds a rabbit and publishes the results of their rabbit seach. But it does mean that if you have an idea for an experiment that modern science believes is a complete waste of time, you’re going to have to find a private investor to fund it.

  47. says

    #52,

    That’s incredibly naive, heddle. Just because you can come up with a legitimate test of some theory doesn’t automatically mean someone will fund it.

    Actually, to first order, it does. A doable experiment with scientific merit to falsify an iconic theory would be a top candidate for funding. A search for rabbit fossils in PreCambrian strata would be inexpensive. If the scientific community believed it was a meaningful test it would get funded. The reason no agency would fund it is because it has no scientific merit, i.e., it is not a meaningful test.

    The reason they will turn down rabbit searches is NOT because its meaningless, but because no mainstream scientist thinks such a test will return much for the money invested. The scientists reviewing a rabbit search proposal are gonig to say, “if we give that dollar to Eric for his tiktaalik search rather than Heddle for his rabbit search, we have a much better chance of it paying off.”

    Close but not quite–the first phrase is wrong. The difference in funding success of those two proposals is precisely because one is a meaningful test, and the other isn’t. Just like we fund meaningful searches for apparent violations of what we know about gravity (in some sense the (incredibly expensive) search for dark matter is such an endeavor) rather than funding an inexpensive search for antigravity clergymen.

  48. says

    The Precambrian rabbit is meaningless as a falsification by the following test.

    Argumentum ad funding? Excuse me while I horselaugh at you.

    The rabbit is a perfectly good example of something that would falsify evolution and here’s why: the theory of evolution predicts that rabbits (which the fossil record indicates evolved in the Eocene, about 40 million years ago) would not appear in a strata 4600 million years old. By “appear” we would mean that there would be a fossil of a rabbit found in rock 4600 million years old and there would be no circumstances that would indicate it was not a new fossil from 40 million years ago that somehow found its way there. That would falsify evolution because it would show that our model that life evolved from pre-mammals 4600 million years ago, to mammals much later, and not the other way around. The theory of evolution predicts that changes over time will be observable and they are – a rabbit in the precambrian would be a rabbit out of time and would require either a change to the theory of evolution or a whole new theory of time-travelling rabbits.

    Popper came up with the idea of falsification as a requirement for a theory’s strength as a way of walling vacuous theories out of science, and most philosophers of science would probably accept it or something like it, because a theory that is good will be falsifiable; it doesn’t really add anything to the cost of developing the theory. Falsification is, of course, a difficult criterion for religions to cope with – since religions tend to shield their ‘gods’ from empirical observation behind layers of protective bullshit. Don’t blame the science; blame the religion.

  49. says

    The difference in funding success of those two proposals is precisely because one is a meaningful test, and the other isn’t.

    That’s ridiculous. There are plenty of meaningful tests that go unfunded.

    It’s entirely reasonable to say “rabbits in the precambrian? Meh. We’ll deal with it and hand out the prizes if someone ever finds one.”

    Perhaps since you think it’s so important and worth doing, you’ll fuck off to the burgess shale and spend the rest of your life in a fruitless hunt for rabbit fossils you know you’ll never find? It seems like a small sacrifice on your part.

  50. says

    The difference in funding success of those two proposals is precisely because one is a meaningful test, and the other isn’t.

    You’ll probably notice that, even though it would have social value and might provide some easy returns, there aren’t a lot of scientific tests being done on various pseudo-medical notstrums, homeopathic cures, etc, etc. Does the fact that they aren’t being tested against indicate that they work? No. It just means that scientists are busy doing other stuff and funding is not at pentagon levels.

    The rabbit in the precambrian occupies pretty much the same position in science as yet another experiment showing acupuncture works as well as a placebo. If someone has time and money to waste looking for rabbits in the burgess shale, more power to ‘em (as long as they don’t harm the resource) and if someone wants to try to determine once again that acupuncture performs as well as a placebo, that’s fine, too.

    I’m sure you know this stuff, you’re just arguing because of your particular sacred cows. So intellectually honest of you…

  51. says

    Marcus Ranum,

    The rabbit is a perfectly good example of something that would falsify evolution and here’s why: the theory of evolution predicts that rabbits (which the fossil record indicates evolved in the Eocene, about 40 million years ago) would not appear in a strata 4600 million years old

    Oh, duh, thanks for that. I didn’t grasp the concept. Would you now explain how a floating Al Sharpton would falsify gravity?

    That’s ridiculous. There are plenty of meaningful tests that go unfunded.

    Name some (there are apparently “plenty.”) Name some examples of proposed experiments, within standard cost guidelines, which could be done, and which have the possibility and scientific merit (as judged by the normal peer review of scientific experts) to falsify an iconic theory (evolution, relativity, quantum mechanics, etc.) that tried for funding and have been rejected. Or have you moved the goalposts? Because I have not stated that all worthwhile experiments get funded. I have stated that any meaningful falsification test of an established theory would get funded. Well come on, you said there are “plenty.”

    Perhaps since you think it’s so important and worth doing, you’ll fuck off to the burgess shale and spend the rest of your life in a fruitless hunt for rabbit fossils you know you’ll never find? It seems like a small sacrifice on your part.

    Do you think that telling me to conduct the search when I’m the one claiming it is meaningless is an intelligent reply? Really? That makes sense to you? You feel good about that comeback? Seriously?

  52. says

    Name some (there are apparently “plenty.”) Name some examples of proposed experiments, within standard cost guidelines, which could be done, and which have the possibility and scientific merit (as judged by the normal peer review of scientific experts) to falsify an iconic theory (evolution, relativity, quantum mechanics, etc.) that tried for funding and have been rejected.

    Wow! LOOK the goalposts are OVER THERE!!!!

    I thought you were pretending not to understand why falsifiability was an important part of the philosophy of science, not bullshitting about funding and whether or not I am aware of who’s spending money on what in the scientific community?

    I’d argue that the theories surrounding dark matter would falsify gravity if it turned out that there is no dark matter. And plenty of money and effort is being spent attempting to detect dark matter. Because, yes, since there is an assumption gravity is more or less right, scientists are looking for “missing mass” because otherwise there are a whole lot of things that are wrong.

    You appear to understand this stuff, you’re just bullshitting. Why? You appear to have some agenda that makes you want to reject cherry-picked pieces of science. That’s not intellectually honest, you know.

  53. jamessweet says

    I don’t think the “switched-on” argument is QUITE so prima facie awful… What the Creationists are arguing is that, metaphorically, the subroutine was already there, and a flag just needed to be switched on. Everything in my computer may be just bits, on or off, but we can agree there is a big difference between e.g. if I turn on the AdBlock plug-in (just flipping a switch) vs. if I downloaded a new plug-in (adding new “information”, in the Creationist parlance). The Creationists are arguing that Lenski’s bacteria just turned on a plug-in that’s already there, as opposed to evolving a new one.

    Please correct me if I am wrong, but I don’t think it’s entirely clear which is the case. It’s conceivable that the citrate-metabolizing capability had evolved in the wild in some ancestral strain of E. coli, but been lost over time due to genetic drift, and then the selective pressure applied by Lenski and his team allowed a pair of mutations “repairing” the vestigal ability to be selected in the population. I think there are strong arguments against this interpretation, but AFAIK there is nothing in the experiment that rules it out.

    The fact that it took two mutations, and the first one wasn’t beneficial, though, is HUGE. Not only does it undermine a favorite IDer argument, but it also provides data on a question that is legitimately debated by evolutionary biologists: Do you have to move monotonically upwards in the fitness landscape, or can you hop a valley of the same or lesser fitness? I think most evolutionary biologists are now comfortable with the idea that at least some valley-crossing takes place, but there’s still a lot of debate over exactly how much is possible. That Lenski’s experiment showed a valley (an admittedly very small one, but a valley nonetheless) being crossed in such a relatively short time frame, that suggests that it’s actually not that hard. That’s big news. (And terrible for the “irreducible complexity” argument, of course)

  54. says

    That makes sense to you? You feel good about that comeback? Seriously?

    No, it’s complete fucking nonsense. If it bothers you that I offered you nonsense, maybe you should stop being nonsensical, too.

  55. colnago80 says

    Relative to the pre-Cambrian rabbits, there is considerable work being done on investigations into pre-Cambrian strata that have nothing to do with finding rabbit fossils. The point is that, in the course of these investigations, if the investigators actually found a fossil rabbit, as Ranum explains quite well, that would require an explanation because evolution predicts that it should not happen. In fact, if somebody ran across that fossil rabbit, you can bet that Casey Luskin and Ken Ham would have organisms.

    For the information of the good physics professor, George McCready Price, a noted creationist of the early 20th century practically made a living looking for sites where fossils were in the wrong order (see Fads and Fallacies in Science by Martin Gardner). As it turns out, in every case Price cited, it can be shown that the order was due to overthrusts in the strata.

  56. says

    What the Creationists are arguing is that, metaphorically, the subroutine was already there, and a flag just needed to be switched on.

    Yeah, they are deliberately not understanding how clever Lenski’s experiment was. By keeping each generation of the e.coli they can “turn back the clock” and see what mutation leads to what other mutation to, &c. What the creationists are doing is focusing on the part of Lenski’s work in which he identified a precursor mutation that made it almost certain that subsequent mutations would give the e.coli the ability to metabolize citrate.

  57. says

    The “no new information” argument seems to rely on the idea that information is some mystical quality of meaning. But genes aren’t information in that sense. Ultimately, they’re just packets of chemistry, which catalyze other specific chemical reactions to build up organisms. Saying “new genetic information can’t be created with an intelligent intervention” is literally the same as saying “new complex chemistry reactions can’t occur without intelligent intervention.” And that is clearly nonsense.

  58. says

    Marcus Ranum,

    Heddle, are you a creationist?

    All theists are, at some level, creationists, so yes. I am not a young earth creationist. And I believe in evolution–using believe in the common-use sense that the word believe gets applied to scientific theories. (As in, I believe in QM and relativity, too.)

    I thought you were pretending not to understand why falsifiability was an important part of the philosophy of science, not bullshitting about funding and whether or not I am aware of who’s spending money on what in the scientific community?

    You thought wrong–I perfectly understand the importance of falsifiability. As for the funding–you are the one who spoke of “plenty” of examples. It appears that you got nothing.

    I’d argue that the theories surrounding dark matter would falsify gravity if it turned out that there is no dark matter. And plenty of money and effort is being spent attempting to detect dark matter. Because, yes, since there is an assumption gravity is more or less right, scientists are looking for “missing mass” because otherwise there are a whole lot of things that are wrong.

    Exactly. And consistent with what I wrote earlier about dark matter in #53. Those test are meaningful. I have not stated that falsification tests are bad, I have quite clearly indicated they are good. I am saying the specific falsification test of searching for a Precambrian rabbit is as stupid as the falsification test of looking for floating clergy. It is not meaningful, like dark mater searches, otherwise you could write a proposal and get funded. Try that–let me know how it works out.

    colnago80,

    If you followed the discussion you will note I referred to evolution and gravity as mature theories, and used a phrase like “that ship has sailed.” Gross tests of a theory (e.g., derive Kepler’s laws) are used in the beginning, but over time those tests become meaningless–except for pedagogy. As the theory matures, the meaningful tests are refined/nuanced or extend the theory to untested regimes.

  59. says

    Crudely Wrott “Really. It’s like trying to tell little children not to eat the turds they find on the ground. Yet eat them they will, if only for novelty’s sake.”
    To be fair, it’s because while this one turned out to not be chocolate, the next one could be.

  60. says

    As for the funding–you are the one who spoke of “plenty” of examples. It appears that you got nothing.

    I mentioned the multiple attempts to search for dark matter, as an example of something that could in principle falsify parts of gravity. And you even reference it in the same comment in which you accuse me of “having nothing” – c’mon, if you want people to take you seriously you’ve got to stop being so transparently dishonest.

    the specific falsification test of searching for a Precambrian rabbit is as stupid

    And I explained why it’s not, then you tried moving the goalposts once I did.

    For that matter, if Al Sharpton suddenly started floating around, it would be cause for considerable observation and – yes – it might falsify some parts of what we understand about gravitation. (I phrased the end of the sentence the way I did because I am not aware of a specific theory of ‘gravity’ anymore, what would almost certainly happen is that some pieces of some theories would be re-examined in the light of a floating Al Sharpton) Of course a “floating” Al Sharpton would be really really interesting since it’d mean he still had momentum but, ummm…. Woah! That’d screw up all kinds of theories!!! JUST LIKE A FUCKING RABBIT FOSSIL IN THE BURGESS SHALE WOULD.

    I’m not very impressed with your intellectual honesty; you appear to be trying to quibble about things you actually already understand fairly well. I guess that you have to, to be a theist and a creationist in the face of, um, reality.

  61. says

    Marcus Ranum,

    You appear to understand this stuff, you’re just bullshitting. Why? You appear to have some agenda that makes you want to reject cherry-picked pieces of science. That’s not intellectually honest, you know.

    What is not honest is this claim you just made. I defy you to tell me one, just one “piece” of science I am rejecting. Just one. Come on on, you keep making claims without backing them up. How about this one?

  62. colnago80 says

    Hey Prof. Heddle, lets cut to the chase. If an investigator happened to find a fossil rabbit in pre-Cambrian strata, would you agree that evolution would have some explaining to do. That’s a yes or a no.

  63. colnago80 says

    Re Marcus Ranum @ #68

    Ah, I think that the good professor is just doing his David Berlinski impersonation.

  64. eric says

    Actually, to first order, it does. A doable experiment with scientific merit to falsify an iconic theory would be a top candidate for funding.

    That’s baloney. Every double split experiment has the scientific merit to falsify QM and you’re not going to see much funding for any of them, because nobody thinks that falsification result is likely. They think the result of the next double-slit experiment will be exactly the same as the last umpteen ones. Same thing for the rabbit search – nobody’s going to fund it because with all the past non-finds, nobody thinks the falsification result is likely. They see it as a likely waste of money; a bad bet.

    I can think of an infinite number of these. Nobody’s going to fund a research proposal for me to test my neighbor Bob’s DNA to see if he’s silicon-based. That result would be remarkable and change the way we think about life on this planet. It would falsify a lot of theory we have about the origin of life (or at least Bob) on this planet. But it won’t get funded because no mainstream scientist or scientifiic funding body is going to think that the falsification result is likely.

    And the fact that I can think of an infinite number of these sorts of experiments is part of the point: funding agencies must rack and stack proposals based not just on what they may tell us if they succeed in getting the result the seek to find; but also on the likelihood of them getting that result. They must consider probability because there’s literally an infinite number of sound scientific tests that ‘could’ overthrow a major scientific theory. You can’t fund all of them. So you fund the ones where not much directly countervailing evidence is already known. We’ve dug a lot, and never found a precambrian rabbit. Doesn’t mean we never will. But it does mean a rabbit search isn’t going to get funded because nobody thinks you will actually find that rabbit. It manfestly does not mean – and you are just wrong to assert – that we don’t fund rabbit searches because if we found one, we wouldn’t care.

  65. says

    IMarcus Ranum,

    I mentioned the multiple attempts to search for dark matter, as an example of something that could in principle falsify parts of gravity.

    They are funded because they are meaningful! Do you even know what you are saying? Why would funding dark matter searches be an argument against anything I wrote? It supports what I wrote. You are really missing the boat. Let me try again: meaningful falsification tests will (if reasonably doable) be funded. Dark matter searches, Tiktaalik searches: funding. Meaningless experiments do not get funded.

    I do not deny that a Precambrian rabbit would falsify evolution–or that a floating Sharpton would falsify gravity–I deny that they are in any manner meaningful for the corresponding theories. (You can replace the floating Sharpton with a test of the mass independent acceleration of falling bodies for a less silly example that makes the same point.)

    I’m not very impressed with your intellectual honesty;

    So you keep saying. I guess staring tonight I’ll lose sleep over that.

    Still waiting for those falsification experiments that have not received funding.

  66. eric says

    Heddle:

    I defy you to tell me one, just one “piece” of science I am rejecting. Just one. Come on

    You’re rejecting this piece: a precambrian rabbit find would challenge the current theory of evolution.

    Earlier, you said this:

    For mature theories you either test them in regimes where they haven’t been tested, or you look for small deviations from their predictions. You don’t perform crude, first order tests. That ship has sailed.

    That’s correct. But you’re getting the reasoning for that decision completely wrong. We stop doing first order tests because we don’t expect the results of new tests to be different from earlier ones. We assess the likelihood of that test telling us something new to be low. We do not stop doing first order tests out of some decision that a contrary result would be meaningless.

  67. colnago80 says

    Re Heddle @ #73

    I do not deny that a Precambrian rabbit would falsify evolution

    Then what the fuck are you going on about? Seriously, your ramblings look to me to be nothing more then cage rattling, much like the behavior of faux mathematician David Berlinski. Well you succeeded in rattling our cages alright.

  68. says

    colnago80,

    If an investigator happened to find a fossil rabbit in pre-Cambrian strata, would you agree that evolution would have some explaining to do. That’s a yes or a no.

    Duh, let me think, um yes. Now write a proposal that states you’d like some money to build an evacuated chamber to drop a feather and a brick to test whether they would fall at the same rate. Because, if they did, gravity would sure have some explaining to do, agreed?

    Eric,

    That’s baloney. Every double split experiment has the scientific merit to falsify QM and you’re not going to see much funding for any of them, because nobody thinks that falsification result is likely.

    Wrong. It is no longer meaningful to do the experiment (except for pedagogy) as a possible falsification of QM experiment. (Barring some insightful novel approach.) We don’t do that experiment anymore as a test of QM, instead because (in part) it was done before we now assume that what it taught us about QM is correct when proposing new experiments.

    Your point can be extended to this: every possible experiment is meaningful because it has the potential to falsify whatever theory it is using. That’s true (for what it’s worth)–but we are discussing experiments designed to falsify a theory. As such, the aforementioned human chromosome fusing is/was incredibly meaningful–the Precambrian rabbit search isn’t.

  69. colnago80 says

    Re Heddle

    Consider the Michelson/Morley experiment. Michelson wasn’t doing the experiment to test Newtonian relativity. Nobody doubted that Newtonian relativity was absolutely correct and accurate. He was using his interferometer in an attempt to detect the absolute motion of the earth by measuring the difference in the speed of light from a distant star at a six month interval. Nobody was more surprised then he was when he got a null result. It took 16 years for Einstein to come up with an explanation (the Lorentz length contraction hypothesis was an ad hoc explanation for which there was no mechanism).

  70. says

    Still waiting for those falsification experiments that have not received funding.

    Look! The goalposts are over HERE now!

    Finding experiements that had or hadn’t received funding was YOUR idea. MY suggestion was that you try to falsify evolution by searching for rabbits in the Burgess Shale. Remember?

  71. says

    Eric,

    You’re rejecting this piece: a precambrian rabbit find would challenge the current theory of evolution.

    Really? I did that? Gosh, I didn’t intend to! Show me where and I’ll retract it. But all I can see is where I readily acknowledge (who wouldn’t) that a Precambrian rabbit (or a floating Sharpton) would definitely falsify their respective theories. I have not said they would not falsify–I said they are silly/stupid and meaningless as falsification tests for mature theories.

    Try again to tell me where I have rejected science.

    colnago80,

    I can’t help it you cannot grasp a simple concept:

    Yes a Precambrian rabbit falsifies evolution. Yes bodies falling at different rates falsify gravity. But neither are meaningful falsification experiments for the relevant mature theories.

    Maybe you’d like to mention David Berlinski again? That is a very powerful approach.

  72. colnago80 says

    Re Heddle @ #76

    Heddle, now you’re just pulling our chains. As I stated previously, investigations in pre-Cambrian strata are ongoing and have been for a long time. They are not for the purpose of discovering a fossil rabbit. However, if in the course of the investigations someone accidentally ran across a fossil rabbit, it would certainly require explanation.

    By the way, as I understand it, the finding of the fused chromosomes was a side benefit of the decoding of the chimp and human genomes. Francis Collins wasn’t doing the investigation for the purpose of looking for the fused chromosomes.

  73. says

    Marcus Ranum,

    Finding [doable falsification] experiements that had or hadn’t received funding was YOUR idea.

    You said there are plenty of examples. That was your response. Put up or shut up.

    MY suggestion was that you try to falsify evolution by searching for rabbits in the Burgess Shale. Remember?

    Yes it was a stupid suggestion given that it is my position that such an experiment has no merit. Why would I do an experiment that I think has no merit? You seem to think it has merit, so you should be the one to do it. Why don’t you write a proposal to the NSF?

  74. Brain Hertz says

    heddle:

    Yes a Precambrian rabbit falsifies evolution. Yes bodies falling at different rates falsify gravity. But neither are meaningful falsification experiments for the relevant mature theories.

    Sure they are. The problem is that the original question (“What would falsify evolution?”) is ridiculous. Specifically, it’s supposed to be a “gotcha” question being asked by people who have closed their minds to the evidence available to them, and they’re looking for some way to say “see? you can’t meet your own standards”.

    The answer demonstrates that yes, there is a result which would falsify evolution. Just because all of the available evidence tells us that it would be a pointless thing to specifically fund doesn’t make the test not meaningful.

    For mature theories you either test them in regimes where they haven’t been tested, or you look for small deviations from their predictions. You don’t perform crude, first order tests. That ship has sailed.

    I agree. But what’s your point?

    The question was asking whether there does in fact exist a crude, first order test which would falsify evolution given a particular result. The pre-Cambrian rabbit example is a direct answer to that question. Your comment here illustrates exactly why nobody actually spends time trying to find that result, but it doesn’t in any way invalidate the test it or make it not “meaningful”.

  75. says

    colnago80,

    Consider the Michelson/Morley experiment. Michelson wasn’t doing the experiment to test Newtonian relativity. Nobody doubted that Newtonian relativity was absolutely correct and accurate. He was using his interferometer in an attempt to detect the absolute motion of the earth by measuring the difference in the speed of light from a distant star at a six month interval. Nobody was more surprised then he was when he got a null result. It took 16 years for Einstein to come up with an explanation (the Lorentz length contraction hypothesis was an ad hoc explanation for which there was no mechanism).

    What is your point? Have I denied that experiments might produce surprising results? Have I stated that there are no meaningful tests of evolution? Have I asserted the impossibility of an experiment that isn’t even a test per se could uncover a big problem for evolution or any other theory? Hint: I have not.

    What I have stated is that the Precambrian rabbit search is meaningless.

  76. says

    Brain Hettz,

    Sure they are. The problem is that the original question (“What would falsify evolution?”) is ridiculous. Specifically, it’s supposed to be a “gotcha” question being asked by people who have closed their minds to the evidence available to them, and they’re looking for some way to say “see? you can’t meet your own standards”.

    If you are saying that it is a good tactic when debating with evolution deniers–well I have nothing to say about that. I’ll readily assume you are correct.

    I am speaking about what has scientific merit. As in a discussion among scientists. Right now, today, an experiment to search for Precambrian rabbits has no scientific merit–as evidenced by the fact that such a proposal would be summarily rejected.

  77. Brain Hertz says

    If you are saying that it is a good tactic when debating with evolution deniers–well I have nothing to say about that. I’ll readily assume you are correct.

    Well, that was the context in which it was originally brought up, and you responded that it was “a stupid answer”.

    I am speaking about what has scientific merit. As in a discussion among scientists. Right now, today, an experiment to search for Precambrian rabbits has no scientific merit–as evidenced by the fact that such a proposal would be summarily rejected.

    You just shifted the goalposts again. The discussion was originally, and quite specifically, about what finding or evidence would falsify evolution. The idea of whether this would translate into an actual research project worthy of funding is yours. Nobody doubts that it wouldn’t make sense to actually fund a search for such a thing, because nobody paying attention to the existing evidence would think there was a reasonable chance of finding it. But that’s a completely new question that you introduced, and not what was being discussed.

  78. says

    Brian Hertz,

    Well, that was the context in which it was originally brought up, and you responded that it was “a stupid answer”.

    It was brought up by colnago80 in #26. In its entirety:

    As Jerry Coyne pointed out, Ham shot himself in the foot when he said that no evidence would convince him that he was wrong. Compare that with the response of J. B. S. Haldane when asked by an overeager Popperian what finding would falsify evolution responded a rabbit in the pre-Cambrian strata.

    Maybe I am wrong, but I didn’t read that as a colnago80 suggesting that this was just a point to be used as a tactic in debating evolution deniers. Maybe I misread. But at any rate I have been arguing since then that it has no scientific merit. Also, tt appears to me that others have been debating me along those lines, i.e., arguing that it does have merit–not pointing out that its utility is a good response to a so-called gotcha question.

    You just shifted the goalposts again. The discussion was originally, and quite specifically, about what finding or evidence would falsify evolution. The idea of whether this would translate into an actual research project worthy of funding is yours. Nobody doubts that it wouldn’t make sense to actually fund a search for such a thing, because nobody paying attention to the existing evidence would think there was a reasonable chance of finding it. But that’s a completely new question that you introduced, and not what was being discussed.

    Bullshit. It is arguable that my first post was ambiguous (though not inconsistent) in this regard, but by my second post #50 where I wrote (and reiterated in all subsequent posts):

    If you can come up with a reasonable experiment that will falsify an established theory you can easily receive funding. No agency would fund an experiment to search Precambrian strata for rabbit fossils, anymore than they would fund an experiment to follow Al Sharpton around to see if he floats away.

    That the fusing of human chromosomes to give us 23 pairs rather than 24 should be detectable, now that was a meaningful test.

    For mature theories you either test them in regimes where they haven’t been tested, or you look for small deviations from their predictions. You don’t perform crude, first order tests. That ship has sailed.

    Unambiguously, from my second post on, I have been beating the same drum. You can say “shifting goalposts” and declare victory, but the truth is I have been stating the same thing, over and over, since that second post: A Precambrian rabbit search has no scientific merit as a falsification test. You can argue I’m wrong, you can argue that I posted off topic, but to say I moved the goalposts is a cheap lie.

  79. Brain Hertz says

    Maybe I am wrong, but I didn’t read that as a colnago80 suggesting that this was just a point to be used as a tactic in debating evolution deniers. Maybe I misread. But at any rate I have been arguing since then that it has no scientific merit. Also, tt appears to me that others have been debating me along those lines, i.e., arguing that it does have merit–not pointing out that its utility is a good response to a so-called gotcha question.

    You’re using a different definition of “has merit” than everybody else. I can’t find anybody suggesting that it would be a worthwhile investment of scarce funding to have an expedition go and look for pre-Cambrian rabbits. That is purely your construction.

    This discussion started because you responded to a post that was talking specifically about an example of evidence that would disprove evolution, and you responded that it was a stupid answer.

  80. eric says

    Heddle:

    [Eric] Every double split experiment has the scientific merit to falsify QM and you’re not going to see much funding for any of them, because nobody thinks that falsification result is likely.

    [Heddle]Wrong. It is no longer meaningful to do the experiment (except for pedagogy) as a possible falsification of QM experiment.

    and:

    Yes a Precambrian rabbit falsifies evolution. Yes bodies falling at different rates falsify gravity. But neither are meaningful falsification experiments for the relevant mature theories.

    I think perhaps you are using “no longer meaningful” to say something very similar to my “nobody thinks the result is likely.” If true, we may be arguing past each other. But if that is not what you mean by “no longer meaningful,” could you please explain what you do mean?

    I’ll try a rabbit example. Neil Shubin uses his own money to go dig for precambrian rabbits. He finds them. Enough and in good enough shape that there’s no question of credibility. To me, that would be a meaningful falsification experiment. How about you?

    Now, I would bet a lot of money that Neil Shubin isn’t going to use his own money to dig for precambrian rabbits. But to me, that says absolutely nothing about the meaningfulness of finding rabbits, if he did find them. It says to me that he doesn’t think he’s going to find any.

  81. colnago80 says

    Re Heddle vis the two slit experiment

    Actually, people are still doing the 2 slit experiment. Here are a couple of examples.

    1. An experiment by Afshar claims to dispute the Copenhagen interpretation of Quantum Mechanics. Apparently he seems to be claiming that the wave nature and the particle nature of photons can be observed in the same experiment, which AFAIK. violates the complementarity principle.

    2. I don’t have the reference but there was an experiment carried out using a two slit setup for the purpose of detecting PK.

  82. colnago80 says

    Re eric @ #88

    Since Shubin was looking in pre-Cambrian strata, had he stumbled across a fossil rabbit, that would have been even more interesting then the Tiktaalik that he actually found.

  83. eric says

    @90 – indeed. I guess my issue is that when someone tells me an experiment is ‘not meaningful,’ I interpret that to mean the results ought to be ignored; the results don’t matter for the theory. But that does not appear to be what Heddle means by ‘not meaningful,’ since he admits that a discovery would falsify the ToE.

  84. krubozumo says

    Dear colleagues: you are discussing Heddle not the post. The Lenski expirments raise a host of interesting
    questions. Whether or not they represent the creation of new information is really not one of them, or even interesting. Are the organisms able to metabolize citrate distinct enough to be classified as a new species? Can they still also metabolize gluclose? Since bacteria do not rely on sexual reproduction, what are the implications of this adaptation for the populations of bacteria? I can’t even speculate on any of these things because I am not a biologist.

    It seems every blog has its troll, or two or several.

    Heddle must have earned a merit badge for derailing this thread.

  85. Nick Gotts says

    Amusingly, the provenance, and specifically the dating, of the phrase “fossil rabbits in the Precambrian”, appears to be rather dubious. From the pfft of all knowledge:

    Several authors have written that J.B.S. Haldane (1892–1964) said that the discovery of a fossil rabbit in Precambrian rocks would be enough to destroy his belief in evolution. However these references date from the 1990s or later. In 1996 Michael J. Benton cited the 1993 edition of Mark Ridley’s book Evolution, Richard Dawkins wrote in 2005 that Haldane was responding to a challenge by a “Popperian zealot”. In 2004 Richa Arora wrote that the story was told by John Maynard Smith (1920–2004) in a television programme. John Maynard Smith attributed the phrase to Haldane in a conversation with Paul Harvey in the early 1970s.

    Howvere, it seems clear that whoever originated the phrase, the search for such rabbits was never proposed as a useful or fundable research project, so why heddle is bothering to argue at interminable length that it isn’t one is as much a mystery as his willingness to worship a being he believes has created people for the purpose of torturing them forever.

  86. colnago80 says

    Re Nick Gotts @ #93

    Actually, Martin Gardner cited Haldane” statement in his 1951 book, Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science in a chapter on creationism.

  87. says

    Gotts, #93

    so why heddle is bothering to argue at interminable length that it isn’t one is as much a mystery

    I argue about it because “yeah I believe you can falsify evolution, just find a Precambrian rabbit” makes science look bad. It may be a good debate tactic with YECs but a science should not be flippant about what could falsify or damage a theory. It should be something like: well, if the precession of Mercury’s perihelion is by x arcsec rather than y, then that would falsify my theory as the ultimate description of gravity. Real tests (such as Tiktaalik) or, even somewhat better, real proposed or pending tests (with scientific merit), are an infinitely better story–they make scientists look like, well, scientists. The Precambrian rabbit makes us look like dogmatists.

    I don’t know why this isn’t obvious, but saying “I’ll renounce evolution if we find a Precambrian rabbit” is saying in effect “nothing will ever shake my belief.” That’s a bad statement to make, scientifically. Hell, I’ve even gone on the record (and further out on a limb) in stating things that would make me renounce my faith–and here we are talking about a science. It’s a stupid statement.

    as much a mystery as his willingness to worship a being

    Since you bring that up apropos nothing (and I’m the troll?) let’s just say that to me the reciprocal mystery of irrationality is the fact that year after year you obsequiously attend the author of Pharyngula for no apparent reason.

  88. says

    krubozumo,

    It seems every blog has its troll, or two or several.

    Heddle must have earned a merit badge for derailing this thread.

    I’ve been commenting on Dispatches since before it was even on Science blogs. One of its features is that Ed has encouraged (at least by the omission of discouraging–and perhaps even explicitly) new side threads that spring out of comments. I commented directly on comment #26.

    It happens all the time on this blog; it’s a feature, not a bug. Sorry this time it hurt your wittle feelwings.

    In short: bite me.

  89. colnago80 says

    Re Krubozumo @ #92

    I haven’t seen Krubozumo around previously so he may not know who Heddle is. Heddle is a professor of physics at Christopher Newport Un., in Newport News, Va., which is a campus of the University of Virginia. He has a PhD in nuclear physics from a reputable university. He is also a born again Christian, like my PhD adviser who was one of 5 finalists for the Nobel Prize in physics this year for his contributions to the Higgs boson theory, showing that one can be a devout Christian and still do good science, although that is rather rare these days.

    Re Heddle

    I would point out to Heddle that Haldane made the statement in question back in the 1930s when the evidence for evolution was much weaker then it is today. I think that the notion that it would ipso facto falsify evolution might have been apropos in the 1930s but, given the status as we sit here today, it would be an observation that would have to be explained. Had, in fact, Shubin found a fossil rabbit during his excavations, it would have caused a sensation and the creationists would cream their pants.

  90. Michael Heath says

    Re Neil Shubin:

    His book on Tiktaalik and more, Your Inner Fish: A Journey into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body, is one of the most enjoyable memoirs I’ve ever read. It’d be great book for a high-school student with an aptitude for science.

    That book also has one of the classiest rebuttals to creationists and the type of anti-science rhetoric we hear from Republicans and libertarians. Dr. Shubin is a fine antidote to the all too frequent juvenile behavior we suffer through from the likes of Jerry Coyne, though I also loved Coyne’s Why Evolution is True. That in spite of many gut-cringing moments. E.g., Coyne’s deriding creationists at the beginning of his book rather than just making his case, which was near perfect and devastating to all creationist arguments, including intelligent design proponents. I was particularly pleased with how Dr. Coyne showed Wallace and Darwin’s biogeographical findings, in the 19th frickin’ century, revealed the absurdity of intelligent design. But still, he put off the audience that most needed to consider the information he presented.

    Dr. Shubin predominately focuses on presenting the positive evidence for evolution and illustrates the scientific method in action. And not just from an abstract perspective, but also reveals the enormous discipline and self-sacrifice it so often takes to do good science. Shubin is an exemplar of the contribution scientists make to humanity, his example is a prime reason I’m so eager to criticize and ridicule lancifer and other anti-science political or religious ideologues when they defame scientists and misconstrue and ridicule scientists’ work product.

  91. Jacob Schmidt says

    Now write a proposal that states you’d like some money to build an evacuated chamber to drop a feather and a brick to test whether they would fall at the same rate. Because, if they did, gravity would sure have some explaining to do, agreed?

    Just for the record.

  92. Owlmirror says

    I’m sorry that I missed this conversation, since it’s on a topic that I’ve thought about quite a bit.

    My personal argument — which I may copy and paste here at some point — is that a rabbit in the Precambrian (and please note spelling — it is not “pre-Cambrian”, according to the body of geologists that establish the nomenclature ; see stratigraphy.org ) would not falsify evolution, but would rather be an argument that time-travel is possible, and has occurred (although I’ve had more thoughts since I came to that conclusion).

    As such, the idea that things from the present can be found in the past might well cause problems for all types of science (and might give YECs some ammunition to attack historical science), but it would not actually falsify the theory of evolution in the sense of it being a broad explanation for the diversity of life and how that diversity arose.

    I actually agree with heddle that “Precambrian rabbit” is not at all the best sort of answer “what would falsify evolution”, but I disagree that “science grants” is any sort of metric for that.

    Since a theory is a broad explanation, based on the evidence, there needs to be an equally broad problem with the explanation, not a single anomaly. Alternatively, a better theory that explains everything explained by the original theory, and makes succesful predictions, would “falsify” the original theory. “Precambrian rabbit” is neither of the above.

    So, personally, I think that the correct answer to “What would falsify evolution?” is “I don’t know”, as the short answer, followed by something like this: If someone had asked Newton, “What would prove your theory of gravity wrong?”, I don’t think it would have occured to him to say that if the speed of light is an absolute, and space and time are not absolute, his theory would be proven wrong. The speed of light being an absolute was not known to him, and we cannot blame him for not knowing it; neither was it known for all physicists who came after him, until Einstein came up with the Theory of Relativity, and the supporting evidence. So there’s no reason I should know what would falsify evolution. But the evidence for evolution is very broad indeed, and the theory or evidence that would bring about falsification would have to be even broader.

    @heddle @#66:

    Marcus Ranum,

    Heddle, are you a creationist?

    All theists are, at some level, creationists, so yes.

    This gets at the problems of definition and usage — I don’t think that “creationist” is usually used in the sense of being exactly equivalent to “theist”, so calling yourself one is, perhaps, an overly broad application of the term.

    Would you object to something like: “heddle believes that the observable universe is the creation of a personal deity, but does not deny or have objection to any aspect of current cosmology, geology, radiometric dating, or evolutionary biology, so the label of ‘creationist’ would not be applicable, as it is usually understood”?

    @colnago80 @ #94:

    Actually, Martin Gardner cited Haldane” statement in his 1951 book, Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science in a chapter on creationism.

    I checked the Google Books scan (Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science, by Martin Gardner. Chapter 11: Geology versus Genesis), which certainly seems to show all the pages of that chapter, and didn’t see it. Are you sure it’s in there?

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