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Jul 31 2013

Creationists are history denialists

My upcoming visit to Houston to join Aron and others in protesting Texas creationism is smoking all kinds of interesting characters out of the woodwork. Meet Dr. David Shormann (the “Dr.” must be his first name, he sure flings the title about), who has apparently been a person of some influence in shaping the Texas Board of Education policy. He’s also a flaming young earth creationist who has drunk deeply of the Answers in Genesis kool-aid, and is very, very angry at the vicious, intolerant atheists who are coming to his city to argue against his nonsense.

The freethoughts activists are protesting the freedom of Americans to trust God’s word as true in every aspect, including historically true. For some reason, they are particularly concerned about dinosaurs. They are upset with how Christians like myself interpret dinosaur history!And historical interpretation is what they are protesting, not testable, repeatable science.

Note the insistence that we differ only in “interpretation” and that history isn’t science, which is the most common argument you’ll get from acolytes of AiG and Ken Ham. His argument against historical sciences is complete nonsense: of course you can test historical inferences, and while you can’t repeat singular events, if you’re studying processes and principles, you certainly can do experiments and repeat them. For instance, the science of taphonomy is all about making observations and doing experiments to test mechanisms of preservation that allow us to then interpret fossils on the basis of a body of scientific evidence (evidence that creationists pointedly ignore).

But for sheer hilarity, you have to savor a creationist’s attempt to understand what biologists are thinking. Here’s Shormann’s argument for humans and dinosaurs living together:

The fossil record shows many things lived at the same time as extinct dinosaurs, including extant (meaning still alive) starfish and coelacanths. Apparently, the so-called freethoughts activists say we’re lying about the human-dino coexistence thing because we have yet to uncover a fossil of a human riding a dinosaur while holding a coelacanth that ate a starfish. Unless this fossil grouping is found, then atheists will claim the Bible is a book of lies and Christians who believe it are liars. Therefore, since freethoughts activists apparently never lie, and possess a perfect understanding of history, we can trust them over God’s word! And if we don’t buy into their belief that freethoughts activists are the source of historical truth instead of God, they will make laws to suppress our skepticism. Of course, I’m joking here, but are the atheists? Unfortunately, I don’t think so.

His first premise is false: there are no species of Mesozoic starfish or coelacanths still extant. Ancient coelacanths were different animals from the ones now dredged up from the sea around Madagascar!

We don’t regard the absence of a particular fossil grouping for evidence that those particular species existed concurrently. What we do have is an understanding that species exist in an environmental context, and that those environments change over time. There is a basic principle called “faunal succession” that was worked out in the 19th century: it was the discovery that fossils weren’t a hodge-podge, but that a particular stratum was associated with a community or whole eco-system of organisms, and that that community would change its constitution over time in the fossil record.

We’ve worked out the big picture of many species’ evolution — we are relying on positive evidence about the distribution of that species in time, not simply its absence. We know, for instance, that hominins evolved over the last few millions of years; we have the molecular evidence that shows the timing of divergence from other apes, we have the fossil evidence that shows their emergence in East Africa, and we can also see in the fossils that hominins of 3 million years ago were different from hominins of 1 million years ago.

Dinosaurs, on the other hand, are a very diverse group that were found in a broad range of time, over almost 200 million years, and we can find many different ecosystems represented — and the Triassic has different fossil assemblages than the Jurassic than the Cretaceous. Again, not a jumble: there’s a pattern to their distribution. And one thing we know is that there was a major faunal transition at the KT boundary, about 65 million years ago.

So we have two (well, many more than two, actually) coherent groups that don’t overlap — and they don’t overlap by more than 70 million years. It’s not simply that we don’t find dinosaurs and humans coexisting, it’s that we have found patterns and contexts for the two groups, whole vast collections of concordant data, that support the idea of a wide temporal difference between them…data that the creationists deny exists.

As for the Bible, it’s a book of self-serving legends and stories that an ancient people used to identify themselves. I wouldn’t consider it a book of lies if people accepted it for what it is: a collection of myths, poetry, metaphor, and garbled history. It’s when they try to promote it as something more, a detailed and perfectly accurate history of the world, in defiance of all of the evidence, that it becomes a tool for spreading lies.

Freethinkers don’t consider themselves perfect. We are open to the evidence, and we’re willing to use all of the evidence, not just the bits that reinforce our preconceptions. Meanwhile, believers like Shormann hide behind the claim that their knowledge is perfect because it comes from a perfect omniscient being — but I say that that has not been demonstrated. The totality of the evidence, including the ever-shifting and contradictory claims of the faithful, shows that their “knowledge” always seems to be an echo of their biases and ignorance.

Shormann goes on into ever more ridiculous claims — here’s his judgment on biology textbooks.

Also, in the 21st century, high school and college biology textbooks are becoming bloated monsters. Something has to go to make room for teaching 21st Century advances in biology, including epigenetics and bioinformatics. Many chapters have way too many pages devoted to speculative historical claims about origins, dogmatically asserting only one interpretation (evolutionism). A pro-science person would want to reduce or remove the history to make room for 21st Century science. An anti-science person would reject the 21st Century science in favor of page after page about origins. Ask the atheist which they would choose to include in an already oversized biology textbook, new science or history? If they would rather keep the history, then they are anti-science, which contradicts their claims of being pro-science.

Yes, the biology texts are huge…but that’s because we have so much information to share. I am amused, though, that he wants to throw out evolution to make room for bioinformatics. Bioinformatics makes no sense at all without evolution — I can’t even imagine the subject being taught without an understanding of the concept that genes and genomes change over time. In epigenetics, the primary focus is going to be on developmental change, but even there — does he realize that human epigenetics is analyzed in the context of experimental information done in mice and other animals?

That closing babble is pretty damned offensive, too. Everything is the way it is because of how it got that way: you can’t do biology by treating it as static and fixed. Everything in biology is a dynamic process. Denying history is denying science.

55 comments

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  1. 1
    Sastra

    Look, if we’re going to teach advanced trigonometry why bother with textbooks filled with numbers. Surely the students ought to be beyond that.

    Apparently, the so-called freethoughts activists say we’re lying about the human-dino coexistence thing because we have yet to uncover a fossil of a human riding a dinosaur while holding a coelacanth that ate a starfish.

    Apparently, you haven’t been paying attention.

    It looks to me like Shormann here is garbling up the hypothetical “fossil rabbits in the Precambrian” nod to falsification and pretending that evolutionary biologists are making some sort of specific demand. He’s not getting the Big Picture on this issue because religion encourages sloppy, narrow thinking, intuitive heuristics, and the sort of attitude an unusually compliant 3-year-old would assume. Who is the boss of me? Figure that out and believe what He tells you — because He was there and there is no evidence stronger than personal testimony.

    Reliance on personal testimony is what science evolved to fix.

  2. 2
    chigau (違う)

    I thought dogma was a good thing.

  3. 3
    timgueguen

    Only if it’s Christian dogma. And True Christian Dogma(tm), not that fake stuff people like Catholics believe in.

  4. 4
    Becca Stareyes

    When we teach Astronomy 101 here at my university about the first quarter or third of the course is physics (and some geology in the solar system course). We tell the students why we do this: because without giving a backbone to astronomy, we would be providing a travelogue and not a coherent picture of the universe. Things like evolution, genetics, and cell biology seem to be the backbone of biology to this astronomer: if one wants to address actual organisms, one has to learn enough to put them in context.

  5. 5
    holytape

    chigau (meh),

    Dogma is only good if it Godma dogma.

  6. 6
    Angela Freeman

    It’s hard to imagine learning about molecular cell biology without first learning about the cell! But this Shormann guy sounds like a real tool.

  7. 7
    kevinalexander

    He can’t do simple arithmetic either. 21st century science? It’s 12th century science he’s talking about.

  8. 8
    walteramos

    Almost makes me wish I was still living in Houston, so I could participate.

    Almost.

  9. 9
    slatham

    “major faunal transition at the KT boundary, about 75 million years ago” … KT boundary: 65 MYA right?

  10. 10
    piegasm

    Apparently, the so-called freethoughts activists say we’re lying about the human-dino coexistence thing because we have yet to uncover a fossil of a human riding a dinosaur while holding a coelacanth that ate a starfish.

    …which is of course nothing at all like when creationists refuse to believe we’ve ever found any transitional species because nobody has ever found a crocoduck or refusing to believe that speciation happens just because it doesn’t happen right in front of their eyes.

    It’s also funny that they say we refuse to believe things without evidence in such an accusatory manner.

  11. 11
    holytape

    Dear Scientists,

    I reget to inform you that your services will no longer be required. Our text books have reached their page limit, and as everyone knows the human potential is solely limited by page counts. I wish it could be different, but alas, just one more page would cause us to spend another .0001 cents per student. And do we need any more milk at the welfare teat that is public education? No.

    God Bless,
    Texas

  12. 12
    michaelbusch

    @slatham: I was going to make that correction too. It also gets a bit more complicated: the Chicxulub impactor came in closer to ~66 million years ago, and was the most immediate trigger of the extinction (although the ecosystem was already under stress). Then it took a few hundred thousand years for things to settle to something like a new equilibrium. I’m drawing from Renne et al. 2013 in Science, the most recent stuff I’ve seen on the KT boundary. http://www.sciencemag.org/content/339/6120/684.short

  13. 13
    richardelguru

    If dinosaurs and people have never been around at the same time, why am I wasting my time putting out those sunflower seeds?

  14. 14
    Zeno

    Creationists, poor things, are so worried that evil scientists will get to their children before the offspring are sufficiently programmed with anti-evolution dogma! However, if they do a good enough job on their children, the mini-creationists will march off to high school and college equipped to destroy the evolutionary creed of their godless teachers and professors. You know, just like in the Chick tract “Big Daddy?” How shocking for the little darlings when instructors don’t fold up and abandon evolution after the first quote from AiG. Oh, no! There is evidence for evolution?

    We math teachers get less of this sort of thing than our colleagues in biology and anthropology and astronomy, but it does occasionally occur. I set my algebra students a logarithm problem based on carbon-14. One student primly explained to me that she didn’t believe in carbon-14 because evolutionists use it to maintain the “myth” that humans species are hundreds of thousands of years old. I told her to do the problem anyway and that no scientists used carbon-14 for any such thing because its half-life was much too small. It’s only good for things like proving the Shroud of Turin is a medieval hoax. (She didn’t mind that last barb too much because the Shroud is a Catholic icon and Catholics aren’t really Christians. Good to know.)

  15. 15
    razzlefrog

    When do you lecture on the 4th? I don’t want to be at the museum all day that day. More info!

  16. 16
    David Marjanović

    And one thing we know is that there was a major faunal transition at the KT boundary, about 75 million years ago.

    Typo for 65, which is imprecise for 66.0.

    although the ecosystem was already under stress

    IIRC, the effects of the main episode of Deccan Traps volcanism had already been over by then for 100,000 years.

  17. 17
    Thumper: Who Presents Boxes Which Are Not Opened

    I’m confused… does he think that 21st Century science has somehow invalidated evolution? Why else would it need throwing out? That makes no sense whatsoever.

  18. 18
    bigdyterminator

    #4 Becca, you just won the prize!

    If evo is removed from US text books I’m moving to Canada. I don’t want to grow old with a generation of doctors who don’t believe in antibiotic resistant bacteria.

  19. 19
    iknklast

    I get a similar thing from my students – there’s just too much in their course. Part of the problem is that they come in without all this because their teacher avoided it in high school so they didn’t have to spend weeks of wasted time arguing with students, their parents, and the administrators, so they gently skipped over age of the earth and evolution. So, they have to learn that before they can start with their college level work, which increases the amount of information they have to process. I’ll refer them to Ken Ham next time they complain.

  20. 20
    dannysichel

    Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

    Which is not to say that there IS no evidence of absence. There’s plenty of evidence of absence.

  21. 21
    Thumper: Who Presents Boxes Which Are Not Opened

    @Slatham #9

    “major faunal transition at the KT boundary, about 75 million years ago” … KT boundary: 65 MYA right?

    66.4, if I remember rightly (Uni was 2 years ago and I don’t work in the field). But still, you’re orders of magnitude closer than he was.

  22. 22
    vaiyt

    “Science is totally on our side! And that’s why we should throw it all in the rubbish bin and replace it with Bible apologetics!”

  23. 23
    alkisvonidas

    Hey, I’ve got this great idea: why burden our high school physics textbooks with all that kinematics and dynamics stuff, which, anyway, go right over student’s heads and confuse them? Let’s simply ditch those and teach them statics!

    After all, why should students care about how all these pulleys, ropes and rods got in place, when solving a statics problem? That’s not science, that’s just history!

  24. 24
    Brian

    smoking all kinds of interesting characters

    Not where I thought you were going with that sentence.

  25. 25
    Matt G

    How old is this person, somewhere in the neighborhood of 13?

  26. 26
    michaelbusch

    @MattG: Don’t insult the kids by comparing David Shormann to them.

  27. 27
    george gonzalez

    I’m afraid that any kind of rational, factual, numerical arguments are going to miss their mark. Those folks do not start with the same set of values and the intangibles, like a comittment to finding out the facts, separating facts from carefully framed quasi-persuasive argumentation, occam’s razor, and weighing probabilities.

    For example, I have a brother-in-law who by day is a very responsible manager or a large retirement fund, where he has to use math, logic, and the ability to shrewdly evaluate situations and probabilities, but by night he writes a book on the arguments for a “young earth”.

    So we KNOW this guy HAS all the mental tools for understanding complex situations, he just chooses to switch all that off for certain topic areas.

    I’m afraid there are a lot of folks like this, that can turn off any ability to discern the truth when it’s so much easier to just beleive some claptrap, folderol, and moonbeams.

  28. 28
    aggressivePerfector

    Don’t want to be too alarmist, but Houston Museum of Natural Science currently has an attraction where kids can ride a dinosaur.

    Hope to see you on Sunday!

  29. 29
    calliopejane

    Bioinformatics makes no sense at all without evolution — I can’t even imagine the subject being taught without an understanding of the concept that genes and genomes change over time.

    It doesn’t make sense without evolution, but they try to teach it anyway. With dreadful results for our society.

    I’m a college professor in the Southern U.S., not in a hard science (PhD in psychology but teaching in a business school). I don’t make a point of announcing my atheism in my classes, but in cases where it naturally comes up in a discussion I don’t hide it either. And non-believing students frequently come to me outside of class to talk. They often say they [think they] are the only one of their friends/family who doesn’t believe, and so are eager to talk to someone who is smart, happy, well-adjusted, and atheist.

    Sometimes we have discussed their previous educational experiences, and although not many of them were given straight-up biblical teaching billed as science in high school, quite a few of them were taught a version of biology that did not include teaching evolution. It *didn’t* make any sense to them as a unified picture; rather they saw biology as this huge collection of unconnected facts to be memorized. Which is what it will be when you don’t have and understanding of evolution as an underlying framework to tie it all together. So the students come to the conclusion that science, esp. life sciences, is difficult and boring and requires tons of memorization. Thus they do not pursue it beyond their high school requirements (remember, I’m talking to *business school* students). And so they never learn what good scientific thinking is like, never get a taste of what is exciting and interesting about scientific endeavors, and never learn that what they were taught was woefully inadequate or just plain wrong.

    A few tell me they did start out college pursuing some branch of science, but were so far behind the kids who’d learned real science in high school that they couldn’t keep up, and changed their major to something in business.

    Sigh…. this is how we end up with so many seemingly well-educated adults who continue to believe nonsense, or believe that huge areas of science and nature are somehow “unknowable.”

  30. 30
    David Marjanović

    66.4, if I remember rightly

    You remember right, but your source is outdated. :-) See comment 16!

  31. 31
    paulburnett

    A creationist ignoramus wrote “Many chapters have way too many pages devoted to speculative historical claims…”

    As Emperor Joseph II said to Mozart: “Too many notes!”

  32. 32
    unclefrogy

    calliopejane that is a pretty good description of where we are how we got here.
    The results are beginning to come in from the systematic corruption of education into mere indoctrination.
    The united states used to be noted for it’s pragmatism at least that is what I thought.
    There is nothing so destructive as the idea that belief is more important than reality.
    uncle frogy

  33. 33
    What a Maroon, el papa ateo

    I’d just like to note that all the churches in Texas have been ignoring their agreement to deposit all their collections in my bank account. They may claim that they never agreed to such an arrangement, but that’s just historical interpretation, not science, and by not complying they are violating my freedom to trust whatever I pull out of my ass as true in every aspect, including historically.

    So pay up.

  34. 34
    John Kruger

    On a related note, why not sign a petition?

  35. 35
    robro

    Given what I’ve been reading lately, asserting that any of the Bible is history is laughable. It’s as silly as seeing Genesis 1 as a factual description of the origin of life.

  36. 36
    Lofty

    Human riding a dinosaur.
    Well, a descendant, anyway.

  37. 37
    John Morales

    [OT]

    Thumper @21:

    But still, you’re orders of magnitude closer than he was.

    Nope; 75:66 :: 65:66 is approximately 13.6% to 1.5% off, which is a bit less than one order of magnitude.

  38. 38
    F [i'm not here, i'm gone]

    A therapsid on a theropod? What will they think of next?

  39. 39
    Martin Wagner

    This guy is barely writing at a fifth grade level. He’s a “doctor” of something, apparently?

  40. 40
    chigau (違う)

    John Morales
    I think that the phrase ‘order of magnitude’, like the terms ‘unique’ and ‘theory’ and ‘inconceivable’ are lost.
    Don’t even try.

  41. 41
  42. 42
    anchor

    “Apparently, the so-called freethoughts activists say we’re lying about the human-dino coexistence thing because we have yet to uncover a fossil of a human riding a dinosaur while holding a coelacanth that ate a starfish. Unless this fossil grouping is found, then atheists will claim the Bible is a book of lies and Christians who believe it are liars. Therefore, since freethoughts activists apparently never lie, and possess a perfect understanding of history, we can trust them over God’s word! And if we don’t buy into their belief that freethoughts activists are the source of historical truth instead of God, they will make laws to suppress our skepticism.”

    My goodness. How readily this Doctor furnishes a demonstration of a considerable aptitude for lying.

    Besides the deceit, stupidity along with contempt for the intelligence of others (especially anyone who disagrees armed with evidence) is also strongly indicated.

    As PZ says: “Everything is the way it is because of how it got that way”

    That goes for the creationist mentality-culture too. Whether they like it or not, they’re a product of a history…and their upbringing within a cultural tradition of ignorance is a history.

  43. 43
    jnorris

    Even as a child I knew The Flintstones was not history, not a documentary.

  44. 44
    Lyn M: ADM MinTruthiness

    And if we don’t buy into their belief that freethoughts activists are the source of historical truth instead of God, they will make laws to suppress our skepticism.

    Gotta love these fantasy scenarios. Freethought activists believe themselves to be the source of historical truth. So no need for Google, nevermind reading what the search discloses. AND we think we replace God. Well … Captain Tight Pants, maybe, but me? Assuming I am a freethought activist here.
    As for the laws “we” will make, you all remember that I have dibs on the Ministry of Truthiness, right? It is in my nym. My first law will be making mandatory many new episodes of Firefly. As for laws suppressing skepticism … uh …
    Anybody else have a preferred first law? I mean as in first one to pass, not as in top law.

  45. 45
    chigau (違う)

    many new episodes of Firefly

    No need to go further. I’m with you!

  46. 46
    Lyn M: ADM MinTruthiness

    Woo hoooo!!! We have a movement!

  47. 47
    cplcam

    Why are we teaching our first graders arithmetic when there’s really cool cutting edge mathematics like calculus out there? If you believe in teaching arithmetic over calculus you are anti-math!

  48. 48
    cplcam

    …and I shoulda read the very first comment…

  49. 49
    U Frood

    In any science it’s pretty silly to insist on focusing on the 21st century advancements in that science. You just can’t begin to understand the latest advancements in Physics until you’ve had the all the background in all that “ancient’ physics. And you’re not going to have that background, or the necessary math skills in High School.

  50. 50
    bortedwards

    The incorrect interpretation that the coelacanth was around with the dinosaurs is sadly not limited to YECs. A disturbing number of otherwise competent evolutionary biologists make the mistake of referring to extant taxa as “living fossils” or as “basal”. It’s sloppy thinking and interpretation that confuses an already vulnerable public and can be easily manipulated by idiots with an agenda.

  51. 51
    Thumper: Who Presents Boxes Which Are Not Opened

    @David Marjanovic

    I can’t follow the link, my work filter doesn’t like it :( But I trust you enough to take your word for it. So it’s dead-on 66 Ma now?

    @John Morales

    Figure of speech only :) and clearly one I should not be using around sciencey people.

  52. 52
    CX316

    @ #4

    At my university (University of Adelaide) the first year biology course spends the first semester on what is called “MGC” (Molecules, Genes and Cells) which gives just enough chemistry knowledge to handle the concept of organic molecules at the beginning, then works up to macromolecules, to lipids to the structure of the cell membrane to the cell organelles, then from there to DNA replication and transcription, then from there to basic genetics.

    Only after all 800+ students get through that course do they then allow the course to separate into two different second semester courses, Organisms and Human Perspectives. I’m doing Human Perspectives at the moment so I know basically it’s deeper looks at genetics, then eventually works to disease and then finishes with 2-3 weeks on human evolution (setting up for people to go on to specialise in second year, with courses such as Biochemistry, Anatomy & Physiology, Genetics, Evolutionary Biology, Botany, Zoology, etc. once the foundation is there for the subjects)

    I can’t imagine trying to do Genetics without DNA Replication, or trying to do DNA Replication without macromolecules, all of which rely on the concept of evolutionary development (ie, Cell Biology… without evolutionary theory, how the hell are you going to explain the mitochondria or chloroplast?)

  53. 53
    poxyhowzes

    @#5 holytape:

    Gotta be Godpa. Godma might imply, you know, the “f” word. (no, not *that* “f” word, the longer one)!

    Also, as anyone who has ever studied any dogma knows, Dogma is a b***ch

    – pH

  54. 54
    feralboy12

    I know whenever I learn something new, I try to forget some stuff I learned as a kid. It certainly keeps my brain from getting all full. Although it can lead to some embarrassments, like recently when I read a book about thermodynamics; later, my brother called, and I didn’t know who he was.

  55. 55
    Useless

    I have to agree with Dr. Shormann. We keep adding to biology, history, astronomy, and literature. We have to curtail adding any more — especially history; we need to make it stop. That’s the reason books have too many words and people like him are required to decide what is really necessary to know.

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