A first-hand report of Nathaniel Jeanson’s lecture in Boston

This was predictable. As I mentioned, there was a lecture by a Scientist with a Ph.D. in Science from Harvard on Sunday, by a fellow named Dr Nathaniel Jeanson, which is part of a fairly typical trend nowadays: the devout creationist who grinds his way through a graduate program to earn an advanced degree so he can disregard everything he learned to wave his title like a victory flag and pretend to an authority he does not have. Other well-known examples are Jonathan Wells and Marcus Ross — their degrees are meaningless since they clearly prioritize the trappings of authority over the substance of knowledge.

So Jeff Eyges attended and sent in a summary. It’s no surprise: Jeanson has this fancy degree, but his talk was all straight out of the quaint old 1960s “Scientific Creationism” handbook, full of bogus arguments and obfuscatory handwaving over science the speaker doesn’t understand.

As I told Catherine Dulac, his former dept. head at Harvard, it was an hour-long spectacle of misinformation, half-truths and what appeared to be deliberate obfuscation. Most of this (probably all of it) you’ve heard before. He began by contrasting Evolutionary Theory and Creationism. Evolution, he said, admits only naturalistic explanations, discounts eyewitness testimony (i.e., the Bible) and insists upon uniformitarianism. Naturally, he sees these as weaknesses.

He then listed the similarities; strangely he listed speciation (I thought they didn’t even like the word) under “Microevolution”. He then pulled out what I imagine was the most nihilistic quote by a scientist (regrettably, I didn’t write down the name) he could find, to the effect that evolution demonstrates that there is no purpose to life, no ethics, no free will, etc. He did say that not all atheists have this view, but, of course, it was calculated to appeal to the Christians in the audience; they gasped and shook their heads appropriately (I should mention that the event was sponsored by an evangelical church; yes, we have a few in Boston!). They were primed.

He then began to weave tortuous arguments from geology and astronomy, disciplines in which he apparently has no training and upon which he isn’t qualified to draw (I’m not sure he’s qualified to draw upon biology). Astronomy – the galaxies are positioned at discrete distances from the Earth, in all directions, which is what you’d expect to see if we were at the center. Geology – the basalt layer on the sea floor, coupled with the ion exchange cycle, only allows for an age of 62 million years. The mud flow process allows for only 12 million years. The inconsistency shows the unreliability of the evolutionary model. Radiometric dating is, of course, unreliable as well. For uranium to decay into lead takes 1.5 billion years, however, helium retention (apparently, zircon crystals containing lead that decayed from uranium have also contained helium; YEC’s claim that over millions of years, the helium would have escaped) would indicate an age of 6,000 years. Not only does this demonstrate the inconsistency of the old-Earth model, but it serves to validate the chronology of the young-Earth model (because, of course, when the methodology supports our a priori conclusions, we accept it!).

He then dealt with the geological strata. He talked about layers in the area around Mt. St. Helens, along with peat, as a possible precursor of oil, at the bottom of a lake that has since formed, and opined that similar activity with greater force, multiplied many times, occurred during the Flood. He quoted one of his new colleagues at ICR (he quoted them quite a bit, actually) as saying that the Earth doesn’t look old; it looks flooded!

He then got around to Biology. According to him, biologists admit that abiogenesis is the “worst” problem as regards evolution. Also (and you can hear this coming) – there are few, if any, transitional forms, and they’ve been looking for decades. (I was surprised he even allowed for the possibility of “a few”; I’m not sure what he meant.) Finally, of course – irreducible complexity. He drew upon his own doctoral work on calcium regulation in the blood, as well as bacterial flagella and blood clotting. Naturally, he neglected to mention the refutations of IR that have been in circulation since before Dover.

Then he got into some very weird territory. He gave a brief description, for the sake of the lay churchgoers, of DNA, RNA and proteins, and then put up a chart giving the degree of similarity in Cytochrome C sequencing between organisms, expressed as percentages. He drew attention to the fact that the degree of similarity between yeast (for example) and humans is the same as that between yeast and plants, and that this is true across the board for all organisms. David Levin, a professor of Molecular Biology from Boston University was there, and, as both you and he subsequently explained to me, Cytochrome C is an extremely old gene, and we would therefore expect the sequences to be the same for all organisms. The strange thing is that each organism had a different figure assigned to it – yeast was 39% similar to all other organisms; others had different figures – so I really don’t understand what he was trying to say. He then plotted the figures on pyramids, and said something along the lines of requiring geometric shapes of increasingly higher dimensions to express it properly. I told Dr. Levin, “I couldn’t understand what that was all about.” He told me it was deliberate obfuscation, and I said, “Thanks, that’s what I thought!” As I said, it was all very strange.

Jeanson ended by attempting to use his take on creation “science” as justification for his conservative Christian theology – the evidence points to a creation made specifically for us; the reasonable response is one of gratitude and praising the creator, who is then within his rights to manifest just wrath over our not praising him and expressing gratitude. Although I’m 52 and have been observing it all of my life, the fact that they don’t see this as a projection of their own damaged egos and a product of their pathologically low self-esteem still floors me.

There was a half-hour lunch break, then an hour-long Q & A. Most of the church folk had left, but a few remained, along with several scientists and science-oriented people. Dr. Levin began by bringing up the genomic data, describing it as a problem in logic for which the only answer is common descent. Jeanson claimed to be unfamiliar with the data! (I’d think even an undergraduate Biology student would be familiar with it at this point; I’m hard-pressed to understand how a recent PhD grad – from Harvard, no less – doesn’t know about it.) Levin offered to get up and give a five minute presentation; Jeanson wasn’t interested. The chimpanzee genome came up as well; Jeanson said he thought it was based upon the human data and incomplete at that; Levin told him that wasn’t the case, that we have the complete genome and have had it for some time. He also mentioned tree ring dendrology, that we have specimens going back 11,000 years. Again, Jeanson said he wasn’t familiar with it. He ended up saying that a good deal; apparently, there wasn’t too much data with which he was familiar! At that point, a man stood up, agitated, said he was a doctor and that he’d been a Christian for thirty years, that he converted because of the “differing opinions” about evolutionary theory, and started going off the deep end about the inconsistencies in carbon dating and how it related to tree ring dendrology. Dr. Levin, who was a model of patience and restraint, told him that it was irrelevant; the tree ring data is used to calibrate carbon dating, but is obviously independent of it.

Other people brought up similar issues, forcing Jeanson to back down on a couple of points. One fellow challenged him on irreducible complexity, and got him to admit it’s really just a semantic device, that it doesn’t serve as evidence for creation. The fellow asked, “Then why include it in your talk?” Jeanson had no answer. He was also pressed about the Cytochrome C similarities, and acknowledged that it actually did support common ancestry. A young woman noted that he had no problem questioning the opinions of scientists, but that he seemed unwilling to question the Bible, which was written by poorly educated men 2,500 – 3,000 years ago. He replied that he’d studied the Bible extensively, had found it to be reliable and consistent, and that when he’d thought he’d found an inconsistency, it turned out to be the result of his own “wrong thinking” (His mental processes would appear to mimic the scientific process, in that they seem to be self-correcting!). He also began using the word “paradigm” repeatedly, which made me think of Marcus Ross; it’s the term he uses to sidestep his critics. In fact, that’s what the Q & A consisted largely of – Jeanson avoiding direct confrontation and claiming ignorance of data. My perception was that the whole thing was making him uncomfortable, but I’d hate to think that in five years, no one at Harvard confronted him.

There were numerous challenges, and, toward the end, the Christians started to get a little feisty as they felt increasingly threatened – Bible quotes, atheism leads to Nazism, that sort of thing. All in all, though, it was rather tame. As we were leaving, Dr. Levin was engaged by a couple of fundies. They said God created the trees with rings to make it look as though they were old; he suggested that made God a deceiver. No, no, he’s given you free will; you have a choice… the same tired apologetics. On the one hand, God hides himself enough so that we have to have faith, on the other, he gives us enough evidence so that we are without excuse and he’s justified in holding us “accountable”. And, of course, it doesn’t matter whether or not we think it’s “fair” – he’s God; he can do whatever he likes! It’s like arguing with very stubborn, developmentally challenged children (which, as I suggest from time to time on Pharyngula and Ed Brayton’s blog, is how I feel they should be treated).

As I mentioned, I came home and wrote an email to Dr. Dulac, the Chair of the Dept. of Molecular and Cellular Biology at Harvard. I’m absolutely appalled that this young man, who disavows a century and a half of empirical data and repudiates the basic principles of science, was given a PhD by one of the most prestigious universities in the country. First Kurt Wise, now this kid. As I told Dr. Levin, “One is an anomaly. Two is already becoming a habit!”

There is another account from the Boston Atheists. Jeanson is same ol’, same ol’.

Yet more reports: the Boston Skeptics and Aaron Golas summarize the talk, and you can download a recording.

This is exactly what we need everytime one of these frauds speaks: a mob of skeptics to descend upon it and shred it publicly and on the web.