Want to know about religion? Go to your local atheist, not your priest

Lately, a certain faction within CFI (not the whole organization — I know several staff who disagree) has taken it upon itself to slam the Gnu Atheists as a gang of crude louts who know nothing about religion — they’ve criticized Richard Dawkins, and I’ve heard that both Jerry Coyne and I were named in a recent talk as bad for the movement. Both Coyne and Benson have already taken John Shook to task for his poor HuffPo article, which begins:

Atheists are getting a reputation for being a bunch of know-nothings. They know nothing of God, and not much more about religion, and they seem proud of their ignorance.

This reputation is a little unfair, yet when they profess how they can’t comprehend God, atheists really mean it.

It’s almost as if a god has decided to smite those who sneer at the ignorance of the unbelievers, though. In an awesomely well-timed survey from Pew, Americans were queried about their knowledge of religion, and these results are being reported all over the place: the group that knows the most about religion are the atheists/agnostics. This is no surprise — we’ve been aware of this for many years, and one of the things we’ve routinely experienced is the fact that in arguments, we almost always know more about our opponent’s religion than he or she does. Would you believe about half of Catholics are surprised to learn that transubstantiation is one of the tenets of their faith?

Dave Silverman has a good explanation.

That finding might surprise some, but not Dave Silverman, president of American Atheists, an advocacy group for nonbelievers that was founded by Madalyn Murray O’Hair.

“I have heard many times that atheists know more about religion than religious people,” Mr. Silverman said. “Atheism is an effect of that knowledge, not a lack of knowledge. I gave a Bible to my daughter. That’s how you make atheists.”

In your face, John Shook. Take that, faitheists of the CFI.

He’s baaaack — Stuart Pivar hasn’t learned a thing

I lied. Lied, lied, lied. You knew I was being sarcastic — there’s no way I’m going to give Stuart Pivar a pass.

Pivar has published in a rather obscure journal, The International Journal of Astrobiology, which is obviously going to contain a fair amount of speculation…but his article doesn’t fit the subject matter of the journal in the slightest, and I suspect he relied on an unqualified pool of reviewers who knew nothing about developmental biology to get it published. It’s the same old crap Pivar has always peddled.

The title of the article is “The origin of the vertebrate skeleton“. Flacks for the journal are calling it an “innovative solution to the evolution of form” and are hyping it to a ridiculous degree.

How life originated and evolved is arguably the greatest unsolved problem facing science. Thousands of scientists and scores of organizations and scientific journals are dedicated to discovering the mechanisms underlying this mystery. In the peer-reviewed journal’s letter of acceptance the reviewer states, ” . . . the article should be published, so that as many scientists as possible can participate in the discussion on this new important subject.” Simon Mitton, prominent Cambridge scientist and IJA editor-in-chief, calls it “a groundbreaking concept.”

I have a suspicion that the flack writing that copy was…Pivar himself. It sure sounds like the pompous fluff in his books.

I have to criticize a few things in that noise. “How life originated and evolved” is a gigantic constellation of problems; it is not ever going to be answered in a single short paper. That’s just extravagant hyperbole. The reviewer’s endorsement is vague — encouraging discussion is the least we should expect from any paper — and wrong: Pivar’s article is not new, simply rehashing unsupported assertions from previous editions of his self-published books, and it is not important. It’s wrong.

Simon Mitton, by the way, is an astronomer. He is not qualified to judge whether a paper about developmental biology is “groundbreaking”. And given the appallingly bad quality of the work, I suppose he isn’t even qualified to be embarrassed by his incompetent assessment.

The paper itself is patent nonsense. There is no data. It’s a fantasy erected around fictitious games in imaginary topology — Pivar invents metaphors of tissue arrangements and cell movements that he claims generate form by purely mechanical forces, but he has no observations or measurements to suggest that they exist anywhere. It’s 2½ pages of text and 20 hand-drawn figures with little explanation.

Here, for example, is his explanation of the development and evolution of the skull. The complete story, in one paragraph.


The skull takes its form from the apical cap, a two-layer spherical surface divided into four sectors and three zones, each containing a hole at the centre resulting from the thinning of the membrane. Hydrostatic collapse causes the ventral half of the outer layer to fold over upon the dorsal half, forming the zygomatic arch and prefrontal ridges. The remaining ventral segments of the apical cap fold underneath the presumptive mandible (Fig. 19).

You may be wondering if perhaps Fig. 19 clarifies this abbreviated gemisch. Here it is.


No, it doesn’t.

That middle column illustrates one bizarre assertion: that some part of the mandible rises up over the top of the skull to form the zygomatic arch and a kind of frontal cap. It doesn’t do that in any embryo, ever. There is nothing in the anatomical configuration of any vertebrate skull that would even suggest such an origin, and this is the only “data” he shows to back up the claim, a drawing he made. Similarly, there is no apical cap, no pattern of membranes in four sectors of three zones, no arrangement of holes, and I’m completely baffled by the row of lower teeth floating in space waiting for a mandible to drift up and give them a base.

And don’t get me started on his fable about how limbs evolve and develop.


It’s bullshit at every step with no connection to reality, and he doesn’t even try in the text to document any evidence for these various stages. He drew them, and that’s good enough for the septic tank king of New York.

How did this get published? I have no idea. Let’s be charitable and assume that the reviewers were not drooling idiots, but were just ignorant of the actual data for the evolution and development of these structures, which completely contradicts everything Pivar is claiming. Shouldn’t they have looked at the form of the paper? It’s embarrassingly inadequate. There are no methods given, so reading the paper gives you no clue about how the conclusions were generated. There are no observations, just a large pile of sketches made with no sign that the artist had ever looked at an embryo. Shouldn’t any competent scientist have stopped somewhere in their reading of the paper and asked themself how Pivar knew what he was claiming? Shouldn’t they have stopped altogether and either consulted a biologist or recused themselves from reviewing the paper on grounds that it is outside their domain of expertise?

Something funny is going on here. I don’t see any other sign that the International Journal of Astrobiology is a crank journal, other than that this dreadful disgrace of a paper got published in it. I’m mystified that a journal would poison their own credibility by publishing a paper this ridiculous, but there it is, a cuckoo in the nest, and no one but some random blogger squawking about it.

I don’t think I can trust that journal, ever. Other authors who’ve published there might want to contact the editors and ask why they they’re so willing to flush their reputation away.

Let’s be nice to bad science now

I have been chastised by William Connolley; he thinks I was too “strident” in condemning that lousy paper about Moses parting the sea with a fortuitous wind. I disagree, obviously. It was a bad paper, and I gave the reasons why it was so awful: it was poorly justified, it was not addressing an even remotely significant question, and the logic of the work and the conclusions was lacking. Connolley also doesn’t seem to understand why it is objectionable and serves an ideological purpose for the creationists. Yes, as I pointed out, finding natural causes makes miracles irrelevant, but that logic doesn’t matter. The point of this paper was very simple: to allow creationists to make the claim that science supports the truth of the Bible.

Right there, that defeats his claim that this work was “harmless”. I’d also add that this paper was remarkably widely publicized by the media everywhere, far more so than your typical obscure bit of part-time climate modeling work. Somebody should be countering this sloppy and contrived nonsense, and if we’re going to insist that cranky scientists give it a pass, who will? A credulous media? How bad does sloppy science need to be before it’s legitimate to criticize it? Or is it the case where once purported science becomes so absurd that we’re supposed to patronizingly overlook the pathetic clown who did it?

I guess that means I should just look away and not criticize this other paper that just turned up. It’s by Stuart Pivar, proponent of imaginary embryology, world’s greatest expert in the development and evolution of balloon animals, author of a failed lawsuit for $15 million against me, and persistent crank. He has managed to get himself published in a peer-reviewed journal.

But gosh, it’s harmless. It’s just another kook getting published in a science journal. Let’s all wink and look away and pretend it isn’t happening — we wouldn’t want to seem strident, after all. Closing our eyes to it all is the best response to bad science, I understand now.

Bad evolution

There have been no science fiction movies that I know of that accurately describe evolution. None. And there have been very few novels that deal with it at all well. I suspect it’s because it makes for very bad drama: it’s so darned slow, and worst of all, the individual is relatively unimportant and all the action takes place incrementally over a lineage of a group, which removes personal immediacy from the script. Lineages just don’t make for coherent, interesting personalities.

io9 takes a moment to list the worst offenders in the SF/evolution genre. There are a couple of obvious choices: all of Star Trek, in all of its incarnations, has been a ghastly abomination in its depiction of anything to do with biology (I think you could say the same about its version of physics). Any episode with any biological theme ought to be unwatchable to anyone with any knowledge of the basics of the field; if you turn it off whenever it talks about alien races or whenever it mentions radiation from a contrived subatomic particle, though, you’d never see a single show. Gene Roddenberry must have been some kind of idiot savant, where the “idiot” half covered all of the sciences.

I’m very pleased to see that Greg Bear’s Darwin’s Radio gets mentioned for its bad biology. That one has annoyed me for years: Bear does a very good job of throwing around the jargon of molecular genetics and gives the impression of being sciencey and modern, but it’s terrible, a completely nonsensical vision of hopeful monsters directed by viruses and junk DNA. It’s also the SF book most often cited to me as an example of good biology-based science fiction, when it’s nothing of the kind.

The science media make my head hurt

First, read this parody of science journalism. It’s the template for just about every science story you’ll find in a newspaper, and it’s so depressing.

Second, imagine something even worse. Hint: it’s the media’s coverage of every scientific “controversy” you might think of. It takes a few of the tropes mentioned in the parody, like “shift responsibility for establishing the likely truth or accuracy of the research findings on to absolutely anybody else but me, the journalist” and “quotes from some fringe special interest group of people who, though having no apparent understanding of the subject, help to give the impression that genuine public ‘controversy’ exists.” and “Special interest group linked to for balance” and expand those to fill the allotted space. There is no possibility that a journalist will actually examine the evidence and show which side is clearly bonkers.

For an example of this phenomenon in action, examine this article about a teacher in Modesto, Mark Ferrante, declaring that he will teach intelligent design in biology classes. It’s a moist sopping wallow in the so-called middle ground, getting quotes from teachers on both sides of the issue, and making special care to include a theist teacher mumbling platitudes about “Let science tell us what and how. Let religion tell us who and why.”

And of course, they go to the Discovery Institute for their story about ID, and set them against the NCSE, as if these two groups have an equal investment in the scientific truth. They do not. Intelligent Design has no credibility, no empirical support, and no reasonable proposals for scientific investigation. When will the media wake up and realize that their constant pushing of a false equivalency is a major factor in feeding this pseudo-controversy?

To top it all off, then they do something quite common that the media parody forgot to include: they included a poll. Of course they did, because that’s how you settle an issue in modern journalism…whatever view the majority holds must be true.

Should “intelligent design” be taught in public schools?

Yes, it should be taught in science classes 37%
Yes, but only in religion or culture classes, not in science 18%
No 44%

The school district is taking the correct route and has declared that ID will not be taught. Why can’t the local newspapers recognize reality?

We are not #1, and we are getting worse

Be depressed. The reports are in, and American education sucks and is hurting our economy.

Stagnant scientific education imperils U.S. economic leadership, says a report by leading business and science figures.

Released Thursday at a congressional briefing attended by senators and congressmen of both parties, the report updates a 2005 science education report that led to moves to double federal research funding.

Nevertheless, the “Rising Above the Gathering Storm” review finds little improvement in U.S. elementary and secondary technical education since then.

“Our nation’s outlook has worsened,” concludes the report panel headed by former Lockheed Martin chief Norman Augustine. The report “paints a daunting outlook for America if it were to continue on the perilous path it has been following”.

It’s true. I’ve been seeing progressively more poorly educated students arriving at college over the course of my career — the students of 2010 are just as bright as the students of 1980, but they’ve been badly served (in general) by the public schools, and come in with sometimes frightening intellectual deficits. How can students graduate from high school and not know basic algebra? How can those same students then think they can go on to college?

Jingoistic patriotic Americans like to delude themselves into thinking we’re #1 at everything. We aren’t. In education, we’re like #48. It’s hard to think up a proud chant over that statistic.

There is one ray of hope for the US. The UK is contemplating euthanizing their research program. America could always hope that every other country will similarly scuttle their science and technology advantages and sink to our level.

I’d call it a great example of shooting themselves in the foot, except that they’re being so dumb about it that they’re shooting themselves in the head instead.

So that’s their strategy

Minnesota should be embarrassed to have two organizations targeting our elections with the goal of blocking the possibility of gay marriage. The Nincompoops Opposing Marriage (NOM) is campaigning for the Rethuglican candidate for governor, Tom Emmers, while the Catholic church is sending out DVDs whining about gays. But they’re both following the same playbook: they’re making these pious, earnest appeals that it’s only fair that the issue be put to a vote, and they’re sounding exactly like the creationists, who make similar pleas for their pseudoscience.

What they so blithely ignore, though, is that just as science is not decided by the popular vote, neither should the civil rights of a minority be placed at the whim of a majority. It’s fundamentally demagoguery that they’re playing at — calling to the bigoted and ignorant to squash the truth and what is right at the polls.