Happy 9th Paul Nelson Day!

It’s a dying holiday, I’m sorry to say — I completely forgot it last year. But I was reminded this year, so I’ll mention it again. I think the proper way to celebrate it is simply to laugh at a creationist today.

The source of the holiday is a remarkable exhibition from Paul Nelson, who like several other creationists, loves to register and present at legitimate science conferences. The barriers are low, and many conferences are intended to give students an opportunity to present, so you’ll often find that all you have to do is send in a fee and an abstract and you’ll be allowed to put up a poster in an allotted space for a few hours of time. So Nelson showed up at the Developmental Biology meetings in 2004 with a poster titled “Understanding the Cambrian Explosion by Estimating Ontogenetic Depth” in which he and Marcus Ross claimed to have been collecting data measuring some parameter called “ontogenetic depth” in various organisms.

I was at that meeting. I asked him about that in person, and also in blog posts afterwards. How do you measure ontogenetic depth? Share your procedure so I can assess and replicate it, which is what scientists are supposed to do. He hemmed and hawed and hmmphed and in typical Nelsonian fashion babbled and burbled on, and the upshot was that he couldn’t tell me just then, but he had something he was writing and he’d polish it up and get it to me the next day, 7 April. He didn’t. We’ve been watching the 7th of April pass by for nine years now.

I think he’s felt the sting of mockery. In 2010 he announced that my criticisms were invalid, but he was inventing Ontogenetic Depth 2.0, which still isn’t defined and still doesn’t have a procedure.

In 2011 he posted some more essays on his fictitious method, in the first of which he announced that ontogenetic depth is A Biological Distance That’s Currently Impossible to Measure. Yeah? So why was he presenting a poster at a serious scientific meeting in which he and his colleague claimed to have been measuring it? Sounds like scientific fraud to me.

But then, Intelligent Design creationism has been scientific fraud all along, so I guess he was just following hallowed tradition.


  1. Pierce R. Butler says

    Wouldn’t the most appropriate celebration of PN Day involve a bottle of good single-malt whiskey?

  2. Didaktylos says

    So “Ontogenetic Depth” is just another re-packing of Quantum Bovine Excrement?

  3. Rob Grigjanis says

    Ontogenetic Depth recapitulates Not Taking a Left Turn at Albuquerque.

  4. Louis says


    I believe it is Merry Paul Nelson Day.

    Bloody atheists and their politically correct War on Paul Nelson Day.


  5. firstapproximation says

    By chance I recently read Cosma Shalizi’s deconstruction of ontogenetic depth from a mathematical/computational point of view. As he mentions, there are many interesting ways to measure complexity, but Nelson’s isn’t one of them.

    [I]t’s full of confusion and ambiguity, it lacks a clear physical or biological meaning, it doesn’t really measure what it hopes to, and has no implications for anything else. If this is the best the Discovery Institute can do in the way of ideas inspired by the program of Intelligent Design creationism — I’m not at all surprised.


  6. says

    “Ontogenetic depth” reminds me of a creationist speaker at the campus where I teach. He showed a graph of “information” as a function of time, showing that “information” was decreasing. I asked him how he obtained the data for his graph. After a lot of babbling and me refusing to let him off the hook, he eventually said that he made it up.

  7. Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says

    Ontogeneticdepth would make a great name for a band. The real insiders would be “on to” Nelson’s idea that there’s something deep in genetics that no one else has noticed.

    Of course, it would be one of those 3-chord bands: A, C, & G.


  8. Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls says

    I’ll bake a cake to celebrate the day, once I figure out how to add bottomless “well of stupidity” to the cake.

  9. Sastra says

    Paul Nelson would do well to change the term he’s using from “ontogenetic depth” to “metaphysical depth.” That way he wouldn’t be so far out of his depth. Instead of scientists, he could be happily grappling with theologians.

  10. DLC says

    Poor Paulie. he’s so put upon by all those people actually demanding he produce something other than hot air and smoke. Sorry Paulie, you can’t have it your way on this one. Time to put up or shut up. Actually, just shut up. The time to put up was nine years ago.

  11. rodw says

    This is a shame. We’ve been having the celebratory meal for Nelson day for several years now: Lobster, steamer clams, sea urchin gonads with chicken or fish. ( you’re supposed to eat as many phyla as possible, right?? )

    Ontogenic Depth may have a reasonable definition soon. It could describe levels of network topology in development. Of course, when understood it would hurt, not help ID.

  12. robro says

    erikjensen #7

    After a lot of babbling and me refusing to let him off the hook, he eventually said that he made it up.

    A colleague once declared in a meeting apropos of some information being presented to us, “You know, of course, that 67% of all statistics are made up on the spot.” He was a clever man, but sadly our manager didn’t get it.

  13. naturalcynic says

    Could it be that the right hand of the DI doesn’t know what the left hand is doing? Stephen Meyer is coming out with a new book that will, I’m sure, send Darwin way past smithereens – Darwin’s Doubt.
    Panda’s Thumb has a thread on Meyer’s new book containing a number of suggestions on how he can polish up the work. Could it be that Meyer is completing Nelson’s wishful thinking about the Cambrian.

  14. Andy Groves says

    I think “Ontogenetic Depth 2.0” will be unveiled shortly after he gets round to publishing his thesis in “Evolutionary Monographs”. Since the editor, Leigh Van Valen has sadly left us, I’m not holding my breath…..

  15. Ulysses says

    Sastra @10

    That way he wouldn’t be so far out of his depth.

    I saw what you did there.

  16. robro says

    Perhaps the unit of measure of ontological depth could be called the “nelson”? At present it equals zero (0).

  17. Thorne says

    @ Nerd of Redhead

    I’ll bake a cake to celebrate the day, once I figure out how to add bottomless “well of stupidity” to the cake.

    Quite simple, really. Instead of using a toothpick to determine if your cake is done, use a finger. Once you stop screaming your whole being will be subsumed with overwhelming feelings of stupidity.

    @ myeck waters

    …but what would that make a half-nelson?

    Twice as meaningless.