Oh no! I forgot Paul Nelson Day again!

You can’t really blame me, can you? He’s so bland and forgettable, and has such goofy ideas. I was supposed to celebrate last week, on 7 April, so I guess I’ll just celebrate now.

There will be another Paul Nelson Day. Meh. Except…

Goddammit Plato, shut up.

I see from the comments that everyone else has forgotten who Paul Nelson is.


OK, I’ll explain: Nelson is a fellow of the Discovery Institute, an Intelligent Design creationist whose schtick was to register and attend legitimate scientific meetings and present “evidence” that evolution needed a designer. At one meeting where I met him, he had a poster claiming that he had a metric called “ontogenetic depth” that he could measure, and had been measuring, to show the complexity of developing organisms. I was interested. I asked him for his protocol so I, too, could go into my lab and get a number for the complexity of zebrafish. He said he would. He didn’t. I asked him multiple times, every time he had an excuse and promised to get it off to me soon. He never did. Still hasn’t. Apparently, his poster was presented under false pretenses and his method was imaginary.

So I take this opportunity every year to remind a creationist of his failure, and to highlight his dishonesty to everyone else.

<gasp> I forgot Paul Nelson Day!

We were supposed to have waffles on 7 April, but instead I was off at the Secular Social Justice conference, and completely forgot about Paul Nelson Day.

It is rather forgettable, so, to recap: in 2004, Paul Nelson presented a poster at the Society for Developmental Biology meetings in which he unveiled his sciencey super-concept, Ontogenetic Depth. This was, supposedly, a method by which you could measure the developmental complexity of organisms, and he claimed to have been working on doing just that, although his poster was nothing but hand-wavey claims of the concept. I asked him to give me details on the method, that it would be interesting to try on my zebrafish. He said he’d send me a manuscript explaining how to measure it, later. I pestered him a bit for the documentation, and it was always “later”. He finally committed and said he’d post something on 7 April, 2004.

He didn’t.

For a while it was because he was prepping a new version, Ontogenetic Depth 2.0, but since we haven’t seen either 1.0 or 2.0, and since “ontogenetic depth” is a phrase which hasn’t even caught on among creationists, I think it’s safe to say it’s dead. It’s yet another bit of rotting detritus in the pointlessly continuous reinvention and relabeling of creationism.

But it’s still useful to poke at them and remind them how useless and bad their version of ‘science’ is. And, apparently, how forgettable.

It’s Paul Nelson Day, again


Solemn greetings, all. Today, as the more reverent among you know, is Paul Nelson Day. Today is the 12th annual feast day of St Nelson, patron saint of obtusity and procrastination, and we honor his contributions to science by…well, by not doing much of anything at all. You could make grandiose claims today and promise to make good on them tomorrow, a tomorrow that stretches out into a decade or more, I suppose, but that’s too much work. Instead, maybe we should all just shrug and say we’ll think about celebrating later.

Oh, jeez, shrugging? I don’t have time for that. How about if we don’t and just say we did.

I also thought about suggesting waffles as the perfect food for this day, but nah, I’d have to cook them, or go to a restaurant. I’m just going to say “waffles!” and put it off to some other day.

Anyway, if you don’t know the story, Paul Nelson is a creationist who attended the Society for Developmental Biology meetings in 2004, with a poster in which he claimed to have developed this new evo-devoish parameter, Ontogenetic Depth, that supposedly measured the difficulty of developmental complexity to evolve. I quizzed him on it, and specifically asked him to explain how I could measure it in my zebrafish, for example, and he couldn’t tell me, even though he seemed to be saying that he and a student had been doing these ‘measurements’. But he promised to send me a paper he was working on that explained it all. Tomorrow! A tomorrow that never came.

So now we remind him of his failure every year. It’s a good thing to point out to Intelligent Design creationists that they don’t seem to be very good at fulfilling their grand promises.

He seems to sometimes notice that he’s being mocked, at least. Last year, he tried to trot out Ontogenetic Depth 2.0, which was just as impractical and ill-conceived as the first non-existent version. Maybe he’ll have a new beta for us this year, too?

Unlikely. Too much work. Not in the spirit of the day.

Happy Paul Nelson Day!


Today we celebrate the collapse of a stupid idea: Paul Nelson’s “ontogenetic depth”, which was supposed to be a concrete metric that would disprove evolution. Nelson was so confident that he had a solid angle on questioning evolution that he presented it on a poster at the Society for Developmental Biology meetings in 2004 — a poster that was so empty of substance that I asked him for his protocols, and he then waffled for years before finally admitting he had nothin’ in 2010.

[Read more…]

Today is the 10th Annual Paul Nelson Day!

I think the appropriate way to celebrate is to do nothing at all, but just to pretend to have a big party.

Paul Nelson Day commemorates the fabulous concept of Ontogenetic Depth, a metric that Paul Nelson invented and presented at the 2004 Society for Developmental Biology meetings — he claimed that it was a measure of the complexity of a developmental process, and that it was a serious problem for evolution. Look, he said, all of a sudden in the Cambrian these creatures appeared with high Ontogenetic Depth values! Only he couldn’t tell us what those values were, or how he measured them. But they sure were a big problem for evolution!

Well, at least he couldn’t tell me right then and there at the meetings how to calculate Ontogenetic Depth. But he’d get right back to me with the details. Tomorrow. Right away. Some day.

Despite having actually had the gall to present this stuff at a legitimate scientific meeting, those details have receded farther and farther away, to the point where he finally admitted in 2011 that ontogenetic depth is impossible to measure. But we can still keep on rubbing his nose in his phony pseudoscience.

As for me, I have a cadre of strippers and a marching band here in my office, have dismantled all of the local churches to get the raw materials for a gigantic bonfire in the parking lot outside, and plan to have a picnic on the moon this afternoon to celebrate. I promise. I’ll post pictures to prove it…tomorrow. Pinky swear!

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.

It’s the 7th annual Paul Nelson Day!

How could I forget? Easy, actually, it’s a rather forgettable event in which nothing happens. Seven years ago, Paul Nelson invented a creationist metric, ontogenetic depth, which purportedly measures the complexity of developmental processes and somehow implies that evolution is impossible. At that time, he wasn’t able to tell us exactly what it was or how to measure it, but he promised to explain it…tomorrow. A tomorrow which has so far stretched out to seven long years, and we now annually note the anniversary.

I really don’t care anymore if Nelson ever comes up with a nonsensical rationalization. It’s symbolic. It’s representative of all the promised ‘science’ the Intelligent Design creationists have been claiming to be doing, yet never deliver. Last year I predicted that there would be no revelations from Nelson in 2011, and now I predict that in 2012, I’ll be making the same reminder.

Unless I forget. I might. It’s hard to remember a specific day on which creationists fail — that’s like every day, you know.

Have a querulous Paul Nelson Day!

The new generation of creationists has been doing something rather remarkable. Flaming anti-scientific religious nutcases like Wells and Dembski have been diligently going to real universities, not the usual hokey bible colleges, and working hard to get legitimate degrees in actual fields of science and math to get themselves a superficial veneer of credibility. It’s basically nothing but collecting paper credentials, though, since they don’t actually learn anything and never do anything with the knowledge they should have acquired, other than use it to razzle-dazzle the rubes.

One other example is Paul Nelson, and today is the anniversary of an infamous interaction. You see, Nelson likes to flaunt the pretense of being knowledgeable about developmental biology. Several years ago, he invented this mysterious metric called “ontogenetic depth” that he claimed to be measuring, and which he claimed to have used as evidence that the Cambrian fauna did not evolve. He even dragged this nonsense to professional meetings where he was ignored, except by vicious anti-creationists. I harshly criticized the entire vacuous notion. (I also expressed sympathy for the poor graduate student Nelson had lured into this waste of effort…it was Marcus Ross, remember him?)

He said he’d write up a technical summary that would explain exactly what ontogenetic depth was and how it was measured. He gave us a whole series of dates by which he’d have this wonderful summary. Every one of those dates sailed by without a word. And ever since we have commemorated Paul Nelson Day on 7 April, one of the dates in 2004 that he promised us an explanation. Here’s my anniversary timeline from last year.

I was just reminded that last year at this time I announced an anniversary. In March of 2004, I critiqued this mysterious abstraction called “ontogenetic depth” that Paul Nelson, the ID creationist, proposed as a measure of developmental and evolutionary complexity, and that he was using as a pseudoscientific rationale against evolution. Unfortunately, he never explained how “ontogenetic depth” was calculated or how it was measured (perhaps he was inspired by Dembski’s “specified complexity”, another magic number that can be farted out by creationists but cannot be calculated). Nelson responded to my criticisms with a promise.

On 29 March 2004, he promised to post an explanation “tomorrow”.

On 7 April 2004, he told us “tomorrow”.

On 26 April 2004, he told us he was too busy.

On 13 January 2005, he told us to read a paper by R Azevedo instead. I rather doubt that Ricardo supports Intelligent Design creationism, or thinks his work contributes to it.

Ever since, silence.

This year he is apparently off in Brazil, proselytizing his lies and fake science to the people there, so I’m assuming he won’t get around to explaining his magic metric tomorrow, either. Isn’t it amazing how creationists can make stuff up and get a career speaking at exotic places all around the world?

Oh, and get a day named after them! In his honor, we should all make it a point to ask people “How do you know that?” today, and the ones who actually can explain themselves competently will be complimented by being told that they’re no Paul Nelson.

We’ll celebrate it again next year, I’m sure.

It couldn’t happen to a nicer guy

No, really, I’m not being sarcastic. Paul Nelson is a nice guy. But he’s afflicted by an obdurate wrongness and he’s convinced that he’s got the intellectual chops to show he’s right…and he really doesn’t. He’s a young earth creationist and an intelligent design creationist, and he wrote to challenge Jerry Coyne, with much hubris. He said, in part:

Readers who already know about the thinking of workers such as Eric Davidson, Michael Lynch, Andreas Wagner, John Gerhart & Marc Kirschner, or Scott Gilbert (all of whom, among many others, have recently expressed frank doubts about selection) must discount what you say about the centrality of natural selection to evolutionary theory — because they know that just isn’t so.

I know the work of all those people — I could tell you that they don’t discount the importance of natural selection, but they do also consider other mechanisms important. Coyne knows them better — Lynch was even at the University of Chicago that day giving a lecture — and he wrote to them all and asked them personally if they agreed with Nelson’s summary of their position. The results were hilarious: all of them said no way.

Nelson made the big mistake of dragging in living scientists and claiming that they all supported his claim that evolution was on the ropes. Didn’t he get the memo? It’s best to cite long dead prominent scientists, especially ones who died before the middle years of the 19th century.

But then it gets sad. Read into the comments, and you’ll find Nelson commenting, trying to reassert that really, all those people are mistaken, and he knows better than they do, that they really expose a weakness of evolution — that because they understand that many features have a non-adaptive origin (hey, didn’t I just make that argument?), that they are therefore questioning the importance of natural selection. He’s relying on quote mining to make arguments from authority. It’s pathetic. It’s dismal. It’s self-destructive. It’s disgraceful. It’s a typical creationist move.

Stop digging, Nelson, stop digging!

P.S. Oh, no! I forgot to celebrate the 8th Paul Nelson day last April! (Note that I even predicted that I might forget.) Remind me in a few months.