I remembered Paul Nelson Day this year!

It helped to have all these people emailing me reminders in advance.

Paul Nelson Day, for you blessed souls who are unaware, is the day we commemorate the failure of a fellow of the Discovery Institute to follow through on his claims. Nelson actually presented a poster at a genuine scientific meeting, the Society for Developmental Biology, in which he proposed a novel metric he called “Ontogenetic Depth”, which supposedly measured the complexity of a lineage or something, producing numbers which he was certain spelled the doom of evolutionary theory. He even had a student, he said, measuring the ontogenetic depth of various species. Data? What? A creationist with data? I had to know how this worked. If I had his protocol, I’d even be willing to try to apply it to my organisms. You know, independent replication.

He was a bit dodgy about his methods, though, and they weren’t on the poster, and he promised to get back to me with a paper in a few days. A few weeks. A few months. A few years. It’s been 16 years now. No paper. Lots of handwaving.

I think we can safely say that ontogenetic depth is dead, and abandoned by its creator. It ought to be an embarrassing failure for Paul Nelson, but creationists never fail, they just bounce on to another delusion.

Paul Nelson has now invented another pseudo-sciencey phrase: Design Triangulation. Oh boy. Behe struck gullibility gold with the two-word mantra, “irreducible complexity”, that every creationist fool loved, because it was two long words that they thought made them sound clever…but it’s an empty claim, and IC has crumbled under even the most casual gaze. They also jumped on the “Design Theory” bandwagon, which fails because there is no Design Theory — it’s a mask over the words “God did it”. Nelson tried to get lightning to strike twice with “Ontogenetic Depth”, which also flopped. His mistake was promising something measurable and testable, which he wasn’t able to do.

Now it’s “Design Triangulation”. What is it? I don’t know. This time he apparently decided to start by writing out a thorough explanation — we weren’t going to be able to ask him to provide a paper he didn’t write this time!


He seems to have written it in PowerPoint — big loud fonts, lots of colors, assertion after assertion, lots of bold claims, clearly he’s thinking he needs to make a splashy, flashy argument. There’s one thing missing, though: data. There is no data in the document. There is lots of sniping at evolutionary theory, which they don’t understand, and bogus arguments about probabilities.

It’s also 243 pages long.

I read the whole thing. It claims to be “Sketches for a Method of Design-Enabled Biological Research”, which sounds familiar — he claimed Ontogenetic Depth was a “method”, too. I read it with an eye towards picking out what bits had utility in research. Give me one thing I could use in a lab or in the field, one thing that could give me a discrete result. It’s not there. Instead, there’s a lot of noise of the sort that gives philosophy (bad philosophy) a bad name among working biologists. It’s tortured philosophy. It’s philosophy abuse. It’s the sort of thing that makes scientists and respectable philosophers scream in pain. It goes on and on, never coming to a point, never providing anything concrete. Like a lot of creationists, Nelson is constantly getting distracted into tedious railing against evolution, asserting that evolution is impossible, and never ever saying anything specific about his magical chant of “Design Triangulation”, which he mentions multiple times but never defines.

I thought I’d illustrate this article with a catchy slide from his overlong presentation, but there aren’t any. Yeah, he steals some lovely biological examples so he can say they couldn’t possibly have evolved, and he’s got a bit about Michael Lynch pointing out that there’s more to the evolutionary process than natural selection (which is not the problem for evolutionary theory that Nelson imagines it to be), and lots of wordy babbling about philosophy, but nothing that captures the guts of Design Triangulation. So the best I can do is give you the culmination of his presentation, the one image he’d leave with those viewing it:

That’s it. Design Triangulation is just…Design. There is no method given, as promised in the subtitle of the file. If you like the fantasy of Design and Designer(s), you’ll lap this crap up — Nelson knows his audience. If you expect some intelligent criticism and useful methodology, you won’t see it at all, because Nelson isn’t writing for you. You aren’t the kind of rubes who’d fall for pompous verbiage and empty promises.

It’s perfectly fitting for Paul Nelson Day!

It’s the 15th Annual Paul Nelson Day celebration!

That’s right, it’s 7 April, which is Paul Nelson Day! I figure I’l have an appropriately wild and festive celebration today by sitting home alone and grading papers. I’m planning to have an orange for lunch — I hope I’m not being too exuberant.

I thought I’d look and see what Nelson is up to nowadays. He’s still writing for the Discovery Institute, he’s working on another book, On Common Descent, which I doubt that I’ll bother to read, and no, he’s never come up with an adequate justification for the concept of “ontological depth”, which he claimed to have been studying empirically.

Just yesterday, though, he posted an essay expressing his gratitude to an atheist philosophy professor, Adolf Grünbaum, in which he is thankful for the methodological rigor of his training. That’s nice. I don’t think it took, though.

He gives an example of what he considers a flawed argument by Grünbaum.

An example: one day in class, Grünbaum was arguing that religious opinions followed geography and ancestry. One was much likelier to believe in the existence of Brahma and Vishnu, for instance, if one were born on the Indian subcontinent, and raised by Hindu parents, than, say, being born in Lincoln, Nebraska — which is true.

That fact is also irrelevant, however, to the entirely separate question “Do Brahma and Vishnu exist?” Moreover, as I explained to Grünbaum, my Jewish brother-in-law Avner, a theist, was raised in Montreal by atheistic, Stalinist parents who intended that Avner should also be an atheist who adored the USSR. But he didn’t adore the USSR. And he most certainly believed in God.

The statistical religious-belief-follows-geography-and-parentage argument Grünbaum was making, however, allowed for occasional outliers such as Avner — meaning that Grünbaum’s position possessed no predictive strength. The holes in his net of social statistics let any human counterexample swim right on through. Thus, Grünbaum’s argument said nothing definitive in any particular case, and since every human being is a particular case — that’s you, me, Avner, Grünbaum (who celebrated his bar mitzvah in a conservative Cologne synagogue), Stalin (raised as a believer who sang in church choirs and was educated in a Russian Orthodox seminary in Tiflis) — the argument just wasn’t very good, by Grünbaum’s own standards. One will believe in the God of one’s hometown and parents, except when one doesn’t. And therefore we’re back to square zero. Does God exist or not? Birthplace and parentage are irrelevant.

But Grünbaum was correct! He wasn’t making a deterministic argument that everyone born in India is somehow compelled by geography to believe in Brahma — obviously absurd because there are Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, and atheist Indians — and I doubt that he was trying to directly demonstrate God’s nonexistence, if he was as brilliant as Nelson makes him out to be. It’s also clearly not an absolute, fixed rule, so that Nelson can list a few exceptions is irrelevant.

This is an argument about epistemology: how do human beings know anything about the nature of the god they worship? What Grünbaum was pointing out is that our concept of god isn’t produced by an objective analysis of observable facts about nature, but is the result of influences from culture, community, family, personal subjective experience. Contrary to the beliefs of the Discovery Institute cultists, there is no god who left a distinctive and unambiguous signature on every living thing, and the basis of their belief in an Intelligent Designer is built entirely on bias, ignorance, misinformation, and superstition. Grünbaum was asking his students to question how they know what they think they know about deities, and to recognize that it’s mostly a product of local tradition, not divine revelation or measurable data.

I can believe that Nelson’s brother-in-law Avner was raised as an atheist and later became a believer, but that fact says nothing about how he came to believe, and trotting it out as if it somehow refutes Grünbaum is the real lazy thinking here. I rather doubt that Avner was floating all of his life in a total atheist void when suddenly, in a flash of insight, the entirety of Judaism manifested itself in his mind, and he woke from his godless dream in which the faith came to him to find, to his surprise, that an entire worldwide community of Jewish folk had independently come to all the same conclusions.

Oh, well. It’s part of the tradition of Paul Nelson Day that Paul Nelson will pop his head out of his burrow and make a nonsensical declaration that he cannot possibly defend. Yay.

Dang. I just realized that I don’t have any waffles in the house for the traditional Paul Nelson Day meal, and I’m supposed to stay-in-place and shouldn’t run off to the grocery store to get some.

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.