The incredible self-destructing psychologist

Holy crap. A Dutch social scientist’s career has just crashed flamingly. He apparently had a tremendous reputation.

“Somebody used the word ‘wunderkind’,” says Miles Hewstone, a social psychologist at the University of Oxford, UK. “He was one of the bright thrusting young stars of Dutch social psychology — highly published, highly cited, prize-winning, worked with lots of people, and very well thought of in the field.”

But maybe someone should have been made a bit suspicious by this behavior:

Many of Stapel’s students graduated without having ever run an experiment, the report says. Stapel told them that their time was better spent analyzing data and writing. The commission writes that Stapel was “lord of the data” in his collaborations. It says colleagues or students who asked to see raw data were given excuses or even threatened and insulted.

Graduate students who were not doing experiments, a PI who was, graduate students doing all the analysis and writing, a PI who wasn’t? This was an obvious inversion of the natural order. Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together… mass hysteria! Such peculiar behavior should have alerted someone early on — data are primary.

And now, the denouement:

Diederik Stapel was suspended from his position at Tilburg University in the Netherlands in September after three junior researchers reported that they suspected scientific misconduct in his work. Soon after being confronted with the accusations, Stapel reportedly told university officials that some of his papers contained falsified data. The university launched an investigation, as did the University of Groningen and the University of Amsterdam, where Stapel had worked previously. The Tilburg commission today released an interim report (in Dutch), which includes preliminary results from all three investigations. The investigators found “several dozens of publications” in which fictitious data has been used. Fourteen of the 21 Ph.D. theses Stapel supervised are also tainted, the committee concluded.

Stapel has made a comment. I don’t think he understands what he has done at all.

Stapel initially cooperated with the investi­gation by identifying fraudulent publications, but stopped because he said he was not physically or emotionally able to continue, says Levelt. In a statement, translated from Dutch, that is appended to the report, Stapel says: “I have made mistakes, but I was and am honestly concerned with the field of social psychology. I therefore regret the pain that I have caused others.” Nature was unable to contact Stapel for comment.

No, he was not honestly concerned with the field of social psychology. If he actually cared about what the evidence told him about the world, he wouldn’t have made it up. He was honestly concerned with the selfish goal of making a name for himself, nothing else.

He’ll never be trusted in any field of science ever again. He’s going to have to look for a new career…maybe theology, where making up data is a way of life.

(Also on FtB)

Traces of a Triassic Kraken?

At first I thought this discovery was really cool, because I love the idea of ancient giant cephalopods creating art and us finding the works now. But then, reality sinks in: that’s a genuinely, flamboyantly extravagant claim, and the evidence better be really, really solid. And it’s not. It’s actually rather pathetic.

It consists of the discovery of ichthyosaur vertebrae lying in a flattened array. They look like this.

i-08915103555b433da4ec5af02502d78a-shonisaur.jpeg
Photo shows shonisaur vertebral disks arranged in curious linear patters with almost geometric regularity. The arranged vertebrae resemble the pattern of sucker discs on a cephalopod tentacle, with each vertebra strongly resembling a coleoid sucker.

Wait, what? That’s it?

This work was presented at a meeting of the GSA under the title “Triassic kraken: the Berlin ichthyosaur death assemblage interpreted as a giant cephalopod midden “, with this argument:

“It became very clear that something very odd was going on there,” said McMenamin. “It was a very odd configuration of bones.”

First of all, the different degrees of etching on the bones suggested that the shonisaurs were not all killed and buried at the same time. It also looked like the bones had been purposefully rearranged. That it got him thinking about a particular modern predator that is known for just this sort of intelligent manipulation of bones.

“Modern octopus will do this,” McMenamin said. What if there was an ancient, very large sort of octopus, like the kraken of mythology. “I think that these things were captured by the kraken and taken to the midden and the cephalopod would take them apart.”

In the fossil bed, some of the shonisaur vertebral disks are arranged in curious linear patterns with almost geometric regularity, McMenamin explained.The proposed Triassic kraken, which could have been the most intelligent invertebrate ever, arranged the vertebral discs in double line patterns, with individual pieces nesting in a fitted fashion as if they were part of a puzzle.

Even more creepy: The arranged vertebrae resemble the pattern of sucker discs on a cephalopod tentacle, with each vertebra strongly resembling a coleoid sucker. In other words, the vertebral disc “pavement” seen at the state park may represent the earliest known self portrait.

Let me explain something here. This “Triassic kraken” has not been found; no fossils, no remains at all, no evidence of its existence. It is postulated to have been large enough to hunt and kill ichthyosaurs, which is remarkable—comparison to modern giant squid is invalid, since they are prey, not predator. This fossil bed is being over-interpreted as a trace fossil, with the bones arranged by intent, by an intelligent cephalopod, which they have not seen. Furthermore, a line of discs is being seen as a picture of a cephalopod tentacle, classic pareidolia. This is trivial: dump a pile of Necco wafers on a table, and I’ll see a picture of squid suckers. This is a whole series of tenuous and unlikely speculations stacked together to make an ultimately ridiculous hypothesis.

After I read the abstract and realization settled in that this was nonsense, something else was nagging me. That name, McMenamin — I’d heard it somewhere before. A little search, and there it was: I’ve encountered him tangentially before. He’s the geologist who so effulgently endorsed the imaginative pattern-spotting of Stuart Pivar. He also claims “that mariners of ancient Carthage made it to America long before Eriksson and Columbus, some time around 350 BC.”

I think I would concur with the idea that Mark McMenamin is exceptionally imaginative.

(Also on FtB)

Bob Enyart and Will Duffy, partners in idiocy

We’ve got another chittering weasel of a creationist raving in the comments, a fellow going by the name YesYouNeedJesus. He’s also sending me email.

PZ, I first heard about you on Bob Enyart’s radio show about the fact that you turned down an offer to debate Bob. I must say that my first impression of you is that you are smarter than most evolutionists. Smarter because the evolutionists that debate Bob get absolutely destroyed every time. Every evolutionist that I spoke to who was at the debate between Bob Enyart and Reasons to Believe willfully admitted that their side (evolution) lost. Bob’s debate with Eugenie Scott was just flat-out epic and is still my all-time favorite science debate. Of course they all made the mistake of debating Bob and you did not. You are smart, I’ll give you that. I think they made the mistake of underestimating Bob because he’s just a radio talk show host. Personally I think that Walt Brown is the greatest scientist of our day, but after Walt Brown, Bob is one of the most brilliant scientific minds I’ve ever listened to. I believe that the evolutionist’s new tactic is to avoid debating creationists because the arguments are just becoming impossible to refute. While that’s quite the tactical strategy and may work for a short time, it is encouraging to see the creation movement grow like a wildfire. And I do believe it’s just a short amount of time before we see evolution become the next ‘spontaneous generation’ and become obsolete. Don’t forget that if you dared question spontaneous generation, you were labeled as anti-science. Good luck to you. -Will

You read that, and apart from the creationist crazy, you get the impression that this guy is just someone with no ties to Enyart (other than his deep and abiding passionate love for him) who listened to the radio show, found out about these evilutionists, and ran over here to see what was up.

This is not the case. His name is Will Duffy, something revealed in the first few minutes of the video below, and he’s Bob Enyart’s producer.

You know, this kind of thing really bugs me. Why do you have to lie and mislead and conceal on the little, trivial things? Why hide the fact that you have a vested interest in Enyart’s show, and are actually deeply involved in the program? I see that, and right away, I know I’m dealing with a shameless liar for Jesus.

And then, of course, there’s the raving insanity. Walt Brown and Bob Enyart are the greatest scientists of the day? Someone alert the NAS and the Nobel Foundation!

Here’s the video. It’s a year old, and it’s a surprise to me (which goes to show how impressed I am with this Enyart freak). I dismissed a request to debate this kook — I’d just come off a debate with his loony pal, Jerry Bergman — and so he issued a challenge that I hadn’t even noticed until now.

He’s asking me to explain the origin of the superior oblique muscle, one of the extra-ocular muscles, which has a tendon that travels through a pulley-like strap called a trochlea. This muscle abducts and depresses the eye; try to look at your nose, and that’s one of the muscles responsible for pulling the eyeball in that direction. Enyart thinks the muscle would have been useless without the trochlear pulley, which is silly: the muscle could have had a different attachment in the orbit, or in the absence of the trochlea could have swiveled the eye upwards, or most likely of all, the suite of extra-ocular muscles and that little loop of tendon all co-evolved. We are well-integrated wholes, you know, and we didn’t evolve one toe at a time — nature selected for functionality as a complete organism.

OK, but Enyart has challenged me to explain how this feature evolved. I have an answer. It’s easy.

I don’t know.

I don’t see any obvious obstacle to an arrangement of muscles evolving, but I don’t know the details of this particular set. And there’s actually a very good reason for that.

This is a case where you have to step back from the creationist and look at the big picture. Don’t get bogged down in the details. Take a look at the whole context of the question.

We don’t know exactly how this evolved because all living vertebrates, with the exception of the lamprey, have the same arrangement of extra-ocular muscles. This is a primitive and very highly conserved condition, with no extant intermediates. We’ve seen the arrangement of these muscles in 400 million year old placoderm fossils, and they’re the same; these muscles probably evolved 450 million or more years ago, and we have no record of any intermediate state. So I don’t know, and neither does anyone else.

But that’s where we have to look at the big picture: Bob Enyart, a raving loon and young earth creationist who thinks the whole planet is less than 10,000 years old, is asking me to recount the details of an event that occurred almost half a billion years ago. I should think it’s enough to shatter his position and show that he’s wrong to simply note that however it evolved, it happened in animals 75,000 times older than he claims the planet is. Has he even noticed this little problem with his question?

I don’t think “one of the most brilliant minds” has.

Further, another of Will Duffy’s rants here has made a strange demand. Mary Schweitzer and Jack Horner identified some peculiar soft tissue deep in a T. rex bone, which Schweitzer claims is preserved collagen or fragments of blood vessels. This has been disputed, and some claim it’s scraps of a bacterial biofilm. But the main thing is that an unusual and difficult to identify material was found in a Cretaceous bone.

Will Duffy wants it carbon-dated. The fossil has already been dated; it’s over 70 million years old. Carbon dating is only good up to a maximum age of about 50,000 years. He wants to hold a yardstick up against a mile-long object and ask how long it is. This makes no sense at all.

Bob Enyart called Jack Horner and offered him $20,000 to measure the C14 in the T. rex specimen. You can tell Horner is both stunned and amused at the stupidity of the request.

The age of the specimen is not in question, and even if it were, carbon dating is so absurdly inappropriate and useless that only an ignorant clown would ask to do it: it doesn’t matter what number would come out of the measurement, it would be spurious, irrelevant, and uninterpretable…except that, because C14 does have an upper bound of 50,000 years, whatever number reported would be less than that, which is exactly what the creationists are trusting would happen. They’d love to hold that yardstick up against the mile long object and triumphantly announce that it’s only 36 inches long.

“Brilliant mind,” hah. That’s not a brain, it’s a dingleberry with pretensions.

(Also on FtB)

An archaeologist watches the History Channel

And deeply regrets it.

It’s very sad. I remember when cable TV was new, and had such promise — there would be channels dedicated to specialty disciplines, that would pursue a niche doggedly for a slice of the audience. The History Channel would be about history, not von Daniken and Nazi UFOs; Discovery would be about science, not motorcycle enthusiasts and bargain hunters; the Learning Channel would be about learning, not octuplets and hoarding; the SciFi channel would actually present decent science-fiction, instead of schlock horror, ghost-hunters, and fake wrestling. Garbage conquered all, didn’t it?

(Also on FtB)

Dr Oz crosses the line

Usually, Oz just dispenses pointless pap and feel-good noise, but now he’s antagonized the agriculture lobby. On a recent show, he claimed that apple juice was loaded with deadly arsenic — a claim he supported by running quick&dirty chemical tests on fruit juices, getting crude estimates of total arsenic, and then going on the air to horrify parents with the thought that they were poisoning their children.

One problem: his tests weren’t measuring what he claimed. The FDA got word of the fear-mongering he was doing, and sent him a warning letter.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is aware that EMSL Analytical, Inc. has obtained and tested 50 samples of retail apple juice for total arsenic content on behalf of Zoco Productions. It is our understanding that, based on these test results, you will assert during an upcoming episode of The Dr. Oz Show that apple juice is unsafe because of the amounts of total arsenic found in the samples.

We appreciate that you have made the results of these tests available to us. As we have previously advised you, the results from total arsenic tests CANNOT be used to determine whether a food is unsafe because of its arsenic content. We have explained to you that arsenic occurs naturally in many foods in both inorganic and organic forms and that only the inorganic forms of arsenic are toxic, depending on the amount. We have advised you that the test for total arsenic DOES NOT distinguish inorganic arsenic from organic arsenic.

The FDA has been aware of the potential for elevated levels of arsenic in fruit juices for many years and has been testing fruit juices for arsenic and other elemental contaminants as part of FDA’s toxic elements in foods program. The FDA typically tests juice samples for total arsenic first, because this test is rapid, accurate and cost effective. When total arsenic testing shows that a fruit juice sample has total arsenic in an amount greater than 23 parts per billion (ppb), we re-test the sample for its inorganic arsenic content. The vast majority of samples we have tested for total arsenic have less than 23 ppb. We consider the test results for inorganic arsenic on a case-by-case basis and take regulatory action as appropriate.

The analytical method for inorganic arsenic is much more complicated than the method for total arsenic. You can find the method that FDA uses to test for inorganic arsenic at this web address:

http://www.fda.gov/Food/ScienceResearch/LaboratoryMethods/ElementalAnalysisManualEAM/ucm219640.htm

The FDA believes that it would be irresponsible and misleading for The Dr. Oz Show to suggest that apple juice contains unsafe amounts of arsenic based solely on tests for total arsenic. Should The Dr. Oz Show choose to suggest that apple juice is unsafe because of the amounts of total arsenic found by EMSL Analytical, Inc.’s testing, the FDA will post this letter on its website.

His show got this letter that clearly explains why his measurements were invalid a week before the show was aired, and Oz ignored it and went ahead and broadcast a misleading and hysterical piece. Some public schools are already yanking apple juice from their lunchrooms on the basis of Oz’s lies.

Maybe somebody should explain to Oz that arsenic is entirely “natural”. Or maybe some orchard owners ought to get together for a big class-action suit.

(Also on FtB)

Somebody doesn’t understand basic genetics

Oh, boy. Look at these quotes from a recently published magazine article, and try to guess where they came from.

Scientists had also implicitly assumed that the X chromosomes in all women were identical.

We had? When?

The first comprehensive study of gene activity in the X chromosome of women reveals an unexpected level of variation among individual females. This extensive variation means there is not ONE human genome, but TWO – Male and Female.

This does not follow. There’s also individual variation in chromosome 7, and every other chromosome in the genome. Allelic and expression variation do not make for calling every variant a different genome.

Chromosomes are the set of genetic instructions that guide the creation of an organism. Every human embryo begins with two X chromosomes, but in order to be a male, one of the X chromosomes turns into a Y chromosome.

Wait, how? Could this happen even now? Watch out ladies: if you watch too much football, one of your X chromosomes might turn into a Y.

Depending on the gene, having two active copies can matter very little or very much. When genes on the second X chromosome that escape inactivation are expressed, this can create a stronger overall concentration of particular genes.

That started out just fine, and then degenerated into gobbledygook.

Have you figured it out? You’re probably thinking it’s some wacky creationist journal, because they are always written by people who don’t understand science and get the facts all wrong.

But no: it’s from Health & Wellness magazine, written by Angela Hoover. The editor of the magazine.

The title of the magazine is a clue. What the heck is “wellness”, and how is it different from “health”?

(Also on FtB)

The Space Shuttle gets a reasonable eulogy at last

It’s so good to see someone take off the rose-colored glasses and tell it like it is: the space shuttle was a flop.

The most important thing to realize about the space shuttle program is that it is objectively a failure. The shuttle was billed as a reusable craft that could frequently, safely, and cheaply bring people and payloads to low Earth orbit. NASA originally said the shuttles could handle 65 launches per year; the most launches it actually did in a year was nine; over the life of the program, it averaged five per year. NASA predicted each shuttle launch would cost $50 million; they actually averaged $450 million. NASA administrators said the risk of catastrophic failure was around one in 100,000; NASA engineers put the number closer to one in a hundred; a more recent report from NASA said the risk on early flights was one in nine. The failure rate was two out of 135 in the tests that matter most.

I first had my doubts after Challenger blew up; it wasn’t the failure of the mission that bothered me — I understood that it was risky — but NASA’s responses in the hearings afterwards. I watched those; it was where Richard Feynman really caught the public eye.

According to reports after the Challenger disaster, the ship exploded because of a faulty joint that included an O-ring hardened by especially cold conditions before launch. More importantly, this was far from an isolated problem, as illustrated by a report by Richard Feynman. Feynman slammed not only the O-ring error but the entire process of building and testing the shuttle, plus the management style and decision-making of NASA, for good measure. When he wrote, “Let us make recommendations to ensure that NASA officials deal in a world of reality,” and, “They must live in reality in comparing the costs and utility of the Shuttle to other methods of entering space,” he meant they were at the time not living in reality, which is generally the place engineers ought to live. NASA’s recent report on shuttle safety found that the chance of making it through first 25 flights (#25 being Challenger’s last flight) was only 6%, and the chance of 88 safe flights between the Challenger and Columbia disasters was just 7%. If the study is accurate, then Challenger and Columbia weren’t freak accidents—the flights before them were freak successes.

I got the impression from those hearings that NASA had become an engineering bureaucracy, dedicated to dogmatic, almost ritualistic redundancy and caution, where following procedure, no matter how flawed, was always the answer. Feynman was fabulous cut through all the nonsense and just asked what worked and what didn’t.

Goodbye, old lemon. Let’s hope the next new model actually comes up to spec.

Professional science journalism

I’ve taken a few pokes at the bad science of Rhawn Joseph and the Journal of Cosmology over the years — for instance, in this post summarizing an article that was little more than a thinly threaded excuse to show off pictures of women in bikinis, or this post about their claim to have found bacteria in meteorites.

I think my criticism must have stung.

Check out the bikini post at the Journal of Cosmology now. It’s been removed, with the disclaimer, “CENSORED This Article Has Been Censored and Removed Due to Threats and Complaints Received.” I am amused. I wouldn’t take all the credit, since I’m sure many people found that article ludicrous to an extreme, except…

Well, this is really weird. Notice in the header for the journal’s online page that it gives two URLs: journalofcosmology.com takes you to the various articles in the journal, but they also own cosmology.com. Allow me to show you the front page for cosmology.com. I’ll preserve it here since I rather expect it will be pulled in embarrassment at some time in the future.

Cosmology.com is For Sale

Sale Price:

$100,000.00

Price Based on Estibot estimated value.

Contact:
ForSale AT Cosmology.com

Include your name, address, affiliation, and phone number or your inquiry will be ignored.

In Honor of P. Z. Myers



P. Z. Myers celebrating

Is P. Z. Myers a “frothing at the mouth lunatic” who raves about subjects he knows nothing about?
Absolutely not. There is no evidence of “frothing.”

Copyright 2009, 2010, 2011 All Rights Reserved

Ah, yes…because nothing says you’ve got a property worth $100,000 like slapping photoshopped pictures of my face on obese women’s bodies.

And look! They have a whole page dedicated to my honor! I wonder what level of professionalism we’ll see there? Just in case that goes away, too, I’ve put a copy below the fold.

[Read more…]

Jonathan MacLatchie collides with reality again

Jonathan MacLatchie, the creationist who challenged me to answer his questions about development in Glasgow, has posted his account of our encounter and his problems with evolution. It is completely unsurprising — he still doesn’t understand any of the points.

Of his 10 questions, 7 were quickly dismissable and were more than thoroughly addressed in my talk. They rest on a deep misconception that is shared with Jonathan Wells and many other pseudoscholarly creationists; I can summarize it with one standard template: “Since Darwinian evolution predicts that development will conserve the evolutionary history of an organism, how do you account for feature X which doesn’t fit that model?” To which I can simply reply, “Evolution does not predict that development will conserve the evolutionary history of an organism, therefore your question is stupid.” It doesn’t matter how many X’s he drags out, given that the premise is false, the whole question is invalid. But they can play that rhetorical game endlessly, citing feature after feature that doesn’t fit their misunderstanding of the science, making it sound to the clueless like they’ve got a legion of contradictions with evolution. Unfortunately for them, their objections are to creationist evolution, which has very little relationship to real evolution.

The gist of my talk was that Haeckel was wrong, that there was no recapitulation of developmental stages. Variation can and does occur at every stage of development; early and late stages vary greatly; evolution does not proceed primarily by terminal addition of new stages, as Haeckel postulated; but there is an interesting and real convergence on the broad, general outlines of the body plan at one point in development that needs to be explained.

MacLatchie’s response, greatly abbreviated, is to say that recapitulation doesn’t occur; variation occurs at every stage of development; early and late stages vary greatly; and look! I have papers from the peer-reviewed scientific literature that agree with me! Well, yes. That’s what I said. That is the conventional, ordinary, normal, well-understood, evolution-compatible side of the story from the scientists, like I’d been saying. Is there an echo in here, or do you just not understand what you heard or what you read, that you think the facts are evidence against evolution?

Apparently, in the Q&A for my talk (which you can now listen to; MacLatchie is first up), he asked me, I think, question #3 from his list, but I couldn’t really tell. As is typical, he turned it into a long-winded turgid mess, and I’ll be honest, I really couldn’t grasp what he was trying to ask, and I think he was actually getting at two different things. One is that there are differences in the embryological origins of some organs; this bothers him, apparently, because he’s sitting there expecting that there shouldn’t be any differences in how, for instance, the neural tube forms, because it’s a primitive structure, and therefore, because development is supposed to recapitulate evolution, they should be identical. I missed that; I was trying to see a more intelligent question in his verbiage. Now that I’ve read the papers he was waving around, I can answer a little differently: yes. There are differences in how different organs form in different species.

So?

It is not a tenet of evo-devo that primitive structures must follow identical ontogenetic pathways. We actually understand that divergence can occur at all stages of development.

The other thing he was getting at was something I thought I understood when I tried to get him to focus on one example, and suggested neural tube formation. There what we see despite differences between species is a widely conserved molecular homology — that there is an interplay between BMP and Dpp in defining the prospective nervous system in flies and vertebrates. These deep homologies in organization were not expected and not predicted by evolutionary biology, but their presence does imply evolutionary affinities. That there are differences — for instance, a frog will form a hollow tube by folding the sheet of the neural plate, while a fish seems to submerge the sheet into the body and then secondarily cavitate* — are real, but relatively superficial. And differences are not precluded by evolutionary theory!

I wish I could get that one thought into these guys heads: evolutionary theory predicts differences as well as similarities. Finding a difference between two species does not send us rocking back on our heels, shocked that such a thing could be.

There’s another weird thing in that clip that is so typical of creationists. He pointed at those papers of his, dropped a few scientists’ names, and claimed they all supported his position. They do not. He gave me copies of three of them afterwards; two I’d already read and was fairly familiar with. Come on, he was citing Pere Alberch, the great synthesizer of development and evolution, in support of intelligent design creationism?

MacLatchie doesn’t even understand the paper. What Alberch is doing in it is arguing that many efforts to use developmental information in systematics go wrong because they have a creeping Haeckelian interpretation, that the sequences of events in development should preserve the evolutionary sequence. They don’t, he said, and as I also said, Haeckelian recapitulation is false. So, once again, MacLatchie was confronting me with a paper that confirmed what I had said as if it somehow showed I was wrong. I really don’t get it.

It’s also a subtle example of quote-mining. In the paper, Alberch gives two examples of developmental variation in vertebrates, describing differences in toe number and in the mode of neural tube formation. MacLatchie quotes him this way:

According to the Alberch paper (the claims of which remain true to this day), it is noted that it is “the rule rather than the exception” that “homologous structures form from distinctly dissimilar initial states.”

First, it’s a slightly odd quote: the two phrases are from two different paragraphs, and are in the reverse order from how they’re written here. He doesn’t substantially change the meaning, though, so it’s not quite as nasty as the usual scrambling. (However, it is peculiar that this same exact cut & flip quote can also be found in the works of Harun Yahya, and who knows where he got it; it’s just another example of creationists copying each other.)

However, this is where it gets devious. MacLatchie omits to mention the very next sentence after part of that quote:

The diversity of tarsal morphology, as well as the variation in ontogenetic pathways leading to the formation of the neural tube, reflect variations in developmental parameters or initial conditions within conserved developmental programs. [emphasis mine] There is structural organization in this scheme that should be amenable to systematic analysis but the information in not in the ontogenetic sequence.

You see, that’s the point of his paper: it’s a criticism of naive interpretations of developmental processes that are built on Haeckelian assumptions that the sequence of stages will be evolutionarily conserved. They aren’t. This does not represent a denial of evolutionary relevance; quite the contrary, he goes on to propose better ways of examining the role of development. After giving some examples, he explains that better methods “share the common emphasis on regulation within a resilient developmental program, and they emphasize the need to go beyond the perception of ontogeny as a sequence of discrete developmental stages.”

It’s actually surprisingly offensive to see creationist citing the late Alberch as somehow supporting their lunatic views. I suddenly feel like I was not rude enough to MacLatchie at that talk.

It’s a superficial ploy creationists play. They don’t have any scientific literature of their own, so they go rummaging about in the genuine scientific literature and start pulling out fragments that show disagreement and questions in the evolutionary community. And that is so trivial to do, because they don’t grasp something obvious and fundamental: every science paper has as its throbbing heart a question and an argument. Seriously. Every single paper on evolution is arguing with evolution, probing and pushing and testing. I am not at all impressed when some clueless dingbat pulls up Alberch’s paper titled “Problems with the interpretation of developmental sequences” and crows about finding a paper that talks about “problems”. Problems are what we’re interested in.

In an attempt at turnabout, MacLatchie also tries to claim that I distorted Jonathan Wells’ position by implying that Wells does not try to use Haeckel’s errors to undermine the foundations of evolution, because Wells openly explains that Haeckel was discredited by his peers.

A casual reading of chapter 3 of Wells’ The Politically Incorrect Guide to Darwinism and Intelligent Design (which was cited by Myers) reveals that Wells, in fact, tells us that “Haekel’s fakery was exposed by his own contemporaries, who accused him of fraud, and it has been periodically re-exposed ever since.”

Why, yes, it’s part of Wells’ game. He declares that Haeckel’s theory has been thoroughly rubbished, and therefore the foundations of ‘Darwinism’ have been destroyed. Note the sneaky substitution: Haeckel’s theory is not the foundation of evolution. We can kill it, kick it when it’s down, run it through a woodchipper, and it just doesn’t matter — it’s not part of evolutionary theory. I’ve dealt with this subterfuge at length, so I don’t really need to go into it again, do I?

*Which has since been found to be less of a difference than thought before. The fish neural tube does fold, but the cells are more tightly adherent to one another so you don’t see the central ventricle forming as obviously.


I said 7 of the 10 questions are blown to smithereens by the simple fact that they are built on false premises — MacLatchie doesn’t really understand that Haeckelian recapitulation is not part of evolutionary theory. I’ll quickly answer the remaining three right here.

4) Could you please explain the near-total absence of evidence for evolutionarily relevant (i.e. stably heritable) large-scale variations in animal form, as required by common descent? “Near-total”, that is, because losses of structure are often possible. But common descent requires the generation of anatomical novelty. Why is it the case that all observed developmental mutations that might lead to macroevolution (besides the loss of an unused structure) are harmful or fatal?

This is just like the standard creationist claim that there are no transitional fossils: there are no transitional mutations, either! When we see variations in morphology between populations of organisms, how did those changes get there, were they implanted by angels? As clear examples of “transitional mutations”, I’d point to polyphenisms, cases where there are discrete differences between genetically identical individuals based entirely on their environment.

I also suspect that the poorly explained basis of his question is that lab-generated mutations tend to be changes of very large effect on single genes. Polygenic phenomena are much harder to pick up and harder to analyze, and subtle variations in a fly or a worm are hard for us humans to detect, so the reason we see big, harmful mutations in the lab is because we’re looking for big, harmful mutations.

One more thing: look at sticklebacks. We find gross variations in form, armor, and spines that are caused by tiny changes in gene regulation.

8 ) On your blog, you have defended the central dogmatist (gene-centric) view that an organism’s DNA sequence contains both the necessary and sufficient information needed to actualise an embryo’s final morphology. If your position is so well supported and the position espoused by Jonathan Wells (and others) is so easily refuted, then why do you perpetually misrepresent his views? For example, you state “These experiments emphatically do not demonstrate that DNA does not matter … [Wells’] claim is complete bunk.” Where has Jonathan Wells stated that DNA “does not matter”? Moreover, contrary to your assertions, the phenomenon of genomic equivalence is a substantial challenge to the simplistic “DNA-is-the-whole-show” view espoused by the majority of neo-Darwinists. Cells in the prospective head region of an organism contain the same DNA as cells in the prospective tail region. Yet head cells must turn on different genes from tail cells, and they “know” which genes to turn on because they receive information about their spatial location from outside themselves — and thus, obviously, from outside their DNA. So an essential part of the ontogenetic program cannot be in the organism’s DNA, a fact that conflicts with the DNA-centrism of neo-Darwinism. Some attempts to salvage DNA programs (e.g. Rinn et al.) rely on “target sequences” — molecular zipcodes, if you will — of amino acids that direct proteins to particular locations in the cell. But such “molecular zipcodes” do not create a spatial co-ordinate system, they presuppose it.

This one is totally hilarious. First sentence: he claims I advocate a central dogmatist (gene-centric) view that an organism’s DNA sequence contains both the necessary and sufficient information needed to actualise an embryo’s final morphology, and to support that, links to one of my articles where I supposedly get all totalitarian for dogmatic genecentrism. Go ahead, follow the link. I say exactly the opposite.

10) Why do Darwinists continue to use the supposed circuitous route taken by the vas deferens from the testes as an argument for common descent when, in fact, the route is not circuitous at all? The testes develop from a structure called the genital ridge (the same structure from which the ovaries develop in females, which is in close proximity to where the kidneys develop). The gubernaculum testis serves as a cord which connects the testes to the scrotum. As the fetus grows, the gubernaculum testis does not, and so the testis is pulled downward, eventually through the body wall and into the scrotum. The lengthening vas deferens simply follows. And, moreover, before the vas deferens joins the urethra, there needs to be a place where the seminal vesicle can add its contents.

Wait, what? The route isn’t circuitous? I don’t know about you, but my testicles dangle down right next to my penis, yet the plumbing connecting them has to go back up into my torso, then down and around to exit in just the right place, a few inches away. And yes, there has to be a fluid contribution from the prostate, but again, that organ is tucked away inside, away from the action. And why do the testes have to be dangling anyway? Put ’em up next to the prostate. It would make far more sense.

Sure, you can put together physiological explanations for why each of those organs is in its particular place, but it doesn’t change the fact that the whole assemblage is a contingent kluge stuck together opportunistically.

The fundamental cowardice of creationists

The Geological Society of America is the major national professional organization for geologists, and they recently had a meeting in Denver where, in addition to the usual scientific meeting stuff, they did what geologists do for fun: they took organized field trips to look at local rocks. Among these trips was a tour of the Garden of the Gods Natural Landmark in Colorado Springs, which sounds quite nice, except for one thing: it was organized by a team of young earth creationists who were attending the meeting, and they didn’t tell anyone. They were quite careful to hide their agenda.

Many attendees seemed unaware of the backgrounds of the five trip co-leaders: Steve Austin, Marcus Ross, Tim Clarey, John Whitmore and Bill Hoesch. Austin is probably the most well-known; he is chair of the geology department at the Institute for Creation Research, which describes itself as the “leader in scientific research from a biblical perspective, conducting innovative laboratory and field research in the major disciplines of science.” Austin has been very active in promoting a Noah’s Flood interpretation of the geology of the Grand Canyon.

Ross is a former Discovery Institute fellow, currently an assistant professor of geology at Liberty University in Virginia (the self-proclaimed largest Christian university in the world). The University of Rhode Island granted him a doctorate in geology in 2006 even though he professed that Earth was at most 10,000 years old. Clarey is a geology professor at Delta College, a community college in Michigan. Whitmore is a geology professor at Cedarville University, a liberal arts Christian college in Ohio. Hoesch is a staff research geologist with the Institute for Creation Research.

During the trip, the leaders did not advertise their creationist views, but rather presented their credentials in a way that minimized their creationist affiliations. Austin introduced himself as a geologic consultant. Hoesch said he worked “in a small museum in the San Diego area” (referring to his job as curator of the Creation and Earth History Museum in Santee, Calif., which was founded by the Institute for Creation Research and is now operated by the Light and Life Foundation). Likewise, Whitmore did not offer that Cedarville’s official doctrinal statement declares, “We believe in the literal six-day account of creation” and requires that all faculty “must be born-again Christians” who “agree with our doctrinal statement.”

This is deeply dishonest and cowardly. The clear presentation of a hypothesis is essential to doing good science; no rational scientist writes a presentation or paper in which he or she simply lists a bunch of observations, and then asks the audience to guess what he’s arguing about. If you’ve got a controversial hypothesis, you state it, you give your evidence, and then you listen and try to rebut challenges to your idea; you expose yourself to criticism, so that ideas are either discarded or strengthened. Austin, Ross, etc., were afraid to face a counter-argument.

Even more despicably, they then went home and crowed triumph, claiming that they had persuaded the scientists.

As the conference started, Whitmore and four of his colleagues, including Cedarville adjunct professor Steve Austin, Ph.D., took the Cedarville students and 40 other geologists on a field trip to Garden of the Gods near Pike’s Peak, Colorado. During the trip, the Cedarville leaders talked about alternative views for how the rocks formed, emphasizing short time spans and catastrophic formation of the rocks rather than slow formation over millions of years.

“The experts were skeptical,” said Whitmore, “but in the end, they conceded that the rocks we examined were deposited quickly and were deposited in water. We let the data speak for itself.” Whitmore also said the Cedarville students interacted positively with others holding opposing viewpoints. A peer-reviewed scientific paper was published describing the field trip stops and the new interpretations regarding the sites they visited.

They lied by implication. I’m sure many of the attendees on that field trip would be dismayed to hear that their authority is being used to endorse the patently ridiculous claim that the earth is less than 10,000 years old.

Joe Meert also attended that same conference, and attended a talk by Marcus Ross. Ross is the fellow who got his degree from the University of Rhode Island for work on the distribution of mosasaurs in the Cretaceous — over 65 million years ago — while simultaneously claiming at creationist church meetings that the earth was young. He did the same thing here, presenting a credible science talk about “using ammonites as a correlation tool to put his mosasaur fossils in a stronger temporal framework”. His entire talk was about putting the data together to confirm the timing to many millions of years ago! So Meert confronted Ross directly in the Q&A.

After his talk, I asked the following question; “How do you harmonize this work with your belief in a 6000 year old earth on which a year long global flood took place?”. He was immediately flustered and then a bit tersely replied “My talk had nothing to do with a global flood or a 6000 year old earth so your question is irrelevant”. I then pointed out the fact that indeed his talk was completely counter to his public statements/creationist position because he showed correlation between strata/fossils, millions of year ages, evolution of mosasaurs and hiatuses in the rock record. He then replied (and I am paraphrasing to the best of my recollection) “Ok, for everyone in the audience who doesn’t know it, yes I am a young earth creationist who believes the Earth is 6000 years old and a global flood took place. However, I am not speaking as a young earth creationist here. When I speak at young earth creationist meetings I use a different framework than when I speak at the Geological Society of America meeting.”

Shorter Marcus Ross: I am a hypocrite and a liar.

I’m sure that the creationists will cry that he had to do this, because science defends a dogmatic orthodoxy and won’t let them speak otherwise. This is totally false. If someone wants to defend heterodox ideas, they should state them openly, not hide them and present theories they do not believe so they can acquire false authority in a field, as Ross tries to do, or so that they can lie and pretend that they had convinced an audience, as Austin did.

And that’s all Marcus Ross is trying to do. He’s trying to build up credibility by presenting all of the data and interpreting it in a rational framework (he learned something at URI!) at scientific meetings, only so he can turn around and spend that reputation to endorse laughable absurdities at creationist meetings. It is contemptible.