Happy Monkey, Paul Nelson! It’s been six years now

It’s Paul Nelson Day, the yearly event in which we make ludicrous pseudo-scientific claims and promise to back them up tomorrow, as celebrated last year.

Nelson, some of you may recall, is a creationist who made up this wacky claim of “Ontogenetic Depth”, saying he had a way of objectively measuring the complexity of the developmental process in organisms with a number that described the distance from egg to adult. Unfortunately, he forgot to tell us how one calculated this number, or how it actually accounted for the complexity of a network, or even how we’d get a number that was different for a sponge and a cat. But he did say he’d get back to us with the details tomorrow…six years ago.

We’ll keep waiting. We’ll also keep making accurate predictions. Last year I predicted that we’d still be waiting in 2010, and look! We are!

I’ve put on a turban, closed my eyes, and am waving my hands over a crystal ball, and predict…we’ll still be waiting in 2011. Check back next year and let’s see if I’m right!

It’s been five years, Paul Nelson!

Once upon a time, a creationist invented a brand new pseudo-scientific term, which he even presented at a scientific conference. It was a very, very silly idea called “ontogenetic depth”. I criticized the idea publicly and viciously, pointing out that the concept had no explanation, no methodology, and had produced no results, which prompted the creationist, Paul Nelson, to promise to present us all with a detailed explanation “tomorrow”.

We’ve been waiting for a little while for tomorrow to get here. Paul Nelson promised us an answer tomorrow 5 years ago.

Ever since, we celebrate Paul Nelson day every year on 7 April. Richard Hoppe jumped the gun and announced it last week, which is OK — Nelson did drag out the promises for quite a while, and the 7th was a somewhat arbitrary choice. Last year, I suggested a simple and appropriate way to commemorate the event.

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.

It’s kind of like the folk tradition of chasing away demons on certain days of the year, only what we do is terrify creationists by roaming about demanding that they fork over evidence, at which time they scurry away and hide. Have fun!

By the way, I said something else last year.

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

I’m a prophet. We’ll have another chance next year, too.

Judgment Day liveblogging

The new PBS documentary on the Dover trial, Judgment Day (optimistically reviewed by NCSE! The Discovery Institute in frantic denial!) starts here in the midwest in about a half hour. I’ve got my diet coke, I think I’ll pop some popcorn, and maybe I’ll take a stab at liveblogging the show. Let’s hope it’s lively!

Feel free to chime in with comments as we go.

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Paul Nelson in Norway

A reader sent along a few notes on Paul Nelson’s grand tour of Norway—I’ve got to say that his strategy and his talk sounds awfully familiar, right down to the vacuous thought-experiments and god-praising screen-saver that conveniently kicked in during the Q&A. Most significantly, the Norwegian audience of scientists had little patience for his nonsensical arguments, just like our audience of students.

I really wonder how Nelson gets these travel invitations. Did the Scandinavian creationist groups pay his expenses, or is the Discovery Institute funding his missionary work? I think I need some atheist organization sugar daddy to front my junkets to Trondheim and other exotic locales in my ancestral homeland—I’d willingly go into a Norwegian church to lecture on godless evilution and get hammered on by the fundies if it meant I got to visit some interesting people and places.

The summary of his talk (in English, you’ll be relieved to know) is below the fold.

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In which I (partially) agree with Paul Nelson

It feels good to see the IDist crackpots beaten back a little bit in their bid to control the Kansas school board, and I think it is necessary to keep up the pressure and prevent them from getting a better grip on public school education. However, Paul Nelson actually has a point with his little parable. It’s not the point he thinks he’s making, but it’s important to keep in mind anyway, and I’m going to dash some cold water on any sense of triumphalism on the pro-science side.

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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.

Creationists are liars, part MCLXVII

Sometimes I get requests for assistance with creationists. Usually, it’s because some unwarrantedly confident ignoramus has been lying his butt off. Here’s a perfect example:

I have a quick question concerning an encounter I had with a man last night who claimed he was a scientist (although, foolishly, I didn’t ask him what field).

He made the claim that the majority of biologist do not “believe” in evolution. (He also pulled out the standard canards of “no macro biology” and “evolution requires faith”; I’m not wasting my time or your with this.) He claimed he has a “list” of all the biologist who “disbelieve” in evolution. and the many books he has read show this to be true.

I know this false. I told him so, but really didn’t want to get into this. He claimed the media made it seem as if biologists accepted evolution.

I cannot for the life me understand exactly where he is coming from. Do you know anything about some “list” circulating apologists of biologist who supposedly don’t accept the theory of evolution. I know a few do, but isn’t the scientific consensus something on the lines of 95%?

I’m curious if you’ve heard similar claims before and what you make of them. Next time I see this made I would like to be able to simply, flatly explain to him that he is wrong. (When a “scientist” tells me that evolution is random chance, my BS meter goes off like you wouldn’t believe. But since I’m not a scientist, he can try to claim some sort of argument from authority over me, and I don’t want to be hypocrite and claim my own argument from authority.)

Of course I’ve heard of this list: it’s the infamous Discovery Institute list of “scientists who dissent from Darwinism”, parodied by the Project Steve list, and which contains a few hundred names, many of whom are not scientists — the list leans towards dentists and engineers and such. It is a tiny number of people…if the majority of scientists rejected evolution, it would be rather easy to get tremendous numbers of names signed on, don’t you think?

Even easier, though, pick a biology department, any department anywhere. Go in and ask the faculty what they think of evolution. You’ll discover impressive unanimity — virtually 100% of every department will tell you that evolution is true and useful. You will find an occasional exception, though: the Lehigh University biology department comes to mind, and even there, they post a disclaimer stating that Michael Behe is the sole dissenter who rejects their unequivocal support of evolutionary theory.

My correspondent’s mysterious “scientist” was that extremely common phenomenon among creationists, the guy who has no evidence and relies on blustering falsehoods, a complete fraud.

Speaking of creationist liars…how about Casey Luskin? The primary reason so many biologists accept evolution is that it simply works: it’s a useful theoretical tool that guides research successfully, and helps scientists get work done and published. If the ID crowd actually had a model that helped us understand the world better, we’d be flocking to it. In an email debate, a fellow named Rhiggs engaged Luskin on just this topic, asking for sources to positive evidence and experiments backing design. Luskin tosses out the usual creationist handwaving, and attempts to hijack the work of legitimate, non-creationist scientists as supporting ID…but completely fails to produce any of that primary research literature that Rhiggs is asking for.

There are quite lengthy exchanges going on there, with Luskin always evading the main point (I could have said this was a futile effort: Luskin is no scientist, and his ignorance is legendary). Finally, though, he gives an excuse:

I assure you that I don’t ignore arguments. You don’t know me and I am not that kind of person. In fact, I’ve been traveling a lot for work lately, but in the last week over the course of 2 long plane flights I’ve managed to find time to work on replying to you. I’m nearly done with the reply and I hope to finish it on another flight I have later this week. FYI, my reply is already over 5000 words, and it begins by saying, “Greetings after an undesired delay on my part. I appreciate the time you took in your extensive reply. Because you put in so much time, you deserve a reply. I apologize that it took a while to reply–I’ve been busy a lot over the past couple weeks, including much traveling, and in fact I’m finally getting some free time now that I’m on a flight.” Thanks again–I hope you will hear from me soon.

“Soon” is 13 months ago. Maybe I’ll have to post reminders to him on Paul Nelson Day — this is becoming expected behavior from that gang of propagandists.

The problem of homology

We don’t get to see our granddaughter this morning — she’s getting her pediatric checkup today — so while sitting on my thumbs in my hotel room this morning, I threw together a video on the problem of homology, as misrepresented by Jonathan Wells and Paul Nelson. Seriously, they get it all wrong with tendentious misrepresentations.

There is a real problem of homology, because homology is rendered difficult to see by standard, naturalistic evolutionary processess. Wells and Nelson get it all exactly backwards. That homologies are obscured by the nature of evolutionary change is what we’d expect from evolutionary theory. It’s like how bioinformaticians will talk about the problem of long branch attraction; it’s a real problem, but it doesn’t imply that evolution is wrong, because it’s an expected effect of evolutionary change.

Likewise, evo-devo people will write long papers about the problem of homology, because the action of evolution obscures homologies and we have to struggle to see beyond it. Only a pair of buffoons would argue that it means evolution is false.

I don’t have a script for this one, because it’s just me talking extemporaneously in a dull hotel room, sorry. But I do have a good quote from Mary Jane West-Eberhard, and that’ll have to do if you don’t have the patience to listen to some geezer talking at a camera.

Changing characters do not march ever outward along the branches of a phylogenetic tree. While homology, parallelism, and convergence remain useful conceptual guides, they need to be seen against a background of continual reshuffling with a particulate, mosaic phenotype that renders linear terms like parallelism and convergence only approximate, and potentially misleading, descriptions of evolution.

Does a concept of mixed or partial homology just make a mess of homology? In fact, evolution makes a mess of homology.

Mary Jane West-Eberhard

Diagnostic features of the taxon

I’ve been reminding everyone for 12 years now that Paul Nelson made a specific, quantifiable creationist claim and failed to deliver a promised explanation. This is not unusual. Jeffrey Shallit describes the common elements of the so-called ‘scientific’ creationist, and it’s astonishing how widespread these traits are. One of them is their eagerness to make explicit claims coupled with a reluctance to actually back them up.

The illustrious Robert J. Marks II, professor at Baylor University, is an example of this last characteristic. Back in 2014, he made the following claim: “we all agree that a picture of Mount Rushmore with the busts of four US Presidents contains more information than a picture of Mount Fuji”. I wanted to see the details of the calculation justifying this claim, so I asked Professor Marks to supply it. He did not reply.

Nor did he reply when I asked three months later.

Nor did he reply when I asked six months later.

Nor did he reply when I asked a year later.

It’s now been two years. Academics are busy people, but this is pretty silly. Who thinks the illustrious Professor Marks will ever show me a calculation justifying his claim?

That sounds so familiar. Maybe if you wait 13 years he’ll show you a calculation? Hope springs eternal!

You can see God sees even the sparrow fall oozing between the lines


This must be how creationists think a sieve works. The smaller particles see from a distance that they’ll fit through the holes, so they make a beeline for them, while the bigger particles that won’t fit recognize that fact and get out of their way. Adding more material to be filtered reduces the effectiveness of the sieve because the bulk hampers their ability to find their way to the face of the sieve.

You may laugh, but I have to conclude that this is the inevitable rationale that they’d have to make, given their inability to think statistically and impose teleology on every explanation of natural phenomena. So Wolf-Ekkehard Lönnig raises a most peculiar argument against evolution. Populations are too large.

…in the 1950s, French biologists, such as Cuénot, Tétry, and Chauvin, who did not follow the modern synthesis, raised the following objection to this kind of reasoning (summed up according to Litynski, 1961, p. 63):

Out of 120,000 fertilized eggs of the green frog only two individuals survive. Are we to conclude that these two frogs out of 120,000 were selected by nature because they were the fittest ones; or rather — as Cuenot said — that natural selection is nothing but blind mortality which selects nothing at all?

Similar questions may be raised for the 700 billion spores of Lycoperdon, the 114 million eggs multiplied with the number of spawning seasons of the American oyster, for the 28 million eggs of salmon and so on.

He doesn’t think evolution can work, because how can it possibly find the two best individuals out of a group of hundreds of thousands or millions? And the problem becomes worse the bigger the population!

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