Nothing in Biology Makes Sense: Can a creationist be a (public university) biology lecturer?

2010.02.15 - Life Sciences South The Life Sciences building at the University of Idaho. Photo by jby.

Over at Nothing in Biology Makes Sense! I’m confronting my discovery that the University of Idaho, where I received my Ph.D., has hired an outspoken proponent of young-Earth creationism to teach its introductory microbiology course this semester:

I can, at least in principle, imagine a creationist professor who taught the contents of a microbiology curriculum, complete with the common descent of life on Earth, and never breathed a word of his personal beliefs in the classroom. Could Gordon Wilson—of all people—be that “gold-star” creationist?

I decided the only way to answer that question was to ask Gordon Wilson.

Wilson, you may recall, appeared on D&T before, many moons ago. To find out what he had to say for himself, go read the whole thing.◼


Nothing in Biology Makes Sense: Pseudoscience in scientific clothing

A snake in the literature? Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

This week at Nothing in Biology Makes Sense!, guest contributor Chris Smith finds something a bit odd in his Google Scholar results:

I recently gave a lecture on the Miller-Urey experiment, and I wanted to pull up the original citation. So, glancing at the clock to make sure I still had five minutes before showtime, I headed over to Google Scholar and entered in the search terms “Miller Urey.” When I started browsing the results I was surprised to find, on the first page, a link to an article titled “Why the Miller–Urey research argues against abiogenesis” published in The Journal of Creation, a product of Creation Ministries International.

To learn what Chris thinks is going on—and how it resembles a phenomenon in evolutionary biology—go read the whole thing.◼


Nothing in Biology Makes Sense: God’s AIC score

The creation of Adam. Image via Web Gallery of Art.

This week at Nothing in Biology Makes Sense! Noah Reid takes a cue from Bill Nye the Science Guy and applies information theory to test whether a model of divine intervention fits a simple phylogenetic dataset.

Without getting into the details, we can think of information theoretic criteria for model selection as formally implementing Occam’s Razor: the simplest model with the most explanatory power is to be preferred. By preferring simple models, you guard against overinterpreting data, a pitfall that can make models poor predictors of new observations.

So, I realized as long as we can formulate any mathematical model of “The Hand of God”, rejectable or not, we can compare it to an evolutionary model in this framework. If, as Nye suggests, evolutionary theory is simple and powerful, and creationism is a model of fantastical complexity that doesn’t much improve our understanding of the data, information theory would help us sort that out.

If you want to settle the whole evolution-versus-creationism thing once and for all (okay, not really), or just learn how biologists use information theory to select models (really!), go read the whole thing.◼


Is dilution the solution to information pollution?

ResearchBlogging.orgChris Smith, my good friend and longtime collaborator on all things relating to Joshua trees, pulled into the gas station well after dark. He was on his way back to our field site in the Nevada desert, and this was the last stop before cell phone signals disappeared for good and you had watch the highway ahead for free-range cattle.

It was also the last stop for fresh water, gasoline, and propane. Chris fueled up the van, then went inside for help refilling the spare propane tank. The unshaven, sun-darkened night clerk gave Chris’s flip-flops and tee shirt a sidelong look—they might’ve been perfect back in Vegas around midday, but now it was a freezing high desert night. Clearly unpleased to have to go outside himself, the clerk zipped up his parka and followed Chris out to fill up the tank.

Why do scorpions fluoresce under UV light, anyway? Photo by Furryscaly.

Refilling the propane tank entailed much adjusting of valves and connecting of pipes, which the clerk accomplished with a large wrench. Somewhere a valve misconnected to a pipe, and Chris’s jeans were suddenly soaked in liquid propane. The clerk swore elaborately at the valve, blamed the lazy bastards on the day shift, and took out his frustration on the propane tank with the wrench.

When this miraculously failed to engulf the two of them in fiery death, the clerk straightened out the connection and started filling the spare tank, then turned to Chris and said, “So what’re you doing out here, anyway?”

Evolutionary biologists learn to be vague about their profession in rural areas, so Chris said he was a biologist. No, he wasn’t working for the Air Force base over at Groom Lake. He was studying Joshua trees.

“You must know something about evolution, right?” said the clerk. “I’ve got a question for you.”

Oh, brother, thought Chris. Here we go. How long till this tank fills up?

“You know how scorpions glow under ultraviolet light,” they clerk asked.

Why yes, I do, said Chris.

“How come? I mean, what possible adaptive value does that have?”

Well, you know, said Chris, I don’t have any idea.

“I hear,” said the clerk, “that fossil scorpions millions of years old will glow if you shine a UV light on them. That’s pretty wild, isn’t it?”

You’re right, said Chris. That’s pretty wild.

Chris told this story to everyone else in the field team as soon as he got back to camp, and I think it’s a great illustration of two points that inform the way I think about science blogging. First, that scientists are maybe a bit quick to assume hostility in their audience; and second, that telling cool stories about the natural world is at least as important as confronting the hostility really is out there.

I’ve been thinking about these points ever since ScienceOnline 2011, which I finished with the “Defending Science Online” session, a discussion of strategies for countering all manner of anti-scientific bunk: climate change denialism, opposition to vaccination, creationism, homeopathy. The panelists discussed specific events and general strategies, but they really only discussed confrontation. I left with the nagging feeling that identifying and refuting non-science, however well it’s done, isn’t enough.

Scientific misinformation needs to be contained, but it also needs to be diluted. Photo by kk+.

The trouble with refutation is that once creationists or anti-vaxxers piss in the information pool, it’s nearly impossible to clean up the water. A widely-cited recent study of fact-checking in news articles has shown that corrections often fail to reach people who don’t want to hear them—and the act of correcting a misperception can actually reinforce it [PDF]. Other works shows that even when you convince people that the information they cite in support of political positions is wrong, they hold on to those positions [PDF].

When real-world pollution can’t be extracted from the environment, there’s one final line of attack: dilute it. In the sense that what we call pollution is often a dangerous artificial concentration of some substance that is non-dangerous at much lower, natural levels—carbon dioxide, for instance—the solution to pollution is, indeed, dilution. In the case of information pollution, which we can’t really prevent or contain, we can dilute non-science with, yes, science.

In other words, the best weapon against denialism may not be explicit takedowns of denialism, but good, clear, accessible discussion of science and all the ways it’s awesome. I can speak to this from my own experience growing up in a neutral-on-evolution household in the midst of quite a lot of creationists. I can’t recall that I ever decided evolution was a historical fact because of something I read against creationism. Instead, I came to accept the fact of evolution because I read and watched and listened to a lot of popular science—National Geographic, Ranger Rick, and Nature on PBS—that just took evolution as a given, and showed how it explained the world.

So, while folks like PZ Meyers, NCSE, and Ben Goldacre fight the good fight, I think we shouldn’t forget the value of celebrating science without making it a confrontation. And in the era of Science Online, we’re surrounded by people pointing out things as cool as glow-in-the-dark scorpions. See Scicurious’s Friday Weird science posts, Carl Zimmer’s tale of Vladimir Nabokov’s contributions to entomology, Olivia Judson explaining brood parasitism, or Radiolab’s mind-blowing meditation on stochasticity for just a few great examples selected off the top of my head.

This kind of science communication focuses on the grandeur and fun of the scientific view of life, and it wins supporters to science one story at a time. That’s not necessarily the most exciting part of the struggle against ignorance and denialism. But every time we get someone to say, “That’s pretty wild,” we’re making progress.


Bullock, J. (2006). Partisanship and the enduring effects of false political information. Presented at the annual meeting of the Midwest Political Science Association. PDF.

Nyhan, B., & Reifler, J. (2010). When corrections fail: The persistence of political misperceptions. Political Behavior, 32 (2), 303-30 DOI: 10.1007/s11109-010-9112-2


An important distinction

Courtesy Slacktivist:

Here I would remind us, again, of Wendell Berry’s distinction between religion and superstition. Religion, Berry said, is belief in something which cannot be disproved. Superstition, on the other hand, is belief in something that has been disproved. The former can be reasonable, the latter cannot. For all of Bill Maher’s railing against religion as “mere superstition,” it seems he doesn’t understand either of those ideas. His latest anti-vaccine, anti-medicine, anti-science crusade is superstitious nonsense. It’s religulous.


A radical idea

Responding to Nature‘s review [$-a] of his new book about evolution, The Tangled Bank, Carl Zimmer objects to the reviewer’s justaposition of his work with the more, shall we say, combative book Richard Dawkins has just released. Zimmer has the audacity to assume that his readers aren’t hostile:

I envisioned my potential readers as curious people who didn’t know much about evolution–what the idea actually is and how scientists study it. I envisioned people who might be interested in learning the nuts and bolts of processes like selection and drift, and who might be intrigued by sexually deceptive wasps, whales with legs, the viruses that dominate our genome, and other features of life that evolution allows us to understand.

With all due respect for those who want to take the fight to the wingnuts in the war on science — I enjoy Pharyngula as much as the next grad student — this seems so much more, well, hopeful. Ultimately, it might even be more productive.

Growing up in a science-friendly household surrounded by creationists, I didn’t come to the conclusion that evolution was true because I read a diatribe about the idiocy of biblical literalism. I came to that conclusion because I thought dinosaurs were pretty cool, and it turned out that you could learn a lot more about dinosaurs in the context of their evolutionary history than if you just assumed they all died in Noah’s flood. I think that people in a similar state — “curious people who didn’t know much about evolution” are much more likely converts to the cause of science than the wingnuts. Certainly there must be a lot of them out there; otherwise who’s keeping the Discovery Channel afloat?


Evolution 2009: Eugenie Scott to receive first-ever Gould Award

Evolution 2009First real news item for Evolution 2009: The meetings will open Friday night with a public lecture by Eugenie Scott, who is receiving the first Gould Award for Public Outreach from SSE in recognition of her leadership at the National Center for Science Education.

What’s really exciting is that we’re going to open the event to the general public in cyberspace, too — video of the lecture will be streamed online at the meeting website as soon as the UI video production center can put it together (probably the following Monday). If you won’t be at the meetings in person, watch the Evolution2009 twitter feed for notification that the video’s up.


Science versus creationism: To debate or not to “debate”?

A visiting creationist dared biologists at U.C. Davis to debate him — and even bet $250,000 no one could show “any empirical evidence for macro evolution [sic].” Jonathan Eisen turned him down:

Discussing creationism – fine. Discussing criticism of evolutionary hypotheses – fine. Having a reasonable panel discussion of science and religion – fine. Meeting with creationists to discuss their ideas about evolution – ok too. But engaging in a “debate” and thus even for a second implying that creationism stands on the same ground as evolution – completely ludicrous.

There’s a good discussion emerging below the post; but the consensus seems to be do not feed the trolls. It’s a hard position to take — it certainly goes against my own Aspergers-oid need to refute obvious nonsense when I hear it — but I’ve rarely seen such events work out well.

Picture a local scientist who maybe thinks about creationism a couple times a year “debating” some nut who considers this his life’s work. Advantage: nut.

Consider further that the audience is overwhelmingly on the nut’s side — and, indeed, are there to have their beliefs confirmed — so that the nut has no need to make a coherent argument and can instead focus on scoring rhetorical/ presentational points. Advantage: nut.

Finally, recall that scientific knowledge is necessarily tentative and complex, and a good scientist will have to acknowledge that there are things we don’t know about the history of life on Earth; whereas the nut has an (allegedly) simple and comprehensive story. Advantage: nut.

Of course, ask the two of them do do actual science, develop an answer to an empirical question beyond “because God wanted it to be that way” — then advantage: scientist. But that’s not what a formal debate is.


Vocabulary for the day: “favorable enumeration”

Inspired by recent miseducational shenanigans in Texas, On the Media runs a great piece on the latest Creationist strategies for shoehorning fundamentalism into science class. NCSE‘s Eugenie Scott interviews well, and sparks fly when Bob Garfield talks to Casey Luskin, a “policy analyst” from the anti-science Discovery Institute:

BOB GARFIELD: What are the issues?

CASEY LUSKIN: Well, the issues are that there is a scientific controversy over evolution. And, of course, some scientists will tell you that there is no controversy, but the reality is that during the hearings of the Texas State Board of Education, we saw a number of Ph.D. biologists from top institutions come and testify about their scientific doubts about evolution.

BOB GARFIELD: Are you familiar with the fallacy of favorable enumeration? It says that you find a handful of examples that support your premise and you focus on them to the exclusion of the vast preponderance of circumstances that don’t support your premise.

CASEY LUSKIN: Cherry picking is what you’re saying.

BOB GARFIELD: That’s called cherry picking.

CASEY LUSKIN: Okay, got it.

It’s not the punch line, but you have to love “Well, the issues are that there is a scientific controversy over evolution. And, of course, some scientists will tell you that there is no controversy …” That’s right. You certainly can’t trust us scientists to tell you about science. No sirree. We’re biased.


The heart of the debate

Richard Grant channels Stephen Jay Gould in a robust defense of the non-overlap between the magisteria of science and religion. His talking points are that scientists don’t understand science (or rather, what science doesn’t provide):

The thing is, people often make the mistake of assuming that the faithful invent a religion because they need to explain something—usually the natural world. And while it’s true that religions have and do spring up for this reason, it is not why people are christians.

And (echoing Slacktivist) the religious don’t understand theology:

Creationism is used as a proof, as evidence for the existence of (a) God. … So if you tie your faith to a ‘proof’ you actually end up trying to prove that your proof is true, rather than seeking out ‘truth’. Which is the cleft stick Creationists find themselves in.

Via the Daily Dish.