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Skeptic Shermer resorts to ridicule because the science is weak

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Published: 22 September 2008(GMT+10)

Portrait by Byrd Williams, Wikipedia

Skeptic Michael Shermer

Michael Shermer

Michael Shermer, the originator of the Skeptics magazine in the USA, and a Scientific American columnist, is a self-confessed apostate and atheist. So he has a vested interest in supporting his own worldview, i.e. that there is no God and as such mankind can decide what is truth for himself. In his lecture, ‘Why Darwin Matters’, delivered on August 20th during Science Week at the University of Western Australia, he was very insulting and condescending towards creationists and the ID movement. I felt that his sarcasm and arrogant attitude was not fitting for a scientific discussion. He adopted a ridiculing tone through most of his lecture.

Even in the Q&A time when asked, ‘How did life start?’, he answered by saying there were many theories but never gave any examples of where life had been created in the lab, let alone formed spontaneously, as evolution requires. In a condescending manner, he challenged the questioner to do the experiments and find out for himself. This presupposes that natural processes generated life, which was precisely the question at issue—such question-begging is common among believers in chemical evolution. And he had a blind spot: if scientists did make life, they would use intelligence (see Will scientists create new life forms and what would it prove?).

Shermer used the ruse, as many skeptics do, of lumping creationists together with all those ‘nut jobs’ that believe in wayout conspiracy theories, UFOs, tarot readings etc—calling those pseudoscience, even nonsense. Of course, the same trick can be applied to evolutionists, who are certainly to be found within the ranks of conspiracy nutters, alien abduction believers, astrologers.

He used ‘strawman arguments’, giving examples of what creationists are supposed to believe and then ridiculing them for those beliefs—when in fact creationists do not believe those things. Indeed, an article in Skeptical Inquirer, no less, noted that Bible-believing Christians are less prone to such superstitions (see Antidote to superstition: Nonsense thrives wherever the Bible is weakened)

cartoon: could scientists create life without using intelligence?

He said evolution is just as much a valid theory as is gravity—an old ploy—asking ‘Why don’t creationists deny gravity, it also is a theory?’ Is he stupid or just playing the crowd? Creationists have no reason to disbelieve gravity, since we observe it! Conversely, as Dawkins said, ‘Evolution has been observed. It’s just that it hasn’t been observed while it’s happening.’ [ Battle over evolution Bill Moyers interviews Richard Dawkins, ‘Now’, 3 December 2004, PBS network]. . Also, informed creationists have long advised against saying, Evolution is just a theory’, since we don’t want to give evolutionary hypothesis the same status as gravity.

Shermer asked, ‘Why don’t creationists mention Isaac Newton because he wrote more on the Bible than physics?’—once more exposing his ignorance—creationists often cite Newton, pointing out this very thing! See the Creation magazine article, Sir Isaac Newton (1642/3–1727): A Scientific Genius).

Creationists don’t deny the ongoing operational science that we study in the lab—that is subject to repeatable scientific scrutiny. Creationists broadly (in any group there are some ‘outliers’) accept all of modern physics, relativity and quantum mechanics and what preceded them in classical physics. This is all testable experimental science. Goo-to-you evolution via the zoo is not repeatable, testable, experimental science. Shermer said he knows everything creationists believe. Clearly that is not the case, because the only alternative is that he is deliberately rather than inadvertently misrepresenting creationists.

Why creationists believe in a young earth

Creationists are a diverse lot. Biblical creationists accept the straightforward reading of the Bible as real history. It follows from the text that our omnipotent Creator created this solar system and Universe about 6 or 7 thousand years ago (not usually in 4004 BC as Shermer said) in 6 literal Earth rotation days as described in Genesis chapter 1—time there being measured by Earth clocks. Others ‘muddy the waters’ because they reinterpret the biblical texts to make them consistent with their modern old-age-of-the-Earth view. They accept the long geological ages for the planet and solar system but reject the notion of biological evolution.

The ID movement adherents do not specify Who or What is the Intelligent Designer, and in this instance I agree with Michael Shermer, they should be more up front about what they believe. Most, but not all, are Christians—one of the leaders is a Moonie—and most are long age believers, so it is not valid to lump them all together as some generic creationists—they are not. Some IDers even believe in evolution along with ID. See also CMI’s views on the Intelligent Design Movement.

But really the whole debate is not about the age of the Earth or the universe. It is about whether one accepts the truth and veracity of Holy Scripture and thus accepts history as it occurred and is reliably documented in the Bible, or whether one believes that 21st century Man is able to determine truth himself apart from documented history and Divine revelation.

I see no inconsistency with the age of the universe, for example (13.7 billion years), and the narrative of Genesis 1. The biblical account is given from an Earth-centric viewpoint, and time is measured in Earth days. But a creation scenario can be envisaged where time is given in cosmic years and billions pass in the cosmos while only a day passes on Earth. This of course requires some sort of relativistic time dilation during the creation period of the early universe. But why not? (See my book Starlight, Time and the New Physics (below).

Genetic entropy

What creationists don’t accept as scientific fact is universal biological evolution—frog to a prince over millions of years. They don’t accept that pond scum, given sufficient time, has evolved by spontaneous addition of coded genetic information into all the diverse animal and plant species we see around us today. That is not the same as Natural Selection, discussed by creationists like Edward Blyth long before Darwin and Wallace. Natural Selection is a fact, but it can only select amongst organisms that already exist; it cannot explain the origin of those organisms or the genetic information they contain. As a result, evolutionists today do not believe Darwin’s theory either. They have had to move onto neo-Darwinism as Darwin had no mechanism to ‘create’ the new information from which ‘selection’ could choose the new traits. Since then genetics (discovered by the creationist monk Gregor Mendel) has flourished and mutations are meant to provide this information. But known mutations in humans are near-universally experienced as deleterious in medical circles, and virtually all examples evolutionists use of beneficial mutations involve a loss of information (e.g. flightless beetles on windswept islands and sightless fish in caves—which he mentioned as evolution happening today).

Take humans for example, it is estimated (conservatively) that there are 100 mutations added per person per generation—essentially copying errors in the genetic material passed onto the offspring. These are nearly all slightly deleterious and cannot be selected against because they are only slightly deleterious so they accumulate in the human population. Thankfully most are recessive and we are not so affected yet.

Given the figure Shermer used for the Out-of-Africa scenario, 10,000 humans from the bottleneck, 100,000 years ago, even assuming a massive beneficial mutation rate of say 0.1 per generation (which cannot be supported by observation today) we would have a massive accumulation of billions of slightly-deleterious nearly-neutral mutations in the human population that cannot be eliminated by natural selection and fitness would be enormously degraded. Ultimately one has to pay for that massive loss of information. So how can that be consistent with the molecules-to-man concept of evolution? (See also Haldane’s dilemma has not been solved).

Shermer proposed that one day alien races may make contact, saying they could be thousands if not millions of years more advanced than us. What about this genetic entropy?—the arrow of time marches on and all genomes are rapidly decaying—how would they survive their own genetic decay? Even the most skillful engineering cannot turn back time, cannot undo the damage. Sure medical research can possibly repair a gene but while that is happening 100 or more mutations (some estimate as high as thousands) occur in the same genome.

Shermer’s testimony

Shermer spoke of his own conversion to Christianity—saying he became a born-again Christian and creationist in high school in Malibu, but when he was taught evolution in college he realized it was true. I assume that is where he rejected his Christian faith. I cannot know for sure, but I strongly doubt his testimony, as conversion leaves one with a deep knowledge of the Lord, a life-changing experience. But unless one’s faith is grounded in the written Word of God, faith can quickly wane. I was an atheist and evolutionist through my high school years and studied cosmology, believing the universe had no beginning or end. At university I became a born-again Christian and the Lord significantly changed my worldview. After one reading of the creation account in Genesis I became a creationist. That was 30 years ago and I have studied science and the Bible since and I find no contraction between the two.

It’s not science vs religion

It is not a choice between science and religion as some portray it, but how one interprets the present facts to make them fit into your worldview. There are no eyewitnesses to the past beyond recorded history, and sources become less reliable the further back in time we go. Even tree-ring dating is not as reliable as some people make out (see this article on dendrochronology). I don’t believe the date that Babylonians first began to make beer (as Shermer joked) is so well established, given that archaeologists argue over established historical figures like King David, varying their estimates by many hundreds of years.

Certainly dating the planet and the universe is not subject to eyewitness accounts and relies on interpreting proxies that all require initial assumptions. Shermer said that ‘we know’ the age of the Earth, Moon, solar system, universe etc and the dates all agree. He is basing his premise on radiometric dating. But no radiometric decay process in Earth rocks gives an ‘age’ the same as the 4.6 billion years that has been obtained from meteorites and the Moon. So it is then assumed that the Earth has undergone a lot of recycling. Hence the paradigm precedes the science.

Discordant dates

And there are many examples of discordant dates where the dating methods give ‘dates’ that are wrong for rocks of known historical age. One example is rock from a dacite lava dome at Mount St Helens volcano. Although we know the rock was formed in 1986, the rock was dated by the potassium-argon (K-Ar) method as 0.35 ± 0.05 million years old. Another example is K-Ar ‘dating’ of five andesite lava flows from Mt Ngauruhoe in New Zealand. The dates ranged from less than 0.27 million years to 3.5 million years but one lava flow occurred in 1949, three in 1954, and one in 1975! What happened was that excess radiogenic argon (40Ar*) from the magma (molten rock) was retained in the rock when it solidified. The scientific literature also lists many examples of excess 40Ar* causing ‘dates’ of millions of years in rocks of known historical age. This excess appears to have come from the upper mantle, below the earth’s crust. This is consistent with a young world—the argon has had too little time to escape. If excess 40Ar* can cause exaggerated dates for rocks of known age, then why should we trust the method for rocks of unknown age?

Another problem is the conflicting dates between different methods. If two methods disagree, then at least one of them must be wrong. For example, in Australia, some wood was buried by a basalt lava flow, as can be seen from the charring. The wood was dated by radiocarbon (14C) analysis at about 45,000 years old, but the basalt was dated by the K-Ar method at c. 45 million years old! Other fossil wood from middle Triassic rock layers has been found with 14C still present. Detectable 14C would have all disintegrated if the wood were really older than 100,000 years, let alone the 250 million years that evolutionists assign to these Triassic rock layers. It’s long been known that radiocarbon keeps popping up reliably in samples (of coal, oil, gas, etc.) which are supposed to be ‘millions of years’ old. However, with the short half-life of 14C (5,730 years) its concentration should decay to zero in only several tens of thousands of years at the most. A few years ago the RATE group from ICR investigated the presence of carbon-14 in all types of carbon-bearing geological specimens. They found that virtually all biological specimens, no matter how ‘old’ they are supposed to be, show measurable 14C levels. This effectively limits the age of all buried biota to at most 250,000 years, a far cry from the hundreds of millions of years ages for the major fossil record strata.

This conclusion is supported by the work of geophysicist John Baumgardner who had five diamonds analyzed for 14C. It was the first time this had been attempted, and the answer came back positive—14C was present in all five. The diamonds, formed in deep basement rocks, are presumed to be over a billion years old. Nevertheless they contained carbon-14, even though, if the billion-year age were correct, there should be none. The diamonds’ carbon-dated ‘age’ of about 58,000 years is thus an upper estimate for the age of the whole earth.

Transitional fossils

Solid evidence for evolution requires much more than just constructing a possible fossil sequence like Shermer did with whale evolution. The generally accepted order of the archaeocete species, in terms of both morphological (primitive to advanced) and stratigraphical (lower/older to higher/younger) criteria, is Pakicetus, Ambulocetus, Rodhocetus, Indocetus, Protocetus, and Basilosaurus. One problem for this tidy picture is that the stratigraphical relationships of most of these fossils are still uncertain, and the morphological connections are messy. E.g. Pakicetus was once thought to be an aquatic creature based only on its skull bones, but when a more complete skeleton was found, it was shown to be a fast-running land animal. Barbara Stahl, a vertebrate paleontologist and evolutionist, points out in Vertebrate History: Problems in Evolution (1974):

‘The serpentine form of the body and the peculiar shape of the cheek teeth make it plain that these archaeocetes [like Basilosaurus] could not possibly have been the ancestor of modern whales.

Photo Wikipedia.org

picture of Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin in 1880

But more generally the extent of ‘missing’ fossils (of all types) remains a very serious problem for evolutionists, because if evolution proceeds by step-wise Darwinian processes then those steps would be very small as mutations add the new information which is then supposedly selected for by the facilitating environment. If so then species themselves would not be as clearly defined as they are and we should see a blending of organisms both extant and extinct. Darwin predicted in The Origin of Species that the fossil record would in future show numerous transitional fossils, but even 150 years later, all we have are a handful of disputable examples.

Shermer mentioned that (the late) Stephen Jay Gould recognized this problem. Dr Colin Patterson, when he was senior paleontologist at the British Museum of Natural History, said ‘Yet Gould and the American Museum people are hard to contradict when they say there are no transitional fossils. … You say that I should at least “show a photo of the fossil from which each type of organism was derived.” I will lay it on the line—there is not one such fossil for which one could make a watertight argument.’ [emphasis added] When asked about this comment Patterson replied ‘I seem fated continually to make a fool of myself with creationists. … I hope that by now I have learned to be more circumspect in dealing with creationists, cryptic or overt. But I still maintain that scepticism is the scientist’s duty, however much the stance may expose us to ridicule.’ See also this further analysis of Patterson’s quote.

Cambrian explosion

Shermer claimed creationists say the abundance of fossils that suddenly appeared in the so-called Cambrian ‘explosion’ was some sort of creation ex nihilo. That is the first time I have ever heard that and I have been a creationist 30 years.

Human origins

Shermer said it was an error to say that humans evolved from apes: ‘If we evolved from apes, why are there still apes today?’ He pointed out that humans didn’t descend from apes, but that apes and humans share a common ancestor. However, the evolutionary paleontologist G.G. Simpson had no time for this ‘pussyfooting’, as he called it. He said, ‘In fact, that earlier ancestor would certainly be called an ape or monkey in popular speech by anyone who saw it. Since the terms ape and monkey are defined by popular usage, man’s ancestors were apes or monkeys (or successively both). It is pusillanimous [mean-spirited] if not dishonest for an informed investigator to say otherwise.’ In any case, creationists have long argued against such an argument, which again shows how little research Shermer has done.

Vestigial organs

Shermer dragged out the vestigial organs citing human appendix, tail bone, male nipples and wings on flightless birds as examples that evolution had no need of. I don’t know where he has been but it is known from science that the appendix is part of the immune system, strategically located at the entrance of the almost sterile ileum from the colon with its normally high bacterial content. Recent research shows that it’s a safe house for bacteria so the colon can be repopulated with beneficial bacteria after dysentery has cleared them out. The tonsils have a similar immune function in the entrance to the pharynx.

In a recent article in New Scientist, Laura Spinney discusses the ‘vestigial organs’ notion, and claims that it is still a viable concept despite having taken such a battering at the hands of modern medical science. She notes that ‘these days many biologists are extremely wary of talking about vestigial organs at all’. Spinney reflects that this ‘may be because the subject has become a battlefield for creationists and the intelligent design lobby … .’ It was indeed a battlefield—a battlefield long won by biblical creationists, which is why we’re seeing the current attempted fightback by the skeptics.

Bad design

Shermer claimed that the ‘backwardly wired’ vertebrate retina is poorly designed like would happen if it evolved. Yet ophthalmologists have shown that this design is necessary for the photoreceptors to be supplied with blood from behind; Shermer’s ‘superior’ design—such as found in the octopus—would not allow them to be regenerated quickly, and would result in being blinded by flashes for weeks. Furthermore, recent research shows that the Müller glial cells act as a fibre optic plate, transmitting the image through the nerves without significant signal loss or noise. And it is easy to work out which design works best in which environment—the eagle’s eye works superbly in the above-ground environment, and the octopus eye works superbly in the underwater world. Just as if they were created.

Who designed the designer?

Shermer rejects the notion of an omniscient god but also defines science as that which can only investigate the natural world by natural means. He repeats, almost ad nauseam, the canard of ‘who designed the designer?’ as if he can define the Creator’s attributes. Also he said god can only be one of two types; if He is involved in creating in the natural world then he is like an engineer, exists in space and time and therefore not much different from an advanced alien being; if He is omniscient and lives outside of space and time then he can have nothing to do with the Universe or what is contained within it. Of course this supposes that he knows the mind (and exact nature) of God—something I would think impossible.

Final challenge

He does end with one test of evolutionary theory that he says would nullify it completely, “Show me a trilobite and human fossils in the same strata.” Let’s hope no one finds such for his sanity’s sake. But he would merely claim that trilobites didn’t become extinct after all, just like the coelacanth and Wollemi pine.

Listening to the lecture by Michael Shermer again reinforced in my mind that the battle is not over the science (in the most part) but is really a spiritual warfare being waged for the minds and souls of men and women. And even though the agents of this battle sometimes represent themselves as scientists (Shermer studied psychology) it is really darker principalities that are waging this war against God (Ephesians 6:12).

Be sober-minded; be vigilant. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour’ 1 Peter 5:8.

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