Dispatches from the Creation Wars

Joseph Farah, the blowhard owner of the Worldnutdaily, is once again demonstrating that one need not let little things like ignorance of the subject stand in the way of pontificating about that subject. In this case, the subject is evolution and his ignorance of that subject is on display for all to see. He begins with the standard blather about how no criticism of evolution is allowed:

It used to be that science followed facts.

Today, at least as far as evolution goes, facts follow theories.

When inconvenient facts are discovered, they are simply adapted to fit the theories.

The theories are constant. They are unquestionable, unassailable, unimpeachable. It’s just not considered good science to question them for any reason.

Using separate paragraphs for each of these trite assertions is a nice touch, but the assertions are flat wrong. Science doesn’t attempt to “follow” facts (whatever that might mean), it tries to explain facts. And anyone is free to question the theory of evolution, but the criticisms should at least be logical and based upon an understanding of the theory being criticized, which is where Farah’s criticisms fail miserably. To wit:

Take, for example, the latest findings in Australia. Last month, fossils of what were described as “the earliest species of sea turtle, believed to be 110 million years old,” were discovered in Queensland’s far west.

The scientists were startled by just how little sea turtles had changed in 100 million years. They had not evolved. But that did not alarm them. That did not get them to question their premises. That did not cause them to think their dating techniques could be wrong.

No, instead, they quickly came to the conclusion that sea turtles represent a highly evolved species – one that perfected its evolution 100 million years ago and never bothered to change because change was unnecessary.

How similar are these supposedly 110-million-year-old sea turtles to today’s sea turtles? Virtually indistinguishable – which is to say no different.

“For all intents and purposes, if you were to see one (of these fossils) they would look basically the same as sea turtles do today,” said South Australian Museum paleontologist Ben Kear.

And why is that?

“Sea turtles have hit on the winning design and they’ve stuck to it,” he said. “They’ve cracked the winning code, as it were, and it’s enabled them to survive when other creatures haven’t.”

It’s amazing they haven’t taken over the world, isn’t it?

“They’re one of the success stories of marine evolution – if you think about the marine animals that became extinct, well why did sea turtles survive?” Kear asked without wanting to hear the answer. “That’s the sort of question we can look at now.”

Ah, more of those 4 word paragraphs functioning as a written pause for dramatic effect. Here he does what many creationists do when reading reports from scientists, he projects thoughts and feelings on to them that he could not possibly know they had. For instance, he characterizes the state of mind of unnamed scientists, saying they were “startled” by the similarity between the fossil specimens and modern sea turtles and that they asked questions “without wanting to hear the answer”, without bothering to actually quote anything from any of them that might indicate a basis for such projections. But hey, when you’ve got a perfectly good myth to sell, who needs things like evidence? Naked assertion is plenty compelling when you are writing for people as ignorant as you are. But in point of fact these aren’t even the oldest sea turtle specimens ever found. In 1998, a specimen about 5 million years older was found in Brazil that was also quite similar to modern species, so the new finds certainly would not have “startled” any paleontologist in the slightest. What makes this new find interesting is that there are multiple specimens and they are remarkably well preserved, including one that has identifiable gut contents preserved. That’s exciting for a paleontologist, but hardly startling.

More importantly, you might notice that Farah never spells out why this is a problem for evolution. The implication is that evolution must be wrong because a species could not have survived for 110 million years without major changes. But this only betrays his ignorance of evolution. Why on earth would this be true? His terminology alone betrays the basis for his misunderstanding. When he says that scientists believe that sea turtles are a “highly evolved species” that “perfected its evolution 100 million years ago”, he is projecting his ignorance on to scientists. No scientist would say that sea turtles are “highly evolved” or had “perfected its evolution” because evolution is not a quest for perfection, but for adaptation. A species that is well adapted to its environment has no selection pressure and therefore it need not select novel traits. If a habitat remains substantially unchanged, natural selection merely reinforces the current traits precisely because they’re well adapted to that environment.

He also takes a shot at the dating of the fossils, but without any actual reason to doubt them. And like his previous assertions, he gets the basis entirely wrong:

What makes the scientists convinced the fossils of dead sea turtles that look remarkably like today’s sea turtles are really 100 million years old? It’s because of where they were found. They were found in an area of sediment that is believed to be 110 million years old. Therefore, that’s how old the bones are.

Could they be wrong about the age of the sediment? No, these scientists don’t make mistakes like that. If they did, it would shatter the very foundation of their work.

Well of course they could be wrong about the age of the sediments. But in order to establish that they’re wrong, you’d have to look at the radiometric dating results upon which the dating is based. There are many ways one might question the test results. You could question the preparation of the samples that were tested, for instance, or the plotting of the isochron itself. But that would require that you actually see the test procedures and results and understand them, but of course Farah has never seen them and wouldn’t understand them if he did. And the statement he makes shows that he doesn’t understand how such dating is done in the first place. The fossil is not dated that way because it was found “in an area of sediment” that is “believed to be 110 million years old”. They are dated that way because they are found in situ – not “in the area” – in a given sedimentary strata that has been assigned that age through radiometrically dating the radioisotopes found either within, or above and below, that strata.

Farah can’t dispute the actual test results, of course, because he hasn’t seen them and wouldn’t know what they meant if he did. So he does what Larry Klayman did on the radio the other day with the Schiavo case, he asserts that since they could be wrong, they must be wrong. But that, of course, is an idiotic argument and it’s not one that he would accept when applied to him. But his conclusion is the best part:

Keep in mind, these “fossils” are so well preserved that the scientists claim to be able to determine the 110-milliom-year-old sea turtles’ diet by examining the remains in their stomachs.

This is one example of hundreds, thousands, like it in so-called “evolutionary science.”

Gotta love the scare quotes around “fossils”, as though they weren’t really fossils. But even more, you gotta love the vague conclusion. It’s one example of….what? He doesn’t say. So let me give this pronoun the proper antecedent: it’s one example of millions of attempts by creationists to criticize what they simply do not understand, and to substitute vague implications for actual logic and argument. But since most of his readers are as ignorant and clueless as he is, Farah’s insipid ravings will undoubtedly be lapped up without question.

Comments

  1. #1 Donny
    April 5, 2005

    I wonder why the discovery of a living Coelecanth in the 1930s, remarkably unchanged from its ancient antecedents, didn’t shatter scientists’ confidence in evolutionary theory. People like Farah are making America the laughingstock of the developed world.

  2. #2 David S
    April 5, 2005

    Just think of him as a fellow with a learning disability. You have to take it really slow, be patient and repeat things many times. He obviously has a lot of internal resistance to basic science.

  3. #3 Les Lane
    April 5, 2005

    I think we’re talking here about the intellectual sibling species of the telephone pole.

  4. #4 Michelangelo
    April 5, 2005

    I was raised in a Christian home and sent to Christian schools, so all I heard growing up was this kind of crap. A few years ago, I’d have been all on Farah’s side. Now that I’ve sworn off the whole God thing, I’ve begun to read and learn, and I get to experience the joy and wonder I should have gotten when I was a teenager.

    What’s really funny is that my daughter is learning about evolution in her high-school biology class, so we have the greatest discussions–she tells me about what she’s learning and I tell her what I’m learning!

    But since most of his readers are as ignorant and clueless as he is, Farah’s insipid ravings will undoubtedly be lapped up without question.

    Don’t be too hard on them, Ed–a lot of them are really good people, they’re just in denial. Hell, I can’t even tell my mother I don’t believe in God anymore. It would kill her.

  5. #5 Dave S.
    April 6, 2005

    The theories are constant. They are unquestionable, unassailable, unimpeachable. It’s just not considered good science to question them for any reason.

    Whenever some ignoramus says ‘You won’t accept any criticisms of your theory’, they almost always mean ‘You won’t accept my criticisms of your theory’.

    Since the possibility that their criticisms may be totally wrong on their own merits (or lack thereto) is completely unthinkable to them, the only possible answer is that you are just too stubborn to see their obvious rebuttle, and indeed any other possible rebuttle, of your position. As far as they are concerned, the only mystery is why you’re so stubborn. Gee, it might be because you hate God. Or you’re defending your “faith” of evolution. Or any of the other whacky accusations they really believe.

  6. #6 CPT_Doom
    April 6, 2005

    The theories are constant. They are unquestionable, unassailable, unimpeachable. It’s just not considered good science to question them for any reason.

    What an idiot! Even I, as a relative novice at evolutionary sciene, know of at least two huge evolutionary assumptions that have been refuted through evidence – that dinosaurs were cold-blooded and completely extinct. I’m sure there have been countless others, as I believe Darwin’s original theory could not account for species such as ants and bees, which exist nearly completely collaboratively.

    That’s the point of scientific theory – it also adapts, to explain the available evidence. If it cannot, the theory is replaced by one that can explain the evidence (e.g., the theory of ulcers being caused by stress replaced by the understanding that ulcers are caused by a stomach bacteria).

    Doesn’t Farah understand there are many species that have basically stopped evolving, because they apparently have no need to continue – sharks, for instance, are basically the same as they were millions of years ago. That’s because, as Ed rightly points out, evolution is not a maximizer – the process is not looking for the perfect species, but the species that can best exist under the circumstances in which it lives.

  7. #7 raj
    April 6, 2005

    One might seriously consider keeping track of the various publications pushed by WorldNutDaily. Check and see if they come out with a “special report” about “evilution” at some US$40 a copy. I’m not joking–they were bashing gay people a couple of years ago and then came out with a “special report”–at US$40 a copy. This article may be nothing more than preliminary advertising for another “special report”.

  8. #8 Ed Brayton
    April 6, 2005

    One of the more amusing contradictions of the anti-evolution types is that they will simultaneously point to instances where one component of evolutionary theory was overturned by new evidence (proving, of course, that scientists can be wrong and often are and therefore evolution could be wrong and probably is) AND claim that scientist will accept no dissent whatsoever from evolutionary theory. This is much like their simultaneous argument that evolution is both false and unfalsifiable.

  9. #9 The Accipiter
    April 6, 2005

    Regardless of whether one is an evolutionist, a theistic evolutionist like myself, or a pure creationist of some kind, I hope your readers appreciate the fantastic, in-depth, line-by-line critique you present here.

    Too many creationists mischaracterize and misquote careful and methodical, inherently skeptical scientists, and misconceptualize the products of their work.

    On one hand, it’s annoying that someone who has “NUT” in his blog address can get away with pretending he’s not one. On the other hand, sometimes it takes sloppy thinkers to promote the best critical thought, as your piece exemplifies.

  10. #10 G Lyn
    April 6, 2005

    Re Dave S
    “I think we’re talking here about the intellectual sibling species of the telephone pole.”

    What a great quote – how apt !

  11. #11 Dave S.
    April 6, 2005

    One of the more amusing contradictions of the anti-evolution types is that they will simultaneously point to instances where one component of evolutionary theory was overturned by new evidence (proving, of course, that scientists can be wrong and often are and therefore evolution could be wrong and probably is) AND claim that scientist will accept no dissent whatsoever from evolutionary theory.

    That’s a classic alright. Evolution is criticised for both being unchallengeable dogma and yet constantly changing with every new discovery. Sometimes in adjoining sentences. And this makes sense to them.

    My favourite is the ‘we accept microevolution but not macroevolution’ line. I always ask “Why”? Not why they reject macroevolution, but why they accept microevolution. What evidence do they find compelling. They don’t like to answer that, as it might force them to make a stand on the data that could logically lead to accepting macroevolution as well, or at least taking away any rational basis for rejecting it. It also fits in with their almost total aversion to discussing data in general.

    They know it’s not really about science to their audience, who generally could not care less about biology. It’s about seeing the hero (the anti-evolutionist) slay the Beast (the evolutonist). Image is all that counts.

    And they really hate it when you point out that speciation is an example of macroevolution. Then they accuse you of changing definitions or trying to simply define macroevolution as correct.

    G. Lyn

    That quote is by Les Lane. And David S is not me, Dave S. I know that’s confusing. He should change his name or something. *L*

  12. #12 Matthew
    April 7, 2005

    I saw something on BBC about the discovery of what is thought to be the first bipedal hominid… anyone know anything about this? Yet another missing link that creationists have been asking for, and ultimately reject as either “just an ape” or “just like modern humans”?

  13. #13 Dave S.
    April 7, 2005
  14. #14 Matthew
    April 7, 2005

    Yes, I believe so. I thought it was a new finding though. Here’s the bbc story:

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/4416757.stm

  15. #15 Dave S.
    April 8, 2005

    Matt-

    Yeah, it’s a new finding, but relating to the findings of a few years back. The question is whether this beastie was bipedal or not. The alledged forward location of the foramen magnum in the skull suggests maybe it was. Maybe. Hard to say as the skull was deformed. But to really nail down that case you’d like to see some pelvic or knee bones.

  16. #16 Dave S.
    April 8, 2005

    Matt-

    Carl Zimmer has covered this too, in his usual excellent style. Check out the link provided by Ed, or go to:

    http://www.corante.com/loom/

  17. #17 raj
    April 8, 2005

    I have to admit. The comment from “Les Lane at April 5, 2005 10:07 PM” was one of the best lines I’ve seen on the topic. On any topic. In years. Priceless.

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