Pharyngula

I sometimes teach a course in scientific writing, in which we instruct students in the basics of writing a paper: citing the literature, the conventions of the standard science paper (introduction, methods, results, discussion), all that sort of thing. We also discuss research topics and coming up with a reasonable rationale for doing the work, and “the instructor told me to do it” or “I like turtles” isn’t adequate — that one of the results of researching a topic should be the discovery of genuine problems that warrant deeper analysis. A science paper is a story, and it always begins with a good question.

I think I’m going to need to add another bad rationale to my list: “I like the Bible” isn’t justification for research. Although, I notice, there are a lot of people in the bureaucracy of science who don’t see it as an obstacle to funding or publishing research built on that premise.

A bad paper has been published in PLoS One. It’s competently executed within its narrow scope, as near as I can tell, but its premise is simply to reach for more pretense of a scientific basis for biblical fairy tales by an old earth creationist. It should have been rejected for asking an imaginary question and answering it with a fantasy scenario.

One summary catches the gist of the ‘research’.

The study is intended to present a possible scenario of events that are said to have taken place more than 3,000 years ago, although experts are uncertain whether they actually occurred.

Yeah, it’s a Christian using a computer simulation to try and justify the story of the parting of the Red Sea by Moses. And it’s pointless. If you read the paper, you’ll learn that under certain very specific conditions involving making up a bit of Middle Eastern topography, a strong wind can push shallow bodies of water sufficiently to temporarily exposed the floor. Woo hoo, I say, unenthusiastically. This is an utterly trivial result, and the paper doesn’t seem to have anything of general use to say.

The paper itself is a weird combination of transparency and disingenuousness. The title and the introduction are all about the dynamics of wind setdown, this phenomenon in which wind pressure can cause a drop in water level, but then throughout, the author describes the work exclusively in terms of explaining “a possible hydrodynamic explanation for Moses crossing the Red Sea”. And the author is also very open about declaring his interests:

Competing interests: The lead author has a web site, theistic-evolution.com, that addresses Christian faith and biological evolution. The Red Sea crossing is mentioned there briefly. The present study treats the Exodus 14 narrative as an interesting and ancient story of uncertain origin.

It’s a simple exercise in post-hoc rationalization of an unfounded event in a myth, gussied up as if it were science. It isn’t. It’s an invention of no utility, the kind of fantasy world-building that looks goofy even in fiction; and it’s going to be abused by religious nuts to argue that their superstitions are genuine.

It doesn’t even make sense from the perspective of a believer. So one of the great miracles of the Bible is being reduced to a meteorological fluke with an entirely natural explanation? It makes bible stories compatible with science by making the supernatural elements of the story completely irrelevant, which is nice if you’re an atheist, but only if you’re an atheist who is very gullible and willing to accept other elaborate prior premises.

It’s also troubling that this work actually got funded by NCAR and the Office of Naval Research. Why? I suspect that sympathetic Christians somewhere in the administration gave bad Christian research a pass that they wouldn’t have if, for instance, someone proposed doing simulations to determine the meteorological conditions that could loft a horse and Mohammed into the air, or exactly what confluence of geology and atmospheric effects could lead to the illusion of Thor tossing thunderbolts from a cloud.

And how is this garbage getting published in PLoS One? If a paper like this were plopped on my desk for review, I’d be calling the editor to ask if it was a joke. If it wasn’t, I’d laugh and reject it — there is no scientific question of any significance being addressed anywhere in the work. Is this representative of the direction PLoS is going to be taking, with low standards for acceptance and what had to have been nonexistent review?

A suggestion for Mr Drews, the author, who sounds like he is a software developer affiliated with a research institution: you aren’t a scientist, stop pretending to be one. I’ll also say the same thing I tell every creationist pseudoscientist who tries to resolve their mythical stories with unconvincing handwaving about science: it doesn’t work. We see right through you. Bad, overstretched technical justifications for miraculous events are even less persuasive than simply declaring “My omnipotent god did it with magic”.