April's Idiot of the Month Award - Brian Cherry

Anyone who has followed the evolution/creationism issue for any period of time is quite accustomed to seeing articles filled with the most basic factual errors, poor spelling and hackneyed arguments. But this article, written by someone named Brian Cherry in a webmag called the Washington Dispatch, may take the cake. It's bad enough that for a moment, one suspects that it is a parody. Alas, it's not. Mr. Cherry actually wrote it and, presumably, believes it. Unfortunately, he can't even get the most basic facts right, let alone comprehend the larger issues he discusses. Let's begin the fisking.

Whos your daddy? It is exactly this sort of question that results in slapped faces and restraining orders if the query is made in a bar. When this question was posed to the State School Board of Ohio and framed in the context of human origins it sparked national debates and threats of lawsuits. The board was tasked with making the decision on whether or not students can be presented with an alternative to the theory of evolution. The alternative in question is the theory of intelligent design.

Mistake #1: There is no "theory of intelligent design". At this point, ID is nothing more than a technical-sounding argument from ignorance. William Dembski, the leading ID advocate, defines an argument from ignorance as one that takes the form "Not X, therefore Y". Yet even while denying, in rhetoric, that ID is based upon such an argument, he has created and developed a rather obvious one, the Explanatory Filter (EF). The EF is precisely this form of argument - "If not regularity and if not chance, therefore intelligent design". This is not a theory in a scientific sense, and there is no actual explanatory model in place for ID. There is no model of how such design took place, by whom, or when. There is no actual positive research in favor of ID, there is only sniping at evolutionary theory as an explanation so that they can repeat the argument from ignorance seen above - if evolution doesn't (yet) explain it, it must be ID. Sorry, this isn't a theory.

Despite the fact that a number of reputable scientists support this theory with credible scientific evidence, it didnt stop proponents of evolution to immediately yell that this is a breach of contemporary view of the second amendment that separates church and state.

Uh, Brian. I'm not sure where you went to school, but did they not teach the difference between the first amendment and the second amendment? I'm guessing your own magazine contains lots of articles about the second amendment, which deals with the right to bear arms and has nothing to do with separation of church and state. Are there no editors for the Washington Dispatch?

Also, science does not deal in reputable scienTISTS, it deals in reputable science. Lots of reputable scientists have lent their name to lots of crackpot ideas, but that doesn't make the ideas they may advocate legitimate scientific explanations, or give them any explanatory power. Nor, as I said above, is there any "credible scientific evidence" for ID. They have dealt only with abstract meta-scientific claims (such as the EF), or with arguments against evolution. No ID advocate has ever even attempted to offer a real testable model from which positive evidence flows. All research merely feeds the argument from ignorance stated above.

The shrill call for a constitutional foul came forth because the theory of intelligent design concludes that we are the products of a higher intelligence. This higher intelligence is never named or given bias towards a particular religion. Supporters of intelligent design simply put forth the evidence without making a presumption on what deity is responsible. That is where the problem lies for evolutionists. Any theory that not only suggests that we are the product of a creation but can also back it up in a credible manner is a threat to them.

Really? Then please explain why such a large percentage of scientists, including evolutionary biologists, are theists? Are they threatened by their own beliefs? Evolution says nothing about the existence of any deities, any more than celestial mechanics does. But there is always a supernatural alternative to be offered to any scientific theory. ID is to evolution what the "angels push the planets around theory" is to classic planetary mechanics. It's a purely supernatural alternative to a very successful explanation.

If we are seeking scientific truth, why would people in the scientific community be afraid of an open dialogue on a theory that can be supported with at least as much evidence as evolution? When you strip away the venire of science the answer becomes clear. By definition evolution is now a religion and any idea that challenges their belief system must be eliminated.

False premise, ridiculous conclusion. If Mr. Cherry can provide us with examples of evidence for ID, as opposed to alleged examples of how evolution doesn't work as an explanation, he will be the first to do so. Hence, it is simply false and absurd to claim that ID is "supported with at least as much evidence" as evolution.

The dictionary defines religion as A personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices. This is not really helpful unless you also know how this same dictionary defines the word, religious. Religious is defined by Websters as relating to or manifesting faithful devotion to an acknowledged ultimate reality or deity. It is in this meaning of the word religious that we find evolutions true self. Evolution manifests the two most important points that qualify it as a religion. These are a devotion to an ultimate reality (as well as a deity, though they wont admit it), and faith.

Oh goodie, the old "they're religious too" argument. It's quite idiotic, but that doesn't seem to stop our intrepid correspondent. Evolution is not an argument about "ultimate reality". Like all scientific theories, it is an explanation for a specific set of data. Evolution explains, successfully, the present biodiversity on earth, the geographical distribution of that diversity, the patterns of appearance in the palentological record, the nested heirarchies at both the phenotype and genotype levels, and several other facts that are well established and readily observed. It does not explain "ultimate reality", nor does it attempt to. The fact that those who work with it every day reject bad or unsupported "alternatives" to it does not mean that it's a "religion" protecting its "doctrines" or any such hoohah. If Mr. Cherry had even the slightest education in either the philosophy of science or evolutionary biology itself, he would know this.

Those who are dedicated to evolution hide their faith by pretending their belief is deeply rooted in science. When you break down the fossil evidence though, you find some interesting things.

Yes, you find lots of interesting things when studying fossils, something Mr. Cherry has obviously not done, as we shall see. This is where the real fun begins with this article. This is where the article goes from silly to outright stupidity.

Dr. Leaky started much of the uproar when he found his famous missing link, Lucy. In the end his find turned out to be a mosaic of at least two different species of extinct ape.

A brave leap in the dark, followed by a resounding thud as Mr. Cherry lands flat on his face. First, it's "Leakey", not Leaky. Second, no one in the Leakey family (which contains at least three prominent paleontologists) discovered Lucy. Lucy was discovered by Donald Johanson. And the notion that Lucy turned out to be "a mosaic of at least two different species of extinct ape" is pure fiction. Lucy is a 40% complete skeleton of an Australopithecine. No one, Mr. Cherry, has ever claimed it was a mosaic of extinct apes. Not even the dumbest young earth creationist. Congratulations, you've managed to top even Duane Gish on the nonsense scale, and on your first foray into the field. This is truly a rare achievement.

Eugene Dubois was a Dutch scientist and devotee of Charles Darwin. During a dig on the island of Java, he discovered the first fossils of a Pithecanthropus erectus. This find was later nicknamed Java man.

So far so good. I'm reasonably sure this is the longest passage in his entire article without an obvious factual error.

Dubois became very protective of his find and only allowed access of the bones to a very small circle of people. After several decades of stonewalling and intense pressure to compare his fossils against finds of extinct mammals that had also been unearthed in Java, Dubois finally admitted that his Pithecanthropus erectus was actually the remains of an ancient Gibbon. In the end all Dubois managed to do was conclusively prove that Gibbons exist.

Well, so much for accuracy. Not a single word of this last passage was true. The notion that Dubois hid his finds from other scientists has long been debunked. Cherry, blissfully ignorant of the actual evidence, can't even seem to copy the nonsense he so obviously stole from the creationists accurately. At issue are two entirely different finds, the Java Man remains found at one site, and the Wadjak skulls found elsewhere. Creationists like Duane Gish and Marvin Lubenow like to claim that Dubois kept the Wadjak skulls a secret because they are clearly more modern than the java man specimens. This is utter nonsense. Dubois published three separate articles on the Wadjak skulls between 1890 and 1892. They also like to claim that both finds were "at the same level", which is again complete nonsense. The Wadjak skulls were found 65 miles away and in cave deposits up in the mountains, while the java man bones were found in flood plain river deposits, obviously far lower. So we have here a distortion of a distortion - creationists make false claims about java man and Brian Cherry repeats them, but can't even get that right and makes them even less accurate in the process. Oh, by the way, Dubois also did not in fact identify java man as a gibbon later in life. He concluded that they were part of a different genus that was related to gibbons. As he noted, the brain size was far too large for a gibbon, or any anthropoid ape, and it was bipedal. By the way, this bit of silliness has been retracted even by the creationists of Answers in Genesis, who list this as one of their arguments that should not be used.

Piltdown man was a complete skull that finally proved the link between man and ape. It had characteristics of both. For fifty years this was the transitional fossil evolutionists threw in the face of anyone who doubted them. Piltdown man was their Rosetta stone.

Completely false. Piltdown man did not fit with the other hominid fossil evidence right from the start, which is exactly why scientists were troubled by it and why they started to examine it in more detail later on. The skull was too modern looking and the jaw too apelike, but this was before there was modern dating methods by which to actually test it. For 50 years, Piltdown man was not the "Rosetta stone" or any kind of triumphal find, but a puzzling anomoly that didn't fit with anything else. But let's be blunt. At this point, would any sane human being believe that Brian Cherry has actually read any of the early 20th century literature concerning Piltdown Man? I didn't think so.

Well it was until somebody took a close look at it and discovered it was the skull of a modern human with an apes jaw attached to it. The pranksters had also stained it to make it look old. The crime here is not the prank but the failure of evolutionists to put their discoveries under the standards of scrutiny that they demand from any competing theory. It took fifty years to discover their ultimate evidence was a clumsy fraud.

Again, because there were not originally any solid techniques with which to date the fossil itself. Remember, this was discovered around 1910. It was not until 1949 when scientists, using a recently developed flourine test, could determine definitively that the skull was of recent origin. And anthropologists were in fact quite happy to know it because the specimen simply didn't fit with the rest of the evidence. These are things you learn, Mr. Cherry, when you read something other than creationist webpages.

The entire theory was eventually dealt a sharp blow when the Neandertal man, the only fossil of an ape/human ancestor that was recent enough to extract DNA from came back as not even remotely human.

Wow, it just gets worse. First, no one EVER claimed that Homo neanderthalensis was "an ape/human ancestor". Second, the claim that Neanderthal is "not even remotely human" is, to be blunt, complete garbage. The mtDNA tests determined that the Neanderthals were not direct ancestors to Homo sapiens - that's us, Brian - but were instead an evolutionary cousin, a side branch that died out, either through extinction of interbreeding. But not only are they "remotely human", they ARE human. That's what the "Homo" means at the beginning of their Linnean classification. They are full fledged members of the genus Homo. They always were and they always will be, and the mtDNA studies didn't change that one bit. All they did was settle the previously unanswered question of whether they were directly ancestral to Homo sapiens or part of another lineage within the same genus.

Once the Neandertal was conclusively and scientifically proved to be a species other then human in 1997, the theory of evolution had to be adjusted. The Neandertals were a branch from a common ancestor we have. Just like monkeys. Who is this common ancestor? Nobody knows. Where is the fossil? There isnt one. How do they know there is a common ancestor then? Because they believe that someday someone will find the evidence they are looking for.

I think I just heard another thud. Sorry Brian, we do know the common ancestor of Homo sapiens and Homo neanderthalensis. It's called Homo erectus. In fact, contrary to your claim that "there isn't one", we have dozens of specimens of Homo erectus.

Evolution, by definition, is a religion. In science fraud is common and hoaxes are just an unfortunate part of the territory.

Common? Is that why you could come up with exactly ONE example of a fraud or hoax for this breathless article, Brian? Nebraska man was simply a misclassification of a weathered tooth given to H.F. Osborn. When scientists went to the site and did an actual dig 2 years later, they found related remains and immediately withdrew the mistaken classification. The only example of a fraud or hoax is Piltdown man, and you've completely distorted the truth about that one as well. And Piltdown man was discovered to be a hoax by scientists in the process of doing science - rechecking the data, using new and more accurate techniques to examine the evidence, and publishing the results. And on the basis of this one distorted claim, you've determined that fraud is common? I'll take ridiculous non sequiturs for $1000, Alex.

The rest of the article is just more conclusionary nonsense based on all of the factual and logical errors he makes above. The punchline to this joke is that the Washington Dispatch bills itself as "an objective source for social and political commentary", yet they published this commentary that is filled with claims that are outright false. Are there no editors at this magazine? Not even to check spelling (the word is veneer, not venire)?

Follow up: Mr. Cherry saw fit to reply to me by e-mail and I just have to put the text of this bizarre, off-point screed that he sent me. Is there anything funnier than when a hack like this guy tries to rescue his credibility with an incoherent rant packed full of misspellings, punctuation errors, random capitalization, ostensible answers to arguments that were never made, and no answers to the arguments that actually were made? This e-mail is being reproduced word for word and letter for letter. To wit:

I read your blog and found it quite funny. You praise science for discovering the wood stain on Piltdown mans, despite the fact it took decades. I have a handy man that could have spotted that in 30 seconds. As far as the rest, just because your progaganda and faith dont support the truth of Dubois and the rest of the evidence doesnt make your version true. Of course like any other religion you are hoping the more often you say things the truer they become.

Your "Transitional fossils" are only evidence if you work backwards from the belief of evolution. No soft tissue samples and no DNA. By your methods you would take the innards of a pig (which are the closest to human in all of the animal world) and declare it a human ancestor before seeing the skelaton or any other part of the pig. Also under your methods the Thylacine would be classified as a dog, if all we had was the skelaton. You start at the conclusion and make the evidence fit your pre determined notion. In other words, everything you wrote was self serving and all your evidence is open to multiple interpretations. You simply choose to call your interpretation a fact.

My article was not written for you and thankfully it has reached its target audience. You are the defender of your religious belief so I dont expect an open mind out of you. Had you actually done your research on ID with an open mind, and put your evidence to the same standard you demand from any other theory you would have more questions about evolution then beligerant rhetoric. Im sure your closed mind and inability to question what your teachers have told you will serve you well in whatever micro managed cubicle or factory line your life takes you. Those who emply such positions hate people with probbing minds. You will fit right in.

Bravissimo, Mr. Cherry. You've outdone yourself. On top of the innumerable factual errors you made in your original article (none of which you bothered to address here, unsurprisingly), you've added more. There was no "wood stain" used on the Piltdown man skull. It was treated first with Chromic acid and then with a solution containing iron and possibly manganese, to try and replicate the absorption of those chemicals from a gravel quarry. It also may have been boiled in an iron sulphate solution. But again, this was 1910. There was no means of detecting those things in the early 20th century. By the 1940s, there were and scientists used them. None of which changes the fact that you were flat wrong when you claimed that this was the "Rosetta stone" and the "ultimate evidence" from anthropology. Every single claim you have made about Piltdown man was false, just like every single claim you made about Java man was false, and every single claim you made about Lucy was false, including even the basics of who discovered it. Not one of the factual criticisms that I offered have you bothered to respond to. And I do love that little dig at my "factory life" at the end. It would, however, be a lot more compelling and amusing if you hadn't misspelled half the words. Where on earth did you learn to write and how did you manage to get the Washington Dispatch to emply (sic) you? Probbing (sic) minds want to know, including those who aren't beligerant (sic). Cherry's response also makes one wonder who on earth the article was written for. Apparently for half wits too ignorant to see beneath the venire (sic) of his progaganda (sic).


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By your methods you would take the innards of a pig (which are the closest to human in all of the animal world) and declare it a human ancestor before seeing the skelaton or any other part of the pig. Also under your methods the Thylacine would be classified as a dog, if all we had was the skelaton.

That sounds like a classic Hovindism to me. Maybe we've found Brian Cherry's source. That would explain a lot.

By Steve Reuland (not verified) on 29 Apr 2004 #permalink

Ugh. I am just disgusted by the abysmal level of education and basic intelligence of some people. It is people like Mr. Cherry who make me lose faith in humanity. Well, him and that geocentrist I met a few months ago.
How did he find out about this blog anyway? Did you send him an e-mail with your responses?
Nevertheless, I still hope he responds. Quite entertaining.

How did he find out about this blog anyway? Did you send him an e-mail with your responses? Nevertheless, I still hope he responds. Quite entertaining.

I replied on the Washington Dispatch site. There was a link at the bottom of his article. I don't think he'll reply here, and he certainly won't reply with anything substantive. There simply isn't anything to say, virtually every claim he made was 100% wrong.

This article points up another fairly interesting facet of the anti-evolution movement - although the leading lights of ID claim strenuously that what they propose is not the same thing as young-earth creationism, to the rank-and-file creationist there is no difference. Although the amazingly ignorant Mr. Cherry is apparently writing to defend intelligent design, the arguments (such as they are) that he uses are lifted straight from the webpages of young-earth groups. I encountered the same phenomenon recently at my school, when a Christian student group gave a presentation on "intelligent design". Again, it consisted of the exact same arguments used by Hovind, AiG, etc. - no transitional fossils, second law of thermodynamics, even claims about a global flood, all lifted from YEC web pages and used uncritically. If (when) the constitutionality of intelligent design is put to a court test, this might be something worth bringing up (along with all that stuff about science without Christ being meaningless and intelligent design being based on the Logos theology of the Gospel of John that Dembski, Behe, et al. say all the time to evangelical Christian audiences but manage to omit whenever they're ostensibly writing for a scientific audience).

Another interesting error from the first excerpted section:

"When this question was posed to the State School Board of Ohio and framed in the context of human origins it sparked national debates and threats of lawsuits."

Who said ID, like that contemplated in Ohio, had anything to do with human origins, in particular? Is there anyone in the ID movement suggesting that a Designer intervened especially to bring about Homo sapiens?

I got a kick out of this line in the reply:

"...like any other religion you are hoping the more often you say things the truer they become."

That's bad, see, and religions do it all the time. Bad religions! Bad! (While it's possible Mr. Cherry is anti-religious as well as anti-evolution, his article implies that he is at least a theistic believer: "Without a Supreme Being as our creator and man at the top of the world food chain, this leaves one candidate for their God. It is man.")

I have to say that was a great fisking. A fun and entertaining massacre, which is all you can really hope to get out of such a pathetic article.

Mr Cherry's letter indicates that maybe his editor has been so busy correcting all his spelling errors, that he didn't have time to look into the (un)factual content.

One other thing: "Are there no editors at this magazine?"

I wouldn't be surprised if there weren't. The content of the website doesn't seem coherent, with commentary by arch-conservative Paul Weyrich next to an article fretting about Republican influence over Diebold voting machines. That, and the rampant misspellings in other articles, suggests something more like an unedited group blog.

Yet those spelling errors also point to someone in charge -- someone who doesn't know how to spell the word "altar." Cherry's piece is headlined "Praying at the Alter of the Shaved Ape" (at least it's not "preying"), while another writer has a piece titled "The Alter of Unrestricted Growth."

Spellchecker, you have ruined a generation.

On the subject of human-pig comparisons, I remember one creationist who made the claim that our molecules are closer in sequence to those of pigs rather than those of chimps. I did not have the patience to do a full-scale check of PubMed's gene and protein sequences, so I looked at only a few. Our sequences are MUCH closer to chimp ones than to pig ones.

As to the thylacine and a domestic dog, there are various skeletal details that easily distinguish them, like the marsupial pelvis's epipubic bones. In fact, paleontologists have made a fine art out of looking for such details.

By Loren Petrich (not verified) on 29 Apr 2004 #permalink

Is this the nonsense it sounds like it is?

"Humans are genetically more similar to chickens than rats. The Animal Breeding and Genetics group estimates that about four hundred DNA segments in both humans and chickens have genes in the same order, four times more than previously thought to be the case. Nearly all the information on chicken chromosome 15 is on the human chromosome 10. These similarities make the work of mapping the chicken genome easier, as the researchers can make use of the large databanks of information already available on the human genome. The researchers also believe that the chicken may be a useful model for studying human genetic defects. Chickens suffer from a similar form of obesity as that found in humans, and may be of use in determining the effects of nutrition and environment in the development of defects. (See page 1.)"


By Ralph Jones (not verified) on 30 Apr 2004 #permalink

I wouldn't be surprised if there weren't. The content of the website doesn't seem coherent, with commentary by arch-conservative Paul Weyrich next to an article fretting about Republican influence over Diebold voting machines. That, and the rampant misspellings in other articles, suggests something more like an unedited group blog.

If this is the case, and I think it is, they sure have gone to great lengths to pretend it's not. From their About the Washington Dispatch Page:

We reach thousands of individuals each day with the work of our columnists and editors. Due to the commitment of our contributors we continue to gain the respect of new readers and other media outlets through our objective nature and an obligation to maintaining the highest standards of integrity.

So it appears that they have editors; it doesn't, however, appear that they do much editing.

It also appears that they will allow anyone to submit articles. From their Writers Wanted Page:

TWD proudly publishes the opinion pieces of both amateur writers and professional pundits. Our goal is to become the most objective source for social commentary and political analysis. We are not the elite media; we want to provide a forum for any writer who can provide a clear thought.

Apparently "clear thought" includes "clearly wrong thought". And one really has to wonder what on earth the word "objective" means to them given that they publish such unvarnished crap as this article. Oh, and here's my favorite part:

We do ask that you submit good, solid contributions by checking facts and relying on only credible sources.

Apparently they waived that part for Mr. Cherry's article. How objective.

For crying out loud, he's a teacher. He's a teacher in my state. I hope he doesn't show the same casual disregard for accuracy while teaching history to our school kids. I'm appalled.