When Scientists Misrepresent Science

There is an anti-evolution article on Tech Central Station that is just begging for a response, and I'd certainly hate to disappoint. The article is written by Roy Spencer from the University of Alabama. Up front, it is important to note that one should not be fooled by his credentials. He calls himself only a "PhD scientist", and indeed that is precisely what he is. But his area of specialty, climatology, is entirely unrelated to evolution. Thus, the fact that he has a PhD means virtually nothing. He has no more training in fields relevant to evolution - biology, paleontology, anthropology, geology, etc - than I or most other people do. That doesn't mean he's wrong, of course, but it will certainly help explain why he displays such a lack of understanding of evolution. He begins by poisoning the well:


Twenty years ago, as a PhD scientist, I intensely studied the evolution versus intelligent design controversy for about two years. And finally, despite my previous acceptance of evolutionary theory as "fact," I came to the realization that intelligent design, as a theory of origins, is no more religious, and no less scientific, than evolutionism.

In the scientific community, I am not alone. There are many fine books out there on the subject. Curiously, most of the books are written by scientists who lost faith in evolution as adults, after they learned how to apply the analytical tools they were taught in college.

You might wonder how scientists who are taught to apply disciplined observation and experimentation and to search for natural explanations for what is observed in nature can come to such a conclusion? For those of you who consider themselves open-minded, I will try to explain.

I call this poisoning the well because he is already implying that the validity of his arguments rests upon whether those reading are "open-minded" or not. But that is irrelevant to the validity of his claims.

True evolution, in the macro-sense, has never been observed, only inferred. A population of moths that changes from light to dark based upon environmental pressures is not evolution -- they are still moths. A population of bacteria that become resistant to antibiotics does not illustrate evolution -- they are still bacteria. In the biological realm, natural selection (which is operating in these examples) is supposedly the mechanism by which evolution advances, and intelligent design theory certainly does not deny its existence. While natural selection can indeed preserve the stronger and more resilient members of a gene pool, intelligent design maintains that it cannot explain entirely new kinds of life -- and that is what evolution is.

A common, but essentially meaningless, argument among creationists. It's meaningless because nowhere does he attempt to define what he means by "in the macro sense" or by "entirely new kinds of life." Does that mean speciation never occurs? Is a new species an "entirely new kind of life"? Given that we have observed speciation many times both in the lab and in the wild, that would be an absurd position. But if this limitation is not at the species level, then where can we find it? At the genus level? Family? He doesn't say. Indeed, creationists never seem to say. Creationists rely on this vague definition, and never attempt to define it more rigorously, because it allows them to dismiss any example as not quite new enough. It allows them to move the goalposts.

Possibly the most critical distinction between the two theories (or better, "models") of origins is this: While similarities between different but "related" species have been attributed by evolutionism to common ancestry, intelligent design explains the similarities based upon common design.

The problem, of course, is that there is no "ID model" or "ID theory", as some ID advocates are honest enough to admit. The other problem is that the common design argument fails completely to explain many things, including the identification of endogenous retroviruses that can be used to create phylogenetic trees that confirm the predictions based on anatomy and fossil evidence. I would also note that there is no consistent ID position on this at all. Michael Behe says he accepts common descent, while Dembski vacillates on it and Paul Nelson rejects it. So if there is an "ID model" to be found in there somewhere, no one seems to have agreed on what it is.

Common ancestry requires transitional forms of life to have existed through the millions of years of supposed biological evolution. Yet the fossil record, our only source of the history of life on Earth, is almost (if not totally) devoid of transitional forms of life that would connect the supposed evolution of amphibians to reptiles, reptiles to birds, etc.

Here Spencer leaves the standard ID arguments and harkens back to traditional creationist arguments. But remember that Spencer has no training or expertise whatsoever in paleontology or comparative anatomy, which are the fields in which one would identify transitional fossils. And the experts in those fields have identified and explained dozens and dozens of transitional forms in the fossil record. Spencer does not discuss a single claimed transitional form here, or even attempt to show why all of the scientists in those fields are wrong, he merely makes the conclusionary declaration that none exist. One wonders how he would react if, say, an anthropologist published an article about his field of expertise and declared that the claims of virtually every climatologist in the world are wrong without bothering to cite or discuss even a single piece of evidence from that field. I suspect he might take such a declaration just about as seriously as others should take this one, which is to say not at all.

This is why Stephen Jay Gould, possibly the leading evolutionist of our time, advanced his "punctuated equilibria" theory. In this theory, evolution leading to new kinds of organisms occurs over such brief periods of time that it was not captured in the fossil record. Upon reflection, one cannot help but notice that this is not arguing based upon the evidence -- but instead from the lack of evidence.

I beg to differ. What one cannot help but notice here is that a reputable scientist has taken to passing on one of the oldest and most often debunked lies in this entire dispute. He is flat wrong. Gould and Eldredge did not advance PE because there were no transitional forms in the fossil record. I'd be willing to bet a tidy sum that Spencer has never bothered to read even a single journal article on PE, or even some of Gould's popular writings, which entirely debunk this article. This misrepresentation of his work infuriated Gould and he debunked it many times, including here:

The third argument is more direct: transitions are often found in the fossil record. Preserved transitions are not common--and should not be, according to our understanding of evolution (see next section) but they are not entirely wanting, as creationists often claim. The lower jaw of reptiles contains several bones, that of mammals only one. The non-mammalian jawbones are reduced, step by step, in mammalian ancestors until they become tiny nubbins located at the back of the jaw. The "hammer" and "anvil" bones of the mammalian ear are descendants of these nubbins. How could such a transition be accomplished? the creationists ask. Surely a bone is either entirely in the jaw or in the ear. Yet paleontologists have discovered two transitional lineages of therapsids (the so-called mammal-like reptiles) with a double jaw joint--one composed of the old quadrate and articular bones (soon to become the hammer and anvil), the other of the squamosal and dentary bones (as in modern mammals). For that matter, what better transitional form could we expect to find than the oldest human, Australopithecus afarensis, with its apelike palate, its human upright stance, and a cranial capacity larger than any ape's of the same body size but a full 1,000 cubic centimeters below ours? If God made each of the half-dozen human species discovered in ancient rocks, why did he create in an unbroken temporal sequence of progressively more modern features--increasing cranial capacity, reduced face and teeth, larder body size? Did he create to mimic evolution and test our faith thereby?

Faced with these facts of evolution and the philosophical bankruptcy of their own position, creationists rely upon distortion and innuendo to buttress their rhetorical claim. If I sound sharp or bitter, indeed I am--for I have become a major target of these practices.

I count myself among the evolutionists who argue for a jerky, or episodic, rather than a smoothly gradual, pace of change. In 1972 my colleague Niles Eldredge and I developed the theory of punctuated equilibrium. We argued that two outstanding facts of the fossil record--geologically "sudden" origin of new species and failure to change thereafter (stasis)--reflect the predictions of evolutionary theory, not the imperfections of the fossil record. In most theories, small isolated populations are the source of new species, and the process of speciation takes thousands or tens of thousands of years. This amount of time, so long when measured against our lives, is a geological microsecond. It represents much less than 1 per cent of the average life-span for a fossil invertebrate species--more than ten million years. Large, widespread, and well established species, on the other hand, are not expected to change very much. We believe that the inertia of large populations explains the stasis of most fossil species over millions of years.

We proposed the theory of punctuated equilibrium largely to provide a different explanation for pervasive trends in the fossil record. Trends, we argued, cannot be attributed to gradual transformation within lineages, but must arise from the different success of certain kinds of species. A trend, we argued, is more like climbing a flight of stairs (punctuated and stasis) than rolling up an inclined plane.

Since we proposed punctuated equilibria to explain trends, it is infuriating to be quoted again and again by creationists--whether through design or stupidity, I do not know--as admitting that the fossil record includes no transitional forms. Transitional forms are generally lacking at the species level, but they are abundant between larger groups. Yet a pamphlet entitled "Harvard Scientists Agree Evolution Is a Hoax" states: "The facts of punctuated equilibrium which Gould and Eldredge...are forcing Darwinists to swallow fit the picture that Bryan insisted on, and which God has revealed to us in the Bible."

It's bad enough when a fraud like Kent Hovind or Duane Gish does this sort of thing. But Roy Spencer is a serious and respected scientist, even if not in this particular field. There are really only two choices here. Either Spencer has taken the time to research Gould's views on this subject, in which case he is lying about it; or he hasn't bothered to take the time to do so and he is representing the work of a fellow scientist without doing what any reputable scientist should do, which is insure that they are not distorting those views. This is the sort of thing that can kill a scientific career, and for good reason. Present a paper at a scientific conference that so blatantly distorts the work of another scientist and you may well find yourself thrown out of the group. And for good reason.

He then goes on to make the familiar and nonsensical argument that since evolution isn't proven, both evolution and ID must be taken on "faith" and thus teaching evolution also amounts to an establishment of religion. This is wrong on so many levels that it's hardly worth the time to spell them out. Given that he has been wrong on virtually all of the premises on which he bases that argument, the conclusion is also wrong. But this really is shameful behavior for a scientist to engage in. He is using his status as a scientist to buy him credibility that belies the weakness of his arguments, and in the process he is completely distorting the work of Gould and Eldredge.

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If he was praising Kyoto and trying to stop global warming would you diss him???

By Monkeyboy (not verified) on 10 Aug 2005 #permalink

Monkeyboy wrote:

If he was praising Kyoto and trying to stop global warming would you diss him???

Is there some sort of connection between these two issues that I'm unaware of? Would my answer to that question change the validity of anything I said in this post? If not, what on earth is your point?

Despite his phd, I suspect he is not a good scientist. I happen to have a phd in atmospheric sciences, and my understanding of the way atmospheric sciences work assures me that I can trust biologists. Scientists are basically honest, and the more scientists involved, the more honest they are. Scientists cannot afford to be dishonest, because there are dozens, or hundreds or even thousands of scientists looking over their shoulders, trying to find mistakes. Thus taken as a whole, the community of scientists is probably one of the most honest of any group of humans. I do not think we can say the same about creationists.

By Mark Paris (not verified) on 10 Aug 2005 #permalink

Oh, yes, I should have remembered Roy Spencer. He wrote some papers with John Christy, the well-known global warming contrarian. (I haven't read all his stuff, but I remember Christy's opposition to global warming was based primarily upon his philosophical objections to steps that might be required to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. They were not actually bad philosophy, as so many are; he was essentially worried about the effects on more technologically backward areas rather than the effects on big oil.) Too bad Spencer has sunk so low. He used to be respected. As of now, I stand by my original statement that he is not a good scientist, although he might have done good work in the past. He can be added to Linus Pauling as an example of why a respected scientist should keep to his own area.

By Mark Paris (not verified) on 10 Aug 2005 #permalink

He can be added to Linus Pauling as an example of why a respected scientist should keep to his own area.

Pauling isn't the only example. Remember William Shockley, co-winner of the Nobel Prize for the discovery and description of the transistor effect? He was a physicist, but in later life, he purported to do a bit of biology in a very racist manner. Sad. http://www.time.com/time/time100/scientist/profile/shockley.html

I actually met him and talked with him at a science fair in the mid 1960s.

Ed,

Roy Spencer is at University of Alabama at Hunstville, not University of Alabama.

By Tracy P. Hamilton (not verified) on 11 Aug 2005 #permalink

You really don't need to read past the first sentence to know that Spencer is full of shit.

He says that he studied "the evolution versus intelligent design controversy" 20 years ago. Problem is, the term "intelligent design" was not in use 20 years ago. One would search in vain to find any material on ID back then. The first book which advocates ID is Of Pandas and People which was published in 1989, 4 years after Spencer's alleged studies. And since that book was all but ignored, you'd have to fast-forward to the mid 90's before really having a selection of ID literature to read.

What this means is that Spencer is using ID as synonymous with creationism (which it is to some degree), meaning that his "studies" mostly involved reading young-Earther material. The conflation of creationism and ID is something that ID advocates vehemently denounce, so Spencer isn't even reading off the same page. The other possibilities are that he has a time machine, or that he's simply lying about the whole thing and is too ignorant about the history of the ID movement to know how obvious it is.

"True evolution, in the macro-sense, has never been observed, only inferred."
--So if I go to a car dealership and take a new car for a 10-mile test drive, should I tell the dealer I won't buy it because it will only go ten miles? If the ride was smooth and quiet, and power good, perhaps I could infer that it was capable of going beyond 10 miles.
It appears that Creationists grudingly accept that "some" change is possible, because even they can't deny that evidence. But some seem to suffer acutely from a combination of ignorance and lack of understanding, and don't realize that the evidence really exists for change beyond slight variation; they are also unclear on the concept of species and taxonomic hierarchy as related to diversity.

"intelligent design explains the similarities based upon common design"

If there existed a theory/model of ID, then one might be able to make this statement. Without any idea of the nature of the "designer" and its design criteria, there is no logical reason to explain similiarity by
"common" design. I could posit just as easily that a "common" designer would design uniquely in each case and thus expect disimilarity. Evolution based on a model of common ancestry, on the other hand, positively predicts graded similiarity among related lineages since the model includes a mechanism of inherited "design".

By Shaggy Maniac (not verified) on 12 Aug 2005 #permalink

I am a creationists, and I have read alot of evolution material and can point out many flaws and unanswered questions.

Just seeing if this post comes up. I would love to join in on this discussion.

By Craig Bonnes (not verified) on 20 Aug 2005 #permalink

Craig Bonnes wrote:

I am a creationists, and I have read alot of evolution material and can point out many flaws and unanswered questions.

*yawn* By "a lot of evolution material", I suspect you mean "a lot of creationist webpages and/or pamphlets about evolution". I've heard it all, believe me. I doubt you can come up with anything that hasn't been answered a thousand times before.

"common, but essentially meaningless, argument among creationists. It's meaningless because nowhere does he attempt to define what he means by "in the macro sense" or by "entirely new kinds of life."

I hear this all the time from Evolutionists. It Micro is variation within a kind. Macro-evolution is variation from a broader view. Variation exists, nobody has a problem with that. I agree that a Dog, wolf, and a coyote probably came from a "common ancestor". When you say that a wolf shares a common ancestor with whale, well then you have a problem. Genetic Mutation is the big thing that is being pushed by evolutionists. The theory has been defined again and again in light of evidence that forces it to change its views. I am pretty sure it will continue to change, until a new theory is produced.

"The problem, of course, is that there is no "ID model" or "ID theory", as some ID advocates are honest enough to admit."

What part of "it was created" don't you understand. Evolution has a problem from the very beginning. Origin of Life.

There are holes in both theories as we do not HAVE ALL THE EVIDENCE. There will be much to discuss in the future, and we will see what the theory will look like then. Darwinism, Neo-Darwinism, what is next? I don't know. Creation has an explanation for things, and so does evolution. It is presuppositions tha decide your view.

"And the experts in those fields have identified and explained dozens and dozens of transitional forms in the fossil record."

Of course, they need it for there theory. There were many frauds in the past, which evolutionists admit, and then Archaeoraptor. It shows how quick people are willing to jump on something. I am not creating a fight or saying that Evolution is wrong. I am just tired of the claim that evolutionist are honest and are dedicated to fact, and that Creationists are ignorant religous nuts. Both are theories, and interpretations to fit the facts. There really is not that much solid evidence for anything. If there was, Creationist would have nothing to bitch about. There are over 200 creation organazations in this country alone (Creation Research society). Any one side could be wrong. If both admit it, then we can stop this stupid name calling, and just both sides stick to there world views and fit the evidence according to there respected theories.

Again, I am not creating a fight, just want honesty.

By Craig Bonnes (not verified) on 20 Aug 2005 #permalink

Craig,

Before this goes any further, can you define the world "theory" for me?

Craig Bonnes wrote:

I hear this all the time from Evolutionists. It Micro is variation within a kind. Macro-evolution is variation from a broader view.

Thank you for demonstrating my point so perfectly. The argument you were attempting to refute was that no creationist ever defines the actual distinction between micro- and macro-evolution. And while attempting to reply to that, you've offered up something even more vague than what we usually see. The phrase "variation from a broader view" is a phrase entirely devoid of content, as is the phrase "variation within a kind" - unless you define what a "kind" is, and you don't even attempt to do so. What is a "kind"? Does it mean species? Genus? Family? Class? Order? Phylum? In other words, where exactly is the limit between micro- and macro-evolution and how does this alleged barrier operate?

ME: "The problem, of course, is that there is no "ID model" or "ID theory", as some ID advocates are honest enough to admit."
What part of "it was created" don't you understand.

Do you really think that "it was created" is a theory or model? Perhaps you need to review what those terms mean in a scientific context. "It was created" tells us nothing at all. Created by what? When? Through what process? Created directly or indirectly, through the operation of physical laws? Without answers to such questions, you do not have a model at all. More importantly, how does one test the "it was created" explanation? If an explanation is not, in principle, falsifiable then it is not testable and if it is not testable it's not a theory. Please tell me what set of data could possibly falsify "it was created"?

Creation has an explanation for things, and so does evolution. It is presuppositions tha decide your view.

No, it's evidence and explanatory power that decides what is and isn't true. If you have a creation model for the natural history of life on earth, feel free to offer it and we can examine it by comparing it to the evidence and seeing if it actually explains the data.

There were many frauds in the past, which evolutionists admit, and then Archaeoraptor. It shows how quick people are willing to jump on something. I am not creating a fight or saying that Evolution is wrong. I am just tired of the claim that evolutionist are honest and are dedicated to fact, and that Creationists are ignorant religous nuts.

Can you name a fraud that was perpetrated by evolutionary scientists? I'm sure you'll name Piltdown, but that fraud was almost certainly not made by a scientist but by an amateur naturalist named Charles Dawson. It was uncovered as a fraud by scientists. Archaeoraptor was a fraud made for money not by scientists but by fossil collectors in China. It was uncovered as a fraud by scientists. At best, you have a single claim of a fraudulent fossil created by scientists, assuming that Dawson had a partner at the British museum, and that one is almost a full century old. More importantly, you didn't bother to reply to any of the substance of my reply concerning transitional forms.

Both are theories, and interpretations to fit the facts.

No, one is a theory, the other is not. You just don't know what "theory" means.

There really is not that much solid evidence for anything. If there was, Creationist would have nothing to bitch about. There are over 200 creation organazations in this country alone (Creation Research society).

Uh, yeah. And the fact that every newspaper has an astrology column proves that there's something to astrology. And the existence of the flat earth society means there must be evidence for a flat earth. And so on, ad nauseum. If this is the sort of argument you think is compelling, I would politely suggest that you are in way over your head here.

I agree that a Dog, wolf, and a coyote probably came from a "common ancestor".

Really?? What scientific evidence for this do you find compelling? Clearly within the canine group there's a lot of new genes formed, and you tell us that common descent can explain them...so what exactly stops common descent from working at other levels? Would you include the fox in your list? Why or why not?

What part of "it was created" don't you understand.

Are you seriously positing "it was created" as a scientific model? Created by who? When? How? Remember, your claims must be verifiable empirically.

Evolution has a problem from the very beginning. Origin of Life.

Evoltion doesn't have that problem, since evolution is a theory of life's development, not its origin.

There are holes in both theories as we do not HAVE ALL THE EVIDENCE.

We never have all the evidence, for any science. That's kinda why people are still getting degrees and becoming scientists.

Creation has an explanation for things...

I'm sorry, but "it was created" does not explain anything.

I am just tired of the claim that evolutionist are honest and are dedicated to fact, and that Creationists are ignorant religous nuts.

And I'm tired of people suggesting that because some evidence was faked, that all of it probably is. How would you like it if all christians were simply dismissed because some could be named that abused their position?

You claim to be interested only in honesty. If so, why didn't you even bother to do a little research on the example you gave...archaeoraptor? If you had, you'd find it wasn't the "evolutionists" who had anything to do with it. You'd find it was some unscrupulous fossil hunters who stitched it together, and National Geographic (who are not scientists) who published it AGAINST the advise of "evolutionists".

There really is not that much solid evidence for anything. If there was, Creationist would have nothing to bitch about.

Very poor logic. Of course they'd have something to bitch about...if evolution were right (in their eyes) then their whole religious worldview would shattered!