It was a dark and stormy day

LOCK

Eclipses initially inspired fear, but today we understand the mechanics behind them, so they inspire, um, well, I guess it’s still fear. At least among some groups. And I’m not referring to the science enthusiasts who are fretting that an all-day road trip may turn into nothing more than a cloud viewing.

First, the basics for any second graders or Flat Earthers who have stumbled onto the blog: A total solar eclipse happens when the moon is close enough to Earth and it simultaneously crosses the path of the sun. This results in the moon blotting out the sun for a few minutes and a shadow being cast on part of Earth’s surface.

For a competing hypothesis, we leave the astronomy book and head to a Flat Earth group active in Colorado, headed by Bob Knodel. This bunch was profiled last month by the Denver Post, and the article related this exchange between Knodel and his underling:

“How are we Flat Earthers supposed to explain to our friends the solar eclipse in August,” asked one attendee. The room fell silent. “We’ll have to do more research and get back to you on that,” Knodel replied.

While awaiting his further investigation, let’s look at a few other ways the approaching eclipse may have been handled by other Flat Earthers. I say ‘may’ because, while I consider my Poe-meter finely tuned, it does get tough with these guys.

Now, being a Flat Earther normally requires more than thinking our planet is a plane instead of a sphere. The belief sets up a series of ad hoc rationalizations. For example, the planet being dark and light simultaneously would be impossible on a flat Earth, so an idea was invented that the sun and moon do a continuous loop over Earth and remain a fixed distance away from each other.

This, in turn, requires embracing geocentrism and a stationary planet. This supposed static loop of Earth’s star and satellite, however, would make an eclipse impossible. Rather than admit this, Knodel and his ilk are engaged in unspecified further research. And while this research has yielded no explanation of what is blocking the sun if not the moon, Flat Earth proponents are still using the celestial event to try and bolster their cause.

For example, they argue that an object’s shadow can never be smaller than the object itself.  They will use a ball and flashlight and point out the resulting shadow on the wall is larger than the ball.

This demonstrates why the Scientific Method embraces peer review and not self-produced videos. Mic.com quoted physics professor Will Kinney, who noted that treating the sun and a small flashlight as similar is the mistake here. While a flashlight sends out a narrow, concentrated beam, the massive sun sends broad light to all parts of the solar system.

Per the article, “Because of the sun and moon’s size and distance, they look like they’re the same size, but they’re not. You could re-create the solar eclipse at home, but not like it’s being done on YouTube videos. What you need is an extended light source that is at such a distance that it’s almost exactly the same apparent size as the thing you’re blocking it with.”

Beyond that, the only points I could find ascribed to Flat Earthers were probably Poes. A Reddit user described the upcoming eclipse as “maintenance downtime of the sun/moon hologram, which will get a firmware upgrade.”

Another argued that the moon is 400 times larger than the sun, so that’s why the latter’s light is being eclipsed. This was dismissed by Flat Earthers as trolling, not because of the complete lack of evidence for it – Flat Earthers are fine with such distinctions – but because it contradicts the Flat Earth model where the sun and moon are about the same size and always the same distance apart.

From here, we will move onto those who think the eclipse is real, but feel it entails more than an explicable celestial event.

We will begin with educateinspirechange.org, which embraces the most ubiquitous of the pseudoscientific approaches, the misuse of the word ‘energy.’ It managed to get that word in a dozen times during its essay on the eclipse. Here’s a sample: “As the Total Solar Eclipse gets closer, energies are rising more rapidly than ever. In the last few weeks, have you noticed people acting abnormal, like a person who is normally chilled out becoming anxious? This is because of the energy making its way to us.”

This is, of course, selective memory. In reality, some people act out of character during times of unremarkable celestial body positioning and others act normal during an eclipse. Still others bind together unrelated items and top them with a bow of post hoc reasoning.

Continuing, our anonymous author writes, “During this total solar eclipse, you will be engulfed much more intensely by the glittering streams of magical light beaming around the moon. I cannot explain with words how intense and magical this energy to come is.”

His stated inability to explain it with words doesn’t stop him from trying. Here are the results of those efforts: “The sun represents focus, self-expression, and is aggressive while the moon is something we use as a means of really putting our goals within reach. The total solar eclipse is a way for us to provoke external changes. It forces us into taking the route we have to in order to reach where we need to be.” That part could be seen as true, as some astronomy geeks are planning a route so they can see the eclipse in its totality.

Next, our writer “strongly suggests focusing on the moon’s energy and using your Labrodite crystals to get things going and provide you with a protective vibration.” He has no specific advice for those whose Labrodite crystal supplies are low, or who lack any vibrating protections. But he closes a mostly foreboding discourse by encouraging us to “not be afraid of what is to come.” Now there’s some advice of his that I can take.

Not all worry is about what will be overhead. In South Carolina, there have been concerns about what creatures the eclipse may unleash.  The state’s Emergency Management Division tweeted a map of where eyewitnesses over the years have said they have spotted lizard people. The agency warned, “We do not know if lizard men become more active during a solar eclipse, but we advise residents to remain ever vigilant.” This increased awareness seems to be working, as no reptilians have been spotted this week in Myrtle Beach.

Meanwhile, sciencealert.com reports there is angst about the eclipse being the  precursor of a collision with Nibiru. The gist of Nibiru beliefs is that this rouge planet will eventually either collide with Earth or throw it off its axis. Either way, Earthlings are hosed. This makes for a supple belief, as its ominous nature fits in nicely with awe-inspiring phenomenon, but its inevitability enables it to work when nothing special is going on.

Most often, though, it is when something noteworthy is happening skyward that Nibiru believers get excited – about our impending doom. The Hale-Bopp Comet’s initial appearance, in fact, was the genesis of the notion that a runway giant planet is coming to get us. Nancy Lieder predicted that Nibiru would annihilate Earth in 2003, which then became 2012, which then became she won’t say because it would cause panic, a justification whose lameness is only topped by its arrogance.

It is understandable why the ancients ascribed natural disasters and phenomenon to gods and goddesses. Lightning bolts being Zeus hurling a spear, wind being a bellowing giant’s breath, a tempest being an upset Neptune, got it. Similarly, it’s easy to see why an unexplained blotting of the sun would freak people out. But unexplained does not mean it was inexplicable, and astronomers eventually figured it out. Which is what makes Ann Graham Lotz’s take on the eclipse so pitiful.

Despite our complete understanding of what is happening and why, Lotz is determined to put a Bronze Age spin on it, punctuated by self-congratulation and self-righteousness. She quotes Joel 2:31, which reads, “The sun will be turned to darkness before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord.” She cites this scripture without explaining why the eclipses that have come along since the verse was written have been free of Earth-changing calamity.

Lotz wrote that when reading this passage, “I knew with hair-raising certainty that God’s severe judgment was coming on America! The warning is triggered by the total solar eclipse of August 21.” This is nothing more than subjective validation and a belief that the strength of a conviction matters more than its accuracy.

As to the amateur astronomers and school children enthused about the event, Lotz has strong condemnation. “The celebratory nature regarding the eclipse brings to my mind the Babylonian King Belshazzar who threw a drunken feast the night the Medes and Persians crept under the city gate.” Ah, got it. This is all just a distraction that will enable to Iranians to conquer our heathen selves.

Where most of see the alignment of the astronomical bodies and the laws of astrophysics, Lotz sees a holy harbinger. “God is signaling us about something. Time will tell what that something is.” These impossibly vague descriptors will allow Lotz to claim any tragedy at any time as fulfillment of her prophecy.

The aforementioned ancients had little knowledge of what was going on in their world, so they constructed supernatural explanations. Initially, their gaps in knowledge were extremely broad and were filled in with concocted deities. As knowledge expanded, those gaps shrank and today there aren’t many left. There are a few, such as not knowing how life originated, and some folks find comfort in these gaps, thinking the lack of full scientific understanding means that their god did it. But Lotz takes it even further. Even though we understand what an eclipse is and why it occurs, she still insists in foisting her fears and fantasies onto it.

In summary, Monday will bring one of the following: Divine judgement, mass extinction via a careening planet, reptilian generation, a mysterious object overhead, magical moon rays, or a standard solar eclipse. In any case, I’m there.

“Doctored evidence” (Exorcism)

possessed

Dr. Steven Novella is a leader of the skeptics movement and in this capacity regularly has to fend off damage done to the name of his employer, the Yale Medical School, by his coworker, Dr. David Katz. The latter uses the university’s reputation and resources to endorse all manner of unproven techniques and procedures and then calls them medicine.

On top of this, Novella has now another prominent man with Yale ties to do battle against. Dr. Richard Gallagher, a Yale alum psychologist, has expressed belief in demon possession and has found sympathetic forums in CNN and The Washington Post. The issue is not so much Gallagher’s belief as it is his dangling of his education and scientific background to try and bolster this contention. As we will see, this Appeal to Authority is only one of a half dozen logical fallacies Gallagher commits in making his case for diabolical disturbances.

CNN’s piece this month featured extensive quotes Gallagher fed to credulous interviewer John Blake. It also contained a token appearance by Novella, who is only mentioned beginning in the 63rd paragraph. Up until then, Blake had unquestioningly allowed Gallagher to talk of persons levitating, objects flying off shelves, victims speaking perfect Latin, and a 90-pound woman throwing a 250-pound man across the room.

The CNN pieces is less evidence for demonic possession than it is for Gallagher being in possession of fallacious thinking skills and faulty reasoning.

For example, he claims that allegedly possessed persons display hidden knowledge, such as how the exorcist’s mother died or what pets he owned. But this could be explained through cold reading. As to demonstrating unexpected strength, Novella noted this would not be unusual for someone hyped on emotions and fueled by adrenaline. As to the Latin, there is no telling if the person had ever studied the language, nor is there reason to suspect this would be a favored method of communication among Satan’s soldiers.

There is also the sizable issue of all this being hearsay. Gallagher provides no video evidence nor any other means of documenting his extraordinary claims. It is reasonable to expect more proof for claims of flying people and objects than a person saying it happened. There is no way to try and corroborate his tales or examine them for signs of trickery, hidden accomplices, or fabrication.

Further, even if these phenomenon had occurred, they are unexplained and it is the appeal to ignorance to fill in that gap with invisible visitors from the underworld.

Other than the anecdotes about defying the laws of gravity and physics, the cases cited by Gallagher are explicable through cold reading, educated guesswork, selective memory, and subjective validation.

What Gallagher lacks in evidence and substantiation, he makes up for in ad hoc reasoning. Specifically, he says demons won’t submit to lab studies or video analysis because they want to sow doubt, not confirm their existence.

To this, Novella retorted, “Skeptics will recognize this a special pleading, otherwise known as making up lame excuses to explain why you don’t have any actual evidence.”

Similarly, Gallagher credits demons with being tricky and able to avoid persons when they choose. Novella notes this is nearly identical to the rationale offered by aficionados of other unverified phenomenon. They claim aliens are too advanced to allow themselves to be observed, that Bigfoot has mastered stealth, that psychic powers are dulled by a skeptic’s negative vibes, or that western medicine is incapable of testing its eastern counterpart.

Novella reports that he has seen scores of videos of alleged exorcisms and they all lack any spectacular footage. No unimagined strength, no spinning heads, no sudden recitation of a dead tongue, nobody taking flight, no little girl slamming a man into the wall with a flick of her wrist.

Again, Blake tossed a bare bone to skeptics near the end of his story by giving Novella a brief say. But even this is followed by Gallagher being allowed to respond to his opponent’s criticism, while the token doubter is afforded no such luxury. Then the story ends on a sympathetic note for the exorcist.

I have noticed a decline in CNN’s standards. They still put out lots of good products, but allow themselves to be taken in by the occasional tripe, so this story was none too surprising. By contrast, I was saddened to see that the publication responsible for the Pentagon Papers and exposing Watergate had allowed itself to become a venue for such topics.

In his Post column, Gallagher gives passing praise to skepticism and science before veering sharply into the Appeals to Personal Incredulity and Ignorance. He wrote,  “The subject’s behavior exceeded what I could explain with my training. I could only explain it as paranormal ability.”

A basic distinction of the skepticism and science Gallagher had earlier alluded to is that an event being unexplained does not make it inexplicable. Nor is the observer granted carte blanche to fill in the blanks with the answer he favors. For evidence to be of any value, it must be attained through the Scientific Method.  

Toward the end of his column, Gallagher fires off two more logical fallacies. He commits the Appeal to Consequences by bemoaning, “Those who dismiss these cases unwittingly prevent patients from receiving the help they desperately require.” And those psychologists who encourage mentally ill patients to engage in guerilla warfare against furtive monsters are committing malpractice.

Gallagher completes his traipse through the fallacy landscape with an ad hominem, calling skeptics “closedminded, “vitriolic,” “unpersuadable,” and “materialist.” Even if all that is true, it provides zero evidence that demons are being conjured on  Gallagher’s couch.

“Work through the Kinks” (Cults)

KC

Frank Zappa once quipped that the difference between a religion and a cult was the amount of real estate that they owned.

Certainly when it comes to the believeability of claims, the dividing line between the two can be blurred. In the 1980s, Kinks guitarist Dave Davies was the best-known member of a spiritual movement that encouraged telepathic communication with Venusians. Then in 2008, P.Z. Myers enraged Catholic League President Bill Donahue by desecrating a cracker. Donahue insisted that communion wafers transform into the flesh of a long-dead messiah when placed into a believer’s mouth.

Both Davies and Donahue were espousing bizarre beliefs backed by no evidence or testing, nor bolstered by an explanation of the mechanism behind these phenomena. Only a few thousand people would think Davies was experiencing what he claimed, whereas a billion people would agree with Donahue’s description of what goes on atop a worshipper’s tongue. Yet the first belief is considered part of a strange cult and the latter considered a ritual in a major religion.

While the popularity of a belief is irrelevant to its soundness, it is one of the factors most persons take into account when differentiating between a cult and a religion. Looking to expand Zappa’s definition, I found that what is traditionally referred to as a cult will usually have at least some of these distinctions:

  1. Being small in number. Small here is relative. Nearly 1,000 persons died in the Jonestown tragedy, so there were many followers, but compared to 800 million Hindus, the size of the congregation was minuscule.
  1. Intensely loyal. A person might go from Presbyterian to Methodist, or even from Buddhist to Shinto. But when David Koresh was plotting to induce Armageddon, none of his followers decide they’d rather be part of the doomsayers in Aum Shinrikyo.
  1. A near-mythical leader. Most religions have a key figure – a Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha, or Moses. There are also living embodiments of faiths, such as the Pope, Dalai Lama, or Ayatollah Khomeini. But cult leaders are even more central to their movement because cults seldom survive the death of the anointed one. In some cases, such as with a Judaism offshoot in the mid-1990s, the cult ends because the leader’s death undercuts his claims of being immortal. Other times, such as with Koresh, Jim Jones, and Marshall Applewhite, the ruler leads a mass suicide/murder. Even if he (or, infrequently, she) was not considered immortal, the cult flitters after his/her death, because most followers held the leader in impossibly high regard. When serving the leader and the cause is no longer possible, the meaning in life is gone. If the movement does continue after the leader’s death, it usually splinters as surviving members fight for control. Even those subgroups can further break into smaller movements. There have been well over 100 Latter-Day Saint splinter groups, as well as spinoffs of those spinoffs, a la Good Times. I suspect the most interesting was the Homosexual Church of Jesus Christ.
  1. Claims of exclusive knowledge. This is probably the key component. Most cult leaders will claim to have one of the following: A) a direct line to a god or other enlightened creature, B) secret knowledge of an astronomical event that will usher in calamity or paradise, or C) an unwritten guidebook that will guarantee happiness and fulfillment.
  1. Demands for subservience and cash. Where it positively crosses the line into a cult is when the leader insists that followers too can share in this knowledge in exchange for unquestioned devotion. The secrets are available in exchange for your money, cars, spouse, children, freedom, and independent thought.
  1. Communal living. Keeping persons isolated ensures they hear only the leader’s words, that they rely on him for their needs, and that they have it constantly reinforced that he is the sole provider. Also, the cultists are conditioned to keep each other in line. Those disinclined to do so are selected for reeducation. Still further rebellion will result in temporary or permanent banishment, which might seem to an outsider like a relief, but can be frightening for someone who has lost their only friends and access to most cherished beliefs. In extreme cases, dissidents are murdered.

Based partly on the communal living, Conservapedia tried to argue that Jonestown was more a socialist dystopia than religion gone awry. While there were elements of the former, it is hardly reasonable to deny the religious nature of something called the Peoples TEMPLE, led by the REVEREND Jim Jones.

However, in other instances, secular social movements can assume cultic overtones. In an article for the vowel-happy online publication Aeon, Alexandra Stein related her experience with just such a group. She joined the O, a communist movement that determined what she would wear, who she could marry, and whether she could have children. Despite staying for six years, she never saw the leader, as she was too low on the totalitarian totem pole, a result of the strict hierarchy that distinguishes most cults. After leaving, she wrote Inside Out, a cathartic piece she described as “an effort to understand how I, an independent, curious, and intelligent 26-year-old, could have been captured and held by such a group for so long.”

One way cults succeed in doing this is by controlling the surroundings. One Christian cult highlighted Jesus’ statement about needing to hate your parents in order to convince members they should eliminate contact with their families. Some cults even forbid all consumption of outside sources and this makes it much easier to mold and bend someone. Ten years after Warren Jeffs’ conviction, members of the Fundamental Church of Latter Day Saints remain unaware of why their leader is no longer around. They can’t question if serial child rape is unbecoming of a high holy man if they are unaware the crimes occurred.  

Cults also rely on reward and punishment. Beatings, isolation, and blindfolding are all associated with cults, but rewards have their place, too. This can lead to instances of the Stockholm Syndrome, as small concessions can lead to an appreciation of the captor. The guy who yesterday had you chained to a wall while calling you useless ends the captivity and permits you toilet usage and a meal, complete with your favorite dessert, chocolate pudding. These manipulations create a rhythm of powerlessness, fear, and dependency, all in a closed system. The group causing the fear is also the one vanquishing it. On and on the cycle goes.

Cult leaders are a contradictory mix of charismatic and cruel. Without charm, the leader would be unable to incentivize persons to join the movement. But lacking authoritarian traits, the leader would be unable to control the followers.

There is usually an inner council, whose main job is to ensure the leader is imbued with an aura of invincibility, impenetrability, and mystery. Meanwhile, the leader keeps the inner circle off-balance by sowing distrust, spreading rumors, and promoting and demoting for whimsical reasons. Another way of keeping followers off center is to change previously irreversible rules following the leader’s further enlightenment.

For many, the cycle and isolation makes it impossible to realize they’ve been lied to. In her Aeon piece, Stein quoted Yeonmi Park, who escaped from North Korea. Park recalled how she passed starving orphans daily, yet still believed the regime’s propaganda that, in her country, children were treated as royalty.

People seldom see the horrors first. Instead, they are exposed to a vibrant believer, a website’s home page, or a slick publication, all of whom make the movement seem appealing and grounded in common sense. Scientology highlights reasonable philosophical positions and observations of the world in a pamphlet that that, for many, is their first exposure to the group. Only later does one learn that the organization teaches that aliens were ejected from a volcano and into our bodies. In the 1960s, Jim Jones portrayed himself, not entirely inaccurately, as a man dedicated to racial equality and the eradication of poverty. It was later that followers would learn about the tenet of genocide-by-sugary-drink.

At the same time, my first several exposures to the Catholic Church said nothing about crackers coming to life or the covering up of serial child molestation. Maybe Zappa was onto something.

 

“Assume the simple position” (Occam’s Razor)

BQ

I have been doing this long enough and with enough frequency that if one read a post a day it would take a year to finish the blog. I heartily encourage this activity, but for readers lacking the time or ambition, I can sum up the blog’s contents as being an endorsement of Occam’s Razor. This is the notion that, all other things being equal, the solution that makes the fewest assumptions is usually the correct one. Closely related to the Razor is the notion of the burden of proof, which states that the person making an assertion is required to provide evidence for it and not merely challenge listeners to disprove it.

Carl Sagan famously noted that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Suppose I amble into work late and my co-workers wonder why. One postulates that I may have encountered the road construction they had. They were there, it happened to them, they know I take the same route, so that seems a likely reason. But another wonders if I was delayed by persons on horseback engaged in a medieval war reenactment, which had taken place over the weekend on a family farm. A third co-worker speculates that I may have slipped into a wormhole where aliens detained me to obtain skin and blood samples before releasing me back onto my usual route.

The first choice requires just one assumption, that I had encountered the same construction as my co-worker had. From there, the number of assumptions increase. The equestrian excuse would require that the reenactment went beyond the scheduled date and took place in a locale other than its designated point. The final explanation would require assuming the existence in Moline of both wormholes and aliens and assume I had encountered both on my commute.

Anyone espousing the third option would have the highest difficulty level since it employs the most assumptions to reach its conclusions. Still, such attempts to shift the burden of proof and bypass Occam’s Razor happen all the time.

O.J. Simpson’s defense team attempted to shift the burden to the prosecution by trying to make it prove that Nicole wasn’t killed by Colombian drug dealers who mistook her for Faye Resnick. Judge Lance Ito disallowed this line of reasoning, owing to a total lack of evidence. “Prove it wasn’t drug dealers” is not a valid defense argument and such reasoning is not critical thinking.

While the number of assumptions is important, so too are the quality of those assumptions. The Simpson trial, like most criminal cases, had prosecutors assuming  the defendant’s guilt and defense lawyers presuming his innocence. But there was no reason to think drug lords were targeting Faye Resnick, much less confusing her for Nicole Brown Simpson, as this required more assumptions than concluding that the relevant evidence included a trail of O.J.’s DNA leading from the crime scene to his vehicle and residence, his history of abusing the victim, and bloody shoe imprints. 

Now let’s apply this to science. A blogger at logicofscience.com wrote about authoring a paper on the diet of a turtle species. In his research, he collected the shelled creatures, had them defecate in a bucket, then examined the feces. There, he found a variety of plants, insects, and crawfish. The conclusion was that these turtles ate a variety of plants, insects, and crawfish, since this explanation required the fewest assumptions.

The biology blogger noted he could have instead deduced that “someone went out before me, captured the turtles, force fed them crawfish, then put the turtles back into the pond.” Or he could have assumed this force feeding was done by aliens. But theses options would require unfounded assumptions, the latter necessitating a step beyond even the middle choice. Such conclusions are usually instances of begging the question, where speakers reach the conclusion first, then attempt to buoy that conclusion with unproven premises.

No one takes issue with the science when it involves reptile diets or other noncontroversial topics that leave world views and favored industries untouched. But if the scientific conclusions do impact those areas, there are those who seek to dull Occam’s razor, beg the question, and contort themselves in order to finagle around the evidence.

Young Earth Creationists, for example, insist all animals and plants were destroyed in a worldwide flood 5,000 years ago. This means that in the YEC scenario, all corals today would had to have started growing around the time the Pyramids were constructed. But corals grow about a foot a year under ideal conditions. The Great Barrier Reef would have taken more than 500,000 years to reach its current size.

For corals to have gotten as large as they are today, if they only started growing 5,000 years ago, they would had to have grown at a rate many times more than  has ever been observed. The standard YEC response is that perhaps growth rates were much faster in the past than they are now and that the rate has slowed down exponentially since, for reasons unknown.

They employ the same thought process with being able to see stars millions of light years away. This proves Earth has been around at least as long as it has taken the most distant starlight to reach us. But the YEC answer is that maybe the speed of light has not been constant. The coral and starlight responses are both instances of ad hoc reasoning backed by no evidence. It requires assuming that an aspect of botany or astronomy is much different from what has ever been observed or recorded. It is also begging the question. They begin with the assumption that a worldwide flood wiped everything out 5,000 years ago, then try to make all evidence (or in these cases, speculation) fit that assumption. They go from conclusion to evidence, whereas science works the other way.

A third area of creative deduction by YECs centers of alternating layers of light and dark sediment that accumulate in lakes. The different colors are the result of seasonal changes, with light layers made in winter and dark ones made in the summer. Some lake centers feature millions of these layers, so we can draw one of these conclusions:

  1. A set of two layers forms every year in these lakes. Some lakes contain millions of layers. Therefore these lakes are millions of years old.
  1. Layers were formed during the flood, through an unknown mechanism. By a second unknown means, floodwaters sorted the particles into alternating layers of sediment, then the layers managed to form only over lake beds, and did so at a rate of 10 layers per minute, rather than two per annum, which is the only rate that has been observed.

The YEC takes on these occurrences requires rejecting all data and scientists’ understanding of the natural processes involved. Their response to the scientifically-deduced facts are to offer unsupported ad hoc speculation that proposes unknown and unworkable mechanisms. They fail to manage even the first step in the Scientific Method, observation, because no one has observed the phenomena they claim are occurring. As our turtle excrement-collecting blogger noted, “If we grant creationists the ability to create unknown mechanisms in order to derive interpretations that match their pre-existing biases, then an infinite number of interpretations become possible. It is always possible to generate an ad hoc argument, which is why Occam’s Razor is so important. It tells us that the solution that makes the fewest assumptions is usually the correct one.”

That is why almost all conspiracy theories collapse under the weight of Occam’s Razor. Some anti-vaxxers claim that pharmaceutical executives pay immunologists to say vaccines don’t cause autism. Here, we have two options:

  1. Ethical scientists reach their conclusions through sound research.
  2. These hundreds of researchers from multitudinous institutions and companies are being paid to falsify data. Moreover, none of these hundreds who are in it solely for ill-gotten gain have been lured away by wealthy anti-vaxxers offering to pay them more.

This shill accusation is similar to the charge leveled at climate scientists. On this issue, the two primary competing options are:

  1. 99.8 percent of the 12,000 peer-reviewed papers published in the last five years have attested to anthropogenic global warming, so this is likely happening.
  2. Anonymous elites are paying these thousands of climate scientists to reach this conclusion and fabricate data, yet this plan is being foiled by oil company executives and Facebook posters exposing the plot.

Again, from the logicofscience: “Ask whether there is any reason to think the scientists are corrupt other than the fact that you don’t like their conclusions.”

Going back to the Sagan quote, if one is going to assert the scientific consensus is wrong about climate change, the Big Bang, evolution, vaccines, or GMOs, it is insufficient to offer, “Were you there when the universe began?” or “Follow the money trail.” The burden of proof is on the speaker to provide clear, well-researched, and reasoned evidence for their position.

In some instances, there is no damage other than to the listener’s intelligence. Ancient Aliens attempted to branch into evolutionary biology by suggesting extraterrestrial visitors may have altered dinosaur DNA in order to have them develop into smaller creatures like birds and coelacanth.

In other instances, the misinformation is fatal. Anti-vaxxers mistakenly cite improved sanitation and nutrition as the reason for the decline in infectious diseases over the last century and a half. While those were welcomed health advances, when it comes to disease eradication, here are the two choices offered:

  1. Vaccines work by mimicking disease agents for the real deal, which is why instances of the diseases plummet after vaccines are introduced, and spike when vaccination rates fall.
  2. The introduction of vaccines has coincidentally occurred at a time when the impacts of improved sanitation and nutrition were beginning to be seen. This benefit has extended to countries with deplorable sanitation like India. This has even effected airborne diseases like rubella, which are impacted by sanitation and nutrition improvements by an unknown means. A decline in vaccine rates does not impact disease; rather there has been a coincidental reduction in sanitary and nutrition benefits for unknown reasons when vaccine rates go down. The reason all this is not universal knowledge is because nearly every immunologist is pumping out fabricated propaganda to discredit sanitation and nutrition improvements and cover for vaccines, which actually cause disease.

Those who embrace the latter idea also cotton to the idea of a repressed cancer cure. But which requires the fewest assumptions: That oncologists have been unable to find a panacea for a disease that has more than 100 variations, or that they have, but are eschewing everlasting fame, untold fortune, worldwide adulation, and the chance to spare them and their loved ones, in order to continue enriching the pharmaceutical industry, which has yet to figure out there is more money to be saved in selling that cure?

Meanwhile, 9/11 Truthers talk about the hijackers having little flight training and Tower 7 collapsing despite not bearing a direct hit. They hypothesize that Flight 93 was shot down, insist that a missile hit the Pentagon, and make repeated references to jet fuel and steel beams. However, even if all their claims were valid, it would no more indicate guilt by the Bush Administration that it would cause blame to fall on Islamic terrorists, communists, the Irish Republican Army, or the few remaining Branch Davidians. Which requires the fewest assumptions: That a wealthy and committed terrorist leader with the means and stated desire to pull of such an attack did so, as indicated by passenger phone calls, conversations between hijackers and air traffic control, and flight manifests; or that it was all an elaborate hoax that included WTC security workers, victim’s family members, the airlines, Pentagon witnesses, BBC reporters, and even Philippines police officers, who in 1995 uncovered and turned over to the FBI evidence of what became the 9/11 plot?

One final example, focusing on Bigfoot, which has two primary options. Which of these contains the fewest assumptions?

  1. A complete lack of verifiable evidence strongly suggests its non-existence.
  2. A sustainable population of eight-foot bipedal apes has lived, bred, hunted, and roamed from the Northwest Territories to the Bayou for two centuries without once being shot by a hunter, hit by a vehicle, or leaving behind a corpse, skeleton, fur patch, or excrement.

It is not on me to disprove an ad hoc rationale about a troop of lumbering beasts mastering stealth and adroitly avoiding human contact at all cost. The burden falls on those who make these assertions the centerpiece of their Sasquatch Science.

“Great white spark” (Cargo cults)

giljet

Many publications have claimed to have news available nowhere else, but the Weekly World News delivered. No other periodical gave us fantabulous headlines like, “Man in Amazon kidnapped by tribe of Al Jolson lookalikes.” Or employed a cranky columnist who complained, “Today’s Christmas toys aren’t dangerous enough.”

But when the paper profiled a tribe of Pacific Islanders that worshipped Don King, it fell short of what reality was offering in terms of being unbelievable. There are genuine cargo cults more bizarre than a fictitious one centered on an unscrupulous boxing promoter.

One such cult is on Vanuatu, an archipelago 3,500 miles southwest of Hawaii. The nation is so remote and obscure that few persons other than geography geeks (such as your author) had heard of it until the TV series Survivor spent a season there.

One might assume that Prince Philip’s announcement this week that he was retiring from public life would be of no concern to those on Vanuatu. But at least for residents of the village of Ionhanen on Tanna island, it is causing significant angst. It means their god won’t be coming home.

These villagers believe the Duke of Edinburgh was born to a mountain spirit on Tanna before floating to a strange, distant land, evidently taking advantage of a disembodied entity’s travel capabilities. Once there, he married an immensely powerful woman. Villagers await this son’s return, not unlike another religion I can think of.

The idea of a floating spirit marrying into wealth, power, and privilege dates to around 1960, but it became associated with Prince Philip when he and Queen Elizabeth II traveled to Vanuatu in 1974, and Ionhanen villagers noticed the extreme deference with which he was treated by politicians.

A local leader with the most excellent moniker Chief Jack paddled a canoe that greeted the royal yacht and he later observed, “I saw him standing on the deck in his white uniform and knew then that he was the true messiah.”

More recently, some villagers were convinced that Cyclone Pam slamming into Vanuatu in 2015 presaged a future visit from Prince Philip, though the announcement from Buckingham Palace this week seems to preclude that. Many persons who would scoff at the notion of linking a cyclone to a potential Royal visit will assert that natural disasters which befall the United States are the result a raging god offering his commentary on gay marriage. Indeed, post hoc reasoning is among the centerpieces of most religions.

Prince Philip worshippers are part of a handful of remaining cargo cults, most of them in the South Pacific. While they date to as far back as the 18th Century, the majority sprang up in World War II, when soldiers and sailors exposed islanders to technology and products far more advanced than anything they ever knew existed. This included matches, mirrors, radios, canned food, soft drinks, and Walkie Talkies, to say nothing of airplanes and automatic weapons. In many cases, the arrival of pale-skinned guests and their accompanying manna seemed consistent with longstanding myths about past wonders and prophecies of a divine return.

For instance, the sails and masts of Capt. James Cook’s ship resembled images of the Hawaiian god Lono. Plus, he arrived of the day of this deity’s annual festival, so Cook was literally treated like a god. On his return trip, however, the masts and sails had been damaged by storms, which greatly enraged the islanders. Cook tried to explain what had happened, but what kind of lame deity is unable to control the weather? Disenchanted believers pummeled Cook with clubs, knives, and rocks.

Conversely, it was the man-god doing the damage when Cortes met the Aztecs. He arrived on the date the Mesoamericans were expecting Quetzalcoatl to return from the Abyss and reclaim his land. Hence, a terrified Montezuma obsequiously gave into every one of the Spaniard’s demands and whims. It did no good, as Cortes eventually slaughtered his worshippers, continuing a ghoulish godly tradition that includes slaying first-born sons and drowning nearly every living being.

When Cook, Cortes, or U.S. service members arrived, islanders were seeing men who were very different from themselves in appearance, dress, and conduct. These unexpected, inexplicable travelers also seemed capable of multitudinous miracles and their arrival seemed to have been forecasted. With all this, the notion that it was supernatural seems understandable. Then, post hoc reasoning caused the belief to strengthen. In the 75 years since American fighters arrived on the islands, some of South Pacific nations have seen the construction of airports, universities, and hospitals, none of which their ancestors knew existed 100 years ago. Thus, the prophecy that strange beings were going to arrive and usher in unprecedented prosperity seems fulfilled.

This might seem to be a quaint quality of a simple people who sleep in huts, travel by canoe, and harvest food by hand. Yet it is almost identical to when U.S. Christians consider modern developments to be confirmation of their scriptures. For example, some posters to Matt Walsh’s Facebook page wrote that Earth Day fulfills Romans 1:25 (“They worshipped and served created things rather than the creator.”) Others maintain gay marriage advocates were portended by Isaiah 5:2, which reads, “Woe unto them that call evil good.” Still others cite any strange, though explicable, astronomical features as a vindication of Luke 21:25 (“There will be signs in the sun, moon, and stars.”) Pacific Islanders living in primitive conditions and multimillionaire televangelists reveling in tax-free luxury are both manifesting the Forer Effect, where something is deemed valid because it has personal meaning.

When victorious service members left the South Pacific, rudimentary landing strips and ports were built in hopes of enticing the gods to come back. Some Islanders built replica airplanes out of bamboo and leaves, thinking this might attract the real thing. Even 72 years later, some still expect their gods to return. With that duration, it may seem that these folks have had a long wait, but by religion standards, they’re rookies.

“Creative types” (Creationist categories)

DINO FOSSILS

While the conflict between creationism and science is frequently played out on talk shows, in court rooms, and at state school board meetings, there are different branches of creationism and they vary significantly in how much they run counter to science.

The most anti-science of the branches is the one we hear from almost exclusively, and this makes sense. Proponents of these beliefs are the ones whose worldview is most threatened by cosmology, paleontology, biology, and geology, so they are the ones most likely to object to these subjects being presented. They do so loudly and incessantly, and are not content to preach it, they want government agencies and schools to teach it.

While this branch is the only one openly hostile to science, none of the other branches have contributed anything to our understanding of any scientific field. Floating ideas to the fellow-minded at a church coffee is as close as they come to having their ideas peer reviewed. The hypotheses we will examine cannot be evaluated by the Scientific Method, as they are neither testable nor falsifiable.

The most basic distinction is between Old Earth and Young Earth Creationists. The former accept the scientific age for the age of the universe and, depending on their subcategory, may embrace evolution, geology, and anthropology.

Here are the eight primary types of creationists, in descending order of how their views are compatible with science:

FIGURATIVE INTERPRETATION. Here, Adam and Eve are allegories, not people. They are emblematic of humans and our strengths, cooperation, doubts, foibles, and perseverance.

Noah’s ark is about Mankind’s fall and redemption, not a literal tale. The talking donkey in Numbers is not a fact but a fable that contains a life lesson. Exodus outlines the relationship between authorities and the governed and is not historical document about Mount Sinai tablets, a burning bush, and Israelites wondering for 40 years in the desert. The figurative approach does get around difficult questions, such as how Israelites could spend those 40 years marching around and camping, without leaving behind one piece of archeological evidence testifying to their wandering journey.

The figurative interpretation does not precisely consider the Bible mythology because the god behind this is still real and is probably the one who inspired the authors. The tales are still considered to serve a divine purpose.

Ancient Jewish religious leaders regularly told tales that were never meant to be taken as literal, but were rather precautionary, instructive, or didactic in nature. They were meant to help readers grow, adapt, and learn. With the figurative interpretation, the Torah and subsequent books are comparable to other ancient Jewish tales and are literary devices with a means to an end.   

One can embrace this position without sacrificing one molecule of scientific literacy. The figurative idea is the one most attractive for a Christian struggling to reconcile their faith with science, or for a scientist interested in adopting or maintaining Christianity.

THEISTIC EVOLUTION. This is the belief that instances of evolution which have been and continue to be observed are guided by the biblical god. The Pope has endorsed this idea and theistic evolution accepts the geologic and biologic records, positing they are the results of divine intervention, done by a god who created and controls our world and its processes.

Theistic evolution allows and embraces scientific research and permits the acceptance of new information. If all creationists were in this camp, there would be very little conflict between them and the scientific community. The latter might find supplementing science with Yahweh no more valid that crediting the Zoroastrian deity, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, or pondering that this is all a novel being penned by a supremely advanced Nibiru alien. But since established science is accepted and new discoveries encouraged and celebrated, there is no meaningful dispute.

Additionally, theistic evolutionists are OK with a universe that is 13.7 billion years old because, Ken Ham’s protestations to the contrary, biblical authors never wrote that Earth is 6,000 years old. Some believers arrived at that figure by calculating biblical genealogies, then adding the six creation days and a day of rest to them. Most Young Earth Creationists are content to say “5 to 10,000 years old” though the especially enterprising Irish archbishop James Ussher arrived at a quite specific creation date of Oct. 23, 4004 BCE, at 6 p.m. Safe to say, he wasn’t a theistic evolutionist.

The theistic evolution category allows a fair amount of leeway. For example, Genesis states Man was created in God’s image, yet none of us know what this deity is supposed to look like. Maybe he resembled a single-celled organism, in which case those organisms being at the lowest level of the Geologic Column would be consistent with Adam being created during the first week.

EVOLUTIONARY CREATIONISM. In this view, Adam and Eve were the first spiritually aware humans. Human creation is not precisely literal, as their predecessors were created by God, then through evolution, the descendants reached a stage where they could speak, comprehend good and evil, grasp the concept of God, and understand divine instruction. This position accepts the geologic and biologic records, but is emphatic there was a literal Adam and Eve, though they came to be in the same way as all early humans.

At this point, there is nothing that specifically rejects science, but we see the first example of being insistent on one instance of Biblical literalism, i.e. the existence of Adam and Eve.

PROGRESSIVE CREATIONISM. While Adam and Eve were literal in the previous category, they were evolved beings. In progressive creationism, they are considered the result of a special creation event. Progressive Creationism accepts the geologic record, and much of the prehistoric biologic record, including the age of dinosaurs. However, Adam and Eve were created separately from other animals. This is where the separation between science and faith becomes noticeably stretched. This category rejects the biological link between early hominids and humans that is evident in the fossil record. It also ignores or rationalizes away the fact that humans and chimps share 98 percent of their DNA.

DAY-AGE CREATIONISM. In this hypothesis, the six creation days are actually six geological epochs. If you don’t slam the door on Jehovah’s Witnesses, they may get around to mentioning this belief, as it is the organization’s official position. For scriptural support, they reference a verse that says, to God, a thousand years is like a day.  

There are some major problems with Day-Age creationism. For one, since the creation account has plants coming before stars, it would require ferns and the like to exist for millions of years with no light source.

Day-Age creationism also stipulates that all land animals were created separately from, and have no descent from, any sea animals. This would leave no answer for amphibians or transitional fossils that have features of both seafaring creatures and terrestrial beasts, like Tiktaalik. The evidence for whales and hippos having common ancestry is rejected, not owing to assessment of new discoveries, but because the Watchtower tract says to do so.

This belief does accept the evidence for the age of the universe and there is no inherent geologic conflict here, but the denial of biology is becoming stronger.

GAP CREATIONISM. This holds that there were 4.5 billion years between Genesis 1:1 and 1:2. This model attempts to marry the age of Earth with Genesis literalism. In between furtive hotel visits, Jimmy Swaggart advocated this model. Gap Creationism states that after God created the heavens and Earth, a VERY long time followed, during which nothing worth being documented occurred.

From a consistent-with-science standpoint, this has the redeeming quality of being OK with astronomy, cosmology, and geology. But whereas day-age creationism begins to deny some evolutionary basics, adherents to this view must completely toss biology aside for the Bible. In this view, living organisms could have come into existence only a few thousand years ago.

At this point, we will move to the Young Earth Creationists. There are only two groups in this camp and they have just one piece of common ground: That there were no astronomical bodies 7,000 years ago.

OMPHALISM. Not all that different from The Matrix, as our world is mostly an illusion. This branch takes its name from the 19th Century book Omphalos, which is  Greek for navel. Omphalism refers to the belief that Adam and Eve had bellybuttons, giving them the false appearance of having gotten here through natural rather than supernatural means.

Adherents accept every scientific measurement regarding the age of Earth and all discoveries of biology, cosmology, and astronomy, with the quite relevant caveat that all discoveries are deceptions and God is merely making living organisms appear evolved or making the universe seem to be 13.7 billion years old.

Scientists will arrive only at the conclusions God wishes them to see. More detailed explanations may include God making the stars with the light already in transit or maybe the stars being God-induced hallucinations. The erosion and upheaval that would seem to explain mountains are instead deceptions and Cosmic Background Radiation is a mirage.  

Some consider it all a test of faith, i.e. God put dinosaur bones there to see if we would believe the paleontologist or the preacher. The Omphalism hypothesis is a form of “Last Thursdayism,” a thought experiment which ponders that everything may have been created a few days ago with all of us having false memories instilled in us.

YOUNG EARTH HARDLINERS. Here we abandon all pretense of anything remotely scientific, reasonable, rational, or evidence-based. Young Earth hardliners  embrace an alternate version of reality which jettisons most known science. They are truly creationists, as they have created an artificial explanation for why the universe and all its inhabitants are 6,000 years old. They have no concern for proof, research, or observation and no use for the Scientific Method or peer review.

Becoming a Young Earth hardliner means abandoning nearly everything Mankind has learned about cosmology, geology, biology, paleontology, oceanography, chemistry, astronomy, and anthropology. Only physics might escape unscathed.

Radiometric and carbon dating, dismissed. Speed of light, untrue. Geologic column, doesn’t exist. Written records by ancient Egyptians before, during, and after the Flood, fraudulent. Lucy, archaeopteryx, and Tiktaalik, all misinterpreted or fabricated by scientists.

The only nod to science most of them make occurs when evolution is literally observed, such as in a Petri dish or the case of the Florida lizard whom zoologists documented developing a new toe pad. In such instances, they concede that these changes occurred, but insist that a series of such changes has never, and will never, lead to speciation.

They consider fossils to be Flood victims and insist the fossilization process took just 200 years. The Grand Canyon and other geologic features were carved out by the same Flood. The Creation Museum features a triceratops wearing a saddle.

The Answers in Genesis mission statement is that no science is correct if it contradicts the Bible. Which is enough to raise the question of why they mess with their laughable attempts at scientific explanations on their website instead of just posting the Bible.

They frequently answer criticism by stating that believers and nonbelievers have different worldviews. While this might be a rare AIG accuracy, it says nothing about which side is promoting scientific truth, and is merely to dismissing dissenting views and evidence with an ad hominem.

Don’t take my word for all this. Here are examples lifted from Young Earth hardliner websites:

Blueletterbible.org on cosmology: “If Scripture says the world is 8,000 years old, then the world is 8,000 years old, no matter what science might say.”

Answers In Genesis on radioactive dating: “No geologists were present when most rocks formed.”

Institute for Creation Research on biology: “Life did not develop by natural processes from inanimate systems but was specially and supernaturally created.”

Discover Institute on abiogenesis: “Studies of the cell reveal vast quantities of biochemical information stored in our DNA in the sequence of nucleotides.  No physical or chemical law dictates the order of the nucleotide bases in our DNA, and the sequences are highly improbable and complex.” This is a longwinded way of saying, “God did it.” This appeal to incredulity is one of the logical fallacies most committed by Young Earth hardliners.

While this is by far the most extreme branch, they are also the most committed and are the ones getting tax rebates while practicing religious and sexual orientation discrimination in hiring, and getting tax money to build the Ark Encounter. They are the ones trying to get creationism taught in public school biology class and the ones convincing state school boards to adopt stances that require districts to suggest that evolution, cosmology, and astronomy are not true.

While they hurl much venom at atheists and scientists, anyone in the previous seven creationist categories is labeled a heretic and possibly worse than an unbeliever (keeping in mind what they think of unbelievers). At the Creation Museum, Christians who have a different interpretation of Genesis than Ken Ham are portrayed as the devil in snake form. This serpent delightedly notes that if it can convince someone that the Flood was a myth or that dinosaurs came before man, then maybe it can convince them that Christ is not the savior.

While these types can employ the genetic fallacy to dismiss what an atheist or Omphalist says, they run into serious trouble when the Bible contradicts their teachings. In Genesis 1, God makes plants before he makes man, but in Genesis 2, this order is reversed. Your choice, Ham, which of those Biblical accounts is a lie?

“Micro-fish” (Macroevolution denial)

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The position of anti-Darwinians is, ironically, an evolving one. Tennessee infamously banned the teaching of human evolution in public schools, resulting in the John Scopes conviction that was overturned. That law and those like it remained on the books until the Supreme Court struck them down in 1968.

With this defeat, politically-active creationists tried a new tactic of calling for equal time. This is a sound notion when there are genuinely competing ideas, such as what exist in string theory, the makeup of dark matter, and the rate of the universe’s expansion. And creationism fits nicely into comparative religion and philosophy classes. But it lacks the hallmarks of science, as it is unfalsifiable and untestable. Evolution, by contrast, can potentially be falsified every time there is a geologic dig. The field would be turned upside down if a mallard fossil were found alongside fossils of 3-billion-year-old amoebas in the Geologic Column. It can also be tested, which is what’s happening in Richard Lenski’s ongoing e. coli experiment at Michigan State. There are mountains of scientific data relating to evolution and none that pertain to creation. That, along with public school creationism being considered an endorsement of religion, led the Supreme Court to strike down equal time attempts in 1987.

Because that ruling noted Louisiana was attempting to promote a specific religion, creationists rebranded themselves as Intelligent Design advocates. Their new argument was that organisms’ complexity and axiomatic signs of design meant this all had to have been guided by a higher power, but that this could be any god, goddess, or unknown force. This was a disingenuous absurdity that no one believed. The façade was so transparent that the Discovery Institute’s publication outlining this nouveau strategy had Michelangelo’s “The Creation of Adam” on its cover. This attempt to squeeze Genesis through the back door of public schools was shot down by another Supreme Court ruling in 2005.

The next tactic was the fraudulently-named Louisiana Science Education Act, which called for “supplemental” material to be used. This was intended to give ostensible legal cover for teachers who violated the Supreme Court rulings. The act mentioned evolution and climate change as allegedly “controversial ideas.” Climate change was added so that something besides evolution would be mentioned and the law wouldn’t solely reference religion. It also helped that climate change is the other prominent area in which cultural conservatives most soundly reject the science. There is no reason for such laws, as all sides are presented when there is genuine controversy, such as with aforementioned string theory and dark matter.  

This latest gimmick is on shaky legal ground at best, but has yet to be challenged in court. A substantial problem is that organizations like the ACLU or the Freedom From Religion Foundation are usually deemed to have insufficient standing to sue in such cases. A parent or student usually must be the one to do so, and most Louisiana teens and adults are just fine with the Abrahamic god being promoted with tax dollars. To be challenged, there would have to be a parent or student willing to risk the ostracism, abuse, threats, and physical attacks that would likely be foisted upon them.

Creationists also show nimbleness outside the political arena. When On the Origin of Species was first printed, there was apoplectic shock from some members of the religious community. Preachers unleashed a torrent of outrage on this unspeakable blasphemy. How dare there be any challenge to the first chapter of Genesis! God created all animals in their present form and that’s that.

But then biologists began seeing confirmation of Darwin’s ideas. Biological populations were changing over time, they were adapting to their environment, and they were keeping genetic mutations that proved advantageous. This included camouflage, slighter build in birds that allowed for faster migration, and even aesthetic changes that made them more appealing to potential mates. Allele frequencies consistent with genetic mutations and natural selection were documented. Single-cell microorganisms were seen mutating in a manner that increased chances of long-term survival. Biologists became increasingly aware of endemic species and began mapping branches of common descent based on fossil records and comparative biology. Evolution was and continues to be observed. If wanting to see it in action in a Petri dish, click here: http://tiny.cc/40zojy

Faced with literally seeing evolution occurring, creationists had four choices. They could mimic R.E.M. and lose their religion. They could dismiss the observed evolution as satanic trickery, a tact favored by Theodore Shoebat and U.S. Rep. Paul Broun. They could embrace the science but insist that God is its source, which is done by biologist blogger Kelsey Luoma. Or they could concoct a haphazard ad hoc hypothesis that tries to drive a wedge between microevolution and macroevolution. This final option will be our focus for the rest of this post.

The idea is that small changes are acceptable but not big ones. For example, the extinct lizard hylonomus may have adapted to its environment by evolving a more efficient toe pad, but a very long series of such changes could not have led to humans. In fact, creationists draw the line at the lizard’s ancestors ever becoming any other species, though they don’t quite define what that means. Answers in Genesis writes that the ability to breed is probably a defining characteristic, but clarifies that there may be exceptions, so they give themselves cover either way.

In truth, there is no microevolution or macroevolution. There is only evolution, the change in inherited characteristics of biological populations over time. Luoma wrote, “The only difference between micro and macroevolution is scope. When enough micro changes accumulate, a population will eventually lose its ability to interbreed with other members of its species. At this point, we say that macroevolution has occurred. Random mutation and natural selection cause both micro and macro evolution. There are no invisible boundaries that prevent organisms from evolving into new species. It just takes time.”

The counter idea started with Frank Marsh in 1941, following his creative interpretation of Hebrew texts. He deduced that God had created “kinds,” a term that neither he nor his likeminded creationists have ever bothered to define. This leaves ample room for interpretation, but as much as I can tell, they base it on appearance and the ability to breed. They also seem to allude to “kind” being very roughly comparable to the biological category of Family. The only steadfast rule is that humans are the only animals allowed to occupy their “kind.” Despite sharing 22 of 23 chromosome pairs with chimpanzees and having an almost identical bone structure to other apes, people get their own category, owing to creationists’ special pleading, desperation, and arrogance.

Marsh called this new pseudoscience field baraminology. Baraminologists have never drawn up a tree or diagram to explain how it works, so it’s a guess which “kind” each animal should be placed in. But it seems to rely mostly on similar features. For example, they would consider all horses to be of one kind, and this would likely include donkeys and zebras.  But while these equines might be somewhat similar in appearance to a giraffe and have an even vaguer resemblance to a hippopotamus, it is unlikely that the baraminologist would put these other animals in the same “kind” as horses. That would be getting terrifyingly close to Darwinism.

For 25 years, Marsh had the baraminology field to himself, but it picked up adherents when the idea of fitting 10 million creatures and their 15-month food and water supply on an oversized ship seemed untenable. By saying that each fortunate duo that boarded Noah’s ark is the ancestor of 10,000 different types of animals, the amount of space needed is greatly reduced.

One example of how this works is to put all cats in one kind. This leads to an incredible irony. Folks who mostly reject evolution will enthusiastically embrace a hyper version of it in which two felines who stepped off Noah’s ark 5,000 years ago are the ancestors of all tigers, jaguars, pumas, lions, bobcats, lynxes, ocelots cheetahs, panthers, cougars, saber-toothed cats, and your pet calico Fluffy. While evolution this fast could occur with artificial selection – it did with dogs – applying it to natural selection would require assuming it takes place exponentially faster than it does. It also means ignoring the fossil record and the worldwide distribution of big cats. For instance, it does not explain how panthers would have gotten from Turkey to Brazil.

Some theories have small gaps in them. By contrast, baraminology is a gaping, sucking hole with a tiny amount of theory thrown in. Those who created, expanded, and defended the field have never defined it, quantified it, explained it, nor offered any illustrations, graphs, trees, or publications that would demonstrate how it works or help anyone make sense of it.

At the other end of the spectrum is Dr. Jerry Coyne, biology professor emeritus at the University of Chicago. He says macroevolution is supported by embryonic forms, the fossil record, and “dead genes.”

Mammals, birds, reptiles, and fish are all in their own biologic class, but look so similar before birth that it sometimes takes experts to tell them apart. Also, traits of one animal may be present in the embryonic state of a separate animal, even across classes. For example, human embryos have gill slits that disappear before birth. This implies common ancestry with fish and as the branch split, different traits were either further evolved or became vestigial. In another example, whales have a pelvis remnant that is pointless for aquatic travel but which would have served their land-roving ancestors well.

Besides these clues, there is also the fossil record. Coyne wrote, “We have transitional forms between fish and amphibians, amphibians and reptiles, reptiles and birds, reptiles and mammals, and between early apelike ancestors and modern humans.”

It’s not just a matter of what, the when is also important. Again, per Dr. Coyne: “Those transitional forms just happen to occur at the proper time in the fossil record. Mammal-like reptiles – the transitional forms between reptiles and early mammals – occur in the sediments after reptiles were already around for a while, but before easily-recognizable mammals come on the scene. It’s not just that they look intermediate, but that they lived at the right time for demonstrating a true evolutionary transition.”

Then we have “dead genes,” Coyne’s term for stretches of DNA that don’t produce a product, but are largely identical to working genes in other species. “These are likewise evidence for distant ancestry between ‘kinds,’” Coyne wrote.

Examples he cited included humans having three dead genes for egg-yolk proteins, which are still active in our distant cousins of the reptilian and avian persuasions. In another instance, whales and other cetaceans have hundreds of dead olfactory-receptor genes, which implies a terrestrial origin for these ocean-dwelling mammals.  These genes are active in deer and even the most desperate baraminologist would not put Bambi and Willy in the same kind.

Creationists demand being able to see molecules-to-man evolution in real time and when this is not possible, they will declare this a “gotcha” moment. But just as DNA is better evidence than an eyewitness during a trial, we can see macroevolution in the form of transitions between fish and amphibians, amphibians and reptiles, reptiles and mammals, reptiles and birds, and ground-bound mammals and whales.

The attempt to bridge the vastly disparate ideas in Genesis and On the Origin of Species is called theistic evolution. It has few fans among either biologists or creationists, particularly the Young Earth subset. But I would like to acknowledge Luoma, the theistic evolutionist I quoted earlier in the post.

First, she wrote that macroevolution has been observed in three instances involving finches, mice, and flies. In these cases, separate breeds branched off and within a few years, the resultant organisms were incapable of breeding with the original population. Her full article is here: http://tiny.cc/hv3ojy

Second, Luoma has a biology degree from a legitimate institution and accepts scientific evidence without first checking to see if it squares with Genesis. She is content to credit God with “perhaps creating and sustaining the process by which new species are created.” This is a superfluous addition that lacks any evidence, but it sure beats science denial. She accepts the science, promotes the science, and calls for only science to be taught in biology class.  

Luoma describes herself as “an evangelical Christian and student of biology who is very interested in resolving the conflict between faith and science.” There is no conflict, as that requires two hostile parties. The assault is unilateral. No scientists or skeptics are trying to force churches to teach Darwin. The only aggression comes from creationists and politicians who try to get their religion and science denial taught in taxpayer-funded schools.

While a literal reading of Genesis cannot comport with biology and astronomy, Luoma would gladly teach biology on Friday, then worship God on Sunday. If creationists would follow her lead, the issue would be resolved.