Thursday, November 23, 2006

Nature publishes an interview with a crank

Last week's issue of Nature had a lengthy, stupid letter from a Polish creationist. PZ Myers skewered the letter easily. I read the letter just before I saw PZ's article, and I thought of sending him an email about it when I read it. That was unnecessary, of course.

But now, I get to scoop PZ by posting my take-down of a creationist interviewed by Nature, apparently as part of a "let's-meet-some-European-asstards" theme they're running.

The relevant Nature article is here or here as a PDF (subscription probably required).

Basically, Nature asked Peter Korevaar a few questions. Here's the abstract of the mini-article:

Peter Korevaar is head of the physics and cosmology working group of Germany’s Studiengemeinschaft Wortund Wissen, one of the largest creationist groups in Europe. He holds a PhD in astrophysics and now works at IBM in Mannheim. Quirin Schiermeier asks him about his group’s aims.
I'll go through the questions, put in Dr. Korevaar's answers, and put in my reactions.

What are your main goals?
We are a Protestant group. We want to do accurate and honest scientific work under the premise that God has created the world. Scientific naturalism as we know it doesn’t allow for a creator who can interfere with the physical world. Evolution should be taught in schools, and creation discussed along with it.

No surprises there. Nature wouldn't have interviewed him if they weren't a bunch of well-spoken cranks, at least. The truly lunatic don't do interviews well.

I question their ability to "do accurate and honest scientific work" under an expressly-theistic premise. One of the key points of the creationist movement is they want Religion (well, just their religion, really) acknowledged as the supreme form of knowledge - divine revelation is never to be challenged or questioned in the light of scientific discovery. If science contradicts scripture, it is science that is wrong. This is fucking stupid, and if you're trying to do scientific research with that as a guiding principle, you're never going to learn anything. You probably won't even learn how fucking stupid you are.

Yes, evolution should be taught in schools. No, creationism should not be discussed along with it, except as the introduction to the unit, along the lines of "there are many stories and myths to explain life on earth. They are all wrong." This is the standard US-derived "fair time" argument, which is bullshit considering the amount of work that has gone into, and continues to go into, evolutionary biology, work that has never gone into any creationist thought. Creationism isn't science, and never will be science as long as it relies on waving your hands and announcing "yes, god is pretty mysterious".

How would you describe your relationship with scientists?
You don’t have to agree on everything to do good, accurate science together with [noncreationist] scientists. We use the same methods as other scientists, namely falsifying and verifying hypotheses. We don’t want to put anyone down. We would very much like to have an open discussion with evolutionary biologists about the issues at stake. But we feel constantly misunderstood. Scientists — and the media — always say we are dilettantes, Christian fundamentalists. This is mean. ‘Fundamentalism’ is immediately associated with Islamic fundamentalism: read terrorism. Fighting against these prejudices is extremely hard.

OK, he's right: you don't have to agree on everything.

Why did Nature put "noncreationist" in editor-brackets to modify the word "scientists"? Are there creationist scientists who can actually be described as real scientists? Perhaps, but they're certainly vanishingly rare. His statement about methods is contradicted by his first answer - I know he didn't come right out and say the science vs. scripture thing, but there's no room in theology for hypothesis testing. If your god is everything, then testing anything is testing theology - verbotten!

Blah blah we feel bad being called names. So what? I don't associate the word "Fundamentalism" with just Islamic fly-planes-into-buildings type religious nuttery - I include all religious nuttery, regardless of prophet's name or scriptural language as fundamentalism. You call your book the literal, revealed truth? You're a fundie. He could try publishing research if he wants to be taken seriously as a or by another scientist.

What about evolution?
Microevolution, the adaptation of species to their environment, is an observed scientific fact, which we of course do not deny. But macroevolution, the gradual process of development of new species, is a mere conclusion, there’s no observational evidence for that.

False dichotomy, fuck off. The whole micro/macro thing is a construct of creationists. arguments, with definitions of terms here. Also: "is a mere conclusion"? WTF does that mean? If I arrive at a conclusion by inference and experiment, is it "a mere conclusion"?

How would you compare your group with creationists in the United States?
We are aware of other creationist groups in Europe and the United States. But we don’t collaborate too much with any of them. The US debate is more aggressive, there is more foul play from both sides. This is not helpful.

I'm glad they don't cooperate with the yanqui cretins, much. This will probably change, since pretty much everyone is getting in on the global village thing. Thanks again, internet (NB: the benefits of the 'net still outweigh the costs). He's probably right that the "debate" is more aggressive, and probably more rude, in North America.

Do you advocate intelligent design?
There’s an open question about how the many complex structures observed in the Universe came into being. Intelligent design gives an alternative answer to this question. We can subscribe to most of its arguments.

No. Particular mechanisms for the formation of particular phenomena are, of course, open questions - are there any "closed" questions? Oh, right, I'm not allowed to question your foolish belief system because it's a religion. Anyway, no, ID is not a viable alternative answer to any such question - it's just "goddidit" writ large, with flowery handwriting.

Overall, I'm actually pretty impressed by Dr. Kolevaar's interview skills. I understand that creationist organisations typically choose or train well one individual for media contact work, but I avoid reading the dribblings of ID groups or the insane ravings of YEC* groups. Most of my contact with creationists is on-line, where I find mostly stupid, poorly written doggerel and no hint of underlying sophistication.

While I'm at it, here's a nice collection of evidence of evolution occurring.

*Young Earth Creationist

Update. I just did a bit of reading over at the Panda's Thumb, apparently some of the early pioneers of the modern synthesis used the terms "microevolution" and "macroevolution" in a reasonable way. So the words themselves are not inventions of the creationists, but the idea that they are somehow incompatible concepts, and that one can accept one happening but not the other, is still fucking stupid.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Why can Creationists &/or Intelligent Design (ID) advocates solve Sudoku Number Puzzles so quickly?


It’s just a matter of faith! It’s the same method creationists and now ID specialists resort to in trying to prove their unsustainable “intelligent design theory”. Creationists can just stop searching for reality by just assuming all gaps in current understanding and/or knowledge of evolution must be filled with a (G=god) solution. As Prof Richard Dawkins explains in chapter four of The GOD Delusion; “If an apparent gap is found, it is assumed that God, by default must fill it.” Saves them having to think and question I suppose.

Much like the progress one makes by eliminating the possible numbers in each square as a Sudoku puzzle is solved, “gaps shrink as science advances and God is threatened with eventually having nothing to do and nowhere to hide.” This of course “worries thoughtful theologians” however the greater worry for scientists (and the rest of us) is that groups through politics or fear will walk away from the “essential part of the scientific enterprise [that is] to admit ignorance.”

Nothing is more dangerous than a, ‘I have all the answers’ arrogant preacher followed by a bunch of non-thinking ‘god-botherers’ driven by blind faith who absolve themselves from their societal responsibilities with the comfort of unquestioning feeble-minds!

Although some see Dawkins as a bit of a raver and less scientific in his arguments than he could (should) be, if you read Pascal Boyer's writings (e.g. "Gods, Spirits and the Mental Instincts that Create Them"), Dawkins’ 'emotional' approach to battling the “ID” lobby is also needed. I read recently a quote (can’t remember who’s or where) that goes along the line of: ‘you cannot logic a man out of a point of view that logic didn’t get him to in the first place’. Faith is driven by fear, passion, hardwired avoidance mechanisms and emotion and that is exactly what realists need to stimulate to reverse the current worrying trend by the slick religious nutters to sell their unpalatable and dangerous certainties.

Its time to organise, its time to fight… I for one don’t want to leave this problem for the next generation to solve alone.

By the way a good introduction to Boyer (Henry Luce Professor of Individual and Collective Memory at Washington University in St. Louis), can be found here: and there are a few notes, quotes and summaries on my own blog.