Monday 30 March 2009

JREF YouTube account suspended - why?

What's going on? This is madness.

The JREF YouTube channel is an invaluable resource, a growing repository of sanity in today's woo-woo-obsessed world. If - like me - you want it reinstated forthwith, let YouTube know. (Full instructions are in the video's description where it appears on YouTube.)

UPDATE 2009-04-03:

It's back!

Sunday 29 March 2009

Burnee links for Sunday

CFI Condemns United Nations Resolution on “Defamation of Religions” | Center for Inquiry

Ray Comfort Has No Luck With Other Fruits… | Friendly Atheist by Hemant Mehta

Derren Brown Blog » Blog Archive » Bible Flood theory debunked

Pharyngula: Pope condemned by The Lancet

TAM London website now open! - JREF

Psychics given £4,500 government funding to teach people to communicate with the dead - Telegraph
(via Skeptico)

Texas on evolution: Needs further study | Salon

Harvard Aids expert says Pope 'correct' on condoms and spread of HIV -Times Online

The Pope's message is not the problem | William Rees-Mogg - Times Online

BBC investigates life-threatening teachings of nutritionist

The woo just goes on and on...

This is a clip from last Wednesday's Inside Out England TV programme* on BBC1; the segment is about Barbara Wren, who teaches courses on nutrition at her College of Natural Nutrition (the domain name for which is abbreviated with total lack of irony to ""). The BBC's investigation indicates that her teachings are not only unscientific but also life-threatening.

The clip is also available on the programme's web page, and the whole 30-minute programme is available for a limited time on the BBC iPlayer.

(*It turns out that this programme was a repeat, and was blogged by Professor David Colquhoun at DC’s Improbable Science.)

When I started writing this blog-post I considered making a point about how this kind of non-science might be about to fade away under the persistent scrutiny of investigations like this BBC TV programme. But after spending only a few minutes on Google I found that the amount of seriously misguided belief in such nonsense - as well as this nonsense in particular - remains large and widespread. It needs attention.

Wednesday 11 March 2009

Creationism and the velocity of light

As mentioned in a previous post, in contrast to the feeble exhibits at Genesis Expo, the pamphlets on sale in the shop give the superficial impression of earnest scholarship. One pamphlet that drew my attention was "Decrease in the Speed of Light" by Malcolm Bowden, published by the Creation Science Movement. It begins with a graph showing the results of historical experiments to determine the velocity of light. Why is this important to creationists? Well, if light travelled faster in the past, that would account for the light from distant stars apparently taking millions of years to reach Earth – which must be false if the universe is no older than 10,000 years. The pamphlet postulates that the speed of light was actually infinite a mere six or seven thousand years ago.

When I first glanced through the pamphlet, the proliferation of technical terms, and the graph on page one, gave such an impression of scholarly authority that I felt unqualified to assess it. I considered attempting to check the references and the scientific subjects mentioned, but decided instead to look at the pamphlet on its own terms and examine what I had in front of me, starting with that intimidating graph.

Presumably the graph is excerpted from the referenced materials – probably "The Velocity of Light and the Age of the Universe" by Barry Setterfield. It has no units, but I assume the x-axis is years and the y-axis is kilometres per second. (The phrase "Selected Results" looks suspicious – it could indicate cherry-picking of data.)

The graph appears to plot the results of historical measurements of c (the speed of light), and the general trend supports the notion that its value was much higher in the past. The pamphlet goes on to suggest that at one point it was infinitely high. This extraordinary suggestion – derived from extrapolation of a non-linear curve – will, in Carl Sagan's famous phrase, require extraordinary evidence. So let's look at the evidence here presented.

We'll start with the two measurements taken in the 18th century. The higher of the two is a quarter of a percent above the average of the highest and lowest of the post-18th century measurements – way below the accuracy I would expect from 18th century science when dealing with something this tricky to measure – by at least an order of magnitude. It's reasonable, therefore, to discount those two values.

Ignoring the two measurements from the 18th century, the remaining plots are from about 1842 to about 1979, and range from about 299,790 to 300,050 kilometres per second. The variation is 260 km/s, or plus or minus 130 km/s about the mean of highest and lowest (not counting the 18th century values). That's plus or minus 0.043 percent. (I'm not doing statistical analysis here – just some rough-and-ready arithmetic to get a feel for the numbers.)

Less than a twentieth of a percent variation isn't much – I would have thought it was less than the experimental accuracy of measurements carried out in the 19th century. 20th century measurements should be more accurate, and according to the graph they all agree to within about a hundredth of a percent. A constant value for c is within the expected accuracy of all these measurements; it's unwarranted, therefore, to claim that the speed of light has decreased. The claims in the rest of the pamphlet are therefore essentially unfounded, and can be ignored until some actual, real evidence is produced.

Later in the pamphlet Bowden mentions that the two 18th century values were indeed discounted in later analysis, and bemoans that this renders the rest of his data insignificant.

Bowden misses the point here. He notes Aardsma's reasonable dismissal of Setterfield's observations, then – because he doesn't like the results – describes them as meaningless, when it is Setterfield's observations that are rendered meaningless.

It's a perfect example of cherry-picking the data, but Bowden doesn't seem to appreciate this. Of course he wants to include the 18th century data, because without those figures his proposition makes no sense – never mind that the data is suspect. He's attempting to do science backwards – this is clear from the stated aims of the Creation Science Movement, laid out on the same page as the suspect graph:

I've said it before and I'll say it again. Creationism comes down to one thing: science contradicts scripture – therefore it must be wrong.

Sunday 8 March 2009

Genesis Expo, Portsmouth, UK (part 3)

This is the third and final part of my assessment of Genesis Expo, the creation museum I visited in Portsmouth on Saturday 28 February. (Click here for part 1, or here for part 2.)

Leaving the last of the exhibits you pass by a small room set up as a video theatre, showing a DVD (I think it was called "Life Story"), also available for purchase at £9.95. I spent a few minutes sitting and watching, but the volume was too low for me to hear the narration distinctly, so I picked up a free copy of "Creation" from a nearby chair, and proceeded into the shop.

In contrast to the exhibits the shop is more impressive, with rows of brightly coloured books, DVDs and pamphlets, well displayed. Anyone local who is considering online purchasing of creationist literature or media would be well advised to visit Genesis Expo to inspect the merchandise first-hand.

You can also buy fossils – prices to suit all pockets, right up to £1,250 for a fossil-encrusted table-top. Or how about this wall-hung plaque (below)?

It was in the shop that I picked up a selection of creationist pamphlets. According to the website of the Creation Science Movement - who are responsible for Genesis Expo - there are 125 of these pamphlets, on various subjects. I've already listed my choice, and I'll be looking at one (or possibly more) of them in a later post.

So that's it. Twelve unimpressive, simplistic and rather tatty display cases, a video that I couldn't hear, and a shop full of books, pamphlets, DVDs and gift-shop-type souvenirs. The arguments presented in the exhibits, such as they are, have long since been refuted, and I detected a tendency to appeal to emotions rather than reason. Selected displays are described in more detail at the Creation Science Movement website, where some of the merchandise, including the pamphlets, is available for purchase.

Incidentally, creationists are always going on about "teaching both sides" but I didn't see any of Richard Dawkins' books on sale in their shop (admittedly I didn't look very hard). I did, however, see the nest of eight fossil dinosaur eggs (below), located behind bars between the exhibits and the shop.

I don't think I'll be paying a second visit, unless I decide to examine some more of the pamphlets, so to conclude my assessment of Genesis Expo itself I'll leave you with the back-end of Boris, the Big Friendly Dinosaur:

UPDATE: Click here for more on one of the pamphlets.

UPDATE 2009-03-16: For another take on Genesis Expo, check out The Ranger's Blog.

UPDATE 2009-06-01: Another one at Choccy's blog.

UPDATE 2009-10-18: Genesis Expo in video:

(Via Pharyngula)

Wednesday 4 March 2009

Genesis Expo, Portsmouth, UK (part 2)

This is part 2 of my assessment of Genesis Expo, the creation museum in Portsmouth. (Click here for part 1.)

Display 7 – ORIGIN OF MAN

From the concluding paragraph of this display: "Measurements of the actual mutation rates of mitochondrial DNA, reported in Nature Genetics in 1997, lead to an estimate of some six to ten thousand years since the first woman." I'd like to see this report, as it makes little sense here. What is meant by "the first woman"? A woman who had no parents? How can you tell, from DNA, that an ancestor has no antecedents? What about the possibility of near extinction of an already ancient race? This display, visually feeble as it is, seems to be an attempt to baffle with pseudo-science.

Display 8 – QUOTES

Here we have an incredibly tacky mock-up of a tombstone – a relief of Darwin's head, in profile, under which is inscribed "HERE LIES THE THEORY OF EVOLUTION". The grave and stone are crudely modelled in unpainted polystyrene – is this a not-so-veiled reflection on the creationists' view of Darwin? Subtle it's not. Three quotations from Dr. Albert Fleischmann, Dr. Michael Denton and Prof. Louis Bounoure are followed by one from Charles Darwin himself:
"To suppose that the eye with all its inimitable contrivances for adjusting focus to different distances, for admitting light and for the correction of spherical and chromatic aberration, could have been formed by natural selection seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest degree."
This is a favourite quote of creationists, and it comes from The Origin of Species. The very next sentence - not quoted in the display - is this:
"Yet reason tells me, that if numerous gradations from a perfect and complex eye to one very imperfect and simple, each grade being useful to its possessor, can be shown to exist; if further, the eye does vary ever so slightly, and the variations be inherited, which is certainly the case; and if any variation or modification in the organ be ever useful to an animal under changing conditions of life, then the difficulty of believing that a perfect and complex eye could be formed by natural selection, though insuperable by our imagination, can hardly be considered real."
(page 217 of the 1979 Gramercy/Random House hardcover edition)

This is quote mining, and it does the creationists no credit, as anyone who bothers to check on the original will find out.

Display 9 – APES AND MAN

Differences between apes and humans are listed in this display, and they all sound plausible (I'm no expert). But in the middle is one emphasised (in Pamphlet 344) sentence: "Apes come from apes and men come from men." It doesn't appear to be derived from anything else in the display, and no evidence is presented to support this assertion, nor to suggest why it might be an argument against evolution.


Now we get on to even shakier ground, muddling up an argument from irreducible complexity with the proposition that fire-breathing dragons existed in the past. The display contains an enlarged model of a beetle that defends itself by projecting hot noxious gases at a potential predator. The insect does this by a complex chemical process within a reservoir at its rear end. The display claims that this process has to be exactly right, with the precisely correct mixture, otherwise the beetle would be eaten, or blow itself up, and is therefore irreducibly complex, and must have been designed by a rocket scientist (or other intelligence).

Apparently this is not so - a Google search for "bombardier beetle" leads to the Talk Origins website, where an entirely plausible evolutionary process is described in detail. Once again the creationists are saying that because they can't imagine how a living creature could evolve, it must therefore have been designed. This is called the argument from ignorance (though it might be more accurately described as the argument from failure of imagination).

And what about the fire-breathing dragons? Some dinosaurs apparently had skull passages similar to the bombardier beetle's impressive ductwork, and since by creationist standards dinosaurs existed alongside early humans, this would explain the stories of dragons.


This display illustrates Chinese writing, and claims – somewhat tortuously – that the Chinese language incorporates the Genesis story: Adam and Eve, Noah and the Flood. It didn't make much sense to me, and seemed a bit irrelevant. It seems to be claiming that each Chinese character contains a story, separate from the use of the character in language – and the story is that of creation as told in Genesis.


The Big Bang, Dark Matter (called "Cold Dark Matter" here), the Anthropic Principle, and a quotation from Sir Fred Hoyle, lead to this final paragraph:
"The Genesis Expo declares that this precise Universe was designed meticulously, and that 'In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.' Of course He did!"
Cosmology is a big subject, and an important one, and some of the world's best brains are working on the question of the origin of the universe. That the universe isn't instantly understandable is no excuse for falling back on obsolete myths, or pretending to use pseudo-science to support non-scientific ideas. Creationists' opposition to evolution comes down to one thing: evolution science contradicts scripture - in their eyes therefore, it must be wrong. As for the Anthropic Principle, I refer creationists (and anyone else interested) to Douglas Adams' excellent explanation of why this is no argument for special creation:
"...imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, 'This is an interesting world I find myself in - an interesting hole I find myself in - fits me rather neatly, doesn't it? In fact it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!' This is such a powerful idea that as the sun rises in the sky and the air heats up and as, gradually, the puddle gets smaller and smaller, it's still frantically hanging on to the notion that everything's going to be alright, because this world was meant to have him in it, was built to have him in it; so the moment he disappears catches him rather by surprise."

That's all 12 displays, which taken singly or as a whole, don't add up to much. The arguments seem dated and simplistic - though I suspect that the target audience includes schoolchildren. The many pamphlets on sale, however, are a different matter. Whether these are as soundly researched and referenced as they first appear remains to be seen (which I hope will be the subject of another post), but before we get to the pamphlets we will no doubt want to browse in the shop - that will be next.

UPDATE 2009-03-08:

Click here for part 3.

Monday 2 March 2009

Genesis Expo, Portsmouth, UK (part 1)

To assess Genesis Expo in detail will take some time, so I'll limit this post to the first six of the 12 display cases that comprise the bulk of the exhibit – the remainder will follow. I'm basing this assessment not only on my memory but also on the pamphlet I picked up (amongst others) in the shop, entitled "The Genesis Expo at Portsmouth" by Dr. David Rosevear, January 2003. This pamphlet is a guide to the exhibition, and appears to contain the same text as that shown below the display cases (and apparently also available in audio through what appeared to be pre-war earphones, which – forgive me – I avoided for fear of infection).

I should make it clear that I have no special qualifications to assess a creationist exhibit. My secondary school studies were biased towards the sciences, and my degree is in architecture. I'm interested in the creationism-versus-evolution debate, as any regular reader of this blog will know, and my particular worldview is based on atheism – by which I mean "lack of belief in a god or gods". How I came to this view is chronicled in earlier posts.

Genesis Expo is located on the harbour front at Portsmouth, opposite the bus station and within sight of Portsmouth Harbour railway station, about 15 minutes' walk from Gunwharf Quays shopping centre and the Spinnaker Tower. Its entrance doors open into the "out" end of the museum's shop, and you pass by the benign but crudely modelled figure of a dinosaur to enter the passages containing the exhibits, which are frankly a bit tatty. The blurb on the website describes the lighting for these as computer-controlled, so I was surprised not to hear the clatter of a punched-tape reader.


The theme of the first display case is that modern science has shown that Charles Darwin was wrong. Much is asserted, such as "...each fossil shows separate Creation" and "...there is no halfway stage between the reptile and the bird." There are quotations from Dr. Colin Patterson and Stephen Jay Gould that imply that there are no transitional fossils. My understanding, however, is that there are plenty of transitional fossils, such as archaeopteryx and tiktaalik, and further, that all living things can be considered to some extent transitional.


"This display shows you something fossilised, and alongside it a present day example which is just the same as the fossil." It does this in a slide show on a pair of small colour monitors, but it's not evidence against evolution. The assumption here is that if an animal or plant evolved into something different, the original species must become extinct. This is not what evolution theory states. There's no reason for the original species to die out if it is still fit for its environment, while the evolved species, perhaps after migration to different conditions, continues.


The rate at which sedimentary layers are formed is here put forward to support the view that the Earth is young. The ash from Mount St. Helens is given as an example of rapid sedimentation, from which it is inferred that sedimentation could not have taken a longer period. What is not mentioned is the possibility that even if rapid sedimentation did occur, discrete periods of sedimentation could have been separated by longer periods of time. Geology is a complicated subject, but once again the Talk Origins website has a wealth of material relevant to this argument.


Two arguments are put forward here: first, that the biological "make-up" of different species is different, which shows that for instance, "...the blood of a fish is just as far removed from the jawless eel as our own is" though quite what this is supposed to prove I'm not sure – maybe that these creatures, and humans, were separately created. This is possibly an argument about the non-similarity of different species' DNA, though it's so vaguely worded it's hard to tell.

Second, biological molecules are complex, showing, for instance, that "...yeast is not more primitive than humans just because it is more simple." This appears to be suggesting that humans are on a par with yeast, though I don't think that's what the creationists want you to believe.

The display concludes with the argument from irreducible complexity, but in simpler language, citing the mouse-trap as an example. Irreducible complexity has, however, already been soundly debunked.

Display 5 – ORIGIN OF LIFE

This display contains a representation of the Miller-Urey experiment, which attempted to replicate the conditions in a "primordial soup" and thus, by stimulating this soup with electricity, to produce the building blocks of life. My understanding is that the experiment did produce certain amino acids, which are required for life, though it didn't produce life itself. Bearing in mind that the only prerequisite for the origin of life is a self-replicating molecule, the fact that the odds against this happening by chance are very high does not mean that it can't happen. After all, it only needs to happen once. (The odds against any particular person winning the lottery are very high, but not infinite – people do win the lottery.)

The concluding paragraph of this display betrays the creationist mind-set, claiming that even if scientists were ever successful in creating life, it would only support the idea of intelligent creation rather than chance evolution - presumably because life in this case would have been created by intelligent scientists.


" a carrier of information, the DNA is 45 million million times more efficient than a mega chip." You may be wondering what exactly a mega chip is, but apparently it would take a pile of them as high as the moon to contain all the information in all the world's libraries. If you place all that information on DNA, it would occupy only one per cent of the volume of a pin-head. So now you know.

"The science of Information Theory tells us that information only comes from an intelligent source." This, I think, is spurious. Human intelligence has produced information, therefore all the information that humans have produced has come from an intelligent source. But even though this may lead you to conclude that because the digital information present in DNA is similar to digital information produced by computer programmers, DNA is therefore produced by the celestial software developer - it's a flawed argument because it's extrapolation from a sample of one: an intelligence produced information, therefore all information must have been produced by an intelligence.

Just as molecular machines that were once believed to be irreducibly complex have now been plausibly shown to be the product of evolution, it's entirely feasible that the complex digital information in DNA evolved from something containing less information, which evolved from something containing even less, and so on, right back to the first self-replicating molecule. All it takes is the input of energy, and that's what the Sun provides. The final paragraph states, "...information is lost by chance changes, so mutations in living things cause a loss of genetic information." This, I understand from my limited reading on the subject, is simply incorrect.

That's probably enough for one post. Come back soon for the remaining six displays, and some discussion of the other pamphlets I picked up.

UPDATE 2009-03-04:

Click here for part 2.