Monday, August 17, 2009

A Report on Nathaniel Jeanson's Creationism lecture

Member Steve Wertheim went to the 7:00 session of yesterday's lecture at the Calvary Chapel in the City worship service, a program entitled "Evolution: Bankrupt Science. Creationism: Science you can bank on" on 8/16. He wrote a report on his observations for the BA message board, which corresponds in large degree to my own experiences at the earlier presentation of the same lecture earlier that day. He writes:

In front of a church group audience, seemingly composed of young people with no background in science, Dr. Nathaniel Jeanson, a recent PhD graduate of Harvard:

1. Distorted the nature of science and the scientific method.

2. Distorted the meaning of actual scientific work, such as that of the Harvard paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould.

3. Denied the reality of the single most important unifying concept in biology, that of evolution by natural selection.

4. Presented junk science as reliable, such as that of Michael Behe, John Morris and Russell Humphreys.

5. Repeated discredited arguments for the existence of the supernatural, such as "irreducible complexity". For this he used his own research, claiming that the 6 interacting components in the vitamin D regulatory cycle could not have been produced by evolution and must have been created by a supernatural intelligence.

6. Appealed to what has been termed the "argument from ignorance" (reflecting his intellectual limitations). His comment on Vitamin D regulation was "It is difficult to conceive how you could evolve this". I don't claim to be an expert in this field, but I do know that evolutionary mechanisms for all examples of "irreducible complexity" claimed by Michael Behe (a crackpot with tenure who originated the idea) have been provided by real scientists.

[This is especially baffling, consider how well a job I thought I did in the morning presentation at walking him through a rebuttal of all arguments that work from the grounds of "irreducible complexity" (IC). If all science is based on observation, and only on observation, as Jeanson said at the start of his lecture, then it is irrational for a research to look at a complex system and label it IC. To make this claim is to assert that we have been able to observe all the precursor systems that led up to the current system, and that in all of that evolutionary history, there were never any components that are now missing but which when present would have allowed for reducible complexity. The analogy I made was to a stone arch; remove a stone and the structure collapses, but we could only call it irreducibly complex if we failed to realize that there was once a scaffold that allowed the thing to be built in a step-wise fashion, stone by stone. IC is at best an admission of ignorance, but in no circumstances can it be construed as a meaningful biological term. It literally describes nothing. Jeanson might have understood this before his lecture or he might not, but after our exchange he has no excuse for using the same reasoning at the later lecture. -- Zachary Bos]

7. Claimed that "eyewitness accounts" are the most reliable, in science as in a court of law. In fact, eyewitness accounts in legal proceedings are notoriously unreliable, and there would not be much science if we only had our eyes to rely on. But the kicker is that the real points he was making were:
a. The eyewitness account of Yaweh, who was present at the creation, is the most reliable information we have about origins.

b. "One cannot answer historical questions scientifically", because there were no eyewitnesses.

8. Stated that his "colleagues at Harvard" view the lack of a demonstrable mechanism for the origin of life from non-life as the "worst evolutionary problem".
[Is this view shared by former supervisor, Dr. David Scadden of the Harvard Stem Cell Institutce, or by Dr. Catherine Dulac, Chair of the Dept. of Molecular and Cellular Biology at Harvard? -- Z.B.]

9. Made a series of outrageously false claims outside his research field, including:
a. The Earth is 6,000 years old, because the Bible tells us so.

b. There are "no direct scientific measurements for the age of the Earth".

c. The Earth is "at or near the center of the universe".

d. Radiometric dating of rocks (and therefore the accepted age of the Earth) is fatally flawed and can lead to a measured Earth age of 6,000 years as easily as an age of 4.6 billion years.

e. "Evolution says the Big Bang occurred 15 billion years ago." (Two mistakes in one sentence!)

f. Radioactive decay probably happened at an accelerated rate in the past.

g. Geologic formations such as the Grand Canyon and bio-geologic formations such as coal, can and do form rapidly and "catastrophically".

h. There are few, if any, transitional forms in the fossil record.

i. The mind is not a direct product of brain activity, and in fact, to suggest that the mind is directly related to the brain is a "self-defeating statement".

j. Living species did not evolve from a common ancestor, based on molecular biologic evidence. He used comparisons of the cytochrome c protein sequence for this, and ignored the whole genome sequences available for many of the same plants and animals. This was an especially unconvincing tactic for someone who claims to be a biologist.

Suffice it to say that each and every one of his points was either a distortion (e.g. Stephen Jay Gould's theory of "punctuated equilibrium" exposes a weakness in evolutionary theory), an irrelevant red herring (e.g. evolution leads to immorality), or an outright lie (e.g. there are few, if any, transitional forms in the fossil record).

His ignorance of anything outside the creationist literature, coupled with his intellectual arrogance was truly shocking for someone who claims to be educated.

All of this would be laughable if it were not in front of a credulous audience, if the percentage of people who believe in creationism in the US were not at a steady 45% and if the responsible teaching of science in our public schools were not under continual attack from people such as Dr. Jeanson.

His performance in the Q&A session was no better.

1. When asked if his religious views affected how he practices science, he said that while he does not believe that the vitamin D regulatory loop evolved, the question never came up in the course of daily research. Of course I know that the big questions are not the stuff of most daily research, but when I was a graduate student, all we talked about at the bench, while doing our monotonous tasks, were the big questions – the principles, the hottest new research and what the latest Science or Nature paper meant. It's a shame that Nathaniel Jeanson was impervious to this crucial part of his education. It's a shame he missed out on appreciating the central organizing principle of biology, and one of the greatest achievements of the human mind.

2. He was asked if he was aware that 2 sets of Nobel Prizes have been given for the confirmation of the Big Bang; that the theoretical underpinnings were provided by Einstein, Gamow, Friedmann, Weinberg and Hawking; that a 13.7 billion year age for the universe is accepted by all working physicists; and that (contrary to his claim that one cannot answer historical questions scientifically) the COBE and WMAP satellites have provided pictures of the early universe 400,000 years after the Big Bang. He merely responded that his “colleagues" at the ICR (meaning Russell Humphreys) have "alternative explanations" for these data. When asked if this means that Russell Humphreys is smarter than Einstein and Hawking, he had no answer.

3. When asked about the fossil hominids, he repeated the creationist canard that they are either apes or humans, not transitional forms.

4. When asked about the genome sequencing and bio-informatics work of Prof. Eric Lander of the Broad Institute and MIT, which demonstrates common ancestry and species relationships through analysis of genome sequencing data, he had no response and moved on to another question.

Apparently this is all part of his career path, as he is giving out business cards from his new position at the Institute for Creation Research - a set of hilarious crackpots who claim they are doing "research" that supports the inerrancy of the literal Bible. Of course, they know the answer already, now they are just trying to make the data fit the result they want. Since this is difficult, what they primarily do is write treatises about how science is a conspiracy, why the NSF and NIH grant committees won't fund them, and why no actual journals will publish their "research".

At the ICR, I'm sure that Dr. Jeanson will be well paid, while doing no publishable research, merely because he has a Harvard degree and there is an audience for his message. He will be "banking on" it. I wouldn't be surprised if some of his grad school income came from the ICR all along. It should cause all of us to be wary of the tactics of these intellectually and morally dishonest people.

Thanks for the reporting, Steven. Another first-hand report is up on the Pharyngula blog. Readers may want to grit their teeth and visit CreationWiki, "a free encyclopedia of apologetics that is being produced by an international team of missionaries." Sounds very scientific.