April 1, 2007 - April 7, 2007 Archives

In the March 28, 2007 edition of Scientific American, Douglas Fox reports on the results of renewed experiments based on the original work by Stanley Miller.

Miller became famous for his experiments with Urey where they used a sparking device to replicate early earth. Their experiment produced a brown mixture rich in amino acids. In later experiments, which more closely matched the actual composition of the early earth, Miller found that the amino acids were quickly destroyed.

Not surprisingly, creationists quickly jumped on these results to argue that evolution must be wrong, and by extension, creationism was correct.

Such arguments of course are extremely vulnerable to scientific knowledge and in this case, things are not much different.

I was just reminded that last year at this time I announced an anniversary. In March of 2004, I critiqued this mysterious abstraction called "ontogenetic depth" that Paul Nelson, the ID creationist, proposed as a measure of developmental and evolutionary complexity, and that he was using as a pseudoscientific rationale against evolution. Unfortunately, he never explained how "ontogenetic depth" was calculated or how it was measured (perhaps he was inspired by Dembski's "specified complexity", another magic number that can be farted out by creationists but cannot be calculated). Nelson responded to my criticisms with a promise.

On 29 March 2004, he promised to post an explanation "tomorrow".

On 7 April 2004, he told us "tomorrow".

On 26 April 2004, he told us he was too busy.

On 13 January 2005, he told us to read a paper by R Azevedo instead. I rather doubt that Ricardo supports Intelligent Design creationism, or thinks his work contributes to it.

Ever since, silence.

One day has stretched into three years. I would fear that Paul Nelson has fallen into a chronosynclastic infundibulum and come unstuck in time, except that he still pops up saying the same stuff at creationist conferences. Maybe he just forgot, and this thread will remind him so that he'll show up and post that promised explanation in a comment.


Jonathan Wells apparently felt the sting of my rebuttal of his assertions about Hox gene structure, because he has now repeated his erroneous interpretations at Dembski's creationist site. His strategy is to once again erect a straw man version of biologist's claims about genetic structure, show that biologists have refuted his dummy, and claim victory. The only real question here is whether he actually believes his historical revisions of what we've known about Hox genes, in which case he is merely ignorant, or whether he is knowingly painting a false picture, in which case he is a malicious fraud.

Continue reading "Wells on Hox structure: making the same mistakes over and over again" (on Pharyngula)

The latest issue of the journal Science includes a policy forum piece written by Sciencebloggers Chris Mooney (The Intersection) and Matt Nisbet (Framing Science). In the article, they argue that scientists do not, for the most part, use effective communications strategies when trying to defend science. Both Chris and Matt anticipate that this view is likely to be somewhat controversial, and that it is likely to spark a vigorous debate. I think that they are probably right about this, and not just because their article includes at least one paragraph that is likely to set PZ off faster than a lit match dropped into a five-gallon can of kerosene.

As Chris and Matt point out, we scientists tend to act under the assumption that the public will “get it” if we can just get them to understand the science. Larry Moran agrees with that perspective, and points out that people like Gould, Dawkins, and Sagan were pretty good at communicating science just that way. Larry does have a point there, but I think it misses the main point that Nisbet and Mooney were making: it’s also important to communicate concepts to people who don’t give a damn about the science. They also point out that the opponents of good science are very good at framing their views on stem cell research, the environment, teaching evolution, and other areas that fall at the intersection of science and politics.

I think Matt and Chris are right. We do need to spend more time (and thought) on communicating our views effectively, particularly to people who do not care about science.

Read More (at The Questionable Authority):

Hagfish embryos!

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I've been looking forward to seeing these little jewels in print since I saw Kuratani talk about them at the SICB meetings in January. Hagfish are wonderfully slimy jawless chordates that have been difficult to raise in the lab—although if you poke a whale corpse rotting in the cold deeps you'll find them swarming everywhere. The Kuratani lab has managed to keep animals of the species Eptatretus burgeri alive and healthy in a lab aquarium maintained at cold temperatures (16°C), and has even had success in breeding them. That object to the right is a single hagfish egg, brown and leathery-shelled and surprisingly big—it's an inch and a half long!

They collected 92 eggs, and then another limitation emerged: it took 5-7 months for embryos to develop in a small number of the eggs. Hagfish aren't going to be your typical fast-developing model system, I'm afraid, but they are extraordinarily cool animals, and it's good to see work beginning on them.

Continue reading "Hagfish embryos!" (on Pharyngula)

From YouTube:

Latest product of basic evolution program.

A creatures probability of survival is dependent its compatibility to the environment relative to its fellows.

Anyone who survives can breed.

This shows that evolution is an intrinsic property of any system where offspring are different from their parent, and suffer environmental attrition. Life is such a system.

Note that with the population sizes shown, it is more likely that random genetic drift will be stronger than selection. And chimps were not the ancestors of humans et al.

Creationist brain surgeon Michael Egnor has been busy over the last couple of days, posting first a “response” to Orac’s challenge then a “response” to Mark ChuCarroll’s repeated attempts to explain the concept of tautology to him. There have been several responses to these two posts over at various of the Scienceblogs already - PZ, Orac, Mark, and Kevin have all addressed one or both of Egnor’s latest claims, and all of their responses are worth reading. I’m actually feeling a little left out right now - after all, Egnor still hasn’t deigned to address the two specific examples I presented of cases where natural selection has and is playing a role in public health decisions.

I’m not going to address Egnor’s claims about the role of the design inference in medicine at the moment. The stupidity really does burn, and Orac did a superb job of working through the brain spasms to deal with that post. Kevin and Mark have also done a good job addressing some of Egnor’s claims in the more recent “tautology” post, but I think that there is something that I can add to their responses. An introduction - Dr. Egnor, I’d like to introduce you to Sir Ronald Aylmer Fisher, FRS.

Read more (at The Questionable Authority):

This evening, I am watching an episode of that marvelous and profane Western, Deadwood, as I type this; it is a most excellently compensatory distraction, allowing me to sublimate my urge to express myself in uncompromisingly vulgar terms on Pharyngula. This is an essential coping mechanism.

I have been reading Jonathan Wells again.

If you're familiar with Wells and with Deadwood, you know what I mean. You'll just have to imagine that I am Al Swearingen, the brutal bar-owner who uses obscenities as if they were lyric poetry, while Wells is E.B. Farnum, the unctuous rodent who earns the contempt of every man who meets him. That imagination will have to hold you, because I'm going to restrain myself a bit; I'm afraid Wells would earn every earthy sobriquet I could imagine, but I'll confine myself to the facts. They're enough. The man completely misrepresents the results of a paper and a whole discipline, and does it baldly on the web, as if he doesn't care that his dishonesty and ignorance leave a greasy, reeking trail behind him.

Let's start with Wells' own words.

Continue reading "Wells' flagrantly false commentary on Hox complex structure" (on Pharyngula)


Well, it was nice while it lasted, which was far longer than we projected; the SUCKERED post was indeed a prank on you, dear PT readers, pretending to reveal a Discovery Institute prank at our expenses.

We’re not sure whether this is a success or a failure on our part. On one hand, our prank was better executed than the ones at Uncommon Descent and Telic Thoughts and received lots of praise. On the other hand, many of our readers need to work on their critical observation skills. Maybe we can blame it on our good reputation; our readers trust the quality of our work.

Of course, it wouldn’t have been possible without the DI acolytes providing us with seemingly inexhaustible involuntary parodies themselves. Indeed, just as our prank went online, Michael Egnor himself out-pranked us with a real post containing this philosophy gem:

Materialism is nonsense, because if matter and energy are all that exist, then truth doesn’t exist (it’s neither matter nor energy). If truth doesn’t exist, then materialism can’t be true.

Dude, that’s like, so deep.—Seriously, how can you beat these guys?

Anyway, it all started with us honestly wondering, after Egnor appeared on the scene a few weeks ago, whether he was actually real.—The sweet onomatopoeia of his name and style was just too good to be true.—Alas, it quickly became clear he was a real person and surgeon. As April 1st approached, we considered writing a post claiming that he was, in fact, a prank, but that seemed too direct and obvious. So the LeCarréan double-twist was conceived of trying to fool you pretending that the DI fooled us.

Andrea wrote the SUCKERED post, Reed made up the faux “Evolution Views & News” page with some pompous-sounding rewrites by Douglas, and the rest of the PT crew provided the usual slew of commentary, suggestions, nagging, doubt, and advice. The sciencebloggers amplified the effect by feigning dismay on their sites.

We thought most of you guys would see right through it, but it worked so well that it even fooled PT contributor PvM, who needs to read his e-mail more often. I guess years of contending with the absurdities emanating from the DI can make anyone confused between what is real and what is farce ….


Stephen Meyer, Discovery Institute cofounder and major IDist, in support of the Designer on this somewhat trying day, offers this amazing discovery: Meyer proves that information of any sort, not just complex specified information, comes from out of this world! Meyer’s impeccable proof is so astonishing in its simplicity that it can be explained to a first grade class! Here it is.

Stephen Meyer, explaining why biological information cannot originate through a materialistic process, said:

One of the things I do in my classes to get this idea across to students is I hold up two computer disks. One is loaded with software the other one is blank. And I ask

”What’s the difference in mass between these two computer disks as a result of the difference in the information content that they posses?”

Meyer of Disco

And of course the answer is zero - none. There is no difference as a result of the information. And that’s because information is a massless quantity. Now if information is not a material entity, then how can any materialistic explanation explain its origin? How can any material cause explain its origin. And, this is the real fundamental problem that the presence of information in biology has posed. It creates a fundamental challenge to the materialistic evolutionary scenarios because information is a different kind of entity that matter and energy cannot produce. uhm  In the nineteenth century we thought that there were two fundamental entities of science: matter and energy. At the beginning of the 21st century we now recognize that there is a third fundamental entity, and it’s information. It doesn’t - it’s not reducible to matter, it’s not reducible to energy, but it is still a very important thing that is real, we buy it we sell it, we send it down wires. Now what do we make of the fact that information is present at the very root of all biological function? [picture of DNA] That in biology we have matter we have energy but we also have this third, very important entity, information? The biology of the information age I think poses a fundamental challenge to any materialistic approach to the origin of life.

OK, well, we have to admit it, this time our adversaries at the Discovery Institute completely fooled us. For several weeks many of us have been involved in a back-and-forth with Michael Egnor, a neurosurgeon at Stony Brook who, ironically, displayed an amazingly thick skull about anything concerning evolutionary biology. Not only did he deny the obvious facts of evolution and its importance for medicine and biology, but he kept contradicting himself, repeating empty statements, ignoring the evidence and demanding answers to questions which had been already answered many times over. It was maddening to think that a person with a high-level degree and an academic position in a major educational and research institution could be such a know-nothing fool.

Well, he isn’t, apparently. It was all a ruse by ID advocates to see how far they could pull our chain, and lead us to take his progressively more outlandish statements for real. The Discovery Institute Media Complaint Division site has now come clean, admitting to the prank and giving us a well-deserved raspberry. We should have known better: imagine having a guy who denies the obvious homology of our neural system to that of other vertebrates in charge of slicing off chunks of it in an operating room! Or someone who doesn’t believe bacteria evolve resistance to antibiotics dealing with the risk of post-operatory infections.

While we are ashamed to have fallen for such a crass caricature of a “dumb Creationist”, and apologize to our readers for the time wasted in countering his ludicrous arguments, we applaud the cleverness of the ID folks involved in this April Fool’s joke and their effortless impersonation of such a character.

How stupid of us not to have thought of that!

The PT Crew

April 2nd Update:

The above post is part of our April Fools’ prank on you, our readers. The Discovery Institute did not admit that Egnor was pranking us. That faux page was part of our ruse. Read all the comments in this thread to see who fell for it and who didn’t. Also check out this post, where we come clean.

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