19 December 2007


This one comes from South Carolinians for Science Education, courtesy of Pharyngula. Apparently, for some unfathomable reason, the people responsible for approving textbooks for South Carolina got a pair of ignorant fools to review two reputable biology textbooks and actually held them up for approval based on their uninformed ramblings. The characterization of them as ignorant fools is mine, but is justified by their own words. Examples follow:

Authors incorrectly refer to the Theory of Gravity when it is the Law of Gravity. Just as there is a big jump from hypothesis to theory, there is another big jump from theory to law and proper citation should be noted. [p.3, RJL and S critique]

Now I'm not a scientist, nor do I play one on the internet. I'm perfectly willing to concede that things may have changed a great deal since I learned the basics. I was taught Newton's Theory of Gravitation along with Einstein's Theory of Relativity and so on. But I've never heard of this progression from hypothesis to theory to law. Theories contain laws, and put them into a larger context that presumably explains them, but I've never heard of a theory becoming a law. If Newton's theory of gravitation has become a law of some kind, I apparently missed it. And if I'm confused on this point, so are the authors of the Wikipedia articles on gravitation, since they still refer to Newton's theory. To me, this criticism sounds just plain ignorant. If in other respects these reviewers showed they knew what they were talking about, I'd be inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt. That, however, is far from the case.

Statement that earth was formed about 4.5 BYA is speculation. [p. 2 RJL and S critique]

It’s speculation in the same sense that the claim the Washington Monument is 555 feet high is speculation. The age of the earth is a matter of measurement, not speculation.

Reference to 3 billions years old is not on solid grounds since dating methods are unreliable. [p. 4, M&L critique]

For this, I'll let Kenneth Miller, one of the authors under attack, take it:

The reviewer claims that there are scientific data that do not support evolution. However, he does not say what that data might be. Instead, he claims (without any supporting data or reference) that information showing that living organisms appeared on the planet nearly 3 billion years ago is unreliable. Why is that information unreliable? Has the reviewer discovered patterns of radioactive decay that violate the laws of physics? He does not say, and therefore it is impossible to evaluate these critical comments.

I admire the author's politeness, considering the boorishness of the critique. But since I don't have any horse in this race, I'll say outright anybody this foolish, ignorant, or mendacious has no business reviewing a serious textbook. Period.

Eruption Mt. St. Helen in 1980 proved long ages are not needed for geological formations. Canyons in GA and WA states were formed in days or months, respectively, and not millions or billions of year. [p. 1, M&L critique]

Again, it's hard to say whether the reviewers are being deliberately obtuse, or are genuinely stupid. Volcanic eruptions don't form multiple layers of different kinds of rocks containing distinctive fossils, just to point out one of the most obvious flaws with this "argument". As Kenneth Miller pointed out with commendable restraint in his reply:

The fact that some geological features can be formed rapidly does not mean that all are formed that way. There is abundant evidence, taught as a required part of the earth science curriculum in South Carolina, that the well-defined geological ages of the earth extend over hundreds of millions of years. [p. 1, reply]

Again, I don't know where to begin with what appears to me to be rank idiocy, either real or assumed. Do these guys have a point, or think they do? Or is this just some kind of snow-job? Oh, and by the way, speaking as one of the many who shoveled ash from my yard in 1980, it's Mount St. Helens, not Mt. St. Helen. I'm just saying.

Now this next "point" is interesting, in that it occurs in critiques of both volumes:

Statements on vestigal organs are grossly misleading. In recent reports, it was shown that the appendix, often cited as a vestigal organ, provides beneficial bacteria to intestines. This whole section should be deleted or updated to accurately reflect the state of knowledge. [p. 3, RJL and S critique]
Statements on vestigal organs are grossly misleading. In recent reports, it was shown that the appendix, often cited as a vestigal organ, provides beneficial bacteria to intestines. This whole section should be deleted or updated to accurately reflect the state of knowledge. [p. 2-3, M&L critique]

This is extremely odd. It almost looks as though the authors pulled out a piece of boilerplate and stuffed it into their critiques without any regard for whether it had anything to do with the books they were supposedly reviewing. Of course a reputable reviewer would never do anything like that, and we can be certain that this comment was somehow relevant to both textbooks. Or can we? Miller wrote:

Curiously, the reviewer complains that the appendix has been mistakenly cited as a vestigial organ when it actually performs a useful, if non-essential function. This comment suggests that the review does not understand the meaning of the word “vestigial,” which does not imply that an organ is without function. Rather, it means that the organ is reduced in size and importance, a “vestige” of its appearance in other organisms, as our text correctly notes. The comment also suggests that the reviewer has not read our book carefully, since we do not cite the appendix as such an organ.

Gee, I wonder what we're supposed to make of that, then. An incompetent criticism that doesn't apply to the book supposedly being reviewed. Again, this appears to be rank idiocy--even I know that a vestigial organ may perform a function. This next example of blithering incompetence is beneath contempt:

Since Archaeopteryx was a bird, it should not be used to show “evolution of a dinosaur to bird”. [p.3, RJL and S critique]

A bird with reptilian teeth and a bony tail? Oh, come off it. This is just creationist-gibber, the same as I've been hearing since I was a kid. You know, people, it doesn't matter how many times or how loudly you proclaim the archaeopteryx was only a bird, it remains as much a transitional form as ever. Though of course in a sense, given a long-enough perspective, we're all transitional forms. Except for those of us who turned out to be dead ends. More silliness accompanies an illustration of a scorpion in amber:

Since scorpions are still scorpions after 25 millions of years (if date is accurate), what does this prove? [p. 4, M&L critique]

Miller replies:

This ancient scorpion, trapped in amber, is used to indicate that fossils provide reliable and detailed records of past life. The text makes no other claim about the scorpion shown within the amber, and therefore there is no reason for the reviewer to object to it.

Any questions?

Robins were and are still robins. No evidence is presented of one kind of animal changing to another kind of animal! Charles Darwin shifted his thinking on origins after he became anti-God. [p. 1, M&L critique]

Now it's getting creepy. What do the reviewers mean by "kind"? This sounds like more creationist-gibber to me--you know, how every animal is supposed to reproduce after its "kind" in Genesis. If they have some scientific definition in mind, they should use the appropriate word--say, "species" or "genus" or whatever. Otherwise it just seems like some sort of weasel word-trick--you know, if I show you one species of elephant changing to another in the fossil record, you come back with, yes, but they're still elephants! That's not what I meant by "kind"! (Yes, I've had this argument before.) If I show a larger series of fossils documenting a transition from say a shrew-like animal to an early primate, then you come back with, oh sure, but they're all still monkeys. That's not what I meant by "kind" at all! And if I ask you flat out what you do mean by "kind", it turns out that you don't have a definition at all. "It's up to you to define 'kind'," you reply virtuously. "All I'm doing is pointing out flaws in your argument." As a fellow named Burns once observed in our high-school English class, he would never believe in evolution until I could show him an example of a cow giving birth to a goat. My reply at the time was that I'd believe in creationism (or whatever they were calling it back in the Palaeolithic) when I saw a cow giving birth to a bicycle.

The comment about Darwin is inexplicable. Miller's observation that "The claim that Darwin “shifted” his views for theological reasons are not supported by any Darwin scholar I know of" doesn't go far enough. It is a matter of indifference how or when or on what occasion that Darwin came to his beliefs as far as the subject of biology is concerned. Further, this looks to me like creationist projection, an all-too-common failing among the biblical-literalist crowd. Creationists reach their conclusions for theological reasons; it makes them feel better to suppose that others do likewise. It puts them on the same footing, so to speak.

But these guys sink even lower than this in the next bit:

The Nebraska man used previously to show descent of man was fabricated from one tooth in 1922. And this tooth was proven to be an extinct pig’s tooth and in 1972 the extinct pig was found to demonstrate a fraud used to promote the evolutionary worldview point in textbooks for 50 years. [Pp.1-2 RJL and S critique]

This one is really unbelievable and shows a most profound ignorance of the simplest facts of the history of science. Only an uneducated boob would claim that the so-called Nebraska Man was “a fraud used to promote the evolutionary worldview point in textbooks for 50 years.” In the first place “Nebraska Man” was a mistaken identification, not a fraud, and in the second, the tooth (mis-)identified as a hominid tooth was correctly identified in 1927 as the tooth from a peccary. “Nebraska Man” had no influence whatsoever on evolutionary theory and as far as I can tell has never been used in textbooks of any kind, unless you count creationist “textbooks”. Finding a hominid specimen in North America would have been extremely surprising under any circumstances, which is one reason this identification was always under suspicion for the brief time that “Nebraska Man” was considered a possibility.

Can they go lower yet? Just how many sub-basements are there beneath contempt, anyway? Turns out the answer is, yes, they can. Although this next one looks like a parody, I am not making it up. They reviewers actually wrote:

Hitler, Stalin, Planned Parenthood, racists, and others have cited Charles Darwin in their genocide programs that have killed an estimated 300 million people. Social Darwinism is a dark side of Charles Darwin’s publications that is often overlooked or excused. High school students should be aware that thoughts and thought process and actions have serious consequences. [p. 2, M&L critique]

I particularly like the inclusion of Planned Parenthood among those with "genocide programs"; I guess they threw that one in just in case somebody started thinking they were actually sane people. That's a dead giveaway that the reviewers have a couple of chips missing in their motherboards. Social Darwinism, by the way, owes a great deal more to Calvin than to Darwin, and has no connection to biology at all. I would also note that the reviewers provide no evidence whatsoever linking Hitler or Stalin with Darwin, and I personally doubt that they can. Hitler came by his anti-Semitism strictly through Christian notions, leading back through Martin Luther to the Gospel of Matthew. Inane (and downright ignorant) remarks like this go far to discredit anything these reviewers have to say, if they hadn't already revealed themselves to be uneducated boobs with their remarks about archaeopteryx and Nebraska Man.

With advisers like these, it is no wonder that the US is falling behind in science education.

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