Skepticism, Religion Archive

Monday, February 3, 2014

Response to Kent Hovind Video - Bird Evolution

Archaeopteryx - Berlin SpecimenNot too long ago, I watched a Kent Hovind video on creationism. I mentioned it in a previous entry, Creationist Dishonesty and a Follow Up to Previous Entries, where I discussed a blog I'd visited previously that had plagiarized this information from Hovind. This time around, I'm going to address the actual claims Hovind made. Specifically, I'm going to address birds evolving from dinosaurs and archaeopteryx, since that's a topic that interests me.

I think I've found a copy of the lecture that I watched. It's a little difficult to be certain because Hovind has delivered this lecture numerous times, and several of these were recorded and put online. But I'm reasonably sure that this is the correct one. It does seem, however, that the version I watched on TV was edited a bit to trim out a few comments, presumably to better fit the half hour time slot. But all versions of the lecture I've seen are very similar, so the response below is relevant to all of them.

The lecture is part of Hovind's Creation Science Seminar. The show I watched on TV was a half hour segment pulled from Part 4 of that seminar, Lies in the Textbooks that Support Evolution. The segment on bird evolution that I'm going to address in this entry begins right around 2:30:00 in the video below.

For this entry, I've put what Hovind said in blockquotes below, followed by my responses to his claims. The transcription of Hovind was done by me, and although I tried to be careful, I apologize if there are any mistakes or typos.

They say dinosaurs turned into birds. There are very few ideas as dumb as this one. The Bible says God made the birds on day five. He made the reptiles on day 6. Evolution says reptiles came first, and then the birds. You know, everything about evolution is backwards to the Bible. Everything.

Well, I do have to agree with part of this. The order of creation in the first chapter of Genesis is counter to the actual history of life on this planet. I mentioned that previously in my essay, Problems with a Day-Age Interpretation of Genesis (too comment, see the blog version). But then again, the order of creation in the first chapter of Genesis is also counter to that from the second chapter of Genesis, where man came first, followed by the garden of Eden, followed by "every animal of the field and every bird of the air", followed finally by Eve. I realize that some Christians interpret these stories allegorically or metaphorically or in some other way, but having two differing creation stories back to back shows that they can't be literally true.

But this article says, 'Dinosaurs alive as birds, scientist says'. Ooo wow, scientist says. Well that proves it right there. Just like it gives some kind of authority. Ooo, wow, scientist says. This is absurd. Everything about the bird evolution is baloney. Okay.

Nothing of substance to comment on here.

Archaeoraptor was listed in 1999 as the missing link. Yes, boys and girls. Breaking news! National Geographic. We found the missing link. They had a whole big article about the missing link has been discovered. Then a couple months later, oops, it was proven wrong.

You know, everything about these feathered dinosaurs has been proven baloney. But guess what. They're still teaching it. Here's a whole book, the Feathered Dinosaurs of China. [pointing] You just got this recently? Why would they still be teaching something that's been proven wrong for five years? All this feathered dinosaur stuff is baloney. It's all baloney.

The story of Archaeoraptor points out legitimate problems with science journalism and the fossil trade, but it was an isolated incident, was never the sole piece of evidence for feathered dinosaurs, and actually highlights the benefits of the standard scientific practice of peer review. A fairly complete story of this incident is available on Wikipedia. A farmer found several fossils in his field, and combined them to create what looked like a complete animal. He sold the fossil to a dealer who smuggled it into the U.S. Then, National Geographic funded research on the specimen, and although some scientists began noticing problems right away, the lead researcher refused to acknowledge them. Both Nature and Science, the two most prestigious science journals, rejected papers about the specimen, with some of the reviewers for Science even noting that it had been doctored. But the lead researcher never forwarded any these objections or rejections on to National Geographic, and they ran with their article, publishing it in the November 1999 issue of their magazine, with a corresponding press conference in October. National Geographic received further feedback from the scientific community, and released a press release in February of 2000 noting that the specimen might have been a composite, and then fully admitted the mistake in their October 2000 issue.

This was an example of the dubious practice of 'science by press release', bypassing the normal peer review process and jumping right to public promotion. Most of the scientists associated with the archaeoraptor specimen realized there was something fishy about it, and had it not been for the hype generated by National Geographic, the regular peer review process would done its job and 'archaeoraptor' would have died a quiet death. As it was, the fossil only made a splash in the media, and was never taken seriously by the majority of the scientific community. It's also an example of why it's so important for paleontologists to have access to the sites where the fossils are found, and why the black market fossil trade is so damaging. No paleontologist would have come across all of those separate fossils and assumed them to have come from the same animal.

But an important point of this story relative to Hovind's claims is that the doctored archaeoraptor specimen was still made up of real fossils. In fact, one of the fossils was the counter slab to a nearly complete specimen of Microraptor zhaoianus.

Microraptor zhaoianus
Microraptor zhaoianus
(Source: Wikipedia)

And Microraptor is just one of the many known feathered non-avian dinosaurs. Wikipedia has a rather good entry on Feathered dinosaurs, listing 34 specimens of non-avian dinosaurs with preserved evidence of feathers (that is, 34 as of the time I right this - I suspect that number will grow as new fossils are unearthed). There's no excuse for Hovind to claim that feathered dinosaurs haven't been discovered.

(Source: Wikipedia)
We cover more on that in one of the debates I did. I forget which one, but, uh, they say 'birds are descendants of dinosaurs'. Well, kids, in case you don't know, there are a few differences between a dinosaur and a bird. Okay. You don't just put a few feathers on 'em and say, 'Come on man, give it a try. It won't hurt too bad.'

It's just not that easy. See, reptiles have four perfectly good legs. Birds have two legs and two wings. So, if his front legs are gonna change to wings, ah, somewhere along the line they're gonna be half leg and half wing, which means on that particular day, he can't run anymore, and he still can't fly yet, so he's got a real problem. A serious problem.

Just for reference, here's the image Hovind showed while talking about putting feathers on dinosaurs.

Hovind's Flying Sauropod Slide
Kent Hovind's Idea of Dinosaur Evolution
(Source: YouTube)

This argument is just so silly it almost doesn't even deserve a response. Nobody is proposing that birds evolved from sauropods. Birds evolved from theropods, most probably maniraptorans or something closely related. Here's a picture of my favorite non-avian dinosaur, a deinonychus. It's a dromeosaurid, one of those groups closely related to the maniraptorans.

(Source: Wikipedia)

I think it's pretty obvious from that picture that a deinonychus could run pretty well using just its hind legs, freeing up its arms for other purposes. Why would anybody suggest that early birds would have needed their front limbs for running?

They say archaeopteryx is proof of - for evolution. Whenever you buy a bag of dinosaurs, they almost always stick one of these in there. Archaeopteryx. Wow. And this somehow gets the impression to the kids, 'Wow, we got proof that dinosaurs turned to birds. Here's one with feathers on it.'

Okay, so now we're finally getting to archaeopteryx. I think I'll use this as an opportunity to provide a link to an older entry of mine, Book Review - Archaeopteryx: The Icon of Evolution. That entry is a review of the excellent book by Peter Wellnhofer, and I'll be referring back to it a few times in the remainder of this entry. I'll also mention another previous entry, Book Review - Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters, reviewing the book by Donald Prothero. There's an excellent illustration from the book that I included in that blog entry comparing anatomical features of birds, archaeopteryx, and a few non-avian theropods.

They're lying. It's still in the textbooks, I mean today, about archaeopteryx. And it's been proven years ago archaeopteryx was just a bird, a perching bird. Alan Feduccia, who believes in evolution, says it's not a missing link. It had the right features for flight. All the features of the brain were for flight. Okay.

Regarding archaeopteryx's 'features for flight', I'll quote myself from my review of Wellnhofer's book, "One of the things that struck me is just how much more dinosaur-like than bird-like archaeopteryx was (yeah, yeah, I know - birds are dinosaurs, but I think my meaning is clear enough). In fact, the Solnhofen Specimen was originally mistaken for a Compsognathus theropod by an amateur collector. I've included two pictures from the book below to dramatically illustrate this (I apologize for the quality of the scans, but like I said in another review, I wasn't about to ruin the binding on my book just to make it lay flat in the scanner)."

Comparison of Bambiraptor, Archaeopteryx, and a Modern Chicken
Comparison of Bambiraptor, Archaeopteryx, and a Modern Chicken - not to scale
(Source: Archaeopteryx: The Icon of Evolution)
Comparison of Archaeopteryx to a Modern Eagle
Comparison of Archaeopteryx to a Modern Eagle - not to scale
(Source: Archaeopteryx: The Icon of Evolution)

"Take a close look at those skeletons. If you had to pick which other animal archaeopteryx was most closely related to, it seems pretty obvious that it would be the bambiraptor. Archaeopteryx still had clawed hands, a hyperextensible 'killer' claw on its foot (though not shown in the above reconstruction), a long boney tail, gastralia (the bones under the stomach), a more theropod pubis, and teeth in its mouth. Just as important is what archaeopteryx didn't have - a pygostyle, a keratinous beak, a large keeled sternum, fused hand bones, a fused tibiotarsus, or a fused tarsometatarsus. It also seems pretty likely that archaeopteryx lacked a bastard wing. And those are just some of the differences between archaeopteryx and modern birds."

In fact, the last time I was at the Perot Museum of Nature and Science and looking at the fossils and casts there, the thing that struck me was just how big the keel is on the sternum of modern birds to anchor all those flight muscles, and how inadequate archaeopteryx looked by comparison. In fact, while the consensus seems to be that archaeopteryx could most likely fly, it probably wasn't a very strong flyer.

I also have to point out the error in thinking that archaeopteryx perched. The consensus is that archaeopteryx didn't have a rear facing toe, and so couldn't perch. In fact, it doesn't appear to have been arboreal at all, but rather a fully terrestrial animal.

And one more note to keep in mind in these discussions - archaeopteryx may not even have been a bird, depending on what the definition of 'bird' turns out to be, and pending more fossils to fill in the details of early bird evolution. It was definitely closely related, but it may have evolved flight or gliding independently from the lineage that led to modern birds.

Archaeopteryx means 'ancient wing', and he had claws on his wings. Well, that's kind of unusual, okay, but twelve birds today have claws on their wings. The swan, the ibis, the hoatzin. Well, several birds have claws.

The commonality in the hands of archaeopteryx and non-avian dinosaurs is not just in having claws. After all, as Hovind correctly points out (you won't hear that phrase too often), many living birds have claws (pay close attention next time you're eating chicken wings). The commonality is in the size & structure of the claws, but more importantly, in the overall structure of the hands.

Take a look at the images below. The first is an ostrich wing, with the claws clearly visible. The latter two are an archaeopteryx and a deinonychus. If, as Hovind claims, an archaeopteryx is clearly a bird, see if you can figure out which one of the latter pair is the archaeopteryx, and which is the deinonychus.

Ostrich Wing with Claw
Ostrich Wing
(Source: Tetrapod Zoology)
Deinonychus and Archaeopteryx Hands
Archaeopteryx & Deinonychus Arms
(Source: Wikipedia)

It's not so easy, is it? You might have noticed that the hand on the top is more gracile and correctly surmised that it was the archaeopteryx, but it's obvious just how much more similar that archaeopteryx and deinonychus are two each other than either is to the ostrich. The ostrich bones are fused, while the archaeopteryx and deinonychus bones are all distinct, giving them flexibility.

They say, 'Well, he had teeth in his beak.' Well, not many birds have teeth. Some do. There's a hummingbird has teeth in his beak. But most birds don't have teeth, I agree. Actually, some mammals have teeth. Some don't. Some birds have teeth. Some don't. Some fish have teeth. Some don't. Some of you have teeth. Some don't. Okay.

I tried looking for this, but as far as I could tell, no modern birds have teeth. My best guess is that Hovind was referring to the tooth-billed hummingbird, which has a serrated beak, not bony teeth. There are many fossil birds with teeth, many of them much more modern than archaeopteryx. A good example is hesperornis, an ancient aquatic bird.

(Source: Wikipedia)

The point is that toothlessness used to be considered a hallmark of birds. If birds evolved from dinosaurs, then we should be able to find some ancestor of modern birds that does have teeth. Finding ancient birds with teeth shows part of the transition between their ancestors and modern birds.

So, it's true feathers and scales are both made of keratin. Same building block. That's true. But that's where the similarity stops. Okay.

Feather evolution is still a bit of conjecture, but it's not pure guesswork. There are different lines of evidence that evolutionary biologists are pursuing, helping to reveal the story of what happened in the past. Carl Zimmer wrote an article for National Geographic, Feather Evolution, describing some relatively recent research (despite the archaeoraptor controversy described above, National Geographic is still a very good organization). To quote one portion of the article, "In the late 1990s Richard Prum of Yale University and Alan Brush of the University of Connecticut developed the idea that the transition from scales to feathers might have depended on a simple switch in the wiring of the genetic commands inside placodes, causing their cells to grow vertically through the skin rather than horizontally."

Wikipedia has a decent discussion of feather evolution, including the diagram below based on a 2009 paper by Xu and Guo. The big evolutionary innovation was the filament (a possible explanation being that quote from Zimmer's article above). After that, it was a series of small steps to get to modern flight feathers, all of which would have had functions in non-flying animals, that could have later been co-opted for flight in birds.

Feather Evolution Stages
Proposed Feather Evolutionary Stages
(Source: Wikipedia)
Actually, birds and reptiles have different lung system, different reproductive system, different body covering, different brain, I mean, different circulatory system, thousands of differences exist between dinosaurs and birds. That could be a whole seminar by itself.

Hovind's pulling a bit of a bait and switch here, talking of the differences between birds and reptiles, and then transferring that to birds and dinosaurs. Now, this gets into the problem of classification, but if dinosaurs are going to be called reptiles, they're very derived reptiles, with many 'advanced' traits.

Many of the examples Hovind used are soft anatomy, parts that don't readily fossilize, so it's a bit difficult to know details of those systems in dinosaurs. But what is known points to birds being flying theropods. Perhaps one of the best examples is the first one Hovind mentioned, the respiratory system. Bird lungs are very distinct from mammal lungs. While our lungs operate like a bellows, sucking air in and pushing it back out, air flows through bird lungs in only one direction, making them more efficient at gas transfer. To accomplish this, birds have separate air sacs that do the actual pumping. Evidence in the fossils of theropods indicates that they had a similar type of respiratory system. And it's not just the relatively small maniraptorans. It appears to be a widespread theropod trait, including the well know allosaurus. There are even indications of air sacs in the fossils of early sauropodomorphs, meaning that these air sacs may even have been present in sauropods (i.e. 'long necks' such as brachiosaurus and diplodocus).

Theropod Respiratory System
Theropod/Bird Respiratory System
(Source: Wikipedia)
It's interesting. There are two different kinds of dinosaurs, the bird hip and the lizard hip dinosaur. Their hips are very different. Ask an evolutionist which type of dinosaur evolved into the bird. Was it the bird hip or the lizard hip? And they will probably kinda hang their head, quietly say, 'Well, it was the lizard hip.' Oh, so now the hip's gotta turn around backwards, too, in addition to all the billions of other changes you've gotta make.

This is no secret at all. There are two main branches of dinosaurs - Saurischia, the lizard hipped dinosaurs, and Ornithischia, the bird hipped dinosaurs. These terms were coined in the late 1880s, when not as many dinosaurs were known as today, and were based on superficial resemblances. The main distinguishing feature is the direction the pubis bone projects from the pelvis. In general, it's forwards in Saurischians, and rearwards in Ornithischians, but there are exceptions. In fact, even in closely realated animals, there can be variation. Below is a picture showing the hips of various Therizinosaurs.

Therizinosauria Hip Variation
Therizinosauria Hip Variation
(Source: Wikipedia)

It is an odd quirk of fate that the group that was termed lizard hipped is the one that gave rise to birds, and not the one termed bird hipped, but it's little more than an issue of the words used to describe those groups, and not a real reason why birds shouldn't be grouped with the Saurischians. In fact, take a look at these three skeletons. The first is a deinonychus, the second is the archaeopteryx, and the third is a presbyornis, a type of extinct bird, but much more modern in appearance than an archaeopteryx. Pay particular attention to the hips. It's not just the direction the pubis bone projects, but the robustness of that bone, and the overall structure of the pelvis. As with all the other comparisons I've shown, it should be clear which animal archaeopteryx is more similar to. (These images are all copyrighted by Scott Hartman, who has an excellent website, Scott Hartman's Skeletal He gives permission for non-commercial use of his images, but if you want to copy these, make sure to give Hartman credit.)

Scott Hartman's Deinonychus Skeleton Drawing
(Source: Scott Hartman's Skeletal
Scott Hartman's Archaeopteryx Skeleton Drawing
(Source: Scott Hartman's Skeletal
Scott Hartman's Presbyornis Skeleton Drawing
(Source: Scott Hartman's Skeletal
There's no evidence of how dinosaurs evolved through birds. None. Zero.

Well, I would hope that what I've written above is sufficient to put the lie to this claim. And this was all merely a blog entry written by an interested laymen. There are entire books on just archaeopteryx, not to mention the entire subject of bird evolution. There's no lack of information on this subject, and no excuse for someone like Kent Hovind to teach from ignorance.


Related Entries (This Site)

Related Links (External Sites)

Additional Notes

There were a few more thoughts I had that don't directly tie in to anything Hovind presented, but that might be interesting to some people, so I've included a bit of extra information here.

In case anybody's curious, Saurischia includes the theropods (birds, T. Rex, 'raptors', etc.) and sauropodomorphs (brachiosaurus, diplodocus, appatosaurus, etc.), while Ornithischia includes pretty much all the other types of dinosaurs people are familiar with (triceratops, ankylosaurus, stegosaurus, 'duck-bills', etc.). As far as is known from the fossil record, only the theropods included carnivorous dinosaurs, while every other group was herbivorous. And even some theropods were herbivorous or omnivorous.

When I first learned these groups, I found it intriguing that the four legged sauropods were more closely related to the bipedal theropods than to other four legged dinosaurs. But this was due to the interesting fact of dinosaur evolution that the oldest dinosaurs were bipedal, and the quadrupedality evolved independently in a few later lineages. This ancestry is apparent in many of the early quadrupedal dinosaurs, having great big hind limbs, and short, less robust fore limbs.

I think it's a bit amusing the way creationists deal with transitional animals like archaeopteryx. To creationists, everything has to belong to a certain 'kind'. So, while Kent Hovind was utterly convinced that archaeopteryx was merely a bird, here's another set of creationists arguing that archaeopteryx was clearly a dinosaur, Archaeopteryx Update. But to people who accept evolution and the gradual change this entails, these types of grey areas are expected. Archaeopteryx has a mix of old and new traits because that's how evolution works. It was a type of theropod dinosaur with feathers and wings, most likely not a direct ancestor of modern birds, but very closely related to whatever that animal was.

I know many people are interested in finding direct ancestors in the fossil record, but this is unlikely, not to mention difficult to verify even if someone were lucky enough to find one. I thought of an example that might make this easier for people to understand. Just imagine all the cats alive today - cougars, lions, tigers, jaguars, leopards, house cats, etc. Next, imagine that all of them went extinct except for one species. Now, imagine jumping ahead a few million years into the future, and that you're a future paleontologist living among the descendants of cats, trying to determine their ancestry. And you found fossils of a few of the different types of cats alive today. How would you be able to determine which one was the actual ancestor of your future cats, and which was one of the side branches that went extinct? Really, do you think if you found lions and tigers, that you could definitively distinguish one as the ancestor and one that went extinct? Or, what if you only found lion fossils, but your future cats were all descended from tigers. You may not have found the exact direct ancestor of your future cats, but you would have found an animal very similar to it. That's how it is in paleontology. Archaeopteryx is almost certainly not the direct ancestor of modern birds, but it was alive at the same time, and closely related to, whatever that animal was. We may never find that animal, but archaeopteryx and other fossils we're finding can give us a better idea of what that animal was probably like.

Updated 2017-03-29: Made several tweaks to wording to make things easier to understand, but nothing that changed the overall meaning.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Creationist Dishonesty and a Follow Up to Previous Entries

Archaeopteryx - Berlin SpecimenThe other day browsing through the channel guide, I wandered into the religious channels and saw a show on creationism. I recorded it and just watched it this past weekend.* It was part of the Creation Series by Kent Hovind. Now, if you follow the creationism/evolution 'debate' at all, you'll probably recognize that name. Hovind is rather infamous, not just for the poor quality of his arguments, but also for his questionable ethics, such as getting his bachelor's degree from a non-accredited university, his doctorate from a diploma mill, and then his tax evasion that landed him a 10 year prison sentence (he should be released in 2015). But despite his infamy, I have to admit to never having watched any of Hovind's videos before. So I figured, why not give it a shot and see how bad it could be.

It was horrible. Hovind fully deserves the bad reputation that he spent so many years building. I couldn't believe the amount of falsehoods he kept spewing, and the amount of applause it generated from the audience.

About two thirds of the way through the episode, something really caught my attention. It all seemed very, very familiar. And I realized, I'd seen all this before on another site in the article, Are Dinosaurs Alive Today As Birds?: Refuting Archaeopteryx as "Evidence" for Evolution. If you've been following this (my) blog, you'll recognize that link. I had a lengthy discussion with the writer, R. K. Sepetjian, in the comments section of his blog, which spawned several entries on this site (see below for links).

I haven't yet found a link to the video I watched, but Hovind has given variations of the same speech numerous times. Here's one version that addresses the section I'm going to discuss in this entry, Kent Hovind cse 103 class 2 (part 3 of 7). And here's another version where the audio doesn't seem to work, but which includes more of the slides, Archaeopteryx.

I went back and checked Sepetjian's page just to make sure that I hadn't missed a reference to Hovind. But no, there was no such reference to be found. R. K. Sepetjian presented that article as if he had come up with it. Granting him the benefit of the doubt, he may be one of those people who thinks it's not plagiarism if you're not copying and pasting directly. At least compared to the version of Hovind's presentation that I watched, Sepetjian re-wrote everything and changed the wording a bit here and there, but the similarities were obvious. Had I tried something like that in college and gotten caught, I would have faced some hefty disciplinary action (Academic Integrity and You, UMD).

Just how similar was it? Here are excerpts from each to illustrate. Please note that the transcript of Hovind's words was completed by me, so I apologize if I've made any mistakes, but I tried to be careful.

Kent Hovind R. K. Sepetjian
Well, kids, in case you don't know, there are a few differences between a dinosaur and a bird. Okay.

You don't just put a few feathers on 'em and say, 'Come on man, give it a try. It won't hurt too bad.'
It may have escaped your attention, but there are a few differences between a dinosaur and a bird.

You don't just put a few feathers on them on and say "Come on man, give it a try. It won't hurt too badly."
So, if his front legs are gonna change to wings, ah, somewhere along the line they're gonna be half leg and half wing, which means on that particular day, he can't run anymore, and he still can't fly yet, so he's got a real problem. A serious problem. If dinosaurs turned into birds, somewhere along the line, when his front legs were developing into wings they're going to be half-leg / half-wing-which means he can't run and he can't yet fly.
Archaeopteryx means 'ancient wing', and he had claws on his wings.

Well, that's kind of unusual, okay, but twelve birds today have claws on their wings. The swan, the ibis, the hoatzin. Well, several birds have claws.
Archaeopteryx means "ancient wing"

They say, "See boys and girls? He has claws on his wings!"

Yeah, so?

12 birds today have claws on their wings including the ostrich, swan, hoatzin, emu, and ibis.
They say, 'Well, he had teeth in his beak.' Well, not many birds have teeth. Some do. There's a hummingbird has teeth in his beak. But most birds don't have teeth, I agree.

Actually, some mammals have teeth. Some don't.

Some birds have teeth. Some don't.

Some fish have teeth. Some don't.

Some of you have teeth. Some don't. Okay.
They say, "Look children, he's got teeth in his beak. That proves he has reptilian features."

Now wait a minute.

Some reptiles have teeth. Some don't.

Some mammals have teeth. Some don't.

Some fish have teeth. Some don't.

Some of you have teeth. Some don't.
So, it's true feathers and scales are both made of keratin. Same building block. That's true. But that's where the similarity stops. Okay. They say bird feathers evolved from scales.

A. They come from different genes on the chromosome.

B. They develop totally differently

C. A scale is a hard wrinkle in the skin--a feather is not a wrinkle of skin.

D. They attach to the skin very differently

E. Feathers are incredibly complex and unbelievably complicated.

They are both made from the same protein, Keratin and there is where the similarity stops.

But that's not where the similarities stop between Sepetjian's entry and Hovind's presentation. The above table only compares what Sepetjian wrote to Hovind's spoken words, not other aspects of the presentation. For example, here was Sepetjian's opening to his entry:

"Paleontologists have tried to turn Archaeopteryx into an earth bound feathered dinosaur. But it's not. It is a bird, a perching bird. And no amount of 'paleobabble' is going to change that." Alan Feduccia - a world authority on birds from UNC Chapel Hill, quoted in "Archaeopteryx: Early Bird Catches a Can of Worms," Science Feb. 5, 1994, p. 764-5.

Here was one of Hovind's slides from his presentation:

Hovind Feduccia quote

If you're using a text only browser, I'll save you the mystery. The excerpt from Sepetjian is a direct quote of the Hovind slide.

Here was another quote Sepetjian had in his article:

"Strahl adds that some ornithologists call the hoatzin 'primitive' because of its archaeopteryx-like claws; but he prefers to think of it as 'high;y specialized.' Swans, ibis and many other birds, he notes have wing claws; they just never make use of them." ("What's a Hoatzin?" Scientific American, vol. 261 December 1989, p. 30)

I'm sure you know what's coming next:

Hovind Strahl quote

Sepetjian didn't limit his copying to just text, either. Here are a few pictures from Hovind's presentation and Sepetjian's article.

Kent Hovind R. K. Sepetjian
Hovind's Flying Sauropod Slide Sepetjian's Flying Sauropod Image
Hovind's Archaeopteryx Teeth Slide Sepetjian's Archaeopteryx Teeth Image
Hovind's Toothless Old Lady Slide Sepetjian's Toothless Old Man Image

Granted, that last image is only stealing the concept, not the exact image, but that's still a form of stealing, especially when you don't credit the original source for the inspiration. And those first two, if you look at them closely on Sepetjian's site, look like they were actually photographs taken off of a screen or monitor.


I'm no longer shocked by dishonesty on the part of Christians, particularly creationists, but it's disappointing to learn that I devoted so much time to a sincere discussion with someone so dishonest. This did add some understanding to that discussion with R. K. Sepetjian. I had assumed that he had come up with all the arguments he presented on his page, but it seems that he was merely parroting what he'd heard someone else say. That may explain why he was so reluctant to actually discuss the evidence or the interpretation of it.

Stay tuned. In an upcoming entry in the next week or so, I plan to address the actual claims from Hovind.

Update: The new entry is now online:
Response to Kent Hovind Video - Bird Evolution

*Actually, there were a few shows I recorded and watched, none of which was particularly convincing. But if I spent my time responding to every single piece of information I disagreed with, I'd never have time to do anything else. I only responded to this particular video because of my prior experience with R. K. Sepetjian.

If you're interested, here are my previous entries dealing with Sepetjian.

Updated 2014-01-29: Corrected a few minor typos and made a few minor revisions.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Virginia's New Strenghts & Weaknesses Bill

Evolutionary TreeThere's a recent article at the Daily Beast, Creationism's Latest Trojan Horse Edges Toward Virginia Schools by Karl Giberson. The tagline is as follows.

After years on the defensive, opponents of evolution and climate change are learning that subtle language may be the ticket to sabotaging science education in public schools.

The article is very good, and this entry would be worth doing if only to alert readers to that article and urge them to read it. It contains one of the best short summaries I've seen of the creationism movement in this country. Aside from the excellent the history, Giberson described the current issue in Virginia, where the state legislature is attempting a tactic that's become familiar to those of us who follow the evolution/creation confrontation:

America's whack-a-mole debate about evolution in the public schools has reappeared in Virginia, where state assembly has proposed legislation to modify curriculum to include study of the "scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories." If the anti-evolutionists get their way, Virginia elementary and secondary schools will have to develop new curricula that explores the weaknesses of evolution, a strategy intended to make room for alternative theories of origins.

I've written about this strengths and limitations tactic before concerning Texas. While it sounds noble in theory, in practice it's used in an attempt to smuggle creationist nonsense into the classroom.

So, at this point, I could be done with this entry. But I've gone and caught another case of SIWOTI syndrome. Reading through the comments to the article (yes, I know I shouldn't do that), I came across one that I wanted to reply to. But for some reason, the comment won't go through. So, to get it off my chest, I'm going to post the comment here.

Here's the portion of the comment that motivated me to respond.

Mr. Giberson's historical (and biased) rendering of the Creationist/ID movement did nothing to support his assertion that adding a module or two on the weaknesses of evolution would somehow lead to teaching creationism is the classroom.

My intended response is as follows.

This conversation is full of examples of why the people who support science are worried about language like this. You yourself pulled out the old canard of, "And yes, it is only a theory." Someone else brought up the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Someone else used a God of the Gaps argument ("I also think teaching about a potential intelligent designer as possible future theories of things we don't have answers too, or even things we do, are as plausible.") Another person tried to connect evolutionary with the origin of the entire universe ("The bottom line is that the Theory of evolution says everything came to being because of an explosion.") Someone else would call into question all non-laboratory science ("Because it is incapable of being reproduced and tested in a laboratory setting because the time frames involved are beyond human ability to observe."), as if astronomy wasn't a science because you can't put stars in the lab. Someone else brought up a (rather silly) argument from consequences ("Based upon this logic the holocaust was acceptable because there were laws which supported it."), and another person brought in the related is/ought fallacy ("Why do you keep shoving the theory that our children are from apes and then you wonder why they act like one.") These are the reasons why the science proponents are worried, that bogus 'weaknesses' like these will be taught to students, not legitimate scientific debates.

And while the Virginia bill doesn't specifically call out any particular area of science, when similar language has been proposed in other states, it has. For example, Tennessee's Senate Bill 893 included the phrase, "including evolution, global warming, the chemical origin of life, and human cloning," and Oklahoma's HB 1551 included the wording, "analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming, and human cloning." These bills aren't about open inquiry, urging students to question everything. They're calling out a few specific fields of science that some groups don't like. Nobody would be so naive as to think Virginia is operating in a vacuum, and that the politicians introducing this bill haven't been influenced by the politicians introducing similar bills in other states.

For a bit of extra info, here are a few links. The first is more information on the legislation for states outside Virginia. The second is an index of handy explanations of the flaws in many standard creationist claims. The third is an entry I did a few years ago concerning the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

Hopefully, voices of reason will prevail in Virginia, and this backhanded attempt at indoctrinating children into creationism will fail.

Updated 2014-01-30: Updated a typo - it's the Daily Beast, not the Daily Best.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Climate Change - Arctic Sea Ice Extent

Global WarmingI recently had a conversation with an acquaintance regarding climate change. He was a denialist, and one of his arguments, while a familiar tactic, was a new one to me on the specifics - that 2013 had seen a dramatic increase in Arctic sea ice extent, indicating that the global warming trend had reversed. After doing a bit of Googling, I found similar claims in some of the standard denialist sources. For example, a recent article in The Telegraph by Hayley Dixon carried the headline, Global warming? No, actually we're cooling, claim scientists. The synopsis right under the headline read:

A cold Arctic summer has led to a record increase in the ice cap, leading experts to predict a period of global cooling.

The opening two paragraphs of the actual article are quoted below.

There has been a 29 per cent increase in the amount of ocean covered with ice compared to this time last year, the equivalent of 533,000 square miles.

In a rebound from 2012's record low, an unbroken ice sheet more than half the size of Europe already stretches from the Canadian islands to Russia's northern shores, days before the annual re-freeze is even set to begin.

To be charitable, the numbers being claimed seem to be relatively accurate. The problem lies in the interpretation.

My first reaction to hearing the claim from my acquaintance was to go looking for the data to see for myself what was going on. I found a good source for sea ice data, National Snow & Ice Data Center. After clicking through a few links, I found this data set in particular, Sea Ice Index (direct ftp link). It provided monthly mean extent and area data, so I downloaded that, put it into Excel, and plotted it. Below is the result of that work, a graph showing monthly averages by year.

Sea Ice Extent

Plotting it out like that really shows the misleading nature of the claim that arctic sea ice has recovered. There's a clear long term trend of decreasing ice extent. 2012 was an abnormally low year, and 2013 was an abnormally high year, but neither year was far off from that trend.

Here's another way of plotting the data. This is a simplistic average, summing the monthly averages and dividing by 12, but still shows the general trend.

Sea Ice Extent

Another way this is misleading is by expressing it as a percentage. Because of the long term trend, the minimums are getting lower and lower. The lower the minimums are, the higher percentage increase you'll get from any increase. A few years from now, if one year is only 1 million kmĀ², and the next was 2 million, I'm sure the denialists would shout that it was a 100% increase. Once we have an ice free summer, any amount of ice the next summer would be an infinite improvement percentage wise, but not much solace if the absolute coverage was still low.

In the course of my googling this, I came across a good article on SkepticalScience dealing with the claim in more depth than I have here, Arctic sea ice "recovers" to its 6th-lowest extent in millennia. I highly recommend you go read the entire article, but I couldn't resist stealing one of their animated images, illustrating how denialists view sea ice decline. Sea Ice Graph

If you want to see another example of the denialist propaganda, here's an article from the Mail Online, And now it's global COOLING! Return of Arctic ice cap as it grows by 29% in a year. It contains similar claims to the Telegraph article quoted above.

It amazes me that intelligent, well educated individuals can fall for these types of propaganda, but the sad truth is that our world is warming, and we're already starting to face some of the effects of that change. Unless we do something about it soon, the future for us and our children will be much more painful and expensive than it needed to be.

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

When Happy Holidays Isn't Good Enough

ScroogeI've written about the Salvation Army before, in the appropriately named entry, The Salvation Army - To Give, or Not to Give?. Now, I have reservations about that organization, and I've personally decided to donate to other, more deserving groups, but as I wrote in that entry, "I do think the Salvation Army does much more good than harm. So, if the only way you would donate would be to drop your change into one of their kettles, then don't hold back! Most of your money will go to helping people, and it's better than doing nothing at all." I certainly wouldn't advocate hostility towards the group, but here's an example of a Christian who was none too happy with one of the bell ringers, Salvation Army bell ringer says 'Happy Holidays' led to assault. Yes, you read the headline correctly. The bell ringer was wishing people 'happy holidays', and was assaulted because of it. Here's how she put it.

"The lady looked at me," said Vindiola. "I thought she was going to put money in the kettle. She came up to me and said, 'Do you believe in God?' And she says, 'You're supposed to say Merry Christmas,' and that's when she hit me."

How petty and small minded can you get? Here's a person volunteering their own time to collect money for a Christian organization helping the poor, and another person is angered to the point of violence over their choice of wording in well wishing? It's absurd. And it's not even like saying 'happy holidays' is always (or even usually) a deliberate downplay of Christmas. I remember when it used to be the standard greeting on Christmas cards in lieu of wishing 'Merry Christmas and a happy New Year' simply because it was shorter. Or do these people hate New Year's so much that only Christmas should be mentioned in holiday greetings?

Granted, some people do say 'happy holidays' deliberately to avoid only Christmas wishes, because there are other holidays that people celebrate around this time of year. But that's meant to be more inclusive to those other people, not as some sort of hostility towards Christians. What type of person does it take to get upset at somebody extending good will towards a larger group of people?

It's kind of ugly, but here's a good chart I came across showing the proper response to different holiday greetings depending on the particular affiliation of the people involved.

Holiday wishes flow chart

If you can't read it, the appropriate response in every case is:

"Thank you! You too!"

...because honestly, if you can't see past the words of the wish to its good intent, then it's not the holiday well-wisher who's broken, it's you.

So, happy holidays to everyone out there who's celebrating some sort of holiday right around now. And if you're not celebrating anything, then just have a nice day.

Image Source: Imgur


Selling Out