Science & Nature Archive

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

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Texas Science Textbook Adoption - Reminder

Stand Up for Science TexasIf you haven't already seen it, go read my entry, Texas Science Textbook Adoption. To summarize, On November 22nd (a week from tomorrow), the Texas State Board of Education will have their final vote to adopt the currently proposed textbooks and other instructional materials for high school biology and environmental science. So far, everything appears to be going relatively well, but there are a few idealogues on the board who have thrown a wrench in the works before. So, please contact your school board representative and urge them to vote in favor of sound science. Links on how to take action are included in that entry.

For anyone interested, I've posted my letter to my representative, Marty Rowley, below the fold.

Continue reading "Texas Science Textbook Adoption - Reminder" »

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Texas Science Textbook Adoption

Stand Up for Science TexasI haven't written about the Texas School Board in a while, but it's time to, again. On November 22nd, the school board will have the final vote to adopt the currently proposed textbooks and other instructional materials. Now so far, things appear to be going the right way for our students' educations. Despite some school board members appointing creationists and other idealogues to the textbook review panels, and those idealogues making recommendtions against sound science, the publishers haven't made any changes undermining science education. There's still full support for evolution and climate change, the two big controversial points for the extremists.

If the final vote approves the recommended materials without any last minute shenanigans, then our students will at least have good science textbooks. But, given the school board's past behavior, it doesn't hurt to send the members a gentle reminder to vote properly. If you would like to send such a reminder to your representative, the links below provide you the means to do so (and please remember to be polite).

Links to Take Action:

Links for More Information:

Links to Past Entries on This Site Related to SBOE or TEA:


Selling Out