The Creationist Claptrap Jindal Wants in Public Schools: Luskin’s Missed Wrist

As you are probably already aware, thanks to Republican Governor and sometime amatuer exorcist Bobby Jindal, the 4th wave of creationism is now officially underway in the great state of Louisiana.

As with every other wave, this movement involves simply recycling the usual stable of crappy creationist claims, but this time without any explicit title (not even “Intelligent Design”) or even any explicit unity between the arguments, let alone any hint of a specific alternative conclusion that they are all pointing towards. Instead, creationist standards are to be repackaged as “scientific criticisms,” divided up, and sprinkled liberally throughout textbooks and idiosyncratic classroom curricula. And politicians like Jindal are meant to abet the effort by passing “academic freedom” bills that curiously target the teaching of evolution, and only evolution, as needing special protection for the teaching of “critical views.”

The obvious trick inherent in all of these bills is that they never specify a standard of accuracy that such criticisms have to meet, and they are often vague as to who is going to evaluate or enforce that standard in any case.

Scientists in general already do a pretty good job of including actual scientific controversy and ambiguity in textbooks and curricula, which makes these bills basically an invitation to introduce legally protected psuedoscience into local classrooms. If this sounds a little too much like the “teach the controversy” strategy of the original creationists, well, you and I are like the 800th and 801st people to notice that.

In any case, both PZ Myers and Carl Zimmer recently covered an excellently awful example of the sort of “scientific” criticism of science that the former proponents of “Intelligent Design” (so third-wave!) presumably think public schools kids are being deprived of. In this case, the offender is Casey Luskin, resident lawyer for the Discovery Institute and snarky cheerleader for the “academic freedom” bills, whose inherent plausible deniability (“See, they say only scientific criticisms: why is evolution so scared of science“) he milks at every turn.

And the gaffe is truly legendary this time. In his latest article, Luskin is trying to cast doubt on some recent work by paleontologist Neil Shubin, discoverer of the transitional tetrapod Tiktaalik and author of the exceptionally entertaining “Your Inner Fish.” Luskin mainly complains that Shubin never makes any of the necessary connections to substantiate his claims that Tiktaalik’s fin lobes are truly homolagous to tetrapod arms and wrists.

Shubin et al.: “The intermedium and ulnare of Tiktaalik have homologues to eponymous wrist bones of tetrapods with which they share similar positions and articular relations.” (Note: I have labeled the intermedium and ulnare of Tiktaalik in the diagram below.)

Translation: OK, then exactly which “wrist bones of tetrapods” are Tiktaalik’s bones homologous to? Shubin doesn’t say. This is a technical scientific paper, so a few corresponding “wrist bone”-names from tetrapods would seem appropriate. But Shubin never gives any.

Catch that? If you, like Luskin, don’t happen to know what the word “eponymous” means, then you’ve just read a level-howler. Eponymous basically means “similarly or derivitatively named,” which means that Shubin has given the “corresponding” names for the tetrapod bones: i.e. they have same names in tetrapods as they do in Tiktaalik.

Now, this was probably a mistake made out of ignorance. Which is fine: Luskin is not a paleontologist, let alone an expert on Tiktaalik. But this is precisely the sort of “ignorance-based” argument that is likely to end up in public schools based on the very academic freedom bills that Luskin favors. And from this sort of openness to error comes an endless rambling arrogance, as Zimmer expertly savages:

Luskin suggests instead it would be easier to make Tiktaalik a forerunner of lungfish. (Lungfish are among the closest living relatives of tetrapods, but our last common ancestor with them lived over 400 million years ago.) “Without trying to force-fit the fin of Tiktaalik into a pre-conceived evolutionary story,” he declares, “the living species that Tiktaalik’s fin seems to bear a much closer relationship to is the lungfish.”

Note the word seems.

If Luskin were offering a real scientific hypothesis, he could do an anlysis of lungfish, Tiktaalik, tetrapods, and other vertebrates–comparing not just their limbs but their heads, spines, and so on to figure out their evolutionary relationships. That’s exactly what Shubin and his colleagues did in their original paper on Tiktaalik. They compared 114 traits on species from nine different lineages of tetrapods and their aquatic relatives, including the lineage that produced today’s lungfish. And that analysis shows that Tiktaalik is more closely related to us than to lungfish.

Luskin apparently doesn’t need to do this sort of science. He can just announce what seems right to him personally.

The point is not that only experts can ever have anything useful to say on evolution, or even that experts cannot make mistakes and laypeople like Luskin can’t catch them. It’s that just because a layperson thinks that they’ve caught a mistake, or has a better understanding of some scientific subject than experts, that doesn’t automatically make the criticism accurate. Or good science. And chances are still very, very good that it’s confused crap. Science demands that we first find out whether it really is or isn’t crap by looking closely at the evidence: precisely the sort of thing that “experts” spend their time doing (which is precisely why they are experts, and Luskin is not).

Again, that expertise doesn’t create infaliability. But it is supposed to recommend a degree of extra humility for non-experts: a sense that you really need to really do your homework before making bold assertions. Creationism has basically thrived on a refusal to do one’s homework: to appeal to simplistic first-blush impressions and personal incredulity instead of grappling with the evidence and the often difficult subject material one needs to master in order to interpret it properly.

Personally, I don’t think “refusing to do one’s homework” is quite the right ethic for academic education.

8 Responses to The Creationist Claptrap Jindal Wants in Public Schools: Luskin’s Missed Wrist

  1. Grendel The Martyr says:

    Evolution as taught in public schools tends to stick to the well evidenced and long established facts, though areas of ongoing research are sometimes covered. [Of course, in some schools evolution is barely covered at all]. Very new or preliminary work such as that currently being done by Shubin with Tiktaalik doesn’t make it into the textbooks or lesson plans. Even when/if firmly established as fact, the Tiktaalik work is fairly detailed and not likely to make a high school level science textbook – these tend towards generalist accounts of the basics of evolution, speciation, genetics, mutations, changes in gene frequency, etc.

    Creationist criticism won’t find much *vulnerable* evolutionary science at the public school level, only the well-established basics of evolution. and their criticisms wouldn’t last five minutes in the labs of current researchers, primarily born of ignorance and personal incredulity as it is and as you noted.

    Still, it is disturbing that they keep coming on with it, like little Energizer Bunnies, and that they find so many highly placed -and therefore dangerous -allies and abettors like Jindal.

    Perhaps they are feeling the heat – previously, creationist argument has pointed to a lack of observed evolution, trying to paint the whole evolutionary science edifice of evidence as purely speculative by a biased scientific community. ‘Tis bullshit, of course, there’ve been plenty of examples of witnessed evolution, of great note being Lenski’s ongoing twenty year E coli observational experiment:

    Work currently going on to help Tasmanian devil populations dwindling due to a contagious cancer has produced preliminary evidence of a possible evolutionary response by the devil population to the problem:

    The devils have begun to move back the age of sexual maturity of females from age 2 to age 1. It remains to be seen whether this change is genetically or environmentally based. Research is ongoing, of course.

    At any rate, as evolutionary science progresses and as gaps in knowledge are filled, the creationist bunch will probably grow even more shrill, desperate, and idiotic as they scramble for revelancy. The delicious irony is that this becomes necessary when creationists refuse to adapt their beliefs to the evidence. Adapt or die, mo-fo.

  2. Terry says:

    I will share your anger at this. How can one possibly have any grounding in reality if they aren’t willing to accept evidence of natural causes? Not only does this disgrace the scientific method, but it disgraces the scholastic method as well.

    The scholastic method worked by means of commentary on authoritative texts (ie. Aristotle’s Physics) and experiments were done to buttress an argument rather than to prove an argument. I don’t think it is hard to see how the scientific method improved upon this method. However, one thing that the medieval scholastics had that these frauds don’t is the idea that “God did it” was a fallacy. They of course accepted the fact that God was the alpha and omega, but everything had a secondary material cause, which was what actually needed to be discovered. It is true that Thomas Aquinas wrote a proof of the existence of God based on the fact that things seem to have a directed purpose (ie. Oak acorns become Oak trees) and that for something to have purpose it has to be given that purpose by a being of intelligence.

    However, this was an argument against Epicurus, not against Darwin. In fact, one could argue that half the observation is compatible with Darwin (in biology alone) in that living creatures do have an observed empirical purpose, namely to grow up and reproduce. The last half of the argument never would have had anything to say about evolutionary theory at all. After all, in Thomas Aquinas’ theology (and almost all of the other scholastic thinkers) God does not directly intervene with the physical world like he’s playing a goddamn game of Spore(tm) but rather things have a purpose due to God’s ineffable will. God is without composition and motion, therefore the secondary natural causes are sufficient explanation of HOW things occur. The literal reading of Genesis is a MODERN stupidity. These morons are not only overturning the intellectual tradition of the scientific method, but overturning the intellectual tradition of Catholic scholarship that existed even prior to Augustine.

    This ideology of intelligent design will eventually fail.

  3. Terry says:

    One more thing I have to talk about. While the ideology of intellectual design will eventually fail, I already know the next adaptation of the creationists. I know it, because it is the current position of my Church.

    Theistic Evolution is the idea that despite random mutation, natural selection and laws of inheritance explaining the natural causes of life’s origins and development there is ultimately a purpose to creation given by God. It is the WHY of existence, rather than the HOW. What distinguishes theistic evolution from the intelligent design movement is the recognition that it is not science, but merely a hope and a promise, that simply cannot be verified empirically. It therefore has nothing to say on the mechanics of evolution.

    The frauds will get there eventually, and then they will attempt to teach this in schools. Simply telling people about it does no harm, after all one learns it in philosophy classes in respectable universities everyday. The problem is that these people will want students to not only understand it, but rather to accept and affirm it as fact. In a pluralistic society, that is simply unacceptable.

  4. Bad says:

    If creationists become theistic evolutionists, I’d call that pretty much the end of creationism, at least insofar as a threat to science.

  5. Terry says:

    Well, creationism was never a threat to science. If you accept it, or intelligent design you pretty much handicap yourself in the field of biology. If you don’t provide new scholarship, you’ll largely be ignored. If you persist in speaking against established evidence and proving your intellectual inferiority and bias, then you won’t be published or gain any patronage. You’ll also receive censure and penalties from academic authorities, because you can’t have an intellectual tradition without authority and academic standards. There is a reason why universities largely have the same structure of the cathedral school, and that’s because it works.

    No the real tragedy here is the fact that some good hard working kids who have a talent for empiricism are going to be screwed out of a decent education (well, even more so). It is also an intrusion of religious ideology on the rights of the parents to teach their own children in the manner of their culture and (non)religious faith. This seriously overturns the barrier between church and state because there are actual penalties for not toeing the ideological line.

  6. Grendel The Martyr says:

    dit-dit-dit-dit-dit-dit-dit-dit-dit-dit-dit-dit-dit….. This just in…..

    Citing concerns over the growing influence of Science in culture and technology, a Republican faction of the Louisiana State Congress has introduced a bill repealing the laws of physics, while Democrats countered by introducing a bill repealing the law of supply and demand….

  7. Efrique says:

    Bad said: Now, this was probably a mistake made out of ignorance. Which is fine: Luskin is not a paleontologist, let alone an expert on Tiktaalik.

    That’s too kind. You don’t have to be a paleontologist to know what eponymous means – it’s a plain English word. In fact, I’d be kinda leery if my lawyer didn’t know what eponymous means, because it means that they’re likely to miss something important in a fairly ordinary document. … kinda like Luskin did here, I guess.

    To combine ordinary ignorance with subject-matter arrogance, that takes some doing.

  8. Grendel The Martyr says:

    It behooves anyone who reads to look up unknown words, especially if you’re planning a critical rebuttal to what you’re reading. Methinks Luskin had a plan to rebut going in, no matter what he read, and his enthusiasm for that agenda caused his embarrassing gaffe.

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