The “hoax” of #evolution [@pzmyers]

Often, when reading comments on websites, you encounter trolls – people who are there solely to stir shit and gain attention (in other news, the Pope lives in a gentrified car park in Rome). But when the website is of a scientific bent and especially if it discusses evolution, you will – that, is you definitely, absolutely & mathematically 100% will – encounter creationists. They might not be Genesis-believers who cling desperately to a 6,000 year-old Earth, like the dinosaurs presumably did to driftwood as the magic zoo-boat floated past them on a slick of animal faeces, but you will see them in some form. Today’s sub-species is the Conspiracy Theorist – the creationist who maintains not only that evolution is false, but that it is a purposeful hoax perpetrated by godless scientists.

I saw a Hoaxist today in the comments of a particularly bad Big Think post entitled “The Trouble With Darwin“, in which the author, Kas Thomas, regurgitates a bunch of oft-debunked creationist/intelligent design canards, dismisses all critics as “haters” without responding to any of them and touts his credentials (then complains that people accuse him of behaving like a creationist!). That’s by the by, though, and more capable critics than I have given it a good thrashing. The comments, hearteningly, are overwhelmingly negative, taking the author to task for his misconceptions and misrepresentations of evolution, but there’s always (at least) one creationist who thinks he’s got the Truth. The Hoaxist, named Aussiefriend, posted this little gem of foil-hattery:

Can I ask if you have ever read the peer-reviewed Journal of Creation? Can you name another two creation peer reviewed journals? Have you read any of these? Have you read “The Greatest Show in Earth” [by R. Dawkins]? I’d be surprised if you haven’t. But have you read its refutation, “The Greatest Hoax on Earth”? I think the amazing thing is that evolutionists will write a book or blog attacking creation but not cite one recent creation work.

Leaving aside the laughable claim that the Journal of Creation (a Creation Ministries International vanity rag) is “peer-reviewed” in anything approaching the sense that actual scientific journals are, I searched for the book, “The Greatest Hoax on Earth” (which, for the record, I’d be happy to read but there’s no way in Hell I’m paying money for it – especially not when there are people wearing sandwich boards giving away religious tracts [which this almost certainly is] on the streets for nothing). Continuing the well-known creationist trope of aping the titles of successful science books, it’s written by Johnathan Sarfati, who is unsurprisingly a chemist (I’m unsurprised because evo-denialists are almost inariably never biologists). If you’re interested in how Sarfati has fared in his long career of denying the facts of evolution, perform a search for his name (No Answers In Genesis has a list of articles – some are a few years old but nonetheless give a good picture of his facile arguments).

Anyway, it spurred a thought in me which got me thinking about the practicalities of hoaxes and conspiracies, and so I replied [I’ve made some small edits & extensions to my original comment]:

So, evolution is a hoax? Okay. Hoaxes are generally done either just to troll the public [or a specific set of people, a la Alan Sokal trolling post-modernist wankers in the most epic fashion possible] for a laugh or perhaps to conceal truths considered dangerous to the hoaxers. Now, the vast, overwhelming majority of the world’s scientists, schools, universities, governing bodies and governments accept evolution is true. Study of evolution doesn’t just inform people about abstract realities of nature, it leads among other things to advances in medical interventions that could save, prolong and improve countless lives. It leads to more durable crops & better-informed agricultural practices, more effective environmental care and its closely associated (and cross-confirmatory) fields of palaentology and geology allow people to make informed decisions about where to look for natural resources – in short it leads to tangible, measurable benefits to our species as a whole. Because it works. It’s not an isolated field of study on its own either – because it employs the scientific method it’s confirmed by every other branch of science – and if it wasn’t true and didn’t work, scientists would modify it in line with reality or abandon it wholesale. Scientists care only about what works, irrelevant of ideology.

Yet you want people to accept that a small minority of Christians (fringe-dwellers even in their own faith, much less humanity at large) have the actual truth but it’s being suppressed by – well, how many people would it take? Hundreds of millions of people from schoolteachers to heads of state across nearly every nation on Earth? For what reason? Nixon’s Watergate conspiracy unravelled in a matter of months yet it involved a very small number of people. Snowden, Manning and Assange have revealed to the world the dark inner workings of entire governments. How is a conspiracy that would necessarily involve the majority of educated people on this planet, all actively suppressing something they know to be false, supposed to function? Humans simply aren’t capable of that kind of secrecy. If it could, what is the actual purpose of protecting the “dogma” of evolution from the “truth” of creation? I’ve already said that scientists use whatever methods work; it’s ludicrous to label them as dogmatic to the point of hindering the advancement of their own fields of inquiry.

There’s a world-famous prize available for people who contribute vastly to scientific understanding – especially if that contribution overturns an established idea with a more powerful explanation and opens up new areas of inquiry. If someone could demonstrate – not just argue in some vanity journal but actually demonstrate – not only that evolution wasn’t true but that Creation was, they’d not only win that prize and the associated millions, they’d be lauded forever as a scientific game-changer and their work would reverberate throughout science for years to come. There’s a reason people still talk about people like Aratosthenes, Archimedes, Copernicus, Galileo, Newton & Darwin – and it’s not because of centuries of conspiracies carried on by countless millions of people. Like I said, scientists follow the data and use whatever works – if evolution was a hoax, someone (besides a creationist stooge) would’ve outed it by now and we’d be using its replacement.

This isn’t just a rant, either: I would really like to know, from someone in the know, what scientists could possibly hope to gain (or protect) by hoaxing the world with evolution*. Science simply doesn’t function like theology or politics – certainly, there are always going to be egos involved and some people have gone to great lengths to protect cherished ideas, but in the end the truth always wins out.

Again, scientists use what works, discard what doesn’t and incorporate modifications to existing paradigms when necessary. It’s why physicists didn’t completely discard Newton after Einstein, or Einstein after Hawking. And it’s why biologists haven’t discarded Darwin, even though he was mistaken about the nature of heredity, for just one example (he had no conception of DNA & genetics). Science is utilitarian and descriptive, not dogmatic and prescriptive. In short, it’s not religion.

*Lest anyone bring up Nebraska Man or Piltdown Man as examples of evolutionary hoaxes, let me point out, just for the record, that those hoaxes were perpetrated by non-scientists and exposed by real scientists. Not creationists. Even on the rare occasions that scientists do try and hoodwink their community or the public (remember the cold fusion hoax from the 1990s?), it’s always – always – other scientists that expose them. If someone could point me to a situation where a scientist has tried to pull off a hoax but been outed by a non-scientist or, better yet, a theologian, I’m all ears.

EDIT 03/07/2014: Cubist points out in the comments that the Nebraska Man incident (in which a tooth was assumed to be proto-human in 1922; the claim was retracted in 1927 – the tooth was that of an extinct peccary) was in fact an error, not a deliberate forgery (linkage).

That of course doesn’t stop many creationists using it as an example of the weakness of evolutionary science, despite the fact that the error was discovered and corrected by scientists five years after the tooth’s submission for study. In palaeontological terms this is actually very rapid. On a Young-Earth Creationist time-scale, well, think about this: the ~8 million species on Earth had to have hyper-evolved from proto-ancestors in the four thousand years since Noah’s flood. Noted Genesis idolator Ken Ham has, ahem, floated the hypothesis that Noah took “kinds” of animals onto the Ark, not individual species, in order to save space – these “kinds” then must have diverged as they repopulated the globe, speciating like mad buggers (so, clearly, evolution is A-OK  with Ken Ham as long as God is injecting meth into its eyeballs). To get from there to where we are now, that’s two thousand new speciation events every year – or ten thousand new species evolving in the same time-frame that it took Nebraska Man’s tooth to be revealed for the swine-molar that it was, or 38 new species evolving between weekly sermons at Ken’s Creation “Museum”. Ken Ham complains that there aren’t enough transitional fossils to make a good case for evolution – well, if his hyper-evolution notion is even remotely credible, we really should be knee-deep in bones at every conceivable stage of transitioning between his “kinds” and all the extant species we see today. You simply don’t go from a few thousand critters on a barge in Turkey to 8 million different species across the globe and filling the oceans, lakes, rivers and billabongs in four millennia without some deaths and extinctions. Just thinking about the evolution of lions and their numerous prey species from Ham’s proto-cat and proto-ungulate “kinds” makes my head hurt. God must be one heck of a Spore player.


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