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Robert Todd Carroll

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Skeptic's Dictionary Newsletter

Issue # 16

November 19, 2002

I don't use science to prove my religion. I use the Bible to build my science. --Ken Ham (executive director of Answers in Genesis)

Subscribers 1,514

(Past issues posted at



      1)  New or revised entries
      2)  Sacramento Skeptics and Intelligent Design in the Classroom
      3)  Responses to selected feedback
      4)  News

 1)  New or revised entries in The Skeptic's Dictionary & Skeptic's Refuge

Since the last newsletter,

  • I added some comments on a newspaper article that called a lecture on intelligent design (ID) "scientific." I went to the lecture by Discovery Institute fellow Jed Macosko and posted my comments.

  • I added an article about the SCI-FI channel's underwriting an archaeological hunt for Roswell alien debris.

  • I revised the incorruptible bodies entry to include information about suppressed evidence regarding a sign of early corruption in the body of Paramahansa Yogananda.

  • I posted a notice that the 3rd edition of Ian Rowland's book on cold reading is out.

  • I reported that psychic surgeon Alex Orbito was arrested in Italy.

  • I added a link to the pareidolia page about the Virgin Mary's latest appearance.

  • And I added some comments on the end of Robert Bigelow's support of a program to study the paranormal, especially post-mortem survival, at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas.


 2) Sacramento Skeptics and Intelligent Design in the Classroom

On Friday, November 15th, I had dinner with the Sacramento Skeptics. After the meal, we adjourned for a discussion (led by yours truly). There were about 20-25 in attendance and our topic was "Intelligent Design in Our Classrooms." We spent some time discussing the American Association for the Advancement of Science's (AAAS) recent resolution urging (among other things) "citizens across the nation to oppose the establishment of policies that would permit the teaching of "intelligent design theory" as part of the science curricula of the public schools." I mentioned that I had recently posted some comments on my Mass Media Bunk page where I wondered whether this tactic might backfire because it might be perceived as dogmatic science trying to protect its turf and unfairly exclude "disputed views" from having a fair hearing. The intelligent design (ID) people have done a great job of convincing many Americans that the basic issue of allowing ID into the science classroom is one of fairness. They have persuaded many lay people that evolution is a troubled theory that has many flaws which are known to the scientific community. Opposing viewpoints should be heard so students can learn to think critically about them. This approach sounds good and the ID people know they are being deceptive, but when you're doing the Lord's work anything goes, I guess. The issue isn't one of fairness, as I have argued again and again and again and again.

Dr. Paul Geisert suggested that the best way to deal with the ID people is to take them to court. This is what was done with so-called creation science and the courts recognized it as religious propaganda and ordered it out of the science classroom. Dr. Geisert and Dr. Mynga Futrell are the co-founders of the excellent Web site Teaching About Religion ... with a view to diversity. Like me and several others at the meeting, Drs. Geisert and Futrell would like to see more philosophy and religion taught in public schools, as long as diversity is respected. Their Web site is a gold mine for those looking for resources for teaching diversity and tolerance of both religious and nonreligious worldviews.

Some of the participants felt that the poor quality of science education in the U.S.A. accounts for the difficulties we are now in with respect to ID. Too much rote learning; not enough learning the process of science. Others complained that our young people are not taught to think critically while going through our public school systems.

I offered the suggestion that we need the help of religious people who don't think there is a contradiction between believing in a Creator and accepting that evolution is a fact best explained by theories like natural selection. I wonder why Catholic leaders, for example, don't do battle with the ID folks. Maybe it's because they have their own private schools. Maybe they don't think it's that important. Maybe they see natural selection as implying materialistic atheism as the ID folks do. I don't know, but I think that ID is promoting bad theology because it is promoting belief in a God who looks foolish, a God who reveals things that He knows will be discovered to be false some day. They are also promoting the idea of a God who is not all-powerful; they claim natural selection and design are incompatible, which implies God does not have the power to create according to natural selection.

I think we all agree with the AAAS goal, but I think more must be done than just pass resolutions that declare ID to lack "scientific warrant." I also think that these scientists need some help from philosophers when it comes to wording their resolutions. For example, the resolution states that "to date, the ID movement has failed to offer credible scientific evidence to support their claim that ID undermines the current scientifically accepted theory of evolution; [and] the ID movement has not proposed a scientific means of testing its claims." The problem with this wording is that it suggests that it is possible to offer credible scientific evidence in support of ID that might someday allow testing its claims.  However, ID is not a scientific theory and there will never be any way to test its claims. It is a metaphysical theory and, as far as I can tell, is logically coherent and viable. But then so is the contrary theory that claims the universe is a vast mechanism without any design or purpose.

This problem of wording may represent a deeper problem that cuts through much of the dialogue about the nature of science: the problem of demarcation. This is the problem that Karl Popper struggled with and thought he had solved by his falsification theory: the line that separates scientific theories from nonscientific theories is falsifiability. Many scientists and philosophers of science find Popper's theory faulty for various reasons. For example, Henry Bauer, a chemist by training, defines falsifiability this way: "when results contradict a theory, the theory is to be abandoned as false" (Fatal Attractions - The Trouble with Science, p. 87). Bauer points out that scientists don't abandon their theories when the evidence seems to contradict them. Instead, they construct ad hoc hypotheses or modify their theories. In short, rather than give up their theories when contradicted by the evidence, says Bauer, scientists find ways to accommodate the "falsifying" data. True, but Bauer and many other critics of Popper should not ignore another aspect of the falsifiability theory. The theory may not be of much use in demarcating specific disciplines, such as astronomy from astrology. But it seems spot on in demarcating science from philosophy, mythology, or theology. However, the meaning of the theory in its truly useful form is that some theories can never be falsified because they can never be contradicted by results. Why? Because they are consistent with any result whatsoever. Furthermore, such theories can be completely coherent and plausible, while contrary theories can also be completely coherent and plausible, yet there is no way in theory or practice to ever determine which of the contrary theories is more plausible. Scientific theories like the Big Bang theory and natural selection can in principle be contradicted by results. (So can astrology, biorhythms, dianetics, and many other pseudosciences, by the way.) Whether or not scientists construct ad hoc hypotheses or modify their theories when such results are discovered is not the issue when comparing such theories to theories like creation in six days by God as told in the story of Genesis or the theory of intelligent design. These are philosophical theories that cannot in principle be falsified by any empirical data. By the same token, these philosophical theories cannot become one bit more plausible by finding evidence that is consistent with them. These teleological philosophical theories are not competitors with the Big Bang theory or with the theory of evolution. They are competitors with mechanistic metaphysical theories such as a materialistic theory that is atheistic and deterministic. ID is not false, nor could it ever be falsified. Genesis is not false, nor could it ever be falsified. (Certainly, some interpretations of Genesis are false, but there is no way in principle to determine whether a document is of divine origin. Ultimately, all the evidence one can appeal to, such as miracles, rests upon faith.) Furthermore, naturalism and supernaturalism are not contrary theories. Naturalism is essentially an epistemological theory, not an ontological theory: it defines the boundary of knowledge, not the boundary of being or existence. Science as we know it is essentially naturalistic, and it leaves open the question as to whether there is a God or free will or immortality. Those issues transcend the boundaries of science and fall within the realm of philosophy. The ID folks want to conflate science and philosophy by defining science so broadly that it includes metaphysical speculations and, like it or not, lots of other "disputed views," such as that of Zecharia Sitchin or L. Ron Hubbard.

Imagine trying to do a controlled study if supernatural forces (or aliens or paranormal powers) were allowed as possible explanations. It would be impossible to control for such forces and one could never be sure that some unknown supernatural cause wasn't actually producing whatever effects one observed. You could not even reasonably conclude that fire burns if it were considered reasonable to assume that supernatural forces might be causing our perceptions. I can't imagine what science would be like if something like occasionalism were considered a legitimate scientific theory, rather than a metaphysical theory. That doesn't mean that God isn't actually the direct cause of every event and observation. It does mean that when doing science, that hypothesis is out of order.


3) Responses to selected feedback

I have received many letters over the years similar to this one:

I found it interesting that creationism merited a listing on your site, while evolutionism did not. While evolution is the prevailing thought among mainstream America, and taught as fact in schools, it is still a theory which leaves many questions unanswered, and those it attempts to answer only lead to more questions. Not that questions are a bad thing. However, when so many elements of this theory remain ambiguous at best, it would seem that some of the hoaxes of evolution would warrant its being treated just as skeptically as creationism.

Skeptically yours,

reply: Thanks for your concern. I find it troubling that a few scientists (and one lawyer) with a lot of religious zeal have been able to muddy the waters so thoroughly that millions of people like yourself have come to believe that evolution is a theory in trouble in the scientific community. It isn't, but I doubt I can undo in a brief response what people like Michael Behe, William Dembski (and others at the Discovery Institute), Phillip Johnson (the lawyer), Duane Gish, (and other "creation scientists"), and Robert Gentry have accomplished over many years time. But I am working on it and one day I may have an entry on evolution that explains why it is not a theory in trouble. The hoaxes and the ambiguities are not in evolution, but permeate the work of these religious zealots.


DB's response is also typical of many I have received.

Your lack of skepticism on this issue is interesting, to say the least, as is your quick response in light of your disclaimer on the contact page. Evolution isn't science, it is religion, plain and simple. Ask yourself this question: From where did the amino acids, which are the origins of life, originate? And this question: Do evolutionists use the scientific method in the study of origins? And this question: At what point is a study of evolution nullified, when in organizing the parameters of the test, the tester becomes the "creator?"

I am sure you are aware of the growing interest in the scientific community regarding Intelligent Design. I am sure that you are aware that the number of scientists currently questioning prevailing wisdom, such as it is, regarding evolution is not few and is growing. I am sure that you are aware that more questions are being asked about evolutionary origins than are being answered. This certainty leads me to believe that, in this case, you are not merely posing a skeptic's view of creationism, but seeking to validate your own world view. Hardly a skeptic's schema, no?

In any event, I have found many of your links useful and enlightening and will continue to visit the site regularly. I put it right up there with Snopes as a valuable debunker of some of the more pernicious twaddle running rampant in American thought these days. (Feel free to use that as a quote, so long as you include my comments regarding your stance on creation vs. evolution *evil grin*.)

reply: The idea that evolution is a religion is humorous enough, but coming from those who want to religionize all science the idea is off the risibility meter. I suppose it is pointless, but I reiterate: Evolution and creation are not competing theories.


4) News

  • Most of you have probably already heard by now, but I mention it anyway: NASA has dropped its plans to fund a book debunking the Moon Landing Hoax.* For those interested in the details of this disturbing cultural phenomenon, check out this site . . . or this one . . . or

  • Those of you who get WGN-Chicago might enjoy the 9 pm news show on November 21. Last month I mentioned that Larry Potash of WGN had contacted me about James Van Praagh. I didn't mention that Mr. Potash asked me if I knew any skeptics in the Chicago area he might interview on the air. I didn't, but he found one: science and medicine journalist Andrew Skolnick. If anyone sees the show, please let me know what it was like. I got the impression from Mr. Potash that he was not of the gullible persuasion and was likely to do a fair job of keeping Van Praagh on his toes.