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Scientific Creationism and Error
Scientific creationism differs from conventional science in numerous and substantial ways. One obvious difference is the way scientists and creationists deal with error.
Science is wedded, at least in principle, to the evidence. Creationism is unabashedly wedded to doctrine, as evidenced by the statements of belief required by various creationist organizations and the professions of faith made by individual creationists. Because creationism is first and foremost a matter of biblical faith, evidence from the natural world can only be of secondary importance. Authoritarian systems like creationism tend to instill in their adherents a peculiar view of truth.
Many prominent creationists apparently have the same view of truth as political radicals: whatever advances the cause is true; whatever damages the cause is false. From this viewpoint, errors should be covered up when possible and only acknowledged when failure to do so threatens greater damage to the cause. If colleagues spread errors, it is better not to criticize them publicly. Better to have followers deceived than to have them question the legitimacy of their leaders. In science, fame accrues to those who overturn errors. In dogmatic systems, one who unnecessarily exposes an error to the public is a traitor or an apostate.
Ironically, creationists make much of scientific errors. The "Nebraska Man" fiasco, where the tooth of an extinct peccary was misidentified as belonging to a primitive human, is ubiquitous in creationist literature and debate presentations. So is the "Piltdown Man" hoax. Indeed, creationist propagandists often present these two scientific errors as characteristic of paleoanthropology. It is significant that these errors were uncovered and corrected from within the scientific community. In contrast, creationists rarely expose their own errors, and they sometimes fail to correct them when others expose them.
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Duane Gish, a protein biochemist with a Ph.D. from Berkeley, is vice-president of the Institute for Creation Research (ICR) and creationism's most well-known spokesperson. A veteran of perhaps 150 public debates and thousands of lectures and sermons on creationism, Gish is revered among creationists as a great scientist and a tireless fighter for the truth. Among noncreationists, however, Gish has a reputation for making erroneous statements and then pugnaciously refusing to acknowledge them. One example is an unfinished epic which might be called the tale of two proteins.
In July 1983, the Public Broadcasting System televised an hour-long program on creationism. One of the scientists interviewed, biochemist Russell Doolittle, discussed the similarities between human proteins and chimpanzee proteins. In many cases, corresponding human and chimpanzee proteins are identical, and, in others, they differ by only a few amino acids. This strongly suggests a common ancestry for humans and apes. Gish was asked to comment. He replied:
I had never heard of such proteins, so I asked a few biochemists. They hadn't either. I wrote to Gish for supporting documentation. He ignored my first letter. In reply to my second, he referred me to Berkeley geochronologist Garniss Curtis. I wrote to Curtis, who replied immediately.
Some years ago, Curtis attended a conference in Austria where he heard that someone had found bullfrog blood proteins very similar to human blood proteins. Curtis offered an explanatory hypothesis: the "frog" which yielded the proteins was, he suggested, an enchanted prince. He then predicted that the research would never be confirmed. He was apparently correct, for nothing has been heard of the proteins since. But Duane Gish once heard Curtis tell his little story.
This bullfrog "documentation" (as Gish now calls it) struck me as a joke, even by creationist standards, and Gish simply ignored his alleged chicken proteins. In contrast, Doolittle backed his televised claims with published protein sequence data. I wrote to Gish again suggesting that he should be able to do the same. He didn't reply. Indeed, he has never since replied to any of my letters.
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John W. Patterson and I attended the 1983 National Creation Conference in Roseville, Minnesota. We had several conversations there with Kevin Wirth, research director of Students for Origins Research (SOR). At some point, we told him the protein story and suggested that Gish might have lied on national television. Wirth was confident that Gish could document his claims. He told us that, if we put our charges in the form of a letter, he would do his best to get it published in Origins Research, the SOR tabloid.
Gish also attended the conference, and I asked him about the proteins in the presence of several creationists. Gish tried mightily to evade and to obfuscate, but I was firm. Doolittle provided sequence data for human and chimpanzee proteins; Gish could do the sameif his alleged chicken and bullfrog proteins really exist. Gish insisted that they exist and promised to send me the sequences. Skeptical, I asked him pointblank: "Will that be before hell freezes over?" He assured me that it would. After two-and-one-half years, I still have neither sequence data nor a report of frost in Hades.
Shortly after the conference, Patterson and I submitted a joint letter to Origins Research, briefly recounting the protein story and concluding, "We think Gish lied on national television." We sent Gish a copy of the letter in the same mail. During the next few months, Wirth (and probably others at SOR) practically begged Gish to submit a reply for publication. According to Wirth, someone at ICR, perhaps Gish himself, responded by pressuring SOR not to publish our letter. Unlike Gish, however, Kevin Wirth was as good as his word. The letter appeared in the spring 1984 issue of Origins Research-with no reply from Gish.
The 1984 National Bible-Science Conference was held in Cleveland, and again Patterson and I attended. Again, I asked Gish for sequence data for his chicken and bullfrog proteins. This time, Gish told me that any further documentation for his proteins is up to Garniss Curtis and me.
I next saw Gish on February 18, 1985, when he debated philosopher of science Philip Kitcher at the University of Minnesota. Several days earlier, I had heralded Gish's coming (and his mythical proteins) in a guest editorial in the student newspaper, The Minnesota Daily. Kitcher alluded to the proteins early in the debate, and, in his final remarks, he demanded that Gish either produce references or admit that they do not exist. Gish, of course, did neither. His closing remarks were punctuated with sporadic cries of "Bullfrog!" from the audience.
That evening, Duane Gish addressed about two hundred people assembled in a hall at the student union. During the question period, Stan Weinberg, a founder of the Committees of Correspondence on Evolution, stood up. Scientists sometimes make mistakes, said Weinberg, and, when they do, they own up to them. Had Gish ever made a mistake in his writings and presentations? If so, could his chicken and bullfrog proteins have been a mistake? Gish made a remarkable reply.
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He has, indeed, made mistakes, he said. For instance, an erroneous translation by another creationist (Robert Kofahl) once led him to believe that hydrogen peroxide and hydroquinone, two chemicals used by the bombardier beetle, spontaneously explode when mixed. This error led him to claim in a book and in his presentations that the beetle had to evolve a chemical inhibitor to keep from blowing itself up. When he learned that hydrogen peroxide and hydroquinone do not explode when mixed, he said, he corrected the error in his book.
Regarding the bullfrog proteins, Gish said that he relied on Garniss Curtis for them. Perhaps Curtis was wrong. As for the chicken proteins, Gish made a convoluted and (to a nonbiochemist) confusing argument about chicken lysozyme. It was essentially the same answer he had given me immediately after his debate with Kitcher, when I went on-stage and asked him once again for references. It was also the same answer he gave two nights later in Ames, Iowa, in response to a challenge by John W. Patterson. I will discuss its substance, relevance, and potential for deception after dealing with the bombardier beetle.
Gish neglected to mention certain details of the bombardier beetle business. Early in 1978, Bill Thwaites and Frank Awbrey of San Diego State University mixed hydrogen peroxide and hydroquinone in front of their "two model" creation-evolution class with a nonexplosive result (Weber, 1981). Gish may have corrected his book, but he continued to use demonstrably false arguments about the bombardier beetle in debate presentations. I personally heard him do so on January 17, 1980, in a debate with John W. Patterson at Graceland College in Lamoni, Iowa.
About the chicken lysozyme: three times in three days Gish was challenged to produce references for chicken proteins closer to human proteins than the corresponding chimpanzee proteins. Three times he responded with an argument which essentially reduces to this: if human lysozyme and lactalbumin evolved from the same precursor, as scientists claim, then human lysozyme should be closer to human lactalbumin than to chicken lysozyme, but it is not.
Well, although it is true that human lysozyme is not closer to human lactalbumin than to chicken lysozyme, this comes as no shock and does not make a case for creationism. Furthermore, it doesn't at all address the issue that we raised. We were talking about Gish's earlier comparison of human, chimp, and chicken proteins, and Gish changed the subject and started comparing human lysozyme to human lactalbumin!
Few of his creationist listeners know what lysozyme is, and perhaps none of them knew that human and chimpanzee lysozyme are identical and that chicken lysozyme differs from both by fifty-one out of 130 amino acids (Awbrey and Thwaites, 1982). To one unfamiliar with biochemistry and, especially, Gish's apologetic methods, it sounded like he responded to the question. Whether by design or by some random process, Gish's chicken lysozyme apologetic was admirably suited to deceive listeners.
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One who was taken in by it was Crockett Grabbe, a physicist with the University of Iowa. As a result, Grabbe wrongly accused Gish of claiming that chicken lysozyme is closer to human lysozyme than is chimpanzee lysozyme. Gish then counterattacked, playing "blame the victim" and pretending it was Grabbe's own fault that he was deceived (Gish, 1985). But if the chicken lysozyme apologetic fooled a professional scientist, it is unlikely that many of the creationist listeners saw through it.
Gish's refusal to acknowledge the nonexistence of his chicken protein is characteristic of ICR. Gish's boss, Henry Morris, gave Gish's handling of the matter his tacit approval by what he said (and didn't say) about it in his History of Modern Creationism. Morris referred to the protein incident and took a swipe at Russell Doolittle (whom he identified as "Richard Doolittle"), but he offered no criticism of Gish's conduct. Instead, he accused PBS of misrepresenting Gish (Morris, 1984)!
Meanwhile, Gish had been obfuscating behind the scenes. The only creationist publication to directly address the protein affair has been Origins Research, which first covered the matter in its spring 1984 issue. Then, in the fall 1985 issue, editor Dennis Wagner revisited the controversy. However, in his article, he (1) wrongly identified Glyn Isaac as the source of Gish's bullfrog and (2) wrongly stated that Gish had sent me a tape of the lecture in which Isaac supposedly made the statement. Wagner's source, it turns out, is a February 27, 1984, letter Gish wrote to Kevin Wirth, in which Gish apparently confused the late Glyn Isaac (an archaeologist and authority on early stone tools) with Garniss Curtis. He also claimed to have a tape and a transcript of the "Isaac" (presumably Curtiss) lecture, and he claimed that he had reviewed them. In the same paragraph, Gish claimed that he had sent me his "documentation," and Wagner quite naturally assumed that that meant at least the tape. But Gish sent me neither, nor has he sent copies of said tape or transcript to others who have requested them. As with his chicken proteins, we have only Gish's word for their existence.
For the record, it is no longer important whether Gish's original statements about chicken and bullfrog proteins were deceptions or incredible blunders. It is now going on four years since the PBS broadcast, and Gish has neither retracted his chicken statement nor attempted to justify it. (Obviously, the lysozyme apologetic doesn't count, but it took Gish two-and-one-half years to come up with that!) And if the Curtis story is all he knows about his chimpanzee protein, on what basis did he promise to send me its sequence at the 1983 National Bible-Science Conference? Gish has woven himself into an incredible web of contradictions, and even some creationists now suspect that he has been less than candid.
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The Paluxy Footprints
Gish's steadfast refusal to acknowledge the facts seems to characterize creationism. Consider the case of the alleged Paluxy River "mantracks." These have played an important role in creationist apologetics since 1961 when Whitcomb and Morris published in The Genesis Flood photographs of "mantrack" carvings owned by Clifford Burdick. The film, Footprints in Stone, features several trackways presented as human footprints in Cretaceous limestone. The ICR has long featured them in its museum, and John D. Morris, son of ICR founder Henry Morris, wrote a popular book about them. But creationism's Paluxy River apologetics are rapidly collapsing.
Glen Kuban has been investigating the Paluxy River tracks since 1980. From the beginning, Kuban noted that many of the tracks in the "Taylor trail," the principal trackway in Footprints in Stone, exhibited V-shaped splaying in the anterior and other features indicating a dinosaurian origin. In subsequent years, he conducted further studies at the Taylor site and elsewhere along the Paluxy, finding no evidence of genuine human footprints. Then, in September 1984, Kuban and Ronnie Hastings noticed that coloration patterns previously noticed on some of the Taylor site tracks had become more distinct and occurred on tracks in all four alleged human trails. The colorations, which appear to represent a secondary infilling of the original track depressions, plainly indicate the shape of the dinosaurian digits. This provided further evidence that all of the "mantracks" on the Taylor site were actually made by dinosaurs.
Kuban discussed his findings with the ICR and Films for Christ on several occasions between 1981 and 1985, but, until recently, neither group took any steps to reevaluate the Paluxy evidence. In the fall of 1985, Kuban was finally able to persuade John Morris to join him at the Paluxy to view and discuss the evidence. Paul Taylor and other representatives from Films for Christ were included at Morris' invitation. What they saw dramatically changed their views about the Paluxy footprints.
Taylor was so impressed with what Kuban revealed that he withdrew Footprints in Stone from circulation. He also repudiated the "mantracks" in a two-page statement which was supposed to be sent to those requesting the film. These actions, almost unprecedented in the annals of creationism, would be more noteworthy except for four things: (1) a second, slightly watered-down statement quickly replaced the initial statement, (2) for months after Taylor's statement, Films for Christ continued to sell through the mail a booklet entitled The Great Dinosaur Mystery which promoted the Paluxy "mantracks," (3) Films for Christ also continued for some time to allow their films The Great Dinosaur Mystery and The Fossil Record to be rented, with no disclaimer or editing out of the Paluxy material (and unedited versions are still in circulation from other sources), and (4) according to Kuban several individuals who asked to rent Footprints in Stone were not sent Taylor's statement but were merely told that the film was not available "at this time" and that they should rent The Great Dinosaur Mystery and The Fossil Record instead.
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As for John Morris, whose 1980 book, Tracking Those Incredible Dinosaurs. . . and the People Who Knew Them, is the most significant written piece of "mantrack" propaganda, he responded to the new evidence in a January 1986 Impact article, "The Paluxy River Mystery." It is vintage creationism.
In the article, Morris obscures the fact that all of the crucial research was done by Kuban and other noncreationists. He backhands knowledgeable critics, such as John Cole, Steven Schafersman, Laurie Godfrey, and Ronnie Hastings (collectively, "Raiders of the Lost Tracks," who published their findings this past summer in Creation/Evolution, issue XV), accusing them of "ignoring, ridiculing, and distorting the evidence as reported by creationists." Near the end, Kuban is mentioned in passing as the first to notice the coloration changes, but no reader could guess that it took several years for Kuban to convince Morris to come look at the new evidence (or that Morris may have finally done so largely because of the publicity generated by the work of the "Raiders"). Morris was allowed by Kuban to preempt publication of Kuban's original research, and he showed his gratitude by barely mentioning Kuban's name!
Nor is that all. In his windup, Morris muddies the Paluxy waters with a vague hint that the coloration might be fraudulent. While he concludes that "it would now be improper for creationists to continue to use the Paluxy data as evidence against evolution," he says nothing whatsoever about withdrawing his thoroughly discredited book from the market. (Although I was informed by Master Books on March 25, 1986, that sales of the book had been suspended, the book continues to be sold.)
In the March 1986 Acts and Facts, an anonymous author (presumably Henry Morris) defends John Morris' half-hearted retraction in an unapologetic apologetic. Regarding John Morris' hints about fraudulent colorations, the anonymous author of "Following Up on the Paluxy Mystery" notes that "no evidence of fraud has been found, and some hints of these dinosaur toe stains have now possibly been discerned on photos taken when the prints in question were originally discovered." Glen Kuban, who pointed out these colorations in the early photos, is not mentioned at all. Indeed, the original creationist interpretation of the trackways is characterized as "not only a valid interpretation but arguably the best interpretation of the data available at that time." The "closed-minded" evolutionists who have criticized the Paluxy tracks are mentioned only with sneer and smear.
Another creationist organization with a heavy stake in the Paluxy River footprints is the Bible-Science Association. The Reverend Paul Bartz, editor of the Bible-Science Newsletter, has hotly defended Footprints in Stone and editorially sneered at the work of the "Raiders." After Films for Christ withdrew Footprints in Stone, I watched the Bible-Science Newsletter for a reaction. Nothing. The BSA headquarters are in Minneapolis, and BSA officials are active in the Twin Cities Creation-Science Association. I attended TCCSA meetings to hear what the BSA had to say in that forum. Nothing. I privately showed BSA field director Bill Overn an unpublished manuscript on the tracks. About a month later, the BSA finally broke its silence.
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The March 1986 Bible-Science Newsletter carried a column entitled "BSA Issues Statement on the Paluxy Footprints." The statement, which is in the form of a press release, ignores Kuban and the "Raiders" altogether, referring only to John Morris' Impact article. It quotes a statement by Morris affirming his commitment to truth and facts, commenting:
Any serious study of the matter, of course, would have to begin with Glen Kuban, whose research blew the lid off Footprints in Stone. Shortly after Bible-Science Newsletter came out, I called Kuban and asked if he had been contacted by the BSA. He hadn't. It's not clear how a "more mature documented position" on the Taylor tracks can be presented without contacting the man most knowledgeable about them. But perhaps the BSA writer gives a hint of things to come with the next sentence:
I might similarly point out to my readers that current questions concerning the value of perpetual motion machines do not revolve around the question of whether any kind of evidence ever existed for machines which could create energy from nothing. I prefer to point out that such an argument is bankrupt and, therefore, precisely the kind of apologetic to which perpetual motionists and creationists must resort.
The BSA statement also neglected to mention three important claims the BSA itself has made about alleged Paluxy River mantracks:
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For now, at least, it is whitewash as usual from the Bible-Science Association. If the past is prologue, the Bible-Science Newsletter will eventually acknowledge the action by Films for Christ, and they might quietly quit distributing the Caldwell print (if they haven't already). But they will never blow the whistle on the Reverend Carl Baugh's misrepresented discoveries, pretentious claims, and general scientific incompetence.
With these bad examples in mind, it is hardly surprising that the ICR continues to promote errors refuted more than a decade ago. Those who take the time to reply to creationist attacks on science find themselves slaying the slain a thousand times over. And no matter how dead a creationist error might appear to be, it always has the hope of resurrection in creationist publications.
Creationism is not monolithic. Nevertheless, creationism as a movement is and ever will be judged by the most visible organizations and individuals. On that basis, the public can only conclude that the typical creationist response to error is silence, whitewash, or outright denial. If some creationists are offended by this interpretation (and several have told me privately that they are), I refuse to be their spokesperson. Those creationists who cannot denounce these actions on their own become participants by their silence.
Awbrey, Frank T., and Thwaites, William M. Winter 1982. "A Closer Look at Some Biochemical Data That 'Support' Creation," Creation/Evolution, issue VII, p. 15.
Gish, Duane T. August 14, 1985. "Creationism Misassailed." Cedar Rapids Gazette.
Morris, Henry M. 1984. History of Modern Creationism (San Diego: Master Book Publishers), p. 316.
Schadewald, Robert J. February 14, 1985. "The Gospel of Creation: The Book of Misinformation." Minnesota Daily, volume 86, number 112, p. 7.
Weber, Christopher Gregory. Winter 1981. "The Bombardier Beetle Myth Exploded." Creation/Evolution, issue III.
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.