Sunday, March 24, 2013

Tom Bethell is Our Best Friend

I've written before about Tom Bethell, the completely clueless journalist who likes to write about evolution despite not understanding even the most basic things about it.

I really like Bethell. Why? Because, over and over again, he makes it completely clear how stupid and dishonest the creationist movement is. And the fact that Discovery Institute happily features his blathering can only be good for our side. What could be better than to see creationists discredit themselves so frequently?

Bethell's latest complaint? That evolution's "central claim" is "unlimited variation" and that this unlimited variation "has not yet been observed".

The first claim is simply false. Evolution is heritable change in a population over time. The theory of evolution describes the mechanisms (mutation, natural selection, sexual selection, genetic drift, founder effects, etc.) that explain how this change takes place. Speciation has been observed, so the usual creationist claims that evolution is limited to change "within species" have been thoroughly discredited.

But the funny part is Bethell's second claim: that unlimited variation has not yet been observed. What would it mean to observe unlimited variation? At what point could we put our foot down and say, "Hey, now we know that unlimited variation has finally been observed!"? The whole meaning of the word "unlimited" is that it is without bound. It's like alleging (incorrectly) that the central claim of cosmology is that the expansion of the universe goes on forever, and then saying "That endless expansion has not yet been observed!"

What we do see is evolution taking place today, and we have the fossil record that shows the changes in the past. You have to be particularly dense or dishonest to deny this.

Please, Tom, keep it up. You're our best friend.


Anonymous said...

The common complaint among evolution-deniers that "such-and-such has not been observed" is one of those complaints that compresses many faults in small space.

1. Often, it is a mistake that evolution demands that such-and-such happens.

2. Often, such-and-such is observed.

3. Some of the most important parts of science deal with things that have not, and indeed cannot, be observed. Sub-atomic particles one thinks of immediately. But think of planets which are invisible because they are behind the Sun. How long was it after it was universally accepted that the Earth was a planet that there were direct observations of the motion of the Earth?

4. And one must then note that no one has "observed" an alternative to evolution. One doesn't even have a hint as to what might count as an observation of creation or of "intelligent design". And the advocates of evolution-denial show no interest in exploring such questions.


Nice Patios said...

"and we have the fossil record that shows the changes in the past."

I think the argument against this is, for good or bad, "I know my molecules have ancestors, but you have to prove your fossils had descendants."

Secondly, you should fisk this:

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Nah, it doesn't interest me at all. Get someone who specializes in speciation, such as Jerry Coyne.

Luskin is a windbag and a moron.

Les Lane said...

Rather than dense or dishonest I'd say that Bethell is clueless. He seems to think that common sense is sufficient to understand science. Since he doesn't dialogue with scientists he's likely to remain clueless.

SLC said...

Re Anonymous

Quarks cannot be observed either but physicists are convinced by indirect evidence that they exist.

By the way, it should be pointed out that Bethell is also a relativity denier.

Anonymous said...

One can go back to the earliest traces of scientific thought to encounter statements which were accepted even though they could not be observed directly. I'm thinking of the identity between Phosphoros and Hesperus, Venus as the Morning Star and as the Evening Star. (There is a too-brief discussion of this discovery in Wikipedia.) Obviously, the ancients could not observe the "transitional form" between the two (the "transition" took place when Venus was invisible in the glare of the Sun). Yet this is so well established without "direct observation" that it is a completely uninteresting event when that "first direct observation" took place by interplanetary rocket. Or maybe we should count the first observation of a transit of Venus in 1639?


Robert Byers said...

Its an excellent and well received criticism that the glory of variation needed to justify evolutionary biology has never been observed.
its only minor, if that, variation in species or types of biology.
There has been no variation one would not also have predicted from a creationist idea of a creator staring off everything within fixed kinds of biology.
Why the claim great boundaries in body plans has been observed?
Name one!

The fossil record is not evidence for change but only evidence of creatures in a moment of time.
Evolution is not fossilized.
All that is found is diversity within types.
Drawing connections is just speculation.
Even if it was true it still would be unrelated to scientific biological investigation.
Show one fossil sequence that shows evolution using fossils as biological scientific evidence.
Not just connecting dots.

I have listened but never seen/heard biological scientific evidence for ToE.
Just unrelated subjects like genetics, fossils, morphology, biogeography and lines of reasoning from minor selectionism.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Byers, don't lie. You've never even opened a textbook on evolutionary biology, you fraud.

Anonymous said...

"I have listened but never seen/heard biological scientific evidence for ToE. Just unrelated subjects like genetics, fossils, morphology, biogeography and lines of reasoning from minor selectionism." ~ Robert Byers

This is all you need to know about Byers. Ears plugged, La-La-La-La with a smug smirk. This is your brain on fundamentalist religion.

This "lines of reasoning" schtick is getting tiresome and annoying.


Mark said...

Byers said: "Why the claim great boundaries in body plans has been observed? Name one!"

Creationists are fond of repeating things that are clearly untrue. Does he think the body plans of carrots, ctenophores, bunny rabbits, and Archaea are similar?

Scientists can provide examples of many of the things creationists deny are real.

KeithB said...

I will give you two:
The evolution of land tetrapods from fish (like tiktaalik)

And the evolution of the mammalian ear from the "extra" reptillian jaw bones.

While the fossil record is by its nature spotty, I think these two changes in body plan are pretty well documented.

Diogenes said...


it should be pointed out that Bethell is also a relativity denier.

Do you have a reference for Bethell denying relativity?

Robert Byers said...

Okay lets see.
I know the case made on both examples.
Yet you only said there was evidence for these changes in body parts due to descent.
What is the biological scientific evidence!

All that can be presented is fossils of creatures in a moment of time!
Then evolutionists say the times/strata are very far apart and likeness in some detail is the evidence one evolved from another.
I say thats just a line of reasoning.
its not a scientific investigation of biological processes or raw data.
These creatures are just showing variety as far as the fossil record is showing anything.

its a illusion of connection being seen here by evolutionists.
In other words its ENTIRELY about conclusions being drawn on geological presumptions.
Without the geology ideas there is no biological conclusions.
Therefore its not a biological investigation.
Watch the math here but I'm listening.

KeithB said...

I am not sure why I am pounding sand down the rathole, but...

Well, for each case, how about the fact that in modern animals the same genes control limb growth in fish and amphibians.

And the same genes control the development of the bones in the reptile jaw and the mammal ear?

Anonymous said...

KeithB said ...

"And the same genes control the development of the bones in the reptile jaw and the mammal ear?"

Which is backed further by the evidence from fossils in that the progression can be shown physically. Actually, I've stating this ass-backwards ...

Unless I am mistaken, we discovered this progression in the fossil record *before* discovering the genes that are responsible. This is an exquisite example of confirmation. But to Byers it doesn't match up with the dogma of mythology thousands of years old. Ergo, these are just "lines of reasoning" that mean nothing.

What Byers doesn't get, if we analogized or extrapolated his version of logic (lines of reasoning) we'd have to chuck out most of the science we use to convict criminals in a court of law. Pardon me, but I'm not interested in living in Byers' world.

Robert Byers said...

So your biological scientific evidence is based on genetic data.
How is this DNA data evidence for descent and process of descent?
Its only evidence, I accept your info , for like DNA in different creatures.
Its just speculation that it indicates descent.
Dna is not a trail of originbs but only a atomic score for parts.
like parts equals like score.
These extinct creatures DNA is not easily discovered anyways.
however your seeing connections from a mere presumption .
Even if true its not a scientific genetic investigation.
just a line of reasoning even if reasonable.
Its not documenting process even if it did document results of descent.
its not documenting genetic relationships but only like genes.
We have like dNA with apes but its not genetic evidence for descent.
Its just a hunch.

Phil Ogeny said...

KeithB, I wonder why Nature editor Henry Gee acknowledged on his Nature blog that the early tetrapod tracks "means that the neatly gift-wrapped correlation between stratigraphy and phylogeny, in which elpistostegids represent a transitional form in the swift evolution of tetrapods in the mid-Frasnian, is a cruel illusion. If -- as the Polish footprints show -- tetrapods already existed in the Eifelian, then an enormous evolutionary void has opened beneath our feet..."

RTT said...

Thanks for linking to the original source "Phil". Providing access to the full information where the quote in it's entire context can be found is a true sign of intellectual honesty. Bottom line is that all this discovery has shown is that it's more complicated than previously thought. This should come as no shock to anyone who actually follows scientific discovery and is aware of it's history. This discovery has done nothing to change the fact that when we went hunting in rock of the appropriate age to find the emergence of the precursors to tetrapods, they were found. No claim has ever been made that Tiktaalik was in a direct descendant line nor that they were the only (or first) tetrapod precursors to exist. What it has shown is that the emergence occurred even earlier than was previously thought, Tiktaalik still within that range, and that obviously there is more history to be discovered. This is what is meant by the "void". That would mean actually going out and acquiring the evidence and not playing the armchair "creation science" of misrepresentation. Obviously Dr. Gee's blog post will contain more precise and relevant material.

After sorting through the numerous creationist websites that gleefully present this quotemine I was able to locate the original post. I mean look at that quote, it's so delicious with the use of illusion and void, mmmm yummy. I've grown fond of the creationists use of the word "acknowledged" as well. It's a sure sign of the true believer in a conspiracy theory as if someone involved is "giving away the game". If anyone wants to read Phil's quotemine in context, Dr. Henry Gee's blog post can be found here ...

First Footing

I find it incredibly humorous (thank you Phil) that the blog post ends with the following ...

"Note: the first person to find any part of this post quote-mined in support of creationism will receive the highly prestigious and coveted Order of the Unicycling Girrafe."

Unfortunately I'm a little late to the game.

Diogenes said...


I wonder why you didn't quote this part of the blog post by Henry Gee:

"The past twenty years have added more to our knowledge of the earliest tetrapods than anything in the previous two hundred. Who knows what the next twenty years will bring?

Phil, how much have the past twenty years added to our knowledge of the intelligent design of the earliest tetrapods? ...Phil?

And Phil, why didn't you link to Gee's blog post?

You just copied & pasted the same quote snippet that every other creationist copied, from another creationist who copied it from another, etc... didn't you Phil?

And Gee said that would happen:

Note: the first person to find any part of this post quote-mined in support of creationism will receive the highly prestigious and coveted Order of the Unicycling Girrafe."

Gee concludes on the basis of footprints that are 18 million years older than Tiktaalik that Tiktaalik is not the ancestor of all tetrapods, but that instead, tetrapods evolved from tetrapodomorph fish.

But there are two problems that make this questionable.

First, recent research shows that lobe-finned fishes can "walk" with their fins and leave footprints on the bottom of bodies of water. [A Small Step for Lungfish, a Big Step for the Evolution of Walking. ScienceDaily, Dec. 12, 2011]

Second, the presence of digits don't necessarily tell you the prints were made by a tetrapod, because we know that elpistostegids had digits while they were still aquatic. Specifically, a CAT scan of Panderichthys showed it had digits. [Primordial Fish Had Rudimentary Fingers. ScienceDaily, Sep. 22, 2008]

RTT said...

I see Diogenes has weighed in as well. Seeing that he has a much greater depth of knowledge in this subject I gladly digress to his interpretations. My own sense of intellectual honesty prompts me to admit that it's possible one or more of my statements may be off-base. Any and all corrections are more than welcome.

SLC said...

Re Diogenes

Bethell describes his nutcase science notions in a book, which includes a chapter on relativity. He also made an ass of himself on the subject during a debate with Chris Mooney.

The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science (2005) Regnery Press.

It is to be noted that Regnery Press publishes all manner of books of scientific rubbish, along with books by such notables as Ann Coulter, another scientific illiterate.

Phil Ogeny said...

"Any and all corrections are more than welcome."

Diogenes and RTT, you're both conclusion-jumpers because I never used the quote in support of creationism. You just assumed. I brought the quote ONLY to show that the Tiktaalik is probably not the missing link it was originally hyped to be. I wonder if KeithB thought it was proven to be a missing link. (I got the quote directly from the Nature website.)

"No claim has ever been made that Tiktaalik was in a direct descendant line". It would appear from that there has been such a claim.

Are you sure about that?

RTT said...

Ahh, the "missing link". Media does love that term do they not ? It is sad that they do because it get misused so badly by those with an agenda, whether it be page views or otherwise. In most cases I've seen where a scientist use the term "missing link" is to describe the features or form of the species and is not a statement of ancestry. Statements like "predecessor" and "transitional" are more often that not, statements reflecting time rather than ancestry. For instance these terms are still occasionally used to describe Archaeopteryx but as far as I know nobody is or ever was claiming that Archaeopteryx is the ancestor to all birds. In fact AFAIK it's believed that the Archaeopteryx lineage was a side branch that went extinct. I would gladly accept the correction if I can be shown to be incorrect. But I have a few of questions if you don't mind.

Can you point out in that article you linked to where it makes the statement that Tiktaalik is the ancestor to living tetrapods ? Can you show me any place, preferably in the peer reviewed literature, that makes that claim ? Can you point out where in Gee's blog post where it makes a claim that it is or is not ancestral ?

You appeared to be dropping that quote as an attempted bombshell rather than someone kindly offering to help correct a fellow commenter. I notice you made no attempt to explain what the implications of your quote were nor did you link to it as a substitute for lack of one. You'll have to forgive my suspicions, as you said yourself with a bit of snark.."I wonder why". Can you explain how you happened upon that very specific quote that features so prominently on creationist sites and why you quoted it precisely as they have without linking to the Nature blog post so that Keith could actually understand what you meant ?

Your quote says absolutely nothing about "Tiktaalik is probably not the missing link it was originally hyped to be," nor did Keith make that claim. What it does say is "represent a transitional form". As I understand it Tiktaalik could just as easily be a side branch that could have gone extinct rather than being ancestral and this currently unknown. May I ask how you assume lineage from that quote ?

What Keith said was "The evolution of land tetrapods from fish (like tiktaalik)" It seems to me more likely that Keith was pointing out that the form was predicted and discovered but Keith can speak for himself. I'm not going to put words in his mouth. Do you still think your statement is accurate or have you perhaps over-stated what he meant ?

You said "I never used the quote in support of creationism." which is fair enough but forgive me if that still sounds like a bit of a dodge. You seem to be walking and talking like a duck, so you'll have to forgive my assumptions. So I must ask, are you a creationist ?

(As I mentioned conspiracy theorists earlier, they have a fondness for "hey, I'm just asking questions here." ..."I wonder why".)

Diogenes said...

Phil Ogeny:

"Diogenes and RTT, you're both conclusion-jumpers because I never used the quote in support of creationism."

Are you kidding me!?

Try googling that quote! 19 of the top 20 hits are all creationists using the exact same quote as you, starting at the same word, ending at the same word.

The odds are very high that anyone using that quote, excerpted in just that fashion, copied and pasted it from a creationist site.

Diogenes said...


Bethell describes his nutcase science notions in a book, which includes a chapter on relativity. He also made an ass of himself on the subject during a debate with Chris Mooney.

The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science (2005) Regnery Press.

But the problem is that I read that book, and I don't remember him challenging relativity. Each chapter is on a different subject and I don't recall a chapter on relativity-- maybe it escaped me, or maybe it was a passing reference.

The book is trash, absolutely. Pro-pollution, anti-evolution, cancer quackery, the works.

I'll try to google and see if I can find the debate with Mooney.

Diogenes said...


on Bethell denying relativity, here he is blathering in the American Spectator.

And here is audio of the debate with Mooney.

RTT said...

Relevant to the conversation at hand.

A new species of Devonian lobe-finned described.

Holoptychius bergmanni ...

New Fossil Species Fill in the Picture of a Fish-Eat-Fish World Driving the Evolution of Limbed Animals ~ March 27, 2013.

A new species of Devonian placoderm discovered in Pennsylvania.

Phyllolepis thomsoni ...

Dusting for Prints from a Fossil Fish to Understand Evolutionary Change ~ March 27, 2013

KeithB said...

And herein lies the problem with arguing with creationists.

First, I am not an expert in this area, just a well-informed layman.

Next, even if I had said that Tiktaalik is the direct ancestor of land tetrapods, and evidence came along to disprove it, a scientist should say, "Oops, I was wrong, now I need to fit these new facts into my worldview."

Arguing with creationists is tough because as someone said, if you find one transitional fossil, you have made more of a problem for evolution, because now you have *two* gaps instead of one.

And creationists, if you want to be taken seriously, please don't use "missing link", or use Darwin's name to refer to modern evolutionary theory. It just makes knowledegable folks roll their eyes and not take you seriously.

Phil Ogeny said...

"well-informed layman"
KeithB, if you knew how many evolutionists use the term "Darwinism", you would take back your last comment. From EO Wilson, to Nature, to Science, to PubMed, to Dawkins: the term "Darwinism" is common enough.

RTT said...

Intellectual honesty is at the base of it, isn't it Keith ? Perhaps it's oversimplifying it but I see it as...

You can't fully explain "x" therefore I am justified in believing "y". There will never be an explanation for "z" anyway.


We do not fully understand "x" just yet, however it seems reasonable given the facts of "x" to provisionally accept "y" until we have a greater understanding of both "x" and "y". This will likely eventually lead to understanding "z".

I'll hold to the latter as it seems to be working in technology, biology, agriculture, and medicine from which we all benefit.

RTT said...

I'm wondering "Phil" do you have anything of substance to say ?

Or will it continue to be little more than intimation and equivocation ?

From the first two paragraphs of the Wikipedia page on Darwinism ...

Darwinism originally included the broad concepts of transmutation of species or of evolution which gained general scientific acceptance when Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species, including concepts which predated Darwin's theories, but subsequently referred to specific concepts of natural selection, the Weismann barrier or in genetics the central dogma of molecular biology. Though it usually refers strictly to biological evolution, the term has been misused by creationists to refer to the origin of life and has even been applied to concepts of cosmic evolution which have no connection to Darwin's work.

The meaning of "Darwinism" has changed over time, and varies depending on its context.
In the United States, the term "Darwinism" is often used by creationists as a pejorative term in reference to beliefs such as atheistic naturalism, but in the United Kingdom the term has no negative connotations, being freely used as a shorthand for the body of theory dealing with evolution, and in particular, evolution by natural selection.

[scare quotes in the original]

Please, educate us further. I await with bated breath.

Diogenes said...

I listened to the NPR debate between Bethell and Mooney. This relativity denier, HIV denier, GW denier has never been inside a laboratory in his life.

This quote really got me: "I think that there has been a change [in science], and it’s maybe comparable to what’s happened in education is happening in science… The teachers and the teachers’ unions have learned to sort of game the system, and I think that we’re seeing maybe a gaming of the whole system by government science now, where they, you know it’s the cushy life for science and the pressure for them to come up with something is not that great.” [Talk of the Nation, NPR, Jun. 16, 2006]

"The cushy life"!

The pressure for scientists to come up with something is not that great! Bethell has no idea how REAL scientists make a living. No clue. This IDiot must never have met a real scientist in his life.

He just hangs out with DI Fellows who write on their blogs "No transitional fossils, therefore it all happened in a magic puff of smoke" over and over and they get paid for that.

That's Intelligent Design: deny the evidence, therefore puff of magic smoke.

Real science is hard. That's why IDers got out of it. REAL scientists have to do two-thirds of the research for their project BEFORE they even write a grant for that research.

And do you know what the percentile now is that your grant has to get before NIH will fund it? Eight. That means you write a 25-page grant application describing how you already did two-thirds of the work, and could you please give me some money for the last one-third? And your grant must be rated higher than 92% of all grants, or else you get zip. Nada. Nothing.

So on average, you must have thirteen projects and write thirteen grant applications, 25 pages each, before you have a chance that ONE grant will be funded.

No pressure there!

You know how much a LIGHT BULB can cost in a confocal microscope?

$7,000 for a light bulb.

And Bethell calls that the cushy life! He knows NOTHING about science. Probably never met a real scientist, just ID posers.

It's like on of those Nazi documentaries where they say "Waah, the handicapped live in palatial asylums and we pay for it. The handicapped have a cushy life!"

Diogenes said...

I read Bethell's PIG to Science. What a brilliant book.

A whole chapter about how pollution is good for you! I wonder if Bethell would take a glass of effluent from a petroleum factory and serve it to his grandkids.

In the NPR interview he tried walking back the claims in the book.

Phil Ogeny said...

RTT, since when would anyone trust Wiki over ScienceMagazine?

Phil Ogeny said...

It's true that I FOUND the Nature article on Tiktaalik through a Creationist or ID site (so what?), but I definitely read the entire Gee article before posting here and thought the quote I pasted was one of the best representative samples in the article that cast doubt on the original hype. (A hype that some people will deny they fell for.) Gee's final paragraph was nothing more than a silly and desperate attempt to equate those who want to expose the hype for what it was, with creationism. Well, I'm no creationist, but rather, an admirer of Nagel (even over Shallit's attempts at refuting him.)

RTT said...

How incredibly obtuse of you Phil. Your link to ScienceMag does nothing to dispel what Wikipedia states. Nor do you bother to explain how your link refutes what I quoted. I didn't claim that Darwinism as a term was not in legitimate use. It's about the context. Do you deny that creationists have consistently and persistently misused the term Darwinism ? That it has become, in that echo chamber, a dog-whistle that represents conflation, misrepresentation, and of a derogatory nature ? This is what Keith was pointing out, albeit without an in depth explanation. It's as though you read that Wiki quote and chose not to comprehend it.

There's a difference between what the actual literature states and what's found in media reports of it. You can call whatever you like hype, but the fact remains that we knew given the timeline of the emergence of tetrapods that the type of creatures (like Tiktaalik) had to exist and when they had to exist. I notice you still haven't shown where lineage was it's claim to fame that, as you say, people fell for but now deny. We can argue semantics and what you would call hype, but the fact remains that it was predicted and consequently discovered. That's ultimately the point and I disagree with you on your interpretation of Gee. But, so be it.

I'm not sure what Nagel has to do with any of this but I do admit that personally I don't know much of Nagel's work. What little I have seen, that has been quoted by creationists, seems to be an argument from ignorance. I'd be more impressed if someone could demonstrate that consciousness exists without a complex material brain and the evolutionary path that preceded it. I still find emergence to be the simplest answer. Someone has an incredibly long row to hoe to demonstrate otherwise and how it also fits with what we already know. Claiming one finds it implausible adds nothing to the argument. What I find disconcerting is that he seems to think ID should not be considered non-scientific, which is patently absurd, and he likes their approach (i.e. Signature in the Cell) but claims he doesn't ultimately agree with them. I've read some of that garbage and it's the epitome of argument from ignorance. But, in an effort to remain intellectually honest, perhaps I misunderstand Nagel. I haven't read anything Mr. Shallit has written about him so I can't honestly comment on that.

Phil Ogeny said...

"Do you deny that creationists have consistently and persistently misused the term Darwinism?"

Not any worse than Darwinists (or whatever term you want to use) themselves do. They say that skeptics deny evolution, then give an example of microevolution that is completely non-controversial.
There are misusers on both sides.

RTT said...

Phil, grow up and find some sense of intellectual honesty. I'm longer interested in your deliberately obtuse and faux pedantic bullshit. I have better things to do with my time. Have a great life.

Keith, I was incorrect earlier. The link between the reptilian jaw bones and the mammalian ear was discovered first in embryology and comparative anatomy. This was confirmed extensively later on in the fossil record. I had it backwards.

RTT said...

Newsflash: Tom Bethell accepted to the Encyclopedia of American Loons.

Congratulations to #497.