The cure for cults that want to deny others
their freedom of speech is more freedom of speech
-- Fredric Rice

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Creationist Cults

"Scientific" Creationism and Error

[The Talk.Origins Archive]

Copyright © 1986 by Robert Schadewald
Reprinted from Creation / Evolution (v. 6, n. 1, pp. 1-9)
with permission from the author.

"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 where 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.

Duane Gish, a protein biochemist with a Ph.D. from Berkeley, is vice president of the Institute for Creation Research (ICR) and creationism's best-known spokesman. 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 of human proteins to 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:

If we look at certain proteins, yes, man then -- it can be assumed that man is more closely related to a chimpanzee than other things. But on the other hand, if you look at other certain proteins, you'll find that man is more closely related to a bullfrog than he is a chimpanzee. If you focus your attention on other proteins, you'll find that man is more closely related to a chicken than he is to a chimpanzee.

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 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.

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/or obfuscate, but I was firm. Doolittle provided sequence data for human and chimpanzee proteins; Gish could do the same -- if his alleged chicken and bullfrog proteins really exist. Gish insisted 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 2-1/2 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. In response, someone at ICR (presumably Gish himself) pressured SOR not to publish our letter.(1) 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 at noon 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.(2) 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 200 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.

He has indeed made mistakes, he said. For instance, an erroneous translation by another creationist (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 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 onstage and asked him once again for references. It was the same answer he would give 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" class with a nonexplosive result.(3) 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 his chicken lysozyme apologetic. Few of his creationist listeners know what lysozyme is, and perhaps none of them knew that human and chimpanzee lysozyme are identical, and chicken lysozyme differs from both by 51 out of 130 amino acids.(4) 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.

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 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.(5) But if the chicken lysozyme apologetic fooled a professional scientist, it's 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. His 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 (who he identified as "Richard Doolittle"), but he offered no criticism of Gish's conduct. Instead, he accused PBS of misrepresenting Gish!(6)

Meanwhile, Gish has been obfuscating behind the scenes. The only creationist publication to directly address the protein affair has been Origins Research. In the Fall 1985 issue, editor Dennis Wagner (1) wrongly identified Glyn Isaac as the source of Gish's bullfrog and (2) wrongly stated that Gish sent me a tape of the lecture in which Isaac supposedly made the statement. Wagner's source, it turns out, is a letter Gish wrote to Kevin Wirth,(7) in which Gish apparently confused Glyn Isaac with Garniss Curtis. He also claimed to have a tape and a transcript of the "Isaac" (presumably Curtis) lecture, and he claimed that he had reviewed them. In the same sentence, Gish claimed that he sent me his "documentation," and Wagner quite naturally assumed that meant at least the tape. But Gish sent me neither, nor has he sent copies of said tape or transcript to others requesting 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 2-1/2 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.

Gish's steadfast refusal to acknowledge the facts seems to characterize creationism. Consider the case of the alleged Paluxy River "manprints." These have played an important role in creationist apologetics since Whitcomb and Morris published photographs of "manprint" carvings owned by Clifford Burdick in the Genesis Flood in 1961. The film "Footprints in Stone" features several trackways presented as human footprints in Cretaceous limestone. 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. In 1982, Kuban noted that the prints of the principal trail in "Footprints in Stone" (called the "Taylor trail" after Reverend Stan Taylor, producer of the film) have gradually turned a reddish color. The colored areas represent the material which filled the original prints. Extending beyond the visible depressions, the markings clearly delineate three-toed dinosaur prints. The three other "manprint" trails on the site exhibit the same phenomenon.

Stan Taylor is deceased, but his son Paul now runs Films for Christ. Last fall, Kuban persuaded Paul Taylor to revisit the site and see the evidence for himself. Taylor was so impressed 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 three things: (1) a second, slightly watered-down statement quickly replaced the initial statement, (2) Taylor has not granted permission to publish the document, and (3) several persons who have since requested the film have not received the statement but instead have been told that the film is not available for the requested date.(8)

As for ICR, Kuban also convinced John D. Morris to revisit the site. After "Footprints in Stone," Morris's 1980 book Tracking Those Incredible Dinosaurs and the People Who Knew Them is the most important piece of "manprint" 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 like John Cole, Steven Schafersman, Laurie Godfrey, and Ronnie Hastings (collectively, "Raiders of the Lost Tracks"), 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. Through Kuban's charity, Morris was able 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 colorations 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 whatever about withdrawing his thoroughly-discredited book from the market.

In the March 1986 Acts & Facts, an unnamed author (presumably Henry Morris) defends John Morris's half-hearted retraction in an unapologetic apologetic. Regarding John Morris's 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 stains in the early photos,(9) 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. 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. BSA headquarters are in Minneapolis, and BSA officials are active in the Twin Cities Creation-Science Association. I attended TCCSA meetings to hear what 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, BSA finally broke its silence.

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 altogether, referring only to John Morris's Impact article. It quotes a statement by Morris affirming his commitment to truth and facts, commenting:

Our stance is identical. Our readership is different, however, and expects us to present a more studied and mature documented position. The Bible-Science Association is currently engaged in an evaluation of current data as well as the exploration of additional data which has not yet been fully examined.

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 that issue of the Bible-Science Newsletter came out, I called Kuban and asked if he had been contacted by BSA. He hadn't. It's not clear how a "more mature documented position" on the 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:

We also point out to our readers that current questions concerning the value of the Paluxy findings do not revolve around the question of whether any kind of evidence ever existed to support the contention of contemporaneous human and dinosaur existence in the Paluxy river bed (italics original).

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 BSA itself has made about alleged Paluxy River mantracks:

1. BSA, which has been lavish in its praise for "Footprints in Stone," failed to inform its readers that Films for Christ has withdrawn it from circulation because it misidentifies dinosaur tracks as human.

2. BSA has been the foremost promoter of the Reverend Carl Baugh and his alleged human footprints. Knowledgeable creationists now recognize that Baugh's "manprints" are as questionable as his scientific degrees. Two BSA insiders told me privately that they have had their doubts about Baugh for some time, and they no longer actively promote him in the Bible-Science Newsletter. No hint of Baugh's fall from grace has reached subscribers.

3. BSA has long promoted as genuine an alleged giant human print known as "the Caldwell Print," and they even sell aluminum casts of it. Besides its anatomical absurdities, knowledgable creationists have recently alleged that it is a carving. The BSA statement says nothing whatever about this, nor has BSA announced that the print is no longer for sale.

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 Reverend Carl Baugh's misrepresented discoveries, mythical degrees, and general scientific incompetence.

With these examples in mind, it is hardly surprising that 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 the Bible-Science Newsletter.

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 spokesman. If they cannot denounce these actions on their own, their silence makes them participants.

NOTES

1. Kevin Wirth, personal communication.

2. Schadewald, Robert J. "The Gospel of Creation: The Book of Misinformation," Minnesota Daily, v. 86, n. 112 (February 14, 1985), p. 7.

3. Weber, Christopher Gregory, "The Bombardier Beetle Myth Exploded," Creation/Evolution, n. 3 (Winter 1981).

4. Awbrey, Frank T. and William M. Thwaites, "A Closer Look at Some Biochemical Data that 'Support' Creation," Creation/Evolution, n. 7 (Winter 1982), p. 15.

5. Gish, Duane T., "Creationism Misassailed," Cedar Rapids Gazette, 8/14/85.

6. Morris, Henry M., History of Modern Creationism (San Diego, Master Book Publishers, 1984), p. 316.

7. Letter, Duane T. Gish to Kevin Wirth, 2/27/84.

8. Glen Kuban, personal communication.

9. Glen Kuban, personal communication.



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"You can lie about ICR all you want." -- Jason Daniel Henderson

"Thank you for your permission however there's never any need to. Creationist propaganda is already self-debunking." -- Fredric L. Rice

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