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Creationist in Boston: Recap!

Posted on : Aug-17-2009 | By : Rebecca | In : Blog Post, Event, skepticism

Tags: , , , , , ,

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How does one adequately sum up a lecture delivered by a grown man who believes the Earth is only 6,000 years old despite mountains of evidence to the contrary, and who in an attempt to validate his absurd belief discounts centuries of astronomical and geological evidence with one Powerpoint slide each?

Such is the challenge I face this morning in attempting to describe for you the idiocy I and my fellow Boston Skeptics and Boston Atheists witnessed last night. Luckily, creationist and recent Harvard PhD Nathaniel Jeanson delivered identical lectures yesterday morning and evening, and Jeff Eyges, who attended the morning lecture, did a wonderful job of summing up the basics over on Pharyngula. There’s also a very nice overview from a member of Boston Atheists, and Boston Skeptic Andy Clayman gave a recap in the comments here. Read those, and in the meantime I’ll give you my own quickie recap:

Jeanson’s talking points came almost 100% from his “colleagues at the ICR [Institute for Creation Research],” a phrase that was uttered about a dozen times throughout the lecture. Because his work at Harvard focused on biology, that was the bulk of his talk, but before reaching that discipline he first dismissed both astronomical and geological evidence for evolution and a multi-billion-year-old universe. Of the former, he declared that when we observe galaxies around ours, they are spread out equally to the “north, south, east and west” of Earth, and therefore we are literally at the center of the Universe (and therefore blessed by God?). This is silly. Mountains of research suggest that the Earth occupies a wholly unremarkable corner of a Universe that is vaster and more ancient than Jeanson’s comparatively puny philosophy can imagine.

Of geology, Jeanson highlights variations in different dating techniques and suggests that this disproves the validity of any dating technique that puts the age of the Earth older than 6,000 years. He didn’t bother talking about how those different techniques are used, of course, as that would defeat his point. Instead, as Boston Skeptic Jared said, “He just put up the pictures and said “I’m not going to go through all of this” – well, why not? It’s awful hard to know what you’re talking about when you WON’T TELL US what you’re talking about!” He then briefly compared the aftermath of Mt. St. Helens’ eruption to the strata of the Grand Canyon, glossing over the fact that the two are very, very different, as would be obvious with a scientific evaluation.

With those two disciplines out of the way, Jeanson was ready to spend the most time on his field of study: biology. As mentioned in the other recaps I’ve linked to, Jeanson here claimed that his own research showed irreducible complexity. He also claimed that the differences between organisms like yeast, plants, and humans show that the evolutionary “tree” isn’t the best way to demonstrate interconnectedness. Instead, he attempted to create his own chart that literally could not incorporate more than four data points because he ran out of dimensions. During the Q&A, an attempt was made by Boston Skeptic Aaron to get Jeanson to explain his bizarre, string-theory-like chart, but to no avail. Jeanson couldn’t explain it and we couldn’t understand it, but somehow it disproves evolution. Checkmate, Darwinists. (Aaron has since put up a full explanation of WTF was going on with that chart, here on his blog. Thanks, Aaron!)

The Q&A was far and away the best part. I found it difficult to ascertain how many people in the audience were creationists, because nearly the entire Q&A consisted of scientists hammering Jeanson until he looked like he was going to curl into the fetal position and weep. I was shocked to read that he had already gone through a similar treatment during the morning session, because you’d think he would have been more prepared for our talk. Instead, he looked like a deer in the headlights for some of the questions, and for most of his answers he simply attempted to restate the question in a way he could weasel out of. If the questioner tried to refocus him on the point more than three times, he or she was informed that the three-question per person limit had been exceeded and to STFU.

I was very amused to read about David Levin’s experience at the morning session in Jeff’s recap on Pharyngula, since that nicely explained why the pastor/moderator laid down so many rules before beginning Q&A, including a warning that we were only to ask questions of Jeanson and to not address anything said by another audience member. That was a shame, because our session was filled with people much more interesting and knowledgeable than Jeanson and it would have been more productive to just talk to them. However, then we would have missed the joy of seeing Jeanson wriggle around on stage, attempting to talk around such questions as (summarizing): “What makes you smart enough to overturn all of 21st century physics?” and “If the Bible is so accurate, why doesn’t every culture describe the same exact worldwide flood?” The person who asked that last question added, “I mean, it’s not like they’d just forget to write it down or something.” Ha! Jeanson’s answer was that only Noah’s family survived, and all the cultures came from them. I bit my tongue rather than ask him where black people came from.

While normally I’d find a lecture like this depressing—and it is depressing to think that this kid got all the way through Harvard and learned so little just so that the creationists would have someone with initials after his name to validate their idiocy—I went home feeling pretty invigorated. The scientific community of Boston really rallied together to make sure that Jeanson’s lies and obfuscations didn’t go unanswered. While I’m sure that the entire audience didn’t leave disbelieving creationism, I think it’s fair to say that a large number of them learned something they wouldn’t have learned had we all just ignored Jeanson. The questioners were all very polite, on-point, and persuasive, and I’m optimistic that they helped those in the audience while leaving Jeanson battered and bruised, and possibly reconsidering ever delivering a lecture again.

That said, if he does ever deliver a lecture like that, now we know what to expect: more of the same long-debunked creationist lies.

EDIT: Awesome chick Jessica has uploaded WMA files of the lecture and Q&A here.

EDIT PART TWO: As I’ve inserted above, Aaron posted his complete explanation of Jeanson’s bizarre and confusing alternative to the evolutionary tree, here.

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Comments (28)

It only goes to show you that a Harvard Ph.D. does not guarantee intelligence… As I keep saying the world does not neatly divide into Supers & Brights.

Anyway, I sometimes wonder whether universities should have the right to take back conferred degrees. They can for honorary degrees in the UK. Strikes me that someone who categorically states that the world is only 6,000 years old is misrepresenting themselves as a scientist.

But maybe that’s just me and I’m having an off day.

bruce

Regarding, “…when we observe galaxies around ours, they are spread out equally to the “north, south, east and west” of Earth, and therefore we are literally at the center of the Universe…”

Phil Plait, in his most recently published book Death from the Skies, discusses how earlier astronomers made a similar mistake by trying to count stars in various directions from Earth to determine where we were located in the universe; which technique was later corrected.

Is it possible for a University to repeal a doctorate after it’s been awarded? If not, I wonder if maybe it should be.

Bruce said: “It only goes to show you that a Harvard Ph.D. does not guarantee intelligence… As I keep saying the world does not neatly divide into Supers & Brights.”

Indeed. I live in a building populated exclusively by Harvard faculty, staff and students. And let me tell you… the number of people who can’t even figure out how to use the recycling bins properly is astounding. Obviously I’m being a bit flippant, but it’s clear that being a bit self-deluded doesn’t necessarily hamper your ability to make it through a learned degree.

You can lead a man to college, but you can’t make him think.

ChemBob, I believe that was only to determine where we are located in the galaxy, not the universe (dust obscuring the high density of stars in the centre of the galaxy made it appear that there were an equal number of stars all around us, and thus the mistaken conclusion that we were at the galaxy’s centre). But nonetheless, it’s meaningless to say that anything at all is at the centre of the universe — any more than a single point on the surface of a sphere can be said to be the centre of that surface.

@ Bevans. While this Jeanson character might have crazy creationist views, that’s no reason to deny or repeal his PhD.

Graduate degrees are awarded on the high quality original research not on the basis of agreeing with one’s supervisor or parrotting the generally held views of the scientific community (that’s what Scientific American is for ;-) )

While he may have some crazy ideas, I’m sure his Thesis was given the proper scrutiny. Heck, if he was a vocal and widely known creationist at grad school, his work will have been probably been scrutinised at greater length than normal.

As for being repealed at a later date. I’m sure you’ll agree that taking away a PhD on the basis of your work falling out of political favour, becoming unpopular or just being shown to be wrong at a later date, is not a sound basis for any academic institution to run grad school

Sorry if I missed it, but does anyone know what his does anyone know the subject of his doctoral thesis? Hmm.. I wonder if it’s available electronically….

i would think that to successfully snag that PhD from harvard, in biology, that a certain amount of personal fraud would necessarily be involved, wouldn’t it?

i mean, how do you get to the phd level in biology without (honestly) believing in evolutionary theories?

@Bevans from what i’ve seen and read, it’s generally only possible if fraud or plagiarism was involved. which of course must be proven without a doubt. which is tougher than it sounds.

Homophily. Schadenfreude. Both unattractive, from either end.

“If the Bible is so accurate, why doesn’t every culture describe the same exact worldwide flood?” The person who asked that last question added, “I mean, it’s not like they’d just forget to write it down or something.” Ha! Jeanson’s answer was that only Noah’s family survived, and all the cultures came from them.

=============================

So, only Noah’s family survived and all cultures come from them… so… did they forget to write it down or something?

I seriously doubt Noah was white. Most of the OT purports to take place in various Middle Eastern locales. So where did all the white people come from?

I got the pastor to admit that the Bible wasn’t written by eye witnesses. He said that it was Moses who wrote the first few books of the OT according to the hearsay that God told him.

In a research paper I wrote for an English class, I found a connection between Noah and black people. Starting at Genesis 9:18, after the flood, Noah got drunk and naked (why did my Sunday School class skip that part?), and his son Ham saw him, and he told his brothers who then backed into Noah’s shelter and covered him. Noah woke and cursed Ham and his son Canaan.

What some have extracted from this is that Canaan’s descendants are black (Canaanites are actually not black, but whatever), and since Noah cursed him and his father, Ham, it’s OK to make black people slaves.

To be clear, as far as I can tell, few Christians who know about this notion agree with it. I learned this from a book called “When Slavery Was Called Freedom” by John Patrick Daly.

After I found out about this, I read these passages from Genesis to my 12-year-old who then gave me a blank look, then asked, “Doesn’t that make Noah kind of a jerk?”

It does seem jerks like Noah and Samson get all the goodies. Ah, traditional morals.

@bruce, as good as it may feel, it’s not productive to call Dr. Jenson is an idiot. The problem is that his intellectual efforts outside his tiny scientific domain are dedicated to supporting a particular idea, not because he’s found strong evidence for it and been forced into believing it as a result, but because he really really wants it to be true. Anyone can make this mistake, and it takes real vigilance to avoid it.

@dmf: It’s my opinion that Dr. Jeanson is simply a liar. Either he lied his way through the doctoral program at Harvard or he’s lying now, but whichever way it is, he’s a liar. That doesn’t, however, mean that he plagiarised or cheated in an academically significant sense.

I don’t think you can have your degree revoked on the grounds of being a lying liar who lies, and that’s probably ultimately for the best, as Russell already argued.

What I don’t understand about these people and the 6,000 years is how they take a country like China with a known history of almost those 6,000 years and still say what they do?!?!?! I ignore idiots like these. Thanks for bringing this to people’s attention! Keep up the great work.

@daedalus2u I think this line in your comment on the BA site sums it up perfectly:

” I said he only wanted to dispute a straw man idea of evolution, not real evolution.”

This is probably a dumb question, but what is the difference between a “Super” and a “Bright”. Is this some kind of Aldos Huxley “Brave New World” categorization?

/BCT (probably a rogue “Epsilon”)

link to video excerpt from the 7pm lecture.

maybe someone needs to show him the real proof. A few dinosaur fossils should work.

Rebecca, thanks for the kind words. I’m just getting around to reading this now.

I don’t think Jeanson expected as many scientists and science-oriented people to show up. I think this was his church (they meet there weekly, down the block from Harvard Med School, where he worked), and this might have been done as a favor to the pastor.

And, yes, those cytC pyramids confused the hell out of me as well!

it is depressing to think that this kid got all the way through Harvard and learned so little just so that the creationists would have someone with initials after his name to validate their idiocy

I agree completely – and I agree with those who are suggesting rescinding his degree. It shouldn’t have been awarded in the first place to someone who repudiates scientific method and subordinates empirical evidence to faith. What he’s doing isn’t science; it’s theology. We wouldn’t expect a Physics dept. to award a PhD to someone who clings to Newtonian mechanics and refuses to accept either relativity or quantum theory. What I’m piecing together, from various accounts, is that he seems to have slipped beneath their radar. In short – people weren’t paying attention. Hopefully, in future, they will.

“Supers” AND “Brights” is mostly an internet meme.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brights_movement

http://www.the-brights.net/

It is, as with Jeanson, proof that a Ph.D. is not inoculation against stupidity.

I completely fit the definition of a “Bright” yet I find this idea no better than little kids building a clubhouse and putting a “No Grrls!” sign on it.

I don’t think the issue here is his intelligence or lack thereof. The issue is intellectual honesty or lack thereof, and willingness to “fit” all the data into a preconceived dogma. When you put a creation myth in a 3,000 year old book up against the entirety of modern science, you’re either ignorant, stupid or pretty much dishonest to embrace the former as literal truth. As a Harvard Ph.D., he is neither ignorant nor stupid. I understand the tendency of ideological-types to try to incorporate all the existing data into a pre-existing worldview, but there are reasonable limits to that. 6,000 year old earth is beyond that pale. At some point even the ideologically-committed have to stop and ask themselves just how far is too far. Beyond this creation myth, there is absolutely no reason whatsoever to believe the earth is 6,000 years young, no piece of data that points to it, nothing. And tons upon tons of evidence against it.

When you put a creation myth in a 3,000 year old book up against the entirety of modern science, you’re either ignorant, stupid or pretty much dishonest to embrace the former as literal truth. As a Harvard Ph.D., he is neither ignorant nor stupid.

Chris, there’s also cognitive dissonance and denial. His mind may be so compartmentalized that he actually believes what he says, even though he “knows” it contradicts the evidence.

There’s too much to comment on. I’ll just focus on two:
“Everywhere we look at galaxies, we appear at the center, so….” Well, from where I am, everywhere I look I appear to be at the center of a flat terrain, therefore, the Earth is flat and I’m at the center… Well, obviously, everyone everwhere is at the center of the map no matter where you are, or the galaxy, or Universe. Why wasn’t it obvious that there is no “center”?
Everyone gets the 6K years old Earth incorrect.
Based on the Hebrew calendar (since they “composed” the OT), today is Sat, 22 August 2009 = Hebrew 2nd of Elul, 5769 [http://www.hebcal.com/converter] . The Hebrew culture began 5769 years ago and is based on their own particular history–no one else’s.
Additionally, a little research shows that they had used the Lunar Year calendar of a lunar months: therefore, Noah ( a fictional character) died at age 900 (lunar months old) , would actually have been 70 Solar Years old. So while Biblical Creationists use the ages in the OT (Noah 900; Adam 930; etc), they got (Bishop of Ussher) Adam “created on October 23, 4004 BC at 9:00 am” . However, Biblical Creationists are (were) mixing two different calendar dating systems. I’m not going to redo the calculations but if you convert their Lunar calendar to the Solar one (Adam dies at 72 years old), the Earth and Universe would be @ 3K years old!!!!

Nathaniel Jeanson started at ICR yesterday. They have put up a profile page on him –

http://www.icr.org/article/new-icr-research-associate-nathaniel/

which says:

He went straight to Harvard Medical School, which he said “sounded like it would be useful for credentials and evangelism.”

Playing a big role in his science education were teaching materials from the Institute for Creation Research. “I’m a second generation creationist, you might say,” he said. He explained how he saw that “salvation was inherent in creation science” and that it could be used as a tool for evangelism, another passion of his.

With a promising and lucrative career in medical research open before him, Jeanson said he underwent a career shift at Harvard. “I asked myself, ‘How can I use and abuse my training to influence eternity, rather than for temporary gain?'”
….
None of this suggests cognitive dissonance but instead indicate, by his own admission, a deliberate attempt at propagating obfuscating pseudoscientific claims with a “Harvard PhD” seal of approval for the greater goal of evangelism. He is not a stupid or cognitively dissonant creationist. Harvard University, beware. There will be many more to follow.

Oh, cool! Turns out my “He’s a big, fat lying liar who lies” theory was correct! YAY ME!

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