mri lumbosacral spine
MRI scans of the lumbosacral spine
Casey Luskin Scientist and Public Defender of ID

Defenders Of The Evolutionary ‘Consensus’ Could Benefit From More Fact Checking

Published at The Blaze

One of the dangers of enforcing “consensus science” is a lack of competition. Just as in business, when competitors aren’t allowed, the quality of the product suffers. Anyone who has dealt with a local cable company understands this truth.

In science, this same principle can translate into a failure to adequately fact-check arguments. When defenders of the consensus try to squelch and ignore those who disagree with them, their arguments often become sloppy.

For example, writing at The Daily Beast in April, evolution advocate Karl Giberson posted a photo of a human baby with a rat-like tail claiming it showed our animal ancestry. The picture was altered — a classic case of finding some image on the Internet that initially seemed to be a rhetorical windfall, but turned out to be a fake.

Now I don’t believe Dr. Giberson intentionally tried to mislead. But using a dubious image — he borrowed it from a comedy website — to make a scientific point, was simply sloppy. Had a proponent of intelligent design done this, they’d be called “pseudoscientific,” and worse. But Giberson brushed it off, saying “where the image came from is of zero import.”

“Tailgate,” however, is just one recent example where evolutionists endorsed false information while advocating their viewpoint in the popular media.

In April, progressive author Chris Mooney argued at Mother Jones that the fossil location of Tiktaalik, a supposed “transitional form” between fish and four-limbed animals (called tetrapods), confirmed a “prediction” that provided “proof” of evolution.

But this “prediction” collapsed in 2010 when tracks of true tetrapods were discovered that predate Tiktaalik by almost 20 million years. The footprints bear distinct digits — an unmistakable sign of four-limbed animals existing long before Tiktaalik appeared. Even the journal Nature observed the tracks mean Tiktaalik cannot be a “direct transitional form.”

Mooney promulgated another serious error in a February Mother Jones piece polemically titled, “This Picture Has Creationists Terrified.” He maintained that human chromosome 2 appears composed of two chromosomes that are fused end-to-end, and this supposedly demonstrates our common ancestry with apes. Another successful “prediction”?

Hardly. The fusion story, even if true, only suggests that somewhere in the human line, two chromosomes became fused. It says nothing about whether we share a common ancestor with apes.

Mooney didn’t mention this logical rejoinder. Instead he took aim at a creationist biologist named Jeff Tomkins who had searched gene databases and discovered that the purported “fusion” point in human chromosome 2 is actually part of a functional gene. Quoting Kenneth Miller, an evolutionary biologist from Brown University, Mooney wrote:

But that’s just wrong, according to Miller. The fusion site is “more than 1,300 bases away from the gene,” he says, based on a review of major gene databanks. “These increasingly desperate efforts to ‘debunk’ the chromosome 2 story have failed before, and they’ve failed this time, too,” Miller concludes.

Actually Mooney was wrong. When challenged privately, Dr. Miller conceded that the fusion point was only far away from the gene when one excludes results from a genomic database called “refseq.” When refseq is included, a longer gene transcript is found — produced by a section of DNA that includes the fusion site.

Miller admitted the mistake to Tomkins: “in this transcript, the fusion site is in the middle of the first [gene] exon as you note.” Somehow Mooney failed to mention that inconvenient fact.

Mooney apparently wanted to give the impression that the “fusion site” is useless junk DNA, produced by random evolutionary mutations. The evidence suggests otherwise — it’s an important, functional gene.

Additional examples could be given, but the point is clear: Without checks and balances from dissenting voices, defenders of the consensus can become overzealous and promote false information. Competition from skeptics helps everyone better evaluate the truth of these important scientific questions.

Casey Luskin

Associate Director and Senior Fellow, Center for Science and Culture
Casey Luskin is a geologist and an attorney with graduate degrees in science and law, giving him expertise in both the scientific and legal dimensions of the debate over evolution. He earned his PhD in Geology from the University of Johannesburg, and BS and MS degrees in Earth Sciences from the University of California, San Diego, where he studied evolution extensively at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. His law degree is from the University of San Diego, where he focused his studies on First Amendment law, education law, and environmental law.