Evolution Medicine Religion Science

One last time: Our young earth creationist medical student is at it again

Oh, boy.

Last week, as part of my series Medicine and Evolution, I mentioned the blog of a homeschooled medical student who also happens to be a young earth creationist and used her as an example of why I feared that credulity towards a a pseudoscience that is so obviously wrong based on the empirical evidence, so easily debunked with so little effort is an indicator of credulity when it comes to other forms of pseudoscience, like quackery. I hadn’t really planned on mentioning her again any time soon, or even ever, as I thought my point had been made.

Then a reader had to point out to me that she’s at it again (discussion continued here). I don’t want to spend a lot of time on this, because of the risk of beating it to death, but as a physician and a scientist, I found so much of what she said to be so wrong on so many levels that I had to address it one last (I hope) time. In actuality, I had found out about it a few days ago, but refrained from commenting until now so that my insolence would be…respectful. Well, mostly respectful, anyway.

At least Alice begins by admitting what I knew all along from her previous repetition of creationist canards:

Also, I am not a biologist; I have neither the interest nor the time to spend on detailed study of either evolutionary theory, or even better documented things like the anatomy and physiology of various species. I am mostly interested in human biology, and that only to the extent that it gets sick and I can help fix it. Many of you have spent far more time on this, and I cannot possibly equal your wealth of knowledge and examples.

So why does she then follow with a rather long post trying to do exactly that?

Alice also admits that her reasons for not “believing in” evolution are religious:

You are all quite correct that my reasons for believing in creation are not what you might call “scientific”. I believe that God created the world, because he said he did. He said this in a book, in which he also explained that the book is perfect, truthful, and without error. I don’t have any outside support for that statement; there was no one watching God do all this, who then told me about it. However, perhaps you will agree that if in fact there is an all-powerful, completely righteous God who created the universe, and then condescended to tell us about it, it would be unbelievably insulting to him to produce a lesser witness to uphold the truthfulness of God’s statement. In other words, God is the final authority, and I do not apologize for taking his word for it. As for my literal interpretation of the Bible, I have the testimony of the Holy Spirit to my spirit of the truth, and I have the testimony of church tradition for two thousand years, which overwhelmingly tends towards what is now called a literal or fundamentalistic understanding of Scripture.

If she had just stopped there, I probably wouldn’t have bothered to address her comments again. After all, she was simply stating that her religious beliefs made it such that no amount of scientific evidence would overrule them with regards to evolution or anything else. It’s a rather scary attitude for a physician-to-be to have, and I have to wonder what other religious beliefs that she might hold that no amount of empirical evidence could dissuade her from–beliefs related to the practice of medicine, for instance. In any event, arguing against such a statement of faith alone would have been pointless, and I probably wouldn’t have done it–that is, if Alice hadn’t immediaely then proceeded to try to justify her creationist beliefs with dubious appeals to “science” again:

Tu and others ask, can’t micro-evolution add up over time to macro-evolution? No, there is indeed a barrier: Entropy. There is no other area in this world in which order naturally increases over time. Information does not spontaneously generate new information. To use a very old analogy, a junkyard of metal parts will not over time turn itself into a jet, or even a little car, not even with the added energy and assistance of a tornado through the junkyard. A pile of bricks and metal and concrete will not turn into a building.

Yes, it’s the old “evolution violates the Second Law of Thermodynamics” canard tacked on to a misunderstanding of microevolution and macroevolution, with an unfounded assertion that entropy is somehow a “barrier” between the two forms of evolution. Heck, she even uses a variant of the much beloved creationist distortion likening evolution to a tornado in a junkyard producing a 747 and then proceeds to abuse information theory. Alice needs to get to TalkOrigins STAT. While there, I hope she reads these rebuttals to that old creationist abuse of the Second Law. Or she should pay attention to a commenter on your blog named Ian, who argues on a more common sense basis:

Yet, as a medical practitioner, I would expect you to know what the most very basic, absolute and only reliable definition of what life is: Life is the Fight Against Entropy. Organizing a system by definition requires expending energy (these truths are very well described in the laws of thermodynamics). The moment an organism stop spending energy to self-organize, its life is over as all its electrochemical gradients will dissipate, its cells will stop respiring, it will stop moving, etc. This is the fundamental basis for all metabolism: expending energy to overcome entropy.

In fact, there are a lot of good comments there, all wasted apparently. Also, Mike the Mad Biologist addresses her previous argument that the evolution of antibiotic resistance in bacteria doesn’t support evolutionary theory here and here.

Alice then goes on to abuse information theory, repeat her false assertion that most mutations result in the loss of information or are harmful. No, most mutations are neutral; some are harmful; and some are beneficial. Apparently Alice, in her study at medical school, has never heard of these examples such as mutations in the CCR5 gene that result in resistance to HIV infection or the Apolipoprotein AI(milano) mutant, carriers of which have a much decreased incidence of atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease. In insects, beneficial mutations (beneficial for the insects, that is) can result in resistance to insecticides.

Didn’t they teach Alice any of this stuff in medical school? Or did they mention it but fail to mention that it was a mutation that brought about this beneficial allele?

She finishes up with one of the most inane creationist straw man arguments that I’ve ever heard:

Next: several people have insisted that evolution is not “progress,” but simply change in an unplanned direction. I must say, if you don’t think that humans are an improvement on chimpanzees, salamanders, slugs, and hydrae, I am very sorry for you. If you don’t think that Shakespeare’s plays, and Jane Austen’s novels, and Tchaikovsky’s symphonies, are an improvement on frogs croaking and cows mooing, there isn’t much more we can say to each other.

First, off, this is a bit disingenuous. If, as Alice clearly believes, macroevolution isn’t happening, then creatures can’t be evolving towards anything, much less towards what she views as the pinnacle of the natural world (humans), can they? So why would it matter, as far as evolution goes, if humans are an “improvement” over chimpanzees, salamanders, slugs, or any other creature? In any case, acceptance of the science supporting evolution does not mean that we don’t think that Shakespeare’s play’s or Tchaikovsky’s symphonies aren’t great, and whether or not they represent an “improvement” over the sounds of frogs or cows is completely irrelevant to whether evolution has occurred. Similarly, whether humans are an “improvement” over chimpanzees or other organisms is a human value judgment, not an objective judgment. Such a judgment implicitly assumes that all evolution is leading towards humans when in fact evolution proceeds among all organisms in many directions depending upon the environments organisms occupy and what selective pressures are brought to bear on them. Besides, assuming that humans are the pinnacle of the animal world is clearly a religious belief inspired by the major Judeo-Christian religions, not a scientific one.

But here’s where Alice makes the point of my previous post for me:

I am very puzzled by the suggestion that a belief in young-earth creationism (so no, no billions of years for all these accumulated mutations to occur) is inconsistent with reasonable medical practice. A randomised, double-blinded, controlled trial is a very nice piece of testing hypotheses and producing results that later investigators should be able to reproduce. (Wouldn’t y’all approve of some skepticism towards pharmeceutical-run studies, though?) As Chris suggested, when someone can show me a randomised, double-blinded, controlled trial resulting in the evolution of new characteristics through completely chance means, I will be impressed. I think that evolutionists are sadly and seriously mistaken on a number of scientific subjects; but I don’t doubt the discoveries they are making about the structure of genes, or the genetic causes of diseases, or even the possibility of gene-therapy. Let’s give each other a little credit.

I’ll give Alice props for sneaking a nice little bit of misdirection (no doubt unintentional) in there with her little crack about showing more skepticism towards pharmaceutical company-run drug trials, as if accepting the evidence for evolution that exists now is on par with insufficient skepticism towards big pharma. Nice one, Alice! You win the prize for a creationist nonsequitur that I hadn’t heard before. (Of course, how does she know that we don’t already show skepticism towards such trials?)

However, it is her suggestion that we need to do a randomized, double-blinded, controlled trial as a means of producing evidence for evolution is a brand new one on me, a creationist misunderstanding that could only have come from a medical student or physician. It tells me that she truly does not understand the scientific method, as she has proposed a methodology for testing evolution that is neither necessary nor appropriate. Randomized clinical trials are the gold standard for testing the efficacy of new drugs, but determining whether evolution is a valid theory requires different observational and experimental methodology. For example, in considering her suggestion, one has to ask, what, specifically, are we randomizing and how? How would we blind investigators to the experimental group? Why would we even have to? For example, evolutionary theory makes specific predictions that can be tested. For examples of such tests and the evidence that results from them, check out Evidences for Macroevolution for the techniques used to test the predictions of evolutionary theory independent of the mechanisms behind evolution. Indeed, in addition to evidence for common descent, the author lists evidence that, if ever found, either by experiment or observation, would cast common descent, and therefore evolution, into serious doubt.

Finally, there is a long discussion in the comments about morality, where we’re treated to the usual creationist canard equating evolution and reason with immorality, this time by a commenter named Wes (you’ll see why I couldn’t resist mentioning this when you read it):

Christians don’t deny the validity of reason. But for them reason is not the ultimate arbiter of truth. Reason cannot discover truth unaided. It’s a tool to be used under a higher authority. What happens if reason is treated as the highest authority? Over on Respectful Insolence’s blog, Orac has asked what would happen if a Christian doctor has qualms about giving abortions or vaccinations, etc. That too cuts both ways. If you have no absolute moral authority (and reason doesn’t offer such), then what happens when a doctor whose highest guide is Science is asked by the Nazis to perform medical experiments of the most horrific kind on living beings? If there’s no Most High God who has revealed right and wrong, then on what basis would an atheist doctor refuse to conduct such experiments? Critical thinking skills are indeed needed – but critical thinking skills don’t teach their own right use, any more than a hammer teaches what should and what should not be pounded.

Uh, no, actually, Wes. Reason doesn’t require the assumption of a higher authority, nor does it have to be used in the service of such an authority. Reason and science are neutral on that account. Indeed, whether such a higher authority exists is irrelevant to how reason should operate. As to the question about what basis an atheist physician or scientist could refuse to conduct experiments such as those done by the Nazi’s, that’s just a variation on the “evolution equals atheism” canard (along with a dash of the “belief in God is necessary for morality” canard). How about an ancient moral law that predates even Christianity, namely do unto others as you would have them do unto you, or don’t do unto others as you would not have them do unto you? That would be enough, wouldn’t it? Or are the desire to please God and the fear of going to hell absolutely necessary to keep people behaving morally?

Finally, I would point out that the Nazi reference a very poor example indeed. I could point out that the Nazi doctors (such as Josef Mengele) who performed these horrific experiments were Christians, at least nominally, but that’s not the key point that demolishes the example. No, it was not primarily “reason” that drove the Nazis to do such horrific experiments. Rather the Nazis subscribed to a quasireligious belief system involving a German Volk that valued people that they considered “Aryan” above all others and viewed the people upon whom they were experimenting (mainly Jews, but also Poles, Russians, Slavs, etc.) as inferior, as not quite human. Moreover, this quasireligious belief postulated that, not only did the Volk deserve Lebensraum (living space) in the East, but that one of these groups (Jews) represented a “cancer” on the Volk that needed to be extirpated or an infection that needed to be eliminated. Given this view, it became a rather small matter to decide that it was acceptable to use Jews as experimental subjects, since in Nazi eyes, they were little more than animals anyway and mortal enemies of the Volk besides. It’s no coincidence that much of the work in which they were used involved either (1) finding better ways to eliminate Jews from Europe (horrible experiments involving sterilization with X-rays, for example); (2) furthering the war effort (high altitude endurance experiments, experiments involving recovery from hypothermia after being submerged in cold water, experiments with infectious diseases plaguing German troops, etc.); or (3) crackpot racial “theories” that flowed from the Nazis’ quasireligious belief in the superiority of the German Volk (Mengele’s studies of twins, his attempts to turn brown eyes blue by injecting dyes into them, etc.). No, in the case of the Nazis, reason was not the highest authority and did not lead to the Holocaust. Their belief in the superiority of the Volk and their irrational hatred of Jews, accelerated by the good old-fashioned Christian anti-Semitism that pervaded Europe in the first decades of last century, did. Reason was merely yoked in service of the unholy political religion known as Nazi-ism.

I think that ought to do it. I don’t mean to keep beating up on Alice, and this will probably be the last mention for quite a while (if not indefinitely). However, that last post of hers illustrated even better what I was talking about before (particularly her apparent confusion about just what randomized clinical trials are and aren’t good for in science) when I pointed out that credulity about one pseudoscientific idea is almost always an indicator of difficulties understanding science in general. Right now Alice is safely sheltered in her medical school, where proper medical practice is spoon fed to her, as it is to all medical students. She is closely supervised and forced at least to learn enough to be able to pay lip service to science that she doesn’t accept. In a few years, she’ll be out on her own and no longer have the crutch (and supervision) of medical school, residency, or fellowship to support her. I hope that the compartmentalization that seemingly allows her to wall off her creationist beliefs and her misunderstanding of science from the practice of medicine holds, once there is no longer anything to buttress the wall.

I hope that it will, but fear that it won’t.

By Orac

Orac is the nom de blog of a humble surgeon/scientist who has an ego just big enough to delude himself that someone, somewhere might actually give a rodent's posterior about his copious verbal meanderings, but just barely small enough to admit to himself that few probably will. That surgeon is otherwise known as David Gorski.

That this particular surgeon has chosen his nom de blog based on a rather cranky and arrogant computer shaped like a clear box of blinking lights that he originally encountered when he became a fan of a 35 year old British SF television show whose special effects were renowned for their BBC/Doctor Who-style low budget look, but whose stories nonetheless resulted in some of the best, most innovative science fiction ever televised, should tell you nearly all that you need to know about Orac. (That, and the length of the preceding sentence.)

DISCLAIMER:: The various written meanderings here are the opinions of Orac and Orac alone, written on his own time. They should never be construed as representing the opinions of any other person or entity, especially Orac's cancer center, department of surgery, medical school, or university. Also note that Orac is nonpartisan; he is more than willing to criticize the statements of anyone, regardless of of political leanings, if that anyone advocates pseudoscience or quackery. Finally, medical commentary is not to be construed in any way as medical advice.

To contact Orac: [email protected]

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