Sunday, 2 January 2011

The World Around Us "virtual museum" - An analysis

Here I describe the nature of the site and give an overview of its logic, rhetoric, and intellectual quality. I add as an appendix, keyed to the site itself, a frame by frame content analysis, for completeness and reference purposes, and to justify the strength of the opinions I have expressed.

This is a Creationist (indeed, in part at least, a Young Earth Creationist) site. Any student who uses this as a resource will be completely misled. Any teacher using it will be in violation of guidelines, and at risk of career damage.
This site continues the post-Dover phase of Creationist activity, as exemplified by Truth in Science, Explore Evolution, and C4ID. It is characterised by anonymity (we are not even told who wrote the text, deniability (the religious agenda is not stated, and the site claims merely to be offering suggestions for consideration), and a mixture of turgid post-modern philosophising, straw man arguments, distortions of established science, and presentation of fringe science as mainstream. The overall purpose is to undermine confidence in established cosmology, geology, physics, and biological science, and to invite consideration of the crypto-Creationist alternative. The graphics chosen to illustrate this self-styled virtual museum are selected to further its agenda, are widely available elsewhere, and are nowhere adequately explained. The reading list is a collection of polemical works spanning the range of Creationist and anti-evolutionary positions. There is no way in which visiting this site is likely to further anyone’s understanding or knowledge of science.
The process of deception begins with the site’s name; The World Around Us is the name given to a section of the official Northern Ireland curriculum. (Much as Explore Evolution mimics the name of a major US National Science Foundation educational initiative.) Like Truth in Science and Explore Evolution, the site quotes selectively from the UK national curriculum about the importance of learning from evidence. The conclusions of scientific investigations are then misdescribed as assumptions, and the use of naturalistic explanation is misdescribed as a philosophical self-limitation, rather than as an empirically justified methodology. A false contrast is drawn between the methods of history and those of science as currently practised. It is claimed, in a clumsy attempt to establish a toehold for supernatural design in the historical sciences, that history answers “why?” questions. This it does not, except in the trivial sense that human action and motivation is part of the subject matter. (In this sense, the social and psychological sciences also answer “why?” questions). The existence of marginal disagreements, or even the agreed existence of limitations and the need for precautions, is presented as evidence of fundamental problems. All this lays the ground work for the eventual baseless claim that present-day cosmology, geology and evolutionary biology are in a state of crisis, and ripe for a paradigm change.
The site claims to “draw on mainstream science”, but does this only in the sense that Loch Ness monster hunters draw on mainstream zoology. It uses the familiar rhetorical methods of Creationist pseudoscience, including false dichotomy, misrepresentation of the conclusions of scientific papers, distortion of the record of the subject’s development, resurrection of long resolved controversies, and failure to distinguish between peer-reviewed scientific research reports, opinion pieces in bona fide scientific journals, and the purely Creationist literature. There are signs of careless editing of the text, and of the pasting in of much older material. In biology, evidence of minor change is highlighted as not being evidence of major change (as if anyone ever said it was), while the evidence of major change is suppressed. In geology, on the other hand, the occurrence of rapid “catastrophic” episodes is explicitly described as evidence against the gradualism of anything in between. The constancy of radioactive decay rates is described as a questionable assumption, in deplorable ignorance of the way that these rates follow inexorably from fundamental physical laws. (As it happens, my favourite exposition of our reasons for trusting radiometric dates,  is entitled Radiometric Dating - A Christian Perspective. Wiens is incidentally concerned with the theological as well as the scientific shortcomings of Creationism, but such matters are beyond the scope of BCSE.)
To sum up, this site is indeed a museum. A museum of horrors.

Professor Paul S. Braterman, MA, DPhil, DSc

The full article together with the appendix can be seen here.

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