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Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Everybody Take a Deep Breath

You may be familiar with Mark Armitage, the Christian microscopy technician formerly at California State University Northridge, who (allegedly) discovered soft tissue in the horn of a fossilized triceratops just a few years ago, ended up having his employment terminated over it, and subsequently sued the university.

The presence of soft tissue might be taken to imply that at least one triceratops was around much more recently than 65.5 million years ago, the time frame currently posited for the much-debated dino extinction event, whatever that may have been.

In short, if legitimate, Armitage’s discovery would be hard to account for under the current evolutionary paradigm.

Naturally, the story was enthusiastically circulated online by both creationist and evolutionist science buffs to reinforce their respective points: in the first instance, concerning the age of the earth; in the second, concerning the need to get these pesky creationists out of the science biz.

Let’s just say that nobody reporting the matter exactly covered themselves with glory. May I suggest we all take a deep breath and reconsider our conclusions?

The Black Hat

First, here’s the obvious “bad guy”: the skeptic Donald Prothero, whose prescriptions for preventing future occurrences of this nature are truly scary:
“In my view, the committee that originally hired [Armitage] dropped the ball when he revealed his creationist agenda. If they were aware of what that really meant, they should have quietly but firmly rejected him as ‘not qualified.’ ”
Okay, so in Don’s world, being a creationist disqualifies you from not only the practice of science, but even from being employed as a lab tech. And if Don is going to disqualify you, he’s going to do so without admitting why he’s doing it, because these things should be done “quietly but firmly”. We don’t want our biases showing to the public, folks. Got it.

Christians currently studying science in university should govern themselves accordingly; it’s not hard to see where this sort of thinking will get us. And why stop with science majors?
“Heck, even a secretary with anti-science beliefs could be a threat if he/she had access to sensitive documents, and decided to embarrass or discredit your department by leaking those documents.”
Christians with secretarial aspirations, take note.

Piling on the Pejoratives

And because it’s not enough to label creationists as anti-science and agenda-driven, Don throws in a few more pejoratives just for fun:
“When people are hiring for jobs like this, they are not just looking to see if you have the qualifications specified in the job listing. They are also looking to see if you are a human being who can be a trusted and collegial co-worker and employee, not a deranged psychopath or someone with issues that would disrupt the workplace. Subscribing to an activist anti-science agenda should disqualify you from a job in a science department as well.”
Moral of the story: if you’re a Christian looking for work in the field of science, don’t ask Don for a job. You’re not likely to get a fair shake — you deranged psychopath!

Principled Dissent, Truth and Triumph

Don Prothero needs to take a deep breath, wipe the froth from his lips and consider the fact that just about every major discovery in the history of science began as a minority opinion. Dissent, especially principled dissent, is one of the most useful means of getting at truth, assuming that’s what you’re really trying to do.

Of course if all you’re interested in is the confirmation of your own biases, carry on.

But Prothero is not the real problem here. He’s just doing what skeptics do and have always done. What bugs me a whole lot more is the way something like this gets triumphantly and inaccurately reported by Christians. Our own side needs to take a deep breath, step back and reconsider the way we often present facts to the public.

Define “Gifted” and “Scientist” Please

First, Christian commenter Dr. Jay Wile calls Armitage a “gifted scientist”.

While this may be technically true (in that Armitage certainly works in the field of science), it is also wildly misleading. According to Don Prothero, Mark Armitage is actually a microscope technician who never graduated from the University of Florida and got his M.S. in Biology from the Institute of Creation Research, an “unaccredited fundamentalist organization”. Armitage worked two days a week keeping track of microscopes; he neither researched nor taught at California State.

That, of course, says nothing whatsoever about the truth or falsehood of Armitage’s triceratops soft tissue claim, but it says quite a bit about the integrity of Wile’s reporting.

“Winning” Is Not Winning

Second, Wile entitled his article “Young-Earth Creationist Wins Lawsuit”, which is also a mischaracterization. Perhaps Dr. Wile is unaware that settling a lawsuit is not generally considered “winning” by anyone with legal experience. In fact, innocent parties settle all the time because settling is vastly cheaper than being tied up in a sclerotic legal system for weeks, months, and years. Schools and corporations are the biggest settlers of all.

Winning a lawsuit makes a catchy title for a blog post, but it really doesn’t describe what went on accurately. It too says nothing about the veracity of Mark Armitage’s claims.

Where’s the Contrary Evidence?

Finally, neither Wile nor other Christian commenters seem remotely interested in presenting any evidence that might lead others to a different conclusion. Dr. Wile breathlessly reports (in italics) that Armitage found soft cells in the 48-inch triceratops horn he recovered from the Hell Creek Formation in Montana. He neglects to make any mention of any of Armitage’s critics, who say the soft cells are made up of bacterial biofilms and other contaminants, not original dinosaur tissue. At least, so says Donald Prothero, though the link at his blog post to the work of “critics” currently appears disabled, making further inquiry more difficult.

Can you see the problem getting at the truth poses for the interested reader, not just from one side, but from both? I find Don Prothero horribly, almost hysterically biased and downright silly; but cannot escape noticing that, despite being a believer, Jay Will is almost as invested in rhetorical posturing as his skeptical colleague.

Could everybody just take a deep breath?

Pious Frauds and Real Deals

Is Mark Armitage a pious fraud? Is he honestly mistaken? Or is he just possibly the real deal? I haven’t a clue, and it doesn’t sound like anyone else — pro or con — does either.

The thing about truth is that it doesn’t need our help. If what we’re saying is right, we don’t need to spin the facts, gloss over contrary opinions or mischaracterize credentials in order to influence people.

If the earth is comparatively youthful, and if soft tissue in dinosaur bones demonstrates this, in time more of it will be found, notwithstanding the efforts of secular scientists and commenters to disparage, discredit or cover up evidence. If the soft cells in Armitage’s triceratops are merely contaminants or bacterial crudge, that too will eventually be demonstrated more convincingly.

Unless of course Don Prothero has his way and creationists are pushed out of the field of science entirely. That would be a major loss for both sides.

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