When I read a research article I expect that article to include an introduction that prepares me to understand how the research I am about to read about fits with previous results. If the work doesn’t agree with prior research I expect some discussion about why the authors believe the work of others is in error or needs to be modified. I also expect that credit is given to those that have made the same or similar discoveries or observations.
What I expect is often missing from the alternative journals in the young-earth creationists (YECs) scientific subculture. These self-acclaimed peer-reviewed journals are peer-reviewed in name but in practice often don’t measure up to the standards of typical peer-review.* I’ve written about similar problems before (YECs need to go to science conferences, When Peer-review lets you down) but I thought I would share a quick example from a YEC journal article that I read yesterday.
Example 1: I’ve been researching YEC speciation models and was recently working my way through a series of articles by Peer Terborg (a pseudonym) in the Journal of Creation from 2009. This journal is published by Creation Ministries International which formerly was part of Answers in Genesis. These articles entitled “The Design of Life” promote a speciation mechanism that Terborg calls Variation-Inducing Genetic Elements (VIGEs). I had just read Todd Wood’s article from 2002 in the journal Origins entitled “The AGEing process: Rapid Post-Flood Intrabaramic Diversification Caused by Altruistic Genetic Elements (AGEs).” As I read Terborg’s article I thought this is just what Todd Wood proposed in 2002 and yet inexplicably he never references Todd Wood.
Example 2: From the same series, in Part IV Terborg applies his VIGES hypothesis for species formation to the question of the human chromosome #2 fusion event. Most YECs deny that any such fusion ever happened and so I expected the usual arguments but he ends with this interesting conclusion:
“Understanding the molecular properties of human chromosome 2 is no longer problematic if we simply accept that humans, like the great apes, were originally created with 48 chromosomes. Two of them fused to form chromosome 2 when mankind went through a severe bottleneck. And, as argued above, the fusion was mediated by VIGEs.”
Borger, a YEC, concludes from the evidence he sees that human chromosome 2 is most undoubtedly the result of the fusion of two chromosomes and uses his VIGEs idea to explain how this fusion could have taken place in recent human interesting. This is an interesting and honestly a far simpler explanation for all the observations that geneticists have made of chromosome 2 than any of the other YEC attempts to deny there was every any fusion of chromosomes in human history.
But I knew that there were more recent articles in the YEC literature about human chromosome 2 and so I wondered how they dealt with Borger’s assessment. The answer: They deal with his work by never acknowledging it even exists.
Jeffrey Tomkins and Jerry Bergman published an article on human chromosome 2 in 2011 just two years after Terborg’s article appeared in the same journal. They strongly deny that Chromosome #2 is the result of a fusion event and never make any mention of any YEC literature that suggest otherwise. Tomkins then published an article in Answers in Genesis’ journal Answers Research Journal entitled: Alleged Human Chromosome 2 “Fusion Site” Encodes an Active DNA Binding Domain Inside a Complex and Highly Expressed Gene—Negating Fusion. Again, no mention of Terborg’s opposing assessment. Lastly, Tomkins published an article in a non-peer-reviewed magazine (Acts and Facts) for the Institute of Creation Research entitled: New Research Debunks Human Chromosome Fusion. Not surprisingly now, no mention of Terborg here either.
Why so many citation problems?
This is a big deal. Proper credit for ideas is not being provided in the first example and acknowledgment of legitimate alternative interpretations are not provided in the second. Journal editors and the peer-review process absolutely should have prevented both of these mistakes. Both of these devalue the work of other scientists and deprive the journal audience from being given the whole picture.
Why and how does this happen? Maybe the authors were unaware of their own YEC literature. I am not a YEC and yet I often feel like I am far more aware of the YEC literature than most YEC authors. But it seems unlikely in this case that the authors were unaware of the other literature. The YEC literature is not that voluminous that any of these authors should not have known about the other work. It feels far more like intentional avoidance or ignorance. At times they appear to intentionally refuse to cite other YEC authors. More than likely, it’s a combination of causes along with a general desire to present a unified voice to an audience that just wants a simple answer. But this isn’t they way that science proceeds.
Let me provide one piece of circumstantial evidence for my claims above as it relates to Example 2. I am fairly certain that Tomkins is familiar with Terborg’s work rather than being ignorant of the YEC literature. He wrote a short piece for ICR in 2012 just before his AiG “peer-reviewed” publication. In that piece he talks about YEC speciation models and makes the following statement:
“Another question surrounding genetic variability is the type of genomic DNA sequence features underlying its function. A variety of creation scientists, including Jean Lightner, Todd Wood, Peter Borger, and others, have presented data and models involving the genetic diversification of created kinds via transposable elements and other types of non-protein-coding DNA. These sequences appear to offer the most opportunities for models of genetic diversity and the diversification of created kinds.”
He must have read the very paper I did and so he should have been familiar with Borger’s (this is a reference to Terborg which is a pseudonym) explanation for chromosome #2. I can only conclude that he has chosen to ignore and not present this alternative view to the audience of his manuscript.
But this is where peer-review should come in to prevent such oversights and slights. Surely the editor of the Journal of Creation should have realized when he read Tomkins manuscript that he has published an article by Terborg that contained an alternative explanation. He should have sent the manuscript to Terborg as a reviewer who could have provided many helpful comments. The editor should have sought out experts in the field and they should have been aware of the YEC literature even if the editor of the journal was not. Those reviewers should have suggested and even demanded that Tomkins address Terborg’s interpretation even if it was to simply acknowledge that it exists or say that he didn’t accept it.
The same is true for Terborg’s lack of acknowledgement that Todd Wood had published the same ideas several years before. Why didn’t the editors send the manuscript to Todd Wood and if they did I can’t imagine that Wood would not point out the oversight.
I think a bigger problem for YEC journals is that peer-review requires there to be peers for review. The YEC community is very small. Many times the author of the manuscript is the only person that knows anything about the subject at hand and so the editor and reviewers chosen are not in a position to critically examine the science of the manuscript. This is made worse by inter-organization biases such that even if there is another reviewer that might be able to provide a critical evaluation that manuscript does not end up in their hands. Or if it does, those comments are simply ignored.
I have heard many stories first hand of reviewers who have made comments on YEC manuscripts only to have been outright ignored by the editors or authors and so it is hard to say who is at fault here but the peer-review system appears to be barely functional and is really just slapped onto these journal in-name only.
*Secular scientific journals are not immune from peer-review problem. There are many predatory journals these days that are all about making money and have a very weak peer-review system in place. Peer-review can be manipulated and biased just like any system. But it works more often that not and it helps to prevent what could be even more egregious cases of bias and poor research.
This article was not edited or peer-reviewed as others on this blog often are. As a result all errors are solely those of the author who invites correction. I would also like to acknowledge that some of the general ideas expressed in this article comes from a discussion that I had in a Facebook community.
Cover image credit: What exactly is peer review? Flickr/AJ Cann, CC BY-SA
It never ceases to amaze me when YECs talk about “young earth theory” or “same evidence, different interpretations.” They have, unfortunately, been deceived by (generally) well-meaning “authority” figures into not understanding how real research is done, and so think that their ideas have at least as much merit as scientific ones. Sadly, even when shown articles like this one, they are so bent on maintaining their view of “The Truth™” that they refuse to consider the possibility that YEC leaders are being less-than-honest with them.
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This kind of critique only makes sense when you are dealing with a genuine attempt to explore reality. If, as here, the only goal is to spin distracting fantasies, then prior work, and most especially prior work that suggests different conclusions, is a confusing distraction that is best ignored.
I wonder if the YEC literature is similarly neglectful when it comes to discussing theology
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Answers in Genesis has an in house publication that mimics a scientific journal named Answers Research Journal, but that publication requires author’s conclusions to match AIG’s statement of faith. The following quote from the publication’s instructions to authors illustrates this point:
“The editor-in-chief will not be afraid to reject a paper if it does not properly satisfy the above criteria or it conflicts with the best interests of AiG as judged by its biblical stand and goals outlined in its statement of faith.”
(Page 9) http://legacy-cdn-assets.answersingenesis.org/assets/pdf/arj/instructions-to-authors.pdf
Reading the YEChie’s attempts at genetic science is a lot like listening to an old-fashioned snake oil salesman pitching something like ‘General Balderdash’s Miracle Restorative Fluids’. Or, the like. Both are brewed with deception, but maybe just a little wish to do right, yet lacking the honesty or discipline to accomplish anything but fraud.
Sadly, we have ‘scribes and pharisees’ today, just as back in Christ’s time.
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I’m sure part of the problem is information blindness due to cognitive dissonance. They don’t even know that they are ignoring other related facts/research/theories.
Not so long ago I had a frustrating conversation on this topic with a church friend. He is a nice guy, and intelligent guy, and a reasonable guy–but, not a scientist.
When I tried to explain the problems with a program put out by a particularly obnoxious YEChie, my friend just smiled, and replied: “But you scientists are just guessing, aren’t you?”
I was so dumbfounded, I don’t know if I came up with anything better than: “NO!”
We live in very technical times, but times in which most people only use the benefits of scientific work–they do not participate in the process.
I am still trying to formulate a decent layman’s level reply to the notion that we, the community of science, are ‘just guessing’. Most people have never used spectrometers, visited cyclotrons, dug at the KT Boundary, or even used a binocular microscope. They don’t know or care that a common microchip today may have over 100 thousand-million transistors, each perfectly connected and aligned. They don’t know, they literally do not know the work and discipline that goes into even a basic hypothesis! They have no frame of reference.
So, to them, we are just competing noise, but without the warm, friendly side.
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Many people receive little science education (at least in the U.S.) so to many people a theory is little more than idle speculation. The YEC promoters take advantage of this. A YECer can spin speculation after speculation and they will say that their ideas are just as valid as a scientific theory that is based on many observations, or lab work, mathematical proofs, most likely years of work, lots of peer review, etc. I think it is an insult and really, dishonest, when someone dismisses all of this real work as just “guessing” and then they present their own speculations as being authoritative.
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You seemed shocked creationists don’t act like honest, conscientious scholars. It’s hard to believe how generous you are to them.
I often describe creationism as “cargo cult science”, and I think that explains situations like these. Creationist “scientists” don’t need to read and cite all the relevant literature, because they’re not doing real science. The citations they do have are in large part for show, because while they are mimicking the appearance of scientific research, nothing is actually being discovered or added to our scientific knowledge.
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Joel (but also anyone who has suggestions) –
If one of your students cited a YEC paper in the Answers Research Journal*, would you accept it? Or how would you explain to a group of undergrads the distinctions between acceptable and unacceptable publications in a situation like this?
*I mean a citation in order to establish a fact or support a scientific claim, not in order to illustrate the beliefs of YECs.
When you cite a paper as an authority, you are saying it is worthy of attention. A paper in Answers will probably be demonstrably unworthy of attention. I would point out that Answers is pre-commited to YECism and reviewed for YEC orthodoxy but not for science. If time permitted I would point out the limitations of the authors and the shortcomings of the particular paper.
It might happen that the paper served a purpose. Thus there may well be a paper in Answers asking why the Nile and the Amazon don’t have canyons. This is illuminating because, in fact, they do.
Plenty to discuss. The problem as always is the risk of reinforcing crap by repeating it, of pardoxically validating by takng the trouble to refute. But since the student introduced the paper, I would probably feel I had no choice but to talk about it
Would you have established at the beginning that “Young-Earth creationist sources like ‘Answers’ will not be acceptable because [widely accepted reasons]?” I agree that once a student introduces the source, specific problems with it have to be addressed.
For example, my students are too young to wade through PubMed, but I start by warning them that Mercola and Natural News are not reliable, nor are crowd-sourced answers – not because everything is always or automatically wrong (although the former may be close :) but because we (as non-experts) would have to spend so much time fact-checking that we may as well go straight to sources that we can rely on as authoritative.
At my very small school, my senior dept chair routinely uses Answers papers as the biblical alternative to the secular view. Saying “These cannot be trusted because AiG is committed to only publishing analyses that support a YEC viewpoint” invariably leads to “Secular journals only publish analyses that support a materialist viewpoint.” As the person in the minority – who nonetheless is committed to ensuring that students are exposed to an accurate version of the evidence – I’m trying to find a workaround.
My admiration for you, fighting the good fight on the front line. I see no alternative, if a colleague cites Answers in Genesis, to digging down deeper. What are the credentials of the authors? How do they compare with the credentials of the authors that you cite in response (a professorship in Chicago, surely, trumps a Bachelors degree from Bob Jones)? What is the actual evidence and does it stack up? Is it credible that a flood could have deposited alternating layers of marine limestone and desert sandstone? And so on.Finally, you might say that what they believe is in the end up to them, but you want to make sure that they understand what evolution science claims, and the reasons why an overwhelming majority of scientists, including scientists committed to religion, accept it.
I would like your help. This year I plan to write a primer on evolution, and the antiquity of the Earth, directed particularly at people in your position, and your students. What would you like to see in it?
Regarding creationism, my tentative strategy is to pre-empt creationist arguments in the main text, and then have a chapter at the end entitled “But what about?”. So in the main text, I would point out that when we talk about intermediates or “transitional forms” in the fossil record, we don’t claim to be able to distinguish between our grandparents and our great uncles, but we can point to a mixture of older and newer features. Archaeopteryx is a good example. It is now no longer thought to be an ancestor of present-day birds, but an offshoot from the line that led to them, but it is nonetheless the case that it has birdlike feathers and a lizard-like bony tail.
I also plan to include a list of resources, such as http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/comdesc/ (29+ Evidences for Macroevolution), and http://www.talkorigins.org/indexcc/list.html (An Index to Creationists Claims). What else would you like to see in there?
[And, of course, I would welcome suggestions about this project from everybody]
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This is a big undertaking, and I’m still thinking about what would be helpful. I agree that a “what about” section is a good idea. Also (though this may go without saying), clear exposition of how we know what we know. Grade-school teachers face the additional challenge of how to use primary literature appropriately:my students can’t read/interpret the studies for themselves because they’re only 14. For example, I was fascinated by Joel’s articles on AiG’s hyperspeciation model, using mDNA comparisons to evaluate claims. My students don’t yet know enough genetics or molecular biology to understand the claim or counter-claim, so they have to trust that I investigated thoroughly enough, interpreted correctly, weighed the evidence properly, and am communicating to them clearly (and I’m not a molecular biologist myself). This creates a very thin line to walk between exposing them to expert analysis and taking on a mantle of authority I don’t have.
“Evaluate all the evidence and decide for yourself” is the ideal but not practical. Citing sources that are accessible to laypeople – if that’s even possible – would help in teaching students to evaluate sources. We start off with the nature of science – what falls under its jurisdiction and what doesn’t. That may fall outside your topic, but might be useful as a “for further reading.” Or perhaps it is sometimes pertinent: “Here’s an opposing claim, but because it’s unfalsifiable/deals with the supernatural/can’t be tested, it;s a discussion for philosophy rather than biology.”
“what they believe is in the end up to them, but you want to make sure that they understand what evolution science claims, and the reasons why an overwhelming majority of scientists, including scientists committed to religion, accept it.” This is very well put, and seems like a good way to clarify our goals without being overly confrontational. In my experience with young teens, “I don’t believe in [evolution/climate change/conventionally grown produce, etc.] really means “My family thinks X,” (except the ones who mean “I reflexively disagree with whatever any authority figure thinks.”) That requires careful handling – especially since I’m working cross-culturally.
I’ve emphasized in the past that
a) this is a diverse & complex topic – it takes much work to understand it well enough to have an informed opinion…even if you choose not to accept it, there is reasonable evidence and people aren’t just making stuff up;
b) this is not a salvation issue, and Christians in the relevant sciences can accept it without losing their faith;
c) there’s a difference in saying “Your science is invalid,” and saying, “I see nothing invalid in your science, but I cannot accept the results because of the interpretation I hold of the Bible.” I think the latter is the Todd Wood approach, correct?
Interesting comments. The fact that I missed Tod Wood’s papers, was because I never read anything in this field before 2007. That Wood and I independently reached the same conclusions is not a weakness, but powerful evidence one can come to the same insights along different ways. In the past, paleontologists (such as Grassé and Broom) and geneticists (such as Goldschmidt and Bateson) reached the same conclusions on evolution: a frontloaded information-driven process. What Wood missed, however, is the origin of RNA viruses, which is an inherent and strong explanatory part of my theory. Darwin never explained anything. Evolution is over or as Broom said: «The period of great fecundity is over; present evolution appears a weakende process, declining or near ist end. Aren’t we the witnesses of an immense phenomenon close to extinction?»
Thanks for the personal perspective on the referencing issue. It does an a different angle to interpreting the significance of that model.
Also, your last points is well taken. I agree that the the outcome of the YEC model (most of them anyway, though Jeanson’s idea that speciation is linear and so still going on at the same pace doesn’t fit) of speciation is the rate of new species creation today must be far exceeded by the rates of extinction. In this sense the future is pretty grim in terms of biodiversity. This is probably ok for most YECs who expect that Christ’s return is soon on the horizon. There is no need to have speciation and biodiversity replaced if the world is going to end in fire very soon. If the world is very old, Christ could still return very soon but it could also be 2000 years from now. At our current pace of species loss combined with YEC ideas of genetic entropy and loss of variation resulting in loss of adaptability 2000 years from now nothing might be alive. Not many YECs, OECs, etc.. have really compared each others models from this perspective.
I’ve been thinking about your comments a bit more and I think they help make part of my point in the article about peer-review. You may have missed Wood’s papers but presumably your manuscripts was submitted to an editor who should have sent it out to reviewers. The lack of connection of your proposal to Woods should have been a glaring omission to someone that was well connected with the creationists literature. If I were the editor the first person I would sent your manuscript to would have been Wood himself. It seems obvious that the editor did not do that. But I would have hoped that one of the reviewers would have pointed out Wood’s work. That is what the review process if for. The fact it was all missed suggests that the reviewers picked (if in fact there was any review beyond the journal editor himself) were not appropriate and did not have a good grasp of the subject material. This is a problem in a small community in which there aren’t enough people able to evaluate others works and its especially bad if the few people that can aren’t even asked to review. None of this is your fault but it should be a concern for YECs as it should be for any scientific community.
Naturally, I just went back up and looked in my article and realized that almost all of my comment was already in the text. How easily I forget what I’ve said just a few months before.