Monday, January 9, 2017

Defending Creationism

My recent exchange with O'Micks in ARJ has drawn some outside attention at the Panda's Thumb blog.  For those not up to speed on such things, Panda's Thumb is a popular anti-creationist blog.  The author at PT is David MacMillan, who has a degree in physics and writes publicly against creationism.  I was struck first by the title of his article, "Disagreement over Homo naledi offers fascinating peek into creationist peer review."  Before I read the piece, I wasn't sure exactly what our exchange would have to do with peer review.

MacMillan's article doesn't have much to do with peer review.  In fact, the author takes this disagreement as an opportunity to chastise Answers in Genesis (AIG).  He correctly noted that creationists have thus far not espoused any sort of consensus on what Homo naledi is, and he scorned AIG's "knee-jerk response" that H. naledi was not human.  In the interest of fairness, I should clarify here that that response was written by Elizabeth Mitchell, who is a staff writer at AIG.  Her article cited what appears to be a personal communication from David Menton, another AIG staff member who says that he is unconvinced that H. naledi is really human.

MacMillan then continues his article by characterizing O'Micks as "One of AIG's researchers."  In reality, O'Micks does not work for AIG, and as far as I can tell from the AIG website, he's only published three articles in the Answers Research Journal, which accepts unsolicited submissions.  In fact, every paper in ARJ carries a pretty clear disclaimer:
The views expressed are those of the writer(s) and not necessarily those of the Answers Research Journal Editor or of Answers in Genesis.
This was not an encouraging start to MacMillan's commentary.  He continues:
AiG accepted Wood’s submission to ARJ, but only after O’Micks had an opportunity to write a rebuttal. Then, they posted the rebuttal on their website first, ahead of Wood’s article.... Now, I only have minimal experience publishing in scientific journals, but this is highly irregular. A reputable journal would either allow a letter to the editor in a later issue, or they would require a rebuttal to be submitted as a full peer-reviewed research project in a later issue. Posting a concurrent rebuttal demonstrates that ARJ’s claims of academic integrity and peer review are pure nonsense.
Ouch.  No.  Not even close.  First of all, my response was written as a letter to the editor.  I only provided an abstract after the editor, Andrew Snelling, requested it.  Letters to the editor in journals are frequently published simultaneously with a response, and they often do not undergo the same sort of peer review as a full paper would.  See any letter in Science or Nature for example.  That's exactly what happened here.  These papers were posted simultaneously on December 28 with mine first in the queue.  You can even see this in the journal page numbering: My paper is pp. 369-372 and O'Micks's response is pp. 373-375.  MacMillan is just wrong.

MacMillan also said that my paper says "that O’Micks reached this conclusion by excluding inconvenient data."  That's also false.  In my paper I said that
the addition of postcranial characteristics to an otherwise craniodental character matrix necessitated reducing the taxon sample size to a small fraction of the full set of taxa known from craniodental remains. 
Notice the word "necessitated?"  That means O'Micks didn't have a choice.  Skeletal remains for most of the really interesting hominin skulls is very sparse.  Homo habilis, Homo rudolfensis, and all of the Paranthropus species have to be dropped from an analysis of postcranial characteristics because there's just not enough postcranial material known.  O'Micks wasn't trying to hide anything.  The smaller sample size was a legitimate methodological necessity.

After criticizing O'Micks's response as hasty, error-filled, and special pleading, MacMillan concludes that our exchange shows that all creationist journals "lack any actual rigorous peer-review process."  Since MacMillan doesn't seem to have any firsthand experience with creationist peer review, that's a bold claim to make.  Frankly, I've had more hassle from some creationist reviewers at JCTS than I've had publishing in some noncreationist journals.  Creationist journals aren't all one thing, and they definitely aren't created "as a way to legitimize their claims of scientific and doctrinal authority."  That's also nonsense.  JCTS was designed for specialty publications in the area of baraminology and related creation biology that would be of little interest to the broader creationist community.  In my experience, no one is impressed by my articles on carnivorous plants or bootstrapping in baraminology.

MacMillan concludes:
So when another creationist submits a pointed article challenging AiG’s claims, what can they do? Why, they’ll just hurriedly pen a generic rebuttal and post it preemptively, thereby reestablishing authority and insulating themselves from criticism.
That's not at all what happened.  My article made a very narrow methodological point about an article written by a researcher unaffiliated with AIG.  I did not directly critique anything written by AIG staff.  O'Micks's response was not posted "preemptively," and since O'Micks is not AIG staff, that response does nothing to "reestablish" AIG's authority.

The real irony here is that MacMillan lists several genuine errors in O'Micks's response, all the while filling his own article with careless errors.  Last week, I wrote
We need to try harder to really hear those who disagree with us, not just nitpick the logic of their complaints.  For every argument, there's much more going on than just the issue at hand.  That's what we need to discover.
If being nice to people isn't enough reason for you to really listen to your enemies, maybe avoiding the public embarrassment of error-riddled "rebuttals" will be.

Feedback? Email me at toddcharleswood [at] gmail [dot] com. If you enjoyed this article, please consider a contribution to Core Academy of Science. Thank you.