Skeptic: Examining Extraordinary Claims and Promoting Science Skeptic: Examining Extraordinary Claims and Promoting Science

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Tuesday, June 1st, 2004 | ISSN 1556-5696

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Dr. Debunko Comic Book Character Launched!

Now if this just isn’t the coolest, hippest thing to hit skepticism since Lisa Simpson began reading Junior Skeptic magazine (when Homer had his alien abduction experience), I don’t know what is. Check it out: a Dr. Debunko comic book character!

Most Respected Dr. Shermer, sir,

Last fall I wrote and sent you some pictures of my comic, “Tabloia Weekly Magazine.” I just wanted to give you an update.

Dr. Debunko T-shirt

Dr. Debunko T-shirt available at tabloia.com

My website is up: Tabloia.com. My first issue will be in comic shops in July. I will be sure to send you a copy, because it contains, among other things, a character named Dr. DeBunko. His story boasts, “Dr. DeBunko wants YOU to become a proud member of the Skeptics Society of America! Visit Skeptic.com today!”

I just completed an interview for www.jazmaonline.com. It should be posted any day. I said this about you:

Dr. DeBunko is inspired by anything supernatural that cannot or has not been proved by science, but that people can’t help but believe in, whether it be UFOs, werewolves and vampires, ghosts, psychics, superstitions, or religion. Everyone has their own life experiences that shape their definition of “reality,” and it’s fascinating to me how many conflicting “absolute certainties” there are, depending on who you talk to. Dr. DeBunko is also inspired by other debunkers of the supernatural, including DC Comics’ Dr. 13, Scooby Doo, and real-life Debunkers of the Supernatural Michael Shermer, editor of Skeptic magazine, and James Randi, who actually has a one million dollar reward out to anyone who can scientifically prove the existence of any supernatural occurrence (a reward which no one has been able to claim).

Hope you keep up the fight in this frightening age of religious conservatism and literalism.

Sincerely,
Chris Wisnia
Salt Peter Press
Proud Publisher of Tabloia Weekly Magazine


The following is Bruce Grant’s review of “Creationism’s Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design” by Barbara Forrest and Paul R. Gross, Oxford (University Press, 2004, ISBN 0195157427).

About the author: Dr. Bruce S. Grant is Professor of Biology Emeritus at the College of William & Mary where he taught genetics and evolution for 33 years until his retirement in 2001. He has done research with Drosophila species and parasitoid wasps, but since 1983 his research has focused on the evolution of melanism in peppered moths, a field in which he remains active. His recent publications are listed at: http://faculty.wm.edu/bsgran/


Intentional Deception:
Intelligent Design Creationism

by Bruce Grant

Those who cavalierly reject the Theory of Evolution, as not adequately supported by facts, seem quite to forget that their own theory is supported by no facts at all.
—Herbert Spencer, 1820-1903

About six years ago the editor of a national journal in the biological sciences sent me a manuscript to referee that purported to review the literature on the evolution of melanism in peppered moths. No new data were presented. The author had not published in this field previously, and had not produced any research of his own. But science is an open enterprise, and anyone who has something valid to offer should be welcomed and encouraged. So, I read it with care, and offered this commentary to the editor:

I have served as a reviewer of manuscripts submitted to biological journals for over 30 years … and in all of that time I have never encountered a manuscript with so many errors. Some of this can be attributed to poor scholarship … and some might be attributed to differences of opinion … This happens. Certainly I’ve made my share of errors in print. Who hasn’t? But this essay … is different. His ‘errors’ tend to be of selective omission and appear to be consistently crafted to support his arguments. I think this tactic is more common in the field of law in which the objective is to win the argument rather than to find the truth. To readers not intimately familiar with the primary literature in this field it might appear that [he] has assembled a strong indictment against the widely held view that natural selection is chiefly responsible for the temporal and geographic variations observed in peppered moth populations. [The] list of references cited in his essay is both long and impressive. But based on his account of this work in his essay, I am left wondering whether he has actually read the papers and books he cites, or whether he has read them carefully. Perhaps my impression is wrong; perhaps he has mastered the literature in this field. If so, then I am forced to entertain the disquieting notion that [his] distortions of the controversies in this field have been deliberate. Whatever the cause, ignorance or dishonesty, [his] essay certainly does not qualify as objective scholarship.

My critique went on for seven more pages, enumerating in detail my specific complaints. Instead of making corrections and submitting a revision to the journal, that author posted his rejected manuscript, still brimming with the same errors, on the Internet! Later, a much abridged but still error-ridden version appeared as an op-ed piece in The Scientist, escaping the scrutiny of peer reviewer. And, unrepentant, that same author incorporated yet another version of his essay as a chapter in his book, an overly ambitious and mendacious attack on evolution published in 2000.

At the time I refereed the original manuscript I was unaware that its author was affiliated with the e, an organization promoting “intelligent design” (ID) creationism. I did suspect he was hiding an agenda, but my job was to review his science, not his motives. My arguments were directed solely at his flagrant misrepresentation of the literature in my field. When it comes to debating points of science with the scientists who do the actual work, ID creationists might as well challenge Yo-Yo Ma to a cello contest. At least that’s what I thought until I read Creationism’s Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design, by Barbara Forrest and Paul R. Gross, a book that documents in painstaking detail the recent history and ongoing programs of neo-creationists who seek to subvert science education and transform society. They might have titled their book after Al Franken’s Lies (And the Lying Liars Who Tell Them), since it features practitioners of ID creationism masquerading as scientists hoping to be taken inside the cloistered walls of academe.

The book is not so much about the ID argument as it is about the current ID movement, called the “Wedge,” dating to 1992. (The “Argument from Design” dates back to 1802 in William Paley’s treatise, Natural Theology, and was refuted 57 years later by Charles Darwin in The Origin of Species, and more recently by Richard Dawkins in The Blind Watchmaker.) Neo-creationists imitate Paley’s designed-watch metaphor and peddle it like a Hong Kong Rolex, insisting it is authentic science and not religion. But of course it is religion: the intelligence in Intelligent Design demands the existence of a supernatural force or agent, so we might as well call that agent God, for short.

Briefly, the ID claim is that complex adaptations cannot have evolved by so simple a process as natural selection acting upon heritable variation. ID biochemist Michael Behe argues that many structures or molecular assemblages are irreducibly complex (IC) such that the removal of any component causes complete loss of function. A number of reviewers have exposed the logical flaw in Behe’s contention that only ID can explain IC. Forrest and Gross cite evolutionist Jerry Coyne in rebuttal: “[B]iochemical pathways did not evolve by the sequential addition of steps to pathways that became functional only at the end. Instead, they have been rigged up with pieces co-opted from other pathways, duplicated genes, and multifunctional enzymes” (p. 81). As the IC argument poses no challenge to Darwinism, evolutionist H. Allen Orr pronounced the idea “dead” and suggested that the ID community should give it a “proper burial” (Boston Review, Summer 2002).

Forrest and Gross devote considerable space to the powers of obfuscation of ID theorist William Dembski, who dazzles naive audiences with mathematical footwork. Dembski doesn’t equivocate about the role he sees for religion in science: “Christ is never an addendum to a scientific theory but always a completion” (p. 85). They alert us to his latest opus, No Free Lunch, in production at the time of their own writing, but it too has since been routed by critics (see REPORTS of the National Center for Science Education, vol. 23, nos. 5-6, 2003). In particular Allen Orr disassembled Dembski’s argument that ID can be detected as the occurrence of events of “specified complexity” that cannot be accounted for within statistical reason by random processes or by “goal-directed” search algorithms producing pre-specified targets when all possible fitness functions are averaged. The problem with Dembski’s analysis is that search algorithms are flawed analogies of Darwinism, so Dembski’s calculations are irrelevant. Darwinian evolution by natural selection has no “goal,” or pre-specified target. As Orr put it, “Nice answer, wrong question.”

Whatever ID is, it’s not science if we judge by the new information or discoveries it has produced:

The dearth of scientific results in support of ID was confirmed in George W. Gilchrist’s 1997 survey of the scientific literature … He reports that ‘this search of several hundred thousand scientific reports published over several years failed to discover a single instance of biological research using intelligent design theory to explain life’s diversity.’ The situation has not changed since 1997 (p. 38).

Forrest and Gross point out that the literature of science is replete with refutations and technical dismissals of ID claims, and they provide references to many of them. But the thorough debunking of ID nonsense by experts in various fields of science and philosophy has not been nearly enough to combat the ID movement. Indeed, ID-movement founder, lawyer Phillip Johnson, boasts that “‘the wedge is lodged securely in the crack’ between empirical science and naturalistic philosophy…” (p. 10). Considering ID’s abject failure as a scientific program, how can Johnson make this claim? On the practice of science ID has had no impact, but on selling the ID story to the public, the Wedge has made alarming inroads. With apologies to Abe Lincoln, one needn’t fool all the people all the time, just enough of the people at the right time.

ID creationists don’t really expect to win arguments with scientists about science, but they do want to have arguments with scientists so the public might think they have a substantial case. They want the public, not scientists, to judge. What could be fairer? Unfortunately, it’s easy to sound like a scientist among people not well versed in a particular specialty.

Unlike Behe and Dembski who actually attempt to construct arguments in support of ID—however wrong they are—ID biologist Jonathan Wells offers nothing except underhanded ridicule of research in evolutionary biology. Of himself, Wells says: “Father’s [the Reverend Sun Myung Moon’s] words, my studies, and my prayers convinced me that I should devote my life to destroying Darwinism … When Father chose me … to enter a Ph.D. program … I welcomed the opportunity to prepare myself for battle” (p. 85). Wells, an active theologian in Moon’s Unification Church, does battle by scanning the scientific literature in search of controversies that he can distort. He misleads audiences into believing that Darwinism is built on a house of cards, that it is a dying concept sustained by fraud perpetuated by “establishment” conspirators who are in a panic to cover up Darwinism’s failure to explain the diversity of life. Wells’ book, Icons of Evolution, has been refuted point by point by legitimate experts. But how can well-meaning people on school boards, including professional scientists who are not thoroughly knowledgeable of the primary literature, decide who is right and who is butchering evidence?

Forrest and Gross concede that our American tradition of fair play and to let all parties be heard, unfortunately plays against us because in this debate not all parties are playing fair. I can understand that people in the ID movement, or in any movement, want to present their views, but I cannot excuse their deliberate misrepresentation of my views. Evolutionists have contemplated the putative adaptive value of cheating among social animals, but don’t God-fearing creationists ever worry about bearing false witness?

The Wedge’s work to promote ID creationism in mainstream culture as a bona fide scientific alternative to Darwinism is gaining strength, not through any scientific achievements, but through aggressive marketing. Marketing, of course, costs money, and the Wedge is exceedingly well funded. Forrest and Gross report that the allotment of funds from the Discovery Institute to its Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture (the banner organization for the Wedge movement) was, by 1999, roughly three times the revenues of the National Center for Science Education. Additional funding from Fieldstead and Co., the Stewardship Foundation, and the Maclellan Foundation fattened the Wedge bankroll to about three million dollars by 2003.

The marketing program includes giving lectures, sponsoring conferences, infiltrating curricula, advertising on the Internet, publishing books and brochures, recruiting political support, and keeping their propaganda in the news. They have cracked the mainstream news organizations with op-ed pieces in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post. Frequent attention in The Washington Times “may spring from its being owned by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon” (p. 171). Moon also purchased UPI in 2000. “Through his numerous front organizations, Moon has poured hundreds of millions of dollars into a plan to replace American democracy with a Unification theocracy” (p. 171).

According to Phillip Johnson, the Wedge movement is right on track, its initial goals have been accomplished, and although it is “not the beginning of the end, …it is the end of the beginning” (p. 10). Johnson sees the Wedge as a long-term project. “It’ll take decades…and we won’t be around to see the final days … In the meantime, the goal is to stay on the offensive and thus wear down the opposition” (p. 313). The chilling end they seek won’t be completed by worming ID theory into the classroom, along side Darwinism (as if that’s not bad enough). Their mission requires expunging Darwinism from biological education as a step toward discrediting the whole of naturalistic methodology and replacing it with theistic science. Combating creationism in its various guises continues to divert limited resources away from public education, and takes time away from enjoyable scholarship. But what choice do we have? To fight effectively, we must know our enemy. The most thorough introduction to that enemy is Creationism’s Trojan Horse. Its authors are heroes.


Prayer Study Story Breaks Nationally!

From: Bruceflamm@aol.com

Are you sitting down? The scandal surrounding the flawed Columbia University “miracle” study has finally been published in a major newspaper. The Sunday 5-30-04 edition of the London Observer includes an expose of the whole sordid affair. None of the previous newspaper articles on Wirth’s arrest and indictment have ever discussed his connection with Columbia University or the infertility prayer study. Note that none of the study’s authors would return the Observer’s calls or emails. Furthermore, the Observer’s phone calls to the Journal of Reproductive Medicine were not returned.

The following article ran in The Observer Guardian Unlimited (copyright © 2004, Guardian Newspapers Limited) on Sunday, May 30th, 2004.

One of the authors of a university report on infertility has admitted a multi-million-dollar fraud, reports Paul Harris in New York.


Exposed:
Conman’s Role in Prayer-power IVF ‘Miracle’

by Paul Harris

It was a miracle that created headlines around the world. Doctors at one of the world’s top medical schools claimed to have scientifically proved the power of prayer. Many Americans took the Columbia University research—announced in October 2001 after the terror attacks on New York and Washington—as a sign from God. It seemed to prove that praying helped infertile women to conceive.

But The Observer can reveal a story of fraud and cover-up behind the research. One of the study’s authors is a conman obsessed with the paranormal who has admitted to a multi-million-dollar scam. Daniel Wirth, now under house arrest in California awaiting sentencing, has used a series of false identities for several decades, including that of a dead child.

Wirth is at the centre of a network of bizarre scientific research, often working with co-researcher Joseph Horvath. Horvath has pleaded guilty to fraud, has used a series of false names and is accused of burning down his house for insurance money.

Many scientists are now questioning how someone with Wirth’s background was able to persuade Columbia University Medical Centre to unveil his research in such a high-profile way. They also want to know why it appeared in the respected Journal of Reproductive Medicine, whose vetting procedures are usually strict. ‘We are concerned this study could be totally fraudulent. It is an amazing saga,’ said Dr Bruce Flamm, a clinical professor at the University of California.

The study claimed to show that a woman’s chances of conceiving through IVF treatment doubled when someone prayed for them. ‘IVF is a very difficult procedure. Increasing the success rate by 100 per cent would be a huge breakthrough, a revolution,’ said Flamm.

The study was based on an IVF programme in Korea. Prayer groups in the United States, Canada and Australia were shown anonymous pictures of women on the programme and asked to pray. The subjects were not told they were part of a study, but the results claimed to show that the group had double the success rate of a group not being prayed for.

The research listed three authors of the study: Daniel Wirth and two Columbia fertility specialists, Dr Kwang Cha and Dr Rogerio Lobo. Kwang Cha has since left Columbia and now helps to run fertility clinics in Los Angeles and Korea. Lobo is still at Columbia. Neither returned phone calls and emails requesting an interview. Wirth’s lawyer, William Arbuckle, also failed to return The Observer’s calls.

On 18 May, Wirth pleaded guilty to multi-million-dollar fraud charges against US cable telecommunications company Adelphia Communications. While working for Adelphia, Horvath had steered $2.1 million of contracts to Wirth. The pair now face up to five years in jail and up to $250,000 in fines.

FBI papers filed during the case also show that Wirth has used a series of false identities over the years. In the mid-1980s, Wirth used the name of John Wayne Truelove to obtain a passport and rent apartments in California. The real Truelove was a New York child who had died as an infant in 1959.

He also used the name of Rudy Wirth, who died in 1998, to establish an address in New York and claim social security benefits. It is not clear whether Wirth and Rudy Wirth were related.

It has emerged that Wirth has no medical qualifications. He graduated with a law degree and then took a master’s in parapsychology at John F. Kennedy University in California, where he met Horvath.

Wirth and Horvath have co-authored numerous pieces of research claiming to prove paranormal activities. Many of them are linked to a body called Healing Sciences Research International, which Wirth heads. However, the institute appears to be only a mail box with no telephone number.

Horvath also has a long criminal history and has used many fake identities, including Joseph Hessler, a child who died in Connecticut in 1957. It was as Hessler that he was jailed for fraud in 1990. But it was as John Truelove—using the same false identity as Wirth—that he was arrested in 2002 for burning down his own bungalow in order to claim the insurance. Horvath has also pleaded guilty to practising medicine without a licence after posing as a doctor in California.

Sceptical scientists liken the two to a pair of conmen, similar to the character played by Leonardo DiCaprio in the film Catch Me If You Can. ‘They seemed to think they were cleverer than everyone else. It was maybe the love of the game that spurred them on,’ said Professor Dale Beyerstein of the University of British Columbia, who has been investigating the pair’s research for several years.

Columbia University would not comment on the Wirth case. However, shortly after the prayer and fertility study was published, the Department of Health began an investigation into the university’s research. It found numerous ethical problems. Lobo, a respected scientist who was named initially as the lead author of the research, had only provided ‘editorial review and assistance with publication’ on the study.

Scientists are pressing Columbia and the Journal of Reproductive Medicine to disown the research. But the JRM still has the study on its website. Phone calls to the journal were not returned. Columbia removed the press release announcing the study from its online archive shortly after receiving requests from scientists for comment after the Wirth fraud charges. But the university has not officially commented, ignoring clarification requests from the Commission for Scientific Medicine and Mental Health.

1 Comment »

One Comment

  1. Brent says:

    you have exposed a fraudster using the religious prayer studies as a means of making financial gain, for this all science thanks you, Now all you need to do is debunk all the hundreds of other (Some legitimate) studies that were done. Dont stop here, to actually debunk the theory, you must in reality debunk at least over 50%, . .or else all you have done is caught someone who has found the system profitable, and twisted it for his own gain

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