Dembski’s blog caught hoaxing again

An acquaintance sends word he’s happy to be back in the mountains with his hammer again, breaking rocks as a geologist in support of a mining venture. The price of gold is high, a few advances in technology have helped the process, and our friend was tapped by suits with money to help keep the actual gold mining operation in the proper vein, so to speak.

Mining is best done with a good scientist on hand to make sure the hole dug out is done right, and to be sure that the digging keeps going for the genuine nuggets.

William Dembski’s blog, Uncommon Descent, has no scientists with any geology training, it appears. But again they’ve been mining, for quotes instead of useful ore, and they’ve come up with fool’s information. Unable to tell the difference between fool’s information and the real stuff, they’ve published the fool’s information for the world to see.

A wise person does not allow fool’s information into one’s information banks.

Sal Cordova, a flack for intelligent design in Virginia, wanted to enter the fray of criticism of Michael Behe’s new book, The Edge of Truthiness Evolution. As all the high school students do, Cordova thought he’d open with a snappy quote — in this case, a quote from Ken Miller, the distinguished researcher and professor of biology at Brown University who also happens to be the co-author on the most-often used biology textbooks in high schools, junior and community colleges, as well as getting some use in major universities. Cordova thought he’d caught Miller saying something that Miller had already lived to regret.

Here is what Cordova opened with:

the designer made serious errors, wasting millions of bases of DNA on a blueprint full of junk and scribbles. Evolution, in contrast, can easily explain them as nothing more than failed experiments in a random process…

Ken Miller, 1994
Life’s Grand Design

That’s really quite an insult to God as phrased, for a Christian — and Miller is a Christian — and there is Miller defending that stupid old “random process” of evolution, even though a few “evolutionists” may say evolution is not random (selection being the opposite of random, you see, as in “natural selection”). Cordova pushes on to note that a new study suggests there are functions for pseudogenes, and Cordova assumes that the Dear Reader will understand that this makes Miller’s 13-year-old claim completely false. Cordova also hopes the Reader will make a leap to conclude that all of evolution theory is false, but more restrained than usual he leaves that implicit for the moment.

Alas for Cordova, Miller didn’t say what Cordova quotes him as saying. Miller isn’t calling God for making serious errors, he’s pointing out that such a conclusion is required from the intelligent design claims — that is, from people like Sal Cordova. So Cordova has edited Dr. Miller’s words to make them say things Dr. Miller did not say himself. That’s not the only twisting of words Mr. Cordova engages in, in that brief quote. Incredibly, Cordova puts his own false description of evolution in for Miller’s words. Miller didn’t call evolution “a random process” at all.

This is the sort of stuff that makes decisions against intelligent design easy for courtroom judges. Such lies may not seem to be big, or significant, but in a courtroom, such lies in financial transactions earn the lie-teller a stretch in prison. In all other cases, such lies inform the judge that the witness is untruthful, and probably nothing the witness says can be trusted. Creationists and ID advocates clearly do not see these fibs in such a harsh light, so they say such things on the witness stand, they lose their cases, and then they go right back out to churches across America telling the same lies, and begging for sympathy because the “evil court system” ruled against them. Had it been their mother, she’d have warmed their behinds. They never learn.

Here is what Miller actually wrote 13 years ago (I’ll put Cordova’s version in blue, and the stuff around it in red, so you can see where he’s been mining; plus, I include a couple more paragraphs to give a full context):

The cluster itself, or more specifically a sixth b -globin gene, provides the answer. This gene is easy to recognize as part of the globin family because it has a DNA sequence nearly identical to that of the other five genes. Oddly, however, this gene is never expressed, it never produces a protein, and it plays no role in producing hemoglobin. Biologists call such regions “pseudogenes,” reflecting the fact that however much they may resemble working genes, in fact they are not.

How can we be sure the sixth gene really is a pseudogene? Molecular biologists know that the expression of a gene like b -globin is a two-step process. First, the DNA sequence has to be copied into an intermediate known as RNA. That RNA sequence is then used to direct the assembly of a polypeptide, in this case, a b -globin. There is no evidence that the first step ever takes place for the pseudogene. No RNA matching its sequence has ever been found. Why? Because it lacks the DNA control sequences that precede the other 5 genes and signal the cell where to start producing RNA This means that the pseudogene is “silent.” Furthermore, even if it were comehow copied into RNA, it still could not direct the assembly of a polypeptide. The pseudogene contains 6 distinct defects, any one of which would prevent it from producing a functional polypeptide. In short, this sixth gene is a mess, a nonfunctional stretch of useless DNA.

From a design point of view, pseudogenes are indeed mistakes. So why are they there? Intelligent design cannot explain the presence of a nonfunctional pseudogene, unless it is willing to allow that the designer made serious errors, wasting millions of bases of DNA on a blueprint full of junk and scribbles. Evolution [in contrast], however, can [easily] explain them easily. Pseudogenes are [as] nothing more than [failed] chance experiments in [a random process . . .] gene duplication that have failed, and they persist in the genome as evolutionary remnants of the past history of the b -globin genes.

The b -globin story is not an isolated one. Hundreds of pseudogenes have been discovered in the 1 or 2% of human DNA that has been explored to date, and more are added every month. In fact, the human genome is littered with pseudogenes, gene fragments, “orphaned” genes, “junk” DNA, and so many repeated copies of pointless DNA sequences that it cannot be attributed to anything that resembles intelligent design.

If the DNA of a human being or any other organism resembled a carefully constructed computer program, with neatly arranged and logically structured modules each written to fulfill a specific function, the evidence of intelligent design would be overwhelming. In fact, the genome resembles nothing so much as a hodgepodge of borrowed, copied, mutated, and discarded sequences and commands that has been cobbled together by millions of years of trial and error against the relentless test of survival. It works, and it works brilliantly; not because of intelligent design, but because of the great blind power of natural selection to innovate, to test, and to discard what fails in favor of what succeeds. The organisms that remain alive today, ourselves included, are evolution’s great successes.

In the full context, you get a better idea of what is going on, and you realize that even if a dozen years later some other researcher discovers some function for the pseudogene, it still is not coding for a protein like the other genes are, and the rest of the analysis of Dr. Miller is probably spot on.

Biologists will pick up on that. They’ll note that, regardless what the pseudogenes do, evolution better explains how the cell got to that point — and that intelligent design offers no explanation at all.

But nice church ladies, and businessmen who try to live a good life and support their church in the face of “creeping secularism” or whatever they call it these days, won’t understand how they are being lied to by Uncommon Descent and Sal Cordova. And, unless someone shows them, they’ll think Ken Miller, a good, church-going-every-Sunday sort of guy, is probably a non-believing, conniving scientist who argues against reason that a random process, like a roulette wheel, can assemble living things — and they’ll be snug and warm in the smugness they’ve been gifted, in error.

It’s not a big lie, as lies go. Long-time observers of these discussions will tell you of dozens of past twistings of words and events by creationists to embarrass scientists, when the science supported the scientists’ views, and not the creationists. There’s the Lady Hope hoax, the utterly false and rather crass claim that some stranger sat at Darwin’s bedside as he died, and took his confession of faith including a retraction of evolution theory. First debunked in the 1920s, creationists still tell that whopper to unsuspecting people in the pews.

Then there’s the claim that “no one has ever found the Missing Link!” accompanied by similarly erroneous claims that fossils do not support evolution. Reality is that there are well over a dozen different species known to have lived, between our proto-ape ancestors and modern humans, several of them bipeds; and some of the fossil finds that do demonstrate evolution are so spectacular that one would be excused for thinking God led their discovery — like the amazingly complete sequence of fossils showing the evolution of modern whales, from an ancient, sea-side-dwelling predator in what is now Pakistan, through moving of the nostrils to the top of the head as a blowhole, through loss of the hind limbs and development of flukes instead, and so on. The whale fossils show the story for just one family out of dozens known.

But none of that will stop the quote miners. Sal Cordova and his colleagues at Uncommon Descent will comb science papers, not hoping to find research ideas or understanding of their own data, but merely searching for statements that can be used against scientists. And if the statements can’t be used against scientists, Cordova and company will edit the quotes until they are molded to the creationists’ means, even if it means twisting the words of good Christians.

After all, it’s not a big lie.

Some kind soul will write me to say that I’m being too tough on Sal Cordova. The writer will say surely Sal didn’t mean to misquote Dr. Miller, to twist Miller’s words, and to put words in that Dr. Miller never said. I used to hope that was a possibility, too. But there are tell-tale signs. Do you see how Cordova cites the article? “Life’s Grand Design, 1994.”

What is that? Is it a book? No, you can check Amazon or your local library — no book by that name. An article in a major science journal? No, searches there will not turn it up.

Miller actually links to it from his own website. It turns out it was an article he was asked to write for MIT’s Technology Review. One must wonder, why don’t the creationists get the citations right, so you can go find the article? The usual answer is, the quotes have been so twisted that any fair person reading the article and comparing the quote will conclude that someone is playing unfairly — and in this case, it’s not Ken Miller who is being unfair.

So to that kind soul, that trusting soul who has just been played like a sucker by the creationists, I say, check the footnotes for yourself. Don’t take my word for it, but especially don’t take their word for it — get the facts yourself, and check it out.

What a tangled web!

Update:  Cordova finally corrected the quote, but then doctored Miller’s words again to support Sal’s point.  It’s pathological strip quoting.

3 Responses to Dembski’s blog caught hoaxing again

  1. […] doesn’t put enough emphasis on the cautionary lesson here: when you have something of a reputation as a quote miner and a rather sloppy interpreter of science, perhaps it’s not the best idea […]


  2. Ed Darrell says:

    I asked Sal Cordova for a citation to his quote. He claims there are two versions of the quote, one from Technology Review, and one from a PBS program he doesn’t specify. Cordova said I probably had the one from PBS, and linked to the one I link to above. (see this link, and following:

    The short story, Cordova strip quotes Miller, and then doctors the quote to make it say something it doesn’t.

    I’ve asked Cordova to change it. Any wagers? Will they simply delete my posts there instead?

    Here is comment #43, now “awaiting moderation”:

    Your comment is awaiting moderation.

    Mr. Cordova, your quote does not square with the version you link to in the post above. I believe you owe Dr. Miller an apology. You’re putting words in his mouth that are not his, that make the “quote” inaccurate.

    Please fix it.…


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