Monday, 26 October 2015

How to quickly appraise anti-evolutionist arguments

Given that the fact of evolution has not been doubted by the scientific community for well over a century, as a rule, any special creationist paper you read that claims otherwise is false. As the renown NT scholar Larry Hurtado has said, when analysing bold claims made by laypeople or non-experts in a field in which they are not qualified:
...when I’m shown something that hasn’t been through the rigorous scholarly review process (often, it appears, peer-review deliberately avoided), and comes from someone with no prior reputation for valid contributions in the subject, I’m more than a bit skeptical.  If the work is really soundly based, then why not present it for competent critique before making such claims?
Exactly. You can guarantee that every anti-evolution claim made in our community has been made by people with zero expertise in evolutionary biology or palaeontology who has not had their argument critically examined by genuine experts in the field, which makes them worthless. However, the tools of critical appraisal provide another way to demonstrate why such anti-evolution arguments are worthless.

The UC Berkeley Library page on evaluating web pages is a resource which every Christdelphian should read, understand, and take to heart, as it provides excellent advice on how to sort the wheat from the chaff online. One of the questions it recommends you ask yourself when you read online information is whether the sources of the web page are documented with footnotes or links:
  • Where did the author get the information?
    • As in published scholarly/academic journals and books, you should expect documentation.
  • If there are links to other pages as sources, are they to reliable sources?
  • Do the links work?
In addition to this, there is another step you need to take, and that is to verify the references. All too often, anti-evolutionists take mainstream scientists out of context, to make it look as if they are admitting that evolution is flawed or that the evidence supporting it is not strong. This shameful practice - quote mining - is so common in creationist circles that there exist sites in which the most notorious out of context quotes are listed and the full context of the quote - showing the scope of the creationist dishonesty - are made clear. These sites should be routinely checked when evaluating Christadelphian anti-evolution arguments as some in our community have repeated these out of context quotes.

Another way in which one can verify the references is to look at the context in which the creationist is using the quote. Given that evolution has not been in doubt for over a century, if the creationist is using the quote to argue that evolution is in doubt, then you can immediately declare that the creationist has either misunderstood the quote or is deliberately taking it out of context. If you can find a copy of the paper, then read it, and see what the authors are saying. Even allowing for the technical nature of papers, it should be possible to follow the general thread of their argument, and that should be enough to allow you to see what the authors are saying, and what the creationist claims it is saying.

Going further, one can look at the amount of times the paper has been cited, and whether it has been positively or negatively cited. Making it through peer review is only the beginning - many papers lapse into obscurity after publication, or are negatively received. Google Scholar allows you to check how many times a paper has been cited, and who by, so it is possible to see whether the paper cited by the creationist has made an impact, or has sunk without trace.

Finally, the golden rule for appraising evolution-related papers is to reject them if they ever cite approvingly Answers in Genesis, Creation Ministries International, the Institute for Creation Research, or anyone affiliated with the Discovery Institute or the Intelligent Design movement. Put simply, if you see Stephen Meyer Ann Gauger, or Casey Luskin in the references, you can stop reading as the paper is uncritically citing charlatans.