Creationist seeking fraud in human evolution exposes its rigour

Today’s case of psuedoscience comes from Belac. They also pointed me in the direction of the eolith nonsense from last time. Belac is quickly becoming my one-stop shop for creationist craziness. Today they’ve pointed me to the same place. Answers in Genesis, arguable the largest


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Today’s case of psuedoscience comes from Belac. They also pointed me in the direction of the eolith nonsense from last time. Belac is quickly becoming my one-stop shop for creationist craziness. Today they’ve pointed me to the same place. Answers in Genesis, arguable the largest creationist institution out there.

What Belac wants me to tackle this time is an article Dr Bergman wrote for them back in 2009. It’s dramatically titled “FRAUD AND FORGARY IN PALAEOANTHROPOLOGY“. How scandelous! Unfortunatley, there’s no real meat here. Just three rather large, and ultimatley hilarous, issues.

1. Cargo cult creationists

This article is broken down into two broad sections. The first is a series of personal attacks on prominent palaeoanthroplogists from the 70s/80s. Because, as I keep pointing out, creationist understanding of human evolution hasn’t moved on since then. The second identifies four cases of fraud within palaeoanthropology. The sum total of these two sections is, Dr Bergman wants you to believe, that the study of human evolution is riddled with issues.

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All in all, Dr Bergman finds maybe a dozen cases of personal flaws in the field. And four cases of fraud (although these two are not linked, as discussed below). From – if I’m being generous – 16 examples he wants to conclude that fraud and forgery is “common”.

Which raises the question: is 16 cases a lot? Dr Bergman’s paper can offer no answer. There’s no large-scale review of how much human evolution work is done to infer how common these problems are. All he does is spout of a series of anecdotes, most of which are decades – if not centuries – old. No conclusion about how common these issues are can be drawn from this paper.

Dr Bergman’s work has all the trappings of scientific article. It includes sources, citations, section, and more. There are figures and pullquote, statistics and all sorts. But to carry any real weight, it needs to have some statistics. Some way of proving his point. And that is missing. This is essentially a case of cargo cult science. It might look the part, but there’s no meat here that can justify his conclusions.

2. Poisoning the well

As I mentioned above, this article generally falls into two sections. A series of character assasinations, followed by four definitive cases of fraud. What’s perhaps most telling is the lack of overlap between these groups.

Dr Bergman rants for pages about how mean palaeoanthropologists can be. He describes how big personalities clash. Given the significance he seems to place on such disagreements, you might think they are the cause of the titular fraud. That they somehow undermine the validity of the pursuit of palaeoanthropology.

But when it comes to describing such definitive cases of fraud, these names are nowhere to be seen. Despite criticising the behaviour of these leading palaeoanthropologists, it seems Dr Bergman cannot find a single example where these individuals faked results to further their goals. Or commited fraud to prop up their career. Or did something else untoward that might hamper scientific accuracy. Instead, he identifies 4 unrelated cases of fraud; half of which are almost 100 years old.

In short, despite Dr Bergman’s protests it seems these character flaws are irrelevant to the reliability of the data they produce. And with that, half of his article becomes irrelevant too.

 

3. Creationist fraud

I think those two critiques fundamentally undermine any point Dr Bergman is trying to make. And that’s the charitable interpretation of his work. After all, at no point thus far have I disputed the facts  of what he’s saying. Even assuming everything he says is true, his argument fails.

But making that assumption would be a mistake. Dr Bergman makes several mistakes and key omissions throughout his article. For example, he takes a casual swing at Lucy during his character assasination section.

fraudBeyond the percent of Lucy recovered, all of his facts on the subject are wrong. Some of these are simple mistakes. For example, Lucy is not the most complete hominin skeleton found. The article Dr Bergman is citing actually notes that we have more bones of her species, not necassarily of her. The honour of most complete fossil might go to someone like Narikotome boy; who is essentially complete. Meanwhile, the reference to Lucy being a conglomerate of different individuals is unsourced and undetailed. The closest thing I can find to it is the disproven claim her leg is from a different site. 

These are simple mistakes that one might expect a non-expert to make, if we were being charitable of Dr Bergman’s article. Not being familiar with another hominin fossil is perhaps forgivable.

What’s less forgivable is when he omits sections of works he’s cited (and thus clearly read) which harm his case. For example, a lot of the anecdotes for his character assasination section come from an old Science editorial. Despite pulling out all these quotes about the issues with human evolution, Dr Bergman convininetly leaves out the conclusion. It notes that these issues are not unique to paleoanthropology, nor does it hamper the fields validity.

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Conclusion

I could reiterate all the points I made here. However, there’s a little case study I think is far more telling.

One of Dr Bergman’s criticisms is the “eolith controversy”. These are a series of (now known to be) natural artefacts that were once viewed as stone tools. The support for this assignment partly stemmed from personal biases. They helped prop up the validity of Piltdown man, for example. The fact that they were accepted at all is a sign people studying human evolution are riddled with preconceptions, bias, and other problems.

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And then 4 years after Dr Bergman’s article comes out, another creationist paper published by the same organisation claims eoliths are real. A delightful bit of irony that highlights where the bias really lies.

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