Edinburgh Coursera lecture equating evolution and creationism as equally “faith based” vanishes from the web, but the science-bashing continues

Three days ago I put up a post showing a short lecture by philosopher S. Orestis Palermos that was part of a University of Edinburgh Coursera course on Science and Philosophy. His lecture basically equated evolutionary biology with creationism, dismissing both as “pseudoscience”. (The course was also sponsored by—to its eternal shame—the John Templeton Foundation.) Palermos’s lecture was part of the course’s first week, “Introduction and overview”. Sadly, he argued the following:

  1. Both creationism and evolution are based on faith.
  2. As philosophers like Lakatos and Kuhn supposedly told us, there is no way to distinguish between science and faith-based superstitions like religion. Choosing which scientific or religious “myth” you like is simply a matter of “aesthetics”.
  3. Evolutionary biology cannot predict anything, so it’s a pseudoscience.
  4. Genetics is also a pseudoscience.
  5. Ergo, there’s no good reason to favor teaching evolution (or presumably genetics) over creationism in science classes.

It’s palaver like this that puts scientists off on philosophy, even though there is good philosophy being done around science. The problem is that Palermos apparently didn’t know squat about evolution, yet was pushing a bunch of lies and distortions on those people who paid to take the course. And, of course, Templeton helped fund the whole thing, belying their claim that they’re really down with good science. (Templeton used to push Intelligent Design, but stopped doing that when the pushback became too great. But they’re apparently willing to diss evolution as an untestable “pseudoscience.”)

I called my post to the attention of some evolutionary biologists at Edinburgh, who were of course horrified at the distortion of both evolutionary biology and science in general. And then Twitter got hold of the video (my posts are automatically put on Twitter) and it spread rapidly. (Calling attention to nonsense is one good thing that Twitter does.) Here are a few tweets; have a look at the comments on the first tweet by Steve Brusatte, a paleontologist at the University of Edinburgh:

Adam Rutherford weighed in (below) and then Carl Zimmer retweeted Brusatte’s post.

The opprobrium continued; I’ll show just two more comments:

So, this morning I found out (again from Twitter) that Palermos’s lecture has mysteriously vanished from from the course syllabus, where it was once publicly visible as lecture 1.4 (“Evolutionary biology and creationism”).  But Brusatte is not correct in saying that the course has been pulled; it’s here—minus Palermos’s lecture.

And when you go to the link where Palermos’s lecture was, you get this (click on screenshot):

I don’t know exactly what happened to get Palermos’s lecture pulled, but I’m guessing some biologists at Edinburgh objected to the nonsense being sold as “science”. It’s not “free speech” to tell lies to students, so I don’t mourn the loss. And anyway, if you want a full transcript of what the lecture said, it’s available on my website (thanks to reader Simon, who transcribed it).

Nevertheless, the course itself, which I suspect is pretty dire, still remains, along with the weeklong unit on evolutionary biology, which I can’t see. The syllabus below lists all the videos, and the Introduction, by physicist Mark Harris, is freely viewable here (click on screenshot):

I have to say, though, that the topics given, combined with the presence of biology ignoramus Orestis Palermos as one of the speakers and a religious philosopher as the other, makes me pretty queasy.  As far as I know, too, none of the many well-known evolutionary biologists at the University of Edinburgh were asked to give feedback on the course material. (Remember, the course is offered under the aegis of the University of Edinburgh.)

 Here’s a partial transcript of the video introducing the evolution and creation unit, which is narrated by Mark Harris. I’ve put some worrisome bits in bold:

But to its detractors, there’s nothing very scientific about creationism. It’s pseudoscience at best they say, but probably just religion, pure and simple.

So, put like this then, yes, the debate between evolution and creation is a clear case of science contradicting religion. And with good reason, I believe.

However, I want to make two qualifiers to that picture of the creation/evolution debate I just outlined.

For one thing, when you begin to look at the issues more closely, they become less clear cut. There are various creationisms, for instance, some of which take a more accepting attitude to the mainstream sciences, including agreement with the sciences that life has evolved to some degree, and that the Earth is very ancient.

This means that debating with the so-called old earth creationists about interpretation of the science and interpretation of the Bible is a very different kind of proposition to debating with those young earth creationists who tend to steal so much of the limelight. And it illustrates all too well, I think, the need for caution before jumping to the premature conclusion that science is rational, and religion is faith based superstition.

My second qualifier concerns the status of evolutionary theory, something which we particularly target with the video material in this week. With Professor Conor Cunningham exploring evolution from his perspective as a philosophical theologian, and Dr. Orestis Palermos as a philosopher of science.

Some of this material is deliberately provocative to enable the wider intellectual repercussions of evolution to stand out more clearly.

Whether you’re a theist, an agnostic, or an atheist, there are some serious challenges here regarding the nature of science and its place in human culture and thought.

The point is to illustrate that even apart from the question of creation versus evolution, complex questions arise here about the interpretation of science. Especially for an edifice as monumental as evolutionary theory.

The controversy with religion helps clarify some of the more significant questions. But there are others no less significant, as we hope to explain.

Note again that neither Palermos and Cunningham are biologists; the former is a philosopher and the latter a “philosophical theologian”. What on Earth are they doing running this unit? Why didn’t they consult with evolutionary biologists?

In the end, this whole course seems like a Templeton-funded endeavor to cast doubt on evolution—and perhaps on science as a whole. That, of course, comports perfectly with the John Templeton Foundation’s agenda to blur the boundaries between faith and science, making both seem like faith-based enterprises that, taken together, can tell us “spiritual truths” and answer “the Big Questions”. (That was, after all, Sir John’s purpose in creating the Foundation.) Let nobody say that Templeton has decided to abandon religion and cast its lot fully with science. It may pretend to do that, but behind the scenes it’s still funding courses like this one.

Some final comments:

23 Comments

  1. Ken Phelps
    Posted March 28, 2018 at 9:43 am | Permalink

    “Some of this material is deliberately provocative…”

    Freely translates as “Yes, we’re peddling bullshit, but we all know who’s paying the bills now don’t we.”

  2. Randall Schenck
    Posted March 28, 2018 at 9:43 am | Permalink

    Is this not a classic example of why we must protect the separation of religion from not only state but all parts of science. Good work prof. Coyne. Religion ruins everything.

  3. glen1davidson
    Posted March 28, 2018 at 9:54 am | Permalink

    The spherical earth was a failing theory for 5000 years, as the flat earth reigned supreme. Then the Pythogoreans, like Plato, and Aristotle, had faith in the spherical earth and sold it to gullible people. And now people believe that the earth is spherical (spheroidal for the pedants), showing the triumph of faith.

    Or, was there something about packing matter into a sphere, constellations appearing higher in northern climes, and the round shadow that the earth casts on the moon, that clued Aristotle in to the spherical earth?

    In other words, I can see why they pulled a lecture dumb enough to claim that heliocentrism (still wrong, but much less so) was taken up by Galileo (phases of Venus, Palermos you ignoramus) and Kepler, let alone the absurd claim that evolution doesn’t predict anything (like your ape-like skeleton).

    At least Templeton should get a black eye out of this.

    Glen Davidson

  4. W.Benson
    Posted March 28, 2018 at 9:56 am | Permalink

    Looks like this course and the John Templeton Foundation with it will shortly be going down in flames.

    • Michael Fisher
      Posted March 28, 2018 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

      The John Templeton Foundation will not be going down in flames, it has billions in its coffers & it distributes around $80,000,000 annually as grants. It is a trust which pays its trustees ridiculously well & it has many tricks up its sleeve.

      It is a 501(c)(3) organization which prohibits it from engaging in political activity & yet it finds ways to carry out the wishes of its dead evangelical Protestant founder – a devoted free market capitalist. They’ll still be infecting the godly gaps in ‘the conversation’ hundreds of years from now [or until the next big market crash, depending on how they’ve invested their principle].

  5. Jim Ritchey
    Posted March 28, 2018 at 10:04 am | Permalink

    Connor Cunningham’s book Darwin’s Pious Idea is a disaster that displays his ignorance of biology and his disdain for science. Rivals a Trump speech in terms of lies per sentence. A perfect choice of someone to teach the controversy.

  6. Posted March 28, 2018 at 10:33 am | Permalink

    Is the problem Templeton, or the people and institutions that sell their integrity for its money? After all, Templeton has its right to try and promote its point of view.

    • Randall Schenck
      Posted March 28, 2018 at 10:57 am | Permalink

      Sure they do. However, others have a right, even a duty to shed light on the purpose behind Templeton and make their point of view more transparent.

    • Michael Fisher
      Posted March 28, 2018 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

      It can promote its point of view, but the public POV it reveals & the underlying motivation are different. The intent of its dead founder is to roll out the Christian Protestant god, roll back socialism & nasty, nasty communism & extol free market economics. You have to go through the grants awards carefully to see it donates indirectly to conservative political causes & lobby groups [as a 501 that’s illegal], but it gets more indirect over recent years. And of course the only grants we know about are the [mostly] fluffy ones it shows on its site. Not a transparent organisation.

      Sort of a well funded version of that surreptitious opinion former The Reader’s Digest [no conspiracy theories intended although the Digest may well have been a forerunner propagator of the tactics we see on social media today]. There is no doubt that Templeton is changing academia which is run by money managers these days who want some of that tax-free gelt flowing through their departments. Templeton is doing the same thing in journalism [& media generally] with all expenses weekends away for writers – no strings attached of course. Creeping greed.

  7. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted March 28, 2018 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

    In quite a few places, Templeton strenuously denies supporting Intelligent Design, although they have made overtures to folks in the ID camp regarding other projects.

    Were they in an earlier more on board with ID??

  8. Posted March 28, 2018 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

    I am glad that sensible people, including our host, got this so-called lecture down.

  9. Posted March 28, 2018 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

    It doesn’t take much biological knowledge to know that this course’s view on evolution was ridiculous. Unfortunately, even that (bio 101 level) seems to be deliberately forgotten by these philosophers.

    There is a trend to require more and more science or technology qualification from philosophers of science (or technology), which I generally applaud. Yet the amount needed for a lot of work is really small, so I wonder …

  10. Torbjörn Larsson
    Posted March 28, 2018 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

    Yay!

    On another tack: “It’s palaver like this that puts scientists off on philosophy, even though there is good philosophy being done around science.”

    I am not a scientist anymore, but I do dabble in biology at my work. Maybe I started out being put off, but my main take home message was that philosophy is not a way of knowing. It joins, say, theology and religion at large, as a way of not knowing. You can use it to rehash science – but so can art, but you can equally well use it to rehash anti-science – but so can art. I rather read a good book than suffer a piece of philosophy though.

  11. Stonyground
    Posted March 28, 2018 at 2:13 pm | Permalink

    My wife told me about how she studied the English Civil War in school. Her teacher made the class watch a really terrible movie about Cromwell and challenged them to point out all the inaccuracies in it. If really stupid creationist cack is going to be taught in supposed places of learning, could it not be used for honing the ability to refute it?

  12. Roger
    Posted March 28, 2018 at 3:04 pm | Permalink

    It’s, like, totally not fundamentalism dude. Ask my wife Morgan Fairchild.

  13. Craw
    Posted March 28, 2018 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

    This is just a rehash of the “you cannot PROVE it” thing, the demand that you not say you “know” something unless it’s logically impossible to be wrong. Which is foolish.

  14. cyan
    Posted March 28, 2018 at 7:42 pm | Permalink

    The lecture 1.4 is now not available, but the “lecture 4.9 Is evolutionary biology scientific?” is still available on youtube.
    http://www.coursera.org/learn/philosophy-science-religion-1/lecture/cAdvB/lecture-4-9-is-evolutionary-biology-scientific

  15. Heather Hastie
    Posted March 28, 2018 at 8:06 pm | Permalink

    I read through all the comments on Twitter. It was heartening to see all the biologists at Edinburgh U weighing in to get this closed down.

    There were a couple of religion people on the thread trying to attack evolution, but their attempts were abysmal and there were lots of smart scientists to gently point out their errors.


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