Mistakes Were Made, Part 2

Yesterday’s DpSU was also by Dao and is again about how, in the words of Dr Robbins, Mistakes in Science Apparently Means Creationism Is True. Her new article is called More Transparency Needed in Science Textbooks, Museums, and applies the “With this many errors…how can the field of science maintain any semblance of infallibility or impartiality?” argument we just saw to textbooks and museums.

Ernst Haeckel's Embryological Illustrations

The number of retracted scientific papers has skyrocketed in the last decade. In 2010, two science editors started Retraction Watch, a blog dedicated to tracking science paper retractions. So far, the site has tracked about 200 papers.

Retractions can occur for different reasons. About 73 percent of retracted papers in 2010 had errors, either in the research methods used or in the writing, and about 27 percent contained fraud, according to a recent presentation on the blog.

Retraction Watch can be found here, while the recent presentation is here. I notified one of the people running the blog of this ICR article, and he replied:

I think they read selectively: bit.ly/kKYbaS and bit.ly/fVLKO0

Those two links are two posts on the site relating to the saga of the thermodynamics paper I briefly discussed in Help! Help! (He’s) Being Opressed.

But that’s not the point of Dao’s article. She goes on:

But just because a retraction occurs doesn’t mean that the flawed report goes away. Nature reported that 235 papers retracted between 1966 and 1996 were cited in 2,000 later studies, and only 8 percent of those acknowledged the retractions.

That’s the same article she used last time. I’m reasonably sure, through a little bit of research, that they are still cited significantly less than your average non-retracted paper.

If other scientists are citing outdated or misleading data, what about outdated and misleading data presented in museums and textbooks? For instance, in 2010, the University of Pennsylvania toured an exhibit called Surviving: The Body of Evidence that claimed, “You are a survivor…of the process of evolution.”

But the exhibit featured “misleading, outdated or contrived information…. For example, one section features the thoroughly refuted ‘horse evolution’ story…. In reality, fossils of horse varieties…are mixed in various rock layers, showing no objective evolutionary pattern.”

Yeah – that’s a DpSU being quoted there. Brian Thomas was reporting second-hand information about said exhibit, relayed to him from a creationist, and used as his justification for his horse-fossil claim a second-hand quote, taken from an old creationist book quoting another book from 1954. He says:

Ironically, those familiar with the relevant fossil evidence have known for decades that “the family tree of the horse is beautiful and continuous only in the textbooks.”

That is to say, they knew decades ago, but there’s nothing to say that that’s true now. Back to Dao:

Another prime example of outdated information currently still in use is German embryologist Ernst Haeckel’s drawings of embryos. A contemporary of Charles Darwin, “Haeckel claimed that the developmental stages of an embryo retrace its evolutionary past. In other words, the human embryo supposedly goes through a fish stage, an amphibian stage, a reptile stage, and so on.”

In 1997, a team of British researchers used modern techniques to examine developing embryos, and they were nothing like Haeckel’s depictions. “Not only did Haeckel add or omit features…but he also fudged the scale to exaggerate similarities among species, even when there were 10-fold differences in size.”

But some modern textbooks have still used Haeckel’s drawings to teach students about evolution, even if they do mention that the drawings are discredited. Why use them at all, if what they portray is false?

Personally I’ve never seen them in my textbooks (relatively recent qualifications shakeups mean that NZ textbooks are mostly rather recent). The source for the claim that American textbooks still have the diagrams is, interestingly, from the cdesign proponentsists at the Discovery Institute with which the ICR lot occasionally fight on theological grounds. As for Haeckel, he was wrong, but not completely wrong – for one, why would embryos resemble the adult form of their ancestors?

Scientific investigation is an ongoing effort, and as more discoveries are made, it makes sense that older studies will be disproven or updated. But like the science paper retractions, discredited scientific notions keep turning up.

To help with scientific transparency, and hopefully the number of retractions, Retraction Watch presented some suggestions, including “Demand more of institutions” and “Make retraction notices clearer.”

The same practices need to be applied to textbooks and museum displays as well.

That, at least, I can agree with. However, one of the “discredited scientific notions [that] keep turning up” is creationism, something that the ICR just doesn’t realise.

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One thought on “Mistakes Were Made, Part 2

  1. Pingback: More Scientific Misconduct « Eye on the ICR

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