Explain that…musician!

It must be my birthday.

I got an email at work today from a guy asking if we’d be willing to have his anti-evolution talk presented at the SSA Annual Leadership Conference this weekend to the 200+ science/critical-thinking-minded students present (along with biologists PZ Myers and Jen McCreight).  My first inclination was to send him back a reply with nothing but the following image.

The same gentleman came and left a comment on my blog.  Joy. In his comment he links to his web site which has ‘questions we can use to critically examine evolution’. He gives an example.

How do geologists and paleontologists explain microfossils of pollen, spores, angiosperms, gymnosperms, and at least one winged insect, in Eocambrian (Upper Precambrian) rock?

And the truth is that I have no freaking idea.  I’m about to have a music degree.  If you’re asking me how to properly resolve a Phrygian cadence in four voices, I’m your guy.  But I have no clue how scientists explain that stuff.  Did this gomer really think I would?

So often I see this from creationists.  They have these questions, almost universally lifted from a creationist web site, on subjects they don’t understand (but they’re sure good at repeating the garbage they jerked off the internet in lieu of actually reading a science book), and they come running up to random atheists asking the atheist to answer these scientific questions.

Now, I have had scientific questions in my life.  As an example, I have curiosity as to how life could have arisen.  And so off I merrily went looking for answers.  I found the numerous abiogenesis models on hand.  Many of them sound something like this:

A self-replicating molecule formed when a series of fatty acids congealed into vesicles which, made permeable by convection cycles in a prebiotic Earth, trapped nucleotide monomers which self-ligated via hydrogen bonds and covalent bond ligation, polymerizing within the vesicle to form a primitive cell after which the surrounding ions increased the osmotic pressure allowing the cell to acquire lipids from other vesicles, which catalyzed competition and, thus, evolution.


There was a time in my life when I didn’t even know what half of those words meant.  I did not remedy this situation by trotting off to the blogs of music majors and saying, “Hey, can you explain this biology/chemistry to me?”  What I did do is make an appointment with biology/chemistry professors at my university to have them explain it to me, what with them being scientists with degrees in the field and all.

This is why I always ask theists pulling this little piece of fuckery: “Have you asked a professor of science to explain this?”  Virtually every time the response is a bunch of mumbling followed by an eventual ‘no’ when pressed.

That these people come to guys like me for ‘answers’ rather than to people who stand a real chance at knowing the answer suggests precisely what they’re after: an argument from ignorance.  It’s a rather shoddy tactic, but it’s also a very useless one.  So what if I have no idea how a scientist would answer your question (or how they would explain magnets or rainbows)?  I have no idea how scientists explain that matter, which is made up almost entirely of empty space, can be impenetrably solid.  I have no idea how they explain why food that’s good for us tastes bad and food that’s bad for us tastes good (personally, I blame god, that asshole).  I have no idea how the experts explain tons of things!  So what?  Even if no human being on the planet had the vaguest idea how something works…this means what, exactly?  God did it?  No, it would mean we don’t know.

Dedication to religion over science nudges people to pluck arguments from a web site or similar source that has no culpability for error or bullshit (unlike scientific journals) solely on the basis that it confirms what the theist thinks they know.  This is already a pretty lame thing to do, but someone like David Buckna is much, much worse.  This guy is claiming to have the wherewithal to overturn an entire scientific discipline…and yet he’s still bugging me and not the scientists who could confirm his work.

Consider how positively insane this would look in another context.  One of the most complex mathematical problems in history was known as the Poincaré conjecture, and it was solved in in 2006 by a Russian mathematician named Grigori Perelman. So complicated was Grigori’s solution that it took a team of world-class mathematicians four years to confirm his proof as correct.  How silly would it have been for Perelman to have come to my blog and left a comment saying “I’ve solved the Poincaré conjecture!  Here is my proof!  Let’s start a grassroots movement with plumbers, and waitresses, and musicians to get my proof inserted into textbooks!”  Imagine further that this guy was an elementary school teacher with no real background in mathematics.  The immediate and rational question should be, “Why haven’t you told the mathematicians?  Are you high?”

For those of us like myself who are not experts in a field, the best we can do in forming a coherent worldview is to defer to the opinions of the experts.  It is no more my responsibility to argue with biologists about biology than it is to argue theoretical mathematics with mathematicians, and anybody who is a non-expert who does think that’s their place should be given a two hour-long paper cut in a bath of lemon juice  for having too high of an opinion of themselves.

If you come to my blog telling me that you are right when the entire battery of minds in the field of biology is wrong without first convincing the biologists, then you are asking me to trust you, an elementary school teacher, over thousands of men and women standing on the shoulders of giants, all of whom have dedicated 12+ years in school to the study of biology and who have made contributions to the discipline. Rather than believe that person, any human being who gives more than a shit about constructing accurate opinions about the world should absolutely pee on anyone who exhibits that level of slimy pretension – and who simultaneously thinks so little of us to assume we’d be that gullible.  Of course, religion has shown a certain proclivity for manufacturing this magnificent brand of arrogance as well as enough willful gullibility in people to forsake the opinion of the experts to buy into Buckna’s horseshit.

Somebody on my facebook was baffled that I was so angry.  Well, this is fucking why.  Religion does not make people better.  Amongst other things, religion makes people dumber and it makes them unjustifiably conceited.  Because I give the first fuck about the human race, I get angry when people introduce vectors that hamstring its potential.

  • Jeremy

    Bravo my friend. Introduce this guy to AronRa on youtube.

  • Jay

    Holy crap…I need to start pulling this argument out. I’ve always felt inadequate, felt like a bad atheist, felt guilt because I wasn’t constantly re-reviewing the evolution literature and that sometimes I had to say “I read that at some point, but I don’t remember” to theists, that I couldn’t just pull out the history of the universe from the top of my head.

    But seriously, why should I have to discourse into the nature of RNA to anyone who asks? I’m a multimedia web producer, the reason why I pulled out of the sciences is because I realized early on that it wasn’t my aptitude.

  • http://www.MolecularFossils.com MolecularFossils



    We’re looking forward to hanging out at the SSA conference this weekend, JT!

  • JT Eberhard


    I included your link in the post. Thanks for the heads-up on it! :)


  • http://www.fantasticastoria.blogspot.com Chana

    Bravo, JT. I have no idea what that guy (the anti-anger fellow) was on about.

  • OverlappingMagisteria

    Let me play devils’ advocate (or should it be angel’s advocate?) and say something that I’m sure a theist would be thinking, just cause it wasn’t stated clearly in the post:

    If you will trust the experts on matters of biology, why wouldn’t you trust the experts on matters of theology? The vast majority of theologians, who have dedicated their lives to studying god, have come to the conclusion that he exists. They have not been convinced in the least by the arguments of a small minority of atheists, who are mostly not theologians. What makes you think that your arguments are at all valid if the experts don’t accept them?

    Ok, I’m done. I look forward to seeing the above paragraph torn to shreds.

  • John Eberhard

    I don’t think you understand the way it works, Mr. Music Man. If you can’t explain this one thing, it means he gets to ignore the mountains of evidence in favor of evolution.
    Wonder how he would feel if you listed each item of those mountains of evidence in favor of evolution and asked him to explain each one? I mean, what’s fair for one is fair for all, right?

  • http://skepticfreethought.com Ellen

    Huzzah! There needs to be a science-y equivalent to “Amen!” for me to proclaim in agreement with things like this. Eureka doesn’t quite fit… hm.

  • http://www.willisweb.com Jon Willis

    Oh…my…gosh. That was the absolute best, most well thought out explanation of this concept I’ve ever read. I’ve tried to explain to people before why being an atheist doesn’t automatically make me a scientist but this is perfect! Everyone loves you, JT…except for the people who don’t. But they don’t matter.

  • http://remijdio.com Nick Johnson

    I feel the same way a lot of times. Like being an atheist means you have to be a fregin expert on all things science O_O.
    After this post I’m just left wondering: “Fuckin magnets, how do they work?” ;)

  • http://www.sbsoapbox.blogspot.com/ Susi Bocks

    very well said! reposted.

  • Volizden

    He is citing and argument for an article published in nature from 1966, over 40 YEARS OLD.


    Any NEW links referenced today are of Christian sites trying to continue this as a valid talking point against evolution. which is simply not the case. When contradictory data like this appears it is heavily scrutinized for flaws or validity. In the case of this argument (that was presented) it was discounted as erroneous testing and comtanimation of old rocks with recent pollen (number three below).

    BUT in the future for your information, when data like this comes up in the field or lab the most common reasons for this type of error are as follows:

    1) The pollen dating is confounded.

    2) The radiometric dating is confounded.

    3) This particular sediment has been created from parts of very differing ages; in other words, it is a conglomerate.

    As you may recall Kris and I got our degree in Anthropology which requires we get some education in archaeology as well. I am familiar with these types of arguments and shoot them down frequently…

  • Douglas Kirk

    This was fucking great. I need to remember this… all of this.

  • Zach Aletheia

    @molecular Man i love talk origins.

    The amount of knowledge i have of evolution (maybe an knowledgeable layman?) is mostly founded on 2 things the need to respond to creationists at an ask an atheist booth which i helped run at my university and reading Richard Dawkins books (i took a class in it biology and was surprised at how little evolution was taught and how i knew quite a bit of the evolution stuff such as the fact that mitochondria is probably the result of a bacteria becoming symbiotic in another cell.)

  • http://carlsagansdanceparty.wordpress.com Steven Olsen

    @OverlappingMagisteria: I wondered this myself. The thing is, theology/homeopathy/astrology do not provide results under controlled testing. Thus we can’t conclude reasonably that the experts in such fields are experts of something that actually exists.

  • http://teafueledmadness.blogspot.com/ Assam

    Ha – well did you ask him if he has ever dared play E flat diminished 9th on a guitar? I’ll warrant he does not have the guts! ( I can, I am that Awesome I tells yer!)

    Seriously though, JT you are completely right, they do ask stupid questions, from incredibly ignorant websites. I’ll bet my flat they don’t know even half of what it means and then wander back to their ilk saying “Ha – the atheists can’t answer this, Goddidit, aren’t I so magnificently superior in my knowledge!”

    You suggest these people go and ask those who know about it and I heartily agree with you – but even that can get just as weird! I know a lot of Phd level educated people in fields of Science and History who are regularly told they are wrong by theists like the above that you have quoted. The argument usually boils down to “Well, that doesn’t fit in my world view so evidently you are wrong!”

    I have a reasonable understanding of the origins of Christianity and the Bible, being an atheist it is good to have better Bible knowledge of than the believers! I have had a theist confirm which Bible is the one they think is the best translation for them, I have laid out all 4 Gospels on the same subject – the story of Jesus’s ressurection – I have pointed out all the flaws and contradictions (If you read them side by side it is incredible just how badly they are put together) and STILL they would not recognise that there was anything wrong with the versions of events!

    It is very difficult to educate people like that but it is never a bad thing to keep at it, some do eventually see reason and that is always a good thing.

  • Drakk

    The existence of god(s) is a question of objective reality. Theologians are not experts on the topic of objective reality, physicists are.

  • http://eternalbookshelf.wordpress.com Ani Sharmin

    This reminds me of something that Prof. Myers posted on Pharyngula about how people write to him asking about physics, even though he’s not a physicist.

    Also, I love the following paragraph:

    Consider how positively insane this would look in another context. One of the most complex mathematical problems in history was known as the Poincaré conjecture, and it was solved in in 2006 by a Russian mathematician named Grigori Perelman. So complicated was Grigori’s solution that it took a team of world-class mathematicians four years to confirm his proof as correct. How silly would it have been for Perelman to have come to my blog and left a comment saying “I’ve solved the Poincaré conjecture! Here is my proof! Let’s start a grassroots movement with plumbers, and waitresses, and musicians to get my proof inserted into textbooks!” Imagine further that this guy was an elementary school teacher with no real background in mathematics. The immediate and rational question should be, “Why haven’t you told the mathematicians? Are you high?”

  • BH

    Ironically, how many atheists never speak to people of faith (friends, professors, or clergy) concerning the nuances of religious beliefs? I can’t even count the number of rants (often on HuffPostRel) in which the author reveals his or her own misconceptions of even the most basic theology. And yet when someone refers them to a rabbi, pastor or imam, the response is typically, “I don’t need to; I’ve read Dawkins” or “But they don’t know anything anyway, soo…” or something of the sort.

    So as long as your point is applicable across the board, I agree.

  • Gordon

    Theology isn’t a real subject. It’s more like being an obsessive fan of Sherlock Holmes. You can argue about his underwear, or what direction he faced on the train, or whatever, but it doesn’t make him real.

  • BH

    Gordon, arguing on a thread will get us nowhere. The point is that theology is significant because of its influence, and Sherlock Holmes is not. One must at least understand what one does not agree with, and I’ve witnessed an embarrassment of atheist ignorance on the subject.

    I am not accusing you of ignorance, but I do encourage everyone to explore opposing worldviews, regardless of one’s own opinion on the matter, by befriending someone of that worldview and exploring it together with respect.

  • Gordon

    I’m passingly familiar with theology, it has not earned my respect. It is a fancy way of saying nothing.

  • Gordon

    BH – the thing is that there’s no point in debating whether the tiger in my room is this breed or that unless there actually is a tiger in my room, and in that case I likely have more pressing concerns.

    Theology is like that, except that there really are tigers.

  • Drakk

    “Theology is like that, except there really are tigers.”

    Really? I don’t see any. The Emperor’s naked too, as far as I can tell.

  • AJ Butterwick

    I am now going to use “Explain that…musician!” anytime I see someone requiring an explanation from a non-expert. It’s my new catch phrase. Thanks for that.

  • Gordon

    Sorry Drakk, I didn’t mean there really are tigers (in my room), I meant there really are tigers (in the world)

    Possibly a better example would be the book Dragonology. But Dragonology survives on pretty pictures rather than obscurist language.

  • Drakk


    Either we’ve got a case of metaphor confusion here or you’re saying two different things completely:

    You say: “Theology isn’t a real subject. It’s more like being an obsessive fan of Sherlock Holmes. You can argue about [...] but it doesn’t make him real.”

    And then: “I meant there really are tigers (in the world)”

    Did you stop using tigers as a metaphor for gods halfway through?