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A Skeptical Chat With…Jack Scanlan of ‘Homologous Legs’

This is a blog series where I interview writers, bloggers, podcasters, etc. about topics relevant to science, skepticism, and critical thinking.

Today I speak with Jack Scanlan about his website called Homologous Legs, his podcast “The PseudoScientists” and he answers my questions regarding his interest in Evolution, rebutting Intelligent Design articles, and skepticism.

Hello and thank you for taking the time to answer some questions about your blog Homologous Legs and the Pseudo Scientists podcast.  Can you start off by introducing yourself to the readers of the Michigan Skeptics Association, please, about who you are, what made you create the Homologous Legs blog, and the circumstances that led to the Pseudo Scientists podcast? 

I’m Jack Scanlan, an Australian biology student, and I write under the name Naon Tiotami about evolution and its pseudoscientific critics – namely intelligent design proponents and creationists – on my blog Homologous Legs. I started the blog in April of 2008 to compliment the YouTube videos I was making at the time, responding to fundamentalist Christians who had a very poor understanding of evolutionary theory. Over time I stopped making those types of videos, but my blogging remained and became broader in scope, focusing not just on Biblical creationists but also on the influential intelligent design movement, as well as general skepticism and science communication.I’m heavily involved in the skeptical and secular communities and I’m one of the founding members of the slightly niche Young Australian Skeptics (YAS) group blog and community, which was created in late 2008 as a place for the younger people in the Australian skeptical movement to have a voice and meet like-minded people. Its official podcast is The Pseudo Scientists, which caters to the podcasting needs of the YAS’s members, needs that are often voracious. 

Your website is a treasure trove of evolutionary information and arguments, as it relates to combating Creationist and Intelligent Design (ID) propaganda.  What led you to focus on fighting their misinformation?

As I mentioned previously, I stumbled into the world of blogging through the sizeable anti-creationism community on YouTube, which I became a part of after studying biology in high school and having my first experiences with the arguments of creationists. After realising that they were actually serious in their denial of a fundamental theory in biology, I decided I had to do something about it, in my own (naive) way.

After a little over a year of blogging strictly about creationists, particularly young earth creationists, I reevaluated my blogging goals – what was I trying to do? Was I really going to change anyone’s mind? Up to that point I had justified my writing by claiming that anyone who was on the fence about accepting evolution might be swayed by my constant debunking of creationist arguments, but at that moment I realised that very few people are on the fence between creationism and evolution, and that most people are ignorant about the science because they were never taught it in any great detail, if at all. I shifted focus from responding to the religiously-based arguments of creationists, to communicating the science of evolutionary biology and responding to the less religious, more pseudoscientific arguments of the intelligent design movement, which I now recognise as a bigger threat to science education than those who take the Bible literally.

About how often per week do you familiarize yourself with Creationist/ID news, discussions, blogs, etc.?  And are there certain sources that are more plentiful in producing fodder for your blog?

My trusty RSS feed reader keeps me up to date on all the major intelligent design blogs (which are all tied to the Discovery Institute, the Seattle-based ID think tank) and I try to at least glance over their new posts as soon as they published them. The only truly creationist source I keep tabs on is Answers in Genesis, mostly because, one, they’re the most influential, and two, all the others simply churn out identical arguments to AiG. You only ever need to read one creationist website to come across all the major arguments that they use – anything more than that and you’re wasting time (and brain cells).

The Discovery Institute’s blogs are certainly my main source of things to write about – their arguments and scientific and philosophical inaccuracies are always changing and shifting, and there’s always something there that you can use to illustrate a particular point about the scientific method or evolutionary biology in general. For example, a regular complaint from the DI is that biology textbooks still use Ernst Haeckel’s embryo drawings to support evolution, a claim that I have used to explain why Haeckel’s drawings were wrong, but also what he got right and why the pharyngula stage of vertebrate development supports common descent, even without Haeckel’s exaggerated depictions. There are always teachable moments in the intelligent design literature.

What concerns you more about informing the public about the science of evolution – the misinformation campaign from Creationist/ID groups or the complexity of the issue itself?

Both of those concerns, in Australia, are rather unimportant – creationists and ID proponents have little sway in public schools and the marketplace of ideas, and the basic facts of evolution are quite easy to understand. The biggest problem in people learning about evolution is the education system itself, which often doesn’t teach evolution well or give it the respect and time it deserves. In at least one state of Australia, New South Wales, human evolution is optional to teach in the highest level of high school biology, meaning that only a fraction of students ever learn about it in any satisfactory level of detail.

Of course, in the US it’s rather different – creationist groups have far more impact on popular opinion, while high school evolution education is no better than in Australia and often worse, with some schools never mentioning it or only doing so while explicitly talking about ID or creationism.

Evolution, in theory, is easy for competent teachers to explain and make interesting, but the problem is often with the resources and class time that they have to do so. Creationists do hinder the search for these things, but it definitely requires a multifaceted approach – targeting just those that systematically attack evolution is only one minor solution.

When did you become interested in evolution, and were there any specific aspects of it that really resonated with you? 

Evolution and general biology have always been intertwined in my mind – I can’t think of a time when I wasn’t aware of evolution to some extent. But my boundless interest in evolutionary theory really started to develop when I started to study biology at a higher level in high school, probably because it was the first science I studied at that level (a peculiarity at my school). There was just something about the process of evolution crafting new functions and allowing organisms to adapt to weird and wonderful environmental conditions that peaked my interest.

I still carry that particular fascination today, and I learn about things all the time that boost my interest in evolution. In particular I’ve recently strayed into the area of endosymbiosis and the evolution of large-scale metabolic change – the kings of this area are the protists, in particular dinoflagellates, some of which have been shown to have undergone tertiary endosymbiosis, whereby a dinoflagellate has incorporated a cell into itself, a cell that in turn has incorporated another cell into itself, a cell that formed an endosymbiosis with a photosynthetic bacteria. These dinoflagellates are colloquially known as protistan pirates, and you can think of the whole thing as a series of Russian dolls, one cell inside another. I find that to be amazingly interesting.

How often are you actually stymied by a Creationist/ID argument (that is, where it’s either a new argument you’ve not heard before, something outside your expertise, or incomprehensible)?  And in those instances, what do you do?

When I was new to the area of creationism this happened a lot. Fortunately, however, I have a memory (even though it’s not a very good one) and arguments that are truly new to me now turn up far less often. Creationists are always misinterpreting science though, and when this happens it’s a great learning opportunity for both myself and anyone who’s reading my learning process (otherwise known as a blog post).

If a creationist comes up with an argument I’ve never heard of, my first instinct is to check the Talk.Origins Index to Creationist Claims. If it’s not there it’ll probably fall into one of two categories: it’s based on a fundamental misunderstanding of evolution that’s so basic nobody had thought of it before, or a scientific paper is being quoted out of context. The former is easy to address but it’s often hard to convince the person making the argument that they were wrong. The latter requires a bit more work, because I need to look up the paper and read it, but the result is a far more persuasive argument.

ID proponents, however, are always coming up with new variations on the same arguments for ID, while sifting through the scientific literature to find new arguments against evolution. One of the difficulties with combatting ID is its tendency to retreat into quite abstract and philosophical areas that can’t be addressed by scientific evidence. Actually, a common mistake people will make when addressing ID is assuming that evidence for evolution is evidence against ID, when in fact, since ID is an unscientific and unfalsifiable idea, it cannot be refuted by data.

However, ID proponents still make claims about evolution that are demonstrably wrong, and this often means I have to constantly check scientific papers and wade through their rhetoric and buzzwords. But in the end I learn something about evolution, or at the very least clarify a concept in my mind (and hopefully my readers’ minds as well), so it’s worth it.

One of my favorite features on your blog is “This Week in Intelligent Design” where you discuss some of the weekly posts, articles, or news items on Creationist/ID websites – and counter them with science and logic.  How long does it usually take you to research and write that column? 

This Week in Intelligent Design is written and researched every Tuesday night and takes me about 3 to 6 hours, depending on the blog posts I examine. Some weeks every post will be making a new claim I haven’t seen before, while in others they will be filled with only weak rhetoric. It very much depends on what the Discovery Institute (where I get most of my ID articles) has decided to do that week.

I’m sure you get feedback from Creationists/ID proponents often, but have you ever received feedback from, or been referenced by, the writers or authors that you criticize?

This is actually a dream of mine (however sad that may seem)! If I ever get mentioned by a prominent ID proponent that will mean that my arguments (which I personally think are unique in their formulation, although it’s unlikely that I’m the only one to have taken these particular approaches against ID) have been considered threatening enough to respond to. Then again, you could argue from a slightly more conspiratorial angle that they simply don’t want any smackdown arguments to be known about…

I do receive a moderate amount of feedback from people who accept ID, such as people who comment on the Discovery Institute’s posts or maybe run a minor blog of their own, but I have yet to be explicitly mentioned by a Discovery Institute fellow in a blog post. I am, for some reason, Facebook friends with a DI blogger named Jonathan, but he only talks to me on Facebook and has yet to address any of my criticisms of his writing on any of the blogs he writes for.

I guess I’ll just have to become as (in)famous as PZ Myers before they’ll think of responding to my writing. But that will never happen, so I’m doomed to chase a futile dream forever.

You have a section on your website for music.  What’s your background in music and what kind of music are you writing?

I’ve played the trumpet since I was 12 and that’s the only instrument I’m formally trained in, but the music I currently “write” (that’s such a positive term) is based around piano and vocals. As you can probably see if you go to Homologous Music (the music section of my site), I’ve only released two pieces so far, both instrumentals. I’m hesitant about putting out any more until I’m really happy with them, so I’m not sure when you’ll see more.

One of my generic life goals is to write music about science that isn’t cheesy or generally bad. A lot of people try to do it and fail to at least some degree: the science is inaccurate, the music is terrible, or the songwriting doesn’t incorporate the science effectively. This is one of the reasons I don’t want to prematurely release music – I’m aware of the learning curve music contains and it’s always better to wait until you’ve got something right than try your luck.

You were recently cited in a science article by the Guardian.uk.com?  Congratulations.  What’s the story behind that recognition?

Thanks! I was shocked when it happened.

I was cited in a Guardian science blog post about a new ID think tank opening up in the UK called The Centre for Intelligent Design. I had written about it a few weeks earlier and must have been only one of a few, as the Guardian writer decided to quote me on how unsuccessful this new organisation could be in promoting ID, given the sad track record such organisations have had in the past (they often don’t get anything done and are reduced to a website without an active base of supporters). I guess I’m a legitimate blogger now? Haha, probably not, but it was good to be mentioned.

You go by the pseudonym of Naon Tiotami.  What’s the significance of that name, and how did you come up with it?

There is absolutely no significance to my pseudonym – it was the name of a female character in a sci-fi story I attempted to write over five years ago. I chose it for the Internet (before I was involved with the skeptical community) because I knew it would be unique. It probably seems rather pretentious though, unfortunately.

You’re also a co-host on a podcast called “The Pseudo Scientists.”  What is the podcast about, who’s in it, and how often does an episode get released?

As I previously mentioned, The Pseudo Scientists is the official podcast of the Young Australian Skeptics, and a number of people contribute: Elliot Birch, Jason Ball, Richard Hughes, Alastair Tait, Belinda Nicholson and myself, amongst others.

It’s a fortnightly show about skepticism, science and religion that comes at the topics from the perspectives of the early-20s uni students that we (mostly) all are. We’ve recently come back from a year-long hiatus that was somewhat unintentional, and we’re back to “skilfully crafting” the episodes that our fans have been “craving” for so long.

The first podcast episode of Season Two (episode 21) had a series of clips where the host was announcing update after update on when the podcast would resume.  I don’t have a question; I just thought that was hilarious.

I’ll take that as a personal compliment, because I put that intro together. Thank you. ;p

What are the most important issues relevant to science and skepticism going on in Australia? 

The most pressing issue is definitely the anti-vaccination movement, which regularly takes lives and causes outbreaks of diseases that should be under control. The Australian Vaccination Network (the AVN) is one of the world’s worst anti-vax groups and Australian skeptical groups have been fighting their misinformation campaigns for some time.

Alternative medicine is another important issue, as it always is, due to the large numbers of alt-med practitioners that live and work in Australia. Creationism and intelligent design is less of a problem than in the US however, but it still rears its head from time to time.

Are you going to be attending TAM: Australia?  If so, are there any specific people or events that you’re looking forward to meeting/experiencing?

Oh, TAM Australia is going to be great! Who am I looking forward to seeing? Everyone! Australia is, spatially, a large country, so there are people who live in other states who you talk to all the time on the Internet, yet you only get to see once a year in the flesh.

All the international speakers will be great too. I’m particularly looking forward to meeting the cast of the Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe podcast, George Hrab, DJ Grothe, Brian Dunning, as well as Eugenie Scott, the director of the National Center for Science Education, a personal hero of mine.

The whole thing will be fantastic though, I can’t wait.

What are some of your favorite blogs, podcasts, websites – relevant to science and/or skepticism?

There are so many… Of the top of my head:

Podcasts – The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe, The Geologic Podcast, Skeptoid, Quackcast, The Skeptic Zone, Skeptically Speaking

Blogs – Skepticblog, Neurologica, Podblack Cat, Parasite of the Day, Not Exactly Rocket Science, The Island of Dr Gâteau

There are too many for me to list and remember. A good idea would be to check out the links on the right sidebar of Homologous Legs, I keep a lot of them there.

Is there anything else that you’d like to talk about or mention – regarding your blog, podcast, or perhaps apologize for the nastiness that is Fosters beer?

Well, I’m not going to apologise for a terrible version of a terrible beverage I don’t drink! :p

I would like the US to apologise, however, for both the Discovery Institute and Answers in Genesis, and to sweeten the deal, I’ll simultaneously apologise for Ken Ham (but not for Ray Comfort, he’s from New Zealand). 

Haha. Deal.  Very sorry about the DI and AiG. 

Last question.  Do you ever get mistaken for the boy in striped pajamas?

Fortunately or unfortunately, no, I don’t. It’s probably because my last name is Scanlan, not Scanlon, although it is often misspelled with an “o”, as well as the fact that I’m 18 and not 12, and I don’t have a British accent, as much I love putting on a Cockney one.

Thank you so much for the interview.

No worries! Thank you for interviewing me.

You can follow Jack on Twitter and find the Young Australian Skeptics on Facebook.

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