Book Review of
Ian Plimer
Telling Lies for God: Reason vs. Creationism
Random House Australia 1994.


Jeffrey Shallit
Department of Computer Science
University of Waterloo
Waterloo, Ontario N2L 3G1


Creation "science" is bunk.

My personal library contains about a dozen volumes exposing the fallacies behind creation "science", many of them excellent. Among the best are Arthur Strahler's superb Science and Earth History, Laurie Godfrey's collection Scientists Confront Creationism, and Philip Kitcher's Abusing Science.

So, one may well ask, what novelty could there possibly be in yet another expose of the bogus claims, out-of-context quotations, bad science, and outright deception of the "scientific" creationists?

In the case of Ian Plimer's new book, the novelty is twofold: while previous books have concentrated on creationists in the US (which seems to harbor the lion's share of them), Telling Lies for God presents the Australian side of the story. However, while previous books have generally been written in a straightforward, factual manner, Plimer's new book is a shoddily-written polemic that, in places, verges on the hysterical.

Creationist arguments are nearly always completely bogus (sometimes they are only partially bogus). But rather than address the arguments scientifically, Plimer often chooses to attack straw men of his own devising. For example, in criticizing creationist Barry Setterfield's claim that the speed of light has decreased over time, Plimer says [p. 29]

	Just imagine if the speed of light was [sic] slowing down.  The
	implications are hilarious.  Television watching would be 
	a nightmare, as programs would finish before they had started!
	One could use a mobile phone and receive a telephone call 
	before it was made.  It does not seem to worry creationists
	that not one piece of electronic equipment in the world would
The problem with this analysis is that it is unsupported and does not directly address the creationist claim. Setterfield alleges that the speed of light stopped decreasing in 1960. Needless to say, Setterfield's claim is absurd on its face. But if the speed of light had stopped decreasing in 1960, as claimed, we certainly would not have to worry today about the odd behavior of television programs, mobile phones or other electronic equipment. Furthermore, it does not appear self-evident to me that a slight decrease in the speed of light would necessarily cause every piece of electronic equipment to cease functioning.

To be fair, Plimer does go on to discuss the real reasons why Setterfield's speed-of-light claim is bogus: it was based on early, unreliable measurements; it contained calculation errors; and the curve fitted to the data was chosen to provide the desired answer. However, the straw man attack leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

While decrying the ignorance of creationists, Plimer himself makes some elementary mistakes in terminology. For example, on page 58, he says that "the Earth rotates around the sun". Any school child knows that the earth revolves around the sun; it rotates on its axis.

Telling Lies for God could have used a good editor. There are many typographical errors, missing references, and spelling errors. For example, on page 69 Plimer refers to a work labeled as "(McGowran 1984)", but no such work is listed in the bibliography. (Plimer was probably referring to Chris McGowan's (not McGowran) book, In the Beginning..., Prometheus Books, 1984.) Television evangelist Jimmy Swaggart's name is misspelled on page 141. Also, the lack of an index is a serious impediment to anyone trying to use the book as a reference.

Plimer also needs to become acquainted with some very useful devices: the comma and the semicolon. He does not seem to know that two separate thoughts should not hold sway in a single sentence. This gives rise to appalling sentences such as (page 144)

	It was clear that Gish did not correct the overinflated
	erroneous curriculum vitae, he knew it was incorrect yet he
	allowed the National Alliance for Christian Leadership to
	circulate it.
Even more serious is the lack of attribution for large sections of the book. Here are three instances:

1. The calculation on page 21, showing that Heaven is hotter than Hell, seems to be based on a tongue-in-cheek article from the journal Applied Optics [2]. However, Plimer treats this lighthearted spoof as a serious critique of a literal interpretation of the Bible, and he does not provide any citation to this article.

2. Much of the material on pages 53-72 of Telling Lies for God is apparently lifted from Joyce Arthur's article [4]. (Joyce Arthur kindly brought this to my attention.)

For example, consider the following passage from Arthur's article:

	Gish claims that Dubois "concealed the fact that he also discovered
	at nearby Wadjak and at approximately the same level two human
	skulls with a cranial capacity ... somewhat above the present
	average."  With this remark, Gish was insinuating that Dubois
	was hiding evidence that the Homo erectus bones could not be from
	a "missing link" between modern humans and an ape ancestor.  
	However, as Brace pointed out, Dubois had already published these
	previous Wadjak finds.  They were completely unrelated to his more
	recent Homo erectus finds, which, incidentally, were found 100
	miles away from Wadjak, not nearby.
Now compare this to what Plimer has to say on the matter, on page 57 of his book:

	Gish claimed that Eugene Dubois, who discovered Homo erectus in
	Java in 1891, `concealed the fact that he also discovered at
	nearby Wadjak and at approximately the same level two human
	skulls with a cranial capacity ... somewhat above the present
	average'.  Gish was implying that Dubois was hiding evidence that
	the Homo erectus find could not be a transitional form between
	modern humans and apes.  However, Gish does not inform his readers
	that Dubois had previously published his Wadjak finds, that they
	were unrelated to his Homo erectus finds and that Wadjak was
	not nearby but more than 150 kilometers away.
If this is not plagiarism, it is awfully close to it. Arthur's article does get a mention in Plimer's bibliography, but Plimer does not acknowledge Arthur once on pages 53-72.

3. Chapter 4, which is a critique of a literal interpretation of the Noah's Ark story, is one of the best parts of the book. Unfortunately, to paraphrase Samuel Johnson, what is good about Plimer's book is not original, and what is original is not good. As Jim Lippard has brought to my attention, much of Chapter 4 is taken almost verbatim from a 1983 article of Robert Moore [3].

To give just one example, Moore says

	...the cages for horned animals must have bars spaced properly 
	to prevent their horns from getting stuck... Even the flooring
	is important, for, if it is too hard, hooves may be injured,
	if too soft, they may grow to quickly and permanently damage
	ankles... ungulates must have a cleated surface or they will 
	slip and fall ...
while on page 106, Plimer says
	Cage bar spacing would have been variable depending upon the
	size of the animal and whether the animal had horns which were
	likely to get stuck...

	...Flooring just could not have been all `gopher wood' as hard
	floors damage hooves, soft floors stimulate hoof growth and
	ungulates must have a slip-proof cleated surface.  
Despite these similarities, Moore's article is not acknowledged; nor is it even referenced in Plimer's bibliography. This is very poor scholarly practice, even in a popular treatment like Telling Lies for God.

Plimer's discussion of creationism in Australia is a welcome contribution to the literature. But Plimer seems to believe that the battle against creationism is a gutter fight. He correctly observes that many creationists are dishonest (taking quotes out of context, fabricating evidence, ad hominem attacks, etc.), but has indulged in some of the same tactics himself [1]. Plimer thinks the battle against creationism cannot be won by rational debate.

Plimer is certainly right to imply that the preponderance of creationists are so abysmally ignorant and arrogant -- a deadly combination -- that they cannot be convinced by rational argument. But the creation/evolution debate is not about convincing the creationists. One might as well argue with squid. The debate is about educating the public at large -- the same public whose elected representatives pass laws, select textbooks, set curriculums, and fund research. We cannot successfully fight the pseudoscience of creationism by adopting gutter tactics. After all, the creationists have much of the public on their side: polls show strong support for "equal time", where creationist "theory" and evolution are taught side-by-side. Joe and Mary Average are not going to be convinced of the truth of evolution by rude, squabbling scientists. If science and its conclusions are to remain credible in the eyes of the public, scientists must behave with decorum, be very careful about acknowledging the work of others, avoid ad hominem attacks, and be quick to admit error when proved wrong. Ian Plimer, regrettably, does not seem to understand this.


[1] Jim Lippard, "How not to argue with creationists", Creation/Evolution XXIX (Winter 1991-1992), pp. 9-21.

[2] Anonymous, "Heaven is hotter than hell", Applied Optics Vol. 11 No. 8 (August, 1972), A14. Reprinted in R. L. Weber (compiler) and E. Mendoza (editor), A Random Walk in Science, Institute of Physics (London) and Crane, Russak & Co. (New York), 1973, p. 106.

[3] Robert Moore, "The Impossible Voyage of Noah's Ark" , Creation/Evolution, XI (Winter 1983), 1-43.

[4] Joyce Arthur, "Creationism: Bad science or immoral pseudoscience?", Skeptic, V. 4 No. 4 (1996), pp. 88-93.