For the conclusion of the Ross/Rana/Shermer debate review

I apologize for not completing my earlier discussion of the debate. For those who don’t listen regularly to The Non-Prophets, I just wanted to mention that we had a fairly lengthy discussion there. You can hear the end by listening to this episode.

If you have listened to the episode, feel free to post a summary of what we said in the comments.

How not to stage an atheist debate, part 3

I want to digress from the format of the debate to look closely at some of the content that Ross hurled out there at breakneck pace. I’m looking at a yellow piece of paper, of which a copy was left near every seat in the house. The title is “RTB Testable Creation Model Predictions.” It lists under four major sections: “Origin of the Universe,” “Origin of Life,” “Origin of Animal Species,” and “Origin of Humanity.”

I can’t find a copy on the net and I’m not interested in typing the whole thing, but let me just grab a representative example. This is just one that especially caught my eye. Under “Origin of Humanity,” prediction number 3 says: “Humanity’s origin will prove to date back to between ~40,000 to 150,000 years ago.”

All by itself, this is a perfect representation of what Hugh Ross cluelessly imagines to be a scientific prediction. First of all, because it’s absolutely non specific in what the nature of the evidence might be. How will humanity’s origin prove to date back to that point? What kind of artifacts will be uncovered that will confirm this? Where shall we attempt to look for these things?

This may be a prediction, but it is not a testable prediction, because there is no concrete plan of action to actually perform the testing. Hugh Ross is perfectly content to sit on his ass and say “Future scientists will prove that I was right” — not entirely unlike George “only future historians can judge me” Bush I might add. (Cheap shot!) There is also no time frame for this “prediction” — if it never comes true in Ross’s lifetime, oh well, we have the rest of future history to wait.

And the second thing is, it’s really not a prediction of creationism. Oh sure, it’s a prediction of this particular model of creationism, so tautologically it says “If humanity came into existence more than 150,000 years ago, then my theory that humanity came into existence more than 150,000 years ago is falsified.” Doesn’t make the slightest impact on the general proposition of whether creationism is true.

To satisfy yourself that this is the case, I want you to imagine that conclusive evidence were found indicating that humanity came into existence 150,001 years ago. Furthermore, let’s suppose that this evidence were so incredibly persuasive that Rana and Ross had no choice but to accept it. Yeah, I know this strains credibility, because there is nothing a creationist is required to accept when it comes to fact-checking, but just play along. Suppose that tomorrow Ross were genuinely convinced that humanity came into existence at least 150,001 years ago.

Now my question is: Can you honestly imagine Ross going on to say “I guess that proves that creation is wrong, then!” Because I sure can’t. At most, I can see Ross going back to his little Word document, and quietly changing it so that NOW it says “Humanity’s origin will prove to date back to between ~40,000 to 160,000 years ago.” Then he’ll claim he has updated the model, and the new model has not been falsified.

This is the problem with a theory that presumes the existence of an infinitely powerful being. It confounds all possible attempts at prediction. The god can just as easily do things one way as another. Sure, you can SAY something like “My theory predicts that life originated abruptly” (which Ross does, in the “Origin of life” section, bullet point #3). But if your god felt like creating life slowly, then he could create it slowly. Hence life originating abruptly is actually not a prediction of the theory at all, because if the prediction is wrong then it doesn’t falsify the theory.

To his credit, Michael Shermer made a good effort to drive this point home later, but here he was both helped and hindered by the extremely stacked audience. During his presentation, he yelled out “If this prediction were shown not to be true, would you all stop believing in God?” and the crowd obligingly yelled back “NO!!!!!” To people who already understood his point, Shermer drove it home again. But to the people who were actually shouting at him, it went right over their heads. I could hear them: they were PROUD of themselves for having the conviction to stand up for their faith. They obviously didn’t feel like a point had been made at their expense. In my opinion, Shermer needed to back up his showmanship with an easily understandable explanation about how none Ross’s predictions constitute falsifiability even to Ross himself. It might be the time constraints, but I didn’t feel that this came across.

Okay, this is turning into quite a marathon, but my notes are much sparser for Rana and Shermer’s presentations. I’ll get to them next time.

How not to stage an atheist debate, part 2

To set the scene: I showed up with Ben at around 6:30 to pick up my tickets from Matt, and ran into Annie. She was already engaged in conversation with a guy in some kind of usher capacity, where he was saying “All I’m saying is, we both see things like the complexity of the cell, we both have the same evidence, but we just arrive at different conclusions.” Never one to waste time on the subtle approach, I jumped into the conversation: “That’s right. One of those conclusions is based on actual scientific analysis of the evidence, and one is not.”

We bantered like that for a bit longer before going in. As I said, the entrance was absolutely jam packed with tables selling, or perhaps giving away, copies of books by Hugh Ross, Lee Strobel, and that crowd. Ben (age 6) got a little green pocket edition of New Testament Psalms and Proverbs shoved into his hand by a guy lurking by the entrance. I told him a lot of people in the room were hoping that they could make him a Christian, and I said we could read the book later if he was interested.

The inside was similar… I found Don Rhoades to sit with, and he introduced us to the very Christian old couple on his other side that he got acquainted with. From behind me I caught a snatch of discussion: “Well I believe in the big bang… God said it and BANG, it happened.” No, seriously. Somebody thought that joke was clever enough to say out loud.

After the lights dimmed and introductions were made, Ross launched into his presentation. Hugh first made the very lofty claim that he had come up with a scientific, testable, and falsifiable model of creation. Hugh Ross first announced that he was not a young earth creationist, as the evidence points to a billions of years old universe just as science said. He also specified that he would not be defending Intelligent Design that evening… as we all know, ID scrupulously tries to avoid the mention of a God, and Ross wants his Christian deity front and center at all times.

Here’s a summary of Ross’s debating techniques:

  • Extremely cutesy PowerPoint transitions. I swear, every single page of his presentation involved a different wipe, fade, cut, 3d foldout, etc. I found it annoying, but an excellent foreshadowing of the total emphasis of style over substance.
  • Lots and lots and lots of quote mining. At every possible opportunity, Ross loves to quote an atheistic scientist who has said one or two lines that says something about the appearance of design. It happens all the time. Dawkins put it on the first page of Blind Watchmaker. He said biology is the study of things that appear to be design but aren’t, but then spent an entire book responding to how nature produced this apparent “design.” Ross, of course leaves out the book and uses the quote to make it sound like Dawkins is a design advocate. Similar atrocity committed against Lawrence Krauss. You have to wonder, if his case is so scientific, why can’t he quote some real, published scientists who actually believes in design, rather than faking it?
  • Steal credit from real science. As far as I can tell, Ross has never done any original scientific research. Here’s what he does instead: Cite a particular scientific discovery that has already been made, and then declare that this is a test of your creation model, which predicts it. Never mind that the people making the discover completely fail in every single instance to recognize the ramifications of their own theory as a point for design. Sure, they’re smart enough to actually do the science, but after that they’re too blinded by ideology to understand their own research.
  • Make one kind of prediction over and over again, which largely takes this form: “I predict that more evidence will be found to support my theory.” Wow, how specific!
  • That old Muslim apologist trick of claiming that your holy book anticipated the discoveries of science. Lots of Bible quotes. In most places he doesn’t put the actual verses on the slides, because then he might have to actually defend some extremely nonspecific language. Instead, he just throws up a page with 10-12 chapter and verse citations, and asserts that those verses were uncannily accurate. Don’t worry, who’s gonna cross-check in the middle of a debate anyway?
  • Tons of big numbers, very little justification. Ross says that there are a large number (let’s say it’s 547, because it doesn’t matter) of features of the universe that require a designer to account for. Like the Bible verses, certainly no one is going to look them up during the debate. In many cases, he uses the “creationist stand-up comedy” technique that I so love, of explaining how big a number is. “Boy I tell ya, that number was big!” “HOW BIG was it?” “Oh, it was SO BIG that…” In one place he announced a number in scientific notation and then said that it was more than a trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion. Confirming my suspicion that Ross relies on his ability to play to a largely innumerate audience, who don’t understand big numbers otherwise.

Anyway, in the end Ross’s “testable predictive model” boiled down to the fine tuning argument. That’s it. Take away the power point transitions, the big numbers, the Bible verses, the phony quotes, and you’re left with a series of claims that there is no explanation for feature X of the universe, therefore Magic Man Done It. As you would expect, he didn’t ever attempt to justify how Magic Man came to be, just asserted that it was the only alternative.

We know this as “God of the gaps” of course, but Ross was ready for that too: he said that BOTH sides have gaps, therefore it’s acceptable. Oh sure, nobody has complete knowledge; it’s just that Ross argues in a total knowledge vacuum, and then wants to say that this is equivalent to proving something with evidence.

I was already thoroughly irritated, and there was still another full creationist presentation to go. Why, Michael? Why did you agree to this format? First of all, I don’t see all that many other live debates where ANY participants is allowed to speak uninterrupted for thirty minutes to an hour. Usually there’s a back and forth exchange every ten minutes or so.

Second, if your opponent controls the format, and he tells you “Okay, MY side gets more than an hour, you get half an hour” you have an alternative. You threaten to walk. Will your opponent taunt and mock you, call you chicken? Yeah, but he’s going to taunt and mock and declare victory anyway, and he’s going to come off looking like he won even with the bullshit set of rules. If you owned a professional football team, would you sign a contract agreeing to a game where you only get the ball on 1/3 of the plays? No. That’s not brave, it’s gullible.

Let Ross preach to a room full of choir. He practically did that anyway… on the whole I think the debate gave him free publicity with not much down side for him.

To be continued.

How not to stage an atheist debate, part 1

As Martin announced on Sunday, last night at the UT campus Michael Shermer (editor of Skeptic magazine and author of Why People Believe Weird Things, among other things) held a debate against Hugh Ross and Fazale Rana, authors of sever old earth creationist books and proprietors of reasonstobelieve.org. There were some other guys on Michael Shermer’s side too, UT Philosophy of Science professor Dr. Sahotra Sarkar and Biomedical Engineering chair Kenneth Diller. However, they did not do a full presentation, but were apparently only there as backup for the Q&A portion.

I took my son Ben to the debate, not because I thought he would get much out of it, but because I had him for the evening and I figured it couldn’t do him any harm. I gave him a six year old eye view of the creationism controversy, building on stuff I already told him about Galileo about religion’s frequent stance against science, and touching on the Scopes trial as well as talking about the evolution controversy today. Matt D. was in attendance and so were at least two other ACA members that I’m aware of, Don Rhoades (not Baker) and Annie.

In my perception, the debate was an unmitigated disaster. The debate was a prime example of everything I’ve been saying in these posts about how atheists and science defenders continually get suckered into debates where the theist controls the format, the topic, and the crowd. It’s almost enough to make me give my unconditional support to Eugenie Scott when she warns that you should seriously consider not debating at all.

When I talked to Matt last night he seemed to disagree, and if he doesn’t chime in we’ll be discussing it on The Non-Prophets this weekend. I plan to write several posts in this series, so you can see the updates quickly but still get around to all my notes eventually.

For now, here’s a quick list of grievances:

  1. Turnout. It was very clear that churches hyped the hell out of this. This was a big gymnasium filled with folding chairs; in the lobby there were at least three tables loaded with Christian apologetics books, and none on the atheist side. Without exception, every conversation I heard that did not involve an ACA member was dismissive of evolution.
  2. Format. Oh my dear FSM, what happened? Ross and Rana both got to speak uninterrupted back to back before Michael Shermer got up. Between them — I timed this — Ross and Rana clocked in at an hour and fifteen minutes, while Michael Shermer got just over thirty. The other two members got face time, but no presentation. By the time Shermer was done, people were already starting to leave anyway.
  3. Topic. Was there one? The proposed topic going in was “Was Darwin Wrong?” which is bad enough. (Yes, of course Darwin was wrong. Duh. Evolution isn’t wrong but Darwin was wrong about a great many aspects of it.) However, they didn’t make any pretense of discussing this topic. The opening PowerPoint slide said “Evolution & Intelligent Design,” then Hugh Ross proceeded to say he was not going to talk about Intelligent Design because he would be promoting a Christian “testable theory.” Any kind of constraints on the discussion were thrown out the window from the first minute.
  4. Sponsorship and moderation. The debate was sponsored by one or several Christian groups, and some guy from the UT Engineering department announced at the beginning that the department had also sponsored it, although this didn’t imply that they condone anything that was said. But rather than moderating, the chair introduced the speakers, and then two hours later used some Q&A time to further bash the evolution side and speak about the importance of mixing some religion in your science. (Matt was actually under the impression that he was billed on the creationist side. I looked up the fliers. He was not.)

That’s enough for now; expect more posts as the day goes on.