Giving Credit Where Credit Is Due

I recently had a conversation with a man who had lost his son. He answered the phone and was pleased to hear from me after many years. We had a wonderful conversation and I was glad that I called. He told me what had happened. He talked about how he was doing. And he waxed philosophic on the meaning of it all.

“How someone can look at a tree or a human body or even a human eye, and not see that there is some design to all of this,” he thought out loud. He went on to describe the wondrousness of nature and his theistic leanings, and to express bewilderment at how anyone could accept evolution and other things our public schools and universities are teaching now-a-days. “It’s so much easier to believe in god—so much easier to believe a god did all this.” Yes, he actually said that. And yes, he did use the human eye example.

Obviously I don’t share his views. But I do share, to some small degree, his loss and his hope that things can and will get better as we all come to grips with the death of a loved family member and all that the young man had come to represent for each of us—whether as a fond childhood memory or a son.

We often get letters from atheists asking how to handle social situations where theistic ideas are laid bare to them from those they love or respect. Whether other atheists agree or disagree with me, there is no way I was going to address my opposing views to this man in this circumstance. He wasn’t asking me what I thought. He wasn’t requesting my approval. He was communicating feelings and simply wanted to be allowed to do so. And if I could help him feel comforted by merely listening in this moment, without expressing judgment, I felt I could offer him at least that much.

So, I continued to listen. And he finally began to talk about other things. He is an impressive man of many talents. Not complicated or intellectual—but interesting and clever. He owns some land where he raises orchards and honey bees. Not a large farm, but enough to keep him busy in his mid-70s. And being a garden enthusiast myself, I found I was quickly drawn into some of the most interesting conversation about nature I’ve had in awhile.

I need to try grafting—he insists. I have an apple sprout. When it gets to be as big around as my finger, I can cut it just so, and add a fruit apple stem to the stalk, in order to grow the fruit variety of apple on this useless sprout. And, as it turns out, I can keep on grafting different varieties, and they will all grow on the same apple tree. He has in his garden an apple tree upon which he now boasts 21 different varieties of apples growing on a single trunk.

Many people don’t realize that most of the plants that supply us food don’t exist in the wild. If I grow an apple tree sprouted from seed, it may never fruit. And if it does fruit, there are nearly perfect odds the fruit will be bitter, small, and inedible. Growing an apple tree from a Red Delicious apple seed will not yield you a Red Delicious apple tree. Some of you may have known that—but I’m guessing many of you may not have. To grow Red Delicious apples, you have to graft a Red Delicious apple stem to an existing apple tree trunk—of any variety (even a rouge like the one I have sprouted). The graft will produce Red Delicious fruit. You can’t grow modern domestic apple strains from seed. I don’t know if there are exceptions to this—but in general, this is the rule with much of our fruit bearing domestic crops. They don’t exist in the wild. And if all we had was seed, we would have to rebreed it from existing stock—re-engineer it, genetically, using a lab or evolution and artificial selection to recreate “Red Delicious” apples again.

Not only is the man on the phone aware of how this works—he knows more about it than I do. The only way to create something like a Red Delicious apple, in the days before genetic modification in a lab, was to use evolution and artificial selection to make it happen, yourself. You had to direct nature away from natural selection and use artificial selection to get what you wanted. Most people understand this is how we have dogs in our homes that differ drastically from dogs and wolves in the wild. In fact, we have dogs in our homes that differ drastically from other dogs in other people’s homes.

But he understands we breed strains of plants that become unable to reproduce themselves without human intervention. And he knows how it works and takes great pleasure from actually doing it—from diving into nature and taking control and directing nature and making nature do all sorts of weird and “unnatural” things that, ironically, only nature can do for him. He knows nature. He works nature. He sees nature with his own eyes.

But he doesn’t believe nature.

This same man has seen firsthand how nature can change and produce and reform and repurpose, how it can be made to stretch with agility and be tortuously forced to produce extremes of diversity through such minor interventions as a cut in a limb or picking this type of parent stock over that one. He has seen nature.

But he doesn’t believe nature.

“Who could believe evolution?” he sincerely wonders. And for now, I won’t reply to him. Now is not the time to argue with a bereaved parent. But in my own mind I cannot help but ask, “Who can see nature and do what you have done with nature, and still not believe what nature can do?” The diversity, flexibility and novelty of nature is something to behold. To see someone else behold it and then reply, “it’s so much easier to believe a god did it,” is hard to fathom. Perhaps it is a compliment to nature that what it does is so unbelievable to so many that they think something more must be involved?

To see nature do it, and then say “nature can’t do it—it must be a god,” is interesting to say the least. I’ve never seen a god, let alone seen a god do anything amazing (or anything mundane for that matter). So, how could it possibly be easier for me to identify a god as the cause of what I observe that nature does, than to identify nature as the cause of what I observe nature does? How did “god” come into this equation? At what point do we employ a touch of god to get the grafting to work or to breed the new spaniel? Which step was “add a bit of god” in that?

The fact is, there is no “add a bit of god” step. And everyone who works with nature knows that it does what it does how it does it. If we didn’t understand that much, we would be unable to guide it and use it as we have and as we do. We know, to some useful degree what nature is, what it does, and how it accomplishes those things. That’s how we put it to work for us. And still, it manages to come up with new and interesting things nearly every day to continue to amaze us with its revelations.

If we understand a process, why should we employ god—an unnecessary, extraneous step—to explain it?

And if we don’t understand a process, I must still wonder why should we employ god to explain it?

If I have never seen a god and don’t know what a god is or how it functions and operates and what actual impact it has on anything—how do I employ it and use it to produce explanatory function for anything in nature? How is what cannot be observed, examined or understood, useful or helpful in understanding anything? If I don’t understand natural process Y, and I say it’s the result of undefined function X—what have I learned? What have I explained or added to our knowledge? How does that help at all? And why would I put such a baseless thing forward as useful or real?

How can a person so involved in nature and natural processes accept that a divine cause is required for what he can plainly observe nature doing—apparently, by all observation, unaided?

Ironically, most creationists would respond that I’m stripping god of his rightful credit by endowing nature as its own source. But really, if I go by what is supported via the evidence and reason, it’s clearly the other way around. Nature, a wonder to observe (and, importantly, it can be observed) is not served by handing credit for all it does and all it can do, to god-X (and note that, importantly, god-X cannot be observed). Fortunately for nature, it does not appear to have an ego to bruise. But if it did, it might wonder, “on what grounds can any reasonable person assert that I can’t do what I clearly do? How does anyone know what I can do, but by observing what I do before their very eyes?” And if there were some world behind the world, how could we reasonably credit it, while it works in shadows, hides its hand, and pretends to not exist—putting forward a façade that nature can do all this hidden world is supposedly “really” doing? If there were such a hidden world, there would be nothing to observe or examine to make anyone think it exists.

How would that be easier to believe than what can actually be seen, examined, and understood? For me, it’s not hard to believe what I can observe and examine and come to understand. But it’s very hard to believe that which is supported by nothing I can see and examine—and which, due to that, could never be understood, and therefore never believed, because there is no way to reasonably assert belief in things we cannot or do not understand.

Christian Right defecating selves over McLeroy rejection

And as always, whenever someone of that ilk (I love words like “ilk” — they sound so yuckily apropos in instances like these) opens his yap, lies flow like especially pungent and curdled vomit. Remember, creationists can’t not lie. Here are some quotes from a fundagelical email making the rounds, playing the usual Christian “persecution” card. Crazy Hint #1: strategic use of ALL CAPS.

…The highly partisan Sen. Kirk Watson and Sen. Eliot Shapleigh and the highly partisan TEXAS FREEDOM NETWORK, have successfully brought the Satanic art of “BORKING” to Texas … ; they recently managed to smear Dr. Don McLeroy, a good and decent man, with sickening LIES. This tag-team of DEMONS claimed that Dr. McLeroy tried to force CREATIONISM into the Science Classroom, and they told this brazen LIE over and over again.

Yes, let’s all ignore the fact that members of the creationist special interest group known fondly to us all as The Discovery Institute were appointed by the SBOE under McLeroy to review science education and TEKS test standards. Let’s ignore the fact that that bimbo Terri Leo let her creationist freak-flag fly proudly by publicly spouting such creotard phraseology as “militant Darwinists” in front of SRO public meetings. Let’s ignore the fact that Ken Mercer repeatedly makes an ass of himself by publicly spewing criticisms of nonexistent “weaknesses” of evolution that come straight from creationist literature (there’s evidence for “microevolution” and none for “macroevolution,” and similar bullshit). Let’s ignore that fact that Mac has just plain come right out and stated he believes the Earth is 6000 years old, a belief as moronically contrafactual as saying Los Angeles is a hundred yards from New York City, and that a person that frakkin’ stupid has no business determining the educations of millions of schoolchildren. Nope, no creationism on this board, nosiree.

I have to disagree with one piece of equivocation TFN insists on making (perhaps in an effort not to alienate more liberal and pro-science minded theists), that Mac’s religious beliefs were not the reason he was so vehemently opposed, his incompetence and ideology were.

Mac’s religious beliefs indeed would not have been an issue…until he made them the issue by trying to inject them into curricula.

Mac’s desperate defenders try to peddle the absurd spin that Mac simply wanted students to have the “academic freedom” to examine the evidence, pro and con. You know, the not-so-crafty lie that the creationists have constructed so as to make them seem like they’re the scientifically-minded and intellectually “honest” ones. But the transparency of that spin is readily apparent to anyone who has followed the recent history of American creationism and seen precisely how the movement has evolved to take advantage of political realities.

The “teach the controversy” and “academic freedom” rhetoric they advance now is specifically designed to sow basic doubts in students’ minds about the validity of and support for evolutionary science. Overtly teaching creationism is something they know they can’t do, but they’ve discovered something even more weaselly effective: simply plant the nugget of doubt that evolution is well-supported by evidence, and then everything the student encounters in his extracurricular life — validation from equally ignorant and ill-educated church members; crazy conspiracy theories from Ben Stein; “reasonable” sounding design arguments like irreducible complexity — will do the rest.

They don’t really care about knowledge or the scientific method. The only agenda of the believer is to protect the belief. Even if that requires posing as an “open-minded” science supporter when you actually seek to completely gut science and everything it teaches us about reality.

So, yes, I will come right out and say that Mac’s religious beliefs were at the root of why he was rejected from a position he was totally unqualified to hold. And it’s because he chose to inject those beliefs inappropriately into his work, disguising them (poorly) in the rhetoric of the increasingly politically savvy anti-evolution movement.

Our idiot blithers:

The TRUTH is that Dr. McLeroy and the SBOE have simply asked that the SCIENTIFIC METHOD be applied fairly and universally in the Science Classroom; in particular, they have ask that the SCIENTIFIC METHOD even be applied to two SACRED-COWS/RELIGIONS of the Liberal Democrats, namely, (1) Darwinian Evolution and (2) Global Warming.

Newsflash, butt-biscuit-for-brains. The scientific method has been applied to those concepts (we leave sacred cows and religions to fools like you). Guess what? They passed. You failed. Run along now. Play with your blocks. But be careful. They might be too educational.

Over two years later, people still blame us for Kent Hovind

Well well well, what do you know. Yesterday on the show, I brought up this two year old post because Kent Hovind’s devotees still whine about his unjust incarceration. And then at the wee hours of two in the morning, someone else comes along and does precisely that. Since the linked post is more or less off the radar of most other commenters, I thought I’d bring it back to the top with a new post.

Andrew writes:

Wow.. I bet if creationists did something like this to Richard Dawkins the atheists would be in tears.

Okay, a few points of order here. First: Richard Dawkins is not an American citizen. I suppose he could get picked up for not paying taxes in Britain, but as far as I know, the completely wacky notion that you can live as a fairly affluent citizen in a first world country without paying your way is mostly local to the United States. Especially since the arguments I see all appear to hinge on misunderstood obscure points of American law, American history, and the US Constitution.

Second: if Richard Dawkins committed a felony, we would not be upset at the people who tried and convicted him. We would much more likely be pissed off at Richard Dawkins for doing something so stupid without thinking through the implications. Unlike religious figures, neither Dawkins nor any other atheist “celebrity” is considered infallible and beyond criticism.

Third: Where the hell is the analogy to “creationists doing something like this”? Atheists didn’t put him in jail. Hovind was put in jail by a judge and jury of his peers by the laws of the country that you probably claim to love. All we’ve done is make fun of him for it. :)

As I was saying on the show yesterday: people like Andrew see the world in terms of absolute good and evil, regardless of facts and evidence. It rarely crosses their mind that someone they believe is “on the side of right” might actually deserve to go to jail due to crimes that they committed. In the Christian mythos, of course, everyone deserves nothing less than eternal torture, but they get to avoid it by saying an incantation about accepting Jesus in their hearts. Hovind, being a Christian, shouldn’t be subject to any punishment, and therefore it must be wicked unjust infidels who are persecuting him.

Fact of the matter is that the tax code is too complex and unpredictable to avoid some error. Depending on how much money you’ve made, you could somehow be classified as much a criminal as a mugger on the street.

Oh yeah, it’s true that people can and do get in trouble for honest mistakes in computing the taxes they owe. Here’s something that doesn’t fall in that category: refusing to pay taxes for years, flaunting your claim that you don’t have to, and not bothering to run this obviously mistaken belief by a qualified lawyer who has a clue what the hell they’re talking about. That’s beyond stupid, it’s criminally stupid.

Another point: If a prominent Darwinist were taken in for something like this (it’s not possible since all these organizations are tax-funded in the first place) everybody would be screaming “The sky is falling! We’re going back to the Dark Ages of science!”

I’m afraid I will need some evidence of this extraordinary claim that “everybody” would be doing this. When a prominent scientist is convicted for breaking the law, few people assume that it reflects in any way on science in general. Well, creationists probably do, because ad hominems are so much fun.

There is alot of corruption within our government and a few key organizations get all the benefits in the world. This hasn’t changed since Obama rolmao. (WE WANT CHANGE!!) And those who supported McCAin were just as blind.

Right now we neither have a free market or socialist country. Right now we have a corporate and government alliance. It’s because of mergers that the government forces or creates that true monopolies are born.

Creationist or not, Kent Hovind was just another blind victim of the IRS. An organization which we do not need. (They’re not even productive.)

But just remember boys and girls,

“Don’t Steal! The Government Hates Competition!”

Corruption within our government there certainly may be. Convicting and imprisoning a fraud is not an example of that; it is an example of the system doing what it is meant to do. While you do bring up legitimate concerns, not every conviction is a conspiracy. So far, you have yet to demonstrate that this one is.

Also, what’s up with the weirdly sardonic tone of the sentence in quotes? Even assuming that we grant that the government is, by and large, a criminal organization, is Andrew saying that this means nobody should be convicted for stealing? Ah, the squishy nature of absolute morality…

Andrew then writes a second post, in which he starts trying to come to grips with the fact that maybe Hovind was convicted with good cause by a fair jury. Then he tries to rationalize it away. Needless to say, he finds another way to blame atheism.

Who knows. Maybe he’s in jail because he started to become too self-absorbed or took his mind off of spiritual things. Next thing you know, Kent Hovind gets greedy and poof!

Eh? Eh? You see what Andrew just did there? Prominent Christian apologist Kent Hovind broke the law because he took his mind off of spiritual things. You see, his only real crime was acting too much like an atheist.

He’s in jail! My advice to Hovind: Just go with it. Don’t try to fight the system. If you want to spread your message as soon as possible just play by the rules.

Good advice. It would have been even more valuable before Kent decided not to play by the rules that pertain to US tax law. But still good, in general.

Kent Hovind has his flaws. He’s a human being just like us all. Of course some people would say “Well does he desrve to go to Heaven?” Nope.

Neither would I. Neither would you. That is assuming, of course, that Heaven exists. Which I do every time.

Atheists, of course, would not bother asking whether Kent deserves to go to heaven, because we don’t believe in your happy land. But you see, it’s exactly how I was explaining it yesterday. Heaven never entered this question in the first place until you brought it up. We were discussing man-made laws and the evil conspiracy to enforce them.

Christians often claim that it must be a very dangerous thing to become an atheist, since true morality must come from God, and there is no other force preventing people from murdering and stealing. Yet in the fundamentalist mindset, there are no crimes other than angering God, and those crimes can be washed away by saying an incantation. Andrew was implying earlier that Kent Hovind deserves special dispensation to be forgiven for his crimes due to the fact that he said the words. Now he backs it up by invoking his belief that all humans have sinned equally, whether or not they made off with nearly half a million dollars in legally owed finances.

In other words, the moral check and balance of Christianity is phony. Christians and atheists alike may follow the law out of a sense of societal obligation or fear of earthly punishment. But becoming a Christian does not noticably improve the likelihood that you will do so, because it’s a moral blank check.

Kent Hovind may very well have been in the wrong her
e. I currently see it as more than likely (considering our current, flawed laws…. laws nonetheless. However unconstitutional, invasive, counterproductive, or dumb they might be.)

Hey, admitting he has a problem is the first step to recovery. You should maybe drop Kent a line to let him know he should start thinking about what he done wrong.

Warning: Assumptions about Heaven and God being real coming ahead.

I thought you might appreciate that warning. God might have put him there so that he could learn some humility.

But, hey. That’s the extent of my knowledge. Whatever God could have planned is beyond me :S.

Oh, and Kent Hovind’s point all along has been: “Evolution is not science because it cannot be observed beyond changes within certain kinds of animals.” It’s a good theory and all and very well-thought out. And it can make alot of logical sense.

But it can be very illogical as well. I think Kent Hovind misses some points about evolution, but he does make SOME good cases in favor of creation and a Young Earth.

I believe in the Young Earth myself and I will continue to believe in it until God himself tells me I was wrong.

And now we observe the impact of fundamentalism on scientific discourse as well as legal and ethical standards. Andrew has a belief which is in no way informed by scientific research, observation, or evidence. How will this belief ever change to one that is more accurate? By learning more about reality? No, Andrew will only change his mind if his invisible friend personally notifies him that it is okay to do so.

And I just bet THAT’S going to happen.

And, please. I BEG you to set aside your flame-throwers and spare me from major flammage.

Everybody likes to play pin the tail of the creationist lol.

Your request was denied. But hey, that tail is very becoming.

Not even pretending anymore

As most of you probably are aware, the confirmation (or not) of Don McLeroy as chair of the Texas SBOE is pending. The SBOE is now officially a nationwide laughingstock, first with Conan O’Brien and then Bill Maher finding plenty of fodder for humor in the board’s idiocy ever since it’s been a country club for fundagelical numbskulls who believe the Earth was created more recently than dogs were domesticated.

Once the comedy gets all the way around to the likes of Dane Cook, you’ll know Texas’ reputation has bottomed out.

The Texas Freedom Network is urging every Texas resident to contact their state senators to urge them to vote against McLeroy’s confirmation. I’m nervous about this, particularly as my state senator here in Austin is loyal Republican Jeff Wentworth. But I plan to contact him anyway. You should do the same if you’re a rational Texan. Find out who represents you here.

In the meantime, fellow SBOE member Ken Mercer — the guy who keeps bringing up things like Piltdown Man — has rallied to his buddy’s defense. And sure enough, he’s playing the good old Christian Persecution Card. I mean, what else would Mercer be doing when his column has such a whiny title as “Christians Need Not Apply.” Seriously, that little card is starting to look more than a little worn and dog-eared, isn’t it?

By now, reading the angsty rants of fundamentalists scorned is a thoroughly tiresome exercise, inspiring little more than a bemused shaking of the head. But it’s worth noting that guys like Mercer are no longer even pretending not to be hypocrites any more. As the TFN blog points out, they want it both ways. They repeatedly claim (blatantly lying, of course) that their positions as board members are not in any way motivated by their religious beliefs, or the desire to pander to voters that share them. But in the same breath, if their policies and activities as board members are criticized at all, then it’s back to the old “Oh noes I is pursekuted becos I haz the Krischianity!!!!1!one!” So suddenly, the reason to support and defend McLeroy has everything to do with this…

“I wanted to write to you [McLeroy] and express my sincerest appreciation to you for having the courage to stand by your convictions during your recent hearing. It is unfortunately rare, today, to see anyone willing to clearly and calmly state and stand by their Christian beliefs, particularly in the face of abuse such as what you took.”

…even though we’re expected to go on believing that those Christian beliefs Mac boldly stands by do not in any way influence his work as chairman of the SBOE. As cons go, that ain’t very smooth, fundies.

The voting on this issue will be extremely partisan, people. Today the House voted down HB 710, which would have subjected the SBOE to periodic review by the Texas Sunset Advisory Commission. All but one Republican voted against this common-sense bill, which would not have stripped any authority from the SBOE at all. Even simple oversight strikes fear into the hearts of the Republicans and their Christian Right masters, it would seem.

Finally, I love this little quip from the TFN blog, in response to Mercer’s comparing McLeroy’s “persecution” to that we’re supposed to think is being suffered by homophobic pageant queen Carrie Prejean.

…Mercer deserves credit for coming up with the most apt comparison to date for the level of intellectual debate at the Texas SBOE — a beauty pageant. The uninformed, vapid discourse at the board resembles nothing so much as a room full of beauty pageant contestants confidently asserting opinions on politics or world affairs. And both ellicit similar snickers and groans from the audience.

Ouch! Come on, no need to harsh on the pageant girls! They’re a MENSA gathering compared to the SBOE. And cuter too!

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.

This week in Austin: yet another evolution/ID debate

Christians still don’t seem to have gotten the memo from Dover that ID is dead deader deadest, and they’re still trying to find public forums in which to flog its corpse. I’m not sure they should be accorded the courtesy of a debate by legitimate scientists any more. More and more I tend to agree with the views of those who say these debates, by virtue of occurring at all, send a message that ID must have some scientific legitimacy, otherwise why would major universities be hosting the debates in the first place.

That’s not the case, of course. Any student group can book facilities at their university, and so another one of these debates is taking place this coming Tuesday at 7. Skeptic magazine editor Michael Shermer will be one of three folks on the pro-science side, taking on two creationists, Hugh Ross and Fazale Rana, of Reasons to Believe. These guys, like Behe, have scientific backgrounds, and I know Shermer and Ross have debated before. Despite Ross’s CV’s, though, I must say, I’ve seen some episodes of the Reasons to Believe show on TBN, and was, let us say, amused. On one episode as I recall, Ross tried to answer one aspect of the problem of evil — that of “natural” evils like earthquakes — in this way: that God needs earthquakes because that his way of moving minerals through the Earth’s crust.

I wish I could make stuff like that up, people.

As for Shermer, well, here’s the deal. I like the man, like what he does to promote skepticism, have liked some of his books. I also worry about how he’ll handle himself in this debate, because he’s the kind of guy who — well, I don’t know if it’s too strong to call him a “Neville Chamberlain atheist,” but he is inclined towards trying to find a conciliatory middle ground between religion and science that I just don’t think works. I’ll post a review of his book Why Darwin Matters soon to explain what I mean.

Whatever Shermer ends up saying, I know we won’t have to worry about such “we are the world” namby-pambiness from another of the pro-science debaters, Sahotra Sarkar. This guy takes the gloves right off. In early 2002 he debated that supreme nitwit Kirk Durston at UT, and utterly shamed him. I suspect Ross and Rana will be licking their wounds after a few rounds of Sarkar’s debate-fu.

Of the third pro-science debater, Kenneth Diller, I know nothing. I don’t know if he’ll be moderating the debate and the CFI site has him mis-listed as a participant, or what.

Now here’s the sad bit: I’ll be out of town for this. So we’ll have to rely on a report from Kazim or Matt or someone else on the crew. But I’m sure it will be a night to remember.

One complaint a lot of us have already made: The title of the debate is “Was Darwin Wrong?”, which is a fine example of that problem Kazim has discussed here, which is that so many of these debates — planned as they tend to be by the religious side &#151 come front-loaded with assumptions favoring the religious position. Was Darwin wrong? About what? There were several things Darwin was wrong about. But evolution by natural selection isn’t one of them, as 150 years of solid science have shown. A better title might have been “Which has greater evidence, evolution or intelligent design?” But that would put poor Reasons to Believe at a serious disadvantage, I suppose, and reveal their reasons to believe are fragile things indeed.

No, we haven’t all died

I know, a week and a half without a new post is a long time for any blog to go, especially one with a pretty strong readership we’d like to keep. (Hugs!) It’s just one of those times when real life intrudes, I suppose, and none of us has found the time to work blogging into our schedules. I’ll do my best to improve that situation for my own part. Everyone else, well, they post rarely enough as it is, so they’ll drop by when they see fit, I’m sure. (Condescending snicker.)

I must say, it has been kind of nice to take a breather, away from the daily cataloguing of the absurdities of the righteous. Still, there are some things going on, and so it’s a good time to haul my fat ass back up into the saddle and get this old nag back on the road again.

The biggest news down Austin way has been the confirmation hearings for that assrocket Dan “Stand Up To The Experts” McLeroy. Our bold and equally rebellion-minded governer Rick “Secede!” Perry reappointed McLeroy to chair the Texas State Board of Education in 2007, but his reappointment requires the Senate Nomination Committee’s approval, apparently, and today, his confirmation hearing was held. The Texas Freedom Network liveblogged it, and they have a high old time unpacking all of Mac’s prevarications as he was up at the mic defending himself and the SBOE. It sounds as if McLeroy did an absolutely awesome job of digging his own grave today. I hope the Committee realizes that statements like this…

5:37 -McLeroy says almost everyone in his church rejects evolution and supports creationism. He describes himself as a young Earth creationist. He says he tells reporters that he wants to be up front and honest about his beliefs. “I think it’s a pretty rational view.”

…are tantamount to the man just standing up and shouting “Disqualify me!” I mean, cripes, this is like asking General Motors shareholders and board of directors to appoint as CEO of the company a man who says, “Well, I’m pretty sure that cars are powered by a combination of giant wound-up rubber bands and a couple dozen hamsters on treadmills concealed within the engine block. I think that’s a pretty rational view.”

I mean, here’s a man boasting of how totally uneducated he is, and he’s expecting Senate confirmation?

McLeroy really does appear to have been grilled. At least one senator has stated his intention to oppose Mac’s confirmation, and other senators on the committee don’t sound terribly sympathetic to him. Let us hope that the vote goes the right way, and Texas will finally start back on the proper path in how it educates its students, without extremist religious ideology and the personal beliefs of SBOE members constantly setting up roadblocks that unnecessarily impede the whole process, solely for the gratification of the egos of McLeroy and his idiot YEC posse.

Don McLeroy’s idea of a real science book

The intrepid crew at the Texas Freedom Network inform us that the reliably moronic Don McLeroy, the creationist dentist who’s devoting his career to painting a bullseye on the educations of millions of Texas students, has found a worthy book on the subject of evolution. What might it be, you ask? The Ancestor’s Tale? Why Evolution Is True? Or Ken Miller’s perennially assigned Biology textbook?

Uh…no. How about: a book-length histrionic rant self-published by a frothing anti-evolution crank named Robert Bowie Johnson, Jr.

Johnson is a wackaloon’s wackaloon, a West Point graduate whose pet projects have included tortured reinterpretations of Greek mythology in an effort to show they’re simply variants of the Adam & Eve story. Yes, it’s bizarre to try to prove your myths have some veracity by referencing other myths; seriously, the guy’s position is that Athena is really Eve, therefore, the Bible is true! But that’s how nutcases like Johnson think. And nutcases like Johnson think the same way monkeys drive trucks.

Johnson’s “thinking” on evolution, which impressed that cretin McLeroy enough for him to refer to the book as “unique,” “insightful” and “important,” includes such gems as the following.

Creationists do not want to bring religion into the classroom… Creationists simply want the God hypothesis brought back into the science classroom, and recognized for what it is—a scientifically valid hypothesis.

What are they doing coming into all of our elementary schools, all of our junior highs, and all of our high schools with a disguised demand that our children embrace their evoatheism? What are they doing teaching our children that they are descended from worms and reptiles? What are they doing imposing their atheistic religious faith on our children when we’re not around? What are they doing sowing atheism in our schools?

The obvious problem here is that it is simply not possible to be a Christian in any meaningful sense of the word, and at the same time, embrace the tenets of atheistic evolution.

What kind of monster parents teach their children that they’re descended from rodents and reptiles?

Come on in, everybody, especially you kids, and join the great evolutionary festivities! Learning about your descent by chance from worms and reptiles will strengthen your faith in “a creator,” with a small “c,” whoever he is.

So you see the kind of “science” textbook McLeroy thinks “deserves a hearing”: a bombastic, hysterical, spittle-flecked tirade by a throughly scientifically illiterate moron, who, like Ben Stein, bases his whole overwrought screed on selling the idea of “Big Science” as some monolithic entity with stormtrooper-like enforcers (the first chapter literally opens with an absurd men-in-black scenario) out to quash dissent.

The egregiousness of all this cannot be condemned forcefully enough, and I encourage everyone far and wide to shine as much light on McLeroy and his pet cockroach Johnson as possible. Bring the absurdity and emotionalism of the creationist anti-science crowd right out into the open, and correct their angry lies with calm, sober scientific facts (which, contrary to Johnson’s ravings, do exist to support evolutionary biology in its totality). Let ridicule and derision drive them back into the obscure darkness of their own superstitious fears, where they belong.