Why you should argue in public and private

Greta asks a question of the FTB community today: Atheist Arguments — Public or Private?  My answer is: both.

There’s no pat answer to how you should conduct yourself in an argument, any more than you can encapsulate morality in a set of ten laws that are followed unfailingly without question.  Obviously, I’m a big fan of taking arguments public, which is why I love being on a TV show with lots of callers.  (Well, that, and I’m a big old narcissist.)  But what I generally say as a rule of thumb is that you should only have an argument if the argument is beneficial to you and your position in some way.

Argument is a performance, and a performance only has an audience.  But there are three different kinds of audience you might want to entertain, so there are basically three styles of argument you may wind up having.

  1. The audience is… someone else.  This is what happens when Greta posts an argument on her blog, or we do one of those cute “we get email” posts, or we take calls on TV, or there’s a public debate happening in an auditorium.
  2. The audience is the theist.  Bear in mind that you do not have to enter such arguments with the expectation of completely changing the theist’s mind and making him an atheist.  If a theist drifts across the spectrum from fundamentalist to liberal theist to agnostic to atheist to outspoken atheist, then you’ve done a good job.
  3. The audience is… yourself.  And that’s the most likely motivation for keeping an argument private.

Don’t underestimate the importance of the third audience, because atheists aren’t omniscient.  There are some difficult arguments that people butt up against as they learn to explore the philosophical implications of their beliefs, and sometimes you’re going to lose.  Seriously, it happens to everyone, because unless you are the single best debater in the whole world, tautologically there is somebody better than you.  So don’t fall into trap of thinking that “only stupid people disagree with me,” because that’s really not the case.

Never forget that arguing with somebody is essentially a game, and there are good players and bad players — or rather, there are better players and worse players.  You may be a pretty good chess player against your friends, but I don’t see you beating either Deep Blue or Garry Kasparov.  But the great thing about losing is that it’s a learning opportunity.  When you lose an argument, you’ve discovered a weak spot in your understanding of the issues.  Then one of two things is true: either you were wrong, in which case — hooray! — you can change your mind and now you’ll be right!  Or else, it turns out that you lost with a winning argument.

In this second case, now you have some direction to take your reading.  You should read more about this argument that beat you.  Find out what other people would say against it; find out what philosophers have said about it; find out whether it butts up against some important scientific principle that we know about.  The overall tournament doesn’t end just because you lost the game.  And once you learn exactly where you made the mistake, then the next time you run into this argument, you’re going to nail it.  That’s what arguing for yourself really does for you.

So really, there’s nothing wrong with taking an argument private.  There is always that chance that the theist is a reasonable person who will actually soften his position on some of his misconceptions.  Don’t tell me it never happens; it happens all the time.  And there’s also an equal chance that by practicing an argument in private, you will become a better player, which in turn will help you out with future public arguments.

And then those public arguments will help you sway more people who don’t have a vested interest in picking one answer… but only if you get good at it.  Don’t be so arrogant that you think you’ve won when you’ve actually lost.  That way lies victims of Dunning-Kruger.  If you’ve honed your abilities through practice, then by all means show off and win some souls.

Post-show thoughts for 1/10

Hi folks,

Thanks for watching the show last night, and thanks in advance to all of you who will eventually come across this thread after listening to the podcast. Sorry for spinning this off into a new post, but I felt like using my executive privilege to cut in line and not appear after 20+ comments.

I hear what you guys are saying about the positives and negatives of last night’s experiment. And believe me, this was definitely an experimental bit, and I didn’t have any idea whether this would be a good move or not. I suspect I will not really be sure until discussing it and reading feedback for a few more weeks. I’m sure there are things that could be improved.

I cut my intro short, because the obvious shuffling around on camera threw me off a bit and I didn’t want the introduction to seem phony. But I was intending to explain a little better why I decided to violate our usual stated reasons for not having Christians on the show. Obviously there are a lot of exclusively Christian shows out there, so we feel no need to provide “equal time.” But as we’ve noted often in the last year, it’s hard to get a reliable source of disagreement from the callers when so many people are internet fans who seek us out because they like us. I think yesterday’s show illustrated that very well, since all but the last two callers were atheists, and those two were a bit mediocre in my opinion.

So I have been wanting to see what would happen if we go offer an invitation to an experienced Christian speaker, rather than some clueless person who just happened to stumble on us. I sent out an email to everyone at Great Hills Baptist (which is among the biggest churches in Austin) and got feedback from Kyle right away. While acknowledging that this was possibly a stumbling first effort, I’d like to make a case for why this appearance was a success.

First of all, apologies to people who were hoping that they would see a full scale brawl and didn’t get one. I know that that’s a direction we could have gone, but that would have depended more on getting a guest who wanted to fight. We got Kyle. He’s a polite, friendly, non-creationism-promoting, non-atheist-condemning Christian, and that’s who we wound up with on the show.

At the same time, I completely disagree with somebody’s claim that this was so “softball” that it was like Fox News interviewing Dick Cheney. My opening statement was intended to point out that whether or not evil is a “problem” for God, there is no indication that there is any kind of God (whether Dionysus, Jonathan Edwards’ god, or Kyle’s god) taking an active interest in society; and what we see is exactly what we’d expect if every individual simply made up their own concept of god based on personal preference. To the extent that Kyle made specific claims about his god, we didn’t miss any opportunity to point out that there is no rationale for believing that this god actually exists, or that Kyle’s interpretation of God has any more weight behind it than that of Jonathan Edwards. And furthermore, Kyle didn’t provide any serious disagreement with this response, preferring to disavow any application of evidence.

Yes, the conversation still turned out to be pleasant and friendly. So what? The mission of the Atheist Experience is not to destroy Christians at every opportunity. It’s:

  1. To promote positive atheism — which wouldn’t have been as well served by hosting a Crossfire-style shouting match.
  2. To provide community outreach and clear up misunderstandings — which I think will only be helped if we can encourage more Christians to watch the show and not fear the atheist attack dogs.
  3. To present atheism as a rational point of view while pointing out logical inconsistencies in religion — which we most certainly did.

I must also report that Kyle was a fine dinner companion, listening respectfully to people who wanted to contest what he’d said, and talking about experiences that people were interested in hearing. That’s exactly why we regularly add “or atheist friendly” in our dinner invitations.

Finally, I hear some people saying that the segment wasn’t long enough, and that they were left wishing that we had left more time for it. Fantastic! I was initially worried that 30 minutes was going to be too much time. I was thinking that if it became a one-sided preachfest, at least we would have a time limit. Instead, the time I was on seemed to fly right past, and I was downright surprised when 6:00 rolled down. Apparently, so were our viewers. So if you actually wanted more, then that’s a good indication that this is something we ought to repeat.

Obviously I wouldn’t be averse to having a guest with a little more fire and brimstone in them. If you know a better way to get in touch with such people, post your suggestions.

A brush with Jehovah’s Witnesses

I’m at home all week. I have a new job starting in San Antonio next Monday, but for now I’m just cooling my heels. I’ve been living in my sister’s house for a while, planning to move to an apartment in a couple of months.

Anyway, this is build up to explain why I was enjoying a nice nap today after an exciting round of healing Heroic Oculus on my level 80 priest, when the doorbell rang. I answered it and was confronted by a smiley woman in her forties or fifties, and a twenty-something middle eastern looking young woman.

They were looking for “Katherine,” and when I said there was no Katherine here the older lady said that perhaps they had the wrong house. I said “You might be talking about my sister, Keryn.” Then she asked if we were believers in God in this house, and I said “No, we’re pretty much all atheists.” She lit up and said “Well that’s great, we love talking to people of all religions and, uh… people of none. I am sure this is the house I was at before, she told me to come back later.” At that point I asked if they were Jehovah’s Witnesses, they confirmed it, and we were off.

Now, I know some people who would try to get rid of JWs as quickly as possible, but I love them. I’ve only had one other encounter with them, which I documented here. They are so full of confidence that their book holds all the answers, yet generally pretty ignorant of basic facts. So I decided to pass some time chatting.

I was introduced to the younger woman, who pretty much never spoke the whole time, as a converted Muslim. I had to explain the whole “Jewish atheist” upbringing thing, which the lady interpreted to mean “Oh, so you read the Bible but you never actually got to know the Lord.” I told her I didn’t see it as getting to know anyone, but rather as not being raised to believe that their god existed.

The woman eager to start reading from the Bible, so I patiently refrained from calling it a book of fairy tales, or a big book of multiple choice, and she proceeded to gush happily about how the Bible is full of stuff that she finds inspirational. She asked me permission to read me one, and I consented.

To be honest, I don’t even remember which part she picked. I just remember that at some point shortly after, we were talking about Adam and Eve, the first people, and she brought up how they defied God and ate the apple. So I asked whether they had the knowledge of good and evil at the time when he ordered them not to eat the fruit?

A little evasively, she said that they didn’t know good and evil, but they understood that it would be disobeying God. But I persisted, did they really? How did they know that it was wrong to disobey God if they didn’t know good and evil? What did they learn from the fruit of knowledge if they had that much understanding about not disobeying God?

She started to read what God said about how the day that Adam and Eve ate the fruit, they would die. So I said “But they didn’t die that day. So God was wrong.” And she said no, they certainly did die, in the sense that they became mortal. Then we talked about how the word “day” is sometimes a metaphor, and I brought up young earthism, so she said that she dismisses young earthism. “Yes,” I said, “but there is no indication in the Bible how long those ‘days’ of creation actually were. Science had to figure it out first, before you could take credit for her.” I also had to fill her in on background history of Bishop Ussher, since she didn’t know how widely accepted young earthism once was.

I asked how, with all the non-literal stuff in the Bible, she can tell the difference between what’s meant to be taken seriously and what’s not? The Bible has no key to interpreting itself — she pointed out that “in the beginning” from Genesis could be an indeterminate length of time and I pointed out that there is no way, without the insight of scientific examination, to actually determine that this is meant to stand for exactly 14.5 billion years.

But then she said that yes, the Bible has lots of original scientific knowledge, such as the order of creation matching up perfectly with what science says. “Oh reeeeally?” I asked, because this is one of my favorite claims to respond to. “Show me this ordering of creation please, that’s fascinating!” So she skipped back to Genesis and started running through the separation of light and darkness, and then plants, and then… “Where was the sun at this point?” I asked.

She had an answer for me: “Oh, this verse doesn’t mean that the sun was CREATED there. It just means that the sun was REVEALED at that point.” Then she started to explain to me about the vapor canopy hypothesis, where the firmament water that would eventually become the water of Noah’s flood, was blocking out the visibility of the sun.

“So,” I said, “you believe that when plants came into existence, there was no visible sun on earth.” “That’s right.” “And you believe this is in accordance with what modern science says? Seriously? How do you think plants get their energy? Ever heard of photosynthesis?” She put it to me that plants were getting energy straight from God.

So I said “I’m sorry, but you originally said that you think this information matches up with current scientific data. I know a lot of scientists, and I think it’s safe to say that only a very tiny minority would give any credibility whatever to your version of events, including the vapor canopy hypothesis.” She insisted that she had all kinds of literature she can bring back proving its scientific accuracy. I replied that I’m well aware that lots of creationists believe in that, but that doesn’t make it in agreement with scientific thinking.

“What I’d really like to see is some kind of mainstream, peer reviewed, scientific journal that seriously advances the ideas that you’re talking about.” She promised that she would do the research and come back with it later. Asked what time would be good for me, and we agreed on Saturday at 11. The whole conversation lasted about 15 minutes, I think.

Personally, I’m betting they won’t be back.

Open thread on Thunderf00t vs. Ray Comfort

A lot of people are emailing us to let us know that the big debate is up on YouTube. Here’s part one, and you can follow up on the rest yourself.

I’m opening it up to comments because I know you’re all dying to discuss their respective performances. I will probably contribute my own impressions later. I do have some, but I don’t want this post to be simply “Russell’s opinion of the debate.”

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.

Ray Comfort odds and ends

There seems to be a lot of Ray Comfort related stuff on my radar lately, so I’ll dump it all in one post.

  • Sam, a grad student in New Zealand, debated Ray for $100.  Considering all the sneaky tricks regarding format, and Sam’s status as a novice speaker, I would have asked for a lot more.  But according to people I’ve heard from, Sam made a surprisingly good showing, and Ray turned out to be incredibly bad at it.  You can judge for yourself by reading Sam’s post, and there are even audio files attached.
  • Everything Else Atheist mocks a recent blog post by Ray for his very, very bad understanding of sex and relationships.
  • Guy P. Harrison, author of 50 Reasons People Give for Believing in a God, made us an interesting offer.  He wanted to see a good takedown of Ray Comfort’s new book, You Can Lead an Atheist to Evidence, But You Can’t Make Him Think: Answers to Questions from Angry Skeptics.  But he didn’t want to read it himself, so he sent it to us instead.  I’ve read it, and now Matt’s reading it.  At some point in the near future, the plan is to either appear together on Atheist Experience or do a Very Special Episode of Non-Prophets that will give this, ah, very enlightening book the attention it deserves.

Crippled dogs and one-trick ponies

I’ve just returned from the Texas SBOE hearings on Science TEKS (Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills) standards, and I’m so full of disgust and dismay that I’m at a loss for words to express it with enough rancor. You can, however, expect me to go on at length anyway. The whole thing was such a goddamn farce from the outset that I’d had more than enough after only one hour, at which point I could only roll my eyes and walk out the door. If you haven’t encountered the gall and dishonesty of creationists on their own turf before, and even if you have many times, it’s always the kind of experience that leaves you feeling worse about humanity in general.

As I write this, people are still speaking, and will be for a few hours yet. I saw no point in sticking around, but for all I know there could be, at any time, a real first-rate speaker who could get across the points that needed to be gotten across, and who would call out the creos on the disingenuous rhetoric they repeatedly spewed. As it is, I left the whole charade with two key observations: 1) That the big pitch the creationists are using isn’t merely the weasel phrase “strengths and weaknesses,” but their defense of that phrase as an expression of support for “academic freedom” that the scientific community apparently opposes; and 2) that the pro-science side, at least as I saw it today, is singly unaware of how to respond to that rhetoric properly and forcefully.

This cannot be understated: Just as the anti-gay contingent of the Christian right sells its opposition to gay marriage as a “defense” of “traditional” marriage that can in no way be compared to opposition to interracial marriage or anything of that sort, so too are the creationists now abandoning the overt, lawsuit-bait language of “intelligent design” for “academic freedom” language that makes them seem like the ones encouraging students to use their minds to think about and evaluate ideas that are presented to them in class on their merits. Conversely, the pro-science side wants to shut this kind of inquiry down, and just require students to be obedient little sponges soaking up whatever the textbooks say.

Why this is a misrepresentation and gross misunderstanding of the opposition to such terms as “strengths and weaknesses” was, to his credit, appropriately explained by Texas Citizens for Science spokesman Steve Schafersman. But he didn’t make the point forcefully enough, and even he seemed taken aback when challenged by one of the creationist board members after giving his alloted three-minute address. I’ll discuss that last, because it was after Schafersman spoke that I ducked out. After all, if a veteran front-line soldier in the science education wars like Schafersman falters when some creationist puts him in the hot seat, it’s clearly time for the pro-science side to step back and understand just how dishonest the rhetoric is, and how it has to be addressed in a no-nonsense manner, calling bullshit bullshit, and stating the pro-science position with sufficient force and clarity that no sleazy creationist ideologue can sit there lying about it and sounding smug and reasonable while doing so. I don’t see that the pro-science speakers today fully appreciated the ideological scrimmage line they were going up against, nor the fact that the game plan was going to be offense all the way.

A quick rundown of some of the speakers I did see.

As I had a number of errands to run early in the day, I was worried that I may have missed a lot of the good stuff. I didn’t end up getting downtown to the Travis State Office Building until about 3:30. But as the TFN announced that the hearing itself wouldn’t start until likely after lunch, and as I recall the last set of hearings I attended in the same building five years ago went on until well into the night, I figured I hadn’t missed too much.

Turned out my timing was excellent. The hearings on the science standards started right around 3:55. That must have been some sheer pain for those folks who’d been there since 9:00 AM.

As the title of the post indicates, what ensued was the kind of dog-and-pony show where the dog has only three legs and all the pony knows how to do is turn in a circle. The first speaker was a dignified and well spoken older gentleman named Dr. Joe Bernal, who was himself an SBOE member in the 1990’s, and who spoke eloquently on the need to keep science scientific and avoid the pitfalls of allowing room for non-scientific ideas. He stated that it was the duty of parents, not schools, to determine a student’s religious instruction. He also reiterated the support among the scientific community for evolutionary theory.

Now, after a speaker has done his three minutes, board members can ask questions of that speaker if they wish. I saw it coming even before it started. The instant the bell chimed on Dr. Bernal’s address, creationist board member Terri Leo leapt out of the phone booth with her Supergirl costume on and hit the ground faster than a speeding bullet.

Her first agenda: discredit the recent survey, cited by Dr. Bernal, that showed 98% of biologists and science educators in Texas support evolution. “Who funded that study? Wasn’t that study funded by the Texas Freedom Network?” Dr. Bernal admitted it was, but stated calmly that whoever funded the study was beside the point. He actually got in a good comeback to Leo, noting that even the science teachers selected by the SBOE to review the science standards voted in the majority. But Leo wasn’t finished. “I always thought that taking polls wasn’t how you do science.” Well, of course not, and the poll wasn’t an exercise in doing science. The science is already done. The point of the poll was simply to get a show of hands among professionals in the relevant fields as to what theory is appropriate to teach in classrooms. But this is the kind of dishonest rhetoric that creationists will throw out there to get the pro-science side on the defensive.

The thing about Terri Leo is, she’s so dumb and sleazy that she cannot resist overplaying her hand. And she did it right away by using shameless creationist language while simultaneously denying any creationist agenda on her or the SBOE’s part. Note that Dr. Bernal only brought up religion in passing in his speech, pointing out that it’s a private family matter and not fit for science class. Leo leapt on this like a hungry tiger, railing that the phrase “strengths and weaknesses” was not religious language, and that the only people making a big deal about religion supposedly being shoehorned into science curricula are “militant Darwinists.”

I am not shitting you. She actually used that term, out loud, in front of a packed room, in her questioning of the very first speaker of the day.

I couldn’t stop myself. I laughed out loud, loud enough for her to hear. (“Hey…sorry, but…”) That was when I knew that the whole day was going to be a complete joke.

Dr. Bernal responded quite impressively by bringing up — and I’m so glad he was the first speaker, which is when it needed to be brought up — that the SBOE had themselves enlisted known anti-evolutionists affiliated with the Discovery Institute, who have not exactly been secretive about their own religious and creationist agendas, to be among those assigned to review science standards. Specifically he asked (to the delight of the crowd), “Why is someone from an institute in Seattle being asked to review Texas science education standards?”

And here we saw, for the first time, the depth of the SBOE’s egregious dishonesty they were going to display today. The presence of the DI’s Stephen Meyer, and creationist textbook writers Charles Garner and Ralph Seelke was brought up many time by many speakers, and no one on the board would defend or even address it. They simply were not going to justify their actions in this regard to the public, or at least, they didn’t in the hour I was there. If anyone reading this stayed through to the end, and he
ard anything from Dan McLeroy or Terri Leo about why these men, with their overt ID affiliations, were asked to review the Science TEKS standards for Texas, do let us all know in the comments.

Unlike 2003, when Terri Leo (working hand in hand with the Discotute) front-loaded that day’s speakers with creationists, I only heard one creationist speak today, some idiot who sleazily brought up the DI’s long-ridiculed “list of 700 dissenting scientists” as if it represented some kind of major controversy within science over Darwinian evolution. (As Ken Miller pointed out hilariously in his talk back in the spring at UT, this number represents barely a single-digit percentage of the total number of professionals in the relevant fields, and the list includes a number of names of non-biologists and similarly unqualified people who happen to have Ph.D.’s.) This guy then shamelessly rushed headlong into Godwin’s Law while the audience groaned, averring (after supposedly having watched Expelled too many times) that by refusing to allow ideas to be questioned in class, we were doomed to be heading down the same path those poor misguided Germans went down.

This inspired such derision from the crowd that Terri Leo — shocked, shocked at just how “rude” people were being in response to the entirely reasonable comparison that had just been drawn between themselves and Nazis — exhorted everyone to be more “respectful” of this poor man, who had taken valuable time out of his day to come down here to call everyone Nazis, and would the board please be more diligent about controlling such inconsiderate and shocking outbursts.

I can’t really put into words the atmosphere of disbelief that circulated around the room at this point. People were being calm, but among the audience and people waiting for their turn to speak (and I saw a very reassuring majority wearing “Stand Up for Science” stickers on their lapels), there was a definite vibe of “Just how much bullshit are we expected to endure?” Well, people, that’s what we all have to remember about creationists and religious ideologues: they are a Perpetual Motion Machine and Bullshit Factory all rolled into one, unleashing an unstoppable deluge of bovine feces that would even make Noah throw up his hands and say, “Fuck it, no ark is gonna save us from this one.”

Finally I come to Steven Shafersman, a man I admire and whose work in battling creationism over the years and fronting Texas Citizens for Science is unimpeachable. I had already made up my mind to disembark this ship of fools, but when I heard Shafersman’s name announced I stuck around, deciding he’d be the last guy I’d hear.

Shafersman did well, but unfortunately his talk left an opening for one of the creationist board members (a portly man whose name I didn’t catch, but who’s been identified by a commenter as Ken Mercer) to pounce on. See, Shafersman’s main point was that the reason it was inappropriate to have language like “evaluate strengths and weaknesses” in scholastic standards is that it requires activity on the part of the students they haven’t got the expertise for. Mercer tried to obfuscate this by making it seem as if Shafersman and the pro-science side didn’t even want students to be allowed to raise their hands and ask questions in class. This is emphatically not the case, of course, and Schafersman explained that, going on to say that in science, theories are critically evaluated in the field by working professionals, not by students hearing the theories for the first time and lacking the proper expertise and frame of reference to do a “critical evaluation” in the first place.

But Mercer kept hammering the false point repeatedly. What about errors and hoaxes in the past? What about Piltdown Man? What about Haeckel’s inaccurate embryo drawings, that were in textbooks for years? If people weren’t allowed to question these things, wouldn’t these errors and hoaxes have gone unexposed, and wouldn’t students be learning misinformation today? Why try to stifle the sort of open inquiry that led to these very necessary corrections?

Here is where Shafersman fumbled the ball, because there was such an easy and obvious response to this that it was all I could do to hold my tongue and not blurt it out as loudly as I could shout. I just wanted Shafersman to say one simple thing, and he never said it, because I think he was so flummoxed by the aggressiveness of Mercer’s questioning that he allowed himself to fall into the trap that had been set for him, forcing him to go on the defensive. (“Why, as a matter of fact I was one of the scientists instrumental in getting Haeckel’s drawings out of textbooks!” To which Mercer simply replied, “Right! So why then…”)

Here’s what I think Shafersman should have said in reply to Mercer:

“Sir, your examples support my point. The Piltdown Man hoax and Haeckel’s drawings were both shown to be false by working scientists, not students. It wasn’t as if some 14 year old in 9th grade biology class pointed to those drawings and said, ‘I don’t know, teacher, those just don’t look right to me.’ Because that student could not have done that. He would not have had the knowledge and expertise. And that is why requiring the analysis of ‘strengths and weaknesses’ is inappropriate language, as it requires students to do something they’re not equipped to do. Imagine a history class where you’re teaching about Alexander the Great. Then you say to your students, ‘Okay, kids, write a critical analysis of Alexander’s battle plans against the Thracians.’ How can they do this? They aren’t generals, they’re teenagers. They aren’t qualified. First, you have to teach them the facts. Then, later on, if they pursue this field as a vocation they may gain the expertise to critique ‘strengths and weaknesses.’ But for now, they just need facts. And that’s why we’re opposed to this language in the TEKS. Our opposition is not a synonym for stifling all academic inquiry or even simple questions, and to claim that it is is an extremely dishonest red herring.”

That’s how he should have shut Mercer down. And to his credit, he did make some of these points. But Shafersman was never as forceful as Mercer was. The best Shafersman could do, it seemed, was feebly try to regain control of the questioning with very weak-sounding responses (to the effect of “We don’t really need to go into the details of Haeckel right now…”, which embarrassingly sounds like an attempt at dodging the issue).

I simply could not handle any more. I bolted.

It was clear that the creationist contingent knew that the pro-science side was going to show up in force at these hearings, and they came loaded for bear with every bit of disingenuous rhetoric in their how-to-play-dirty playbook. You’ll recall in Kazim’s recent critique of the “rumble in Sydney,” in which Alan Conradi debated a minister, that Kazim made a very important point: ultimately, public debates are a matter of the performance, not the content. While these hearings were not a debate in the formal, forensic sense, they were an informal public “debate” not unlike that which goes on in The Atheist Experience and similar live venues, where topics are argued, often skillfully and often not, in an off-the-cuff manner with minimal prep.

The hearings today were that kind of thing, just an extremely farcicial parody of it. In one corner, a sincere collection of educators and science activists simply trying to ensure that the state’s educational standards aren’t diluted by trojan-horse language that, while non-inflammatory on its face, still leaves room for religious teaching to be slipped into classrooms by unscrupulous teachers (like, oh, John Freshwater); in the other, a board dominated by ideologues who aren’t the least bit interested in understanding the views presented to them (all the while hypocritically claiming to promote freedom of inquiry), and who made every effort to obfuscate, mi
srepresent, and lie about those views.

In other words, a joke. A complete and utter joke.

And they wonder why people say Texas is a laughingstock.

Two more observations before I sign off (and remember, this whole epic-length post was simply my report on viewing one hour of this rubbish today):

  1. I would have liked to have stuck around to hear the woman speak who showed up dressed (quite attractively) as if she’d stepped off the set of Little House on the Prairie. I imagine she was going to make some point about 19th century education being unsuited for a 21st century world, but there’s no way I could have endured more of Terri Leo and Ken Mercer’s verbal diarrhea while waiting. If any of you did hear her, tell us what she said, please.
  2. The pro-science side does seem to have one solid ally on the SBOE, in the person of Mary Helen Berlanga. Ms. Berlanga was very polite and thanked all of the pro-science speakers, including Steve Shafersman, for their hard work and efforts. But that just made me want to hear more from her. Why not be as aggressive with the questioning in the way Bradley and Leo were? Why not be the one to answer the repeated queries about why known ID-supporters and anti-evolutionists were allowed to review the Science TEKS this year?

Addendum: Made corrections once Ken Mercer was identified in the comments.