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.

Patriotic irony

A few recent commenters asked what we thought about our idiot governor deciding that it’s okay to threaten to remove our state from the United States.

In case the adjective immediately preceding “governor” didn’t clue you in, let me elaborate. I may not speak for everyone here, but I think it’s ridiculously ironic. For most of the last administration, atheists, war dissidents, and other groups to which I do or don’t belong, have been casually tarred with epithets like “unAmerican” and “traitors” for criticizing a political administration, organizing protests, and mocking the president.

Yet now what have we got? We’ve had a new president for all of four months, and an extremely high profile Republican threatens an obviously, literally treasonous act, and tries to incite a do-over for the Civil War.

Ron Paul also also weighed in with his own inane contribution. Paul says:

“Well, they don’t know their history very well, because if they think about it… it is very American to talk about secession. That’s how we came in being. Thirteen colonies seceded from the British and established a new country. So secession is a very much American principle.”

Um, yeah. You know what? When America “seceded” from their status as a colony, it was because they hated Great Britain. In starting a revolution, they were most definitely committing treason against that country. They were traitors to Great Britain.

That’s not to say that I disagree with their actions, that’s just a fact. They made a political calculation that they could spit in the eye of their political leaders and win, and they did win.

But come on, let’s call a spade a spade. When a small minority of my state’s leadership declares that they want to leave America, they are actually, explicitly saying that they hate America, and they would like to commit treason against this country, in exactly the same manner as the founding fathers committed treason against King George.

And hey, if that’s what floats your boat, go ahead and hate America. Unlike some pundits, I’m not calling for anybody’s execution. I’m just saying, FUCK all of you people who ever accused some group or another of hating America and are now calling for a revolution against my country. Hypocrites.

Anyway, the governor of Texas doesn’t even have the authority to make us leave. The governor doesn’t have unilateral powers to decide what the state will do. So when the legislature starts passing stuff other than finger-wagging, then we’ll worry.

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.

Science fiction story

I’m sure this is not terribly original, but here’s my story.

One day, spaceships appear in the sky.  Appearing on every television screen, radio, and pool of water, the ships broadcast the following message to everyone:

“Greetings, citizens of Earth! We are a race of life forms so vastly superior to you that our ways cannot be understood by your puny human brains. We also possess knowledge of morality that is advanced far beyond your own understanding and cannot be refuted by any of your Earth philosophers.

“According to our high moral standards, which we cannot explain to you, you all deserve to die the most painful deaths imaginable.  We shall now execute this sentence. Your insides will be melted, and your eyes will explode in their sockets. Your children and spousal units will be vaporized before your eyes. Your planet will then be incinerated.

“However, our laws also require mercy, and therefore you will have one chance to save your own miserable lives. If you become our slaves and do as we say from now on, you will be transported to another planet and allowed to survive. However, your unrepentant family members will still remain behind and be destroyed.”

I don’t know about you, but I’ve seen this movie many times. It involves the entire human race justifiably uniting to fight off the alien menace. Depending on what kind of movie it is, either we’re victorious or everybody dies for nothing.

Now the question I have is: How is this scenario any less outrageous if you rename the alien beings “God”?

Kirk Cameron to Host Atheist Experience

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

In a press conference today, Matt Dillahunty, host of The Atheist Experience, announced that he would retire and hand over the reigns to film actor, long-time atheist, and master comedian Kirk Cameron.

The 38 year old Cameron is a former child actor who starred in the hit comedy series Growing Pains, before going on to perform in popular Christian apologetics movies including Left Behind and Fireproof. “I’m thrilled and honored to be joining the cast of the prestigious Atheist Experience,” Cameron told reporters today. “This apologetics thing has been a great joke to pull, but I think it’s time for me to move on to a new challenge worthy of my stagecraft.”

Cameron staged a fake conversion to Christianity in 1987, at the height of popularity for Growing Pains. He went on to deliberately alienate many of his friends and coworkers by loudly complaining about the “immorality” and “pornography” on the family sitcom.

“I’m a lifelong fan of Andy Kaufman,” explained Cameron. “Even after a few years had passed, the world was still abuzz with stories about Andy’s death.  The guy had terminal cancer, and still everyone believed that he faked it. I mean, his practical jokes were legendary — the myth has long outlived the man. Once I grew out of my ‘cute kid’ stage, I knew that my acting career was in danger of stalling out. That’s when I decided that the best way to jump start it would be to take on the role of a lifetime. I had to convince the world that my whole personality had changed.”

Cameron went on to ingratiate himself with unsuspecting Christian filmmakers, conniving his way into several promising film projects and ultimately ruining them. “This was my gift to atheism,” said Cameron. “I’m just relieved that I can finally say what I really think on The Atheist Experience, and stop playing a double role.”

Some of Cameron’s dupes took news of the prank in good humor. “Now there’s an actor,” gushed Left Behind director Vic Sarin. “Everybody else seemed to recognize that the script we were working with was complete crap. But Kirk approached the project with such apparently sincere excitement that we kind of felt bad… we were all just collecting a paycheck. Now I understand that his awful hack performance was all part of a grand meta-theater project of his own devising. What an artist!”

Not everyone took the news kindly, however. New Zealand evangelist Ray Comfort, 59, was shocked by Cameron’s revelation. “I’m simply stunned by this turn of events,” Comfort told reporters despondently outside his home in Bellflower, California. “My goodness gracious, I’ve known the bloke since 2001. The crocoduck was his idea when we debated the Rational Response Squad. We bloody well worked on every episode of Way of the Master together. To receive news like this out of nowhere? I mean… crikey.”

When told of Comfort’s distress, Cameron was nonchalant. “Yeah, you kind of have to feel sorry for the guy… but come on, fooling Ray was not exactly the feat of the century. I mean, he fell for Christianity.”

Cameron then added: “God damn it, where’s the nearest bar? I haven’t been laid properly in 22 years. I can’t believe I passed up on that Julie McCullough chick for the sake of a joke. Now she was one fine piece of ass.

“What can I say? I’m dedicated to my craft.”

Survey research project

Reader Robert Eldredge sent me a request, and I’ve decided to post it here on the blog since I didn’t get around to mentioning it on the Non-Prophets this weekend:

I am in a research methods class for my graduate school program. Listening to several years of the atheist experience and non-prophets spawned my interest in my research topic: How does the threat or presence of hell effect the relationships and lives between religious and nonreligious people. Because we have no funding I will not actually be doing a full on research study, but merely, an in depth proposal. However, because little to no research has been done on my specific topic (that I have been able to find anyway) I will be doing a little pilot study, one directed at religious people, and one directed at atheists. It would be extremely helpful if you could mention this survey on the air, and/or put it up on the atheist experience blog. While all atheists who want are encouraged to answer, I am specifically looking for those that have religious family members or loved ones. I will be asking about their experiences coming out to those people, or, if they have not, why not. As this is a pilot study and I have nothing to offer the participants but my gratitude, I have worked real hard to keep the survey as short as I possibly can, and I think most will be able to complete it in about 10 to 20 minutes. I will be posting the results of the survey sometime in May at my blog importantandsmart.blogspot.com, or people who are interested can go to a website I set up specifically to publish results of the survey: religionpilotstudy.blogspot.com (I did this so I could direct fundie Christians to a website without the rantings of a liberal atheist). The survey is currently open, but will close Saturday April 4th at 11:45pm eastern time. This should give me about 3 weeks to study the results and put together my proposal to be graded for class.

My end goal is that hopefully more research (hopefully it will be me doing the research!) will be done on this topic. People have differences of opinion on religion, but hopefully, if we understand the emotions and attitudes that go along with the differing opinions, how people react when such things come up, and the reasons for conflict, strategies can be developed in dealing with these situations so that these issues need not tear loving families apart, and suffering over these issues can be minimized.

Go help out with the survey if you feel like it.