Frauds through and through

Perhaps you’ve heard of these absurd creationist challenges: Kent Hovind challenge of $250,000 for scientific evidence of evolution; Joseph Mastropaolo’s challenge of $10,000 to “prove evolution”; Ray Comfort’s challenge of $10,000 to show him a transitional fossil. They all sound like easy money, but don’t try: they’ve loaded the dice in every case.

Dana Hunter gives a 19th century example I did not know about before. Alfred Russel Wallace accepted a bet to show the curvature of the earth by a flat-earther, and he did it, too, with a simple and clever observation. You’d think he’d be wallowing in the cash — £500 — that he’d won, but you don’t know denialists. They never change.

The flat-earther, John Hampden, did not accept the results. Surprise.

They were at an impasse. At first, Hampden refused an umpire to decide between the referees. Eventually, he agreed to have Walsh review the results, and both sides sent in sketches and reports. Walsh weighed the evidence, decided it did indeed prove the earth was spherical, and published both materials and his conclusion in the Field.

Hampden threw a fit. Carpenter wrote “a long argument to show that the experiments were all in Mr. Hampden’s favour.” This diatribe didn’t sway Walsh. He declared Wallace the positive winner, and, despite Hampden demanding his money back, gave the winnings to Wallace.

Unfortunately, British law didn’t protect gentlemen’s interests when it came to bets, even if the wager was strictly along scientific lines, and would eventually force Wallace to give the money back. Of course, by then, that amount was offset by the judgements entered in Wallace’s favor against Hampden, who had embarked on an extraordinary 15-year campaign of abuse and libel that landed him in both jail and court several times. He sent vitriolic letters to everyone he could think of, including Wallace’s wife:

“Mrs. Wallace,—Madam, if your infernal thief of a husband is brought home some day on a hurdle, with every bone in his head smashed to pulp, you will know the reason. Do you tell him from me he is a lying infernal thief, and as sure as his name is Wallace he never dies in his bed.

“You must be a miserable wretch to be obliged to live with a convicted felon. Do not think or let him think I have done with him.

“John Hampden.”

Eventually all the costs and hassle were worth more than what Wallace had won.

So let that be a lesson to you. Don’t bother taking these ‘challenges’ by creationists, they’ll never pay up, and they’ll just make you miserable. And also, there were internet trolls before there was an internet.


  1. Markita Lynda—threadrupt says

    You can’t change the mind of an authoritarian very easily. I did not know about this part of Russell’s life. The poor family!

    We’ve seen these patterns again and again throughout history. In fact, ‘gamergate’, while lacking secular power, echoes what was done to Joan of Arc: the accusations, double bind, and Catch-22. She had been wearing men’s clothes with extra belts to protect herself against rape by the British soldiers where she was imprisoned — in itself unusual because women were usually handed over to nuns for safe confinement. She was accused of witchcraft. When that didn’t fly, she was accused blasphemy for wearing men’s clothes, contrary to God’s rules for men and women. Talk about gender policing! To escape punishment, she promised not to wear them any more, putting her in danger from the soldiers. Finally, all her clothes were removed except her old men’s clothes. When she put them on, she was arrested and charged with repeated blasphemy, a capital offence. Then she was tried and sentenced to death. See Joan of Arc was condemned on a technicality. You can’t win with those people.

  2. pflynn says

    One thing is for certain, neither the tactics of the religious nor of science have changed in hundreds of years. What has changed, however, is the fact that science continues to gain and religion continues to recede. It is a slow process, but it is happening.

  3. gupwalla says

    Wallace died in his home at age 90. Cause of death was Being Ninety.

    I don’t know for certain whether he was in his bed or not.

  4. says

    I wonder if Hampden was a sovereign citizen? Maybe he should have declared that his money belonged to God and therefore Wallace could have no claim on it.

  5. Sastra says

    I remember reading about this somewhere (probably Martin Gardiner, it’s the kind of thing he’d write about.)

    The value of accepting this particular challenge was that it was done in what we today consider the early days of modern science. It therefore demonstrated before a new and large lay audience not just how science works — but how cranks work. It was thus an important milestone in skepticism.

    But poor Wallace.

  6. Azkyroth Drinked the Grammar Too :) says

    You can’t change the mind of an authoritarian very easily.

    Mostly on account of they effectively don’t have one.

  7. harmanizer says

    In the preface to his 1875 book, On Miracles and Modern Spiritualism, Wallace writes that his personal experience with spiritualist phenomena had led him to entertain the hypothesis that spirits had played a role in helping evolution along.

    “Having, as above indicated, been led, by a strict induction from facts, to a belief—1stly, In the existence of a number of preterhuman intelligences of various grades; and, 2ndly, That some of these intelligences, although usually invisible and intangible to us, can and do act on matter, and do influence our minds,—I am surely following a strictly logical and scientific course, in seeing how far this doctrine will enable us to account for some of those residual phenomena which Natural Selection alone will not explain. In the 10th chapter of my Contributions to the Theory of Natural Selection I have pointed out what I consider to be some of these residual phenomena; and I have suggested that they may be due to the action of some of the various intelligences above referred to. This view was, however, put forward with hesitation, and I myself suggested difficulties in the way of its acceptance; but I maintained, and still maintain, that it is one which is logically tenable, and is in no way inconsistent with a thorough acceptance of the grand doctrine of Evolution, through Natural Selection, although implying (as indeed many of the chief supporters of that doctrine admit) that it is not the all-powerful, all-sufficient, and only cause of the development of organic forms.”

  8. Ichthyic says

    —I am surely following a strictly logical and scientific course, in seeing how far this doctrine will enable us to account for some of those residual phenomena which Natural Selection alone will not explain.

    except, like Darwin, he too did not know the mechanism of inheritance of traits.

    OTOH, I actually HAVE used this to counter presupps who claim that science automatically rejects the supernatural from consideration.

    nothing that is testable, is rejected apriori. Wallace as case on point, for both the idea that nothing is rejected apriori, and ALSO for the realization that if it’s not testable, it ain’t science.

    past that, I echo Johnmarley in wondering what point you plan to raise with this missive.

    if you’re going the “Newton wasn’t a scientist because he spent a lot of time dabbling in alchemy” route, then you don’t understand what science is, and you probably should not even bother.