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Wednesday 12 July 2006

Creation vs Evolution [DrDave]

If you have a spare couple of hours, you might find this video interesting.
It's a reasonably light hearted debate between Dr. Mike Shermer (chief Editor of Skeptic magazine) and Kent Hovind, a young earth creationist of some reknown. Hovind is something of a bum, he claims to have a doctorate and insists on calling himself Dr., but his qualification is from an uncredited university that won't release his thesis for review. He also believes that dinosaurs walked the earth at the same time as man, that the grand canyon was carved in a matter of days and that the earth is 6000 years. He's a nutcase basically.
So the debate should be fairly cut and dried. In theory, anyone with even a basic grasp of scientific method or a broad knowledge of recent discoveries should be able to give this fruitloop a run for his money. But this is not how the debate plays out.
For a start, the whole event stinks of a set up. It takes place at a University, but the audience is massively weighted towards the creationist side rather than the evolutionist side. Mike Shermer's jokes and observations are met with a sometimes embarrassing silence, while Hovind's put downs and factual inaccuracies are greeted with Oprah-style whooping and hollering.
Secondly, Hovind is by far and away the better orator of the two. He comes across as friendly and likeable, not remotely raving or threatening as you might expect. He has slides and pictures to illustrate every point that he makes or respond to. He's clearly done this before. Shermer, on the other hand, while pretty good for a scientist type, comes across somewhat less convincing. He seems unprepared and a little flustered by the whole thing.
Worst of all, he fails to capitalise fully on the errors and inaccuracies Hovind makes. Hovind makes a number of claims that are just plain demonstrably false - that the eye can't work without all of its constituent parts, that stars evolve by natural selection, that speciation involves dogs suddenly giving birth to other types of animal, that thermodynamics don't allow order to form in a closed system when energy is input. All classic creationist errors that betray a basic lack of understanding of the subject. Unfortunately, Shermer does little to correct Hovind's mistakes - possibly because of the sheer number of them - but also, I believe, because he doesn't have a broad enough scientific knowledge himself.
At one point Shermer is asked to provide the best evidence science has that the Big Bang happened. Ignoring the fact that this question is not even remotely relevent to an evolution debate, it should nevertheless be quite simple to field this. We have lots of evidence, very good evidence, that the universe expanded from a single point - the recession of stars and galaxies, cosmological red shift, the microwave background. Instead, Shermer fluffs it and gives some half arsed answer about the early universe resembling an explosion. Ouch.
So we have a problem. Evolution is a theory in name only. It happens, it is true. It is as close to fact as we can possibly get. Unfortunately, while we have facts and good science on our side, the creationists have the power of good presentation - evangelists who can stir up a crowd with religious ferver and actually put on a show rather than a lecture.
Sadly, this is why they're winning.


  1. I share your pain at having to watch some horrid set up such as that but I take exception to the conclusion: that creationists are winning. They aren't. Yes 40% of the United States are badly educated religious nut-jobs but that's the US. We know they're fucked up, why worry so much about it?
    In Europe secularism continues to rise and people are deserting the churches in droves. There is no debate in Europe about teaching intelligent design because everyone knows there's nothing to teach. Get your science in school, get your religious whack job crap from your parents if you must.
    The only threat we have in Europe is religious schools which, in my opinion, shouldn't be allowed. There's movement on that front too.
    So evolution and intelligent thought might be losing in the US, but we're winning in Europe. We can be thankful that it's not the reverse.

  2. No, you're probably right. My comment was more related to the US side of the atlantic than the european side. Over there, there can be no doubt that the rise of the religious right is gathering pace. It staggers me that debates like this can even take place in this day and age. I guess religion is just something we can't let go of.

  3. It is a fair bit scary but here's a few things on this sort of debate which make me calm down a little bit (but not a lot)
    It is the conceit of every time, recorded from time immemorial, that scientific and philosophical views of the contemporary era believe that, pretty much, the full extent of possible human knowledge has been met. One of the nice things about this era is that some of the practitioners will happily admit there's no such thing and no chance that what they are saying is any more than an important contributor on the road to a possible "final" understanding.
    Looking at the presence and influence of religious idiocy over history, it is sadly fundamental and ever present. We've been in an atypical lull about that in the western world as much as it has been somewhat ever-present like in this instance. To a certain extent you might consider that the huge secular earthquakes of WW1 and WW2 caused the de-religionalisation of parts of Western culture which happened to coincide as a cause to the latent feeling that was already pretty well established with the middle class and intelligensia of those times. In other words, the hideousness of what had happened allowed them, just like all people do on a smaller scale tragedy, to question if there really was a god and to dismiss the idea in public given the huge tragedies of those events. IMHO it's pretty obviously no co-incidence that the totalitarianist states of the USSR, WW2 Germany and China oppressed the shit out of religions because, of course, they saw the danger they presented to counter the status quo of those states.
    But on the grand scale of history that lack of observance is very very atypical. So now the USA's fundamentalism comes to the fore again. It's not something really so weird - the world has always had significant portions of it - historically our european western democracies have just seen an atypical period of non-observance compared to "normal" human culture.
    Let me be quite clear. This drives me FUCKING NUTS that our period is the "oddity" and the other is the norm. If you believe in religion good for you. It is a matter of faith (we've done the other blogs on this) it is NOT logical and requires the leap of faith. A leap of faith is one thing. An adherence to a local religion that, either in text or through teaching, expresses in your mind a mandate to follow literalism and not science or discrimination and violence to certain peoples denigrates your intelligence as a human being. It shows a lack of understanding of the enormity of creation and the staggering complexity of matter from infinitessimally small sub atomic particles, through to atoms, to molecules, to the substance of your body, the concept of your mind and personality, the people you interact with and then accelerating away from you in the same staggering proportions of scale that apply at the sub-atomic level in your body through to the unbelievable dimensions of the universe your insignifcant point of existence.
    Descartes said "I think therefore I am"De Sade said "Do what you will shall be the whole of the law"
    Somewhere in between there is where morality sits. The debate of science versus creationism is somewhere in between reason and the total abrogation of reasoned thought. Everyone has a concept of morality whether they observe it to societal norms or not. That millions of people can't see their responsibilities as human beings to exercise logical thought on this subject is, as far as I'm concerned, one of your leading indicators of the paucity of the human race as we've got it.
    If you need me I'll be thumbing the sub-ether for a lift.....

  4. I think you're reading a bit too much into it. You seem to be implying that a religious nut-job sits down one day and says, this thinking stuff - down with that sort of thing! It's actually just a sort of laziness. You know this is a favorite subject of mine that keeps coming up, the fact that the human mind isn't a computer it's a problem solving device which already knows what it wants to achieve, it's not out for logical discovery by a logical process.
    The whole God thing is a good story, be nice if it was true. The alternative is hard work, basically coming to grips with science which requires years of study. Therefore you just ignore it and say God made it all. The mistake we make is in thinking that you can then sit down and convince someone in a step by step 1 + 1 = 2 type reduction of logic, that they're wrong and you are right. When you are right and, by any measure you care to examine, you can prove your right.
    It doesn't work like that. Like most arguments with illogical people, they aren't sitting there listening to you talk. There is no pathway in the brain open to being persuaded. At no stage are they going to say, "that's a good point, I hadn't thought of that.". It is not a possible outcome because their brain is sat there trying to win an argument. All it is doing is waiting until you've finished speaking, picking out some words along the way to stitch into a counter-argument.
    The human mind itself isn't logical and intelligent as we, most readers here, would know it. It actually has to be trained and it requires dicipline. Much of the world's population is ill equipped here, either through education or due to laziness. When you engage in a debate with someone like that, you may as well be trying to talk a hungry child out of it's desire for food. Because that's where they're at in terms of mental evolution. Course they don't believe in evolution either but there you go.

  5. And if you need any further cause for concern that this voodoo rubbish isn't going to go away any time soon, then read this: Rise Of Creationism In UK Schools.
    The thing is, to the untrained eye reading that article, it all looks eminently sensible. What are they asking for really? Nothing more than a simple questioning of a scientific theory. Isn't this after all what science is all about? Take a look at the organisation's website and it reveals a well laid out, friendly looking science page with happy looking kids revelling in the joy of discovery. Nothing sinister about that! So what's the problem?
    Well, take a look at the FAQ page on the site linked above. It presents statements like:
    Yes, a significant minority of qualified scientists do not believe that Darwinian evolution can explain the origin of the diversity of life we see around us. For example, over 600 scientists with PhDs have signed a public statement: "We are skeptical of claims for the ability of random mutation and natural selection to account for the complexity of life. Careful examination of the evidence for Darwinian theory should be encouraged.”
    This is fair enough, but it paints a picture that is somewhat different than reality. All this list of 600 PhDs proves is that there are at least 600 bad scientists out there.
    This whole movement's motive, and the wider aims of Intelligent Design proponents, is to sneak religion in the back door. Get kids thinking that Darwin's theory of natural selection is just one hypothesis amongst many equally valid hypotheses. Create the illusion that the biological sciences are divided. You don't even need to mention God, just weaken Darwinism sufficiently. Then you introduce the idea that evolution is the flipside of the design coin. Make it seems as though rejecting evolution is akin to accepting ID. When you've got the kids conducive to design, then you introduce speculation about what the Designer might be.
    It is called the "wedge" strategy, or "teach the controversy". And it is remarkably successful. But it is utterly, wilfully wrong. There is no controversy. At least not in biological sciences. If a similar PhD list were to be produced by scientists supporting Darwinism, you would have at least a hundred times as many signatures. Is 1% a "significant minority" that would warrant teaching this stuff in science lessons?
    Don't get me wrong, we should definitely question Darwinism, as we should all scientific theories. Indeed, Natural Selection has been questioned rigorously for 150 years, and has passed an overwhelming majority of the questions asked of it. There are still divisions within the field, of course there are - if you want to teach the controversy, teach about Gradualists vs Punctuationists, Dawkins vs Gould. Teach a real controversy.
    Ultimately, Creationism, or Intelligent Design, has its place in science lessons. It should be part of a single one hour lesson called "How Not To Do Science". It should be presented along side cold fusion and the Korean stem cell fraud as an attempt to teach kids that this is exactly how they should not do science. It should not be presented as a valid alternative to one of the most supported, researched theories that science has and it is an educational disgrace that our government allows schools to teach this rubbish.

  6. And so it continues. It seems that the government has paved the way for the teaching of Intelligent Design in UK primary schools. Weirdly though, this only says that ID can be taught in religious education classes, not science lessons - so it probably isn't that worrying, though it is a foothold.
    Naturally, ID proponents have jumped on this as a stunning victory. I have to wonder what why they're so happy, after all, didn't they spend most of Kitzmiller vs. Dover arguing that ID wasn't religion?
    By far the most amusing thing about this whole thing is the following quote from Canon Jeremy Davies, Precentor of Salisbury cathedral:

    “I don’t see why religious education should be a dumping ground for fantasies. If it is claimed that this is a scientific theory, why isn’t it explored in science classes? Its validity or otherwise should be tested against the usual criteria.”

    So, science doesn't want it; religion doesn't want it, who the hell wants ID?