On the evening of February 23, Citizens for Origins Research and Education (CORE) held the first of three "Evidence Forums" in a small auditorium at the Ottawa Citizen building. Four of us from HAO/Ottawa Brights Meetup were in attendance, along with maybe 20 other people of unknown affiliation (though mostly likely from local churches where creationism is taken seriously – which fortunately is probably not all that many). Theo and I are old hands from talk.origins, and have been getting the CORE newsletter for about 15 years, so we knew more or less what to expect, but I think it was a bit of a surprise to our friends. The speakers were Jonathan Cucan and Rev. George Desjardins (the third presenter, Paul Milne had to cancel).
Even before the official proceedings got started, things got interesting. Cucan and Desjardins got up a bit of one-line repartee about things seemingly irrelevant to the evening's stated topic. “Global warming?” said one of them (I forget which one). Dismissed with a snicker -- yes it's happening, but it's not our fault. Apparently the sun has increased its output in the last few decades (something like that). Ditto, Antarctic ozone depletion -- caused (snicker) by bromine. Church-state separation? -- it's (snicker, guffaw) a myth. There was no expansion on any of these points; they were just sort of throw-away comments to warm up the audience. To me the experience was sort of like watching a comedy duo act in which only the performers seem to be getting the punchlines (but think themselves devastatingly humorous).
After an opening prayer, Rev. Desjardins started the presentation with a list of factoids about “fulfilled prophecy” and so forth – basically, Josh McDowell-type stuff. There was, however, one jaw-dropping moment worth mentioning: someone (an acquaintance of Cucan's from the RASC) who asked something about aliens. Desjardins replied that yes, he thought they existed, there was some possible Biblical mention of them – and they are our ancestors. *boggle*. We didn't really get into this point, but I'm guessing that Desjardins subscribes to some form of the ancient-civilizations-developed-high-technology-including-space-travel schtick. On this view, UFOs would be some of those antediluvians coming back for a visit from their colony on wherever. Fascinating how pseudo-scientists often manage to go in for several kinds of crackpottery, simultaneously.
Anyways, none of this was really what we came for, so Theo asked where the creationism was – which got Jonathan Cucan rolling. And rolling. Basically, Cucan has two modes of argumentation: Argumentum ad Sneer (described above), and Argumentum ad Steamroller. In the latter mode, you get about six words into your objection, and he interrupts to tell you how wrong you are, and continues at length.
So what we got was the old Gish Gallop (which was more or less what I expected, of course). Since the format was informal, various audience members (including us four heathens) were interjecting questions and responses at quasi-random intervals, so I'll just summarize a few of the points I recall or took notes of (I mostly gave up trying to take notes):
There are 100,000 scientists who reject evolution (though he later revised this to 10,000). No cite, of course. And how many of them are actually engineers or doctors, or whose credentials are otherwise unrelated to the job of figuring out earth history?
The Urey-Miller experiment “failed”. Not sure in what way, but this was followed by further claims about the impossibility of abiogenesis, as proven by certain “scientists” (read: the Institute for Creation Research). We got a spirited back-and-forth going about this, between Cucan and us. I objected that any kind of probability calculation was conditional on the model under consideration, therefore universal assertions on the subject are impossible. I further objected that simply saying “....therefore God did it by a miracle” is a non-explanation – no different from saying “It happened by magic”. At this point, Cucan interrupted me to re-assert: No, no: these scientists have proven that abiogenesis is impossible – missing the point of my objection.
Cucan mentioned several claims made by the ICR's RATE project as knock-down (with the obligatory sneer and a chuckle) proofs that “evolutionary scientists” have it all wrong and the evidence points to a young earth:
- Rock samples from modern lava flows at Mount St. Helens were potassium-argon dated to between 500 thousand and three million years old (the obvious implication being that K/Ar – and isotope dating in general -- doesn't work). This appears to be a reference to dacite rock from the MSH lava dome which they had analyzed by a commercial lab which provides such services. The short answer is that such dates are close to the lower limits of the K/Ar dating method (ie. where minor argon contamination can give a falsely old date), and it also appears that Steve Austin (the ICR geologist who did the work) did not prepare the samples correctly. See here for a detailed examination of this claim.
- Next he said something a bit confusing: that they asked the same laboratories (he specifically mentioned Harvard and Yale) to check for the presence of retained helium in the samples – the idea being that a young rock may contain helium, but a truly ancient rock will have lost all its helium by diffusion. As near as I can tell, he's managed to conflate two claims coming from his own side – the MSH dacite K/Ar work (above) with a separate claim about He retention in zircons from a site in New Mexico. About the latter, the short story again appears to be that both the mineralogy and the lab work were incompetent: helium diffusion rates vary widely according to conditions, and the method used to measure retained He was wrong.
- Next up we had “Diamonds are a creationist's best friend” ie. that measurable amounts of carbon-14 can be found in diamonds – which should not be the case if diamonds are millions of years old, as all the C-14 should have decayed away. This was discussed on talk.origins, and once again (no surprise!): the claimed C-14 “date” of 58000 years is close to the limits of the method, where contamination and background noise can skew the results.
The details of the above can get pretty technical (more than I understand, or have time to get up to speed on – though I doubt Cucan knows any more about it than I do), but the most charitable assessment I can give his claims is: they're simply not the knock-down killer of standard geology that Cucan likes to spout them as. (My non-charitable assessment is: they're complete crap from a bunch of ideologues whom Cucan considers infallible heroes).
Raymond Damadian, Martyr for Creationism: Damadian was one of the key developers of the MRI medical diagnostic technology, but was passed over for the 2003 Nobel Prize in medicine in favour of two other scientists who also worked in the field. Creationists like to claim that this was due to Damadian's young-earth beliefs – a clear example of persecution. In fact, there is to my knowledge no evidence that Damadian's beliefs influenced the Nobel committee (or that they were even aware of his beliefs); it is pure speculation. But creationists just love to play the persecution card. (There was extensive discussion of this on the talk.origins Usenet group at the time.)
The point of showing up for events like this, of course, is not that you'll convince the presenters, or any of the True Believers – that's pretty much an impossible task. But in the audience there are likely to be the novices and fence-sitters -- those who haven't yet drained the kool-aid right to the dregs. It's important to show these folks that, actually, the “evolutionists” have heard the creationist side, and have answers. The purveyors of nonsense shouldn't get a free ride with the public. After the meeting was over, but people were still hanging around, I got into a bit of a conversation with one gentleman from the audience about transitional fossils. I gave him the URL of the talk.origins FAQ, along with the names of several of the early whales for him to look up for himself.
Then I went to have a little chat with Cucan himself. A few snippets from this conversation,as I recall them:
Cucan claimed that scientists were coming round to creationism. When I stated that I didn't believe him, he replied with an anecdote about a personal acquaintance – a computer scientist – whom Cucan had given his creationist spiel, and the guy had converted and been baptized, hallelujah. I didn't get the chance to point out that computer science is not, strictly speaking, science, any more than engineering is: his friend's CS degree is not much different from my Master's degree in Systems and Computer Engineering, and neither credential is relevant to the age of the earth, or biological evolution. This claiming of peripheral professions as “scientists” in order to inflate the numbers is a standard part of creationist rhetoric.
Next he went off into some story about how trilobite eyes are just as complex as frog's eyes, which was supposed to prove...something – I would guess about how evolution is supposed to make things more complex over time. So I (a little tired of the torrent of verbiage) interrupted to tell him he didn't understand evolution – at which point he interrupted back to say that I didn't understand evolution! Oh boy. “Simple” seems to one the trigger words that will cause Cucan to immediately interrupt and steamroller you.
I pointed to the Bible lying on the table and said (more or less), Look, don't tell me that you lot are interested in evidence or truth, because your heroes at the ICR have made a commitment that any and all conclusions they come up with must be consistent with a literal interpretation of this book....(interruption) No, no Cucan replies, if you come up with something that contradicts the Bible then you re-examine your interpretation. Which is of course, rubbish: if these guys were actually listening to the evidence instead of bending it to fit their hermeneutics, they'd all be hanging out with Francis Collins in the Theistic Evolution camp. Consider for example, the case of Kurt Wise (one of the few YECs with legitimate credentials in earth science), who is on record as admitting that, even if all the evidence pointed to an old earth, he would remain a YEC for theological reasons. Or read any of the prominent YEC websites (or the most recent CORE newsletter) calling for uncompromising allegiance to a strict YECism, and criticizing the old-earth interpretations like “Day-Age” as compromising with the Great Satan of evolutionism (you have to understand that “compromise” is a very dirty word to fundamentalists). So I just flatly don't believe Cucan's claim – it is obvious to anyone who spends any time interacting with YECs (or indeed, any other variety of creationist) that with them, ideology trumps evidence.
One of the other organizers, a young minister whose name I don't recall, chimed in with the old canard about evolution being invented as an excuse to ignore human accountability to God. I came down hard and fast on him, to the effect that the statement is a calumny which I would not allow to stand. Cucan stepped in fairly quickly with some conciliatory words to the effect that you can't apply that to individuals – though it's clear he still believes the statement as an historical generality. This is one of my hot-buttons: there are certain common creationist ad hominems (Nazi comparisons and Darwin-was-a-racist being the other ones which come to mind) which are so false, vile and slanderous that they should never be allowed to go unchallenged. Never ever. Zero tolerance.
There was another one of these things in March, which we missed, but we're planning to show up for the final one on April 20.