Monday, April 2, 2007

Creationist Forum -- Eamon's View

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, 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, 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 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 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.

My impression of Jonathan Cucan is that he seems to think the ICR is a source of infallible truth, and he just doesn't take seriously anyone who disagrees with the general YEC line – he “knows” he is right. OK, we're even there: I don't take him and his heroes seriously either – the difference being that I've spent about 16 years listening at some length to the creationist side (as well as learning a whole lot about evolution) AND I used to be a fundamentalist (so the culture is familiar to me), whereas he seems oblivious to the fact that there are cogent, devastating refutations of YEC arguments – and has no idea how to handle people who know what they're talking about. Hence, the steamroller tactic.

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.


Anonymous said...

I used to be a fundamentalist

Interesting. What's it like? I always wondered if these people sense at all when they're being dishonest. When fundies produce transparent and silly lies about something, do they feel the same things as normal people feel when lying? Are they just better at hiding shame?

John Pieret said...

Fascinating how pseudo-scientists often manage to go in for several kinds of crackpottery, simultaneously.

It is the attitude towards evidence, I think. The common link is the attitude that: anything that I would like to be true is confirmed completely if a single "fact" exists that can, in one way or another, be interpreted to support it; sonething that I don't want to be true is false, no matter how many facts support it, as long as I can find a single "fact" that can, in one way or another, be interpreted to refute it.

Or, another way to explain is by way of Morton's Demon, where the Demon, once he gets on a roll, starts to work on things other than religion.

Eamon Knight said...

Anonymous responds to me:
Interesting. What's it like [to be a fundamentalist]?

Gosh, it was 20+ years ago, and I probably wasn't a "typical" fundy (in that relatively few argue themselves out of it), and that's a pretty broad question (though I guess the rest of your comment narrows down the domain of interest).

I always wondered if these people sense at all when they're being dishonest. When fundies produce transparent and silly lies about something, do they feel the same things as normal people feel when lying? Are they just better at hiding shame?

I think that very few people, in any movement, are conciously lying -- certainly not among the rank and file, and not that much even among the leadership. We humans have an enormous capacity for rationalization; to assign weight to the kinds of evidence and reasoning that support what we find convenient. And what we find convenient is frequently what we already believe and/or the common opinions of our community. It is a lesson worth keeping in mind, even (read: especially) by those of us who consider ourselves skeptics.

So I think that at all times, I had arguments that I found subjectively convincing (while being aware that there were arguments to be made against them, too). Mind you, I regularly see arguments that even I would have found embarassing, back in the day.

Anonymous said...

Re the diamonds, here's a relevant letter from someone who actually tries to measure C14 in diamonds for his job. From NMSR's Humphreys Page:

Humphreys also discussed how he and his fellow creation scientists have been finding radiocarbon in diamonds, regarded as far too old (billions of years) to have any amount of fast-decaying radiocarbon left in them. In this regard, I had contacted Dr. R. E. Taylor, of the Department of Anthropology at University of California, Riverside, and the Keck Laboratory for Accelerator Mass Spectrometry at University of California, Irvine. Taylor is a serious radiometrics scientist. Like Humphreys, he also looks for radiocarbon in diamonds, but Taylor does so as a way to monitor instrument background and noise. Diamonds are so old, they shouldn't have any residual radiocarbon (C14 decays with a half-life of under 6,000 years), and indeed, they don't. So diamonds are as close to a carbon-containing C14 "blank" as scientifically possible.

The abstract that got me talking to Taylor is called "Use of Natural Diamonds to Monitor Radiocarbon AMS Instrument Backgrounds." I contacted Dr. Taylor late last year, and inquired about the creationist group's misuse of radiocarbon methods.

On October 18th, 2005, Dr. Taylor replied (with his permission to cite) that

My take on their problem is that they [RATE creationists] apparently have little or no understanding of operational details involved in AMS technology and the nature of how ion sources and AMS spectrometers work since, as far as I know, none of these people have any direct research experience in this field. They are thus not aware of the many potential sources of trace amounts of radiocarbon in the blanks and how a detector can register the presence of a few mass 14 events that are not radiocarbon.

Regards, Ervin Taylor

When creationists crow about radiocarbon in diamonds proving that the diamonds are only thousands of years old, you can remind them that they're just measuring noise in an atomic mass spectrometer!

Eamon Knight said...


Thanks for the background (pun!) re diamonds & C14. I must say, Humphreys seems a most versatile fellow. One week, he's re-writing relativistic cosmology to solve the star-light problem. The next week, he picks up a few rocks and overturns the entire field of geochronology. Either he's the most brilliant and talented physicist ever to walk the earth, or.......

Mike Haubrich, FCD said...

What's your take on the idea that by engaging in these forums you are granting a modicum of legitimacy to these Creationists? Is it just not as much a hazard in Canada as it is in the United States?

It seems to me that you could argue back and forth with Creationists on this and still not get past their "I can't hear you! I can't hear you! I know you are wrong so I can't hear you!"

Eamon Knight said...

What's your take on the idea that by engaging in these forums you are granting a modicum of legitimacy to these Creationists?
I think it's a legitimate concern, but it depends on the details of the venue. The context in which I've usually heard that argument expressed is that of a staged debate between a Creationist and a professional scientist or prominent skeptic (eg. Shermer). The event derives some prestige from that of the evolutionist debater (who of course gets Gish-Galloped in front of a crowd largely friendly to his opponent, and once again creationist David is seen to slay the evolutionist Goliath).

This was a different case in that none of us present had any scientific prestige to lend out in the first place ;-). I doubt they derived any "legitimacy" from us, and some of the post-meeting interaction with the other audience members suggests to me that we did manage to obstruct the strict-YEC message to some extent (which is about all you can hope for in an evening's interaction).

James said...

I used to be a fundy too. I still have problems reading fstdt - about 1/3 of the time, I don't realise immediately what's meant to be 'darndest' about one particular quote or another, until I remember that the world at large considers that Catholics *are* Christians, or some other detail like that.

I agree with you, Eamon - very few, if any, of these people are conciously lying. Some of them may be aware that the scientific evidence is stacked against them - but there are plenty of good reasons to not think that that's important. Well, good reasons for a believer, anyway.

This is one reason why I find PZ so frustrating sometimes: he genuinely doesn't understand the way the people he's lambasting think. He constantly accuses people like Egnor of lying, simply because he can't comprehend the way Egnor is thinking.

I grew up as a YECcer (my mum met Ken Ham as a young adult, and we subscribed to Creation Ex Nihilo for.. well, I think my grandparents still do). I've broken out of those thought-patterns, but I can still see where the thoughts of people like Egnor are going - round and round in circles, starting and ending from the 'fact' that the Bible is infallible. PZ, by contrast, has a totally different way of thinking, and seems to assume that everyone thinks the way he does, and anyone who claims otherwise is lying..

I'm going away now before this rant gets rantier.

James said...

Oh, and regarding the "many kinds of crack-pottery" - have you noticed how many of them fall for more 'scientific' crackpottery? One example - engines that run on water and are being repressed by the big oil corporations, that could run forever on a single cup of water...

I've also noticed (although perhaps it's just something that happens in the region where I grew up) that MLM schemes tend to appeal to the same kind of people. I think John got it right: it's the attitude toward evidence, the willingness to seize on the smallest bit of evidence that can be twisted to support what one wants, while ignoring all the rest of the evidence as being irrelevant.