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“Was Darwin Wrong?” “debate”, posted by CJ Ovalle

My wife, some friends and I recently attended the “Was Darwin Wrong?” debate at UT, hosted by various groups and argued by the creationist group Reasons to Believe and famous skeptic Michael Shermer. It was disappointing.

Reasons to Believe gets points for style, and that’s pretty much it. The content of their presentation was ludicrous. Their claims and arguments were incredibly poor. Their arguments are basically akin to this: Everyone agrees there’s a designer. The Christian religion is the right religion. The bible predicted all of our scientific studies. All scientific discoveries back up the bible. The universe is too fine-tuned to be chance.

And they went about making these claims in a way that was both illogical and insulting.

So, where to start?
1) They redefined science, modeling, falsifiability, and the god of the gaps fallacy to mean completely different things than the rest of the world believes. That way, what they do qualifies as “science.” It’s not.
2) Quote-mining. Wow. I was astonished. They quote-mined in two ways. First, they took lines completely out of context to argue something that the original authors did not intend at all. They were incredibly intellectually dishonest. Second, they quote-mined phrases from the bible to support their argument… but poorly.
3) After the fact verification. Shermer called them on this, calling it “postdiction.” Essentially, they go to the bible and try to make words in the bible fit science… but poorly. And this was essentially their “scientific” mechanism. They take legitimate scientific discoveries and then attempt to demonstrate that those scientific discoveries were predicted by the bible. Once those discoveries have already been made. Very bible code.
4) Making up criteria. “Oh, these criteria are what would make a religion really scientifically valid. Oh, and the Christian religion happens to be the one that fits these criteria.” They made this argument a few times.
5) Misuse of big numbers. Generally, they threw out a bunch of numbers that were supposed to be related to probability. First, they didn’t provide any kinds of sources for these numbers. I had no idea where those numbers in their presentation came from. Worse, their use is a classic misuse of statistics to attempt to create a compelling argument. 10 to 500th power doesn’t necessarily mean anything with a near-infinite population size.
6) Claiming that legitimate scientific discoveries make their argument better. One of their claims was that the bible predicts relativity, so any discoveries that strengthened the theory of relativity strengthened their argument. This is silly for a few reasons, the most obvious of which is that their initial assumption is highly questionable. A similar claim was that dead-end evolutionary trees prove that humans must have been created. There’s a logical jump there. Yet another claim was that the biological explosions demonstrate an active designer. Er, not necessarily- there’s a non-theistic theory about that out there called punctuated equilibrium. No designer necessary.
7) Arg. The fine tuning argument. Basically, “physical laws have to be just as they are to support human life, so human life must be intentional! And every discovery about physical laws just increases the improbability of it having occurred naturally!” This is a TERRIBLE argument. For those of you familiar with the history of science, this appears to essentially be a reformulation of what’s been known as the anthropic principle for several decades now. First, this argument is by necessity done FROM OUR PERSPECTIVE. Just because we’re here and operating under these laws means that these laws are required for our current existence. It doesn’t mean a darned thing about intent or design. If those laws were different, we might not be here. Something else might be. This isn’t something that is testable. Most of their time was taken by this argument.
8) Apparently, there are fossils from Creation on the moon, God put us here to fight evil, and male nipples are seams. Yeah, go figure.

Shermer. I was disappointed in Shermer’s presentation. Content-wise, it was pretty good. He brought up the “postdiction” that I mentioned earlier, he called them out on their god of the gaps fallacy, and he talked about the human tendency to find patterns in everything. I also really liked his Isaac Newton example- Newton believed that the way that the planets lie on a plane was evidence of God’s design, but this has been explained by science in modern times. Stylistically, I’m not as impressed. He spoke too fast- which I sort of understand, since he had half an hour to rebut more than an hour’s worth of materials- but it certainly didn’t make his arguments compelling. He read several text-filled slides. I don’t think he had to keep on pointing out the irony of an atheist explaining biblical interpretation to theists- the delivery of that argument was strange, and I believe that the theists in the audience will likely count that against him. He was also a bit loud, and his attempts at humor (in my mind) fell pretty flat. I’m certain that some of the Christians in the audience felt insulted, and I don’t think that really helps his case. Also, he didn’t touch the fine-tuning argument, which I find odd.

The “debate” itself.
It wasn’t much of a debate. There were three presentations followed by some questions. The presentations weren’t really about evolution. They were about the bible as science. And Shermer didn’t directly address a lot of their arguments- he didn’t touch fine-tuning, for example. Given that he had a presentation ready, my guess is that he was arguing based on their Web site or books, but I’m not sure.

“Was Darwing Wrong?” The debate had nothing to do with this subject, which is both good and bad. Good, because it’s not a very good title. Sure, Darwin was wrong about some things. The theories he started and popularized have changed a lot since that time. Bad, because it seems to legitimize the questioning of evolution in this particular manner, which is a pretty inappropriate way to question evolution.

The audience seemed pretty mixed. Lots of people cheering for the RTB people, lots of people cheering for Shermer. The people around us were RTB supporters. Also, perhaps I’ve discovered why they don’t like evolutionary theory. They pronounce it “e-vil-u-tion,” like it was a foreign word that starts with “evil.” :P

I wish that Sahotra Sarkar had the opportunity to present. The questions and answers he gave were pretty interesting.

On a related note, I’m fairly disappointed in the head of the biomedical engineering department. Someone had told me he was a creationist, but since he was listed as a supported of evolution I wasn’t certain. However, he himself sought to sponsor this “debate” (which probably didn’t actually need to occur- the arguments presented had no scientific legitimacy whatsoever.) He also ended up questioning Shermer, so he definitely was not on the skeptic’s side. He also gave a really strange and too-long statement about being a Christian for longer than he’d been a scientist, believing the bible, and being “troubled” by the idea that there’s a naturalistic explanation for everything. He gave this statement when he was supposed to be asking a question (which ended up being, “What do you think about that?” when neither Shermer nor the moderator could figure out what he was asking.) He didn’t say he was a creationist, but I would hope that our scientists do look for naturalistic explanations for things first and foremost.

Probably the most telling moment of the presentations came at the end of Shermer’s presentation, when he asked them that if science proved their model incorrect, would they give up their belief in Jesus as their savior? Someone in the audience yelled out “No!” and there was a good deal of applause. Shermer responded, “Exactly.”

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