Wednesday, 29 October 2008

A View From The Pulpit - A Sceptical Encounter

From the blog "God Would Be An Atheist" an account of the creationist Paul Taylor at the recent Skeptics In The Pub Event.
No answers in Genesis
Creationism fails again

October 14, 2008

To the London Skeptics (sic) meeting in Holborn last night, to hear Paul Taylor of (pictured) give a talk on "Why don't Creationists just shut up?"

First the upside. Paul is an affable chap, an ex-science teacher who, one suspects, was good at his job and well-liked by his pupils. He has a sense of humour and an easy speaking style and was unruffled by the many technical questions thrown at him in the Q and A session. We sceptics (I'm not a member, so I can use good British spelling) gave him a good hearing and the questions and comments were mostly put in tones of amusement or bemusement. There was no hostility from either side, as you would expect, given that we're all - well, nearly all - rational people.

Now, the downside. Let's put aside the fact that the title had nothing to do with the talk Taylor gave - most of us are guilty of saying what we want to say irrespective of the question we're asked. And let's temporarily set aside the fact that most of his talk was criticism of conventional evolutionary knowledge and scientific method. There's no harm in pointing out apparent anomalies in a theory that you don't understand and don't agree with. Criticism can lead to intelligent debate and new insights, although last night didn't get that far.

The real problem was not Taylor's willingness to criticise conventional science but his inability to present his alternative - Creationism - in any meaningful way. All the questions on that topic received only vague answers. To take one example, two of us asked about the aftermath of the Flood (Genesis chps 6 - 8). I queried how the koala returned to Australia from the middle of Turkey after the waters subsided - a particulaly arduous task, given the distance involved, the inability of koalas to swim long distances and the lack of eucalyptus leaves (their only diet) en route. The other questioner asked about the availability of plants for animals to eat on a water-sodden earth. (Similar questions can be asked about penguins crossing the Sahara and how long the carnivores had to starve before the herbivores procreated enough to allow all species to continue eating their required diet.)

Taylor's reply was the weakest of fudges. Maybe there was a land-bridge, he said. Maybe koalas had a different diet. As to the herbivores, maybe the plants grew really, really quickly. In other words, he had no idea.

On one level, this response is laughable. Creationism claims to be a science - which implies strict, testable theories - yet it cannot provide a simple, verifiable explanation for one of its most basic tenets, the Flood. There's a reason why of course - the Bible doesn't give that information. That in itself is suspicious; if the Bible truly is the word of God, the deity is remarkably uninformative at some very critical points in Biblical history (what crucial information is missing between Genesis 6:4 and Genesis 6:5, for example?), while providing us with too much information at other points (Exodus 33:23).

On another level, however, Taylor's meaningless response reveals the hypocrisy and arrogance. Creationists are always eager to present harsh analyses of conventional science (this took up the bulk of his talk), using material which has a superficial credibility - yes, there are scientific papers verifying discrepancies in dating methods; yes, there are aspects of evolution that are still poorly understood. But they are always reluctant or unable to put forward clear, verifiable explanations for phenomena from the Creationist point of view (Taylor told us almost nothing about Creationist "science".)

We were not looking for deep science. We accepted that Taylor was a generalist. But from a Creationist point of view, this was such a relatively simple task. After all, it is much easier to explain how two koalas and their offspring can travel several thousand miles across deserts, tropical forest and open sea than to explain the process by which single-celled life evolved into the complex human organisms that we are today. Yet no Creationist has ever explained even that simple fact; the koala question is extensively discussed on the web, but singularly avoided by Creationists.

It is that which makes me angry - not the legitimate questioning of Darwinism and related disciplines, which I can accept and participate in - but the trashing of conventional science by people who cannot be bothered to explain even the basics of their own theories. It is the desire to destroy rather than create. It is the reaction of the intellectually lazy to complex and continually evolving concepts.

It would be bad enough if this intellectual dishonesty was restricted to adults who fully understand how to debate and reason, but it goes further. The proselytisation of children - the lie that Creationism is somehow a science - is the most damning aspect of the whole charade. Our future depends on our children learn intellectual honesty; in disguising itself in the clothes of true science, Creationism lies to them again and again.

This is not meant to be - and should not be taken as - an ad hominem attack on Paul Taylor. I am convinced that he is sincere and he has not thought through the implications of what he is saying. But that means I want to finish this piece by focusing on one key remark that he made and leading him through the implications.

Paul, you said that your starting point for your "science" was belief in the Bible as the Word of God. Do you understand the implications of that statement? You are basically saying - "this book gives me the answer to everything; now I need to find the evidence to confirm it".

Your statement is the same as that of the detective who surveys a crime scene and says "the butler did it; now I need to find the evidence to confirm it". No doubt the detective can find some evidence that supports his theory, and where evidence is lacking he can offer suggestions that point the finger at the butler. And when he finds evidence that suggests or proves the butler is innocent, the detective ignores it. By selecting the evidence that comes to court, the detective ensures that the butler will be found guilty and sentenced for a crime he may not have committed. Creationism, by deciding the answer before it examines the facts, is as guilty of perverting truth and justice as the detective.

Paul, another speaker in the audience last nighted hinted at what real science is - and it is something that I really don't think you understand. Real science says "we do not know the answer; let's look at the evidence and see where it leads us". At the moment, the evidence is leading us clearly towards evolution, despite its uncertainties and inconsistencies, but if ever there is consistent, irrefutable evidence that points elsewhere - including to the Biblical version - I assure you that I and all reasonable men and women will follow it.

We are not asking you to give up your faith, Paul. We are only asking you to use the intelligence that you believe God gave you. Does God really want you to invent silly stories about the koala? Did he really plant fossils all over the world to mess up the minds of his creation? Does he want you to privilege unproveable myths over logic and facts? For the sake of the country's children, if not your own faith and peace of mind, please think again about the ignorance you are promoting and the damage you are doing to those around you.

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