Then a Miracle Occurs
At 7:00 pm on a balmy Southern California evening, April 29, 2004, I entered the Physical Sciences Lecture Hall on the campus of the University of California, Irvine, to a jammed house of over 500 people chock-a-block jammed into a 400-seat venue. I was there at the behest of Pastor Jason of the OMC Youth, a campus Christian organization, to debate Kent Hovind, Young Earth Creationist and Defender of the Faith, on: “Creation vs. Evolution. Creation (supernatural action) or Evolution (natural processes) — which is the better explanation?”
It was already 20 degrees warmer inside the hall than out, even before the dialogue heated up. Hovind’s people were there in force, handing out literature at both entrances: “Ph.D.’s Who Are Creationists.” (See the National Center for Science Education’s list of “Steves” who accept evolution.) “Did Jesus Say Anything Regarding the Age of the Universe?” (The answer given is yes, because in Mark 10:6, Jesus said: “But from the beginning of Creation, God made them male and female.” You decide.) “Biblical Reasons the Days in Genesis Were 24 Hour Days.” “Does Carbon Dating Prove the Earth is Millions of Years Old?” “The Flood of Noah: Ridiculous Myth or Scientifically Accurate?” And a 20-page booklet on “Weird Science” and “Creation vs. Evolution Questions and Answers.” My associates Matt Cooper and David Naiditch accompanied me, staffing a small Skeptics Society book table where we countered Hovind with our magazine, books, and “How to Debate a Creationist” and “Baloney Detection” kits. (Matt sensed the deck was stacked against us when they gave us a puny three-foot table while Hovind luxuriated with a couple of eight footers — several complaints netted us near parity.)
I agreed to participate in the debate at the last minute, after the originally-scheduled date was changed and the first debater could not attend. The local skeptics/free thought campus group contacted me at once, encouraging me not to participate so as not to give Hovind — and by extension all creationists — the recognition that there is a real debate between evolution and creation. This has always been the position of such prominent evolutionary biologists as Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Dawkins, and they are, of course, correct — there is no debate. That issue was settled a century ago, and evolutionary theory won hands down. They are also right to note that public debate is not how the validity of scientific theories is determined. And, in any case, debate is a questionable forum to determine scientific truth because such an adversarial system more closely models the law, as Gould noted after the Arkansas creationism trial:
Debate is an art form. It is about the winning of arguments. It is not about the discovery of truth. There are certain rules and procedures to debate that really have nothing to do with establishing fact — which they are very good at. Some of those rules are: never say anything positive about your own position because it can be attacked, but chip away at what appear to be the weaknesses in your opponent’s position. They are good at that. I don’t think I could beat the creationists at debate. I can tie them. But in courtrooms they are terrible, because in courtrooms you cannot give speeches. In a courtroom you have to answer direct questions about the positive status of your belief. We destroyed them in Arkansas. On the second day of the two-week trial we had our victory party!
I had also been alerted to the fact that Hovind was under investigation by the I.R.S. for tax fraud and evasion, that he believes income tax is a tool of Satan to bring down the United States, democracy is evil and contrary to God’s law, and recommends the infamous anti-Semitic hoax, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion1, that he received his doctorate from a diploma mill and that even Ken Ham’s creationist organization, Answers in Genesis, disavowed many of Hovind’s wackier beliefs in a fascinating web page document entitled Arguments We Think Creationists Should Not Use. I inquired of Pastor Jason if he was aware of these charges, which he acknowledged he was and that his organization had looked into them; nevertheless, they wanted to stage a debate that had nothing to do with Hovind’s personal affairs or religious beliefs, and that was solely restricted to the scientific evidence for evolution and creation. Of course, I am aware that there is no scientific evidence in favor of creation, and that Hovind, like all creationists, can do nothing more than attack evolution in hopes that the default conclusion, obedient to the logical fallacy of the excluded middle (also known as the either-or fallacy and false dilemma fallacy), is that if evolution is wrong then creationism must be right. I entered the debate eyes wide shut to such extraneous matters. Hovind did not disappoint.
I wasn’t going to write an article about this debate, having already written about my debate with Duane T. Gish (in Why People Believe Weird Things) and having published a number of articles and essays debunking creationists’ arguments (see our booklet How to Debate a Creationist). But internet chatter on some free thought forums on the validity of such debates, as well as the assessment by two atheists in attendance that, “All-in-all, I would say that Hovind kicked some serious ass in the debate although he used every trick in the book to do it,” led me to pen a response to this and the larger issue of whether scientists have a duty to defend science when it is under attack (which, of course, we do), and what is the best strategy for marshalling such a defense.
I cannot speak for all scientists, of course, but the Skeptics Society is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit scientific research and educational organization with a goal (among many) of promoting and defending science. As such, it is our job to stand up to anti-science attacks, of which creationism has mounted ever since Darwin. Of course, there are ways to do this without giving public recognition to creationists that there is a real debate between evolution and creation, but if such debates are to be staged anyway, unless there is a universal moratorium among scientists to eschew all such activities, I reasoned, they are going to happen so we might as well meet them with wit and aplomb.
As a general rule that applies to most paranormal and supernatural claims, at the Skeptics Society we like to divide the world into three types of people: True Believers, Fence Sitters, and Skeptics. True Believers will never change their minds no matter what evidence is presented to them, and Skeptics already agree with us. The battleground is for the Fence Sitters — those who have heard something about the claim under question, wondered what the explanation for it might be, and perhaps speculated on their own or considered what other explanations have been proffered. Lacking a good explanation, the mind defaults to whatever explanation is on the table, regardless of how improbable it may be. If you don’t understand the physics of heat conductivity between hot coals and dead skin, the improbable theories of positive thinking, endorphins, or Chi power for how people can walk on hot coals barefoot without getting burned, emerge as probable. Before the science of biogeography was pioneered and developed in the 19th century by Alfred Russel Wallace, the default explanation for the distribution of species around the globe was independent creation and the Noachian flood (or, among more religiously-skeptical scientists, Lamarckian evolution and land bridges between continents and islands). Once Wallace and Darwin demonstrated how natural selection changes varieties into different species when they migrate into different climes, the supernatural explanation could be abandoned in favor of a natural one.
So, one reason for participating in such questionable debates is not to convert True Believers (since their positions are, by definition, non-negotiable), but to show the Fence Sitters that there is, in fact, a perfectly reasonable natural explanation for the apparently supernatural phenomenon under question. On a secondary level, we can also reinforce Skeptics with additional intellectual firepower they can use in their own debates with True Believers and Fence Sitters. On a tertiary level, we can witness to both cohorts that skeptics are thoughtful, witty, and pleasant, and sans horns, rancor, and pathos. To wit, I was handed several notes after the debate from professed Christians whose feedback lead me to conclude that at the very least they were convinced that skeptics are not Satanists. Here are two:
I am a believer of Creation. However, I wanted to tell you I respected your professionalism in your execution of what you had to say. I almost want to apologize on behalf of some Creationists present tonight.
I cannot say that I agree with you, but I would like to thank you for your professional presentation, unlike your opposition.
I began my opening statement (I went first) with a question: “How many believers in God are here tonight?” I estimate 90 percent of the audience raised their hands. I then looked at my watch and said, “Oh, would you look at the time” as I began to exit stage left. That broke up the audience and put them at ease. I then began my Powerpoint presentation with a slide of a crop circle with skeptic.com carved in the middle of it, noting that in skepticism and science we are in search of natural explanations for phenomena — “Is it more likely that supernatural beings fashioned this crop circle or that natural beings created it with Photoshop?” Skepticism and science are verbs, not nouns, I said. These are activities to understand how the world works, not formalized positions one must defend regardless of evidence to the contrary. I then showed a slide of a cover of the tabloid World Weekly News featuring Arnold Schwarzenegger and an alien, with the headline, Alien Backs Arnold for Governor, concluding “Before we say something is out of this world, we must first make sure it is not in this world.” I added, parenthetically, that this is the first alien I have ever seen with a buffed build — triceps and biceps bulging after an Arnold workout! More laughter.
Then I got serious, explaining that there is no such thing as the creationist position to debate. There are, in fact, at least 10 different creationisms, as outlined in Eugenie Scott’s brilliant heuristic (available at www.natcenscied.org and in Skeptic Vol. 10, No. 4). These include: Flat Earthers, Geocentrists, Young-Earth Creationism, Old Earth Creationism, Gap Creationism (in reference to a large temporal gap between Genesis chapter I:1 and chapter I:2, allowing an old earth), Day-Age Creationism (a “day” may be a geological epoch, allowing an old earth), Progressive Creationism (blending Special Creation with modern science), Intelligent Design Creationism (order and design in the world is proof of an intelligent designer), Evolutionary Creationism (God uses evolution to bring about the universe and life), and Theistic Evolution (nature creates bodies, God creates souls). I noted that Hovind would have to defend his creationism not just against evolution, but against all the other creationisms, including Ken Ham’s Answers in Genesis, who have publicly disputed many of Hovind’s arguments.
Riffling through more slides I showed how many Christians, in fact, fully embrace the theory of evolution — I estimate 96 million American Christians, based on a 2001 Gallup Poll in which 37 percent of Americans (107 million people) agree with this statement: “Human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God guided this process.” Since roughly 90 percent of Americans are Christians, this means about 96 million American Christians accept common genealogy, descent with modification, and an old earth (the figures are rough, but close enough to conclude that a hellova lot of Christians accept evolution). I then added that worldwide one billion Catholics embrace evolution, as explained by Pope John Paul II in a 1996 encyclical entitled Truth Cannot Contradict Truth (science and religion are both right):
New knowledge has led to the recognition that the theory of evolution is more than a hypothesis. It is indeed remarkable that this theory has been progressively accepted by researchers, following a series of discoveries in various fields of knowledge. The convergence, neither sought nor fabricated, of the results of work that was conducted independently is in itself a significant argument in favor of the theory.
I concluded this portion of my opening statement by noting that even Evangelical Born-Again Christians accept evolution, quoting President Jimmy Carter, in his response to an attempt by a Georgia school superintendent to ban the word “evolution” from biology textbooks:
As a Christian, a trained engineer and scientist, and a professor at Emory University, I am embarrassed by Superintendent Kathy Cox’s attempt to censor and distort the education of Georgia’s students. The existing and long-standing use of the word ‘evolution’ in our state’s textbooks has not adversely affected Georgians’ belief in the omnipotence of God as creator of the universe. There can be no incompatibility between Christian faith and proven facts concerning geology, biology, and astronomy. There is no need to teach that stars can fall out of the sky and land on a flat Earth in order to defend our religious faith.
I then moved to the most important slide of my presentation: the famous Sidney Harris cartoon of two scientists at a blackboard filled with equations, with the words “then a miracle occurs” in the mathematical sequence. The caption has one scientist saying to the other: “I think you need to be more explicit here in step two.” Again and again throughout the evening I drove home the point that creationists are doing nothing more than saying “then a miracle occurs.” This is the “god of the gaps” argument — wherever an apparent gap exists in scientific knowledge, this is where God interjects a miracle. I also noted, quite emphatically, that neither Hovind nor any other creationist would ever present positive evidence in support of their creationist position, because no such evidence exists. They can always and only attack the theory of evolution and hope that no one notices that they have said nothing that would lead to a creationist conclusion. They offer no mechanism for creationism.
(William Dembski’s “explanatory filter” is an attempt to reveal positive evidence for design, as is Michael Behe’s “irreducible complexity,” both of which are thoroughly debunked in a number of scientific papers and books, and succinctly summarized in our booklet, How to Debate a Creationist.) Amazingly, even though I made this point at least half a dozen times throughout the evening, the two atheists in attendance who recounted my defeat on the Internet both completely missed this point: “Never did he even try to get Hovind to defend the proposition that creationism is true.” And: “I can assure you that he in no way pointed out that Hovind was neglecting his responsibility to show how and why creationism is true.” To the contrary, that was my primary argument and the foundation of everything I said.
The remainder of my 25-minute opening statement was dedicated to showing how the various lines of evidence converge to the conclusion that evolution happened. Here I did not pretend to be able to cover the vast numbers of natural facts that support evolution; instead, I focused on consilience — the “jumping together” of facts not related to one another. For example, paleoanthropologists have presented us a fossil record of human evolution quite in accord with that developed independently by geneticists. As I noted, it’s not like these scientists all meet on the weekends in some grand conspiracy. “Okay, look, there are these creationists like Hovind out there, so we’ve got to get our story straight. Let’s agree that we’ll tell everyone that humans and chimpanzees diverged from a common ancestor between six and seven million years ago, okay?” Interestingly, this approximates what many creationists think is actually happening in science, although Hovind’s is the weirdest conspiracy theory I’ve ever encountered along these lines, as he elucidated it in 1996, in his “Unmasking the False Religion of Evolution”:
There is definitely a conspiracy, but I don’t think that it is a human conspiracy. I don’t believe there is a smoke filled room where a group of men get together and decide to teach evolution in all the schools. I believe that it is at a much higher level. I believe that it is a Satanic conspiracy. The reason these different people come to the same conclusion is not because they all met together; it is because they all work for the devil. He is their leader and they don’t even know it.
(Another note given to me after the debate from “an Evangelist Christian — Born again,” reiterated this fear: “I just want to tell you that we fight against a spiritual world and Satan will do anything to blind your eyes from the truth. I just ask you to consider this as a possibility! I will be praying for you!”)
The moment Hovind spoke the debate was over. “I am here to win you over to Christ,” he began. “And I’m here to win Michael Shermer over to Christ.” With that, Hovind lost the debate. He was not there to debate evolution v. creation, or natural v. supernatural explanations. He was there to witness for the Lord (what we used to call “Amway with Bibles” when I was an Evangelical Christian at Pepperdine University). Everything he said from there on was superfluous: Dogs come only from dogs. Variations do not lead to new species. Design implies a designer. There is an afterlife. The Bible is literally true in everything it says. Humans used to live 900 years. There is no right and wrong without God. Noah’s flood explains geological formations and species distribution. Dinosaurs and humans lived simultaneously. Dinosaurs on the Ark were very young and small. Dinosaurs died in the flood. Radiometric dating is unreliable. Jesus said the universe is young. The Bible explains dinosaurs (“behemoth,” “leviathan”). The theory of evolution is a religion that leads to communism, abortion, and atheism. Evolutionists are liars. Scientists are arrogant (they call themselves “Brights”!). Creationists are not allowed to publish in scientific journals. Creationism is censored from public schools. Microevolution may be true, but macroevolution, organic evolution, stellar evolution, chemical evolution, and cosmic evolution are all lies perpetrated by the lying liars who worship at the faux religion of evolution. And, of course, Jesus died for our sins.
I began my 10-minute rebuttal by noting that Hovind is the only guy I know who can deliver a two-hour lecture in 25 minutes (he is the fastest talker I have ever met, with a voice like Ross Perot and a finish to each sentence that bespoke “so there!”). This elicited audience amusement. I again emphasized that Hovind had said nothing in support of the creationist position, that he only attacked the theory of evolution in hopes that the audience would then accept creationism by default, and with regard to his divine explanations for the origin of species, I reiterated “I think you need to be more explicit here in step two.” I explained that creationists do not publish in scientific journals because they do not do science; and that creationism is not taught in public school science courses because there is nothing to teach — “God did it” makes for a short semester.
Because Hovind had said he was pro-science, I emphasized that if Young Earth Creationists like him are right, then all of science goes out the window, not just evolutionary biology. If the earth is only 6,000 years old, then most of cosmology, astronomy, physics, chemistry, biochemistry, geology, paleontology, archaeology, genetics, etc. are wrong. (Hovind gave several commercial plugs for his Dinosaur Adventure Land theme park that teaches children biblical-based science. For example, you can build your own Grand Canyon out of sand to see how quickly it can be done. You can participate in Jumpasaurus, a trampoline game where you toss a ball through a hoop and learn how you can do two things at once for Jesus. And your kids won’t want to miss out on the Nerve-Wracking Ball, where a bowling ball hangs from a tree limb and the child releases it to swing out and back just short of hitting him — he wins the game if he doesn’t flinch, thereby demonstrating his faith in God’s laws.)
I noted that the fakes and mistakes of science, trotted out by Hovind and other creationists, were all discovered, publicly revealed, and corrected by scientists, not creationists, and that the self-correcting machinery of science is what makes it so successful. I punctuated this point by noting the parallels between evolution deniers and Holocaust deniers, the latter of whom accuse Holocaust historians and survivors of lies and deceit in the same manner as the creationists accuse scientists, and that the strategy is no more effective and no less malevolent when employed by creationists. Finally, I suggested a number of tests of evolutionary theory: if Hovind could produce just one example of a trilobite embedded in a fossil bed containing hominids, I would concede that the theory of evolution is in trouble. No such disconfirmatory evidence exists, and creationists know it, which is why they always dodge this challenge.
During my rebuttal Hovind was furiously scanning through his hundreds of Powerpoint slides, preparing something for every point I made, most of them irrelevant and orchestrated to elicit derision and laughter. Even during the Q&A, Hovind was so facile at this process that by the time the moderator finished reading the question, he had a slide ready to go!
After the debate I was surrounded by a mob of Bible-totting students, most of whom were exceptionally polite, friendly, and desirous to know “why did you give up your faith?” The question is genuinely asked out of curiosity, but there is often a substrate inquiry implied in the voice and revealed in the eyes: “this couldn’t happen to me, could it?” When I answer in the affirmative that, indeed, it could happen to anyone who is intellectually honest in their search for answers to life’s most ponderous questions, I am sometimes accused of a false faith ab initio: “You were never really a Christian.” How convenient, and cognitively bullet-proof. But tell that to my annoyed siblings and non-Christian friends, who tolerated my nonstop evangelizing for seven years. The sentiments were quite real.
Who won the debate? Intellectually, I did, with Hovind once again conceding defeat on the last question of the evening: “What is the best evidence for the creation?” He answered: “The impossibility of the contrary” (evolution). In that simple statement, Hovind confessed the scientific sin of all creationists: Disproving evolution does not prove the creationist contrary. “And then a miracle happens” is not science. To Hovind and all creationists I say: I think you need to be more explicit here in step two.
If you were there and assessed the outcome from audience enthusiasm for either Hovind or me, however, then a different result might have been assessed, one that was, on one level, foreordained. With nine out of ten people in attendance for the sole purpose of rooting their team to victory, I stood about as much chance of winning them over as the Los Angeles Lakers would in convincing the fans of their bitter rivals, the Sacramento Kings, that they are the better basketball team, regardless of the score. The home-court advantage is a potent force in intellectual venues no less than athletic ones.
The problem is that this is not an intellectual exercise, it is an emotional drama. For scientists, the dramatis personae are evolutionists v. creationists, the former of whom have an impregnable fortress of evidence that converges to an unmistakable conclusion; for creationists, however, the evidence is irrelevant. This is a spiritual war, whose combatants are theists v. atheists, spiritualists v. secularists, Christians v. Satanists, godfearing capitalists v. godless communists, good v. evil. With stakes this high, and an audience so stacked, what chance does any scientist have in such a venue? Thus, I now believe it is a mistake for scientists to participate in such debates and I will not do another. Unless there is a subject that is truly debatable (evolution v. creation is not), with a format that is fair, in a forum that is balanced, it only serves to belittle both the magisterium of science and the magisterium of religion.
This article was originally published in eSkeptic.