Monday, July 17. Morning.
After Falwell came David DeWitt, who directs the Center for Creation Research at Liberty University. He made only a few brief remarks, emphasizing Liberty's adherence to a literal interpretation of the Bible from “Genesis 1:1 to Revelation 22:21” In particular, they believe Adam and Eve were real people and that God created in six literal days.
It was the conclusion to his remarks that struck me, however. He was contrasting Liberty's theological purity favorably against the weak-kneed, compromised theology of various other, allegedly Christian colleges. You know the one's I mean. Those are the Christian colleges that present biology and geology in serious way; the ones that suggest that ideas like evolution or the geological column are actually pretty nifty. Wheaton College was singled out for particular derision. It seems that in a survey of Wheaton students, a majority indicated that they were more confused on the subject of origins after going through Wheaton's curriculum than they were before. DeWitt described this as sad. Happy, apparently, is the fate of Liberty's students, who described themselves as less confused on the subject as a result of their education.
After Falwell's theatrics, DeWitt was a bit dull. They wisely got him off the stage quickly. Ken Ham was up next. Say what you want about him, he is never dull.
The keynote presentations were going on in a large collisseum. The speakers stood on a stage at some distance from the nearest audience members, but their charming mugs were projected onto several large screens for the beenfit of the attendees. Spearate screens displayed whatever Power Point slides the speaker chose to use. As Ronald Bailey observed in the article I linked to in my last post, the presentations were very slick and very professional, more so than what you often see at real scientific conferences.
But, then, the explanation for that is not hard to see. At scientific conferences, the purpose of the presentations is to transmit facts and ideas to the audience. Glitz and flash are not viewed as important. But in creationist conferences, the point is to fool people into thinking that something of great import is being delivered from the stage. They want to provoke the reaction, “How could they be wrong? Their presentation is so slick!”
I've tangled with Ham before, so I pretty much knew what was coming. His talk was entitled “Rebuilding the Foundation.” It was mostly a cheerleading talk, with very little scientific content. His rallying cry was &ldquo.We're taking them back!”
Here's a list of the things Ham described as needing to be retrieved by the Christian community: Christian Institutions, History, Creation, Chemistry, DNA, Marriage, Dinosaurs, Animal Kinds, Biology, Genetics, The Meaning of Death, Physics, Geology, The Grand Canyon, People Groups, Education and Genesis 1-11.
Somehow I was reminded of Steven Wright's line, “You can't have everything. Where would you put it?”
There were a few other choice nuggets in the talk. He outlined the “Seven C's” approach to history: Creation, Corruption, Catastrophe, Confusion, Christ, Cross, Consummation. To which I add an eighth C: Clever! There was also the casual suggestion that natural disasters and events like 9-11 are the result of human sin.
Ham closed his talk by imploring the audience to buy lot's of books and DVD's from the concessions in the from of the hall. But I don't mean he simply said, “Please visit the bookstore during the break between the talks.” Not at all. He went on for fifteen minutes desribing in great detail the various titles that were available. In fact, virtually every talk I attended concluded with five to ten minutes of pleas to buy lot's of stuff. Every time you thought they were finished hawking their wares, they'd rattle off a whole new series of products you were expected to buy. It reminded me of the old saying that television is a series of advertisements occasionally interrupted by programming just interesting enough to keep you watching until the next commercial. The actual presentations were the programming; the advertisements were the point of it all.
At this point there was a thirty minute break. After that there were parallel presentations going on, one in the “Basic” track, the other in the “Advanced” track. Goodness! What to do?
Let's consdier the options. The advanced talk for the morning was entitled “Refuting Compromise” by Jonathan Sarfati. I was mildly interested in seeing Sarfati since he is an excellent chess player. But the compromise he has in mind involves those Christians, most notably Hugh Ross of Reasons to Believe, who have made their peace with the great age of the Earth. This didn't seem like something I could get worked up over.
And how could I resist the basic talk, entitled “What's the Best Evidence That God Created?” by Carl Kerby? You might try to anticipate the answer to that question before I come to it a few paragraphs from now.
My one concern about the talk, that it would be dull and ponderous, was put to rest right at the start when Kerby, in a tone more appropriate for an audience of five-year olds (basic indeed), informed us that this would be a fun talk. He began by discussing stars. They blow his socks off! The beauty, the colors the order! He's in awe! As am I, albeit for different reasons.
He then informed us that - surprise! - he was neither deep nor complex. This was a common refrain in this talk, at the conference generally, and in most creationist presentations. It's standard anti-intellectualism. If you think too much you get confused. It's obvious to everyone that there is a God. Only by many years of advanced study at a Godless university could you presume to reject something so clear.
He then showed us a picture of an elaborate sand castle and said, Dembski style, that the castle was obviously designed. But how much more complicated is a star than a sand castle! Like, QED, dude.
We were maybe five minutes into the talk at this point. It was around here that I got the sinking feeling that this talk was not going to get any better. From here Kerby launched into a list of some of nature's oddities. It was standard creationist fare, point to some random structure in some obscure little critter, gush about how complicated it is and how all the parts had to be there before it could function, scoff at the idea that such a thing could have evolved, bask in the cheers and laughter of the delighted audience. Creationists of a bygone era relied on such banalities as the human eye or bird wings, occasionally whipping out something more esoteric, like the defense mechanism of the bombardider beetle. Richard Dawkins gave a good description of the style of argument here:
Creationists mine ignorance and uncertainty, not as a spur to honest research but in order to exploit and abuse Darwin's challenge. “Bet you can't tell me how the elbow joint of the lesser spotted weasel frog evolved by slow gradual degrees?” If the scientist fails to give an immediate and comprehensive answer, a default conclusion is drawn: “Right then, the alternative theory, 'intelligent design', wins by default.” Notice, first, the biased logic: if theory A fails in some particular, theory B must be right! We are encouraged to leap to the default conclusion without even looking to see whether the default theory fails in the very same particular. ID is granted (quite wrongly as I have shown elsewhere) a charmed immunity to the rigorous demands made of evolution.
Notice, second, how the creationist ploy undermines the scientist's natural - indeed necessary - rejoicing in uncertainty. Today's scientist in America dare not say:
“Hm, interesting point. I wonder how the weasel frog's ancestors did evolve their elbow joint. I'm not a specialist in weasel frogs, I'll have to go to the University Library and take a look. Might make an interesting project for a graduate student.”
No, the moment a scientist said something like that - and long before the student began the project - the default conclusion would become a headline in a creationist pamphlet: “Weasel frog could only have been designed by God.”
Kerby produced a typical creationist menagerie of nature's oddities: The cave Weta of New Zealand, an insect which has “anti-freeze” blood to allow it to survive the cold winters of its native habitat; the Moloch Lizard; the congregating behavior of Emperor penguins, some exotic species of frog then went by too quickly for me to write down, the human body and so on. Kerby has an online version of the talk in PDF format here. The examples used in this online version were not necessarily the same as those used in his presentation at the Mega Conference, but I think you will get the idea.
In every case the argument was the same: The complex system in question could not have evolved gradually because it could not have functioned until all of its parts were in place. No, strike that. It was positively laughable to think that such a thing could have evolved. Utterly ridiculous! You'd have to have no brain at all even to entertain the notion!!
After each example Kerby would ask the audience, “Is this the best evidence that God created?” To which the delighted audience would reply with an emphatic No! So what is the best evidence that God Created? Have you guessed it yet?
It's the Bible! Duh! The best evidence that God created is that He told us He created. And then Kerby closed his talk with a chilling but typically clear expression of creationist logic: “Do not let evidence fuel your appreciation of God. Let your appreciation of God influence your view of the evidence.”
But what really bugged me about the talk was not the extreme shallowness of Kerby's thinking. No, I'm used to that. What bugged me were his incessant imprecations that we be humble before the glories of nature.
Humility? How dare these people talk about humility! You know what scientists do when confronted with nature's complexity? First they spend five years or more in graduate school, living in near-poverty, having no life, studying all the time while being used as cheap labor by the university, just to get a PhD. Then they go out into a job market that presents the very real possibility of unemployment as the reward for all that hard work. If they're lucky they'll land a post-doc, and bounce around the country for a while struggling to find a permanent position. Even if they are lucky enough to land a permanent position they could very well find themselves in some two by nothing town in the middle of nowhere. They spend years trying to get a research program off the ground, scrapping for grant money, and fighting with ornery referees to get their research published.
And why do they do that? They do it because they know that's what it takes if you want to understand nature's complexity just a little bit better. That's what it takes to make the tiniest dent in the sum total of human ignorance.
What isn't humility is having a used car salesman give you a brief description of some complex system, conclude after five seconds' reflection that it could not have evolved, and then decide that only an omnipotent God could be responsible for such a critter. That's not humility, that's supreme arrogance. That's pride and sloth all wrapped up into one.
Though the talk was held in a large classroom, there was no question and answer period after the talk. In fact, none of the presentations had Q&A's. Later in the conference Ham would mention that they felt it was impractical to have such sessions, which was total nonsense. It would have been trivial to set up microphones in the aisles for those talks held in the collisseum, while the talks in the classroom wouldn't even have required microphones. In fairness, however, most of the speakers hung around after the talk to take questions on a more intimate basis.
I didn't bother this time. For some of the later speakers I did go up at the end. Myahem ensued but that will have to wait for the next installment.
Next Up: Dr. Emil Silvestru on “Rocks Around the Clock: The Eons That Never Were.”
To be Continued