As should be clear from the previous entries in this series, I am providing an account of the conference presentations that I attended, in the order in which I attended them. I attended nine talks at the conference, out of forty that were available (not counting devotionals). I mention this because a commenter to one of my previous entries rattled off a list of talks he challeneged me to provide scientific refutations to. Sadly, most of the talks he mentioned were ones that I did not attend. Such scientific content as there was in the talks I did attend was of such low quality that I am not optimistic about what was presented in the remaining sessions. I will discuss some specific scientific assertions made in the talks as I go, but the only one that I am planning to go into great detail on is the one by Werner Gitt, entitled “In the Beginning was Information.” That will come in part five of this series.
Now, back to the conference!
Monday, July 17. Afternoon.
Carl Kerby's talk was followed by a two hour lunch break. I fled the classroom, emerged into the humid Lynchburg weather, and went searching for a place to eat lunch. I eventually settled for a nearby Mexican restaurant. Ordered a fajita burrito. It was really, really, good. Felt better.
I finished lunch with more than an hour and a half to spare before the next talk. Since I was close to my hotel, I decided to relax there for a while before going back to campus. Got to the hotel, went back to my room, laid down the bed. Grew contemplative.
I am often asked why I do this. Why would I spend so much time, and a not inconsiderable chunk of money, hanging out with people whose views I obviously have little respect for? Actually, I often ask myself the same question. There are a couple of reasons why I do it, with no one reason taking precedence over another.
Partly my interest is as a journalist. Especially for those of us who live in the red states, the pernicious influence of religious fundamentalism is a simple fact of everyday life. Someone has to keep an eye on what these folks are doing and saying.
Partly I feel morally obligated to do it. Nonsense has to be confronted. A short drive from my home, some two thousand people are gathering to listen to a series of frauds and charlatans impugn the characters of my colleagues and tell lies about what scientists believe and why they believe it. How could I live with myself if I didn't do what little I could to challenge it? Frankly, I think it should be a requirement of every science PhD program in the country that students attend a conference such as this. Let them see first-hand the ingorance, the anti-intellectualism, the anti-science propaganda, the anti-anything that doesn't conform to their idiosyncratic interpretation of the Bible attitude. Maybe then people on my side of this would wake up, and stop acting like it's a waste of time to pay attention to these folks.
Partly I think I can do some good. In other conferences of this sort that I have attended there have always been opportunities to ask questions after the talks. Merely by asking a polite but challenging question I knew I could count on having a large crowd around me afterwards. In those forums you have a chnace to plant a few seeds. Merely by letting them see a calm, patient, articulate (if you'll forgive the immodesty) defender of science you can do a lot to undo the stereotypes the speakers are presenting. I have no illusions about how much good one person can do, but imagine if my challenging question was followed immediately by another, and another. These people crumble when their arrant nonsense is confronted with simple common sense. (Incidentally, you can read about some of my experiences at past creationist/ID conferences here and here. Both links are in PDF format. The first article appeared in Skeptic, the second in BioScience.)
Yet another reason is anthropological. From the time I've been old enough to think about these things, religion has always struck me as pretty silly. And fundamentalist religion of the sort being preached at this conference has seemed downright delusional. Yet I am also aware that most people do not agree with this view (well, not the first part anyway). A commenter to one of my previous entries suggested that perhaps I am searching for something. Indeed I am. I am trying to understand why things that seem obvious to most people (that there is a God, for example), seem obviously wrong to me. Over the years I've tried praying, reading the Bible, studying theology, talking to believers, attending religious services, and reading more books and articles than I can list attempting to prove that God exists. My hostility towards religion has only grown as a result. But most people have come to a different conclusion. So I keep searching. And I keep thinking that one day it will suddenly become clear to me what it is that people find appealing or plausible about the theistic view of the world.
And let's not overlook my last reason. I enjoy it. I like seeing poeple who are fired up about big questions, and I like a good argument. And since having the Earth open up and swallow them whole doesn't seem to be an option, I might as well engage them.
Enough contemplation. Back to the conference.
My choices were “How to Defend the Christian Faith in a Secular World,” by Ken Ham in the basic track, and “Rocks Around the Clocks: The Eons That Never Were,” by Emil Silvestru in the advanced track. Having had my fill of Ham, I elected for the rocks.
Big mistake. Silvestru's talk was a typical creationist snow job. Look! Here's a tree buried thorugh many layers of sediment. Look! Here are some preserved dinosaur eggs. Look! Here's a Sequoia fossil in the Arcitc. In most cases the examples went by far too quickly to digest what their importance was supposed to be. Frequently the logic seemed off. For example, why are preserved dinosaur eggs supposed to be a problem for evolution? If I understood Silvestru correctly it is supposed to be because for an egg to be preserved, it must be covered in sediment very quickly. But preserved dinosaur eggs come from all over the world and are from roughly the same time period. Such rapid burial could only have been caused by a major catastrophe. And this catastrophe would have had to be global to explain the distribution of eggs. So Noah's flood is real. QED.
I am open to the suggestion that I have misunderstood Silvestru in some way, because the argument as I currently understand it is just too dumb. These eggs may date to the same geological era, but they surely were not literally buried during the same few days. And it's not as if the globe was pock-marked with droves of dinosaur eggs. It was not at all clear why several local “catastrophes” could not explain the data Silvestru was attributing to a global event.
And those multi-layer tree fossils are likewise a big nothing.
But mostly I didn't pay too much attention to Silvestru, since he was uttering one howler after another every time he brought up evolution. For example, he argued that the rates of evolution as documented by the fossil record spell the death knell for the theory.
In the notes accompanying the lecture Silvestru expresses the point this way:
Thus the Archean represents 47 percent of the Earth's age, the Proterozoic 40 percent and the Phanerozoic the remainder of 13 percent! Yet it is during the Phanerozoic that the vast majority of evolution is claimed to have unfolded, with human evolution (the most complicated of them all!) taking the shortest time of all! There is definitely a strange correlation between time and evolution since our planet is believed (by evolutionists) to have taken a quarter of its entire age before the first form of life evolved, 62 percent of its age all it accommodated was single-celled creatures (protozoans) but then it surely caught up with its completely random goal, evolving the absolute majority of all known life forms in just 13 percent of its age!
I'm not kidding.
Then creationists wonder why we don't take them seriously.
I've been staring at my screen for about five minutes now trying to decide if its worth trying to correct everything that's wrong with that paragraph. I think I'll follow my mathematical instincts and leave it as an exercise for the reader.
There were other howlers as well. He opened his talk with the assertion that there were basically two models for the history of the Earth: The creation model, which is based on science, and the evolution model, which is mased on natural laws. You figure out what that means.
He then argued that we must test these models against the evidence. No problem with that. An example of a prediction made by the Creation model is that we will find no transitional forms in the fossil record. By contrast, evolution predicts that we will find many such forms. Wow, I'm still with him. And then he simply asserted that there are no transitional forms and so the Creation model wins.
Enough of Silvestru.
Next up was Phillip Bell in the Basic track discussing, “Ape Men, Missins Links, and the Bible,” and Douglas Kelly on “The Importance of Chronology in the Bible,” in the advanced track. I went Basic this time. It was after Bell's talk that I worked up the nerve to confront the speaker after the talk. Stay tuned!
To Be Continued