Tuesday, July 19. Afternoon.
With the remains of a once magnificent fajita burrito residing comfortably in my stomach, I faced the afternoon with confidence. My choices were “How Our Textbooks Mislead Us: An Expose of Error and Fraud” in the basic track and “Hubble, Bubble, Big Bang in Trouble” in the Advanced track. Figuring that I had a pretty good sense of what creationists think of modern biology textbooks, I chose the Big Bang.
The talk was delivered by John Hartnett, another in the large Australian contingent at the conference. It was his task to persuade us that the Big Bang was a lot of hooey. Which is interesting, since in other contexts creationists love the Big Bang. It allows them to claim that the universe had a definite beginning in time. (Don't trouble them with details like the fact that time itself apparently came into existence at the Big Bang). Since everything that had a beginning must have had a cause....you fill in the rest.
Anyway, the part of the Big Bang they don't like is the implication that it happened billions of years ago. Now, of the various branches of science that come up in this discussion, cosmology is probably the one I know the least about. What little I know about it comes mostly from Brian Greene's excellent books. So I will try to present a straight-up version of what Hartnett said. Perhaps someone reading this more knowledgeable on the subject than I will leave some interesting comments.
Hartnett began with a reasonable description of what the Big Bang theory actually says. He showed some 10-day photos from the Hubble telescope that showed large numbers of galaxies in what was once thought to be empty space. He said that astronomers only have light to work with (which doesn't seem quite right, since they also make frequent use of radio waves) and gave a description of the connection between distance and red shift. He talked a bit about the Doppler Effect, and mentioned that according to relativity theory time and length are affected by speed and gravity. Relativity is real science by the way.
Next he talked a bit about Hubble's law; that the velocity at which a galaxy is moving is proportional to its distance away from us. He described the standard idea that it is the expansion of the universe that leads to the observations of red shifts in the light received from distant galaxies. In particular, astronomers use red shift data to measure distance. He described the “inflating balloon” model of the Big Bang.
Then he described recent data that the explansion of the universe is accelerating, and that the universe is apparently flat. In another strange moment, the flatness of the universe was offered up as a refutation of the inflating balloon model of the universe. This seemed odd, since I've always thought of the inflating balloon as simply a way of illustrating how it's possible for every galaxy to be receding from every other galaxy at the same time. I don't think it was intended as an actual model of the universe.
At this point he returned to the Big Bang and suggested that the apparent absence of anti-matter in our universe is a strike aganist standard Big Bang cosmology. Then he suggested that no one has any idea how stars and glaxies form, suggesting that this was another defect in the theory.
Then he got down to business. He recounted the sad tale of astronomer Halton Arp, who, in Hartnett's telling, was demonized by the repressive American astronomy establishment for his views against the Big Bang. Eventually he ended up at the Max Planck Institute. The centerpiece of Hatnett's case against the Big Bang was Arp's alleged discovery of galaxies with anomalous red shifts. The claim is that there are galaxies with wildly different red shifts that are nonetheless connected by “bridges” of dust and debris. Under the standard model this should not be possible. If red shift is correlated with distance then these sorts of paired galaxies should have the same red shifts. He also pointed out that the bridge itself contains high red shift objects.
He then cited a photo from a 2003 issue of Astronomy (I didn't manage to jot down the date of the issue, but apparently it was on page 13 of that issue) that was supposed to refute Arp by showing that galaxies Arp said were connected in reality were not. But then Hartnett produced another photo, allegedly of the same galaxies, to show that they were.
From here the discussion turned to quasars. He provided something he claimed was evidence for the proposition that quasars are not as distant as commonly thought. Unfortunatly, this went by too quickly for me to jot it down. He then argued that quasars are found across paired galaxies, and concluded from this that quasars are actually being ejected out of galactic activity.
All of this was said to challenge the Big Bang for two reasons: (1) All of our distance estimates based on red shifts are now suspect and (2) Matter is constantly being created from the center of galaxies (so that it is not true that all matter was created at the Big Bang).
From here he suggested that in seeing quasars created from the center of galaxies, we are actually looking back in time 6000 years and watching creation as it happens. Then he recommended Arp's book and called it a day.
As I said, I have no particular knowledge of any of this. I didn't find much on the internet discussing these points, but what little I did find suggests that most astronomers are very skpetical of the claim that the galaxies Arp says are connected are, in fact, connected.
Mostly what I was thinking about at this point was just how much science you need to know to debate these people effectively. This was something many of Duane Gish's debate opponents discovered to their chagrin in the 1970's. Since creationists do not believe it is important to know something about a subject before discussing it, they are free to whip out factoids from whatever branch of science it amuses them to cite. That is why one minute they will be talking about mathematics, then suddenly switch to biology, then thermodynamics, then cosmology, all without missing a step. Real scientists are painfully aware of what they know and what they don't know, and feel uncomfortable discussing things too far removed from their area of expertise. All through the conference speakers were whipping out arguments based on areas of science I know a lot about. In those cases it was easy for me to see why their arguments were incorrect. Then suddenly here's one where I have no foundation for assessing their claims. I noticed that another talk at the conference bore the title “Our Created Moon: Origin, Creation Evidences.” I suspect I would have had little to say after that one as well.
Happily, things returned to their proper state of brain-dead insanity any jaw-dropping ignorance in the next talk: Carl Kerby's, “Evolution and Pop Culture.” His competition in the advanced track was “Creation and Cosmology.” Not a hard decision.
Kerby's talk was mostly a series of clips from various movies and television programs that made references to evolution, the ancient age of the Earth, or, occasionally, homosexuality. Kerby would say something like, “How many of you saw the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding? A number of hands would go up. And then Kerby would ask, “Did you catch the evolution?” (Apparently there was a scene in the movie where one character turns to another of a different ethnicity and says something like, “My people were producing great music and art while yours were still swinging in trees.&rdquo) The list of nasty television shows included episodes from Bugs Bunny, the Three Stooges, the 1960's Batman series, an episode of CSI (something about a trans-genedered oyster) and Sponge Bob. One theme that cropped up was that any reference to something being “prehistoric” was considered offensive. Why? Because history began on Day One of Creation Week. There is no prehistory.
Of course, it's not all bad news. There are shows like Gilligan's Island and the Flintstones tha depict humans and dinosaurs living simultaneously. Evolutionists hate those shows, I'm told.
Turning to movies we have Fantasia (by the way, never trust Disney), the Creature from the Black Lagoon, The Incredible Mr. Limpet, Ice Age, Lilo and Stitch, Finding Nemo, The Incredibles and Spider-Man. You might enjoy renting those movies and trying to find the evolution for yourself.
The refernce to Ice Age was particularly revealing. For those of you who haven't seen it, Ice Age is an animated movie about a sloth, a mammoth, and a saber-tooth tiger who end up caring for a human infant who was abandoned when the baby's mother was killed by other saber-tooth tigers. The unlikely trio is trying to catch up with a tribe of humans to return the baby. It's a very good movie, both funny and touching.
Kerby showed two clips from this movie, one that he liked and one that he didn't. The clip he liked came from an early scene in the film. We see a large herd of animals migrating South to avoid the advancing ice. We zoom in on two armidillo-like creatures. One says to the other, “Have you seen John?” (I don't actually remember the charcter's name, so I am calling him John). The second one replies in a snide tone, “The last time I saw him he said he was on the verge of some great evolutionary leap.” Just as she finishes saying that, we a third armidillo-like creature in the distance running off a cliff. As he jumps he yells, “I'm flyyyyyyyiiiiiinnnnng....” followed by a Thud as he crashes into the ground. Kerby liked that. Shows the problems that would be faced by creatures possessing only sme incipient stage of a complex system.
But things took a nasty turn later in the film. Seeking a short-cut, our noble trio walk through an ice cave. Frozen into the ice walls of the cave are various other animals who apparently got trapped there. At one point we see the sloth walking through a lengthy corridor. He is on the far right side of the screen from our perspective. Frozen in the ice to his right are three other animals. The camera fixes on this scene for a moment and we see all four animals (the three in the ice and the sloth) lined-up in a row. They form a linear evolutionary sequence from a primitive looking creature on the far right to the modern sloth on the left.
I think it's obious why Kerby wouldn't like that. The interesting part, though, was what he said next. He said something like, “They were trying to indoctrinate your kids, they were trying to show evolution, but they failed. You know why they failed?” Silence from the puzzled audience. “Because they show all four of those animals existing at the same time. That's not evolution!” Cheers from the delighted audience, coupled with the thud of my jaw hitting the desk.
That's about as stupid as it gets when you're discussing evolution. That's up there with the old saw, “If humans evolved from apes, why do we still have apes?” Since I don't think anyone in the room believed that parents wink out of existence the moment their children are born, I think that the contempt and derision I've been heaping upon these people is entirely justified.
There was one other part of Kerby's talk worth commenting on. He showed a clip of a study that was done in which small children were shown pictures of various famous people and were asked if they recognized them. Nearly all of the children recognized Ronald McDonald, and Wendy (as in the Wendy's chain of fast-food restaurants), some even knew George Washington.
Then they were shown one more picture. The scene was shot in a way so that we could not see who the picture was of. One child after another shrugged his shoulders. One finally guessed George W. Bush. The experimenter told him that was a good guess, but not correct. (!!)
Have you guessed yet who was in the picture? It was Jesus! Surprise! The audience was stunned. Shocked. Dismayed. There were gasps and groans aplenty.
For Kerby and the others in the audience there was little doubt that the frequent, casual references to evolution and “millions of years” were part of an orchestrated plot to make evolutionary thinking acceptable by making it so familiar. Kerby encouraged the audience to take advantage of these teachable moments to make sure their kids were sensitive to these attacks on their faith.
Incidentally, for another creationist presentation about evolution and Hollywood, see my description of Jack Cashill's talk from an ID conference I attended a while back
After the not obviously insane talk about the Big Bang, it was nice to get back to creationism as I know it. I left the classroom in a pretty good mood, took another browse through the bookstore, and then headed back to my hotel. The evening line-up was “Distant Starlight: Not a Problem for a Young Earth, the aforemtioned talk about our created moon, and Image of God or Planet of the Apes? I managed to find better entertainment for the evening (as I recall, HBO had a Jeff Speakman movie on that night.)
Wednesday, July 20. Morning.
The morning devotional was given by Charles Ware. It was a standard revival meeting sermon about how he came to know the Lord. Familiar stuff, though offred with enough enthusiasm to make you forget it was eight in the morning.
But the real action for the morning, and the reason I didn't return to Harrisonburg on Tuesday night, was the talk given by Georgia Purdom: The Intelligent Design Movement; How Intelligent is it? Dr. Purdom was one of only two women speaking at the conference. She was the only woman to give a science-based talk.
I almost fell out of my seat when she opened her talk by observing that in the war for the truth about origins, they are winning on the science but losing the propaganda battle. Ahem. The real situation is exactly the reverse.
Her exposure to the ID movement came from reading Behe's Darwin's Black Box. She was concerned that ID did not lead people to Christ. God said He created in six days and that was good enough for her. She realized that the evolution/creation battle was all about our presuppositions - do you look at the world through the Bible or through man's theories. Everything in the Bible dovetails nicely into one consistent account.
She then argued that ID poses grave problems for Christians. She showed the Discovery Institute's definition of ID:
The theory of intelligent design holds that certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection.
Only certain features? Please. And who's the designer?
From here she discussed some history. She began with the natural theology of the eighteenth and nineteeneth century. She discussed Paley, and pointed out the natural theologians were arguing that we could have knowledge of God apart from the Bible. It was a response to the “higher criticism” of the Bible that became popular during the late 1700's. She argued that while God is certainly revealed through his works, special revelation was more important than the study of nature.
Then she jumped to the 1970's and the current ID movement. She mentioned Charles Thaxton, Phillip Johnson and Michael Denton. Oddly, she made no mention of the hostile court decisions that plagued the YEC's during this time period.
After this she launched into a description of ID reasoning, and that's where things started getting weird. She described “Irreducible complexity&rdquo and “Specified complexity” as two different terms for the same thing. They are not, though Dembski does make a point of describing irreducible complexity as a special case of specified complexity. In reality the only connection between them is that both are worthless notions.
She described the mousetrap analogy. She fretted that the analogy was too simplistic and that people on my side of this have a good time tearing it apart. Her feeling is that we can have the mousetrp, but actual biological systems - like the blood clotting cascade - are vastly more complex.
She was really impressed with blood clotting, and gushed about how a system lacking any of the relevant clotting factors will not function. There's no simpler system for clotting blood, she mused. I'm sure that will come as news to the lobsters residing at the local fish store. In fact, she never got around to mentioning that, as described by Ken Miller and others, the evolution of the blood clotting cascade is not that hard to understand.
At this point she launched into an exlplanation of Dembski's explanatory filter, and rattled off the usual examples about SETI, archaeology, and forensic science. She gave a bizarre example about a student who fails every one of her midterm exams but then aces the final. Apparently this would trigger the inference that the student had cheated in some way.
I had to laugh. You see, I did precisely that in a freshman economics class I took in college. I failed the first exam because I had been goofing off in the first part of the semester. I started studying at that point, but failed the second midterm on account of the fact that I deluded myself into thinking I actually understood what was going on. At that point I hunkered down for a full month of real studying, and pulled off an A on the final. Yay me! (Still got a C in the class, though).
Then she talked about the example from the movie Contact. Recall that this was the one where a team of astronomers receive a message from space in which the prime numbers have been encoded. As a mathematician I had to laugh when she said, “These were the primes! It wasn't just evens and odds, it was a particular set!” Ugh. The evens and odds are particular sets, my dear.
She went on in this vein a little longer before coming to the problems with ID. She argued that natural theology backfired, because it led to deism. By divorcing the creator from the creation, they lulled people into thinking that it was enough just to acknowledge the designer, rather than believe specific things about His atttributes. ID is the same as natural theology in this sense. She is concerned that with the ID people saying over and over again that their ideas do not lead to any specific view of the creator, it becomes more difficult for Christians to spread the Gospel. The public will feel deceived if they are told on the one hand that science points to a nebulous designer, but on the other that they have to accept Christianity.
It was at this point that she said the single most insightful thing I heard at the entire conference. She argued that another problem with ID is that it provides no account of dysteleology. She pointed to pathogenic microbes, carniverous animals, and viruses. She said that ID makes God Himself, and not man's sin, the author of evil.
Yes, YES a thousand times YES!!! That's exactly right. I've made precisely that point many times at my blog. Once you have God intervening in the world to tinker with his design to bring good things, like blood clotting cascades and immune systems, into being, then he is also responsible for all the bad things. It's inescapable. The YEC's can get around this point by blaming human sin. They're perfectly happy to cite scripture in defense of their views. But the ID folks are running around pretending to be scientists. The second they talk about natural history being influenced by human sin is the day they blow their cover. But this leaves them with no effective answer at all. Usually they just argue lamely that what we perceive as bad design might actually have some hidden purpose. Sorry guys. No one's buying that.
But there was something else weird about this. Note the use of “carniverous animals” as an example of evil. Ken Ham had said the same thing in a previous talk. In discussing what happened as a result of the sin of Adam and Eve, he said that before the fall all animals were vegetarians.
I find this mystifying. These are precisely the sort of right-wing nits who usually ridicule vegetarians for their beliefs. But apparently vegetarianism was part of God's plan from the start. Whatever.
The final problem with ID is that it emphasizes God as creator but says nothing about God as redeemer. She closed with a quote from William Dembski to the effect that while ID may be scientifically unobjectionable, whether it is theologically unobjectionable was a spearate issue.
So what is the solution to the problems with ID that she has identified? Take a wild guess.
And then she uttered the line that I mentioned back in the first installment in this series. “God said it, that settles it.”
I wanted to hang around to ask Ms. Purdom some questions, but I had to scamper if I was going to make it back to the Sleep Inn in time for the 11:00 check-out.
I returned to my room, gathered up my things and went down to the desk. The person behind the counter somehow discerned that I was part of the conference and asked how things went. I muttered that it had been interesting as I signed the credit card slip.
Then he said that apparently the organizers were very disappointed with the turn-out, and that they had been expecting more than 3000 people. He asked me if I had heard anything about how many people were there.
I replied that Mr. Falwell (I heard myself call him that, but I still can't quite believe I actually said it) had claimed 2000 people at the start of the conference. (I notice that the conference blog has revised that figure down to 1800.)
Then he said that there were plans for a Super Creation Conference in October, to try to attract more people.
“Is a Super conference bigger than a Mega conference?” I snarked.
We both laughed.