Friday, March 10, 2006

Erin My Views

Yesterday I traveled to Erin, Ontario, to participate in their Extended Learning Opportunities (ELO) lecture series. This venerable series of lectures is now in its 25th year, and features lectures by professors and others on topics of current interest.

My talk was entitled "Intelligent Design: Creationism in a Cheap Tuxedo", and was well-attended by about 60 people, mostly retirees.

Here's a brief summary of my talk. I started with the impact of Darwin's theory of natural selection, and how it inspired a creationist backlash. I talked about the influence of Canadian "flood geologist" George McCready Price and the recently-deceased Henry Morris. I then talked about and debunked six standard creationist claims:

  1. The earth is only 10,000 years old
  2. Fossils are the result of Noah's flood
  3. Evolution is only a theory
  4. The theory of evolution does not make predictions
  5. Beneficial mutations have not been observed
  6. The Cambrian "explosion" contradicts gradual evolution

I also talked about the common creationist tactics of quote mining, quote editing and misrepresentation, and quote fabrication. I showed how Henry Morris fradulently altered a quote from a paper of Ross and Rezak to support his claims about the Lewis thrust fault.

I briefly mentioned how the creationists lost court decisions such as Epperson v. Arkansas, McLean v. Arkansas, and Edwards v. Aguillard, and how this is the backdrop for the neo-creationists, the intelligent design movement.

I showed pictures of Michael Behe, William Dembski, Phillip Johnson, and Jonathan Wells, and emphasized that they are educated, intelligent people with advanced degrees.

I talked about Michael Behe and his book, Darwin's Black Box. I defined irreducible complexity, and using the examples of John McDonald and Kenneth Miller, showed why irreducible complexity is no bar to evolution. I talked about William Dembski, and his pseudomathematical claims about evolution, and why they were wrong. I showed Dembski's praise of Henry Morris, emphasizing the commonality between creationism and intelligent design.

I then talked about the Kitzmiller v. Dover intelligent design case, and discussed my (small) role in the case. (I was asked by the ACLU to be a rebuttal witness against Dembski. Although I was deposed in the case, Dembski dropped out, and so I was not needed to testify.) With the aid of Nick Matzke's wonderful slides, I showed how the textbook Of Pandas and People took passages that previously referred to "creationists", and changed them, sometimes incompletely, to "intelligent design proponents".

Next, I discussed the "teach the controversy" ploy, pointing out Robert Camp's recent survey of reseach universities, in which nearly every respondent said there was no genuine scientific controversy regarding evolution vs. intelligent design.

Finally, I put up a slide entitled "Why does it matter?" and explained how understanding evolution was crucial to being an informed public citizen on issues such as AIDS, biodiversity, and agriculture. I concluded by putting up the last frame from Ruben Bolling's cartoon, in which the foreign student says, "Yes, America, we would like very much if you would teach your children religious dogma instead of science. We'd like their jobs."

I have to admit, I had some trepidations about giving this talk in Erin, a small town in a part of Ontario known for its strong religious views. However, the reaction was surprisingly positive. Although there was spirited question-and-answer session that lasted 40 minutes, and the questions were acute and probing, there were no really hostile reactions at all. Most people appeared surprised that others would be taken in by the sham of creationism and intelligent design, and were quite comfortable with reconciling evolution with their religious views.

Although it is not easy, I tried to present the claims of creationism and intelligent design fairly, without ridicule. Afterwards, I was pleased about the kind words I received about the presentation. Several people particularly commented about my fairness.

I encourage others to try to take part in this public outreach. For too many years creationists such as Kent Hovind and Ken Ham have been preaching their fraud to a gullible public. As scientists, we need to take the initiative to get the real story out.


Carl said...

Bravo! Thanks for doing this, Jeffrey.

Zeno said...

Sounds like it all went very well indeed. Good work! And congratulations.

beervolcano said...

I think you got such a reasonable response because you were in Canada. It seems like their culture is not so much based on fear as it is in the US.