I Don’t Debate Science

We recently received the following message at the Winnipeg Skeptics blog:

Hello,
This message is for Gem Newman.

Firstly, after reading about your visit to the Winnipeg creation museum I was impressed with your respectful critique of the ideas and artifacts presented. John Feakes had mentioned to me that you had recently taken a tour. I also appreciated after reading some of your other articles (and the Free Press article), your sincerity in discovering what is true rather than simply argueing against something for the sake of arguing. It also appears that you are no longer sceptical about evolution and that leads me to a request I hope you consider.

I am a part of the Manitoba Association of Christian Home Schoolers(www.machs.mb.ca). Each year we have a conference that has a youth (ages 12 – 18) trak which runs Friday afternoon and Saturday. This year we are thinking of perhaps having a creation/evolution presentation/dabate on the Friday evening March 25th from 7 til 9pm at Calvary Temple on Hargrave. John Feakes would most likely be the presenter for creation. The format would be that each person would have a 10 minute introduction, a 10 minute questioning/clarification of the other perspective and a 10 minute closing. Perhaps we would schedule a question time from the youth as well. Handouts would probably be a good idea. The goal is not so much to have a “winner/loser” but to have the evidences of each idea presented in a clear and concise manner.

This is in the planning stages so any changes or requests you might have would be welcome.

Let me know what you think and if you would be interested in being the presenter for evolution. If there is someone else you would like to suggest please do.

Thank you for considering this request and please let me know one way or the other by email [REDACTED] or phone [REDACTED].

Respectfully,
Eric Truijen
MACHS Youth Trak Coordinator

P.Z. Myers recently linked to an excellent and comprehensive guide to such debates, from AtheismResource.com:

Here is my reply.

Hello, Mr. Truijen.

Thank you for your inquiry. First of all, let me be clear: I am speaking only on my own behalf, and my remarks should not be taken as representative of the views of other members of the Winnipeg Skeptics.

You may be disappointed to learn that I am not willing to participate in a debate on the subject of evolution. Although I applaud your apparent willingness to expose the young people in your care to new ideas (something that I don’t imagine they get very often), I believe that the proposed format would be inadequate for several reasons.

First of all, despite any gratification that I may have felt at being asked to present the evidence for evolution, I am a very poor choice. Much like Mr. Feakes, I am completely unqualified to speak publicly on the subject of evolution.

I find it troubling that, rather than contact an expert in the appropriate field—an evolutionary biologist, say, or perhaps even a palaeontologist—you chose to contact a computer scientist. That seems vaguely like stacking the deck. I am merely an interested layman and a science enthusiast. I would recommend contacting faculty members at the local universities in search of an appropriate speaker.

Second, a debate is not an appropriate format for discussing matters of science. Debates are more about scoring rhetorical points than about getting to the truth. It often takes far more time to refute a falsehood than it does to state it, and in cases where one participant uses a rapid-fire approach to present his or her arguments it can often take several minutes for his or her opponent to thoroughly address each piece of misinformation. This provides a significant handicap for any participant who is beholden to the truth. As Samuel Clemens is purported to have said, “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes.”

Third, to present creationism and evolution in such a manner is to promote a false equivalence. Evolution is a well-vetted scientific theory which makes testable predictions and is the basis for much of modern biology and medicine. It is independently validated by several fields of science, including (but not limited to) archaeology, geology, and genetics. Creationism, on the other hand, is an unfalsifiable religious position that ignores scientific evidence to advance a regressive, anti-intellectual agenda. It has yet to make any testable predictions that I’m aware of, and is scientifically worthless. I have no interest in legitimising the manufactured “controversy” between evolution and creationism any more than I have in legitimising the “controversy” between astronomy and astrology.

I was disappointed when you contended that I was “no longer sceptical about evolution”, because this statement implies a serious misunderstanding of scientific skepticism. Modern skepticism is not simply doubt. When I talk about skepticism, I’m not talking about a position: I’m talking about a method which evaluates claims on the basis of their logical structure, their plausibility, their falsifiability, and the quality of the available evidence.

A person who expresses “skepticism” toward the germ theory of disease is either ignorant of the facts, unable to evaluate the evidence, or intellectually dishonest. I would put a person who expresses “skepticism” toward the theory of evolution in the same category.

With this in mind, then, you may wonder why The Winnipeg Skeptics visited Mr. Feakes’ museum last year. We were honestly interested in discovering why Mr. Feakes and his people think the way that they do. Some of us visited a psychic fair last spring for a similar reason. Speaking for myself, I was not unwilling to be persuaded by what Mr. Feakes had to say, but I judged that outcome to be unlikely. I was also prepared to be convinced of the existence of psychic phenomena upon visiting the psychic fair, but was quickly disabused of the notion upon my arrival.

But in science, all conclusions are provisional.

In 1965, Sir Austin Bradford Hill wrote: “All scientific work is incomplete—whether it be observational or experimental. All scientific work is liable to be upset or modified by advancing knowledge. That does not confer upon us a freedom to ignore the knowledge we already have or postpone the action that it appears to demand at a given time.”

It is possible that the current theory of evolution does not provide a complete picture of the origin of species. But, as Stephen Jay Gould said, “In science, ‘fact’ can only mean ‘confirmed to such a degree that it would be perverse to withhold provisional assent.’ I suppose that apples might start to rise tomorrow, but the possibility does not merit equal time in physics classrooms.”

And finally, let me be clear: I have absolutely no respect for creationism or for any concomitant dogmas. Please don’t confuse politeness with respect. Although I believe that all people are deserving of respect, my respect for ideas is limited to those that have proven themselves worthy of such esteem.

Gem Newman

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About Gem Newman
Gem Newman is a Canadian skeptic, software developer, and beard advocate.

24 Responses to I Don’t Debate Science

  1. Greg Christensen says:

    Oh SNAP!

    • Kris Poturnak says:

      Must be a sign of the times, but this is exactly what popped into my head after reading that last paragraph. Well done Gem.

  2. Kaitlynn Buffie says:

    Couldn’t have said it better myself!

  3. Jim says:

    Well done.

    It’ll be interesting to see if he does contact an evolutionary biologist.

  4. Gem, I agree with you that, as a computer scientist, you’re probably not the best person to give such a debate, I think it would be unfortunate if nobody did this.

    Home schooling scares me. It is the perfect opportunity for total control of information coming to ones’ kids. I feel for the children being represented here; they likely will have no exposure to secular ideas. If a person who is both a) eloquent; and b) very familiar with the science behind evolution; were to go up there and debate, yeah, maybe it would end in failure. Yeah, maybe several of the alarm bells on the debate-a-christian flow chart would be set off. Maybe it’s a giant setup, and you’re publicly mocked. But, I think that you (or someone else, rather) might get through to some kids. I doubt you’ll convince them of evolution’s validity. I doubt you’ll get good science to them. But maybe you’ll set off that little spark that says “it’s ok to think for yourself”. And that’s what these kids need

  5. I spent the better part of the last hour reading up about MACHS and homeschooling in manitoba. After that, I sent them a question that I am always curious to get an answer to. My email posted here, and reply will be posted when I receive one:

    I have a question about your curriculum, and general home schooling philosophy (for lack of a better word).

    I am a member of the Winnipeg Skeptic’s Association, and earlier today our chief organizer informed us of an invitation. Apparently, a fellow by the name of Eric Truijen approached our organizer Gem Newman about a debate over Evolution v/s Creationism. Gem informed the association that he has politely declined the invitation, but passed it on to us, in case one of us felt inclined to present. Until now, I was unaware that there was a home schooling movement in Manitoba, and have been researching your movement and your organization for the last hour.

    I have a question for you, and I am sincerely looking for an answer. I was raised a Christian, and have since taken on the mantle of Skeptical Humanist. When I was a Christian, I took my beliefs seriously (I have read the entire bible, cover to cover), and since becoming a skeptic, I have done a lot of reading of works from the other side of this issue. I do have one question though, one that has never been answered to my satisfaction.

    To put it bluntly, “why do you reject the validity of evolution by natural selection?”. I ask this out of curiousity. When I was a christian, I accepted evolution as the valid explanation for biological diversity. My family didn’t give it much thought, didn’t really care as it didn’t affect their lives, but they also accepted it in the form of “well we’ll leave the science to the scientists, they know more than I” sort of way. Growing up, I never realized that Christianity was in conflict with evolution until after I deconverted. As a Christian, in my mind there was no conflict between evolution and Christianity. After all, to say that “God created the heavens and the earth” is not enough. They had to be created in a certain way (And I wasn’t convinced that they just poofed into existence. Even adam was created from dirt, as opposed to just magickally appearing). And, as evolution is such a fascinating area of inquiry, wouldn’t a God who created being who could evolve, be a very amazing God indeed? I never did understand where the conflict was.

    I know that the usual pat explanation for this is that the bible claims that God created the world, and it doesn’t say anything about evolution, so that did not happen. But, the way I was taught, there are lots of things that the bible doesn’t explicitly say, but we assume anyway. For instance, (as I was always taught), Adam and Eve were the first people created. They had two sons, Cain and Abel. The question has always been, how did Cain and Abel have children, given that the only woman in the world was their mother. The explanation always given to me was that, just because Adam and Eve were the *first* people, doesn’t mean they were the *only* people. Clearly God must have created more people after them.

    In the same way, I never understood why evolution was a problem. Who is to say that God didn’t create evolution? if I understand correctly, you guys claim that evolution is false. And so, I guess what my question is, is “why?”.

    Please do not copy apologetics at me. Trust me, I am very well versed in the arguments for and against. If you were legitimately convinced by, say, irreducible complexity, then that’s a good enough answer for me; you don’t have to explain it to me. I am simply curious as to what your reasoning is. I hope this is not too much to ask, and I’m eagerly awaiting your reply.

    Thanks,
    -Tim

    • Gem Newman says:

      I’ll be interested to hear how they respond.

    • THE REPLY:

      Hello Tim,

      Thank you for contacting us to see if we might have some answers for your questions. Curiosity can be very good.

      “why do you reject the validity of evolution by natural selection?”.

      Evolution is an interesting word that can be used in a number of ways.
      Firstly evolution can be used to describe the diversity within an animal kind. Examples of this abound – dogs, horses, cats, etc. Every animal kind has variation within its kind. Even people have many different characteristics and physical features and yet we are all people. This simply means that each animal kind has a variety of traits that may be chosen from to give to the next generation or offspring of that animal kind. Dogs are a good example because we see the evidence for this so clearly. There can be big dogs, little dogs, floppy ear dogs, upright ear dogs, black dogs, white dogs etc. However they are still dogs. Breeders use the working of genetics to arrive at a certain kind of puppy.

      Evolution is also used to describe the changing of one animal kind into another animal kind. An example of this is where a cow becomes a whale or a monkey becomes a man. This requires an increase in information within the gene pool.

      Natural selection, if it is taken to mean the same as the survival of the fittest is seen in everyday life. If a group of dogs was placed in a cold environment, the dogs with the genes for a warm furry coat would be more likely to survive. This is because they already have the information or genes to produce warm furry coats. This has evidence and I certainly believe this happens.

      If, however, evolution by natural selection is taken to mean that new creatures with added genetic information appear, that is a different story. That would be like placing a group of dogs on the moon and expecting that they would be able to survive there by gaining some new, added information in their physical makeup. I, personally, am not aware of any cases where an animal kind evolves into another kind through brand new genetic “information” appearing in that animal. This type of evolution does not appear to have any validity.

      So, I do not reject the validity of animals changing within kinds by natural selection. However, I am unaware of what validation there is for natural selection being a manner in which animals evolve.into a brand new kind of animal.

      I hope this may give some perspective into your question.

      Sincerely,
      Eric Truijen

      P.S. You do raise some other good questions such as Cain’s wife, and could God have used evolution. Regarding Cain’s wife, it appears that there were less genetic mutations early on and Cain simply married one of Adam and Eve’s daughters(his sister). Responding to God using evolution may require a more lengthy reply. If you wish we could discuss that sometime by email or a personal meeting. [REDACTED]

      TL;DR: “There’s no such thing as beneficial mutations, or mutations that add information. Therefore macro-evolution cannot occur”

      As a reply to this email, I first and foremost thanked him, both for his time, and for being very not-confrontational; in my experience, most religious folk immediately get defensive, instead of concisely stating what they believe and why. I informed him that I felt that any further discussion would end in stalemate, and so to avoid wasting his time I would take my leave, but once again I appreciated the time he spent in replying to me.

      As to his actual explanation: This makes me sad. MAYBE I am inexperienced in dealing with creationist people, but taking this reply at face value, it tells me that his position is not a dogma; just the result of insufficient education. Of course, this man is helping to set an education curriculum, and so his lack of doing his homework properly is inexcusable.

      I really wish there was a solution to the widespread scientific illiteracy that people in north america seem to be proud of. However, as much as I wish there were no christian home schools, I recognize that it would be even worse to restrict their freedom to educate as they fit. I’d be very happy with the tightening up of high school curriculum standards (when I graduated, I needed Gr.9 science, Gr.10 science, and one of Gr 11 bio / phys / chem), as the way it stands, students are not required to have very much if any formal education on biology. But, well, we’d all be able to solve the worlds problems, if only we were given the authority to do so, eh?/s

      • I CAN’T EDIT MY OWN POST, AND I FORGOT TO ADD THIS COMMENT

        As to Eric’s PS section, I feel he completely missed the mark. My point was that just because the bible doesn’t say “evolution”, doesn’t mean it excludes it. I tried to express the fact that many christians make sensible assumptions about what the bible doesn’t say. To pull an example out of my butt, the bible says that Jesus was in not-Jerusalem at one point, but then he was crucified in Jerusalem. There’s the story about how he came in to the town (Palm Sunday), but there isn’t any story about how he went from not-Jerusalem (Nazareth?) to Jerusalem. We don’t assume that he just magickally teleported, even though that is arguably the most direct interpretation. We assume that he walked (or rode a donkey/whatever), because it seems obvious. In the same way, many christians assume evolution into the creation story, as it is the most sensible way for it to have happened.

        Instead of actually addressing my example, by either saying “Yes, that is reasonable, but we reject evolution because…”, or “No, you can’t do that, that’s modifying God’s Word and He doesn’t like that very much“. Instead, he tries to twist what I’ve said (and I do not believe he’s done this unintentionally), in order to make his earlier position seem more reasonable (“Back then, incest would be ok, because genetics!).

        This is incredibly frustrating, especially since this is the tack that most preachers take. They always deflect into something that they can make impressive speeches about something, instead of actually getting to the meat of the topic. Ask a preacher a yes/no question; I guarantee s/he takes at least 20 minutes to answer. And s/he answers a different question anyway

      • Gem Newman says:

        Thanks for posting that, Tim. I agree that he seems to misunderstand the basics of evolutionary theory, but it doesn’t get taught very much in schools. At the same time, I get the feeling that with some creationists it’s a disingenous dog and pony show.

        An example of this is where a cow becomes a whale or a monkey becomes a man.

        Epic science FAIL.

        The whole bit with the dogs on the moon is just a straw man. Evolution copes best with gradual changes in environment, but presumably not so well with explosive decompression.

  6. dma says:

    Dear Shermer, I spoke with God yesterday… Do you want to know what he said?

    THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION – JAN 1, 2011

    OMENS OF DEATH:

    youtube.com/user/xviolatex?feature=mhum

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