Don Prothero recounts his experience with the creationist road trip

Last summer a British film company, Renegade pictures, flew me to Arizona to engage in a dialogue with five British creationists.  They, and comedian Andrew Maxwell, were touring the western U.S. and meeting with evolutionary biologists. The conceit was that the five of us (including paleontologists Don Prothero and Tim White), would try to change their minds and dissuade them from Biblical literalism about creationism.  Of course it didn’t work (and I told them that it wouldn’t), but it made for an entertaining program that was aired on BBC3 (and is now on YouTube), “Conspiracy road trip: creationism” (BBC3). I wrote a post about it and embedded the video.

Despite the fact that each scientist spent several hours with the creationists—all in vain except, perhaps, for the slightly open-minded JoJo—our participation was edited down to only a few minutes, as I knew it would be. What I didn’t expect was that the program would be mostly about the sociology of the creationist group, including a double schism between Christians/the Muslim and gay-friendly Christians/homophobic Christians.  But that drama makes for good t.v., I guess, and I thought the final program was pretty good, if not so enlightening about science.

You can find a 1.25 minute clip of my spiel on Noah’s ark at the BBC Three site (apparently not viewable in the U.S); here’s a screenshot of an amiable Dr. Coyne (soon to be less amiable) trying to explain why Noah’s Ark is implausible. Andrew Maxwell looks on; we’re on a houseboat in the middle of Lake Powell.

Now another scientist has described his experience. Over at Skepticblog, paleontologist Don Prothero details his day with the literalists in the post “A surreal journey among the creationists.” His take is pretty much the same as mine, though he did a bit of water-trickery at the Grand Canyon that flummoxed Phil, the most vociferous and defensive creationist.

The creationists: left to right, Phil, JoJo, Abdul, Branwen, and Sam. Photo by Don Prothero (I think).

I agree with Don that the most difficult part for the creationist was their encounter with Tim White at Berkeley:

The most effective segment of all was with paleoanthropologist Tim White at U.C. Berkeley, who laid out casts of a bunch of hominid skulls and had them sort them by their anatomy. Once they had done so, he pointed out that this was the exact sequence that these skulls were found in a single place in Ethiopia, and that primitive ones were never found on the level with the advanced ones, and vice versa. It was a remarkable bit of scientific theater, and they were unable to respond coherently to it, since there IS no creationist response. The most primitive skulls look like “apes” to them, the most advanced ones are clearly “human”—and there are all the intermediates in between.

Creationist responses to the hominin fossil record are never convincing, since they must arbitrarily draw a line between “ape” and “human” (there can be no intermediates), and the earlier “human” skulls are written off as individuals afflicted with diseases.

Don, like me, didn’t expect any changed minds, but did seem to think the show was effective in making at least one point: creationists are irrational.

. . . evidence doesn’t matter to creationists. They have an entire worldview which is wrapped about the salvation of their immortal soul and the fear of rejecting the literal interpretation of the Bible, so that comes first and everything else is unimportant. They reject evolution only because they’ve been told to do so by religious leaders, even though they have no clue what it’s about; what they think they know about it is wrong. Indeed, they showed the classic response of a true believer: when something threatens your worldview, you cling to it even more strongly and find any way you can to dismiss or ignore contrary evidence. That, apparently, is the point of the entire show, since the 9/11 truthers and the UFO nuts act the same way. But given the way the show was framed, it’s clear that the producers want to put these creationists on camera as object lessons on how irrational and dogmatic and impervious to evidence they really are, even while showing less dogmatic viewers that scientists can be friendly and reasonable and have all the evidence.

Although Don took the creationist aback by showing how river “meanders” at the Grand Canyon (the horseshoe bends that the Colorado River makes) are completely inconsistent with flood geology, some creationists later came back with a totally unconvincing response.  I’ll let you read Don’s description of that response on his website.  But all that shows, as did the entire program, is that creationists have a pre-existing worldview that cannot be changed by evidence.  And if you can convey that in an hour, then you’ve been successful.

Appropriately, yesterday’s Non Sequitur comic is relevant here:

h/t: Linda Grilli

19 Comments

  1. John K.
    Posted November 9, 2012 at 7:00 am | Permalink

    I would find it interesting to hear more of Dr. Coyne’s presentation against the biblical flood. I suspected there was a lot of editing, and I also suspect there is a decent presentation there as a whole. I admit that most people are not so masochistic in this area as I am, and would not be as interested in the whole conversation. I think it would be a good post, though.

    Poor PZ got several hours edited down to about 2 minutes on the alien episode. I guess it could be worse.

    I have to agree that the skull lineup was the key moment of that show. When presented with the flat and amazing evidence of that lineup the Muslim had nothing at all, and quickly changed the subject. There are indeed some people that cannot be reached.

  2. dwisker
    Posted November 9, 2012 at 7:18 am | Permalink

    Please tell me the one with the Cal sweatshirt isn’t a student there. It’s embarrassing enough that Jonatahn Wells got his PhD at Cal.

    • Scott near Berkeley
      Posted November 9, 2012 at 10:53 am | Permalink

      Heh, I’m out here a few miles from Cal, and plenty of five year olds run around with “Cal” stuff, so wearing a sweatshirt means nada.

      Worse than that, I ran into a self-described graduate of Cal at a social gathering of “green energy” advocates, who told me that Glenn Seaborg invented the Periodic Table.

      After they revived me, I told him pointedly “never, ever, say that again in your life.”

  3. Posted November 9, 2012 at 7:24 am | Permalink

    Had the creationist= in the wide sense- all theists- not fallen for divine intent, then all their blather wouldn’t have happened. Yes, the argument from pareidolia does enter!And then the argument from reduced animism- theism eviscerates all theism!
    Yes, all theism is just superstition! No intent for the many spirits and none for the Deity exists!
    And finally, Lamberth’s non-genetic argument finds that all theists themselves with their arguments from happiness-purpose and Augustine’s argument from angst tell against our using the genetic fallacy with our naturalist arguments noting how they come to believe.
    As Stenger says: where mountains of evidence should appear and none does, then evidence of absence if indeed absence of evidence, and I add, no argument from ignorance!

    Lying under their other arguments are the ones from personal incredulity and from ignorance.
    ” Logic is the babe if theists.” Fr. Griggs

  4. Posted November 9, 2012 at 7:28 am | Permalink

    “Logic is the bane of theists.” Fr.Griggs
    Lord Griggs, Rabbi Griggs, Naturalist Griggsy, Rationalist Griggsy, Skeptic Griggsy
    WEIT, do you approve of the Coyne-M.-L.argument and its name? Please vet!
    I reblog to many sites WEIT.
    Thanks!

  5. Peter Beattie
    Posted November 9, 2012 at 7:31 am | Permalink

    Good observations, I suppose. And here’s how philosophy (of science) can help by explaining what the systematic reasons for this are and (perhaps) how we can do something about it.

    As a creationist, you have two choices. Either you acknowledge that your belief cannot be shown to be wrong, i.e. that it is an analytical statement (true by definition). Or you submit to a test and agree, prior to the test, on certain conditions that must not be met if your belief is correct.

    In case one, a philosophically informed person should point out that your belief conveys no information and cannot lead to knowledge. It may be inspiring, lead to interesting ideas etc., like e.g. literature and art in general do, all of which is important—but it does not lead to reliable knowledge about the real world that all of us share.

    In case two, either you accept that your belief must change in the face of countervailing evidence or you open yourself up to charges of dishonesty—which ideally can be settled by looking at simple facts, such as the readings of a certain instrument. Then, if the test doesn’t go your way, you can only renege on a prior agreement or deny the reality of publicly checkable facts. The only intellectually reputable way out of that particular dilemma would be to come up with an actual good explanation for why the agreed-upon test was actually not fair—for which concept there are objective criteria, namely that your new explanation must be hard to vary and must have higher informational content (i.e. be more restrictive) than the one used for the test.

    I think making such discussions about these crucial concepts—information, knowledge, and honesty—can help clarify a lot of people’s thinking. At least for some of those on the sidelines.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted November 9, 2012 at 9:09 am | Permalink

      Obviously it is about the evidence and how it is factually known to relate to the world – so therefore philosophy!?

      No, I can’t see how the latter is useful, we know the previous anyway. Even better, we know science works and non-empirical methods doesn’t from experience alone.

      I think dragging in yet another non-empirical method is muddying the issue and creating unnecessary gaps. The religious could point to that.

      In fact, that is what the deists use to do – philosophy (or its theological equivalent), therefore equivocation.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted November 9, 2012 at 9:16 am | Permalink

      Sorry, I meant equivalence.

  6. Posted November 9, 2012 at 8:30 am | Permalink

    I watched that video, two days ago. It was interesting, but unsurprising. I guess I have spent enough time arguing with creationists to know what to expect.

    • Uncle Ebeneezer
      Posted November 9, 2012 at 7:54 pm | Permalink

      Yeah, it was a bit too Road Rules-y for my taste but still it serves a great purpose. I had no expectation that any of these people would really come around in any major way (they never do.) But it is a fantastic synopsis of some of the better arguments against creationism, explained very well by Jerry and the other contributors. For people in the audience who are beginning to doubt their creationism, this video would be very helpful for nudging them along.

  7. Posted November 9, 2012 at 9:04 am | Permalink

    I’d like to read a more detailed account of your experience as well.

  8. Anthony Paul
    Posted November 9, 2012 at 9:31 am | Permalink

    My favorite alternate theory cartoon is the one that shows Noah’s ark with a cannon mounted on it lobbing a shell at the ark that has the dinosaurs on board.

    • Posted November 9, 2012 at 10:54 am | Permalink

      I was just thinking of that one! It did make me chuckle. The other one I like shows two dinosaurs on land looking at the Ark as it sails off in the distance. One of the dinosaurs is saying “Oh crap! Was that today?”

  9. Hayden
    Posted November 9, 2012 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

    Did anyone do hydrological sorting and varves? I could see a really effective demonstration laying down many small layers, and trying to reproduce that with one large event.

  10. Posted November 9, 2012 at 12:54 pm | Permalink

    I have to admire your patience, Dr. Coyne. I was not able to even watch the video in full lenght, and I am dead certain that after five minutes with these dyehard creationists my head would explode.

    With the exception of JoJo, she seemed able to listen and to think. The others were completely brain-dead.

  11. abrotherhoodofman
    Posted November 9, 2012 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

    When I look at those five creationists in the photo, I see five highly sophisticated, pre-programmed robots. (Like me!)

    My frustration as an atheist comes from the fact that I cannot simply RE-program these robots quickly using language or visual images. They simply don’t respond in real time — overtly, anyway — to the new input I provide to them. Furthermore, they may not ever respond to it.

    Conclusion:

    Paul of Tarsus, kiss my grits.

  12. Mateus
    Posted November 9, 2012 at 6:31 pm | Permalink

    I apologize for the language before hand, but that Phil guy is a fucking wanker. How dare he say that scientists are liars that came up with made up stories so they could live in sin?

    I have a suggestion for that guy, shun all the benefits science and scientists have brought us(since they’re all sinners) and go live in a fucking cave.

  13. MAUCH
    Posted November 9, 2012 at 7:18 pm | Permalink

    Perhaps bill Nyes simple even tones rejoinder is the most effective. When the creationist refuse to accept the existance

  14. Posted November 14, 2012 at 4:25 pm | Permalink

    Check out:

    http://www.landoverbaptist.org/

    Best spoof on the Internet!


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