Abbie Smith debates creationist Steve Kern

Update: A video of the debate is now up on YouTubue; and yes, it is a rout for Kern and a win for Abbie:

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On Thursday fellow “blogger” Abbie Smith, aka erv—a graduate student who studies endogenous retroviruses—debated evolution with conservative pastor Steve Kern at the Oklahoma City Community College. The debate was sponsored by the Oklahoma City Chapter of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State.

Red Dirt Report describes the fracas, which, if the site is to be believed, was a rout for Kern and a victory for Abbie. A few snippets from the report:

This year, Kern took up the challenge again, this time debating whether “intelligent design” should be taught in public schools, something his opponent – Abbie Smith, a doctoral candidate in microbiology and immunology at the University of Oklahoma – disagreed with.

After introductions by the Rev. Jim Shields of the Interfaith Alliance of Oklahoma, Kern kicked off the debate by giving a rather rambling opening statement that, among other things, had him proclaiming “neo-Darwinism is a dying theory” and that “education is about having other points of view.”

“Since removing God from the schools, public education has suffered,” Kern said.

As Kern looked down at his notes, seemingly nervous and unprepared, Smith sat next to him, smiling confidently. She would soon have her turn, standing behind the lectern and giving a snazzy PowerPoint presentation that clearly explained

With images of reactionary book burnings and an artist rendering of Jesus coddling a baby dinosaur accompanying her notes that appeared on two screens, Smith’s classroom approach was smart, witty and informative in comparison to Kern’s rigid, fundamentalist approach. . .

When Smith concluded her introduction, Kern sarcastically congratulated her and explained that children are not taught the difference between microevolution and macroevolution and how the former “is the ability of species to make chamges within the limits set by the parameters encoded in the DNA of specific species” while the latter is the “unobserved process of one species changing into a totally different species.”

Noting a bill that his legislator wife, State Rep. Sally Kern (R-Oklahoma City) has pushed, addressing “academic freedom,” Kern said all it would do is “allow teachers to point out discrepancies” in scientific theories, such as the theory of evolution.

At this point, Kern then got startlingly emotional, asking Smith and the audience, “Why are they upset about children learning about God?” He then added, “You can’t compartmentalize your faith, your education … they are all things, that are part of who you are.”

Because it’s against the First Amendment, you moron! Kern then went on to use a version of the “why-are-there-stlll-monkeys” argument:

Kern also said the theory of evolution was a “lie … (they) have been teaching and preaching and proselytizing for 70 years …”

This is where Kern began to argue that evolution – at least macroevolution – doesn’t make sense because “viruses are still viruses” and other organisms are still what they have always been … “You’re talking about adaptation here,” he told her.

Smith went on to talk further about viruses, while Kern sat there with a sour look on his face, coming back to tell her that “You go back and viruses are viruses … they may have adapted … they are still viruses.”

. . . “If evolution is true, why are so many people asking about its validity,” asked Kern.

The debate wound up with a Q&A:

During a question-and-answer portion, following the conclusion of the debate, one of the questions had to do with God and that if there was a God, wouldn’t the study of evolution expose His existence?

Smith thought about it and said, “Theoretically.”

Kern, of course, said that if a design is revealed, then logically there must be a “designer.”

This is one time when Abbie failed to score big.  “Theoretically,” is a confusing answer. I would have responded, “Yes, the study of evolution has given evidence against the existence of God, for no Designer God would have used the wasteful and incredibly painful process of natural selection to forge His creations, nor would He have pointlessly led 99% of all species that ever lived to a final extinction.  If a beneficent and omnipotent God wanted to bring things into being, natural selection—with all the incalculable and pointless suffering it brings to innocent animals—would have been the last process He would have used.  And, of course, there are all those design flaws, like the small birth canals of women. . . ”

Kern, apparently, failed to grasp the elementary tenet of evolution that natural selection gives the appearance of design without the need for a designer. Nous n’avons pas besoin de cette hypothèse-là.

Kudos to Abbie, who, unlike other students, is using her spring break productively.

Student Abbie and Pastor Kern (Andrew W. Griffin / Red Dirt Report)

UPDATE: The Oklahoma City Biblical Examiner has a different (and poorly-written) take on the debate. LOL!:

At one point, Ms. Smith said that, if evolution were proven false, all science would be useless and she would have no reason to go to work the next day.  It is unclear whether she was referring to macro-evolution or micro-evolution.  Macro-evolution is an unobservable hypothesis which supposedly took place in the far distant past.  It has no bearing on observable science today.

The Biblical Examiner needs to learn the difference between “unobservable” and “we can see it happening in real time with our own eyes.” One can certainly observe feathered dinosaurs in the fossil record around 140 million years ago, as well as a gazillion “mammal-like reptiles” and “fishapods.” And then there are those annoying early hominins . . .

52 Comments

  1. Steve Smith
    Posted March 17, 2012 at 1:23 pm | Permalink

    rawr!

    the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to those who are like these raptors.

    • Posted March 17, 2012 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

      I still haven’t broken the news to my dinosaur-mad 4yo daughter that dinosaurs not only didn’t go “rawr”, but probably didn’t make any vocal sounds at all. Maybe the parasaurolophuses honked. Sigh.

      (Her very favourite day out in the whole world is a visit to the Natural History Museum, with the diplodocus as you go in, so I figure we’re doing something right.)

      • Achrachno
        Posted March 17, 2012 at 8:36 pm | Permalink

        The living species of dinosaur are mostly pretty vocal. Are we sure all the extinct ones were quiet? Other modern “reptiles” commonly hiss or roar too. I concede that turtles are fairly quiet, as are many (but not all) lizards and snakes.

        • Posted March 18, 2012 at 12:25 am | Permalink

          Just watch a Gallapagos tortoise having sex, then tell me they are fairly quiet 😉

          • salahhe
            Posted March 18, 2012 at 4:17 am | Permalink

            . . . “If evolution is true, why are so many people asking about its validity,” asked Kern.

            That is so ironic. I wonder how come nobody pointed out that the same thing can be said about the god Jehovah.

          • Achrachno
            Posted March 18, 2012 at 3:58 pm | Permalink

            OK. Point cheerfully conceded. Big animals with large lungs should often make some sort of sound, it seems to me.

        • Posted March 18, 2012 at 1:23 am | Permalink

          Reasonably sure, sadly. As far as we can tell only later in the bird line did they evolve a syrinx (the larynx is a separate mammalian evolution). And many modern lizards are silent. The Wikipedia summary is pretty concise.

        • Posted March 18, 2012 at 1:29 am | Permalink

          And here is a reconstructed parasaurolophus call, based on the resonance of the chambers in the horn. The parasaurolophus is the 4yo’s favourite dinosaur, ever since our friend Paul Riddell sent us a beanie baby parasaurolophus in one of his ridiculously huge Christmas parcels. IT’S ALL HIS FAULT!

          • S A GOULD
            Posted March 18, 2012 at 10:55 am | Permalink

            cool! thank you!

          • Achrachno
            Posted March 18, 2012 at 3:56 pm | Permalink

            Thanks. I’d seen discussion of Parasaurolophus crests and their potential function on a program, and that’s part of the reason I was wondering.

            I wondered if researchers thought dinosaurs were silent because of throat structures, but I also wondered about their ears. I went digging a bit and found this.

            http://sciencestage.com/v/948/dinosaurs-hearing.html

            Maybe they just made really low sounds, and nothing too elaborate, but were not truly silent?

  2. Scote
    Posted March 17, 2012 at 1:36 pm | Permalink

    Ah, yes. Evolution is impossible, except when necessary to recreate all the species from the “kinds” on the ark, all in a mere 4,000 years.

    I’m still waiting for creationists to demonstrate the magic mechanism that suddenly stops “micro”-evolution from continuing to change a species. It is as if they argue that, of course, walking a single step is possible, but that that it is impossible to walk a mile or thousands of miles over a longer period of time. :-p

    • Malachi
      Posted March 17, 2012 at 2:25 pm | Permalink

      I always give the example of walking from Lexington, KY to Knoxville, TN. During such a journey, one will take a lot of steps and with one of those steps, one will cross the entirely artificial and arbitrary Kentucky/Tennessee boundary. Yet, that step will not be any different than any other step.

      Personally, I think we are not aggressive enough as to attacking their macro-evolution argument. They are making a claim, and as an hypothesis, they should be made to defend it. What is this barrier that stops macro-evolution from occuring?

      Make them put their cards on the table.

      • Jonathan Wallace
        Posted March 18, 2012 at 4:19 am | Permalink

        Nice analogy! I suppose the only thing that one needs to be careful of though is that there is still that clear (albeit arbitrary and artificial) line that says unequivocally Kentucky one side and Tennessee the other. To the obtuse creationist this could be taken as suggesting that there is a similar point where a parent is unequivocally one species and its offspring another which clearly is not the case (our obtuse creationist would probably take it further and suggest that evolutionary theory requires this ‘moment of speciation’ to be some absurd jump from say a fish to a flamingo ;-)).

        • Posted March 18, 2012 at 11:07 am | Permalink

          There’s are fairly clear lines between Lancaster-humans and York-humans, and for similarly arbitrary reasons.

      • Diane G.
        Posted March 19, 2012 at 12:11 am | Permalink

        If there’s Tennessee, why is there still Kentucky?!

    • DV
      Posted March 18, 2012 at 8:18 am | Permalink

      “the magic mechanism that suddenly stops “micro”-evolution from continuing to change a species”

      It’s God.
      Evolution can’t happen because God won’t allow it. Therefore Creationism is true! 🙂

    • Reginald Selkirk
      Posted March 18, 2012 at 1:01 pm | Permalink

      microevolution … “is the ability of species to make changes within the limits set by the parameters encoded in the DNA of specific species”

      But if the parameters are encoded in DNA, surely they can be changed by mutation or alteration of the DNA. What an idiot.

  3. Posted March 17, 2012 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

    If it was really about the state of the science, then why do they obsessively bring God into the debate?

    • Posted March 18, 2012 at 7:01 am | Permalink

      Because for them ‘god’ is the ultimate ‘explanation’ and self-fulfilling ‘purpose’ of existence, no matter what science helped us discover since Galileo…

  4. Posted March 17, 2012 at 2:16 pm | Permalink

    “Macro-evolution is an unobservable hypothesis which supposedly took place in the far distant past. It has no bearing on observable science today.”

    Macro-evolution is *why* we can observe in the first place.

  5. Malachi
    Posted March 17, 2012 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

    I always give the example of walking from Lexington, KY to Knoxville, TN. During such a journey, one will take a lot of steps and with one of those steps, one will cross the entirely artificial and arbitrary Kentucky/Tennessee boundary. Yet, that step will not be any different than any other step.

    Personally, I think we are not aggressive enough as to attacking their macro-evolution argument. They are making a claim, and as an hypothesis, they should be made to defend it. What is this barrier that stops macro-evolution from occuring?

    Make them put their cards on the table.

    • Malachi
      Posted March 17, 2012 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

      Well, I’m not sure what happened. My above post was suppose to be a reply to Scote. But, when I submitted it, it said I had to log into WordPress. Why? Further more, it provided no way to log in.

      That’s annoying.

      • Marella
        Posted March 17, 2012 at 3:18 pm | Permalink

        This is happening a lot, try another email address.

    • Posted March 19, 2012 at 9:06 am | Permalink

      This is something I’ve been doing recently. I’m taking an entomology class right now with other prospective teachers. The professor was far too accomodating after saying that evolution happens.

      When micro and macro came up I unequivocally said that there was no line keeping the two apart. The creationist in the room didn’t have a good response (supposedly, he’ll be teaching Chem) but minutes earlier I had said that people who do not accept evolution shouldn’t be in the classroom.

      • Diane G.
        Posted March 20, 2012 at 1:13 am | Permalink

        I’ll bet the professor is delighted to have students speak up regarding areas s/he’s maybe constrained from addressing as forthrightly as s/he might wish to do so.

        Much of academia’s become a strange entity of late, regarding students as “clients” and endeavoring not to upset same. Bleah. Is there no place to escape the business model?

  6. Posted March 17, 2012 at 2:36 pm | Permalink

    I really enjoyed Abbie’s debate with – not sure I can remember his name – I think it’s Dr. Jackson – he calls himself “Dr. J, the Creation Douche.” Dang it – I mean *dude* – (why do I keep making that mistake with his name?) Anyway – was this debate filmed for YouTube by any chance? I’m watching all the debates on this subject I possibly can – I’m debating Eric Hovind in May and it will be my first debate ever. I’m moderately terrified of bungling it.

    • darrelle
      Posted March 17, 2012 at 2:53 pm | Permalink

      Good luck! If stage fright inhibits you, just imagine him naked, except for the hot pink garter and stilettos, whilst preaching against gay rights.

    • John
      Posted March 17, 2012 at 3:17 pm | Permalink

      This is Ms. Smith’s debate with this Jackson fellow. Good luck at your debate!

    • SimBri
      Posted March 17, 2012 at 3:25 pm | Permalink

      Good luck with that, stick to your points and you’ll be fine – his dishonesty will make itself clear. What is the motion to be debated?

      • Dermot C
        Posted March 17, 2012 at 4:58 pm | Permalink

        Good luck, Beth; there’s a website – ‘http://www.archive.org/details/MichaelShermerSchoolsEricHovindInADebate’, could be good to anticipate and rebut his arguments. Why not contact Shermer, who is a friendly approachable guy, and who debated him in order to get a ‘feel’ for what it’s like. Again, all the best.

  7. Posted March 17, 2012 at 3:00 pm | Permalink

    “Conservative? That was very kind of you. It’s much softer than the unvarnished truth: “delusional, fact-denying, myth-addled ignoramus.”

    It’s such a pity that these buffoons stand like titanium roadblocks in the path of enlightenment. It just makes you want to scream sometimes.

  8. Posted March 17, 2012 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

    “…“education is about having other points of view.” -Pastor Kern

    No it snot! Education is (or should be) about learning logic (how to think) and facts (what to think about) so that one can assess different points of view for merit (or lack thereof) when one is confronted by different points of view.

    And the Pastor KNOWS that education is not about having other points of view; you can test that by asking Pastor Kern how he feels about having an atheist come into Sunday School classes and presenting the point of view of secular humanism.

    • Marella
      Posted March 17, 2012 at 3:20 pm | Permalink

      Or a Muslim come and present the ‘evidence’ for Islam.

  9. Michael Hopkins
    Posted March 17, 2012 at 6:06 pm | Permalink

    Ms. Smith described ERVs inserting themselves into the genome resulting in shared ERVs in humans, chimps, etc. Rev. Kern thought that was microevolution though it is an obvious demonstration that humans, chimps, etc. have a common ancestor. Ms. Smith seemed perplexed with Rev. Kern’s misunderstanding and tried to make it simpler for him but to no avail. He simply was unable to comprehend the material that Ms. Smith presented.

    And as someone who replied in the Gazette in response to Kern’s claim that all phyla appeared at once, it really annoying to see him repeat the claim.

    If Ms. Smith is to be faulted, it is that she should have not let Rev. Kern’s fossil claims go unchallenged. Otherwise, she utterly crushed Kern. Indeed Rev. Kern got laughs at his expense a few times because his arguments where just that bad.

    • Larry Gay
      Posted March 18, 2012 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

      Come on everybody, give Abbie a big round of applause. Thank you, thank you, thank you, Abbie.

      • Achrachno
        Posted March 18, 2012 at 3:44 pm | Permalink

        Yes, THANK YOU!!

      • Diane G.
        Posted March 19, 2012 at 12:16 am | Permalink

        Clap, clap, clap!

  10. Lenoxus
    Posted March 17, 2012 at 6:20 pm | Permalink

    Why are there quotes around “blogger” in the original post here? I assume it’s not meant as a slight against Smith’s blogging skills.

    If it is, well, I’m not very familiar with Smith’s blog and have no opinion about it, but that particular misusage of scarequotes to mean “this is something I dislike” is a pet peeve of mine. It’s distinct from using quotes for emphasis, but it’s just as dumb. (Example: if you think Jones is a dishonest politician then it’s correct to sarcastically say “Jones is an ‘honest man’ “, but not “Jones is a ‘politician’ “, since it’s not as if you intend to say that Jones is not really a politician.

    Still, I’m guessing that it’s just because “blogger” is still a relatively new term or something. (That’s a usage I’m okay with.) So, pointless rant over.

    You can say something like

    • Lenoxus
      Posted March 17, 2012 at 6:22 pm | Permalink

      Ah, Muphry’s law strikes again! Ignore that last “paragraph” of mine. It’s a bit of junk DNA, so to speak.

    • Dermot C
      Posted March 17, 2012 at 6:30 pm | Permalink

      Lenoxus, I think it’s a reference to the running gag over whether WEIT is a blog or a website; I’m sure there is no slight intended.

      • Diane G.
        Posted March 19, 2012 at 12:18 am | Permalink

        Exactly.

    • ahannaasmi
      Posted March 17, 2012 at 10:50 pm | Permalink

      In one of the corridors in our computer science department building, there used to be a sign saying:

      Please “do not” use quotation marks for emphasis.

      Please do not use quotation marks for emphasis.

      • Torbjörn Larsson
        Posted March 18, 2012 at 4:40 am | Permalink

        The wisdom of Friends:

        – How are “you” doing!?

        – How are you doing!?

  11. Torbjörn Larsson
    Posted March 18, 2012 at 4:38 am | Permalink

    Kudos to Abbie, who, unlike other students, is using her spring break productively.

    This is a tactic where atheists are divided, it seems to me. If I understand correctly, some people feel it is productive and lowering the public opinion of creationists to debate creationists, while there are others that feel it is unproductive and giving them public legitimacy.

    I don’t know of any science on public strategies!? But Jason Rosenhouse has dug up some references on science of advertising. What pops up out of it, used as a point for vocal atheism and against accommodationism in general, is this:

    “Repetition is one way to increase visual fluency and hence appeal. The more people see something, the more they like it. “Advertisers intuitively know that exposing people repetitively to the same stimulus increases liking,” says Winkielman. “That’s one of the reasons they show the same ad over and over again.””

    On that basis I don’t think we should encourage debates with crackpots, it gives them appeal. There is also research showing that people remember the terms, not the analysis, hence “creationism” is connected to biology.

    We should certainly repeat over and over again that evolution is the uncontested science explaining the origins of species and traits, including men and mind. I am more doubtful we should overly fixate on creationists (as opposed to, say, racists).

    What is the harm in saying it as it is: they are crackpots, it isn’t science or education, they are unconstitutional, it isn’t a debate, and so on? According to Rosenhouse’s article there should be no harm but possible gain, while the often adopted way could be without gain but with harm.

    • Torbjörn Larsson
      Posted March 18, 2012 at 4:46 am | Permalink

      Reading my comment, I should have taken off the disclaimers and put up the personal disclaimer that I am not necessarily divided on this. Debate is fun, but is it productive?

      Note that I am using “crackpot” in the scientific sense. Maybe there are too many US creationist crackpots to name them public “crackpots”? In which case “deluded fools” and “willing sheep” is more like a public description.

    • Diane G.
      Posted March 19, 2012 at 12:21 am | Permalink

      Excellent point, well worth repeating.

    • Posted March 19, 2012 at 11:24 am | Permalink

      I liked The Debunking Handbook’s approach (http://www.skepticalscience.com/docs/Debunking_Handbook.pdf) to maximize the ability for debunking side of the argument to “stick”.

      Sometimes, I wonder whether the “double down on the stupid” effect we encounter is due in part to a heightened need to prove the debunking wrong, leading people deeper into the online quackpologist mire. That being said, based on any number of ‘convert’s letters’ and phone-ins on the Thinking Atheist that it occasionally leads right out of the swamp.

  12. saguhh00
    Posted March 18, 2012 at 5:43 am | Permalink

    People need to understand that “design” is an abstract category that we made up. There is no such thing as design in the real world. The reason we can recognize design is because we see machines and other things that are designed be made all the time. We live in a society where we see watches, machines, paintings, etc all the time, but to members of a society without technology, watches and airplanes don’t seem to be obviously designed. There was a tribe of Melanesians who tried to hatch a bomb because they thought it was an airplane egg. To them, the closest thing to an airplane is a bird, so airplanes were birds and bombs were their eggs.

  13. Aratina Cage
    Posted March 21, 2012 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

    She debated Sally Kern’s husband? Sally Kern, the bigot extraordinaire who said that gay people are more dangerous than terrorists as a threat to the USA? Huh.

    He sure is a rambling mess in his opening. I just started listening to Smith’s part. Her speaking skills are far superior and her presentation is easy to follow. It did kind of bug me that she said she has “nothing against religion” at the beginning, though. I understand it might have been said out of politeness or to remove it as an issue from the debate, but it was a surprising admission to hear from her, and she is debating Sally Kern’s husband–it was far too kind to say in the presence of that man.


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