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The Talk.Origins Archive: Exploring the Creation/Evolution Controversy

The Mirage

Post of the Month: July 2003


Subject:    Re: Suggestion to Judges regarding Nowhere Man
Date:       29 July 2003

On Tue, 29 Jul 2003 12:36:30 +0000 (UTC), Seamus Ma' Cleriec wrote:

>> This is not fair. Your tactict is to drown me in messages so I can't
>> respond. Then when there's no time for me to write a responce you try
>> to end the debate. Instead of wanting an honest and fair debate you
>> just abuse the spirit of the rules and try to call everything. If you
>> do then you can be ashured that you did not really win. You can only
>> win the debate by addressing the real arguements. Now your making me
>> respond to post after post filled with filler. It's not fair and I'm
>> doing my best to respond. I am a busy person and this is the best I
>> can do. Just remember if you call off the debate you did not really
>> win.
>"Drown you in messages" ??? What messages has Lilith posted vis-a-vis
>the debate since late *MAY* are you having trouble with? There has
>been much commentary from the peanut gallery, but considering that you
>really [I think he meant to add the word 'only' here] have to respond
>to Lilith there is no excuse for not responding, other than not being
>able to respond.
>If you really *can't* respond in whole, respond in part - show
>everyone you are making an effort or do the honorable thing and give
>it up.

He's got a good idea there. Take, for example, Lilith's last message that was part of the formal debate thread. Divide it into ten parts, or five, or fifteen, whatever you're comfortable with. Then address one part at a time. While you're at it, you might indicate which parts of the message you believe to be filler.

(The risk there, of course, is that Lilith would very likely reply by explaining why those parts are not filler but an integral part of her argument. She might then re-explain what she said and how it relates to the argument as a whole. This is necessarily going to involve more words, which people will expect you to absorb and reply to in some way. Because that's what you do with the opponent's arguments when you're in a debate.)

I do have some sympathy for the mess you're in, NM. It's a self-inflicted mess, but I can appreciate that it's uncomfortable. I also understand that you were acting in good faith. Here's how it looks to me from the outside:

When you posted your challenge you had the idea that "evolutionism" and "creationism" were roughly parallel ideas about how the biological world works. Especially, that they were about equal in the size and detail of the body of information that they're based on.

That is the part I don't blame you for. Creationist leaders work very hard to give exactly this impression. Since they (creationist leaders) mostly quote each other's works rather than reading the "evolutionist" scientific literature, most of them probably believe this part themselves.

Problem is, when they said that they lied to you. They lied massively.

The totality of what might be called "the creationist literature" is very small and doesn't go into, by scientific standards, much detail at all. "Creation scientists" don't actually do the work of science. They don't spend, for example, six months repeating the Miller-Urey experiments five or six times to see if they really work or not and writing up the results in such great detail that anyone who reads their paper can duplicate the experiment themselves exactly. Instead they just write something for popular consumption saying "The Miller-Urey experiments were awful and bogus and nobody should believe a word of them."

In the short run, this saves them time. They've spent one sentence saying "don't believe Miller-Urey, because I say so" instead of 50 pages providing proof and support. But in the long run, it means someone like you who's at least trying to debate honestly is completely screwed.

Keeping with our same example: You might say "The Miller-Urey experiments are awful and bogus and nobody should believe them." Quoting your creationist sources in good faith. It's the information you've got for your side of the debate, so you use it.

The problem is, at that point Lilith is vastly better armed than you are. She has millions of volumes of published papers which are collectively called "the scientific literature." She can go back to the original Miller-Urey paper and see in detail what they did. She can also read dozens of other papers written since which redo the Miller-Urey experiments with some variation or talk about how they relate to a new experiment, again in huge amounts of detail.

So she naturally replies "What exactly is awful and bogus about the Miller-Urey experiment? Because it looks pretty good when you study it. You see, (fifteen paragraphs of details.)"

At that point, you're stuck. Because "awful, bogus, don't believe them" is all you were given by your creationist sources. You can't look up an equal mass of research to support the creationist view because they didn't do any research. They just asserted "awful, bogus, don't believe it -- take our word for this" and expected you to buy it. You did buy it, and it's you not them who's paying the price in embarrassment.

Worse, it's natural for you (in imitation of your creationist sources) not to just make one assertion like "Miller-Urey -- bogus" at a time but five or ten or more in a single post. It's easy and it doesn't take up much space. But Lilith can go look up details on every single one of those assertions just like she did on the first one. So you post a ten-sentence message, get a 150-paragraph reply, and feel like she's piling on. It's not filler and it's not a personal attack, it's just that treating each assertion honestly involves going into detail.

A metaphor I like to use: creationism is a mirage. From a distance, where you can't see details, a mirage of, say, a hill looks perfectly solid and real. But as you get closer, instead of being able to see more and more detail as you would with a real hill, it just melts away. Actual biology ("evolutionism") is a real hill in the same environment. From a distance, it may look no more solid than the mirage of creationism. But as you get closer, you can see individual rocks and shrubs and animal burrows and so forth -- detail, in short. If you ask someone "describe this hill as it looks from 10 feet away" you're going to get that detail in any honest answer. It's not Lilith's fault that your own hill melts away into a vague heat shimmer at the same distance.

Not your fault either, you didn't start creationism. But it would be more adult to admit "hey, my hill seems to have melted away like a mirage" instead of complaining that having a lot of facts on one side rather than the other makes it an unfair debate. This is what we were trying to warn you about, even if the tone of the warnings wasn't always kind, when you insisted on having this debate in the first place.

Louann Miller

If God wanted us to believe we were related to chimpanzees, he'd have given us DNA 95% identical to theirs.

[Return to the 2003 Posts of the Month]

The Difficulty of Dogmatism

Post of the Month Runner-Up: July 2003


Subject:    Re: Engineer with degree in biochemistry....
Date:       7 July 2003

in article bea3aa$2qntp$, Aron-Ra wrote on 7/6/03 5:08 PM:
> "Raymond E. Griffith" wrote in message
>> in article, Aron-Ra
>> wrote on 7/6/03 1:46 AM:

>>> Does the simple one seem like the kind of person who understands what
>>> he reads? Does he seem like the kind of person who reads anything?
>>> Or understands anything?
>> You've got me there! He doesn't seem like a person who wants to understand.
>> But I keep hoping. Years ago I was deceived by the nonsense he is infected
>> with.
> Then let me ask you in all seriousness, what changed your mind? Or should I
> ask, how did you discover you could change your mind? Because having never
> believed any of this myself, I have no empathy for dogmatists, and no idea
> what mindset they're coming from but I personally feel that they aren't
> honest and couldn't be.

Well, as a former "dogmatist", I have to tell you that it is possible to be an "honest" dogmatist. But only just barely.

You see, I grew up under the teaching that we had "absolute truth". The "world" was portrayed as a dark and sinister place, where everyone and everything was out to corrupt your faith. It was very much like a cult, except more out in the open. I mingled with others, I worked with others. I went to church regularly and listened intently. But with the upbringing and the careful mental padding provided by the absolutists I was with, the outside world was pretty much mentally isolated from me.

Remember that in most cults you have the leader and you have the followers. The sheep were carefully and lovingly tended. We were told to not listen to what others were saying if they did not agree with us. What others said were either dangerous to faith or else not important. What was important was that *we* had the truth. The world had no truth to offer. Why should we expect to find it?

I was under the influence of the King James Only cultists (they believe that the King James Version is the only inerrant Word of God and that all other versions or translations are perverted. Some even claim that you cannot get saved with any other translation! Don't read Elizabethan English? Tough).

> My sincere opinion at this point is that the whole
> and sole strength of their faction is nothing more than denial, aversion,
> obfuscation and a moral inability to admit any error.

Well, that is true of most of them, I think. But not all. I went to a Christian University where I found that many of my notions were not true. The KJV-onlyism was rejected by these people on the basis of understanding history. When I objected, the professor asked "Are you afraid of the truth?" When I replied that I wasn't, he gave this advice: "Well, take this course and learn something. Then make up your mind."

You see, not all fundamentalists are equally dogmatists. It seems strange to one who has never been in it, but there are degrees of dogmatism.

I was in a fundamentalist school, but my dogmatism was being challenged. And having been challenged in a key point, it was rather like a crack in a dam.

Mind you, some people went through this school and parroted whatever they were told without it making any dent in their preconceived ideas. But I had a thirst to know and to be right. This desire for absolute certainty had me doing investigations on my own. Usually I used the approved sources, so the investigations usually only reinforced my dogmatism. But I noticed some difficulties.

These difficulties pushed me into investigations using regular sources, not just the religious sources.

You see, I have two masters degrees in Mathematics. But when I worked under a person who had a Doctorate in Chemistry, I began to realize that there were things about science I had never heard of and had never learned.

He happened to be a good Christian. He told me to look up the definitions of the words I was using and the concepts I was objecting to. Well, he was my boss! So I did it. Lo and behold, I began to see again that my dogmatism had failed me. I had been using the definitions wrong.

Yes, I had participated in some online debates on usenet. I was never the obnoxious punk (and I hated that there were such people online who claimed to be Christians). I put out the standard arguments and objected to many of the offered explanations. But the seeds of the destruction of my dogmatism had already sprouted.

The obnoxious punks helped. While I was in a dogmatist sect, they were really pretty reasonable people for the most part. Obnoxious behavior was a sure sign of a weak argument, a weak faith, a weak mind, and a weak morality. And I saw a pattern. For the most part, the scientists on usenet were reasonable people. The so-called Christians crusading for creationism were generally obnoxious. They degenerated quickly into name-calling and taunting. There was no "reason" in their reasoning. There was obvious malice! If the Christians taking this position I held had to resort to this level of behavior, then something was wrong!

So fueled by these observations and an ever-driving desire to be right and to know, I continued my search.

> Look at Nowhere Man's
> ongoing desperation for example. Unable to win even if he cheats, and
> unable to escape without losing by default, he's forced to squirm in the
> middle for eternity because he is also not permitted to concede defeat
> honestly. At least that's how it appears to me.

I agree. Remember, he has been told he has absolute truth. Faced with the fact that he does not have absolute truth he is in a quandary.

He may not have a support structure that will allow him to let go of his dogmatism gradually like I had. If he concedes that his understanding is faulty his faith may crumble to dust. Many an atheist has been born that way. Since the prospect of losing his faith may mean going to hell (the fear of hell is ingrained at an early age!), he resists. He may go to his sources. Or he may resort to taunts and insults. Remember, if anything you say actually matters he believes he is being tempted by the Devil.

The creationist is generally ignorant enough of the real world that he lives in that anything a person with a secular viewpoint says is not really understood. The creationist lives in a reductio ad absurdum world. Everything is really simple, no matter how complex. Complexity is merely a clouding of the issues. If you believe you have absolute truth, complexity is falsehood since truth is simple.

So he has an honest dilemma. He honestly believes he is right, but his belief in his belief is more important than the belief itself. Since this is under attack, he is in trouble. His attempts to escape the dilemma without confronting the fact that he is wrong are, of course, dishonest. But he doesn't see this. He has put up this desperate mental barrier that he cannot cross without devastating his self-concept and his faith. You are essentially correct that it is "denial, aversion, obfuscation and a moral inability to admit any error", but it is more than that.

> That's why they're always
> so hesitant to answer any questions. In all my debates with them, I've
> noticed that inarguable losses are snipped and ignored (to be revived later
> on) but no point is ever actually conceded.

Yep. I noticed that. My armor of dogmatism was cracking at the time, so I was able to notice it. Had I not been able to think otherwise, I would have used the shotgun approach myself.

Again, the objections to their arguments do not matter to them. They have been mentally conditioned to ignore it. If their "righteous" argument does not work, why they have more of them, and they hope that surely one of them will break you down. They are not here to learn. They are here to teach others the truth. Remember, they have absolute truth, so they don't have anything to learn at all!

To them the shotgun approach is not dishonest, it is prudent. They do not debate because it is not their function. They will not weigh evidence you present, because in their mind you have no evidence. Either you are deceived or are a deceiver. If they think you are deceived they will play with you. If they think you are a deceiver they will revile you. After all, Satan and his messengers are destined for hell and have no hope for redemption.

> They cannot ...MUST not allow
> that 2LoT or flood arguments or any other single claim of their debates to
> be admitted lost EVEN if they already know for sure why these arguments are
> invalid.

Well, you can tell them why their arguments are invalid. But their worldview prohibits them from considering that you might be right even for an instant.

They do not stop to consider that science and progress in it are evident in the world around them. And they do not think of the complexity in the world around them. Everything is simple (it has to be if you know everything!). They just can't admit to themselves that anything someone who disagrees with them might be right.

Me? I had a recognized authority ask me if I was afraid of the truth. I had been in a very dogmatic position, but I moved into one that was less so. I had been challenged to learn something -- and I did.

> So to test that idea, let me ask you; if you ever engaged in these
> debates when you were a creationist, did you feel forbidden to concede any
> point at any level?

It was hard at times. And at times I did feel forbidden to concede. After all, my opponents just had to be wrong, no matter how reasonable they were.

But again, my armor of dogmatism had already been cracked. And once the crack occurs, it is awfully hard to patch it up. Once you realize you don't know it all it is awfully hard to pretend that you do.

I am pretty much convinced that many of these people are suffering from cracked armor syndrome. They are so desperate to patch it that they become positively vitriolic. After all, if a reasonable faith does not provide the absolutism that they desire, a more radical faith may be needed. I have also noticed that some fall prey to immorality of various types as they try to maintain their invincibility in the arena in which they are being challenged. It has something to do with shifting the area of vulnerability, and "private" sins like porn are a lot easier to ignore than "public" sins like believing in evolution.

As I said, I had a support network that let me down easily. Not that they intended to do that, but it worked that way anyway.

I am still a Christian. I still go to church. I study the Scriptures. I also study science. I still have an intense desire to know and be right, but I also realize that I will never know everything or be right about everything.

I hope this helps you understand me -- and them -- a bit better. Thanks for asking.

Raymond E. Griffith

[Return to the 2003 Posts of the Month]

Science Is Tricky Stuff

Post of the Month Honorable Mention: July 2003


Date:       22 July 2003

I've just spent 12 hours today at the lab, and I'm nearly done putting together my first scientific research paper ("Photocatalytic Synthesis of Copper Colloids from Cu(II) by the Ferrihydrite Core of Ferritin"). Few things I've ever done have been so difficult and rewarding as writing up a year's worth of experiments.

Now, I think that a paper for a year's worth of work is pretty good for a slacker undergraduate like myself, but to think that my boss has got ~20 papers in the oven for this year alone makes me cringe. He goes through this hell of polishing prose, re-doing experiments, getting the computer to understand your TEM .tif files twenty times this year. Ick. Do I want to be doing this for a living? My job seems really hard, and my boss's seems a hundred times harder. And I haven't even got to the peer review bit, yet.

Further, this isn't even the experiments part--doing a good experiment is harder, in some ways, than the writing. And then just understanding the subject matter--how can I understand Mie theory if I don't know what a complex refractive index is, or even how to think about electromagnetic fields?

Well, of course this is what I want to do ... Rainier Maria Rilke once wrote, "That something is difficult must be one more reason for us to do it." So I'll deal with the tedium of writing (and get better at writing, doing experiments, and being organized while I'm at it) and I'll get to be a scientist. (Shining a light on a solution to make something as beautiful as a copper colloid, particle size ~20 nm, which is deep red--Zinfandel-y, almost--is one of the frickin' coolest things I have ever even heard of.)

But the difficulty of science for me really makes me think I know why some people can't believe evolution occurs. If science is hard for scientists, it must be even more so than folks with other jobs. I mean, imagine not knowing what an allele is! How could "change in allele frequency in a population over generations" mean that all mammals could share a single ancestor, if you don't know what an allele is?

It's tricky for me, sometimes, to grasp the subtlety of that little definition of evolution, even though I did really well in my genetics and evolution classes (thanks in no small part to a certain newsgroup and associated web site). A few weeks ago I was wondering a silly question: how could changes in the frequency of alleles lead to the vast differences in morphology of two closely related animals, say, a St. Bernard and a dachshund? Well, the reason it was a silly question is because I should have already known the answer, or at least had a reasonable explanation. Developmental genes have alleles, too, and they may certainly have very different effects on what shape and size an animal is, and where its toes, claws and teeth end up in relation to its limbs, and how furry it is, and everything else. Luckily for me, I'll be taking a development class this fall, and hopefully I'll be learning a little about this kind of thing.

Now, of course, an allele that makes one dog furrier than another really isn't a big difference between the two dogs--it's certainly not as big as the difference between a St. Bernard and a dachshund, and not anywhere close to the difference between a penguin and a meadowlark. But, as a thought experiment, say that a population splits from a parent population, and that one new allele for some gene arises and is fixed in the daughter population every 100 years. Now, for a 30,000-gene genome, the daughter population could fix a completely new allele for every gene in the genome in only 3 million years. Every one of its 30,000 genes could be related to but different from those in the parent population. As time goes by, different populations fix different alleles, and so they end up looking and acting differently than the parent population, and as even more time goes by, they invent some new strategy like venom or the ability to swim, and they end up with vastly different structures than other populations descended from the same parent species.

Kinda makes me wonder, how many different alleles were fixed in the line that led to cats versus the line that led to dogs, since these lines split from their common ancestor oh so many millions of years ago?

I don't think that we can expect people to have really thought deeply about alleles--in fact, I think that most people have no clue any such thing exists. Not all folks can clone the coat protein gene of a virus from a thermal environment into E.coli, or measure the X-ray magnetic circular dichroism of FePt particles--nor should they be able to. They have other jobs besides being a scientist.

Even so--is it reasonable to expect people to be scientifically literate, maybe to the point that they've thought deeply about "change in allele frequency in a population over generations"? I think so, and the way science is presented in public schools should be improved.

Dan Ensign

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