Anti-Science

I didn’t listen and I don’t regret a thing.

Last night I went to Skeptics in the Pub, London, as usual, but ended up doing something out of character. I left a few minutes into the talk because I thought the speaker was talking such utter rot, not only was it pointless me continuing to listen, but it would actually have a negative impact on me. That is, it would put me in a crappy mood for the rest of the night, and would make me despair slightly about the state of lunacy in the UK and elsewhere. I simply chose to not listen. I don’t think it’s right to blind and deafen oneself to arguments one finds unpalatable, but in this case I made an exception.

The speaker was Paul Taylor from Answers in Genesis, a ‘brave’ Creationist and ex-science teacher who had agreed to face a skeptic crowd even though, as he acknowledged, he was unlikely to convince us of anything and vice versa. He was affable enough, but the first thing out of his mouth was such utter rot, I had to just throw up my hands and walk. This is what he said, more or less:

A BBC poll indicates that only 49% of the British public believe evolution is the origin of life. Given the theory of evolution has been around for over 150 years, doesn’t that tell us something?

Yes, he started his talk by citing an opinion poll. Then he made the dumbest argument I’ve ever heard, that the popularity or understanding of a scientific theory amongst the public may somehow be a reflection on its trueness. Finally, as my friend pointed out, if we’re playing that game, his theory of the origin of life is over 2000 years old and yet Christianity is less popular than ever in the UK, and worldwide is hardly the biggest religion. If he wants to use the outcome of a popularity contest as evidence, Christian Creationism automatically fails.

At this point I left.

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35 Comments

  1. I must admit that I probably would have as well. There is only so much BS that I can handle, and that about tips the scale. I have nothing against listening to arguments and positions contrary to mine, but when someone walks into a group of skeptics, points out that he/she probably won’t sway anyone’s position (meaning that his/her position is most likely equally un-sway-able) and then proceeds to use an argument that features a fallacy learned in an intro to logic course, I generally view that as a waste of my time which could be better used elsewhere doing something else.

  2. I don’t blame you for leaving, and it was only through a combination of factors that I remained. I’d come a long way, first and foremost, and spent enough money on getting there to want to make the most of it. Also, it’s likely to have been my last SitP (in London anyway) for quite some time as I’m moving to Wolverhampton next month.

    The rest of his talk was of similar caliber to the start, so you didn’t miss anything you couldn’t have guessed at anyway; it was the usual trick of firing out a great volume of information with very little depth.

    The Q&A was more entertaining, but of course none of his answers were even remotely coherent, when they took the form of answers at all.

    In all, I’m glad I went, if only as reassurance that these people really don’t have any sensible points to make, and also that there are good, rational sceptics out there who are prepared and very capable of countering everything they say.

  3. Didn’t anyone play Bulls*** bingo with his statements or “count the logical fallacy’s” game. At least then, you could have had a betting pool and made something out the evening.
    Hope we get an ‘person’ like that at the Leicester Skeptic in the pub.

  4. I would have pointed out that the New Testament has been around for 1700 years but polls show only 20% of Earthlings believe in it. We seem to be doing better than them using his own metric.

  5. Actually–and I hate to point this out–Christianity is very much the world’s most popular religion.

    I used to the make the opposite argument, too: that there are just too many people in India and China who aren’t Christian for it to be possible that Christianity is the most popular religion, but the statistics quickly invalidate this “logic”. As far as any statistical analysis can tell, Christianity is around 50% more prevalent (33% vs 20%) than Islam, and almost treble (13%) that of Hinduism. Wikipedia sums it up, but there are lots and lots of sources for these data.

    Hey, I don’t like it either. And it doesn’t prove anything, as we all know. But I just thought we, as skeptics, shouldn’t be saying untruths.

    Sorry. : |

  6. I saw that speaker on the event calendar and wondered how it was going to go. I’m with you, Teek – I have a very low tolerance for stupidity and I don’t really subscribe to the whole “Know Thy Enemy” thing. It’s a waste of time to hear the same stupid arguments over again and there is a toll because it makes you annoyed and frustrated. You probably lasted longer than I did :)

  7. Thanks JRice, that’s useful. I do, however, automatically find self-reported statistics about religion suspicious, if only because I know that Census data has a ‘big brother’ factor that has nothing to do with actual belief and everything to do with how people want to be perceived officially. For example, far far more people in the UK self-identify as ‘Christian’ in Census data than actually go to church, pray, or do anything to suggest they really are Christian. In addition, the speaker’s own poll had Creationism as an explanation of the origin of life at a far smaller percentage than Evolution, so he’s wrong even if Christianity is the most popular religion. But thanks for the stats, I was certainly under the impression that Islam equalled if not exceeded Christianity (the actual numbers are 1.1 billion versus 1.9 billion if that wiki article is accurate).

    I think it would be true to claim that Islam is growing while Christianity is in decline though, yes?

  8. The only thing you missed by not staying were his insinuations that Darwin was a racist (by selective highlighting of the subtitle of [i]On The Origin of Species[/i]), his total evasion of all of the questions posed to him, and his claims that as carbon dating only produces dates back to ~60,000 years and that as all comets are only 10,000 years old (!) then the universe is only 6000 years old, with no evidence to say that it is older…

    Before last night I wasn‘t really sure that such people really existed, I’m still not entirely convinced that he wasn’t using a script by Chris Morris.

  9. @Masala Skeptic:

    I agree that it’s a waste of time to hear the same arguments over and over again. But I do believe it’s important to hear the other side of the argument in their own words. We shouldn’t shelter our beliefs by only exposing ourselves to the opinions of other skeptics and their view of the other side.

    Teek – I’m not disagreeing with you. If someone has nothing new to say, listening to them is a waste of our time. I just think we should be careful not to use that reasoning as an excuse to dismiss anyone speaking on a viewpoint different from our own.

  10. As a possibly-useful viewpoint on this matter, I quote my mother who came along with me last night (who does not identify herself as a sceptic, and has not read anything on the subject other than half of The God Delusion). She may have had the most fresh and open mind in the room with regards to the arguments given. I asked her about it afterwards.

    She couldn’t identify any arguments in what the guy said.

  11. I wrote about what I thought of it in detail here

    But my take home thought was that he didn’t care about about people knocking over an individual thing he said (he could just claim he was a generalist and let it go).

    All he cared about was the rate of crap high enough that it all couldn’t be tackled. In an audience like ours that just leads to frustration. But in an audience of the general public, that leaves doubt.

    And doubt is all he needs to win.

  12. @tkingdoll:
    I’m not so sure about Christianity declining. Islam is, no doubt, the fastest growing religion thanks to the view of women mostly as baby making machines in the Islamic world. But there are sects of Christianity (in the US, for example) that are just as leporid-like. Not to mention the mass conversions that Christian missionaries in China, Korea, India, Africa and South America manage to perform every day.

    Also to second Sam’s point, if the speaker’s stats about creationism being less popular than evolution as an explanation for the origin of life are right, that only shows how much evolution is misunderstood. It is a false dichotomy; many scientists are able to reconcile faith and their understanding of evolution precisely because evolution says nothing about the origin of life.

    Frankly, I think the whole argument is a distraction. The best rebuttal would be to simply point out that his logic is flawed. It’s akin to saying that if everyone in class got the theorem wrong, then Pythagoras was a fool.

  13. @Stacey:

    No doubt. I agree totally.

    But it can be difficult to do when one person “has the floor”, and everyone else is unable to participate in the discussion, as would be the case in a one-on-one conversation.

    If there is nothing new being introduced in the talk, we could simply be looking at an hour or more of our lives we’ll never get back. Nothing wrong with stepping out for beer in that situation.

  14. Sam, that was largely my take on it. Had it been a one-to-one discussion, I would have happily listened, made notes, and replied to his points one by one. Without the opportunity to do that, it would have just been frustrating.

  15. @tkingdoll:

    I actually do disagree with that POV. The best way to understand someone else’s POV is to listen to them, which is much better accomplished by hearing them speak, rather than having a conversation with them.

    During a conversation, you are half listening to the person and half crafting your response to refute them. Your ego becomes invested in your POV.

    I believe that skepticism requires a measure of humility – to truly understand the world, we should be open to hearing all points of view. If our POV is solid, it won’t be threatened. And we might actually learn something.

    I do think that, if someone is only rehashing the same old invalid argument, it’s not worth our time to listen. I just think that line of reasoning could easily be used to rationalize dismissal of all divergent views, which isn’t effective skepticism.

  16. Stacey, I think that’s perfectly fair, but I am fairly sure I understand his point of view already. The details would just annoy me if I don’t have the opportunity to correct them. When I was a Christian, evolution was a bad idea because it was “no better than dirty animals” versus “God’s special project, PS you will live forever in heaven”.

  17. And I should point out that I did say that it was exceptional behaviour for me, rather than a point of view. In fact I said ” I don’t think it’s right to blind and deafen oneself to arguments one finds unpalatable, but in this case I made an exception.”

  18. @Stacey:

    I believe that skepticism requires a measure of humility – to truly understand the world, we should be open to hearing all points of view. If our POV is solid, it won’t be threatened. And we might actually learn something.

    Yes, but even in science there is a point where heavy scrutiny becomes counterproductive, and you learn nothing new. After exhaustive study, once the conclusions become clear, to scrutinize the basic points further is just sawing sawdust.

    Plus, it is not invalid to simply deem some ideas ridiculous and a waste of time. People around here invoke invisible unicorns and flying pasta monsters all the time to illustrate that point.

    And when I read the post, it seemed to me that is where Teek was coming from. But I could be wrong, so I’ll shut up now.

  19. @Sam Ogden:

    I don’t disagree. And I covered that here:

    Teek – I’m not disagreeing with you. If someone has nothing new to say, listening to them is a waste of our time. I just think we should be careful not to use that reasoning as an excuse to dismiss anyone speaking on a viewpoint different from our own.

    And here:

    I do think that, if someone is only rehashing the same old invalid argument, it’s not worth our time to listen. I just think that line of reasoning could easily be used to rationalize dismissal of all divergent views, which isn’t effective skepticism.

  20. @AndrewBarton: I agree, and most Christians are not fundmentalists … Even though I’m not a Christian, when I get a chance to discuss the issue with a non-fundamentalist, I try to explore the possibility that evolution is not necessarily inconsistent with their theology.

    I agree with Stacey that you should always try to listen … On the other hand, like Teek, sometimes I’m just not in the mood.

  21. Of course we should listen. We can’t debate intelligently unless we know their point.

    But honestly, how many times can we hear the same thing over and over? If Taylor had anything new to add to the discussion, it would have been on AiG long ago (and likely shredded to component particles long ago too). Given the visibility of that website and how it’s become the Wikipedia of ID supporters, there’s not likely to be much new info forthcoming.

    Sort of like when you’re arguing about God, and the believer’s Certain-Death Doomsday Missile that will make us all repent is… Pascal’s Wager. You just throw your arms in the air and walk off, because not only are you not hearing anything new, you are likely talking to someone who refuses to hear counter-arguments.

    I’d bet that if Taylor had a new argument to unleash, he would have led with it. Since he led with the ol’ argumentum ad populum, you have to assume it’s going to spiral down from there.

    That said, if it had been a talk about the conflict itself and how it has mutated over the years and things like that, that might have been interesting. A creationists’ view of the battle for supremacy in the classrooms and how it’s going from their POV might have been worth sitting through.

    Still, I probably would have stayed. The place where we do the Atlanta SitP has good quesadillas and hummus.

  22. @tkingdoll:

    I do, however, automatically find self-reported statistics about religion suspicious, if only because I know that Census data has a ‘big brother’ factor that has nothing to do with actual belief and everything to do with how people want to be perceived officially. For example, far far more people in the UK self-identify as ‘Christian’ in Census data than actually go to church, pray, or do anything to suggest they really are Christian.

    There’s another factor. About half the number Christians are Catholics, and the Roman Catholic Church counts the number of baptisms as their membership. So, if you’re baptized Catholic (and in Latin America and Europe, nearly everybody is), the RCC counts you as Catholic, even if you don’t identify yourself as such. And they make it very difficult for you to be removed from their records.

  23. @tkingdoll: Yea I think we have a similar thing in NZ, we’re at 34.7 % No religion according to the 2006 census, still its up from 29.6% in the 2001 census, and 5% in 5 years is pretty good news as far as I’m concerned :D

    http://www.stats.govt.nz/NR/rdonlyres/5F1F873C-5D36-4E54-9405-34503A2C0AF6/0/quickstatsaboutcultureandidentity.pdf

    Plus I am fairly sure a significant number of those who’ve put themselves as christian don’t practice much, if at all, but I have no figures to back that up.

  24. Well, I went and stayed for the whole thing.

    Every single topic he covered was accompanied with murmurs of “he’s not going to use that argument is he? Oh dear, he is…”

    He barely answered questions, except to say “I’m not a scientist…” and then evade touching on the points made.

    It was a triumph of special pleading, arguments from ignorance and ignotum per ignotius, with a dash of ad hominem against Darwin thrown in.

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