I think that biologist Richard Dawkins is right in stressing the importance of not enabling the fundamentalist creationist blowhards, of not engaging them in formal debate lest we inadvertently thus raise their pseudo-science to the level of actual academic discourse. This debate in particular has convinced me of that. Holy crap! Not only is it like pulling teeth, this kind of debate format is just ludicrous. Each person gets to speak for twenty-five minutes uninterrupted, then five minutes uninterrupted and then a couple more minutes uninterrupted and then a Q & A period. The key word here is "uninterrupted". I think that a debate where one can't engage the bad logic while it's being dispensed is doomed to be an impotent ballet before it has even begun. By the time you get a chance to respond to a lie, for instance, the immediacy of the bullshit is not the same, so the punch doesn't land as well. Courtesy gets you nowhere. These debates are usually sponsored by campus ministries or churches, so the bulk of its audience has alread made up its mind, anyway. It all just seems like a big show, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing, a PowerPoint double feature where the creationist is not open even to the remotest possibility that he might be wrong about any point at all, no matter how minute. The more of these creationist debates I watch, the more I'm convinced it's a pointless sport. It's easy enough to dismantle a bad creationist argument one on one, point counterpoint, real time, but not in this kind of wait-your-turn format.
Therefore, my intention here is not to counter his spurious attacks on the theory of evolution; that's been done more than adequately so many times already by so many (including Mr Shermer) that for me to try to do so here would be futile. If such an "embarrassment of riches" of evidence as we have collected in the last century and a half has so far not managed to change Hovind's mind about the age of the earth, what makes anyone think they can convince him? I mean, if Stephen Jay Gould can't convince him, what chance do I have? No, all I want to do is point out some of the weird contradictions in Hovind's M.O. These contraditctions are shamefully transparent and ethically reprehensible. Granted, his arguments are specious and full of tendentious assertions from top to bottom, we all know that, and the engineer in me would love to knock some sense into his bovine head (Hovind is the best example we have of an intermediary species between a human and a cow), but right now I just want to focus on his idiosyncratic outward technique, the form rather than the content of his idiocy.
In his opening statement, Hovind says,
I take the position that the Bible is literally true and scientifically accurate. The earth was created in six literal twenty-four-hour days about six-thousand years ago . . .Okay, so he's a Christian fundie. Fine. That's not against the law, I guess. But showing slides quoting Bible verses during a debate about evolution? (he does, mostly from Paul's Epistle to the Romans, but others too) This is religion! - by definition. ¿No? (* ok, hold that thought - we'll come back to it)
A little later on, during his second turn at bat (or "at mic" in this case) he says,
Evolution is stupid (my emphasis). [...] Evolution is the dumbest and most dangerous idea in the history of the world [...] Evolution leads straight to Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, abortion, communism, Marxism, rejection of logic and hell if you don't trust Christ!I'm not kidding, that's a direct quote.
After a little more such ranting he goes on to show a slide on the overhead with the Webster's definition of the word "stupid" and adds, quite emphatically,
Evolution is stupid!
From his manic rant, often so hectic in pace that Shermer quips at one point in his presentation about Hovind being the only guy he's ever seen give a two-hour presentation in a twenty-five minute opening statememnt, I'm selecting these two recurring Hovindisms because they get to the heart of my point in all of this, namely, that Hovind is a hypocrite. And it's not even beneath the surface. It's explicit.
Weird contradiction A: after he has already admitted to holding a religious view (* see above), he goes on to accuse the theory of evolution of being a "religion" and even goes further to insist that because it's a religion, it shouldn't be part of a school's curriculum. Now, any rational person knows that this is a ludicrous thing to claim, but he does claim it.
Let me put my concern this way: Wait a minute, Bub, it's okay for you to promote YOUR religion, but it's not okay for someone else to promote what you "think" theirs is? This is an amazing bit of hypocrisy, a double standard.
Weird contradiction B: later on in his presentation, he complains that proponents of evolutionary theory think that creationists are stupid for holding on to their beliefs, which, incidentally, Shermer never says at all. This is not only a classic example of a strawman, but it's also another of those huge bits of hypocrisy.
Put another way: Hey, Bub, didn't you just explicitly say three times that evolution is stupid? And now you are crying because you think that somebody "might" think that YOU are stupid? (though they never said such a thing)
Do you know what they call that in the psychological sciences?
Actually, It's more than that, it is hypocrisy of a kind that I seldom get to witness in events that purport to be academic presentations.
Way to go bub!
And how about that audience?
When, in the beginning of this particular debate, Shermer playfully asked to see, by show of hands, how many people in the auditorium believe in a personal god like that of the Judeo-Christian variety, the vast majority of the people in the room raised their hands immediately, which is no surprise and is not a bad thing in itself, but it does serve to highlight the magnitude of the challenge that is before us as a community, a community that realizes the importance of science education in our school system, a community that resents this system being sabotaged by such manipulative and erosive forces as Hovind and other mountebanks like him. When most of the people in attendance are predisposed to gullibly accept such fanciful and convoluted rationalizations as those that Hovind and his ilk serve up on a regular basis, the nature and extent of the crisis is made more distressingly clear.
Not only are they gullible, but they act on their gullibilty in ways that reveal a spiritual ugliness (ironic, isn't it?) that seems to be endemic to the fundamentalist mindset (they laugh heartily at Hovind's facetious jabs). This ugliness is highlighted when, halfway through the debate, the moderator takes the microphone and announces,
We've had a report that people are behaving badly [...] c'mon, let's respect our neighbor ...I don't know what this behavior consisted of, but I can guess that it had something to do with people trying to supress some minority view in the audience. Herd mentality is like that. The mob rules. It's always astounded me how a people that profess to subscribe to a religion that is supposedly founded on loving one's neighbor has no problem hating and beating down anyone who doesn't agree with them. It boggles the mind.
Ironically enough, Hovind himself brings up a very relevant point during the debate which goes a long way in highlighting one of the major problems with our educational system:
All the textbooks say that 'evolution is not a theory, it's a fact!' - Pretty soon students start thinking - 'well, I've heard it in school so many times; they repeat it over and over again; it MUST be true' [...] the teacher has an academic and psychological advantage over the students ...I think that this underscores a very crucial problem regarding the way we teach kids in our schools. Namely, our kids just tend to take what teachers say at face value because we don't instill in them any sense of independence of thought. We teach them to just accept things and to repeat them by rote (there'll be a quiz on wednesday). We do almost nothing by way of teaching them how to cultivate the vital skill of thinking critically. How on earth do we expect them to distinguish between empirical knowledge and propaganda such as Hovind sells? And Hovind is a benign and ineffectual propagandist. Can you imagine what a charismatic demagogue could conceivably do with such gullibility?
And, if you'll forgive a pun from a heathen like me:
God help us.
Before I finish this post, just to be fair, I'd like to point out a semantic blunder in Shermer's opening statement which I feel needs to be corrected. Namely, his mention of vestigial structures in some species as evidence for evolutionary adaptation. While I accept these structures as such, I think it would be wise to be careful about the language used to posit the argument. Specifically, to say that these vestigial structures (such as the whale's vestigial pelvis and some snakes' vestigial hind legs and claws) "serve no function" is just plainly wrong and such assertions feed into creationists' arguments. The fact that these structures have lost their primary functions as appendages for use in locomotion is correct, but they are not necesarily rendered useless as a result, often these structures wind up being useful in other secondary ways, such as in reproduction or in excretion and suchlike. When we as scientists make bold statements like "vestigial structures serve no function" we open the door to well-deserved correction. We should make every effort to be as accurate as possible with the language we use to teach with, lest our language take the spark out of our own arguments.
But Dr. Shermer, an intellectually honest man of science, does concede the point during his turn at mic. He knows that science works this way, that is, if something is demonstrably false, it is updated to reflect the new data. And I bet he will rephrase his point the next time he lectures on vestigial structures.