Thursday, February 26, 2009

Dr. Michael Shermer at UNF for the "University Skeptics Forum"

My wife and I had the pleasure of seeing Michael Shermer speak last night at what was billed as a debate about ID versus evolution. It took place on the University of North Florida campus.

A few people from an organization called "Reasons To Believe" were part of a panel of professionals who were to discuss their testable creation model while Michael Shermer was to provide arguments against what they were proposing. It turns out that the event was sponsored by a few Christian organizations and the "University Skeptics Forum" was a title from the Reasons to Believe organization. They were quick to point out that they were NOT young earth creationists or Intelligent Design proponents but had come up with a real scientific way to prove that the universe was created by God.

All three were given 25 minutes each to make their arguments, so we had 50 minutes from the creationists and only 25 minutes from the rational scientist.

Dr. Hugh Ross started things off with a whirlwind tour of how their biblical cosmology fits perfectly with both scripture and science. There were a lot of big words used and large numbers were presented as proof of the number of discoveries in astronomy that point to a divine creator. Each year more and more discoveries show proof of God. But he didn't exactly go into what these discoveries were, instead we were directed to read his book. He made many references to Genesis and the story of Job for evidence that scientific ideas were presented in the bible long ago but we just weren't reading it correctly. I should have taken notes so I can provide you with specifics but one of the things he kept talking about was how in the story of Job God is described as having "stretched" the heavens. He takes this to mean God created an expanding universe. But it is his ideas that are the stretch. He kept talking about how scientists will never find God by using a naturalistic approach because God is currently resting, we are in the seventh day still. But then he said that as an astronomer when he looks in his telescope he is looking back in time, back into the first 6 days, so if that were true would we not see God doing all that work from the first 6 days? Also, he was later contradicted by his own partner because the next presenter talked about how God was still remaking animals and that explained all of the fossils. So is he resting or is he still working?

The next presenter was Dr. Fazale Rana, who spoke about their theories of biological science that were supposed explained things better than evolution and were still backed up by the bible. Again, the 25 minutes was densely packed with lots of big words that made it difficult to figure out where to start with your rebuttal. One feature of his talk that I found humorous was his frequent use of quotes from Richard Dawkins and Stephen Jay Gould to back up his premise that what we see in nature is actually designed by a creator and not by evolution. Dawkins does comment a lot about the apparent design of things in nature but he does a very good job of explaining how evolution by natural selection makes that possible.

The final presenter was Dr. Michael Shermer. His presentation gave a broad smattering of ideas in the skeptical community. Rather than spend his 25 minutes making point by point rebuttals he simply tried to tackle some of the typical misinformation held by society on subjects like cosmology, evolution, and religion. I have a feeling there were a good number of believers in the audience who, like me until recently, had never bothered to learn about the parallels between Christianity and other believe systems from the Mediterranean area in first century like virgin births and resurrection, or the parallels between all of the creation stories from that area, or the flood stories. So, perhaps a few people were enlightened by what he said, or at least will be curious and start reading more.

Next, Shermer was allowed to ask direct questions of the first two presenters. He specifically brought up the expanding universe bible quote and showed how the description in Job of the heavens more closely resembled that of the Babylonian cosmology, probably taken from the time the Jews spent in exile in Babylon. Their response was that some guy, who's name they forgot, wrote a book, and he was a physicist and a theologian, and he proved that the description in Job was not that of a Babylonian cosmology. That was about as direct as any of their answers got.

The audience was then given time to ask questions. I think all of this information was sitting heavily on the moderator, Ken Amaro, because he started cutting off the questioners if they tried to ask followups. But the answers being given were so poor and went in so many different directions that followups were really needed. Only a few people asked Shermer anything; I was expecting people to throw bibles at him but nothing like that happened. By the end you could hear lots of groans from the audience when Dr. Ross would go on a lengthy answer that said pretty much nothing.

After things ended I went up and thanked Dr. Shermer for coming and I went over and asked Dr. Ross if all of his cosmology could be explained through Torah, why does he believe that the Christian religion is true and not the Jewish one. And if God is now resting in the seventh day why did he take time off to come down to earth as Jesus. He started to explain that there were some things in Romans that he uses and then went off on how the Jews don't read all of the torah and if they would just read the forbidden stuff that their rabbis told them not to read then they would see that Christianity was true. And we will have all of our questions answered on the Eighth day. It was at that point that I realized I was surrounded by people who were doing lots of nodding and I was in no position to try and argue my points since I am no biblical scholar. But I did get the feeling that they must have thought I was Jewish because of the wording of my questions and maybe they thought they could convert me!

Without reading their books and just going by what they presented last night my biggest problem with their "testable biblical cosmology" is that they cherry picked their evidence which ignoring other things in the bible that are just plain wrong. Gallileo was arrested for contradicting the biblical view of an Earth centered universe and we all know now he was right and the bible was wrong. Perhaps I will get a copy of a few of their books and use that as an exercise in debunking kooky ideas this year.


Jorgon Gorgon said...

Thank you! On cherry-picking audience, you are exactly right. Ross is pretty much a joke; I don't know about the other speaker you mention but he appears to be some sort of an ID proponent, and ID has been demolished quite well over the last few years (really, it is nothing but repackaged argument from design).

Laurie said...

That Michael Shermer sure gets around. He was out here in Sacramento two and a half weeks ago! His audience was mostly atheists and skeptics here, though.

Ellie said...

Good summary of the event. The fact that Dr. Ross and the other guy were using such big scientific words kinda bothered me. I'm not a scientist, I'm a freshman in college (FCCJ) and it was hard to keep up with what they were talking about. They claimed their model made "falsafiable predictions" yet they failed (as far as I could tell) to present any.

Dr. Shermer did a good job, but I don't think he was given enough time. It seemed to me (though I wasn't looking at my watch) that he actually had less time than either of the other 2 individually. Maybe that's just because he was more entertaining and that made the time seem to go by quicker.

I was kind of surprised that Dr. Shermer wasn't asked as many audience questions. Being the south, I figured there would be a lot more "how did something come from nothing" Ray Comfort-esque type questions.

Overall I enjoyed the debate, i'd never been to anything like that before and my spiritual?/agnostic?/apatheist? (he doesn't like labels, especially the "atheist" label) boyfriend really enjoyed it.

Did you find Dr. Ross's answer to the male nipples question as ridiculous as I did? A seam? Like males were sewn together and that's where its all connected? What?!

Doubting Foo said...

Thanks for the comments!

Jorgon, yes, by the end of the night I think many people figured out he was a joke.

Laurie, that's so cool that you got to meet him for Darwin Day. I'm not sure if there was anything going on here in north Florida, I confess I never actually looked.

Ellie, OMG I forgot about the male nipples question! My wife and I were like "WTF?" I wonder who's ass he pulled that answer out of.

As for time, the guy next to me was timing them. Shermer finished up his presentation right at about 25 minutes but went right into questioning them. I don't think Ken Amaro got that...he looked like a giant next to Shermer!

Glad you made it there, it was also a first for us, and definitely a good sign that an event sponsored by religious organizations ended up being dominated by freethinkers. If their plan was to win converts I think it failed.

MaikUniversum said...

Good article :)

Doubting Foo said...


Doubting Foo said...

eSkeptic has a writeup of the event at: