This past Sunday the Department of Archaeology at the University of Lund organised a public debate about creationism and archaeology. One of the invited speakers was Young Earth creationist Mats Molén, who should not in my opinion have been lent academic credibility in that manner. Universities should teach students about pseudoscience and why it is not science, but they should not let pseudoscientists teach.

Lund is far from my home and I didn’t attend the event. But I wrote the non-creationist participants beforehand and suggested that they familiarise themselves with creationist debate tactics such as the Gish Gallop, of which at least one of them had never heard before. And yesterday I asked the moderator of the debate, my colleague Dr. Björn Magnusson Staaf, how it went. Here’s his reply, which I reproduce with his permission (and I translate):

It went OK. Molén didn’t hijack the debate. The issues discussed were largely about a scientific basis for knowledge and spiritual belief and the boundaries between them. In my opinion Björn Petersson (practical philosophy) and K.G. [Hammar, ex-arch-bishop and professor of theology) laid things out well, while Mats [Molén] skidded around quite a bit. Hardly surprising perhaps that those issues aren’t his forte. His main point was that the scientific establishment is excluding him and that the reason is that evolutionists and atheists won’t let him in. When I asked him if this doesn’t sound a lot like a conspiracy theory he replied that it isn’t. His reasoning is thus quite similar to Bob Lind’s regarding Ales stenar, that is, the guys are collecting a lot of strength from portraying themselves as persecution victims who are kept from speaking the “truth”.

What I find constructive about the debate was that it showed quite clearly that science needs to be footed on a solid positivist basis and that the logical foundations for how we construct interpretations and arguments need to be stringent, where a clear distinction is made between hypothesis and empirical observation. Hypotheses might be impossible to prove, but the reader must be able to decide if they make sense or not (as you can see, I’m influenced by C.S. Peirce and pragmatism). In scientific arguments like that God definitely has no place, as was emphasised by K.G. Hammar.

To those lucky enough not to have experienced the Science Wars in Scandy archaeology, I should point out that Magnusson Staaf’s self-identification as a “positivist” is quite provocative. The term has come a long way since Comte‘s day, and I believe that what Magnusson Staaf means here is that he supports rational scientific inquiry and the Enlightenment project, as opposed to post-modernism and epistemological relativism (“constructivism”). His nod to pragmatism is difficult for me to understand in this context as that philosophical movement is explicitly anti-realistic, denies the distinction between facts and values, and says basically “We can’t know what’s real, let’s just find out what works”.

As for “evolutionists” banding together to keep creationists out of the universities, I’m sure that it’s completely true. Universities have quality control systems in place that act to keep all kinds of pseudoscientists out (except in the Humanities and Social sciences faculties, where standards are lax and thinking often fuzzy).

Anybody here attend the debate? I’d like to hear what you thought of it.

Update same evening: Dear Reader Z reports:

Dr Björn: I was there and was impressed with the biblical scholars who explained to the creationist Molén and to the audience, that the Bible contains three different Genesis stories. (One in the book of Songs)
I didn’t hear much of the important stuff though, the philosopher in the panel almost whispered and was told to speak up a couple of times, but he seemed to forget immediately afterwards.
Not inviting a geologist and a biologist was a big mistake I think, even though i understand that you wanted to keep this debate afternoon in a quite scholarly neighborhood.
There seemed to be no time for discussing isotope dating, and reminding Molén that there are other ones/elements than C-14

The guy who saved most of the day was Ola Wikander. He posed the litterature and philosophical questions to the creationist, in a quite polite way, although not letting him get away.

As KG Hammar ones pointed out “Should Mats Molen do all the talking here? This almost feels like a wasted afternoon” (Molen really seems to enjoy his own voice (-; )

Good thing you interrupted him a couple of times.


In other news, I have taken down another snippet of ABBA lyrics routed through a group of non-Anglophone Swedish six-year-olds. You already know that “Voulez-vous” is “Oo nay boo”. Turns out that “Don’t go sharing your emotions” is “Hose dough hairy carry motion”.

Comments

  1. #1 Darrell Rudmann
    September 1, 2009

    Thank you for the article. Did not appreciate the Social Sciences zing at the end; ignoring the “fuzzy thinking” comment, many social scientists are very aware of the issues of pseudoscience and deal with it routinely in their classes.

    Darrell Rudmann
    Asst. Professor, Psychology
    Shawnee State University
    Portsmouth, Ohio

  2. #2 Magnus Westerstrand
    September 1, 2009

    Sad to hear that Lund invited him…

  3. #3 Martin R
    September 1, 2009

    Darrell, you needn’t feel personally attacked. You are in Soc Sci, I am in Hum (archaeology is not in Soc Sci in Europe). And we both know the kind of psychedelic verbiage spewn by po-mo colleagues e.g. in sociology and lit-crit. If not pseudoscience, it is simply non-science.

  4. #4 kai
    September 1, 2009

    So the question to pose to Molén is then: “Do you agree that there can be pseudoscientific cranks? If so, how do you propose telling yourself from them?”

  5. #5 Martin R
    September 1, 2009

    Indeed!

  6. #6 ArchAsa
    September 1, 2009

    I agree that there is a great danger allowing debates with pseudos in University settings as they will inevitably use this on their future resumé. Though it is good to take the opportunity to outline the difference btw actual research and just random notions.

    Uppsala university has a motto which is problematic, but which I still like and stand by:
    To think freely is great – to think right is greater

    We must start by thinking freely and challenge preconceptions, but we must endeavour to think right if we want to make any real contribution to coming generations.

  7. #7 Pierce R. Butler
    September 1, 2009

    Molén didn’t hijack the debate.

    What an amateur! If he ever makes it to the States, the other creos will make him sit at the kiddies’ table.

  8. #8 Z
    September 1, 2009

    Dr Björn: I was there and was impressed with the biblical scholars who explained to the creationist Molén and to the audience, that the Bible contains three different Genesis stories. (One in the book of Songs)
    I didn’t hear much of the important stuff though, the philosopher in the panel almost whispered and was told to speak up a couple of times, but he seemed to forget immediately afterwards.
    Not inviting a geologist and a biologist was a big mistake I think, even though i understand that you wanted to keep this debate afternoon in a quite scholarly neighborhood.
    There seemed to be no time for discussing isotope dating, and reminding Molén that there are other ones/elements than C-14

    The guy who saved most of the day was Ola Wikander. He posed the litterature and philosophical questions to the creationist, in a quite polite way, although not letting him get away.

    As KG Hammar ones pointed out “Should Mats Molen do all the talking here? This almost feels like a wasted afternoon” (Molen really seems to enjoy his own voice (-; )

    Good thing you interrupted him a couple of times.

    /Cecilia

  9. #9 Z again
    September 2, 2009

    Typical of me, i translated the Swedish name “Psaltaren” to the “Book of Songs”, when it is supposed to be:

    “The Book of Psalms”

    There you go…sorry about that

    /Cecilia

  10. #10 Mattias
    September 2, 2009

    Cecilia: you were right on the semantical level, though. The word used for psalms is “mizmor”, meaning ‘song’.

  11. #11 PsyberDave
    September 2, 2009

    I’m not upset or offended, but perhaps a little defensive regarding your remark about the social science, as in general parlance, it is an oft-cited sentiment.

    I can say that in my experience at Indiana University (of course I have no knowledge of the university system in Sweden), the best science education I received was in the Psychology Department as a psych major. It was hard core empiricism and constant reference to scientific method and philosophy.

    Ironically, when I was a biology major, I got little of the scientific method from biology and chemistry classes. Those classes were more like narratives of discovered facts. Despite this irony, biology and chemistry tend to be regarded as “hard” sciences versus psychology’s “soft” science and therefore enjoy more respect. I don’t think it is entirely founded.

  12. #12 Martin R
    September 2, 2009

    Dave, I’m not saying that every humanities scholar and social scientist is a pseudoscientist. (I know I’m not, for one.) I’m saying that in the US and Europe, you will consistently find the far-outest, most science-hostile, most jargony theoreticians in departments of e.g. sociology and lit-crit — not in chemistry or geology. And their influence has damaged archaeology as well.

  13. #13 PsyberDave
    September 2, 2009

    Ah. I see. Well then, I agree. I would be more surprised to see a chemist practicing pseudoscience than a psychologist.

    Maybe it’s because I know more psychologists and have more experience with their beliefs than I do with chemists. But I doubt it is that.

The site is undergoing maintenance presently. Commenting has been disabled. Please check back later!