Dispatches from the Creation Wars

Creationist Challenges, take 1

The True.Origins website – a ripoff of the Talk.Origins Archive that I’m involved with – has posted an article about “debate dodgers”. This is something that is quite common in creationist circles – make a ridiculous “challenge” to their opponents and then crow about how cowardly those heathen infidel evilutionists are not to take them up on it. This is merely the latest round of this well-worn tactic and it comes, not surprisingly to anyone who has followed the issue for any period of time, from the mind of Joseph Mastropaolo. JoMo, as he is not-so-affectionately referred to, is a kinesiologist with the Institute for Creation Research. He’s also easily one of the most frustrating human beings you could ever encounter.

I first encountered JoMo back in 1998 on the Calvin evolution listserv, an e-mail list for debating about evolution that was hosted by Calvin College. He was busy defending a ridiculous little book called New Insights To Antiquity, by Richard Peterson. Peterson’s book is a classic example of crank science, as he attempts to explain a wide range of allegedly unexplained phenomena as being the result of a yet-undiscovered 4th spatial dimension. You can view the messages exchanged online here if you look at the archives beginning in September 1998, when JoMo first made his presence known. True to form, he showed himself to be a master of the mock challenge strategy of debate. Within a couple of weeks he was issuing challenges for trips to China and blasting anyone who dared not to take him up on it as a coward and a fool. He’s the sort of gadfly who sends messages with titles like, “The Evolutionist: Liar, Believer in Miracles, King of Criminals” (yes, that is an actual title from his e-mails from October of 1998).

A while back, JoMo began sending out this challenge which he termed the “Life Science Prize”. Here is the challenge:

1 The evolutionist puts $10,000 in escrow with the judge.
2 The creationist puts $10,000 in escrow with the judge.
3 If the evolutionist proves evolution is science and creation is religion, then the evolutionist is awarded the $20,000.
4 If the creationist proves creation is science and evolution is religion, then the creationist is awarded the $20,000.
5 Evidence must be scientific, that is, objective, valid, reliable and calibrated.
6 The preponderance of evidence prevails.
7 At the end of the trial, the judge hands the prevailing party both checks.
8 The judge is a superior court judge.
9 The venue is a courthouse.

Given his behavior above and the outright silliness of the “challenge”, you can probably imagine how seriously prominent evolutionary scholars like Ken Miller and Michael Ruse took this. I know from conversations with a couple of the folks listed as “debate dodgers” on that page that they took it about as seriously as they would have taken a challenge to “step outside and settle this like men” or some such nonsense. Science is not done in courtrooms in front of judges, for crying out loud, and it’s not done for a purse. Why not go whole hog and include a 10-point must system and cut men in the corner too?

But true to form, and exactly as predicted by those who were sent this challenge, the perfectly reasonable decision not to engage him in his delusional ideas of how science is done has now been turned into a delightfully juvenile article in the creationist media. It practically reeks of a junior high school playground, complete with a “whatsa matter, you chicken?” sneer to it. And it should be noted that this is by no means an isolated event in creationist circles. A couple times a month, at least, we at the Talk.Origins Archive receive a feedback letter saying, in one form or another, “If you’re so dang smart, why don’t you take Kent Hovind up on his $250,000 challenge and prove him wrong?” The task of answering those letters usually falls to me, as I’ve had a bit of experience in dealing with the good “Dr” Hovind (he bills himself as “Dr” Kent Hovind, but his “doctorate” degree is of the paper mill variety, worth less than the paper this website isn’t printed on).

Hovind’s challenge is, if anything, even more absurd than JoMo’s. He claims he will gladly give $250,000 to “anyone who can give any empirical evidence (scientific proof) for evolution.” But when you look at the offer, it quickly becomes apparent that this challenge is a fraud. The evidence is to be presented to a panel of “trained scientists” of his choosing – and it almost goes without saying that he won’t reveal their identities to anyone, doesn’t it? He also defines “evolution” as virtually every theory in modern science, including big bang cosmology, and even goes further and says that you have to prove that everything that has happened since the beginning of time itself “took place without God” – something no scientific theory says, of course. And just to top it off, his standard for “proof” is that you have to prove that it’s the “only possible way the observed phenomena could have come into existence.” Every time I answer the letters we get about this challenge, I make the following challenge: I’ll offer Kent Hovind One Million Dollars if he can prove ANY empirical claim using the same criteria he sets out for his offer – I get to pick the judges, I keep their identities secret, you have to prove all alternative explanations to be false, and I’ll tell you what the judges decide. To date, despite the offer having been made numerous times in writing, Hovind has yet to respond. Anyone think JoMo will add Hovind to his list of “debate dodgers”?

Postscript: It should probably be noted that creationists like JoMo and Hovind are something of an embarrassment even to the more credible young earth creationists (Hovind in particular, though JoMo certainly should be gaining on him in that department). Answers in Genesis, the Australian creationist group, has written a relatively scathing critique of Hovind’s tendency to play fast and loose with the facts. They listed several claims made by Hovind in his seminars and on his website that have long been discredited even by other creationists, such as the Paluxy “human” footprints and the infamous moon dust argument. They certainly could have gone much further. If you’re looking for whoppers, Hovind’s seminars are the place to go. This is the guy who has argued that the Great Pyramid of Giza was not built by the Egyptians, but by either Adam and Enoch before the flood, or Noah and Shem after the flood, and said that UFOs are “satanically owned and operated”. He’s kind of a one-stop shop for nonsense.

The best and most credible creationist scientists, like Kurt Wise and Art Chadwick (I don’t put Answers in Genesis in their league in terms of honesty or credibility, but I do give them credit for at least trying to stop the use of the worst kinds of arguments), have attempted for quite some time to get their colleagues to stop making such silly and discredited claims. I have interacted with Art Chadwick on various mailing lists over the years, and while I think he is dead wrong on the evolution/creationism question, I regard him as honest, intelligent, engaging and well educated on the subject. Here is what Art says on his webpage about what he terms the “Yahoo problem” in creationism:

Perhaps at the other extreme, but fully as dangerous as the inroads of naturalism in the church, are the uses of unsupported assertions by well-meaning, enthusiastic, but uninformed Christians who make extravagant claims “disproving” conventional theories of geology and paleontology. Gould has referred to such individuals as “Yahoos”. These individuals and their claims constitute one of the most problematic concerns for the professional geologist, and are a large factor in discouraging many geologists and other scientists from taking a closer look at Christianity. Claims of “giant fossil men”, “dinosaur and human tracks”, “out of order fossils” and many other unsupported assertions are a positive hindrance to the exploration of alternatives to conventional views, and are responsible for the loss of faith and discouragement of many. It is the responsibility of Christians to prevent outrageous and unsubstantiated claims from being used in “support” of Christianity.