This is a guest post written by Skip Evans. Skip is a dear friend I have known for many years. He worked for some time for the National Center for Science Education and now owns a web development company called Big Sky Penguin. This is the sordid tale of his repeated dealings with the infamous creationist Kent Hovind. Perhaps I’ll add my own story to it at the end.
With the news of Kent Hovind’s arrest, I began reflecting on my past interactions with the man I regard as the nuttiest cookie in the jar of creationism. I mean, this is a guy that even fruit loops like Ken Ham distance themselves from.
It was sometime in 1996, if I recall. (Geez, I sound like Grandpa Simpson). I was living in Atlanta at the time, and putting in a stint as the president of that city’s chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. It must have been because of this high-profile, prestigious position that I received an anonymous package in the mail. This was long before the days of anthrax scares, so instead of fearing a terrorist plot I opened the package without much thought. It contained six videotapes.
They came accompanied with a note saying something about the “Truth,” so I thought “Cool, someone has sent the complete works of Pat Paulson on the Smother’s Brothers television show!” But my hopes of being politically, if belatedly, enlightened were dashed. No, on the tapes were twelve hours of Kent Hovind.
I was fascinated, for this was truly, and I can find no other words to describe it so the easily offended should skip now to the next paragraph, the most fucked up person I have ever heard open his or her mouth. I mean, I kept saying aloud over and over, this has got to be a joke… this man is completely insane… no, no one actually believes that, do they?
Back then I was pretty new to young earth creationism, so maybe I was pretty easy to amaze, but more than that, Hovind’s paranoid, xenophobic politics were amazing. I don’t want to make this post a litany of Hovind’s household YEC wackiness, which you can find all over the web, but some of his socio-political stuff may have escaped a few of you over the years, so I just want to cite an example or two.
On one video, Hovind claims to have been told by a guy, and he says it as if he truly believes it, that those wires cities and towns put underneath the road to count the number of cars that pass serve a double purpose. Sure they count cars now, but when the US government surrenders to the One World Government they will turn into high-power devices to zap the electronic ignitions of automobiles, rendering them immobile. This, “Dr. Dino” tells us, will make it easier for United Nations troops to round up Americans and haul them off to the concentration camps.
He also shows a photograph of the back of a highway sign with a worn and faded orange sticker on the back. This is a secret signal to tell the U.N. tanks which way to go, presumably to blow away Americans. They’re on the back of signs because one of the first orders of the OWG will be to reverse all traffic, thereby confusing us and giving the U.N. tanks the upper hand. Hovind is a major league nut-job.
Incidentally, Hovind never titles his videos with dates or locations, a move I believe is deliberate.
Later I learned he claimed a PhD from some place called Patriot University. I don’t remember exactly the sequence of events, or exactly how communication went, but right about then a picture appeared on the Internet of a split-level house that also shared the same address as Patriot University. Hovind got his doctorate from a classic degree mill; of this we can be certain. However, Hovind did claim that when he earned his “credentials” the “university” resided in the basement of a church. One day it probably decided the neighborhood was going bad so it packed up and moved into the house.
I became more curious about his degree, emailed PU and asked for a copy of his dissertation. I got an email back saying that the person who handled that “department” was out of town, but they would attempt to locate a copy when his wife got back from the mother-in-law’s.
A few weeks later a document arrived in my mail and in it was simply the worst thing ever put on paper. You might say, “Now Skip, remember, there is paper in your bathroom, and some pretty bad stuff gets put on that too,” to which I would reply, “Yes, I knew that.”
It was awful. Printed with a dot-matrix printer, and opening with the line “Hello, my name is Kent Hovind,” it was as well- qualified as a legitimate doctoral dissertation as I am for the Indianapolis 500 in my 1981 Subaru wagon (in reverse).
The writing, and I am not just throwing rotten fruit here, would have been soaked in red ink if submitted in a 7th grade English class. Childish mistakes like misuse of “their” and “there” and “its” and “it’s” were common. Whole sentences made no grammatical sense, and all this in addition to the obvious fact the document contains nothing original at all, but simply rehashes old creationist canards along with Hovind’s strange blend of conspiracy and religiously fueled paranoia. In the original document that I received there was a color graph of the electromagnetic spectrum cut out of a magazine and fixed to one page with transparent tape.
For years people have challenged Hovind to written debates to be posted on the Internet and he has always declined. I once personally heard him refuse just such a request with the excuse that he couldn’t type very fast.
I am certain the real reason Hovind declines such challenges is that the moment his own words were seen in print the whole world would know the man is borderline illiterate. And yet he still has the gall to skulk around the country slamming public education. If he really wanted to do serious damage to public education he should hold himself up as an example.
I had a few email exchanges with Kent not long after receiving the dissertation, mostly regarding my request to post it on the Internet. He refused to give me permission, so the document mostly languished around my apartment, giving off a strange greenish glow at night – wilting fresh flowers I brought from Prospect Park – and causing my old dog Roadkill to avoid an entire half of the apartment.
In 2001, after a few years in New York City and then a stint on a small island in the Florida panhandle, incidentally probably less than an hour’s drive from Hovey’s home and backyard theme park, Dinosaur Adventure Land, I went to California to serve as NCSE’s Network Project Director. For the next three years I was immersed full-time in the creationism/evolution controversy, and learned a lot of really strange things. But Genie Scott’s Satanic rituals, human sacrifices and concocting of evil potions is a topic for another post. (I think I just heard William Dembski shout, “I knew it!” Down Bill, down. Some day doctors will find a way to implant you with a sense of humor.)
When I heard Hovind was coming to speak at Berkeley I could hardly contain myself. Glenn Branch, NCSE’s Deputy Director, would look at me as if he was ready to call for a straight-jacket each time I broke out in uncontrollable giggles. As the event approached a group of Berkeley science majors came to the NCSE office to gather information on Hovind. I filled them in on some of his loopier claims and they printed material to hand out before the event.
When the day of the talk rolled around, I came out of the office bathroom to find the man himself standing right in front of me. Kent’s host, Paul Abramson, had offered some time earlier to treat Genie to lunch with Kent, but she was traveling at the time. Apparently they decided to just drop by anyway. (Later when told of the visit, and how she had just missed being cornered into a meal with Dr. Dino, Genie made a face like someone being forced to eat a poop sandwich.)
Being just too shocked and appalled, I went back upstairs to my loft area to hide out. A few moments later Glenn’s voice boomed out over the speaker on my phone loud enough to reverberate off the walls and from his cubicle downstairs. “Skip, Kent Hovind is here. Why don’t you come down and say hello?”
I stood up and headed toward the stairs muttering under my breath, “Worms, buddy, you’re getting worms for Christmas!”
After an utterly useless conversation, which any conversation with Hovind regarding anything but the weather would have to be, he left and I closed my eyes, mentally transporting my deputy director into a pool of starving great white sharks.
Hovind’s first of three talks, each one itself lasting three hours, took place Friday night at one of the larger auditoriums on the Berkeley campus. The place was filling up fast, and many people were perusing the handouts the students who had visited our office had compiled. The mere fact that people were distributing literature exposing Hovind’s foolishness was enough to fluster Abramson. He came out before the talk, visibly nervous and rambled a bit about everyone’s right to express themselves, including nut-jobs who think Adam and Eve rode around on the back of dinosaurs in the Garden of Eden.
This struck me as odd, since no one there was in the least bit attempting to interfere with Hovind’s right to speak. Heck, the man is more entertaining than a lot of stand-up comics I’ve seen, and more educational than any freak show I’ve ever read about.
Hovind served up his usual shtick for about an hour and fifteen minutes and then opened the floor for questions. I was the first one at the microphone, and in my hand held a copy of the infamous Jack Chick evangelical comic book “Big Daddy” – which Hovind’s posse were distributing to the audience.
I first asked Kent if he had assisted Chick in updating the tract in 2000 and he acknowledged that he had. I then read from one of the pages that states “[n]early all experts agree that Lucy [the australopithicene] was just a three foot tall chimpanzee.”
I asked Hovind to name any of these experts who think the australopithicenes were chimpanzees. He instantly reached for his laptop and Power Point slides and tried to steer the discussion away from my question and into a tangent about a favorite old creationist canard concerning “Lucy’s knee.” But I was having none of that. I asked Kent to please stick to the topic and answer the question. He dodged again. Again I asked for any experts who agreed with his assertion and before long a large part of the audience was shouting “answer the question.”
One lesson I’ve learned from Q&A sessions with creationists is that you must never let them dodge your question. Keep insisting on an answer. The best strategy is to nail them good on one of their absurd claims, make them stick to the subject, and as soon as you have demonstrated their inability to respond walk away the victor.
Once the audience was shouting at Kent, and it was clear he was caught red-handed in just another one of his pathetic lies I ended it there. I said, “There are a lot of people here who want to ask questions, so I don’t want to take up any more time.” I walked back to my seat to, I must say, rather thunderous applause.
[Incidentally, on this visit to Berkeley Kent spoke three times: that Friday night, the following day, and then that Sunday morning. I attended all three sessions, nine hours of Hovind in less then forty eight hours. Baby, you don’t know what pain is!]
Now admittedly, catching someone on Hovind’s level in bald-faced lies is no challenge. But I do think it is important that when they speak at places like the Berkeley campus (let them have their audience in the churches) where science majors are in the audience, the students be shown just how easy it is to shoot these clowns down.
I actually am happy that Hovind speaks at colleges and universities and wish he would speak there more than in front of his choir in the churches. We who defend good science education have often criticized scientists for not getting more involved (although I think there is less and less justification for that), but in the past that was largely due to their lack of understanding about creationism.
If Hovind, AiG, Dembski, Wells and their fellow creationists would speak more at college campuses than at meetings for fundamentalist Christian youth groups we’d be growing up a whole new crop of scientists who would be well-equipped to deal with their nonsense.
I should perhaps add some of my own recollections. I have an even longer history with Hovind. The first time I saw him speak was around 1988 or so. I was in college at the time and a friend, who thought he was credible, took me to see one of his shows (and that’s exactly what it is) at a church in Grand Ledge, Michigan. Though I was familiar with Henry Morris, Duane Gish and the folks from the Institute for Creation Research, I had never heard of Hovind. I sat in this church for a good two hours, my jaw agape in utter disbelief at the astonishingly stupid claims he was reeling off, one after the other.
I didn’t really get involved again in the creation/evolution issue until several years later, after I stopped doing stand up comedy and settled down in one place, around 1994. At some point I came across an online book called Unmasking the False Religion of Evolution, which was nothing more than Hovind’s seminar in book form. I had the same reaction to it then that I had when watching his performance years earlier – total astonishment that A) anyone could peddle such ridiculous drivel; and B) that anyone could possibly be ignorant enough to believe it. A few examples:
He claimed that the Trail of Tears, where so many Indians died, was to be blamed on evolution. Never mind that the Trail of Tears took place two decades before Darwin wrote On the Origin of Species. He claimed that the great pyramid of Giza was built either by Adam and Enoch before the flood or by Noah and Shem after the flood (!). He used arguments that had long been debunked even by his fellow creationists (for which the creationist group Answers in Genesis also took him to task a few years ago).
For instance, he still used the discredited “moon dust” argument, and even invented lots of silly new details. For instance, he claimed that NASA was worried that the landing module and the astronauts would sink into the many feet ot dust on the moon’s surface. Uh, no. There had been several unmanned landers on the moon already that sent back data. We knew exactly how much dust there was on the surface of the moon long before Neil Armstrong ever took flight.
He claimed that UFOs were used to transport Satan from place to place. He claimed that the Smithsonian had murdered over 30,000 people to use their skulls to find the “missing link”. And much more. The book is no longer available on the internet, but Barbara Forrest wrote an article that quoted many of those claims (with some research help from me, Skip and Karen Bartelt).
At some point around 10 years ago, I decided to email Hovind with some of the really obvious mistakes and falsehoods in his seminar, curious to see how he would respond. He responded by challenging me to a debate, and we spoke on the phone and exchanged many emails negotiating the terms of that debate. I insisted that we would debate a fairly narrow subject area, in order to avoid the Gish Gallop (now known as the Hovind Hustle), and he agreed. We would debate specifically the age of the earth and flood geology, which was more than broad enough. I arranged for a local Unitarian church to host the event in Kalamazoo (where I lived at the time) and we agreed on time and place, which would fit into his schedule when he would be in the state. A few weeks later, he pulled out of the debate without explanation, and instead he debated a professor from Wayne State on the day he was supposed to debate me.
After that, I became involved with the TalkOrigins Archive and began answering feedback sent to the site. Since I had become sort of the local expert on Hovind, I was usually the one to answer the many emails we got every month that said, “If you’re so smart and evolution is so true, why don’t you take Kent Hovind up on his $250,000 challenge and take his money?” Here’s one example of such a letter (scroll down or search for my name). I would explain, again and again, that Hovind’s challenge is completely fraudulent. Here’s what I wrote that particular day:
There are many such challenges that circulate among creationists; all are cleverly worded so as to avoid any possibility of having the challenge met. Of all of the monetary challenges of this sort I have seen, Hovind’s is the most blatantly unmeetable. To begin with, he defines “empirical” as “relying or based solely on experiment and observation rather than theory”. And rather than defining evolution as biologists define it, he adds several superfluous and even irrelevant statements to the definition. He ends up with the following definition of evolution:
1. Time, space, and matter came into existence by themselves. 2. Matter created life by itself. 3. Early life forms learned to reproduce themselves. 4. Major changes occurred between these diverse life forms
It is clearly impossible to offer empirical evidence – that is an expirement or observation – that shows that “time, space and matter came into existence by themselves” or that “matter created itself out of nothing”. The event is over and cannot be observed, nor can the creation of matter be reproduced in a laboratory expirement. Historical science rests on inference, not direct observation. To make things worse, Hovind sets up an incredibly absurd standard by which to judge such evidence even if it could be offered. He says that in order to collect the $250,000, one must “prove, beyond any reasonable doubt, that the process of evolution (option 3 below) is the only possible way the observed phenomena could have come into existence.” He reinforces this in his challenge when he states, “As in any fair court of law, the accuser must also rule out any other possible explanations.” So not only must one show evidence for this invalid definition of evolution, one must prove that this is the ONLY POSSIBLE way it could have happened. I would suggest that there is no statement that could be made about any historical event whatsoever that could even hypothetically meet such an inflated and nonsensical standard of proof. Gravity cannot be shown to be the “only possible” way that the planets stay in their orbits – it is of course possible that they are held in their orbits by angels, devils or invisible orange leprauchans. There is ALWAYS a hypothetical alternative that can be offered to any proposition. Lastly, he provides no details on who the “committee of trained scientists” are that would judge this pointless effort should someone be foolish enough to take him up on it. In short, Hovind’s money is quite safe – he designed the challenge to insure that this would be the case. I would gladly make a one million dollar challenge to Mr. Hovind if he could prove ANY historical claim within the boundaries of such criteria.
I have made that counter-offer many times; Hovind, of course, has never taken me up on it because he knows he would lose. Basically, Hovind is a total fraud, a pure con man fleecing the ignorant and the credulous.