Three out of eight. That's how many of the talks by PZ Myers I attended during his California tour. PZ's presentation on Thursday evening at Sierra College in Rocklin (just north and east of Sacramento) was his valedictory. He chose for this occasion a slight variant of the presentation he gave his UC Davis audience last week. Ray Comfort was once again front and center as the embodiment of creationist stupidity, providing an all-too-easy target and generating lots of laughs from a capacity crowd in 110 Weaver Hall. (A sign on the wall said the lecture hall could hold no more than 133 people, but I suspect that a few more than that were actually present.)
While PZ's two-lecture repertoire for his “Complexity and Creationism” tour produces a series of similar talks for those of us who attended multiple events, each venue generated its own unique Q&A sessions with the audience. In my reports on the California tour, I've concentrated on this aspect of the presentations. After a brief recap of the main body of PZ's presentation at Sierra College, I'll give my account of the audience reaction. In my opinion, it was the most spirited of the three events at which I was present, although the number of attendees was also the smallest.
The main event
After a Mr. Deity clip, which PZ has been using at his stops to settle the crowd, Brett Ransford of Freethinkers of Sierra, the local sponsor of PZ's appearance, introduced the evening's speaker. Brett recounted PZ's expulsion from a screening of Expelled while Richard Dawkins was permitted to stroll into the movie theater unmolested. Upon taking center stage, PZ quipped that he was pleased to have been regarded as scarier than Dawkins and launched his presentation.
“Creationists have no good arguments for anything,” declared PZ, providing his audience with the central theme of his talk. He cited the example of Geoffrey Simmons, M.D., who has written a book titled Billions of Missing Links, only to demonstrate in a radio debate with PZ that he was completely ignorant of the existence of a rich trove of whale ancestors. PZ freely admitted that he was rude enough to label Dr. Simmons as ignorant (the usual definition of lack of knowledge, after all), which caused a lot of gasping and clutching at pearls among the radio station's delicate religionists.
It turned out that Simmons had limited his research on whales to a perfunctory reading of a Scientific American article on cetacean evolution—although apparently not turning enough pages to discover that the magazine had included a lengthy list of the whale's extinct ancestor species.
“That's just the standard creationist approach to research,” said PZ.
Several of PZ's slides served up jaw-droppingly stupid statements by Ray Comfort, famed banana connoisseur and the star of the evening's creationist freak show. These included Comfort's claim that Darwin thought human males and females had evolved independently, his similar statement about elephants and dogs.
It doesn't help Ray Comfort's credibility that his introduction to a special giveaway edition of Darwin's Origin of Species was a cut-and-paste job that included outright plagiarism.
PZ also touched on creationists' excessive literalness. (Well, they are rather hung up on “the Word.”) Michael Behe sees “little trucks and busses” in biological systems. “I mean, literally,” he says. In a similarly wacky vein, Ken Ham's Creation “Museum” sports signs boasting that the facility presents a “literal interpretation” of the Bible story of Genesis.
Literal interpretation? “Those are two words that don't go together,” said PZ.
Creationist Jerry Bergman once debated PZ over the question of whether intelligent design ought to be taught in school (presumably as a legitimate subject and not as a good example of pseudoscience). While PZ argued that ID creationism lacks the theoretical framework and evidence that science requires, Bergman responded that you don't need a theory—all you need are facts. (Huh?) Besides, according to Bergman even a carbon atom is irreducibly complex (Wha—?) and, as we all know, blah, blah, blah, Hitler!, blah, blah.
That sterling performance by Bergman qualified him for selection as PZ's example of the derangement of creationists. Hard to argue with that one.
PZ was also sorry to note the existence in his backyard of the Twin Cities Science Association. At its website, the TCCSA offers a gibbering essay by Bergman in which he states,
All functional systems that require two or more parts to function properly are irreducibly complex.Michael Behe would beg to differ.
Both versions of PZ's “Complexity and Creationism” talk (the ones that I saw, anyway) conclude with his slide in support of the pillars of science—reason, evidence, critical thinking, and naturalism—and denouncing the myriad aspects of irrational belief—namely, gods, demons, angels, etc. He expressed the hope that religion would someday be nothing more than a mildly eccentric hobby, rather like knitting, playing Dungeons & Dragons, or writing poetry.
The Sierra College audience was engaged and vocal even before PZ officially inaugurated the post-talk question-and-answer session. Quips and comments abounded. (When PZ poked fun at the “design requires a designer” trope with a slide that asked, “Does thunder require a thunderer?”, an audience member asked, “Would someone who turned away from belief in a thunder god be a Thor loser?”) We also discovered that the audience included a famous young polemicist for whom Ed Brayton named an award for creationist inanity. It added some excitement.
As usual, the following is not a literal transcript (except in the few instances where I dare to enclose text in quote marks). It's an abridged narrative based on my notes and it tries to present the gist of the exchanges rather than a verbatim account. To the best of my ability, I try to give an accurate sense of the discussions. A few asides from yours truly appear in brackets. Anything labeled with a “Q.” is from the audience, but sometimes I add “[Audience]” to highlight that an exchange is occurring among the attendees (while PZ watches in bemusement).
Q. I feel like I must be missing something that everyone else seems to understand. What is a crocoduck?
A. In a debate between the Rational Response Squad and Ray Comfort and Kirk Cameron, Cameron pulled out a large picture of the “crocoduck” as an example of something that evolutionists are supposed to believe in. And it's not even original with them. They apparently got the idea from a Worth 1000 chimera contest. It's an example of how creationists don't even understand what they are attacking. This crocoduck tie was designed by Josh Timonen and is one of only two in existence. Richard Dawkins has the other one. If you see someone wearing this tie, it's either me or Richard.
[PZ may be unaware that the world of fashion is notorious for knock-offs. Zazzle.com is advertising a “Crocoduck tie like Richard Dawkins wears!” We'll all be wearing them the next time PZ comes to California.]
Q. [Robert O'Brien] “I don't know if you recognize me, PZ. In your own words, your contributions to science are piddling. Those are your words, not mine. I just happen to agree with them. To that I would add that your arguments against God are just as risible as those of Dawkins and the other occupants of the new atheist clown car. Given that, why should anyone who is not already one of your chamchas pay attention to you as opposed to others who are far more accomplished and rational?”
[O'Brien appeared to be reading his remarks and he spoke faster than I could write. As previously noted, this report is not a literal transcript. However, O'Brien showed up in the comments, as you can see below, and was kind enough to provide a definitive take on his screed. The use of the word “chamchas” is rather affected when perfectly good words like “sycophants” and “kiss-asses” are available, but perhaps it merely means that O'Brien and I share a penchant for vocabulary building.]
A. Well, it seems we have a creationist in the audience after all. And you did a standard creationist thing. You took my words out of context. When I say that my research is “piddling,” it means that my work—like that of many others—is a small contribution to the aggregate of science. That's what science is, a collection of evidence in a theoretical framework. Religion and creationism is not based on evidence.
Q. [Robert O'Brien] We have evidence, too!
A. Where, for example, is the evidence for the existence of God?
Q. [Robert O'Brien] There are many proofs for the existence of God.
A. So give us one. Which is your favorite? Which is the strongest argument for the existence of God?
Q. [Robert O'Brien] I like Gödel's ontological argument, which is a mathematical proof. The definition of God is that he possesses all positive properties. If he exists, then he has all of those positive properties. Not existing would be a negative property, which he cannot have, so he has to exist.
Q. [Audience] That begs the question. You said, “If he exists.”
Q. [Robert O'Brien] That's a starting point in the argument. It's more complicated than that. I'm not presenting a formal proof.
Q. [Audience] That's just “proof by definition.”
Q. [Robert O'Brien] No, it's not.
Q. [Audience] Yes, it is.
Q. [Audience] PZ, I won't presume to speak on behalf of all of my fellow mathematicians, but I'd like to point out that Gödel's ontological argument would make 99.99% of us into theists if it were really a rigorous proof. However, mathematicians are as big a hodgepodge as any other segment of the population. Gödel's argument is clearly not regarded as a proof by the mathematical community.
Q. [Robert O'Brien] It is a proof. Speaking as a statistician—
Q. [Audience] Then you're not a mathematician!
Q. PZ, could you not see religion used as a hypothesis for formulating things like a basis for morality?
A. Yes, but religion is a primitive hypothesis that has been falsified many times, as one religion gives way to another. And you don't need religion as a basis for morality.
Q. Isn't atheism just a dogmatic assertion that there is no God? Doesn't science require at least agnosticism?
A. There is no assertion of any proof of no God. Science is “operationally” atheist, not dogmatically. The God hypothesis is useless in the pursuit of science.
Q. If God is the sum of all positive and all encompassing, then doesn't the lack of negative qualities mean that he's not all encompassing?
Q. [Audience] That depends on what you mean by positive and negative.
Q. [Audience] Relativism for the win!
Q. What would it take to serve as evidence for the existence of God?
A. Believers need to provide a hypothesis that I can test and measure.
Q. Why is it always the Judeo-Christian God? Why not some other God or Creatrix? And what about the diversity of evolutionary beliefs among religions. The Catholic Church says that evolution is not just a hypothesis.
A. That was the previous pope. The current pope is not as clear about it.
Q. He hangs out with ID creationists like Cardinal Schönborn.
Q. Atheism says that there is no absolute basis for right or wrong. What if everyone agreed that the Nazis were right. Would what the Nazis did still be wrong?
A. If everyone agrees, then there would be no one to point out that they were wrong. “But the natural world will eventually bite you in the ass if you act on the basis that mass-killing is a good thing.”
Q. [Professor Vernon Martin] Moral objectivism is not a way out of the woods. It's a tricky business.
Q. [Audience] Thomas Schick has a disproof of God based on the original argument of Parmenides.
Q. Our notion of what is reasonable is always changing. Years ago it would have been perfectly reasonable for me to light up a cigarette while sitting in this lecture hall (and having quit within the past year, I really want to), but today it's unthinkable. We indulge in lots of practices without thinking about them, such as clipping the ears of Dobermans, because that's what we're used to at the time we do it.
A. That just goes to show that there is no objective morality.
Q. In your role as a figurehead of science and atheism, how would you direct all atheists to deal with religionists. What would be the most utilitarian approach?
A. If I were the figurehead, I would immediately resign. I value the diversity in the community of nonbelievers. I'm a biologist. I value biodiversity.
Q. It would be like herding cats anyway.
A. I am so tired of that analogy!
Q. Atheism is not a formal philosophy. It doesn't impose a uniform perspective on people.
Q. [Audience] But religionists are dogmatic and dangerous.
Q. [Audience] But not uniformly so.
Q. [Brett Ransford] Excuse me for interrupting, but could you please direct your questions to PZ? Mental masturbation is nice, but—
A. Masturbation? Oh, no, this is intercourse!
Q. Tell us about your blog! How do you manage to post so much on it?
A. I attribute it to poor impulse control. The key to a successful blog is to write several posts a day.
Q. Were you given a religious upbringing?
A. I was raised in a mildly religious family as a Lutheran. I consider that I was inoculated against religion by having been infected at a young age by a weak strain.
Q. I accept evolution, but I'm not an atheist.
A. You have my permission to go to church. Just don't use religion to interfere in the secular rights of others.
Q. I don't go to church. I hug trees.
A. There is the example of Loyal Rue, who is completely rational in his approach but is still a believer. He has a number of awards, including the Pulitzer Prize and a Templeton Foundation fellowship.
Q. Have you had any conversion successes?
A. It doesn't work that way. You present believers with your evidence in as persuasive a way as you can and then you wait and see. It might be years later before anything happens. There are examples like Kurt Wise, who studied under Stephen Jay Gould, but decided he had to accept Jesus and could not accept science. That's a failure.
Q. My friend believes that evolution is God's way of working in the world.
A. Then he doesn't understand evolution. The nature of evolution is stochastic and nonteleological. It's not guided and it has no predetermined goal except survival. Religious figures like Rick Warren need God in the process to provide meaning. I haven't written much about Warren. He thinks we're all supposed to be happy slaves under the absolute dictatorship of God.
Q. Why do so many religious people reject science?
A. Because science is in competition with their religion. Evolutionary science attacks the sense of self and purpose that they need in their lives, which they can't seem to find without deriving it from religion.
Q. There will be a talk on Relics of Eden, the evidence for evolution in human genetics, on the last Friday in February. [Details, anyone? —Z]
A. Creationists think that attacking the fossil record is the best way to attack evolution. They don't seem to understand that the best evidence is being found in biology, in genetics.
Q. Creationism keeps shifting. We've had “creation science,” “scientific creationism,” “intelligent design,” and “teach the flaws.” What's next?
A. I'm hoping it's complete collapse. Creationism has not been able to gain any scientific credibility. Groups like the Discovery Institute—which pretends to be scientific—are getting more and more fundamentalist. They don't make much headway with abstract arguments. Look at Dover, which was supposedly about intelligent design and Of Pandas and People. It was pushed by the old-fashioned creationists on the school board, who probably felt betrayed when the Discovery Institute ducked out. The Discovery Institute doesn't bring in much money anymore, at least not from their creationist activities. Answers in Genesis is the big money maker.
Q. Won't creationists just create their own schools and teach their anti-scientific ideas there?
A. Many already have. They want to destroy public education, which is like the Republican strategy.
Q. Would you say the Wedge strategy has failed?
A. Yes. It has not worked out the way they once hoped.
Q. Science flourishes in an atmosphere of opposition and questioning. Haven't creationists therefore done science a favor?
A. I'd disagree. Science grows with questioning, but creationists are a side-show. Their arguments are beside the point and are not part of the scientific discussion.
Q. Groups like Wallbuilders are trying to rewrite history.
A. Yes, that's one of the things they're trying to do in Texas right now. The Texas School Board has a great influence on the nation's textbooks. The extremists on the board are turning toward history, citing non-historian David Barton as an authority.
Q. I've heard a lot of mudslinging tonight, but we won't get anywhere if we constantly disrespect each other. Religion has been part of society for thousands of years and should be treated with more respect.
A. Bad sanitation has been part of society for thousands of years, too.
Q. You can't tell people what they believe is bullshit. You need to educate them.
A. You can do both. Bad ideas deserve to be treated with complete and utter disrespect. The ideas, not the people who hold them. Getting people to understand critical thinking and evidence is a long-term effort. It doesn't happen overnight.
Q. Will people eventually evolve beyond religion?
A. No, I don't think so. Sanitation has advanced a great deal over the years, but there are still dirty people. Society has become more civilized in many ways, but we still have crime. Crime will always exist. Religion will, too. I'm perfectly fine with people having the freedom to practice their religions in private and in their churches. I don't, however, support their right to impose their religious beliefs on me or other people. I'm rather optimistic—perhaps irrationally so—because I think progress is possible and that most people just want peaceful lives to enjoy themselves and raise their families.
Q. Should we perhaps downplay evolution and emphasize critical thinking instead?
A. Better science education is important, but that includes evolutionary theory as well as critical thinking. We can't ignore it. I also think we need to teach more mathematics as part of a better science education (although I know that Zeno will think I'm pandering to the mathematicians when I say that).
Q. I'm a nonbeliever who is worried that people will know what I think. It's great for groups like this to meet and provide a safe environment to interact with others. The Internet helps, too.
A. It can be a problem to deal with family members and friends who don't have an appreciation for the scientific approach. The Internet has been a big help in getting the message out there that you're not alone. Otherwise you might feel completely intimidated. But you also need to speak out. Isn't it better to be a tiger than a mouse?
Q. Why don't most people believe in evolution?
A. Evolution doesn't generate belief in itself. There's no reason to suspect that belief in evolution contributes to the survival of a species. Some humans believe in evolution, but most creatures don't believe in it at all.
Q. More people believe in religion than in evolution.
A. There are a lot of stupid people. Evolution does not necessarily promote intelligence as a survival trait.
Q. Perhaps part of the problem is that science isn't exciting enough. You get an endorphin rush from adventures, not from rational thought?
A. Really? You don't? There is no greater rush than learning something you've never known before, in discovering something that no one knew before. “All the best drugs are from science, you know. Discovering the truth about the universe is a real rush.”
As some people began to disperse and others gathered around PZ, Robert O'Brien came over to brace me with a question or two, since he had discerned that I was one of the mathematicians in the audience. (The other best-represented academic department at PZ's talk was philosophy.)
“Do you deny the existence of Gödel's ontological argument?” he inquired.
“Not at all,” I replied. “I merely observed that it's not widely accepted as a proof of anything.”
“Oh, okay. I thought you might be denying its existence. But it is a proof.”
“Not likely. Not if most mathematicians aren't willing to accept it. And we don't.”
And when I say “we,” I'm not including self-described statisticians like Robert.
A day later, Robert posted a comment on his blog concerning the Sierra College event and his confrontation with PZ Myers:
I also did not expect to be asked to defend Kurt Gödel's Ontological Argument, which I was unprepared to do. (Although, even if I were prepared, I do not think I could have done it justice as a critical respondent among an, umm, unsympathetic audience.) I give credit to PZ for unexpectedly turning the tables and essentially catching me flat-footed; it won't happen again.Want to bet?