Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Much ado about nothing

Recently a public discussion took place between Ray Comfort and YouTube user and scientist, Thunderf00t. The discussion was broadcast by Thunderf00t as a 9‑part series and is presented unedited, stuttering and all. Thunderf00t is a relatively unknown entity outside of YouTube; Ray, on the other hand, is most likely to be remembered for the following things:

  • Presenting the humble banana as incontrovertible proof of Biblical creationism and why evolution is wrong.
  • Teaming up with Kirk Cameron to, armed only with the Crocoduck™, debate a pair of largely unheard of atheists and losing horribly.

Believe it or not, this is actually the trump card of Cameron’s argument. That’s just how committed he is to reason and knowledge.

While perhaps not the most credible among the ranks of god’s soldiers, he has if nothing else managed to steer clear of fraud charges, tax evasion and jail unlike some of his contemporaries, so good on him for that. Then again, assessing the credibility of Young Earth Creationists is a problematic task at best, since their very position almost mandates that they have none.

This may sound harsh at first, and perhaps even anti-religious. But think about it for a moment: they are making scientific claims based on religious reasoning. The equivalent is a scientist dismissing god because it could not be found with a microscope or a telescope. Both are prime examples of doing it wrong. Without going into details (I am not a scientist and it would be dishonest of me to write as though I am), both Creationism and Intelligent Design violate the most basic principles of the scientific method, principles even a layman can understand. Both begin with the desired conclusion (Genesis) and work backwards by selectively accepting or denying evidence based on whether or not it conflicts with scripture. Real science follows the evidence no matter where it leads.

I suppose it all boils down to this: if you want to know something about evolution, ask a biologist and not a Christian evangelist. Likewise, don’t ask your mechanic how to fix your computer.

Ray illustrates this point throughout the discussion. It becomes very clear towards the end that he has not even a high school level understanding of biology, demonstrated by his inability to distinguish infertility and speciation even after it is explained to him and that he still denies the existence of transitional fossils. He speaks as though he has not even read the Wikipedia entry on the topic. This in itself is fine; it becomes a problem when combined with his presumption to make a career out of parading his ignorance at every available opportunity by denouncing what he has no comprehension of. This, in Thunderf00t’s own words, pissing in the fountain of knowledge upon which our society is built is antisocial and, in my words, unforgivable. It has nothing but a detrimental effect: we can only become dumber as a result of his actions.

This was a clash of very different worldviews, and only one of them really had something to say. Ray’s only strategy seemed to involve changing the topic or answering Thunderf00t’s questions with his own rehearsed questions on the many occasions when he seemed visibly uncomfortable.

Ray almost constantly asserted that he knows this to be true, or that to be true without ever explaining how he knows. Like many theists, he conflates knowledge with certainty, and several times seems scornful and dismissive of empirical knowledge earned from rigorous testing and experimentation. The double standards are galling.

All in all, I was very disappointed in the discussion. Ray’s questions and challenges mostly missed the point and were every bit as inept as what I used to fend off so many years ago in IRC. Much of the dialog went in circles. I expected more from somebody who does this for a living, even if all they do for a living is peddle lightweight theology and employ absurd gimmicks like Crocoduck and bananas to make their point (and plenty of money while they’re at it). I was hoping that, in the context of a discussion rather than a debate with nothing to prove, that we would dig a bit deeper than sentiments like “God must have done it”, “Science can’t make a grain of sand from nothing” and “A creation proves there was a creator”. Sadly, despite there being no contest to win or lose, Ray somehow lost anyway.

In the broader context, religion and science have once again shown how dramatically different they are. Can there be meaningful dialog between the two, or is this discussion a microcosm of the futility of trying to reconcile entirely different and exclusive approaches to knowledge and life? Can it even be satisfactorily reconciled within an individual without resorting to compartmentalisation? Yes, they were both polite to each other but did either side really hear what the other was saying, or did they simply take turns in waiting for their opportunity to speak?