Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Dealing with the abysmal ignorance

If you ever get into debates with Christians and/or creationists you're soon going to come up against all kinds, there are sophisticated bullshit artists who will redefine all the terms in ways you don't recognize any more, religion no longer refers to a set of dogmatic beliefs about the supernatural, instead it becomes "a world view" and Karl Giberson can make a case that science is becoming a religion. God is no longer the specific entity described by the Bible or Koran, but rather either deistic or an even more nebulous concept like Paul Tillich's "ground of all being." Such debates become semantic games.

On the other side of the spectrum you'll find such abysmal levels of ignorance that there is nowhere you can even imagine where to begin educating them. This YouTube video clip perfectly illustrates this level of ignorance, meet Francis Collins' worst nightmare; Kirk Cameron's abysmal ignorance of evolution:

The video clip is from an old Nightline debate between two people from the Rational Response Squad, Kelly and Brian, and Ray Comfort and Kirk Cameron from "Way of the Master."

When Kirk Cameron first pulled out his crazy animal pictures, the "Crocoduck," "bullfrog" and "sheepdog," during the debate and claimed that "evolutionists had been searching for these animals for hundreds of years" I thought it would be part of some joke, but it wasn't. He was serious and he was telling a bald-faced lie (there are no scientists searching for those creatures and never had been). His joke had no punchline. Kelly and Brian seemed to watch in shock and horror, unable to comprehend Kirk's level of ignorance.

Then when Brian made the point that "we are all transitional forms" the moderator himself demonstrated his own incredible ignorance of the concept of "transitional forms."

Kelly and Brian stumbled around, unprepared to deal with such abysmal ignorance, and they never quite got a handle on where to begin educating these three moronic Christians (including the moderator apparently). Brian took on Kirk's attempt to separate macro and micro evolution by saying, "how do you avoid walking a mile by taking small steps?" Alas, Kirk and Ray didn't seem to be able to get their heads around that point and just dodged it. Kirk could have refuted the question by answering, "by walking around in circles," or "by taking a small step back for every step forward," but he didn't even understand the point well enough to say that. He blanked out.

The problem seems to be that neither Brian nor Kelly fully grasped how misinformed the three Christians were about what a transitional form was. The three Christians, especially the moderator, seemed to be under the impression that adult animals can mutate, that an individual animal, a full-grown organism, somehow changes from one form into another form. Animals actually do change form, a baby changes into a man, a caterpillar into a butterfly, but that's not evolution - that's development.

One misconception these Christians have derives from comicbooks, not science. They involve scenarios like Spiderman, X-Men and the Fantastic Four, in which something happens to an individual, causing them to change (or "mutate") into something else. A different misconception ignorant people have is that mutations occur in DNA, and are inherited genetically, but they change everything about the organism rather than affecting just one trait (not the small steps Brian was talking about). Brian aimed his argument at someone with a misconception based on an incomplete understanding of genetics and molecular biology, but he was really dealing with the misconceptions of comicbook evolution and so failed to communicate.

Kelly got closer when she pointed out that a crocoduck couldn't breed with anything else, but they were both still stumbling, unable to grasp just how badly the three Christians misunderstood evolution.

Now, I don't want to fault Kelly and Brian, it took my brain a long time to bubble up an insight into what exactly was wrong Kirk's and Ray's conception of evolution. If I were in that debate situation I wouldn't have put the clues together fast enough to point it out in a debate. I probably would have said something like, "Kirk, you are a bald-faced liar if you really mean to tell us that scientists are looking for crocoducks. Scientists know there should be no such thing as a crocoduck. What I want to know is if you are trying to make a joke or if you are really that stupid?"

That probably would not have been a good thing to say. When debating it's best if you can manage to care about people and not attack them, just educate them, as Brian demonstrated. I probably would have failed to do that. Still, instead of Brian saying that Kirk was "ignorant" it might have been better to point out that Kirk could not have passed a high school biology course. That would have put Kirk's ignorance into context and invited high school biology teachers to involve themselves. Kirk seems to have gotten educationally deprived by being a child actor.

Another thing you'll note in the above video is Kirk claiming that a horse cannot produce a non-horse. In at least one respect that is a false statement. A horse can produce a non-horse if it mates with a donkey.

Mules and hinnies are the offspring of horses and donkies. Hinnies are the offspring of a male Horse (stallion) and a female donkey (jenny). The hinny and mule are usually sterile.

Wikipedia will explain more about this:

Horses and donkeys are closely related but they are different species if one uses a reproductive definition of species. Their close relationship allows them to mate and produce the hybrid mule or hinny, but since they are not quite the same species the hybrid mule or hinny is most often sterile, especially the male mules. Sometimes, though rare, a female hinny can still mate with a horse or donkey and produce offspring. It is an example of how species slowly separate. It is evolution in action. A few thousand years down the road and it is likely that mules and hinnies will disappear as horse and donkey genetics drift into more incompatibility.

That fact, if you can keep which breeding match ups result in which animals straight (I couldn't in my first draft of this post and shonny caught my error), might have been a better entry point into educating and communicating with Kirk and Ray. I say "might" because I don't know. Odds are nothing you could say would ever convince them because their reasons are are deeply emotional and not rational. I can only say the clues in that video clip tell me the three Christians all seem to have a comicbook misconception of evolution. You can only find out for sure by asking them more questions about evolution. You'll have to experiment with these things by getting out there in the chat-rooms and forums to argue with creationists and finding out for yourself what works and what doesn't.

Not on this video clip was another statement made by Kirk Cameron in the introductory material where Kirk claimed that he was once like Kelly and Brian. Kirk's arguments proved that this statement is not true. Kelly and Brian have at least a high school knowledge of evolutionary biology and of science in general. Kirk and Ray do not. Brian and Kelly could never see things the way Ray Comfort and Kirk Cameron do and will probably never be believers. No magic ritual or opening of their hearts to God could take away the knowledge they have. Kirk's mistake; he never lead a normal life and he probably doesn't realize how much education he missed out on while he was working as a child star.

Way too many Christians, however, have a childish, comicbook ignorance of evolution, certainly those who write comicbooks. I think a lot of educated people would be shocked to find out how many. It's not just child actors and Christian home-school victims, high school biology itself seems to be failing to give students a basic knowledge of evolution.

And when you look into the abyss of ignorance, the abysmal ignorance looks back into you.

In case you don't think Ray and Kirk were really serious about "crocoduck," check out this recent post on Ray Comfort's blog: "The Berkley Experts."

Ray Comfort calls Tiktaalik a "crocafish" and then claims that since the article he read claims that "Tiktaalik is technically a fish, complete with scales and gills — but it has the flattened head of a crocodile and unusual fins" it is really just a fish and not a transitional form.

Of course, the article Ray Comfort read, but which Ray fails to say anything about, also says that Tiktaalik provides clues about a key transition in the history of life. It is a transitional form that helps show the evolutionary steps leading from one lineage to another by displaying characteristics of both the ancestral and the new lineage:

Tiktaalik, for example, had fins with thin ray bones, scales, and gills like most fish. However, it also had the sturdy wrist bones, neck, shoulders, and thick ribs of a four-legged vertebrate. Tiktaalik was specialized for life in shallow water, propping itself up on the bottom and snapping up prey. The adaptations it had for this lifestyle ended up providing the stepping stones for vertebrates to climb onto dry land — but of course, Tiktaalik was not "aiming" to evolve features for land-living. Tiktaalik was simply well-adapted for its own lifestyle and later on, many of these features ended up being co-opted for a new terrestrial lifestyle.

Not only is evidence of the transition of a form of life going from water to land, it was predicted by modern theories of evolution:

Tiktaalik is important, well-preserved, and certainly newsworthy — but it was not unforeseen. The paleontologists who found Tiktaalik went looking for it. Previous research suggested that vertebrates' invasion of land took place about 375 million years ago in a river — so Shubin and fellow researchers searched for fossils in 375 million year old rocks that had preserved a river delta ecosystem. Having studied other organisms from this water/land transition, the paleontologists knew what sort of animal they were looking for. And when they did discover Tiktaalik (after five separate expeditions to Canada), it wasn't much of a surprise: Tiktaalik had the set of characteristics that they had expected to find in such an organism. In sum, discovering Tiktaalik simply confirmed many of the hypotheses biologists had held for a long time regarding the origin of terrestrial vertebrates. So although Tiktaalik didn't revolutionize anyone's thinking in this area, it does play an important role in moving science forward. Biologists can now capitalize on this knowledge to elaborate their hypotheses (about, for example, why vertebrates moved onto land), to make other predictions, and to discover more transitional forms: huge tracts of rock from this era remain unexplored and ripe for paleontological prospecting.


Ray Comfort asks "Why do Females Exist?"


Will Errickson said...

I think the term for how badly Cameron and Comfort misunderstand evolution (and, I'm sure, other scientific concepts) is that they're "not even wrong."

Great write-up.

normdoering said...

No, will, they are wrong. The problem is that they are wrong on multiple levels.

Kirk Cameron was wrong about what scientists were looking for, he was wrong about non-horses never coming from horses, he was wrong about whatever his conception of a transitional fossil was...

I think you picked up the term "not even wrong" in relation to Ray Comfort from an old PZ post. That was a different case.

shonny said...

A mule is the offspring of a male horse (a stallion) and a female donkey (a jenny). It is bigger and stronger than a donkey yet more sure-footed and gentle (on average) than a horse. Horses and donkeys are closely related but they are different species if one uses a reproductive definition of species. Their close relationship allows them to mate and produce the hybrid mule, but since they are not quite the same species the hybrid mule is most often sterile, especially the male mules. Sometimes, though rare, a female donkey can still mate with a horse and produce offspring, but the direction is now fully horse and no donkey.

Does this mean that sometimes the result of horse/donkey interbreeding is a mule, othertimes it is a horse?
Or did you have hinny in mind?
I knew about the mule part, and that they are mostly sterile, but I've never heard about the hinny till I looked it up just now (live and learn).

As to the real topic here, I believe that the title should really be "Dealing with WILLFUL abysmal ignorance", because these people are not interested in learning anything, just in perpetuating their troglodytic views.

normdoering said...

shonny asked:
"Or did you have hinny in mind?"

Whoops! I think you're right. I think I messed up.

I suggest for people who need better information to consult wikipedia:

But the point as it applies to Kirk's claims still stands, sometimes a horse can produce a non-horse.

JD and Lucy said...

Good post, I'm glad you referred me to it on my Kirk Cameron quote post. I imagine you realize when I said Kirk has been deconstructing science with religion that there was a fair amount of sarcasm involved. I mean, it is after all, a humor blog. If I wanted to be serious, I wouldn't have stopped at the term ''wing ding'' for him.

I think ignorant was the best way you could've described Kirk. He's not stupid so much as misguidedly unwilling to educate himself on reality, in my opinion. He has intelligence. I mean that seriously. You have to have intelligence to manipulate people in the manner that evangelists do. I think if he weren't in need of his religion psychologically that he would be able to understand the science at a basic level and wouldn't be babbling about crocoducks and chocodiles-why don't you ever see the transitional form between cacao beans and crocodiles in nature? Huh? Or finding Joanie loves Chachi written in the sand- ''It's obvious there must be a writer!'' No, I think he's perfectly capable of understanding the basic flaws in his own arguments but unwilling to do anything but try and bend everything in science to fit his own skewed perspective and desperate belief system. He's an emotionally needy cult follower rather than a man with a low IQ.

It's a shame because if an articulate man with his kind of fervor applied himself to something useful in life, he could give people actual help instead of brainwashing them into being judgmental, bug-eyed, vanilla flavored, narrow-minded, loafer-wearin', no science havin'...(trails off into the distance, mumbling)


ozatheist said...

It's like that old saying:
Never argue with stupid people. First they drag you down to their level, then they beat you with experience
Stupidity and ignorance knows no bounds.

Excellent article, it is a worry that even reasonably intelligent, articulate, people can not (or won't not) grasp basic science.

Jared said...

It sucks when you encounter a level of ignorance that you hadn't expected. To me, it feels like being ambushed by an overwhelming force, and it completely shocks you into stunned silence. It's the very reason why I believe live debates should be avoided. Creationists can quickly and confidently spout off one dumbfounding lie after another (e.g., the Gish Gallop), leaving the informed person exasperated, unable to clear up even one of the Creationist's misconceptions within the allotted time.

Phillip said...

While I do enjoy reading about science (and giggling at those who have no concept of it) I make no claims of scientific expertise. I have, however, read a lot of comic books. Regarding the Fantastic Four and Spider-Man, their superhuman abilities were acquired, and in certain cases shown to be inheritable. Well, its a comic book, whadaya want? :) As for the X-Men, they are mutants (Spidey and the FF are not) and were born with their special, superhuman abilities; they were not acquired.

Thanks for your indulgence.
(*pushes up glasses, adjusts pocket protector* *sniffs*)

That Guy said...

This is EXACTLY why creationist/evolution debates should be avoided. We have a complex, well tested and provable scientific theory. They have GOD DID IT!

They can rattle of 15 false arguments (That sound good to the ignorant) in the time it takes us to explain one.

truth machine said...

I think you picked up the term "not even wrong" in relation to Ray Comfort from an old PZ post. That was a different case.

Norm, your autism/Asperger's is getting in your way. The phrase "not even wrong" comes from Enrico Fermi, who was a funny man -- not that you are capable of recognizing it. See, the phrase is a form of humor; the person Fermi applied it to was, of course, actually wrong, but "on multiple levels", as you say.

truth machine said...

But the point as it applies to Kirk's claims still stands, sometimes a horse can produce a non-horse.

Sigh. This totally misses the real problem, which is that Kirk's argument is an example of a Sorites fallacy, specifically in the form of a belief in "types" of creatures. This is vitally important, because evolution cannot be understood as long as one clings to Sorites thinking. There is no such thing as a horse, there is only a vague category that we call horses, but every horse bears offspring that are unlike the parents. If the parents are taken to be the center of the category, the offspring are at some distance from that center. Wherever the boundary of the category "horse" is put, eventually, over time, the offspring will cross that boundary -- regardless of whether horses bear non-horses as direct descendants, they are bound to produce non-horses as indirect descendants, and understanding this requires that one grasp that "is a horse" is not a logical predicate that is either true or false, that "horselike" is a vague characterization.

normdoering said...

Truth machine wrote:
"Norm, your autism/Asperger's is getting in your way."

I do not have autism/Asperger's.

Don't believe the lies Vox tells you.

Anonymous said...

The biggest problem Kelly and Brian faced is that they were stunningly unprepared to defend evolution. They could have had a list of transitional species a mile long, yet they only threw out a couple names. They looked weak and uninformed. Perhaps biology is not their specialty, but it was embarrassing to see them unable to properly answer simple evolution questions.