Once again thumbing my nose at the publishing guidelines for Canadian Atheist, I am cross-posting the summary I wrote on this event here. Readers should be aware that I was not present at any of the described events. What follows is my amalgamation of the impressions of a diverse group of skeptics working in different cities.
This past week, British Columbia was host to creationist lecturer Dr. Jonathan Sarfati, a PhD in chemistry who gave a series of lectures entitled “Evolution: The Greatest Hoax on Earth.” The title, while pithy enough on its own, is based on the title of the international bestselling book The Greatest Show on Earth by British biologist, professor and novelist Richard Dawkins.
Dr. Sarfati, founder of Creation Ministries International, asserts that evolution is a hoax based on his literal interpretation of the story of Genesis – in which God created the universe in 7 days about 10,000 years ago. One must admire the courage and temerity of a man who looks at pre-human fossils dated orders of magnitude older than that; rock formations dated billions of years old; and abundant cosmological evidence putting the age of the universe even older than the rocks; and says “nope, ten thousand – book says so.” Maybe ‘admire’ isn’t the right word…
What did we do?
Upon hearing that we would be paid a visit by such a luminary figure, British Columbia skeptics decided that if creationist propaganda was going to be spread around our fair province then audience members deserved to hear what the scientific evidence had to say. After all, forewarned is forearmed. Centre for Inquiry (CFI) Vancouver, in partnership with our colleagues at CFI Okanagan, the University of British Columbia (UBC) biology department, UBC Okanagan (UBCO), the UBC Freethinkers and the UBCO Skeptics contacted the venues where Sarfati was scheduled to speak – UBC’s Vancouver campus, The Pacific Academy in Surrey, and UBC’s Okanagan campus – and requested permission to set up an information table in the lobby.
The Pacific Academy, a privately owned venue attached to a Pentacostal Christian school (K-12) in Surrey, declined our request to set up a table. While we were understandably disappointed – especially given CFI’s past willingness to allow creationists to push their propaganda (usually in the form of “if there’s no God, how did all this stuff get here? Therefore, God.”) at our events – we recognized that private businesses have every right to hold whatever events they like. The Surrey event was attended by around 800 people of all ages.
We were able to prevail upon UBC to allow the presence of science within the morass of apologetics by reminding them of their obligation to present information that is consistent with the policies of the university. While creationism might be entertaining, evolution is a fact. We were lucky to be able to borrow on the heft and credibility of our colleagues within the UBC biology department.
The Vancouver lecture was not quite as well-attended, perhaps due to the fact that people in a university environment know a bit more about science than the general public. Many of the students we encountered there attended out of sheer curiosity – having heard about the evolution vs. creation “controversy” (only controversial to those within the creationist camp). They thanked us for being there to present the evidence, rather than… well, we’ll get to that later.
The UBC Okanagan lecture was again not quite as popular as the one held by the Pentecostal Church in Surrey. Our volunteers were present to provide some information to those who might not have a background in biology. Feeling a bit cheeky, some of us wore t-shirts that said “Creationism: a Philosophy of Ignorance”, referring to the argument from ignorance that Creationism is based on (“I don’t know how this works, therefore it must be God’s doing”). Our esteemed presenter wasn’t particularly pleased about that, but we’ll get to that in a bit.
Overall, our presence was welcomed by audience members. We were careful not to force information on people, preferring instead to wait for curious parties to come to us. We were not there to sell anything or to force an agenda, merely to make information available and give people a chance to pre-empt some of the more egregious lies inherent to creationism.
What happened at the lecture?
While the bar for creationist lecturers isn’t set particularly high, either in terms of evidence or persuasive arguments, Dr. Sarfati did his utmost not to clear it. Instead of presenting evidence for the truth of creation (which would be impressive, because there isn’t any), he instead presented a series of shallow, recycled and easily- (and oft-) refuted arguments. Some of the highlights:
- The second law of thermodynamics says that organization can’t increase in a closed system, therefore beneficial mutations cannot happen and evolution cannot occur. Never mind that the Earth is not a closed system, gets regular energy from the sun, and beneficial mutations have been observed to occur (a PhD in Chemistry really should know this)…
- Science comes from Christianity (therefore… God?). Never mind that the Christian church repeatedly blocked scientific progress that was contrary to dogma, that science has explained many things that were supposedly divine “mysteries”, and that during the Dark Ages – when the church was at its height of power – it was the Muslim world that made the greatest contributions to science…
- Noah’s flood explains everything, from the Grand Canyon to the divergence of species. Never mind the fact that contemporary floods don’t seem to have the magical properties of Noah’s flood, that building a ship capable of holding 2 of every animal in the world would require a level of technology we don’t even have today, and that there is no evidence anywhere of a flood that covered the entire world and then carefully planted specific types of animals only in certain places…
- Fish float when they die, therefore they can’t fossilize, therefore fish fossils are evidence of being buried by mud slides from Noah’s flood. Never mind the fact that you do not need Noah’s flood to create mud slides that bury fish. It happens all the time. Never mind the fact that fish sink after their air bladders lose integrity, or that fish without bladders sink right away, or that fossil records are not the only – or even the strongest – evidence we have for evolution…
- If you put a frog in a blender and turn it on, you’ll never see a live frog be reassembled. I’m not even sure if this one is worth taking on, and someone should probably call the SPCA.
After the lecture there was a Q&A session. Dr. Safarti wasn’t too pleased to see our volunteers in the first place (someone put a copy of Biology for Dummies on the podium – perhaps not polite, but certainly funny), and mentioned our insouciant t-shirts a few times in Kelowna. He became even more hostile when we pointed out some of the more egregious fallacies in his argument, interrupting the questioners, accusing us of trying to convert people to atheism (a big scary deal to Dr. Safarti), and assuring us that the answers were in one of his books, but he couldn’t answer it right now. The Vancouver event was attended predominantly by students and evolutionists, who did not respond well to these evasive tactics and cheered on those who took the creationist presenter to task for them.
Our reception was somewhat frostier in Kelowna, where the crowd was not quite as pro-science as in Vancouver. Our questions, rather than being met with tacit approval, were the cause of some consternation to the audience. One attendee, a professor of philosophy, attempted to demonstrate some of the logical problems with Sarfati’s arguments – an audience member threatened to put the professor in a head lock. Perhaps it goes without saying that we didn’t win any popularity contests there. Hopefully we got mentioned in a few church sermons the following Sunday.
Needless to say, Dr. Sarfati was not pleased to have people present who are aware of history, science, and basic logic. His hostility was not saved for skeptics either: he made many disparaging comments about atheists, Muslims, and made disparaging remarks about other Christians who believed in evolution. Perhaps being a jerk and a buffoon isn’t relevant to the fact that his presentation was frankly a big steamy pile of BS, but it certainly didn’t help his cause.
What did we learn?
The British Columbia branches of CFI are working on our “skeptivist” approach – bringing the tools of skepticism out into the open and engaging the public. We were lucky to have partners at UBC, as well as the support of the national branch of CFI. We were once again received positively by most of the audience at the event we attended – a reception we can at least partially attribute to being polite and non-pushy (being a good-looking group of ladies and gents probably didn’t hurt either).
People are understandably curious when someone tells them “the thing you’ve been taught is a hoax”. I’m sure that many of the attendees were either confirmed creationists for whom science is blasphemy, and more than a few were science-literate skeptics present at the lecture for a chuckle. Our mission was not and has not been, to convert the whole audience to one way of thinking; it was to present the actual evidence and allow people to make their own decisions. We are confident that after hearing “both sides” of the creation/evolution issue, reasonable people will choose the side with the evidence on its side over the one that relies on distortions and outright falsehoods to make its point.
Our information tables were visited predominantly by the people we were hoping to attract – science-weak university students who were there out of curiosity. They thanked us for being there, knowing that evolution is embraced by the scientific community but not being too sure about why. While skeptics and atheists are often accused of “preaching to the converted”, we were glad to have an opportunity to “preach” to those whose understanding of biology is less than full.
Dr. Sarfati is perhaps not the greatest challenge facing us in the creationist camp. While folks like Ken Ham at least have some kind of charisma, Dr. Sarfati has pictures of blended frogs and slander against non-believers. However, it is important to counter pseudoscience and fraud whenever it appears, particularly when it’s on our university campuses, no matter how unimpressive the speaker may be. We are happy to have been a part of this, and optimistic that we may have given people some things to think about.