Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Me and Mr. Ham

Update: Sunday, October 3, 2004: One of my readers has pointed out to me that there is a bit more to the Dawkins story, quoted in this post, than I realized. Have a look at this post from Ed Brayton's blog. I don't entirely agree with the conclusions Ed draws, but it does show that Dawkins was not exactly blameless in what happened.

I had my own run-in with Ken Ham several years ago. I attended a homeschooler's conference in Wichita, KS at which he was the keynote speaker (which tells you something about the home schooling community in Kansas). After his talk, which consisted almost entirely of smears against scientists and distortions of the facts of elementary biology (interrupted periodically by the appreciative cheers of the audience), a group of audience members went up on stage to ask him questions (there was no formal Q&A session). After mentally determining the fastest route to the exit, I decided to go up on stage as well.

One of the main themes of Ham's talk was that biologists have no explanation for how information growth can occur in the course of evolution. The idea is that evolution supposedly began with simple bacteria possessing small genomes, and later produced humans with big genomes. So where did all of that extra genetic information come from? The argument is usually fleshed out with a lot of biology jargon that's guaranteed to impress ignorant audiences.

This question might be cute coming from a first-year biology major, but from someone passing himself off as an expert in these things it's just silly. There are quite a few natural mechanisms that can lead to information growth, such as duplication with subsequent divergence, lateral gene transfer, symbiosis, and polyploidy. The first one has probably been the most important in evolution since the Cambrian, the next two were especially important in the early stages of evolution, while the fourth occurs primarily in plants.

During his talk Ham showed the now infamous video of Oxford biologist Richard Dawkins “failing” to answer this question (about information growth in the genome). For those not familiar with this, here's Dawkins' brief description of the experience:

In September 1997, I allowed an Australian film crew into my house in Oxford without realising that their purpose was creationist propaganda. In the course of a suspiciously amateurish interview, they issued a truculent challenge to me to “give an example of a genetic mutation or an evolutionary process which can be seen to increase the information in the genome.” It is the kind of question only a creationist would ask in that way, and it was at this point I tumbled to the fact that I had been duped into granting an interview to creationists - a thing I normally don't do, for good reasons. In my anger I refused to discuss the question further, and told them to stop the camera. However, I eventually withdrew my peremptory termination of the interview as a whole. This was solely because they pleaded with me that they had come all the way from Australia specifically in order to interview me. Even if this was a considerable exaggeration, it seemed, on reflection, ungenerous to tear up the legal release form and throw them out. I therefore relented.

My generosity was rewarded in a fashion that anyone familiar with fundamentalist tactics might have predicted. When I eventually saw the film a year later, I found that it had been edited to give the false impression that I was incapable of answering the question about information content. In fairness, this may not have been quite as intentionally deceitful as it sounds. You have to understand that these people really believe that their question cannot be answered! Pathetic as it sounds, their entire journey from Australia seems to have been a quest to film an evolutionist failing to answer it.

The quote above comes from this article, in which Dawkins goes on to address the question of information growth in some detail (focussing on duplication and divergence).

Anyway, when it came to be my turn I very politely asked, in front of a group of about thirty or more audience members, why he persisted in repeating this charge even after biologists had responded to it many times. I rattled off several mechanisms by which information could increase and asked why he had not mentioned them in his talk. I finished by pointing out that since most of Dawkins' books address, at least indirectly, the subject of information growth, it was rather unfair to make it appear that he had no answer to the question.

Ham stuttered a bit and finally suggested I walk over to the book exhibit and pick up a copy of the book In the Beginning was Information by Werner Gitt, where I would find answers to all my questions. I politely thanked him for the suggestion and walked away. Happily, quite a few of the other audience members came with me and asked me some follow-up questions. I was more than happy to answer them.

Feeling masochistic I bought and skimmed through Gitt's book. It parroted the same bogus charges Ham had made in his talk, but made no mention of any of the standard mechanisms I mentioned previously. I decided it might be fun to go another round with Mr. Ham.

My chance came as I saw Ham by himself walking across the convention floor. I fell into step next to him and politely showed him that I had bought Gitt's book, as he had suggested. I then pointed out that Gitt makes no mention of any the standard mechanisms biologists cite to explain information growth. Since these mechanisms figure prominently in any textbook on genetics, it seemed like poor form for Gitt to not even address them in the course of a two hundred page book.

Ham spent a lot of time in his talk trying to explain to his adoring audience why the secular world so often refuses to take the young-Earth viewpoint seriously. Ham's answer had a lot to do with people rebelling against God and preferring to wallow in sin. I suggested that perhaps the real reason the secular world doesn't take people like him seriously is that he doesn't bother to get his facts straight before shooting off his mouth. I suggested this very politely, of course.

It was just the two of us at this point so I guess he decided the gloves were off. He called me arrogant and suggested I change my attitude. I told him my attitude had nothing to do with the fact that he hadn't the faintest idea what he was talking about. Then I asked him if he felt any shame in facing his audiences and telling them bald-faced lies. He grunted and walked away.

Time well spent, I thought.


At 9:06 PM, Blogger Salvador T. Cordova said...

Well, at the risk of taking flak from my ID brethren, I have to agree with you on many points.

Although I don't believe Darwinian evolution is responsible for life, I don't think my creationist brethren make the best arguments possible against information increase.

I've been in the trenches arguing information theory with the anti-creationists professors at the university level, and never are the matters so simple.

My creationists brethren do not serve their cause well when then stiffle or brush over dissent. They should say, "Dr. Rosenhouse, you have a good point, it should be explored further, thank you for pointing that out." That sets a good example for the young and how to go about the enterprise of finding truth.

The glory of science is admitting where further investigation is needed and then investigating. AiG and ICR admit their insecurity that their theory might not be eventually vindicated by the facts when they stifle inquiry.

If one really believes in creation and Almighty God's work, then one should have faith the facts will vindicate the theory eventually, even in the face of well-reasoned objections like you have offered. Covering things up does not do much to strengthen people's faith that the best scientific methods are being practiced.

ICR actually stiffled competing creationist theories which were at variance to their own. I still have bad feelings about one incident. See
Upheaval between ICR and other YECsPS
for what it's worth, Jonathan Sarfati is known to be able to play chess with 6 people simultaneously while blindfolded. Hope you can get on good terms with him some day just so you can exchange chess stories.

At 4:19 PM, Blogger John Jones said...

"It was just the two of us at this point so I guess he decided the gloves were off. He called me arrogant and suggested I change my attitude. I told him my attitude had nothing to do with the fact that he hadn't the faintest idea what he was talking about. Then I asked him if he felt any shame in facing his audiences and telling them bald-faced lies. He grunted and walked away.

Time well spent, I thought."


At 2:50 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank-you for letting your story stand for itself on a topic that typically involves much mud slinging. I've noticed from reading elsewhere online that Ken Ham is an easy target for such things.

No matter what background we come from, it's difficult to keep an interest in arguments that have slights and insults attached, especially if those insults might implicate someone who taught us, whom we care about.

There are both Creation Scientists and Evolutionists who need to follow Dawkins' example of graciousness. Thank YOU for doing so.

At 12:01 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

i'm only 15
i believe in a literal 6-day creation and a 6000 year old earth, despite the constant theories thrown at me. i know just from hearing one or two dawkins interviews, that it is not as you say it is.
i know from hearing dawkins that he says that 'religion' is pathetic. As a confessing Christian, i believe no-one can criticise my beliefs, because no atheist has felt God's presence inside of them. And it is AMAZING!!!
Please take into consideration the arrogance that Dawkins has in his beliefs about the world's origins, which even i know enough about to question. The whole debate is the interpretation of evidence, because we all have the same evidence, dont we?

At 8:05 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hello, all. Just a few clarifying comments, first.

In response to the following: "i believe no-one can criticise my beliefs, because no atheist has felt God's presence inside of them," I would like to say that I respect your personal experiences, but that they are not valid proof or disproof of ANY theory. If they were, I could claim that I had had an experience (absolutely any experience) and you would not be able to disprove it--regardless of whether or not it was a blatant lie.

Also, I applaud the following statement: "There are both Creation Scientists and Evolutionists who need to follow Dawkins' example of graciousness."
If more Christians acted like they were, there would be more Christians.

With that out of the way, I would like to point out that NOBODY-evolutionists OR creationists-has all the evidence or all the answers. Both sides have compelling arguments. Both sides have questions that make you...well, they make you question the theory's validity. It is absolutely OK to ask questions and/or have doubts WHATEVER SIDE YOUR ARE ON. I've had mine, and I certainly hope you've had yours.

My post here is not to convince you one way or another, I simply want to encourage you to keep searching the evidence and to find the answer that seems most plausible. You are entitled to your opinion, as am I. Please DON"T think that you have all the answers, because you don't. If you did, you'd be god and we wouldn't be debating your existance ;)

If you would like me to provide some links where you can read creationism evidence, post back and I'll see what I can do. If you haven't posted in the next week or so, I can't guarentee anything b/c I'm extremely busy.

I'd like to apologize, also, for any of my fellow young earth creationists (yes, I'm a Christian) who have treated you poorly because you do not believe the same as us. That has to be the most UNChristian thing I can think of.

I hope the evidence has lead you to the same place that it has lead me, because I REALLY REALLY DO CARE about your soul (or else I wouldn't be writing), but if not, I won't be pigheaded about it, and I would enjoy a discussion with you to discuss the evidence that there is, because I find it fascinating.

Hope to speak with you again soon. . . . . . . . .

A.T. McIntyre

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