So the Origins Conference sponsored by the Skeptics Society was held last Saturday, and a good time was had by all. Or, at least, a good time was had by most. Or, maybe the right thing to say was that a good time was had much of the time by many of the people.
More specifically: the morning session, devoted to science, was fun. The evening entertainment, by Mr. Deity and his crew, was fantastic. In between, there was some debate/discussion on science vs. religion. Ken Miller is a biologist who believes strongly that science should be taught in science classrooms — he was an important witness in the Dover trial — and who happens also to be a Catholic. He gave an apologia for his belief that was frustrating and ultimately (if you ask me) wrong-headed, but at least qualified as reasonable academic discussion. He was followed by Nancey Murphy, a theologian who was much worse; she defended her belief in the efficacy of prayer by relating an anecdote in which she prayed to God to get a job, and the phone immediately rang with a job offer. (I am not, as Dave Barry says, making this up.) And Michael Shermer and Vic Stenger represented the atheist side, although both talks were also frustrating in their own ways.
But all of that just fades into the background when put into the same room as the sheer unadulterated looniness of the remaining speaker, Hugh Ross. Despite warnings, I didn’t really know anything about the guy before the conference began. The taxonomy of crackpots is not especially interesting to me; there are too many of them, and I’d rather engage with the best arguments for positions I disagree with than spend time mocking the worst arguments (although I’m not above a bit of mockery now and then).
So I was unprepared. For those of you fortunate enough to be blissfully unaware of Ross’s special brand of lunacy, feel free to stop reading now if you so choose. For the rest of you: man, this guy is nuts. And he’s not even the most nuts it’s possible to be — he’s an “old-earth” creationist, willing to accept that the universe is 14 billion years old and that the conventional scientific interpretation of the fossil record is generally right. Still: totally nuts.
Ross’ talk took two tacks. First, he explained to us how the Bible predicted that: (1) the universe started from an initial singularity; (2) it is now expanding; and (3) it is cooling down at it expands. The evidence for these remarkable claims? A long list of Bible verses! Well, not the verses themselves. Just the citations. So we couldn’t really tell what the verses themselves said. Except for poor Ken Miller, who was trying to salvage some last shred of dignity for his side of the debate, and had the perspicacity to look up one of the verses on his iPhone. (Praise be to technology!) I’m not sure which verse it was, but that’s okay, because they all say precisely the same thing. Here is Isaiah 45:12, in the New International Version:
It is I who made the earth
and created mankind upon it.
My own hands stretched out the heavens;
I marshaled their starry hosts.
What’s that? You don’t see the bold prediction of Hubble’s Law, practically ready for peer review? It’s right there, in the bit about “stretched out the heavens.” To the mind of a non-crazy person, this is a poetic way of expressing the fact that the dome of the sky reaches from one horizon to the other. To Hugh Ross, though, it’s a straightforward scientific prediction of the expansion of the universe.
Here is Ross in person, going through some of these same arguments:
(Yes, that video is embedded from “GodTube.com.”)
His second tack was to explain how our universe is finely-tuned for the existence of life. We’ve all heard this kind of claim, from real scientists as well as crackpots. But Ross and his clan take it to grotesque extremes, as detailed in the website for his Reasons to Believe ministry. Where, by the way, they don’t believe the LHC will destroy the world! Rather, it will “provide even new reasons to trust the validity of Scripture.” It would be nice if they would tell us what those reasons are ahead of time. Does Scripture predict low-energy supersymmetry? Large extra dimensions?
According to Reasons to Believe, the chance of life arising on a planet within the observable universe is only 1 in 10282 — or it would have been, if it weren’t for divine miracles. (Don’t tell them about there are 10500 vacua in string theory, it would ruin everything.) They get this number by writing down a long list of criteria that are purportedly necessary for the existence of life (“star’s space velocity relative to Local Standard of Rest”; “molybdenum quantity in crust”; “mass distribution of Oort Cloud objects”), then they assign probabilities to each, and cheerfully multiply them together. To the non-crackpot eye, most have little if any connection to the existence of life, and let’s not even mention that many of these are highly non-independent quantities. (You cannot calculate the fraction of “Sean Carroll”s in the world by multiplying the fraction of “Sean”s by the fraction of “Carroll’s. As good Irish names, they are strongly correlated.) It’s the worst kind of flim-flam, because it tries to cover the stench of nonsense by squirting liberal doses of scientific-smelling perfume. If someone didn’t know anything about the science, and already believed in an active God who made the universe just for us, they could come away convinced that modern science had vindicated all of their beliefs. And that’s not something any of us should sit still for.
There is a reason why all this is worth rehashing, as distasteful as it may be and as feeble as the arguments are. Namely: there is no reason whatsoever to invite such a person to speak at a conference that aspires to any degree of seriousness. You can invite religious speakers, and you can have a debate on the existence of God; all that is fine, so long as it is clearly labeled and not presented as science. But there’s never any reason to invite crackpots. The crackpot mindset has no legitimate interest in an open-minded discussion, held in good faith; their game is to take any set of facts or arguments and twist them to fit their pre-determined conclusions. It’s the opposite of the academic ideal. And it’s an insult to religious believers to have their point of view represented by crackpots.
Which, if you want to be excessively conspiratorial, might have been the point. Perhaps the conference organizers wanted to ridicule belief in God by having it defended by Hugh Ross, or perhaps they wanted to energize the skeptical base by exposing them to some of the horrors that are really out there. Still, it was inappropriate. If we non-believers are confident in our positions, we should engage with the most intelligent and open-minded exemplars of the other side. Shooting fish in a barrel is not a sport that holds anyone’s attention for very long.