Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Hangin' out with Dan Barker

 As I mentioned in previous post, on March 7, Dan Barker came to the University of Windsor at the request of the Windsor/Essex County Atheist Society to debate Joe Boot on the topic of life after death. Craig Pearson blogged about it in the Windsor Star the evening before the debate, with appreciable even-handedness, especially considering that he was able to get a hold of Dan for an interview, but not Joe. The way the sides are presented in the article turned out to reflect the debaters' strategies very closely.

Shawna had offered to bring Derek and I with her to pick Dan Barker up at the airport in Detroit, so the day's events started early for us. We retrieved Dan in the early afternoon and headed back to Windsor for lunch at Taloola Cafe.

Conversation in the car began with the Star article and moved to Dinesh D'Souza, Christian apologist and frequent debater. I think D'Souza has gone up against most if not all of the 'Four Horsemen' of 'new atheism' (Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and Hitchens), and I learned Dan has debated the man eight times. Eight times! Shawna, Derek and I took our turns decrying D'Souza's clever but frustrating debate tactics, and Dan gave a demonstration of the niceness he's known for in mentioning that he doesn't have any personal grudges against D'Souza at all, though we also gossiped a little about D'Souza's expulsion from King's College. We talked about what we do with our lives -- Dan's a sociable interviewer -- and after we crossed the border back into Canada, he held our passports hostage to peruse them before giving them back to us.

Dan Barker pondering, not praying,
at Taloola Cafe
Taloola Cafe is cozy and bohemian, and I liked it just as Shawna predicted. We browsed a book of historical local photographs from the Walkerville Publishing Company, which had been dedicated to the cafe with a signature from Elaine Weeks. As we waited for our orders Shawna pulled a box of MENSA quiz cards from a shelf for us to puzzle over while we talked about religious trends, psychology, and eventually the prevalence of socipoathy. I grew disenfranchised with the cards quickly -- most of the puzzles seemed like cheap tricks, in which the solutions to colour-based puzzles almost invariably lay within knowing the spelling of the colours' obscure names rather than in the nature of the colours themselves. But I may have had a case of sour grapes.

Shawna got a shot of the FSM
manifestation hovering behind me.
Mr. Barker did not find the puzzles so difficult. The card he chose depicted a series of math equations, with colours in place of the numbers and only one of the values actually given. The goal: to find the number represented by yellow. He puzzled over it as we waited for our orders, and when he checked his answer (seven, I think?), the answer card told him the answer was eight. He puzzled some more (with a pen this time), double checked with Shawna, and then wrote his equally-acceptable solution down on the answer card. So if you ever happen to run across a corrected answer card in the MENSA deck at Taloola, that was Dan Barker leaving a permanent mark on Windsor.

We talked about the March for Myths a bit. A few times I interrupted Dan accidentally: rudeness as a symptom of enthusiasm, if I may excuse myself so swiftly. At one point he mentioned that he viewed the varying styles of Christianity (Bible-thumping vs moderate) as symptomatic of culture. People choose the churches that fit their personalities as individuals, he was saying. When I suggested that it works the other way around too (people pursue the styles of religion which reflect of their religious upbringing, creating culture in a cycle), Dan agreed. I think we were on the same page. That was cool.

Such attractive associates!
Over all, conversation flowed well. Dan Barker is a relaxed,  funny, friendly guy. He's a rare and special person, the kind of person that embodies comfortable wisdom. We dropped him off at his hotel, spent a couple hours at home (Derek and I live a few doors down from Shawna), then got back in the car to pick up another club member, then Dan at his hotel, and then headed to the University for the debate.

After a mishap in which a parking meter with a grudge ate a bunch of Shawna's money, we crossed the street into campus, and ran into a few members of the Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship. They had some bad news (which they were very apologetic about): Joe Boot had gotten stuck in traffic on his way down from Toronto, and would be late for the debate. This meant Shawna would have to send updates to a lot of people, so while she left to commandeer a computer, myself, Derek, Dan and our other club member headed down to the CAW's main floor to grab some Tim Horton's and wait in the cafeteria. I think tensions were increasing at that point due to the unexpected delay, but we kept chatting and more club members trickled in to join us at our table, as did some of Dan's American fans. We sat around for an hour or so, talking about politics, history, travel and religion, comparing states and countries. Dan was impressed by our club members' familiarity with American history. It was a good time.

From Dan's blog post about the day:

I learned from some of the locals that the Tim Horton restaurant chain is one of the closest things to national pride the Canadians will celebrate these days. Horton was a famous hockey player, and that sport is their other claim to national unity, they told me.

We did talk about Tim Horton's, but man does it ever look... sad. Welcome to Canada: nationally unified by the marketing strategy of an American-owned coffee chain. Dan asked us about Canada's founding documents and wondered whether we have any beloved historical figures analogous to the United States' founding fathers, but we don't really treat any with that much reverence. Another club member emphasized our population's love for Canadian health care. I heartily second that as a hub of cultural unity -- I'm not a hockey fan and I think McDonald's coffee is better than Timmy's. A heretic in every way, that's me.

It turns out Tim Hortons has a contest where some of the cups are printed with prize announcements to lucky winners. So when I finished my coffee [...], Currie, one of the atheist students, showed me the arrow on the cup pointing to where the prize might be. When I rolled up the rim, surprise! I won a free cafe latte.

Maybe that doesn’t sound like a big deal, but when I held that cup up before that audience, they were impressed. (You have to get your fun where you find it.) “This is proof of the power of non-prayer,” I announced. “I did NOT pray to win, and I won!”

At first he had exclaimed upon winning, "Ooh, I should give this away at the debate! Like a prize for the person who asks the best question!" and I said it was a great idea, but then his later choice to give it to Joe Boot as a gift at the start of the debate turned out great. A philosophical counter-point wrapped in a free drink. Smooth.

When we returned to the Ambassador Auditorium, it was already getting crowded. A few of us in the W/EC Atheist Society had argued at length about what debate topic to choose, and I had pushed hard for the life-after-death option, hoping that such a wide-reaching (albeit easy) topic would bring in a large audience. I don't know whether the topic increased the attendance beyond Barker's and Boot's drawing power, but I sure was relieved to see the auditorium filled nearly to capacity. I helped sign up a few new official club members, met up with friends, and posed for a picture with group members.

We learned before the debate started that Boot hadn't merely been stuck in traffic, he'd been in a car accident. I felt pretty bad for having gotten miffed about it. We took our seats, and the pre-game began. Dan, Shawna, Jordan from IVCF, and mediator Dr. Drake all gave their introductions. The video of the introductions is below:

Dr. Drake began answering philosophical questions called out from the first few rows' of audience members, but fortunately that didn't last long -- the questions (and the way he was answering them) had the potential to spoil the debate. That said, he was appropriately impartial for a debate moderator: a fan of Gould's "NOMA" perspective.

Mr. Barker talked to the audience about his life, and what it was like before and after he rejected theism, as well as his family and his work as a musician. He gave Shawna and the W/EC Atheist Society a nod for their hand in removing the prayer from U Windsor's convocation ceremony. As he states in his blog post, he deliberately stayed away from subjects that would sway a debate about life after death in his favour.

A video of the full debate is here:

For Dan's perspective on it, head to his blog. I won't bother reiterating exactly how it went, but I will comment on Boot's approach during his rebuttal period. He got up behind the microphone with rhetorical guns blazing, ad-hom style: he poked some fun at Dan's history as a preacher to imply that he hadn't been a true Christian, called Dan's atheism "cereal box atheism" and implored his listeners to do more than read "the back of Richard Dawkins' book," implying that atheists are only pretending to think for themselves, and aren't educated. It shocked and offended me, but in a good way -- I assume sports fans feel similarly when game rules are bent by the "other" team.

It's ironic that Boot used such accusations, considering that he had opened in his introduction with a shameless pronouncement that his entire argument begged the question. He began by declaring his unshakable belief that nothing at all in the entire universe (including words) could possibly have any meaning without his god, the existence of whom also necessitated an afterlife. Thus in his view, it was impossible to even talk about life after death without assuming the existence of life after death. He reiterated his sentiment that debate is impossible throughout the debate. Figuratively put, Boot flipped the game board and declared: 'I win because I won't play,' leaving Dan to play by the rules of rationality. But then, what else can one expect but an appeal to authority from the perspective of dogmatic faith? During the Q&A, Boot also confessed that he doesn't accept evolution. Oh, shoot. I had hoped he wouldn't be so easy to topple (he's a very smart guy), but with that he just lay down voluntarily.

On the plus side, Boot was a pleasure to listen to regardless of disagreement. A few times he pronounced the "br" in "brain" the way David Tennant pronounces the "br" in "brilliant." Combine that trill with Boot's charisma, confidence and attractiveness, and I might nearly have been swayed to his position. Like 90% of everyone, I have a massive soft spot for cute, eloquent Brits. If someone's going to espouse a faulty position, at least let them be easy on the ears and eyes, as I always say starting now.

The cross-examination period was a lot of fun, but it and the Q&A period had to be cut short because the debate had begun later than planned. Dan and Joe only got to ask each other one or two questions. Disappointed!

After the debate, W/EC Atheist Society members piled into other members' respective vehicles and headed out to World Marathon Ethiopian Restaurant for a late dinner with Dan. Several of us hadn't had Ethiopian food before and it was well-received.

I had trouble getting started, though: basically, the way to eat Ethiopian is to use a piece of flatbread to pick up the food, in exactly the way you would use a paper towel to pick up a hairball or other animal 'accident.' I have three cats, so I know this more intimately than I'd like. But once I got over the chance association and actually started eating, I loved it.

The group presented Dan with an engraved pen in gratitude for his efforts, as well as a "Thank You" card signed by everyone, which he accepted graciously. Members with copies of his book (he gave us a few as gifts) got personalized signatures. Very cool. We stayed late, and conversation never slowed, though I personally tried to stay out of a lot of it so as not to hog our guest.

That said, when the topic of opposition faced by the FFRF came up, Dan mentioned that the protesters they get at HQ are kinda kooky -- including "one of those men's rights guys," he said, in a tone of exasperated distaste. As gender egalitarian, I just had to pipe up and mention that the issue of men's rights is a multifaceted one (there's more to gender relations than feminist dictum, which can itself be bigoted), but the conversation didn't continue further in that vein, probably for the better, since the issue can be a powder keg. Of course, anyone specifically picketing an atheist foundation for "men's rights" probably supports the misogyny in the Bible, so no wonder Dan found those particular picketers to be exasperatingly kooky. I would too.

I believe a few club members discussed the Christian Flag at City Hall issue with Dan, and he encouraged us Canadians to pursue effective activism regarding church/state separation in Canada. Before we brought him back to his hotel, he emphasized the importance of patience and said a few times, "You've got to have a fire in your belly." I wondered aloud whether I have it. I think I do sometimes, but it flickers. On the bright side, the day's events definitely helped to feed it.

Many thanks to Shawna and another W/EC Atheist Society member (whose name I haven't mentioned because he's asked me not to reveal his identity in the past) for doing such a large portion of the work in putting on the show. You worked your butts off and it paid off -- to the tune of 400 guests! Thanks to all other members for contributing, thanks to the debate sponsors, and of course, thanks to Dr. Drake and to our debaters Dan Barker and Joe Boot for hosting an insightful and entertaining event.

Friday, February 15, 2013

The Windsor Star has given a creationist a soapbox

A letter has appeared in the Windsor Star, titled, "Evolution denies laws of science and reasoning." That's a pretty hefty charge, if I may so understate. The letter makes a great many factual claims, but it unfortunately (and predictably) fails to give citations or even make references to the origins of the information.

While I doubt the veracity of the claims made, I'm sure the writer, Terry Snyder (who one commenter says is a retired science teacher), didn't pull all this stuff from thin air. I'm sure the data came from somewhere -- probably somewhere unreliable. So I thought I'd comb through and do some sleuthing. Let the picking-apart commence.

To support his claim that "Evolution denies the laws of science and reasoning," Snyder begins with the following allegations:

[Evolution] has never been observed, rejects the laws of biogenesis, the second law of thermodynamics (natural processes move toward disorder), has no transitional fossils, and no known mechanism to have occurred. Ninety years of fruit fly experiments with high radiation only produced dead or defective flies.

Evolution has never been observed? Here's a link to the Wikipedia article on the claim, which appears to originate from creationist minds as great as that belonging to Kent Hovind.

The evolutionary process has been observed in many, many instances. The domestication and diversification of animals and plants, from dogs to bananas, is one group of examples. Usually when confronted with this, creationists will move the goalposts to claim that domestication shows small-level changes only, making it an example of "micro-evolution," rather than evidence of "macro-evolution," the evolution which takes place over long periods of time and results in speciation. This, however, applies a distinction where none actually exists (see: special pleading). The difference between "micro-evolution" and "macro-evolution" is the difference between a short jog and a marathon. Just as a short jog is not evidence against the running of marathons (if anything, it's evidence in favor), "micro-evolution" is not evidence against "macro-evolution." It's evidence in favor.

Evolution is also asserting itself in places we'd prefer it didn't: antibiotic-resistant bacteria continue to evolve to circumvent human efforts to control harmful microorganisms. PSA alert: please take all your antibiotics when prescribed them, even if you're feeling better before you reach the bottom of the bottle. If you don't kill off all the bacteria, the few remaining resistant bacteria in your body can easily breed to create large populations of stronger versions of their ancestors, making us all more likely to get more sick.

On to Snyder's second claim: that evolution "rejects the laws of biogenesis." I'll quote Wikipedia:
The law of biogenesis, attributed to Louis Pasteur, is the observation that living things come only from other living things, by reproduction (e.g. a spider lays eggs, which develop into spiders). That is, life does not arise from non-living material, which was the position held by spontaneous generation.
It seems Snyder just threw down a red herring with this one. The law of biogenesis states that life can't come from non-life. Evolution occurs when life comes from life, which is perfectly in agreement with the law of biogenesis.

It was once commonly believed that the maggots found in rotting meat actually came from the meat itself, rather than from eggs laid by flies. The law of biogenesis, then, correctly asserts that this sort of thing doesn't happen.

Snyder probably thinks the law of biogenesis contradicts evolution because he has confused evolutionary theory -- a study of the changes which occur in living things as they inherit characteristics over generations -- with theories about the actual origins of life. This is a common creationist mistake.

What Snyder is challenging here is not the theory of evolution, but the the notion that life could have emerged from the natural world, that the Earth could have peopled the way an apple tree apples, that "We didn't come into this world, we came out of it" (Alan Watts).

The trouble with the universe is that it doesn't fit into comfortable categories. When does an embryo become a person? When does red become orange on a spectrum? When does non-life become life?  This question is not one for evolutionary theory to answer because it's not what evolutionary theory is about. The question of how life originated is somewhat up in the air in the scientific community (while evolution is not), but humanity is making headway in answering it.

It is likely the case that the law of biogenesis should be amended slightly to say that complex life can't emerge from non-life. Such an amendment, by the way, would not violate the scientific method, which is what I believe Snyder is referring to when he uses the phrase, "the laws of science."

It should go without saying that lacking a concrete answer to the question doesn't in any way grant us a license to stuff a creation god into that gap in our knowledge.

Snyder then claims that evolution also contradicts "the second law of thermodynamics (natural processes move toward disorder)."

This claim makes one basic and damning mistake: the second law of thermodynamics applies to closed (isolated) systems only, and the Earth is not a closed system. Simply put, we consistently receive energy from space, primarily from the sun, upon which life depends.

Here's the really cool kicker of it all: entropy is in fact a necessary component of the evolutionary process, contributing to the genetic changes which allow for life's diversity and speciation -- in essence, entropy in the genome is what natural selection selects against, except when the results of this entropy enable the usage of the sun's energy and the continuation of a genetic line.  If entropy didn't occur to be selected against, nothing would be selected for, either. So that's kinda beautiful in a yin-and-yang sort of way, assuming I'm understanding this correctly. I just learned about it today, while researching for this blog post. Thanks, Mr. Snyder!

Snyder claims that the evidence for evolution "has no transitional fossils."

This one's very easy to debunk. Yes, we do have transitional fossils. Lots of them.  Take archaeopteryx for example, a very obvious transitional species between feathered dinosaurs and modern birds. All fossils found so far have fit into the transitional framework, that is, their age and their form fit a narrative of each species having derived from preexisting species. If a fossil were found that didn't fit into the framework (like a whale fossil found to have originated at the time of the cambrian explosion for example), that would disprove the theory of evolution. One, single fossil found out of place in the timeline of existence could disprove the entire theory.

There are effectively infinite ways in which this could happen, were evolutionary theory false. A thought experiment: imagine a more detailed printout of the tree of life, in which each of the 8.7 million known species is listed by name. Cut each species name out of the printout, and place the  millions of resulting of slips of paper into a giant hat. Shake it up, reach in blindly, and place the species back on the tree of life in the order you remove them from the hat. When you're finished, put them all back into the hat, shake it up, and do it again. Do it again and again until all possible orders are reached.

This experiment would take you longer than the age of the universe to perform, yet only one of those combinations will reflect the tree of life as it has been found, in chronological order, on Earth. How lucky are we to have been given the perfect illusion of natural selection occurring, when in actuality, species have lived and died in random order? Impossibly lucky.

This is why I laugh when creationists claim it to be the 'evolutionists' who think everything happens randomly. In denying evolution, it's the creationists who insert randomness and deny the causal relationship of inherited traits among Earth's diverse species.

Snyder claims that there is "no known mechanism to have occurred" in the evolutionary process.

I'm having trouble grasping what he means here, honestly. A mechanism isn't a thing that occurs so much as it's a means by which things occur. The mechanism by which evolution occurs is natural selection. That is, species originate by means of natural selection. Darwin was pretty darn clear about this -- he stated it in the title of that book he wrote that one time. The physical stuff giving rise to the mechanism was later found to be DNA. Is Snyder really a science teacher? Yikes.

And now, here's one from left field: "Ninety years of fruit fly experiments with high radiation only produced dead or defective flies."

Fruit flies are commonly used to study the way genes work because the flies reach adulthood and reproduce very quickly, allowing many generations to be observed in a short period of time. Of course exposing flies to "high radiation" will kill them. High radiation exposure is deadly. What's this have to do with evolutionary theory? It's not as though all fruit fly experimentation has involved killing them via radiation poisoning. That would be stupid.

Evolution occurs, forming new species, by means of natural selection, not by means of radiation exposure. Here's the Wikipedia page on fruit fly experimentation. I don't have time to read it all, but it does show that fruit fly experimentation has yeilded a wide array of results.

Snyder goes on to say,

Logic requires that when one sees a car, one recognizes that intelligence was required.

Oh no, not this silly stuff again. We know the car was made because we know people designed the assembly lines. "Intelligence," in the sense of a complicated and intentional mind implied here, is not a necessary component in generating complexity. Only causality and certain natural laws are required to generate complexity. It is not necessary to insert a mind, for which we have no reliable evidence (like, say, pictures from inside God's nature-factory), into the process. The insertion of an unnecessary mindful maker is all the "intelligence" claim accomplishes.

Evolutionists put aside this logic when they accept that humans with their trillions of cells occurred by natural selection.

This is an argument from irreducible complexity. The Wikipedia link gets into it in sufficient detail. I'm so tired of hearing about it that I'm not going to do the same myself. This dead horse has been beaten to such a bloody pulp we couldn't even make hamburger out of it.

Radioactive dating techniques used in this regard [determining the age of fossils] are based on the unjustifiable assumptions that they were in a closed system, had constant decay rates and no decay-produced products to start.

This from the guy who says evolution violates the second law of dynamics, thereby assuming us to be in a closed system. I find that a bit amusing. But at the same time, I have a confession to make: I don't understand radiometric dating well enough to easily summarize it. This blog post is getting pretty long already, and I'm getting tired. Here's the Wiki page on radiometric dating.

Chapter 4 of Richard Dawkins's The Greatest Show on Earth, which now sits in my lap, covers radiometric dating and other ways science handles great swathes of time. I intend to read it again. For now, though, I'll move on to another more specific claim of Snyder's:

The hypothesis fails completely when new rocks are formed. Rocks formed by a volcano near Hawaii 200 years ago were dated at 22 million, 169 million, and 3 billion years. With the meteorite, Allende, the most dated rock on earth, each mineral gave a different date. No confidence can be placed in the 4.5 billion, 3.6 billion, 16 million, or 13,000 reported ages.

I'm not familiar with the claim that volcanic (new) rock can't be dated or disproves the viability of radiometric dating, but I found a debunking of it here.  To quote the writeup, which also includes a direct reference to the scientific report,

[T]he scientists who were involved in the research were not trying to date lava; they were instead dating olivine inclusions within the lava. [...] The scientists also reported that the lava was dated at approximately zero, but the creationists don’t seem to care.  And, as consequence, many creationist writers have picked on this very case, claiming that it shows that radiometric dating is wrong.

So it looks like a classic case of, well, lying, on the part of creationists. That's not to call Snyder a liar, but it is to say that his letter been misinformed by someone's lies.

Snyder also claims,

Meteorites are only found in the earth’s crust

It's somehow not good enough to find them in the crust? Does this guy want people to start digging around in the mantle willy-nilly, where space debris -- and most other stuff for that matter -- would simply melt or at least disintegrate from the pressure? The Core is not a documentary.  This unobtanium smells like craptonite.

(Edit: this is how difficult it is to get to the mantle, and this is in just one single spot.)

And then,

Also, cave sketches of dinosaurs indicate that they lived with early man.

Yeah, no.

I need a nap.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013


I ran into an interesting pair of videos today, one through a friend and one on my own. They complement one another well, expressing similar points in very different ways.

the Scared is scared from Bianca Giaever on Vimeo.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Upcoming Debate: Is There Life After Death?

Big event coming up: Dan Barker will be taking on Joe Boot at the University of Windsor to debate the question, "Is there life after death?" The debate is set for Thursday, March 7th at 7:00pm, in the Ambassador Auditorium on the second floor of the CAW Student Centre. While I'm really excited about this, I won't have many thoughts of my own to add until after the debate takes place, so here are some relevant links:

Event flyer.
Facebook event page.
Event listing at RichardDawkins.net.
A nod from the Friendly Atheist.

Dan Barker speaks at Skepticon 4:

Joe Boot in an interview with Creation Ministries International:

Tell your friends!