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Fossils of Straw

December 17th, 2007 · Posted by Hugo · 7 Comments

It is time for the first example of a straw man argument, presented by Gary Bates from Creation Ministries International (CMI) on 29 September in the Neelsie, on Stellenbosch Campus:

Fossils take millions of years to form.

What an incredibly cute straw man.

Construction of the Straw Man

Gary Bates used a quote to introduce this straw man. This reminds me of the wonderful technique of misdirection used by magicians. By having a third party “introduce” the straw man, by placing lies in other people’s mouths, Gary Bates maintains some level of deniability. “No, I didn’t say that, some guy that came up to me said it.” This is very similar to Fred May quoting a lie from the pulpit in Shofar in the second quarter of 2004. Fred May didn’t lie. He didn’t even say the lie was truth. However, the quoted lie was presented in a fashion providing an opportunity for a credulous audience to swallow it. (For the record, the quoted lie was the one about NASA proving Joshua’s missing day: Snopes, Progressive Theology. I tried sending Pastor Sias le Roux an email inquiring about the matter, but received no reply. That was the beginning of the end of my 2004 Shofar stint.)

The quote:

A guy came up to me and said to me “You creationists talk about operational science, and you choose to ignore it.” I said “What are you talking about?” “Well, fossils. We know fossils take millions of years to form” he said. “Therefore your young earth ideas go straight out the window. We know fossils take millions of years to form.”

Once a straw man like this has been constructed, the rest is really quite predictable.

Hacking Apart the Straw Man

The first hack at the straw man was a picture of a fossil of an ichthyosaur giving birth, as proof that fossils could not take millions of years to form. I will spare you Gary Bates’ rhetoric on this matter. If you’re really bored, you can take a look at the Answers in Genesis entry about this.

No, wait, I cannot spare you Gary Bates’ rhetoric, I have to share it.

See what’s coming out of the birth canal? A baby! See? Frozen in the rocks almost. Preserved in the process of giving birth. …(?)… giving birth for millions of years while it was slowly being fossilised? It would be a pretty difficult labour, wouldn’t it? [cue lots of laughter from the choir.]

The second hack at the straw man was made in conjunction with taking a swipe at school textbooks. The story goes (somewhat paraphrased):

A fish swims along, sinks to the bottom, and is slowly fossilised. A little bit of mud, a little bit of water, sediment building up over millions of years, burying the fish. And then the process starts again, another one dies…

Right, another straw man constructed, time to take another nice couple of hacks at it:

Now lets go back a step here. Because in the real world, do fish generally sink to the bottom when they die? [cue a "No" from the choir]. No, they don’t. Do they? Maybe if any of you have been scuba-diving or snorkelling, have you noticed all the thousands of dead fish on the ocean floor waiting to be fossilised? [cue laughter] Of course not! Go home and do the experimental method, add a teaspoon of cyanide to the fish tank, find out if fish sink or float. [cue laughter]

Etcetera etcetera. Further hacks at the straw man, interspersed with laughter: examples of a fossilised miner’s hat and a roll of fossilised fencing wire, as proof that fossils can form rapidly. A question whether the dinosaur fossils you dig up come with labels stating how old they are [cue "no"]… (Um… Oh, wait, yea, the dinosaur fossils at the Creation Museum do have labels. Now if only the Creation Scientists could go bury those labels with the fossils, then we’d know how old they are, eh? Sigh, labels. Hehe. As if labels prove more than the dating techniques scientists use.)

This is how it looks to me: Ridicule, with a nice flavour of “oh those dumb scientists, if only they were as smart as us… if only they attended one creationism seminar, in ten minutes we’ll explain to them why decades and decades of serious scientific study is obviously wrong. I mean, c’mon, it’s obvious! Because we’re laughing at them and we’re so smart!

Undoubtedly they will say the same about the scientists. “Oh, the scientists think they’re better than us. They think they’re so smart, and we’re not, and they laugh at us”… I’m not completely sure how often this happens. You do get your self-righteous “better than thou” scientists that prefer to mock and ridicule the uneducated. While I think that is abhorrent behaviour, I understand it completely. It is a reaction to behaviour that they believe is abhorrent.

The Truth?

Now I am no palaeontologist, I have recently handed in my Masters’ thesis in digital signal processing. I did not even do biology at school, because our school system killed my interest in the interesting subject matter to the point that I was disinterested in having to learn any facts like a parrot. However, even I, relatively uneducated in these matters, save for my incurable curiosity and thirst for knowledge about this remarkable universe, can easily point out the flaws and likely explanations. Or is it just my love for critical thinking?

I’m hoping someone with more knowledge will correct me when I’m wrong. (I also wish Gary Bates had the same attitude.)

Science does not claim that fossils take millions of years to form. Science claims only that the fossils formed millions of years ago. Of course there aren’t thousands of fish lying on the ocean floor waiting to be fossilised. If there were, our fossil record would be so much more complete, valuable fossils would not be so rare, and the existence or absence of a continuous, gap-less fossil record would be much easier to demonstrate. Or maybe not, as the transitional fossils would be hidden amongst billions and billions of other fossils?

School textbooks: if they’re really that bad, they need to be improved. Unless Gary Bates is wilfully telling lies, he is demonstrating the gaps in our education system. If young earth creationism is a fact, it should not be necessary to resort to straw-man arguments. It should not be necessary to appeal to ignorance. It appears we either all need a better understanding of fossils and palaeontology, or dramatically improved critical thinking skills.

We hope to organise a series of talks on these matters early next year. If our school education system is also this poor, it would be a valuable service to all students on campus to introduce them to some serious science. I’m thinking the series should include a palaeontologist that can explain fossil formation and the reasons why scientific consensus concludes specific fossils formed millions of years ago.

Who is “we”? I’m not completely sure yet, but all will become clear in due time. ;) We’re hoping for a diverse group cooperating for the benefit of everyone on campus. We also hope to include theologians in this series, to provide some context about the book of Genesis.

Personally, I’m hoping we can also give Shofar a slot in the series. I believe it is important for everyone to hear Shofar’s perspective as well. I will see what I can do about convincing “the others” of this idea.

A Celebration of Ignorance

Back to a Gary Bates quote:

And maybe this is the way that you can reach people using this subject matter. You don’t have to be really that informed about it. I actually said to the guy “Are you interested in fossils? I’m interested in fossils. Is there a particular fossil you’ve got a problem with?” Think about it. Do most people know the names of fossils? Do you know the names of those fossils? Some of you might, if you have studied palaeontology, but the average person in the street doesn’t. And that is my point. Most people think fossils take millions of years to form, based on what they’ve been told.

Oh what a celebration of ignorance. What a celebration of uninformed, uneducated bunk. I wonder how many people attending the seminar had studied palaeontology.

So why is such bunk swallowed whole? Because there is only one important thing in the world: to avoid going to hell after you die. To go to seventh heaven after you die. Often a fundamentalist will try to save you not because he is compassionate and does not want to see you burn in hell (they sometimes celebrate the fact that sinners will burn), but rather to carry out the divine mandate they have been given. It is their mission on earth to try and “save” as many people as they can. And they really do believe this. With such a perspective, using uneducated misinformation to talk about fossils is completely understandable, as fossils are really not important. Getting saved is much more important than knowing the truth…

The thing that causes non-Shofar Christians much grief, is the damage vocal creationists are doing to the sharing of Jesus’ message (the gospel, or “good tidings” or “good news”). By equating “good news” with logical fallacies and lies, people become disinterested in this “supposed good news”. This dogma is dangerous… They all sense it. Why can’t you?

If you would like to understand what fundamentalistic Christianity looks like to the outsider, you can take a look at Get the Good News Right.

Categories: Religion and Science
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7 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Timothy Mills // Dec 17, 2007 at 2:53 pm

    Just a note on “transitional” forms, from a fan of (not an expert in) evolutionary biology, in response to Hugo’s sentence “Or maybe not, as the transitional fossils would be hidden amongst billions and billions of other fossils?” Hugo was using the term correctly, but it’s so easy to miss how the anti-evolution people misuse the term, and to inadvertently adopt their misuse ourselves.

    A transition is a link between two points. In evolutionary terms, you might call the common ancestor of Humans and chimpanzees a transitional form – it is intermediate between you and the common ancestor of all mammals. You might equally call your mother a transition – between you and her parents.

    But on-the-ground, as-it-is-happening evolution does not work in terms of transitions. They’re another straw man. Every generation, every reproducing individual, has to be successful in its own terms, without any reference to what its descendents might become.

    So listen carefully whenever anyone (including yourself) uses the term “transitional form”. If they mean “something that came between two other things in evolutionary history”, that’s okay. If they mean “something that was, as it lived, on its way to becoming something else”, then they’re heading into trouble.

  • 2 Auke // Dec 17, 2007 at 5:09 pm

    I’ve got a 6-foot aquarium in my study. And as every aquarist knows, dead fish obligingly float to the top where it is easiest to collect them and they never remain trapped under rocks or plants.
    Pass me the snorkel.

  • 3 Hugo // Dec 17, 2007 at 5:13 pm

    What an intelligent design for the purpose of making the aquarist’s job easier… (dangerous jokes… hehe.)

    Thanks for the input Tim. I will keep that in mind.

  • 4 Gericke Potgieter // Dec 18, 2007 at 12:08 pm

    Hey Hugo – I scanned this rather lengthy article, knowing that it would be a standard reply on creationist theory.

    Yes it is stupid, and sadly it reflects badly on the greater majority of Christians who quite simply do not agree or more often than not truly do not care.

    I find it curious that some Christians feel the need to defend their belief in God. It is a belief. Beliefs require trust in a set of assumptions.

    What I am wondering is why you are so fascinated by something that shouldn’t have an effect on your life. If other people want to believe stupid things, so be it. If there is one thing the theory of evolution clarifies is that if something does not strengthen and enhance the survival of a species, the species will die. This is a pattern to be found in beliefs as well, because beliefs is a product of nature. No person can exist without it.

    So the question is this: does the debate around evolution vs. creation (which in itself is a false dilemma, never mind the fallacious arguments presented above) something that will actually enhance and strengthen mankind?

    I see it as an intellectual trap neatly set by those who are insecure in their belief in God, to trap those who are insecure in their understanding of reality. And then it dies because neither one has certainty in what the believe.

  • 5 Hugo // Dec 18, 2007 at 6:52 pm

    Hmm… well, it does have a relatively direct effect on my life, and my genes, in that it involves my extended family. (First cousins, aunts and uncles.) Even by gene-centric selection theory, it makes sense for me to want to help them?

    I’ve inherited compassion genes, or memes maybe, who knows, that make me care too much about other people. In fact, that’s what I also learned from Jesus. Are you saying I should stop caring?

    Also, this is a piece in a larger puzzle, not an end in itself. While I am enjoying what I’m doing on some level (otherwise I’d try to convince myself to stop), I’m aiming to make a bigger contribution than just adding more verbosity to the creationism-vs-evolution debate.

  • 6 Gericke Potgieter // Dec 18, 2007 at 7:48 pm

    Nope – you may care all you want. Sometimes we care to the detriment of ourselves and others, and also in a way that is more judgmental than helpful.

    My own brother chose some mishmash of wicca as his “religious” (for want of a better description) beliefs. I rarely discuss what he believes with him because what I think has no bearing on his choice.

    What I act does, and perhaps this is what I am aiming at. Does this debate truly change anything? I am not questioning the value of your contribution as much as I am questioning the value of debate in essence.

  • 7 Hugo // Dec 18, 2007 at 8:43 pm

    Think of this blog as exploratory then. In a few months I will have a better idea of where I’m going with it. Right now, I’m just laying some foundations, broadly enough to have the flexibility I may need.

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