Life Lesson: Be Prepared (Against Creationists)

I recently held my first Science Cafe event in Cincinnati. The topic of the night was astronomical pseudosciences, such as the 2012 apocalypse myths, aliens, and the star of Bethlehem. So, I was woefully unprepared to handle the creationist in the audience who spoke up to challenge our guest astronomer on issues of evolution and biology. I mean, who would expect those questions to come up at a presentation on astronomy?

The gentleman, who claimed to be trained in biological sciences, was sitting right next to me. I had my first clue that he was up to no good when he started talking about “entropy” in the first few minutes of our casual conversation. I knew that creationists consider “entropy” to be their best argument against evolution, but I wasn’t familiar enough with the topic to have a solid answer. So, I had to nod my head and listen to him spread the typical creationist propaganda without a proper rebuttal.

Always be prepared for a creationist!

The idea of “entropy” is that things in our universe generally break down from order to disorder over time, rather than become more complex.  Except that the second law of thermodynamics only applies in a closed system. The Earth is not a closed system because of the sun. And, in the words of biologist PZ Myers…

it’s obvious that the second law does not state that nothing can ever increase in order, but only that an decrease in one part must be accompanied by a greater increase in entropy in another. Two gametes, for instance, can fuse and begin a complicated process in development that represents a long-term local decrease in entropy, but at the same time that embryo is pumping heat out into its environment and increasing the entropy of the surrounding bit of the world.

This guy’s arguments would have been nullified if I had previously researched and understood the preceding points. But, I’m not a scientist, and the speaker was an astronomer (not a ‘squishy scientist’ as Phil Plait says), so this creationist was purposefully dropping bombs in a room where they couldn’t adequately be defended. Why?

I have no idea. The lesson I learned is to be prepared. Be ready to face any argument that challenges evolution. Not only did I not have an answer for this gentleman, but neither did the guests, the majority of whom who supported evolution,

The other argument that this guy made was that E. coli bacteria has never undergone speciation, despite years of experimentation.  I knew this was wrong and was able to quickly counter his argument by googling “bacteria citrate” on my phone. That’s because I remembered that the scientist Richard Lenski had conducted long-term experiments with bacteria, and was able to prove that two subsequent generations of E. coli had two completely different biological skills of whether or not they could absorb citrate. Again, I did’t know the details, but I knew enough to throw a name at him and ask him if he was prepared to admit that he might be wrong.

The creationist described E. coli as having no significant biological variation after many experimental generations, despite Dr. Lenski’s proof to the contrary. Rather than admit his error, he denied that the absorption of citrate was significant enough to be considered “speciation”. Whatever. I’m not a biologist, but the sudden ability of a species to absorb a nutrient seems like a VERY big deal, and as I pointed out to this gentleman, his unstated premise is that the alternative option is that God intervened with a miracle… for something as small and insignificant as a bacteria. That doesn’t seem logical, considering the millions of bacteria that have been discovered.

You might think that having a creationist heckler at my first science cafe would be a downer, but I truly enjoy the thrill of being challenged. There was a point when I thought this creationist might completely derail the evening’s topic, and when that was about to happen, I called for everyone to let the speaker bring things back to astronomy. This was very well received by all, and our creationist friend was able to follow up with his questions during Q&A.

I’m not a scientist. I’m a science advocate. But still, it’s important that I be comfortable with standard creationist canards, so that I’m not blindsided again. Let this be a lesson to me… and to you.

5 Responses to Life Lesson: Be Prepared (Against Creationists)

  1. Julia says:

    Even thinking about arguing with a creationist makes my head hurt. It would be so difficult to even begin a scientific argument with someone who is basing their “science” on an ancient book of parables to begin with.

    Interesting stuff in your post though – about e-coli especially.

    I respect your ability to enjoy the challenge and rising to the debate. I am so cynical that I have a hard time not just rolling my eyes and walking away – which I guess really doesn’t help to spread the education of science in the long run.

  2. Adam says:

    I spent about 5 years researching the issues and watching palaeontologists pull out of the ground creatures the Creotards said didn’t or couldn’t exist. By the end I knew they were pathological liars and/or delusional. Was a very sad day for me because I thought they were Christians, like me, but clearly they were working for someone else. The sceptics, atheists and agnostics have proven more truthful than those who claim to know the Truth personally.

  3. When ever the second law of thermodynamics comes up in a debate with a creationist, you can bet your answer will always be concerning the fact that their example is not a closed system.

  4. Lou Doench says:

    Hey Colin, wish I could have made the talk! There is a fun iPhone App called “The Creationist Claims Index” that has a pretty detailed response to most (I’d say 99%) of the creationist claims out there.

  5. Chris says:

    I remember a long time on Usenet reading a little bit on the newsgroup about the second law of thermodynamics bit. One of the creationists was still claiming that the earth is a closed system, and the reply was wonderful:

    “Look up at the sky. Do you see a big glowing object? We call that the sun, which is what provides energy to the planet every minute of every day. This means that this planet is not a closed system.”

    Here is some more explanation from the Talk Origins site.

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