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Debate with Creationist John Mackay
Thames, New Zealand, June 25 1999

by David Riddell

David Riddell is a freelance journalist with an MSc in zoology

When the call went out on the New Zealand Skeptics' mailing list for people to take part in a debate against Australian creationist John Mackay, I thought long and hard before accepting. I had seen Mackay in action a couple of years before, and on that occasion no-one had the opportunity to present a dissenting viewpoint. This time, I figured, things would be different.

For someone with no experience of public debating the idea of taking on a seasoned pro like Mackay single-handed was daunting, but Mackay was happy to take on a team, and one was soon assembled. It was led by Alistair Brickell, a geologist from Kuaotunu, near Whitianga, followed by myself, a freelance journalist with an MSc in zoology, and my brother, John Riddell, farmer and skeptical columnist, with degrees in history and agricultural science. The event took place in Thames, the evening of Friday June 25.

After driving an hour through thick Waikato fog, we found the venue had been shifted, from the high school library to a Baptist church hall. We spoke in front of a huge banner exhorting us to "Know Me!" The audience consisted mainly of a Baptist youth group, who were to spend the weekend with Mackay on a "Creation Camp" looking at a low-grade coal seam near Kuaotunu, containing a few fern fossils. What they would learn from this experience was anybody's guess. The moderator was Chris Lux, the local mayor, who expressed sympathy for Mackay, all by himself against the three of us. This didn’t look good, but in the past he has faced panels of four, and he expressed his willingness to do so on this occasion as well.

Mackay started off by talking about boomerangs. They came back when you threw them, he said, because of properties which were put into them by their creator, not properties which were intrinsic to the material they were made from. A boomerang is made of wood, but if you throw a tree, it doesn’t come back (does this mean trees are not created objects?). In 20 minutes he said very little specifically about evolutionary theory (though I was able to challenge him later on his claim that fish and frogs appeared suddenly in the fossil record) and nothing at all about Genesis. He did talk about the perfection of trilobite eyes, and the interconnected systems of proteins and nucleic acids required for modern cellular replication.

Then it was Alistair's turn. He began with a look at peppered moths, as a small-scale example of evolution in action, but mainly considered the geological record, and evidence that the Earth is far older than claimed by creationists. He spoke about varves, fine annual sedimentary layers laid down in lake beds, which in some formations record the passage of millions of years, and the supernova 1987a, an explosion which took place some 170,000 years ago, the light of which only recently reached us. He also challenged Mackay to answer a number of sticky questions. Why, for example, did you not get fossils of ancient species mixed up with modern ones? Ammonites have suture patterns which get increasingly complex throughout their history; a trend which is reliable enough to be used as a dating method. If ammonite fossils were laid down in the Flood they should all be mixed together.

I followed by talking about how the universe had been fashioned by natural rather than supernatural processes.  I showed an overhead of Mitre Peak, which was fashioned entirely naturally, followed by a shot of the Mt Rushmore National Monument, where the hand of an intelligent designer can truly be seen.  Generally, the world around us doesn't bear such traces.  I talked a bit about simple experimental self-replicating systems, in which proteins are able to copy themselves without nucleic acids and vice-versa, and gave some examples of observed instances of speciation. This was followed by a look at the transition from fish to amphibians and the problems of getting a decent definition of kinds and transitional forms out of creationists, and then the problems biogeography poses for the Flood story. Finally, I had some sticky questions for Mackay as well.

John concluded our team presentation by pointing out that this was not a scientific debate, that that debate was over a century ago, and if creationists had anything new to say they should be saying it in the scientific journals. He talked about how modern biblical scholarship recognised that the Genesis stories were not literal, covered some basic philosophy of science, the proper definition of terms like theory, and looked at some contradictions in the Bible. Then came more problems for the Flood story. Live sheep exports from New Zealand to the Middle East had to be abandoned, because even with modern computerised systems mortality levels were unacceptably high. How much harder would things have been for Noah - "What did he do with all the dung and urine?"

Mackay's response, it has to be said, was clever. He refused to answer any of the sticky questions or defend the problems raised with the Flood, but glibly rattled off a few wildly misleading responses to selected points from our 45 minutes, giving the impression that if he was only allowed more than ten minutes he could easily deal with the rest as well. He spent most time attacking Alistair's evidence for an old Earth, and put up an overhead from a paper in Science showing dates for igneous rocks overlying Tertiary sediments which were all over 70 million years (the Tertiary Period began 65 million years ago).

Alistair was clearly angry when it came his turn to respond. The traps we had attempted to lay had mostly not been sprung. He noted the many points Mackay had not addressed, and offered him more time if he wanted it. He attempted to address the overhead on the rock dates and didn't do too bad a job considering it had just been sprung on him, though I suspect it went over the heads of the audience. Afterwards, Alistair was able to find the original paper, the point of which was to show that some igneous rocks have come up through much older continental crust and been contaminated by inclusions from it. This old age is preserved in the radiometric dating (and also in the huge error bars from some ages, eg 380MY+/- 340MY). This gives an indication of relative contamination of the rocks with older material and an idea of the intrusive history of the magma as it came up through the crust. Not at all the story Mackay was attempting to put across.

Mackay then summed up, talking mainly about how life could not have arisen by chance. John replied, pointing out that evolutionary theory did not say life arose by chance, and that even if evolutionary theory was wrong, it wouldn't make the creationist position right. Then he sneaked in a few more logistical problems for poor old Noah.

At question time, we were asked about the second law of thermodynamics, and attempted to explain how it didn't apply when living organisms were able to absorb energy from external sources. Mackay chipped in with the irrelevant (but probably persuasive, to a lay audience) comment that energy by itself is not enough: there have to be systems in place to capture it in a constructive way. He maintained these systems were engineered in directly by the Creator, while we would have maintained (if we'd been on the ball) that they arose naturally. Either way, the second law does not apply to living organisms - hence, complexity can be maintained and increased, and evolution doesn't break the law.

Mackay was then asked by one of the few non-creationists in the audience to account for the speed of continental drift. He acknowledged it happened, and spoke most eloquently about it, expressed his belief that it had all taken place within the last few thousand years, but didn't, in the end, answer the question about speed at all.

At the conclusion, Chris Lux awarded ten points to Mackay and nine to us ("But only because there are three of them.") I suspect that as a politician he was attempting to curry favour with the mainly creationist audience. Perhaps more significantly, the creationist organiser of the evening declared it a draw, and called for a rematch. Our performance was nowhere near as polished as Mackay's, but we scored a lot of points. Looking at the video of the evening afterwards a lot of the gloss came off Mackay's presentation: with repeat viewings his shortcomings would only become more obvious. I'd be surprised if he has it for sale on future occasions. I doubt we did enough to shake the convictions of most of the audience, but it was clear talking to some of the students afterwards that they could see something was fishy about creationism. We'd got some of them thinking, Mackay didn't have it all his own way. And the three of us gained a great deal of confidence and experience. If there's a next time, we'll do even better.

There is a school of thought which maintains it is counter-productive to debate with creationists. I think this depends on how it is done. Looking at what worked and what didn't on this occasion, I would say the main strategy has to be to attack their position, rather than defending your own. Creationist ideas really are silly, and can be shown to be so. It is also important, I believe, to keep the focus on Genesis, rather than to be drawn into an argument on the existence or nonexistence of God. The issue is whether the world came to be the way it is as the result of natural processes, or a specific supernatural program. Where the natural processes came from in the first place is irrelevant. Maybe God produced them: who knows?

The creation/evolution debate is not about quality of evidence - if it were, there would be no debate. Creationists are not interested in evidence. For them, Genesis is the truth, and therefore the evidence supports it. Anyone who says otherwise has clearly misinterpreted the evidence. We are looking at two very different ways of viewing the world. In one, knowledge is acquired through the application of observation and reason, and ideas must be changed in the light of fresh evidence. In the other, knowledge is acquired through divine revelation, and all evidence to the contrary must be harmonised with it: the central ideas are not open to change. This philosophical distinction must be made clear.

Ultimately, the creationists must lose, or at least become as marginalised as the Flat Earth Society. This won't happen overnight: it may take a few centuries. But creationism is bad science and bad religion, and every opportunity must be taken to expose it to the ridicule it deserves.

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