It is with regret that I write this article, but certain opponents of creationism in Australia have engaged in tactics that have led to public apologies to creationists by radio and print media, criticism by other creationism opponents, and even legal action. These events have, until now, gone unnoted in anti-creationist circles. It is my hope that this article will discourage these sorts of tactics in the future, as well as setting an example of self-criticism that creationists would do well to follow. There are legal issues involved, but it is not my intent to judge or evaluate them. Rather, my intent is to advocate a more careful style of debate and dispute.
Plimer's opening volley was that "'Creation science' is a contradiction in terms. I've accused the leaders of fraud, perversity, heresy, fabricating their evidence, and lying about the scientific evidence." He gave as his first example Michael Denton's book, Evolution: A Theory in Crisis, which Gish had already mentioned in his own opening statement. "What we were not told," said Plimer, "was that Michael Denton, at this university [the University of New South Wales] last year, said and admitted he was wrong. That was published. He also said that he was unaware of the fossil record when he wrote it."
Plimer explicitly states that Denton was unaware of the fossil record and implies that Denton has retracted his entire book.(3) Neither is the case. Denton's book contains a chapter entitled "The Fossil Record," and what he has conceded is only that "the discontinuities in the order of nature might not be as biologically significant" as he implied in his book. His view is that "an objective interpretation of the gaps [is] impossible given the current state of biological knowledge. They could be basically only 'sampling errors' and biologically trivial, [or] they could be determined by fundamental restrictions on what is possible in the realm of organic design and hence of deep significance" (personal communication, October 1, 1991).
Gish, who had lunch with Denton the previous day, responded to Plimer's statement in the debate by saying that "Dr. Denton did not deny or go back on anything he put in his book. This is what he did say: that if he were going to write a book on this subject that he'd take a different approach. The evidence that he discussed in here he said is subjective. ...But from the perspective now in genetic research he believes that possibly it's possible to objectively establish that [sic] if evolution is possible or not. And certainly from his present state of knowledge he believes it can be objectively proven that it's impossible."(4) Here Gish exaggerates as well--according to Denton, Gish's quote is vague but reasonably accurate except for the last statement, about which he says "I am practically certain I didn't make that statement. It's not true (probably never will be) and I have never made such a claim." (personal communication, October 1, 1991). The truth is that Denton has neither retracted his entire book nor remained entirely unswayed by his critics (though the latter is closer to the truth than the former--he still believes that the neo-Darwinian theory of evolution is "a theory in crisis").
Analysis: Plimer, like Gish, is guilty of exaggeration in his remarks about Denton. His statements about Denton's position were inaccurate and misleading. Plimer is at least partially to blame for the spread of the legend of Denton's "conversion" in the skeptical community.
But Snelling (1988, p. 18) denied ever making such a claim, anywhere, and challenged Plimer to produce evidence of it. David Malcolm (1987) also challenged Plimer to show just where such claims are made in the creationist literature. Plimer has not done so. In correspondence with me (personal communication, April 8, 1991), Plimer stated that claims about fossil gold chains appeared in the CSF's Ex Nihilo Technical Journal, which is edited by Snelling: "it is this editorial responsibility I refer to," writes Plimer. In the first five volumes of the Ex Nihilo Technical Journal, published between 1984 and 1991, there appears only one article dealing with coal (Snelling & Mackay 1984). This article contains no mention of fossil gold chains or iron anchors in coal seams.
The only thing published by the CSF remotely resembling Plimer's "fossil gold chains and iron anchors" in coal is this sentence: "When Dr. Andrew Snelling and John Mackay were researching the Newcastle coal measures recently, they came across a fossilised bolt from an old shipwreck." (Mackay 1986, p. 10) This article, which was neither authored by Snelling nor in a publication edited by Snelling, makes it clear that the bolt was not found in coal. The CSF maintains that Plimer has simply fabricated the claim.
In the Gish debate, Plimer spoke of "some marvelous revelations [by creationists] ... one of them is that we find fossilized iron bolts and fossilized gold chains ... within the fossil record," suggesting that this article is indeed the "enlightened new data" he is referring to.
Analysis: Plimer somehow managed to turn a claimed fossilized iron bolt into "fossil gold chains and iron anchors," put them into coal seams, and attribute the whole claim to Andrew Snelling. He then made a challenge to the creationists to come up with evidence to support what is in fact a straw man of his own creation. He also used the bogus "gold chains in coal seams" claim in his debate with Gish: since gold was brought to Australia in 1788 and coal discovered there in 1791, if these coal seams were created by the biblical flood, the flood must have occurred between those years. Q.E.D., reductio ad absurdum. A solid counterargument to a claim that wasn't made.
It looks like a similar fate may be in store for The Creation Science Controversy, as he and his publisher are presently in court, charged with defamation (more on this below). The book is polemical--light on science and heavy on ad hominem argument. Its goals are apparently more political than scientific; it is written not for the scientist or seasoned creationist observer, but to persuade the layman that creationism is a hoax and a fraud. Its most powerful arguments against creationism may be found elsewhere in more detail and greater precision.
The book has prompted a response from the CSF (1991), titled A Response to Deception, now in its third revised edition. The creationist response correctly notes that "Price's attack is largely not concerned with the realm of science" and goes on to say that the book is "full of error, distortion and worse." In a mostly positive review of Price's book, Australian Skeptic Martin Bridgstock (1990) wrote that Price's book "is clear and punchy, occasionally veering into stridency" and is "peppered with errors." (He goes on to say that these errors are "minor--none approaching creationist whoppers.")
While many of A Response to Deception's criticisms are quite minor (e.g., typographical errors), others are more serious. For example, Price parrots Ian Plimer's fossil gold chains argument (Price 1990, pp. 39-40). But he insists that there are no major errors in his book (Price 1991) and has enumerated the CSF charges as follows: 15 typographical errors, 63 differences of opinion, and no serious errors (personal communication, February 11, 1991). An errata sheet has been issued for the book, correcting 34 mistakes.
Analysis: Barry Price has not exercised proper care in authenticating the evidence he presents in his book (more evidence of this will be presented below). In the case of Ian Plimer's "fossil gold chains" claim, Price should have been aware that every time Plimer published the claim, a rebuttal has been issued in the same publication (Malcolm 1987; Snelling 1988). Yet Price never mentions these rebuttals and appears to have made no attempt to find the claim in the creationist literature.(6)
Barry Price (1990, pp. 186-191) uses several pages of his book to describe this loss of funds. He notes (p. 187) that the CSF's director and secretary at the time of the loss, John Thallon, was director of a company, Tralil Pty. Ltd., with which the CSF contracted for "management consultancy services" for the period September 1, 1984 to June 30, 1985. Price writes that "This contract with Tralil is presumably a result of investment losses noted in the Statement of Income and Expenditure for the year ended 31st March 1985, which records 'Extraordinary Item Loss of Investments, 1984, $47,939 and 1985, $44,424.'" It is difficult to see how this contract could be a result of the losses, given that it was made before the losses occurred. This contract was, in fact, for accountancy services from Thallon, who had requested that the CSF hire him as an employee of Tralil, his family trust company--a type of arrangement which has since been legislated against by the Australian government. (An investigation of this arrangement, unrelated to the lost investment, by the Australian Taxation Office, found no impropriety. The CSF's section 23(e) tax exemption was renewed without incident.)
Neither Plimer nor Price has given details on just how the investment loss took place. The lost funds were interest-free loans from CSF members which had been invested in a company on the advice of CSF director Thallon, who also invested a great deal of his own money. This company in turn invested in yet another company, which ended up defrauding its investors, causing losses for both the CSF and Thallon. Since Thallon had recommended this investment, he felt responsible for the loss and resigned from the CSF. The CSF notified its "closest supporters" of the loss, who contributed funds to pay off the interest-free loans (Robert Doolan, personal communication, February 8, 1991). The CSF supporters as a whole, however, were not informed of the loss until it was made public by the Australian Skeptics, after which the CSF circulated an explanation (Rendle-Short 1988).
Barry Price (1990, pp. 187-188) writes of other CSF directors' resignations in the context of this investment loss: David John Denner, Robert Stephen Gustafson, John Mackay, and Ken Ham. Denner resigned because of health problems but is still a member of the CSF, Steve Gustafson continues as a legal adviser to the CSF, John Mackay resigned and formed his own creationist organization because of a personal conflict with another member of the CSF staff, and Ken Ham did not in fact ever resign (Robert Doolan, personal communication, February 18, 1991).
Analysis: Plimer and Price have insinuated that the loss of funds
was due to untrustworthiness of (or, in Plimer's argument, fraud
by) the CSF, when in fact the causes of the loss were criminal
actions which victimized the CSF. Those responsible for the fraud
have been convicted, and there is some possibility that some of
the lost funds may yet be recovered. The CSF should have informed
all of its supporters of the loss immediately, instead of waiting
until the Australian Skeptics discovered it, but their reluctance
to do so is understandable. Plimer's published remarks led to an
apology to the CSF and Duane Gish by Media Information Australia
Price has also wrongly implied that the resignations of a
number of CSF directors was a result of the loss of funds and
falsely claimed that Ken Ham resigned.
Price has also wrongly implied that the resignations of a number of CSF directors was a result of the loss of funds and falsely claimed that Ken Ham resigned.
Analysis: Price made an erroneous remark, in a context which implied that the payment was somehow related to the loss of funds. In fact, the payment was not only unrelated to the loss of funds, the payment was not to Gustafson or to a company in which he had an interest. The payment in question, which was $8,118.75 not $8,719, was payment to Tralil Pty. Ltd. for the accountancy services of John Thallon.
In fact, the CSF has filed returns for each of these years, all of which were available at the time Plimer spoke on the radio and by the time Price's book was published. A letter dated March 7, 1989 from J. Kral of the Office of the Commissioner for Corporate Affairs to Carl Wieland, managing director of the CSF, states that "You are advised that all the Annual Returns mentioned in your letter have been lodged with this office." The letter goes on to give the dates on which the returns for 1986, 1987, and 1988 were filed: August 8, 1986, December 4, 1987, and December 5, 1988, respectively. This evidence was supplied to the Australian Broadcasting Company, which on June 4, 1989 apologized for Plimer's remarks.
Analysis: Plimer and Price both made false statements which they could have easily checked out but didn't. Plimer (personal communication, January 9, 1991) offers no explanation for his remarks, but maintains that the ABC "caved in" by apologizing against his recommendation. He has neither apologized nor admitted any error, and claims that the CSF is using the apologies from ABC and Media Information Australia as part of a "propaganda campaign" against him.
But the article does not advocate vandalism at all: it advocates censorship of books in Christian schools by the administrators. This is only slightly less offensive, but, unlike vandalism, is perfectly legal. The CSF condemns not only the vandalism, but book censorship by Christian school administrators (Robert Doolan, personal communication, February 8, 1991).
Price and Plimer both imply that the University of Newcastle vandalism was performed by creationists, inspired by the Martin article. But the vandalism occurred in 1988 while the article, which does not advocate vandalism, was published a full five years earlier in periodicals not carried by the University of Newcastle's Auchmuty Library. Neither Price nor Plimer point out that this incident is the only one of its kind known to have occurred and was discovered only after the Martin and Marty articles were brought to the attention of the university librarian by Ian Plimer. Plimer (personal communication, April 8, 1991) states that he has heard of four other cases of book vandalism at other institutions, but does not know if those were directed at articles on evolution or were simply "'normal' vandalism." He also reports that the Newcastle vandalism was brought to his attention by an unnamed paleontology professor. (Neither Plimer nor the University of Newcastle librarian has responded to my further inquiries on this subject.)
Analysis: Plimer and Price misrepresent the content of the Ray Martin article in order to argue that creationists were responsible for a specific incident of vandalism at the University of Newcastle. It may never be known who was responsible for the damage, but it is unlikely that it was done by creationists inspired by the Martin article; certainly there is no evidence to support the claim.
In a forthcoming book, further proof will be given with regard to the financial activities of Gish (and two others) in the San Diego-based Institute of Creation Research [sic] and a US-based publishing house which operates essentially as a money laundering organisation for the personal enrichment of the leaders of the creationist movement. Furthermore, if you were at the debates in Sydney (18.3.88) or Brisbane (30.3.88), you would surely have noticed an entourage of young people (principally boys) accompanying Gish and who continually touched him. This is commensurate with testimony from elsewhere which throws enlightenment on Gish's personal life and which makes Jimmy Swaggart look like a moral guardian of the faith.I have a copy of this letter, which Plimer (personal communication, January 9, 1991) acknowledges writing. The letter appears to be a form letter: although it is typed, the name in the salutation is written in. After a description of various correspondence Plimer has received following the debate, the sentence "Your letter falls into the _____ category" has the blank space filled in with the handwritten word "third."
Plimer claims that no sexual implication is intended by the quoted passage. According to Plimer, the "testimony from elsewhere which throws enlightenment on Gish's personal life" refers to Gish's membership in "a pro-nuclear lobbying group." Price's book (1990, p. 66) points out that Gish is the chairman of the science and technology section of the Coalition on Revival, which Price describes as a group which "supports increased military spending and proclaims that all of science must be based on the Bible." (The Coalition on Revival is part of the Christian Reconstructionist movement. For details, see Hakeem (1991), McIver (1988), Porteous (1991), and Tucker (1989).) While this is an interesting political point about religious right interconnections, it is a different issue entirely.
Plimer further maintains that the letter was intentionally written to be ambiguous and to look like a form letter, but was only sent to a single person, in order to "find out how far creationist tentacles extended." Plimer makes much of the fact that the creationists have been disseminating this statement about Gish through such publications as the CSF's A Response to Deception.
Duane Gish (personal communication, August 5, 1991) calls these statements "outrageous slanderous falsehood" and challenges Plimer "to produce one iota of evidence" to support his accusations. He states that the money laundering claim is "an outright lie" and that he was accompanied to the Australian debate only by his wife, his host, and his host's wife. (Gish granted permission to publish these scandalous charges against him on the condition that his emphatic denial be included.)
Analysis: Plimer's letter, on university letterhead, is a serious ethical lapse. The statements are unsupported ad hominem innuendo, whether Plimer sent the letter to one person or to a thousand.
In correspondence with me, Ian Plimer and others have defended his style on the grounds that creationism is a political rather than scientific movement. It is my impression that they think it must be stopped at any cost, by almost any means available. This view is not only short-sighted, it doesn't seem to justify the means I've been criticizing. While the heavy-handed style might convince some people that creationism is ridiculous and not worth serious consideration by scientists, misrepresentations are bound to come to light (as they have). When they do, all of the short-term gains and more are lost.
We must not lose sight of the fact that no matter how silly creationism looks from an informed perspective, those who adhere to it are human beings. Most creationists are sincere believers, even if some of the leaders of creationist organizations are not. There is probably no hope of convincing an insincere leader, so why argue rationally with one? Why not just ridicule and abuse such a person? Because sincere people are watching. Ridicule and abuse simply confirm their suspicions about evil conspiratorial evolutionists who are out to suppress the creationist viewpoint. (This does not require us to forego humor or sarcasm which are not abusive and counterproductive.)
It is possible to deal with creationists effectively yet politely--Philip Kitcher's 1985 debate and Ken Saladin's 1988 debate, each with Gish, are prime examples.(8) Presentations like these are probably more likely to persuade people than those like Plimer's. Price and Plimer have engaged in the same sort of tactics we complain about creationists using. The only result of such tactics can be the loss of credibility.
The creation versus evolution debate is already one which tends to generate more heat than light. To attempt to gain converts by means other than reasoned argument supported by evidence is to engage in a war of propaganda, in which the first casualty is truth. It is my hope that this criticism will serve to discourage such counterproductive battles in the future.
It should be pointed out that the Summer 1991 NCSE Reports correction contained a mistake introduced by the editor--that of referring to Denton as a creationist. He is not. As he wrote to me (personal communication, October 1, 1991), "I am sure that the cause of evolution will turn out to be perfectly natural even though as yet we have no satisfactory naturalistic explanation. However, I am inclined to the view that when the natural explanations are elucidated they will represent deeply embedded laws or tendences in the nature of things which will largely restrict life forms to designs similar to those actually manifest on earth or in other words that life's design is not contingent as Gould claims but directed in large measure by physics in the most general sense of the term."
In article <[email protected]>, [email protected] (James J. Lippard) writes...
>I can elaborate. The article in _Creation/Evolution_ criticizing Plimer's >tactics was "How Not to Argue with Creationists," which I authored. I will >be happy to send copies through email to anyone interested.
I should add to this that the latest issue of _Creation/Evolution_ (issue 30, which I just received yesterday) contains the following letter to the editor:
How Not to Argue with Evolutionists?
"How Not to Argue with Creationists" by Jim Lippard (Issue 29, pp. 9-21, 1992) is strongly critical of two Australian anticreationists, Ian Plimer and Barry Price. [Editor] John Cole defends Lippard as showing "our openness to self-criticism" [in his introduction]. But Lippard is not criticizing himself, he is criticizing somebody else. Furthermore, there is no need for Lippard's article; the Australian Creation Science Foundation has attacked Plimer and Price at length in its publication, "Response to Deception," referenced and quoted by Lippard. Why should Creation/Evolution join forces with creationists? Duane Gish, who is defended by Lippard, is an expert at taking care of himself (Jukes, Nature 305:398, 1984).
Lippard seems insensitive to the problem of "cultural imperialism," meaning the tendency to take on the uninvited role of passing judgment on disputes in other countries. As a former resident of Canada, I know how strongly interference by the USA is resented by Canadians. I consider Lippard's intrusion into the Australian scene to belabor Plimer and Price to be an embarrassment. Inconsistently, Lippard is supportive of Michael Denton, an Australian anti-evolutionist whose book Evolution, A Theory in Crisis, a favorite of creationists, is of low quality. Denton can't even construct phylogenetic trees (Jukes, Basis 10:1, 1991, Bay Area Skeptics).
Lippard's article was ill-advised and divisive.
Thomas H. Jukes
Dept. of Integrative Biology
University of California-Berkeley
Jukes and I hashed out all of these same points in correspondence shortly after my article was published, but my letters to him seem to have had no effect. There are a few misrepresentations above. I do not support Denton, except against misrepresentation of his views by both Plimer and Gish. Likewise I do not defend Gish except against gross misrepresentations of his statements and unsubstantiated accusations of sexual impropriety.
It is true that the creationists have already made most of the same points I did in my article, but I take that as all the more reason that anti-creationists should be aware of them. There is certainly the danger that my article will be used by creationists to bash their opponents, but historically so is everything published on evolution (e.g., everything Stephen Jay Gould writes about punctuated equilibrium). I don't think that danger is sufficient to preclude criticism of the misrepresentations of Plimer and Price.
I think Jukes' "self-criticism" argument is disingenuous. His "cultural imperialism" argument has a flip-side, cultural relativism, which I reject. I do not think the mere fact that Plimer and Price reside in a country different from my own disqualifies me from offering criticism of their actions. In order for Jukes' argument to work, he should provide some specific reasons based on specific cultural differences as to why my criticisms are inappropriate.
Jim Lippard [email protected] Dept. of Philosophy [email protected] University of Arizona Tucson, AZ 85721