2/06/2009

CRITIQUING THE PERFORMANCE


I just got an early DVD of the taping I did for Jim Grant's show "Forum for a Better Understanding" on KNXT-Channel 49, in which I debated retired FCC English professor (and ID advocate) Terry Scambray, the first of two programs that use 'Darwin Day' as a springboard for an exchange of views on this topic.

Overall, I thought it went well. The program itself is set to air on the 16th as far as I know. There were a few minor glitches that didn't detract from the exchange in the first segment.

I had some nervous energy which came out in my hands: next time, I'll hold them together. I'm going to try to make more eye contact with both Jim and Terry in the next taping, and maybe do a better job of using my visuals. We mislaid the visual I wanted to use at the top, and I had to improvise with another, and they were a bit slow to put it on the screen. It doesn't look that awkward on the tape, but it really set me back a moment.

I also had a longish pause when trying to dissect Terry's argument on the lack of new genetic information, but it wasn't as long on the tape as it felt, and it actually almost looked as if I had meant to pause that long, instead of (as was the case) being a bit of stalling while I roped by words together. I think the thing that bugs me the most is that I said 'caught up' when meant to say 'cut out' while making an (ahem) 'transitional' statement. It was the nervousness and the perspiration and the tremulous, glavin.

Anyway, I won't claim that I broke much new ground in the topic. I affirmed that essentially Darwin got it right in affirming evolution from a common ancestor, and in his proposed mechanism for that evolutionary change, natural selection. I did audition a brand-new argument that I've been nursing for a few years in response to the claim that natural selection can not provide new genetic information. I think my presentation was clear enough that a middle-school kid could follow my reasoning, so it will be interesting to see what feedback I will get. Other than that, much of what I said is what plenty of others have said over the years in defending science education.

Terry said much that may sound new to some visitors, but it was familar territory. He allowed that natural selection might be a credible explanation for small, local changes like we see today, but felt that Darwin's theory just doesn't match up with his understanding of the fossil record, which apparently to him looks like animals appearing out of thin air, then disappearing again.

In other words, he's plying the familiar territory of 'no transitional forms'. He made much of the fact that organisms, like artifacts from human ingenuity (bicycles, motorcycles, airplanes, etc.) are complex arrays of various features working in concert and expressed disbelief that a transition between a bird and a reptile could be effected by the blind process of natural selection.

I replied that transitional fossils were well-established* , and cited Darwin's prediction of a bird-reptile transition in the Origin being essentially fulfilled two years after the book's production by the discovery of Archaeopteryx. I also alluded to the many recent transitional bird dinosaur specimens recovered from China, and compared Terry's failure to see the obvious transitional sequences to someone who has stills from The Wizard of Oz, and yet doubts that such a film ever existed. No matter how many still images we provide, I suggested, some folk will still say, what about this gap, or that?

He seemed especially scornful of 'punctuated equilibrium' and my observation that the environment clearly supplies information to an organism's development, as if these were both (in his words) 'hand-waving' to detract from the theory's alleged failures. He clearly objected to the idea that the modern theory appears to be a completely natural, undirected process, yet curiously felt that evolution was not a scientific theory, nor did it have any facts to explain why (in his words) 'fish turn into men.' Toward the end, he suggested that the field of paleontology is chock-full of fraud, citing Piltdown Man.

Well....I have a lot of material to work with.

* Pray consider this voluminous list of cephalopod genera, many of which are transitional between nautiloids and ammonoids

2 comments:

R. Moore said...

All I can say is well done.

Debating with someone who attacks your facts without supplying any of there own is almost impossible.

Ian H Spedding said...

If you ask me these debates are taken far too seriously - a bit like the barrage of so-called debates that precede an election. They are entertainment, a form of spectator sport. The audience is mostly there to see one side or the other 'win' by exercising superior debating skills rather than be educated. This is not to say that the side of science should not have all the best arguments and evidence ready to be deployed - they should.

But such debates are 'won' much more by scoring memorable debating points than by lengthy expositions of a scientific case. For example, the standard creationist complaint about the fossil record not supporting the claims made for it by science can be answered with a detailed explanation of the rarity of fossilization events from which, nonetheless, a great deal can be inferred. But your metaphor of frames from The Wizard Of Oz makes the same point much more simply much more vividly and much more effectively.

Anyone stepping on stage to debate creationists or Paleyists should be able to deploy an extensive repertoire of such metaphors and imagery. In fact, such talks would be better - dare I say it - framed around a string of such waypoints similar to the way comedians string together a series of anecdotes or jokes each leading up to a punchline.

To continue the movie motif, think Donald O'Connor in Singin' In The Rain:

"Make 'em laugh, make 'em laugh..."