Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Recap: The Denver RATE Conference

I finally got around to reading the recap of the Denver RATE conference that took place on September 15, 2007 in Denver, Colorado (at a church, of course). The report is compiled from the ASA listserv and is written by Steven M. Smith, a geologist employed by the USGS. Groups like TalkOrigins refer to these creationist conferences as "Howlerfests." I am not sure where this term originated, since there are no internet references to a definition of any kind. Suffice it to say it is not a kind term. Anyway, Dr. Smith attended the Denver Rate conference and had some interesting comments to make. He takes great pains to point out that his account of the conference attempts to be bias-free which is quite admirable but leaves quite a bit of room at the end for his own thoughts, many of which are at once illuminating, depressing and dismaying:
I arrived at the church at about 8:00 to get a ticket ($25) and a seat. In the foyer of the church were two long tables with Institute of Creation Research (ICR) literature for sale. The material ranged from Duane Gish's "Are You Brainwashed" (a cartoon pamphlet in the style of Chick publications) to a variety of DVDs (Grand Canyon, Mt. St. Helens, Starlight & Time, etc.); from "Darwin's Black Box" by Michael Behe to prepackaged sets of books by Henry Morris. There was also a large selection of RATE publications – the RATE I technical volume ($35), the RATE II technical volume ($80), and the layman's summary book, a DVD, and a study guide all entitled, "Thousands ... Not Billions."

In addition to the official ICR "bookstore", there was also some information from other local Creationist groups and ministries. There was a table with newsletters from the local "Rocky Mountain Christian Fellowship" ( And there was another display from a local pastor and editor of "Discovery News: A Publication of Significant Archeological Discoveries" ( I picked up a free copy of the Discovery News. It trumpeted the news about discoveries of human footprints with dinosaur tracks along the Paluxy River near Glen Rose, Texas; showed pictures of decaying plesiosaurus carcasses snagged by a Japanese trawler or washed up on shore; and touted the archeological discovery of Noah's Ark by Ron Wyatt. This pastor was also advertising their weekly Awana Boys & Girls Club with a Poster Coloring Contest called, "Why do we find dinosaur and human footprints together in the same rock formation?"
The amazing thing about these observations is that the Paluxy river finds were thoroughly debunked at least ten years ago by Glen Kuban, who also wrote a long debunking of the plesiosaur "carcass," which turned out to be a basking shark. Ron Wyatt's "ark" turned out to be a natural geological formation, a conclusion reached by one of the RATE participants, John Baumgardner. Amazing. So much misinformation in the space of, oh let's say ten feet.

The first speaker was Gary Parker, who, among other things, had this to say:
"The creation/evolution issue is not a side issue; it is a fundamental salvation issue. Evolution is an enormous stumbling block and 'millions-of-years' is a big part of the problem."
Jesus came as wholly God and wholly Man, lived among us, was crucified to take our sins on his back and then rose from the dead to sit on the right hand of the Father and the our questions about the age of the earth is a "fundamental salvation issue?" Either Dr. Parker's faith is so weak as to not be able to withstand modern science, or he thinks that his listeners have such a faith. He also says this:
Our job is not to interpret the Bible – we take it as it is. Interpretation means to take the words and make them mean something different."
Dr. Parker, where did Cain get his wife?

Much of the remainder of the presentations have been rebutted in a caustic article by ASA Executive Director Randy Isaacs here and more comprehensively by J.G. Meert here. The last day was given, at least partly to a question and answer session that is creationism, personified:

* Question #3 directed to Russell Humphreys: Why do you think God would cause Accelerated Nuclear Decay? Isn't this like created starlight?

Humphreys' response: "Decay happened. We don't think that He just created the evidence. Decay gives off heat. The heat may have started the process of Plate Tectonics. Maybe Accelerated Nuclear Decay is the means that God used to start the Flood. There are hints of this in the Scriptures. See the RATE I technical volume for more details.

The heat may have started the process of plate tectonics??? Where did the heat go? This is nonsensical. How would accelerated decay have started the flood? How would it have caused it to rain? Where did the water come from? Once again, where did the heat go? What hints in scripture is he referring to? For a wonderful expose of "runaway subduction" argument that is used by YECs to explain the movement of the continents, see this article by Glen Morton.

* Question #4 directed to Gary Parker: For Old-Earth Creationists, why is a local flood more important than a global one?

Parker: "I suppose that Old-Earth Creationists want the geologic column to represent millions of years of death. For some strange reason, Old-Earth Creationists don't like it when God did what He said He did. They also don't want ridicule from their peers. They want to preserve long periods of time."

Old-earth creationists have no trouble with peer-ridicule. If you want evidence for that, look at the careers of Francis Collins, Simon Conway-Morris, Francisco Ayala, Kenneth Miller and John Polkinghorne, just to name a few. As far as OEC not liking it when God did what He said He did, why did He do it and make it look like He did it in a completely different way?

* Question #5 directed to Gary Parker: What about the Big Bang?

Parker responded: "You can't compromise with Genesis. The Big Bang is supported by Old-Earth Creationists. I'll stick with Genesis, which doesn't change."

I thought this was supposed to be conference in which science was used to bolster claims of a young earth? Here, he is specifically eschewing all science in favor of a scriptural answer—and one that sidesteps the question, entirely.

His conclusions are, perhaps, the most depressing aspect of the whole report. He writes:

This conference brought out the entire gamut of the modern Young-Earth Creationist movement; from the worst to the best; from the promotion of long-refuted Paluxy River dinosaur/human footprints and rotting plesiosaur carcasses in the newspaper handed out from a local pastor's ministry, to ramblings of Gary Parker (great debate one-liners but short on substantive science), to the results of some RATE scientists (who, though I believe they are mistaken in their conclusions, are at least getting out of their armchairs and actually examining real evidence).

But even at its best, this was still a conference in support of an idea that was discredited at least 200 years ago. It is disheartening when you realize that the faithful contributed $1.25 million to this study; that most of this was spent on scientific tests that did nothing more than confirm what was already known and published in the professional literature (only the conclusions were changed to protect the innocent); and that in a highly literate nation, in a town that boasts of its highly educated workforce and technical expertise, a Young-Earth Conference could entice 800 attendees at $20-25 per head (between $16,000 & $20,000 plus book sales) to waste a sunny & gorgeous late-summer Saturday in the Colorado Rocky Mountains, just to hear this stuff.

It was disheartening to watch a non-scientific audience (or perhaps even a moderately savvy audience used to science as presented on cable TV), receive the RATE arguments as plausible and real scientific results; and to reject the results of modern science as the fruit of alleged atheistic scientists (aided by duped Christians) bent on destroying true religion.

I also found it disheartening when no one seemed to recognize the irony in two RATE statements that, though never mentioned in the same breath, were repeated in various forms throughout the conference: (1) The RATE team is confined to a 6,000-year timeframe based on their reading of God's Word; and (2) RATE research confirms that the earth is only about 6,000 years old. Because of their starting assumption, all of the admitted evidence for millions of years worth of radioactive decay was rejected, and wild unsupported hypotheses of accelerated nuclear decay (with associated fudge factors, unrecognized laws of physics, and calls for Divine intervention) were proposed that just happened to give the same 6,000 year result that they had initially assumed.

This is something that Kevin Henke and Randy Isaacs both remark upon in their respective reviews of the project. Isaacs referred to the project as one that does "not meet the criterion of integrity in science." Stevens writes:
It doesn't matter what the science actually discovers, the answer was known – without any doubts – before the first sample was collected. It is just a matter of explaining the scientific results in a framework that matches the desired conclusion.
To this, Henke writes:
Any scientist that is willing to sign away his/her integrity and freedom to explore nature for the sake of a political and/or religious cause does not deserve to be called a scientist. These oath-takers are promising not to accept any results or perform any research that challenges the credibility of the official political and/or religious dogma. Whether atheist, YEC, Lysenkoist or whatever, those that submit to the oaths of the party line are ultimately unable to adapt to any radical paradigm shifts that may occur in our views of nature. Because the members of the RATE committee have signed away their academic freedom for the comfort of Biblical dogmatism, it's not surprising that their "research" plans, as outlined in Vardiman et al. (2000), are crippled and full of faulty arguments and flawed experimental procedures.
Everything that is wrong with creationism can be explained in this recap—from complete disregard of scientific evidence to contorted reasoning to cram modern finding into the 6 ky old box, to the deception of continuing to promote discredited ideas. This is anti-science at its worst.


  1. Groups like TalkOrigins refer to these creationist conferences as "Howlerfests."

    Um, TO regulars refer to their own get-togethers as "howlerfests." See, for example, the first page of hits here.

  2. You are correct. I only ran accross it in response to a creationist meeting on a post and made an unwarranted generalization. See, for example, this. It is probably a page like this that threw me off. Thanks for setting me straight!

  3. Jim, Thanks for this post. It's enlightening and depressing all at once! But if we're Christians concerned with shedding light and turning back darkness, then we need to continue to do the work of exposing charlatans like these people to the light of day. Just this afternoon I was telling a young coworker that YEC is inherently destructive of true faith, since when these young people go to HS or college they will have their worldview conpletely upended. Now you adn I would both agree that a good deal of their worldview needs to be upended. But the risk of course is that they will walk away from Christian faith because they think to be Christian is also to be a YEC. Thankfully there are more reasonable evangelicals coming along nowadays who understand that real science is not a threat to faith, but is a wonderful bulwark to it. But it takes work with a steady hand. Keep shedding light into the darkness!

  4. I almost forgot! Do you have anything on Dennis Petersen? A customer brought his big glossy Unlocking the Mysteries of Creation book to our store for us to consider carrying it. In talking to her and glancing at the few pages I did, I could tell it was a YEC book. Afterwards I told a coworker that I decided to hold my tongue and just nod and smile. Some battles are unwinnable from the first breath. The sad thing is, I know the customer and she's a wonderful Christian. She even read Francis Collins Language of God book but returned it afterwards saying that she couldn't recommend it for the church library. Aargh! Anyway, thanks again and God bless!

  5. Irenicum, I do not know the name Dennis Petersen, but I will look into him as soon as I am able. I also think that the YEC worldview needs upending. I tend to agree with the person who said that we drive more people away from the faith with the YEC nonsense than we attract.