May 13 2013

An Interview with Don McLeroy, Part I

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26 Responses to “An Interview with Don McLeroy, Part I”

  1. skrileon 13 May 2013 at 8:45 am

    Listened to this week’s episode with my 12-year-old son and was a great jumping-off point for he and I to discuss this topic. At one point I paused your show to discuss what was going on – I’m not sure he was aware that Don and the rogues didn’t agree. I’d say that’s a win for civility and tone.

    I found Don to be quite engaging and completely agree with your three stages of critical thinking. I remember watching my bridge to the supernatural disappearing all around me as I seriously questioned the magic I had been brought up to believe, and it seems as if Don is walking his way in that direction.

    In any case, thanks for the outstanding episode and for giving me an opportunity to discuss science with a curious kid.

  2. ninjalawyeron 13 May 2013 at 10:18 am

    Just listened to the interview and I have to agree, Don McLeroy was an excellent guest to debate. He generally remained unflustered, was polite and his arguments had a surface level of plausibility that made the debate itself interesting.

    However, I also found the debate a little sad in some ways. Don seems very intelligent, but doesn’t appear to understand that using subtle means to push creationism is no better than making a direct reference to God in highschool textbooks, even if the former approach passes a strictly legal smell-test. It also seemed as though he had internalized certain logical fallacies to support his creationist worldview (i.e., the false dichotomy that if some evidence for evolution is weak then creationism must be plausible).

    Steve also did a great job by presenting well-reasoned rebuttals, but also by maintaining a good pacing to the interview; It would have been easy for Steve to get caught up in debating the minutiae of Don’s arguments and miss the opportunity to debate the bigger picture, and I think someone less skilled at debating would have fallen into that trap.

  3. ccbowerson 13 May 2013 at 10:35 am

    “Don may be free to accept evolution, but doing so would force him to rethink major aspects of his faith, actually changing his denomination to one that is not fundamentalist. I cannot take seriously the claim that this does not provide a powerful motivation to deny evolution.”

    …and in fact there is very good evidence to show that it does. Even in your discussion with him, he kept getting hung up on fine details as if all of evolutionary theories rest on them (he was particularly hung up on the evolution of cellular mechanisms). It’s as if we would need to explain every possible question, before the theories of evolution could be considered in his mind, but that appears to be a fairly common way to think among creationists, because religion attempts to do just that with a deity.

    “There is also the assumption in Don’s position that evolution is only materialist possibility. When you follow the process of science, evolutionary theory is currently the answer to which all the evidence leads.”

    This was going through my head as he was speaking, and I wished someone pointed this out more clearly. He was implying that atheists are ‘stuck’ and had to accept evolution, but this implies that we are denying ourselves all other alternatives. The only reason we are ‘stuck’ is because that is where the evidence points, and yes I guess our explanations are constrained by evidence (as they should be). The only explanations that aren’t considered are the “goddidit” ones, because they are not explanations at all as they do not explain anything on their own.

  4. ccbowerson 13 May 2013 at 10:41 am

    He was a good guest though, and you were able to engaged the topic in a substantive way yet were able to keep the conversation productive, which can be hard to do if the discussion became more heated.

  5. ConspicuousCarlon 13 May 2013 at 11:40 am

    The thing he is missing on the subject of atheists being required (according to him) to believe evolution is that the default answer to any question is “we don’t know”. Yes, if we were to start with the premise that the correct answer to any question must be something we have already thought of, we would indeed have backed ourselves into a biased corner.

    He seems to be getting a free pass on the “complexity” issue, which is typical for creationism debates. Complex by what standards? How “complex” does something have to be to bring on this special demand? It seems like the standard is whatever tickles our human interpretation, so what he really wants is an explanation of how cells got to a level which makes him feel a particular way.

  6. LarryCoonon 13 May 2013 at 12:52 pm

    “I do focus on where it’s the weakest. Why would I pick someplace where it’s strong?”

    That to me was the most telling comment of the entire interview. I know you were trying to drive home a specific point, and also to keep the discussion civil & productive. I also know you touched on this issue over the course of the entire interview. But this comment is where I would have slammed on the brakes.

    Why would you focus on where it’s strong? Because this is supposed to be about teaching science. By focusing on where it’s strong you’re assimilating the knowledge acquired through the process of science, and looking for the consensus of expert opinion — the best explanation available describing the existing evidence and the best predictor of future findings. By presenting this you’re presenting SCIENCE — which I kinda assumed was the goal of a science class.

    Turning the question back on Don, why would you chose to ignore the overwhelming (both in quantity and in persuasiveness) strong evidence, in order to focus on where it’s weak? The obvious (to me) answer is that you’re not trying to convey science, you’re trying to pick apart an explanation that you don’t like. Which is fine — that’s a part of the scientific process as well — but you need to do that within the scientific process. Show us reasons that this is inconsistent with the theory if you want to call the theory itself into question. Don doesn’t do that; he’s just shouting “Hey, look at this!” without providing any information about why it’s relevant.

    And as Steve said, the fact that our evidence is weakest in those areas is perfectly consistent with the theory.

    As I listened to the interview, I kept forming an analogy to a jigsaw puzzle. Evolution is a 1,000 piece puzzle, all put together except for a few pieces, and it’s abundantly clear that it’s a picture of the Mona Lisa (or whatever). Don is focusing on the few missing pieces, and wants to convince us those missing pieces mean that we can’t see that it’s the Mona Lisa.

    In other words, Don is refusing to acknowledge what’s staring him in his face — not for scientific reasons but for reasons of personal belief — and choosing to focus on the gaps because that’s the only place he can hide.

    Call that what you will, but don’t call it science — because science doesn’t work like that. And since his job was to help establish science standards, I don’t think there’s any way to classify his result as anything other than a failure.

  7. ccbowerson 13 May 2013 at 1:10 pm

    “He seems to be getting a free pass on the ‘complexity’ issue”

    In the discussion he did this by alluding to complexity as being a problem for evolution without explicitly stating that it is or why. He just framed it in a way that required an explanation for a specific complex question, and implying weakness when that specific question could not be easily answered (as if we have to throw the whole thing out if there are any unanswered questions).

    When explicitly stated as an argument, it is very clear that the complexity argument is really an argument from personal incredulity, but when framed in this way you have to expose the unreasonable and incorrect assumptions to get to the substance of the argument. And of course personal incredulity with regards to evolution has everything to do with the person being incredulous, and says little about how well those theories explain the evidence.

  8. DarqXydeon 13 May 2013 at 2:42 pm

    I’ve been listening to SGU for a while, but this is my first post on here. The point I kept seeing, and that no one was mentioning, is that Don’s assertion was not that he was more free to accept or reject evolutionary theory because of his religious belief, but that he was more free to accept or reject the *evidence* for evolution (if I recall correctly, that was almost exactly how he worded it, and that’s an important distinction to make). He is not rejecting evolutionary theory because it has areas of scant evidence, like the biomechanical mechanisms he kept mentioning during the discussion. Rather, he is rejecting the strong evidence for evolutionary theory because of the areas of scant evidence, basically stating that the areas of scant evidence undercut the areas of strong evidence. Since he can then reject the strong evidence that contradicts his preferred belief (creationism), he can claim that his belief is valid and in no way biased or intellectually dishonest. The flaw here is that he is rejecting both strong and scant evidence, while accepting *no* evidence for the alternative. The basis of science is that he who has the most confirming evidence wins, and until the creationists can present evidence that evolution is wrong, it doesn’t matter how many holes there are in the evidence evolutionary theory. The only thing that will truly fill the holes in evidence is either comfirming or contradictory evidence, and not the creationist argument from assertion, “God did it.”

  9. Halfdeadon 13 May 2013 at 3:25 pm

    There was one part where you seemed to have shaken him a bit, his voice got a little quavery and then he shifted back to “sudden appearance” and “stasis” like it was big gotcha moment. I gotta say I did not find him to be all that interesting, most of his points were shown to be idiotic whats got to be at least 20 or more years ago. I suppose he was well spoken and polite which is a plus, but I would rather have a stuttering, rude, and angry guy who had a reasonable argument. The constant repeating of “sudden appearance and stasis” seemed to me someone who was simply repeating talking points hes heard someone else mention without even understanding what he was saying.

    The parts where he was saying “hes read all the books” and then complaining that the arguments in them were “weak” only to reveal that his reading list was a bunch of popularized, not really science books was pretty funny, but it also made me sad. Here was a guy who obviously has some potential to be educated but because of his religion can’t even fully understand grade school level books.

  10. ivoryboneson 13 May 2013 at 4:22 pm

    |I came away with the impression that *he thinks* he is genuinely trying to understand the |creation/evolution debate and to rely on only valid arguments.

    *FTFY

  11. tmac57on 13 May 2013 at 7:51 pm

    Steve,I really enjoyed listening to your interview with Don,and I like the idea of having appropriately respectful guests with a different viewpoint from the skeptic mainstream.
    I do think Don’s claim of (as I recall) not overtly introducing religion,but instead trying to ask or allow questioning of the “weaknesses” of evolution,to be intellectually disingenuous,due to the fact that he later claimed the he absolutely was a creationist.You would have to be naive indeed to believe that his impassioned advocacy of the ‘strengths and weakness’ gambit were not motivated by an attempt to discredit evolution in favor of a biblical explanation.If he were truly honest,he would own up to that,and of course,it would be then struck down by the Supreme Court.

  12. ross chainon 13 May 2013 at 10:06 pm

    I agree with everyone else on here about it being nice to have a civil discussion on the issues.

    I don’t find it so hard to believe that an intelligent person who is not trained in evolutionary biology may not accept evolution. what bothers me is that the system in place to decide what gets printed in a science book is not as subject to the same critical scrutiny that a peer reviewed journal is. I would imagine even if a magazine like Time (which has a dubious history with science reporting in general) demonstrated a similar fundamental lack of understanding of the scientific process they would catch more hell than this. We desperately need to change the process by which educational materials are approved.

    However, I don’t want to rip on Mr. Mcleroy. his arguments demonstrated his genuine understanding of evolution which is a far cry from the usual fare of intellectual dishonesty that we generally get around this issue. The SGU crew did a fine job of rebutting those arguments but I think that all of us come to our understanding of science in a bumpy nonlinear fashion. He is simply falling into intellectual traps that we have all fallen into in the past. the point I am trying to make is that this is illustrative of where a person’s understanding of science can fail when he is untrained in critical thinking and skepticism.

    Just think, If Mr. Mcleroy had just read The Demon Haunted World by Carl Sagan before He read The Greatest Show on Earth this argument may have never taken place.

  13. rocken1844on 13 May 2013 at 11:43 pm

    some interview! – as for “freer”, fundamentalists like McLeroy believe in a spiritual battle, God vs Satan, and that is a real burden to bear when you claim to be open to “think for yourself” – for example – does he coach the young people in Sunday School to challenge what is in the Bible, is the Bible really supernatural or human invention?

  14. nickmPTon 14 May 2013 at 12:40 am

    After thinking about his argument for complexity of the cell. I think I know the general gist of Creationism. God created every creature on their own, i.e. no evolution of species, God made each one. I’m sure there are other parts. Here is what I am thinking:

    If God created each cell, designed each one as is, would that not make God this mega micro manager? I mean, maybe Creationists should have it that God employs thousands of Angels to work in heavenly labs that are constantly churning out different kinds of cells and there could be some large hierarchy with God basically as the CEO. Prophets are his spokesman and he has many different branches for different markets (Judaism, Christianity, Islam). Satan (like the Chinese) stole a bunch of the secret plans and started his own rival company and hopes to one day surpass the great Godly business. Now we must recognize the monopoly God has on cell creation, so the great Anti-trust helped spawn all these pesky copy-cats that don’t work quite as good as the original (you know the Hindus, Buddhists, Taoists, etc.). Perhaps even Satan was behind the Anti-trust. Okay starting to ramble…

    What do you think?

  15. Skeptical Steelon 14 May 2013 at 1:24 am

    “He also did something I find extremely rare in such interviews – occasionally acknowledging a point on the other side or a weakness in his own position. He also had clearly made a genuine effort to read pro-evolution material and criticisms of his position.”

    McLeroy walked into that fight ready to concede a few points, but never abandon the core of his argument. A lawerly approach. McLeroy is a slick, fast-talking bullshitter. Undoubtedly, that is how he got his creationist language inserted into the Texas textbooks.

    Steve, you were never in command of that debate. Your politeness and scrupulous attention to truthful detail do you credit as a person, they are a weakness someone like Don is all too happy to exploit.

  16. Gotchayeon 14 May 2013 at 2:47 am

    I listened to the interview and enjoyed it, and was very pleasantly surprised by Don’s performance.

    I don’t agree at all that science requires methodological naturalism. Science only uses methodological naturalism because of how wildly successful MN has been, and I think most people can conceive of evidence that would lead them to abandon naturalism, methodological or otherwise. Science only requires an assumption of a certain sort of regularity – that the way the world has worked before is basically the way it’s going to continue working.

    Obviously the definition of “natural” matters here, so perhaps it’s better to talk about specific possibilities without trying to classify them as natural or supernatural. On the Skeptics’ Guide, y’all often talk about testing phenomena like ghosts or ESP in a scientific way. There are legitimate experiments that can be performed and which could in principle yield results which would constitute scientific evidence for these “supernatural” phenomena. That tests consistently fail to yield these results means that we have very strong evidence that there are no ghosts and no psychics. If scientific methods were assuming that ghosts aren’t real, the sorts of tests we might want to do would necessarily not tell us anything at all about whether or not ghosts exist.

    There are creationist explanations which actually are at right angles to science – any sort of Omphalos story (“Last Thursday-ism”) is quite clearly ruling out its own testability such that there is no way to discover anything about the probability of its being true using scientific methods. But the sort of creationism that Don endorses is basically scientific. There are conceivable observations (many of which are precluded by actual observations already made) which would reasonably lead scientists to explain features of life on Earth by reference to the standard YEC story. If the oldest fossils really were less than 10k years old, if there actually seemed to have been a Flood, and if life in all of its diversity basically seemed to have just popped into existence one day, we would have a lot of reason to be scientific creationists. Instead we have strong scientific evidence that YEC just isn’t true.

    Anyway, that’s why the “free to believe” thing struck me as off. I’m not convinced that the theory of evolution is true because I’m not religious. The main reason I’m not religious is that I have yet to encounter a supernatural explanation for some phenomenon which struck me as convincing.

  17. Bruce Woodwardon 14 May 2013 at 4:01 am

    Great interview Steve. I find the nicely nicely people like that can be the most frustrating as he really tries to make it look like he is the reasonable one. I personally would have struggled to shoot him down so politely and effectively.

  18. Steven Novellaon 14 May 2013 at 8:16 am

    Steel – it wasn’t a debate. It was an interview. Don was my invited guest.

    The point of the format is to ask tough questions, and call him on his points, but to give the interviewee pretty free reign to make their case. This is for the benefit of the listener, to hear from proponents directly and hear how they handle challenging questions. But it’s not a debate.

  19. Skeptical Steelon 14 May 2013 at 11:48 am

    Steven: Call it what you like. He made claims, you rebutted them. You took a position, he disagreed.

    But whatever. The point stands that he was never in any danger of having his “position dismantled” as you allude above. He was in control the whole time. Which is kind of crazy given the preponderance of evidence in your court.

  20. Skeptical Steelon 14 May 2013 at 11:56 am

    Although, and in fairness, I also felt that you were at times restraining yourself in order let McLeroy make his case fully.

  21. Steven Novellaon 14 May 2013 at 12:30 pm

    Steel – you have to define what you mean by “in control.”

    The difference between a confrontational interview and a debate, which you seem to be dismissing, is that in a debate the two sides are given equal time to make their case and question the other. In an interview, the topic is the interviewee’s position. I never set out to make my case, just to ask tough questions and respond to some of his points. The whole point was to give him time to make his case fully, and probe his position.

  22. Bronze Dogon 14 May 2013 at 12:58 pm

    I generally prefer to describe “supernatural” as a nonsense word, rather than risk sending a message that supernatural things are inherently untestable by definition or anything that dignifies drawing that arbitrary line. I often find woos who try to use the line for rhetorical force. They use the alleged unfalsifiability as a “get out of critical inquiry free” card. They use the line as a way to denigrate science as being completely unable to account for a whole class of phenomena by invoking fantasy fiction tropes where magical things don’t show up on “scientific” detection devices. When we propose a scientific test for an apparently testable supernatural hypothesis, they play “gotcha!”, thinking they’ve caught us contradicting scientific dogma. It’s also worrying that I occasionally see some self-proclaimed skeptics who seem to think there is a line between “natural” and “supernatural” and use it to either justify belief in woo or unthinkingly beat down woos with repetition rather than the actual logic that lead to the general observation that “supernatural” hypotheses tend to be unfalsifiable by design.

    I’d rather ask them to define “supernatural” in a coherent, consistent manner and justify the importance of creating the category. If they want “supernatural” to be a class of entities and forces, they should make it more defined than a junk drawer for storing hypotheses they fancy. Once upon a time, lightning was regarded as supernatural, after all. To me, the methodological naturalism approach is mostly an Occam’s Razor approach to adding new entities: Try to find explanations of the unknown with the known “natural” causes we understand, and if that doesn’t work, try to come up with predictable new entities that account for and reliably predict the anomaly.

  23. Skeptical Steelon 14 May 2013 at 2:43 pm

    Steven, so you were meant to be the Mike Wallace of that interview? Okay, I hear that.

    I tried, to the best of my ability, to hear that interview from the point of view of a disinterested party with an average level of science smarts (kinda low). Don’s objective, it seemed to me, was to raise the possibility that maybe, just maybe, the boffins had got it wrong. He was nothing more than a simple country dentist that, through dint of plowing through the literature (never mind what kind of literature) had noticed a few inconsistencies.

    Your tough questions were great! From the point of view of your own peanut gallery (of which I am a member) I’m sure you achieved what you set out to do. But it is impossible (and pointless?) for me not to hear the exchange in the context of a pro- versus an- tagonist dialog and score points accordingly.

  24. roadfoodon 14 May 2013 at 3:09 pm

    I’ve been trying to put my finger on exactly what bothers me about this part:

    “One point Don made that was tangential to the evolution-creation discussion, but which I think reveals his perspective, is that he feels as a fundamentalist Christian he is more free to either accept or reject evolutionary theory than I am as an atheist. I have heard this argument before, but still found it stunning because it is exactly opposite to my impression of reality.”

    and I think I’ve finally realized what it is.

    It sounds to me like what Don is basically saying is that because he is a Christian, he is free to accept either a supernatural explanation or a naturalist explanation. This is because (and I’m supposing here) as a Christian he accepts and believes that the supernatural exists, and as a person existing in the real world he pretty much has to accept and believe that naturalism exists.

    Whereas an atheist does not believe that anything supernatural exists, and so has only one of those two choices.

    But saying that he has the choice to believe in a supernatural explanation isn’t quite accurate. He has the choice to believe in a supernatural explanation only insofar as that explanation coincides with his Christian beliefs.

    For example, he clearly can believe that “(the Christian) God did it”. But I don’t think that he has the equal choice to believe that “the Norse god Odin did it”. In that regard, I think that both he and the atheist would have an equally hard time accepting that “the Norse god Odin did it”. And so with regard to that particular supernatural explanation, he and the atheist are on equal footing.

    Same thing with, say, magic fairy dust. Or Harry Potter-like magic spells. In fact, I daresay that within the realm of all the possible supernatural explanations, the ones that a fundamentalist Christian is really free to believe comprise a very, very small subset.

    So the vast majority of supernatural explanations, such as “magic fairy dust created complex cells”, would be as quickly and as firmly dismissed by a fundamentalist Christian as by an atheist. The freedom of choice that Don talks about really only extends the choices of Christians a tiny, almost infinitesimal bit beyond the choices of atheists.

  25. BillyJoe7on 14 May 2013 at 4:03 pm

    roadfood,

    It’s worse than that.
    He is also severely restrained as to which natural explanations he can accept – they have to be compatible with his supernatural beliefs. That’s a big ask for a YEC.
    He blithely accepts the fossil record but fails to understand that the fossil record is incompatible with YEC.

  26. catwalkeron 08 Jul 2013 at 12:50 pm

    Don’s contention that he is ‘freer’ than an atheist because he can choose either Darwinian evolution or creationism invokes a false dichotomy. There are other (existing and potential) natural explanations. For example, Lamarkism (theory of heritability of acquired characteristics) was one explanation that was prevalent before Darwin (and Wallace) devised evolution by natural selection.

    Taken from another perspective, scientists are compelled to accept neo-Darwinian evolution because the evidence for it is very strong. Theists such as Don are not similarly compelled: they can justify ignoring the evidence if they find it in contention with their beliefs. That’s not necessarily something to brag about.

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