Three sketpics go head to head with a creationist lecturer.

When the call went out on the 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, 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 me, 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. 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.

The moderator was Chris Lux, the local mayor. We couldn’t decide if he was a closet creationist or merely a politician who saw more votes from the creationists in the audience. He made a big thing of the three of us ganging up on poor John Mackay — who had in fact asked for a panel of four to confront, as he has done in the past. Then he would do things like ring his bell 30 seconds into Alistair’s address.

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. 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.

Then it was Alistair’s turn. He mainly looked at 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.

I followed by talking about how the universe had been fashioned by natural, rather than supernatural processes, comparing Mitre Peak with Mt Rushmore, where the hand of an intelligent designer can truly be seen. 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 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: “What did Noah 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.

Alistair was clearly angry when it came his turn to respond. The traps we had attempted to lay had mostly not been sprung. Alistair did, however, get Mackay to state his qualifications on camera (the evening was videotaped) — a geology degree from the University of Queensland, 1972. There has been some doubt about his qualifications, so it will be interesting to have that followed up.

At the conclusion, Chris Lux awarded ten points to Mackay and nine to us (“But only because there are three of them.”)

Most of the audience were committed believers, and I doubt we did enough to shake their convictions. 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. The three against one format definitely worked in Mackay’s favour. Next time, we should each be able to do the job alone.

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