Creationist Clashes in British Columbia

Recently a Creationist, one Dr. Jonathan Sarfati, (his PhD is in chemistry) has been touring in British Columbia speaking on the subject of evolution. The title of his talk is “Evolution: The Greatest Hoax on Earth” which is his way of suggesting that he can refute the claims made by Richard Dawkins in his latest book “The Greatest Show on Earth.”

My esteemed co-hosts and I on Radio Freethinker discussed this event on our most recent episode, and my friend the Crommunist blogged about it over at Canadian Atheist.

Dr. Sarfati, the founder of Creation Ministries International is a Christian apologist who believes in the literal truth of the bible and specifically biblical creationism. For those who don’t know, creationism is the belief that life on earth arose according to the accounts in Genesis (Earth created in 7 days, 10,000 years ago) and not through the process of evolution (a multi-billion year process involving natural selection.)

As far as creationists go, he had nothing new to say nor was he particularly good at delivering his message.

Why this warrants a blog post is that when skeptics in Vancouver and abroad learned that he intended to deliver his speech at the University of British Columbia as well as several other important venues across the province, many of us were concerned.  We decided it would be prudent to set up an evolution information booth at the event so that attendees would be able to get some actual science content instead of only Christian dogma.

Pro-Evolution table

In Vancouver, our biggest concern was that he was speaking at a university. We felt that the nature of the university itself (dedication to research, facts, honesty, education)  lent Dr. Sarfati undue credibility. You can read an article about Dr. Sarfati’s talk at UBC in the Ubyssey, the campus newspaper, although it makes no mention of the pro-evolution contingent at the lecture.

Getting a booth proved difficult. Fortunately persistence paid off and CFI Vancouver, the UBC Freethinkers, and the UBC Biology department teamed up to put together some evolution literature and experts at hand to properly explain the science.

Sarfati was also doing a talk in Surrey later that day but unfortunately we were unable to get an information booth for that talk. We suspect having the support of the UBC Biology department made our request more likely to be accepted at UBC, however his speaking engagement in Surrey wasn’t in a university but a private venue.

Our booth and experts

We set up our booth outside his lecture and had many people come up to us to see what we were on about. It was actually quite successful. Many students who didn’t have a background in science came over to us and eagerly asked questions, which our biology experts were all too happy to answer. We had several science, skeptic, and evolution books which people were encouraged to leaf through and look at.

People learning! Rock on kids!

When time came for the talk we took some seats inside and took notes. However, as I mentioned, this was a farce of a lecture, even by creationist standards.

I mentioned on Radio Freethinker that Dr. Sarfati was a clown. I of course realize that’s an ad hominem but it’s very apt. He began his lecture by stating that scientists like Dawkins have different starting assumptions when it comes to biology, Dr. Sarfati has the bible, and Dawkins has Darwin. (Neglecting to mention that while Sarfati begins with the assumption that the bible is literal truth, Dawkins doesn’t believe Darwin to be gospel.)

Sarfati also has some interesting views on science itself. He suggests that it was born out Christianity, which explains why Western Christendom was so advanced. (The Dark Ages weren’t really all that dark, he assured the audience.) He further explained that believing in evolution would lead to moral bankruptcy and ultimately atheism (which was very bad.)

Aside from the fact that his historical interpretation of the history of science and Christianity are completely wrong, his understanding of how science works also seems completely off base.

His evidence for why evolution can’t possibly be true is staggeringly silly. Consider his case against fossils, which can’t exist because “What happens when a fish dies? Look at your goldfish, it floats! How could it get to the bottom of the ocean to fossilize?” he questions enthusiastically. Throw out your On The Origin of the Species, everyone!

Of course he also argues that life is simply too irreducibly complex to happen by chance. After all, if things look designed, they must be!

The lecture

He takes particular exception to the notion of life emerging from non-living components. To illustrate the absurdity of this, he asks the audience what would happen if you put a frog in a blender and added energy. He shows a slide of a blender with frog goop and says “this is what happens when you add energy, not in a million years is a frog going to hop out of that mess.”

He repeatedly hammered that evolution doesn’t “add information” it only results in life becoming more specialized and therefore couldn’t possibly be true. As most creationists do, he constructs a straw man argument and proceeds to knock it down. He really wanted us to understand that mutations are not adding information, “after all” he explains, “most mutations do stupid things like giving a bulldog a smushed nose.” And who wants a smushed nose?

When it came time to answer questions, he wasn’t particularly interested in hearing counter arguments. Rather belligerently he would shout down anyone who raised a critical question. Any time a biology professor asked something he would make some comment on them indoctrinating students into atheism.

His obnoxious attitude was so aggressively aimed at the sciences that I was shocked by the way several audience members who weren’t skeptics reacted. Many cheered as Dr. Sarfati lambasted biology professors for teaching evolution and brainwashing innocent young people who come to learn about the natural world. Not only was this insulting to the professors, but several biology students found it offensive as well. There was one protracted argument between Dr. Sarfati and a student that sounded more like a school yard dispute than scholarly discourse. Over the course of the question period several skeptics ended up walking out in frustration. I don’t blame them, I’ve never actually seen someone so obnoxious (giving a lecture in a university)

His demeanor didn’t improve. He would later visit the University of British Columbia’s Okanagan campus. Alas, there were more skeptics there too.

CFI Okanagan and the UBCO Skeptics also set out to ask some probing questions of Dr. Sarfati.

He was not pleased to say the least. Several skeptics in Kelowna decide to wear t-shirts saying “Creationism: a Philosophy of Ignorance.” He was further incensed when skeptics tried to ask some critical questions. Unlike in Vancouver where the audience was roughly evenly divided between skeptics and creationists, in Kelowna the skeptics were definitely in the minority. At one point a philosophy professor was even threatened with a head lock by a creationist in the audience when he pointed out some of Dr. Sarfati’s logical fallacies.

His respectability meter went down even further when he made some racially insensitive remarks following his lecture that left several CFI Okanagan members justly shocked.

Some would characterize Dr. Sarfati as the fish in the barrel. I think that’s a mistake. About 1/3rd of the audience at UBC was sympathetic to his point and more so at UBCO. Where we should be concerned is that this guy isn’t even a good speaker! His arguments, by creationist standards, are bad! And he’s a jerk too! The point being, if someone this poorly informed is allowed to direct the conversation on evolution in universities, skeptics may find themselves in a difficult position down the road where they occupy a small minority in lecture halls where creationism and evolution are taught as two legitimate theories of biology and any attempt to criticize this bizarre scenario results in the threat of a head lock. A head lock that encompasses all forms of rational discourse, scientific inquiry and public education.

4 Responses to “Creationist Clashes in British Columbia”

  1. DataJack says:

    Well said; excellent job.

  2. Wow, after reading this account, I’m left feeling shocked, embarassed and a little sad. Thanks for bringing this to light. Is the good doctor’s lecture tour heading into Alberta by chance?

  3. Thomas Doubts says:

    Excellent work, Ethan! The BC skeptics have done a bang-up job representing clear-headed critical thinkers everywhere. And good show for turning out en masse, and science expertise heavy, to refute the woo. Cheers mate.

  4. Kichae says:

    Calling Sarfati a clown is only an ad hom if you’ve claimed that he is wrong and his arguments invalid *because* he is a clown. Otherwise, it’s just an insult and, while possibly a little bit rude, not fallacious reasoning at all.

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  • Ethan Clow

    Ethan Clow, born and raised in the Vancouver area, is best known in the skeptical community as Ethan the Freethinking Historian, co-host of Radio Freethinker, a skeptical podcast and radio show on CiTR in Vancouver. And as the former Executive Director of the Centre for Inquiry Vancouver. Ethan graduated with a B.A. in History from UBC in the fall of 2009 and has an active role with skeptical movements in Vancouver and British Columbia. He was an executive member of the UBC Freethinkers, a campus club that promotes skepticism and critical thinking. He still maintains a close relationship with the UBC Freethinkers and helps plan events and organizes skeptical activism as best he can. Currently he works for the Centre for Inquiry as the Executive Director of CFI Vancouver.