Monday, May 16, 2005

Evolution and "direct observation": Be careful what you wish for.

(Episode 1 in the serial adventures of John Q. Creationist.)

Meet John Q. Creationist.

John's a moderately successful real estate broker in a medium-size town somewhere in the Midwest. Working in real estate generally keeps him pretty busy, being perpetually on-call, ready to show a house on short notice. John's also a staunch member of his local evangelical church and, to go along with that, he's got a hobby: John's a vocal and well-known supporter of creation science.

Whenever John can arrange it, you can generally find him at the regular public school board meetings, pressing for "equal time" for creationism or something similar. He also teaches a weekly Sunday school class in the subject, and is always ready to give a talk at any of the local high schools. Whenever the topic comes up, you can be sure there's going to be a letter from John to the editor of the local paper, taking a predictable swipe at evolution.

Truth be told, John doesn't actually know a lot of science. Most of the material in his presentations is gleaned from an extensive library of creationist books and pamphlets he's collected over the years, and he's got the routine down pat -- Flood geology, arguments from probability, why "balanced treatment" is a good thing, how evolution is just as much a "religion" as creation science and so on. But among all those creationist apologetics, he definitely has a favourite.

Out of all the arguments he uses, the one he enjoys the most is telling his listeners how science requires "direct observation." "If you can't directly observe it," John will say, "it can't be part of science. Even scientists admit that. So unless you have an eyewitness -- a personal eyewitness to the event -- it can't be part of science. And that's why evolution isn't really science, understand?" Given his typical audience, John is normally pretty popular and everyone loves his material but, even among his fans, there are the occasional reluctant skeptics who aren't quite sure.

"Um, sir," John hears the occasional senior high school student ask, "About this direct observation ... I mean, there's all these fossils and stuff. Doesn't that sort of count as proof? I mean, isn't that kind of evidence in a way?"

"Well," John will answer, in his well-rehearsed manner, "that's not the same thing. You see, if you want to call that evidence, you could only call that indirect evidence. It's there but, as I said, no one actually saw how it got there. Without actual eyewitnesses, without someone directly observing it, then it just isn't science, it's faith." At which point, the student will nod and slowly sit down, but perhaps with just a hint of hesitation, as if there's something about that explanation that bothers him, he just can't put his finger on it.

And John will take a few more questions, thank his audience, accept their applause and accolades and head out, feeling quite pleased with himself for another successful talk. But this time, it's going to be different. This time, John's life is about to get bent in an ugly new direction.

It's a Saturday night and John's just finished another creationist gig at the local community college. It's been a long day and he's just turning down the alley behind his house, driving up to his rear driveway, turning in and ... John notices immediately that his back door is open. That's odd -- he's pretty sure he locked it before he left.

As he pulls in completely, the awful truth becomes obvious. One of the lower window panes in the open door is smashed in. Before his car has even come to a full stop, John is out and running up the back walk, fearing the worst. And the worst is exactly what he finds.

As he pushes the door open further to enter the kitchen, he can see the damage. His microwave is missing. As is his cappuccino machine -- his new cappuccino machine that was on back-order for three months. His heart sinking by the second, John stumbles through the kitchen into the living room to find more of the same.

Stereo system: gone. His beautiful, new plasma screen TV: gone. As are all of his CDs and DVDs, camera equipment, ... all gone. Going from room to room, John can only resign himself to the obvious. He ends up in his bedroom and, in a state of shock, calls the police.

"Hello," he hears, "police department. Sergeant York speaking."

"Hi," mumbles John, "I'd like to report a burglary. My TV, my stereo, all kinds of stuff ... gone. Everything. Can you get someone out here right away?"

"Whoa, slow down," says the good sergeant, "back up a bit. How do you know you've been burglarized? Let's not jump to any conclusions here."

"Well," says John, collecting himself and feeling just a bit irked by the officer's tone of skepticism, "I just got home, the back door was open, the window pane was smashed, and lots of my stuff is missing! So can you send someone out? Maybe they can find some clues as to who did this."

"Well," says the sergeant off-handedly, "did anyone actually see this happen? I mean, do you have any actual eyewitnesses?"

"What?!", yells John. "What do you mean, did anyone actually see this? Of course not! I just got home, my door was smashed in and most of my stuff is gone! No, there were no witnesses! What the hell kind of question is that?!" bellows John in a decidedly un-Christian tone of voice.

"Now, calm down," says the sergeant, "it's like this. Used to be, when we got a call like this, we'd be right out, do stuff like take pictures, dust for fingerprints and all that; scientifically, you know. But -- and here's the funny thing -- turns out that's not science at all. Turns out that, unless you have an eyewitness -- you know, someone who actually saw all this happen -- it's not really science. So, sorry to say, we can't help you out there. I mean, we could come out and poke around but, it not being science and all, it wouldn't really do a whole lot of good."

"Are you serious?!?!" screams John into the phone. "That's the dumbest thing I've ever heard! There's piles of evidence all over the place! Hell, I'm standing in my bedroom and I can see a fingerprint on my dresser from here! Are you telling me there's nothing you can do with that?!"

"Well," says the sergeant, "sure, that's evidence. But seeing as no one actually saw how it got there, it's only what you'd call "indirect" evidence. So it doesn't really help."

"You're crazy!" John is now seriously losing it, and he can't believe he's having this conversation. "Where in God's name did you get these idiotic ideas?!"

"Oh, my son explained this whole science thing to me. Turns out that, a couple weeks ago, he went to see this local religion creationist guy at his church, and this guy was a right smart fellow -- explained how science works and that how, unless you have a direct witness observation and like that, well, it just isn't science anymore. Once I figured that out, heck, it sure eased up my workload. So, make a long story short, we'd like to help but, science being what it is and all, it would be kind of irresponsible to be passing judgement without any eyewitnesses. I hope you understand."

"I don't believe this," says John, slowly sinking back onto his bed in disbelief, staring at the mountain of "indirect" evidence surrounding him. "You can't be serious. I mean, how can you ...". But John is interrupted by the sound of a car revving suddenly in the alley, followed by a screeching of tires as its engine sound fades into the distance.

John drops the phone and races back downstairs, through the kitchen and out the back door, to find only an empty driveway. In his hurry, he'd completely forgotten to shut off his car and take out the key. Jesus Christ, thinks John, as he walks back into the house, can this get any worse? He picks up the kitchen phone.

"Well," says John, to the sergeant who is still waiting on the line, "I hope you're happy. While we were upstairs talking, someone stole my car. What are you going to do about that?"

"Darn, that's a shame," replies the sergeant. "I don't suppose you got any witnesses, do you?"

BONUS SNARK: You know, I'll just bet some of you are thinking, "Hey, that's not fair. You're deliberately making up dialogue that makes John Q. look like a complete idiot." No, I'm not. I don't have to:

... Now, with equal certainty, a similar group asserts that we can close the book on the subject of the origin of life, even though none of us was there and what’s observable now – or even during Darwin’s time – is only a small fraction of what’s been observable over the history of the earth.

Supporters of creation science already look like morons. They don't need my help.

P.S. And a perky Canadian "G'day, eh?" to new visitors from "Respectful Insolence" and "Skeptico" and "One Good Move", and, yes, I'll have to update my blogroll one of these days.

P.P.S. Oh, and the folks from Pharyngula, too. And, yes, I am making fun of your stupid people. Deal with it.

JEEZUS! I'm used to getting, like, 130 visits a day, not 1200+, fer cryin' out loud! And now that you've all read this piece, the fact that's it's getting a link from the next Tangled Bank is kind of anticlimatic, isn't it? I guess I better write episode two now. Sheesh.


jedwards said...

that's a beauty. *dumbing down* the point for your Weaselboy readership are we?
-can't wait for part deux...

dAVE said...


Skeptico said...


btw, I am currently exchanging emails with Brian McNicoll, the guy who wrote the piece you link to at the end. He’s actually trying that “evolution isn’t science” argument with me.

I’m trying to get him to comment on my site, but so far he hasn’t.

Orac said...

Fantastic! It's one of those posts I wish I had thought of first!

GrrlScientist said...

Using this same logic, how do creationsists know that the world was created in the way that the bible describes? After all, no one was there to actually see it happening, so the biblical account is purely speculation, too. And, if creationists claim that "god" was there, well, how do they know this? No one was there to confirm that "god" was indeed there to create the universe and certainly "god" has every reason to lie about the details of such matters.


Niket said...

Because its supposed to be THE truth. One can perhaps argue with the truth, but one can't argue with THE truth. If you don't believe, you rot in hell.

Oh yes, you rot in hell because he is a loving and caring god.

Rockstar said...

Very entertaining, and so true! How often they must suspend their beliefs when it suits their needs!

GrrlScientist said...

Hrm. Thanks for clarifying that for me. I have decided I would like a little less "love" in my life, if this is what it means.


Anonymous said...

That's pretty damned funny. The problem I had with it was I'm at work and my boss was wondering why I was chuckling at my computer.
It's too bad that rude little pinhead Skeptico doesn't display the same cleverness and wit you do.

David Benson said...

Oops. I didn't really mean to log in as anonymous. I want Skeptico to know that I'm visiting these blogs to drub him at every opportunity.

CC said...

If you have issues with Skeptico, I'd rather you didn't bring it in here. Either do it at his blog or on your own. I don't need people starting pissing contests here.

Given how recently I found his blog, I quite like it so, if you're looking for moral support, you have seriously come to the wrong place.

Bill said...

OK, I thought I had the monopoly on creationist lampoons! Now, Canadians? Geeze Louise, we'll have the Irish making fun of us next.

Melly said...

This was one of the best written arguments I've ever read. Very good analogy, and very good presentation.
Thank you.

Anonymous said...

DNA strongly confirms the theory of evolution. If there exculpatory DNA evidence in the murder trial of a creationist, I wonder how many nanoseconds it would take for the accused to embrace the science?

arc_legion said...

"Using this same logic, how do creationsists know that the world was created in the way that the bible describes?"

Seems they're pressing that religion and science are alike. Obviously they aren't too concerned about the facts, or reading into their own statements. Dumb the crowds and create potential converts, furthering political influence.

Joseph said...

I thought I'd mention that circumstantial evidence is not permitted in capital cases in Jewish religious courts. Come to think of it, Orthodox Jewish apologetics lean on the claim of direct observation of the giving of the Ten Commandments.

J95 said...

Excellent post!

plover said...

There was a PBS series on evolution some years back which, during a segment on creationist attacks, showed a meeting led by Hovind or some similar wacko where he led his audience in repeating his suggested answer to evolution proponents: "Were you there?"

CC said...

"Were you there?"

I think you're referring to Ken Ham, whose claim to fame (well, besides being insufferably stupid) is that he encourages students to politely challenge their high school science teachers by asking that very question. A sort of (heh heh) "respectful insolence", as it were.

Feel free to Google on a combination of "ken ham" and "were you there" to see that he still appears to be working this shtick.

CC said...

Followup to previous post -- from way back in 1998, there's the perfect description of Ham's strategy.

What a putz.

Anonymous said...

It scary that so many people can waste so much time "refuting" creationism without realising that it is FAITH BASED.

NO amount of evidence will sway the believers. Get this through your thick, closet-religious skulls and move on already.

The space on this otherwise fine website would be better used for less futile and meaningless acts.

Don said...

Was anyone present at the Creation described in Genesis? I wonder if it really happened.

caligata said...

one of ken ham's heaviest weapons against evolution is homophobia.

follow me: the bible says three things: the world was created, homosexuality is bad and abortion is bad.

now, if it turns out that the bible is wrong on evolution, then it may be wrong on homosexuality and abortion, also.

the successful refutation of the bible's autority on such matters poses a danger to our stranglehold on morality. for that reason, we must stifle the advance of evolution science because it threatens our position homosexuality and abortion.

logical fallacy, anyone?

Troublemaker said...

Hmmm..not sure which Bible you're reading, but mine doesn't appear to have any problem with abortion:

Their infants shall be dashed in pieces, and their women with child shall be ripped up.-- 13:16


15:16 Then Menahem smote Tiphsah, and all that were therein, and the coasts thereof from Tirzah: because they opened not to him, therefore he smote it; and all the women therein that were with child he ripped up.


This woman said unto me, Give thy son, that we may eat him to day, and we will eat my son tomorrow. So we boiled my son, and did eat him--6:28-29


Their children also shall be dashed to pieces before their eyes; their houses shall be spoiled, and their wives ravished.--13:16


Yea, though they bring forth, yet will I slay even the beloved fruit of their womb.-- 9:16

And more...oh, so much more...

( quotes from's%20not%20pro-life.htm and

caligata said...

i wasn't really interested in ham's factual case (such as it is), just in his use of prejudice and hatred to leverage his illogical argument against science.

that people like him are unconsciously and/or unselfconsciously ironic is true, but beside the point.

Omni said...


DaveB said...

Can anyone tell me why they think this is a relevant analogy?

"John" knew he had been robbed because he knew what the condition of his house was when he left. He had observed it. He knew the cappuccino machine was gone, because he had bought it and placed it where he wanted.

"Science" can't scientifically tell us what the fossil record means any more than it can tell us what things looked like before it was laid down.

A better analogy would be finding a deserted cabin in the woods, windows broken and empty inside, and trying to say what happened and what was missing.

CC said...

"John" knew he had been robbed because he knew what the condition of his house was when he left.

You're sure being robbed is the only possible explanation? Absolutely sure? No other possibility?

Perhaps the back door window was broken by the kids across the alley playing baseball who, after they broke it, let themselves in so they could retrieve the ball.

Perhaps his belongings were gone because his ex-wife still had a key, and they were her belongings, and the two of them were locked in a bitter divorce and she finally decided to take matters into her own hands and come by and reclaim only what was hers.

Perhaps the car was not stolen, but was repossessed by a repo man because of John's delinquency in his car payments.

You're absolutely sure, without a shred of doubt, that you can rule out all of the above?

DaveB said...

Well, you're changing the story just a bit, aren't you? You didn't mention any of those possibilities (divorce, delinquency) in the original story.

"His microwave is missing. As is his cappuccino machine -- his new cappuccino machine that was on back-order for three months. His heart sinking by the second, John stumbles through the kitchen into the living room to find more of the same.

Stereo system: gone. His beautiful, new plasma screen TV: gone. As are all of his CDs and DVDs, camera equipment, ... all gone."

It doesn't sound like it was "her stuff". And if John were delinquent with his car payments, might he not have considered that?

All of your possibilities exist in the present. We can find out if there is an ex-wife. We can find out if there is a delinquency.

But, you do have point about doubt. I'll be looking for that doubt when I read an article about the latest fossil find or visit a museum that claims such and such a fossil is n million years old, or that this fossil led to that fossil, or that this proves that. And so on.

Where is the: "You're sure ___________ is the only possible explanation? Absolutely sure? No other possibility?"

CC said...

You know, I could slowly and (almost certainly) painfully explain this parable, but I have a better idea.

99% of the people who read this seem to have got the point. You didn't. So just accept it and move on.

I don't expect everyone to appreciate or even understand everything I write, and that's life.

You don't see my point and I can live with that.

evan said...

But, you do have point about doubt. I'll be looking for that doubt when I read an article about the latest fossil find or visit a museum that claims such and such a fossil is n million years old, or that this fossil led to that fossil, or that this proves that. And so on.

Where is the: "You're sure ___________ is the only possible explanation? Absolutely sure? No other possibility?"

Wow, how clueless can you be? That is the quintessential difference between scientists and creationists. Creationists think in absolutes, scientists don't.

True scientists NEVER claim "this is the only possibility". They say "these are our conclusions based on this evidence". The stronger the evidence, the more firmly they tend to state the conclusion. However scientists and freethinkers are always open to the idea that new discoveries may turn their current ways of thinking upside-down. That's called being open-minded.

Creationists are quite the opposite. They claim to KNOW exactly what happened (the Good Book tells them so) and there is just no shifting their thinking, no matter what the evidence to the contrary.

daveb, your lack of even rudimentary knowledge of how scientists work is telling. I think it's sad that you can't even imagine a point of view that isn't as close-minded as your own.

Anonymous said...

Holy Gamoley!

If you were going to quote something silly from McNicoll, how could you pass this gem:

"Or the sad treatment of Galileo, a distinguished scientist who spent the last years of his life under what amounted to house arrest because he’d been convicted of heresy for asserting that the earth orbited the sun, rather than the other way around."

Am I the only one who remembers that Galileo wasn't persecuted by other scientists but by the Catholic Church? In fact wasn't John Paul the one who finally re-instated Galileo in the early 1990's?

Sorry, I have to say that while your post was entertaining, it didn't hold a candle humor-wise to McNicoll's.

Guy said...

As far as another explanation for John's stuff being missing, if we want to follow proper, rigorous, ID logic, I think we have to conclude that the pixies did it. No other explanation needed. Now THAT'S science...hmmm...I could get used to this ID much simpler than thinking.

guy said...

And while we're at it, when did god get around to telling people how he created the earth, seeing as he doesn't seem very fond of explaining himself. Or was he like one of those insufferable bastards who's built a kit-car or redone his rumpus room..."Yeah, we really like all the extra space the earth gives us. See that ocean? Took me hours, working at night. And don't you just love the light? I saw it and I thought, damn that's good!"

"I should be getting this down...does anyone have a tablet and a chisel? So...okay, heavens, earth, light, beasts, man...uh-huh...this is great stuff, big guy. What? You want to give me details? Uh..gee, god, maybe some other time...I've got a ...thing...over at the next temple..."

Anonymous said...

Very nice indeed. Thanks.

Gary Hurd

Anonymous said...

Isn't the Bible "indirect evidence" anyway? Or are some of theses creationists damn old. And Adam and Eve, having been created last, wouldn't be able to contribute a lot on the subject. Ah... I see. God told them. So God created the world. We know this for no other reason than God said so. In the book written by people who believed in God. And why do we believe this book? Because it's God'd Word (note capitals). How do we know that? Because it says so in the book. And why do we believe the book... (insert circular argument here). Now it's all so clear to me.

pvandck said...

Great story. Very funny.
Let's imagine I'm god, just for the duration of this diatribe. You see I've got this ever expanding space which I call my universe. At the moment its diameter, as far as I can see, is about the same as the distance across the United States. Being incredibly vain, my plan is to create some kind of 3d living image in my own likeness. I'm going to call it a "human". And being marginally eccentric I want to make its home so infinitessimally small that it can't be seen with the naked eye. This home I will call "Earth". What's more, only one third of this sub-atomic particle sized home will actually be inhabitable, and then with some difficulty. But look, I'm being modest. Actually I'm a bit of a megalomaniac. I'm not making just one minuscule image in my own likeness – I'm making billions of them and making them all live together on the same speck. The idea is that I wan't them to live by some rules that I've made up, but won't tell them. And they'll suffer all sorts of terrible afflictions and diseases, the cures for which only I know. They'll have to figure it all out for themselves. I'm also planning to give them a system of reproduction I've managed to cobble together, but at the moment it's a bit of a risky and excruciatingly painful business for the childbearing humans.
I've left out quite a few of the finer details but, in a nutshell, that's my grand plan. I think it's rather nifty and obviously the work of a high intelligence. But some of my friends tell me they think it's a really cruel idea and that I should be certified. I find their cynicism and lack of faith unbearable!

Anonymous said...

This reminds me of a button I saw recently. That cracks me up!

Kaa said...

Well done post, CC. Came here via Pharyngula and will be coming back. :)

Kram said...

Wow. The only post that made sense actually showed the error in the "parable" and that was instantly dismissed.

Perhaps a better analogy would be that John came home to find a time machine sitting in his lounge. He askes his scientist friends what they think and they say, "we know some of these parts exist aleady so it must have assembled itself". He askes his religious friends around and they say "Someone must have built it".

I am struggling to see why you aren't laughing at the scientists?