Me and Mr. Ham
Update: Sunday, October 3, 2004: One of my readers has pointed out to me that there is a bit more to the Dawkins story, quoted in this post, than I realized. Have a look at this post from Ed Brayton's blog. I don't entirely agree with the conclusions Ed draws, but it does show that Dawkins was not exactly blameless in what happened.
I had my own run-in with Ken Ham several years ago. I attended a homeschooler's conference in Wichita, KS at which he was the keynote speaker (which tells you something about the home schooling community in Kansas). After his talk, which consisted almost entirely of smears against scientists and distortions of the facts of elementary biology (interrupted periodically by the appreciative cheers of the audience), a group of audience members went up on stage to ask him questions (there was no formal Q&A session). After mentally determining the fastest route to the exit, I decided to go up on stage as well.
One of the main themes of Ham's talk was that biologists have no explanation for how information growth can occur in the course of evolution. The idea is that evolution supposedly began with simple bacteria possessing small genomes, and later produced humans with big genomes. So where did all of that extra genetic information come from? The argument is usually fleshed out with a lot of biology jargon that's guaranteed to impress ignorant audiences.
This question might be cute coming from a first-year biology major, but from someone passing himself off as an expert in these things it's just silly. There are quite a few natural mechanisms that can lead to information growth, such as duplication with subsequent divergence, lateral gene transfer, symbiosis, and polyploidy. The first one has probably been the most important in evolution since the Cambrian, the next two were especially important in the early stages of evolution, while the fourth occurs primarily in plants.
During his talk Ham showed the now infamous video of Oxford biologist Richard Dawkins “failing” to answer this question (about information growth in the genome). For those not familiar with this, here's Dawkins' brief description of the experience:
In September 1997, I allowed an Australian film crew into my house in Oxford without realising that their purpose was creationist propaganda. In the course of a suspiciously amateurish interview, they issued a truculent challenge to me to “give an example of a genetic mutation or an evolutionary process which can be seen to increase the information in the genome.” It is the kind of question only a creationist would ask in that way, and it was at this point I tumbled to the fact that I had been duped into granting an interview to creationists - a thing I normally don't do, for good reasons. In my anger I refused to discuss the question further, and told them to stop the camera. However, I eventually withdrew my peremptory termination of the interview as a whole. This was solely because they pleaded with me that they had come all the way from Australia specifically in order to interview me. Even if this was a considerable exaggeration, it seemed, on reflection, ungenerous to tear up the legal release form and throw them out. I therefore relented.
My generosity was rewarded in a fashion that anyone familiar with fundamentalist tactics might have predicted. When I eventually saw the film a year later, I found that it had been edited to give the false impression that I was incapable of answering the question about information content. In fairness, this may not have been quite as intentionally deceitful as it sounds. You have to understand that these people really believe that their question cannot be answered! Pathetic as it sounds, their entire journey from Australia seems to have been a quest to film an evolutionist failing to answer it.
The quote above comes from this article, in which Dawkins goes on to address the question of information growth in some detail (focussing on duplication and divergence).
Anyway, when it came to be my turn I very politely asked, in front of a group of about thirty or more audience members, why he persisted in repeating this charge even after biologists had responded to it many times. I rattled off several mechanisms by which information could increase and asked why he had not mentioned them in his talk. I finished by pointing out that since most of Dawkins' books address, at least indirectly, the subject of information growth, it was rather unfair to make it appear that he had no answer to the question.
Ham stuttered a bit and finally suggested I walk over to the book exhibit and pick up a copy of the book In the Beginning was Information by Werner Gitt, where I would find answers to all my questions. I politely thanked him for the suggestion and walked away. Happily, quite a few of the other audience members came with me and asked me some follow-up questions. I was more than happy to answer them.
Feeling masochistic I bought and skimmed through Gitt's book. It parroted the same bogus charges Ham had made in his talk, but made no mention of any of the standard mechanisms I mentioned previously. I decided it might be fun to go another round with Mr. Ham.
My chance came as I saw Ham by himself walking across the convention floor. I fell into step next to him and politely showed him that I had bought Gitt's book, as he had suggested. I then pointed out that Gitt makes no mention of any the standard mechanisms biologists cite to explain information growth. Since these mechanisms figure prominently in any textbook on genetics, it seemed like poor form for Gitt to not even address them in the course of a two hundred page book.
Ham spent a lot of time in his talk trying to explain to his adoring audience why the secular world so often refuses to take the young-Earth viewpoint seriously. Ham's answer had a lot to do with people rebelling against God and preferring to wallow in sin. I suggested that perhaps the real reason the secular world doesn't take people like him seriously is that he doesn't bother to get his facts straight before shooting off his mouth. I suggested this very politely, of course.
It was just the two of us at this point so I guess he decided the gloves were off. He called me arrogant and suggested I change my attitude. I told him my attitude had nothing to do with the fact that he hadn't the faintest idea what he was talking about. Then I asked him if he felt any shame in facing his audiences and telling them bald-faced lies. He grunted and walked away.
Time well spent, I thought.