I was intrigued by Joseph Mastropaolo's suggested contest, which he charaterizes as a way of "improving the quality of arguments between creationists and evolutionists". His characterization, of course, immediately begins to set out the agenda by:
- Assuming that there is an argument to be had (i.e. that creation myths and the sciences of biology, zoology, paleontology, morphology, genetics, ethology, botany, geology - just to name a few - are in some way comparable).
- Confusing (or misusing?) the two very different meanings of the word argument [an exchange of divergent views vs. reasoning from a set of accepted premises in support of an idea] to finesse the fiction that a comparison can be made.
- Assuming that the quality of the resulting vacuous comparison is poor (in a sense other than scientists and creationists tend to be dismissive of each other). Perhaps, meaning that both sides could improve the nature of the resulting political debate ... ?
Clearly, no real scientist with a reputation would take up such a laughably, and obviously engineered, debate. To paraphrase Richard Dawkin's oft-repeated phrase: "That would look great on Mastropaolo's resumé, not so great on mine."
For someone like me, however, it's an itch I can't scratch.
While I have no intention of merely contacting Mastropaolo in order to take up his offer - given the obvious real agenda - I am concerned that, left unanswered, Mastropaolo's challenge could begin to gain political currency simply by standing unanswered. An obvious parallel is James Randi's $1M Challenge. The longer the challenge stands, the more easy it is for creationists to point to it as 'evidence' that scientists are frightened to take them on.
While I'm not familiar with the rules and procedures of California's alternative dispute resolution model known as a mini-trial, it seems likely that this format is designed for civil litigation - i.e. the bar for testing the quality of evidence is set low, compared to that for a criminal case, and possibly even low when compared to a full civil hearing.
In addition, Mastropaulo has stated publicly that the mini-trial would follow this format:
- Mastropaolo [will] present the argument in favor of a literal interpretation of the creation story
- A ... scientist [will] argue that a non-literal interpretation of Genesis is more scientific
This appears to mean, on the face of it, that the focus of the mini-trial will be on the truth or otherwise of the Book of Genesis. It is diffficult to see how that equates to improving the argument that Mastropaulo has pretended exists between science and creationism as, by this format, scientists would already be excluded from presenting any actual science.
Mastropaolo makes this clearer by adding: "Evolutionists (his name for scientists) are not stupid people ... they are bright enough to know there is no scientific evidence they can give in a minitrial [sic]". If the mini-trial's stated objective is only to judge the truth or otherwise of the Book of Genesis then there is, of course, evidence from anthropology, archeology, bible studies, comparative literature, and so on. Is Mastropaolo saying that such evidence is excluded because it is not, by his definition, scientific? If so, then the proposed 'trial' is, straightforwardly, fixed.
Mastropaolo has also suggested that a single judge preside, and decide. How to interpret this idea? Having given it some thought my only conclusion is that deciding on a judge becomes a most vexed question (even assuming that an available judge can be found). Despite Mastropaulo's obvious gift for dissembling, I am reluctant to conclude a more sinister objective - though the possibilities are obvious when we consider that Mastropaulo's idea gains strength from merely existing unchallenged ...
According to reports: Mastropaolo has also stated that the contest rules on evidence are that it must be scientific, which means it is "objective, valid, reliable and calibrated". I am no scientist, I have some scientific training but I have never engaged in original research. I do, however, know that science weighs evidence differently - according to discipline. I give that caveat before I jump in with the following:
- Why 'reliable'? This seems to me to be another Mastropaolo trick as the right measure should surely be verifiable.
- Why 'calibrated'? It occurs to me that all forms of measurement use abitrary scales and that rounding is inescapable and often subjective. While that means there are no absolute [not subject to any limitation, unconditionally correct] measures that does not mean that there are no objective measures. In addition evidence is not calibrated, instruments used to measure evidence are calibrated (If I remember correctly, usually using some form of trigonometry). Is Mastropaulo planning an attack via in infinitesimally small god moving between rounding errors while denying the existence of mathematics?
- Why 'valid'? This does seem to be a lower bar to clear than the usual logical and coherent. My suggestion, for what its worth, is that without a far more comprehensive description - in the contest rules - of what constitutes a logical and consistent case means the door will be left open for inferences that, while not inconsistent or falafious in themselves, could lead to false conclusions being set before the mini-trial as valid arguments in the legal sense).
Finally, Mastropaulo tells us why he believes his challenge will not be taken up. He claims: Evolution cannot be proved scientifically.
This is obviously a come-on. Evolution is obviously true to anyone who has taken the time to view the facts. Even though I tell myself that Mastropaulo is a creationist, and therefore gunning for evolutionary theory, I fall for it every time I read it.
Mastropaulo twists the knife he has thrust into the back of Truth with this little titbit: "It turns out that there is nothing in the Universe [that] is evolving, everything is devolving, everything is going in the opposite direction".
I have hatched a plan.
While we cannot simply accept Mastropaulo's plan, we can announce an opposing plan - and publicly invite him to take part.
All we have to do is take Mastropaulo's idea and fix the above problems first.
What do you all think of this idea?
If enough of you like this, I'd be happy to write up a proper challenge with enough wiggle room to bait the hook for Mastropaulo - or indeed any other creationist.
Also, how do we get this idea off the ground?
I could not care less about the $10,000 - but would shaming Mastropaulo into participating for the sake of truth be a good enough draw? In addition Mastropaulo is in California (US) and I'm in London (GB), i.e. on opposite sides of the Planet.
Does anyone have a public link to a set of rules for a California mini-trial (e.g. Bar Association)?
All ideas welcome!