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April 12, 2012

Adventures into Creationism: Russ Miller

As a college student, I spend most of my time doing math, physics, and more math. Every once and while, I am able to break free from the daily routine. Recently, when I did, what did I find but that a creationist, Russ Miller, was speaking on campus. I am huge promoter of hearing all sides of a debate, so I felt obliged to go. I went with a group of people who all are large supporters of science and reason, though I'm not sure we truly knew what we were getting ourselves into.

The talk started off with a local pastor introducing Mr. Miller and asking everyone to have an open mind. Not a bad start. Then Miller stepped up to the podium. He started by explaining how both creationism and "Darwinism" are both religious beliefs. In fact, from what I understood, by Mr. Miller's definition of a religious belief it is impossible not to have a religious belief. Of course, using such a broad definition fails to acknowledge that religious beliefs are not formed in the same way as scientific views. Religious views are centered on faith, while science works on constantly adjusting its views to fit the evidence at hand. To call them equivalent forms of knowledge does both a disservice.

What followed after that, I can really only describe as a maelstrom of bad evidence, bad arguments, and attacks on science. It would be impossible to recount every point he made and why it's wrong, so here are some highlights. He stated that fault lines are where the water shot out of the Earth at the start of Noah's flood. As if to try and top that, it was during this flood that all of the layers of strata that form such iconic beds as the Grand Canyon were laid down, all fossils formed, and all those sediments hardened into sandstone. After all this sandstone was formed, the Grand Canyon was cut out as the flood waters receded.

Next up was carbon 14 (C14). Carbon 14 is an unstable isotope of carbon with a half life that is about 5,730 years. C14 is used by scientists to date organic materials between about 11,000 and 50,000 years old. Russ postulated that after millions of years we should not expect any detectable amount of carbon 14 left in any samples we take and I think this is a good rule of thumb. Of course, nature is always a little more subtle and complex. The two main examples Mr. Miller used were carbon 14 in coal beds and in diamonds. As it turns out we do find noticeable amounts of C14 in some coal beds, particularly ones near large amounts of radioactive rocks. The reason these beds still have C14 in them is that as the surrounding rock decays the coal is bombarded by radiation producing the mysterious C14. For diamonds, the answer is actually is a little simpler. Usually only organic materials are tested for C14, so to even do this test they likely had to use higher temperatures to get the diamond to combust. Higher temperatures increases the amount of C14 you create just by testing a sample, in essence contaminating your result.

So after having bad philosophical arguments and using bad evidence to support his view of creation the next step was to attack legitimate science. His main focus was paleontology as it provides us with some of the most direct evidence of evolution. He explained how Piltdown man and Nebraska man were both hoaxes, a true statement. The problem is that he then didn't even pause to look at the myriad of hominid specimens that are not hoaxes. In an attempt to show how no species has ever evolved, he also made the claim that the famous (and awesome) transitional fossil Tiktaalik is really just a coelacanth. Personally I think the images of the two species are enough to show how ridiculous this is.
Image Credit: Nobu Tamura via Wikipedia
Image credit: Ballista via Wikipedia

To conclude his talk Mr. Miller simply reiterated his main points and walked off. There was no questions, no chance for clarification, or for dissenting opinions to be heard. This act alone I think encapsulated perfectly what Russ Miller was all about. He is not interested in engaging in a quest for the truth because he already has it. He wants to tell you what he thinks and if you disagree, well then he knows where you will go when you die. He uses the science when it is convenient and ignores it when its not.

Admitting you might be wrong is humility. Looking at the evidence that doesn't support your ideas is intellectual honestly. Taking questions after a talk is a sign of respect for your audience. Russ Miller's actions speak for themselves.