Argument by Incomprehensibility

There was a panel discussion at Florida State University yesterday on “After Dover”, featuring Eugenie Scott of the National Center for Science Education, Rob Pennock of Michigan State University, and Stephen Gey, Michael Ruse, and Joseph Travis of Florida State University. Patricia Deborah Blum moderated the discussion. (Thanks to “Vyoma” for the correction.)

There was a question and answer session at the end, and one of the questioners in particular captivated my attention. I have transcribed the exchange. The apparent goal of the questioner was to present such obtuse, obfuscated language as to leave the panelists too baffled to answer. However, he slipped up by using a stock phrase with known meaning, but in an inappropriate context.

“Q” stands for the questioner. I don’t know his name, otherwise I would certainly provide it for you. “ECS” stands for Eugenie C. Scott. “DB” stands for Deborah Blum.

Q: My question is for the two scientists on the panel. Um. Basically I’m wondering if you can discuss um the collision probability of basically uh let’s give something with a very high Stokes-Einstein diffusion coefficient, let’s say a hydrogen atom, two hydrogen atoms, um in a primordial soup on the order of ten to the ninth cubic kilometers and then extrapolate that to the complexity of three billion base pairs, two hundred thousand genes, forty thousand proteins, and discuss your calculation within the context of the entropic contribution to the free energy of this process.

ECS: What on earth are you talking about?


Q: Thank you.

ECS: This sounds very much like something from Kent Hovind’s web page. I mean, is this, uh, are you is your point that evo- that the origin of life is incredibly improbable, therefore…

Q: My point is that you know I’m not disputing uh you know I’m not disputing the evolution, but what I am disputing is that it doesn’t explain it still doesn’t explain the origin of the species.

ECS: Oh, what, the origin of species?

Q: Yes. I would like to see I I challenge…

ECS: What’s your understanding of species?

Q: I challenge any one of the scientists to…

ECS: Species are a dime a dozen, species are all over the place, why are you having a problem? Speciation theory is a whole separate component of evolutionary biology, and it explains how isolating mechanisms can arise can arise when genetic contact between populations is cut off.

Q: I’m not arguing that.

ECS: And that is how you get new species, through those kinds of…

DB: I’m not sure what your question is either. Can you either state it more clearly, or we’re going to move over here?

Q: I’ll take that you can’t answer it. (chuckles into the mic, apparently satisfied that he has gotten his desired outcome)

DB: No, I think that you didn’t ask it.

Q: Yes, I did.


DB: Sorry, we need to get you on the mic. This gentleman believes you’re asking what the origin of life is.

Q: I’m asking for someone to put a single-celled organism into a test tube, it doesn’t even have to be ten to the ninth cubic kilometers, the volume of the primordial soup, put it in a test tube and make a human out of it.

ECS: (laughs) I’m sorry, but that would not prove or disprove evolution in the slightest.

Even if we make the assumption that Q had an issue with abiogenesis, the origin of life, rather than the far more pedestrian origin of species, there are so many misconceptions and errors inherent in his statement that unravelling it seems a daunting task. Q did leave some clues, though, so I will have a look at those.

“Collision probability” is a clue that Q was aiming for an improbability argument, that something was too improbable to occur by whatever mechanism scientists are offering.

“Three billion base pairs” appears to be a specific reference to the size of either the human or chimpanzee genome. From this clue, I would surmise that Q’s difficulty is after all not the “origin of species”, but rather the “origin of THE species”, that is, human evolution in particular. That would also work well with the bizarre suggestion Q makes later concerning experimental design. There is a particular subgroup of antievolutionists who have no difficulty with evolution that occurs at rates far higher than evolutionary biologists might propose, so long as there is a clear divide between humans and the rest of creation. In fact, many young-earth creationists propose super-fast evolutionary divergence in order to offload Noah’s ark of too great a burden. If one permits extra-special-superfast evolution within kinds post-flood, then the ark doesn’t have to be very big or have much in the way of special features to support the sort of diversity that organisms extant into historical times would indicate.

But beyond that, I’m not sure that I can speak to anything further in Q’s discourse. There is a certain pathos to this young man, whose manner bespoke a certain arrogant self-assurance that was in complete juxtaposition to his obvious ignorance on these matters.

It looked liked he was reading off his question when he started in on numbers associated with genomes, though a Google search does not reveal a corresponding online source. If anyone knows of where he might have picked up some of that text, please let me know.

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Wesley R. Elsberry

Falconer. Interdisciplinary researcher: biology and computer science. Photographer. Husband. Christian. Activist.

12 thoughts on “Argument by Incomprehensibility

  • 2006/05/19 at 12:17 am

    Hi Wesley,

    What a garbled and stacked up question! Maybe if one encapsulated all the selective pressures that have ever existed into that giant test tube you could evolve something interesting… and maybe smarter than that person. I did find one reference that he might have been using:
    In this page about the book, What Darwin Didn’t Know, it refers to 100,000 human genes, which he may have doubled to get 200,000. That is like, 5-10 times the number we’ve found. The protein count seems to be approximate.
    It also sounds like they are suggesting that old canard of the second law of thermodynamics with the entropy part. It’s like making new words in German, just string together already crappy arguments and all of a sudden you have a new one! Molekuleskantformenkrishtaltubetoomanygenesgeshthermodynamicviolation!!

  • 2006/05/19 at 2:12 am

    For all we know this guy was a stooge set up for the mainstream evolutionists.

    So some guy asked a rambling question; this proves…what?

  • 2006/05/19 at 2:48 am

    This was funny. His whole game is given away when he says “I’ll take that you can’t answer it.”. Thanks for the humour.

  • 2006/05/19 at 3:34 am


    I was at the FSU panel. This might be a niggling point, but the moderator’s name was Deborah Blum, not Patricia.

    Also, for those who want to view archived video of the entire forum discussion, including this young nut-job’s efficient demonstration of his sheer ignorance, it’s online at

    I’d also like to note that there were a number of creationists in the audience, although only two of them made it to the microphones for the Q&A. While I can’t prove it, I found it very suspicious that a school bus was picking up passengers who were clearly not school-age after the forum ended. We have numerous evangelical churches here in Tallahassee, and it’s likely that one of them used this bus to ship a number of fundamentalists to the the forum. There were rumors of some kind of protest against it circulating, but there were no protestors outside. The event was very well-publicized locally.

  • 2006/05/19 at 5:45 am

    It sounds like “collision probability” was pulled from an astronomy text, the “Stokes-Einstein” from a physics text, “primordial soup” from a biochemistry text, and “entropic contribution” from a chemistry text.

    I appear to have discovered the source of Q’s “10^9 km3” of primordial soup:

    He is using a quote from:
    “Stephen J Mojzsis, Ramanarayanan Krishnamurthy, and Gustaf Arrhenius,
    Before RNA and After: Geophysical and Geochemical Constraints on Molecular Evolution
    Chapter 1 of The RNA World: Second Edition, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, 1999, p 7”

    In which the author is discussing the dilution of biomolecules in seawater. The funniest thing is how Q confuses this concept with collision probability of HYDROGEN atoms??

    Obviously, the kinetics of the reactions of abiogenesis are concentration-dependent, and that is why the substrate-bound theories (surface theories involving clays or FeS) are much more palatable to chemists. Still, Q and others must consider the relative diffusion of molecules in seawater, if we place them in proximity to one another underneath the wave action layer. Depending on thermal currents and such, the diffusion away from one another will not occur at a rate which justifies using even a fraction of the entire volume of the ocean as the dilution factor. It may take hours for the distance between the molecules to separate them in a volume as large as a few liters. Diffusion in liquids is much slower than in gases, as collisions are increased. Temperature is the major consideration, and deep water is damn cold. Thus, kinetic motion of the particles is quite slow, thus, diffusion is quite slow.

    It appears kinetics is what Q was going for here–if we have two atoms in some large volume, what is the likelihood they will collide to form a molecule? He wants us to then extrapolate this to the entire genome (as if that was how it was formed–by random collisions), I’m guessing he wants us to do it atom-by-atom for every molecule in 3 Gbp of DNA.

    It just sounds like this guy pulled random quotes from the internet, and didn’t know how to combine them to make a coherent point.

    He obviously missed that after replication is possible, selection occurs to non-randomly build genomes. He also missed that there is no need to form biomolecules atom-by-atom.

    Q missed a lot of things. Including his brain.

  • 2006/05/19 at 9:42 am

    For all we know this guy was a stooge set up for the mainstream evolutionists.

    So some guy asked a rambling question; this proves…what?

    Actually, I think there is something to that claim. I think that the professional antievolutionists and evolution deniers make a livelihood of fostering ignorance of the sort that makes people like Q into stooges, so that when they confidently trot out the “magic bullets” that the professionals peddle, they fall flat on their face.

    I tend to think of SciCre argumentation, and even some of the ID argumentation, as a search for a “magic bullet”. By this, I don’t mean it in the sense that Ehrlich did when searching for a cure for syphilis. I mean it in the sense of werewolf movies. There, the magic bullet is simply a silver slug that will destroy the lycanthrope on contact. Those wielding the magic bullet need invest no other effort in dealing with the lycanthrope, are not required to be pure in spirit, and certainly have no need to *understand* lycanthropy in any deep sense. Similarly, the SciCre “professionals” are engaged in the peddling of “magic bullets”, which retain their magic only so long as they aren’t used on real lycanthropes. The magic bullet users, as Scott relates, remain secure in their faith that the evil lycanthropes can be held at bay or vanquished, right up until the time the magic bullet is fired — and is found to have lost its virtue.

    Instead of magic bullets like “too little moon dust” or “materialistic philosophy”, more good would come of trying to understand what exactly evolutionary biology is. As it is, creationist belief has tended more and more to resemble evolutionary biology. In little more than a century and a half, we have seen a change from general adherence to the doctrine of special creation to a range of beliefs, at the most different from evolutionary biology, creation of each separate “kind” (which when defined at all, tends to be defined such that the evolutionist term “clade” comes close to fitting the concept), and at the least different, a belief in physical common descent but separate imbuement of spirit.

    I’d modify this previous statement by not quibbling over any difference between SciCre and ID argumentation, since further study has shown those to have a superset/subset relationship.

    What does this incident prove? To me, it shows that “level of confidence” does not equal “level of knowledge”. The question was not merely “rambling”; it was deeply incoherent. “Aping” as a term means copying behavior from observation. Q appears to have been “aping” what he thought of as scientific discourse without any apparent understanding of how it actually is conducted.

  • 2006/05/19 at 10:05 am

    As poorly posed as Q’s question was, it seems to me to have been an attempt at the ancient-and-thoroughly-discredited “Hurricane in a Junkyard” improbabiltity / incredulity attack on Abiogenesis. The basic argument goes a bit like this “Given [mind bogglingly huge seeming number] in [organism / macromolecule] and [mindboggling tiny seeming number] probability that its constituent [atoms / amino acids / nucleotides, etc] will ever collide and interact, then it follows [bizzare, numerous, and profound mathematical errors] that even after lots of time, [strawman caricature of abiogenesis and evolution] couldn’t possibly have produced even one!”
    That Q had to read this venerable piece of dreck off of a card to remember it doesn’t speak well to his intellect or his preparation. On the other hand, his not being able to recite it by rote seems hopeful; apparently his programming isn’t complete, and education may yet have a chance. By the way, this type of argument is standard YEC fare, and has been thoroughy demolished – see and

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  • 2006/05/20 at 8:08 pm

    I didn’t see any attempt to “clarify the issues”. Did anyone else see an attempt to “clarify” any “issue” on the part of Q in the transcript?

    Creationist antievolution in all of its many guises relies upon falsehoods. Telling falsehoods is evil. As Blaise Pascal said, “The abuse of truth should be as much punished as the introduction of falsehood.”

    I hope that is clear enough for “Darwiniana”.

    In Q’s particular case, he was peddling the falsehood that his question made sense and was beyond the capacity of the panel to effectively respond to.

  • 2006/05/23 at 8:21 am

    This is WAAAY too funny! Wait until I tell the folks!!

    Vyoma said:
    “While I can’t prove it, I found it very suspicious that a school bus was picking up passengers who were clearly not school-age after the forum ended. We have numerous evangelical churches here in Tallahassee, and it’s likely that one of them used this bus to ship a number of fundamentalists to the the forum.”

    I was on that bus, unless there was another one. The occupants (including me) were members of the University Research Magazine Association (URMA). URMA was a co-sponsor of the Vigil After Dover, which was scheduled to coincide with our annual meeting. Eugenie Scott hung out with us on Thursday evening.

  • 2006/05/23 at 11:02 am

    . . . and about the bus, if we had been from one of the fundamentalist megachurches, the dang bus would have been air conditioned.

    By the way, Genie Scott can sing lead on “Farther Along” with the best of ’em, knows all the words to that and any other gospel song you want to mention.

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