On the Till-Hovind Debate
Prof. Karen E. Bartelt, Ph.D.
On Sept. 11, 1993, Kent Hovind, a "creation-scientist[sic]-evangelist" from Pensacola, Florida, and Farrell Till, English professor and editor of The Skeptical Review, met in public debate at Faith Baptist Church in Pekin, IL. Although the topic of the debate was "The Genesis story of the flood is scientifically accurate in all details", Hovind distributed to the audience a handout ("Debate #7") that was a generalized attack on evolution. The paper warned the audience to watch for "desperate measures" and "illogical ideas" that the evolutionist could be expected to use during the debate. Among other things, the paper listed ad hominem arguments, ridicule and scorn, citation of majority opinion, and various appeals to scholarship. Additionally, the paper stated that the evolutionist would "change the subject to avoid answering the opponent's questions and comments".
The debate was supposed to be comprised of a 30-minute opening statement each, 20 minutes of rebuttal each, and a question-and-answer period (questions sent in by the audience).
Hovind's opening statement was nothing but his well-traveled slide show. He opened by stating that all evolutionists believe that anyone who is a Bible-believing Christian is ignorant.
Some other highlights: An 11-foot skeleton has been found in a coal mine in West Virginia - proof positive that pre-flood humans were bigger (so where is this skeleton now, Kent?); the geologic column doesn't exist anywhere in the world; Noah's ark contained only babies, and only single "kinds". There was a relatively new (for me, at least) twist - the 23.5 degree tilt of the earth happened during the flood. A giant "ice meteor" which, because of its low temperature was magnetic, banged into the North Pole, dropped mammoths in their tracks, the vapor canopy collapsed, and the earth was flooded to a depth of 12,000 ft.
As Dave Barry says, "I am not making this up". The presentation was rapid-fire, leaving no time for the audience to digest a topic before the next slide was flashed. Indeed, for someone who told the Peoria Journal Star that he does the show 700 times a year, the presentation was unpolished, and the slides were of poor quality.
Farrell Till accurately defined science as being outside the realm of the supernatural. He spoke of the polystrate Specimen Ridge trees in Yellowstone Park as evidence of multiple volcanic burials and attacked the seaworthiness of the ark.
The audience was asked to consider how probable it was for a lone man or small group to build a huge ark without modern tools. All-wooden ships have a maximum length far below the purported length of the ark (indeed, this was one reason that the shipbuilding industry turned to steel), and the audience was encouraged to search the references Till provided concerning shipbuilding.
Till asked if such a ship did manage to stay afloat, how did the cargo survive the rough seas described by other creationists? How did the crew handle the 40 tons of manure produced by an elephant in a year? Finally, if, as Hovind asserted, only a few "kinds" were present on the Ark, then Hovind must also admit that all forms of bovids, from bison to cattle to deer, evolved rapidly after the flood - something no "evolutionist" would ever state.
Hovind's rebuttal was to place God in the same bracket as electrons and gravity - natural particles/forces which cannot be seen, either! (Never mind that the effects of electrons and gravity are easily observed). He stated, without evidence, that humans "back then" were not only bigger and longer-lived, but had higher IQs. Thus they could build the pyramids, a feat we humans of today could never accomplish. (Two points here. Apparently not very many skeletons/mummies have been found associated with the great pyramids - grave robbery took its toll on archaeological evidence. However, those that have been recovered are normal-to-small-sized humans. Second, no archaeologist has ever referred to water damage either inside or on the outside of the pyramids).
Hovind stated that the Specimen Ridge trees have no roots (flatly false - roots are clearly visible in photos of the trees). God brought the animals to Noah and took care of all the little incidentals (like tons of manure). Hovind encouraged the audience to be polite to Till because after all, "He is not the enemy, he just works for him". Hovind admitted he couldn't prove most of his assertions, but that Till could not, either. Admitting that, one is forced to wonder why he agreed to debate the affirmative in the first place!
Till pressed the issue that since there were seven pairs of each type of clean animal on the ark, that meant 14 giraffes slopping about the ark on stormy seas, like it or not. How did they survive? He pointed out that the largest pyramids are in the Americas, not Egypt, and even according to Hovind's chronology must, therefore, be "post-flood". He closed by pointing that Hovind's assumptions - a vapor canopy, a level antediluvian earth, smarter people, were not supported by evidence.
The audience was asked to submit written questions for the final session.
Concerning a question on missing links, Hovind stated that "Lucy" was not a missing link at all but a chimp that was assembled from bones found at sites miles apart. He said, "I wish I could have seen the train that hit that chimp". Of course, it is well known that Lucy was recovered over about 50 square meters of ground.
Hovind was asked what the anteaters ate the day the ark landed. He replied that they were vegetarians - pre-flood and immediately post flood - and that special diets were not necessary then or now. Even now "Pandas don't eat just bamboo. They love meat. Ask any zookeeper". Perhaps that is why pandas are doing so well in the wild right now! Till replied that you can't have generalist animals on the one hand, and then, on the other hand, argue that the yucca plant and pronuba moth were obviously created for each other.
Till pointed out that it was an anachronism that the ark would have been sealed with pitch, because this is obviously a coal (post-flood) by-product. Hovind stated the word "pitch" could have meant any oil - corn oil, for instance. I will have to pass this new use for corn oil on to the Illinois Department of Agriculture - let's grease up those boat bottoms. Till stood by the translation of the Hebrew word; it had to be a petroleum product.
Hovind was taken aback by my question on the tremendous amount of heat that would have been released by 40 days and 40 nights of rain (Soroka and Nelson's J. Geol. Ed. article). He talked instead about craters being evidence for an "ice meteor" and said this was all on faith. He changed the subject! Till, who had the article in hand expanded on the problem and made the reference available to the audience.
As I reread Hovind's handout, it became clear to me that Hovind is his own best example of "illogical ideas" and "improper tactics". He certainly resorted to an ad hominem argument and "ridicule and scorn" when he implied that Till worked for the devil, or the blanket statement that evolutionists considered "Bible-believing Christians" to be ignorant. He changed the subject frequently when backed into a corner, and had to resort to "It's all on faith" - essentially falling back on the "majority opinion" in the church at the time.
And although his academic credentials remain somewhat of a mystery (he claims B.S., M.S., and Ph.D. degrees in education but has never said from where), it was clear that with his breathless presentation, his intention was to wow the audience with largely unsubstantiated "facts" so that they would see him as the authority, and "see his diploma".
Was anyone swayed? Unlikely. The bulk of the audience was clearly unable to understand how science differs from the supernatural. They became defensive and irritated whenever Till mentioned, "...but it's just not science". They were for the most part quiet, although a few choruses of "Amens" resounded when they felt Hovind had made a point.
The moderator/minister is to be complemented. He was polite to both parties and clearly kept a lid on what could have been a volatile situation.
[Dr. Bartelt is an assistant professor of chemistry at Eureka (Illinois) College. Reprinted from The Skeptical Review (Winter, 1993-94), with revisions by the author in February 1994.]