An evening with Professor Stuart Burgess

Last night i went to a talk given by Professor Stuart Burgess on biblical creationism. It was a public event at Winchester Guildhall, organised by the Hyde Street Chapel, our local congregation of hard-core young-earth creationists. Since anybody is welcome, seven atheists/humanists decided to go along. We weren’t there to cause a fuss, just to ask some questions.

Burgess is a professor of Engineering Design at Bristol university. If you read British Centre for Science Education summary of Stuart Burgess you might get a clue on why we wanted to be there. This guy has some seriously scary beliefs, and uses force and scare tactics to try to make other people believe them too.

The infiltration

After a quick drink and snack at the nearby pub, we went in separately and distributed ourselves throughout the audience. I sat next to a retired minister from Kent and immediately had something to talk about: my dad is a minister and my mum lives in Kent! :) I am sure the minister fully believed i was a Christian. Which meant i was privy to overhearing some interesting pre-talk discussions next to me, chuckling about how anyone could be so stupid to dismiss the beauty of creation. Yup, this crowd was hooked in from the start.

Someone took to the stage to welcome us and introduce the speaker. I smiled as i received a “special welcome to anyone who is here for the first time – we trust you’ll feel at home”.

The talk

Professor Stuart Burgess opened the talk: The Design Argument. Burgess outlined that design reveals a designer. As it does in mechanics, so it does in nature too.

The first slide was a technical diagram of an aeroplane, accompanied by the statement that an aeroplane is designed. We switched to a picture of a bird, then the bone structure. I think Burgess pointed out some kind of a similarity between the bird and the plane and instantly concluded that if an aeroplane is designed, then a bird must be too.

I don’t want to debunk everything, or this will get really long. But feel free to smash any of Burgess’ arguments to pieces in the comments below! :)

You don’t need a PhD to understand the design argument, even a child can understand it.

This quote is interesting in context of later comments that insulted the audience’s intelligence and claimed that you DO need a PhD to understand pretty much anything else.

On the day of judgement there will be no excuses. It’s no good saying that you listened to Dawkins.

Here we get a hint towards Burgess’ real soap box (judgement day) and an introduction to the nemesis of the talk, Richard Dawkins.

Dawkins knows nothing about design.

We were repeatedly told throughout the talk that Dawkins has no qualification to speak about design, never having designed anything. There was a lot of bragging that Burgess tried to cover up with modesty “I don’t really want to bring this up but … I’m a professor of engineering design and Dawkins isn’t” sort of thing.

You often hear from Dawkins, “That giraffe just evolved a long neck and it wasn’t very difficult”.

I don’t know Dawkins’ work well enough to comment, but i suspect this is a gross misrepresentation, a flippant throw-away comment to try and discredit Dawkins.

Having been told what a useless n00b Dawkins is, it was time for us to be impressed by some of Burgess’ designs. Cue complicated technical diagrams and mathematical equations along with casually insulting the intelligence of the audience.

This is something i invented and designed. I don’t expect you to understand it.

I would be very offended if anyone told me that something like that could evolve. It took me many months of hard work to design it.

I really wish Richard Dawkins would take my first year engineering course in design. He would learn that it doesn’t happen by chance.

We were treated to a video of Envisat (Environmental Satellite) going into orbit in 2002. Burgess contributed to the design of the auto-expanding solar array, and paused the video at a few points to draw our attention to its magnificent design. There was a wry quip that some people thought it was called Envisat because they were envious of it.

I am saddened so often to hear Dawkins say that design and creation is easy, that it just happens.

We moved on to another of Burgess’ favourite topics: the irreducible complexity of the human knee joint. This is mostly from a paper written in 1999 that has been heavily criticised. Bristol university list Burgess’ other publications, but omit this one.

It was made clear that we shouldn’t expect to understand any of it. A diagram showed two bones and four ligaments. It looked pretty simple to me, but apparently you’d have to be in your final year at university to appreciate it. I forget whether Burgess said you’d have to be studying biology or engineering.

Burgess tried to simplify it for us by demonstrating how 4 pieces of Meccano move when connected together. We were specifically told that the 4-bar compact hinge knee joint “cannot evolve”. It was on the slide and everything. It is Burgess’ belief that the elbow joint could evolve, but the knee joint cannot.

The human knee joint is too wonderful for Richard Dawkins to understand. He will just say it evolved because he thinks everything did.

Burgess successfully omitted all the criticisms of the last twelve years that explain how multiple characteristics can develop simultaneously, and still sticks to the misguided belief that evolution says characteristics develop one at a time.

We were shown a few slides that demonstrate 4-bar mechanisms in birds, fish and dragonflies. It seems that Burgess encourages engineering students to search for these marvellous 4-bar mechanisms in animals.

Burgess made a few more comments disregarding evolution but did not dwell on them. Some sarcastic remark about “evolutionary breakthroughs” triggered a sympathetic chuckle from the audience, who apparently were lapping it all up.

Everywhere i look, i see optimal design. Everything is optimal.

Even the human eye? Our nose and throat connection? The laryngeal nerve? Our sex organs right next to our waste disposal system? One hole for eating, drinking, talking and breathing? You’re telling us these are all optimal design?

All species of bird ALL have optimal wings, and that is true if you look back in the fossil records. Complete optimal design.

As one of my twitter followers pointed out: “Tell that to a penguin.”

Now we moved on to added beauty. A round column can hold up a building, but architects add features such as ridges and elaboration that add to the beauty without providing additional functionality. Apparently we see the same thing happening in nature.

Evolution cannot explain birdsong or the beauty of peacocks.

I know what Burgess is getting at: evolutionary theory has something in it about unnecessary features being lost. I suppose the answer to this lies in competition. The peahen chooses the most attractive peacock to mate with, and that’s how the genes for beauty get preserved and enhanced. I’m guessing here; i should look into this in more detail.

And then we were told we would need a degree in music to understand the beauty of bird song! This whole thing relies on me being too stupid to understand anything, therefore I have to rely on experts to tell me what to believe.

Sadly, millions of people read Dawkins’ books.

This triggered a reminder in me: when i was a Christian i was too scared to read anything by Dawkins. I think we were discouraged from it, though i can’t remember explicitly being told not to. It was more likely from comments like this. Personally, i think i was scared that i might learn something that would cause me to have doubts, and doubts are bad. You must always just believe.

Funnily enough, not knowing anything about Dawkins, i still had an opinion. I remember once, as a Christian, walking into a bookshop with another christian, seeing The God Delusion on promotion and commenting “I feel so sorry for Richard Dawkins”.

Burgess made a smug comparison of credentials in engineering and mechanical design. A table on screen listed Burgess’ credibility: over 100 publications, 30 years experience in the field, 10 years teaching experience and so on. Next to Burgess were Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, with great big triumphant zeroes in their columns. All this was covered with a lot of feigned embarrassment: “I apologise for comparing myself to Dawkins and Dennett … I didn’t really want to show you this …”

The table was carefully constrained to make Burgess look great, and make Dawkins and Dennett look like numpties. In fact it just points out that they specialise in different fields. You could construct a similar table constrained to experience in biology, and Burgess would look like the biggest n00b of them all.

Apparently Dawkins always criticised imperfect design but never suggests a better design. This was mentioned in reference to the human blind spot, something i happen to know a bit about, so i called Burgess out on it later.

In his latest book, The Greatest Show On Earth, Dawkins is more angry than he’s ever been.

Dawkins is trying to make everybody see the world in a very black way.

There were a few off-hand comments about atheists being angry, offensive, arrogant bullies. It was not specifically spelled out, but young ears in particular would have heard a character portrayal that will stick with them.

Right after those comments, we got a perfect example of Burgess being offensive, arrogant, and a bully!

I had a student come to me and say he thought he had designed a perpetual motion machine. I said to him, “You are a fresher! You have only been here for one week. You have unconscious ignorance. You don’t even know what your ignorances are. Come back to me in your final year and then we’ll see if you have designed a perpetual motion machine!”

I don’t think this was a one-off occurrence of belittling students. I can’t remember the specifics, but there was a definite “This is what i tell my students” to do with unconscious ignorance, and after a few years they might get conscious ignorance, followed by unconscious knowledge and maybe finally conscious knowledge.

I think you know where Richard Dawkins fits into that!

Sniggers from the audience. In case we didn’t get it, Burgess spelled it out.

Richard Dawkins doesn’t even know what he is ignorant of.

We were coming to the end and the pace picked up with ever more absurd statements.

I could find a billion arguments that prove God exists but they would be ignored because they are not the evidence science is looking for.

It got more religious in theme. Burgess started going on about The Curse, that we live in cursed times. Everything bad was blamed on this Curse, including sore throats (Burgess had a sore throat last night).

We came back to the original scare tactics, clearly Burgess’ real passion: Judgement Day. Again we were told that there would be no excuses on the day of judgement. You can’t stand before God and say you ignored all the evidence of creation.

People have to remember that they will be in trouble on the day of reckoning. We have a duty to inform our friends and neighbours.

And don’t worry if you don’t understand anything about logic or reasoning, or science at all:

The way you argue can be more important than what you’re saying. It’s a spiritual argument. God works in people’s hearts.

The questions

Due to Burgess’ cursed throat, there was only opportunity for three questions. I put my hand up straight away and talked about the human eye and the blind spot. Burgess had said that Dawkins never provides a better design, but i suggested that the octopus eye was an example of a better design. Their light receptors are in front of the nerves, whereas ours are behind. We have this gap where the nerves go through the retina to the brain, giving us this blind spot so our brain basically has to hallucinate to make up the picture. This can be shown with a few optical illusions. Octopuses, and all cephalopods, don’t have this design flaw. So my question: “Do you think God prefers octopuses to humans?”

Burgess said that octopuses are very different and have different requirements for vision. “I stand in front of you now looking in the audience and i’m not aware of any blind spot” (No, because our brains are pretty awesome at inventing what it thinks might be in the blind spot – see these blind spot tests and map your blind spot.)

Burgess ended the answer by stating that we can’t always understand why God designed something in a certain way, but it is always perfect.

Jon, another infiltrator, picked up the question and pushed Burgess a little further on the design of octopus eyes. A teenager in front of me whispered “Oooh, i hate him! He was here last time!”

Burgess allowed for one last question. And it was Clio, another infiltrator! Actually, i don’t think the Christians there had any questions; maybe they were just there to pick up creationist arguments to tell to their evolutionist friends.

Clio is a medical doctor and was successfully able to push back and forth with Burgess. I was delighted that Clio brought up the laryngeal nerve which i only learned about yesterday, and found fascinating. It provides a good indication that we evolved from something like a fish.

In fish, this nerve goes straight down from the brain, past the heart to the gills. In all mammals, the laryngeal nerve still exists, still loops round the heart, and comes back up the neck to the larynx (voice box). It enables us to talk and swallow. In giraffes, this nerve travels 4 metres from the brain, down the neck to the heart, then comes back up again to a point 2 inches from where it started. An intelligent designer would presumably have chosen the optimum 2 inches route rather than 4 metres. In designing you have the opportunity of starting from scratch. Evolution makes more sense for gradually stretching this nerve over the course of millennia.

Burgess had no answer to this, which is a shame because some people have made good points about this nerve also branching off to other organs, and suggesting that maybe the brain needs to know about what the stomach is doing in order to decide how to control the larynx. But Burgess, not being a biologist, merely made reference to “some people” who thought the laryngeal nerve was poorly designed but later realised it was perfectly designed after all! :D

After a few more questions from Clio about sickle-cell anaemia it all came back to simply blaming every bad thing on The Curse … and praising God for everything good! Whoopee! :D

Having sussed that some people in the audience were not christians, the host came back on stage and encouraged us to read our Bibles “and if you haven’t got one we’ll give you one!” :)

The infiltrator chats

The best part came at the end, where we talked to the people there. I firstly went to challenge Stuart Burgess on the billion proofs of God’s existence that would supposedly be ignored. I think that if there were even one undeniable proof that God exists, everyone would want to know about it. I’d certainly change my mind straight away if someone had indisputable evidence.

Burgess disagreed. “People don’t want to know” … “Essentially there are a billion proofs all around us and people just ignore them”. I tried to press my point even harder – “Because there are alternative explanations. I’m talking about something that provided absolute proof with no other explanation”. Burgess still thought that people would just ignore it.

I later got chatting with a group of people who admitted to having doubts, but just chose to trust God in all of it. I encouraged them to think in terms of knowledge vs belief: “You don’t know for a fact that God exists, but you believe God exists. I don’t know for a fact that God does not exist, but i don’t believe in God.”

We had a very nice conversation, very respectful of each other. It basically came to this: we had the same doubts and the same questions. They chose to go to their bibles, and i chose to go to science. I said i like things that can make predictions, that you can experiment and test, and multiple people can come to the same conclusions from the evidence.

Somebody told me there are no contradictions in the bible. I got the Skeptics Annotated Bible up on my tablet PC and turned to just the short list of contradictions in the bible. I can respect their faith and beliefs, but if they tell me the bible has no contradictions, i will tell them that it does. We just looked at the first question: the grandfather of Jesus. They looked it up on their Blackberry and said “Oh yeah! I never noticed that!” and then said something about the genealogy of Jesus being important. I suggested that maybe Matthew elaborated a little to put Jesus in the right family to match the prophecies.

I hope i showed that there are questions to be asked, and that atheists are not all angry, arrogant, offensive, bullying.

I was actually thanked for coming: so often it’s all one-sided and they found it interesting to have another point of view to consider. I know i would have loved it if something like that had happened when i was young and brainwashed, and having doubts. It would have been really good for me to see that someone can come to alternative explanations and be happy about it. That’s really the reason we were there.

The end

Now i have written far too much! But i hope if some skeptics find this blog post in the future they will be prepared for an evening with Stuart Burgess. I have no reason to suspect that the content matter will change much: it seems Burgess has been rehashing this stuff about the knee joint for the last twelve years and will continue to do so for a lot longer yet.

Now bring on the comments! Let’s see if i get an army of arrogant offensive bullying christians! :)

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