Last winter I received an email from a producer of a BBC reality series, “Conspiracy Road Trip.” The premise of the series is that the host (Andrew Maxwell, a British comedian) travels with five young believers in some crazy idea, taking them to key locations and putting them in front of evidence that challenges their beliefs. They had already done episodes on UFO nuts, the 7/7 bombings in London, and 9/11 Truthers, so naturally the next group of crazies in line were the creationists. The producer explained that he wanted me and a number of other scientists to meet at important locations (I was to film on the rim of the Grand Canyon) and show these creationists the actual scientific evidence, and let them squirm in front of the cameras. After I checked around to make sure it wasn’t some stealth creationist documentary like Ben Stein’s pathetic “Expelled” (which ambushed its subjects like Michael Shermer, Eugenie Scott, P.Z. Myers, and Richard Dawkins under false pretenses), I agreed to travel out there to meet them. Even though I’ve battled creationists in debates and TV panels before, and done documentaries in the field on prehistoric animals, I’d never done something that combined the two. I’ve written and argued enough with creationists to know them and their arguments (and the scientific reality) down pat. Still, I prepared for anything. I even brought along a bunch of real fossils to pass around, and put my key diagrams on a series of huge laminated flip charts.
So in mid-April 2012, they flew me out to Vegas, where the first glitch occurred: they told me to go to the wrong hotel, and it took until later that evening before I reached the right one. Once I did so, I went out to a late dinner with the producer, who looked over my materials, and walked me through his plans for filming. He wanted to hold off my confrontation with them until the cameras were rolling, so he asked me to try to avoid them at breakfast in our hotel that morning. This was nearly impossible since they were only group at breakfast, and one of them recognized me while we waited in the airport. Then we flew out of Henderson, Nevada, airport on small prop planes to see the entire Grand Canyon from the air (an amazing flight that I had never done before). The five creationists and Andrew Maxwell, plus the director and two cameramen were in one plane, while the producer and another camerawoman were in a smaller plane with me. After landing on the South Rim airport, the five creationists then rode in a mini-bus to lunch at Grand Canyon Village (where they tried to chat me up again), then we all went out to Lipan Point on the South Rim, one of the best places for an unobstructed view of the eastern Grand Canyon with no fences and almost no crowds or background noise. After they got a chance to glimpse over the rim, the film crew set me up back to the Canyon and began our first segment.
As I began my spiel for the cameras (I come in at about 7:50 into the show), I tried to be very straightforward and clear about the rules of science, why science must reject supernatural events as untestable, why the principles of geology require huge amounts of time to explain things like the great angular unconformity at the base of the Grand Canyon (which cannot be explained by a single flood event), why each layer has clues in it that refute the Noah’s flood model (like mud cracks indicating drying, or millions of cubic km of clean limestone full of delicate fossils in life position that cannot be produced in turbulent muddy flood waters, or giant crossbeds that only form under sand dunes, not water flow). I even pulled out my small collection of representative fossils to show that the Grand Canyon records the changes in fossils through time. I pointed out that although “flood geology” was widely believed before 1800, by 1840 devout British creationist geologists themselves rejected it because the rock record clearly does NOT support the notion of Noah’s flood. Only one of the five, a guy named Phil (no last names were given) was familiar with all the standard “flood geology” interpretations of the Grand Canyon by the likes of Steven Austin and John Woodmorappe. Naturally he tried to argue with me about arcane points that only he and I knew about (driving the producer and director crazy). The only other one to speak out was a tall Muslim creationist named Abdul, who was very loud and assertive and spent most of his time shouting down others, and arguing that science is crap (not a very good way to convince people). The two women and the other guy were almost silent the whole day, with nothing much to contribute. We filmed for better than an hour before the producer and director had had enough of our arguing in circles, then we hopped into our vehicles and headed for our next stop.
For the rest of this scenic and geologically amazing drive, I had originally thought about giving them a broader overview of the wonders of the geology of the Colorado Plateau from places like the Echo Cliffs monocline, or the Navajo Sandstone dune crossbeds (as I long did for my college geology classes). After our first encounter, I could see that it was pointless. Instead, the producer had the clever idea to take them to Horseshoe Bend, just south of our hotel in Page, Arizona. Here one can see an example of huge river meanders (normally formed near the mouth of a river, where the gradient is very low and the river cuts sideways rather than downward). These meanders are then incised into deep canyons like the Grand Canyon (or an even better example, the Goosenecks of the San Juan River in Utah). Steep-walled canyons like these are indicative of rapid uplift far above sea level, and to a geologist, they only make sense if the Colorado Plateau was once near sea level (as many lines of evidence now support), then later uplifted to cause sea-level river meanders to carve down into hard bedrock. Whatever you think of these features, they are NOT consistent with the rapid draining of water from the earth’s surface after Noah’s flood, the mechanism that creationists claim cut the Grand Canyon. We set up a very simple demonstration where we simulated the draining of the floodwaters with a bucket of water running down slope. Although our sand substrate was pretty porous and most the water soaked in, you could still see the straight stream channels that form any time river waters are moving rapidly downslope during a flood. What’s more, it was clear that there was no way such a flood could form the broad lazy meander beds we saw before us.
Sure enough, the producer was right: this demonstration was very effective, and caught the smug Phil and others completely flat-footed, since it was simple laws of physics and geomorphology in action. As often happens, creationists were unable to answer this puzzle, since they have no real understanding or first-hand experience in geology, but simply have memorized ad hoc explanations for specific areas like the Grand Canyon. Rather than admitting they didn’t have the answer, Phil just argued that he was sure there was a creationist answer to this puzzle. Nevertheless, Andrew Maxwell kept at them and made them confess that they couldn’t deny basic physics.
By the time we finished filming this segment, it was nearly dark, so they drove us to our hotel, let us loose for dinner, and let us wash up. The producer and I had once talked about the possibility of taking them out stargazing at a Lake Powell campground with a telescope, so I could explain the Big Bang to them, but that idea was dropped after the exhausting day of flying and filming and arguing. I went to dinner with the director, the producer, and evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne of the University of Chicago (who gives his own version of the experience on his website, www.whyevolutionistrue.com), who was to meet with them the next morning on a houseboat on Lake Powell and talk about the problem with the Noah’s ark explanation. I warned Jerry about what he was likely to get from Phil and Abdul, so he was not surprised like I was (as I was the first one to face them). I heard later that they were particularly obnoxious to Jerry, and he had a big challenge keeping his tone friendly and non-hostile at their intransigence and provocations. Meanwhile, I flew out the next morning on a long aerial trek from Page to Vegas to Phoenix to home. (If the British secretary who booked the flights had let me do it, I’d have flown from Page to Vegas and then Southwest Airlines straight home). I later heard from other scientists about how their segments went, but really didn’t know what to expect of the final finished film.
It was finally released in the U.S. after it aired in the U.K. in early October (where it soon got Ken Ham’s usual attacks). I knew they had to cut it down to an hour, so it was about what I expected. Two hours of filming at the South Rim was reduced to 2 minutes, with nearly all my fossils and charts and other strongest points left out (along with most of the pointless arguing by the creationists as well). The segment with the water at Horseshoe Bend was kept nearly intact, because it successfully showed how they don’t know what they’re talking about, and refuse to accept even the most straightforward aspects of physics even as it’s demonstrated right in front of them. Jerry Coyne’s segment was short, too, along with a short segment at Sharktooth Hill with Christian geologist Greg Wilkerson (who defused their usual idea that scientists are atheists, and pointed out that there were no humans along with those Miocene sharks and whales), and another segment at a Nevada geyser to show bacteria comparable to the earliest life on earth. The most effective segment of all was with paleoanthropologist Tim White at U.C. Berkeley, who laid out casts of a bunch of hominid skulls and had them sort them by their anatomy. Once they had done so, he pointed out that this was the exact sequence that these skulls were found in a single place in Ethiopia, and that primitive ones were never found on the level with the advanced ones, and vice versa. It was a remarkable bit of scientific theater, and they were unable to respond coherently to it, since there IS no creationist response. The most primitive skulls look like “apes” to them, the most advanced ones are clearly “human”—and there are all the intermediates in between.
But that scientific message was a tiny part of the hourlong episode, which is largely filled with footage that one finds in many reality shows, from “Survivor” to MTV’s “The Real World”: people are cooped up together on camera and begin to squabble amongst themselves. Most of the episode focused on the antics of the five creationists as they rode their bus through 2000 tedious miles of the American interstates over an entire week, got into fights, split into factions, argued with each other, and generally acted immature and thoughtless. Occasionally, Andrew would get one to interview with him directly. Although the blonde girl JoJo seemed to be changing her mind, the rest were still dogmatic and inflexible. (Amusingly, Abdul was completely unaware of how much he had alienated everyone, failed to make good arguments, and believed that Islam had triumphed over Christianity and science in this exercise). None of them could give coherent answers to the scientific evidence, yet nonetheless were determined to stick with their beliefs. This was no surprise to any of us, since evidence doesn’t matter to creationists. They have an entire worldview which is wrapped about the salvation of their immortal soul and the fear of rejecting the literal interpretation of the Bible, so that comes first and everything else is unimportant. They reject evolution only because they’ve been told to do so by religious leaders, even though they have no clue what it’s about; what they think they know about it is wrong. Indeed, they showed the classic response of a true believer: when something threatens your worldview, you cling to it even more strongly and find any way you can to dismiss or ignore contrary evidence. That, apparently, is the point of the entire show, since the 9/11 truthers and the UFO nuts act the same way. But given the way the show was framed, it’s clear that the producers want to put these creationists on camera as object lessons on how irrational and dogmatic and impervious to evidence they really are, even while showing less dogmatic viewers that scientists can be friendly and reasonable and have all the evidence. Given the low level of creationist beliefs in the U.K., this is probably not a hard sell, but I’d be interested to see if it airs in the U.S. where creationism still claims about 40% of the U.S. population.
Long after the filming ended, a creationist told me that they had FINALLY come up with their own explanation for the meanders at Horseshoe Bend. One look at the site and it’s clear they missed the point, and don’t have the faintest clue about real geology. They claim that the meanders were cut in days (these things take many years in the real world) because the world was flooded to the top of the plateau, and so the Horseshoe Bend area was near the mouth of the ancestral Colorado River as the floodwaters retreated. But then what about all the other meander bends much further upriver, including the Goosenecks of the San Juan in Utah, or most of the meanders in Canyonlands National Park? As any intro geology student could tell you, when meandering systems like the Mississippi DO flood, the high-energy flood waters cut straight channels and slice through the narrow “neck” at the base of each meander loop. Only AFTER the flood waters recede do they begin to form meanders again over the course of decades. And even granting them their premise, how do they then explain that such a slow-moving river of water was then able to cut deep canyons all up and down the course of the Colorado River basin, leaving vertical cliffs in the soft soupy flood sediment—all without any slumping or collapse of that soft sediment that had just been laid down and was still wet? As I pointed out in Chapter 3 of my 2007 book Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why it Matters, their version of events ignores all the evidence outside the narrow problem that they try to explain. They focus on the Grand Canyon and maybe the Scablands Floods, and ignore 99% of geology that cannot possibly be reconciled with any version of “flood geology”. Such is the nature of their dogmatic commitment—but such special pleading, supernatural explanations, ignoring evidence, and cherry-picking only the tiny handful of possible favorable cases is not acceptable in the world of science or reality.