The debate: Creationist versus Skeptic

Report by Don Batten and Mark Robertson

On 24 August 2003, over 1100 people (a huge audience for an event like this in Australia) turned out to hear what had been billed as ‘The Great Debate’. It was held at the Northside Christian Church, Brisbane, which sponsored the debate as well as two creation lectures leading up to it by CMI’ Dr Don Batten. The question to be resolved was: ‘That scientific evidence supports a literal Genesis’.

The debaters:

Affirmative: Carl Wieland trained and practised as a medical doctor before working for Creation Ministries International (Australia), of which he is CEO. He founded Creation magazine and speaks widely on the issues of creation, evolution and the authority of the Bible.

Negative: Paul Willis has a doctorate in paleontology and is a science reporter/broadcaster with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC). A self-proclaimed atheist, the Australian Skeptics awarded him ‘Skeptic of the Year’ in 2002.

The formal debate, professionally moderated by Dr Robert Herschel, involved 20 minutes constructive for each speaker, 15 minutes rebuttal, and 10 minutes summary/conclusion. Dr Wieland drew the short straw, so to speak, and had to speak first, giving Dr Willis the last say in each segment. The audience was very well-behaved and courteous to both speakers.

No vote was taken as to who had ‘won’, which would have been unreasonable with a largely Christian–creationist audience.

The affirmative case

Wieland opened by defining the topic and scope of the debate. He discussed briefly the limitations of science, especially when it came to historical analyses. He explained how the same evidence can support (be consistent with) a variety of views, depending on one’s presuppositions [see ‘It’s not science]. As an example, he cited the five digits of the frog and human hand, which can be used to support either the notion of a common ancestor or a common designer. But the common ancestry explanation was gravely undermined by the radically different ways in which frog and human digits develop in the embryo.1

He next dealt with the mathematical absurdity of obtaining even one functional protein, citing Professor Paul Davies as admitting that no one has any idea how life could have originated in the first place,2 which, said Wieland, in a sense undermined the rest of the evolutionary story. We know from scientific observation that it takes intelligence to explain information systems, so life’s informatics provide strong evidence consistent with a literal Genesis, i.e. God imposing intelligent programming on the first groups of living things. Evolution requires not only a way of creating information in the first place, but adding to it relentlessly. Natural selection doesn’t create information, it removes it. Wieland cited Israeli biophysicist (and DNA-information expert) Dr Lee Spetner as saying that despite the large number of information-increasing mutations which neo-Darwinism should expect, so far all mutations studied decrease the information, including the rare beneficial ones (like wingless beetles on windy islands) [see Mutations Q&A and Natural Selection Q&A].

Wieland quoted a modern-day fossil expert as confirming that the number of transitional-form candidates had actually declined since Darwin’s day, adding that one could argue over a handful of controversial candidates, but the myriads expected by Darwin had simply not been found.

Stephen Gould was cited to show how the ‘slow and gradual’ philosophy had been ‘imposed’ on the evidence using a lawyer’s imagination, and that the rocks demand catastrophic explanations [see Quotable Quote: Gould on Lyell].

Wieland presented evidence consistent with rapid formation of rocks (over continent-wide areas) and fossils, supporting the Bible’s description of a global Flood. He also presented evidence against radiometric dating methods used to ‘prove’ an old earth, showing an example of a carbon-14 ‘age’ of thousands of years for wood found in the Hawkesbury Sandstone (near Sydney, Australia) that is supposed to be hundreds of millions of years old [see Dating dilemma: fossil wood in ‘ancient’ sandstone]. He closed with a detailed exposition of recent laboratory evidence of helium diffusion rates in ‘1.5 billion-year-old’ uranium-containing zircons which not only showed conclusively that there must have been a burst of accelerated decay in the past, but that the Precambrian granite from which these crystals were extracted could not be more than about 6,000 years old—positive evidence supporting literal Genesis [see RATE group reveals exciting breakthroughs!].

The negative case

Willis opened engagingly and confidently. He stated that he had far more evidence than he could possibly present in 20 minutes and to check out a website for the lot (this is known as ‘elephant hurling’, an informal fallacy commonly used in argument).

Willis began by quoting a US scientist (whose research CMI has cited at times) as saying that the majority of the evidence supports an old earth and that this scientist only believes in a young earth because of the Bible.3 He then proceeded to claim that:

  1. All the evidence supports an old earth.
  2. The Grand Canyon could not have formed in the Flood because the Coconino Sandstone formation was formed in a desert environment, although overlying and underlying layers were of marine origin.
  3. The ‘feathered dinosaurs’ of Liaoning in China proved that dinosaurs evolved into birds, providing a good example of the transitional forms that creationists demand. He showed a table that listed how many times various putative fossil dinosaur-bird forms were cited by CMI’s website, which showed that the fraudulent Archaeoraptor was cited far more than anything else. Likewise with other evolutionary frauds.
  4. A series of many ‘fossilized forests’ at Joggins, Nova Scotia, must have taken a huge time for each forest to grow and then get buried, soil form and another forest form on top, etc. Willis had a diagram that he drew to illustrate this idea, which he said could not be fitted into a time scale of 10,000 years or so.
  5. The Green River Formation contains 5 million varves (alternating fine /coarse sedimentary layers). Varves form when water flows from an annual fresh flow in the streams that feed a lake. He showed a table that indicated that many different periodic cycles have been identified in the varves—El Niño, sunspot cycle, etc., therefore proving that each varve must represent year.
  6. Series of fossilized dinosaur nests at varying depths in the geological layers in one region could not be explained in a single Flood.
  7. A flood would mix up everything, not produce ordered layers of fossils or layers of sediment, such as varves. Willis claimed that it would be like putting some organisms in a washing machine with sand and clay and agitating it for 40 days and 40 nights.4
  8. CMI research could not be trusted; he showed a quote from the director of the commercial laboratory which had done the Hawkesbury sandstone 14C dating. His comments indicated that the specimen was not wood, but a concretion, i.e. rock. The clear implication was that only foolish people would send a rock thinking it was wood


(Some of the rebuttals listed below came up in the last session—i.e. some of the summary/conclusion time was taken up with further rebuttal.)


  1. The idea that the Coconino Sandstone formed in a desert sand dune environment is ‘yesterday’s geology’. A major CMI article on the subject showed that even secular (non-creationist) geologists now recognize that this formation is of marine origin. Careful research published in the secular literature showed that footprints found in the formation are those of amphibians, not desert creatures, and were formed underwater [see Grand Canyon: Startling Evidence for Noah’s Flood].
  2. The Green River Formation contains not only exceptionally preserved fish fossils, but also their coprolites (fossilized faeces) penetrating through several varves (layers). How could fish faeces fossilize if they took several years to be covered up? This speaks of rapid formation of the layers. Furthermore, the number of layers (varves) between two ash layers (representing evidence for two volcanic eruptions) varies greatly, showing that the number of varves is not consistent with any supposed annual cycle of deposition [see Fish preservation, fish coprolites and the Green River Formation and Green River Blues]. The flume tank experiments of Guy Berthault and others at the University of Colorado were cited; when rock with such ‘rhythmites’ was ground up and the particles deposited in flowing water, the ‘yearly bands’ reformed. Berthault et al have conclusively shown that alternating layers form spontaneously whenever two different particle sizes are deposited in flowing water [see Sedimentation Experiments: Nature Finally Catches Up! Sandy Stripes and Sediments]. This and the Mt St Helens pyroclastic flows were used to rebut the notion that the Flood would just mix things up and not form multiple layers [see ‘I got excited at Mount St Helens!’].
  3. Responding to the Joggins ‘forest’ claims, Wieland started by expressing surprise that Willis did not use the better-known example at Yellowstone National Park. However, neither case involved forests fossilized in situ; all the trees have their roots broken off, and there is no trace of the fossil soil in which the ‘forests’ must have grown—the trees had clearly been transported there [see The Yellowstone petrified forests]. To show how such ‘forests’ form, Wieland referred to the trees floating on Spirit Lake after the Mt St Helens catastrophe, which on becoming waterlogged, floated vertical, root-end down. When they finally sank, they became embedded upright in the sediment at the bottom. He added that he recalled that the trees at Joggins are not found in neat parallel layers as shown in Willis’s diagram, but at overlapping levels [creationists have actually used these as examples of polystrate fossils, indicating catastrophic deposition]. So this is evidence for catastrophic origin of these fossilized trees, not eons of time as claimed.5
  4. Concerning the Hawkesbury wood claim, Wieland could not recall the details but expressed serious doubt that this was a valid claim [in fact, the lab manager, obviously an anti-creationist, was contradicting his own staff who did the testing, organized by a PhD CMI geologist, on what was all along claimed to be fossil wood].6 But, said Wieland, it was a moot point because:
    • CMI has also published 14C ages from wood in Tertiary (he said Triassic in a rare slip of the tongue) basalt,7 and the wood was clearly wood. Not only because it had actually been positively identified, down to the genus, but it had been clearly charred by the hot lava, and was associated with a leaf imprint [see Radioactive ‘Dating’ in Conflict].
    • The literature is rife with examples of similar 14C anomalies—in fact it is virtually impossible not to get a 14C date (which shouldn’t be possible if the millions of years were factual) from any ‘ancient’ specimen, such as coal.8 Also, lest ‘contamination’ be blamed despite all the modern laboratory methods for determining and countering it, Wieland referred to the recent work by the RATE research group9 which shows that 14C is consistently found in supposedly ancient carbon, no matter how old it is purported to be. Even an ‘ancient’ diamond, which would be almost impossible to contaminate because of the crystal lattice structure, contained 14C.10
  5. The claim that supposed feathered dinosaurs evolved into birds has several serious problems, not the least of which is that two of the world’s top fossil bird experts (Feduccia and Martin) do not accept this story. Furthermore, Archaeopteryx, which is clearly a bird (and not a fraud), pre-dates the claimed feathered dinosaurs by tens of millions of years, according to evolutionary dating.

The only point that Willis made that was not rebutted was the issue of dinosaur nests. Dr Wieland used every second of the time allocated very efficiently, making succinct points, but there was just not enough time to cover everything.11

In his summing up, Wieland outlined the importance of the issue for the gospel—that this is not just about science or even history, but about the eternal destinies of the people present. If the Bible is the Word of God, then it is of utmost importance that all present consider what God has said to us and that we respond to God’s offer of forgiveness in Jesus Christ.


Willis’s rebuttal was done with passion and energy. He dismissed the Mt St Helens layers, saying that it was common knowledge that such things happen, but these were merely flows of ash driven along by hot air, and not an issue at all [Wieland pointed out that this sedimentary event was not expected at all; when Dr Steve Austin presented the information to around 1,000 geologists at a Petroleum Association meeting, the chairman, after a hushed silence, recommended reconsidering the role of catastrophism in geology].

Rather than try to explain how the information in organisms arose, Willis attempted to dismiss the information arguments by claiming that biologists were not really able to measure or define information properly. Some effort went into pointing out that one could not quantify the total amount of information in an organism. He seemingly implied that because there was no all-encompassing definition of biological information, it therefore did not need to be explained [the Spetner arguments refer to the information in one enzyme—does it go up or down—see Information Theory].

He addressed the issue of the Liaoning find being younger than true birds: part of a population may evolve to something else while the original population remains unchanged. [Wieland pointed out in his summing up that for this to be the explanation in every one of the cases of the various ‘transitional forms’ claimed at Liaoning amounts to special pleading. Even a bird with a true beak, Confuciusornis, is dated by evolutionists as 10 million years older than the Liaoning fossils; Archaeopteryx is not the only problem.]

Caudipteryx had a ‘half-wing’, just what creationists have been challenging evolutionists to produce for years. [Wieland cited evolutionary experts who claimed that this creature was in fact a flightless bird, including gizzard stones; Willis later asked why, then, had it evolved some dinosaurian features, to which Wieland subsequently responded by saying that he was certainly not claiming that it had evolved any features at all. For an analysis of the supposed dino-bird fossils, see Fossils.]

Even though the most detailed argument in the opening was the zircon data arguing strongly that the earth was only about 6,000 years old, it appears that Willis may have anticipated that CMI would stay away from the age of the earth, as some of his Skeptics friends had assured him would be the case. We say this because he repeated more than once throughout the course of the night (to the obvious puzzlement of many in the audience) that the audience had ‘not heard one piece of evidence’ from Wieland ‘that the earth is less than 10,000 years old’. Right at the end of his closing remarks, Willis did attempt to deal with it by casting aspersion on whether it was real data, saying he was not even aware of it [creationist websites had been buzzing with it for weeks—we were sure he would know of it, and we even splashed a front page article on our website about it just days before the debate]—and by asking why one should trust CMI when they were obviously foolish enough to send a ‘rock instead of wood’ for 14C dating [not true, as indicated earlier].

Willis also introduced new material into his summing up (which is not supposed to be done, except if required for rebuttal of a point), claiming that Martin Luther did not believe a literal Genesis [this is wrong—Luther unambiguously stated his belief in the straight-forward historical reading of Genesis (see Luther on Evolution and What was Martin Luther’s stand on Creation/Evolution?), but Wieland had no further opportunity to counter this misinformation]. Willis also tried to encourage the crowd that they could continue to be Christians who loved God and saw Him as Creator while accepting evolution, claiming that he knows good Christians who do this. When he cited as an example a prominent minister in the Uniting Church of Australia (UCA), it brought a strong ripple of reaction from many in the audience, presumably aware of the recent decision of the UCA hierarchy (dominated by liberals) to ordain practising homosexuals into pastoral ministry. Willis had unwittingly made a point which CMI majors on, namely that rejecting the Bible’s authority at its Genesis foundations leads to rejection of the Bible’s teaching in other areas.

Willis finished his summing up with more than two minutes to spare.

Click here to read about the reaction to the debate.

Click here to get a comprehensive list of answers to various questions raised during the debate.

Published: 20 April 2006

References and notes

  1. See diagram and description in Ostrich eggs break dino-to-bird theory . Return to text.
  2. See Quantum leap of faith. Return to text.
  3. The scientist cited was Dr Kurt Wise of Bryan College. Dr Wise actually provides much evidence for a young earth in his book, Faith, Form, and Time: What the Bible Teaches and Science Confirms about Creation and the Age of the Earth, Broadman and Holman Publishers. Nashville, TN. Like us at CMI, Dr Wise recognizes that presuppositions play a big role in historical science. He gets his presuppositions from the Bible’s account of history, so this affects the way he interprets the data regarding the age of the earth. It is unfortunate that Dr Wise put his statements the way he did, such that materialists can misuse what he said for their purposes. Return to text.
  4. Note this is a straw man argument, as it is a completely false caricature of what Flood geologists believe about areas of erosion and deposition during the Flood. Return to text.
  5. Geologist Dr Harold Coffin gives 10 evidence that the fossilized trees at Joggins, Nova Scotia, were produced by being washed into position. See Coffin, H., 1969. Research on the classic Joggins petrified trees, Creation Research Society Quarterly 6(1):35-44, 70. See also, Polystrate Trees and Coal Seams of Joggins Fossil Cliffs (article by Dr John Morris, Institute for Creation Research). Return to text.
  6. The original article by Dr Snelling was published in Creation 21(3) June 1999, which shows a picture of the piece of wood embedded in the sandstone. See: Dating dilemma: fossil wood in ‘ancient’ sandstone. A similar charge of contamination of this sample was refuted by Tas Walker in June 2000, Dating Dilemma Deepens: Moore on ancient radiocarbon. Return to text.
  7. The 14C date was 45,000 years while the K-Ar date of the basalt was 45 Ma. Return to text.
  8. See How accurate is Carbon-14 dating? (from chapter 4 of The Creation Answers Book, Creation Ministries International). Return to text.
  9. RATE group reveals exciting breakthroughs!. Return to text.
  10. This issue poses a significant problem to researchers and laboratories using the modern Accelerated Mass Spectrometry (AMS) method for 14C determinations. Theoretically the 14C dating method could be extended from the previous limit of 40,000 years (using radioactive emission detectors) to about 90,000 years (by counting individual atoms on a mass spectrometer). However, researchers find a ‘carbon barrier’ which they blame on inexplicable ‘intrinsic’ contamination. The laboratories are similarly frustrated as they are unable to find a completely blank carbon source (no 14C), from the many available sources of inorganic carbon, to use for calibration of their machinery. Arguments about contamination are fairly meaningless when the overwhelming data indicate that 14C is consistently found in carbon samples, when it shouldn’t exist, according the uniformitarian age assumptions. It is a case of not being able to see the wood from the trees. Return to text.
  11. John Woodmorappe and Michael Oard discussed the evidence for such a site in Korea in Journal of Creation 17(1), 2003, suggesting that much of the supposed vertical stratigraphy could be explained by a few events occurring laterally in area but simultaneously in time. Much of the evidence from this Korean site fits better with a catastrophic Flood event than with a slow, gradual deposition. Discussion on dinosaur trackways, egg nests, etc. can also be found in Journal of Creation 10(1), Journal of Creation 12(1), Journal of Creation 16(2), Journal of Creation 17(2) and Creation Research Society Quarterly 32(1). Return to text.