Observations of a blown mind

Creationism vs Science


Tuesday 1st May 2012

“After reading Michael Wong’s Creation Theory I wanted to put together an article here to address the crux of the Atheist vs Religionist argument. I freely admit I share Mike’s views, so a lot of what you read is respectfully ‘borrowed’ from him. I point this out immediately because Mike’s arguments are clear, concise and understandable so that anyone with even menial intellect can grasp the argument. Mike, I tip my cap to you.” – Chris

The search for life in the universe begins with a deep question: what is life?

Astrobiologists will tell you honestly that this question has no simple or generally accepted answer. Not much use to say that we’ll know it when we see it. No matter what characteristic we specify to separate living from nonliving matter on Earth, we can always find an example that blurs or erases this distinction. Some or all living creatures grow, move, or decay, but so too do objects that we would never call alive.

Does life reproduce itself? So does fire. Does life evolve to produce new forms? So do certain crystals that grow in watery solutions. We can certainly say that you can tell some forms of life when you see them — who could fail to see life in a salmon or an eagle?– but anyone familiar with life in its diverse forms on Earth will admit many creatures will remain entirely undetected until the luck of time and the skill of an expert reveal their living nature.

Since life is short, we must press onward with a rough-and-ready, generally appropriate criterion for life. Here it is: Life consists of sets of objects that can both reproduce and evolve. We shall not call a group of objects alive simply because they make more of themselves. To qualify as life, they must also evolve into new forms as time passes.

This definition therefore eliminates the possibility that any single object can be judged to be alive. Instead, we must examine a range of objects in space and follow them through time. This definition of life may yet prove too restrictive, but for now we shall employ it.

As biologists have examined different types of life on our planet, they have discovered a general property of Earthlife. The matter within every living Earth creature mainly consists of just four chemical elements: hydrogen, oxygen, carbon, and nitrogen.

All the other elements together contribute less than one percent of the mass of any living organism. The elements beyond the big four include small amounts of phosphorus, which ranks as the most important, and is essential to most forms of life, together with still smaller amounts of sulfur, sodium, magnesium, chlorine, potassium, calcium, and iron.

But can we conclude that this elemental property of life on Earth must likewise describe other forms of life in the cosmos? Here we can apply the Copernican principle in full vigor. The four elements that form the bulk of life on Earth all appear on the short list of the universe’s six most abundant elements. Since the other two elements on the list, helium and neon, almost never combine with anything else, life on Earth consists of the most abundant and chemically active ingredients in the cosmos.

Of all the predictions that we can make about life on other worlds, the surest seems to be that their life will be made of elements nearly the same as those used by life on Earth. If life on our planet consisted primarily of four extremely rare elements in the cosmos, such as niobium, bismuth, gallium, and plutonium, we would have an excellent reason to suspect we represent something special in the universe. Instead, the chemical composition of life on our planet inclines us toward an optimistic view of life’s possibilities beyond Earth.

The composition of life on Earth fits the Copernican principle even more than one might initially suspect. If we lived on a planet made primarily of hydrogen, oxygen, carbon, and nitrogen, then the fact that life consists primarily of these four elements would hardly surprise us. But Earth is mainly made of oxygen, iron, silicon, aluminum, and iron. Only one of these elements, oxygen, appears on the list of life’s most abundant elements.

When we look into Earth’s oceans, which are almost entirely hydrogen and oxygen, it is surprising that life lists carbon and nitrogen among its most abundant elements, rather than chlorine, sodium, sulfur, calcium, or potassium, which are the most common elements dissolved in seawater. The distribution of the elements in life on Earth resembles the composition of the stars far more than that of Earth itself. As a result, life’s elements are more cosmically abundant than Earth’s– a good start for those who hope to find life in a host of situations.

This excerpt [via space.com] is presented in cooperation with Astrobiology Magazine, a web-based publication sponsored by the NASA astrobiology program.

Evolution is complicated

Of the many people who orate it, either for or against, only a tiny minority have actually bothered to study it in any detail. Call it the progression of simple to complex organisms, and a biologist will tell you that’s not exactly true. Call it survival of the fittest, and a biologist will tell you that this is only one of several mechanisms. If you quote it as fact, a biologist will point out that it’s also a theory. Quote it as theory, and a biologist will point out that it’s also a fact. One might be forgiven for throwing up one’s hands and asking why there isn’t a simple explanation, were it not for the fact that a scientific explanation can only be as simple as ‘Nature’ allows, and should not cater to the uneducated man’s desire for a 5 second sound-bite. The same must be said of the scientific method and philosophy.

Creationism, by comparison, is disarmingly and seductively simple: “God did it”. And its chief philosophical argument is, much like Pablum, easy to digest for even the smallest children: “You can’t prove there’s no God”. Those who (ironically) oversimplify the idea of Occam’s Razor believe this to be an advantage. As per Sydney J. Harris, creationism can very easily be put in a nutshell, but because it has no substance whatsoever, that’s also where it belongs. Not in school classrooms, not in science textbooks, and not in the lexicon of any scientifically literate person on this planet.

This article is also not intended to be the most comprehensive available on such matters. For that, I suggest you check talkorigins.org and talkdesign.org, but be aware that they contain far too much content for you to digest in one sitting.

The purpose of this article then is to help you gain a good understanding, without either drowning you in a deluge of information or oversimplifying ideas into slogans.

Basics

As you probably know, Charles Darwin came up with the theory of evolution in the mid 19th century and after a period of intense scientific debate, it was accepted by all major scientific bodies. The creationists, having been defeated in the scientific forum, went to the legal forum next. Once again, after a period of intense debate, they found themselves defeated there as well. Finally, the creationists went to the venue which has the least rigorous standards of any debate forum: politics. This is where they have found their greatest success, which quite frankly speaks volumes about the quality of their argument.

How Successful is Creationism?

As stated previously, creationism is a total failure as a science. Even religious scientists don’t bother trying to create actual formal scientific theories of creationism, because they know there is no such thing. You could not even express the idea of creationism in the form of a scientific theory; what would you describe as the controlling mechanism? God? How would you define the behaviour of this controlling mechanism? Despite what some creationists may tell you, creationism has zero credibility in science.

Politics, is a different story.

The following figures are from a Gallup Poll taken of Americans on February 19-21, 2001:

Human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God guided this process. 37%
Human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God had no part in this process. 12%
God created human beings pretty much in their current form at one time within the last 10,000 years. 45%
Other/Undecided 6%

As you can see (in 2001 at least) nearly half of Americans has decided that, in their eminently qualified judgment, every major scientific body in the world and more than 99% of individual scientists are completely wrong, truly believing that the Earth is less than ten thousand years old and that humans were created by God rather than evolving from primitive primates.

Three questions come to mind:

  1. How can someone seriously believe in such a young Earth, when literally every known scientific dating method says otherwise?
  2. How can someone seriously deny any hereditary connection between apes and men, when the similarities are so numerous?
  3. How can almost half the American public be so scornful of scientists that they think years of grueling study and even entire lifetimes of hard work and dedication can be equaled, or even surpassed, by simply browsing the Interweb!

Indeed, if you knew a family member was about to undergo open-heart surgery, you would not browse the Internet in search of surgical techniques and then attempt to perform the operation in your kitchen yourself! And if you found a website written by someone with no formal medical background which claimed that open-heart surgery was a fraud, you would not be inclined to take it seriously. Yet most critics of science believe they are capable of doing something very much akin to that: attempting to learn entire complex fields of science with nothing more than some Internet browsing (which often amounts to literally no more than a few hours of reading), and then declaring that all of the experts are totally wrong.

In any case, regardless of the complex social patterns which may have led to such breathtaking contempt for the complexity of science and the value of academic study, politicians have proven far more amenable to creationism than scientists ever will be. How so?

  • A Louisana law requiring that creation theory be taught alongside evolution theory was not struck down until 1987.
  • August 1999, the Kansas state board of education removed evolution from its education curriculum.
  • March 1999, the Tennessee state assembly voted on a bill that would require schools to fire teachers who “present evolution as a scientific fact”.
  • February 1999, the school board in Hall County, Georgia ruled that teachers must present theories “other than evolution” to their students.
  • September 2000,  Alabama, all science textbooks in must carry a disclaimer stating that evolution is a “controversial theory”, which is only supported by “some scientists.”

Interesting indeed, but let’s move away from our North American cousins and concentrate then on the main reason we’re here.

What are the Main Arguments for Evolution?

It would be folly to attempt to summarise  all of the arguments for evolution in a concise fashion here. But the most important point to remember is that evolution theory, was originally a solution to a problem. What’s remarkable about anti-evolution propaganda is that it never acknowledges this fact, and never takes on the burden of producing a better explanation for that original problem!

The original problem that bore the evolution theory

It’s called the Linnaean Taxonomy, named after Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778), and it is the categorisations of plant and animal species into a hierarchical structure. This structure has 7 layers: Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, and Species. The remarkable thing about this system is that the early naturalists classified animals into a hierarchical “family tree” structure long before the theory of evolution was proposed. In other words, all naturalists agreed long before Darwin that the animal kingdom appeared to be a family tree.

Why did they do that? The theory of evolution did not exist yet, so they didn’t do it to please “evolutionists”. What was their reasoning? Well here’s where we run into an interesting coincidence in the animal kingdom: the appearance and development of animal features also looks like a family tree. In other words, you can take any given feature and trace its appearance, in various levels of complexity, along lines of animal species. Sometimes a feature will change in one direction for one branch of the tree and another direction for the other branch of the tree, and as you examine more complex organisms on any given branch, the two diverging features ALWAYS stay that way. They never jump back and forth; while features can jump between bacteria due to genetic material exchange (they’re so small that they can literally swap pieces of DNA), there has never been recorded or observed a feature exchange between complex organisms.

This is a classic example of a problem in need of a solution. It is not enough to classify it as coincidence, not when it is so incredibly consistent. And the problem gets worse: when those early naturalists examined the geographical distribution of the animal kingdom’s “family tree”, they discovered yet another impossibly unlikely “coincidence”: species which appeared to be very close to one another on the family tree were also geographically close to one another. And whenever someone found what appeared to be an exception to this rule, they discovered a migratory path. Centuries later, the rule is unchanged: when species show a biological connection, they also show a geographical connection.

The significance of these two intertwined globe-spanning coincidences cannot be overstated: it was an enormous problem for taxonomy. If someone had indeed designed and created these species, he went to enormous lengths to make them appear to be related, by carefully arranging their structures and geography to match! Why would he do this? There was no intrinsic need for this, as we have proven in the last century by artificially moving species outside their natural habitat and seeing that in many cases, they thrive in far-off environments. There was no intrinsic need for features to be arranged in a hierarchical fashion, or for structural proximity to invariably mirror geographical proximity. So why would the designer do this? No one ever provided an answer until Charles Robert Darwin published his theory of evolution with compelling evidence in his 1859 book On the Origin of Species.

This is the single largest argument for evolution: it is a solution to a problem that no other theory can explain. Creationists often try to argue that God could have chosen to make the animal kingdom look that way, but they can’t explain why or how. And if they can’t explain why or how, then they actually do not have an explanation. Can anyone explain how you would derive the prediction of a “family tree” animal kingdom from the idea of God? It’s not enough to say that God reused previous designs; that would explain the similarities but not the divisions in the family tree. The Linnaean taxonomy is a family tree, not a family sponge. Only evolution offers a real explanation: the kind of explanation where you can start from its mechanism and use it to logically work forward to predict the outcome.

Popular Misconceptions About Evolution

Now we know a little bit more about what evolution theory says, we also need to know about what evolution does not say, especially since evolution may be the single most widely misrepresented idea in all of science.

Here are a few of the most common misconceptions about what evolution theory says:

  • “Humans are the most highly evolved species” This misconception assumes that evolution has some kind of plan, and that we are its ultimate product. This is completely wrong (not to mention egotistical). The imperfect nature of biological reproduction generates diversity, and the resulting diverse animal populations must struggle to survive and reproduce. In the African savannah, this process allowed our ancestors to thrive, resulting in us. In the caves of Venezuela, deadly foot-long armoured centipedes sit atop the food chain. In a Japanese waste-water facility, this diversity resulted in a mutated form of bacteria that lives on man-made nylon. Creationists tend to assume a plan for evolution because they project their own mindset onto it, and because they want to believe that everything leads to humans. However, from a biological standpoint, we are simply not that special.
  • “Evolution is an attack on religious beliefs” Evolution is an attack on certain beliefs, but not on all religion. In fact, many ancient religions describe humans and animals as related. Aboriginal religions in particular often depict mankind being related to the animals, or having been produced from parts of animals. Buddhism actually teaches that we are so indistinguishable from the animals that we can be reincarnated as animals, and they can be reincarnated as us. Judaism, along with its offshoots, is actually rather unusual in assigning some special status to mankind, and it is this egotism which leads them to reject evolution so forcefully. As many adherents to the Abrahamic religions have put it, “I refuse to believe that I am related to an ape”. People like this actually find the idea of human kinship with animals to be offensive and inherently hostile to spirituality, despite the fact that it is a common belief in many ancient cultures.
  • “Microevolution has been tested, but macroevolution has not” One of the things that people don’t understand about science is that it tests mechanisms, not histories. It is the mechanism of a theory which you must use in order to generate predictions, and it is those predictions that you test. The mechanisms of microevolution and macroevolution are identical, so by testing microevolution, we have tested macroevolution. Moreover, even if people insist on seeing observed speciation events, scientists have produced those in the laboratory as well. Creationists have now taken to demanding that scientists produce examples of speciation events in the wild, knowing full well that most natural speciation events would take a very long time and that every other criterion has already been met.
  • “Evolution says that we are the product of random chance” Evolution, like organic chemistry, is not based on random chance. There are rules, and certain combinations are more likely than others. Environments favour certain traits, and therefore, so do evolutionary processes. It has often been said that evolution can be compared to monkeys working on typewriters to produce Shakespeare, but if you had a system which preferentially picked out the best pieces of text rather than expecting an individual monkey to randomly type out Romeo & Juliet, it would work much more quickly. Computer simulations have been done, but of course, creationists reject them because they are artificial (I suppose they want us to use real monkeys).
  • “Evolution cannot produce new species, it can only change existing ones” If microevolution continued for long enough, macroevolution would be inevitable (the difference between “micro” and “macro” is merely one of scale, after all). The real question when it comes to speciation is: why would the process of microevolution suddenly stop at some mysterious boundary? We know it works, so what’s this mechanism for limiting its travel? Do we arbitrarily assume that Newton’s third law suddenly stops working once we reach a certain distance from Earth? But aside from this logical concern, this argument is quite specious since we have observed evolutionary speciation. In one documented example, speciation occurred due to the mutation of a single gene.
  • “Darwinism is immoral” People often think this because “survival of the fittest” is considered a very callous social policy. However, Darwinian evolution is not a social policy! It is a scientific theory, and it has nothing to do with morality one way or another. It does not recommend “survival of the fittest” as a moral ideal or a social policy; it merely states that it happens in nature. One could just as easily say that the law of gravity is “immoral” because of all the falling deaths every year.
  • “Darwinism is a worldview which promotes …” There are many variations of this argument, but they all employ the same tactic of assuming that Darwinism is a “worldview”, just like their religion. However, nothing could be further from the truth. Darwinism is a scientific theory; nothing more and nothing less. It does not tell you what you can or cannot eat, it does not tell you what you can or cannot wear, it does not saddle you with guilt for watching certain movies or listening to certain music, and it does not tell you who to love or who to hate. In short, evolution theory does not tell you how to live your life. It is not a “worldview”. All it does is solve a scientific problem, and those who believe otherwise are simply lacking comprehension of the nature of scientific theories.

As you can see, there are plenty of ways to pretend that evolution theory is something that it is not.

What are the main arguments for Creationism?

One can purchase creationist books, attend creationist seminars and visit any one of the many many creationist websites. And yet, surprisingly enough, you will struggle to actually find a single argument for creationism.

No, instead, you will find countless arguments against evolution (geology, astrophysics, astrobiology………)

And this dear reader is the first thing you need to know about creationist arguments: they do not argue for creationism; they argue against evolution. And they do so by quite literally demanding that it explain everything in the universe.

In other words, you can summarize 100% of creationist arguments with the following template:

“The science of [evolution/geology/astrophysics/etc] doesn’t make any sense. If it’s true, then we should see [insert made-up prediction here], and we don’t. And how do scientists explain [insert random science question here]? It takes more faith not to believe in God than to believe in Him.”

Look at even the most carefully written creationist argument and you will see that it can be distilled down into that basic formula. Even well-regarded books such as Dr. Michael Behe’s “Darwin’s Black Box” intelligent design treatise fit that formula, by identifying questions which we cannot yet answer and assuming that God is the answer to all these questions. Nowhere do any of them explain how creationism or “intelligent design” can explain any of the mysteries they’re challenging science to explain; they simply assume that it must be able to, because it’s so vague that it can predict anything. “God did it.” And that is the operative watch-word of creationism: vagueness.

It is the same basic rhetorical weapon that is employed by all forms of pseudoscience (not to mention many conspiracy theories). How better to make an invincible theory than to make it so vague that one cannot generate any specific testable predictions? How better to make a victorious theory than to declare that it wins by default if the proponents of a well-documented theory can’t explain every last question about everything in the universe to your personal satisfaction?

A scientific theory, on the other hand, is extremely specific: it explains exactly how its mechanism works, so you can document the means by which it can generate a prediction. And that prediction will, in turn, be highly specific, meaning that it will predict not only what can happen, but what cannot happen.

Why is it so important to say what can’t happen?

Think about this for a moment: suppose we had a theory which predicts that certain things will happen but never predicts that anything cannot happen. How would you test it? After all, if it says that something can happen and it doesn’t, you can always say that it might happen elsewhere. Or it might happen in the future. Or you have not created the proper conditions for it to happen. There are endless excuses. But if a theory says that something is impossible and it happens anyway, then the theory has failed, and there are really no excuses you can offer.

Creationism in all its forms avoids specific predictions. Predictions of not only what species can exist, but also what species cannot. It describes something called “God” who could create any kind of species imaginable, which of course means there is no such thing as a species he could or would not create.

The so-called “intelligent design” theory wielded about by cults such as Jehovah’s Witnesses does the same thing, but replaces the word “God” with “intelligent designer” in order to disavow any religious connection (at least normal creationism is honest).

The Need for Negativity

Like it or not, there is a time and a place for negativity, particularly in scientific theories, which must say not only what will happen, but also what will not happen.

Why is it so important for a scientific theory to say what won’t happen?

Consider this: why is the equation 2+2=4 useful? Not just because it says that 2+2 is equal to 4, but because it also says that 2+2 is not equal to 3, or 5. If mathematical equations were not so specific, they would be useless. Why is the statement “The suspect is a white male, brown hair, aged 25 to 35, six feet tall” useful? Because it allows you to “narrow down” your search, by not only telling you what he is, but also telling you what he is not. He is not female, he is not 5 feet tall, he is not 60 years old, etc. Even if your picture isn’t perfect, you’ve at least got a much better idea than “could be anything”.

Science functions along similar lines. Sir Isaac Newton’s third law of motion would be quite useless if its prediction of an equal and opposite reaction did not have the corollary that the reaction force will not be only half the action force, and it will not be at right-angles to the action force rather than being directly opposite to it.

Imagine if you will a physics version of creationism, where it is assumed that God decides what reaction forces will be. This alternative theory would “predict” the behaviour of reaction forces only by copying the predictions of Newton’s third law because it has no real predictive ability of its own (just try calculating a force vector from “God did it”), and it would declare itself a default winner if anything ever happened which should seem to contradict that law. One could defend it in much the same way creationists defend their ideas: by simply declaring that you can’t prove it’s not true. But we can show that it is useless.

Does evolution theory do the same thing? Does evolution theory make only vague, non-specific predictions? Does evolution theory fail to predict what can not happen, thus making itself unfalsifiable and untestable? Contrary to creationist accusations, it does not. In fact, it says there are a number of characteristics which should never occur in any species on Earth. Without the fanciful construct of a time machine, we can test these criteria today, by looking at existing animals and the fossil record.

How to Disprove Evolution

The following is a list of species characteristics [M.Wong] which should not occur, according to evolution theory.

The fact that we can generate this list at all is an illustration of how evolution theory is a scientific theory, and creationism is not. Ask a creationist for specific predictions and a list of characteristics which should not occur and you’ll get nothing but a blank expression, because their ideology has been constructed in such a manner that no conceivable evidence could possibly disprove it.

But evolution can readily provide such a list:

  1. A complex organ for which no simpler versions ever existed. In the 19th century, creationists tried and failed to use the human eye as an example of such an organ. Since then, they have used progressively smaller and simpler examples of what they believe to be “irreducibly complex” organs, until they are now literally talking about microscopic sub-cellular structures smaller than a single cell (such as the bacterial flagellum cited by Dr. Michael Behe, for which we have, predictably enough, found even simpler versions). Ironically, this long creationist progression from complex to simple illustrates Darwin’s point beautifully.
  2. A feature which exists solely for the benefit of another species, with no benefit whatsoever to the host species. Every attempt to find an example of such a feature has invariably resulted in the discovery of some form of either symbiosis, where both species benefit in some way, or parasitism, where an organism feeds from its host but the host has not developed any features specifically to assist with this process.
  3. Different biochemistry (eg- different base nucleotides) than the rest of the biosystem. Note: a lifeform which evolved in a highly isolated environment (such as an extra-terrestrial lifeform) might meet this criterion without violating evolution. But in our biosystem, every organism evolved from the same nucleic acids that were found in the first life form, so we all share those acids in our biochemical makeup.
  4. A feature which leaps from one branch of the evolutionary tree to another. For example, mammals evolved from the mammal-like reptile therapsidsover 200 million years ago. If a feature which developed in mammals only 10 million years ago suddenly appeared fully-formed in a reptile from the same period with no reptilian antecedent, this would be an example of a feature jumping from one branch of the evolutionary tree to another. This is quite normal in man-made systems. For example, fuel injection started in race cars and slowly developed from primitive mechanically metered injectors to sophisticated computer-controlled fuel-injection systems. But when the Ford Crown Victoria switched from carburetors to fuel injection, it did not follow this slow progression; computer-controlled fuel injection systems simply appeared in the product line one year, having jumped there from other product lines where all of this development had occurred.

We have never found even a single example of such a “branch-jumping” event anywhere in the millions of species of the animal kingdom. Features slowly develop within their branch of origin, and advanced versions do not suddenly appear in other branches. Sub-cellular parasites can transfer genetic material between organisms on occasion (in fact, we have “parasitic” mitichondrial DNA in our own bodies, which only further establishes the pathways of evolutionary transmission), but the kind of advanced feature migration which is common in man-made systems is completely absent from the animal kingdom.

Despite having catalogued animal species for centuries, we have never found even one that meets any of these criteria. This is what evolution science means when its proponents say that it has been proven “beyond a reasonable doubt.” Surely, if we were created or “intelligently designed” rather than evolved, we would have found at least one example, somewhere in our vast animal kingdom. In fact, we should have found thousands. Especially #4, which virtually screams for explanation if we did not evolve, and which creationists conspicuously avoid ever mentioning.

The “God of the Gaps” or ‘we-don’t-knowology

So now we know how you’re supposed to disprove evolution. But why don’t creationists do that? Because they can’t! The evidence they seek is well-defined and would be fairly easy to obtain, but it does not appear to exist.

Rather than concede that the biosystem looks suspiciously like an evolved system, they simply ignore the proper method of disproof and use an alternate method of “disproving” evolution, and that is to ask scientists to explain everything. Every single species, every single feature. For example;

  • How did the bombardier beetle evolved its defensive spray?
  • How has sexual reproduction evolved?
  • Why do birds and marine mammals migrate?
  • What is the complete evolutionary family tree of the first insects?
  • How did the “Cambrian Explosion” occur?

Going further back, they switch to Cosmology and they want to know why the Big Bang produced a “lumpy” output which would eventually coalesce into galaxies, stars, and planets. They want to know why the Big Bang happened. Going even further back, to the point of absurdity, they want to know why anything exists at all. Any question we can’t answer is presumed to prove them right, and science wrong.

Science can actually answer many of those questions, although they have a tendency to falsely declare that it can’t. The phrase “Scientists have no explanation” or “The scientific literature is mysteriously silent on this subject” crop up a lot in creationist arguments even though you can often check for yourself to find that it is untrue. But it’s also true that there are certain things we don’t yet understand.

So does this mean the creationists are right? It would, if they could explain those things for us. But despite their advertising, they can’t fill those gaps. The interesting thing about creationism is that it gives you an answer, but it’s an answer that nobody can understand. Does anyone understand God? Can anyone explain God’s actions, abilities, motivations, or thoughts? Can anyone predict his future actions, motivations, or thoughts?

“Daddy, why didn’t the scientists tell us there would be [insert disaster] today?”

“They didn’t see it coming, honey. They couldn’t see it because it was God’s will.”
… 
“Daddy, why didn’t the priest tell us there would be [insert disaster] today?”

Creationism relies on a double-standard. While science is expected to explain and predict everything, creationism is expected to explain and predict nothing. It need only say that God did it, and we’re not supposed to point out that this merely passes the buck, “solving” a mystery by blaming it on a deity who is himself a mystery. If science does not understand something, it is perfectly logical and acceptable to say “we don’t know”. The fact that there are gaps in our scientific knowledge does not invalidate what we do know, or as the old saying goes, the fact that scientists don’t know everything does not mean they know nothing. You can’t disprove a scientific theory simply by showing that scientists don’t know everything, and you can’t disprove a biology theory simply by showing that scientists don’t know the complete family history of all the millions of species on this Earth.

Let’s look at an historical example;

Just one century ago, we understood quite a bit about physics and astronomy. We could predict planetary orbits with fairly high accuracy, we understood a lot of things about chemistry, we knew about kinematics and thermodynamics. But we just couldn’t figure out where the Sun was getting all of its power. Chemical burning couldn’t explain it: the fuel would run out too quickly. Conversion of gravitational potential energy into light couldn’t explain it: that potential energy wouldn’t last long enough either.

If we used the “God of the Gaps” logic, then we would have been forced to conclude that God was producing this energy. How does God produce the energy? We don’t know. Why does God produce the energy? We don’t know. How much energy can God produce? We don’t know. Does God require fuel? We don’t know. But it’s better to have an answer than nothing, right? Well, no, because it’s not a real answer.

Of course, today we know that the Sun is powered by nuclear fusion, but at the time, the logical and correct answer was “we don’t know”, not “science has no answer so God must be doing it”.

The “God of the Gaps” argument is, at heart, nothing more than a logical fallacy. It does not follow logically from a mystery that God must be responsible, because that does not explain anything. You can’t use a mystery to explain a mystery. Even if creationists weren’t lying about the size of the gaps in our knowledge, their logic would still be completely invalid. We-don’t-knowology.

A Question of Philosophy

OK, let’s suppose you aren’t fooled by creationist attempts to distort evolution into something other than what it is. That’s when creationists will typically move to their backup plan: attack the very concept of science itself.

Audacious? Absolutely, but also a fairly successful tactic, for the simple reason that the majority of people did not particularly enjoy science class in high school, they never went on to take it at the university level, and in a very real sense, many of them have learned to resent scientists. Just look at the way scientists are typically portrayed in movies: arrogant, socially reclusive, seriously neurotic, possibly megalomaniacal. This resentment means that it is often quite easy in many circles to score rhetorical points by pointing out that “scientists don’t know everything”, accusing scientists of “arrogance” or living in an “ivory tower”, accusing them of being “close-minded”, etc. Thomas Kuhn in particular attacked science by almost exclusively attacking the psychology and character flaws of scientists, in what was really nothing more than a long-winded “attack the messenger, not the message” tactic.

Of course, attacking the messenger is a very weak argument. The more clever debaters attack empirical thinking itself, by employing one of the following methods:

  1. Attacking empiricism. This idea was pioneered by David Hume, whose argument can be distilled down to the idea that you can’t be 100% sure that the Sun will rise in the East tomorrow just because it did every day before (he actually used this exact example himself). In short, he argued that you cannot use physical experience as a basis for gaining knowledge about how the universe works. A skilled debater can make this argument seem surprisingly convincing, so you should keep in mind that it relies on a single conceit: that a piece of knowledge is either 100% certain or it’s totally worthless, with no middle ground. This is the argument’s central weakness. Once you accept that absolute knowledge is beyond the grasp of humanity (despite the best efforts of religious leaders to claim it), you will realize that a good system of intellectual inquiry will recognize this fact and work within that limitation, rather than pretending to have some detour around it.
  2. Attacking parsimony and atheism. One of the basic principles of science (known as “Occam’s Razor”) is that you only employ as many terms as you need. Or, put another way, you eliminate all of the variables that you don’t find useful. One of those useless variables is God, who lacks measurement, observation, definition, mechanism, or predictive usefulness. And so, science really has no choice but to dismiss God. Not because scientists ignore that which they disbelieve, but because science must ignore variables that are of no use in their work. Like it or not, God falls into that category. Scientists can still be religious even though the nature of their work is not, just as mathematicians can go to church even though no one will ever write a mathematical proof with a “God” term. The signature example of the scientific approach toward religion was Kepler who, when asked why God was not mentioned in his equations of planetary motion, reputedly replied that he had no need of that term (despite being a very religious man himself). Unfortunately, since atheists are the most distrusted group in America (according to Gallup polling), this means that creationists can score political points by attacking science for not incorporating God, even though the same accusation could be made against mathematics or even automobile repair.
  3. Attacking the fallibility of scientists. Are scientists capable of error? Of course. Are there corrupt, incompetent, or dishonest scientists? With tens of thousands of scientists doing research at any given time, there must be. But you cannot damage the credibility of science by pointing out the human flaws of its practitioners, because science is based on a competition model. If scientists make mistakes or try to defraud their peers, at least one of their peers will eventually seize upon these mistakes or deceptions as an opportunity to write his own paper and make a name for himself. The scientific competition model (which is similar to the capitalist free market competition model) is the built-in error correction mechanism of science.
  4. Saying that evolution is not perfect, so it could be totally wrong. Any good scientist will admit that we lack perfect certainty about evolution theory. So this means it could be completely wrong, right? Some new piece of evidence could arise which brings evolution crashing down, right? Well, Not exactly. Isaac Asimov once wrote an article entitled “The Relativity of Wrong”, in which he explained this better than I could, but let’s just say that even if you could show that it is wrong, you would only be able to show that it is slightly wrong, in the same sense that the statement “pi=3.1” is slightly wrong. This is because we’ve already catalogued tens of thousands of species which are consistent with an evolutionary model, so any new theory would need to make very similar predictions almost all of the time. Imagine asking if Newton’s theory of action/reaction could be overturned. Yes, any theory might be wrong, but just how much wrong can it possibly be?
  5. Equating trust in scientists to faith in prophets. A common anti-science tactic is to argue that anyone who trusts the major scientific bodies is no different from someone who has faith in religious prophets. The goal is to pretend that science is no more reliable than religion. But there is a difference between trust and faith. When you get into an elevator marked “3500 lb max weight”, you trust that the elevator will actually hold 3500 lbs because it was designed by licensed professionals who can produce engineering calculations to justify their conclusions. Even if you don’t understand these calculations, you trust them because the competition model and thorough testing means that if the science was wrong, someone would have either pointed it out by now or a disaster would have already occurred. If the elevator was designed by someone who claimed that God did his calculations for him and refused to justify his work in any other way, then you would need faith to ride it.

“In conclusion, if there is one piece of logic you should take away from this, just remember that you can’t dispose of an idea by simply showing that its source is not infallible” – Mike Wong 30th Mar 2001

Scientific Dissidents

Another technique for attacking science is to argue that it has no right to self-regulation. A common argument is to say that there are “dissidents” within the scientific community who dispute the “establishment view”, and who are “silenced” by the defenders of the “status quo”. This language is obviously designed to evoke comparisons to fascist dictatorships. But there are several obvious problems with the argument: first and foremost, disputes are actually encouraged in science, because (as pointed out earlier), science is based on a competition model. Where some people go wrong is when they refuse to engage in scientific debate. The typical self-styled “dissident” reacts to scientific criticism not by publishing more papers and doing more research to substantiate his theories, but by simply quitting the scientific forum and taking his argument directly to the public. A good example is Dr. Stephen E. Jones at Brigham Young University. He was put on “paid leave” by the faculty after:

  1. Representing himself as an expert in civil engineering even though his specialization was actually in astronomy.
  2. Publishing claims about the World Trade Centre building collapse despite serious scientific flaws in his work which were identified by his colleagues.
  3. Refusing to address his colleagues’ criticisms.

Inevitably, his supporters painted these events as an example of a “dissident” being silenced by “the establishment”. But ask yourself a question: how would you know the difference between a man who is disciplined for unprofessional conduct and incompetence, and a man who is being “silenced” by a powerful conspiracy? The answer is that you probably wouldn’t, so you should go to panels of qualified experts to see what they think. And sure enough, any engineering expert can attest to the fact that his claims were nonsense. I myself happen to be a licensed mechanical engineer, and his claims about the immense heat content in the rubble being proof of the use of thermite were simply preposterous (there was plenty of gravitational potential energy in the building’s collapse to account for this energy, and thermite is not used in building demolition anyway because you need high explosives to cut girders with precise timing).

Dr. Stephen E. Jones is not a fraud, in the sense that he has a legitimate doctorate. He is a real scientist, not a man with a fake degree from a diploma mill. And yet, he has made utterly nonsensical claims. He is a classic example of what many modern anti-science speakers term a “scientific dissident”, of the sort that is often used to prove that there must be a conspiracy of silence. That, then, is the first lesson about the “scientific dissident” argument: there are tens of thousands of scientists practising out there, and if you look hard enough, you will find one who supports just about anything. It doesn’t prove the idea has merit, especially if the person acts like a typical “dissident” and prefers the political forum to the scientific one.

Many supporters of the “scientific dissident” argument cite historical examples of “dissidents” being proven correct. But if you actually look at the history, you will find that these “dissidents” were not censured in that way. Their colleagues may have initially disagreed with them, but they worked within the system until their ideas were victorious. Einstein was never censured for defying Newtonian kinematics. Heisenberg was never censured for defying classical physics itself. Shoemaker was never censured for defying gradualism as an impact crater explanation. All of these men, held up as examples of successful “dissidents”, were able to succeed without taking the petulant step of quitting the scientific forum and taking their argument directly to the general public. It is a pure myth that what we refer to as a scientific “dissident” is in any way comparable to them. As an aside, it’s also a myth that they destroyed preceding theories rather than finding exceptions to rules which are still employed. Classical Newtonian kinematics is still employed for almost all engineering calculations, and gradualism is still the only workable explanation for most geological features.

We don’t call it “fascism” when a medical doctor or a lawyer is stripped of his license for professional incompetence even if the average person doesn’t understand what he did wrong. Why should the standard be any different for scientists? Do you believe that science would be improved if it had no mechanism whatsoever for identifying incompetents? Do you believe there is no such thing as an incompetent scientist, and hence no need for any such mechanism? Such a belief would be considered laughably naive in any other field, yet people seem to honestly believe it is reasonable for science, judging by the way they react when a scientific association informs one of its members that he has been found incompetent or in breach of professional conduct.

In conclusion, the only real difference between a visionary scientist and a “dissident” is that the visionary scientist reacts to the initial criticism by debating his colleagues in the scientific forum. The “dissident” reacts to peer criticism by quitting the scientific forum, taking his claims directly to the public, and loudly crying that he is being persecuted by a grand conspiracy. Ask yourself why you should take such a performance seriously, or why such an individual’s association would not be perfectly justified in ejecting him.

Why is it Important?

Sometimes, people acknowledge all of the problems with creationist arguments, but they make a curious objection: “why should we bother fighting it?” They might even continue to argue that in the average person’s daily life, the origin of species really doesn’t matter, so there’s no point fighting the very determined forces of the creationists. That may actually be true, but it speaks to what is ultimately an anti-education mindset. Apart from political “thin edge off the wedge” and “slippery slope” retorts, there are two practical problems with the argument that you don’t need to accurately teach science to students:

The first problem with the “only teach them what you think they’ll need” approach is that you don’t know in advance what any given child will do in life, and you should not artificially limit that child from a young age. There is nothing to stop someone with a good science education from throwing it away and deciding to publish illustrated Jehovah’s Witness books about Noah’s Ark, but a child who was given a substandard science education is at a serious (perhaps insurmountable) disadvantage if he wants to pursue a scientific career later. Giving every child a good science education expands their options in life; failing to do so can only hurt them.

The second problem with the “only teach them what you think they’ll need” approach is that society has needs too. To put it in stark terms, in a democratic nation, a plumber is more than just a plumber; he is also a voter. And this means he (or she) is empowered to periodically choose the leadership of his country based on perceived administrative competence and whatever issues are current at the time. That kind of decision is extremely important, and requires people to be as thoroughly informed as possible, even about things that do not concern their private needs. This means they need to know about matters such as history, geography, economics, and, yes, science. In ancient Athens, the term “idiot” referred to people who did not bother to participate in public life and concerned themselves only with private matters. Perhaps it would be beneficial if we resurrected the original meaning of this term.

This is not a strictly left-wing or right-wing issue. The scientific ignorance of the “common man” has proven to be a disastrous factor in many political issues on both sides. Nuclear power plants have been demonized by the left-wing, due largely to public ignorance. Evolution has been demonized by the right-wing, also due largely to public ignorance. These attitudes affect public policy; nuclear power plant construction has been at a virtual standstill in the United States since the 1970s, and peoples’ understanding of major issues such as AIDS/HIV is seriously impacted by their rejection of evolution (HIV is a result of natural evolution, not sin). Even widespread public health problems such as a disregard for loss of biodiversity or the overuse and abuse of antibiotics are related to incomprehension of evolution.

Summary

So what is all this nonsense about Creationism vs Science?

We don’t know how life started here on earth and no honest person will claim otherwise. The main difference between science and religion, is that science seeks to find out where as religion pretends to know.

The ideas presented in these articles are just theories that are grounded in what is possible through nature, but still theories none the less, and no real scientist holds that any one of those theories is the absolute truth without having evidence to prove so.

Creationism is at best a theory, but one that invokes miracles, one that is not grounded in what is possible in nature, and every devout religious person who subscribes the the creationism theory holds that it is the absolute truth, without evidence to prove so.

Why isn’t creationism listed as a valid scientific theory? Because there is no science involved. Creationism boils down to “My specific God did it, because I said so, now stop asking questions”, and that is the most unscientific thing you could possibly do.”

There are a few key points that I hope you take away from reading this article:

  • Creationism is far more popular among politicians than scientists.
  • If you never bothered earnestly studying how evolution works, you probably got it wrong.
  • Evolution theory was originally created as a solution to a problem, and creationism never even attempts to address that problem.
  • Evolution is supported not only by the similarities in the family tree, but also by its even more important divisions. It’s a family tree, not a family sponge.
  • A real scientific theory can predict not just what can happen, but also what can’t.
  • “God did it” is not an explanation. You cannot explain a mystery with a mystery.
  • The fact that scientists don’t know everything does not mean they know nothing.
  • Science is based on a competition model, similar to the capitalist free market model. This is why there will always be disputes; those disputes are perfectly normal and do not mean that any given theory is necessarily “in crisis”.
  • There are “dissident” scientists at the fringe who push ideas that are junk science at best, such as the BYU astronomy professor peddling 9/11 conspiracy theories or the Pentagon-funded researchers investigating psychic teleportation for the military. Keep that in mind the next time you are told that there are numerous scientists pushing “creation theory”. A theory does not beNcome legitimized the instant someone publishes it; it must pass peer review.
  • Religion may bring many people spiritual comfort, but only an uneducated person can afford to believe that science is no more reliable than religion. No sane engineer would design a bridge using the Bible rather than applied scientific theories.
  • It is not up to the high-school student to decide what is the correct answer on his own test. The inmates do not run the asylum.
  • Education is more than just vocational training; we sell our children and our entire democratic society short when we offer substandard science education in order to appease the religious lobby.

As ever I look forward to your comments and dialogue. Much love.

– Chris

Sources:

  • CreationTheory.org
  • Astrobiology Magazine
  • space.com
  • Time Magazine
  • New Scientist
  • NASA
  • HubbleSite.org
  • Dr. Michael Behe’s “Darwin’s Black Box
  • Sydney J Harris Papers – The Newberry Library, Chicago
  • Charles Robert Darwin – On the Origin of Species
  • Gallup Poll
  • Isaac Asimov
  • Robert A. Heinlein
  • Richard Elliot Freidman – ‘Who Wrote The Bible?’
  • Pentagon Public Records 1960-85
  • Various Atheist Facebook Groups & Websites

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