It’s Funny Until Someone Gets Hurt, then it’s Hilarious

Creationists make themselves look foolish when they pick and choose their scienceI’ve been amazed at the popularity of Creationism/Intelligent Design among Christian pundits.

Old-earth Creationism accepts the consensus within the field of cosmology about the Big Bang and the formation of the solar system 4.6 billion years ago but rejects evolution. Young-earth Creationism also rejects evolution and argues that the earth is less than 10,000 years old. This view is predominant among evangelical pastors.

Dr. Karl Giberson recently pointed out an interesting downside of this mindless rejection of science. He begins by citing a Barna survey that lists six reasons why most evangelical Christians disconnect from the church, at least temporarily, after age 15. The most interesting reason: “Churches come across as antagonistic to science.”

Of the young adults surveyed,

  • 23% say they had “been turned off by the creation-versus-evolution debate”
  • 25% say “Christianity is anti-science”
  • 29% say “churches are out of step with the scientific world we live in”
  • 35% say “Christians are too confident they know all the answers”

As an example of this rejection of science, Giberson points to the technique recommended to schoolchildren by Creation Museum founder Ken Ham. Ham encourages students to ask, “Were you there?” when the biology teacher says that life on earth appeared roughly 4 billion years ago or the physics teacher says that the Big Bang gave us the universe in its present form 13.7 billion years ago.

Ham proudly blogged about nine-year-old Emma B., who wrote to tell Ham how she attacked a curator’s statement that a moon rock was 3.75 billion years old with “Were you there?”

Biologist PZ Myers nicely deflated Ham’s anti-science question with a gentle reply to Emma B. Myers recommends using instead “How do you know that?” which is a question from which you can actually learn something.

Contrast that with Ham’s “Were you there?” which is designed simply to shut down discussion and to which you already know the answer.

“Were you there?” is a subset of the more general question, “Did you experience this with your own senses?” To Science, this question lost significance hundreds of years ago. The days when Isaac Newton used taste as a tool to understand new chemicals are long gone. Modern science relies heavily on instruments to reliably provide information about nature—from simple ones like compasses, voltmeters, and pH meters to complex ones like the Pioneer spacecraft, Hubble space telescope, and Large Hadron Collider.

Personal observation is often necessary (finding new animal species, for example), but this is no longer a requirement for obtaining credible scientific evidence.

From the standpoint of mainstream Christianity, Ham’s position as a young-earth Creationist and Bible literalist is a bit extreme, but higher profile figures like William Lane Craig also give themselves the option to pick and choose their science. Craig uses science a lot—at least, when it suits his purposes. The Big Bang suggests a beginning for the universe, so he takes that. Evolution suggests that life on earth didn’t need God, so he rejects that bit.

He imagines that he’s Hanes Inspector Number 12: “It’s not science until I say it’s science.” It may be fun to pretend that, but what could possibly make you think that’s justifiable?

That reminds me of a joke:

Scientists figure out how to duplicate abiogenesis (the process by which molecules became something that could evolve). They are so excited that they email God to say they want to show him. So God clears some time on his calendar and has them in.

“Sounds like you’ve been busy,” God said. “Show me what you’ve got.”

“Okay—first you take some dirt,” said one of the scientists.

“Hold on,” God said. “Get your own dirt.”

And to William Lane Craig’s pontificating about science, I say, “Hold on—get your own science.”

You either play by the rules of science and accept the scientific consensus whether it’s compatible with your preconceptions or not, or you sit at the children’s table. If you want to hang out with the adults, you can’t invent reasons to rationalize why this science is valid and that is not.

Evangelicals may want to rethink this picking and choosing of science. Giberson ends his article:

The dismissive and even hostile approach to science taken by evangelical leaders like Ken Ham accounts for the Barna finding above. In the name of protecting Christianity from a secularism perceived as corrosive to the faith, the creationists are unwittingly driving the best and brightest evangelicals out of the church…. What remains after their exodus is an even more intellectually impoverished parallel culture, with even fewer resources to think about complex issues.

Perhaps I should be more welcoming to Christian anti-science in the future.

Photo credit: commandoscorch

Related posts:

Related links:

  • Karl Giberson, “Creationists Drive Young People Out of the Church,” Huffington Post, 11/19/11.
  • “Six Reasons Young Christians Leave Church,” Barna, 9/28/11.
  • PZ Myers, “Dear Emma B,” Pharyngula blog, 10/3/11.
  • Ted Olsen, “Go Figure,” Christianity Today, 11/14/11.

Word of the Day: Irreducible Complexity

A novel about Christian apologetics and atheismMicrobiologist Michael Behe coined the term “irreducible complexity” to describe a system in which every part is mandatory. Here is his definition:

By irreducibly complex I mean a single system composed of several well-matched, interacting parts that contribute to the basic function, wherein the removal of any one of the parts causes the system to effectively cease functioning.1

Let’s look at a popular example, the remarkable bacterial flagellum. Built of several dozen different proteins, this tiny motor with a whip-like appendage can propel a bacterium 60 cell lengths per second. Compare this to the cheetah, the fastest land animal, which sprints at 25 body lengths per second. (Here’s a good agenda-less video showing the structure of the flagellum.)

The irreducible complexity claim is this: imagine turning the clock of evolution back. Which protein was the last to be put in place? Remove any protein from the flagellum and it doesn’t function. So if one step back in time from the working flagellum was something useless, no matter which protein you remove, why would evolution have created this thing? Evolution doesn’t spend effort slowly building elaborate nonfunctioning appendages on the remote chance that with a few more mutations over 100,000 generations it might get lucky and create something useful. But Intelligent Design comes to the rescue by postulating a Designer that put everything together all at once.

We can topple this thinking by considering an arch. Which was the last stone to be put in place in an arch? If you try to turn the clock back by removing the central keystone, the arch falls. So that one couldn’t have been last. But try removing any stone from the arch and the same thing happens. This makes the arch irreducibly complex, using this Intelligent Design thinking, with a Designer levitating the stones into place all at once as the only explanation.

But of course this is nonsense. If you imagine watching a movie of the building of an arch played backwards, the first change you’d see was not a stone removed but the last piece of scaffolding put into place. Then the remainder of the scaffolding to support the stones, then the stones removed one at a time, and then the scaffolding removed.

In the same way, the step that preceded the bacterial flagellum might have been the removal of an unnecessary piece of scaffolding.

There is much more to say about why the idea of irreducible complexity has not won over the science of biology, including attacks on how good an example the flagellum is of irreducible complexity, but that is a tangent for this post. For more on this topic, check out the links below.

Science may well have unanswered questions regarding the origin of the flagellum, but “I don’t know” is no reason to invent a Designer. And you can be sure that once the origin of the bacterial flagellum is sufficiently well understood, this argument will be discarded like a used tissue and some other complex feature of biology (and there’s always something) will be seized upon by the Intelligent Design advocate as the wooden stake that will finally destroy the monster that is evolution.

If the past is any indication, our ID friend will have a very long wait.

1 Michael J. Behe, Darwin’s Black Box (Touchstone, 1996), p. 39.

Photo credit: harrymoon

Related posts:

Related links:

How Science Works (and How Christianity Thinks it Wins)

Christian apologists like to imagine that science's errors give them an advantageThis argument was made at the Creationism conference that I recently attended: science isn’t trustworthy because every time you turn around, it’s changing its mind.

  • The sun goes around the earth … no, wait a minute—it’s the other way around.
  • Here’s the fossil of an early human … no, hold on—that one’s a hoax.
  • Living things hold a special energy or force—an élan vital—that animates them … nope, that’s passé.
  • Every wave needs a medium, so space must be filled with “ether” for light to propagate through … oops, wrong again.

An early theory of the formation of the moon said that the fast-spinning early earth flung out the moon and that the big circular Pacific Ocean basin is where it came from.  The question of origin of the moon has been an active area of research, and the flung-out idea is just another discarded scientific theory—this was one of the areas of research that was lampooned at this conference.

The Creationist argues that when you turn from changeable Science to Christianity’s unchanging God and an unchanging Bible, you have something solid that you can trust.

Science does change, but let’s notice that the size of any change tends to decrease for a single theory.  When the door is first opened to a new field of inquiry—say by Leeuwenhoek’s discovery of single-celled organisms or Galileo’s use of the telescope—new theories based on insufficient evidence try to organize the chaos.  One theory might quickly supersede another, but as theories become better at explaining more, changes becomes smaller.  Here are some examples.

  • Geocentrism to heliocentrism was an enormous change for the model of the solar system.  Our understanding of the solar system continues to change (new theories about why Uranus is tipped on its side or reclassification of Pluto as a dwarf planet, for example), but these are comparatively minor.
  • Evolution revolutionized biology, and the changes in biology today are merely refinements to this theory.
  • The intuitive flat earth model was replaced by a spherical earth, and the observation that it’s actually not spherical but slightly flattened at the poles is a small change.
  • Quantum physics continues to change, but new discoveries are not likely to say that matter is not made up of atoms, which are themselves not made up of protons, neutrons, and electrons.

Christians eager to paint the Bible as an unchanging rock in a sea of chaos don’t seem to understand that they point to science’s strength.  Science realizes that new discoveries may obsolete old theories, and every scientific statement is provisional.  And, remarkably, science is self-correcting.  It finds its own errors.

Science changes, and that’s its strength.  The Bible never changes, and that’s its weakness.

Related posts:

Escape from the Creation Conference (2 of 2)

Statue of triceratops with a saddle from the Creation MuseumThis is the second of two posts about the Reality-Distortion Zone that is a Creationist conference.  Read the first one here.

The second lecture was by a science teacher.  He injected more than a dozen Bible quotes and Christian imagery into what was otherwise a decent astronomy lecture.

The irony was lost on him.  He used videos, animations, presentation software, a PC.  He showed Hubble photos of galaxies and satellite photos of solar flares.  He lauded the Apollo program.  This was science revealed to us by technology built on science.  He made a good case—science delivers!

One video took us on a five-minute trip through the universe, accelerating from Earth past the solar system, Alpha Centauri, our galaxy, and our local group of galaxies to eventually take in the entire universe.  And the ancient prescientific desert tribe that made up the Genesis account was stuck back there on Earth 3000 years ago, trying to make sense of things with their Iron Age worldview.

There was yet more unacknowledged irony when he emphasized the size of “God’s creation.”  The Bible says, “[God] also made the stars” (Gen. 1:16).  That’s it.  That’s all the Bible says about the 99.9999999999999999999999999% of the universe1 that’s not the earth.  Makes you think that the authors of Genesis didn’t know about the vastness of the universe.

He played the audio of Apollo 8’s famous Christmas Eve 1968 reading of Genesis 1:1–10.  According to that passage, here’s what God was up to on the second day:

And God said, “Let there be a vault between the waters to separate water from water.”  So God made the vault and separated the water under the vault from the water above it.  And it was so.  God called the vault “sky.”

See if that sounds like this: “[They] envisioned the universe as a closed dome surrounded by a primordial saltwater sea.  Underneath the terrestrial earth, which formed the base of the dome, existed an underworld and a freshwater ocean.”  This was the cosmology of the Sumerians, who preceded the Jews by centuries.

To me, the Apollo reading of this prescientific view of nature doesn’t sound majestic but is meaningful only as it highlights what we’ve discarded.

The speaker made the obligatory slam of Continue reading

I Survived the Creation Conference (1 of 2)

Noah's ArkI attended the 2011 Seattle Creation Conference and made it out to tell the tale.

The slogan of the conference was, “Dedicated to glorifying God through the scientific study of His Creation and refuting the false claims of Evolutionism.”  (Is it just me or does that last phrase betray a presupposition?)  There were prayers galore, sometimes both opening and closing a single lecture.

If the speakers were confident that science will eventually support the biblical view, they could let the science speak for itself.  They could show confidence that science will lead us to the biblical answer.  The question, “If Science and Scripture diverged, which one would you follow?” came to mind, but the answer was obvious.

This was a young-earth Creationism conference.  “Young earth” means: the earth is less than 10,000 years old.  “Creationism” means: evolution is nonsense.  There were probably some old-earthers there too, but I’m pretty sure that I was the only one stupid enough to accept the scientific consensus on evolution.

The remainder of this post is about lectures by Mike Oard from Creation Ministries International, who spoke for two hours on Noah’s flood.  (Let me add that everyone was polite, including me, so I’m attacking the “science,” not the speakers.)

Oard began with a couple of Bible quotes to justify using reason.  It’s odd to need such a justification in a conference “dedicated to … scientific study,” but OK.  One quote was, “Examine carefully; hold fast to that which is good” (1 Thes. 5:21).  I suspect that the last phrase was seen as license to pick and choose.

He stressed that, while some Christians imagine this to be a local flood, it was global.  I enjoy seeing Creationists attack each other, but Continue reading

Nazi Soldiers Indoctrinated with Darwin? How Convenient.

1871 image of a monkey with Charles Darwin's headWhy were the Nazis so disagreeable?  Because they were force-fed evolution, of course!  Christian podcaster Greg Kokul thinks he’s uncovered the Nazi/evolution connection.

In a recent Stand to Reason podcast (starting at 5:00), Kokul spoke of being informed that German soldiers during World War II were issued two books, Goethe’s Faust and a German translation of The Origin of Species.  And it was Hitler himself who insisted that they get them.

(Wow—right out of the gate we’re embracing Godwin’s Law!)

About the logic behind Hitler’s assigning these books, Kokul says:

It’s because the ideas in The Origin of Species served [Hitler’s] purposes well, and if a person actually believed what Darwin taught, then they would make good Nazis.

My first complaint is that Kokul accepted the story uncritically.  This story nicely supports his worldview that evolution is both harmful and wrong, so he passes it on with no fact checking.  I do my best to take the opposite approach: when I find a delicious story that skewers an opponent (either a person or idea), I want to make sure that I have strong evidence so that I don’t look ridiculous after passing on flawed hearsay.

In doing my own research on books issued to German soldiers, the only page I came across was a post in another atheist blog (IAmAnAtheist) who’d heard the podcast and asked the very same question.  That blogger raised a great point: Why issue those two books and not Hitler’s own Mein Kampf?

That Origin was a central part of Nazi thinking seems unlikely.  The official Nazi library journal in 1935 listed twelve categories of banned books.  One category was:

Writings of a philosophical and social nature whose content deals with the false scientific enlightenment of primitive Darwinism and Monism.

(If anyone comes across evidence for this books question either way, please add that to the comments.)

Now let’s move on to critique Kokul’s ill-informed ramblings on evolution.  One of Kokul’s favorite ploys is to try to tie eugenics with evolution.

First off, Darwin himself rejected eugenics.  In The Descent of Man, he said, “No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that [not culling the inferiors] must be highly injurious to the race of man.”  Creationists enjoy quoting just the paragraph that contains this sentence and ignoring the very … next … paragraph where he overturns this argument.

Darwin rejected eugenics, Greg.  Of course, you’ll be quick to backpedal and argue that Darwin’s own personal opinions say nothing about the validity of evolution.  Agreed!  Which is why whether or not Hitler kept his copy of Origin under his pillow says nothing about the central issue here: Is evolution the best explanation of why life is the way it is?  Which is why this entire conversation is simply mudslinging.

“Hitler was bad, and Hitler and Darwin were BFFs!  And Darwin was ugly!  And … and he probably ate babies!  And didn’t recycle!”  Whether true or not, it’s irrelevant.

This is what one does when one doesn’t actually have a real argument.

Science is not policy.  Evolution is science (the domain of scientists), and eugenics is policy (the domain of politicians).  Any scientist who advocates eugenics has left the domain of science and jumped into policy.  Eugenics isn’t science, and criticism of eugenics is no criticism of science.

Which brings up the last point: Did Hitler base his eugenics policies on evolution?  Kokul seems to imagine a kind and gentle Adolf Hitler, picking up litter and helping little old ladies cross the street, being turned to the scientific Dark Side® after reading Darwin.  But wasn’t there plenty of anti-Semitism around already?  Didn’t Martin Luther himself write the violently anti-Semitic On the Jews and Their Lies?

This bypasses the issue: Is evolution correct?  Bringing up eugenics is not only flawed but irrelevant.

It’s the white flag of surrender.

Photo credit: Wikipedia

Related articles:

  • The Stand to Reason podcast archives are here.  The podcast referenced here is from August 21, 2011.
  • “Six Things in Expelled That Ben Stein Doesn’t Want You to Know…” Scientific American, 2/11/09.
  • Full-text version of Charles Darwin’s The Descent of Man available here.