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: