“Someone is wrong on the internet.” xkcd
I suffer from this disorder, although I try hard to manage the symptoms.
This post is a follow-up to an exchange with my good friend nomasir over at Freedom at Bethsaida. The subject matter there tends to focus on “the nature of Christian interaction and participation in government and public policy.” So what does this have to do with science? In this case, the discussion involved homeschooling and its advantages over the public school system, which led– via my prompting– to the teaching of “Young Earth Creationism,” a belief that our planet is only thousands of years old, as opposed to billions.
As usual, before continuing, I recommend reading the original post first, before I attempt to cloud your judgment.
I have been dismissive of religiously motivated science education here before. However, in this case there are a couple of ideas presented that I think deserve more careful inspection. Okay, maybe not so much the ideas of creationism itself, but some interesting views on the practice and philosophy of science in general. In what follows, I will try to relate my comments back to the relevant sections of the original post.
Science != Democracy
Reference is made to a Gallup poll from last year, suggesting that “creationism has broad-based support.” Of those surveyed:
- 46% said “God created humans in present form.”
- 32% said “Humans evolved, with God guiding.”
- 15% said “Humans evolved, but God had no part in the process.”
(Note that this poll does not actually address the original issue of age of the earth. No matter; the ideas discussed here still apply.)
It is not clear whether presentation of these results was intended to be considered evidence for any one of these views being correct. I hope not– and in fact I don’t think it was. But as long as we are here, let’s investigate further, because I think it is misleading to characterize this as “broad-based support,” for two reasons.
First, this poll was of Americans, who (1) make up less than 5% of the world’s population, and (2) are rather disappointingly unique in their desire to cling to creationism. Check out these wider surveys of other countries from 2006 and 2009, the latter of which also makes the important point of attempting to relate belief with knowledge of the theory in question.
Which leads to the second reason, namely that these numbers change dramatically if, rather than sampling from the entire U.S. population, we instead focus on scientists in a relevant field. Or even more loosely, if we simply focus on people with, say, a graduate-level education, in any field. Wikipedia provides an interesting mathematical exercise leading up to the conclusion that “the roughly 150 biologist Darwin Dissenters represent about 0.0157% of the US biologists that existed in 1999.”
My point here is merely to emphasize that we do not vote on science. Science is, in my opinion, not democratic, but Bayesian, where the theory that prevails is not the one most commonly held, but the one best supported by the weight of evidence.
Evidences of Young Earth
I tried to track down information on each of the 15 specific “observable processes” mentioned in the original post. It is possible that I missed the interesting one, because I admit that I gave up after the fourth, “the receding moon,” one of several ideas proposed by one Thomas G. Barnes as evidence for a young earth. It is here, in the actual technical “meat” of the arguments, that I find myself most fascinated by creationism. Because these are not, in fact, subtle, difficult, or new arguments. If they were, I could perhaps understand the adherence to them, since there would be no clear consensus.
At any rate, it is understandable that a political/religious forum like Freedom is not the place to climb into an even moderately dense mathematical or otherwise technical discussion. But here, on the other hand, it is more than welcome. So if there is any interest in discussing any of these arguments in more detail, I would be happy to participate.
It’s All Religion
From the original post: “It is a matter of faith for [scientists] too. We reject out of hand the notion that Christians blindly hold to a Biblical explanation with zero evidence, and “scientists” heroically and unbiasedly progress toward understanding truth.”
This is the idea that I found most interesting. The problem of bias in science has been discussed here before. In one sense, I can see nomasir’s point: particularly here in the U.S., there can be significant pressure in the academic community to publish… well, just to publish. For example, there is a dearth of negative results that are seen as less interesting or less “sensational;” there is financial pressure to get or keep grant funding; and the government source of that funding can possibly lead to political pressure to skew results that impact policy decisions.
But I don’t think these are the kinds of personal bias that nomasir is talking about. The suggestion seems to be that scientists have just as personal a stake in, say, the true age of the earth, as do creationists. Again, from the original post: “If one can definitively prove the young-earth model of creation, then the evolutionists are stuck with the plain reality that the only explanation for our existence is a Creator. And such an explanation dramatically changes their outlook on life.”
I see several problems with this statement. First, it is a false dilemma. Second, it also suggests a misleading view of how science works. Science is not in the business of proving anything. Science is in the business of disproving theories. What I have called “current scientific consensus” is nothing more than those theories that have so far most successfully survived all attempts at discrediting them.
But even aside from this nit-picking, I disagree with the contention that scientists somehow “need” the earth to be old, that they “need” humans to have evolved. Or at least, I disagree with the contention that I “need” any particular theory to be true. Indeed, I must confess to understanding the attraction of at least some tenets of Christianity. How comforting it would be for me to know that loved ones that I have lost are not gone, that they have not simply ceased to be. How relaxing it would be if it were no longer useful to strive to understand how the world works, because it is “not for me to know.”
I hear repeatedly from my creationist friends the complaint that scientists are hypocritical in their rejection of creationism as a possible theory. Here again, the confusion seems to be with the “Bayesian” nature of science. That is, I think this complaint perverts the basically correct idea that “every theory is possibly wrong,” by trying to turn it into the absolutely incorrect idea that “every theory is equally likely to be true.”
So let me be as clear as possible: it is possible that the earth is less than one million years old. (I use this cutoff as a neutral middle ground where presumably no one cares much about the exact length of time.) But given the weight of all available observable evidence, the estimate of the probability that this is the case is so vanishingly small that to hold to it as a working hypothesis would limit or even prohibit useful progress in day-to-day scientific endeavor.