Getting the basics right

As I’ve already said many times before, bad arguments do not build faith. On the contrary, they undermine it. Claims that are easily falsified, or that just demonstrate ignorance, will completly undermine your credibility, and if you are attaching a significant doctrinal importance to them, you will effectively be undermining the credibility of the whole Bible as well.

If you are going to respond to the theory of evolution, let alone attempt to refute it, it is essential to have a correct understanding of what it actually claims, what evidence you are dealing with, and how the underlying science works. Unfortunately, I keep hearing arguments being made for a young earth and against evolution that not only get this wrong, but they do so in ways that speak of total cluelessness about these matters.

So without further ado, here are some very basic things that you need to know before you even start to discuss the subject.

1. Science is built on a foundation of mathematics and measurement.

Whenever you hear scientists talking about their conclusions, there is one thing you can be sure about: they have reached those conclusions by measuring things and running those measurements through mathematical models. I shouldn’t need to say this, but I have seen YEC arguments out there that seem to be completely ignorant of the fact. Claims that the age of the earth is “guessing at best,” or that “rocks don’t come with timestamps,” fall squarely into this category.

You can of course question whether they are measuring the correct things, whether there are other measurements that they also need to take, and whether their mathematical models are an accurate reflection of reality. Scientists ask these questions all the time, though when multiple independent models all give the same result and there aren’t any credible models that point to a consistent alternative, the chances are pretty strong that those models actually work. But ignoring the mathematical and numerical aspects to the debate altogether, or treating them as if they are irrelevant, will just make you look ignorant, and quite possibly intellectually dishonest into the bargain.

measurement

There are two things you need to be aware of about mathematics and measurement. The first is that you won’t get different results by looking at them through different “glasses.” One plus one is still two, and Mount Everest is still 8,848 metres tall, no matter what your presuppositions. The other is that they give very specific results. The earth is not simply “billions of years old”; it is 4.54±0.05 billion years old — that is, it is known with a precision of just one percent. You don’t get an accuracy of just one percent out of numerically vague and non-specific starting points, and “an a priori commitment to billions of years, evolution and philosophical naturalism” is about as numerically vague and non-specific as you can get.

2. Science is also built on a foundation of testable predictions.

As we’ve already seen, the claim that “historical science” is based on untestable assumptions is completely untrue. Asking “were you there?” simply tells the world that you haven’t a clue how the scientific method works.

Every scientific theory starts out with two things: a hypothesis, and some tests for that hypothesis. For example, biologist J.B.S. Haldane said that the theory of evolution would be falsified if we were to find rabbit fossils in Precambrian strata. We don’t. Similarly, the view that Noah’s Flood was global in extent rather than regional, and was responsible for creating the fossils, is also a testable hypothesis. Flood geology predicts that we should find whale and plesiosaur fossils in the same strata (we don’t) and that we should see evidence of salt water, melting, or sedimentation in ice cores from Greenland and the Antarctic (again, we don’t).

The_Scientific_Method_as_an_Ongoing_Process.svg
The Scientific Method (source: Wikipedia)

If you are relying on untestable assumptions, you aren’t doing science, it’s as simple as that. On the contrary, you are doing philosophy or metaphysics — and those are completely different subjects.

3. Science has rules.

Scientific theories are not just interpretations of the evidence. They are interpretations that are made by following strict and systematic rules. One does not simply take any old interpretation of the evidence that shoehorns it into six thousand years and call it “science.” If you could, you could just claim that the Four Blood Moons were evidence for a young earth, because treknobabble.

Just to be clear: I’m not talking about leaving miracles out of the picture here. I’m talking about leaving misrepresentation and sloppy thinking out of the picture. The rules I have in mind are, for example:

  • It must be free from arithmetic errors.
  • It must not fudge or cherry-pick the raw data.
  • It must neither exaggerate nor downplay the significance of uncertainties and discordances.
  • It must not take shortcuts.
  • It must verify its integrity by testing against controls where appropriate.
  • It must not misrepresent the extent or nature of the evidence.
  • It must not quote mine.
  • It must not be resistant to reasonable critique.

These are basic rules of honesty and quality control. To break them in order to “fit Scripture” is neither scientific nor Scriptural. Deuteronomy 25:13 and Proverbs 11:1 tell us that we must be honest in how we handle weights and measures, and as I made clear in point number one, weights and measures are the foundation on which science is built.

1slt8p

Two of the most important rules of science are peer review and reproducibility. One set of studies by a single team is not sufficient to establish scientific evidence for anything; the results need to be reproduced and confirmed by other teams, and there must not be any contradictory studies. There’s a very good reason for this requirement. If new scientific theories could be accepted on the basis of a single study, you’d be opening the door wide up to cold nuclear fusion, superluminal neutrinos, anti-vaccination, astrology, homeopathy, water divining, and reading tea leaves.

Unfortunately, I am yet to see any evidence for a young earth that meets even these most basic standards of quality control. Almost everything I’ve seen so far falls far, far short.

4. Scientists are not “always changing their minds.”

Now when you read the popular scientific press, it may seem to you that scientists are always changing their minds. One week, you will read that something causes cancer; the next, you will read that it prevents it. Or you may read that they can’t make up their minds about exactly which hominin fossil relates to which.

Most of this is sloppy science journalism. Science journalists are not scientists; they are journalists. They have to dumb things down for a non-technical audience, and very often they also have to spice things up in order to sell more newspapers or attract more Facebook likes. In both cases, accuracy goes out of the window. Research is often publicised prematurely before it has had adequate peer review or been confirmed by other studies.

The main areas of disagreement among scientists — where they genuinely do seem to be changing their minds — are almost always in the fine details, in relatively immature areas of research, and in subjects that have little other science depending on it. These are areas where there is not enough data to differentiate between one hypothesis and another. On the other hand, scientists rarely if ever change their minds about well-established theories that are backed by large amounts of differentiating data, or that have a lot of other science that depends on them. The scientific consensus on the age of the earth and the Big Bang has not changed in over fifty years.

There is a lot of debate among scientists about exactly how evolution happens. This mostly concerns matters such as exactly which fossils relate to which others, and which mechanisms are the most important. But there is no uncertainty whatsoever about whether evolution happens. Uncertainty about “how” does not imply uncertainty about “whether”: when you see a cat from a distance, you can still tell that it is a cat, even if you can’t make out its whiskers.

5. “Evolutionists” do not study the age of the earth.

I am constantly hearing YECs saying that “evolutionists” have decided that some particular rock layer is so many million years old. There are two problems with this.

First of all, evolution is not the study of the age of the earth. Evolution is the study of how populations of species change over time in response to environmental pressures. It is a sub-topic of biology, although it has also found applications in computer science and software engineering. The age of the earth, and the ages of rock strata, on the other hand, are the subject of geochronology — a subject that sits at the intersection of geology, chemistry, and physics. It is a totally different subject.

Secondly, this casts the word “evolutionist” in the role of being a derogatory term for any kind of science that you don’t like. As such, it is purely an ad hominem argument, it is confrontational in tone, and it does nothing to address the central points of the arguments in question.

6. Evolution is not “just a theory” — it is an evidence-based theory.

All theories in science are evidence-based, and the theory of evolution is no exception.

In this day of smartphones, anyone hearing you suggesting that there is no evidence for evolution can easily whip out their iPhone or Samsung Galaxy and type “evidence for evolution” straight into Google as you are speaking. If you’re going to try debunking evolution, you need to show that the evidence is ambiguous or misinterpreted, not pretend that it doesn’t exist when quite clearly it does.

Even honest young-earth creationist scientists admit this. For example, Todd Wood has this to say:

Evolution is not a theory in crisis. It is not teetering on the verge of collapse. It has not failed as a scientific explanation. There is evidence for evolution, gobs and gobs of it. It is not just speculation or a faith choice or an assumption or a religion. It is a productive framework for lots of biological research, and it has amazing explanatory power. There is no conspiracy to hide the truth about the failure of evolution. There has really been no failure of evolution as a scientific theory. It works, and it works well.

Dr. Wood rejects evolution because he believes that there may be other factors at work that science is not currently able to investigate that could provide an alternative explanation for the evidence. That’s fair enough. But to suggest that the evidence does not even exist is simply not getting your facts straight.

7. Evolution does not predict that cats should turn into dogs.

If you are going to attempt to debunk a scientific theory, it is important that you make sure you are debunking what it actually claims, and not some straw-man caricature of it.

CatDog

I frequently hear objections to evolution that say that nobody has ever observed a cat turning into a dog. Evolution does not claim that cats should turn into dogs, but that both descended from a common ancestor which lived about 42 million years ago. Another straw man argument that I often hear is that you can’t produce a quote from Shakespeare by dropping a bag of Scrabble tiles onto a table. Evolution does not claim that should happen either — on the contrary, it claims that meaningful information comes about through a series of small, random changes being filtered out by non-random selection processes.

“Uniformitarianism” is another common misrepresentation. YECs are constantly claiming that geologists blindly assume that all rates of change were constant, and reject the possibility of catastrophic events. This claim is completely untrue. Scientists do not assume that any rates are constant unless there are solid theoretical and observational reasons to do so. Furthermore, they recognise that catastrophic events have happened in the past. The K/T extinction event, and its associated asteroid impact at the end of the Cretaceous 66 million years ago, are the best known example.

8. There have been 150 years of research into evolution since Darwin.

Finally, if you are going to try to discuss any scientific theory, it’s important to make sure that your information is up to date. Darwin first published On the Origin of Species in 1859. In case you hadn’t noticed, that was one hundred and fifty-eight years ago.

I’m constantly coming across YEC arguments that focus largely on scientific studies from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. For example, one anti-evolution pamphlet that I’ve been reading recently made this claim about “fraudulent” fossil findings:

In the last century, we’ve had Nebraska Man, Piltdown Man, Neanderthal Man, Peking Man, and a selection of bones known as ‘Lucy’ found in the Ethiopian deserts in 1974, later identified as being that of a tree-climbing monkey.

All but one of these examples are more than ninety years old and some of them date back as far as the nineteenth century. There is no mention whatsoever of more modern findings such as Homo naledi, Homo floriensis, Australopithecus sediba, and so on, let alone findings of non-hominin transitional fossils such as Tiktaalik roseae.

Any honest discussion of evolution needs to take into account the latest research — not just concerning the fossil record, but also from other directions as well. For example, I would expect to see a discussion of the Human Genome Project, and the whole subject of comparative genomics in particular. This is an area of study that has only been made possible in the past twenty years or so with the widespread availability of vast amounts of computing power. A modern consumer laptop computer can now do a complete comparison of human and chimp genomes (each of which consists of about three quarters of a gigabyte of data) in just a couple of days. This is a level of computational power that wasn’t available thirty years ago.

Cross-checks test assumptions. They do not make them.

Literal Six Day Young Earth Creationists believe that “historical science,” as conducted by “secular scientists,” relies entirely on assumptions of uniformitarianism — the idea that the rates at which natural processes happened in the past has always been the same as it is today.

As we saw last time, nothing could be further from the truth. Scientists do not blindly assume that rates of change are constant: on the contrary, they carry out numerous cross-checks between different methods to establish which of them have been constant and which of them have not.

What has the LSDYEC response to these cross-checks been? In a 2010 article on creation.com, Dr. John K Reed attempted to address this question. His response completely missed the point.

The first nine paragraphs of his article form a lengthy homily that focuses entirely on theological issues: the insistence that a faithful reading of the Bible demands a creation over six 24-hour days, and that any other view is “compromise” and “anti-creation.” However, in the second section of the article, he takes a look at the evidence. His response to the cross-checks is to dismiss them as being based on the same worldview:

Like the Lake Suigetsu argument, the next case also makes the attempt to demonstrate how multiple lines of evidence all lead to the same conclusion. But while the data might be independent, the worldview in the mind of the researchers is not, and worldviews always shape perceptions of reality. This time, the authors take us to the other side of the world, to the Atlantic Ocean’s mid-ocean ridge. We are told that after geology proved a steady spreading rate over 180,000,000 years, that satellite measurements have triumphantly confirmed that rate.

This is an argument that I’ve seen other young-earthers raise from time to time — that different measurements only give the same results because they make the same assumptions of uniformitarianism — and it is complete and utter nonsense. It gets cause and effect completely the wrong way round. The whole point of cross-checks is to test the assumptions that rates were constant, not to make them.

Worldviews may shape perceptions of reality, but they do not shape the results of measurement and mathematics. You can adopt a worldview that Mount Everest is just four inches tall if you like, but that won’t change the fact that you get a height of 8,848 metres when you measure it. The technical term for letting your worldview shape the results of your measurements is “scientific fraud,” and its consequences are at best a career change to flipping burgers in McDonald’s, and at worst a prison sentence.

To see why cross-checks are an effective test of constant rates, let’s assume the reverse: that the different rates were not constant. This could only happen if there were some factor at work that affected them in exactly the same way, to exactly the same extent, in exact lock-step with each other, by a factor of up to a billion, depending on the timescale you want to argue for. If the rates of nuclear decay and continental drift had not increased by the same amount, you wouldn’t get the same results. If there were any lag between them, you wouldn’t get the same results.

Then you have to consider other rates that must have increased in lock-step with the two. Annual lake varves and ice layers would have to have been deposited at a rate of a billion per year — that is, more than thirty per second. There is no known physical process that can do that.

Reed then goes on to question the integrity of the data:

Once again, there are too many weak links. How do we know that the seafloor has been spreading at the same rate for 180 million years? A few scattered dates of oceanic rocks? One would think at a minimum that a dense grid of dates would be required to prove such a claim. But even the sparse dates might be more convincing if they were actually dates of the oceanic basement. Or if we could trust radiometric dating, despite its assumptions and anomalies. Finally, a few years of satellite measurements alone cannot possibly prove 180 million years of constant spreading.

I would have expected him to have given a link to a high-quality scientific journal such as Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta in support of his assertion that the dates are sparse and not of oceanic basement, but he doesn’t. The article he cites (without giving a clickable link) was published in the Journal of Scientific Exploration — a publication devoted to the study of all sorts of New Age fringe science such as ufology, astrology, palm reading, alternative medicine, and so on and so forth. Its peer review processes are lax, and the journal editor actually admitted that several reviewers had recommended against the article’s publication. The author, a certain David Pratt, has a copy of both the article itself and the editor’s comments on his personal website, which is devoted to all sorts of wild and wacky theosophist theories such as karma, reincarnation, and “cyclic evolution” (whatever that is).

In any case, this data does not only come from the Atlantic and the Pacific basins, but from all over the world. It is also just one of many, many cross-checks that are carried out between a wide variety of different dating methods. The number of studies in the scientific literature easily runs into the hundreds of thousands at least. Even if the Atlantic Ocean dates are “sparse” and “scattered” as he suggests, the overall data most certainly is not.

Reed then continues by saying this:

We need to know too that a rigid uniformitarianism has held over time. Ironically, it was Young who wrote:

We also challenge young-Earth creationists to desist from labeling modern geology as uniformitarian when they know full well that modern geologists repudiate any a priori commitment to slow, gradual process rates in the geologic past to the exclusion of all catastrophic events.

Again, we see that he has completely missed the point. The whole point of cross-checks is to test where “a rigid uniformitarianism” has held over time. Geologists do not blindly assume that all rates of change are constant, and they do not blindly reject the possibility of catastrophic events. For someone who is a PhD geologist himself to suggest that they do so is quite dishonest.

The “were you there?” fallacy

I was discussing the fossil record with a YEC friend on Twitter the other day. I pointed out to him that we never find whale fossils and plesiosaur fossils in the same strata, which is not what we would expect from Flood geology, since both occupied the same environment.

He said that’s just an assumption: how can we know, since nobody has ever observed plesiosaurs in their natural environment?

This is a fairly standard young-earth argument. Children are taught to impertinently ask their teachers, “Were you there?” when they are told about evolution or millions of years. It may sound persuasive to anyone who knows little or nothing about science, but it is not true.

Not having been there may mean that we don’t know everything about how plesiosaurs lived, but we most certainly do not know nothing. We know that they were marine animals for starters. Animals the size of a bus with flippers don’t live on land: they wouldn’t be able to get around. We also know they had worldwide distribution because their fossils are found everywhere. It doesn’t take a “secular” or a “materialist” worldview to see this, nor do you have to reject the possibility of miracles.

Plesiosaur_on_land
This could not have happened. (Image source: Wikimedia Commons)

These are facts that are obvious. Less obvious facts may require more advanced techniques to figure them out, and some of them may require assumptions to be made, but these assumptions are not untestable by any means.

In particular, it is quite straightforward to determine which physical processes operated at constant rates in the past and which did not. All you need to do is to cross-check different dating methods whose assumptions are independent of each other to see whether or not they give the same results.

There are many such cross-checks that we can make. Besides radiometric dating, we can also check tree rings, lake varves, ice cores, coral layers, and a whole lot more.

One particularly spectacular example comes from measuring rates of continental drift. In places such as the Hawaiian islands, the dates of lava flows increase linearly with distance from the hot spot in the earth’s crust over which the various islands have formed. In recent years, it has also become possible to measure continental drift directly using GPS. Everywhere we look, the measurements are exactly the same within the measured range of errors.

continental-drift-rate-comparisons
Continental drift rates as measured by radiometric dating versus direct laser measurements. Figure modified from Robbins et al., 1993. Source: thenaturalhistorian.com

Scientists do not blindly assume that all geological rates were constant. On the contrary, they acknowledge that some rates must have changed over time. For example, that is why they do not consider that the amount of salt in the sea tells us anything about the age of the earth: its rate of change is simply too variable, there are too many unknowns, and a state of equilibrium lies well within the error bars. On the other hand, there are very good reasons, both theoretical and observational, to believe that nuclear decay rates have always been the same in the past as they are today. These cross-checks are just one such reason.

Next time, we’ll take a look at how the young-earth organisations have responded to these cross-checks. Their response is quite bizarre and completely misses the point.

A brief introduction

A couple of years ago, my sister in law asked me what she should be saying to my nephews, who were coming home from school talking about evolution and billions of years and all the rest of it. Since I’m the science graduate in the family, working in IT, I tend to get viewed as the fount of all knowledge on all things scientific. Should she correct them, she asked?

I didn’t have much to say to her at the time. For many years, I paid little or no attention to the creation and evolution debate. I went through a young-earth creationist phase in my late teens, but it fizzled out when I was at university, and gradually gave way to a general view that the whole debate was a bit of a waste of time. It completely missed the point of Genesis 1-11, and as such was the kind of foolish controversy that Titus 3:9 warns us against.

I’d generally thought that although the creationist organisations such as Answers in Genesis probably had some good points, they tended to get a bit too carried away with themselves by insisting on a young earth. I didn’t know what to make of evolution — I had given up on biology at the first possible opportunity when I was fourteen, and generally viewed making sense of that as Someone Else’s Problem.

But I thought that since I had family members asking me about it, I needed to look into it.

In the end of the day, my position on the matter is quite simple: make sure your facts are straight. It doesn’t really bother me how old you think the earth is, or who or what you think did or didn’t evolve from what, as long as you’re being honest about it. Sadly there are a lot of excruciatingly bad creationist arguments out there — claims that are either completely clueless or even blatantly untrue — and that doesn’t honour God. You may think it bold and uncompromising to go for the most radical young-earth position, but if you are defending your position with claims that are easily falsified, you won’t be upholding the Bible; on the contrary, you’ll be undermining it. At best you’ll just look ignorant; at worst, you’ll end up portraying Christianity itself as an exercise in anti-intellectual dishonesty. Make sure you don’t rush into the debate with all guns blazing only to shoot yourself in the foot.

This blog is intended to serve as a bit of a brain dump for the various fact-checking that I’ve done and the conclusions that I’ve come to over the past couple of years. I’m not intending to use it to bash any particular viewpoint, but rather as a resource to help fellow Christians to fact-check the various claims that are being bandied about and make sense of it all. I hope that it proves to be useful.