“These subjects are our jobs.”

A friend who is a PhD biologist wrote this comment on one of my Facebook posts a couple of years ago:

These subjects are our jobs, what we spent years training and are paid to do.

This is probably the most important thing that anyone has said in the entire debate about science and faith. For all the fuss that gets made about the age of the Earth, evolution, Intelligent Design, and so on, these are not the only issues — or even the most important issues — at stake. No, a far greater concern is any teaching that demands that, as a Christian, I must embrace ways of thinking that would undermine my ability to function responsibly and professionally in the workplace.

When you work professionally with science or technology in any capacity, you see a side to the subject that is all but invisible to people whose scientific understanding comes from being spoon-fed blog posts, Facebook posts, TV programmes, sermons, and Answers in Genesis videos. You quickly learn that getting science wrong has consequences.

In many cases, these consequences can be severe. In some cases, they can even end up killing people. Consider, for example, the case of Therac-25: a computerised radiotherapy machine that ended up killing and maiming cancer patients due to a bug in its software that caused it to overdose in certain situations. It is required reading for computer scientists and software engineers, being used as a case study in many universities as a cautionary tale as to the damage that can be caused when things go wrong. One of the key responsibilities of scientists and engineers is to study such disasters in detail and to put in place new systems and protocols to prevent them from happening again.

This means that when you get into the workplace, you have to approach science in a professional and disciplined manner. There are skills that you have to master, rules that you have to follow, and standards that you have to maintain. Many of these rules and standards apply to every area of science, whether “operational” or “historical.” Your approach has to be sharp and crisp, with close attention to fine detail and concepts and problems that are often complex, counterintuitive, and difficult to understand. You cannot afford to tolerate any approach to science in general that is sloppy, dishonest, ignorant, mathematically incoherent, or resistant to critique and fact-checking. You cannot afford to make things up or invent your own alternative reality just because you don’t like the results that the computer reports to you. You cannot afford to let people fob off hard facts and evidence-based reasoning as “just your opinion,” let alone as something “secular” that is not to be trusted.

If you’ve ever wondered why those of us who are in such positions as Christians get so upset by anti-science attitudes in the Church, that is why. Lowering our professional standards — let alone abandoning them completely — in order to accommodate non-essential doctrines, political positions, or “culture war” issues, is simply not an option for us. To do so would not just be unscientific; it would be dishonest, and furthermore if we were then to allow such a lowering of standards to infect how we approached our jobs, it could potentially be dangerous.

All we ask is that when apologetics literature and teaching discusses anything science-related, that it does so in a way that recognises this fact, and that respects the same standards that we have to maintain in our workplaces. Our careers are very often our callings — they are what God has designed us for and where He has placed us — and our witness for Christ is to maintain the highest possible standards of integrity and professionalism in that calling, and we need our churches, our pastors, and our fellow believers to support us in it.

Featured image credit: Ben Dracup, www.dnalegal.com.

Levels of scientific maturity

Is the scientific method infallible? Is the scientific consensus always right?

From time to time, people bring up such things as the reproducibility crisis to remind me that it isn’t. Data has to be interpreted. P-values can be hacked. False negatives and false positives can be an issue, and scientific fraud is a very real problem. Scientists are often under a lot of pressure in their careers to publish novel research, and this can inevitably lead to a conflict between quality and quantity. Political and social pressures can influence consensus in various ways, both subtle and not so subtle.

It’s a valid point, and one that I am aware of. But — and it is a big but — it is not a free pass to let you dismiss anything and everything about science that you don’t like. If it were, you would be able to dismiss speeding tickets in court by challenging the physics of speed cameras in that way. Good luck with that.

So clearly, there are limits to how sceptical we can be of the scientific method itself. But what are those limits? In order to answer this question, it is helpful to consider the different levels of maturity that scientific theories pass through. This is probably an over-simplification, but we can outline five different levels for starters:

  1. Frontier. These are subjects at the very early stages of investigation. They concern questions that are characterised by little or no data, and a lot of speculation. Research tends to focus on developing the theories and devising experiments to obtain data to support them.
  2. Controversy. These are subjects where there is a certain amount of data available, but no real consensus on the explanation for the data. There may be two or more possible candidates, but no clear leader. Research tends to focus on coming up with experiments that can differentiate between which explanations are correct and which ones are not.
  3. Consensus. This is the point at which one clear leader has emerged as an explanation for the data, and researchers working in the field have reached an agreement as to which explanation is correct. Research is no longer focused on differentiating between competing explanations but on working out applications, filling in the details, and expanding into new frontiers.
  4. Application. This is where scientific theories are put to work, being applied in real-world situations to solve real-world problems. They are used to build computers, to send probes throughout the Solar System, to cure diseases, and to find oil. Research is focused on making them more reliable, more efficient, and safer.
  5. Foundation. These are scientific theories that have other theories that depend on them. These are the most well established facts in science, because if they turned out to be wrong then everything else on which they depended would also have to be wrong. Research is focused on trying to determine what, if any, their limits are, usually under extreme conditions.

It’s important to note that these different levels of maturity represent what is happening in the community of subject matter experts actively researching the field. Some subjects, such as evolution or man-made climate change, generate a lot of controversy among the general public, but are totally uncontroversial among experts in the subject. Some subjects can even be controversial with certain sectors of the general public despite having reached the “application” or “foundation” stage. For example, conventional old Earth geochronology is used to find oil — this has been the case since the 1970s when the easiest and most obvious deposits ran dry and basin modelling became increasingly prominent in finding new deposits. The theory of evolution finds applications in medical research, conservation, virology, epidemiology, and even in computer science and software engineering.

Problems such as the reproducibility crisis, scientific fraud, or p-value hacking usually affect theories at the first two levels — the “frontier” and “controversy” levels. Once things reach the “consensus” level, these problems are much less likely to be a factor, but it isn’t impossible. If the subject concerned is relatively immature, if no other science depends on it, if it is in one of the “softer” sciences such as sociology or psychology, if it is politically contentious, and if there are few or no practical or commercial incentives on researchers to produce results that are correct rather than politically convenient, then it may be possible to make a case that the consensus on the matter is premature.

But the higher up the “consensus” level you get, the harder it becomes to challenge scientific findings with any credibility on these grounds. And once you get to science at the “application” and “foundation” level, it’s a completely different ball game. Once a scientific theory starts to be applied in real-world situations where getting it wrong has consequences, we can be absolutely confident that it’s rock solid. Attempting to challenge a scientific theory that has reached that level is, quite simply, quackery. And to stir up controversy about scientific theories that have reached the “application” or “foundation” level is to get into the kind of foolish controversies that Titus 3:9 warns us against.

Featured image credit: Penn State University.

Quote mining the voice of the serpent

Some young Earth creationists are gracious and understanding to those of us who, as Christians, do not share their position. Others … not so much.

Those who take a more forceful approach often respond to critique by quoting from Genesis 3:1, citing the serpent’s question, “Did God really say…?” as the first way that the devil attacked God’s purposes on Earth. The insinuation being that by questioning them, you are questioning the Word of God, and thus “speaking with the voice of the serpent.”

This is a quote mine.

It takes those words out of context, and in the process, over-generalises them in a way that is very, very dangerous.

Here is the full text of the verse:

Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?

And here is what God had actually said, in Genesis 2:16-17:

And the Lord God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.”

Spot the difference? The serpent was not questioning what God had said directly, but a straw man cartoon caricature of it that in fact said the exact opposite. And doing so in order to portray God as unreasonable. The correct answer to the serpent’s question was not “yes,” but “no.” The problem with the serpent’s question was not in the words, “Did God really say…” themselves, but in what followed them.

Context is important. Clearly, just because a question begins with the words “Did God really say…” that does not mean there’s anything wrong with asking it. In fact, I’m sure that every young Earth creationist would ask questions such as these in a heartbeat for starters:

  • “Did God really say that you should get a divorce?”
  • “Did God really say that you should have an abortion?”
  • “Did God really say that you should vote for that political party?”

Furthermore, there is one such question that the Bible commands us to ask. Specifically:

Did God really say what you are claiming that He said?

Take a look at 1 John 4:1 for starters:

Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.

Or 1 Thessalonians 5:20-21:

Do not despise prophecies, but test everything; hold fast what is good.

Or Acts 17:11:

Now the Berean Jews were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.

Or what about Jeremiah 23:30-32?

“Therefore,” declares the Lord, “I am against the prophets who steal from one another words supposedly from me. Yes,” declares the Lord, “I am against the prophets who wag their own tongues and yet declare, ‘The Lord declares.’ Indeed, I am against those who prophesy false dreams,” declares the Lord. “They tell them and lead my people astray with their reckless lies, yet I did not send or appoint them. They do not benefit these people in the least,” declares the Lord.

The Bible commands us to test everything that we are told. Scepticism, when applied properly, is an important weapon in every Christian’s armoury in the battle against deception. Not everybody who claims to be speaking the Word of God actually is speaking the Word of God. Quote mining Genesis 3:1 in that way to try to shut down critique and scrutiny is the exact polar opposite of what the Bible commands. There is no end to the number of cults and heresies that you could introduce in that way.

Featured image credit: I for Detail, Flickr

How to challenge a scientific theory, method 2: propose an alternative

How do you respond to a scientific theory, such as evolution, with which you disagree?

So far, we have looked at the basic rules of honesty and accuracy that your challenge needs to obey, and one way in which you can challenge the theory by presenting some evidence that contradicts it. We discussed what does and does not count as evidence, and what kinds of standards evidence needs to meet in order to actually contradict a theory.

This week, we will take a look at another way to argue against a scientific theory: by proposing an alternative.

What kind of alternative?

Now just as you can’t cite any old rubbish as evidence against a theory that you don’t like, in the same way you can’t just postulate any old nonsense as a legitimate alternative. If you could, then you would be able to claim that bananas are marsupials, that cars run on gravy, and that salmon live in trees and eat pencils. That is hardly a recipe for being taken seriously by anyone.

No, your theory needs to meet a few basic requirements.

1. It must explain all the evidence that the existing theory explains, in at least as much detail.

It is not sufficient to come up with an overarching explanation that only paints broad brush strokes. Your theory needs to be able to drill right down into the details, at least as far as the existing theory reaches. Where measurements are involved, your alternative needs to be able to account for the precise values, including any patterns and trends that are evident in the data.

This means that you need to understand, at least generally, just how much evidence the existing theory explains, in how much detail, and with how much precision, because that is the bar that is set for your alternative. The more evidence that the existing theory explains, the higher the bar becomes and the harder it gets to devise a credible alternative.

2. It must make testable predictions.

Your theory is not of much use if it is not testable. It is even more useless if the theory you are challenging has a successful track record of making testable predictions of its own. Furthermore, the predictions that your alternative makes must be at least as precise as the predictions made by the original theory.

In many cases, the predictions that the original theory makes even have commercial value. Oil exploration is one such example. If this is the case, then you need to be able to demonstrate that the predictions made by your alternative can do the same. When science meets business, your theory will only get taken seriously if it can do one of two things: decrease costs, or increase revenue.

3. It must be consistent with the rest of science.

Consilience is one of the most important rules of science. Whatever model you come up with must be consistent, both with itself and with every other area of science that you are not challenging.

Science is not a collection of independent systems, each acting in isolation from each other. It is a unified whole, in which every constant, every equation, every mechanism, every effect, is interrelated with the others. Changing one factor will have a knock-on effect on just about everything else imaginable.

Take, for example, the fundamental constants of nature, such as the speed of light. Could this have been any different in the recent past from what they are today, as people such as Barry Setterfield claim? The problem here is that these constants all depend on each other. For example, the speed of light itself is related to the electrical permittivity and the magnetic permeability of a vacuum:

c = \frac 1 { \sqrt { \mu_0 \epsilon_0 } }

It determines the relationship between mass and energy, as Einstein’s famous equation spells out:

e = m c^2

It determines the fine structure constant, a value that itself determines the chemical properties of the elements:

\alpha = \frac {e^2} {4 \pi \epsilon_0 \hbar c }

Now you may not know exactly what all these equations and symbols mean, but it only takes some basic understanding of school-level algebra to see that when you change one of them, it has a knock-on effect on all the others. This means that even minor changes to the speed of light in the recent past would have had very, very far reaching and dramatic consequences. Any theory that postulates that the speed of light, or nuclear decay rates, could have changed needs to be able to fully account for these consequences.

A theory that only explains one thing in grand isolation from everything else is not going to cut it. Introducing one new law of physics to try and accommodate your alternative explanation usually means that you have to add other new laws of physics to accommodate the knock-on effects from your first new law, and then to add on other new laws of physics to accommodate their knock-on effects, and it all very, very quickly spirals into absurdity.

A tall order?

If all this sounds like a tall order, then perhaps it is. But it is a fair one. These are simply the standards that the theory you are challenging had to meet in the first place. Science is far, far more rigorous than most lay people believe it to be. The scrutiny is far more stringent, and the standards of quality control are far higher. That is why so many people give up on science at the first possible opportunity at age sixteen: they find its exact standards too easy to get wrong and too difficult to get right, so instead they choose to specialise on easier subjects that concern the vagaries of humans and other living beings instead.

But if you are to challenge a scientific theory, you do need to allow your challenge to be subjected to the same level of rigour and scrutiny as the theory itself. If your challenge stands up to scrutiny, then you’re onto a winner (and possibly even a Nobel Prize). On the other hand, if your challenge can’t pass the test, then perhaps you need to acknowledge that the theory you are challenging is more robust than you thought it was.

Featured image: The Large Hadron Collider. Photo courtesy of CERN.

How to challenge a scientific theory, method 1: Evidence that contradicts it

So you are faced with a scientific theory, such as evolution, that you do not agree with. There are two ways in which you can challenge it:

  1. You can present some verifiable facts or evidence that contradict it.
  2. You can propose an alternative theory that provides a more accurate and precise explanation for the evidence.

However, as we saw last week, you can’t just respond with any old nonsense. Not everything is a verifiable fact, not every verifiable fact contradicts your theory, and not every alternative theory provides a better explanation for the evidence than the one you are trying to argue against. Accordingly, whichever of these two approaches you take, there are rules that you must stick to.

This week, we will look at the first of two ways in which a scientific theory can be challenged: point out a verifiable fact that contradicts it.

What kind of evidence?

Now you may have a few candidates in mind here. Piltdown Man, Nebraska Man, Mount St Helens, the Second Law of Thermodynamics, moon dust, or a hammer from Texas encased in a rock. However, before you start triumphantly waving these things around, you need to make sure that (a) they really are facts, and (b) that they really do contradict the theory.

This means that you need to make sure that you correctly understand what the theory says. Far too many amateur apologists skip this step, and as a consequence end up attempting to debunk nonsensical cartoon caricatures of evolution that look more like something out of Star Trek than anything taught about it in schools and universities.

You must also make sure that the facts that you are bringing to the table concern something that is essential to the theory. In other words, they need to overturn the core fundamentals, and not just one side detail. You don’t chop down a tree in its entirety by cutting off leaves, twigs, or even branches.

This is why, for example, Piltdown Man is not a valid argument against evolution. It doesn’t address the underlying mechanisms, but only the fine detail of exactly what one particular species did (or, in this case, didn’t) evolve into. It may have been famous, but it was still only one data point among millions — nowhere near being a devastating blow to evolutionary biology. A single data point, or a tiny sample with huge error bars, is rarely if ever enough to overturn a scientific theory. Your standards of rigour and quality control need to match those of the studies in favour of the theory at the very least.

Things that are not contradictory evidence

This brings me to my third point. In order to contradict a scientific theory by presenting evidence against it, you need to understand what does or does not constitute contradictory evidence. Science is not like law, politics or the arts; it does not proceed on the basis of who sounds more convincing, but on the basis of what obeys the rules.

Here are some examples of arguments that are not valid objections to a scientific theory.

1. Politics, opinions or worldviews. Scientific theories are not political narratives. Nobody gets to vote on gravity, Maxwell’s Equations, the Second Law of Thermodynamics, or quantum mechanics. Scientific theories stand or fall on whether they accurately explain the available evidence, and on whether they can consistently and accurately make testable predictions. And they work in exactly the same way regardless of whether you are a Christian, a Jew, a Muslim, a Hindu, an atheist, or a Tauri-Hessian tractor worshipper. What you believe about who did or did not evolve from what does not make a whit of difference to who actually did or did not evolve from what, regardless of whether you are Ken Ham or Richard Dawkins, the Dalai Lama or the Pope, Donald Trump or Joe Biden.

Politics, opinions and worldviews may influence how we respond to scientific findings, such as man-made climate change or wearing masks to prevent the spread of covid-19. But they do not challenge the findings themselves. Especially not when they have been established and refined over more than 150 years and have a lot of other scientific research that depends on them.

2. Common sense. Science is not intuitive. It is very mathematical and technical. There are many phenomena that work in ways that you would not expect or that are completely outside of our everyday realm of experience. This is especially true at very small scales (e.g. quantum mechanics) or at very large scales (e.g. general relativity, geologic time). It is also very precise and rigorous. There is a reason why so many people give up maths and science at the first opportunity when they are sixteen. They are subjects that are easy to get wrong and difficult to get right.

For this reason, mathematical arguments require a mathematical response. Attempting to argue against mathematics with appeals to “common sense” is called “hand-waving,” and it will just make you sound like a crank.

3. Unanswered questions or gaps in the theory. Scientific theories are not overturned by unanswered questions, but by contradictory evidence. No scientist claims to have all the answers, and no scientific theory is complete, nor ever will be. But that is why people do PhDs. Unanswered questions are only of value in challenging a scientific theory if the lack of an answer is in itself evidence of a contradiction.

4. Answered questions. If you must ignore point 3 and ask unanswered questions anyway, at least make sure that they actually are unanswered. The question “What use is half an eye?” for example is well understood, and was even answered by Darwin himself in On the Origin of Species. If you believe the answer to be inadequate, then by all means go ahead and give a coherent explanation of why it is inadequate, but to act as if the answer does not even exist when in reality it does will just make you look like you haven’t a clue what you are talking about.

5. An absence of unnecessary evidence. Absence of one particular line of evidence is only a legitimate argument against a scientific theory if the missing evidence is something that the theory tells us we should expect to see. For example, the fact that we haven’t made direct observations of the Oort Cloud, when we do not have the technology to do so, does not prove that it does not exist, especially when it is supported by indirect evidence. On the other hand, we would expect to find vast swathes of easily sequenceable dinosaur DNA if the earth really were six thousand years old. But we don’t.

For what we should expect to see in the fossil record, Scott Buchanan has a fairly comprehensive article on his site, Letters to Creationists: Realistic Expectations for Transitional Fossils.

6. Assumptions or interpretations. A scientific theory is not falsified merely by the fact that it makes assumptions or interpretations. In order to falsify a scientific theory by attacking its assumptions, you must (a) state what those assumptions are, (b) make sure that the theory really does make those assumptions in the first place, and (c) provide evidence that the assumptions are invalid.

However, it is important to remember that there is a difference between “doesn’t always work” and “never works.” Just because an assumption breaks down in specific situations does not mean that it is invalid everywhere else. For example, we know that carbon-14 dating doesn’t work on marine life due to the marine reservoir effect. But that does not mean that it doesn’t work on terrestrial plant and animal remains. And it certainly does not mean that uranium-lead dating does not work on zircon crystals in granites.

Assumptions and interpretations may indicate that other alternatives are possible, but only if those alternatives are mathematically coherent and consistent with the evidence. We will look at this possibility next week.

7. Ambiguous evidence. Evidence does not falsify a theory merely because it is consistent with another, alternative hypothesis. For example, just because some things (such as oil or apparently fossilised teddy bears) can form quickly, that does not mean that everything actually did form quickly. Especially when there are other things that can not, such as lead in zircons, or Widmanstätten patterns in meteorites.

8. The fact that it is a theory. The word “theory” does not mean the same in science as its colloquial everyday use. A scientific theory is not a guess, it is not a just-so story, and it is not something that someone just pulled out of their backside. On the contrary, it is an explanatory framework that is well supported by evidence and that has a successful track record of making accurate testable predictions. In other words, it is, to all intents and purposes, an established fact.

The scientific term for something that has not yet been established by evidence is a “hypothesis.” And no, something doesn’t get downgraded from a theory to a hypothesis just because you, as a non-scientist, call it that. Calling something a hypothesis when it is, in fact, a theory, is not getting your facts straight.

9. Occasional acts of scientific misconduct or fraud, unless you can demonstrate that either (a) the fraud is pervasive and systematic across the entire discipline, or (b) the fraudulent material is essential to the theory. There are millions of scientists in the world, and inevitably there will be a few bad eggs among them. But that doesn’t mean that the entire discipline is rotten to the core.

10. Undesirable consequences. We don’t claim that gravity is wrong just because someone falls off a ladder and ends up in a wheelchair, and we don’t claim that atomic theory is wrong just because Kim Jong-Un is building nuclear weapons. In the same way, the fact that some people have cited evolution as justification for eugenics, human extinction, or other bad behaviour, does not call into question the fact that biological populations change over time, and have been doing so for millions of years.

11. Character flaws of famous scientists. Facts do not change just because the person who discovered them was a socialist (like Albert Einstein), or a eugenicist (like Francis Crick), or a generally abrasive person (like Isaac Newton). In the same way, allegations that Darwin was a racist, even if true, are not valid arguments against the theory of evolution.

12. Non-specific or unrelated changes in the scientific consensus. You can’t just dismiss anything and everything about science that you don’t like by glibly saying “facts change” or “science changes” or “scientists are always changing their minds.” Scientists only change their minds about things if evidence demands it, and even then only in a controlled and methodical manner. In the same way, if you want to effect a change to the scientific consensus yourself, you must provide evidence to support the change that you want to see, and make sure that you follow the rules when making your case.

13. “Were you there?” There are ways of testing things that do not require you to have “been there.” Repeatability does not require you to control and observe a process all the way from start to finish. In any case, to the extent that it does have any merit, “were you there?” is nothing more than an unanswered question, which brings us back to point 3 above: scientific theories are not refuted by unanswered questions, but by contradictory evidence.

14. Magic shibboleths. More generally, if you think a clever-sounding one-liner (for example: “it’s just an assumption”, “it’s just an interpretation” or “were you there?”) refutes any and every argument that you haven’t otherwise thought of, it almost certainly doesn’t. I’m sorry, but there are no shortcuts for doing your homework.

15. One single data point. Reproducibility is fundamental to science, and scientific theories are never established or overturned on the basis of a single study by a single research team, especially not if the “other side” has hundreds or even thousands of other data points in its support. In such cases, the single data point is almost certainly a result of experimental error rather than a radical new law of physics. And if you only have a tiny minority of anomalous data points, the chances are that you have only discovered a corner case, for which the correct response is to refine the theory, not to throw it out altogether. Especially if the anomalies are relatively small.

Next week I will look at another option that you have when faced with a scientific theory that you disagree with: proposing an alternative. But just as with providing contradictory data, that too needs to stick to the rules.

Featured image: Folded Precambrian rock formation in the Grand Canyon, showing clear evidence of fracturing in the fold of the rock. Photograph by the US Geological Survey.