Don’t be too uncritical of evolution

Now I’m mostly quite sympathetic towards BioLogos. Their aim is to demonstrate to evangelical Christians that science in general — and evolutionary science in particular — need not be a threat to our faith, and on the whole I think they do a fairly good job of it. I’ve also learned quite a lot about apologetics in general from them, and through participating on their online forum over the past three years or so.

But such a message needs to be communicated in the right terms. As science-literate Christians, we should be reassuring our fellow believers that you can trust the Bible as the inspired Word of God regardless of who or what did or did not evolve from what. Unfortunately, it often doesn’t come across in those terms.

Take, for example, these posts on the BioLogos website:

Now these articles make some valid points — bad arguments can cause more harm than good, so you need to make sure your facts are straight, and be honest about what the evidence can and can not accommodate — but just look at the titles. They seem very blunt and in-your-face, and anyone seeing them for the first time will wonder what on earth they’re dealing with. They don’t convey a message of “you can trust the Bible, evolution or not,” but of “evolution is a fact, science trumps Scripture, get over it.” Such a message is more in line with what I would expect from sites such as The Sensuous Curmudgeon, Friendly Atheist, The Panda’s Thumb, or No Answers in Genesis than with that of an organisation that self-identifies as evangelical Christian.

I’m not saying this to criticise BioLogos, but to make a point. Specifically:

Don’t just uncritically accept everything you hear about evolution.

There is a danger, when attempting to discern the harmony between science and faith, of shifting your focus away from upholding the truth of Scripture regardless of evolution onto upholding the truth of evolution regardless of Scripture. Such an approach can all too easily lead down a very dark and dangerous road of giving a free pass to everything that science publicists have to say about evolution — right down to the more questionable details and dubious moral and philosophical inferences from it — while questioning more and more of the Bible until all you’ve got left is 1 Corinthians 13, the maps and the cover.

If there’s one thing that I’ve learned about evolution, it is that it is not a single, take-it-or-leave-it monolith. On the contrary, it is a complex, multi-faceted subject with a lot of different moving parts. The scientific definition of evolution — change in allele frequencies in biological populations over successive generations — may sound fairly tightly constrained and even somewhat abstract, but it covers a lot of ground, especially when you consider that we’re talking about 4.5 billion years of it.

There’s a lot of debate about exactly what ground it covers. I don’t think it’s helpful to quibble about whose definition of “evolution” is the correct one; that just gets into arguments about semantics, and it achieves nothing. Instead, a more honest (and helpful) approach to evolution would be to break it down into its more well-defined constituent parts and discuss them separately and individually.

Some aspects of evolution are indisputable facts. Even young-earth creationists acknowledge this when they try to draw a distinction between “microevolution” and “macroevolution.” Nobody can dispute, with honesty and integrity, that biological populations change over time. Nor can anybody seriously dispute that they have been doing so for far, far longer than ten thousand years. And it is simply not realistic to claim that there are no transitional fossils, when new ones are being catalogued on a daily basis.

But there are other aspects of evolution — especially certain philosophical, moral and teleological inferences drawn from it — that as Christians we can and should reject. For starters, we should not accept any interpretation of evolution that reduces us in status as humans to nothing more than Just Another Animal. Common ancestry or not, the Bible still teaches us that we are created in the image of God, and as such, we have been given an authority as stewards over creation — and with it, a responsibility — that has not been given to the rest of the animal kingdom. Nor should we allow the animals to set our moral and behavioural standards. There are certain forms of behaviour that are common among all kinds of animals — including the great apes — that nobody in their right mind would consider to be acceptable among humans. Cannibalism is just one example that comes to mind here.

Nor should we accept a view of evolution as an entirely undirected, meaningless process, such as the “blind watchmaker” evolution espoused by Richard Dawkins. As a software developer, I understand evolution to be an algorithm — evolutionary algorithms are widely used in industry to solve problems that are computationally extremely complex. They are also used with very specific goals in mind, and as such they are directed and intentional. Far from being the antithesis of design, they are a tool for design.

When it comes to events in the Bible — in particular, in Genesis 1-11 — don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater. There’s a tendency among many theistic evolutionists to view the stories of Adam and Eve, or Noah and the Flood, as “myth” or “parable” — perhaps having a theological message, but little or no basis in historical reality. Such a position doesn’t necessarily follow. The Human Genome Project may have shown that the human population of Earth could not have been less than a few thousand any time in the past half a million years, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that Adam and Eve were not real, historical people. There are even some evolutionary creation models that allow for them to have been created de novo — one example being Joshua Swamidass’s genealogical Adam. Similarly, just because the Flood didn’t extend as far as Greenland, Antarctica or Japan, didn’t reshape the continents or create the fossil record, and didn’t feature dinosaurs on the Ark, doesn’t mean to say that it never happened anywhere.

When dealing with evolution, yes, you need to know what you are talking about, yes, you need to be honest about how you approach it, and yes, you should avoid knee-jerk reactions to findings that make you feel uncomfortable. But don’t just blindly accept everything you hear about it without question. As 1 Thessalonians 5:21 says, “Test everything; hold on to what is good.”

Featured image: Artist’s impression of Tiktaalik roseae. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.

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On methodological naturalism

Dr Josh Swamidass of the University of Washington at St Louis, Missouri has this to say about my review of Answers in Genesis’s ten best evidences for a young earth:

I also want to direct readers to @jammycakes review of Answers in Genesis’s (AIG) 10 best evidences for a young earth. He goes through all ten, doing a careful and well researched fact check. @jammycakes does not make use of methodological naturalism, but just looks at the honesty and accuracy of the claims made by AIG scientists.

I heartily recommend Dr Swamidass’s blog, Peaceful Science, to anyone who is interested in discussions about science and faith. He has an interesting take on the subject of Adam and Eve, and shows that even though there is a lot of evidence for universal common descent, it doesn’t rule out the possibility that they could have been created specially and separately.

He also mentions Todd Wood, a young-earth creationist scientist. If there’s one YEC who I think is well worth paying attention to, Todd Wood is the one. As well as being refreshingly honest about the evidence and gracious and understanding towards us old-earthers, he has a passion and enthusiasm for both science and his Creator that is kind of infectious. I always find his blog a joy to read.

Why I don’t use methodological naturalism

The problem with methodological naturalism is that there’s a lot of confusion, especially in Christian circles, about what exactly it stands for, especially regarding the question of supernatural and miraculous explanations of scientific phenomena. Some Christians believe that it mandates an explicit a priori rejection of any such explanations, to the extent of being atheism in all but name; while others insist that it does not, but merely teaches that God designed His creation to operate according to certain pre-defined rules that He is at perfect liberty to override when He sees fit to do so, and that it is only concerned with studying those rules.

Unfortunately, the discussions can get pretty confusing at times, and can all too easily result in misunderstanding, accusation, and counter-accusation that generates more heat than light. Besides, it completely misses the important issues at the heart of the matter.

Rather than getting bogged down in such discussions, I decided to avoid appealing to methodological naturalism altogether. From the outset, I have maintained the position that miracles can and do happen, and that they are a valid and legitimate explanation for scientific data — provided that two important conditions are met.

First of all, the evidence that they explain must be reported accurately, processed correctly and carefully, and interpreted coherently. In other words, no quote mining, no cherry-picking of the data, no exaggerating, no arithmetic errors, and so on. You have to make sure your facts are straight about what the findings in question actually are.

Second, the miracles that you are proposing must not be deceptive in nature. The Bible tells us (e.g. in Romans 1:20) that what we see in creation is an accurate reflection of the nature of God, and miracles whose only effect is to make the earth look older than it really is would cast God as a deceiver — especially when you consider that many events in the Earth’s history have been constrained by multiple independent methods to times that in some cases can be as tight as one part in ten thousand.

I’ve written about this before. I really, really do not like arguments against creationism or ID that dismiss it as “religion, not science,” or that complain about its proponents “introducing religious presuppositions into science.” Regardless of whether such objections are valid or not, that is not the problem, and it totally misses the point. If someone wants to look for evidence of miracles or irreducible complexity, by all means let them. If they want to look for Noah’s Ark, or modern-day dinosaurs and humans living together, or even evidence to support a young earth, again, by all means let them. The time to raise objections is when they start misrepresenting their findings, taking shortcuts, cherry-picking data, or refusing to be held accountable for meeting basic standards of honesty, factual accuracy and quality control in their claims. But objecting to them even asking the question just shows that you are operating with anti-religious and quite possibly discriminatory presuppositions and biases of your own.

Featured image: an evening sky over the village of Thwing, East Yorkshire. Photo by me.

Where do we go from here?

Now I can accept a certain amount of informed and honest scepticism about some aspects of the theory of evolution.

Provided that you’re getting your facts straight about what the theory actually claims in the first place and not presenting it as some kind of ridiculous cartoon caricature that has cats turning into dogs, and provided that you’re not claiming that evidence (such as transitional fossils) does not exist when quite clearly it does, and provided that you’re not misrepresenting people by quoting them out of context, I think it’s a discussion worth having. I may have concerns about how some Intelligent Design proponents behave, and I may have my doubts as to whether they’re taking the right approach or not, but I don’t think we should write off the concept of ID entirely. Don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater.

I can also accept that Adam and Eve were historical people, and that the Flood of Noah was a historical event and not a mere myth. I can’t say for certain where, when, or how extensive it was, but there are a few interesting candidates. One theory in particular says that the Bible narrative may refer to a comet strike in the Indian Ocean circa 2,800 BC. It’s a controversial hypothesis, not widely accepted in the scientific community, and the evidence for it is a bit thin on the ground, but it is an intriguing possibility nonetheless.

But if you are insisting that the earth is just six thousand years old, or that Noah had dinosaurs on board the Ark, or that the Flood reshaped the continents and created the fossil record, I’m sorry, but you are simply out of touch with reality. You might as well insist that the earth is flat while you’re at it.

It doesn’t take a “secular” or a “materialist” worldview, nor do you have to have “been there,” to see that young-earth “creation science” and Flood Geology are patent nonsense. The fact that they’re resorting to absurdities about accelerated nuclear decay on a scale that by their own admission would have vaporised the Earth’s crust many times over should be sufficient, as too should the role of conventional dating methods in oil exploration. Neither “secular science” nor “atheistic religion” nor “compromise” nor “brainwashing” nor “evolutionary assumptions” nor “unbelief” nor “dogmatism” nor a “rejection of Scripture” nor guesswork nor attempting to curry favour with the establishment nor inflating the timescale to accommodate evolution have anything whatsoever to do with it, and you won’t get different results by looking at the evidence through a different set of presuppositions. Even allowing for the possibility of miracles, it is simply not possible to squeeze 4.5 billion years’ worth of evidence into just six thousand without either descending into absurdity or flat-out lying about it. It’s a matter of measurement and basic mathematics, it’s as simple as that.

The core message: make sure your facts are straight.

James 3:1 tells us this:

Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.

If you have any kind of teaching role in your church — whether as a pastor, or a Bible teacher, or an evangelist, or a parent — you are in a position of trust. Teaching demonstrable falsehoods, whether by accident or design, is a serious breach of that trust, and all the more so if you are attaching significant doctrinal importance to them.

I recently read a blog post by an atheist who lost her faith entirely after being confronted by the fact that what her parents, her church leaders, and the LSDYEC organisations were teaching her about evolution and the age of the earth was simply not true. Her story is by no means unusual; I have had colleagues at work tell me exactly the same thing. Of course, LSDYECs are quick to blame evolution and millions of years for such cases, but this completely misses the point. Young Christians do not stumble because of evolution; they stumble because their trust has been breached.

As Matthew 18:6 says:

“If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.”

That’s why I have repeated the same thing over and over again in all my discussions about the creation and evolution debate. If you love the Lord Jesus Christ and want to see His Kingdom extended rather than undermined, then whatever you do, make sure that you know what you are talking about and that your facts are straight.

The sad thing is that there is no need whatsoever for such problems to arise. When 2 Peter 3:8 and Psalm 90:4 tell us that a day with the Lord is like a thousand years and a thousand years are like a day, and when we even have Bible verses such as Ecclesiastes 3:18-21 and Isaiah 40:6-7 hinting at the possibility of universal common ancestry, it should be abundantly clear that the Bible’s authority still stands no matter how old the earth is, and no matter who or what did or did not evolve from what. Yet LSDYEC organisations continue to peddle the toxic and destructive message that “no six days means no Gospel.” By building on a foundation that is demonstrably and indisputably false, rather than on the solid Rock that is Christ, they are setting numerous young people up for a fall.

What about…?

There are other claims made by the LSDYEC organisations that I have not covered, such as the increase in the earth’s population, or polystrate fossils, for example. No doubt they will also come up with additional claims from time to time. But there’s little point in covering them. They all suffer from the same set of problems: unrealistic extrapolations, cherry-picked data, invalid analogies, out-of-context quote mining, and playing fast and loose with the basic rules of measurement. For this reason, until and unless they manage to get their claims validated by independent experts, both in terms of peer review and studies that replicate them, they should be taken with a huge pinch of salt by everyone, Bible believing Christians included.

There’s also a lot more that I could say about the technicalities of the scientific techniques involved, such as radiometric dating. But I decided it best not to get too detailed in that respect, mainly because these have been adequately covered elsewhere. For a comprehensive explanation of how radiometric dating works, I recommend the article, Radiometric Dating: A Christian Perspective by Roger Wiens, while a much more comprehensive and detailed discussion of the geological principles in general can be found in the book The Bible, Rocks and Time by Davis Young and Ralph Stearley.

(As an aside: I’m aware of the attempted rebuttal of Wiens’s article by Tas Walker of creation.com. However, he only repeats various ad-hominem attacks, logical fallacies and falsehoods commonly found in LSDYEC literature and adds nothing new to the discussion. I wrote my own critique of his response on the BioLogos forum a while ago.)

Other useful resources for a discussion of young-earth creationism include the blogs Naturalis Historia by Joel Duff, Age of Rocks by Jonathan Baker, and The GeoChristian by Kevin Nelstead. Reasons to Believe, BioLogos and the American Scientific Affiliation also have a lot of helpful articles, while BioLogos has a first-rate forum system that hosts some of the most informative discussions on the subject that I’ve seen so far.

What next for How Old is the Earth?

Researching this subject has been a difficult project to work on. I don’t think that most rank-and-file young-earth creationists have any bad intentions — they just lack the skills, experience and training to be able to fact-check this stuff. On the other hand, I can’t say the same thing for the LSDYEC leadership. They have PhDs and they should know what they are talking about, yet they continually churn out incoherent nonsense that in some cases can be falsified with nothing more than simple schoolboy arithmetic. It’s discouraging to end up on their websites reading claims that are so bad that you’d think they had been hacked by people trying to discredit them, it’s even more discouraging to see it packaged up as if it were Christian apologetics, and it’s most discouraging of the lot to read rant after rant about how anyone who doesn’t regurgitate their nonsense unquestioningly is a “compromiser” or a “faithless so-called Christian” or “speaking with the voice of the serpent.” I’m sorry, but that kind of rhetoric is tying up heavy burdens on people’s shoulders and not lifting a finger to help; it is slamming the door to the Kingdom of Heaven in people’s faces; and it is nullifying the Word of God with your tradition.

Isaiah 43:18-19 says this:

18 “Forget the former things;
    do not dwell on the past.
19 See, I am doing a new thing!
    Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?
I am making a way in the wilderness
    and streams in the wasteland.

These are verses that I fully intend to take to heart from here on. Creation, the Fall, the Flood, and all the rest of it, are well and truly in the past, and Christianity is not about the past, but about the future. Regardless of which interpretation (day-age, framework, etc) is the correct one, the foundation of our faith is the completed work of Christ on the Cross, and the ultimate focus needs to be on the hope that awaits us. No matter how old the earth is, or who did or did not evolve from what, that is what I am holding on to. As Philippians 3:13-14 says, “Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.”

With that, I’m going to take a back seat in the creation and evolution debate from here on. I’ve said all that I need to say, and I’m growing weary of it all now. Going forward, I want to move on to other things. Consequently I’m going to take a break from posting regularly here for a while. I’ve got bigger fish to fry.

I will just leave the last word on the subject to St Augustine:

Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience.

Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn. The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men.

If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods and on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason? Reckless and incompetent expounders of Holy Scripture bring untold trouble and sorrow on their wiser brethren when they are caught in one of their mischievous false opinions and are taken to task by those who are not bound by the authority of our sacred books. For then, to defend their utterly foolish and obviously untrue statements, they will try to call upon Holy Scripture for proof and even recite from memory many passages which they think support their position, although they understand neither what they say nor the things about which they make assertion.

A review of Answers in Genesis’s ten best evidences for a young earth — summary and conclusion

Over the past five months, I have been examining the claims in the Answers in Genesis series, The 10 Best Evidences from Science that Confirm a Young Earth. This is as good a place to start as any in evaluating YEC claims: since these are what they consider to be their best arguments, we can assume that they are representative of the standards that they maintain in general, and that the other arguments that they are making will not carry any more weight.

Before I started examining these claims, I outlined the Biblical and scientific basis for my review. The age of the earth, and the ages of rock strata, are determined by measuring things, and accordingly, we must meet the demands in Scripture (Deuteronomy 25:13-16; Proverbs 11:1; etc.) that our approach to weights and measurements is honest and accurate.

YECs often respond that measurements still have to be interpreted. This is true, but there are strict rules that such interpretations must follow. It doesn’t take a “secular” or “materialist” worldview to see that your interpretation must be free from arithmetic error, non sequiturs and logical fallacies; that you must neither exaggerate nor downplay the extent and significance of errors and discrepancies; that you must not cherry-pick or fudge the raw data; that you must not quote people in ways that misrepresent them; and that you must not claim that assumptions are not testable when in fact they are. These, and other rules like them, are simply rules of basic honesty and quality control, and they have nothing whatsoever to do with secular materialism, a rejection of miracles, or “compromise.”

This being the case, my question was whether or not they were following the rules.

My findings were as follows:

  1. Very little sediment on the sea floor
    The calculations are invalid: riverine sediment ends up on the continental shelf, while the existing deposits being measured were those on the deep ocean floor.
  2. Bent rock layers that are not fractured
    This claim is blatantly untrue, as can be seen by comparing the example given to higher-quality photographs of the same rock formation both by USGS and by Answers in Genesis themselves. Bent rock layers are fractured.
  3. Soft tissue in dinosaur fossils
    While these findings are surprising, they do not contradict anything that we know about how long soft tissue can last, and in any case they are too rare and too badly degraded to be consistent with a young earth. Furthermore, many YEC accounts exaggerate the state of preservation of what was found.
  4. The faint young sun paradox
    Although it does suggest fine tuning, this says nothing about the age of the earth.
  5. Earth’s magnetic field is rapidly decaying
    This is based on an invalid extrapolation that is contradicted not only by the data, but also by both young-earth and old-earth models of how the Earth’s magnetic field works.
  6. Too much helium in radioactive rocks
    This is a very complex (and therefore error-prone) claim that is compromised by numerous serious errors including sloppy experimental technique, invalid assumptions, fudged data, misidentified rock samples, and a refusal to submit to meaningful peer review.
  7. Carbon-14 in fossils, coals and diamonds
    The measured carbon-14 levels are consistent with known, measured, and well-studied contamination mechanisms.
  8. Short-lived comets
    This denies that the Oort Cloud exists, based on an unrealistic assumption that absence of evidence is evidence of absence. It also disregards calculations of the historic orbits of known comets showing them to have been slingshotted closer to the sun by planets such as Jupiter.
  9. Very little salt in the sea
    This is based on outdated and cherry-picked data, poorly known quantities with huge error bars, and a naive extrapolation of rates that can not realistically be expected to have been the same in the past as they are today. The most up to date research indicates that the amount of salt in the sea is approximately in a state of equilibrium, and that it therefore tells us nothing about the age of the earth.
  10. DNA in ancient bacteria
    This is based on a single disputed study. It has not been satisfactorily demonstrated that the salt deposits and the bacteria themselves were the same age, nor that the salt crystals were undisturbed since their original formation.

Not a single one of these claims provides a shred of evidence for a young earth. Every single one of them — and in fact, every other claim of evidence for a young earth that I’ve ever seen — plays fast and loose with the basic rules and principles of how measurement works, some of them even to the extent of completely disregarding the role of measurement in determining the ages of rock strata altogether. Tiny samples with huge error bars are presented as “overwhelming” evidence for absurd new laws of fantasy physics that would have vaporised the earth if they had any basis in reality. The extent and significance of discrepancies in conventional dating methods is repeatedly blown up out of all proportion, with errors of just 20-30%, and results from techniques pushed to breaking point, being touted as evidence that all dating methods are consistently out by factors of up to a million. Isolated claims that were retracted a century ago are cited as evidence of pervasive systematic fraud in hundreds of thousands of peer reviewed studies right up to the present day. Despite their repeated denunciations of “uniformitarianism,” many of them are based on assumptions of constant rates that are totally out of touch with reality. Some of the claims that they come up with are so bad that it’s very difficult to believe that they really were made by the young-earth PhDs themselves, and not by a hacker or rogue sysadmin messing with their site in an attempt to discredit them.

I would like to be charitable and say that they had just misunderstood things, or perhaps that they were getting a bit carried away with themselves. This could possibly be the case with soft tissue in dinosaur fossils, or bacteria in ancient salts, for example. But that only illustrates the dangers of being too hasty. Proverbs 19:2 says, “It is not good to have zeal without knowledge, nor to be hasty and miss the way.” A more sensible approach would be to adopt a wait-and-see attitude with findings such as these. The world of science sees papers being published on a regular basis that collapse when subjected to the rigours of peer review and attempts to reproduce them.

Unfortunately, there are other examples where it is difficult to be so charitable. The claim about bent rock layers in particular was one such example. YEC organisations insist that it’s ungracious and divisive to accuse them of lying, but when a PhD geologist presents his case with an out-of-focus and badly exposed photograph of a rock formation with students strategically placed in front of the very parts of the formation that contradict him, if that is not lying, then I don’t know what is. If you don’t want to be accused of lying, don’t tell lies.

My biggest cause for concern, however, is the extremely unprofessional and hostile attitude that many young-earth PhDs adopt towards critique. Robust criticism should be standard practice in science, as that is how mistakes such as falsehood, arithmetic errors, fallacious calculations, shortcuts, sloppiness, and failure to adhere to proven best practices are shaken out. In many areas of scientific study, mistakes such as these could kill people. Yet we repeatedly see critiques dismissed out of hand as “rescuing devices”, “minor” or even “nitpicking”; while those who raise these concerns — many of them also Bible believing Christians — are denounced as “brainwashed” or “compromisers” or “anticreationists” or “speaking with the voice of the serpent” or worse.

I’m sorry, but this is not honest science and it is not Biblical Christianity. This is a cult.

Now to be fair, not all young-earth creationists are like that. Most rank and file YECs are honest and sincere people who merely lack the scientific understanding to be able to fact-check their claims properly. And they do have some valid concerns about the state of society, the decline of Christian influence, the widespread lack of knowledge of and trust in the Bible, and the way things are heading in general. Their uncompromising approach to Biblical authority is a much needed counterpoint to a world that would jettison the whole lot as nothing more than antiquated myth, rather than recognising it as a foundation, ahead of its time, on which subsequent generations have built.

But it’s misguided to blame all of society’s ills on evolution and millions of years, and quite frankly reckless to try and fight them with claims that are demonstrably and indisputably false. They complain about how they find it difficult to get published in peer reviewed scientific journals, or how they can’t get creationism taught in schools, presenting it as some kind of systematic discrimination by “the establishment.” It’s certainly true that there is an anti-Christian element at work in academia, but when you see the appalling technical quality of young-earth claims, it’s quite clear that that is not what is happening here. Being discriminated against for being a Christian is one thing; being discriminated against for incompetence, sloppiness and dishonesty is a completely different matter. It would be reckless and irresponsible to allow creationism to be taught in schools before creationists clean up their act, demonstrate a commitment to quality, rigour and factual accuracy that at the very least matches that of mainstream science (and certainly, that far, far exceeds the standards that they portray mainstream science as maintaining), and develop the openness to correction and the teachable spirit that the Bible clearly tells us that we should maintain. By elevating tradition and strict literalism over basic honesty and factual accuracy, they are undermining everything that they stand for. And it makes all of us, as Christians, look bad, whether we are young earth or old.

Featured image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Some advice for non-scientists on how to talk about science and faith

In my advice to pastors on how to handle science, I cautioned against allowing anyone with no scientific training to teach about science in your church. This advice needs some qualification.

It is possible for a non-scientist to discuss and teach about science responsibly in church. I’ve found that people with theology degrees are often particularly good at this, no doubt thanks to the fact that any theology degree worth its salt will include a course specifically about science and faith in its curriculum. Similarly, it is also possible for a trained scientist to make a complete pig’s ear of it — especially if they are attempting to discuss subjects outside their areas of expertise, without carefully researching them first. Engineers in particular are especially prone to this.

The challenge: making sure your facts are straight.

The big difficulty for a non-scientist is of course sorting out the facts from the fiction. It’s all too easy to hear something that someone has “scienced up” to make it sound plausible, and repeat it without checking it only to find out later that it can be falsified simply by searching Google. On the other hand, it’s also equally possible to hear something that is rigorous science, dismiss it as being nothing more than having been “scienced up to make it sound plausible,” and end up doing untold damage as a result. Anti-vaxxers and climate change deniers, I’m looking at you.

Even young-earth creationist organisations acknowledge that there are some arguments that are best avoided. Both Answers in Genesis and Creation Ministries International have sections on their websites with lists of arguments that creationists shouldn’t use. However, they don’t teach you how to identify good and bad arguments for yourself, nor do they adequately teach you how to defend your position when challenged.

You need to understand how science works.

If you have never had any scientific training, the chances are that you have a lot of misconceptions about what science actually is and how it works. For starters, you won’t have any idea about the level of rigour involved in scientific discovery, you won’t appreciate the role of mathematics and measurement, and you won’t have any hands-on experience of the kinds of things that happen when people get their science wrong, let alone having to clear up afterwards and take steps to ensure that it doesn’t happen again.

You can not get this kind of understanding from being spoon-fed creation.com and Dr Dino videos. Even if the information in these videos were correct (and it very often isn’t), they don’t give you any experience of laboratory or field work, nor do they train you in other skills essential to understanding science properly, such as mathematics or computer programming. (Just think: when did you last see a tutorial on partial differential equations or programming in Python on the Answers in Genesis website?)

Nor do they set any exams. Much as you may have hated taking them at school, exams serve a very important purpose: to make sure that you have understood the subject matter correctly, and to highlight any areas that you may need to work on.

So what are you to do?

If you’re not scientifically trained, or if you’re asked about an area of science outside of your expertise (for example, if you’re a physicist being asked about evolution) the best approach is to be honest and admit that you don’t know. This will make a far better impression on non-Christians than trying to convince them that you understand what you are talking about when quite clearly you don’t.

If you’re not satisfied with just admitting that you don’t know, or if you’re in a position of leadership and find yourself having to answer people’s questions, there are two things you can do. First, find a scientist with professional experience in the subject concerned to advise and mentor you. You may know a science teacher in your church, for example; if you don’t, then organisations such as Christians in Science (in the UK) or the American Scientific Affiliation (in the USA) may be able to point you in the right direction. The BioLogos forum is also a good place to ask questions and seek advice.

Second, consider getting some formal training in a relevant science subject yourself. A good place to start here is with the free online courses provided by Khan Academy or Coursera. Don’t just watch the videos or read the material: take the tests as well. The courses provided by these organisations are free, and you can study them in your own time and at your own pace, while the tests will highlight any areas of the subject matter that you haven’t properly understood. They will also give you an idea of whether or not this is something worthwhile for you to pursue further.

When I said that pastors should not allow anyone with no scientific training to teach about science in their churches, my concern was about attitude rather than aptitude. You do not want people in your church to be using “teaching about science” as a pretext for bashing science. To do so will just spread misinformation and confusion, and besides, it is dishonest. But not having a science degree shouldn’t necessarily be a deal-breaker. On the other hand, an unwillingness to submit to any kind of formal training or mentoring in the subject, under people who actually know what they are talking about, should.