Some advice for scientists in the church

When I wrote my advice for pastors on how to handle science, I made a number of suggestions. I said that they should not be afraid to admit that they don’t know what they don’t know; that they should seek counsel in scientific matters from professional scientists in the church; and that they should not allow anyone with no scientific training to teach about science in their churches. I also followed up a few months later with some advice for non-scientists in general. But what about scientists in the church?

When I first started discussing creation and evolution on Facebook about three years ago, my plea then — as it is now — was for honesty and factual accuracy in the claims that we are making. While this plea was mostly well received by my friends in the church, I did experience some push-back from young-earth creationists, who duly trotted out the usual arguments from Answers in Genesis and their ilk.

This was, of course, only to be expected. But what shocked me the most was the biochemist who told me that he found the argument for a young Earth from population growth to be convincing — and reminded me that he was a scientist.

Ignorance or dishonesty?

Now I don’t expect non-scientists to be able to see the problem with the population growth argument — or indeed, any other bad argument. They don’t have the skills, training and experience to be able to do so. When presented with evidence that contradicts them, they can always excuse themselves by saying that they’re not scientists, and it’s all too complicated for them.

You and I do not have the luxury of that excuse.

Fellow Christians who are scientists, or who have any form of scientific training, listen to me very carefully here. If you tell me that you are a scientist, you are telling me that you understand the basic rules and principles of how measurement works. You are telling me that you are mathematically literate. You are telling me that you understand error bars, extrapolation, statistics, confidence levels, sample sizes, controls, random errors, systematic errors, signal to noise ratios, the difference between necessary and sufficient conditions, and the like. You are telling me that you have the understanding necessary to fact-check your claims, to consult their original sources and check that they say what they are being made out to say. You are telling me that you have been trained in the kind of rigorous and exact thinking that science demands. You are telling me that you understand what distinguishes a good argument from a bad one.

Anyone with that level of understanding should spot the flaw in the population argument immediately. The Earth’s population has not always increased exponentially throughout history. There have been times when it went down as well as up, such as during the Black Death outbreak from 1347 to 1351. The rate of change has increased substantially since the Industrial Revolution as technology and medical care have improved. Furthermore, in pre-agricultural times, it could well have simply fluctuated over the many millennia of hunter-gatherer societies without seeing any long-term growth at all. The extrapolation is simply not valid.

A claim such as this would merely be ignorance if it were made by a non-scientist. But for a scientist to make arguments such as this one, knowing full well that measurement and mathematics do not work like that, is dishonest.

The scientist’s responsibility

As a scientist, you will no doubt find that your pastor, or your friends in your church, look to you for guidance on scientific matters from time to time. This being the case, you have an extra responsibility before God to take extra care that your advice is honest and factually accurate.

Now to be fair, some claims (such as the RATE project’s research on helium diffusion in zircons) are complex and difficult to fact check. Some may require specialist knowledge or even field research to examine the evidence for yourself. But other claims are blatantly and obviously untrue. Sample sizes may be obviously tiny. Error bars may be obviously huge. Assumptions may be obviously invalid. Claims about the evidence itself may be obviously exaggerated or even outright untrue. Evidence contradicting them may be no more than a Google search away. They may contain obvious misunderstandings or misrepresentations of what scientists actually teach about evolution, or rhetorical questions whose answers are readily available on Wikipedia. (The classic question “what use is half an eye?” — which was convincingly answered by Darwin himself in On the Origin of Species — is one such example.)

As a scientist, you have a responsibility to advise your pastor how to avoid such bad arguments. If they end up making ridiculous and easily falsified claims, and losing credibility as a result, you are responsible if you endorsed those claims, or if you advised them that those claims were satisfactory or convincing.

As a scientist, you are a professional. Your professional responsibility does not end when you leave the laboratory and enter the church. On the contrary, within the church, you are in a position of trust, whether you like it or not. Be very careful that you are not abusing that trust.

Featured image: United States Air Force Academy

What, exactly, do you mean by “Darwinism”?

Now I’m generally more patient with Intelligent Design than with young earth creationism.

That doesn’t mean I think they’re perfect. There are some things about the ID community that trouble me: when I read articles on sites such as Evolution News, half the time I’m left with the impression that I’m reading tabloid rhetoric rather than scholarly analysis. But I’m not one for throwing out the baby with the bathwater, so if they have something constructive to say, then I’m prepared to consider it.

But there is one aspect of ID arguments in particular that leaves a bad taste in my mouth. This is their use of the terms “Darwinism” and “neo-Darwinism”. You see this, for example, in the Scientific Dissent from Darwin, which was signed by a few hundred ID-supporting scientists, engineers, surgeons and other academics.

Rejecting Darwin but accepting common ancestry

Here’s a question for you. Without looking it up, or consulting Google, what, exactly, do you think that the Scientific Dissent from Darwinism was objecting to?

Chances are that you will be thinking something along the lines of “macroevolution rather than microevolution.” You probably think that they were objecting to common ancestry of chimps and humans. You may even think that they were objecting to geologic time.

Certainly, the chances are that half the people in your church think that.

If that is what you think, you’re in for a shock. Many of the signatories of the Dissent from Darwin affirm universal common ancestry of all life on earth, humans and animals included. One prominent example is Michael Behe, the chief architect of the “irreducible complexity” argument, which says that the bacterial flagellum is too complex to have evolved fron scratch.

How can this be?

It all becomes clear when you see exactly what they actually mean by “Darwinism”:

“We are skeptical of claims for the ability of random mutations and natural selection to account for the complexity of life. Careful examination of the evidence for Darwinian theory should be encouraged.”

This is a very broad definition. It only says that Darwinian evolution is an incomplete theory of the origins of biological diversity. It does not say that it is incorrect. As such, it encompasses most evangelical Christian viewpoints on origins, from young-earth creation right through to theistic, God-guided evolution.

This is not what most of their audience expect.

The fact of the matter is that the words “Darwinism” and “neo-Darwinism” are weasel words. They give the impression of meaning something specific, when in reality their true meaning is much more vague and ambiguous. The result of this is that there are many, many well meaning Christians who honestly and sincerely believe that evolution is “a theory in crisis” within the scientific community and that “scientists are always changing their minds,” when nothing could be further from the truth.

ID supporters, please don’t do this. You may think you’ve exonerated yourselves by clearly defining your terms, but if your definitions are not what your audience expect, you will still be misleading them. If you have a problem with evolution yourself, that’s fine. Just state clearly and unambiguously, exactly which aspects of the theory you are sceptical about and why. But be careful not to leave people with the impression that your scepticism runs deeper than it really does. And don’t try to give people the impression that the scientific community shares your scepticism when it does not. Don’t try to manufacture an inflated controversy where there is none to begin with. Because that is simply not honest.

And for that reason, I feel that the words “Darwinism” and “neo-Darwinism” are probably best avoided.

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.

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. You don’t even need a degree in science to see this. 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.