Getting the basics right

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

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

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

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

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

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

measurement

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

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

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

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

The_Scientific_Method_as_an_Ongoing_Process.svg
The Scientific Method (source: Wikipedia)

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

3. Science has rules.

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

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

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

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

1slt8p

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CatDog

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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