Religious presuppositions are not the problem with young-earth creationism

There is a right way and a wrong way of responding to Literal Six Day Young Earth Creationism.

The wrong way: object to their religious presuppositions.

Do not object to them introducing religious presuppositions into science. Do NOT object to them introducing religious presuppositions into science. DO NOT object to them introducing religious presuppositions into science. As soon as you’ve gone down the route of objecting to their religious presuppositions, you’ve lost the argument.

This is because YECs believe that you are motivated entirely by presuppositions and biases of your own. The fact is that there is a very real anti-Christian bias evident in many parts of academia, culture and society. It may not be quite as caricatured in the God’s Not Dead movies, but it’s very much there, and young-earth creationists automatically assume that it is the main, if not the only, reason why they can’t get creationism taught in science classes in schools.

Even if you believe this perception to be illusory, by framing the debate in terms of religious presuppositions, you are just confirming it. This adds fuel to the fire, causes them to dig their heels in, encourages other Christians who are “on the fence” about the whole matter to join them in the young-earth camp, and can make scientifically literate Christians, who are best placed to bring correction on the matter, reluctant to do so.

On a similar note, do not describe yourself as “opposing creationism” or “combatting creationism” or “arguing against creationism.” By expressing opposition to creationism itself you are giving yourself the appearance of being motivated by your own presuppositions again. You are also giving the impression that you would not take them seriously even if they did manage to come up with rock-solid, indisputable, watertight evidence to support their case.

It especially makes me cringe when I hear Christians making this objection. This is an objection that is very easily misunderstood, and you can all too easily end up sounding like a non-Christian when you’re making it. It also opens you up to charges of “compromise” — a favourite YEC accusation. So be careful.

Furthermore, if the only problem with YEC were religious presuppositions, then the evidence would be ambiguous, and it really would be possible to look at it through different “glasses” and see six thousand years rather than 4.5 billion.

The right way: demand that they get their facts straight.

What you are to oppose, combat, and argue against, is sloppy thinking, falsehood, unjustified assertions, and resistance to critique. As such, your response to young-earth creationism needs to be simply a demand that YECs get their act together and start applying the same standards of rigour and quality control as everybody else.

For this is the real problem with young-earth “creation science.” Their technical standards are so low that in any other area of science or technology, they would kill people. They are at times willing to tell outright falsehoods in order to support their position. They refuse to be held accountable to anyone outside their own echo chamber. And they show a cultish hostility to critique even from concerned Christians who share their stated goal of seeing the Bible upheld as the Word of God.

Most rank and file YECs aren’t even aware that this is an issue. When I tell them that science has rules, their natural tendency is to assume that I’m talking about a rejection of miracles. I have to make it clear to them what kind of rules I’m looking for, and that rejection of miracles has nothing to do with it. No arithmetic errors, no quote mining, no fudging of the data, no misrepresentation, the need for adequate peer review and replication, and so on. Basic standards of honesty and quality control — and furthermore, very much in line with what the Bible itself demands in terms how we handle weights and measures (cf Deuteronomy 25:13-16; Proverbs 11:1). I say that to break these rules in order to “fit Scripture” is neither scientific nor Scriptural. Yet time and time again, I see young-earth arguments that completely disregard these rules, and then cry “compromise” or “persecution” even over mistakes as egregious as misquotes, arithmetic errors, and cherry-picked data.

The fact is, most YECs agree wholeheartedly with these rules in principle. They just aren’t aware that bad arguments from the young-earth camp are a problem — mainly because many of them lack the scientific and technical understanding to be able to fact-check them.

Addressing the issue of quality control is hard work, to be sure. You have to make sure your own facts are straight as well, and it can also be difficult to communicate the nature of the problem clearly and in an easy-to-understand way to people who very often have little or no scientific training. But it is very, very necessary.

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YEC Best Evidence 4: the faint young sun paradox

The fourth of Answers in Genesis’s ten best evidences for a young earth is an interesting one: the faint young sun paradox. According to our understanding of stellar lifecycles, the sun gets hotter as it ages, and billions of years ago it should have been about 25% cooler and dimmer, and the earth should have been too cold to support life.

Out of their ten claims, this one is the nearest that they come to actually being on to something. Almost everything that Dr. Danny Faulkner, the author of the article, has to say about it is correct — apart from one thing. It proves nothing whatsoever about the age of the earth.

He acknowledges that there are possible solutions to the problem, such as higher levels of greenhouse gases that decreased gradually to compensate for the brightening sun. Yet he dismisses these out of hand as “rescuing devices” to “explain away the problem,” and merely claims that they can’t be proven because there is no evidence.

As I’ve said before, it is neither scientific nor intellectually honest to merely dismiss a hypothesis that you don’t like as a “rescuing device”: you must demonstrate that it is inconsistent with the data, and he makes no attempt whatsoever to do so. This article can essentially be summarised as saying, “We know that the earth is young because there are things about the earth’s history that we don’t know.” This is, of course, absurd. Scientific hypotheses are not falsified by unanswered questions. They are falsified by contradictory data.

A fine-tuned universe?

There are some interesting theological discussions that we could have around the faint young sun paradox. Whatever solution scientists come up with in the end, the need to maintain a climate capable of supporting and nurturing life over billions of years would require some kind of fine tuning of the earth’s conditions throughout that time. In fact, all this makes me think of Isaiah 27:2-3:

“Sing about a fruitful vineyard:
    I, the Lord, watch over it;
    I water it continually.
I guard it day and night
    so that no one may harm it.

There are some good arguments that we have as Christians in support of our faith, and things such as these to make us marvel at God’s creation. But trying to twist them into supporting science-fiction interpretations of the Bible that contradict numerous other independent lines of evidence is counterproductive. The faint young sun paradox may be a pointer to God’s activity in creation, but it provides no support whatsoever for the idea that it was recent.

Featured image credit: NASA

A musical interlude

In all our discussions about the age of the earth, creation and evolution, and all the rest of it, it’s important that we never lose sight of what it’s all about. This latest hit song from Hillsong United provides us with a powerful reminder.

Regardless of how old the earth is, or who or what did or didn’t evolve from what — if creation sings Your praises, so will I.

YEC Best Evidence 3: the facts about soft tissue in dinosaur fossils

Out of Answers in Genesis’s ten best evidences for a young earth, Mary Schweitzer’s findings of soft tissue remnants in dinosaur fossils are probably the best known.

Thanks to films such as the Jurassic Park franchise, people get all excited about the possibility of resurrecting dinosaurs from DNA fragments, and consequently the discovery of dinosaur soft tissue remnants ticks all the journalists’ boxes for a good story. It also ticks all the young-earth creationists’ boxes for a good story, for common sense tells us that 68 million year old dinosaur bones shouldn’t contain soft tissue.

dinosaurtissue-1
High magnification of dinosaur vessels shows branching pattern (arrows) and round, red microstructures in the vessels. Source: Schweitzer et al (2005).

But the number one rule of journalism — “never let the truth get in the way of a good story” — should not apply to Christian apologetics, so we need to make sure we have all the facts at our disposal before getting too excited about this one.

If the earth is only six thousand years old, why has nobody sequenced T-Rex DNA yet?

The first thing that you need to realise is that soft tissue remnants in dinosaur fossils are rare, difficult to extract, and very badly degraded. They are also only ever found in conditions that are optimal for preservation — several metres underground, having been rapidly buried, and in large, unbroken bones that effectively acted like a sealed canister. Furthermore, other scientists have not been able to replicate Schweitzer’s more extraordinary findings.

tollundmannen
Tollund Man (source: Wikipedia)

Given the right condition, carcasses can survive for thousands or even tens of thousands of years completely intact. Consider Ötzi the Iceman, for example — a 5,000 year old body found in the Austrian Alps, who has even had his whole genome sequenced. Then there was Tollund Man, a two thousand year old body found in a peat bog in such a good state of preservation that when he was first discovered, the police were called because he was initially believed to have been the victim of a recent murder!

That is the state of preservation of dinosaur carcasses that we should expect to see in a six thousand year old earth. Current YEC teaching tells us that Noah had dinosaurs on board the Ark, and that the Flood was followed immediately by an ice age lasting from 200 to 900 years, depending on which YEC you ask. An ice age would have provided perfect preservation conditions, so we should have found dinosaur carcasses in that condition somewhere. Their DNA should be intact and fully sequenceable. Where are they?

Make sure that you accurately describe what Mary Schweitzer actually discovered.

Many YEC claims that I’ve seen grossly exaggerate the state of preservation of the soft tissue remnants that Schweitzer discovered. This makes these claims a source of mockery that brings the whole Christian message into disrepute, as this video illustrates:

Scott Buchanan has a fairly lengthy post describing what Schweitzer actually found in considerable detail on his blog, Letters to Creationists. In a nutshell, she did discover soft tissue remnants, especially of particularly durable components such as collagen from bone fragments and blood vessels. She did not discover actual blood cells, however, but remnants of blood cells consisting of iron particles and durable long-lived heme molecules (which, it turns out, act as a preservative). And although she found traces of DNA, they were in quantities far too small to be sequenced.

Schweitzer herself is unhappy about the way her work gets misrepresented by pastors and evangelists. In an interview with BioLogos, she said this:

One thing that does bother me, though, is that young earth creationists take my research and use it for their own message, and I think they are misleading people about it. Pastors and evangelists, who are in a position of leadership, are doubly responsible for checking facts and getting things right, but they have misquoted me and misrepresented the data. They’re looking at this research in terms of a false dichotomy [science versus faith] and that doesn’t do anybody any favors.

Remarkable … but not that remarkable.

Now having said that, Mary Schweitzer’s discoveries were pretty surprising, and the state of preservation of the soft tissue remnants was better than expected. In fact, she then went on to say this:

Still, it’s not surprising they’ve reacted this way—the bone that I first studied I got from Jack, and when I gave him our initial results he was rather angry—I called him a few times and by my third call he said, “Dammit Mary the creationists are just going to love you.” But I said, “This is just what the data say— I’m not making it up.”

Mary Schweitzer herself is an evangelical Christian, and in fact a former young-earth creationist. However, even despite this, she does not consider that her findings justify a young earth, nor even that they cast doubt on the radiometrically determined ages of the fossils. In fact, she reports that she frequently gets hate mail from YECs condemning and judging her and accusing her of “compromise” for not coming out as YEC on account of her findings.

But Schweitzer’s reasons for not throwing her hat into the YEC ring have nothing to do with compromise. Remarkable as her discoveries may be, they fall far, far short of confirming a young earth.

In addition to misunderstandings about what was actually found, this argument is basically an appeal to “common sense,” which would tell us that soft tissue doesn’t survive for “muuuuhlions” of years. But science does not operate by appeals to “common sense.” It operates by measuring things.

Allentoft et al (2012) have studied how long it takes DNA to degrade. They found that, assuming exponential rates of degradation, it would take DNA an average of 131,000 years at 15°C, 882,000 years at 5°C, or 6.8 million years at -5°C. But they also found a very wide spread to their results, with quantities of DNA in the samples that they studied varying by a factor of 50,000. With these measurements having been made, it’s perfectly plausible that some DNA could have survived for 68 million years.

The age of the fossils is very well established.

The fact of the matter is that the ages of the fossils in question are far better established than our understanding of how long soft tissue can last. Contrary to the claims of young-earth spin doctors, radiometric dating is very reliable. Fossils can be dated to within one percent, while the latest state-of-the-art techniques can achieve results better than one part in a thousand, with their accuracy confirmed by cross-checking multiple independent methods against each other. We’ve already seen that it is far more reliable than YECs make it out to be; that it is not based on untestable assumptions; and that claims about accelerated nuclear decay are fantasy, pure and simple.

On the other hand, nobody has conclusively determined an upper limit to soft tissue preservation times. The rate at which soft tissue decomposes and fossilises is strongly dependent on a wide variety of factors, many of which are unknown. It can decay in a matter of days in hot, moist conditions, but will remain preserved all but intact for thousands of years in cold, dry, anoxic conditions, and only decay very, very slowly after that.

Ultimately, we simply don’t know how long soft tissue remnants can last.

Featured image credit: Ottawa – Museum of Nature (via Wikimedia Commons)

How to measure things

13Do not have two differing weights in your bag – one heavy, one light. 14Do not have two differing measures in your house – one large, one small. 15You must have accurate and honest weights and measures, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you. 16For the Lord your God detests anyone who does these things, anyone who deals dishonestly. — Deuteronomy 25:13-16

Now I’m going to start off with a trigger warning here: this post contains equations.

If that puts you off, then don’t even think of wading into the creation and evolution debate. There are many, many aspects of the subject that involve mathematics, and if you aren’t able to get your head round that simple fact, you will just end up getting things wrong, claiming that evolution is about crocoducks and shape-shifting cat-dogs, looking completely clueless, and undermining everything that you stand for.

Having said that, the equations in this post aren’t particularly advanced, and I’m more interested in drawing your attention to the fact that they exist than trying to do anything with them. But they are important, because they concern one of the most fundamental, basic skills in science: the art of measurement. As such, this is the first thing that you learn in the first half hour of the first practical class of any undergraduate physics degree course. Working scientists need to know this stuff cold — and so too does anyone who wants to teach in their church about creation and evolution.

Measurement 101.

Now when I talk about measurement, you probably think of getting out a tape measure, stretching it from one end of a piece of furniture to the other, reading a single number off it, and leaving it at that. Your desk may be 180 centimetres wide, for example. But that’s all you get — a single figure.

That single figure isn’t good enough for science.

When scientists measure things, they don’t just want to know the value itself; they also want to know how much confidence they can place in it. For that reason, they always seek to determine its uncertainty, or standard error. Additionally, when they plug their results into their equations to get a final value, they include the standard errors as well.

For example, they’re not content with knowing that the earth is about 4.5 billion years old. They want to know how far on either side of 4.5 billion years the “real” value might fall. So they will tell you that the age of the earth is 4.54±0.05 billion years, or an error of about ±1%. This means they have a 95% confidence that it is older than 4.49 billion years and younger than 4.59 billion years.

For comparison, the error in your car’s speedometer is about ±2.5%.

How errors are calculated

There is no guesswork involved in calculating error bars. On the contrary, they are measured and calculated according to specific statistical formulae.

In order to determine the errors involved in a measurement, you first take multiple readings, x_1 \cdots x_n, then calculate the mean, \bar{x}:

\bar{x} = \frac{1}{n}\left (\sum_{i=1}^n{x_i}\right ) = \frac{x_1+x_2+\cdots +x_n}{n}

and the sample standard deviation, \sigma:

\sigma = \sqrt{\frac{\sum_{i=1}^n (x_i - \bar{x})^2}{n-1} }

What does this all mean?

It’s important to realise that error bars don’t represent “hard” limits; they only represent the “spread” of your results, and as such, a probability distribution for what future measurements are likely to report.

Your results are usually assumed to follow a normal distribution. This may not be exact, but it is usually a good approximation. A normal distribution is a bell-shaped curve that looks like this:

400px-standard_deviation_diagram-svg
A normal distribution curve.
Source: Wikipedia (M W Toews)

It is described by this equation:

f(x \; | \; \bar{x}, \sigma^2) = \frac{1}{\sqrt{2\pi\sigma^2} } \; e^{ -\frac{(x-\bar{x})^2}{2\sigma^2} }

The important thing to note here are the percentage figures:

  • 68.2% of results will be within \pm \sigma of the mean.
  • 95.4% of results will be within \pm 2 \sigma of the mean.
  • 99.8% of results will be within \pm 3 \sigma of the mean.
  • The number of results further than \pm 4 \sigma from the mean will be negligible.

Different scientific papers quote error bars in different ways. Some of them use \pm\sigma, simply indicating the standard deviation. Some of them use \pm 2\sigma, because a 95% confidence level is more intuitively meaningful. Sometimes they will quote a different value called the standard error of the mean, given by this equation:

\sigma_m = \frac{\sigma}{\sqrt{n}}

The standard error of the mean is usually used when a large number of readings have been taken with a view to pinning down a value as accurately as possible. Loosely speaking, it gives the probability distribution for the “real” result as opposed to the probability distribution for future measurements.

Calculating the error in the final results

So, let’s say you have a number of measurements, and you want to use them to find your final result, say, the age of a rock formation. Let’s call your measurements A \pm \sigma_A, B \pm \sigma_B, \cdots and so on, and your final result being given by the function Z(A, B, \cdots). Then the error in Z will be given by this formula:

(\sigma_Z)^2 = \big(\frac{\partial Z}{\partial A}\sigma_A\big)^2 + \big(\frac{\partial Z}{\partial B}\sigma_B\big)^2 + \cdots

If you don’t understand partial calculus, here are some special cases that crop up quite a lot:

Z = A+B
Z = A-B
(\sigma_Z)^2 = (\sigma_A)^2 +(\sigma_B)^2
Z = A \times B
Z = A / B
\big(\frac{\sigma_Z}{Z}\big)^2 = \big(\frac{\sigma_A}{A}\big)^2 + \big(\frac{\sigma_B}{B}\big)^2
Z=A^m \big(\frac{\sigma_Z}{Z}\big)^2 = \big(m \frac{\sigma_A}{A}\big)^2
Z=\ln A (\sigma_Z)^2 = \big(\frac{\sigma_A}{A}\big)^2

What to look for in evidence for the age of the earth.

This is a very basic introduction to how measurements are taken and how errors are calculated, but hopefully it will give you a flavour for the process involved, and an understanding that far from being guesswork, it’s an exact, rigorous and systematic discipline. There’s a lot more that could be said on the subject: for example, there are specific equations to use when fitting a line or a curve to a graph.

Similarly, I haven’t said anything about systematic errors either: these are errors that may affect all measurements in an experiment to an equal extent, and may be caused by such things as contamination, zero errors, or mis-calibrated equipment. A whole raft of techniques are needed to deal with these errors, but the problem is by no means insurmountable. The way they are handled is very similar in many respects to the way that historical assumptions are handled.

The most important thing to take away from all this, however, is that errors and uncertainties can be, and are, quantified. This one fact is the point of failure for many, many young-earth arguments. They try to demonstrate, for example, that radiometric dating is “unreliable,” or that certain assumptions are “generous to uniformitarians.” This kind of talk is completely unscientific: real scientists will attempt to quantify exactly how unreliable radiometric dating is, and will want to establish precise limits on how much historical rates could have varied.

When you’re reviewing young-earth evidence, always look for the error bars. Are they quoted consistently? They may quote them some of the time but not others. Are the error bars that they are omitting likely to be large enough to nullify their arguments? Are they rejecting high-precision measurements with tiny error bars in favour of low-precision measurements with large error bars? Are they giving equal weight to both high-precision measurements and low-precision measurements? (This was one of the fatal flaws in Barry Setterfield’s c-decay hypothesis, for example.) Are they interpreting them realistically? You may see them highlight a discordance of, say, 4 \sigma here and there, but realistically, does that justify claims that the methods concerned can’t distinguish between thousands and billions when \sigma is just one or two percent?

Somehow, I think not. When you are told that some new source of error in radiometric dating has been discovered, for example, your first question should always be, exactly how much of a problem is it? If you can’t get a straight answer to that question, treat it with a hefty pinch of salt. Chances are, it’s far less of a problem than it’s being made out to be.