Critical ThinkingScience

Part 2: Creationism is science (and so history)

Creationism can be a scientific pursuit.  Although I don’t know them, I bet the researchers at Answers in Genesis are pretty darn smart about evolutionary biology.  Similarly, those who once had the universe circling the earth did brilliant mathematics to make the system plausible.  Jean Bastiste Lamarck (of evolution by acquired characters fame) was arguably a more novel thinker than Charles Darwin.  Creationism, geocentrism and Lamarkian inheritance all share one more thing besides being legitimately scientific hypotheses.  The facts of nature overwhelmingly favor their alternative hypotheses: Darwinian evolution, heliocentrism, and Mendelian genetics.

Taking the bible literally qualifies as a scientific hypothesis because it makes a number of very testable predictions.  The earth is quite young, no more than a few thousand years old.  There is no shared descent of all living organisms from a common ancestor.  At one point, a worldwide flood wiped out all life on earth except for a few remnants that managed to book passage on a wooden boat, and more!

As an experimentalist, I very much appreciate this compared to the squish emanating from its conceptual sibling, intelligent design.  ID makes only one prediction: “Something like _______ cannot be explained except by the intervention of an unspecified supernatural actor”.  Fill in the blank with this week’s puzzle. After a viable non-supernatural explanation is presented, put something else into the blank.  Repeat ad infinitum!  And note that non-intelligent designs (like the human appendix!) are never evidence against ID.  In summary, ID fails as a legitimate scientific pursuit because it never makes a prediction that cannot be abandoned when confronted with facts.  Squishy, squish, squish.

Although creationism meets the criteria, its proponents do not treat it as a scientific hypothesis, unfortunately.  They do not acknowledge any possibility of falsification.  The people at AIG are resolute that nothing can ever dissuade them from the literal truth of Genesis.

One would think that AIG scientists must know and ought to adhere to the principles of falsifiability. (1) No individual hypothesis is ever proven to be absolutely true, but can be shown as wrong or false when predictions fail to match observations.  (2) If a hypothesis or a series of connected hypotheses are repeatedly tested and not shown to be false then we can call them a theory.  By adhering to these principles, we can safely say the “Theory of Evolution” and “Theory of Natural Selection”, as both make numerous accurate predictions.  By the same token, because creationism predictions repeatedly fail, it should properly be viewed as a falsified hypothesis.

Thus, when I say there are creationist “scientists”, I mean they go through the scientific process and may well use a scientific method, but in the end, they cannot bear the consequences of where this leads.  Surely this must result in some measure of cognitive dissonance!  I know this well from my own career.  I was once a leading proponent of “Reproductive Skew Models”.  (You can google the topic – it predicts how animals cooperate in groups when that may mean not reproducing).  Over the years, tests of RSM failed to support the most basic predictions.  Initially, I rationalized how each failure could fit within RSM.  But finally, I had to admit my beloved hypothesis was just not a good explanation for how and why animals cooperate.  Science is sometimes the cruelest of task masters!

What I did, painfully, was to eventually give up what I wanted for what is.  This is something apparently a creationist scientist can never do.  However, rather than living with the cognitive dissonance of claiming to do science while rejecting its principles, they escape by redefining science.  This is the false dichotomy of historical versus observational science.  We can see how that works in relation to a specific question: How old is the Grand Canyon?

We know two things about the Grand Canyon from present-day observations.  First, the Colorado River is eroding its riverbed.  Second, the entire plateau through which the river flows is being gradually pushed upwards by tectonic forces.  Hence the river is trapped within its canyon and therefore as long as the river flows, the Grand Canyon will get deeper and more spectacular!  Rivers are seen to erode canyons, but at relatively slow rates.  This means that the Colorado River could have made the Grand Canyon if it flowed there for hundreds of thousands to millions of years.

This testable prediction is supported by a variety of observations.  Thermochronology (methods that date how long rocks have been exposed to surface conditions), suggests several bouts of creation.  Parts of the Grand Canyon look to have been exposed ‘only’ 5-6 million years ago, but the carving in other areas may have begun as long ago as 55-70 million years.  Add into this, the exquisite and entirely consistent layering of fossil-bearing rocks as would have only occurred over millions of years.  In other words, everything we see is consistent with a river cutting through the same path for a very, very long time.

The creationist hypothesis is that the canyon arose in one fell swoop from the receding waters of a great world-wide flood approximately 4000 years ago.  What present-day observations would support this?  Do we see great flood waters receding from a tsunami or a hurricane storm surge in the form of a single mighty river?  No, water retreats along the same broad front as it came in.  Do we see meandering channels formed by receding flood waters that look like mini Grand Canyons?  No, any channels formed tend to be in straight lines and not like the Colorado which meanders and doubles back on itself just like any other major river in the world.  Do receding flood waters lay down orderly layers of different kinds of sediment, each with its own unique set of fossilized organisms?  No, never.

One explanation is completely consistent with known, observable processes, all of which point to the same conclusion – an old earth.  Another explanation requires a flood producing features never observed anywhere at any time on earth.  In other words, miraculous effects in physics, chemistry and geology.  Let me reiterate what I said in my previous post: If a scientific hypothesis requires sets of miracles in order to make it true, then it is false. 

This is the point where creationist science becomes pernicious and dangerous in raising the supposedly ghastly specter of “point-of-view”.  If you have to have an earth that is only 6000 years old, then of course the Grand Canyon was cut by a flood and all the required miracles must have happened.  If you have to have a much older Earth, then of course, the Grand Canyon must be due to millions of years of erosion.  This is “Historical” science and since no one was there either 4 thousand or 40 million years ago, who is to say which point-of-view is the more correct?

It is as if creationists look into a mirror and project onto all of science their own “having to have”.  Because they are constrained by a religious demand, they erroneously claim the same for everyone else.  But in fact, conclusions in evolutionary biology or about the Grand Canyon have no preconceived or required specific outcome.  The Earth need not be exactly 4.5 billion years old and the Grand Canyon need not be exactly 6 million years old.  We accept those numbers as valid from multiple lines of evidence that strongly suggest they are the most likely states of nature.  Should multiple lines of evidence from physics, chemistry, geology, biology and astronomy all point to the Grand Canyon, the Earth, and universe being no more than six thousand years old, then just like with RSM, I would have to change my mind.  Similarly we who follow in Darwin’s footsteps accept a tree of life with a single common origin not because we hate God or have dogma that requires it, but because it is the single most elegant and consistently supported explanation for what is around us.

The differentiation of science into neat historical and observational boxes allows organizations like AIG to maintain the fiction that their scientists and secular ones do the same thing, but from different starting points.  If this were all, it would annoying but mostly just ludicrous that someone could argue it cannot be determined if an object is 4.5 billion or just 6000 years old.  However, there is a deeper cynicism at play than merely the “you were not there” trope.

I’ll illustrate through AIG’s Dr. Georgia Purdom webcast for the wondrous nature of adaptation.  For a creationist, it is quite the problem to fit all the species (living and extinct) into Noah’s rather small boat.  One solves this problem with ‘kinds’.  Thus, Noah only had to bring aboard a pair of generic canines, who through rapid microevolution after the flood exploded into the variety of wolves, coyotes, foxes, raccoon dogs, dingos, dachshunds, etc. that are alive today.  Microevolution follows Darwin’s ideas on natural selection for adaptation and as Dr. Purdom explained, this is not a problem for creationism.  Mutations can be beneficial and gene frequencies can change to better adapt populations to their environments.  Organisms are simply constrained to remain within the ‘kind’ ground plan.  She particularly enthused about epigenetics, which is a burgeoning research field in how the same genes can produce different behaviors and morphologies through environmental effects on their expression.  Adaptive microevolution, plus epigenetics, equals within-kind diversity.

Employing such logic Dr. Purdom and the other folks at AIG should have no problem with homosexuality.  Observable and repeatable science shows that homosexuality has genetic underpinnings.  Homosexuality occurs at high enough frequencies in all populations that one would have to conclude it has been selectively advantageous – I.e., the genes for the trait must have some Darwinian fitness payoffs to have become so common.  Homosexuality is also epigenetic in expression.  The best known effect is the older brother one.  The more older brothers a boy has, the more likely he will be gay.  In other words, something about having a son conditions a mother’s womb to create an environment for the next boy that is more likely to trigger an eventual expression of gayness.

Homosexuality, therefore, gives all the appearance of a microevolved adaptive trait within the human kind.  It is also a behavior that is not chosen, comparable in expression to lactose tolerance (a genetic trait that has recently spread through human populations in conjunction with the domestication of milk-producing animals).  No one chooses to be straight or gay just like no one chooses to be lactose tolerant or intolerant.  Given this eminently observable and repeatable science, have the good folks at AIG dropped their condemnation of homosexuality?  Are they willing to accept their own definition of “good observable science” and acknowledge that one’s sexual orientation is no more inherently sinful than being able to digest cheese after the age of seven?  I kind of doubt it.

This example shows the hypocrisy of historical versus observable science.  It is merely a fig leaf attempt to hide a subjective religious belief as an objective scientific one.  In reality, the two bins of science within creationism are: Supports a literal interpretation of the bible, or does not.  The former is good science, the latter is bad.  It does not matter how it is done.

When science bends to fit a predetermined conclusion, the results are not pretty.  We’ve seen this before when some powerful groups “had to have” cigarettes not causing cancer, lead in paint and gasoline having no human health consequences, pesticides and herbicides not affecting ecosystems, burning lots of carbon having no effect on planet-level climate, and homosexuality being a curable disease.  The list goes on.  Furthermore, if we have all the important answers about life and the universe, why do science at all?  If an inerrant book already explains it all, why spend any money and time doing paleontology, astronomy, geology, physics, or most of biology?  Time to shut down science before it corrupts another generation of kids!

This is why we still need to debate creationists.  Bill Nye did a public service.  It is easy to delegitimize creationism as a specific scientific hypothesis.  The facts are enough.  What is more important is to continually present and explain the rules of science.  What does a reasonable person believe about the world versus an unreasonable one?  Because understanding process is what creates reason, society must be continually inoculated against the fallacy that all scientists are like creationists.  True science is not about predetermined conclusions.  True science is about accepting that even the most dearly held hypothesis could be false.  True science is about using logic and inference to understand the history of life and the earth.  Winning this fight in the court of public opinion has ramifications far beyond Darwin.

UP NEXT: Debating creationism: why it is good idea (but not always)

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Creationism Rises Like a Zombie in the South, Disproportionate Disciplinary Suspension of Minorities and EC Students, and Civil Rights Battles Continue in Charleston, SC. Required Readings 4.28.14

Peter Nonacs

Peter Nonacs

Professor of behavioral and evolutionary ecology at UCLA. I study the evolution of social behavior and cooperation, and anything that ants may do. And occasionally people, too.

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