Understanding creationism, V:
An insider’s guide by a former young-Earth creationist

| 141 Comments

By David MacMillan.

5. Evolution of evolution.

Most creationists believe that the theory of evolution was developed out of an ideological commitment to explaining life apart from God. Explanations of the history of evolutionary theory often point out personal struggles in the lives of prominent scientists – Darwin most often, of course – in support of this belief. “Secular scientists wanted a way of explaining a world that didn’t require God, so they invented this ridiculous theory.” To creationists, this foundation offers an easy way of dismissing all the theoretical and observational bases of evolution. If evolution is just wishful thinking born of anti-theistic extremism, then all the “evidence” is reduced to ad hoc speculation.

Because of this misconception, creationists rarely understand the actual history of how geology, paleontology, and biology built upon each other to provide us with our understanding of the world. Mainstream geology emerged significantly ahead of Darwin’s work; many early geologists were Christians. Studying the distribution of rock layers around the globe allowed geologists to construct a complete geologic column and begin appreciating the incredible amount of time the column represents. Moreover, the regular progression of extinct species fossilized throughout the geologic column had been well-catalogued.

However, creationism requires that the development of evolutionary theory be ad hoc, driven by presupposition rather than by observation. As a result, they often assert that the geologic column doesn’t actually exist: that it’s cobbled together from bits and pieces around the world and that the layers aren’t actually consistent. It is true that there are few places in the world where all layers of the column (the Hadean and Archean and Proterozoic and Cambrian and Devonian and Permian and Triassic and Cretaceous and Paleocene and Miocene and Pleistocene and Holocene) are visible simultaneously, but this fact does not prevent geologists from identifying them. The layers of the geologic column are identified relative to each other using clear and consistent markers which function the same way no matter where you are in the world. Constructing and identifying the components of the geologic column is not the random guesswork creationism makes it out to be.

In the creationist worldview, the ideas proposed by Darwin came from a desire to explain the existence of life apart from God. They believe all “evolutionary science” came out of this particular worldview. But that is simply not the case. Darwin was not setting out to explain life apart from divine creation; he was discovering the mechanism behind the already well-established progression of life on Earth. Naturalists already understood that life had existed for millions of years at the very least; they already knew that the geologic record showed innumerable species living and flourishing and going extinct all one after another. Creationists like to frame the story as though Darwin invented the theory of common descent and then looked for evidence to fit it, when in fact his theory explained the evidence that already existed.

The idea that evolution is ideologically driven obscures its very straightforward history giving creationists an excuse to believe the development of evolutionary theory has been entirely ad hoc. This belief often manifests in accusations of circular reasoning, like the infamous, “You use the fossils to date the rocks, and then you use the rocks to date the fossils!”

In reality, of course, the established order of the geologic column had already placed stringent constraints on the design of the emerging evolutionary tree. The geological column is not just a bunch of fuzzy layers identified on the basis of the fossils discovered in them. Rather, each layer has specific properties which can identify its place in the complete column regardless of where it is in the world. The placement and distribution of fossil species within this column was already well-understood prior to the formulation of Darwin’s theory. Yet creationists insist, based on their preconceptions about the atheistic basis of evolutionary science that the tree is fictitious and is thus completely arbitrary. To creationists, the placement of fossils within the tree of life is haphazard; creatures are just shoved in wherever they might fit, with no constraints whatsoever.

Creationists will make use of any evidence they can find that seems to support their beliefs about the ad hoc development of the evolutionary tree. They will go to great lengths in discussing the slightest revisions or alterations to the tree. Any change, however slight, is taken to mean that the whole tree is arbitrary. They will hunt down obscure speculations from fringe scientists suggesting changes to the evolutionary tree, just so they can support their belief that the tree is constantly in flux. Even the most tentative suggestions of a different interpretation of the evidence will be seized, quoted, and re-quoted.

This misconception comes from a lack of understanding of how the scientific community functions. With hundreds of thousands of research scientists in the United States alone and over a million journal articles published worldwide each year, new hypotheses are constantly being proposed. But just because something shows up in a research journal doesn’t make it part of the scientific consensus. Ideas enter the realm of established science only when the initially proposed hypothesis is confirmed by subsequent research and discovery. All the major facets of common descent have been challenged numerous times, but they have remained constant within the scientific community for well over a century.

Creationists with formal training in the research sciences may be more familiar with this process, but laypeople – especially laypeople with existing skepticism toward science – will be harder to reach. Either way, the best approach is usually to start from the ground up, showing that the great age of the geologic column was well-established long before evolutionary theory emerged and that the fossil record isn’t nearly as malleable as they typically assume it to be.

Often, creationists will point to what seem like large shifts in the dating of fossils as proof that evolutionary theory is simply adapted to fit the evidence rather than making any consistent predictions. Admittedly, a change of 1-2 million years seems huge. But in comparison to the 4.5 billion year lifespan of Earth, it’s not so big. A shift of 2 million years in a 4.5 billion year history is like changing the time of a weekly meeting by four and a half minutes.

The idea of an arbitrary evolutionary tree produces two major objections from creationists. The first objection is that if evolution can adapt to match new evidence, it must not be very certain about anything. This argument is easily addressed by pointing out that there are limits to what evidence evolution can adapt to. Numerous discoveries would invalidate evolution: the famed Precambrian rabbit, the existence of completely unique morphologies with no evolutionary precursors, or any sort of true chimaera with body parts from unrelated species.

The other objection is purely philosophical and much more difficult to address. Creationists equate science’s dependence on the explanatory power of evolutionary theory with their dependence on doctrine and dogma in religion. Because they feel that religious truth must be static and unchanging, they deride evolutionary theory as “not trustworthy” simply because it can change to accommodate new evidence. They demand an authoritarian source of Absolute Truth which will not change or adapt.

Absolute certainty may be a comforting foundation in the sphere of religious dogma, but science doesn’t work that way. In fact, it can’t work that way; science is predicated on the supposition (the real underlying “assumption”) that ideas must constantly change and adapt to reflect new evidence so that we can continue to better predict processes in the world around us. The truths obtained in science are based in experience, trial, and error; the truths people seek through religion are based in revelation, faith, and trust.

Obviously, the scientific model of evolutionary common descent does not make any claims about morality (though this has not prevented many people, scientists and nonscientists alike, from using evolution or pseudo-evolutionary ideas as the justification for certain ethical or moral claims). Ideally, it would be possible to simply explain that evolution makes no necessarily or intrinsic moral judgments, but many creationists will insist that it does. This misconception is entirely separate and will be addressed further later.

141 Comments

Because they feel that religious truth must be static and unchanging, they deride evolutionary theory as “not trustworthy” simply because it can change to accommodate new evidence.

Ah, but a theory (er, species) that can’t adapt to changes will eventually go extinct…

Darwin was not setting out to explain life apart from divine creation; he was discovering the mechanism behind the already well-established progression of life on Earth.

Not only that, but he was figuring out an explanation for a number of consistently observed patterns in the evidence*, which is the purpose behind any scientific theory. If a theory happens to say something about “origins”, that’s a side effect.

*Such as geographic nesting of related species, which as I understand it was Darwin’s starting point.

Creationists equate science’s dependence on the explanatory power of evolutionary theory with their dependence on doctrine and dogma in religion. Because they feel that religious truth must be static and unchanging, they deride evolutionary theory as “not trustworthy” simply because it can change to accommodate new evidence. They demand an authoritarian source of Absolute Truth which will not change or adapt.

Often they’ll do the opposite, too, within basically the same venue in which they fault evolution for changing. They’ll claim that evolution is completely dogmatic, thus supposedly itself being contrary to the changes in views that occur.

This happens at UD all the time:

Continuing to rely on Darwin and his followers for insights is a good way to get it wrong.

http://www.uncommondescent.com/natu[…]win-thought/

Why yes, I guess that’s why evolutionary science continues to seek out the data in order to see what really happens. Every time it does so, though, it “falsifies Darwin,” the strawman that UD (with other creationists) has set up.

Science is wrong for being dogmatic and for not being dogmatic. That’s because for most of them it’s either a matter of dogma being right, or everything being meaningless.

Glen Davidson

As is my habit, I see whether the argument against evolution works as well as (or better) an argument against reproduction (plus genetics, development, etc.).If Darwin wanted to replace God as my Creator and Redeemer, he should have gone after reproduction, being personal and here and now, rather than abstract and long ago.

If one wanted to fabricate a theory, why this particular one? Why choose such a ridiculous one? Why not make the universe, and life, eternal and not worry about where it all came from? Why, in one wants it to be finite, not choose this particular number of years - for there is nothing other than imagination to go on? Why all of the agreement? Was there a secret committee meeting where all of the scientific dictators chose the number of years, and chose Darwin from the possible heros?

Why not make the universe, and life, eternal and not worry about where it all came from?

They tried, but then somebody shot down the steady state model.

Most creationists believe that the theory of evolution was developed out of an ideological commitment to explaining life apart from God.

The notion isn’t totally crazy, but they’re off by nearly 2000 years. Lucretius proposed a materialistic explanation for life and human experience in De rerum natura as an alternative to fearing the whims of capricious deities. Of course, it doesn’t stand up well against modern science, but it’s at least as compelling as competing creation myths including that of Genesis.

Darwin’s motivation was to explain what he saw. If he had a primarily atheist agenda, he could have stopped at “good enough” (which is simply come up with a better explanation than Genesis). He didn’t stop there. Scientists after Darwin didn’t stop either. The main people that seem to be stuck–indeed spinning their epistemological wheels in the mud–are the creationists. And they confuse being stuck with being consistent.

callahanpb said:

Most creationists believe that the theory of evolution was developed out of an ideological commitment to explaining life apart from God.

The notion isn’t totally crazy, but they’re off by nearly 2000 years. Lucretius proposed a materialistic explanation for life and human experience in De rerum natura as an alternative to fearing the whims of capricious deities. Of course, it doesn’t stand up well against modern science, but it’s at least as compelling as competing creation myths including that of Genesis.

And Lucretius was an atomist. And that meant for a long stretch of time that atomism was equated with materialism.

Darwin’s motivation was to explain what he saw. If he had a primarily atheist agenda, he could have stopped at “good enough” (which is simply come up with a better explanation than Genesis). He didn’t stop there. Scientists after Darwin didn’t stop either. The main people that seem to be stuck–indeed spinning their epistemological wheels in the mud–are the creationists. And they confuse being stuck with being consistent.

Consistency is a virtue which creationism is not noted for.

And as far as the metaphor of spinning wheels, I think of the motorist who is not familiar with driving in snow. When stuck in the snow, they think that it’s a good idea to gun the engine, which only gets the car in deeper snow.

This is why I think that it is so important to explain the history of scientific inquiry when science is first being taught. The history of science is at least as interesting as simply the current understandings of science. First, it teaches how science is done. Second, it explains many of the mistakes that were made along the way, which are (not surprisingly) also many of the mistakes in understanding that young students make too. The example of the “geologic” column, and both its place in science and its place in the history of science is a great example.

While the recent Cosmos series has its good points and bad, one of the things it tried to do was to not only tell what we know about the world, but also tell how we came to know it. (At least IMO.)

My wife learned history as a set of dry facts and dates, and learned to hate history because of it. But when history can be presented as a process, as a story of discovery and learning, then it can become exciting. The history can turn science into a human story, instead of just a bunch of dry facts and equations. Don’t get me wrong. I like dry facts and equations. But anything that can make science more engaging to the “average” student has to be counted as a positive.

This comment has been moved to The Bathroom Wall.

And your “biology” is based on the bible, not on any science at all. You lose.

Scott F said:

This is why I think that it is so important to explain the history of scientific inquiry when science is first being taught. The history of science is at least as interesting as simply the current understandings of science. First, it teaches how science is done. Second, it explains many of the mistakes that were made along the way, which are (not surprisingly) also many of the mistakes in understanding that young students make too. The example of the “geologic” column, and both its place in science and its place in the history of science is a great example.

There was certainly a lot of history of science in the courses I took during my own training. There is a lot of pedagogical value in the history of both experimental and theoretical physics. One learns a great deal about conceptual misunderstandings due to historical and cultural influences as well as what it means to “put the experimental handles on” theoretical concepts.

I don’t know how it goes in biology or chemistry for those who got their training in those areas; but many of the undergraduate and graduate textbooks in physics have pretty good summaries of the historical record. It was from those summaries that I found myself digging into more the detailed histories of ideas.

A major center under the umbrella of the American Institute of Physics is the Center for the History of Physics. The regional and national meetings of many of the member physics societies will usually have sections devoted to the history of physics. For most of my career I belonged to the Forum on the History of Physics within the American Physical Society.

The old saw about those not learning history being condemned to repeat it most certainly applies to physics; and, I would think, to all of science.

Robert Byers said:

Evolution if founded on non biological evidences. Geology for example. Without the geology ideas all fossil evidence would have no value. therefore all fossils are non biological evidence since strata is essential for meaning. Darwin also said forget his idea if one didn’t first accept long geological ages. AMEN. his biology is not based on biology but on geology. A rejection of scientific methodology.

As usual you make no sense. Yes evolution draws evidence from Geology. It must also be consistent with Geology and all of the other sciences as well.

Essentially you’re claiming that chemistry has no meaning because it depends on physics.

David, I think this is your best post yet.

As a high school teacher I find it hard to fit in much about the history of science, but I really focused on it when teaching about evolutionary theory. I wanted my students to understand that Darwin didn’t just come up with his ideas on a whim. I started in Ancient Greece and China and kept going way past Darwin and Wallace to today. It takes a lot of time, but I think it’s important and addresses the misconceptions you highlight here.

I created a timeline that I had students fill in as we discussed different people. I used the timeline when talking about genetics and classification too. It got a bit messy, but I think it helped students to look at what happened when Darwin missed Mendel’s work and how the Modern Evolutionary Synthesis came together. I also didn’t stop at Miller-Urey when discussing OOL. I include work since then because most teachers talk about biogenesis and Pasteur then Miller-Urey then stop–which I think confuses students. I try to contrast the old spontaneous generation with new ideas in abiogenesis.

Robert Byers said:

Evolution if founded on non biological evidences.

Actually, Darwin first formulated his ideas on evolution based on comparative anatomy and geographical distribution of animals he encountered during hte voyage of the Beagle.

To belabor the point, carefully comparing the animals you catch while involved in a years-long sailing cruise counts as “operational”, not “historical” science, even by creationist standards.

True, fossils do play a large role in our understanding of evolution, but even if they didn’t exist essentially the same story is told by our DNA, which, once we knew how and where to look, lays out the exact same relationships between organisms.

And the geographical distribution of organisms tells the same story. This is particularly true in “ring species”, where you can actually see speciation in action.

Of course, you don’t have to trek into the wilds to see evolution, you can just grow some e.coli in your lab, like Richard lenski.

Or maybe you could domesticate the silver fox.

And, Beyers, you could do them all right now, in real time, thereby ensuring pristine operational science, uncontaminated with any of that pesky “historical” stuff.

But you won’t.

No creationist will.

Because deep down you know that careful measurements won’t go the way you want them to.

Robert Byers said:

Evolution if founded on non biological evidences. Geology for example. Without the geology ideas all fossil evidence would have no value. therefore all fossils are non biological evidence since strata is essential for meaning. Darwin also said forget his idea if one didn’t first accept long geological ages. AMEN. his biology is not based on biology but on geology. A rejection of scientific methodology.

Many people, including many who accept evolution, think that the primary evidence for evolution is fossils.

Fossils can be spectacular, they are visual, tangible evidence. But how many fossils were known in Darwin’s day?

One must mention the facts of taxonomy and biogeology, and more recently, direct observation of evolution. And don’t forget embryology and ecology. And that one has a theory making sense of it all.

Robert Byers said:

Evolution if founded on non biological evidences

Christ, why do these people talk about things they do not know. The very first chapter of The Origin of Species deals with biological evidence. The chapter on the geographic distribution of species deals with biology. The chapter on homology deals with biologic evidence. I mean, seriously, your objection was dealt with even when it wasn’t an objection. No need for any panda to debunk, since DARWIN HIMSELF is debunking you from the grave.

Very good post David. I particularly find this sentence striking: “…they often assert that the geologic column doesn’t actually exist: that it’s cobbled together from bits and pieces around the world and that the layers aren’t actually consistent.”

It is beyond me why, when looking at a diagram of the geologic column for the first time, would anyone think that it exists like that anywhere on the planet. Even as a high school student, when I first saw that, I immediately grasped the overall concept that the column was built by assembling the patterns of superposition of the different layers across the world.

Thinking that the geologic column is false because the whole column can’t be found anywhere on the planet is as stupid as thinking that the Periodic Table of elements is false because you never find all elements sorted like that in an actual molecule.

Robert Byers said:

Evolution if founded on non biological evidences. Geology for example. Without the geology ideas all fossil evidence would have no value. therefore all fossils are non biological evidence since strata is essential for meaning. Darwin also said forget his idea if one didn’t first accept long geological ages. AMEN. his biology is not based on biology but on geology. A rejection of scientific methodology.

“if founded on non biological evidences” … “If” that, then what? I am on the edge of my seat waiting to hear the apodosis!

In the creationist worldview, the ideas proposed by Darwin came from a desire to explain the existence of life apart from God. They believe all “evolutionary science” came out of this particular worldview. But that is simply not the case.

This shows yet another misconception that creationists have with science, though to be fair it’s a misconception that laypeople of all stripes may have too. Science largely doesn’t care where an hypothesis comes from - hypothesis-development is the one area of the scientific method where there are essentially no rules, its a free-for-all. We sort-off teach this to kids, with our stories about people coming up with hypotheses while sitting in the bath, or getting hit with an apple, or dreaming about a snake eating its own tale. But the lesson might be too subtle and get lost: having a religious motive, or an anti-religious motive, or a monetary motive, or a political motive, etc… doesn’t invalidate an hypothesis. Testing and evidence are what’s used to validate or invalidate hypotheses. Darwin could’ve been a Satanist, creating the TOE to destroy western civilization, and that wouldn’t matter - what matters is whether his hypothesis is consistent with what we see.

Given that the community has limited resources, motive (as well as some proposer’s past history of hypothesis success or failure) can play a part in what we decide to test - simply because we can’t test everything, we typically spend money testing ideas from credible sources or that seem credible in light of current scientific understanding. But that’s the only place it really matters. Creationists who claim Darwin was searching for an idea to replace God are fundamentally misunderstanding how science works, because such a motive wouldn’t invalidate the theory even if they were right (which they aren’t).

The other objection is purely philosophical and much more difficult to address. Creationists equate science’s dependence on the explanatory power of evolutionary theory with their dependence on doctrine and dogma in religion. Because they feel that religious truth must be static and unchanging, they deride evolutionary theory as “not trustworthy” simply because it can change to accommodate new evidence. They demand an authoritarian source of Absolute Truth which will not change or adapt.

And the irony of Protestants making this claim is often lost on them.

Very clearly, human understanding of religious truths is not unchanging. Any modest study of history will show you how it has changed. Every different sect alive today is evidence that such understanding not only changes, but is fractured at any given moment. Theologians (or at least YECs) like to imply that their knowledge is absolute and unchanging, but it really isn’t. One can analogize Hume’s problem of induction to theology, where the base unit or ‘data bit’ is ‘a revelation’ rather than ‘an observation of the world.’ You’ve still got to “induct” a picture of the whole from various data bits. You still have to interpret what they mean. You still have to assign some confidence level to the various bits in order to resolve discrepancies, and so on. The main difference is that you’re doing all these tasks on proclamations given by people, rather than recordings of how nature acts.

Since Robert, like his ally FL sticks to the theory that closing your eyes to evidence is all it takes to reject evrything of science that you don’t like, maybe a few pertinent facts yet might call for a reevaluation of that untenable position:

Geology and Ice ages go hand in hand, and “The First Chimpanzee (2001)”, among other things has this to say

Agassiz was not the first to make the connection between erratic boulders and past glaciation, but he was the first influential scientist actively to pro mote the idea. A Swiss minister, Bernhard Friedrich Kuhn, had interpreted the evidence correctly as early as 1787, and in the 1790s the Scot James Hutton had visited the Jura and had realized that glaciers had been at work there. Hutton was a medical doctor who gave up medicine for farming at 24 and retired from his farm at 42. He is widely regarded as the father of modem geology, and was a profound influence on the succeeding generation of scientists, but his writing was obscure, and neither Hutton, nor Kuhn, nor indeed any of the others who independently reached the same conclusions about the erratic boulders of the Jura, had the aggressive spirit needed to take the lce Age hypothesis forward, testing it in the arena of scientific debate until it had been tempered into an established theory. A Swiss naturalist of the time, Jean de Charpentier, put the idea on to a firm scientific footing in the early 1830s, but the scientific establishment held fast to traditional ideas, bolstered by faith in the literal word of the Bible. Young Agassiz had met de Charpentier while still a schoolboy in Lausanne; but he too initially rejected the idea, despite his respect for the older man. Eventually, however, Agassiz was persuaded by the weight of the evidence, and he became the forceful front man and advocate that the Ice Age theory needed.

eric said: Given that the community has limited resources, motive (as well as some proposer’s past history of hypothesis success or failure) can play a part in what we decide to test - simply because we can’t test everything, we typically spend money testing ideas from credible sources or that seem credible in light of current scientific understanding. But that’s the only place it really matters.

I should also add that motive and past success only plays a part when you are asking to spend someone else’s money. Like, say, the taxpayer’s. Private organizations can research any old crazy idea they want (subject to ethical limitations). Science welcomes all comers to research; it is only when you are asking someone else to pay for your work that you must make a business case for why you think your idea will pay off, or (a case for) your capability of carrying out the proposed research.

Helena Constantine said:

Robert Byers said:

Evolution if founded on non biological evidences. Geology for example.…

“if founded on non biological evidences” … “If” that, then what? I am on the edge of my seat waiting to hear the apodosis!

It’s always a chancy business to try to guess what Byers means. But in this case I think we are confronted with a simple keystroke error, rather than with one of the more exotic flights of his soaring incompetence. I think he meant to write “Evolution is founded on non-biological evidences…”

Of course that’s not true, either, and it wouldn’t even matter if it were. Another of Byers’ little idiocies is that he thinks science is as compartmentalised as his mind is.

If a subset of the evidence for evolution comes from geology, so what? It’s not like those two fields are talking about two different worlds (or universes). They’re talking about different aspects of the same world. The fields of science aren’t isolated from each other; each one simply has a different focus than the others.

Creationists do tend to focus on the fossils and ignore all the other evidence for common descent. But I suppose they don’t do this any more than the general public, or even much more than the general run of commenters on Panda’s Thumb. I think there are two factors at work here: first, fossil evidence is just flashier and easier to understand than the other stuff; second, science literacy in general is in bad shape.

Robert Byers said:

Evolution if founded on non biological evidences. Geology for example. Without the geology ideas all fossil evidence would have no value. therefore all fossils are non biological evidence since strata is essential for meaning. Darwin also said forget his idea if one didn’t first accept long geological ages. AMEN. his biology is not based on biology but on geology. A rejection of scientific methodology.

Here’s a simple thought, that dullard Byers will either fail to grasp or deny without reason: Much of geology is about biology, at least in part. Relative dating relies upon evolutionary limits (it was used before this was known, but design certainly won’t tell us why extinct organisms will never again appear), and evolution depends upon time, which geology tells us.

Yes, ignoramus Byers, evolutionary science depends in part upon earth science, not upon obvious (except to the dull) fictions, like the Bible. That’s a strength, although the really stupid think it’s a weakness. It’s amazing how convoluted and contrary to intelligent thinking creationism becomes in its denial, but that’s sort of the requirement, after all.

Glen Davidson

No, no, you don’t understand! Once something is dead and in the ground, it becomes geology, regardless of whether it was ever living or how recently. So you can’t tell anything about what it was, how it lived, or what it might be related to, because it’s now geology, and bears no witness to any biology it might have once had.

Have I got that about right, Robert? That the mortal remains of your great grandmother are now just geology, and can tell us nothing at all about what she once was?

stevaroni said:

Of course, you don’t have to trek into the wilds to see evolution, you can just grow some e.coli in your lab, like Richard Lenski.

Or maybe you could domesticate the silver fox.

And, Beyers, you could do them all right now, in real time, thereby ensuring pristine operational science, uncontaminated with any of that pesky “historical” stuff.

But you won’t. No creationist will. Because deep down you know that careful measurements won’t go the way you want them to.

eric said:

Science welcomes all comers to research; it is only when you are asking someone else to pay for your work that you must make a business case for why you think your idea will pay off, or (a case for) your capability of carrying out the proposed research.

Case in point, The Lenski Affair.

A timeless classic.

eric said:

Science largely doesn’t care where an hypothesis comes from - hypothesis-development is the one area of the scientific method where there are essentially no rules, its a free-for-all. We sort-of teach this to kids, with our stories about people coming up with hypotheses while sitting in the bath, or getting hit with an apple, or dreaming about a snake eating its own tale. But the lesson might be too subtle and get lost: having a religious motive, or an anti-religious motive, or a monetary motive, or a political motive, etc… doesn’t invalidate an hypothesis. Testing and evidence are what’s used to validate or invalidate hypotheses.

This important point bears repeating. I work with elementary and middle school students on creating a project for their school science fairs. Often they get the idea that they have to think their test hypothesis is correct before starting the experiments. But they don’t. Scientists can test a hypothesis even if they personally think it’s bunk. We do this all the time on Panda’s Thumb with claims like a global flood and an enormous wooden ark. Skeptical people often test hypotheses and become convinced that those statements are true.

Some drug-induced hallucination can form the basis for a valid hypothesis. The statement simply has to be testable.

Motive might be a hint for the reviewers to watch for non-objectivity on the part of the researcher, but we declare competing interests and move on. Everyone has some non-scientific motive for conducting research (like paying the mortgage). The scientific method is supposed to work past motive and focus on experimental evidence. And it does.

Rolf said:

Since Robert, like his ally FL sticks to the theory that closing your eyes to evidence is all it takes to reject evrything of science that you don’t like,.…..

I thought that Mr Byers had achieved the status of adept of the Second Degree, which allows him to stick his fingers in his ears and chant the mantra “La, La, La” as well.

Just Bob said:

No, no, you don’t understand! Once something is dead and in the ground, it becomes geology, regardless of whether it was ever living or how recently. So you can’t tell anything about what it was, how it lived, or what it might be related to, because it’s now geology, and bears no witness to any biology it might have once had.

Have I got that about right, Robert? That the mortal remains of your great grandmother are now just geology, and can tell us nothing at all about what she once was?

I wonder what good old bobby boy would say if he knew that we can get DNA from the bones of his dead great grandmother? Oh wait, I know, genetics is just “atomic and unproven”, that’s right. Man, this guy sure works hard to make up stupid reasons to ignore all of the evidence.

Mattdance18 -

What I am saying is virtually the same as what Harry Frankfurt said.

‘But it is certainly the case that creationist leaders use it. They may actually “believe their own bullshit.” But they don’t care to actually hold themselves to rigorous standards of evidence and reasoning. They don’t fix their errors even after those errors have been pointed out. They even offer presuppositionalist excuses for why they shouldn’t be required to try. Classic bullshit.’

But what drives their harmful bullsht?

If we model them wrong we can’t predict them accurately.

The model that helps me to predict them, is that their direct conscious view of reality is massively distorted by self-serving bias.

They are in the throes of denial and use the same psychological techniques as, say, smokers denying that cigarettes can be harmful.

Google “Morton’s demon”.

Some people may simply be more prone to this type of behavior than others,for environmental or genetic reasons. Some people are very skilled at deluding themselves. I believe Morton himself is still a wingnut and may be a climate denialist (correction welcome if I am wrong).

Model creationists this way and you will be able to predict their behavior. Their self-image is entirely invested in a a rigid ideology. Under that ideology they are suprior to others and deserve special privileges. Emotionally, they cannot bear for this ideology to be wrong. Evolution denial is far from the only component of this ideology, but it is a DEFINING component for them. Anything that denies or even doubts evolution is precious hope that the ideology they cling to is above doubt. Any concession that the theory of evolution is accurate calls their guiding ideology, and self-image, into question.

The overlap with the authoritarian arm of Fox/Limbaugh/Tea Party political ideology is near 100%. Not quite but near. Essentially all “movement” creationists are part of that political group, and almost all members of that ideological group - almost all - will pander to science denial. Some will pander with “science ‘could’ be accurate” or “jury is still out” statements. Some science supporters sometimes fail to recognize thiis weaselly pandering.

I recognized this a few weeks after discovering organized evolution denial and I have been able to predict creationist behavior quite decently ever since.

I have to say that this is one of the most useful discussions we’ve had on PT. I especially appreciate the remarks on modeling creationist behavior.

gnome de net said:

“This video has been removed by the user.”

Curious. I saw it yesterday.

Yardbird said: In any case, while mathematics was once assumed to have infinite, if undiscovered, capacity for explanation, Goedel’s theorems challenge that assumption. His ideas and quantum mechanics have softened up the hard sciences.

My understanding is that at one time science was also seen as absolute, if incomplete. I think this is still a common view, particularly among the uninformed and willfully ignorant. Historically, some people, including some scientists, saw this certainty as equivalent to the absolutes of religion. (FL seems to share this view. ) Some of those people have adopted science as an object of faith.

For me, however, Goedel’s theorems, the incompatibility of quantum mechanics and relativity, the questions raised by the recent discoveries about dark matter/energy, make faith in science untenable.

Why so? What makes you think that the QM/GR issue is any more unsolvable than the NM/Mercury orbit issue? It took us 230 years to solve the latter. Zeno’s paradoxes were not solved for about 2,200 years! (From about 400 BC until calculus came along.) In contrast, we’ve been working on the GR/QM and dark matter problems for less than 100 years, and the dark energy issue less than 30. I know that sometimes science seems almost magical in its ability to answer difficult questions, but in reality there’s a lot of blood, sweat, and tears that go into getting the answers, lots of false starts, and often lots of time required. Its not like the movies; the anti-virus isn’t created in a day. If it takes another hundred years before we marry up QM and GR, well, that would suck for us alive today but IMO historically it wouldn’t be all that unexpected.

Now, on Godel: AIUI Godel’s incompleteness theorems only hold for systems of arithmatical axioms. Its not a limit on all human knowledge. If your axioms aren’t arithmatical, they don’t hold. If you don’t have a complete system of axioms, they don’t hold. I think its pretty common for people to blow up their significance or try and make them say more than they do, but IMO when they are correctly understood, they are easily seen to represent an advance in knowledge, not a limitation on it. I’ll make up a toy analogy. Eric’s Incompleteness Theory states that when you only have the square of some integer, it is impossible to know whether the original was positive or negative. Do you see that theory as limiting human knowledge, or adding to it? I see it as adding to it - it tells us something about how integers and the squaring function work. Likewise, Godel’s theorems tell us something about how sets of arithmetic axioms work. They no more signal the end of science or limitations of math than the Eric’s Incompleteness Theory does.

eric said:

What makes [one] think that the QM/GR issue is any more unsolvable than the NM/Mercury orbit issue? It took us 230 years to solve the latter. Zeno’s paradoxes were not solved for about 2,200 years! (From about 400 BC until calculus came along.) In contrast, we’ve been working on the GR/QM and dark matter problems for less than 100 years, and the dark energy issue less than 30. I know that sometimes science seems almost magical in its ability to answer difficult questions, but in reality there’s a lot of blood, sweat, and tears that go into getting the answers, lots of false starts, and often lots of time required. Its not like the movies; the anti-virus isn’t created in a day. If it takes another hundred years before we marry up QM and GR, well, that would suck for us alive today but IMO historically it wouldn’t be all that unexpected.

Indeed.

I chuckle when evolution deniers gleefully point out that we cannot yet create life. After all, DNA was only discovered in 1869, and it’s only been sixty years since the formulation of the Watson-Crick model. We’re dancing as fast as we can!

phhht said:

I chuckle when evolution deniers gleefully point out that we cannot yet create life.

I chuckle whenever I think about how much ground they’ve conceded already, seemingly without even noticing. The naive understanding of life is some form of vitalism. The distinction between living and non-living is so basic and so striking, that it is tempting to think there is something fundamentally different in the constituent material.

The idea that living things are made of ordinary matter following ordinary physical laws is counterintuitive and would have been controversial to scientists at least as recently as the 19th century, and controversial to the public much later. But I’m pretty sure even the most committed YEC is not going to appear in public claiming that animals are (ahem) animated by some kind of vital force. They really do have to admit that living things follow the laws of physics or they look like idiots. (What they believe in their heart of hearts is another thing.)

This is less true in the public understanding of the human brain, but when a traumatic injury causing loss of cognition, most people would opt to see a doctor who will run physical tests on their brain, and not someone who will try to call the missing parts of their soul back from the great beyond.

callahanpb said: I chuckle whenever I think about how much ground they’ve conceded already, seemingly without even noticing.

Yes. I think if someone back in Darwin’s time had explicitly made a DNA-like claim (all creatures from algae to zebras use the same molecular inheritance mechanism), the creationists at the time would have roundly rejected it and, not only that, but championed that prediction as a valid test of evolution vs. creationism. Because they would’ve thought it so unlikely to be true, and so weird. Creationists’ current acceptance of DNA as the common basis of life is as enormous a sleight-of-hand revisionism as “theological support for slavery? What theological support for slavery?”

eric said:

Creationists’ current acceptance of DNA as the common basis of life…

Some are not even there yet. To one frequent poster here, DNA is “atomic and unproven”.

For me, however, Goedel’s theorems, the incompatibility of quantum mechanics and relativity, the questions raised by the recent discoveries about dark matter/energy, make faith in science untenable.

Ah, but the existence of unanswered questions doesn’t by itself invalidate the answers that are already in place.

The only time existence of an unanswered question Q might invalidate some other answer A is if it can be shown (by a line of reasoning) that the A logically and directly implies that Q should have also already been answered.

Funny how science deniers frequently try to imply that the lack of answer for some question or other somehow invalidates answers that we already have. (Or maybe it’s not all that funny?)

Henry

Henry J said:

Ah, but the existence of unanswered questions doesn’t by itself invalidate the answers that are already in place.

No. Of course not, and I never said it did. If you’re saying you think I’m a “science denier” you might reread what I wrote. I said that in light of these unanswered questions, which may or may not ever be answered, science as a focus for FAITH, isn’t tenable. I’ve never measured the apparent displacement of a star behind the sun during a solar eclipse to measure space warp. I don’t know if I’d understand the math if I saw it. (It’s been awhile since Diff Eqs.) But I ACCEPT that the measurements validate Einstein, at least until I read about enough other experiments that indicate otherwise. Will humans find a UFT, what dark energy is, where dark matter is hiding, journey to the stars? Who knows? I hope so but I’ll BELIEVE it when I see it, that’s all.

You might legitimately respond “So what? Who cares? Tell me something I don’t know.” That’s fine. I’m just another guy in the room. Sometimes I talk crap. Sometimes not. Jeez, deride me for the right reasons, anyway.

Henry J said:

For me, however, Goedel’s theorems, the incompatibility of quantum mechanics and relativity, the questions raised by the recent discoveries about dark matter/energy, make faith in science untenable.

Ah, but the existence of unanswered questions doesn’t by itself invalidate the answers that are already in place.

The only time existence of an unanswered question Q might invalidate some other answer A is if it can be shown (by a line of reasoning) that the A logically and directly implies that Q should have also already been answered.

Going back to Godel, if we unify all of physics and if that leads to a set of arithmetical axioms {let’s call the set [A]), then (and only then) we could make the following statements about physics:

1. If [A] is fully internally consistent, there will be some physics claims that will be true but formally unprovable.

1a. Else, [A] is not fully consistent, meaning that different combinations of axioms occasonally lead to contradictory predictions.

2. [A] should not contain an axiom saying that [A] is fully consistent. But if it does, then [A] is not fully consistent.

Here’s my analysis for why Godel’s limits don’t really matter for science. Because most scientists wouldn’t be satisfied with a system of physics axioms that yields statement #1a (the laws discovered by science will occasionally yield contradictions), scientists will probably drive towards a system that yields #1 - there are some true physics statements that cannot be formally proven. However, science doesn’t care about formally proving axioms. Its irrelevant. Have we formally proven relativity? No! We’ve just collected a lot of evidence that inductively leads us to accept it. Is atomic theory formally proven? QM? Germ theory of disease? Any important theory of physics, chemistry, or biology? No, no, no, and…no. Formal proofs are what mathematicians do. It might be a really nice goal of science to formally prove our claims, but we’ve done just fine without it so far, and we’ll do just fine without it in the future.

So Godel’s incompleteness theorems provide no practical limitation on scientific knowledge at all - in part because they only apply to a type of system that physics might not be, and in part because scientific knowledge doesn’t meet the “formally proved” criteria in the first place, so telling us that some claims of science will never meet that criteria is no loss, no cause for angst.

Yardbird said: I said that in light of these unanswered questions, which may or may not ever be answered, science as a focus for FAITH, isn’t tenable.

Maybe some clarification is in order, since you seem to have tweaked my and Henry’s buttons. Can you tell me where you think a reasonable confidence in science ends and ‘faith’ in science begins? What’s the distinction you are trying to draw here? What statement of belief about science would you see as going too far, being unjustifiably too faithy?

eric said:

Henry J said:

For me, however, Goedel’s theorems, the incompatibility of quantum mechanics and relativity, the questions raised by the recent discoveries about dark matter/energy, make faith in science untenable.

Ah, but the existence of unanswered questions doesn’t by itself invalidate the answers that are already in place.

The only time existence of an unanswered question Q might invalidate some other answer A is if it can be shown (by a line of reasoning) that the A logically and directly implies that Q should have also already been answered.

Going back to Godel, if we unify all of physics and if that leads to a set of arithmetical axioms {let’s call the set [A]), then (and only then) we could make the following statements about physics:

1. If [A] is fully internally consistent, there will be some physics claims that will be true but formally unprovable.

1a. Else, [A] is not fully consistent, meaning that different combinations of axioms occasonally lead to contradictory predictions.

2. [A] should not contain an axiom saying that [A] is fully consistent. But if it does, then [A] is not fully consistent.

Here’s my analysis for why Godel’s limits don’t really matter for science. Because most scientists wouldn’t be satisfied with a system of physics axioms that yields statement #1a (the laws discovered by science will occasionally yield contradictions), scientists will probably drive towards a system that yields #1 - there are some true physics statements that cannot be formally proven. However, science doesn’t care about formally proving axioms. Its irrelevant. Have we formally proven relativity? No! We’ve just collected a lot of evidence that inductively leads us to accept it. Is atomic theory formally proven? QM? Germ theory of disease? Any important theory of physics, chemistry, or biology? No, no, no, and…no. Formal proofs are what mathematicians do. It might be a really nice goal of science to formally prove our claims, but we’ve done just fine without it so far, and we’ll do just fine without it in the future.

So Godel’s incompleteness theorems provide no practical limitation on scientific knowledge at all - in part because they only apply to a type of system that physics might not be, and in part because scientific knowledge doesn’t meet the “formally proved” criteria in the first place, so telling us that some claims of science will never meet that criteria is no loss, no cause for angst.

Well reasoned. I accept your rebuttal. I chose a poor example.

eric said:

Yardbird said: I said that in light of these unanswered questions, which may or may not ever be answered, science as a focus for FAITH, isn’t tenable.

Maybe some clarification is in order, since you seem to have tweaked my and Henry’s buttons. Can you tell me where you think a reasonable confidence in science ends and ‘faith’ in science begins? What’s the distinction you are trying to draw here? What statement of belief about science would you see as going too far, being unjustifiably too faithy?

“Faithy.” Yeah, I like that.

I was relating specifically to the change in public attitudes I experienced in my lifetime. In the US in the 50’s, most people had the opinion that this thing called science was “good”. It had Answers. It helped defeat the Axis. Pesticides increased food production and reduced disease. Nuclear power would make energy cheap and abundant. A few decades later, the same idea of science was increasingly seen as “bad”. Nuclear weapons were immoral. Pesticides killed birds. Nuclear power would bankrupt the country if it didn’t kill us all first. Both positions/statements were and are faithy.

So what was it I actually said that got up your nose? The response seemed a little strong.

Yardbird said: I was relating specifically to the change in public attitudes I experienced in my lifetime. In the US in the 50’s, most people had the opinion that this thing called science was “good”. It had Answers. It helped defeat the Axis. Pesticides increased food production and reduced disease. Nuclear power would make energy cheap and abundant. A few decades later, the same idea of science was increasingly seen as “bad”. Nuclear weapons were immoral. Pesticides killed birds. Nuclear power would bankrupt the country if it didn’t kill us all first. Both positions/statements were and are faithy.

So what was it I actually said that got up your nose? The response seemed a little strong.

Ah, I got it. Yes, I’d agree that people often have unrealistic expectations of how science will make their lives better or worse; their belief in the social impact of science may be irrational or unreasonable, based on faith or prior biases for/against science.

However, I read your statement

For me, however, Goedel’s theorems, the incompatibility of quantum mechanics and relativity, the questions raised by the recent discoveries about dark matter/energy, make faith in science untenable.

as saying you don’t have much confidence that science will be able to answer current cutting-edge questions about how the universe works. Really, your sentence above does not give any indication you’re talking about nuclear reactors living up to expectations or GM crops or other social impacts of science. I’ve never heard anyone bring up Godel’s theorems to say that they’ve (example only) become pessimistic over the likelihood of a room temperature supeconductor - Godel is always brought up by folks who want to make a philosophy-of-science comment about the limits of science to explain phenomena, to produce knowledge. He’s not brought up to make comments about the likelihood of solar powered cars or whatever. So, I naturally took your comment to be skepticism or pessimism towards future knowledge production, not future technology production or technology “goodness.”

My apologies if I interpreted you wrong, but in defense of my own comments, I really don’t see the message of your last comment in your first comment.

eric said:

Yardbird said: I was relating specifically to the change in public attitudes I experienced in my lifetime. In the US in the 50’s, most people had the opinion that this thing called science was “good”. It had Answers. It helped defeat the Axis. Pesticides increased food production and reduced disease. Nuclear power would make energy cheap and abundant. A few decades later, the same idea of science was increasingly seen as “bad”. Nuclear weapons were immoral. Pesticides killed birds. Nuclear power would bankrupt the country if it didn’t kill us all first. Both positions/statements were and are faithy.

So what was it I actually said that got up your nose? The response seemed a little strong.

Ah, I got it. Yes, I’d agree that people often have unrealistic expectations of how science will make their lives better or worse; their belief in the social impact of science may be irrational or unreasonable, based on faith or prior biases for/against science.

However, I read your statement

For me, however, Goedel’s theorems, the incompatibility of quantum mechanics and relativity, the questions raised by the recent discoveries about dark matter/energy, make faith in science untenable.

as saying you don’t have much confidence that science will be able to answer current cutting-edge questions about how the universe works. Really, your sentence above does not give any indication you’re talking about nuclear reactors living up to expectations or GM crops or other social impacts of science. I’ve never heard anyone bring up Godel’s theorems to say that they’ve (example only) become pessimistic over the likelihood of a room temperature supeconductor - Godel is always brought up by folks who want to make a philosophy-of-science comment about the limits of science to explain phenomena, to produce knowledge. He’s not brought up to make comments about the likelihood of solar powered cars or whatever. So, I naturally took your comment to be skepticism or pessimism towards future knowledge production, not future technology production or technology “goodness.”

My apologies if I interpreted you wrong, but in defense of my own comments, I really don’t see the message of your last comment in your first comment.

No defense necessary. It’s interesting about Godel. Thanks. I didn’t know that. The example came to mind because of a previous few comments about mathematics/science. I can see the trigger in that.

Also, like most of us, I don’t always say what I mean. Sometimes I don’t know what I mean. I try not to talk then but my mouth isn’t good at impulse control

I’m neither pessimistic or optimistic about future discoveries. It seems highly likely that scientific inquiry will continue. I’m all for that, because I appreciate the practical applications and find the more theoretical results interesting. I spend most of the day writing code for things I don’t really care about because I get paid to do so. Reading and participating in the discussions here helps keep my brain alive.

So, this is may be off topic, but how do you suggest dealing with people who “have unrealistic expectations of how science will make their lives better or worse.” I include those who dismiss scientific knowledge out of hand. I suggest a few possible categories:

1. creationists

2. those who think vaccines cause autism

3. those who think our thoughts can cause/cure disease, like Louise Hay, whose book, according to the Internet, has sold 40 million copies. “A Brief History of Time” has sold 10 million copies, and that’s a book “about” science.

I have friends who fit these descriptions and I generally don’t dispute with them, other than saying that I don’t agree. (I’d like to engage more but that little thing in my head that’s supposed to tell me what not to say doesn’t work so well.) What’s your experience?

harold said: If we model them wrong we can’t predict them accurately.

The model that helps me to predict them, is that their direct conscious view of reality is massively distorted by self-serving bias.

Some people may simply be more prone to this type of behavior than others,for environmental or genetic reasons. Some people are very skilled at deluding themselves. I believe Morton himself is still a wingnut and may be a climate denialist (correction welcome if I am wrong).

I recognized this a few weeks after discovering organized evolution denial and I have been able to predict creationist behavior quite decently ever since.

A question and a comment. First, no snark intended, what good is that prediction? Does it give you a more actionable insight than looking at their past actions?

Second, I don’t know anyone who’s NOT good at self-delusion. I’m always grateful for peer review. Reduces my crap quotient.

phhht said:

eric said:

What makes [one] think that the QM/GR issue is any more unsolvable than the NM/Mercury orbit issue? It took us 230 years to solve the latter. Zeno’s paradoxes were not solved for about 2,200 years! (From about 400 BC until calculus came along.) In contrast, we’ve been working on the GR/QM and dark matter problems for less than 100 years, and the dark energy issue less than 30. I know that sometimes science seems almost magical in its ability to answer difficult questions, but in reality there’s a lot of blood, sweat, and tears that go into getting the answers, lots of false starts, and often lots of time required. Its not like the movies; the anti-virus isn’t created in a day. If it takes another hundred years before we marry up QM and GR, well, that would suck for us alive today but IMO historically it wouldn’t be all that unexpected.

Indeed.

I chuckle when evolution deniers gleefully point out that we cannot yet create life. After all, DNA was only discovered in 1869, and it’s only been sixty years since the formulation of the Watson-Crick model. We’re dancing as fast as we can!

And certainly they are not helping.

phhht said:

I chuckle when evolution deniers gleefully point out that we cannot yet create life. After all, DNA was only discovered in 1869, and it’s only been sixty years since the formulation of the Watson-Crick model. We’re dancing as fast as we can!

Moreover, it is strange that the observation that:

there has been no production of life involving design

is taken as a reason to think that:

life arose by design

As if the observation that no one has run the mile in one minute were taken as evidence that the only way to travel a mile-a-minute is by running.

TomS said:

Moreover, it is strange that the observation that:

there has been no production of life involving design

is taken as a reason to think that:

life arose by design

As if the observation that no one has run the mile in one minute were taken as evidence that the only way to travel a mile-a-minute is by running.

Ah, come on. It’s easy. Just use creationist ninjitsu.

1) Scientists fail to design and create life = life is so complex that it couldn’t have come about naturally either. The possibility of existence of a supernatural designer is supported.

2) Scientists do design and create life = life can be designed, so design is a reasonable explanation for all life. The possibility of existence of a supernatural designer is supported.

AltairIV said:

TomS said:

Moreover, it is strange that the observation that:

there has been no production of life involving design

is taken as a reason to think that:

life arose by design

As if the observation that no one has run the mile in one minute were taken as evidence that the only way to travel a mile-a-minute is by running.

Ah, come on. It’s easy. Just use creationist ninjitsu.

1) Scientists fail to design and create life = life is so complex that it couldn’t have come about naturally either. The possibility of existence of a supernatural designer is supported.

2) Scientists do design and create life = life can be designed, so design is a reasonable explanation for all life. The possibility of existence of a supernatural designer is supported.

Precisely.

And if you doubt that such cognitive dissonance is possible, I present Exhibit A: “Creating life in a test-tube?” 2004, Carl Wieland

I remember reading this very article when it came out in 2004. Note answer #1:

“The fact that, with all our knowledge of molecular biology, we are not even close to knowing everything about the complexities of even the ‘simplest’ living organism shows just how much ‘design-power’ and intelligence went into the creation of the first of its kind.”

And answer #2:

“If humanity achieves the synthesis of a living organism, it will be much like [replicating the design of a] TV set [washed up on an] island. The original design will, with a great deal of intelligent effort, have been copied. The absurdity becomes clear: ‘Using intelligence to make life in a test-tube proves that it made itself and did not arise through intelligence.’”

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This page contains a single entry by Matt Young published on June 25, 2014 12:00 PM.

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