The Dunning-Kruger Effect, Creation, and Science

This will probably be my most negative post in a long time, but I would like to think that I have been fair and level-headed with my blog to this point. Many disagreements between Creation and Science have been highlighted here, as well as several instances of Creation Science, an unholy (IRONY!) merging of two wholly separate fields into something of a shambling husk, a cross between Frankenstein and something less substantive.

The Dunning-Kruger effect is in full effect here, admittedly on both sides, but far more vehemently on the religious side–don’t worry, that isn’t an assertion I’ll make without some definition and supporting evidence. The Dunning-Kruger effect explains the paradoxical inverse relationship between knowledge and confidence. Wait, what? Inverse relationship?

The Dunning-Kruger effect, in its simplest explanation, is the idea that a person of moderate skill or knowledge in a field will often rate their own skill more highly than an expert in a field; colloquially it is the effect described by “The more you know the more you know you don’t know.” TAKE THAT, ENGLISH! In any case, I promised supporting evidence, and I do plan to deliver. Let’s start with the Big Bang theory.

The Big Bang theory is an interesting case study from both sides, religion and science, because it is so simple when boiled down to a single sentence, but paradoxically impossibly complex when expanded to its own amazing scope. In a single sentence, it is the idea that our universe came from a singularity of impossibly dense matter that exploded into everything we see today. When you expand it, though, things start to get confusing, befuddled, almost magical, and difficult to understand (the thing about science is that a good scientist will admit when they do not know something). What came before the Big Bang? Well, at this time it is commonly believed that it is impossible to know; as explained in special and general relativity, time did not exist (as we know it) prior to the explosion of energy that was the Big Bang. In order to understand that, you have to go over and think about the idea that time and space are both a fabric that could be compared to a sheet spread out over… Nothing? Unfortunately, I am not qualified to give you a lecture on space-time and the fabric of the universe, but that is kind of the point; to even begin to understand the Big Bang, you have to understand Einstein’s theory of relativity… And while it has been expanded and simplified since Einstein originally published, and far more people understand it today than did for the first couple of decades after its formalization. It is still so complex that Arthur Eddington, a British Astronomer (read: spent his life studying the very body that Einstein described) was once posed the question “Do you really believe it when people say there are only three people in the world who understand Relativity?” His reply, whether accurate or anecdotal, still speaks volumes about the complexity of this body of science; after considering a moment, he said “I can’t think who would be the third.”

The problem is, we’ve only just scraped the surface; if Creationists are trying to bury The Big Bang theory six feet deep, understanding Special and General Relativity is only the first spade strike; you are just breaking ground. In order to get deeper, you have to begin to understand minute details of astrophysics, a notoriously complicated system of mathematics that is only just able to explain the movements of planets and stars, the idea of an expanding universe, the calculations required to explaining the increasing speed of expansion. Hell, if you were to compare the Big Bang to a cherry bomb, we are still so close to the beginning of the bomb going off that the explosion is still growing. That may not be an accurate analogy; the physics of our rapidly expanding universe are so complicated that they don’t make sense mathematically based on what we know, so we are forced to come up with educated guess-and-test scenarios to even make the math work. “Oh, well there you go! We found something you can’t explain in a science so young there are several people older than the entire body currently alive! GOD DID IT!” No, no I don’t think that is even in the realm of fair play; your God has said “I know everything,” for at least the last 2600 years (written records of the Old Testament). I think, given that case, science should be allowed to study the Big Bang for at least another 2520 years (the Big Bang was first formalized in 1927). If we still don’t have the answer in 2520 years, hey, I am comfortable saying that maybe God did it. Hell, let’s make a bet; I’ll bet we know how expansion theory works in 2520 years; if we don’t, and we’re both still around, I’ll buy you lunch.

Ah, but we’re still just a couple of feet into our six foot grave, friends. Now we start to venture into the wonderful, weird world of Quantum theory; quantum mechanics, to be precise. See, the weird thing about our universe is that things start to break down when you start looking at really, really, really small things; things on the subatomic level. When exactly do physics start to break down? No one is quite sure; we just know that at some point, when going from large to small, Einstein’s model of relativity starts to break down, physics stops working like we expect, and we have an entire field of study dedicated to this. Conversely, when going from small to large, things are weird then… At some point, they start making sense in a traditional way. Things in the small world don’t just move from one place to another, they pop in and out of existence (in a sense), and they can be entangled; changes to one have an effect on the other. The thing is, given the physics that we do know about the Big Bang, we have to begin employing quantum mechanics at some point after the explosion but prior to its existence as a body subject to traditional physics. The interactions, the odd physics, the unexplainable (currently) phenomena, they all make the Big Bang difficult to fully quantify. And, of course, we understand that even the idea of physics breaks down when all of space-time existed as a singularity; there may have been a universe before, or nothing at all, or the singularity could have been something we completely don’t understand. It could have been something akin to a god, I am not willing to rule it out (though someone with a much deeper knowledge of the physics of the Big Bang may have some knowledge that rules this out that I am not aware of), but certainly I feel comfortable saying it wasn’t the Christian idea of God.

Now we are starting to get fairly deep in our grave. Are you still ready to keep digging, after you have an in-depth knowledge of Relativity, Astrophysics, Quantum Mechanics? Or are you going to keep digging without understanding those fields?

Ah, but even if you understand the minute details of all of those fields and still believe that the God of Abraham was at the beginning of all things, we still haven’t dug our six foot grave to bury the Big Bang theory yet. In order to get deeper, you have to start to understand the idea of Quantum Chromodynamics, and here is where my own knowledge begins to drop off, so you’ll have to forgive me for my more basic descriptions of the following theories. Now, Quantum Chromodynamics is defined as follows:

“In theoretical physics, quantum chromodynamics (QCD) is the theory of strong interactions, a fundamental force describing the interactions between quarks and gluons which make up hadrons such as the proton, neutron and pion.”

I am afraid that I doubt I will have a working knowledge of this field of science before we get to the end of this post, but in order for you to dismiss the idea of the Big Bang theory, you first need to understand and find fault in QCD theory. Once you’ve done that, surely you are six feet deep, right?! No, no I am afraid you are not, though you are admittedly getting close. Still, there is more to understand, and things are only getting weirder.

We are now in the realm of the purely theoretical; the realm of almost pure math, where we are using numbers instead of words to describe things that we cannot actually observe. We are tearing apart the universe and using numbers to tell the universe how it works, DAMMIT! The problem is, when there are almost no ways for us to empirically test these mathematical constructs (YET!), we are left in the realm of best guesses. To be fair, thousands of scientists spend thousands of hours each every year trying both to describe the universe’s most odd fundamentals and then prove that their descriptions of accurate. This adds up to multiple millions of man-hours each year, where the brightest, most well educated minds on the entire planet are trying to describe how the very mechanics of the universe work; like tearing apart a watch to examine all the cogs and springs, only there are an innumerable amount of both cogs and springs, and they are all so small we can’t see them.

So when we get into the very depths of theoretical physics, we have come across literal billions of man-hours of science that can only, when added together, begin to describe the universe as though they were infants asked to describe the inner workings of a V6 engine. Imagine there are two children standing in front of a running V6, both asked to describe it. One says “It makes noise, then a car moves.” The other walks around it slowly, sees the pistons moving, see parts rotating, and says “I don’t know, but those moving parts have something to do with it, and I am going to spend the next few years figuring it out.”

Which one, then, better describes the approach of “God did it!” when working with science so complex that there is no mind in the world that could possibly understand it all?

Now here is where the Dunning-Kruger effect comes in at full force. The greatest, brightest minds in the world say “I don’t know, and I do not have the expertise to know.” Minds home schooled, with no formal education in physics, who hold government office are comfortable saying “Well, of course I know! I know all the answers!”

The very funny thing is that the Bible is 800,000 (or so) words long, and I would be surprised if the body of papers about the Big Bang alone measure only that many pages (seriously, I’d imagine there are far more pages than merely 800,000 out there). I have read the Bible; I’ve gone through it several times. I have seen strange contradictions, interactions, falsities, missed prophecies, historical inaccuracies, and even then I know that there are people who know far, far more about the Bible than me. That being said, there are people who know far less about the Bible, having never read it themselves, who would feel comfortable telling me that it is an inerrant document, the literal Word of God, having no contradictions, and that physical science and history is only correct when it aligns with the book they have never read, and here we have another almost egregious example of Dunning-Kruger at work.

The point is this; when you are going to parrot something that someone has told you, such as “God did the Big Bang!”, please at least make a strong effort to understand what you are saying. I am one man, but I have made a very strong effort to understand, as well as a layperson can be said to understand, the physics involved in the Big Bang. I have read a great deal about Relativity, about Astrophysics (even if I cannot do the math that this field requires), the various facets of Quantum Theory, and I am afraid that after having read thousands of pages, I have to extend my arms and offer something that I would describe as trust, but you might describe as faith. I do require some degree of faith that the math all works out in the end, because I find that I am incapable of doing the math myself at my current level of education.

The difference between my growing knowledge and the idea that the Bible is all you need is that I am constantly learning. Maybe some day I will know enough that I will not require faith, or science will understand enough that the theories describing the universe itself can be boiled down into forms that can be understood by the layperson.

The thing about your faith is that it is in a book that you have either read once, or from which you cherry pick verses, or that you have never read at all. If you are going to tell me that your Bible is inerrant and literally true, read through the entire thing, and tell me in your own words how you justify that. If you are just going to parrot people who have done it before you, saying exactly what they said to me, that shows a lack of understand, or a lack of comprehension, or a lack of having read the material at all.

What I have done here today wasn’t parroting information about the Big Bang; I told you about the theory in my own words, using my own understanding. I could do the same (and have, at some length) regarding the Bible and factual errors as well as inconsistencies… But the funny thing is, even then, I have done a ton of external research. A great place to start, and to start with an absolutely theistic leaning, is with the works of Reza Aslan. His book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth is an incredibly in-depth look at the historical validity of the Gospels contained in the Bible. To clarify, the book does not aim to tear them apart, it aims to tell an accurate history of Jesus and the early Christian Church, to form a coherent single narrative out of the disparate tales contained in the Gospels. I mean, I find it odd that you can say the Bible is inerrant and free of contradiction when none of the four primary canonical Gospels seem to be able to agree on the life of Jesus. In any case, I would like to hear your refutations of the points made by Aslan in this book. Some of the points include the fact that no census was taken that would have required Joseph to go to Bethlehem, the fact that “going to the city of your fathers” in no way describes how a Roman census was conducted, or the fact that, as he was born of a virgin who was impregnated by God himself, Jesus would have had zero drops (that is 0%, none, nil, 0/1, 0/100, zip, zilch, nada) of blood that would tie him in any way to the lineage of David. To go even one step further, the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke give two completely different genealogies of Jesus, and that barely matters because genealogies of the time were done through the male line, and it was Mary’s blood in him anyway. What was the genealogy of Mary? I don’t know, I don’t even know who her Grandmother would have been, let alone tracing back her history some 42 generations, let alone 76 generations. Another odd thing is that the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke both have David in Jesus’ lineage, but the generations between David and Jesus in the Gospel of Luke was some forty two, and in Matthew was twenty seven. Even more damning, these ‘detailed’ generations contain only two names in common.

There, a single paragraph. If you can tell me, in your own words, why the genealogy of Jesus is listed so differently between the two Gospels (and, while you are at it, why his genealogy matters at all, if he was born of a virgin), and how you still believe the Bible to be inerrant and literal, then we can continue this dialog forward. If you send me nothing but a quote from someone who never seems to be able to defend themselves in a public forum, I am afraid we have reached an impasse.

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