Shortsighted Science

Due to my proximity with at least one other person crazier than I am, I have started to read the subtext into what a lot of people say. Honestly, it may not be entirely fair of me to do so; inferring subtext is more of an art than it is a science, but when you stop scraping the surface and actually dig into what people say, you can find some surprising things. I was reading AiG again (SURPRISE!) and something clicked into my head that was always there, but that I personally had not considered.

AiG likes to press the issue of Historical versus Observational science like a dealer pushes his best product at twice its going price. I know this has never sat well with scientists, a false dichotomy that lowers the level of discourse in the scientific field, but in a country where some 47% of the populace responds that they believe the universe is at most 10,000 years old we do have to address their concerns head on, or allow them to swell their numbers based on a tacit assumption that our lack of fighting back means we can’t. Ah, but there’s another rub, isn’t there? Very intelligent, rational people are like “Ignore them and walk away; they’ll burn themselves out.” What we have seen based on that is a groundswell of support for their ideas, and I think people like Bill Nye, who have taken the fight back to them, are becoming more in the right. Even the famous quote “If I were to debate you, it would look great on your CV, not so much on mine,” is adding to the problem–because they will go to a populace who do not follow the behind the scenes of these things, and tell them that “Oh, these atheists are afraid to debate us because they know we’d win.”

Read the above, and try to tell me that isn’t a grade school logic… And yet here we are. So let’s talk about historical and observational science. What I seem to understand, reading young earth arguments, is that they believe “historical science” (herein referred to as “science” for obvious reasons) is hand waving and sleight of hand, and that we cannot test these things, and that they have no predictive power, and that they are functionally useless lies. I think that is an accurate encapsulation, anyway; my response will be built upon this framework, anyway.

Geology may seem like low hanging fruit, but let’s start there; certainly geological aging techniques and studies are a huge point of contention for the YEC, so let’s talk about their short shortsightedness, and see how they draw their lines in the sand. No one will argue the study of plate tectonics, nor their application in predicting areas prone to earthquakes; certainly, if they did, they would be the only ones surprised when an earthquake hits San Francisco. Now, here’s the rub; the study of plate tectonics have allowed us to give a general idea of the age of the Earth based on the movement of the continents and on the geographic formations based on (again) the movement of tectonic plates (Reference). These aren’t perfect numbers, but they allow us to make predictions (such as the formation of mountain ranges, changes in the sea level of land masses, movement speed of continents, etc). If our future predictions are correct, then we can make inferences on the past. Are these inferences absolutely, definitely correct? No, nothing is, but we make statistical analyses, and use other methods of science to form a picture.

Given that we use the same science to predict future movements and general age of the earth, young earth geologists have to draw a line in the sand. This line is fairly arbitrary, and I would call it very shortsighted; we can use it to predict, and it will show us an accurate picture back 6000 years without breaking a sweat. It will give us a picture of what things looked like 100,000 years ago, 1,000,000 years ago, 65,000,000 years ago… All using the exact same system. But here’s the funny thing; the YEC geologist will say “Yeah, geology is accurate as to what the Earth would have looked like 6,000 years ago, but taking it any further than that is BLASPHEMY (for some reason),” despite the fact that it uses the exact same system. In fact, their arbitrary line in the sand may actually be even more recent, as recent as 4400 years ago — since the face of the Earth was catastrophically rearranged at that time (even though we have unbroken histories of… Say… The Egyptians right through that time…).

So how does your historical science and observational science differ, in this case? We are using the same math to predict forward as we are to go backwards, so why does the math just magically stop working some arbitrary number of years ago?

There is also the much more egregious issue in the field of cosmology, for which the YEC cannot even supply any scientific reason for their belief in certain things. For example, the speed of light is universally accepted to be the rate limiting factor in all cosmological events and transfer of information, and based on that we can look into the night sky and see back further than 6000 years with our naked eye. Give me a weak telescope and I can see one or two billion years into the past, and easily make predictions based on that (This is one of my favorites). Again, we have to draw a line in the sand, but while the YEC will have spurious scientific reasons for doing so in respect to geology (respect? Pah, poor choice of words) they don’t even have spurious reasons in the cosmological field. You don’t have a flood story that would have thrown the universe around, and the Hubble UDF (Warning: that link takes you to the full size, 60MB picture. You may need a few minutes while it loads, and to prepare to weep at the beauty of space) makes it easy enough to see that there is nothing that would happen on an Earth-level scale that could account for what we see.

Now, as I’ve pointed out, we make observational predictions using this data; the Milky Way-Andromeda collision. So how is it that we have untestable historical something something not science here? Well, this is where we see the true hole, the true flaw in the reasoning; when asked about it, YECs reply simply with “God formed the Galaxies with their light en route to Earth. Duh.” This is the lowest level of special pleading, a type of special pleading that raises no evidence, and is in absolutely no way testable. I mean, I can’t… I can’t understand how strong the cognitive dissonance is, where you can say “You make claims that aren’t testable! But our God made the universe with light en route to Earth that just happens to align with your theories of how old the universe is. Which is totally testable, somehow?”

By that very logic, everything could have come into existence 5 seconds ago, with all the everything in place and memories fabricated, and God just wants to watch us fight for his own amusement. In any case, why would you God who wants everyone to realize that He exists and worship Him put so much evidence in place that points to an old universe? Why would he have put the light en route? Just think of the beauty of the sky had he not; every day, every year, every decade, the night sky would be lighting up for our wonder and amazement. We would see stars seemingly wink into existence, if the universe was 6000 years old and light only started to travel when it was created. I mean, Adam would have had a very boring universe for the first few years, but there are stars only four years away from us. Just imagine the wonder he could have felt, had he seen the very first star wink into existence one night.

In any case, we can successfully predict the future to an extent, and use that confidence to successfully predict the past. Your arbitrary sand line, without so much as any support outside of special pleading, does not help anyone.

Now, let’s talk about your observational/operational science. You rightly say that certain sciences do not rely on other branches of science to function, and it is by this that creation scientists such as Newton made their strides, or by this that the MRI was invented. I won’t take that from you, I have never been one to say that no creationist can do science; perhaps it is even admirable what you have accomplished despite your hamstring in certain fields. But again, we end up with strange lines drawn arbitrarily in the sand. For example, we’ll call translation a science for the purposes of this; certainly hermeneutics is a scientific field (basically the science of understanding what people with old languages meant to say), but why is it observational rather than historical in your mind? I mean, you weren’t there to see the original Hebrew scriptures written, it is only through non repeatable tests that you are able to guess at their meaning in English. Certainly, that scientific field does not let us make predictions about the future. So why does that science count?

There is another odd thing about observational and historical science in your world. We don’t try to discover the age of the Earth specifically to make you angry; we do so to test our scientific theories, see how well they can predict things, refine them, and use them to understand what is coming in the future. When you tell us that you have discovered through Geology that the Earth is 6000 years old, what does that help us? It seems almost like you don’t want to prove anything except that you believe science is wrong, which, as per the title of this post, seems shortsighted. We don’t do science out of some arbitrary feeling of wanting to know, we do science so that we can understand and predict the universe we live in, thus allowing us to better prepare ourselves for what is coming. Does shouting that the world is 6000 years old prepare us for discovering an asteroid on a collision course with Earth? Orbital mechanics also allow us to date certain objects; why do you want to shout that they are only valid up until your arbitrary 6000 year date? Even if you were to use orbital mechanics to discover said oncoming asteroid, how do you justify the fact that this asteroid’s theoretical trajectory could place its origin in the Mars/Jupiter asteroid belt some 150,000 years ago? (I chose those arbitrary numbers to prove a point; I am afraid I am not astrophysicist). Perhaps, tracing the orbit of said body of mass we find that 6000 years ago it was in the middle of nowhere, on a collision course to Earth. Did God create that giant space rock at the beginning, on a path to Earth, just to mess with us? (And, incidentally, ruin our day?)

Please remember, when you are trying to argue historical science, that science goes forwards and backwards, and that historical science (which is a distinction most scientists would not make) is really just a branch of observational science that looks backwards instead of forwards. If you think we can look forwards with observational science, at what hasn’t happened yet, what is it that makes it so hard for you to believe that we can’t look at what has happened? We have even more evidence for what has happened than we do for what will happen, so I cannot resolve your cognitive dissonance.

And here we are, with me ranting about it.

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Building Cities

It is an odd thing, to cling to certain beliefs in opposition of strong evidence. I don’t mean the belief in a religion, as no evidence can take that from you, but belief in an inerrant Bible, completely free of contradictions? That is something of a puzzle, more difficult to understand from an outsider. What day was Jesus crucified? Well, the gospels are all a little askew about that. If you want to go even smaller, how many times did the cock crow to denounce Peter? Again, there is disagreement. How about whether the Old Testament Law still applies? Again, there are separate commandments.

Muslims have admitted that there are contradictions in the Qur’an, and they have accepted it and created rules around it. I like their approach; under the theory of progressive revelation (to which many Christians subscribe as well), they have decided that more recent revelations take precedence. Effectively, for a book that is a single revelation from a single point in time, the latter chapters obviously have the weight of religious law about them.

That being said, this is just a single example of people handling the evidence differently, and not really the point of this post.

The point of this post is about why people need to come up with beliefs in spite of opposing evidence, and for me it is all about building a city. Each belief rests upon a foundation of rock or sand (my Biblically minded readers should understand this), and the stability of it depends on what you chose to build it on.

This is not as easy as you think, nor as simple–science and religion can both be used as foundations, but honestly needn’t be; science can rest on a foundation of religion, as religion can rest on a foundation of science. I hope to clarify that some, and explain why I am writing this at all.

A strong foundation of religion is an incredibly solid rock built on a faultline; the foundation will never crack, but one day it may be gone completely. If you have built everything on this rock, you may find one day, when your belief is gone, that you are left with nothing. Something like this happened to me, when I was younger, but thankfully it was early enough for me to step back and assess my situation. Some time during my childhood, I don’t know exactly when, but I definitely realized it during my confirmation in Grade 7 (12 or 13 years old, I suppose I would have been)–I had stopped building. It was around then that I realized I was not nearly as sure of my foundation as I was told I should have been. I did not begin deconstructing or moving my city then, but certainly I stopped building.

A strong foundation of science is a bit of a different thing; science is moving, gaining understanding. Science is still a foundation of rock, but perhaps not so strong as religion. Occasionally cracks show, and we must go to repair them before we can continue building upon them. The strong religious among us may stand and watch as we repair the cracks, mocking us for the extra work we have gained for ourselves while they luxuriate in their peaceful cities, their strong beliefs… And some may go to their graves, never having had to change their beliefs…

Some, though… Some will suffer an earthquake, and their strong foundation will change to sand. If this happens when they are 40, what are they left to do? Stare at the rubble of their life or rebuild? Start a whole new city from the ground up, at a time when a solid foundation is much more difficult to find?

This situation assumes some sort of mutual exclusivity, that religion and science can’t co-exist. That is not the case, and I follow two wonderful bloggers who build their religious beliefs upon a rock solid foundation of science (that was an awful pun, as the two bloggers I am talking about are the GeoChristian and Age of Rocks). When scoping how to build their city, they did not listen to religious salesmen (Evangelists) who said “Ah, build it here, you will never go wrong, look how solid our rock is!” They are still very religious, and a quick read of their blog (and the comments, with some very interesting infighting) will show that they are every bit as sincere in their beliefs as any Evangelical, but they have built that upon science as a foundation–or perhaps even deeper, they use a two layer foundation, part science, part faith. I respect their stance, though, and the fact that they have seen the issues in their faith and not shied from them, but approached them head on with eyes open.

I think it all boils down to one definition, and the different ways people understand it.

Faith: Belief in something in the absence of evidence. Religion falls into this definition.

Faith is not belief in something in opposition of evidence. Biblical inerrancy falls under this heading.

Be careful how you build your city, you may find no errors for forty years… But that does not mean none are there. Make sure you constantly maintain your foundation, or you may find it has turned to sand when you go to check on it.