Sunday, October 16, 2005

Salting the creationist quote mine

[O]ne statement scientists often make but cannot justify is that the world was not created 6,000 years ago!

In the present contentious environment, the scientific community needs to cease making the indefensible claim that science shows the world was not created 6,000 years ago.

The statements come from Paul P. Craig's opinion piece in the San Francisco Chronicle (Creation and the limits of science: Universal questions aren't all answered). Craig holds a degree from Caltech (as a fellow alumnus, I find that highly credible, although my degree is undergraduate) and is professor emeritus of engineering at the University of California, Davis. I know what you're thinking: Ho hum, yet another engineer is out there shilling for the Discovery Institute, joining the crypto-creationist ranks of academic professionals with no training in the biological sciences. But if you thought that, you would be wrong.

Professor Craig is on the side of the angels, which I mean figuratively in the sense of "the good guys" as opposed to literally in the sense of God and his choirs. His essay is both an unambiguous dismissal of Intelligent Design as a claimant to the status of defensible scientific hypothesis and a cautionary note to his allies who are wont to stake out territory to which they are not entitled. In the first instance, Craig makes his point perfectly clear, "Intelligent design is a losing game for creationists, who will be repeatedly pushed into retreat as that which was previously unexplained is brought within the ambit of science." That is, it has no explanatory power, thus lacking the primary requirement of a respectable theory.

His second point is equally clear: As a matter of logic, we cannot say we have proved when the universe came into existence, we can only identify the time when it appears to have come into existence. Furthermore, despite the quotations with which I began this entry, the apparent time of creation is about fourteen billion years ago, not a piddling 6,000 years. Craig cites the example of Bertrand Russell, variously famous as a mathematician, logician, philosopher, freethinker, atheist, peace activist, and candidate for some Socratic hemlock:
Russell observed that it was entirely possible that the world was created 10 minutes ago and that he, Bertrand Russell, was created simultaneously, wrinkles and memory included.

We might note that Russell's "10 minutes ago" is now many decades in the past, of course, but it is still absolutely impossible to disprove Russell's playful example. The time stamp at the bottom of my computer screen currently says "11:45 AM Sunday 10/16/2005." My new hypothesis, just as good as Russell's, is that this is the actual time when a mischievous Intelligent Liar created the universe as a going concern, complete with the shelf of evolution and anti-evolution books in my library. Such a rascal.

I would like to offer an even earlier example of Russell's ten-minutes-ago hypothesis. Martin Gardner served up in Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science the unhappy story of naturalist Philip Henry Gosse. Russell was aware of Gosse's Omphalos, a scholarly effort to reconcile faith in the literal truth of the Bible with the evidence of natural science. Gosse published his book in 1857 with high hopes of being recognized as the one who made it possible for faith and science to live in harmony, but it was at the price of turning science into a sterile mind game of uncovering spurious clues embedded in creation by a God who provided his handiwork with the appearance of age and history.

Gosse's starting point was the body of the instantaneously created Adam. Unless Adam was brought into existence bald, the hair on his body would be evidence of growth processes that never actually occurred, but were instead simulated by God. Adam's navel would be evidence of a gestation in a womb that never was. (Gardner points out that depictions of navels on Adam and Eve in religious paintings were controversial among some conservative Christians for this very reason. Omphalos, by the way, is the Greek word for navel.) As Gardner says, "Gosse's argument is, in fact, quite flawless." As a matter of strict logic, it cannot be disproved. Of course, it cannot be proved, either, but that's not the point. As intended, it is a perfect way to mesh Biblical literalism with scientific observation, all at the trivial cost of rendering science a sham. Logic has nothing to say about such a resolution of the problem. Common sense, however, might suggest that it's a shabby victory that renders the prize worthless. Gosse saw his hopes shattered when his fellow naturalists reacted with either indifference or scorn. Gardner cites the words of one Charles Kingsley, from whom Gosse had expected high praise. Instead, Kingsley denounced the idea that "God has written on the rocks one enormous and superfluous lie."

Professor Craig's opinion piece will undoubtedly stimulate the usual reaction from creationists of various stripes, among them the unlettered scholars adept at quoting talking points from their creationist fliers, the outraged believers who love to recite "The fool has said in his heart there is no God," and the intellectual poseurs who trot out a "fairness" doctrine in support of "teaching the controversy." We should also see a few letters from proponents of science and evolution who will (mostly) try to be polite and reasonable and will budge no one. However, the opinion section of the newspapers is not the real battleground. The real battleground is the classroom. We fight to protect science and the science classroom from incursions by advocates of non-science (which can conveniently and accurately be rendered as "nonsense"). Craig has pointed out the main reason that we must oppose the anti-science factions, which is also the main reason we are likely to succeed: "Science is a powerful way to organize observations about the material world." That power is evident to all (even to those who fear it) in the impact that science has on our culture and its technology. Science is progressive and annexes new territory from what was formerly terra incognita as new understanding is achieved. In its various guises, creationism is a dogma that explains nothing, crippled in its struggle to survive against the onslaught of science. While creationism has evolved into Intelligent Design in hopes of using mimicry to eke out an existence in an increasingly hostile intellectual environment, we need to keep up the pressure that will someday make it extinct.

Let me end my comments with a prediction. It takes no psychic powers to discern the future in this instance. Soon the quotations I featured at the top of this column will be taken out of context from Professor Craig's essay and used by creationists to insist that scientists be more humble and less combative. After all, an actual scientist has said that there are things science does not know! Yes, there is little that creationists love more than quote mining, an abuse of the written word that provides one of the principal weapons in their arguments. They are acolytes of the Liar God and emulate him in their practices.


Anonymous said...

The only way to fight religious ignorance is better education. If only scientists could be more evangelistic in discovering and disseminating science... but it's not in our nature. Although I left science a few years ago, this "Intelligent Design" garbage and the impending appointment of a religious nut to the Supreme Court are making me realize that I have a duty to do what I can to spread scientific knowledge amongst the masses.

Zeno said...

As a math teacher, I have less occasion to advance scientific truth than an actual science teacher might. However, my algebra students are routinely introduced to the mathematics of the carbon-14 test that showed the shroud of Turin to be a hoax. When we do scientific notation, we can take a whack at the ridiculous dilutions of homeopathic "medicines".