Last week the Creation Museum responded to Bill Nye’s recent video, “Creationism Is Not Appropriate for Children,” with one of their own, and yesterday the Huffington Post reported Nye’s response. (Short version: Creationism is not science.) I wrote favorably about Nye’s video and received a long comment from a fellow blogger known as “The Janitor,” who argues that Nye’s remarks are a “jumbling mess of assertions that are ambiguous and don’t make much sense.”
Arguments in a blog’s comments section usually aren’t post-worthy in themselves, but I want to look at one part of this comment because it’s a good example of some things I’ve noticed when Christians argue about science.
Janitor complains that Nye is hopelessly vague in his terms:
But Mr. Nye never actually tells us what he means by “evolution.” In these sorts of debates the “creationist” side has been careful to specify exactly what they are denying and what they are not denying with “evolution.”
And then he goes on to specify some different aspects of evolution — old earth, increasing complexity of life, descent from a common ancestor, and several others — and wonders which ones Nye means, explaining that even young earth creationists like himself accept certain things associated with evolution.
Nobody wants to be anti-science, not even a young-earth creationist.
At first I was dumbfounded by this complaint. “Evolution” is not even a little ambiguous in this context. When scientists talk about “teaching evolution” they mean Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, the central unifying theory of biology. They don’t specify which bits and pieces of it they mean, because they mean the whole thing. It’s a unified explanation. That’s what a scientific theory is. When has that ever been unclear?
But what’s happening here is that nobody wants to be anti-science, not even a young-earth creationist like my commenter. They want to pick out bits of science, even bits of evolutionary science — all those parts that don’t contradict the Bible — and even as they reject the rest out of hand, they say, “Look at us! We believe in science, too!”
No… no, you really don’t.
I grew up creationist. I heard the speakers, read the arguments. When I studied science, I knew beforehand what I was supposed to believe, and accepted easily whatever seemed to confirm my beliefs, and actively sought evidence against anything that contradicated them.
Now that sort of thing isn’t unique to religious believers. Confirmation bias is an unfortunate part of human cognition. Scientists are prone to it, too.
But here’s the difference. The central idea of science is hypothesis testing. In order to be accepted, a scientific theory has to explain the data and make testable predictions, and not once, but continually. This is a powerful mechanism for self-correction. Scientists come up with a lot of bad ideas, but in time those ideas are discredited and abandoned.
Faith builds protective walls around sacred ideas.
Faith, on the other hand, builds protective walls around sacred ideas, and gives divine sanction to confirmation bias. God has spoken and it’s a sin to question the clear teachings of His Word. True believers can only reject a Bible-endorsed bad idea if they first convince themselves that God’s Word means something other than what it plainly says (and a fair amount of theology is devoted to this very thing). But honest Bible scholars may find this impossible to do in good conscience.
For me, I gradually stopped trying to rationalize the Bible’s countless stupidities and moral atrocities. And it became clear that the evidence for evolution was too strong to deny. The fact of evolution is simply not a matter of scientific controversy and hasn’t been for generations. The theory’s explanatory and predictive power is overwhelming, and the case gets stronger with each new discovery. (For a good introduction, see the National Center for Science Education, or Jerry Coyne’s excellent book, Why Evolution Is True.)
For decades, the case for creationism and intelligent design has consisted mainly of false complaints about a lack of fossil evidence, arguments from personal incredulity, quote-mining, cherry-picking, straw man arguments, and attempts to find something that evolution can’t (yet) explain and then insisting that only God could have done it. Websites such as Panda’s Thumb and Talk Origins continually debunk this stuff, but it will not go away, because that’s not how faith operates.
The Creation Museum video gives us a pretty good idea of what they mean by science:
Starting at about 1:40, Georgia Purdom argues that both evolution and creationism are “historical sciences” that can’t be observed directly:
Yes, we do see fossils and distant stars, but the history of how they got here really depends on our world view. Do we start with man’s ideas about the past, who wasn’t here during the supposedly billions of years of earth’s history, or do we start with the Bible, the written revelation of the eyewitness account of the eternal God who created it all?
That’s the essence of her “science”: You start with the Bible.
Michael Shermer interviewed Purdom during a visit to the Creation Museum in 2009. The video below is a fascinating look at how faith has warped the mind of a reasonably intelligent and highly-educated woman:
Starting at about 4:20 Purdom has a lot to say about worldviews, developing an idea she alluded to in the anti-Bill Nye video, which is that everything depends on your starting point. Start out believing the Bible and the data means one thing; start out not believing it and the data means something else. You’ll hear this sort of thing a lot from Christians; it’s based on presuppositional apologetics. I don’t want to get into that here, but the basic idea is that there’s no neutral intellectual ground, no true suspension of judgment while you wait to see where the data leads.
Purdom’s belief system, in other words, is deeply antithetical to science. At 14:30 Shermer asks how she would test a particular hypothesis of hers, what experiments she’d run. Her reply is astonishing:
“We wouldn’t do that, there would be no point in that, because we know God did that.”
And people are upset at Bill Nye for suggesting that this kind of bullshit-masquerading-as-science could somehow hold our nation back.