A Skeptics(!) Takes a Look at Science Part II

I read a few blogs whose authors clearly disagree with my worldview. I think it’s good to do that. This isn’t the first time I’ve made a post that’s commenting on the particular blog I’m responding to and I doubt it’ll be the last. It’s a veritable goldmine of potential posts, made all the more easier for the lack of a comments section.
You’ll need to read this to understand all of my comments below.
1) Science is based on observation and experimentation. ‘String theory’ doesn’t have much (any?) supporting evidence and is not widely accepted, or even seriously considered. The sentence “they spend an inordinate amount time and money chasing, trying to convince us  that they are truthful” isn’t true for string theory . Its a bad example. A good example would be the Higgs Boson, theorised, fits the models, generally accepted, expensive experiment built, tested and confirmed. Note ‘confrimed’, shown to be real, cost justified!

Then the author jumps to evolution. Why do theists so often do that? Start with something ‘out there’ and suddenly dive to evolution! Two completely different disciplines. It’s like they’re trying to taint the water or something.

Anyway, the reason why the evolutionary process is still being tested and experimented on is not to look for an elusive proof, but to learn. Each feature, behaviour and mutation has a different selective pressure and some are easier to explain than others. Learning is good. To sit back and think the job is done and we know it all is the utmost arrogance.

2) Scientists accept we all have biases, that’s why peer review exists. Even that isn’t perfect and sometimes fails us. Mistakes happen, but crucially, mistakes also get found out and corrected. It would be better to not have the mistakes and that’s the ideal, but bias means those will happen. No one should claim there is no bias in science. Though the scientific method itself, should be bias free and the process designed to eliminate bias.

To place any god into the science lab would be to introduce deep bias with presupposition. Excluding god isn’t bias, its the null hypothesis at work, it’s not specifically god that is excluded, but ALL presuppositions that should and must be excluded each and every single time, always and forever. When an experiment reliably and predictably indicates a god, then that god can come and play with the Bunsen burner, until then the cosmic waiting room is the best it can hope for.

3) theists regularly confuse lack of religion for another religion and this is an example of the nonsense that follows.

4) still rambling about religion. Oh if only we all lacked bias!

5) I have a dream! I have a dream that there is enough money going round for all the good science to get all that it needs every time it needs it.

Still going on about religion and invoked Bodwin’s Law, tut tut!

and finally

6) Science has discovered and described the easy stuff and is now onto the harder stuff. It’s only to be expected that as technology improves we’ll get to discover stuff that has previously evaded us. That’s why it took 100 years to discover gravitational waves. This is neither a shocking nor a ground-breaking suggestion.

As for physics having got to the end? Poppycock! With each new thing we learn we find more things that we now need to learn about. Any scholar that claims this for physics or biology isn’t well versed in physics or biology!

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Creationist Nonsense: Science assumes no God

Still on the subject of Ken Ham’s creationism (https://confessionsofayec.wordpress.com/2012/11/18/conspiracy-against-creationism-and-ken-hams-intollerance/) and his Facebook response; one of Ken’s followers made a comment that I wish to address. Hopefully this will be the last of my posts on this particular episode, for now at least.

On Ken’s Facebook (yes, I did stalk Ken’s Facebook profile to see what was being said about my blog posting) page a commenter made the following remark.

 

So, wait… he claims that scientists don’t begin with the assumption that there is no God, then goes on to say that, because we can only observe the natural world, then that must be all there is… How is that not an assumption?

 

Every part of me wants to shout “Read the freaking context and get with the understanding numbskull!”.

However, this is one of those misunderstandings that is widespread among the Christian community. The negative side of this is that it undermines the scientific process and makes it harder for science to be viewed as credible. The really sad part of this is that its often people in the congregation hearing this nonsense who don’t get science commentary from anyone other than the person in the pulpit. At its worst, this is damaging to the wider populace.

The section of my post that the commenter clearly didn’t get is this paragraph.

<blockquote>This is a basic understanding failure. The fact that its made by a leading Creationist apologetic is damning and pathetic. He really should know better. Scientists who claim there is no god do so because of the evidence they see. Its this evidence that has lead them to the conclusion of evolution and its this evidence that falsifies the Biblical accounts of Adam and Eve and The Flood. Its not then unreasonable to conclude there is no god. Science looks at natural processes because that is all that we can see and gather evidence from. That evidence is explained by those natural processes only and therefore its an easy conclusion to make that no god was involved. There is no predetermining the non-existence of any god and then building a theory which excludes it, as Ken Ham would have people believe. </blockquote>

The commenter clearly didn’t get that those scientists who don’t believe in god (or people like me who believe there is no god) do so because there is no evidence. The commentator clings to the misapprehension that is conclusion is an assumption.

I understand the misunderstanding because I was there once and I’ve heard this same misunderstanding preached at conferences.

The very important point here is that seeing the natural world and concluding no god is far more than an assumption. For starters there is the very valid null hypothesis, which leads from nothing being assumed. If you can’t see it or measure, assume its not there.

Yes I know, I used the assume word and creationists everywhere are pointing and shouting “See he even admitted he assumes no god, right after denying that was the case. Atheists are so inconsistent.”.

That would miss the point of course.

Without the evidence evolution is not assumed either. Both the creationist god and evolution start at the same point of validity when there is no evidence on the table.

Its not until the evidence comes out that the scales begin to adjust. This is the point at which conclusions are made and tests are created for the expressed purpose of disproving the conclusion. Its at this very critical point that creationists again fall over. They argue that god is supernatural and so not bound by our man made laws of science and so he can’t be tested. Not to mention the passage somewhere that expressly forbids testing the lord. I’m not sure if it applies to the scientific process, but then a heathen like me probably won’t care.

Anyway, with all the claims that Creationists will have for the existence of god, you’d think that somewhere there would be some evidence that at least merits a second look. Creationists will make a whole song and dance about the issue of testing evolution in the lab and how timescales simply don’t allow it. Yet where are the tests for god in the lab?

Multiple fields of science have independently confirm various aspect of evolution and the age of the earth. Yet nothing can come up with a test to show even a hint of god.

Its not an assumption to say there is no god, it’s a valid scientific conclusion after many years of study have shown no evidence for supernatural activities. If everything that we currently know shows a natural explanation time and time again, at what point is it acceptable to say “There is no evidence of any god and until that changes I shall not believe in one.”?

The commenter I quoted will likely still claim this is an assumption, they would be wrong.

Interpretation or valid conclusion?

Over at A Different God (http://adifferentgod.wordpress.com/2012/06/17/a-response-to-a-creationist-part-3/) Jesse has written a decent four part series answering a creationist.

On part three, poster Ryan responds to me by saying that the evolutionary conclusions that scientists have come to are merely a different interpretation of the evidence.

Rather than dump a long reply on Jesse’s blog I felt it would be more appropriate to make it into a blog posting of its own because it accurately describes how I once thought.

Creationists will argue that their viewpoint is a valid interpretation of the scientific evidence that is gathered from the world around us. The trouble with this viewpoint is that it presupposes the correctness of creationism and then seeks to validate it by seeking confirmation in specific pieces of scientific evidence. Items that conflict creationism are disregarded and explained away.

The big issue that is consistently ignored is that the evidence of evolution is wide ranging and bountiful. Its not just in the visibly similar anatomy of animals, its not just in the skeletal structure too. As scientific advances continued over the years we have seen DNA evidence join the fray and confirm many of the ideas that scientists already had, as well as throw up a few surprises and clarifications.

What’s more, there is nothing in the anatomical or genetic evidence that cannot be explained through evolutionary theory, which means that there is nothing that a creationist can point and say it is evidence for God and not evolution.

Which is where we get onto the subject of interpretation.

The creationist will insist that all the evidence we see could be the result of how God did it. Whilst that is true, its not actually evidence in and of itself. Defaulting to the ‘God did it’ position is not starting from a neutral position, its starting from an already formed conclusion and choosing to read the facts in a way that confirms the starting point. What’s more, this is not a scientific argument because it does not offer anything that joins the evidence together.

To be scientific, a theory has to stitch the observed evidence together in a way that explains the detail. The theory also has to be testable; not necessarily there and then, but the concept and idea has be such that a test is possible. Claiming God does not meet that criteria and so interpreting scientific evidence as confirming creationism is not valid. The pieces simply don’t fit.

Science does offer a valid conclusion.

When a scientific theory is proposed it undergoes very rigorous tests. One thing that creationists often fail to grasp is that proving something wrong in science is a very good thing. I remember having some very real issues with this one. The idea that something in science could be wrong created all sorts of problems and typically meant to me that science was unreliable and the whole field could be systematically undermined by a single wrong idea. It took me a long time to grasp the concept that a wrong result is still a scientific result and evidence for what would be right.

The theory of evolution is very well tested and over the years it has been broken down into so many small pieces, that any one of them could be overturned with the right evidence. Yet none has.

I can’t remember exactly what I used to believe on the subject of how so many scientists had managed to come to the conclusion that evolution is true. I am pretty sure it was along the lines of; they were misguided or interpreted wrong. However, if that was truly the case, then someone would have shown that to be the case by now. It is only ignorance of the scientific method that enables someone to still believe what I believed.

The conclusions that scientists have come to when viewing the evidence of life around has been subject to much debate and testing. If there was any chance at all that there were holes in the theory of evolution, then they would most certainly have been found and exposed. Any scientist that can genuinely show that evolution is false would be pretty much guaranteed a Nobel Prize, and more. Many scientists have examined various facets of evolution and subjected them to stringent test and scrutiny.

This is something that is easily forgotten by the creationist. I know I did.

 

Oh Science, Why do you Change so much?

One of the barriers I had when it came to evaluating the claims of science with those of creationism was the issue of the changeability of scientific claims.

Creationism offered a reliable, solid and unchanging account of how the world began and is now. God made it the way it is and our inability to understand or explain certain things was a failing of science and proof of God’s created world.

For me, reading about new discoveries and how they would change the way scientists thought about some things was evidence that scientists couldn’t make up their minds and that science was a lost cause with little ability to properly explain. Couldn’t they just read the bible and see how constant everything is and how it was all created as it should be and as it is now?

Science changing in response to new knowledge or understanding was seen as a bad thing thing.

It took a very long time for me to appreciate that a change in understanding does not automatically mean that everything beforehand was wrong. A change in understanding or a new discovery does not invalidate what has gone before, it typically clarifies. A complete overturning of previous ideas is not especially common, and it gets rarer as more is known and understood.

Learning is not linear

For reasons I can’t fully explain, my expectation of scientific knowledge was that new discoveries should confirm what we already know (a created world) and that as scientific knowledge expands, so does the validation of that. The concept of science uncovering the unexpected and leading to tangential discoveries was alien and only served to illustrate to me that science was deceivable.

Failure is always an option

I was wrong of course, but realising that took an awfully long time and was a very gradual process. Scientists of course love to be proved wrong on a theory because being wrong is still a positive scientific result and means that the premise that was used for that test can be scratched off and something new tried. This is the point of the scientific method, test something, multiple times and if your expectation is wrong then you know more work is required to get the right answer. This is not a failure of science, quite the opposite in fact. It’s a validation that science does not care what you think, it merely acts according to the rules of the universe. The object of scientific testing is to find out those rules.

This is how we know that the planets orbit the sun and how to get spacecraft to the moon. It is how we know about fluid dynamics and a whole host of other things. The process of scientific testing could also be referred to as trial and error; test stuff and respond to the results, make a prediction and see if the test confirms or contradicts.

It’s the only way to learn and to assume that we already know the right answer without that imperial proof is arrogant.

Creationists are still making the same mistakes.

I read a small number of creationist blogs and every now and then I see a post that falls into the same traps as detailed above. I recognise the thinking there and I understand why they are thinking the way they do. I was there once and I get it.

I also understand why they are wrong.

I have on occasion made a comment to try and point them in the correct direction. The reply is usually predictable, because I have been there before as well, I know the standard responses.

I have tried to use this knowledge and my experience of having been there to add a considered and accurate correcting response. I know a single comments will never change the creationist mind, but hopefully my comment will help to sow the seeds of truth and eventually it will be counted as a contributing factor.

Sometimes my attempt at helpfulness has been responded too as if I was being argumentative, that’s a shame because that has never been my position. I know how that feels and it never works out well, (https://confessionsofayec.wordpress.com/2011/06/01/when-friends-are-unkind/).

How to argue with a Creationist

I have decided to create this post in response to a question asked me by Stuart on his blog here (http://pseudoastro.wordpress.com/2011/11/28/mistakes-in-science-apparently-means-creationism-is-true/).  Stuart’s blog is an excellent resource against pseudo astronomy and his associated podcast is equally recommended.

First, the caveats, there is no way that I can produce a cover all guide in a single blog post so no doubt there will be specific examples of cases where my advice and suggestions don’t apply or fall flat. Also, my guide is based on my personal experience of being a creationist for many years before abandoning my Christian faith. Other people may have had differing experiences and therefore offer different advice, I don’t claim to be an authority on arguing.

The point of this post is to give guidance and suggestions to those who wish to engage with creationists in a constructive manner. My standpoint is that creationism is incorrect and the ultimate aim of arguing with a creationist is to get them to understand and accept that.

Understanding the Creationist Stance

Before engaging a creationist, it is helpful to understand why they hold to the views they do and why your arguments often appear to fall on deaf ears.

There could be a variety of reasons why a creationist holds to their views and while it is true that the bottom line is that God did it; there could also be a variety of other reasons stacked on top of that.

For me, I was convinced by creationist books on the subject. They argued that science shows that the earth can not be millions (or even billions) of years old. Yes I was convinced by the falsified Carbon-14 argument, among others.

Its not just the science though. Believing in the inerrancy of the Bible is important and when a creationist takes that view and they decide that a literal creation is what the Bible actually says (which is arguably false, but a whole other discussion and not in the scope of this post) then the misunderstood science is secondary. The primary reason for the creationist belief is that God exists, the Bible is real and therefore the Genesis account of creation is accurate. The science that supports it is not the final proof or the major proof, its just a supporting cast member. The bad science is believed because it supports the premise. It doesn’t matter how many times you explain it, the science is not the major contributor and if you successfully explain the science but don’t challenge the bigger picture, the incorrect science will come back because it is supported by the belief.

The science does not dictate the worldview and so a correction will not necessarily lead to a change in understanding or in what is believed, or even in a change in the way science is viewed. In fact it could erode trust in the scientific method.

The creationist believes in the unchanging inerrancy of the Bible and the Word of God. This is a mind-set that holds that what is good and true has not changed. The scientific method causes a problem for that mind-set because scientific understanding changes over the years. It is seen as unreliable and malleable. The concept of self-correction over time is problematic and at worst is seen as dishonest. When explaining this to a creationist, do not expect them to get it the first time, or the second, or even the third. It could causes massive cognitive dissonance in the creationist mind and so explaining this to a creationist who does not seem to get it, should be done gently, politely, respectfully, as though to your own child.

Confront the Science

This may seem like a contradiction of some of the comments above, but the only real way to confront the creationist is to stick to the science. Science is evidence based and you are on good and solid ground explaining to them how the science works and why they are misunderstanding the evidence and the motives.

If you start entering the realm of the religious beliefs then you will have a harder time because there will be all sorts of religious experience backing up the concept of a personal God. To a Christian, God is real and to a Creationist this is packaged up in a far larger world view and attacking the core of that belief by trying to argue the nonexistence of God is pointless. You’ll only end up is a “yes he does”, “no he doesn’t” type discussion, which is counterproductive.

When a creationist makes their science claim, explain what is wrong about it and why, be specific and avoid being confrontational. If they act hurt and claim that you’ve insulted them, be quick to apologise and back up your scientific points in calm explanatory manner. The aim is to get them to trust you, its not just about getting them to understand the science, its also about getting them to trust that, despite the major ideological differences, you are not out to make them look foolish. Be interested in the discussion, don’t make it all one way, if they feel that you’re lecturing them and not paying attention to their points, then you will lose them.

Don’t let the conversation meander

One common complaint that I have seen aimed at creationists is that they keep changing the subject. I know I have been guilty of that in the past when arguing as a creationist and I know that its deeply frustrating. This is not a conscious tactic to throw the discussion off track. Its more a case of, the creationist has got frustrated with the current topic and doesn’t feel like they are getting anywhere and so uses another subject to try and make the point. Its not being intentionally devious, as I have seen many people suggest, its simply trying to explain their point.

When this happens, don’t ruin all the hard work by letting your frustration out, gently steer the conversation back to the topic on hand because it means that you have reached their level of knowledge on the subject so keep on it and reiterate in an non threateningly way as possible why the science you are promoting is correct, references count and it strengthens your argument and stops it being a mere internet opinion. You are at the point where real education of them can make progress, don’t squander it by insulting them, reassure them that the science is credible and give them reliable places to learn more about the subject in hand.

Being wrong hurts

Remember, that while you are trying to convince them of the reliability of science, they are trying to convince you of the reliability of the Bible. If you show them that they are wrong on a point and it is demonstrable, then it create a very real conflict in their mind. It hurts mentally and it generates all sorts of emotional issues. In some cases it leads to a questioning of the very reality of God. I’ve been there and I can testify that it really can be a very unsettling and even frightening place to be.

This is not the time to press an advantage. This is the time to reassure, it is more important that they trust you at this point because then you will have a chance at a conversation again. If you become yet another sceptical atheist who likes to drive home the point, you may lose the chance to discuss again.

The reason for this is that when confronted with challenging evidence that leads the creationist to genuinely doubt, they will seek solace in something that they do trust. This could be another piece of misunderstood science or the infallibility of the Bible. Let them have the break and collect their thoughts again. Encourage them question the evidence that has just been discussed. Trying to knock down as many dominoes as you can in a single discussion will only reinforce the protection they will seek from that which they trust and will reduce the trust in you.

Don’t Be a Dick

Seriously. Just don’t.

I’ve implied it in the comments above the importance of being polite and respectful. This is very important, especially if you want to convince someone of the error of their logic and beliefs. I’ve been on the receiving end of dickishness from friends (https://confessionsofayec.wordpress.com/2011/06/01/when-friends-are-unkind/) and I can testify that it is deeply unpleasant and does not help the person you are conversing with. In my case it caused me to entrench my creationist position and in all likelihood delayed my acceptance of evolution.

I understand the desire to belittle the person who holds to an untrue position through ignorance, however it helps no one. There may be a small pleasure derived from this, but ultimately what good does it actually serve? Surely the satisfaction of successfully demonstrating to someone why the scientific method works and why evolution is correct after all is much greater! Mocking people is easy, it takes effort on your part to be polite, accurate and respectable. If you want to be respected and listened to, then the least you can do offer the same courtesy to the other party.

What if I can’t help it?

If you really can’t stop yourself from insulting and belittling the person you are engaging then its probably best you exit from the conversation. If you can’t respect the person you are having a discussion with then you are no better than the common internet troll. They’ll think less of you as a result and, more seriously, you’ve probably made the job a lot harder for the next person who has a discussion with the YEC in question.

What if I know that this person will never be convinced?

How does that make it okay to be a dick?

Okay, I know it can be fun to let off steam and troll about on the internet a bit and see what dust storm you can make. I’ve done the same myself a couple of times, so I’m not exactly perfect either.

When discussing with someone who you are sure won’t be convinced first its important to make really sure of that. I was once sure that I’d never be anything other than a YEC, and now not only am I not a YEC but I’m not even a Christian either. So don’t write everyone off just because of what you think.

The people most likely to not be convinced are those who already have a vested interest in creationism. That will be those who have either got a blog and regularly post about creationism, or those who are published or those who are in positions of responsibility within a church. They have something very big to lose if they show any weakness in their YEC stance and so its even more important that you show yourself to be respectful in your discussions because every diskish thing you say will only be turned into a reason why atheists are wicked and evil. By being a dick, you are helping their argument.

Consider the audience.

Another reason to behave with this kind of person is that they will have an audience. What you say is not just being judged by the YEC you are engaging with, but also by those read your comments. Make your arguments well and be respectful and you will win respect from the audience, even if your discussion partner won’t. If doesn’t matter how good your points are, as soon as you sink to dickishness, that is all you’ll be remembered for.

The Unchanging Dogma

Another thing to consider is that much of Christian doctrine teaches about how God and his creation is unchanging. This dogma about nothing changing causes a problem when discussion science. Many creationists will have a hard time accepting basic science concepts because the idea of science and scientists changing their minds or getting things wrong is a major issue. I remember very well the issues I had trying to get my head round the changing world science and how evidence is sometimes overturned by fresh discoveries.

Another thing that creationists like to bring up is science fraud.

In both these cases, its important to point out that science self corrects. Scientists are typically honest people looking for answers in the world around us. Explain that being wrong is a good thing because it means more stuff to explore and explain. Point out that every fraud and incorrect belief in science has been found and corrected by scientists. The scientific method self corrects over time as the evidence pile mounts up. Discovering more stuff does not decrease our weight of evidence.

Change is good.

I’m out of my depth!

What if you are being having a discussion with a YEC and you find the conversation going all over the place or they are making comments about stuff that you are not sure about? I say stick with it. They might be far more experienced at this kind of discussion than you are. Use it as a learning experience and a pointer of what areas you could research more. Next time you’ll have a better answer.

Final thoughts.

This document is a quick ‘brain dump’ and is by no means intended as a complete guide. It is based on some of my experiences and no doubt some who can be bothered to read this far will be able to come up with other suggestions and ideas. If so, please make a comment.

Creationism is just denialism

Its easy to say this now that I have stepped away from my creationist beliefs, but that doesn’t stop it being true. All that creationism does is look for things in science that are not clearly defined and try to punch holes in them in an effort to create doubt and therefore, by association, add credence to creationism.

I acknowledge that I’ve just been very negative about creationism and so now sound like every other sceptic or atheist on the internet. The thing is, I’ve been there and I know its true.

When I think about the things convinced me that the world was created in 7 days, its things like the falsehood known as Piltdown Man that had me believing that evolutionary science was misguided at best and fraudulent at worst.

The trouble with creationism is that it starts with an assumption; that the world (and therefore the universe) was created in 7 days and then looks for the evidence to support that. This active searching for supporting evidence means that there is an already agenda, this is very bad science and its cynical religion.

When you are that person, as I was for many years, you just don’t see it. People brought up in church hear time and time again of the changeless God, the same, yesterday, today and forever. For me, this unchanging mindset was a problem because it created in me an assumption that the world was created as described in Genesis and had not changed since.

This made it very easy to be critical of the scientific method.

Science revels in change, science loves the hard to explain, science even likes to be wrong. Without any of these things, scientific knowledge would never advance. In science, assumptions are only made when there is a conclusion to be drawn from the gathered evidence.

Creationism never has and never will do that.

As a creationist I scoffed at what I described as the mind changing that scientists did in trying to explain our existence. As if arrogant little me knew any better. When I peruse creationist posts I see in them the same attitude I had, the looking for the small thing that could make the scientific description even slightly questionable and then exclaim ‘Aha! See, its all wrong’.

The thing is, when all you do is look for the tiny imperfections, you miss the much bigger picture. Just because science can’t absolutely explain how the Hippo and the Whale descended from the same ancestor, doesn’t mean its not true. It is true because DNA profiling shows the relationship and anatomical similarities help with the evidence. We know the end result with certainty, even if we don’t know exactly how.

Yet as a creationist I would not and could not accept that. The dynamic world of science with new discoveries and evolving theories did not fit with my creationist worldview of a static and unchanging world where we already knew how it happened because the good book said so.

When I look back on those days I genuinely shudder with embarrassment; yet I also empathise with those who still hold that view, because I understand why they do. If only they too would open their eyes and realise that their hole picking will get harder and harder as the scientific community discovers more and more about the wonderful world in which we live.