Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Is Creationism Scientific? A lecture given by Dr Stephen Law for the BHA Darwin Day Lecture 2003

reposted from:

Thanks to Richard Green in the HASSERS forum for refering me to this link.

Richard says "However, Stephen Law doesn't quite get to the point, and a recommend, to fill the gaps, pp 42-44 (not to mention the whole book) of "Abusing Science, The Case Against Creationism" by Philip Kitcher pub 1983.

Chris Street comments are in bright green;
highlights in yellow blockquotes.

The universe, they say, started somewhere between eight and twenty billion years ago with the Big Bang.

In the United States, over the last few decades, creationists have made terrific progress in convincing the pubic that their theory is at least as scientifically respectable as the Big Bang/Evolution alternative. Very many Americans - something approaching one hundred million Americans - now believe that creationism is true.

That's right: about a third of all Americans believe that the entire universe was created just six thousand years ago with the earth looking something like Jurassic Park.

And now I come to the most astonishing fact of all. Not only do huge numbers believe in creationism, they also believe that creationism is just as scientifically respectable as the orthodox Big Bang/evolution theory .

That's right: they believe that creationism is good science.

Indeed, in many American schools, creationism is taught alongside or even instead of the theory of evolution as good science.

Clearly, many creationists are highly intelligent people. Indeed, many are college graduates. Polls indicate that something like one third of college educated Americans believe that the Biblical account of creation is literally true

Indeed, a Tennessee academic who recently surveyed his own students writes that scientists like himself are having to fight the battles of the Enlightenment all over again.

Medieval ideas that were killed stone dead by the rise of science three to four hundred years ago are not merely twitching; they are alive and well in our schools, colleges and universities.

Now the question I want to address here is: How have so many intelligent, college educated people become convinced that creationism is good science?

After all, there appears to be overwhelming evidence that we inhabit a very old universe with life having evolved only comparatively recently (though, of course, still many millions of years ago).

( iv ) The surface of the Earth is made up of rock strata. Given the rate at which strata are laid down, it would take many millions of years for that depth of strata to form. So the Earth must be many millions of years old.
( v) These rock strata contain fossils. And the fossils are ordered in a way that shows evolutionary progression. For example, they show that man evolved from earlier primates. But if creationism is true, then all species were created at the same time just six thousand years ago. In which case we should expect to find creatures fossilized in a fairly random way throughout the strata, rather than in the very precise and specific way required by evolution. Yet even today, after countless millions of fossils have been discovered not one single well documented example of an out of place fossil has been found (for example, not one single fossil of a large mammal has been found down in the dinosaur layers). Isn't that, from the point of creationism, a quite unbelievable coincidence?

So how do creationists deal with this sort of counter-evidence? Why are so many intelligent, college educated people convinced that the scientific evidence supports creationism at least as well as it supports the view that the universe is billions of years old with life having evolved?

One reason that so many are convinced - though not the only reason - is that they believe that the kind of evidence we have been examining is actually entirely consistent with creationism after all.

Take the fossil record, for example. Creationists maintain that the layering in the fossil record can be explained by reference to the Biblical Flood, the flood on which Noah famously floated his ark. The rains that caused the Flood were responsible for producing huge mud deposits that then hardened into the rock strata we find beneath our feet.

But what of the very specific way in which the fossils are arranged, a way which happens coincidentally exactly to fit the theory that life has gradually evolved? How do creationists explain that? In fact, creationists insist that the ordering of life-forms within these layers can also be accounted for on their theory. They suggest the reason we finds dinosaurs below the larger mammals is that dinosaurs are slow, cumbersome and relatively unintelligent creatures that are likely to have been buried as the faster, more intelligent big mammals ran to higher ground. "You see?" says the creationist. "Problem solved! Creationism turns out to be consistent with the available evidence after all! It also fits the evidence. So it's just as scientific as the theory of evolution!"

Why creationism looks "scientific" We have been looking at the kind of moves made by creationist to defend their theory that the entire universe and all species of living thing were created in the same week just six thousand years ago. They defend their core theory by developing and adding to it and developing it in various ways so that it continues to fit the available evidence. Each time another piece of apparently solid counter-evidence to creationism is produced - the fossil record, the craters on the moon, etc. - the creationists add a bit more to their core theory to protect it. So they can continue to insist that their theory still fits the available evidence. "See?" they can say "Our theory is just as scientific as yours."

In short, creationists have been busy developing: A theory of increasing complexity and ingenuity to "fit" the available empirical evidence.

And isn't this exactly how good scientific theories are developed? Well, I admit that what creationists practice does look like a bit like science. In fact, it does, in this respect, very strongly resemble what scientists do. And that, of course, is one of the reasons why so many people - something like a third of all Americans - now believe that creationism is scientifically respectable. Still, despite looking rather like genuine science, the creationist approach to dealing with the evidence is actually thoroughly unscientific. The easiest way to see why is by means of an analogy.

Are dogs Venusian spies? Allow me to tell you about a pet theory of my own. Dogs are spies from the planet Venus.

Now I have made my theory fit the evidence again! I have shown that all your so-called counter-evidence is actually consistent with my theory after all!

You can see how this rather silly game might continue on forever. I can keep on protecting my weird theory about dogs being Venusian spies by constantly adding on new bits to deal with whatever evidence you might come up with. It won't be long before I have you thoroughly tied up in knots.

The interesting thing about my dogs-are-Venusian-spies-theory is that I can continue to make it fit and explain what has been observed . I just need to keep on using my ingenuity to add on bits to deal with what might otherwise seem to be compelling counter-evidence.

But if a good scientific theory is one which fits and explains what has been observed, then surely, my theory that dogs are Venusian spies is just as "good" as the common sense theory that they are merely harmless pets. Isn't it?

Reasoning close to madness Of course not. Pretty clearly, the kind of reasoning that I am using to defend my bizarre theory about dogs is not scientific.

In fact you can see that any theory, no matter how utterly mad, can be protected in this way forever , no matter how much seemingly compelling evidence might be brought against it. If this was a scientifically respectable way of carrying on, then we would have to say that all theories are equally scientifically respectable, including the theories that dogs are Martian spies, that cheese is made of fairy dust, and that Mexicans are the secret rulers of the universe.

It's true that reputable scientists do occasionally defend their theories by making such "ad hoc" moves. However, you shouldn't make a habit of it. Once almost all your theory development is taken up with adding on further untestable bits to your theory in order to prevent it being falsified, that theory is no longer being approached as a scientific theory but as an item of faith. Your method more closely resembles the reasoning off the deranged than it does science.

What creationists practice might look a bit like science to the untrained eye. After all, it's true that they are using their often considerable ingenuity to develop a theory that continues to fit the available evidence. But their method is essentially unscientific. Indeed, it is a form of reasoning that is, quite literally, close to madness

The important thing to notice, here, is that in order to deal more effectively with creationist claims and arguments one needs to take a step back and look at their method .

The bottom line is : if you want to convince those exposed to creationist claims and arguments that what they have been exposed to is bunk, it's not enough just to focus on the scientific evidence.

In order to get them really to understand why creationism is bunk, it's essential that they understand that, while the method employed by creationists might look what scientists engage in, it is actually thoroughly unscientific. In fact it's akin to a form of insanity. In order to get them really to understand why creationism is bunk, it's essential that they understand that, while the method employed by creationists might look what scientists engage in, it is actually thoroughly unscientific. In fact it's akin to a form of insanity.

The real problem with allowing schools to teach children that the universe is only six thousand years old is "good science" is not that we are letting those in positions of power and authority over young minds teach them ludicrous falsehoods, though that is bad enough.

The problem is that the only way children can be taught that creationism is true and supported by the available evidence is by instilling in them such twisted conceptions of logic and evidential support that they are likely to remain gullible idiots for the rest of their lives. Teaching that creationism is respectable science means teaching children to think in ways that are, quite literally, close to lunacy. This is not an issue about religious tolerance and freedom. Let schools teach creationism in religious education, if you like. But don't let schools teach children that creationism is good science .

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