Creationist Wisdom #300: Just a Belief System

Today’s letter-to-the-editor (like the last one) appears at the website TC Palm, which hosts several Florida newspapers and doesn’t bother to identify any of them, but their weather reports are for places like Vero Beach, Fort Pierce, and Stuart, Florida. It’s titled Whatever proponents say, evolution remains speculative science. We’ll give you a few excerpts, enhanced with our Curmudgeonly commentary, and some bold font for emphasis. As we usually do, we’ll omit the writer’s name and city. Okay, here we go:

Robert Haskins’ Dec. 13 letter quoted Pat Robertson as saying, “If you fight science, you are going to lose your children, because giant reptiles were on the Earth and it was before the time of the Bible.”

This is the letter he’s talking about: Pat Robertson’s statements about the age of the Earth are a victory for science , and it refers to something we’ve discussed before (see Pat Robertson: Earth Older Than 6,000 Years). Today’s letter continues:

Haskins called these comments “a major triumph for science education in America … ” But, what kind of science education?

How many kinds are there? The letter-writer tells us:

When we think of science, we typically think of observational science, where you do experiments and observe the results and come to conclusions. If the experiment can be repeated multiple times with the same results, then you know that the conclusions are true. Historical science, dealing with the age of dinosaurs, is not that way.

Aaaargh!! Will that idiotic dichotomy be with us forever? We’ve discussed this many times before. See ICR Says Scientists Don’t Understand Science, and also Creationism and Science. Let’s read on:

Scientists make observations about things such as dinosaur footprints and make theories about how old the dinosaurs are based on assumptions, such as the composition of rocks over long periods of time. But, there is no way to go back in time and use observational science to prove these assumptions are correct.

In a way, there is — by looking at the evidence to see if it fits in with what we’ve predicted based on everything else we know. See The Lessons of Tiktaalik. We continue:

These assumptions may be plausible, but that doesn’t mean they’re true. When it comes to discussing dinosaurs, science education in America is just the promotion of a belief system based on unproven assumptions.

“Unproven”? Of course. Unlike geometric theorems, scientific theories (and the propositions upon which they rely) are never literally proven. But they’re constantly being tested by experiments and observations; and those that fail are rejected (see Superseded scientific theories). Accepted theories are supported by all the available evidence, and contradicted by none.

Further, the different branches of science don’t exist in independent bubbles. Biology is consistent with geology and chemistry, and those — along with astronomy and cosmology — are consistent with physics. The strongest theories are cross-confirmed by independent lines of evidence, and they don’t contradict other branches of science; therefore we can be confident that all of science is describing the same reality.

Science is the only globally consistent view of reality. In contrast, the doctrines of one religion irreconcilably conflict with those of competing religions — and there are denominational conflicts within religions too. Were there no such unresolvable conflicts, then there would be only one religion, and it would have no long-lasting denominational disputes. The great variety of religious beliefs compared to the consistency of science is perhaps the most compelling argument of all.

Here’s the end of the letter:

This is hardly a major victory. If Pat Robertson did say what Robert Haskins said he did, then Robertson has swapped one belief system for another.

Is reality — the natural, observable world — just a belief system? Maybe so, but it’s the only game in town that plays by a dependable set of rules we can understand and use, so that’s where to place your bets.

Copyright © 2013. The Sensuous Curmudgeon. All rights reserved.

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20 responses to “Creationist Wisdom #300: Just a Belief System

  1. It seems that most people think that evolutionary biology is a “historical science”, and that the evidence for it is fossils. Part of the education about evolutionary biology should be that evolution is something important that happens whenever there is life, including the present, and that there is a substantial body of evidence from current life informative about evolutionary biology.

    And education about science should inform us that the strength of science lies in what it tells us about things which are inaccessible to ordinary observation: that which is too old, too far, too fast, too slow, too large, too small, etc. If we can see it and handle it, we don’t need to go to science learn about it.

  2. @TomS.

    Like your constant reminder of the double-standard that promotes evolution-denial but not reproduction-denial, my reminder is that the idiotic “were you there” nonsense, however slickly worded to fool the majority that never gives it 5 minutes’ thought, is no different than demanding that all convicted criminals be set free because the jury “wasn’t there.”

    When an evolution- denier “progresses” to the level of writing letters to the editor, he has given it some thought. Which means that he might throw Robertson under the bus, while defending OECs who take the “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach. I have yet to see one of these budding scam artists make the same complaints about “the blessed Behe,” even though he plainly concedes not only billion years of life, but common descent to boot.

  3. A superb essay, SC. (The three paragraphs starting with ‘ “Unproven?” ‘) Beautifully stated, concise, and easily understood.

    There is but one reality, and we have artificially divided it into the various branches of science to make it easier to understand.

  4. retiredsciguy says: “A superb essay, SC.”

    I liked it too. It’s been added to Common Creationist Claims Confuted.

  5. retiredsciguy said: “A superb essay, SC. (The three paragraphs starting with ‘ “Unproven?” ‘) Beautifully stated, concise, and easily understood.”
    My sentiments exactly. Saved it into my file of good stuff.

  6. SC said:

    In contrast, the doctrines of one religion irreconcilably conflict with those of competing religions — and there are denominational conflicts within religions too.

    This. This is the big problem for every so-called “alternative theory” to evolution. And we need to constantly and consistently point this out. It’s not just the so-called Christian theory conflicts with the Wulbari (African mythology) or Islamic theory or any of the hundreds of others. It’s not even consistent within the Christian realm. Hence, Ham cannot agree with Behe who cannot agree with Robertson. (I’m sure Frank J will soon jump in with even more inconsistencies within Christiandom.)
    But we also need to point out what SC so eloquently said. Everything used to conduct research in evolution is the same as what is used to conduct research in semiconductors (which create our computers) and in the medical field (the uses should be obvious). Science can start with physics (which also is used to understand electronics, which run our computers, and electromagnetics, which is important at a personal level for WiFi and cellphones). And physics can explain chemistry, which can then explain biology. So saying “evolution is wrong” means you’re saying the underlying biology -> chemistry -> physics is wrong. And yet everything within science remains self-consistent. Which will never happen with any of the alternatives so far pushed forward.

  7. Read the comments to Poscich’s OP. Two stooges babbling abou what third stooge has written. Comedy.

  8. Jim Thomerson

    The title of the Sir Karl Popper book I read, “Conjecture and Refutation” suggests that speculation is an integral part of science. Indeed it is.

  9. Ceteris Paribus

    If during WWII the Allies had relied on brute force experiment to decipher each coded Wehrmact message that was intercepted, a good deal of Europe and Britain would be reading their newspapers in Deutsch today.

    Instead, Alan Turing realized that he could work backwards, and discover the internal workings of the very machines that constantly generated new random code keys.

    Working backwards from effect to cause was also the way that Physicist Richard Feynman showed that the fiery disaster of the space shuttle Challenger was actually down to a mis-applied ‘O’ ring in the rocket booster.

    And yet the creationists continually insist that similar scientific achievements in fields such as paleontology are impossible because they are dealing with historical facts, rather than the first causes which the creationists find all conveniently spelled out in the sacred texts of their bibles.

  10. Not only is this a great essay, but all the comments are thoughtful amplifications of the main theme. You are running a wonderful blog site, SC, and you have attracted a very interesting and intelligent group of regular readers. I for one hope you never tire of your (mission?) (calling?) (joy of writing?)

    You deserve a much wider audience, perhaps as a columnist in a nationally-circulated publication. You have a true talent for concise writing.

  11. Gary observes, “And physics can explain chemistry, which can then explain biology. So saying “evolution is wrong” means you’re saying the underlying biology -> chemistry -> physics is wrong.”

    Exactly. This is similar to the point I was trying to make a few days ago at the end of a thread just before it got pushed off the first page of posts: is it accurate to think of biology as being nothing more than a self-perpetuating chemical reaction that uses physics to keep itself going? I ask this as a question because I am not a biologist nor a chemist nor a physicist, but seek comments from those who know more than I about these matters. As I see it, evolution would be an integral part of this self-perpetuation process.

  12. I think Poscich is echoing the YEC position that just because physical laws and geological processes etc. operate in some fashion today, does not mean they operated the same way in the past. This uniformitarianism principle which underlies all of science is the assumption which he refers to when he says

    These assumptions may be plausible, but that doesn’t mean they’re true.

    He may not know the word for it, but I believe that is what he is talking about.

    I think uniformitarianism is basically the crux of the YECs observational vs historical science argument, where they try to claim that the obviously effective science we do today doesn’t apply to the past, in order to address critics that point out that without science, they wouldn’t have the computer they use to disseminate their argument with in the first place. After all, applying what we have learned about nature from that same “observational science” to the past inevitably leads to the conclusion that the earth is billions of years old and that life existed and evolved over much of that period. So, the YECs counter with their argument that the apparent laws of nature which we observe today may not have operated the same way in the past, and our assumption that they did is simply a belief, or world-view, no more valid than their religious one. They challenge us to prove that nature operated the same, by asking “were you there?”

    My understanding is that we cannot entertain the possibility that nature operated differently in the past without some sort of compelling evidence, and that the assumption of uniformitarianism is necessary for science as a whole. it is something of a default position. Therefore, discussing dinosaurs living 65+ million years ago is science, while proposing that dinosaurs lived 6,000 years ago is not.

  13. doodlebugger

    I’d like to repeat retired sci guy’s comment. SC I would love to see you writing a national column in the NY Times. Your time is coming.

  14. Ed says, regarding uniformitarianism: “My understanding is that we cannot entertain the possibility that nature operated differently in the past without some sort of compelling evidence”

    The only hint that the laws of nature were once different is in ancient creation tales like Genesis, and those were written at a time when virtually nothing was known about the Earth or the universe. If Genesis were being written today, presumably the spiritual content would be unchanged, but the background information would be consistent with what we now know.

  15. doodlebugger says: “SC I would love to see you writing a national column in the NY Times.”

    Trust me, I wouldn’t last five minutes at the Times.

  16. The YEC/OEC crowd must cringe whenever an episode of CSI-Anywhere happens to be on the tele. In their world of self arbitrated reality, even the justice system offers them little to support their claims.

  17. This TCPalm seems to be a haven for Florida creobots. Here is another letter written on the same day. Gerken appears to be one more ignorant mouthpiece that slept through most of biology. Have any of these twits taken the time to open a science textbook and actually study it?

    “Evolution, the idea that everything evolved from a simple organism to the more complex, has never been observed anywhere in nature. This is where the second law of thermodynamics comes into play. It is correct to state that evolution violates the second law since this law is a statement on entropy.

    Everything runs down, not up. Evolution, by definition, is an upward process. Therefore, it violates this law.

    Cats don’t become dogs; mice don’t become elephants. There is no proof of evolution from lower to higher forms of life or from one family of animals to another as required by evolution.”

    Wow! The old ‘2nd law’ and ‘cats don’t turn into dogs’ nonsense. Stop already! http://www.tcpalm.com/news/2013/feb/01/letter-evolution-theory-takes-leaps-that-are-not/

  18. Ed:

    My understanding is that we cannot entertain the possibility that nature operated differently in the past without some sort of compelling evidence, and that the assumption of uniformitarianism is necessary for science as a whole.

    I think you misunderstand: we have direct, observational evidence that nature operated the same way in the past, in the form of starlight and radioactive ores (and probably lots of other things I’m less familiar with). Its not an assumption. Its not necessary for science. We ask what evidence we would observe now if physics operated differently or the same in the past, then we look at that evidence, and what we observe supports the notion of constancy. If the evidence didn’t support the notion of constancy of physical laws, science would be just fine, and lots of scientists would be working on figuring out how laws have changed and why.

  19. One further note: it is somewhat ridiculous and inconsistent for YECs to claim that physics was radically different in the past, given that they believe humans lived starting on day 6 or whatever. Obviously, physics in Eden cannot have been different enough to affect biology, otherwise Adam would’ve collapsed into a pile of warm goo.

  20. @eric: I’d like to amplify your comments about starlight being direct, observational evidence of uniformity of natural laws.

    Anyone who has a tripod and a camera capable of taking time-exposure photographs can do this: on a clear, moonless summer night, go to the countryside away from light pollution and take a one- to two-minute time exposure of the Milky Way using a fast, wide-angle lens and fast ISO setting. Your picture will show a few red patches of nebulosity. (Film works better for this, but digital works too.) These are areas of star formation, where intense UV radiation from hot, young stars cause the surrounding clouds of hydrogen gas to emit red light.

    Then go online and look up photos of distant galaxies. You’ll see the same red clouds of hydrogen emission, even though you are looking at galaxies that are millions of light-years distant, and therefore, did their emitting millions of years ago. (Jason Lisle notwithstanding.) With the proper equipment, you could take similar astrophotos of these galaxies yourself — many amateur astronomers are getting results that are fantastic in their beauty and detail.

    It all goes to show that the exact same physical processes observed in our neighborhood of the universe, and thus, in our time, were happening millions and even billions of years ago. Uniformitarianism!