Thursday, 21 January 2016

The Christadelphian website "Life's Big Questions" gets it wrong on science and the Bible. Part 2

The Christadelphian website Life’s Big Questions as I pointed out in the previous post is badly compromised by its section on science which adopts a flawed ‘evolution or Christianity’ approach to the subject, one that ignores the fact many scientists and theologians over the last 150 years have seen no fundamental conflict between evolution and Christianity. This false dichotomy is perilous as it leads to loss of faith when those inculcated with this mindset discover that evolution is a fact, and conclude that the Bible is wrong.

LBQ continues its deeply flawed approach to this subject in its section ‘Facts and Theories’ which fails to properly define what scientists mean by theories, and worse still, with its slighting reference to scientists having “no way of knowing whether the assumptions used in a theory are right” when “considering what happened in the past”, is using the bogus YEC concept of ‘historical science’ and ‘observational science’.

Contrary to what special creationists such as those behind LBQ assert, evolution is both fact and theory. Evolution refers both to the fact of common descent and large scale evolutionary change, and to the theoretical mechanisms proposed to explain these facts. While the currently accepted theory of evolution – like any scientific theory – is capable of being falsified, this does not mean that the facts it seeks to explain vanish. Furthermore, the successor theory needs to explain both the facts that the previous theory could not, as well as those which it was perfectly able to explain. By its demonstrably flawed grasp of scientific epistemology as well as failing to recognise that evolution refers to fact and theory, LBQs attack fails at the first step.

The tragedy here is that LBQ is correct in seeking to differentiate between fact and theory, but hopelessly wrong in how they define the terms:
An observable fact is something that can be proved beyond doubt. These observable facts are tangible, measurable and repeatable. They can be felt through our senses and can be experienced first hand if necessary. Gravity is a good example of an observable fact. We all experience the effects of gravity every day of our lives. Whenever we drop anything it always falls to the ground. Whenever we throw a ball into the air it always falls back to us. Scientists have done experiments and understand gravity enough to launch rockets into space and put satellites into orbit around the earth. So gravity is real and it can be experienced and measured. It is an observable fact.
The problem here is that in science, nothing can ever be 'proved beyond doubt'. Ultimately, everything in science is held provisionally, subject to falsification pending further evidence. Further problems come with the claim that objects 'always [fall] back to us. A ball may fall to the ground after being tossed, but just because one has done this one million times does not prove that it will fall back the next time. It may be a 'fact' that the ball has fallen to the ground one million times, but one cannot claim that the statement 'the ball will always fall to the ground when tossed in the air' is a fact in the same way as the previous statement is. [1]

This is not to argue that we exist in an epistemic fog where nothing is real. Far from it. The considerable progress we have made thanks to science alone is enough to point out that reality is objective, capable of being understood, and applied to great effect. This is perhaps the greatest paradox of science, that something whose epistemic basis is effectively applied scepticism is able to generate knowledge that makes objective improvements in our life. Evolutionary biologist T.R. Gregory, in outlining what scientists mean by facts touches on this paradox, as well as giving a pragmatic definition of fact:
Following the definition provided by the US National Academy of Science (NAS) (1998), one of the most prestigious scientific societies in the world, a scientific fact is “an observation that has been repeatedly confirmed, and for all practical purposes, is accepted as ‘true’.”...However, as the NAS points out, “truth in science is never final, and what is accepted as a fact today may be modified or even discarded tomorrow”. Small-scale details are regularly revised as more precise observations are made, whereas well established facts of fundamental significance are very rarely overthrown, but in principle, no scientific fact of any magnitude is beyond revision or refutation. As a result, scientists must maintain a balance between the confidence that comes from reinforcing conclusions about the world with repeatable data and the understanding that absolute certainty is not something that the methods of science are able or intended to deliver. [2]
The problem with LBQ's definition of fact becomes apparent when compared with the amateurish way in which they define theory:
A scientist then creates a theory about something he wants to look at in a little more detail. This will be based on a set of assumptions. This theory should be the best explanation of the observable facts. He could, for example, have a theory that gravity acts upwards. It would be obvious to anyone that this does not fit the observable facts. Such a claim would be ignored.

But sometimes we have no way of knowing whether the assumptions used in a theory are right. This is often the case when considering what happened in the past. We can't do experiments to test the theory and check the assumption

So it is important that we know what can be proved and what is only a theory that we can't prove. (Emphasis in original)
LBQ has confused hypothesis with theory, a major blunder given that they base much of their argument on the difference between facts and theory. Furthermore, LBQ's definition draws on the completely irrelevant lay definition of theory as a 'hunch, speculation, or wild idea', as evidenced by the ridiculous concept of a 'theory that gravity acts upwards'. This is not a theory, and as a scientific hypothesis is risible. A theory in science is a collection of facts, verified hypotheses and laws with considerable predictive and explanatory power. As Gregory notes:
The common and scientific definitions of “theory,” unlike of “fact,” are drastically different. In daily conversation, “theory” often implicitly indicates a lack of supporting data. Indeed, introducing a statement with “My theory is...” is usually akin to saying “I guess that...”, “I would speculate that...”, or “I believe but have not attempted to demonstrate that...”. By contrast, a theory in science, again following the definition given by the NAS, is “a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world that can incorporate facts, laws, inferences, and tested hypotheses.” Science not only generates facts but seeks to explain them, and the interlocking and well-supported explanations for those facts are known as theories. Theories allow aspects of the natural world not only to be described, but to be understood. Far from being unsubstantiated speculations, theories are the ultimate goal of science. [3] (Emphasis mine)

Source: "What is the 'scientific method'?" Jose Wudka

The first paragraph - excluding the ludicrous straw man example of the scientist proposing as a theory that balls fly upwards - is actually referring to the formulation of a hypothesis, something which is definitely not a theory: This amateurish attempt to define fact and theory undermines the validity of the argument LBQ seeks to make about the relevance of fact and theory when it comes to science.

LBQ's argument makes another error with its attempt to deprecate any scientific investigation into the past [4] by asserting that when attempting to investigate the past, we cannot verify 'whether the assumptions used in a theory [sic] are right' and are not able to 'test the theory [sic] and check the assumption.' By definition, if we cannot verify assumptions or test the theory, then it isn't a theory given that one of the hallmarks of a good theory is whether it is falsifiable. Again, simple mistakes such as this completely undermine the point LBQ is trying to make, and suggests strongly that those who drafted this document are not properly informed on basic scientific epistemology.

Arguably, what underlies this LBQ argument is the YEC claim that science can be divided into 'historical science' and 'observational' science, with the former of a markedly inferior nature to the latter because it cannot be 'observed'. This distinction is purely an invention of YECs and is not recognised by competent scientists; its existence is purely an attempt to deprecate sciences that investigate the past, and threaten a fundamentalist view of the creation narratives.

The fundamental problems with such an attempt to create a historical / observational science dichotomy is that in reality, one cannot draw such a line. As the National Center For Science Education notes:
The problem with these attempts to divide science neatly into two piles is that, as Sober observes, a given science, and even a given scientist, can switch between approaches in the quest to address a single question. Geologists can plumb the oldest rocks on earth for evidence of the first life, but they can also go to the lab and recreate the conditions of early earth to test predictions of hypothesis about events billions of years ago. And those results from a modern laboratory will send researchers back to the field to test predictions about historical events generated in the laboratory. 
Similarly, physicists at the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland are testing theories about the origin of the universe:
The LHC will recreate, on a microscale, conditions that existed during the first billionth of a second of the Big Bang.
At the earliest moments of the Big Bang, the Universe consisted of a searingly hot soup of fundamental particles - quarks, leptons and the force carriers. As the Universe cooled to 1000 billion degrees, the quarks and gluons (carriers of the strong force) combined into composite particles like protons and neutrons. The LHC will collide lead nuclei so that they release their constituent quarks in a fleeting 'Little Bang'. This will take us back to the time before these particles formed, re-creating the conditions early in the evolution of the universe, when quarks and gluons were free to mix without combining. The debris detected will provide important information about this very early state of matter.
Science and Technology Facilities Council (2008) "The Big Questions" page on "The Large Hadron Collider" website. Accessed September 18, 2008.
Which category of science does this belong to? Clearly, it is both historical science and experimental science. Other such historical claims can be evaluated using modern experiments. Another example of this approach can be found in the episode of Mythbusters in which claims about the destruction of the Hindenburg are tested using modern models of the combustible zeppelin. If a television show can accurately navigate these philosophical waters, it is entirely appropriate to expect a textbook to handle them responsibly as well. [5]
Developmental biologist Paul Myers likewise points out the vacuity behind the special creationist attempt to create two tiers of science in order to evade what evolutionary biology tells us about natural history:
All scientific evidence is observational, but not in the naive sense that all that counts is what you see with your eyes. There is a sense in which some science is regarded as historical, but it’s not used in the way creationists do; it does not refer to science that describes events in the past. 
Maybe some examples will make that clearer. 
We can reconstruct the evolutionary history of fruit flies. We do this by observation. That does not mean we watch different species of fruit flies speciate before our eyes (although it has been found to occur in reasonable spans of time in the lab and the wild), it means we extract and analyze information from extant species — we take invisible genetic properties of the flies’ genomes and turn them into tables of data and strings of publishable code. We observe patterns in their genetics that allow us to determine patterns of historical change. Observation and history are intertwined. To deny the history is to deny the observations.
Paleontology is often labeled a historical science, but it doesn’t have the pejorative sense in which creationists use it, and it is definitely founded in observation. For instance, plesiosaurs: do you think scientists just invented them? No. We found their bones — we observed their remains imbedded in rock — and further, we found evidence of a long history of variation and diversity. The sense in which the study of plesiosaurs is historical is that they’re all extinct, so there are no extant forms to examine, but it is still soundly based on observation. Paleontology may be largely historical, but it is still a legitimate science built on observation, measurement, and even prediction, and it also relies heavily on analysis of extant processes in geology, physics, and biology. [6]
The YEC confusion on this point betrays a superficial and confused understanding of the philosophy of science, a point that palaeontologist Donald Prothero makes quite effectively:
The contrast between more “observational” types of science and more “historical” science is indeed found in the literature of philosophy of science, but in no case do true philosophers of science argue that “historical” evidence is inferior or less trustworthy. Only creationists do that. Some philosophers and scientists have made the distinction popularized by Stephen Jay Gould, between the “nomothetic” (emphasizing the law-like, regular, predictable, experimental) aspects of science, and the “idiographic” (emphasizing unique, one-of-a-kind historical events). For example, Elliott Sober wrote: 
This division between nomothetic (“nomos” is Greek for law) and historical sciences does not mean that each science is exclusively one or the other. The particle physicist might find that the collisions of interest often occur on the surface of the sun; if so, a detailed study of that particular object might help to infer the general law. Symmetrically, the astronomer interested in obtaining an accurate description of the star might use various laws to help make the inference.  
Although the particle physicist and the astronomer may attend to both general laws and historical particulars, we can separate their two enterprises by distinguishing means from ends. The astronomer’s problem is a historical one because the goal is to infer the properties of a particular object; the astronomer uses laws only as a means. Particle physics, on the other hand, is a nomothetic discipline because the goal is to infer general laws; descriptions of particular objects are only relevant as a means.  
The same division exists within evolutionary biology. When a systematist infers that human beings are more closely related to chimps than they are to gorillas, this phylogenetic proposition describes a family tree that connects three species. The proposition is logically of the same type as the proposition that says that Alice is more closely related to Berry than she is to Carl. … Reconstructing genealogical relationships is the goal of a historical science. 
As is clear from this quote, and many others that could be found in the literature of philosophy of science, in no way is “historical” evidence considered inferior to “observational evidence.” They are a seamless continuum, with many kinds of problems using both evidence in parallel, or lines of evidence merging from one into another. Sober says so clearly, and I couldn’t conclude in a more clear fashion myself: 
Although inferring laws and reconstructing history are distinct scientific goals, they often are fruitfully pursued together. Theoreticians hope their models are not vacuous; they want them to apply to the real world of living organisms. Likewise, naturalists who describe the present and past of particular species often do so with an eye to providing data that have a wider theoretical significance. Nomothetic and historical disciplines in evolutionary biology have much to learn from each other. [7]
The previous quotations are hardly exhaustive, but they demonstrate that the YEC division of science into ‘observational’ and ‘historical’ is not one that reflects the reality of science, and shows the folly of the LBQ attempt to deprecate any scientific investigation into the past based on any belief that it is intrinsically inferior or incapable of investigation.One point that scientists repeatedly stress is that one does not prove theories - proof strictly speaking belongs to mathematics. Any creationist who refers to 'proving theories' is therefore positively shouting a profound lack of understanding of the scientific method. LBQ's stastement that "[we] want to look quickly at a couple of examples where theories which lacked vital facts were trusted. The consequences were terrible" is followed by a brief section titled "Trusting unproven theories".

LBQ's examples come from medicine, in an era when this discipline was poorly informed by science, so it is somewhat misleading of LBQ to offer this example to make their point:
In mid-nineteenth-century England, some public-health authorities believed the 'miasma' theory. This theory said that diseases were caused by a poisonous vapour known as 'miasma'.

In the same era, some doctors accepted the 'dyscrasia' theory, which said that disease was caused by an imbalance in the body's temperament.

People did their best with their limited knowledge. They were unaware that they lacked vital information about viruses and bacteria. They trusted theories that were not based on all the facts. They saw no problem in drinking water that had been contaminated with sewage. The result was that tens of thousands of people died in the four cholera epidemics that broke out in England between 1831 and 1854.

Nor did they see a problem in a doctor or nurse moving from a dead body to a living one without washing their hands in between. So, up to one in three women died in hospital giving birth to children. Many women preferred to give birth in the street rather than go to hospital.

Countless people died because these theories lacked vital facts. These two examples show that we need all the facts to come up with a correct theory. They also show us that we may not realise that we don't have all the facts.
The basic facts in the examples given above are fundamentally correct, but the real lesson one draws from these two examples is the power of the scientific method, with its 'organised scepticism', where the concept of 'received truth' is anathema, and everything is considered provisional, subject to revision or rejection pending further observation. It was the unscientific nature of medicine, where received wisdom from earlier scholars such as Galen was never challenged, experimental investigation such as dissections to clarify knowledge deprecated, and the unwillingness of many doctors to change their practice in the light of evidence such as seen with the resistance to handwashing which hindered its improvement. Once a scientific mindset took hold. we saw considerable improvement in medical practice. Far from lending support to creationism, the example cited shows in fact what happens when dogma is privileged over science.


1. Students of philosophy will recognise the problem of induction here.
2. Gregory T.R. "Evolution as Fact, Theory and Path" Evo Edu Outreach (2008) 1:46-52
3. ibid, p 47
4. One that would undermine the entire basis of archaeology and render it useless, a point which YECs who place much apologetic value on archaeology seem curiously reluctant to confront.
5. “Historical Science” vs. “experimental science” National Center for Science Education. September 24th 2008
6. Myers P.Z. “Historical and Observational Science” Pharyngula 27th July 2013
7. Prothero D.R. “Is observational science better than historical science? Scientia Salon April 16, 2014