Monday, 20 November 2017

Credentialism and consensus - why "Theistic Evolution: A Scientific, Philosophical, and Theological Critique" is unlikely to overturn evolution

In part 1 of my series of posts commenting on “Theistic Evolution: A Scientific, Philosophical, and Theological Critique”, I noted that the theological critiques were drawn exclusively from members of conservative section of the Reformed / Evangelical community, which automatically downgrades the book from a broad Christian critique of current attempts to reconcile faith and evolution to little more than a narrow sectarian apologetic.

The scientific critique, based on the profiles of the fourteen contributing authors fares little better in that over half of them are affiliated in some way with the Discovery Institute, a conservative think tank that has been widely criticised by mainstream scientists for its intellectual dishonesty and promotion of the pseudoscience of intelligent design. Furthermore, three of those aren’t even scientists. Of the remaining contributors, only three could honestly said to be actively working scientists at major universities, and none of these are working in disciplines directly related to evolution, meaning that they are quite likely arguing well out of their areas of professional expertise.

Once again, I stress that I have not read the book, but given that evolution has not been seriously doubted by mainstream scientists for well over a century, the burden of proof lies exclusively on those who reject their case to do so to the satisfaction of the scientific community, and the chances of a series of articles in a conservative evangelical apologetics book, most of whose authors are obscure scientists affiliated with a pseudoscientific think tank doing this are remote at best.

The creationist disease of credential-itis

Pointing out that most of the contributing authors are either no longer actively working as genuine scientists but working for a conservative Christian think tank, commenting outside of their area of professional expertise, or not even scientists is not a crude exercise in credentialism. The promotional blurb at Crossway practically invites this attack given that they assert the book has contributions from “two dozen highly credentialed scientists, philosophers, and theologians from Europe and North America”. [1] If they claim their contributors are ‘highly credentialed’, it is entirely appropriate to test that claim.

In passing, this reference to ‘highly credentialed’ one of the main problems with special creationists, an obsession with credentials as if possessing a PhD turns someone into an authority figure. As the developmental biologist Paul Myers notes, having a PhD does not turn you into an instant expert or grant your pseudoscientific ramblings credibility:
…it means precisely nothing when someone brags about finding a Ph.D. willing to espouse utter nonsense. It happens all the time — the degree in itself is not an indicator of credibility. It always amuses me to see the creationists getting so excited at finding someone with a doctorate willing to stand up and disavow everything he supposedly learned so that he can praise Jesus and declare the earth to be only 6,000 years old. [2]
In fact, there appears to be a trend over the years for creationists to enrol in PhD programs at prestigious universities, obtain their PhD, then work for one of the special creationist organisations, where their doctorate at a major university is abused to give their pseudoscientific ramblings the illusion of credibility.

One egregious example is that of Nathaniel Jeanson, who after obtaining a PhD in cell and developmental biology at Harvard Medical School went to work for the YEC organisation ICR, and currently works for Answers in Genesis, who tout his Harvard PhD in his biography. [3] Being ‘highly credentialed’ did not serve as a guarantee against him making nonsensical claims well outside of his narrow area of expertise, or making errors within them:
There was a half-hour lunch break, then an hour-long Q & A. Most of the church folk had left, but a few remained, along with several scientists and science-oriented people. Dr. Levin began by bringing up the genomic data, describing it as a problem in logic for which the only answer is common descent. Jeanson claimed to be unfamiliar with the data! (I’d think even an undergraduate Biology student would be familiar with it at this point; I’m hard-pressed to understand how a recent PhD grad – from Harvard, no less – doesn’t know about it.) Levin offered to get up and give a five minute presentation; Jeanson wasn’t interested. The chimpanzee genome came up as well; Jeanson said he thought it was based upon the human data and incomplete at that; Levin told him that wasn’t the case, that we have the complete genome and have had it for some time.
Other people brought up similar issues, forcing Jeanson to back down on a couple of points. One fellow challenged him on irreducible complexity, and got him to admit it’s really just a semantic device, that it doesn’t serve as evidence for creation. The fellow asked, “Then why include it in your talk?” Jeanson had no answer. He was also pressed about the Cytochrome C similarities, and acknowledged that it actually did support common ancestry. [4]
Put bluntly, a creationist with a PhD from a premier university is still an advocate of pseudoscience. No amount of appeal to credentials will make what they say true.

Scientific consensus and creationist appeal to authority and tradition

The real problem with the appeal to credentials however is that scientific truth is not is not determined by appeal to authority, but rather from scientific consensus, which
“refers to a convergence of many independent lines of high quality evidence all leading the majority of active scientists in a given field to arrive at the same conclusion and/or complimentary [sic] conclusions. It’s not something any scientist necessarily sets out to become a part of as a goal, but is rather something they discover they’re a member of because that’s where their research results led them.” [5]
The last point serves as a potent criticism of special creationism and their methodology, as they begin with a conclusion and set out to justify it. A special creationist consensus owes nothing to science, and everything to dogma, a point that is openly acknowledged by special creationists such as Answers in Genesis who in their Statement of Faith assert that the universe is 6000 years old, was created in six literal consecutive days, and declare that “[b]y definition, no apparent, perceived or claimed evidence in any field, including history and chronology, can be valid if it contradicts the scriptural record.” [6]

With respect to whether an anti-evolution consensus such as that which the contributing authors to TE:SPTC maintain is driven by evidence or dogma, the following three criteria, consilience of evidence, social calibration, and social diversity are useful:
“Consilience of Evidence: The consensus should be based on varied lines of evidence which independently converge on the same conclusion or set of conclusions…This may involve contributions from multiple scientific sub-specialties, each providing different pieces comprising a broader understanding or set of conclusions.


“Social Calibration: The experts involved are mutually committed to employing the same high standards of evidence and formalisms, and have good justifications for those standards. Nobody disputes that carefully collected and reproducible evidence is key in science; the problem is that evidence doesn’t talk. It has to be interpreted by human scientists. The Social Calibration criterion has to do with what the scientific community as a whole accepts as evidence, how they decide what is relevant and significant, and how individual scientists persuade their peers that they are correct.


“Social Diversity: This criterion simply means that the evidence and analyses comprising the scientific consensus should come from varied sources by scientists of varied backgrounds and cultures in order to avoid any systematic bias in the scientific literature.” [7]
The first point, consilience of evidence, simply does not begin to apply to a creationist consensus as any evidence is not allowed to speak for itself, but is hacked or stretched into shape on the procrustean bed of anti-evolutionism. The existence of special creationists with higher degrees in scientific sub-specialities such as palaeontology, molecular biology, or biochemistry is not the same thing as convergence from multiple lines. The creationist begins with a conclusion, and seeks to make the evidence fit, irrespective of whether that evidence is genomic, molecular, or palaeontological.

Likewise, the second point, social calibration, shows that a creationist consensus likewise owes nothing to science. As the existence of creationists statements of faith indicate special creationists accept and reject evidence based on whether it fits into a creationist conclusion, decide what is relevant and significant again based on whether it agrees with a creationist world-view, and persuade their peers they are correct by adherence to their statement of faith. This is anything other than science.

Finally, the social diversity criterion is a telling indicator that the creationist consensus is not scientific, as the creationist consensus exists solely within a conservative Christian worldview [8]. Conversely, scientists from different cultures and belief systems – or lack of them – have contributed to the analyses across multiple sub-specialties that converge on an evolutionary explanation for the evidence we see.

Using these three criteria, even before we read the articles in TE:SPTC, it is almost certain that the consensus among the authors owes nothing to science, and everything to the theological demands of conservative Christianity.

In the final part, I will look at the individual contributors, and show that many of them have already written on the same subjects they address in TE:SPTC, and have had those arguments eviscerated by scientific professionals, sometimes repeatedly. Again, this does not mean that the current arguments will be the same, but given this track record of failure, and the burden of proof they hold, it is entirely reasonable to be sceptical that this time around, things will be different.


2. Myers P.Z. “Boston, land of … creationists?” Pharyngula 16th August 2009
4. Myers P.Z. “A first-hand report of Nathaniel Jeanson’s lecture in Boston” Pharyngula 17th August 2009
7. See reference 5.
8. I am aware of the existence of Islamic and Jewish creationism, but to keep the argument simple I am ignoring these variants.