Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Your Creator is not a shim

After responding to the following meme with, "Misrepresenting science and conflating it with atheism is sort of silly. :)" my brother sent me a message concluding with, "Strict scientists would downgrade evolution of species from a theory to an hypothesis, and also include creation by intelligent being as an hypothesis."

So, I responded (while my children threw oranges at me, played hide-n-seek with my smart phone, and attempted to use me as a ladder to get on the top of the couch.  I made some edits).  My ideas here aren't anything new to anyone who has read my previous blog posts.  However, I expressed these ideas a bit differently.  I think it's important, if you care about such things, to show how religiously motivated anti-science and pseudo-science movements in the U.S. are counter-productive to the interests of religious people.  Attempting to expose the misinformation, or using ridicule, or correcting other people with your own scientific misconceptions - oops; are not always good tactics.

"The scientific method includes two philosophical premises for explanations: Occam's Razor and methodological naturalism. For an explanation to be a "scientific" one, it has to satisfy both of those. Also, the only scientific hypotheses are hypotheses that are falsifiable and testable. Creation by an intelligent being is not testable. There is no empirical test that you can design that would be able to falsify it. So, "science" simply can't say anything about it - one way or the other.

Also, "theory" is different than "hypothesis". Hypotheses are based on theories. You can't "downgrade" or "upgrade" one to the other. That's doesn't make sense. The way that science works is that you construct a theory and then use the theory to form hypotheses, you design experiments or make other systematic observations to test predictions that are based on your hypothesis. If your observations are consistent with your predictions, your observations support your hypothesis and the theory that the hypothesis was based on. If your observations are not consistent with the predictions; then either the hypothesis need revision, or in some cases, the theory is revisited (either in small or large ways). You just repeat this over and over again - and the strength of a theory depends on how well tested it is. We talk about "powerful theories" and "weak theories"; or "well supported theories" and "novel theories". Very seldom does anyone use the phrase "proven theory" because claiming that anything is "proved" discourages testing, which discourages revising and refining theory to make it better.

Evolution of species is a very well-supported theory. Whether or not a deity was involved in the creation of life itself or humans specifically, is something scientists cannot test. For all we know, some powerful deity popped humans into existence with a Word and when that deity created the earth and the universe, the deity just decided (for fun or something) to fashion genetics to point to common ancestry and insert the fossil record just to give evolutionary biologists and anthropologists something to do.

The big bang theory is also a relatively well-supported theory - it is based on observation, not just made up. The more and better observations we are able to make, the better the theory. This theory also says nothing about whether or not a deity was involved in causing space and time to expand into the universe, or involved in matter condensing and forming galaxies, stars, planets, etc as it cooled. For all we know, that low-entropy dot the universe expanded from was a pantheistic deity or an all-powerful deity said a Word that caused the universe to expand into existence. Or, of course, a deity could have blinked the universe into existence in it's current form last Wednesday; and the appearance of the universe expanding was just part of that deity's artistic license as a lark, and when cosmologists attempt to put their finger on the cosmological constant or figure out how that constant changes in time, the deity has a good giggle.

Yes, some atheists point to methodological naturalism as evidence of their stance of philosophical naturalism. I find that problematic because science cannot say word one about non-falsifiable hypotheses which most religions are ripe with. It is compelling to see how powerful methodological naturalism is in creating predictive theory, but that alone does not lead to the conclusion that the knowledge we construct with those methods is the only knowledge. It's also counter to the scientific method to claim that the scientific explanations are "True" with a big "T".

What I find extremely obnoxious, however, is when Creation Scientists attempt to use "science" to support their religious conclusions.
You might as well be claiming that since we don't know everything there is to know about how lightening forms in clouds; that Thor exists and he is the son of Odin. It makes little sense to do that in the first place. If you place God in the gaps of our scientific understanding, you set God up to be crushed as those "gaps" are slowly closed. If you want God to be a scientific hypothesis, you set God up to be falsified and discarded.

So, what you get is a group of people who are making "gaps" where none exist in order to artificially make room for God. Worse, if you lie about what we know and don't know, if you lie about what the scientific explanations actually are (such as claiming that the ultra-low-entropy seed that the universe expanded from is "nothing" so the "big bang" theory violates conservation of energy principle; claiming that no transitional fossils exist; asserting that cosmological theory violates conservation of momentum or that evolutionary biology violates the second law of thermodynamics; or latching onto a math joke as evidence for your stance; or proclaiming the bacterial flagellum or the banana atheist nightmares; or pointing out 20 year old fossil hoaxes and the fabrication of a half-dozen fetal development drawings (that were used to support a theory that has since been discarded) and using those stories to negate all other evidence of modern theory, as if all evolutionary biologists have done for the last 150 years is read the Origin of Species and drink coffee; while strangely refusing to discredit hoaxes that support the Answers in Genesis version of events such as human and dinosaur foot prints walking together in a lake bed) then what you are doing is not only reducing God to an explanation used when there isn't a more evident one; you are reducing God to a lie."

Although atheists seem to be the ones most upset with Creation Science - or at least the ones that get the most media attention - many religious people in the U.S. (as well as pretty much the majority of religious people who haven't been subject to propaganda from our friends responsible for The Wedge Document and Creation Science Museums) do not see these movements as representing their interests.

For example when asked about the Creation and Evolution debate, Pope Benedict XVI answered:

"They are presented as alternatives that exclude each other," the Pope said. "This clash is an absurdity because on one hand there is much scientific proof in favor of evolution, which appears as a reality that we must see and which enriches our understanding of life and being as such." source 

Ken Miller (a Catholic) and Mark Noll (an Evangelical) have both written books on the subject.  The mantra coming from religious academics, scientists of faith and some religious leaders (such as the Pope) is pretty clear: "Creation Science is not only bad science, it is bad theology."

It's no surprise that religious people will not listen to atheists when it comes to anything - much less science.  Not only are religious people inundated with misinformation about atheism and science both, to the point where some don't even think of atheism and science as separate topics, when they think of atheists the caricature of an angry, hateful, loudmouthed, name-calling rude crude blowhard comes to mind.  In other words, when they think of atheists a picture of this guy pops into their heads:

(Yes, this is a real person.  Yes, I am insulting him.  Yes, I feel justified.  If you don't know why, you really really don't want to know why.)

AronRa (an atheist of youtube fame) understood this, and when choosing moderators for a debate concerning educational policies of the Texas Board of Education, he chose Christians not fellow atheists.  "The reason that my scientific experts promoting evolution had to be Christian, was because I was not going to let this denigrate into debate on whether or not there is a God.  The discussion of whether we teach evolution is not a theological or religious discussion.  There is not a polarity here, and, damn it, these people behind me proved that...but it denigrated anyway."  So, what was the reaction to these religious people who supported the teaching of evolution?  Well, they weren't "true Christians". source

This isn't a fight between "evolutionist atheists" and "creationist theists".  It isn't a fight between philosophical naturalism and super-naturalism.  Those are side-shows.  Creation Science is an assault on fellow Christians, an affront to honesty, and a theological travesty.  It is pitting the Creator against the study of creation; as if an understanding of one denies the other.  

Organizations such as the Discovery Institute, Answers in Genesis, and others; don't agree with one another.  However, if you have the audacity not to reject cosmology and evolutionary biology; to allow our knowledge of science to inform your own beliefs or even just acknowledge that our scientific theories concerning the origin of the universe or the origin of species is good science; to many of them, your faith is invalid.

When I heard about the Wedge Document, I wonder what exactly they wanted to split apart in their effort to combat "scientific materialism and its destructive moral, cultural and political legacies."  The analogy refers to using a wedge to create a space - the idea essentially is to thrust science apart to make room for supernatural explanations.

With the act of insisting that Christians must believe their lies about science in order to be considered "true" Christians, they aren't just using a wedge of misrepresentation, pseudo-science and out-and-out lies to create gaps to shove their deity into like a shim; they are causing a theological split, a political split, and a cultural split; they are causing conflict where there doesn't need to be conflict - just ask the citizens of Dover, Pennsylvania.


  1. I share your annoyance with TAA. I find it impossible to understand how, of all the brilliant content on youtube, he managed to emerge as one of the most popular figures. Thinking of that always makes me a little disappointed in humanity.

    I must correct you in one point: Your brother is actually kinda right in claiming that theories are upgraded hypotheses.
    Hypotheses are proposed explanations for observed phenomena; Science tests those (by falsifying their corresponding null hypotheses). When a hypothesis has been thoroughly tested, verified and is accepted into the mainstream of scientific thought, it starts being referred to as a "theory".
    So there is indeed some kind of "upgrade" there, even though it doesn't really say anything about the quality of the hypothesis, only about its state of acceptance and verification.
    (See Hypothesis and/or Scientific Theory on Wikipedia)

    Apart from that little error it is a great piece of writing. I think that rudeness and ridicule are powerful tools in the public sphere, but a sign of maturity or even wisdom is to recognize the cases in which they are inappropriate.
    You sure did it right here. I hope your brother will listen. Many people will rather persist in delusion than to accept that people have been, however unintentionally, lying to them their whole life. That being said, there is a great number of people out there who managed to find a way out of the swamp of muddled religious thinking and habitual fact-distortion anyway, so there is always hope.

    I hope you'll decide to let us know how his response turned out!

    1. Thanks!

      I suppose you are right about the definition of hypothesis and theory. I am accustomed to "theory" being used for greater explanations. It didn't dawn on me that those theories had to begin as a hypothesis as they were not always so well-developed.

      However, we call many very tenuous ideas "theory". "String theory" didn't start out as "string hypothesis" (as far as I know) - however, we might say that "String theory hypothesizes that...." So, I generally think of hypotheses as logical applications of theory to a particular problem or situation - they are a means of growing theory or showing the generalizability of theory.

      Perhaps, at some point the actual use of the terms (in practice) is field specific. The term hypothesis is sometimes used to mean inference, prediction, etc.

      Yeah - my brother wants to comment here! I hope he joins the conversation.