Skepticism, Religion Archive

Monday, November 22, 2010

Book Review - Thousands, Not Billions, Part I

A few months ago, I asked for a recommendation of the best book creationism had to offer. A friend of mine suggested Thousands... Not Billions: Challenging an Icon of Evolution, Questioning the Age of the Earth. So, I bought it and read it.

The book is a summary of a research project known as Radioisotopes and the Age of the Earth (RATE), associated with The Institute for Creation Research (ICR). The book was written by one of the Researchers, Dr. Don DeYoung.

The subtitle of the book, "Challenging an Icon of Evolution, Questioning the Age of the Earth", might lead you to think that there'd be a bit of discussion of evolution. There wasn't. The book looked only at the age of the Earth, and focused entirely on radiometric dating.

Now, I realize that books can only have a finite scope. This book's focus was radiometric dating. Fine. Just don't expect that pointing out a few anomolies in this one field is enough to overturn the diverse forms of evidence from other fields for an ancient Earth (particularly if your anomolies are down to bad methodology). Keep in mind that radioactivity wasn't discovered until 1896 by Henri Becquerel, and radiometric dating wasn't attempted until the early 1900s. When you consdier that Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859, it's obvious that radiometric dating didn't form one of the pillars of the theory. In fact, it was already known that the earth was ancient, though with less certainty of the exact age, from other sources. Uniformitarianism was first proposed in the 18th century by James Hutton, and later popularized by Charles Lyell's Principles of Geology in 1830. These geologists were looking to other forms evidence, such as the layers of sediment that had built up in different areas, and comparing those to known forms of deposition in the present. Just look at the White Cliffs of Dover for a formation that took countless years to form.

There was one passage that didn't come until near the end of the book, on page 169. However, I'm going to include it here at the beginning of the review, because it clearly shows the mindset of those involved.

Furthermore, the unchanging Scripture message has priority over all transient models of earth history. The RATE team concludes that Scripture is the standard to which interpretations of scientific data must conform. This does not imply the rejection of any data whatsoever. However, it does call for the positive channeling of data interpretation in a proper biblical perspective.

This is exactly the wrong way to do science. They've already decided on their conclusion, based on their interpretation of scripture, which, as they made clear elsewhere, is definitely a young earth. From that stance, there is no evidence at all that could convince them of an ancient universe, because they would just 'channel' that evidence to fit with their preconceived notions. They even hinted at this in the book, that where they run into a roadblock that isn't explainable by any other means, they can just invoke divine intervention. This is hardly any better than Last Thursdayism.

Throughout the book, the author indicated that accelerated nuclear decay was responsible for their findings. This hypothesis was mentioned many times throughout the book. Obviously, this raised some serious red flags. When I think of accelerated nuclear decay, I think of this:

Mushroom Cloud from Wikimedia Commons -

Now, depending on just how accelerated the decay might have been, it might not necessarily have set off an explosive chain reaction. But, it would still release huge amounts of energy. This, to me, is the biggest flaw in the whole hypothesis presented in the book, and is the reason why I've addressed it first, before getting to any of their other points. You simply can't propose that there was accelerated nuclear decay without accounting for the energy it would have created.

Given how huge of a problem this is for the hypothesis, I would have expected that they would have devoted considerable space to addressing it - a chapter, at the least. Instead, it received 3 paragraphs. Here, quoted in full, is their attempt at addressing the heat problem associated with accelerated nuclear decay, and in fact, since the first describes the problem, only the latter two attempt to address it.


The heat energy given off during nuclear decay raises an important question. What prevented the earth from melting completely during the rapid decay which amounted to millions of year's worth at present rates? Calculations show that this much decay of uranium and thorium atoms within a typical rock mass would raise the rock temperature as high as 22,000ºC. This temperature is nearly four times hotter than the surface of the sun and would likely vaporize entire rock masses in explosive events, but the crust of the earth did not melt during the Flood period. In fact, the presence of radiohalos and fission tracks in many rocks shows that rock temperatures remained below about 150ºC during the formation of the halos and tracks. Otherwise, these crystal defects would be thermally erased. Also, zircons in many rocks still contain helium atoms resulting from accelerated decay, yet the zircon crystals themselves were not melted during the nuclear decay process.

Somehow the enormous amount of heat resulting from isotope decay must have dissipated quickly. One tentative, rather novel proposal is called cosmological cooling (Humphreys, 2000). It is highly theoretical in nature and involves general relativity, higher dimensions, and a rapid expansion of space. Consider a kitchen refrigerator which is cooled by the expansion of a confined, compressed gas. In somewhat analagous fashion, an expansion of space would result in cooling on a universal scale. In this explanation, the heat energy generated by the nuclear decay goes into the expansion of the fabric of space itself. The key is to have accelerated decay simultaneously accompanied by a temporary, large-scale stretching of the space surrounding earth. Since there is evidence of much radioactive decay throughout the solar system and in space beyond, the expansion must be universal in its extent. There are definite hints in Scripture of an expansion of space during the Genesis flood (Humphreys, 2000). It is proposed that an enormous expansion of space, 20-fold times or greater, occured during the Flood event.

Big-bang enthusiasts also propose an inflationary stretching of space. However, their inflationary big bang occurs at the very beginning of time, within the first second, and only increases the universe from atom size to that of approximately a marble. In contrast, the cosmological cooling model places its expansion in the time frame of the Flood. Such an extreme alteration of the physical universe actually might drop the temperature too far and cause the reverse problem of over-heating, that is, a frozen earth. Further theoretical work is ongoing regarding the amount of heat produced by nuclear decay and the possible mechanisms for its removal. The RATE team views the extreme heat generation associated with accelerated decay as a serious issue, but not an insurmountable problem. (page 152)

Just to be thorough, here is the only other mention of the problem, from the Challenges for the Future section of the conclusion.

1. Accelerated nuclear decay involves millions or billions of years worth of decay occuring in just days or months of time. Even at present rates, considerable heat is produced by radioactive nuclear decay. An acceleration of this process will multiply the heat output greatly. This heat, which is produced within rocks, must be removed, or it could melt or even vaporize the earth's crust. This clearly did not happen to the earth. In fact, the existence of zircons with helium, radiohalos, and fission tracks shows that the host rocks and minerals have not experienced excessive heating. These physical records of nuclear decay would rapidly disappear if temperatures increased to hundreds of degrees. Possible mechanisms have been explored that could safeguard the earth from severe overheating during accelerated decay events. One of these involves cosmological or volume cooling, the result of a rapid expansion of space. Many details remain to be filled in for this and other proposed processes of heat removal. (page 179)

So, their response to the problem of all this energy is to propose that the very fabric of space time itself expanded! You don't just have a functioning universe, expand space 20 fold, and then expect the universe to keep on functioning just like it was before. And unlike the Big Bang, there's no physical evidence at all for this expansion (and I'm curious just what type of scriptural evidence there is). The only reason they're proposing it is as a post hoc rationalization to maintain their preconceived notions.

More Info:

To tell the truth, with such a gaping hole in their hypothesis, I don't think there's any real need to even address the rest of the book. This is a fatal flaw if there ever was one.

Still, I have fun debunking bad science, and I suspect the type of people who read my blog have fun reading those debunkings, so I'll take a look at their other points. But for that, you'll have to wait for Part II.

Update Part II is now online.

Updated 2010-11-29 Added a link to the entry where I requested creationist literature, and slightly reworded the opening paragraph.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Book Review - The God Delusion

While reviewing unfinished blog entries, I came across this one. I'd originally intended to write a very in depth review of this book, but never quite got around to doing it, and it's now been years since I read the book. Still, what I'd already written wasn't bad, so I figured it was worth cleaning up a bit and posting on the blog.

After putting it off for over a year and a half, I finally read The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. There were a couple reasons I put it off so long. First, when the book first came out, I was just coming to grips with non-belief, and I was still too embarassed to take the book to the cashier. Second, even as I did become more comfortable with atheism, I thought that the book would just be a lot of preaching to the choir. However, thanks to the urging of a few people, I decided to go pick up the book, and I'm glad I did.

To be honest, for me, a good portion of the book was preaching to the choir, but not quite as much as I'd feared. I anticipated 420 pages of dissecting arguments for the existence of gods, pointing out inconsistencies in religious doctrines, and reasons why non-belief is the more rational choice. And while a good part of the book does address those points, that's only about half of it. The rest of the book deals with different but related issues, such as the roots of religion, the basis for morality, and reasons for speaking out against religion.

I have read several unfounded complaints of the book. Just consider the first editorial review on the book's Amazon page by Publisher's Weekly.

For a scientist who criticizes religion for its intolerance, Dawkins has written a surprisingly intolerant book, full of scorn for religion and those who believe...

While Dawkins can be witty, even confirmed atheists who agree with his advocacy of science and vigorous rationalism may have trouble stomaching some of the rhetoric: the biblical Yahweh is "psychotic," Aquinas's proofs of God's existence are "fatuous" and religion generally is "nonsense..."

He insists that religion is a divisive and oppressive force, but he is less convincing in arguing that the world would be better and more peaceful without it.

Admittedly, some sections use strong language, particularly introductions to chapters, but I never read anything as scornful, nor particularly intolerant. Yes, Dawkins described Yahweh as "psychotic," but that was in the context of the atrocities of the Old Testament (such as Jephthah and his daughter from Judges 11). And after re-reading the section on Aquinas, I think Dawkins was justified in calling it like he saw it - Aquinas's arguments weren't all that good.

The last part of this review is something I've seen used as the sole argument of some reviews. It has nothing to do with the proposition of whether or not a god exists, only the consequences of belief in a god. And personally, I think Dawkins did address that aspect fairly well, though I guess that's a matter of personal opinion.

I don't entirely agree with all of Dawkins' arguments, but I still recommend this book.

Added 2010-11-23 Thinking about The God Delusion again, I recall a certain passage that I found really funny (just about the only humorous passage from the book). As luck would have it, it was one of the parts available from Google Books. I'll included the lead in for context. So, here's the passge, from page 86:

More recently, the physicist Russell Stannard (one of Britain's three well-known religious scientists, as we shall see) has thrown his weight behind an inititiative, funded by - of course - the Templeton Foundation, to test experimentally the proposition that praying for sick patients improves their health.

Such experiments, if done properly, have to be double blind, and this standard was strictly observed. The patients were assigned, strictly at random, to an experimental group (received prayers) or a control group (received no prayers). Neither the patients, nor their doctors or caregivers, nor the experimenters were allowed to know which patients were being prayed for and which patients were controls. Those who did the experimental praying had to know the names of the individuals for whom they were praying - otherwise, in what sense would they be praying for them rather than for somebody else? But care was taken to tell them only the first name and initial letter of the surname. Apparently thta would be enough to enable God to pinpoint the right hospital bed.

The very idea of doing such experiments is open to a generous amount of ridicule, and the project duly received it. As far as I know, Bob Newhart didn't do a sketch about it, but I can distinctly hear his voice:

What's that you say, Lord? You can't cure me because I'm a member of the control group?... Oh I see, my aunt's prayers aren't enough. But Lord, Mr Evans in the next-door bed... What as that, Lord?... Mr Evans received a thousand prayers per day? But Lord, Mr Evans doesn't know a thousand people... Oh, they just referred to him as John E. But Lord, how did you know they didn't mean John Ellsworthy?... Oh, right, you used your omniscience to work out with John E they meant. But Lord...

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Possibility of Evidence for Gods

The Out Campaign: Scarlet Letter of AtheismThere was a recent post on Pharyngula, prompted by a post on written by Steve Zara. And in the time it's taken me to get this post written, there have been multiple follow ups on this subject:

Let's look at what Zara wrote originally. In that article, he said:

I propose a new strident atheism. No playing the games of theists. No concessions. No talk of evidence that can change minds, when their beliefs are deliberately placed beyond logic, beyond evidence. Let's not get taken in by the fraud of religion. Let's not play their shell-game.

In agreement, Myers wrote this in his first post on the subject:

There is no possibility of evidence to convince us of the existence of a god.

I understand where they're coming from. They're frustrated with the theologian's god, the god that's so vague and nebulous that it might as well not exist, or, as I quoted Zara above, that's beyond logic and evidence.

But I think their position goes too far. To make the blanket statement that Myers did is close minded. While I don't believe that any gods exist, I can imagine a universe where they did, and imagine the types of things that the gods might do. To use an example from the comment thread on Pharyngula, if multiple astronomers somehow received a revelation of exactly when and where a supernova was going to occur (the comment used e-mail as the method of revelation), that would be a good piece of evidence for a god. If people were raised from the dead, or really could walk on water, or any of the points from Ebon Musing's Theist's Guide to Converting Atheists were demonstrated to be true, these would all be good evidence for the divine.

Zara brought up an interesting point, quoting Arthur C. Clarke's famous line, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." Even if we had the forms of evidence I listed above, how could we be sure that they were from a god, and not some advanced aliens messing around with us? Or how could we be sure that the responsible entity really was the creator of the universe, and not just some powerful force that came into being after the big bang (a la His Dark Materials or Star Trek V). Even without invoking such god like beings, fulfilled prophecies could just be interpreted as psychic abilities of humans, and some other miracles could be telekinesis, or some other as yet unknown force. This was the direction Myers went in his defense in his follow up posts.

While they're interesting possibities to think about, they're still hypothetical, since nobody has yet seen any real miracles that couldn't be explained with what we already know about the universe. Until someone actually produces an accurate prophecy, there's no need to speculate whether it's a psychic ability of humans, an inspiration from the divine, or aliens beaming signals into our heads. Until we actually hear a voice boom down from the heavens, we don't need to try to figure out if it's Zeus or and Interstellar construction crew. It's a bit pointless trying to come up with explanations for things that haven't happened.

This leads into another point where I have the most sympathy with Myers' and Zara's position. If the types of evidence I listed above had been happening throughout recorded history, that would be one thing. However, considering that there's been no credible evidence for the divine for basically the entire history of human civilization, it would certainly make one question the source if this evidence suddenly began appearing all over the place. Given the choice between 'God thought it was finally time to interact with his creation after 14 billion years of hands off observation', vs. 'a space faring civilization has just now encountered our solar system', the latter seems more likely.

So, in sympathy with Zara and Myers, I can say that no single piece of evidence would instantly convince me that gods exist. There's just too long a history of lack of evidence, and too many alternate explanations for any single phenomenon. However, I won't go so far as to say that I couldn't ever be convinced. Given enough evidence from multiple lines, I would seriously consider the possibility that they were divine in origin. I'm just waiting for somebody to actually show me that evidence.

In anticipation of those people who would simply ask me to read the Gospels for examples of miracles, I'll direct them to a previous blog entry of mine, Liar, Lunatic, or Lord... Or Something Else, for a short description of why I don't think the Gospels are reliable. For a bit of a humorous take on other arguments people use for a god's existence that aren't very convincing, take a look at the Hundreds of Proofs of God's Existence on

Monday, October 11, 2010

Columbus Day

Portrait of Columbus from the painting,  Virgen de los Navegantes, by Alejo FernándezToday is Columbus Day. I wrote an entry on this a few years ago, that I figured I'd link back to today:
Debunking a Columbus Myth

I discussed the widely held belief that Columbus proved the world was round. I'm sure the Greek geographer Eratosthenes would have something to say about that.

I don't mind so much the claim that Columbus discovered America. Sure, the Vikings beat him to it, and he himself might not have known he'd found a new continent, but it was his voyages that sparked the European exploration of the New World.

For anyone like myself, who's interested in the Pre-Columbian history of the Americas, and wonders why the Europeans were able to conquer the native American empires, Jared Diamond's Gun, Germs, and Steel is a very interesting book to read on the subject.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Weak Arguments for a God

The Out Campaign: Scarlet Letter of AtheismWell, I've been too busy this week to come up with much on my own for a blog entry. But, I've been following an interesting comment thread over at Larry Moran's Sandwalk, A Challenge to Theists and their Accommodationist Supporters. Here's the meat of Moran's post:

I challenge all theists and all their accommodationist friends to post their very best 21st century, sophisticated (or not), arguments for the existence of God. They can put them in the comments section of this posting, or on any of the other atheist blogs, or on their own blogs and websites. Just send me the link. ...

Let's stop the whining about how "know-nothing" atheists are ignoring the very best arguments for the existence of God. Come on, all you theists and accommodationists, put your money where your mouth is. Give us something of substance instead of hiding behind The Courtier's Reply. Let's see the angels.

What follows is, at this point, nearly 450 comments worth of debate, and likely to keep on increasing. If you're already familiar with debating religion, the comments are about what you'd expect - one guy quoting scripture, a couple creationists, and a lot of sophistry. Actually, one comment does a good job of summarizing the majority of the arguments presented.

Martin said...

Um, why ask people on the internet for something like this? Turn to real peer-reviewed theology if you're genuinely interested in hearing the best theistic arguments.

A few off the top of my head:

1. Kalam cosmological argument
2. Argument from contingency
3. Plantinga's modal ontological argument
4. Maydole's modal perfection ontological argument
5. Fine-tuning arguments
6. Argument from reason
7. Evolutionary argument against naturalism
8. Moral arguments
9. is loaded with arguments

Not all theists are idiotic creationists from Nebraska.

Of course, the other commenters dealt with those arguments, since they're old arguments or variants of old arguments that we've heard time and again. Really, the thread hasn't presented anything new.

There was one comment that I found particularly amusing for its cluelessness:

"Let's make this easy. Define 'evidence' any way you want to. Any way at all. Give one piece of evidence that the Christian God exists. I'm not asking for proof, just for one piece of evidence. Pick the piece of evidence that you think is the *most* compelling."

Uh-uh. I know how this goes. First, I don't find the evidence compelling, but it would take masses of epistemology that you don't have the patience for to get you to understand why that doesn't impact, to me, belief. Second, I could list the standard things that we do consider at least weak evidence for things -- ancient stories like the Bible, personal experiences -- and you'd just retreat to "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence" and ignore it.

So, in a comment thread that specifically asked for the best arguments for a god, one of the commenters is flat out refusing to provide evidence.

Anyway, if you're one of the people who knows me personally, and you read this blog because you're interested in what I usually write about, consider the above link a portal into the raucous world of Internet religious discussions. A browse through the comments is very interesting.

To everyone else, I'll try to post something better next week.

Let me just add that I don't think all the arguments from the atheist side are necessarily sound, either. While a lot of them are pretty good, some are less than stellar. In particular, I think many people are missing the point when they say quantum mechanics predicts something coming from nothing. Quantum mechanics still operates within our universe. Still, even if there were an external first cause to our universe, there's no reason to jump from that to assuming that the first cause had consciousness, intent, or any of the other properties typically associated with gods.


Selling Out