Skepticism, Religion Archive

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Problems With Day-Age Interpretation of Genesis

The other day, I did something that maybe I shouldn't have. I struck up a conversation with a couple co-workers about Intelligent Design. We kept it friendly enough. They already know my religious/scientific opinions, and I already knew theirs, so there weren't any heated arguments. I was just interested to see how fundamentalists felt about Intelligent Design, and about the judge's decision in the Kitzmiller vs. Dover Board of Education case.

Here's why I was curious to their opinion. It seems to me that if you're going to reject evolution on religious (Christian) grounds, it's because you believe in basically a literal interpretation of the Bible. i.e. that the creation story in Genesis is accurate. If you don't believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible (i.e. you believe in a figurative, allegorical, historical or some other interpretation), then there shouldn't be any religious reason to reject evolution. So I wondered, if you hold to a literal interpretation of the Bible, what would be your take on Intelligent Design? A lot of the ID proponents claim that ID is really science, and that they're just trying to point out evidence of an intelligent designer. They stress that they're not trying to support the Bible. Further, some of the evidence that they use goes against a strictly literal interpretation of Genesis, such as using the Cambrian "Explosion" of 500 million years ago. Really, it makes me wonder why ID is so popular. It's bad science, as evidenced by its overwhelming rejection by the scientific community (not just lack of acceptance, which would characterize most new theories, but actual rejection), and, from a fundamentalist viewpoint, it's bad religion, because it's counter to a 6 day creation.

So, when I brought it up to those co-workers that ID goes against a literal interpretation of Genesis because it allows for the Earth being billions of years old, they got kind of wishy washy on the age of the Earth. Their reply was something to the effect of, "A day in the life of God is like a thousand years to man," so how can we be sure how long the days in Genesis actually were. My first thought was, wow, so the Bible's only literal when it's convenient; otherwise, it's open to interpretation. But then I decided to look into it a little further. Maybe there was something to their line of argument. After a little research, I found people who said that in the original Hebrew, the word used for "day" in Genesis could be translated as either day or age, and that maybe age was the word that should be used there. This, or the day to a thousand years argument my coworkers used, actually turn out to be pretty popular arguments. So, I went back and took another look at Genesis, and, well, these day-age interpretations just don't make any more sense.

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Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Intelligent Design

Well, I've been thinking of writing about Intelligent Design for awhile. With yesterday's ruling on the Kitzmiller vs. Dover Board of Education case, I figured that now was a good time to make a few comments. But it's a big topic, and lot's of bloggers already cover it in great detail, so I'll try to keep this entry relatively short and just say a few comments relevant to the Kitzmiller case.

A lot of people seem to be focusing on calling Intelligent Design a form of creationism. I think that's missing the point. If you go ahead and call it science, like the Discovery Institute and other ID proponents would like, then Intelligent Design is just plain bad science, or at the best, fringe science rejected by the scientific community at large. ID proponents like to compare this to Galileo, or other people whose ideas weren't accepted by the mainstream right away. A good rebuttal to this argument is on Respectful Insolence, which he calls the Galileo Gambit. Here's one of my favorite quotes from that entry, which Orac was actually himself quoting from the book, Why People Believe Weird Things, by Michael Shermer, "For every Galileo shown the instruments of torture for advocating scientific truth, there are a thousand (or ten thousand) unknowns whose 'truths' never pass scientific muster with other scientists. The scientific community cannot be expected to test every fanstastic claim that comes along, especially when so many are logically inconsistent." In other words, fringe science usually remains fringe science because it just plain isn't true. The few that actually become mainstream (like Galileo) do so based on the strength of their evidence.

Should we really be expected to teach in public school science classes an idea that's just plain bad? Some people like to invoke public opinion polls, saying how many people think ID should be taught alongside evolution. I think that's a horrible idea. For any particular subject area, curriculum should be determined by experts in that field, not the general public. I think the fact that so many people in the U.S. doubt evolution is all the more reason to teach it in school. The lack of acceptance is not due to lack of evidence or the fact that evolution doesn't/hasn't occured, it's due to lack of education. It's a problem that needs to be fixed, not an indicator that evolution shouldn't be taught as confidently as we teach other scientific theories (like gravity, germ theory, atomic theory, etc.) To put this in another way, you always read about those polls that say how poorly people do on geography, not knowing where certain countries are located or even not knowing whether certain countries exist. People usually take that as an indicator that we need better education in geography - it doesn't make them question whether said country actually exists. Why should it be different with evolution?

And to touch briefly on the "Teach the Controversy" mantra, high school science class isn't the place to do it, any more than history class is a place to question the holocaust, or math class is a place to question number theory. We're trying to give the students a solid foundation of knowledge. While we should promote critical thinking, at that point, with the limited scientific knowledge the students have, it's a waste of time, actually more than that, I'd consider it a disservice, to present students with a good theory and a bogus theory, and ask them to pick which one they think makes more sense. In that type of high school environment, I doubt many math students would buy into imaginary numbers or general relativity.

One of the things that bothers me about the pro-evolution side of the debate is overstressing the "naturalistic" nature of science. Granted, that's probably the best way to go about science, but if it were up to me, I'd like to change the definition to something more like "determining through the study of evidence the most likely explanations to observed phenomenon." It would be about trying to determine the truth, whether or not it can be explained in a naturalistic manner. In other words, if there were strong evidence that indicated a supernatural cause to a phenomenon, that evidence shouldn't be ruled out strictly because it's supernatural. That being said, there are reams of evidence available backing up much of evolutionary theory, and I personally don't see how any supernatural causes would have to be invoked to explain evolution, but I still think it's a bit close-minded to rule out a whole class of possible causes just because they aren't natural. To put it maybe in slightly better words, science should be evidence based, no matter the source of the evidence, as long as the evidence is credible.

Anyway, the above paragraph was just a preamble to this one. Many of the comments I've seen floating about since yesterday's decision are that "Darwinists" (going by that terminology, I guess I'm a Wrightist, since I'm an aerospace engineer) are clinging so desparately to evolution because they need an explanation that doesn't involve the supernatural. I think those types of arguments are a bunch of hooey. People like evolution because it's the best explanation of the evidence, whether you consider supernatural explanations or not. Just like I don't need to invoke the supernatural to explain how airplanes fly, because fluid dynamics and physics do a good job of explaining it. Just take a look at Talk Origins for a sampling of the pro-evolution evidence available. If you don't like Talk Origins, just spend some time reading some science magazines. Evolution just fits all of the data that we have available.

Anyway, a lot of this was more support of evolution than refutation of ID, but that's just the way it turned out.

Update 2007-02-28: Yeah, this is pretty late to make an update, but I just went back through and read this entry, now that I've studied this issue a little more, and see an area where I made a mistake - naturalism. Science operates by methodological naturalism (as opposed to metaphysical naturalism), which basically just means studying evidence. If you want to say ghosts were the cause of something, that's fine as a scientific theory, as long as you present some evidence for it. So, it's technically true that science operates via naturalism, and that this doesn't necessarily rule out mechanisms that people would normally consider "supernatural." Still, I think it's misleading to the general public, and the pro-reality side would be better served by stressing that science is "evidence based," no matter what the source of the evidence.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

I Can't Escape Fundamentalists Even When I'm Researching Pure Science

I'm a nerd. Just about anybody who knows me is aware of that fact. It means that at any given moment, I'm likely to be thinking nerdy, technical things. I bring this up to explain this next sentence I'm about to write. The other day, I was thinking about tree ring dating, or dendrochronology, and wondering how far back people have been able to date things using that technique. dendrochronology is based on the simple premise of counting tree rings to figure out how old a piece of wood is. A fancy trick that you can use to extend your dates, since the rings show patterns based on varying conditions from year to year, is to match up one of those patterns on one tree with the same pattern on an older tree.

So, I did a Google search on "tree ring oldest date" to see what I could find, and the second entry that Google returned to me was this page on Answers in Genesis, a site run by a bunch of people who hold to a literal interpretation of the Bible. Why, when I'm looking up something scientific, is the second best result from Google a page by young earth creationists? (It reminds me of another time when I looked up "electron probability cloud," and the first result on Google was this creationist page. What does the Bible have to do with particle physics?)

If that was the whole story, I probably wouldn't have even bothered to write a blog entry. It would have been an annoyance, but not much else. But there's more. When I do Google searches, most of the time I don't really look at the url of the page before clicking on it. So, even though I wouldn't normally go visit the Answers in Genesis site on purpose, I clicked this link to take me there. Once I realized what site it was, I thought, what the hell, as long as I'm here, I might as well read what they have to say. Their basic problem was that if Noah's flood occurred around 4350 years ago, and tree ring dating indicates trees older than that that weren't disturbed by a worldwide flood, then there's got to be a problem somewhere. And obviously, they blamed the science.

The article put forward several explanations of why dendrochronology might be problematic, but here's the quote that really got me, the one that got me worked up enough to write this blog entry. The article said, "However, when the interpretation of scientific data contradicts the true history of the world as revealed in the Bible, then it’s the interpretation of the data that is at fault." Of course! Because noone's ever been wrong in their interpretation of the Bible. Like those jews who thought that the Messiah would be a warrior, or in the Middle Ages, when the church arrested Gallileo for teaching that horribly heretical idea that the sun was at the center of the solar system.

That really disturbs me that people have that mindset, that they already "know" what the truth is, and no amount of evidence is going to change their mind. How can people be so close-minded? It especially bothers me considering what they're basing it on. I mean, when it comes to scientific questions like the age of the earth, which would you rather bet on, a preponderance of scientific data and the theories explaining that data, or an interpretation of a translation of a collection of writings compiled from many different authors over the course of centuries, that hasn't had any new material added since not long after the death of Christ? Oh, and the translations are based off of copies of the originals, since the original versions no longer exist. I know where I'd put my money.

Anyway, here's a decent primer on dendrochronology, without all the fundamentalist blabber. By the way, at least in the region that this article focuses on, they've been able to extend the chronology back to around 9,000 years ago.

Wednesday, December 7, 2005

A Meandering Tale About Fundamentalism

Well, since this is the first day of my blog, I want to get a real entry on it, so here goes.

A few weeks ago, my family and I went to a flea market. At one of the stands, when the vendor found out that it was my wife's birthday, he gave her a CD as a present. It was from a collection of religious materials that had caught my eye before (since I've been spending so much time recently thinking about & researching religious fundamentalism). It was titled something like "What Hollywood Believes," and had the name Ray Comfort written across the top. There were all types of little blurbs on the CD case, which lead me and my wife to believe that it was going to be full of either interviews with, or monologues by, celebrities talking about their religious beliefs.

It took a while for us to actually listen to the CD, but on a car ride down to my wife's family on Thanksgiving, she popped it into the car CD player to see what it was like. It turns out that, no, this wasn't interviews or monologues, it was a sermon by this Ray Comfort fellow. It doesn't start off too bad. A few introductions and a little humor, but then the lunacy began. All types of logical fallacies and inane comments, which maybe I'll go into more detail on in a followup blog entry. Anyway, my six year old daughter was sitting in the back seat, and with as impressionable as kids are, I didn't want her hearing everything this guy was saying and just accepting it as truth. So, I spoke up quite a bit during his talking, countering a lot of his arguments. Well, after about ten minutes of that, my wife got fed up with my speaking over it, so she turned off the radio.

A few days later as I was driving into work, I went to turn on the radio to listen to NPR like I normally do on my drive in. Well, this CD was still in there, so I decided just to let it play for a little while to see what he had to say. And it wasn't any better than on Thanksgiving. There were a few arguments that were so bad that I actually responded out loud, even though there was nobody else in the car. Here's the one that I thought was the worst. He was trying to discredit evolution, making it look silly compared to a literal interpretation of the Bible. He said something to the effect of, "Just think about it. The first fish to come up out of the sea to walk on land needed gills to breathe in the sea, but it also needed lungs to breathe on land. If it was a land animal, what was it doing with gills? And if it was a sea animal, what was it doing with lungs?" Boy, oh boy. Is this guy not even aware of living animals. The first two things that popped into my mind were African lungfish, and mudskippers, both of which can breathe underwater or on land. A little internet research found that there are many fish that can breathe air, like the bettas that are so popular at pet stores. It's mainly an adaptation to lving in oxygen poor environments. There are even a few fish where air breathing is their primary means of obtaining oxygen.

So anyway, I wrote my wife a short e-mail about it, saying how I couldn't believe people could be so stupid to buy into arguments like his, not just the ones about evolution, but his religious arguments in general. Well, when my wife read that e-mail, one of her co-workers was standing over her shoulder at the time. After reading it, she turned to my wife and said, "You don't believe in evolution, do you?" And that got them started into a big long debate about religion.

If you've been following the news, you may have heard about the girl with the peanut allergy who died after kissing her boyfriend, because her boyfriend had just eaten something with peanut butter. It's really sad. Anyway, Irma and some co-workers were talking about it, when said co-worker walks in and says, "that's what you get for french-kissing a boy when you're only fifteen." Just stop and think about that. She's saying that proper punishment for a french kiss is death. What a callous, self-righteous person. I can think of stronger words to say, but I want to try to keep this blog civil. It's just kind of an indication of the kinds of attitudes that fundmentalists hold, and it's kind of scary.

Anyway, that's my meandering story, from a flea market just outside Houston, to my wife's co-worker. It just really amazes me the attitudes some people have in this country.


Selling Out