One of the key things scientists understand is that data has to be viewed within its proper context.
Consider the recent results of a National Science Foundation study (Science & Technology: Public Attitudes and Understanding). A very troubling statistic has come out of this report:
1 in 4 Americans doesn't realize that the Earth revolves around the Sun
It's hard not to view this fact with alarm. In the years since Galileo Galilei, the heliocentric model of the solar system has been widely accepted. Isn't it incredibly alarming to think that one-fourth of Americans don't know this basic astronomical fact?
Now consider this response in context: Europe and other nations did far worse! Only two-thirds of European respondents got the question correct. (Looking at table 7-8 in the report, it's clear that we were about on par with responses from India and Malaysia, though South Korea did much better on this question.)
So, yes, the fact that one-fourth of Americans appear to believe in the geocentric model of the solar system is problematic and troubling ... but looking at the data overall (again, table 7-8), we see that America's knowledge of basic scientific facts exceeds the most recent data from other countries around the world.
There is even hope for science's role within the culture war! Americans got very low scores on knowledge about the Big Bang and human evolution, but more detailed analysis of the data shows that this is not actually a sign of scientific ignorance. As the Highlights from the report explain:
A survey experiment showed that 48% of respondents said they thought it was true that "human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals," but 72% gave this response when the same statement was prefaced by "according to the theory of evolution." Similarly, 39% of respondents said that "the universe began with a huge explosion," but 60% gave this response when the statement was prefaced by "according to astronomers."
In other words, when asked what science tells us, the responses are on par or better than the responses of the other nations. A majority of Americans are aware that scientists believe in the Big Bang and human evolution. The problem is that, in these areas, they don't believe what science tells us about the history of the universe and our species. (See my previous post about the flaws in this thinking.)
So it does seem like we're doing a good job in distributing the knowledge of scientific facts. The key is imparting the understanding that these "scientific facts" are actually, you know, facts.
It is easy to casually disagree with someone and dismiss most of what they say, especially when they're almost entirely wrong. That is the tactic that most science sources have used in responding to the recent "great debate" between Bill Nye (the Science Guy) and creationist Ken Ham, which took place earlier this week. However, I think it's far more fruitful to explore the valid points made by the creationist side of the argument, which point us toward a deeper understanding of how and why science actually does work.
The rather lengthy debate is available for viewing online and the point under consideration was:
Is Creation a viable model of origins in today's modern scientific era?
This was not a debate over the existence of a creator deity in general, but of a specific, 6,000-year-old creation scenario. Ken Ham is a young Earth creationist, the president of Answers in Genesis and the Creation Museum. He believes that God directly created the universe, the Earth, humanity, and all other life on Earth about 6,000 or so years ago, following a literal interpretation of the Biblical story of Genesis.
It would be easy to anticipate that we could just dismiss him, but he's clearly an intelligent guy and has spent much time formulating his explanations to justify his belief system. And it might surprise you to learn that (in my opinion, at least) he made a number of extremely valid points.
The Role of Assumptions in Science
I'd like to focus my attention on one of Mr. Ham's core tactics: distinguishing between observational/experimental science and origins/historical science. His argument in this regard is that in order to construct a theory of origins, scientists have to make assumptions, and that these assumptions must, by necessity, move beyond the observable evidence.
And, as formulated above, it's certainly a valid statement. The current age of the universe, of the Earth, and of the various animal species located on it is calculated as ancient using a variety of assumptions, and these assumptions can not (and should not) be beyond question.
For example, one of my major objections to a young-Earth creationism from a physics standpoint has to do with the speed of light. One of the key discoveries of the last century of physics is Albert Einstein's theory of relativity, which dictates that light photons always move at the same constant speed in a vacuum. We know this speed, and there are various astronomical methods (which are widely accepted based upon our understanding of physics) for calculating the distances to stars. Using this, we know that when we look at stars, then we are actually looking at that star as it looked in the past ... however many years ago the light left the star, which can be calculated using the distance and the speed of light. We know that there are many stars - including some visible to the naked eye - that are so far away the light we are seeing would seem to have left them much more than 6,000 years ago.
All of that having been said, however, just because we are confident that we see light moving at a constant speed in labs on Earth doesn't necessarily mean that this assumption should never be called into question, nor that we should be completely unskeptical about its validity throughout the universe at large. Completely independent from young-Earth creationism, there are cosmologists who are interested in and investigating the concept of variable speed of light (VSL) cosmology to answer completely unrelated open questions in cosmology. However, there is no real suggestion among scientists at large or those studying VSL that this variability would even conceivably be sufficient to justify a 6,000 year age to the universe, and it seems to not even be widely adopted within the creationist community.
Still, I think that Mr. Ham's point is important to keep in mind for those interested in science. We can very easily embrace a viewpoint that science is a completely objective discipline, insulated from human subjectivity. All scientific investigations do require a set of assumptions, a worldview if you will, in order for them to be extended beyond the immediate observations into a viable scientific hypothesis, which is then tested against the evidence, in the hopes of constructing a broad overall theory to describe the phenomena (and hopefully other phenomena).
The goal of any theory in science is that you get more out of it than you put into it. In terms of an ancient universe, probably nothing in physics is more significant than the discovery of the cosmic microwave background radiation. The presence of this radiation in the universe was predicted by the Russian physicist George Gamow, based upon calculations of the expected energy left over from the Big Bang. The Big Bang itself was not a theory, but rather a prediction that fell out of the theory of relativity and the observational evidence of an expanding universe. When this radiation was actually discovered throughout the universe, it was viewed as significant confirmation of the Big Bang model.
And the opposing steady state model fell by the wayside ... but Fred Hoyle, the brilliant physicist who developed the steady state model, refused to abandon it, and surrounded himself by a group of like-minded individuals who spent years trying to interpret all of the evidence in a way that could justify his model. The profound failure of Hoyle's approach is detailed in the book Brilliant Blunders ... and is a good example of the scientific flaws that can be seen in Ken Ham's approach to science. (See my previous post: Role of Consensus in Science)
Naturalism as a Core Assumption
Mr. Ham also repeatedly brings up naturalism, particularly in a recurring slide that says:
Public school textbooks are using the same word science for observational and historical science. They arbitrarily define science as naturalism and outlaw the supernatural. They present molecules-to-man evolution as fact. They are imposing the religion of naturalism/atheism on generations of students.
Here is, I think, one of the weakest points of Mr. Ham's overall argument, because naturalism in science is not a religion: it is a methodological requirement. When you are conducting science, you simply must assume naturalism. The religious, young-Earth creationist inventor of the fMRI machine could not have done it if he did not assume natural causes in constructing it. If you cannot assume that a natural phenomenon has a natural cause, and that applying the tools of science - which include reason and logic - you can gain insights into those natural causes (and other relationships), then you cannot do science. It's just not possible. If you go into an investigation without the assumption of a natural cause at work, then you are wasting your time, because so far as we know those are the only sorts of causes that science is equipped to discover.
So what Ken Ham is really suggesting above is that public school science textbooks should teach that sometimes science just doesn't work.
Now, naturalism can certainly be more than a methodological requirement. Certainly many people who go into the sciences do so because they believe not just that naturalism is a useful tool, but because they believe that fundamentally naturalism is the way the universe functions. In this sense, it is a metaphysical foundation for many scientists, both atheist and theist.
But one of Ken Ham's arguments is that teaching Creationism will in no way diminish America's leading role in scientific research and innovation. However, it seems like undermining naturalism within science classes - the very place where it plays a central role - cannot help but hurt scientific interest among those who would be most inclined toward embracing it. There would certainly still be scientists, but these would now be scientists who believe that science is the primary way of understanding the universe. As Ken Ham has pointed out in the debate, these scientists can be perfectly valid at doing observational and experimental science, but I can think of no brilliant theoretical physicists who embraced this view.
Even notable theist scientists, such as Sir Isaac Newton and Galileo Galilei, were driven by the belief that the universe functioned according to natural laws, which could be discovered by exploring those natural laws. In fact, the very notion that these natural laws were eternal began as a philosophical and theological stance!
It seems to me therefore that from a practical standpoint, we run into the following problem with the young-Earth creationist position as presented by Ken Ham:
If we allow supernatural explanations for natural events in science classes, how do we define precisely when we move from natural to supernatural explanations?
The failure to answer that question, I think, points to a broader problem ... and, indeed, to the real clash between creationism and evolution.
"Creation Science" Teaches That Science Doesn't Work
Let me step away for a moment from Ken Ham's points to one of the most salient points made by Bill Nye during the debate, which was that science is both the set of facts we have about the natural world and also the process we have for obtaining and interpreting those facts.
Fundamentally, Ken Ham's argument is that science is wrong. And it's not just a little wrong. It's massively wrong. In fact, science just doesn't work as a means of understanding our universe. It might give us some cool gadgets in the present, but there is some point (particularly in the past) where it all breaks down.
- Any investigation in science requires adopting a stance of naturalism: that is, assuming that natural phenomena are caused by natural causes.
- In addition, science investigating the past (which Ham calls "historical science" or "origins science") does require additional assumptions, because there are components of the investigation we cannot directly view.
- One core assumption is that the laws of the universe are "eternal," or at the very least that any time-dependent variability can be discerned from the present state of the universe by scientific inquiry.
So what does it take for Ken Ham's creation science to be true? First, it requires that all three of the above are flawed, at least when it comes to investigating origins.
It means far more than that, though, because the age of the universe is not a minor thing. Indeed, nearly every aspect of our modern scientific understanding of nature points to an ancient universe. Ken Ham rightly points out that scientific investigations into origins require assumptions ... but what he doesn't point out is that for his view to be correct, these assumptions have to be entirely incorrect. And these assumptions don't come from just one area of science, but rather from different disciplines independently. If the Earth and the entire universe are only 6,000 years old, then independent assumptions from geology, astrophysics, cosmology, biology/zoology, atomic physics, and various other disciplines are wrong. It would seem like the whole enterprise of science is, in fact, fundamentally flawed!
Because, you see, these assumptions were not the product of a collaboration. They are not the results of a handful of scientists getting together and contriving a way to reach the result they wanted, but rather the product of the scientific community at large, constantly investigating new hypotheses, challenging them, testing them, debating them, and so on. The result is a robust scientific description of the history of the universe that arises out of this interplay of disciplines.
Where will you find scientists gathered together, creating elaborate arguments in an attempt to justify a pre-conceived conclusion? Well, Fred Hoyle's attempt to support the steady state model would work, but few people are supporting that these days, since there's no evidence. No, today you could go to creationist groups like Answers in Genesis. For an example, I strongly recommend a quick walk-through on this essay trying to work around the speed of light objection to a young universe. It is a good read and a sign that the people formulating these ideas are anything but stupid. It is an intelligent, clear, and honorably candid attempt to construct a viable explanation about how to reconcile the current scientific evidence with a seemingly incompatible desired conclusion.
As Bill Nye said, science is both the body of facts about nature and the method of obtaining and interpreting those facts. It is on this last point that the real scientific fail comes in Creation Science. Interpreting the evidence with a pre-ordained conclusion is not, in any sense of the word, good scientific method ... as Fred Hoyle demonstrated.
So, in the end, the biggest lesson we can learn from Ken Ham is how to not perform science.
Yesterday, I discussed some of this year's "Annual Question" answers at Edge.org, which was:
What scientific idea is ready for retirement?
The responses were a diverse set of scientific ideas from scientists and thinkers across a wide range of disciplines. I also came across several cases where suggestions directly contradicted each other, which certainly brings into question how much weight they should be given. This was expressed quite well in a great comment from one of our readers, going by the handle buddha:
When did the scientific method become about consensus?
Is truth derived from mere quantity of opinion?
The only thing that needs to be retired is the giving of power to authoritarian ideas.
While I certainly agree with the final point, I'd like to focus on the two rhetorical questions. They are posed in a way that is supposed to imply a dismissal of the answers to the Edge.org question. However, a bit of reflection makes it harder to answer the two questions with the unqualified dismissal that buddha seemed to be seeking.
The fact of the matter is that the scientific endeavor is about building consensus. More than that, it is - in a very real sense - impossible to conduct science as an individual. Not just impossible in practice, because you couldn't gain access to the knowledge and training you'd need, but also impossible in principle.
The reason for this is that science requires an effort to build an as-objective-as-possible model of reality and, so far as we can tell, humans are extremely good at fooling themselves into believing what they want to believe. This is why science is conducted not by a group of isolated individuals discovering independent facts about the world, but instead as a community that is continually debating not only the facts themselves, but also the underlying significance of and relationships between those facts.
In other words, science absolutely requires teamwork, and it requires diverse teamwork. Even more than collaborators, successful scientists need others who will not only tell them that they're wrong, but who will actively attempt to prove that they are wrong. Consequences of the hypothesis are explored in great detail, using a method that has been called organized skepticism.
But science is not merely about disproof (despite Karl Popper's attempt to define it that way with his principle of falsifiability), but also about creating positive theories that make distinct predictions about a system's behavior. As these theories continue to predict the results of experiments and observation, the confidence in the theory grows as a consensus within the scientific community.
Assume for a moment, however, that a scientist were not part of such a community, and that consensus were not a goal, but instead the scientist pursued scientific investigations primarily alone. You don't even have to be alone. The physicist Fred Hoyle spent years working on his steady state theory, for example, surrounded by a group of scientific acolytes who, it's often said, rarely challenged his basic concepts. For decades, Hoyle was able to focus almost exclusively on the pieces of evidence that conformed to his theory, ignoring any evidence that contradicted his theory. (This is covered at length in the recent book Brilliant Blunders.) This is called confirmation bias, which I personally consider one of the most prevalent psychological challenges to accurately conducting science ... mitigated only through the aforementioned organized skepticism within the scientific community.
So back to buddha's second question: "Is truth derived from mere quantity of opinion."
My answer: "No, truth is not derived from the mere quantity of opinion, but knowledge of truth is derived from a systemic, scientific exploration of different opinions."
And having a bunch of experts at this exploration offer their ideas of what accepted assumptions should be challenged seems to me like an excellent and worthwhile starting point to retire "the giving of power to authoritarian ideas."