Jerry Coyne has been busy with professional responsibilities lately, and has not been doing a lot of (what shall we call it?) web-siting, but he did connect to a radio call-in show that Richard Dawkins did for the BBC. It has to do with evolution and creationism, and more particularly with the decision of Britain’s National Trust to include creationist nonsense in its account of the Giant’s Causeway (picture to the left). Here is a description of the phenomenon:
This natural scenery consists of 40,000 basalt columns [off the northeast coast of Ireland] that were formed when lava cooled fast 60 million years ago. This is now a World Heritage Site that was discovered in 1693. Since then, it leaves the visitors stunned.The place is so great, that it is said to be formed by “supernatural forces”. Legend says that it was believed that two giants, one Irish and one Scottish, always at odds, threw stones together without ceasing. This led to the formation of a field of stones on the sea.
Of course, creationists claim that this rock formation is no more than 6,000 years old, agreeing with James Ussher (1581-1656), onetime Primate of All Ireland, who calculated the age of the earth, based on biblical chronology. That’s why many King James (Authorized Version) Bibles still include, on the first page, the date 4004 BC. That we have other ways of estimating the age of the earth does not weigh with creationists, who insist that the Bible, God’s Holy Word, no less, can contain no shadow of error, and therefore 6,000 years, more or less, it will have to be, no matter what scientists have proved.
I took the liberty of cutting down the sixteen minute clip down to a minute and a few seconds.
I’ve whittled the talk back programme with Richard Dawkins down to this short clip to emphasise what this post is about. It’s about betrayal and misrepresentation. Here we are told by a creationist housewife — as she describes herself — defending her belief that the Giant’s Causeway is only as old as the Bible says it is, a claim which assumes, of course, that there is a definite chronology in the Bible which can be used to date the age of the earth, and that this chronology, such as it is, supersedes all other forms of chronology, because the Bible is, after all, the inerrant word of God. In response to Richard Dawkins claim that reputable scientists all agree that the earth is billions of years old, our doughty housewife responds with: “That’s a blatant lie,” And then she lists four “scientists” who accept the creationist dating of the age of the earth (and she might well have named more, because, if you google these names, you end up on sites with many more). However, here are Mrs. White’s four “reputable” scientists:
Andy MacIntosh is a Professor of Thermodynamics and Combustion Theory at the University of Leeds. He is a young earth creationist, and is on the Board of Directors of the creationist organisation Truth in Science, which describes itself (misleadingly) in this way:
- Truth in Science is an organisation that focuses purely on science and lets the scientific evidence speak for itself.
- We accept the Royal Society Motto: Nullius in verba* ‘Take the word of no-one’ and follow where the evidence leads.
- We highlight the scientific evidence which is contrary to the Neo-Darwinian paradigm, and expose the ideological bias which hides or ignores such evidence.
- We believe genuine education in schools and colleges will alert students to all the available evidence and ideas, so that they, in turn, can interpret the evidence for themselves and draw rational conclusions.
- We aim to promote and stimulate open discussion and allow people to come to informed conclusions.
Andy MacIntosh is a co-author of a paper (published by Creation Ministries International) entitled Flood Models: the need for an integrate approach, which begins with the following words in its executive summary:
Any scientific understanding of the Biblical Flood must address the hydrology and sedimentation that occurred during the Flood and in subsequent years as the Earth settled down. A number of scientific models previously proposed for the Flood are summarised and assessed.
Edgar Andrews is the “distinguished” author of Who Made God?, as his website tells us, where we are also told that “Professor Edgar H. Andrews (BSc, PhD, DSc, FInstP, FIMMM, CEng, CPhys.) is Emeritus Professor of Materials at the University of London and an international expert on the science of large molecules.” He has actually been involved in a debate with Richard Dawkins. In this segment you can hear him claim against Richard Dawkins that there are scientific reasons for doubting radiometric dating of the earth — and you can also hear Dawkins’ frustration at the kind of empty denial that Andrews’ assumptions dictate.
Steve Lloyd, who ”worked in scientific research for eight years before entering pastoral ministry,” is a part-time lecturer with Biblical Creation Ministries — but note the switch from scientific research to “pastoral ministry.” Lloyd has a doctorate from Cambridge in materials science, and is featured on bethinking.org, a Christian apologetics website, which plays the science and religion compatibility game. He calls himself a “young fossil creationist.” He is the pastor of Hope Church in Gravesend. He thinks “Floodist” rather than “Creationist” might be a more appropriate title, since everything in his view centres around this great catastrophe. He’s a young fossil creationist mainly because he thinks that animal suffering is a problem, and that a good God couldn’t have created a world billions of years old with the amount of suffering that that would entail.
Paul Garner — who blogs on The New Creationism, and is a “researcher and lecturer with Biblical Creation Ministries,” where we are told that Garner “has a degree in Environmental Sciences (Geology/Biology) and is a Fellow of the Geological Society.” You can read some of his “scientific” papers here.
The whole thing is quite bizarre. Here are highly trained and accredited scientists who are actually betraying science in order to uphold the biblical story of creation. And they come in all sorts of shapes and sizes: young earth creationists, young fossil creationists, old earth creationists, Floodists, etc., bringing their expertise to bear on something completely unscientific, so that people like Mrs. White, who thinks of herself as an intelligent, thoughtful person, can claim to be using the latest scientific knowledge to underwrite her biblical beliefs.
But what none of these duplicitous, double-dealing scientists tell their willing acolytes is that what they are doing is, in fact, an abandonment of the scientific method. One of them, the Canadian trained astronomer Hugh Ross, who speaks on bethinking.org, an old earth creationist, claims that the scientific method comes straight from the Bible itself. These men (why is it almost always men, I wonder?) know well enough what science is in their own fields, but when it comes to talking about areas where science impinges on their religious beliefs, they simply toss the scientific method overboard, and try their best to accommodate their religion to the things that they know scientifically, and the result is simply a betrayal of reason and science, even when they most appear to be upholding values of truth and reason. Look at the Truth in Science programme, even going to the extent of including the Royal Society’s motto, Nullius in verba, to back up their betrayal, a betrayal which is also a betrayal of the people who trust them. In many cases they speak from secure academic positions, and use those positions to uphold things that are simply false, and can be shown to be so — a treasonous betrayal of the scientific method, and their ethical responsibilities as scientists.
Yet these men, or at least some of them, teach science at reputable universities, while they moonlight as science denialists. There is something very troubling about this. Of course, academic freedom is important, because it permits the exploration of subjects and ideas which may be true, and should not be suppressed simply because others in the scientific guild disagree. However, when scientists base their apparently scientific reasoning on ridiculous, unscientific notions such as they plenary inspiration of scripture, it should be possible for the guild to make it very clear, so that there is no misunderstanding on the part of people like Mrs. White, that in so far as they defend their religious beliefs using supposedly scientific evidence, they are departing in an unacceptable way from the disciplines which lend credence to their voices amongst the scientifically illiterate. Dawkins, in the talk show clipped at the beginning, calls these people nut-cases, and later takes it back, using the term ‘ignorant’ instead. And of course the truth is that simple people like Mrs. White are not nut cases. They are religious believers who are being gulled into believing that their beliefs are reasonably grounded in the scientific evidence. The absurdity of that claim was made very clear in the Dover trial, where Michael Behe made an ass of himself, and Steve Fuller came across, despite his position at a British University, as a scientifically illiterate fool. These are the nut cases, and appropriately so called.
It is curious, however, that, while courts, such as the United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania, have been able to rule so decisively in favour of evolution and against intelligent design in secular education, scientific associations do not seem so capable of policing their own members, and let their names and titles stand in misleading contexts — such as the statement that Steve Lloyd was for four years a Royal Society University Research Fellow. This may be true, but there should be protocols for the contexts in which such claims can be made. The Royal Society should not allow its name to be tarnished by having former research fellows use Royal Society credentials to scam ordinary people like Mrs. White. A.C. Grayling strongly objected, with good reason, to the use of Royal Society premises for the promotion of John Polkinghorne and Nicholas Beale’s book Questions of Truth. As he wrote in the New Humanist:
Polkinghorne dishonours the Royal Society by exploiting his Fellowship to publicise this weak, casuistical and tendentious pamphlet on its precincts, and the Royal Society does itself no favours by allowing Polkinghorne to do it. The Royal Society should insist that, as it is the country’s one principal institution that exists to serve science, and as there are hundreds of other places where theology and religion are the staple and main point, there will be no more special pleading for and insinuation of religion by religious apologists within its doors.
It seems to me that universities and other institutions where science is valued should have some control over the use of the academic standing and credentials of their employees, and should be able to place limits on their use – or rather misuse, such as when they are used to promote religious apologetics. Professors may be nut cases, as Dawkins says, when it comes to their religious lives, but they should not be able to rely on their academic positions, degrees, awards and membership of scientific societies and associations to support their religious claims, especially when those claims are based on no more than cut and paste attempts to squeeze science into Bible shaped boxes. It is this kind of duplicity which is illustrated by the National Trust’s inclusion of creationism in part of its exhibit in the new visitor’s centre at the Giant’s Causeway, stating (according to a Guardian article) that
[t]his debate continues today for some people, who have an understanding of the formation of the earth which is different from that of current mainstream science.
The use of the qualified term “mainstream science” suggests — and creationists welcomed the implication – that there is a genuine scientific controversy here, when there is not. It is to be regretted that the National Trust, if it wanted to include the creationism aspect, did not state outright that there is simply no scientific basis for the claim that the causeway is only 6,000 years old, instead of temporising, as it did, by using ambiguous language.