When Science Isn’t As Convincing Or As Open-Minded As It Appears

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I could probably write more than anyone would want to read about the debate earlier this month between Bill Nye and Ken Ham, but I want to focus on some potentially dangerous misconceptions Nye may have given people about science. First, I will claim that some of Nye’s claims were not as convincing as they appeared. Second, I will claim that Nye might not be as open-minded as he appeared, either.

Not As Convincing

Nye pointed to a tree that is over 9,000 years old. I got the impression that the tree literally has over 9,000 tree rings, which would be strong evidence against a young earth (though explainable by YECs I’m sure). However, upon investigation it appears that the tree produces new ‘stems’ (i.e. trunks) every several hundred years or so, and we have simply calculated based on dating methods that the roots have been growing for about 9,000 years. This may or may not be a reasonable claim for all I know, but it is a weaker claim than what I initially inferred.

Nye also pointed to ice cores that are over 680,000 years old and show annual layers of melting and refreezing. I got the impression that we literally had 680,000 identifiable layers in these cores, and I was curious how big these layers were and how the precipitation cycle worked if they’ve really been “growing” like this for millions of years. Upon investigation I learned that it is only upper layers with clearly visible annual differences. At deeper levels “annual layers become indistinguishable,” and ages are calculated by “modeling accumulation rate variations and ice flow.” Again, these calculations may or may not be reasonable, but again it is a weaker claim than what I initially inferred. (BUT SEE UDPATE BELOW)

I tend to find this to be true more generally. I once tried to research ideas on the evolution of the electric eel and quickly found forum posters linking to a paper that claimed to explain it all; case closed on the ignorant intelligent designists with no imagination! But when I actually followed the link, it weakened considerably; not only did the page admit “we do not know the crucial features that evolved,” it actually made the case harder by revealing that “evolution has independently discovered how to make and make use of electric organs at least five times, and possibly more” in “an outstanding case of parallel evolution”!

As another example, I recently read most of Darwin’s Doubt by Stephen Meyer and tried to judge the competing claims of his book against his bad reviews. I actually avoided his previous book because it was so roundly denounced and I didn’t want to read bad creationism, but after I accidentally read this one, I began to find the criticisms not holding up – they would lambast Meyer for suggesting that the bulk of the Cambrian explosion was much shorter than 80 million years, or that we hadn’t found fossils prior to splitting phyla, and then show charts or make admissions in comments that indicated the exact opposite (at which point I gave up, unable to determine if my inability to make sense of their criticism was my fault or theirs).

Not As Open-Minded

But even if some of the strongest evidences for evolution are not at the simple, slam-dunk level of the “here-is-a-video-of-the-earth-rotating” variety… so what? The same thing tends to be true when we investigate the strongest slam-dunk creationist claims of finding Noah’s Ark or whatever. Isn’t the evidence for evolution still very strong and much more compelling than the evidence for creationism? And isn’t that obvious when scientists are so much more open-minded about accepting contradictory evidence than creationists?

That was the takeaway from the debate for many.

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But I’m not so sure things are that simple here, either.

There’s this ideal picture of the scientific community as a group of very intelligent people who are openly and honestly seeking the truth, free from bias or corruption. Now I don’t believe, like Ken Ham, that most scientists are nefariously “hijacking” science to undermine the worldview Christians hold dear. But I do believe that reality is not idealistic, and that scientists are just as subject as the rest of us to unintentional biases, blind spots, and the subtle influence of seeing what they want to see.

Often, such biases get ironed out with continuing discoveries, especially about present things we directly observe. But biases are more obvious with regards to the future. For example, numerous climate models over a decade ago predicted an acceleration in surface temperatures that has failed to occur. For years leading climate scientists like Michael Mann vehemently denied there was any slowdown in temperature increase; now they’ve seemingly instantly switched to trumpeting new studies that try to explain why the unforeseen slowdown occurred. But if they were previously overconfident in their understanding of all the factors necessary to predict temperatures in the last couple of decades, isn’t it odd that they don’t appear any less confident about the next couple of decades (and whatever other unforeseen factors may derail them again)?

(And it makes me wonder, how do we know our models of ice accumulation are any more reliable than our models of carbon dioxide sensitivity?)

At least the present eventually catches up to future narratives, allowing us to judge their correctness. We have no such luxury with past narratives. This makes bias much harder to identify. So when Bill Nye repeatedly says he just wants a fossil in the wrong layer to change his mind, he appears open-minded in theory, but I can’t help thinking of many subtle biases that might keep him from changing his mind in practice.

First, there is the assumption that layers are always accurately identified. But layers in the real world can be a lot messier than the tidy charts in textbooks (for one, they’re almost never found all in one place and all in that order). A little Googling confirms my previously hazy understanding that layers are sometimes identified by the fossils in them. So it might be hard to find a fossil in the wrong layer if whenever we find it we decide that it’s actually in a layer it already belongs to.

Second, even if we have accurately identified a layer apart from the fossils in it, there is the assumption that the fossil-layer correlations are always accurately known. But we only know what layers fossils belong to by where we’ve found them. So it might be hard to find a fossil in the “wrong” layer if whenever we find it we decide that its layer is an additional layer it always belonged to (ex. maybe it didn’t become extinct as soon as we previously thought it did).

Third, even if we can predetermine a fossil-layer combination that is conclusively impossible under evolution, and someone were to accurately find and identify one, there is the assumption that such a discovery would be accepted. But there are already creationists claiming to have found fossils in the wrong layers, and this has not changed the world; evolutionists always seem to have an explanation. Now many claims probably stem from gross misinterpretations and misunderstandings of the fossil record, but it still makes me wonder how readily a legitimate claim would be accepted in practice.

Just look at recent developments in a different realm of historical science. What if someone doubted the universe was really 13.8 billion years old, and someone challenged him to disrupt that paradigm by finding just one star that had an incompatible age? Well, somebody found such a star; dubbed “Methusaleh,” it was estimated to be 16 billion years old. But it didn’t upend cosmology; last year we got new calculations based on new information that just barely brought the lower end of the margin of error into a compatible timeline.

After all, when you have a whole lot of evidence that you’ve combined into a consistent narrative and you come across one piece of evidence that seems to contradicts it, it’s only rational to assume there’s something wrong with the new evidence. So why should we expect a theoretical “wrong fossil” discovery to be received any differently? Ah, that layer probably got overturned, or maybe that bone is really from a different species, or maybe we should send that radioactive sample to another lab…

Like atheists and answered prayers, the threshold of proof can always be set at higher levels in practice than they are in theory – especially when it involves calculations about the past that we can’t directly and absolutely verify. Now maybe the science of the fossil record is so exact and rigorous that bias is not an issue and I’m simply betraying my ignorance, but since I don’t have time to get a degree in geology, that’s something I have to accept on faith from those that do.

I’m not saying there is no evidence for evolution or that scientists are completely closed off to evidence against it. I just want to encourage you to be open-minded about the possibility that scientists aren’t as open-minded about evolution as they think they are, and that some of their evidence isn’t as strong as it initially appears.

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3/9/14 UPDATE: At the time of this post I was unable to determine how many of Nye’s 600,000+ annual ice core layers were directly visible and how many of them were modeled, leaving me unable to determine the strength of the claim against Ham’s young-earth model. I’ve been reading an alternative interpretation of Genesis that, among other things, includes some very specific information about ice core layers:

The Greenland Ice Core Project (GRIP) completed its drilling phase in 1992… The core was 3,029 meters (9,938 feet) deep and ended at bedrock. This was the first major core to be extensively analyzed for manual layers. Manual counting identified 60,000 annual layers in the first 2,495 meters (8,186 feet) of the core…

Exemplar Creation also says the Greenland Ice Sheet Project Two (GISP2) from 1993 “was manually counted for the first 37,900 layers,” and the North Greenland Ice Core Project (NorthGRIP) from 2003 had “clear, regular, annual layers… representing approximately 80,000 annual layers.”

If true, while still technically less strong than implied visible layers of over six hundred thousand, directly visible layers numbering thirty to eighty thousand is far enough past Ken Ham’s young-earth model to be reasonably considered nearly as strong a claim of evidence against it as Nye’s ice core argument initially appeared.

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