Exposing PseudoAstronomy

November 28, 2011

Mistakes in Science Apparently Means Creationism Is True


Introduction

I realize I haven’t posted in a few weeks other than for my podcast. Busy, blah blah blah. Anyway …

The post today centers around yet another Institute for Creation Research (ICR) article, this one by Christine Dao, their assistant editor. I’m not quite sure for what she is the assistant editor, but that’s her title. The article is, “Mistakes and Misconduct in Science.” Peter over at “Eye on the ICR” has already talked about some of the details of this latest piece of young-Earth creationism (YEC) propaganda and I suggest you read it if you’re interested in a detailed picking apart of the article. (He gets up crazy-early to write about these things. Or maybe it’s just ’cause he’s on the other side of the planet from me.)

The reason I’m doing a post on it is that I want to talk more about the process of how science works, how it is conducted, the self-correcting nature, and how this is the opposite of creationism.

Crux of the Nature Report

Ms. Dao’s basic premise is a recent Nature report entitled, “Science Publishing: The Trouble with Retractions” (unlike most articles, this one seems free to the public to read, so go ahead and follow the link to read it).

The report (the point of which the ICR article misses) really talks mostly about attitudes among journals and journal editors with regards to retractions and the reasons for retractions. It also mentioned some numbers — mainly that the number of retractions these days is around 0.02% of all papers published. And that in one week alone, around 27,000 papers are published. That means, if we multiply by about 52, over 1.4 million papers are published in scientific journals each year, and 2,800 of those will eventually be retracted.

Fascinating.

Crux of the ICR Article

Ms. Dao seems to make a really big issue of this tiny number. She blows it way out of proportion – as I’ve shown YECs are wont to do – and somehow says that because there are a tiny number of retractions, with a small percentage of those due to fraud, this means that evolution is wrong. I’m serious. Go read her last two paragraphs if you don’t believe me.

Scientific Process

Something that Ms. Dao either does not know or willfully ignores is that scientists know this. We know that not 100% – or 99.98% – of papers published in journals are going to bear the test of time and further research. No scientist thinks that. In my undergraduate education, we would have a weekly seminar in the astronomy department where we read a paper and discussed it and decided whether or not we thought the results were valid.

This is something called critical thinking where you analyze things and decide whether or not they make sense in light of all the other observable evidence. Probably the reason Ms. Dao chooses to ignore this is because YEC does not hold up to critical thinking, but more on that in the next section.

In fact, far from 100% of published papers being “right,” various studies have shown that at least 30-40% of them will later be falsified based upon new data, observations, experiments, and theory. This is not a secret. It’s how science works. It is self-correcting over time because everything is subject to further testing and independent analysis.

Creationism Process

Goddidit.

Creationism Process, Expanded

I’ve used this diagram before in a lengthy post on the scientific method, but it bears repeating here:

Flow Cart Showing the Scientific Method

Flow Chart Showing Faith-Based 'Science'

The flow chart shows the basic process that most biblical literalists use to vet new information. They may get an idea, or hear of something. Let’s use a young-Earth creationist mainstay, Earth’s magnetic field (previous blog on this, podcast on this). Data shows that Earth’s field has gone through reversals in polarity at many points in the past. The data is clearly out there for anyone to examine, and it is unambiguous that crustal rocks record a flip-flopping magnetic field.

Now, does it fit in the Bible? Creationists such as Kent Hovind say that it does not. The result is that alternating magnetic fields are simply not possible. To quote him: “That’s simply baloney [that there are magnetic reversals in the rocks]. There are no ‘reversed polarity areas’ unless it’s where rocks flipped over when the fountains of the deep broke open. … This is a lie talking about magnetic ‘reversals.'” (Taken from his Creation Science Evangelism series, DVD 6:1.)

Alternatively, Russell Humphreys, of Answers in Genesis, accepts that there have been magnetic reversals, as he is able to fit it into a reading of the Bible. He explains the field reversals as rapidly taking place during the 40 24-hr days of Noah’s Flood. Hence, because they are able to fit it into the Bible, they accept it as a dogma.

Creationism Retractions?

Ms. Dao makes much ado about almost nothing in terms of retractions in scientific literature. Something she doesn’t tell you are how many retractions there have been in the creationist literature. Obviously the Bible has never been retracted, except for those books that aren’t accepted (like the recently discovered Gospel of Judas, or the Book of Ezekial). But I’m talking things like the articles the ICR, AiG, or CMI puts out that I and many others have picked to shreds over the years. Or perhaps their own journals, like the ARJ (Answers Research Journal) or the Journal of Creation. Any retractions?

The most I have ever seen is AiG’s list of “Arguments Creationists Should Avoid, which CMI copied and expanded, or when Brian Thomas of the ICR changed his article based, perhaps, on my criticisms (see the post-script in that blog post).

In fact, far from a retraction, Creation Ministries International still has its article by Andrew Snelling entitled, “Solar Neutrinos – the Critical Shortfall Still Elusive” that discusses the solar neutrino “problem.” (For information on this, see my blog post on it.) The article is still in its online index for their Journal of Creation with no indication that it was retracted. The only thing you get is in the HTML version where the editor notes that the argument was valid for the time but “that the shortfall problem seems to have been solved. Therefore creationists should no longer use this as an ‘age’ argument.” If that’s what passes for a retraction, these guys should run for Congress.

Final Thoughts

Yes, maybe half of papers published in journals now will be found later on to not be valid in the light of further study. This is true. This does not mean that evolution is not true. It means that creationists would do better to understand a topic before attempting to criticize it if they care at all about intellectual honesty. But that’s a different blog post …

November 8, 2011

Proof in Science versus the Media, Comets and Water, and Creationism


Introduction

How Earth got its water is an ongoing question in solar system evolution. A new study suggests comets are more likely to be the answer than previously thought. But could the answer simply be too hard for us to figure out; should we just not worry, and can we simply say that a loving God did it?

The Problem

When the solar system formed, there was a basic temperature gradient — it was hot in the center, where the sun was forming, and it got cooler as you went farther away from the nascent star. The location in the solar nebula that was about 100°C (212°F), is called the “Frost Line” where the water molecule would no longer be a volatile gas, but it would be a liquid and could be accreted to a forming object in an appreciable quantity. The frost line is about where the asteroid belt is.

Hence the problem: If liquid water could not form where Earth was, then how did Earth become the relatively water-rich world it is today?

A Solution?

For the last few decades, the favored solution has been delivery by comets. Comets are mostly water-ice, we know they impact objects, and we know that the impact rate was much higher in the very early solar system than it is today (in fact, I’m attending a workshop on the early solar system bombardment history in February where the focus will be on this).

A problem with this has to do with what’s called the deuterium/hydrogen ratio. Basically, water comes in two forms, “normal” water which is the familiar H2O (two hydrogen atoms and an oxygen atom), and HDO (one hydrogen, one deuterium, and one oxygen). The latter is known as “heavy water” and you may have heard about it in relation to nuclear fusion.

Deuterium is a heavy form of hydrogen. A normal hydrogen atom has one proton in the nucleus. Deuterium has one proton plus a neutron, making its mass about twice that of a normal hydrogen atom … hence “heavy water” when it’s incorporated into the water molecule. It’s still considered hydrogen because the number of protons is what determines what atom it is. (And for those who like the extra credit information, tritium would be one proton and two neutrons.)

Getting back to the problem, the deuterium/hydrogen ratio (abbr. as D/H) is the normal ratio of heavy water molecules to normal water molecules found on an object. Earth’s oceans have a D/H of about 1.56 x 10-4, or basically a bit more than 1 out of every 10,000 water molecules is heavy water. Comets, though, have been measured to be about (2.96±0.25)x10-4, or around 70% too high. Asteroids are too low at (1.4±0.1)x10-4.

So where did the water come from?

New Proof that Comets Watered the Earth

So proclaimed the title of an October 11, 2011 Time article. That’s right, “Proof.”

My problem with this statement is that we never have absolute “proof” in science. We have evidence that adds to the “conclusivity” (yes, I just made up a word) of a hypothesis. Proofs are in mathematics. Proofs never apply to real life. If you’re interested in this subject, I’ve written probably two relevant posts on it (post 1, post 2).

The article in question (Hartogh et al. 2011) is about a recent Nature Letter (a very short paper) that measured the D/H value in a comet named 103P/Hartley 2. The D/H measured in that comet came out to be (1.61±0.24)x10-4 … which overlaps with Earth. This particular comet was from a different part of the solar system than previous comets with a D/H measurement, which is part of why this is a new result and why it was hyped up a bit.

The effect of this work is to revitalize the comets delivering water hypothesis, clearing up one of the biggest problems with it: We now do have a potential source for water that matches a significant constraint.

If you’re interested in reading more about it, other than the title, I do suggest the Time article.

But I Thought Goddidit

This brings us to the Answers in Genesis’ “News to Note” from October 15, 2011, specifically the second item. They don’t necessarily dispute the basic science of the article, rather the “view:”

“Nevertheless, in an effort to avoid a biblical explanation for the origin of all things—in other words, God as Creator—many cling to this explanation despite its aberrant physics. While the isotope ratios in the comets and asteroids are of scientific interest, they tell us nothing about the origin of the solar system. …

“The Bible explains the origin of the water on Earth and the origin of the entire universe. And the time of this Creation, about six thousand years ago, does not exceed maximum comet lifespans or demand a hypothetical birthplace to replenish them. … [God] made the Earth with its generous supply of water, not as a hot molten world that would boil away its water. After providing the Earth with an atmosphere, dry land, and plant life, He created the solar system and the other stars. He specifies that He made the sun, moon, and stars on the fourth day of Creation week. There is no way to blend the Genesis account of Creation with secular ideas of cosmology such as the big bang and the nebular hypothesis without calling God a liar.”

I really don’t think at this point that I need to go into detail about this and my position on it. It really is interesting to see, though, how these people are so willing to stick their heads in the sand and would be perfectly content in the Dark Ages of Europe a thousand years ago.

Final Thoughts

This was an interesting piece of science news, one that I knew some creationist somewhere was going to have an issue with, and one that I hoped the news media would not spin too broadly. I was right on the first, wrong on the second. With the latter point, these things are subtle, but using words like “proof” or “prove,” “hypothesis” versus “theory,” and “believe” versus “think” are words that shape significantly the public perception of science, how it works, and how “definitive” it is.

After over half a decade of fighting, the science-/evidence-based medicine crowd has succeeded in making that the term people use for what had been generally referred to “western” medicine. It’s a long battle, but maybe some day we’ll be able to get people to use some of these basic science terms correctly. At least when referring to science.

August 11, 2011

Propagating Science Versus Propagating Anti-Science


This post is more of a conversation with my reader(s), you. I was listening to an episode of the ID: The Future podcast (a pro-“Intelligent” Design production) today. The episode that was put out today is entitled, “Birds of a Feather: Darwinian Evolution Stumped by Novel Features.” While listening to the podcast, it was the standard: Casey Luskin (one of their lawyers and the most common host of the ‘cast) was complaining that, yet again, evolution somehow couldn’t answer a question he had; in this case, it was with bird feathers.

While listening to the ‘cast while drawing squiggly lines around craters in what qualifies as “work” for me these days, I found myself thinking, “Sigh, another episode bashing evolution.” (For those of you wondering, yes, I really do speak the word “sigh” to myself sometimes.)

And that got me thinking – and became the subject of this post: Many of the Cristian-style arguments I dissect on this blog (ID or YEC — that’s Intelligent Design or young-Earth creationism for those of you just joining) are simply arguments against science, and usually aimed at being against evolution even though they rarely have anything to do with evolution.

For example, here are the ten most recent original episodes from the ID: The Future podcast (least recent to most recent):

  • Discussing the New Exoplanet With Astronomer Guillermo Gonzalez
  • ID Scientist Douglas Axe Responds to His Critics
  • Evolutionary Biologist Richard Sternberg discusses modern genomics and junk DNA
  • Scientific Reasons to Reject an Atheistic Worldview
  • Discussion and commentary on publisher Failing to comply with Texas science standards
  • Recent articles confirm the thesis of Jonathan Wells’ The Myth of Junk DNA
  • Anders Behring Breivik Shows That Ideas Really Do Have Consequences
  • Threatening the Pharyngula–The Debate With PZ Myers on Evidence from Embryology
  • Pseudogenes Shrink Gaps for Theistic Darwinian Evolutionists Collins & Giberson
  • Birds of a Feather: Darwinian Evolution Stumped by Novel Features

First, I must say that if you look at the ‘cast episode list in iTunes or wherever, you will see other episodes. But, they are ALL repeats of earlier episodes from 1-4 years ago that I have weeded out of the list. I mean, come on, are they that lazy? They’ve had 10 original episodes since May and yet they post 3 episodes a week? But I digress …

Looking at the titles for these episodes, I see one episode that is pro-ID, one that is pseudo-legal, and eight that are anti-evolution (where “evolution” here is defined as they do, so I’m counting the astronomy episode because in it they argue Earth and the solar system and universe are ID’ed). In other words, the preponderance of the episodes are not advancing their cause, they are arguing against someone else’s. In this case, that “someone” else is the vast majority of the world’s scientists.

Let’s take a look at the Institute for Creation Research (ICR)’s last 10 news articles:

  • Evolutionary Paradox: Embryos Resist Tinkering
  • Laetoli Footprints Out of Step with Evolution
  • Evolution Delays Discovery of Dolphin Sensory Ability
  • More Evidence Neandertals Were Human
  • Did Natural Gas Take Millions of Years to Form?
  • Early Bird Gets the Boot: Researchers Reclassify Archaeopteryx
  • Origin of Cells Study Uses Bad Science
  • Water Near Edge of Universe Bolsters Creation Cosmology
  • Fluctuations Show Radioisotope Decay Is Unreliable
  • Messenger Spacecraft Confirms: Mercury Is Unique

By my count, we have only one post that promotes Christianity or creationism directly (and I talked about that one here in my post on “A Creationist Ramble About Water in Space”). All of them are anti-science.

Now, to be fair, some sources do have a slightly more “pro”-creationism bent than these two. Answers in Genesis is one of them (guess where they look for their answers to questions) where the last 10 articles are about half promoting their worldview, the other half arguing against the secular one. And, when I listen to the paranormal radio show Coast to Coast AM, it is almost all promoting of their view rather than anti-promoting science, though the guests will often spend maybe 5-10% of their time taking digs at the establishment (especially “Big Pharma,” scientists in their “Ivory Towers,” peer review, and those pesky things called “logic” and “evidence”).

But this got me to thinking that these other groups — the two I pointed out being the Discovery Institute and ICR — really don’t actually promote their worldview. They just try to dismantle science. In doing so, they seem to be hoping that you, the reader/listener, will accept their false dichotomy, accept their premise that science is wrong, and therefore embrace a god of the gaps and think that their view that they haven’t actually promoted in that article/’cast is true.

Now, before you go thinking that I’m a hypocrite, I don’t actually think I’m doing the same thing, even though the majority of my posts on this blog are anti-their anti-arguments. In my posts, I try to explain what the relevant science is, provide you with logic and evidence, and while I usually do tell you what you “should” take as the “truth” (even though science is never after and cannot give you Truth with a capital “T”), I will often tell you not to take my word for it but to do your own investigation by using independent evidence and logic. ♩Take a look, ♬it’s in a book, a ♪ … but I digress again.

Then again, one reason I started this blog is because I do like to spread edjumication around, and I think that one of the best ways to actually learn and remember something is by seeing where others get it wrong in an odd way. So for example, in my last post, I talked at length about Earth’s presently decaying magnetic field and how YECs use that to argue for a recently created world. I could have just written a short blog post about geomagnetic reversals, flux, and excursions, but Wikipedia has kinda already done that for me. Or, I could do what I did, which is present the basics of the science, show how people have used it incorrectly, and then you may find it a more interesting way of learning the information and remembering it a bit longer.

And thus, this is a conversation with you: What do you think? Do you think that this kind of writing that I do is the same as the anti-propaganda that the IDers and YECs use? Or is it different? Is either a valid argument? Let me know what you think in the Comments section!

December 2, 2010

NASA’s Announcement of Arsenic Life: A Parody by Creationists, Intelligent Design, and UFO Crowd


Introduction

In this blog, I try to be reasonably respectful to the claims made by other people, meticulously breaking down fantastic claims and showing how they do not fit the science, data, observations, etc.

This post is a bit different. It is meant to parody what I fully expect will be done in the next few days with today’s announcement by NASA of the discovery of life using arsenic in place of phosphorus in cells. I’m not going to get much into that and its implications, since practically every science news source is talking about it.

Instead, I’m going to provide three parodied views that I expect will be taken up almost verbatim in the next few days. If you get offended by parody, are a young-Earth creationist, etc., by further reading you are removing me from liability for the bile that may build up in your gut.

Creationist Response

The discovery of a new form of life by evolutionist NASA researchers today shows just how much our glorious Creator can do that Darwin never thought possible. All life that scientists had known of until now operates with a few basic atoms, and evolutionary researchers had thought that substitution of any one of these would be impossible, especially substitution of the poisonous element arsenic.

But in a lake in California, a research team discovered the inconceivable: A bacterium that survives on arsenic instead of phosphorus.

The response from evolutionists is once again to “rewrite the textbooks,” NASA’s astrobiology website proclaiming, “Get Your Biology Textbook…and an Eraser!” A biogeochemist associated with the research calls it “fantastic.”

But as Christians we know that God can do anything He wants. If evolutionists don’t want to constantly be “erasing” words in their textbook, then they should take up the unchanging and infallible Word of our Lord as written in the Bible. It should not surprise us that discoveries such as this will be made because they are only a further testament to the glory and wonders of our Creator.

Intelligent Design Response

Evolutionists are hailing a new discovery today of a microbe named GFAJ-1 that has the remarkable property of using arsenic in place of phosphorus in its metabolism. All life as known before and described by Darwin uses phosphorus — the six elements essential to life were thought to be carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, and sulfur. In fact, in the energy molecule of cells – ATP – the P stands for phosphorus, and the DNA double helix is intelligently designed with a phosphorus molecule.

Arsenic is so poisonous to life because it is easily confused for phosphorus and used in its place by cells, killing them.

Until now. This microbe, of the marine family Halomonadaceae, was placed in a growth medium of arsenate and it thrived, completely baffling darwinists who were studying it.

How could such a system arise with no simpler precursor? The system needed to use arsenic could not have arisen through random evolutionary chance because of the myriad of places in the cell that use phosphorus. The ability to use it in one location in the cell would still be poisonous to another.

In celebrating this, evolutionists are glossing over the fact that it shows yet again how improbably Darwin’s theory really is.

UFO Response

It seems like it’s from an episode of the Twilight Zone, a bacteria that survives on poison. All life from planet Earth uses six essential atoms, but scientists from the space agency NASA today announced the discovery of a strange form that substitutes one of those – phosphorus – with arsenic.

The scientists are claiming that this has huge implications for the field of astrobiology, or at least the civilian one. Of course they completely ignore all the hundreds of thousands of UFO sighting reports, cattle mutilations, crop circles, government coverups, crashes like Roswell and Bentwaters, and abduction stories that we know prove alien life already exists.

But at least this is a first step. The “red rain” from India was apparently not convincing enough, but now the scientists are embracing the idea that this is unlike any life they have discovered before. This is just a small step in the road to full disclosure.

Final Thoughts

Well that was fun. I hope you at least laughed a little. If not, I apologize for my unrefined parody-ing skilz. And, by the way, if you do find any print reports from any of the crowds I identified above in the next few days about this event, feel free to post links in the Comments section. I’d be interested to see how well I did. Though I will note that I purposely went a bit overboard on all of them, or at least tried to.

April 28, 2010

Young-Earth Creationists Need to Have a Consistent View Things: Radiometric Dating and Noah’s Ark


Introduction

One of the best and most reliable ways to determine the absolute ages of a material is through radiometric dating. Because of this, and because they show the age of things to be older than 6000 years, young-Earth creationists (YECs) have spent decades trying to show that it doesn’t work or just claiming that assumptions that scientists make are not true.

Their attempts at this include bringing samples of newly formed lava to a lab where they find an age of a few million years and then laugh saying that it only formed a decade ago. (Two issues there are that (1) the type of dating employed isn’t accurate for a sample younger than 500,000 years, and (2) they dated small minerals in the lava that did not melt in the original lava so actually were many millions of years old.)

Or they will claim that radiocarbon dating isn’t even used for dating dinosaur fossils … leaving out that radiocarbon dating can’t be applied to things that are more than ~50,000 years old.

Anyway, all that’s for another post. The purpose of this post is to point out that the point of science is to develop a model that can be applied to everything it attempts to describe. Gravity works the same on Earth as on the moon as in the center of a galaxy cluster. For the issue at-hand, YECs need to decide whether they believe in radiometric dating and its usable, or whether they don’t and so don’t use it.

Why Am I Talking About This?

In the news over the past week, yet another group of YECs have claimed to discover Noah’s Ark on top of Mt. Ararat in Turkey. There are many outlets for this story, but out of fun, I’ll link to the one over at FOX News. The relevance to radiometric dating? I’ll quote (emphasis mine):

“The group claims that carbon dating proves the relics are 4,800 years old, meaning they date to around the same time the ark was said to be afloat. Mt. Ararat has long been suspected as the final resting place of the craft by evangelicals and literalists hoping to validate biblical stories.”

Didja see that? Meanwhile, over at Answers in Genesis:

“All radiometric dating methods are based on assumptions about events that happened in the past. If the assumptions are accepted as true (as is typically done in the evolutionary dating processes), results can be biased toward a desired age. In the reported ages given in textbooks and other journals, these evolutionary assumptions have not been questioned, while results inconsistent with long ages have been censored.”

Or from an older Institute for Creation Research article:

“Creationists are not so much interested in debunking radiocarbon as we are in developing a proper understanding of it to answer many of our own questions regarding the past. At the present time it appears that the conventional radiocarbon dating technique is on relatively firm ground for dates which fall within the past 3,000 years. For periods of time prior to this, there are legitimate reasons to question the validity of the conventional results and seek for alternative interpretations.”

Or, a case of very special pleading from another ICR article:

“A ‘Back to Genesis’ way of thinking insists that the Flood of Noah’s day would have removed a great deal of the world’s carbon from the atmosphere and oceans, particularly as limestone (calcium carbonate) was precipitated. Once the Flood processes ceased, C-14 began a slow build-up to equilibrium with C-12—a build-up not yet complete. Thus carbon dating says nothing at all about millions of years, and often lacks accuracy even with historical specimens, denying as it does the truth of the great Flood. In reality, its measured disequilibrium points to just such a world-altering event, not many years ago.”

Final Thoughts

You can’t have it both ways. Or all four ways (I kinda lost count). Either (1) radiometric dating doesn’t work, (2) radiometric dating does work once you account for things that YECs have yet to really define, (3) it does work for the recent past to 3,000 years ago but not for anything before that, or (4) it works for everything made after the flood (as in the ark was built before the flood so can’t be dated with it).

What this all boils down to is the Inconsistency Fallacy, one I didn’t address in my series the last two months of 2009 on Logical Fallacies (but I do intend to return to that series later this year). The Inconsistency Fallacy is basically summarized as, “Multiple statements that contradict one another.” For example: “Statement A is true and B is true. Use one of these statements to prove the other is false.” Or, “Bill is younger than Jill, and Jill is younger than Charles. Charles is the oldest of the three.”

And that’s the case here. Either it’s valid, or it isn’t. You can’t use radiometric dating to claim the Bible is literally true to claim that radiometric dating doesn’t work.

July 31, 2009

What Is Science, Its Purpose, and Its Method?


Introduction

Following up on my post “Terminology: What Scientists Mean by “Fact,” “Hypothesis,” “Theory,” and “Law”,” as well as a recent planetarium lecture I gave on young-Earth creationism in astronomy, I thought it would be a valuable post to go over specifically what the purpose of science actually is, and how science goes about, well, science.

I need to make three things very clear up-front: First, I am not a philosopher. I have not taken any philosophy classes, nor have I taken a philosophy of science class (though I think I probably should).

Second, even though “science” is an inactive noun – where I use the word “inactive” to mean that it is a process and a mode of thinking – I will be using it throughout this post as an “active” noun, personifying it to actually “do” things. This is how it’s used in popular culture, and I see no real reason to take efforts to not go with the colloquial use in this posting.

Third, this post is going to serve a dual purpose by contrasting the scientific method with the creationist “method” in order to show how science differs in key, important ways.

Dictionary Definitions of Terms

The way the dictionary that Apple kindly provides on their computers defines “science” as: “The intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment.” There are three sub-definitions, but that main one emphasizes that “science” is an activity, a study, and one that looks for natural explanations.

My only qualm with this definition is that I would add to it not only what it does or how it operates, but its purpose, as well: “The purpose of science is that once it has provided an explanation for the physical and natural world, it allows one to use that explanation to make predictions.” I know that when I stand on one foot, if I don’t shift my weight to that one foot, I will likely fall if I do not support myself. That is because I have repeated observations that tell me this. Without that predictive power that in the future I will fall if I don’t shift my weight, then all those previous observations are fairly worthless.

In this section, I also want to define “dogma.” Using the dictionary again: “A principle or set of principles laid down by an authority as incontrovertibly true.”

Now, hopefully I’m stating the obvious, but “dogma” and “science” are not equivalent. In fact, I know that I’m not stating the obvious because there are many, many, many people out there who believe that science simply leads to dogmatic facts/ideas/theories, etc. This is not true. And in the rest of this post I will show you why.

A Look at the Creationist “Science” Method

Before I say anything else, I want to emphasize that this is not a straw man argument, an exaggeration, or anything else that may lead to you thinking this is not true. This section is really how many – if not most or all – biblical literalists view science, and this is how they decide what science to incorporate into their worldview.

Ken Ham, the CEO of the “Answers in Genesis” (a young-Earth creationist think-tank in the US, now separate from the Australian group by the same name), has explicitly stated that one must start with the Bible, while others at AiG have stated that even logic and science itself flows from the Bible, for without it, you couldn’t even have the tools that science uses.

Now that that’s out of the way, let’s look at a flow chart:

Flow Cart Showing the Scientific Method

Flow Chart Showing Faith-Based 'Science'

The above flow chart shows the basic, fundamental process that most biblical literalists use to vet science. They may get an idea, or hear of something. Let’s use a young-Earth creationist mainstay, Earth’s magnetic field. Data shows that Earth’s field has gone through reversals in polarity at many points in the past. The data is clearly out there for anyone to examine, and it is unambiguous that crustal rocks record a flip-flopping magnetic field.

Now, does it fit in the Bible? Creationists such as Kent Hovind say that it does not. The result is that alternating magnetic fields are simply not possible. In fact, to quote him: “That’s simply baloney [that there are magnetic reversals in the rocks]. There are no ‘reversed polarity areas’ unless it’s where rocks flipped over when the fountains of the deep broke open. … This is a lie talking about magnetic ‘reversals.'” (Taken from his Creation Science Evangelism series, DVD 6:1.)

Alternatively, Russell Humphreys, of Answers in Genesis, accepts that there have been magnetic reversals, as he is able to fit it into a reading of the Bible. He explains the field reversals as rapidly taking place during the 40 24-hr days of Noah’s Flood. Hence, because they are able to fit it into the Bible, they accept it as a dogma.

A Look at the Scientific Method

You’ll notice that this flow chart is a tad larger:

Flow Cart Showing the Scientific Method

Flow Cart Showing the Scientific Method

It starts at the same place, with an idea/observation/etc., which we call a “hypothesis.” As opposed to testing this hypothesis against the Bible, it is tested by performing an experiment. In other words, can the idea that you have accurately predict the outcome of an experiment?

If not, then the idea is rejected. If it did accurately predict the outcome of the experiment, then ideally you will do several more and gather other observational evidence, but effectively you now have created a theory. A theory is when all pieces of evidence support that idea, and NO experiment has refuted it.

The next step of a theory is to use it to predict a future event. This is where my definition of science differs from the dictionary by adding these predictive properties (the bottom half of the flow chart). Without the theory of gravity being able to predict the motions of the planets and moons, the behavior of tides, etc., then what good is it other than to have on paper and look pretty?

So the theory is used to predict a future event. If it predicted it correctly, then you simply rinse and repeat. Much of basic scientific research is really just testing theories. Far from being the “dogma” that many creationists will want you to believe, theories are subjected to tests every day.

In fact, scientists WANT to be the one to do the experiment that the theory predicted a different outcome for. That’s where we follow the “NO” arrow on the flow chart. If the theory can be modified to support the latest evidence, then it is improved, and you go back and continue to test the now-modified theory. An example of this would be the addition of Inflation to the Big Bang model.

However, if the theory cannot be modified to support the latest evidence, then we have a scientific revolution. People remember your name. You get Nobel Prizes. And money. And women (or men). Anyone over the age of 10 knows Einstein’s name and know him to be synonymous with “Relativity” and likely even “E=m·c2.” Advertisers wish they could be that efficient.

Final Thoughts – What’s the Point, and Why No Spiritualism/Paranormal Allowed?

The point here is that, well, I’m honestly sick of hearing the anti-“darwinist” crowd claiming that evolution, the speed of light, the Big Bang, and many other scientific theories are just a “materialistic dogma.” They’re not. Plain and simple. Dogma is where you believe something as FACT and it cannot be shown to be false, regardless of any evidence. Theories and the scientific method is a process that requires evidence to support it, and no evidence to the contrary. It requires predictive power.

And that is why spiritualism/religion/supernatural/paranormal beliefs are simply not allowed in science. Sorry, they’re not. Why? Because almost by their very definition, they lack any predictive ability. If you can’t use your hypothesis or theory to predict a future event, then they have just been shown not to work. Yes, the Flying Spaghetti Monster may have created us all by touching us with His noodly appendage. That may be a hypothesis. But you simply can’t test that because He in His Infinite Carbalicious Goodness can just choose not to do it again. Or some vaguely-defined “Intelligent Designer” may have caused the bacterial flagllum to exist or have formed the mammalian eye. But that belief does not present any way of being tested, whereas evolutionary theory does (and has shown the precursors to all of those).

And that’s really the point of science: To use testable ideas to explain the where we came from, and then to predict where we’re going.

April 27, 2009

Defending the Big Bang: Young-Earth Creationist Claims


Introduction

After a long, work-related hiatus, I’m getting back to my 4-part series on the Big Bang. The purpose of this post is to look at the problems that Young-Earth Creationists (YECs) have with it, and the ways they try to get around it. I’ll give a quick hint as to the main reason: It’s not what the Bible literally says happened.

What Does the Bible Say?

In the Christian Bible, in Genesis 1, there is a clear progression of how we were formed:

  1. God created heaven and earth.
  2. God created light.
  3. God separated water from land
  4. God created plants.
  5. God created stars.
  6. God created the sun and moon.
  7. God created ocean life, then birds. God continued to make animals.
  8. God created humans. Well, he created man first, then woman. Then awhile later on in the bible they make more humans.

This all happened in the first 6 literal 24-hr days of existence. So yes, I am referring to biblical literalists for this post — it is my understanding that most who are not biblical literalists are more able to are generally able to reconcile more easily with the science.

Now, to be fair, Genesis 2 does imply a slightly different progression. However, my understanding is that most YECs tend to ignore that part, and so I will, too, for purposes of explaining their problems with the Big Bang.

What Do the Big Bang Theory … and Star-Formation Theory … and Solar System Formation Theory … and Evolutionary Theory Say?

The reason I didn’t leave this section heading at just the “Big Bang Theory” is because there is no one massive THEORY that explains how we get from the formation of the cosmos to people. However, for purposes of laying out a similar progression as elucidated in the bible, I will provide a synthesis to cover the comparable points:

  1. After the universe began, atomic nuclei were the first thing to form that most people would recognize. This happened in the first few minutes.
  2. Light was not able to stream freely until the universe had cooled sufficiently, about 370,000 years after the Big Bang.
  3. Possibly as early as several tens to hundreds of millions of years after the Big Bang, the first stars formed from gravitationally collapsed clouds of hydrogen and helium.
  4. It took to at least the second generation of stars before planets could form because heavier atoms did not exist (they are formed in the violent supernovae events that massive stars undergo when they run out of fuel).
  5. Planets formed much like stars, by collapsing clouds of atoms and molecules. Moons either formed around them just as planets formed around stars, or they were captured.
  6. After the planet formed, life formed.
  7. The first life on Earth can be traced back nearly to its formation, with about a 400 million-year gap (to about 4.1 billion years ago).
  8. The first life was single-celled and they were the only form for about 2 billion years.
  9. After multi-cellular life arose, it was able to become more complex more quickly because of the amount of variation that could arise.
  10. Sea animals were likely the first, then land, then air.
  11. Sometime around 1-4 million years ago, the first human-like ancestors evolved from a common ancestor of modern chips.

Now, you can see that this progression is quite different from that presented in the bible. Besides just the timescales involved, the progression is completely different from a literal reading of Genesis. For example, Genesis states that the sun and moon were (a) made at the same time, and (b) made well after Earth. The scientific consensus says something very different.

An Example of YEC Problems with the Big Bang Theory

There are so many places on the internet that I could draw material for this section of quotes or articles where YECs espouse their problems with the Big Bang. Answers in Genesis is an obvious one, as is the Institute for Creation Research.

For my examples, I will be using an episode of ICR’s radio show, narrated by Chris O’Brian, that originally aired on June 7, 2003, entitled, “Progressive Creationism #2 – The Big Bang.” I’m addressing this one instead of their, “Myth that the Big Bang Has Been Proven” episode because I have already addressed it in my post last year, “What Does it Mean to “Prove” the Big Bang? – De-Mything the “Myth” that It Has Not Been “Proven.”

1. Ross Humphreys: (4:30 into episode) ~ “There’s absolutely no biblical case for the big bang. The order of events is all wrong. For example, you have in Genesis ch. 1 v. 1 you have ‘darkness,’ the Big Bang starts off with light. The first element that’s formed in the Big Bang is hydrogen, the first material that’s mentioned in Genesis 1:2 is water. … So the order is all wrong, not to mention the time scale.”

2. Henry Morris: (6:00 into episode) ~ “Cosmologists don’t all hold to the Big Bang theory. … Maybe the most prominent cosmologists and astronomers don’t believe it; not only Fred Hoyle, who’s well known, but many many others. I listed, if I recall, about 15 prominent astronomers who rejected the Big Bang theory.”

3. Morris: (7:00 into the episode) ~ “Most [astronomers] go to the evolution of something out of nothing – a quantum fluctuation of nothing into something. Alan Guth who invented that theory of inflation and the big Bang theory just ‘happened.’ In fact, a couple of authors have written something to the effect that you don’t have to have a cause to have the big bang, it just ‘happened.’ Nothing caused it at all.”

4. Humphreys: (9:00 into the episode) ~ “One of the things wrong with the big bang is that the Hubble Space Telescope is showing lots of facts that are discordant with it. And one of those facts is the fact that the Hubble Space Telescope is showing evidence of elements, atoms, of oxygen, carbon, nitrogen – such things like that – very far out, and the problem is that the Big Bang cannot explain those elements that far away. And that’s only one of many problems. In other words, as we’re finding out more and more data, we’re finding the Big Bang theory is not capable of explaining these data.”

5. Humphreys: (11:30 into the episode) ~ “Scripture’s quite clear about the fact that the universe has a center and we’re fairly close to it on a cosmological scale of things is good evidence that the Big Bang is wrong.”

6. John Morris: (12:00 into the episode) ~ “We can’t see this thing [the Big Bang] happenin’, we didn’t see it happen in the past — we’re trying to explain the past with what we see in the present. This whole idea is all mathematics, the Big Bang is really a mathematical solution to Einstein’s equations and … that’s what evolutionists have come up with.”

Responding to those YEC Claims

1. This illustrates one of the main lines of attack of YECs – it doesn’t agree with the bible. This is a simple argument from authority, where the authority is a book that was compiled over decades to hundreds of years, by many different people, and has many internal inconsistencies. It is also a book that refuses to be updated based upon new information — very different from science.

2. This is another argument from authority. “15 prominent astronomers” a consensus does not make. This is very similar to what the Discovery Institute does with their “Dissent from Darwin” list. They claim to have over 500 names on a list of Ph.D. scientists who supposedly “dissent from Darwin.” (I say “supposedly” because I watched a video recently where a person actually examined the list – only a small percentage actually worked in the relevant field of biology, and most of those people had no idea they were on the list or had asked Discovery Institute to take them off.) This is contrasted with the National Center for Science Education and their “Steve” list of over 1000 Ph.D. biologists who “support” Darwinian evolution … and are only allowed on the list if their name is Steve (or Stephanie). There is a big difference between a scientific consensus and being able to claim authority from a few dissenters.

In addition, the name Fred Hoyle is thrown out frequently by ICR. You can read about him here. In particular, Hoyle did reject the notion of the Big Bang. However, he was not in favor of what the YECs propagate … though the YECs leave that part out. Hoyle believed in the “steady-state” cosmology, which holds that the universe has always existed, and forces conspire to always make it look the same throughout time.

3. This is possible. However, it’s unsatisfactory to many, and there are various people working on models to explain how the universe may have been birthed. However, as I point out in another post, the Big Bang does not claim nor try to claim to describe how the universe formed. It just describes what happened AFTER it formed. So this is a straw man.

4. This is wrong. Yes, we find elements and molecules “very far away,” but none farther back than a few hundred million years after the Big Bang. This is entirely consistent with the Big Bang theory, for – as I said earlier in this post – it took the first generation of stars to produce the heavier elements.

5. This is also not correct. There is no “center” to the universe, but that also has nothing to do with the Big Bang. The overall geometry of the universe is a completely separate issue from Big Bang theory. So, this claim is a combination of both incorrect information AND a non sequitur.

6. It always amazes me when YECs make this claim, in the generic form of: “Scientists say this happened, but no one was there to see it or we can’t observe it, therefore it didn’t happen.” Absolutely amazes me. Why? Because no one was there to see God do what they claim he did. But, anyway …

It’s true that we try to discern the past from the present. That’s what science is. Plain and simple in this case. Also, the whole idea may have started with solving Einstein’s equations, but as I explained in the second part of this 3-part series, there is actual observational evidence that backs it up, that fits with the Big Bang theory, and is currently best-explained by the Big Bang Theory over any other model – including Fred Hoyle’s steady-state.

Final Thoughts

I know I haven’t addressed every YEC issue with the Big Bang. That’s because it’s simply not possible. Even if I could address every single one that’s presently out there, they would come up with more, or simply refer back to biblical authority and its infallibility. At that point, it is simply not possible to argue any further. And I don’t try to.

What I try to address – and I have stated this numerous times when dealing with religious matters here – is not any religious faith-based aspect. It’s when the religion makes specific scientific claims that are NOT supported by real science, are distortions of real science, or are just plain wrong based on the science that I will address them.

January 21, 2009

Methane Discovery on Mars – The Creationist Reaction


Introduction

Last week, there was a NASA press release that large amounts of methane were observed being released into the martian atmosphere. I posted some initial information about it here.

In the week since this has been out, the general young-Earth creationist folks (YEC, something that I often equate on this blog to general “creationist”) have started to respond to the news in their own way. Let’s take a look (and though I quote heavily, I make my own analysis towards the end, so scroll down if you don’t want to read what they say) …

Answers in Genesis Response

From AiG’s January 17 “News to Note” article:

The specific news is that NASA has detected “large amounts” of methane, which on earth is primarily produced by both live and dead organisms. The methane was detected by telescopes on Hawaii, though five years ago the Mars Express Orbiter detected some methane in the Martian atmosphere. …

The Sun quotes British UFO enthusiast Nick Pope, who calls the find, “the most important discovery of all time” and declares it an “absolute certainty that there is life out there . . . . I am certain there is other life in the universe and, most likely, intelligent life.” Pope implicated the source of his certainty—evolutionary doctrine—when he said, “If it’s happened here on Earth, then why shouldn’t it happen anywhere? The implication is this is a universal law.”

Of course, don’t be surprised that we’re not holding our breath. For one thing, discoveries of “life” on Mars have a habit of fizzling (or, more accurately, remaining unproven speculations). A decade ago scientists went crazy over the idea that an Antarctic meteorite, thought to be from Mars, contained fossilized microbial life. Other scientists quickly tore the claim apart. In the years since, the same pattern—yes it’s life; no it isn’t—has followed numerous other claims originating in chemical discoveries on the Martian surface. The only certainty is that there’s, as of yet, no evidence of life on Mars definitive enough to convince all evolutionists, let alone creationists.

Nonetheless, plenty of evolutionists—scientists and laypersons alike—are emphatic that “we’re not alone” and believe it’s only a matter of time until Martian life turns up. Pope represents this view. There’s nothing scientific about it; it’s pure dogma, but quite expectable considering the predictions of the evolutionary worldview.

There’s always that slim possibility that Mars—or some other astronomical body—is harboring something that we’d call “life” on earth. No Bible verse declares absolutely that God didn’t, e.g., put microbes on Mars or viruses on Venus, although there are plenty of good arguments against the likelihood of that. But unless tomorrow’s astronauts actually find direct evidence of life on Mars, it doesn’t take much effort to chalk the indirect evidence up to evolutionism-fueled speculation.

Institute for Creation Research Response

ICR, in an article from January 19 (slightly behind AiG) entitled, “Methane on Mars: The Stuff of Life?” posts the following:

The central question facing the NASA scientists is what caused the methane. Little living microbes can produce it, but so can heat and pressure acting on non-living water and carbon dioxide. Even if bacteria were found on Mars, it would not necessarily indicate that the bacterial cells originated there. Though unlikely, some atmospheric microbial spore could escape earth’s gravity, survive in outer space, and then colonize Mars. Some bacteria have ingenious capacities that enable them to exist in ice, and others at thousands of feet below the earth’s surface, while still others have an array of unique protein systems that can extract fuel from odd chemicals. Some bacteria even contain many copies of their entire genome, ensuring genetic fidelity even after intense radiation. Microbes on Mars, though a long shot, could be consistent with a creation science model.

However, Martian microbes would add no direct support to the evolutionary concept that non-living matter generates life. Though re-packaged as “chemical evolution” in the early twentieth century, “spontaneous generation” was experimentally disproved by Louis Pasteur in the mid-1800s.

No kind of life has yet been discovered on Mars. Since both carbon dioxide and water are known to exist there, and a natural chemical reaction of these two can form methane, the most likely cause of the gas is geochemical, not biological. NASA found that some “ongoing process is releasing the gas,” an observation consistent with Mars being a young planet. If the methane is being formed not by microbes but as the result of residual planetary heat, then this would challenge long-age thinkers to explain why the planet is still warm and why it still has enough raw materials to eject tens of thousands of metric tons of methane annually, even after at least four billion years of purported existence. This youthful feature of Mars, if accurate, would be consistent with the biblical age of the world.

While it remains unclear whether the Mars methane is the product of microbes or just geochemistry, the timing of NASA’s announcement is rather curious. Since the original discovery of methane took place several years ago, why is this news being given such a big “release” in January 2009? Another curiously-timed NASA press release proclaimed in 1996 that a “Mars rock” showed evidence of microbial life. As creation scientists predicted, further investigation revealed that the rock’s features were entirely non-biological, but the initial announcement resulted in then-President Bill Clinton calling for additional NASA funding.

NASA makes it clear that “it will take future missions…to discover the origin of the Martian methane,” and that now there are specific places—methane-releasing vents—to explore. Could NASA’s methane report have anything to do with this week’s presidential inauguration and the start of a new budget cycle?

A Fellow Blogger’s Response

Finally, there’s a YEC blogger here who likes the astronomy stories. For full disclosure, I will admit that I’ve argued a little with him in the past, but I wanted to post his take on this story, as well:

It used to be looking for advanced forms of life on Mars, now it’s just looking for the ingredients of what evolutionists believed life came from. On January 15, 2009 NASA announced that scientists found evidence for life by discovering methane on Mars. …

The origin of the methane needs more investigation in order to determine if it’s really little micro organisms or not which generally means more missions which also means more funding. …

NASA of course is pro-evolution so the discovery has to fit into the old age model. Since there is a difficulty with Mars concerning non-living causes to maintain the methane over billions of years, and the popularity with looking for little green microbes, one would assume they are leaning towards the microbes. But as far as methane, rock, and water, we know as a scientific fact could never produce life.

Some have sounded the alarm about the timing of claiming evidence for life on Mars. They might be right, there is a similar incident back in 1996 with the discovery of the “Mars Rock” with the hype, motivated the Clinton administration to allocate more funding to NASA. As it turned out, the “Mars Rock” contained no life on it. But a question remains what worked with President Clinton, will it work with President Obama? Many in the scientific community are already lining up to put their agenda on President Obama’s desk so he can approve more funding.

What Do These All Have In Common?

Well, pretty much everything. I suppose that is not too surprising given that most mainstream news outlets all carried nearly identical stories that many YEC outlets would do the same, adding their own flavor (or flavour) to the news. Specifically, they all do the following things – though I should note that because I only copied parts of their text it may not be apparent from the large block quotes above:

  1. Announce the news and admit that it’s interesting.
  2. Point out that this is not new, rather it’s just the hoopla around it that’s new.
  3. Make a specific note that the methane could be completely abiotic and so not have anything to do with life.
  4. Say that it is much more likely to be abiotic than biotic in origin.
  5. Draw parallels to this announcement and an announcement of possible life just as Clinton took office in 1992, very strongly implying – if not outright saying – that the timing was planned to try to milk more money for NASA from the new Obama administration.
  6. Point out (in some way, either direct or implied) that us evolutionists want to find life elsewhere to justify our theories that water+rock -> life.
  7. Point out that us evolutionists require it to be from an active Mars (either chemically, thermally, and/or biologically) but the new data actually fits a YEC model better because they say Mars still is young and so could have left-over methane from formation. But the evolutionary worldview doesn’t allow that.
  8. Have the caveat that IF it really is later on figured out to be life that it’s not wholly inconsistent with a literal biblical wordlview.

What Is My Reaction to Their Basic Points?

I know you may find this surprising, but I do agree with some of their points. Though for possibly different reasons.

1. Yes, this is interesting news. I think I made that point in my initial post on this topic.

2. I forgot to make the point in my original post that, yeah, this actually is old news. Methane was detected years ago in Mars’ atmosphere, but from my reading it was not a definitive discovery that the general scientific community accepted due to the noise in the data. This new data basically confirmed the original detection beyond any measure of scientific doubt, so yes, there was something new contributed here.

3. I agree. And I made that point, too. And I was not happy that most mainstream media did not emphasize that it is very possible – if not probable – that the methane was produced by non-biological means.

4. See #3. Again, I agree.

5. I was, well, 9 or 10 when Clinton took office, so I really don’t know/remember the circumstances surrounding the timing of possible ET life announcements and Clinton’s oath of office. However, while I am not a conspiracy person, I do agree that the timing could have been planned to coincide with Obama’s taking office to try to emphasize NASA’s very very meager budget. Especially since Obama has made suggestions that he may cut NASA’s spending. I obviously can’t read minds (or can I … ?), so it’s really just an argument from ignorance either way you spin it.

6. This is a straw man. I’ve pointed this out before, I think in my post about the Big Bang NOT describing the formation of the cosmos that evolution has NOTHING to do with the origin of life. Completely unrelated, and to say that the evolutionist claim that nonliving matter can become life shows a complete lack of understanding of evolution. Just as I’m actually studying creationist claims before I debunk them, they should actually take the time to study astronomy (or evolution) claims before they try to argue against them.

7. Believe it or not, I agree. Because the scientific consensus is that Mars – like the other planets and the rest of the solar system – is about 4.5 billion years old, we have to come up with some other origin for the methane other than left-over from Mars’ formation. IF the scientific model were a YEC one, then this could easily be explained by that mechanism. But they miss the point here. There are dozens if not hundreds of separate, independent lines of evidence of how we know (as much as scientific certainty allows) the solar system is old. Small anomalies such as this do not automatically overturn all of those other things. They are either fit into the current model by some method (as in, a present-day or very recent-past active planet), dismissed as a trivial anomaly we cannot presently explain, or used to modify current theories to fit with the current observations. We don’t just throw everything else out because of this one discovery, especially when it can easily be fit into the current scientific consensus by simply having an active planet — which was never ruled out, it was simply that there was no evidence before that Mars was presently active.

8. I can’t say whether or not ET life is consistent with a YEC worldview. I know that the Pope’s chief astronomer last year said that ETs were all good, though I also know that many YECs say that ET life can’t exist because in the 6-day creation story, there is no reference to it (this is mainly from AiG, which should be obvious because they get all their Answers from (’cause they’re “in”) Genesis). But this is really beyond the realm of pseudo astronomy and hence I offer no personal opinion – mainly because I honestly have none.

Final Thoughts

I’m not surprised that the YEC outlets have been running with this story. It’s a significant science article that is bound to have literal bible readers wondering how it fits with their beliefs. I’m also not wholly surprised by their main points – I expected them to play up the part about the possible (if not probable) abiotic origins and chastise others for jumping so quickly on the ET life bandwagon.

That being said, I am a little surprised on the similarities between what was stated among the three sources I read. I would not be surprised if the blogger read ICR’s post before making his own (just based on the hugely similar arguments), but that’s just my own musing.

Anyway, it’s still interesting news, and different people have placed their own spin on it. The next one I will address in a soon-to-be-written post will be the conspiracy theory folks – Richard Hoagland’s take on the story.

December 29, 2008

Answers in Genesis Year-End Review of Astronomy – An Assessment


Introduction

Answers in Genesis (AiG), a young-Earth creationism think tank headed by Ken Ham (the folks that built the creationism “museum” within an hour’s drive of my hometown), has published their Year in Review for 2008, featuring a recap of their biggest headlines.

They address 13 main points, the first four being astronomy related. While they are mostly fairly benign in and of themselves, I thought I’d briefly address them myself and express my own opinions about their take on them.

(1) In Search of the Big Bang

The top of their list is a story about the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), an experiment that was unfortunately taken off-line until at least next summer due to a helium leak. The purpose of the LHC, operated by the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), is to conduct four main experiments for the purpose of creating densities and energy levels (in very tiny volumes of space) that approach what physicists think the universe was like soon after the Big Bang.

Possibly because the LHC was never fully functional, this AiG wrap-up really has nothing much to say about it. Rather, the author devoted half the space to an ad hominem, non sequitur attack at something that (by the nature of it being a non sequitur) is not related to the LHC operations nor experiments at all.

(2) Water, Water Everywhere

NASA’s mantra has been “Follow the Water” for several years now, something that I addressed in this blog post. Briefly, the main reasoning is that the search for life is perceived to be “sexy” and something that inspires the public, and then hopefully congressional purse strings. The relation between water and life is that every form of life that we know of requires water in order to be active. Hence, we are most likely – based on our experience here – to find extraterrestrial life where there is extraterrestrial water. And it is much easier to find water than it is to just start searching for life.

With that in mind, AiG’s article then states, “Evolutionists seem to believe that observing the ingredients of life is evidence that those ingredients could self-organize. Taking this logic into the kitchen, couldn’t we say that since we observe flour, sugar, eggs, and the like, cakes are able to mix and bake themselves?”

There are two logical fallacies here, one for each sentence. The first is a straw man. As I have just explained, us “evolutionists” (“evilutionists?”) do not believe that observing ingredients for life is evidence that they could self-organize. We’re simply narrowing the search.

For example, let’s say that you were going shopping for a new shirt. The first thing you would do is to figure out where the stores are that sell clothes. The second would be to then systemmatically go from one to the other until you found one that sells shirts, and then from those you would search for a shirt you liked. That’s what astronomers are doing with the search for life. What you would not do is just go from store to store – be it a video store, grocery store, pet store, etc. – in search of your shirt because there’s no point in looking for a shirt in a store that doesn’t sell clothes.

The second fallacy is a false analogy. Putting out ingredients for a cake on a kitchen counter and then expecting them to assemble into a baked cake is just stupid. And that’s not what we’re saying happened with life. First off, origin of life study is not evolution. But besides that, what the current ideas for origin of life are is that you had molecules (not macroscopic cups of flour and sugar and eggs) that over time (as in not in the hour you leave them on your counter) happened to come together via external forces (as in not doing nothing with the ingredients sitting on your counter) to make a self-contained, self-replicating-capable protocell.

That’s very different from a cake magically assembling and baking itself.

(3) Earth Versus the Other Worlds

This section is just a massive two-paragraph argument from ignorance (not meant as an insult, but as a formal logical fallacy). This year was impressive in exoplanet research, which included the first real imaging of exoplanetary systems (one from Keck, the other from the Hubble Space Telescope) and the lightest-mass planet yet, one about 5 times Earth’s mass.

One of the many difficulties in finding exoplanets is that our methods work best with massive planets that are very close to their parent stars. And — gasp!! — that’s what we’ve found so far!! We, quite simply, do not have the technology to detect Earth-like planets yet. It’s really as plain as that. Saying that they don’t exist is a conclusion from complete lack of data – an argument from ignorance.

With that in mind, I will simply provide AiG’s section on this and then move on:

Exoplanets (planets outside of our solar system) have become one of the hottest topics of late in astronomy, as secular “astrobiologists” search for Earth-like planets among the stars. This year, we covered Super-Earths and the search for Earth’s twin; planets MOA-2007-BLG-192L, WASP-12b, and “Vulcan”; and the first-ever true “sighting” of an exoplanet.

Yet all this time, we’re still learning about how special Earth and our solar system are. As we wrote in July, “[I]n spite of the evidence that Earth is indeed unique and that the existence of life on Earth is no mere accident, evolutionists cling by faith to their worldview,” and (separately), “Everything we learn continues to point to the fact that Earth and its astronomical environment are anything but ordinary—in fact, our planet and solar system are unique.”

(4) Our Friend Phoenix

This is pretty similar to the first news item on the LHC – they’re grasping at straws:

As for most of Phoenix’s discoveries, we said in July that, “though [they don’t] prove the possibility of life, [they don’t] disprove it, either—and thus evolutionists use it as a basis for clinging to the hope that evidence of life may some day be found (and prove an evolutionary origin for life on Mars and elsewhere).”

What do they mean by “clinging to … hope” about finding ET life? Personally, I’m not big on astrobiology. It doesn’t interest me a huge amount. I think it’s a fascinating question, but I also think that influenza is fascinating and I’m glad other people are out there researching it but not me. But Phoenix had as much to do about “finding life” as finding water on Enceladus (a moon of Saturn). The instruments on the craft were not designed to detect life, they were designed to look for water (on Phoenix) and do general chemical analysis (on Phoenix and Cassini). I’m still not completely honed in on logical fallacies, but my call on this is pretty much an argument from ignorance wrapped up in a non sequitur.

Wrap-Up

I won’t be doing my own year-end astronomy news review, partly because I just started this blog in September. Personally, I may say that the biggest pseudoastro news would relate to either the conspiracies surrounding the LHC or Edgar Mitchell’s take on UFOs (he’s a former Apollo astronaut, so the UFO community used him as a massive argument from authority to back up their claims).

Consequently, I’m going to just address other folks’ wrap-ups, if they exist. And AiG has provided my first opportunity to do so. They bring up some very important advances in astronomy, but as usual, their interpretation is steeped in fallacies and misunderstandings.

December 21, 2008

Creationist Claim: Spiral Galaxies “Wind Up” Too Fast for an Old Universe


Introduction

In preparation for a few public lectures I’ll be doing in the next 6 months, I wanted to address another one of the three main (that I’ve see) straight-forward young-earth Creationist claims about astronomy that “prove” we live in a young universe: Spiral galaxies “wind themselves up too fast.”

This is actually the #1 claim in Russ Humphrey’s treatise on “Evidence for a Young World” that you can find on sites such as Answers in Genesis or the Institute for Creation Research (e.g., this link).

Note that the #2 reason presented is that comets would disintegrate too quickly (which I’ve addressed here) and the #5 claim (#3 astronomy claim) is that the Earth’s magnetic field is decaying too quickly, which I will address in a future blog post.

About Spiral Galaxies

Spiral galaxies, such as the one above (M101), are generally medium- to large-sized congregations of stars. They have either a bulge in the center or a bar in the center. The bulk of the galaxy is a disk (much wider than it is thick) that contains spiral arms. For more basic information on galaxies, see this link.

The feature in question in creationist circles is these subjectively beautiful spiral arms themselves. The trick is that these arms are not “solid.” It is not the case that stars either always exist within a spiral arm or they always exist outside of an arm. Rather, the arms are constantly picking up stars and losing others. What the arms represent are just density waves.

The common analogy to think of is cars on a highway. You may be driving along with many dozens or hundreds of meters between you and the car in front of you. Then, for no apparent reason, you start to get much closer to the car in front of you. And then, for the next several kilometers, there are only maybe five to ten meters between you and the car ahead of you. Afterwards, traffic seems to thin out again and there’s a large distance between you and the next car.

What you have just experienced is a density wave. You are a star, traveling the road that is an orbit around the galaxy, and every now-and-then you find yourself in a density wave where you have to slow down.

The mechanism that perpetuates the density waves – why they don’t just dissipate – is that as a star approaches a density wave, it will speed up slightly due to the gravity of the stars there. And as a star is about to leave a density wave, it will slow down a little, again because of the higher gravity there. So they won’t just smooth out over time.

How did the spiral arms get there in the first place? The main idea here is that all you need is a disk of stars. Stars closest to the center of the disk will need to rotate around it faster than those near the edge, just like planets in our solar system (Mercury’s velocity around the sun is much faster than Earth’s). This can easily set up the initial differential rotation needed to start them.

In addition to this, stars do not orbit on circular paths, rather on elliptical ones (Kepler’s first law). When farthest from the center, their velocity will be at its slowest (Kepler’s second law). When you have just a few extra stars traveling a little slower in some parts of a differentially rotating disk, then you will get spiral patterns.

The Creationist Claim

To quote from a source other than Russ Humphreys: “Stars closer to the center of a spiral galaxy orbit the galaxy faster than stars farther away. Over many millions of years, the difference in orbital rates should wind the spiral tighter and tighter. We do not see any evidence for this in galaxies of different ages.” (This is from the Creation Wiki website.)

Problems with the Creationist Claim

The problem with this is that it rests upon the unstated major premise that density waves are physical parts of galaxies that contain a set of stars that is unchanging. That way, the differential rotation will cause them to “wind up” into a featureless disk. As I have already explained above, this is simply not the case. Galaxies are not like figure skaters.

Another problem is a timescale here. Russ Humphreys may be correct when he places a maximum age of “a few hundred million years” on his fallacious understanding of the theory of spiral galaxies. However, many others, including the one quoted above, will say “many millions of years,” or even “thousands of years.”

Those time scales are way too short. The sun takes about 250 million years to orbit around the galaxy once (as anyone who watches Monty Python knows). There is no way that – even given their faulty understanding of the model – galaxies would “wind up” within less than 1% the time it takes a star half-way from the center (about where we are) to complete a single orbit. This is actually a fairly good example (like comets) about how creationists often don’t understand the timescales involved with astronomical phenomena.

Creationist Refutes of the “Naturalistic” Refutes

(1) To quote again from the Creation Wiki website, the very first response to the explanation I have given is, “First of all this is a theory not a proven fact.” This is, to put it nicely, a bogus argument. As I have stated many times on this blog, a scientific theory is when a hypothesis has withstood all attempts to falsify it, and all data are explained by it. So even them saying it’s a theory is an admission of that. However, “theory” is often used in a derogatory manner by creationists because the colloquial definition is more along the lines of, “a vague idea.”

(2) The next response is, “Furthermore, it does not come from first principles, but is simply the latest in a series of theories designed to save the long age theoretical system from reality.” Well, yes it does come from first principles. Try running a computer model of spiral galaxies, and you’ll see it work pretty darn well after only plugging in “first principles” like gravity.

The next part of that, “series of theories,” is not as derogatory as they intend. Science progresses. If one theory has explained all the data to-date but then the next piece it can’t explain, then a new theory needs to be developed. This, of course, is in contrast to creationism where evidence that refutes their “theory” is simply tossed out the door.

The final part of that sentence, “series of theories designed to save the long age theoretical system from reality,” is simply an attempt to paint what I’ve presented as an Argument from Final Consequences (logical fallacy) when it simply is not.

(3) The final claims, that observations of M51 have shown that the arms in the center don’t fit with this theory – is a misreading of the technical literature. The reference given (Zaritsky et al. (1993), “Inner spiral structure of the galaxy M51,” Nature, 364) clearly states:

The coherence of the arms over this large radial range challenges current theories of spiral structure. We suggest that a combination of several mechanisms, such as the interaction of M51 with the neighboring galaxy NGC5195, forcing by the central ‘bar’, or distortions from density waves, is required to generate the observed structure.

No where does it “[call] into serious question [the spiral density wave theory] by the
Hubble Space Telescope’s discovery of very detailed spiral structure
in the central hub of the ‘Whirlpool’ galaxy, M51,” to quote Humphreys. Rather, it states that just using a simple model that I laid out that you would get in an introductory astronomy class does not tell the whole story. It tells a lot of it. But you do need other information in order to explain every detail of the observations.

Final Thoughts

I think that with this post, I’ve fairly tidily explained why creationist arguments for a young universe based on spiral galaxies are fallacious, generally falling subject to a gross misunderstanding of the theories involved, the technical literature, and various other, smaller, factors.

I also want readers to remember that I am not trying to undermine religion. Faith in a divine creator is a completely separate issue. It is only when people use that faith as a starting point to make testable, scientific claims that I will explore them and refute them if fallacious enough.

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