You may have seen this video showing the relative sizes of different stars, and how massive some of them are:
What’s often not appreciated is that as well as being mind-bogglingly large, the largest supergiant stars are also incredibly tenuous.
Just how tenuous? Let’s take Betelgeuse as an example. There’s some uncertainty about the exact figures, but it has a mass about eleven times that of the sun, and a radius of about 900 solar radii. In other words:
On earth, a density of just 2×10-5 kg/m3 would be considered a hard vacuum. It is just one sixty thousandth of the density of the earth’s atmosphere, 1.2 kg/m3. The density of the largest known star in the video, VY Canis Majoris, is roughly similar.
Yet despite this, this gives Betelgeuse an escape velocity of about 70 km/second at its outer extremity. Betelgeuse’s enormous size is due to extreme nuclear fusion reactions in its core, where helium is converted into carbon and oxygen, and then subsequently into heavier elements, culminating in the conversion of silicon to iron. Once its supply of silicon is exhausted, nuclear fusion is no longer possible, the star collapses in on itself, and a supernova explosion results. For Betelgeuse, it is estimated that this will happen sometime in the next million years or so.
You can’t go far on the Internet these days without coming across the webcomic, xkcd, by Randall Munroe. Three times a week, he publishes comics giving a twist on science, pop culture, and general knowledge, that are amusing, informative, and at times pretty cryptic. Every so often, he posts something that reaches epic proportions. One of his most spectacular creations was comic number 1190 — “Time.”
At first glance it appears to show this particularly puzzling looking picture:
What is it? And what does it represent?
A brief history of Time
“Time” is, in actual fact, a masterpiece of storytelling that won the 2014 Hugo Award for Best Graphic Story. What you see here is the last frame in an epic series of 3,099 different images that were updated on the hour, every hour, starting on March 25, 2013. For the first five days, they were updated every half hour, but the frequency changed to hourly on March 30. It continued updating with a new picture every day until late July that year. If you click through the picture on the xkcd site, you will be taken to another website, which allows you to scroll through the images and follow the story.
The first picture was every bit as puzzling as the last. It simply showed two characters (known to xkcd fans as Cueball and Megan) sitting on a beach:
The tooltip that appeared when you hovered over the picture initially said, “Wait for it.” So we waited.
Over time, as the story unfolded, we saw them building a sandcastle of epic proportions:
As they worked, they noticed something strange: that the sea was rising. Further, and faster, than they’d ever known it to rise before.
Why is the sea rising? Where is the sea anyway? If you want to see the whole story first, head over to the geekwagon viewer. You may want to do so now because the rest of this post contains spoilers.
Eventually, our twosome decide to set off on a journey to try and find out why the sea is rising. On the way, they encounter some epic scenery, including rivers:
They get attacked by a large cat:
After fending off the cat, they spend a tense night out in the open, sleeping beneath the stars:
And finally they meet up with some people in woolly hats who speak a strange language:
The Beanie Bunch take them to their leader, who explains to them why the sea is rising:
The leader then shows them a map telling them how far she thinks the sea will rise, and at this point, all is revealed:
What happened to the Mediterranean?
It turns out that the Straits of Gibraltar had become blocked, the Mediterranean had dried up, and Cueball and Megan were members of a small settlement of just forty people living by the shores of a small, hyper-saline sea at the bottom of the Mediterranean basin, a bit like the Dead Sea of today. But now the blockage at the straits had been breached, water was starting to flow into the basin, and that was why the sea was rising.
This is something that has actually happened before. There is a lot of evidence that 5.97 million years ago, the Straits of Gibraltar were blocked up by the northward movement of the African continental plate towards Europe. This precipitated a period called the Messinian Salinity Crisis, in which the Mediterranean Sea dried up. We can see the legacy of this event in the vast deposits of halite (i.e. salt) on the floor of the Mediterranean basin, and also in large, now filled-in canyons that were carved by the Nile and other rivers that flow into it.
The Messinian Salinity Crisis came to an end about 5.33 million years ago, when the Straits of Gibraltar were breached one last time, in an event called the Zanclean Flood. It is estimated that the Mediterranean took several months to two years to fill up again, with torrents of water flowing in from the Atlantic at a rate a thousand times greater than the flow of the Amazon river. It left its mark by cutting the Straits of Gibraltar into a deep and wide channel, whose maximum depth today is 900 metres.
It turns out that the events of Time are set about 10,000 years into the future — in April, 13291 AD to be precise. What caused the Mediterranean to be blocked up this time round is not stated, but it could perhaps have been an engineering mega-project sometime in the next thousand years or so. There have been ambitious proposals made in the past to dam up the Straits of Gibraltar, lower the level of the Mediterranean, and create massive amounts of hydroelectric power and open up new lands for settlement. The likelihood of such proposals ever being implemented, however, is low, to say the least.
What happened to Cueball and Megan?
Ah, spoilers! You’ll just have to visit the Geekwagon viewer to see the whole story.
Now can somebody please make this delightful epic into a Hollywood movie?
Posted at 08:00 on 28 December 2017.
Tagged: science, xkcd
In the past few months I’ve written a coupleof posts here on my blog about my forays into the creation and evolution debate. However, since I’d rather keep this blog focused on subjects related to my professional work with software development, DevOps, and this Parliament-as-a-service startup that I’m working at, I’ve started up a separate blog to act as a brain dump for everything that I’ve learned about the subject over the past couple of years.
At the moment I’ve got it set to publish a new post every Monday every week through until September.
In case you hadn’t already figured out, my position on the matter is 100% evangelical Christian but also 100% old-earth. I’m sorry folks, but the earth simply isn’t six thousand years old, it’s as simple as that. The Bible does notrequire it, and the evidence does not support it and can not be re-interpreted to support it without descending into absurdity or dishonesty or both.
I’m generally tending to focus more on the physical sciences side of the debate — dating methods, geochronology, astronomy, and so on. Not being a biologist, I don’t tend to have much to say about evolution itself. Not unless you’re making claims about it that are blatantly clueless, such as that it’s “only a theory,” or that it contradicts the Second Law of Thermodynamics, or that mutations can’t produce new information, or that there are no transitional fossils, or silly straw man arguments about cats not turning into dogs. All I ask is that you make sure that you know what you are talking about, and that your facts are straight.
Genesis 1-11 is a part of the Bible that leaves a lot open to interpretation, and while it may seem audacious and bold and uncompromising and full of faith to opt for the most radical interpretation (a Literal Six Day Young Earth Creation, non-evolution, dinosaurs on Noah’s Ark etc), if you’re supporting this position with demonstrable falsehoods and displays of ignorance, you won’t be upholding the Bible; on the contrary, you’ll be undermining it.
Unfortunately, I frequently see well-meaning but badly informed Christians making claims about the age of the earth, and about how it is determined, that are demonstrably and indisputably untrue. Some of these are just rumours and hearsay, and some of them just demonstrate ignorance, but there is also a lot of misinformation out there being published by certain people with PhDs who should know better.
So before you rush into the debate with all guns blazing, here are ten things that you need to know about the age of the earth, the ages of rock strata, and how they are determined.
1. It is based on measurement and mathematics, not on guessing or presupposition.
I sometimes hear people claiming that determining the age of the earth is “guessing at best,” or that if you looked at the evidence with different, young-earth “glasses,” you’d get different, young-earth results. Or that old-earth results are based entirely on an a priori commitment to the theory of evolution and philosophical naturalism.
This is nonsense. The age of the earth is determined first and foremost by measuring things. Measuring and guessing are complete polar opposites, and measuring anything gives the same result no matter what “glasses” you look at it through. You could look at Mount Everest with glasses that make it look like it’s just four inches high all you like, but that won’t stop you from getting a height of 8,848 metres when you actually measure it.
Anyone who tells you that rocks don’t come with time stamps doesn’t know what they’re talking about. Rocks contain radioactive elements such as uranium-238, potassium-40, rubidium-87 and so on, which decay exponentially at well-established rates. When a rock cools below a certain temperature (the “closure temperature”), these elements are “locked in” in ways that follow certain highly predictable patterns. Scientists can then take samples from the rocks, measure their composition, determine how much these patterns have changed, and in that way determine the age of the rock.
You may have heard that radiometric dating has to make assumptions about the original composition of the rocks — how much of the “parent” and “daughter” isotopes were originally present. This is not true. There is a technique called isochron dating which avoids this assumption altogether. By taking multiple samples from the rock, you can plot a graph of 87Rb/86Sr against 87Sr/86Sr: its slope will give the age of the rock without having to know anything about its original composition. If there has been any contamination or leakage, the points on the graph will not lie on a straight line.
2. Its assumptions can be — and are — rigorously tested.
The claim that “historical science” relies on assumptions that can’t be tested because nobody was there to check (the “were you there?” argument) is simply not true. Historical assumptions can easily be tested by cross-checking different dating methods whose assumptions are independent of each other.
One particularly spectacular example comes from measuring rates of continental drift. In places such as the Hawaiian islands, the dates of lava flows increase linearly with distance from the hot spot in the earth’s crust over which the various islands have formed. In recent years, it has also become possible to measure continental drift directly using GPS. Everywhere we look, the measurements are exactly the same within the measured range of errors.
I’ve occasionally seen claims that different methods only give the same results because they make the same assumptions of uniform rates, or because they adopt the same worldview. This is patent nonsense. The whole point of cross-checks is to test assumptions, not to make them. In any case, any alternative explanation in which the rates weren’t constant would need to have something affecting all the different measurements in exactly the same way, in exactly the same proportions, in exact lock-step with each other, by a factor of up to a million. Since the different rates include nuclear decay, continental drift, formation of tree rings, lake varves, ice core layers, coral growth and a whole lot of other things as well, such a proposition is quite frankly preposterous.
3. Its reliability is measured and calculated as well.
The scientific consensus is that the age of the earth is 4.54 ± 0.05 billion years.
Note the second part of that figure — ±0.05 billion years. It indicates an uncertainty of just one percent. It means that scientists have a 95% confidence that the age of the earth is no younger than 4.49 billion years and no older than 4.59 billion years. Uncertainties fall away exponentially as you move away from the centre of the range, and the chance that the error could be even three or four times as big as that figure is so low as to be effectively zero.
Error bars and uncertainties are not guesses either. They are determined by taking multiple measurements and calculating a statistical property called the standard error of the mean — a precisely defined quantity derived from the “spread” of the results about their average value. There are similar formulae for how to calculate uncertainties when calculating the slope of a graph.
This figure also takes into account the confidence levels that scientists have that rates such as nuclear half lives are constant. They do not blindly assume that these quantities never changed in the past; on the contrary, they study the evidence to determine limits to how much these quantities could have varied over billions of years. These limits are plugged into their formulae.
The end result gives an error of just one percent. Your car’s speedometer is less accurate than that. And six thousand years falls so far outside of this error range as to be ridiculous.
For what it’s worth, the fact that its uncertainty is known contradicts the claims of some YECs that old-earth ages merely arise from old-earth presuppositions designed to make space for evolution. There is no possible way whatsoever of starting off with vague, non-specific “old-earth presuppositions” and ending up with a final result that is constrained to within just one percent.
4. Much of the evidence comes from the oil industry.
Jonathan Baker, a Christian geochronologist and author of the Age of Rocks blog, explains this quite clearly in his article, “Can Young Earth Creationists Find Oil?” As he explains, oil companies need to know both the ages of the oil deposits and their geothermal history. Too young, or too cool, and the deposits will be “premature” — still solid, and impossible to get out of the ground. Too old, or too warm, and they will have been baked into oblivion.
There is no way that petroleum geologists could be artificially inflating the ages of oil deposits and rock strata in order to accommodate an evolutionary worldview. They are paid to produce results that are correct, not results that are ideologically convenient. If their measurements really were ideologically motivated in that way, oil companies would waste a fortune (and a lot of political good will) drilling in all the wrong places, the geologists would be fired and spend the rest of their working lives flipping burgers in McDonald’s, and the radiometric labs would be sued out of their insurances.
5. There is no circular reasoning involved.
The claim that “fossils are used to date rocks and rocks are used to date fossils” is so misleading that it is, to all intents and purposes, a flat-out lie. Rocks that are used to date fossils are dated first and foremost by radiometric dating. Index fossils are then only used to date rocks that can not be dated radiometrically. There is nothing circular about that.
Similarly, claims that nuclear decay rates are determined from known ages of rocks are also misleading. This would only suggest circular reasoning if this were the only way that these rates were determined. Itisnot.
Reasoning is only circular if you have two different lines of evidence that both depend entirely on each other. In every claim of supposedly circular reasoning that I have seen, there have been other independent lines of evidence involved which haven’t been mentioned that break the circularity.
6. Fewer than 10% of radiometric results are “bad.”
There is a vast difference between “doesn’t always work” and “never works.”
Young earth organisations love to point out cases where radiometric dating didn’t work — for example, when different methods gave wildly different, or otherwise apparently wrong, results. However, if radiometric dating really were a chaotic mess that couldn’t distinguish between thousands and billions of years, these “bad dates” would be ubiquitous, while close agreement between different dating methods would be all but non-existent.
Anomalous dates are not unexpected, and usually indicate that the rocks in question had a complex geothermal history, being heated sufficiently at one point or another to partly reset their “clocks.” However, far from demonstrating that radiometric dating never works, the fact that these cases are the exception rather than the rule demonstrates that 90% of the time, it works just fine.
In any case, there are over forty different isotopes used in radiometric dating, and each will work for some kinds of samples but not others — again, cross-checks between different methods tell us which is which. The fact that carbon-14 does not work on traffic cones, for example, does not prove that uranium-238 does not work on zircon crystals in granites.
Furthermore, the disagreements between different radiometric dates catalogued by the RATE project differed by up to about twenty percent. Disagreements of just twenty percent in a minority of results do not justify claims that all dating methods are systematically in error by a factor of up to a million.
7. Radiometric dating is expensive.
The number of samples that have been dated by multiple methods, with no surprises and with an agreement to within one percent or better, to ages far in excess of six thousand years, runs into the hundreds of thousands. Each sample costs as much as a small car to collect, store, process, and analyse in order to determine a date.
If “evolutionists” really were “throwing out dates that don’t fit their preconceived notions,” millions of results costing hundreds of billions of dollars in total must have been discarded over the past sixty years or so.
Why are there no accountants and bean counters creating a stink about this colossal amount of money being thrown away on wholescale scientific fraud? Given the number of young-earth creationists in the US Congress, why are none of them proposing the simple fix to the problem of requiring pre-registration of all radiometric studies? And why is there nothing about it on Wikileaks?
8. There are no reliable findings of primordial radiocarbon in ancient coals and diamonds.
The RATE project, a young-earth creationist research project that ran from 1997 to 2005, claimed to have found carbon-14 in ancient coals and diamonds that by rights should not have contained any.
Their work was reviewed by Kirk Bertsche, an evangelical Christian radiocarbon expert, who pointed out that not only were the amounts of radiocarbon very low, they also showed clear patterns that were characteristic of contamination. For example, the amount of radiocarbon in heavily processed samples was found to be much higher than those that had undergone comparatively little processing.
Furthermore, he pointed out that although they did attempt to take contamination into account, they did not follow the correct procedures for doing so. High-end radiocarbon laboratories go to extreme measures to avoid contamination, even so far as operating in specially constructed buildings with shielding against cosmic rays. The RATE team merely subtracted a “standard background.”
Contamination in carbon-14 dating is well studied and its vectors are well known. Before ancient samples can be demonstrated to contain primordial radiocarbon, contamination must be rigorously eliminated. To date, no finding of primordial radiocarbon in ancient coals and diamonds has adequately done so.
9. Young-earth “evidences” are based on low-precision measurements and unrealistic assumptions.
It is based on rates that are extraordinarily difficult to measure, requiring massive international surveys.
No error bars in the measurements are quoted; only a vague hand-waving claim about being “generous to uniformitarians.” The error bars would almost certainly be large — well above ±10% for many of the different factors involved.
It is based on rates that can not realistically have been the same in the past as they are today, even in a “uniformitarian” model.
It only requires a relatively small number of measurements (a few dozen) from each rock formation.
The error bars in both the measurements and the final result are a fraction of ±1% or better, and are always quoted.
It is based on rates that can not realistically have varied in the past without proposing radical new laws of physics for which there is no evidence whatsoever.
The amount of salt in the sea may be only one “evidence” for a young earth, but it is far from unique. Most of the “evidences” are vague at best about exactly what upper limit they place on the age of the earth, and in some cases don’t place any upper limit on the age of the earth at all. On the other hand, old-earth studies tend to be high precision, and the limits they place on the ages of the samples that they test are tight. The underlying assumptions are very, very reliable, for the simple reason that…
10. Accelerated nuclear decay is science fiction.
Perhaps the most outlandish claim that I’ve ever seen coming from the young earth movement is the RATE project’s hypothesis that nuclear decay rates must have been a billion times higher at certain points in the past six thousand years: notably during the first two days of Creation Week and during Noah’s Flood.
What makes this one so outlandish is that they themselves admitted that this would have released enough heat to raise the temperature of the earth’s surface to 22,000˚C — nearly four times that of the surface of the sun. Not only would there have been no Flood left, there would have been nothing left to be flooded!
On top of that, they acknowledged that no known thermodynamic process could have removed this amount of heat fast enough, and that any cooling process would also have had to have cooled rocks such as granites much faster than water, otherwise the oceans would have frozen over.
The RATE team’s ability to downplay the seriousness of this problem is astonishing. Despite their own admission of an impasse of extraordinary proportions, the project has been portrayed as a success, with conferences, books and videos hailing it as providing conclusive evidence for a young earth, and accelerated nuclear decay being presented in their rebuttals of radiometric dating as if it were a proven fact. Randy Isaac of the American Scientific Affiliation (the US equivalent of Christians in Science) describes this portrayal as dishonest, and it’s not hard to see why.
Scientists do not blindly assume that radioactive decay rates are constant. Evidence for this comes from several different directions, not least the numerous cross-checks that are regularly done between radiometric dating and non-radiometric methods such as ice cores, lake varves, tree rings, Milankovitch cycles, and a whole lot more.
In any case, accelerated nuclear decay is the kind of discovery that would win a Nobel Prize if it could be shown to have any merit. Claims of this nature need to be supported by an extraordinary amount of evidence. A single set of studies by a single team working with a predefined agenda, that have never been replicated or even published in a mainstream peer reviewed journal, simply isn’t anywhere near sufficient.
For anyone wishing to discuss science and faith, there are plenty of interesting points for discussion out there, such as the apparent fine tuning that’s evident in the universe. The fact too that there are many questions about physics to which we don’t have the answers should also give us pause for thought, and perhaps instil humility in us as we marvel at God’s creation. But we don’t do ourselves any favours by claiming that scientists don’t know things that they do, or that they are just making things up when they are not, or that they are always changing their minds when they are not, or that they can’t test their assumptions when they can. Nor do we do ourselves any favours by getting all gung-ho and rushing headlong into the debate with all guns blazing only to prove that we haven’t a clue what we are talking about. Proverbs 19:2 says, “It is not good to have zeal without knowledge, nor to be hasty and miss the way.” In our discussions about these matters, let us be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.
We’ve had a bit of an uptick of interest in this particular subject at church in recent months, so I thought I’d better say a few things about the matter and give a word of caution to anyone who’s thinking of rushing into the fray.
This post is intended to be a must-read for every Christian thinking about getting into the creation and evolution debate. You may not agree with my exact position on the matter, but you do need to know that there are pitfalls to avoid, and that rushing headlong into the debate with all guns blazing can cause much more harm than good. I all too often see well meaning but badly informed Christians doing precisely that, only to prove to everyone in earshot that they haven’t the faintest idea what they’re talking about, and it just makes all of us as Christians look unnecessarily bad.
1. Make sure that you know what you are talking about.
It’s very tempting to read a whole lot of material by Answers in Genesis or to watch some videos from creation.com and come away thinking that you know more about science than “secular scientists.” But this is like thinking that reading Let’s Parler Franglais gives you a sufficient command of French to work as an interpreter in the European Parliament.
The same is true of any source of information about science. It’s also true of the Guardian, New Scientist, and Physical Review Letters. Science is not like art or English literature, where you can make it up as you go along, or like journalism where you can just “science it up a bit to make it sound convincing.” It is an exact and rigorous subject with strict protocols and stringent standards. It relies heavily on measurement and mathematical modelling—skills that can only be learned through hands-on experience. It uses very precise and carefully defined terminology. In some areas of inquiry, if you get your science wrong, even in seemingly minor and nitpicking ways, you can kill people. Even in the “historical sciences” bad science could cause a lot of damage. Get your radiometric dating results out by a few million years and you will send oil companies on a wild goose chase spending a fortune drilling for oil only to find that it’s either too young or too old and they can’t get it out of the ground.
If you don’t properly understand this, you will get things wrong. You will end up attempting to refute a straw man caricature of science that bears no resemblance whatsoever to what real scientists do. You will argue against claims that nobody is making with rebuttals that don’t make sense. You will quote people as saying the exact opposite of what they are actually saying. You will cite arguments that even the YEC ministries themselves tell us not to use. You will tell demonstrable, easily fact-checked untruths without realising that you are doing so. You will just end up confusing people.
On top of that, you will end up being confronted with questions, objections and evidence that you did not expect and that you are thus not able to answer coherently.
If you’re going to discuss creation and evolution—or science and faith in general—make sure that you know what you don’t know. Don’t be afraid to admit that something is beyond your area of expertise: you’re not going to win any converts by claiming to know all the answers when quite clearly you don’t. In particular, if you want to teach in your church on creation and evolution, you should really have a degree in a relevant Natural Sciences subject, such as biology, geology, paleontology, or physics. If you are a pastor, you would do well to insist on this. Try to find a biology teacher or a petroleum geologist if you can and ask them to advise you.
2. Make sure that your facts are straight.
If you believe that the Bible demands a young earth or non-evolution, and that you must therefore reject the scientific consensus, please be honest in how you approach it. Rejecting science may be faith, but misrepresenting science is a completely different matter. Claims that are easily fact checked and easily shown to be untrue, or misleading, or nonsensical, will undermine your credibility in the eyes of anyone who happens to check, or who is otherwise confronted with indisputable evidence that contradicts you. At best, you will end up looking clueless and ignorant; at worst, you will end up looking dishonest, and in so doing you will bring the whole Gospel message into disrepute. Next time you’re tempted to say, “Evolution is only a theory” or “There is no evidence for evolution,” remember that most of the people you’re talking to have smartphones, and can fact-check you on Google as you speak.
This means that if you are going to refute scientific techniques such as radiometric dating, you need to make sure that you are refuting what scientists actually do in real life, and not some kind of straw man over-simplification of it. It is dishonest to claim that scientists make untestable assumptions and presuppositions when they do not, or that they use circular reasoning when they do not, or that they otherwise work in ways that they do not. For example, the claim that “fossils are used to date rocks and rocks are used to date fossils” is untrue: fossils and rocks are dated first and foremost using radiometric dating.
Don’t exaggerate the significance of error bars and discrepancies, as you see in this video at 0:28 seconds for example. Fifty million years may sound like “rather a lot” in human terms, but it’s an error of just one percent. The idea that errors of only a few percent could justify claims that all radiometric results must be consistently out by a factor of several hundred thousand is, quite frankly, absurd.
Make sure too that you don’t make false claims about the evidence itself. The findings of soft tissue remnants in dinosaur fossils are one example where I see a lot of misinformation, though no doubt some of that comes from clickbait-y headlines in the popular press. Mary Schweitzer did not find intact blood cells, nor fresh dinosaur meat, nor unfossilised skin, and at most only tiny traces of DNA in quantities far too small to be sequenced. (Schweitzer’s paper is here; you can find a video explaining the problem and what exactly she actually found here.) Incidentally, the absence of sequenceable DNA from dinosaur fossils is a major problem for the young earth timescale: in a 6,000 year old earth—and certainly one where Noah had dinosaurs on the Ark and where the Flood was followed by an ice age—we should expect to find large quantities of high quality dinosaur DNA sequences all over the place. But we don’t.
Don’t quote people out of context to make them appear to be saying things that they are not. The young earth creationist industry has a very bad reputation for “quote mining.” To be fair, some of the examples that I’ve seen could plausibly be explained as simple misunderstanding, but at the same time, there are some massive facepalms out there. Take for example this article, which claims that scientists are now acknowledging that all species appeared on earth at the same time. In support of this claim, it cites a paper in Science magazine (“Fossil recount limits diversity.” Science, 25 May 2001, page 1481). Here is the paper in question. You will see that in addition to getting the title of the paper wrong, the paper actually says the exact opposite to what they are claiming. So be careful.
3. Don’t blindly assume that young earth organisations get their facts straight.
Most of us who work as Christians in science, technology or IT have very serious concerns about the quality, integrity and even honesty of what the young earth creationist organisations are touting as science. Please make sure that you properly understand what these concerns are and why we have them, and that you can provide us with a coherent and satisfactory explanation of why our concerns should be unfounded, before you start accusing us of “compromise” or “apostasy” or calling us “faithless so-called Christians.”
Young earth creationists often tell me that science must fit Scripture, and not the other way around. That’s fair enough, but fitting science to Scripture means first and foremost that it must be honest in the way that it handles weights and measures (e.g. Deuteronomy 25:13; Proverbs 11:1). It must be free from arithmetic error. It must not fudge or cherry-pick the raw data. It must neither exaggerate nor downplay the significance of uncertainties and discordances. It must not take shortcuts. It must verify its integrity by testing against controls where appropriate. It must not misrepresent the extent or nature of the evidence. It must not quote mine. And it must not be resistant to reasonable critique.
These are basic rules of honesty and quality control. To break them in order to “fit Scripture” is neither scriptural nor scientific.
I’m sorry to have to say this, but I’ve seen far too many claims of evidence for a young earth that fall far, far short of these standards. Absurd new laws of physics, such as accelerated nuclear decay on a scale sufficient to vaporise the earth, are proposed on the basis of tiny sets of cherry-picked data with huge error bars. Vast swathes of rigorously cross-checked, high-precision radiometric and astronomical data are rejected in favour of very low-precision, highly variable metrics such as the amount of salt flowing into the sea. A small fraction of discrepancies of just a few percent are held up as evidence that all dating methods must be in error by a factor of up to a million.
In many branches of real-world science and technology, if you adopted this kind of approach, you would kill people.
I’m not so well placed to judge their arguments about evolution, on the other hand, since I’m not a biologist. All I can say in that respect is that while I never found the “traditional” evidences for macroevolution and common descent—the fossil record, embryology and so on—all that convincing, there has been a lot of evidence coming forth in the field of comparative genomics and computational biology in the past twenty or thirty years or so that I haven’t yet seen adequately addressed by them. (Much of this evidence comes from the Human Genome Project, which was headed up by an evangelical Christian, Francis Collins.)
In the end of the day, the only way that the earth can be less than ten thousand years old is if it were created with the appearance of age and with evidence for 4.5 billion years of history which never took place. Personally I don’t believe that this approach is Biblically necessary in the light of Scripture verses such as 2 Peter 3:8 and Psalm 90:4, and in fact it seems to me to be inconsistent with the character and nature of God (Romans 1:20; Psalm 19:1), but if you see it differently I’ll leave it with you. But to claim that the scientific evidence supports a young earth, or that it can be reinterpreted to support a young earth, or that we only get old-earth results because of old-earth worldviews and assumptions, is simply not an honest option.
4. Don’t automatically assume that those of us who accept an old earth—or even evolution—are “compromisers.”
One of the more troubling aspects of the main young-earth organisations is their extreme dogmatism about the subject. They teach that the authority of the entire Bible stands or falls on our ability to read Genesis 1-11 as if it were a scientific paper in a peer-reviewed journal, that their Literal Six Day Young Earth Creationist approach is the only Biblical one; and that any old-earth alternative is “compromise” if not outright apostasy. Answers in Genesis even denounces the Alpha Course as “undermin[ing] the entire authority of the Scriptures” because it acknowledges a diversity of opinion among us as Christians as to how we approach the subject.
This despite the fact that there are old-earth approaches to the Bible, such as the day-age interpretation and the Gap Theory, that are every bit as literalistic (dare I say “fundamentalist”?) as their own.
I’m sorry, but when there are two valid approaches to the Bible, one of which fits with science and the other which does not, demanding that we all go for the one that does not, and raising accusations of apostasy against anyone who disagrees with you, is being anti-science for the sake of being anti-science, and choosing conflict for the sake of conflict. In other words, it’s divisive.
See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ.
Note the last four words say “…rather than on Christ.” They do NOT say “…rather than on the age of the earth and non-evolution.” Making a Literal Six Day Young Earth Creation the foundation of your faith means you are making something other than Christ the foundation of your faith. We are Christians, not Adam-and-his-pet-T-Rex-ians, for crying out loud!
Those of us who are untroubled by the scientific consensus recognise this fact. We may not have all the answers, but we realise that the questions are only of secondary importance to the Bible’s primary message of redemption from sin through Jesus Christ. Don’t damage the witness of the Gospel by tying it down with unnecessary absolutes, and don’t pollute it with dishonest scholarship. Remember that in Acts chapter 15, the Council at Jerusalem declared that they should not burden Gentile believers by demanding that they should be circumcised. Don’t put heavy loads on people’s shoulders that you don’t know how to carry yourself.
Don’t buy into the misconception that “natural” processes and God’s action are mutually exclusive. The Bible talks about God forming us in our mother’s womb (e.g. in Jeremiah 1:5) but I’m sure you’re happy with the idea of reproduction and babies being formed in their mother’s wombs as a “natural” process and that you don’t see any kind of conflict there. In any case, there’s nothing about science that says that miracles are impossible. Personally I believe that miracles serve a specific purpose—namely, God communicating with us (the Bible refers to them as “signs”)—but some may see them more frequently and in other contexts as well. That’s fine—it’s perfectly okay to have discussions such as that.
Don’t worry about science stripping away the awe that you feel when watching a sunset by explaining how it works. Far from stripping away awe, science reveals new layers of awe underneath. Learning about how God’s creation works is an exciting journey of discovery.
5. Don’t be afraid to disagree, but do so constructively and graciously.
There’s nothing wrong with disagreement. We techies thrive on it—it challenges our presuppositions and spurs us on to learn new things. However, it’s important that you disagree constructively.
The BioLogos Foundation has some guidelines on their forums about how to debate creation and evolution—or indeed any other subject—graciously. These are:
Focus on a commenter’s arguments, rather than an assessment of their character
Contribute thoughts to the topic at hand, rather than veering discussion off-topic
Assume legitimate Christian faith on the part of other commenters, unless they identify otherwise
Show eagerness to learn from perspectives of others, rather than simply reminding others of the rightness of your own position.
Another important article that everyone should read before entering into the debate is “How to Disagree” by Paul Graham. In this article, he outlines a hierarchy of seven disagreement levels:
“Endogenous retroviruses are not evidence for evolution because they do serve specific functions.”
Refuting the central point
(Insert your coherent non-evolutionary explanation, with evidence and links to your sources, that specifically addresses why identical endogenous retroviruses occur in exactly the same places in human and chimp genomes here.)
Try to keep your arguments as close to the eloquent and persuasive end of the disagreement hierarchy (DH5 and DH6) as possible. Name-calling will only get people’s backs up and be counter-productive. On the other hand, a coherent and well-thought-out explanation, with evidence, as to why we may have misjudged the YEC organisations, will be far more persuasive and helpful.
Above all, don’t be unduly hostile towards science in general and science-minded believers in particular. Anti-scientific attitudes in many churches are having a thoroughly toxic effect on many branches of Christianity today. In 2011, Barna Research published the results of a study in which they learned that one of the top three reasons why young Christians feel disconnected from their churches, or even leave them altogether, is that churches come across as being hostile to science. For some of us, science and technology is God’s calling on our lives—our mission field, if you want to look at it that way. Make sure you can support us in that calling, not drive us away or undermine us because you’re afraid of it, or because you don’t understand it, or because you think you understand it when you don’t.
In the end of the day, how we relate scientific discoveries to the Bible is a complex technical subject to which we may never have all the answers. There are sincere differences of opinion between us as Christians about how we approach the matter, just as there are sincere differences of opinion as to whether there will be a pre-Tribulation Rapture or not. But we do need to make sure our discussions are informed and accurate. The Bible has far, far more to say about the need for honesty than about either the age of the earth or evolution, and in the current climate of “fake news” and “alternative facts,” we are called as Christians to be a bastion of honesty. We will do ourselves no favours if we are less than honest in our approach to the Scriptures and science.
Posted at 08:00 on 22 February 2017.