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101 Uses for a Dead Scientist

I don’t remember the exact chain of links that brought me there, but I found myself looking at a website called the Creation Science Hall of Fame. There isn’t much on the site yet—it’s obviously in the very early stages of development—so it’s hard to tell how much attention this will garner within the Creationist community.

What caught my eye almost immediately was the row of scientists’ pictures on the main page of the site. I don’t recognize all of their faces, but a three I do know well: William Thomson (4th from the left), Michael Faraday (2nd from the right), and Isaac Newton (farthest right). (If you know who the others are, please indicate in the comments!) Newton is the most famous of these to non-scientists, for his work in planetary motion, his laws of motion, and studies in optics. Michael Faraday was one of the most prominent researchers in electricity and magnetism  as well as chemistry, in addition to being a major popularizer of science during the early 19th century. William Thomson, better known as Lord Kelvin, was active in the late 19th century, working extensively in thermal physics — the temperature scale many scientists use is named for him — as well as electromagnetism.

So these three men are very well-known physicists, and seeing them featured prominently on a Creationist website got my goat. All three men were devout Christians, albeit unorthodox in some ways (Newton most notably so), and I suppose in a certain light one could consider them Creationists. But here’s the problem: it’s not a good fit to shoehorn them into the modern Creationist movement. In Newton’s day, there was no science of geology as we know it, and biology was likewise in a very primitive state by modern standards. So, basically there were two views a Western scientist would be likely to take at that time: a young Earth, argued from religious points of view, or an ageless cosmos, promoted by some philosophers working in the Greek tradition. There wasn’t any strong evidence going either way. Newton took the Bible pretty literally as was common in that era, but it’s a mistake to lump him in with Ken Ham and other modern young-Earth Creationists — as I pointed out in my earlier post on Bishop Ussher, it’s not fair to judge people by today’s standards. Newton didn’t have the evidence we have today, so we can excuse him; modern young-Earth Creationists can see the evidence, but choose to ignore it.

I’m not able to talk much about Faraday, since I don’t know enough of his biography to judge how literally he took the Bible. He did live during a great transitional period, when geology and biology came into their own as real sciences and the evidence for an ancient Earth became impossible to ignore. He died in 1867, 8 years after Darwin published Origin of Species, so it is possible he weighed in on evolution, but I haven’t turned anything up yet.

Kelvin is perhaps the most unfair. Yes, he was a devout Christian. Yes, he famously butted heads with the geologists and biologists over the age of the Earth. But here’s the deal: he calculated the age of the Earth from thermodynamics, a field he knew very well, and determined the Earth must be of the order of several million years old — not 10,000 years, as promoted by young-Earth Creationists. In other words, he wasn’t a Biblical literalist, he was a careful scientist evaluating the evidence that was available to him. He was also missing a key piece of evidence that was provided shortly before his death: Earth’s interior is kept warm by the radioactive decay of certain elements, which Kelvin didn’t know about when he did his original calculation. Without this extra source of heat, Earth would have cooled off quickly and frozen over. We can recognize his arrogance today in rejecting the evidence from geology and biology, but that’s because we know the right answer now.

It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that the other scientists featured on the Creation Science Hall of Fame website are also being misused. The dead conveniently can’t speak for themselves, but just as we shouldn’t judge Newton or Ussher harshly for their belief in a young Earth, Creationists are being disingenuous by drafting them posthumously. Perhaps if Newton lived today he would be an ally of the young-Earth Creationists, but if he was a physicist, the odds are very strongly against it.

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