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The Creationist’s Trilemma

I think my encounter with the young-Earth Creationist at the planetarium show was really the beginning of my latest attempts at writing about science and pseudoscience. Something about that conversation got me thinking, and being me, I haven’t stopped since. Two aspects in particular got my gears turning: that she thought of cosmology (and evolution) as something to fear and shield her kids from, and that she wanted me to admit to her kids that I was just making all this stuff up.

In my experience, a lot of people reject evolution and cosmology out of hand, but most haven’t thought very deeply about it. That’s not to insult them, but rather to recognize that not every Creationist out there is a Duane Gish or a Phillip Johnson—someone who has dedicated their life to opposing science education. So it’s not the professional Creationists I’m thinking about: it’s the ordinary people who probably don’t know that much about evolution or cosmology other than a highly caricatured version.

The problem from a Creationist perspective is that real people work on this stuff, so they have to explain why we work on it if it isn’t real. With apologies to C.S. Lewis, I think from the Creationist point of view scientists have to fall into one of these three categories:
1. Frauds: we’re deliberately making stuff up to serve some agenda, which makes us participants in some vast conspiracy;
2. Fools: we’re acting in good faith, but we’re completely misinterpreting the data and so none of our conclusions can be trusted; or
3. Faithful: what we say can be trusted, because we *don’t* have a unified agenda, and the universe likewise can be trusted not to
deceive us.
So when someone tells me that they don’t believe the universe could be 13.7 billion years old, despite the fact that as a trained scientist I have studied the evidence, they are effectively saying I am a liar or a dupe. I’m sure most Creationists wouldn’t put it that way (though some do, and I’ve had my run-ins with them in the past), but their positions reduce to those options on some level.

The “Fraud” Argument

The “fraud” position basically says that scientists know on some level that we’re wrong—that the Earth and the universe truly are young, but for some reason we still hold to an opposing viewpoint. This can have some overlap with the “fools” argument, but for now let’s focus on the view that scientists are deliberately working on something they know to be false out of some motive or other.

I’m not sure we scientists will ever reach those who think we’re frauds. After all, if we’re making everything up, nothing we say is trustworthy. From a rational standpoint, of course, one would have to ask what our motive is. Certainly not money for most of us; you’ll have to take my word for it that I will never be a rich man doing what I do. A small handful of biologists and physicists can manage to become wealthy, but they’re the exceptions. (There’s a great cartoon by Sidney Harris, showing a man and a woman at a party, where the man is saying “My biggest mistake was going into cosmology for the money.”) Most of us won’t become famous either: for every Einstein and Hubble, there are dozens of scientists whom the public has never heard of, well-known as they may be within the community. I suppose we could all be minions of the Devil, in which case I wonder why we
don’t get better benefits.

Of course, there are other motivators than wealth and fame. The power motive is a hard one to debunk, since power means different things to different people. It’s possible, after all, that we scientists are in this game to gain control over people’s minds and opinions, and to further our interests politically and socially. This sort of thing makes the most sense if we scientists are fully aligned in our interests politically, or if we are unified in a mission to “destroy Christianity” (whatever that means). Since there are a lot of practicing evolutionary biologists and cosmologists who are also Christian, they must either be totally mistaken (the “fools” option in the trilemma) or they must not be truly Christian—the “no true Scotsman” argument. The “Christian evolutionists/cosmologists aren’t really Christian” argument is another one that can’t be refuted, since if the creationist thinks that the entire faith hinges on a belief in the young Earth, no amount of evidence will convince him or her otherwise.

The “Fools” Argument

The “fools” argument comes in two basic forms: the evidence is actually in favor of a young Earth and universe, but scientists
grossly misinterpret the data for whatever reason; or, the evidence is ambiguous and scientists overstate their case for an ancient
universe.

My post-high-school education took 10 years to complete: 4 years of a bachelor’s degree and 6 years of a Ph.D. in physics. While not all of that was devoted to cosmology (and none of it was devoted to biology!), I had a very thorough grounding in the evidence in favor of an ancient universe, both through classes and research. It’s not like every day included a lecture saying “this is why we know the universe is 13.7 billion years old”. I’m not sure we actually spent much time explicitly talking about it at all outside of cosmology class. However, like evolution for a biology, the ancient cosmos is the background for astronomy. As I’ve said before, you don’t have to go very far within our own galaxy before you reach 10,000 light-years, you can easily see farther than that on a clear dark night even without a telescope.

Of course much of the evidence for an ancient Earth is also tied up in physics: the decay of radioactive isotopes into other elements over time. This process is well understood by nuclear physics and supports measurements of processes like sedimentation and erosion that are well-known to geologists. If you start questioning nuclear physics, you’re going to have to question pretty much all of modern physics: both relativity (since the energies involved are so high) and quantum mechanics (since atomic nuclei are so incredibly tiny) are involved. Since all of these theories are tested extensively outside the context of the age of Earth, they’re trustworthy. (I’ll address how young-Earth Creationists attack nuclear physics and relativity later—this post is long enough already!)

So the evidence for an ancient Earth and ancient cosmos is clear and unambiguous. Even if one scientist or a group of scientists gets it wrong, over time the community tends to correct their errors. We as a group have reached a consensus through careful work and strenuous testing. We as a community are not fools.

There is of course a third possibility: that the universe itself is deceptive. To be deceptive on the scale necessary to make the universe appear ancient when it’s actually 10,000 years old stretches the capacity for belief. Either God or (in some versions I’ve heard) the Devil made the universe to look old deliberately to test people’s faith; the truly faithful can see through the deception, but there’s no way to do it through ordinary science. In this scheme, scientists are fools because someone is actively fooling them—God is punking us, being a real bully; alternatively, the Devil had a huge hand in making the world. Maybe this seems like good religion to you, but if I may quote Einstein: “God is subtle, but he is not malicious.”

Scientists Are Not Fools or Frauds

The remaining option is that scientists are trustworthy. We don’t hide evidence, we check each others’ work, we constantly question our own conclusions. If we as a community agree on something, there’s good reason for it. We don’t march in lockstep; anyone who has ever been to a scientific conference knows how much scientists love to argue. If there was truly ambiguity about this stuff, there would be scientists all over it, picking it apart. It’s our way. Our authority doesn’t rest on our own say-so; anyone can check our work with sufficient patience and study.

I know none of what I’ve written will convince a die-hard Creationist; probably nobody who is on the fence about this issue will even read my blog. However, I wonder if this may be a first approximation to an argument for people who think “teach the controversy” or Intelligent Design are reasonable compromises. I’m sure others can vastly improve on what I’ve written, so please: let’s make this a conversation.

(Many of my Facebook friends read an earlier version of this, so if much of it seems familiar, you might indeed have seen it before.)

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9 Responses to “The Creationist’s Trilemma”


  1. 1 Kimberly A Beachem March 2, 2011 at 14:47

    EXCELLENT article! I must thank Nancy for pointing it out. Having recently been to a lecture by Richard Dawkins and listening to a few crazy (Christian) people question him, believe me, I know who the fools are. They aren’t scientists.

    • 2 Matthew R. Francis March 2, 2011 at 17:22

      Thanks!

      I should also point out of course that saying that scientists as a group are not fools, there may be individuals that fall into that category. (I’m thinking here of a famous scientist whom I admire who has become a global-warming denier.)

  2. 3 Dan March 2, 2011 at 17:51

    In debates (like science) people are prepared to listen to reason and change their thinking when presented with facts. The minority of the world’s people who believe absolutely in the Judeo-Christian creation myth base all their reasoning on what they already ‘know’ to be true and are not prepared to listen to reason or indeed look at reality.
    I find this very odd in supposed Christians. For them the ‘world’ (or universe) is the Word of God made flesh. So, to do science and study the universe is to hear the word of God – hence the Vatican’s interest in science. To accept that a myth from a poorly translated and viciously edited text (the Bible) trumps the actual Word of God made flesh, seems a tad blasphemous.

    I’m not really religious at all, but I have studied religion extensively, Christianity specifically, and this is what I think about denying science if you’re a supposed Christian.


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