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Nuance, complexity, and creationism

I’ve got planets in my palm; there’s a red smear on the sky
A star has just exploded somewhere behind my eyes
.
Bruce Cockburn

[Note: The last two weeks of my life have been devoured by teaching and writing deadlines which are continuing for some time, so please forgive the poverty of this post between long silences.]

The Day Earth Smiled: a mosaic of images from the Cassini probe when it passed beyond Saturn so that the planet eclipsed the Sun. [Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI]

The Day Earth Smiled: a mosaic of images from the Cassini probe when it passed beyond Saturn so that the planet eclipsed the Sun. [Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI]

To study the natural world is an amazing privilege, whether our specific discipline draws us to choose quarks or quahogs, quinine or quasars. Whether we’re driven by curiosity or humanitarian concerns, desire to just learn more or to change the world for the better, we’re united in something truly amazing.

At the same time, the practice of science can be confusing, complicated, and frankly very hard. Trained professional scientists are frequently very good at their particular area, but may have little or no knowledge about other scientific disciplines. To use myself as an example, I have the highest possible academic degree in physics, but I don’t have any biology training beyond my second year of high school. While I’ve tried to fill in gaps with reading, I’ll never be an expert in genetics or anatomy. So I don’t necessarily blame people who think the whole enterprise is too messy.

That’s why my first impulse toward the “22 Messages from Creationists” that’s been making the rounds isn’t mockery or dismissal. However, I do feel more than a little frustrated. If you scroll through the list, you’ll see assertions that are false or at least very misleading (e.g., “scientists can’t feel wonder”, “the Big Bang and evolution are incompatible with the second law of thermodynamics”), but with answers that are easily found if you just look a little bit. At the same time, though, the explanations are mostly not something you can write in block letters on a piece of notebook paper. (If you want responses that are likely as brief as can be, Phil Plait and Ethan Siegel have respectful point-by-point replies, and I’m sure others have done similar things.)

If someone thinks they have a “gotcha” question and your response requires some details (“it’s more complicated than that” or having to talk about entropy and open systems), then to many, it could sound like a prevarication. It’s easy to come up with questions that sound like sophisticated challenges but are actually non-issues, yet to a third party it might seem that the questioner has valid points.

Science deals in nuance and complexity … and that’s not a bad thing. Honestly, religion often grapples with tough issues as well (e.g. the problem of suffering in a world ruled by a loving God), which require nuanced answers. So, it’s more than a little hypocritical to think for a creationist to think you can bring down all of evolution or the Big Bang with a simple question. I could probably come up with a list of questions to creationists that would be equally pithy, and equally misleading. It’s always better to acknowledge complexity when it exists, rather than battling giants made of straw.

After all, just because something is complicated doesn’t mean it can’t be understood. We know very well how quantum mechanics works, even though it’s a difficult subject to study. I strongly believe that most people can understand complex ideas in physics, and in fact I’ve staked my current career on that notion. If I’m wrong, I might as well get a job that will require me to wear a name tag (’cause who else is gonna hire a 37-year-old with no experience doing anything but science for the last several decades?).

I have no interest in debating “science vs. religion” because those are not exclusive categories. Neither is wonder the sole property of religious faith, much less the faith expressed by creationist or otherwise fundamentalist Christians. Many people manage to find wonder in both faith and science, without rejecting major swaths of the latter arbitrarily to make it fit in with a restrictive version of the former. Science — the set of tools we use to discover, explain, and explore — is itself a way to discover beauty. I love our marvelous Universe, its planets, stars, galaxies, particles, and (not least) its weird, wonderful life forms.

The quote opening this post is from the Bruce Cockburn song “Outside a Broken Phone Booth With Money in My Hand” (not to be confused with the Primitive Radio Gods song). Cockburn is a Christian, albeit of a somewhat unorthodox persuasion, and many of his songs reflect that. Few songwriters are more successful at drawing metaphors from the natural world, so it seems fitting to end as we began.

Outside in the star-shine you can see beyond the wall
So take a look and tell me: can you hear those black holes call?

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8 Responses to “Nuance, complexity, and creationism”


  1. 1 André February 9, 2014 at 15:08

    Hello. What are creationists? Are they not just another group of theoretical scientists? I think a distingtion should be made between theorizers with “complex ideas in physics” and people with actual proofs, this way science might be saved form those poets with their many “ideas”. I think those so called biologists delight in debate with the creationists because it destracts from the fact that they haven’t had proof of any thing new in years and it creates the illusion that their theories are real science.

    • 2 Matthew R. Francis February 9, 2014 at 15:48

      Wait, who hasn’t had any new ideas? Biologists or creationists?

      I should clarify: I’m meaning “young-Earth Creationists” when I say “creationists” in this post. That’s a belief that the Earth is no more than 10,000 years old (give or take, depending on who you ask). While you can call it a theoretical scientific stance, it’s also one that can be easily ruled out by the evidence — biological, paleontological, geological, physical, astronomical, and even archeological.

      Other creationists accept the scientifically established age of the Earth and Universe; there are also religious evolutionists of various sorts.

      • 3 André February 9, 2014 at 16:07

        Exactly! Who hasn’t had any new ideas?! I just had one this morning. For me the young earth theory and the other theories speaking of years ranging between shortly on the other side of “young earth” and “old earth” are all same. Who cares, come with an exact number and proof it, we can call that science then.

      • 4 Matthew R. Francis February 9, 2014 at 16:12

        We know how old Earth is – 4.5 billion years. That’s completely uncontroversial among scientists.

      • 5 André February 9, 2014 at 16:24

        Weren’t you just now writing about “scientists” who have different theories? Also how is a number like 4.5 billion years to be taken seriously. If they make billions of years relitve like that no-one will take the theorizers seriously any more. Whats the exact calculated age of the earth?

      • 6 Matthew R. Francis February 9, 2014 at 17:02

        I don’t ask anyone to take my word for it – it’s not my theory in any case. Scientists determined the age of Earth from a number of measurements taken over more than a century. See http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-science-figured-out-the-age-of-the-earth/ for a brief overview.

        The theoretical basis for the calculation is quantum physics (nuclear physics to calculate age based on the decay rate of various unstable isotopes) and geology. None of this is controversial, and there are no other currently valid theories.

      • 7 André February 9, 2014 at 17:49

        Well then I don’t understand what biologists have to do with any of this accept for them having the biggest mouths when it comes to this topic, or maybe its because they are themselves mere theorists and think nothing of leaving their field to go theorise in other peoples fields. What are the creation-theorists answer to the radiometric-age-dating-theorists? The 4.5 billion years-(give or take a couple of million) theory hinges on that, isn’t it?

  2. 8 Gede Prama February 12, 2014 at 12:09

    I really liked this blog. It’s hopeful and true. Keep writing, you have a fan. :)


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