Scientists bend observation to fit evolution

This is another archival repost, originally posted on the old blog in feb 2009, during the Darwin 200 celebrations.

I wrote the majority of this post a couple of years ago, when I had the intention to do a regular “creationist claim” feature, but for some reason never got around to polishing and posting it at the time.

When children wish to wind each other up in an argument, they need look no further than the chant “I know you are, you said you are, but what am I?” It’s a phrase to suit all occasions, and it sounds the death knell for the ailing argument. This week’s “creationist claim” is an example of how creationists (and other pseudoscientists) adopt this chant. The following are from

Creationists do not follow the scientific method. The Answers in Genesis “Creation Museum” in Kentucky presents the visitor with a pair of paleontologists: a “creationist” and an “evolutionist”, and tell you that they accept the same data, but simply reach different conclusions based upon it. Paul Taylor of Answers in Genesis UK, in his talk at Skeptics in the Pub a few months ago, told us that the difference between creationism and evolutionism is only that the two set out with different but equally valid assumptions — the evolutionist’s is just that the universe is natural and material; the creationist’s is just that the bible is the literal and infallible word of God. Two equally valid assumptions, I’m sure you’ll agree.

But the idea that creationists are looking at the data — any data — is simply not true. Sometimes good data is discarded; sometimes data is invented; sometimes a piece of data only fits their conclusions because other facts are ignored. Most of the time, however, data is simply irrelevant: creationists are ignorant of the vast majority of the relevant science and evidence, and that doesn’t hinder them in their cause in the slightest. Creationism, it an exercise in spin; the science is irrelevant.

The theory of evolution was discovered in the mid-19th century, when Christianity still permeated to every corner of society, politics and science. Though we had begun the task of filling in those gaps in our knowledge in which God resided — with Copernicus, Newton, et al — God was still the unchallenged creator of everything, especially life, and a literal Genesis was common, even among scientists. Indeed, Darwin was middle-aged before the term “science” became widespread; he would have been more familiar with “natural philosophy” and “natural history”: defined then as the study of God’s handiwork. Men that we now call scientists saw themselves as investigating God’s creation, and many thought it was a simple case of filling in the details of a story summarised in Genesis. When scientists in the 19th century were convinced of the old earth and of evolution, it was despite their prejudices, and not because of them. Upon closing the Origin, Huxley kicked himself for not thinking of such an obvious idea himself: the power of and evidence for the theory was great even then, but the intellectual climate had prevented others from discovering it.

When creationists accuse scientists of bending observations to fit their theories, it suggests that they have an incomplete understanding of the scientific method. Creationists take the data produced by scientists (for they have produced none of their own), and see if they can use it to construct an argument that will convince non-scientists that creationism is scientific. They assume, therefore, that scientists are doing something similar: taking the data they find, shoehorning it into their own explanation of the world, and dressing it up to parade for the public and seek their acceptance.

Needless to say, this is not how science works. Observation is an important part of science, but it is not unfocused observation. It is observation guided by questions specifically designed to test the truth of theories. Scientists do not say “lets go observe the world”, but ask “if I observe this system, what would I expect to find, based on my theory?”, and “what kinds of observations would I not expect to find if my theory is true?” Upon seeking those observations, we discover something about the validity of the theory. Note also that these questions are not “what evidence should I gather to prove my theory right?”, but, “what questions should I ask whose answers could potentially prove my theory wrong?”

The creationist community is relatively homogeneous, consisting primarily of the American evangelical Christianity branch, and the Islamic branch (there are others, but they are not part of the same phenomenon). Their preconceptions are the same, based ultimately upon the same story, invented by Middle-Eastern nomadic herdsmen several thousand years ago; and their methods are the same, based upon faith, authority and revelation. The scientific community is not homogeneous: it includes liberals and conservatives, people of all nations, races and cultures, people with non-religious upbringings, and religious upbringings including Christianity and Islam, but also Hinduism, Buddhism, and many more besides; and its methods are based on questioning, skepticism, and competition to make the big new discoveries. Scientists have their prejudices, but it’s hard to believe that in such a large, diverse and inquisitive group, any particular prejudice could have such a pervasive and long-lasting effect.

Creationist argument is sham science, put on as a PR exercise. It is reminiscent of the cargo cult science of alternative medicine. It is supposed to look like science to those who do not look too closely. There are data used and numbers cited, and these put in the context of an explanation of how and why the world works. But when you look closer, you find that the data are carefully chosen, and the numbers a diversionary tactic. And in place of the scientist’s toolkit — empiricism, rationalism, skepticism, and logic — there is a creationist toolkit: faith, revelation, and spin. And they are so lacking in imagination that whenever this is exposed, they can only chant “I know you are. You said you are. But what am I?”

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