Dispatches from the Creation Wars

Observation and Proof

Mark Creech, the head of a group called the Christian Action League of North Carolina, has a pretty typical creationist response to the Clergy Letter Project. In the process, he manages to completely mangle how science operates and misrepresent the relationship between observation and proof. And of course, he trots out a couple of tried and true out of context quotes along the way. What would a creationist tract be without them?

It is most unfortunate so many Christian leaders have concluded that evolution is scientific, whereas creationism and intelligent design are simply religious — when, in fact, evolution is incapable of being scientifically proven.

Evolution operates too slowly to be measured. To actually observe the transmutation of one organism to a higher form would presumably take millions of years. No team of scientists could ever make measurements on such an experiment, and, therefore, the matter is beyond the realm of empirical science.

No, Rev. Creech, it’s only beyond the reach of your 3rd grade level caricature of empirical science. This is such a silly argument that I can’t imagine it would be convincing even to the most ignorant, but it seems to be quite popular among the faithful. The fact that we can’t observe events in the past simply does not mean that they are “beyond the realm of empirical science”.

You don’t have to have observed something happening in order to study it scientifically and anyone who thinks otherwise should be lobbying for the release of virtually everyone being held in prison on any charge. Only in rare circumstances is a crime captured on tape, hence “observed”, yet we manage to convict those who carry out such crimes every day. Why? Because we simply don’t have to see an event happen in order to study how it happened and form conclusions that are beyond a reasonable doubt on the basis of the evidence left behind.

Forensic science uses the same set of deductive tools that scientists use in studying the events of the past and uses the same standards to determine when they’ve found an explanation that is likely to be true. They look at the evidence, form a hypothesis, make predictions about the nature of as-yet-unfound evidence and use those predictions to test that hypothesis. Now, bring on the quotes:

Leading evolutionist Theodosius Dobzhansky, in On Methods of Evolutionary Biology and Anthropology, once admitted: “The applicability of the experimental method to the study of such unique historical processes is severely restricted before all else by the time intervals involved, which far exceed the lifetime of any human experimenter. And yet, it is just such impossibility that is demanded by the anti-evolutionists when they ask for ‘proofs’ of evolution which they would magnanimously accept as satisfactory.”

I love how Creech says that Dobzhansky “admitted” this, as though it was some sort of secret that others have tried to hide. That’s quite ridiculous. Notice also that Creech doesn’t appear to understand that Dobzhansky is in fact arguing against his claim in this quote, not admitting something that supports his claim. The quote actually continues after what he snips out to say, “This is about as reasonable a demand as it would be to ask an astronomer to recreate the planetary system, or to ask an historian to reenact the history of the world from Caesar to Eisenhower.”

All of this, of course, ignores completely the fact that the scientific method does not require what the creationists claim it does. Some fields of science test hypotheses through experimentation and some fields do not. Historical sciences, as a general rule, do not use experimentation as a tool of confirmation they use both predictions and retrodictions about the nature of the evidence.

This is very basic deductive reasoning – if hypothesis A is true then evidence B must have been left behind. Thus, if we find evidence B we have confirmed hypothesis A. And again, if Creech really thinks that such reasoning is unreliable then he should be demanding the release of about 90% of the prison population. The fact that he doesn’t shows that his argument is not serious, it is merely special pleading.

And by the way, as is predictable for people passing along quotes from texts they’ve never read, Creech gets the citation wrong. It’s actually from a 1957 article in the American Scientist. And just to add a special note of irony to this essay, let me quote from Dobzhansky himself on the subject of creationists and their dishonest use of out of context quotations:

“Disagreements and clashes of opinion are rife among biologists, as they should be in a living and growing science. Antievolutionists mistake, or pretend to mistake, these disagreements as indications of dubiousness of the entire doctrine of evolution. Their favorite sport is stringing together quotations, carefully and sometimes expertly taken out of context, to show that nothing is really established or agreed upon among evolutionists. Some of my colleagues and myself have been amused and amazed to read ourselves quoted in a way showing that we are really antievolutionists under the skin.”

And if Dobzhansky were alive today, he would no doubt be amused and amazed that this practice has continued despite the fact that creationists have been caught doing this again and again and had to eat a good deal of crow over it.

L. Harrison Matthews in the forward of a 1971 edition of Darwin’s Origin of Species, once concluded: “Our theory of evolution has become … one which cannot be refuted by any possible observations. It is thus ‘outside of empirical science,’ but not necessarily false. No one can think of ways to test it.”

It seems here that the good Rev. Creech has his quotes and sources mixed up. Innumerable other creationist sources use this quote but attribute it not to L. Harrison Matthews but to Paul Ehrlich, a man whose perpetual yearly predictions of global environmental demise alone should have discredited him. More importantly, the quote is simply wrong and leaves out something very important in the ellipses. The first sentence actually reads, “Our theory of evoltuion has become, as Popper described, one which cannot be refuted…”. But Popper later retracted that claim and said that evolution was in fact testable.

And again, it is tested the same way that other historical theories are tested, by its explanatory power and both predictions and retrodictions about the nature of the evidence. If evolution is true, then certain predictions about the nature of the fossil record must be true. If instead of a clear pattern of the successional order of appearance of new species the fossil record showed that all forms of life appeared virtually simultaneously on the earth, that would disprove evolution completely. Evolutionary theory is consistent only with a pattern of successional order of appearance that can be sorted into nested heirarchies. And that is exactly what the evidence shows.

There can essentially only be one reason for favoring evolution, and that reason has nothing to do with science. It has to do with something outstanding British biologist D.M.S. Watson said in Nature back in 1929: “[T]he theory of evolution itself, a theory universally accepted not because it can be proved logically coherent evidence to be true but because the only alternative, special creation, is clearly incredible.”

This one has been passed around for decades, sometimes falsely attributed not to DMS Watson but to James Watson, the co-discoverer of the double helix structure of DNA. It is also ridiculously out of context and ignores all of the argumentation and evidence marshalled to support the claim that all the alternative explanations to evolution, including special creation, had been rendered impossible by the nature of the evidence. For a thorough debunking of this “quote”, go here.

All in all, this article is just another standard collection of bad quotes and nonsensical arguments of the sort we have become accustomed to seeing from creationists.

Comments

  1. #1 oolong
    February 27, 2006

    I never realized the creationists were such hard core positivists.

  2. #2 steve s
    February 27, 2006

    weird coincidence: Russell Capps, insane local NC politician and all around nutcase, who was mentioned on Panda’s Thumb last week, is a member of the Christian Action League of North Carolina.

  3. #3 dan7000
    February 27, 2006

    Ed, you’re on shaky ground here.

    I call this out because I’m worried that creationists will latch onto some easy-to-attack parts of your reasoning – I hope to provide a slightly less-attackable alternative.

    You say

    if hypothesis A is true then evidence B must have been left behind. Thus, if we find evidence B we have confirmed hypothesis A. And again, if Creech really thinks that such reasoning is unreliable then he should be demanding the release of about 90% of the prison population.

    I think the method of proof in astronomy, geology and evolution are slightly different than this, and that the method you describe is inherently untrustable.

    First, using your method:
    “If hypothesis A is true then evidence B must be left behind.”
    OK.
    Hypothesis A: the balloon was filled with helium.
    Evidence B: the balloon rose into the air – will necessarily be true if Hypothesis A is true.
    Using your method: Because evidence B is true (the balloon rose into the air), Hypothesis A must be true (the balloon is filled with helium).
    Of course, this is a false deduction. The balloon could be filled with any lighter-than-air substance.

    I think the missing element in this method of “deduction” is suggested in your final paragraph:

    all of the argumentation and evidence marshalled to support the claim that all the alternative explanations to evolution, including special creation, had been rendered impossible by the nature of the evidence.

    I think the method of deduction used in astronomy, evolution, and geology is better described by:

    - Given a hypothesis A, which if true, necessarily requires evidence B to be left behind
    - If evidence B is left behind
    - AND if no other hypothesis explains B and other observable phenomena
    - THEN A is likely true (until a better hypothesis comes along).

    I also question the comparison to reasoning used to convict criminals. Criminals are convicted on the basis of any circumstantial evidence sufficient to convince 12 people. The types of proof may be similar but the method of determining the sufficiency of proof is wildly different.

    However, if you do use the analogy of criminal trial evidence, you have to allow for the possibility of the defendant presenting evidence of an alternative theory of the crime (e.g., evidence that ‘someone else did it.’) That’s analogous to what I suggested above – that a scientific hypothesis should not be accepted if many another hypotheses equally explain the same evidence (the balloon was filled with hydrogen).

  4. #4 tacitus
    February 27, 2006

    It would be interesting to see by how much Creech changed his tune if the subject turned to “archaeological evidence that proves the Bible is true”.

    All it takes is for one tentative news story about the possibility that they might have found the site of some lost OT city and people like Creech come out of the woodwork claiming that this new evidence is more proof that the whole Bible is accurate history.

  5. #5 Ed Brayton
    February 27, 2006

    dan7000:

    Of course I oversimplified the process considerably, and that was intentional for the purposes of such a short blog posting. It’s obviously true that a prediction does not necessarily confirm the hypothesis if there are other possible explanations; by the same token, the existence of other possible explanations does not negate any particular explanation. A single prediction is not going to confirm a hypothesis once and for all, but an explanation that continues to provide accurate predictions is going to be considered more and more certain. Contrary to the conceptions of creationists, science does not generally operate by a single crucial experiment that “proves” a theory correct beyond all doubt. It operates by continual testing of a theory against the evidence and the longer a theory resists disproof and continues to explain the data well and predict the nature of new data, the more certain we are going to be that it’s the right explanation.

  6. #6 Ahcuah
    February 27, 2006

    Last Saturday, the Columbus Dispatch had a truly abominable letter to the editor, saying that DNA evidence disproved evolution. That letter is

    here.

    The thing is, DNA evidence provides exactly the sort of test that science loves, in that, at any time, the DNA evidence could disprove evolution (regardless of whether it occurred in the past or not). And, of course, DNA evidence confirms evolution (twin nested hierarchies, and all that).

  7. #7 Roman Werpachowski
    February 27, 2006

    Oh God. So according to this wacko, astronomy ain’t science since nobody *observed* how starts are formed.

  8. #8 Michael "Sotek" Ralston
    February 27, 2006

    Hypothesis A implies Evidence B.

    Evidence B is observed.

    Therefore, Hypothesis A is more likely than it was before Evidence B was observed, if there had been a possibility than B would not have been observed.

    A is not confirmed, it is “strengthened” or “suggested”.

    At least, that’s how I’d put it.