Letters to the editor


On Davis' "A Whale of A Tale"

From: Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 44 (June 1992):147-148.

Edward Davis" engaging, informative and well documented detective article ("A Whale of a Tale," December 1991 Perspectives) highlighted a common concern in science, but it is by no means a problem only with those who attempt to justify their religious belief structure. It is my experience that this type of error is commonly committed by both religious advocates and scientists. Even the most careful scientists, judging by modern studies of eminent historical scientists, have not uncommonly accepted uncritically reports that latter proved false or questionable. Of course, some scientists make these mistakes far more often, and are as a whole less critical evaluators than others, but it is a common problem which I believe must be addressed.

An excellent example of what has evidently proved to be an enormous hoax is the Tasaday Tribe case, supposedly a "stone age people living in the Philippine rain forest." A book by John Nance, The Gentle Tasaday, with a forward by Charles A. Lindbergh (1975, New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich) is one of the many extensive "scientific" studies on them, yet subsequent research found the "tribe" to be a publicity hoax.

Another example is many of the major research conclusions by Margaret Mead (which have now also been seriously questioned), on which she based her arguments for permissive sexual behavior and the alleged harm of the Christian value system. Her original "research" has been shown to be both naive and heavily influenced by her presuppositions. Several other anthropologists have reviewed her original data, even re-interviewing those individuals which she interviewed for her original study (see Margaret and Samoa, by Derek Freeman, Professor of Anthropology at Australian National University, subtitled, The Making and Unmaking of an Anthropological Myth, published by Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1983). Two excellent summaries of many other similar cases are Alexander Kohn's False Prophets: Fraud and Error in Science and Medicine (Basil Blackwell, England, 1986) and Betrayers of Truth: Fraud and Deceit in the Halls of Science by William Broad and Nicholas Wade (New York, Simon and Schuster, 1982). Many researchers, attorneys, and university administrators have concluded that fraud and deceit is now epidemic in science and medicine.

The latest case I am aware of is an example that I have seen over and over in textbooks. It concerns an animal behavior called batesin mimicry. The example of this that has been used for over a century involves the conclusion that one butterfly evolved the wing pattern of another species which is foul tasting so that birds will avoid it, as well. The researchers (Ritland and Brower, Nature, 350:497-498) note that this classic example has evidently never been tested, and when the authors did so, they discovered that the viceroys are just as unpalatable to birds as the monarchs, the butterfly they supposedly mimicked. This research has now caused the whole topic to be reevaluated, and while all of the data is not yet in, it is clear that the butterfly example has been uncritically accepted by hundreds of researchers.

A more recent example is the Whorfian hypothesis of linguistic relativity--the conclusion that the language that one speaks shapes one's world view. Researched by Benjamin Whorf in the 1940s, and widely accepted in the 1950s and 1960s, it was then "seemingly discredited by rigorous tests in the late 1960s" (see Ross, Scientific American, Feb. 1992: 24-26). The most common example of linguistic relativity was the assertion that Eskimos use many distinct words--seventeen is the figure often given--in place of the one English word "snow," concluding that this lexical grid causes the Eskimo to see snow in a far more critical and analytical way than English speakers. Then research by anthropologist Laura E. Martin of Cleveland States University replicating the Eskimo studies concluded that Whorf "exaggerated" the number of Eskimo "snow" roots, and also understated the number of English words commonly used to describe snow. Now, in a recent conference this summer on the subject, it was concluded that, although some of the examples were in error, Whorf's idea makes a valid contribution in helping us to understanding language.

Another example closer to Davis' genre is the rumor that Charles Darwin retracted his theory of evolution and became a Christian. For a refutation of this still widely believed and often quoted belief, see Wilbert H. Rusch and John W. Koltz, Did Charles Darwin Become a Christian? (Creation Research Society Books).

The example that Davis discusses is probably not fraud or deception, but in his words, a story which no one has likely given "the kind of careful investigation it warrants if it were to be used as evidence for the reliability of Scripture" (Davis, p. 231). Although sloppiness often blends into deceit, I think that the major problem is the tendency for most people to uncritically accept information which fits their belief structure, plus the simple fact that most of us lack time to do the research necessary to directly verify every story, study, or idea that we come to believe. This problem is well illustrated in the enormous and commendable amount of effort that Davis had to expend in order to track down what seems to be the conclusion of the story. (Actually, I could think of at least two other solutions aside from that which Davis hypothesizes).

My own concern relative to the whale account is that if an event is categorized as a miracle, it must be an event which would not normally be possible--and demonstrating that such a feat is easily possible removes it from the miracle category and into the "God wanted events to turn out that way" category, somewhat like meeting the right person at the right time on the street. If I found a way to "convert" water to wine, Jesus becomes not a miracle worker but merely a smart man. Secondly, if my sources are correct, the Hebrew word here interpreted whale refers only to a big fish. Davis gave us our miracle back.

Jerry Bergman, Ph. D.

NWT College
Route 1, Box 246A
Archbold, Ohio 43502