Science in Christian Perspective
What Do You Do?
by Darryl W. Maddox, ASA
Instructor in Geology and Physics,
Amarillo College, Amarillo, TX
Consider these situations:
You are walking down the science building hall when you glance at the bulletin board by the geology lab, and notice a sign that says: "Learn the truth about Creation Science and the facts about the evolution myth." You attend the advertised meetings. For five nights you listen to a retired highway patrolman tell how easy it is to prove that those geologists are wrong. He claims that all one needs to do is just listen to the tapes and read the books. Everything is there in black and whiteóand free to boot! What do you do?
It is a Thursday afternoon when your wife shows you an eye-catching advertisement for a church- sponsored lecture series featuring "Dr. Jones." You go, and for two nights you listen to a dentist describe the same thing it took the highway patrolman five nights to describe. However, for good measure, "Dr. Jones" throws in some comments about how the methodology she learned while doing her graduate research proved radiometric dating cannot be right because there is no way to test the model before the tests are run. What do you do?
You are sitting in your faculty office when a student comes in looking a bit unsure and says, "Would you mind reading this and telling me what you think?" Scanning the book, you see that it is written by a Ph.D. computer scientist. One chapter describes tulips in the stomachs of the woolly mammoths found in Alaska. Another chapter includes some nice quips about circular reasoning in using fossils to date rocks and rocks to date fossils. What do you do?
You are at a choir cookout when you hear one of the choir members say, "I wish I could afford to send my kids to a private school, because I donít want anyone teaching them that evolution nonsense." He knows you are a geologist; he just assumes you agree with him because you go to the same church. What do you do?
You are at a Bible class social when the teacher says, "Well, itís easy to prove Noahís flood. Just go over to Sandia Peak and look at all the sea shells in the rocks on top of the mountain." She never stopped to think that what she had just said did not make perfectly good sense. After all, she was only repeating what she had heard a Ph.D., who claimed to know about geology, say on a videotape. What do you do?
Since I started teaching geology at a community college four years ago, situations like these have caused me to do some real hard thinking about my role as a scientist, an educator, a church member, and a friend. How should we, as scientists, Christians, friends, and members of our community (sometimes on the payroll of our community) react when we encounter such situations?
Obviously, making and receiving corrections is part of the daily world of the scientist and teacher. Most corrections are made within a common paradigm and carry no inherent challenge to either our professional standing or to our credibility as a Christian. Rarely do they endanger our friendships. However, when someone espousing a different paradigm makes the errors, the matter of making the correction carries an extra weight. We should ask ourselves: Are we behaving professionally? Are we behaving in a Christian manner? Are we questioning the speakerís professional competence or integrity? Are we casting dispersions on the Christian character of the speaker or book author? Are we acting within the proper function of our position within the church body, the community, or the college faculty?
Answers to these questions may be far more important with those who doubt the traditional earth and life history paradigms than the factual or logical matters themselves. I also believe how we conduct ourselves may be far more influential to the rest of our community than our knowledge. I believe such encounters will significantly influence the future of both science and religious education in America for some decades. It is up to us to make that influence a positive one.
I am not upset by the situations that I listed in the opening. As odd as it may seem to you, and it certainly seems odd to most of the people with whom I teach and work, I actually enjoy the free exchange of ideas and encourage others to jump into the fracas! I see these encounters as opportunities to show people that scientists, and particularly earth scientists, are not necessarily the cold-hearted, ruthless atheists that some think we are. These circumstances are wonderful opportunities to teach people about geology, earth history, the power of logic in analyzing controversial issues, and various views on interpreting the Bible.
In the past two decades, an increasing number of well-trained physical and life scientists have expressed views contrary to the traditionally-accepted paradigms of earth history. Also, a general trend toward more public involvement in the discussion of scientific matters has developed. This has led some to believe that all views are equally justified. Relevant material is increasingly available to the nonspecialist but it is matched by a large quantity of erroneous material available through the internet and privately-published sources.
The combination of a rise in public involvement, an increase in the background diversity of the participants, and the abundance of misinformation has created a set of conditions which affect our decision about whether it is appropriate to respond, and if so, what kind of response to make. These conditions include the following:
1.Variation in the academic and experiential qualifications of the debaters is more extreme than in most other areas of conversation. Consequently, some debaters do not know enough to understand your correction should you offer it.
2.Persons in public speaking have an emotional interest in what they are presenting, even though they may lack the appropriate education and experience to really understand their topic. They may think that because they have read a few books or heard a few talks they are fully qualified to discuss their topic. This combination of emotional involvement and belief in their qualification can cause an attitudinal problem that bars successful communication.
3.In an effort to make the issues simple enough for lay people to understand within the time available for the presentation, writers and speakers on both sides have simplified data and arguments to the point that they are more easily misunderstood than understood.
The result is that there is no simple way to respond to a statement containing a logical or factual error. To be most effective, our response needs to be tailored to the person making the statement and to the circumstance in which the statement is made. If we decide to respond, we should have an objective, and we should respond in a manner that is likely to achieve that objective. Sometimes I decide it is just better not to respond. But, when I choose to respond, my objectives are generally to:
1.Make the speaker aware of my belief that an erroneous statement has been made or that logical fallacies have been committed and give them an appropriate reference that supports my logic and understanding of the facts.
2.Assure them that I am not challenging their professional competence, ethics, Christian faith, or whatever else they may value and think that I am challenging.
3.Let them know I am interested in any information they may have which is contrary to what I have said.
4.Ask for references that support their information if these were not provided in handouts or by some other means.
5.Try to establish a correspondence with them to exchange information and views.
To accomplish these goals, I have found it best to make the person aware of my concerns in a private conversation after the talk or presentation. With a smile on my face, I sincerely try to compliment them on some aspect of their talk or presentation that I really did think was good. Never, never do I criticize or question their religious beliefs. If I have any credibility, it is as a geologist, not as a theologian.
Here are some examples of factual and logical errors I have encountered and how I have tried to correct them:
1. The complete geologic column cannot be found anyplace on earth, and/or variants of this, such as the geologic column exists only the minds of geologists. I refer them to the Impact article, in which Steve Austin listed this idea as one of the ten misconceptions about the stratigraphic column, and to the CRSQ article by John Woodmorrape, in which he showed that about four percent of the earthís surface was underlain by the complete column.
2. Using fossils to determine the age of rocks when the age of the rocks are used to determine the age of the fossils is circular reasoning. I point out that the sequence of the rocks was worked out first based on the law of superposition. Then, using the concept of faunal succession, geologists developed the concept of index fossils. At the time (before Darwin published), geologists did not have the entire column in one place from which to work. However, since we have now seen its existence in several places, the order is proven correct.
3. Radiometric dating can only be done on igneous rocks. I provide references to books showing the use of ash falls or igneous intrusions to establish boundary dates and to the article in the July 1999 issue of Science about using the mineral xenotime.
4. There is no way to check for the validity of the assumptions inherent in radiometric dating. I refer them to the FAQ at http://www.talkorigins.org/ and to freshman geology textbooks.
5. The concept of uniformitarianism means all geologic processes are slow. I point out that this is a "straw man" argument because that is not what uniformi- tarianism means. I illustrate the lack of plausibility of such an interpretation by talking about volcanoes, hurricanes, and spring floods.
6. Radiometric ages are not "absolute" as presented by traditional geology. I indicate that this is an error of equivocation that hinges on the meaning of the word "absolute." I show them a freshman text that explains how we use the word "absolute."
7. The age of the Mississippi delta proves the earth is young. I explain that this is an error where the premise is irrelevant to the conclusion. The age of a delta no more sets the maximum age for the underlying crust than the age of a house sets a maximum age for the dirt upon which it rests.
The best benefit of trying to correct such errors is that I have become acquainted with many people of different backgrounds and beliefs. Our conversations have given me many new references to scientific papers and internet web pages. I have grown both in my appreciation for beliefs others hold about Christianity and in my own views of the data and interpretations of historical geology.