The Creationist Crisis Reprise

Sevbible2eral months ago I blogged about the Ken Ham Bill Nye debate at Liberty University. I hadn’t given the two much thought since then until last week when they both rose back into the media. My son’s Popular Science magazine arrived with Nye on the front, his fists wrapped like a boxer’s, and the title of the article about him: Nerd Fight! The same day, Ham hit the news as a butt of jokes for blogging that intelligent alien life cannot exist because, “the Bible makes it clear that Adam’s sin affected the whole universe. This means that any aliens would also be affected by Adam’s sin, but because they are not Adam’s descendants, they can’t have salvation… To suggest that aliens could respond to the gospel is just totally wrong.”

What struck me about the Ham kerfuffle is how this arises from the same place that his strict stance on young earth creationism does. At its core, this is not about the science; it is about hermeneutics.

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The New Truth Quashes Dissent

"Stützen der Gesellschaft"It’s comforting, in these confusing times, to know at least some truths are beyond dispute. We know they are beyond dispute because only repugnant people dispute them. These heretics question our sacred beliefs—each a product of recent revelation—about sexuality, gender, environment, and humanity’s origin. Their very dissent proves the heretics wrong—so wrong, in fact, that we needn’t acknowledge them.

Truth is established by the facts, after all, not by debate. Truth is science and science is facts and when enough scientists agree about what the facts mean, that ought to settle things.

The problem is that these dissenters, well, they keep dissenting. This frays the fabric of social consensus, which is dangerous.

Consider an example: When a member of our holy order exposed the sexism of late Nobel-prize physicist Richard Feynman, a blogger at Scientific American had the temerity to “place things in context.” Context is a classic dodge, intended to blunt the superior moral gaze with which we pierce time. The blogger noted that Feynman’s behavior was commonplace in the 1950s, making it unjust to single him out. [Read more...]

Eiseley, Darwin, and the Weird Portentous

Loren EiseleyLoren Eiseley was born in 1907. He died in 1977. For many years and until his death, he was the Benjamin Franklin Professor of Anthropology and History of Science at the University of Pennsylvania. A scientist, he was particularly interested in the study of the origins of human kind.

Eiseley was also a writer and a poet. He was a dreamer and something of a philosopher, too. Some called him a freak. Ray Bradbury once said of Eiseley that he was, “every writer’s writer and every human’s human.”

The poet W. H. Auden was a great admirer of Eiseley. Auden wrote the introduction to a collection of Eiseley’s writings called The Star Thrower. In that introduction Auden, like Bradbury, brought up the fact of Eiseley’s being a “human’s human.”

“Dr. Eiseley,” Auden wrote, “happens to be an archeologist, an anthropologist, and a naturalist, but, if I have understood him rightly, the first point he wishes to make is that in order to be a scientist, an artist, a doctor, a lawyer, or what-have-you, one has first to be a human being.” [Read more...]

Mangled Science, Mangled Truth, Part 2

Continued from yesterday.

Mathematicians sometimes employ the imagery of a three-dimensional landscape to represent the challenge of solving complex problems. Imagine such a landscape, replete with peaks and valleys, stretching to infinity. Now imagine we want to find the highest point on that landscape, but we can only see the points that we’ve visited.

We’re standing on the highest point we’ve found, but are we as high as we could be? Are we really on a molehill, thinking it’s a mountain only because we’ve not yet discovered what real heights look like? How can we explore this terrain without spending an eternity randomly trying new locations?

Mathematicians have conjured a variety of mechanisms for grappling with this problem. They deploy algorithms, for example, that search for higher ground. They grapple with not only “solving” the problem represented by the theoretical landscape, but of inventing methods that can solve a variety of such problems more efficiently than a random walk. [Read more...]

Mangled Science, Mangled Truth, Part 1

It’s one of those intellectual nuggets you tuck away for dinner parties: A recent psychological study finds that people are more likely to express politically conservative values after seeing a U.S. flag. And this one: People are more inclined to support inequality when exposed to money.

Throw these scientific factoids at your conservative neighbor during the next block barbeque. You’re reactionary because you’re bought and paid for, Harry. And these American flag napkins just reinforce your worldview.

The problem with both studies, however, is that other researchers have been unable to replicate them. Worse, this problem may extend to a great many findings from psychological studies.

If you doubt that this matters, consider that as I write this, major publications are gleefully reporting a new study by a Cornell psychology PhD who has found that casual sex can be very good for the emotional well-being of young people. Maybe she’s right, maybe she’s wrong, but I’m wagering nobody will bother to find out, which means you can choose to believe her findings if it suits you. [Read more...]