On the Integrity of Science: A Response to Bill Dembski

Editor's Note: The following is the second piece in a four-part conversation between Dr. William Dembski and Dr. Karl Giberson, concerning Giberson and Francis Collins' new book, The Language of Science and Faith: Straight Answers to Genuine Questions. Read the first piece by Dembski here. Find more resources and discussion surrounding the book at the Patheos Book Club.

Bill Dembski describes my recent book with Francis Collins as an exercise in "Selling the Product." I am not sure what this means. Certainly Francis and I had no conversations about "selling" and I don't think of science as being a "product." Our goal with this modest volume was simply to calm the fears of Christians who feel their faith is threatened by science in general and evolution in particular. If "selling the product" means doing our best job at our task, then we plead guilty to this oddball crime.

I want to respond to Dembski—a personal friend whom I have known for many years—by addressing my most global concern about the anti-evolution movement of which he is a major player. This concern relates to the nature of the scientific enterprise, which I just don't recognize when anti-evolutionists, whether Bill or Ken Ham or Phillip Johnson, talk about it.

I am deeply concerned that evangelical Christianity, as a vast and largely self-sufficient subculture in America, has become so disengaged from science that it is now intellectually impoverished. I am particularly alarmed at the widespread rejection of mainstream scientific ideas by Christians, particularly evangelicals. In some cases the rejection is, frankly, humiliating. The age of the earth, to take the most egregious example, has been established beyond all reasonable doubt to be billions of years, and yet most Christians think the earth is just a few thousand years old. And some of these Christians are very well-educated.

In my book Saving Darwin, I used the following analogies to help readers understand just how far-fetched this is:

Scientists know the moon to be two hundred and forty thousand miles away. How would you react if your neighbor, who was very interested in science, said it was a quarter mile away, closer than the convenience store you can see from your front step? Imagine attending a massive rock concert that broke all attendance records with ten million fans. Your neighbor, who was in attendance, claims there were just ten fans at the concert. Suppose you discussed the age of the earth with your neighbor. In agreement with scientists, you say the earth is five billion years old; your neighbor, however, says that number is a million times too large and the true age of the earth is just over five thousand years. Such extreme disagreements seem laughable and artificial. The last one, however, is a highly animated argument in America as young-earth creationists, a hundred million strong, spar with the scientific community over the age of the earth. Nobody thinks the moon is just above the rooftops, but most people in America have a neighbor who thinks the earth is ten thousand years old.

Fortunately, Bill accepts the great age of the earth as determined by the scientific community, so he is not in this tragically uninformed group. But most of his fellow anti-evolutionists are.

There are, perhaps, no serious practical implications of getting the age of the earth so incredibly wrong. People can hold all sorts of odd beliefs and still be able to tie their shoes and get to work, as Glenn Beck has shown so clearly. But, in order to prevent evangelicals from discovering the overwhelming evidence against their young earth position, the anti-evolutionists have had to assault the integrity of the scientific enterprise until most evangelicals just don't trust it.

This is a widespread strategy employed in various ways by all the anti-evolutionists. Phillip Johnson—arguably the founder of the contemporary intelligent design movement—smeared science most articulately in his classic polemic Darwin on Trial. and follow-ups Reason in the Balance and The Wedge of Truth.  In these volumes and his other writings he insists that science as practiced today—particularly evolution—rests on a shaky foundation of "metaphysical naturalism," rather than "empirical evidence." “Darwinism,” he wrote in Reason in the Balance (p.16) is not really based on empirical evidence. Its true basis is in philosophy, and specifically in the metaphysics of naturalism.” This is an amazing claim on so many levels. For starters, the label science—which includes physics, chemistry, and biological evolution (which critics prefer to call “Darwinism”)— is short for "natural science." The supposedly sinister "naturalism" of science that frightens good Christians is not a foundation at all, as if it can be separated from that science like a foundation that awaits the arrival of a house. Naturalism is central to the very definition of science.