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Monday, February 16, 2009

Science, Bias, and Presuppositions

Again and again the themes of science, bias, and presupppositions kept cropping up all across the blogosphere today.

Across the Blogosphere (...I didn't even like that movie)

So, I have to talk about.

The first post was Mike Brotherton's rant against homeschooling. Well, not homeschooling, but the problems with "religious indoctrination" when it comes to science. Basically, he doesn't like "science fairs" where all exhibits should include a Scripture reference and relate all areas of science to the Creator of the universe. This is intellectually dishonest, and has very little to do with science, especially since the list of suggested topics contains a bunch of "why" questions... something which science can't answer. In short, we're starting with a presupposition and working toward it.

Then I hit a fascinating, and rather pointed, post by Stephen Douglas about Why Creationists are Creationists. He states that Creationists have a beef with Evolutionary Theory not on the grounds of science, but rather on the basis of their theological beliefs about the nature of the Genesis account.

Other people were talking about this as well, so I feel the need to jump in.

1. It's true: In the cited cases these are not science questions and have nothing to do with the scientific method.

2. From my observation, however, much of the study of evolution has been done largely apart from the scientific method as well: We simply can't 1. Use our experience to 2. Form a conjecture whereby we can 3. Deduce a prediction and then 4. Test--Wikipedia--when it comes to forming new species. Instead, we have to rely on other observations, ideas, and thought-experiments. We look through what we currently have and try to figure out why that may be the case.

3. While there is compelling research which is producing very interesting cases for an evolutionary origin of the many species we have around us--some of which is not questioned by anyone; like, the many variations of dogs we have--I'm fairly confident there are actual scientific reasons to distrust the hypotheses of full-blown evolutionism.

4. It is true that Creationists come at these questions with a strong bias, but I think there is true scientific inquiry in some cases. On the other hand, Evolutionists come at these questions with their own strong bias, but they too engage in true scientific inquiry.

We simply can't escape our presuppositions. They are the basis--the bias--from which we operate. I've been reading my dad's blog with much interest as he wrestles with some of the evidence that is out there. It has been very informative and I have been looking into things on my own a little as well. And in my findings I came across a guy who said that the fossil record is constantly revealing the "missing links" between the species.

My wife, an archeology minor in college, rolled her eyes. "That's ridiculous," she said. "The only reason they are finding that kind of thing is because that's the only thing that you can get a grant for. I'd have to see actual evidence, and not just hear about it from someone who wants to find that kind of thing. The field of archeology simply isn't that cut and dry. There is no motivation to find variations within a species, only to find new species because that's what makes the headlines."

This post is already way too long, but I think my point is this: Our presuppositions dictate our biases. We have them, but we should allow them to be challenged. The problem I see is that many people write off the other side as either willfully ignorant--I've heard "f-ing retards" more than once--or evil and mislead--I've seen the equivalent of "godless heathen" more than once as well. From what I've seen, there is yet little truly convincing science on either side.

Though, despite that bias, I'm willing to hear the evidence, and I'll try to keep my brain engaged when you start presenting your ideas.

 ~Luke Holzmann
Filmmaker, Writer, Expectant Father


Mrs. C said...

I think rants from people I wouldn't drop pearls before pretty well speak for themselves. This is PRECISELY WHY we should buy curriculum from Christians that is written from a Christian worldview.

I think that we need to take care that we don't cross the line between trying to understand someone else's IDEAS and "sitting under" their teaching.


mareserinitatis said...

We simply can't 1. Use our experience to 2. Form a conjecture whereby we can 3. Deduce a prediction and then 4. Test

Actually, we can, and we do, every day. We've watched generations of fruit flies follow the laws of evolution. We've seen E. coli mutate into something that can metabolize citrate, which means it is a different organism now. We can hypothesize that dinosaurs were predecessors to birds, which can be confirmed through DNA testing. We have found species of animals that were neither bird nor dinosaur - i.e. transitional forms.

I think the real problem is that very little of this is communicated in a such a place and such a way that people can see and read the preponderance of evidence that shows that evolution is one of the most healthy scientific paradigms in existence. Spend a few weeks reading Science Daily, and you'll see what I mean. (Please keep in mind that science has come up with the best proof of the concept of "Eve": i.e. all humans have a common ancestral mother which has been shown by showing we all have some common mitochondrial DNA. If you want to throw out the evidence for evolution, you're also throwing out your evidence for the existence of Eve.)

I really strongly disagree with the likes of the athiests who go around and make nasty comments about people who are religious (although, I have seen the same go the other way, i.e. people implying that an athiest is worse than Hitler, for example). Despite their behavior in regard to religion being, if you'll excuse the pun, damning, dismissing science because of them is throwing the baby out with the bathwater or shooting the messenger or whatever you want to call it. The science speaks for itself on its own terms (and yes, the raving atheists can be quite competent despite their intolerable personality traits), and those terms don't prove or disprove the existence of a creator because it isn't asking that question. And, of course, it's not asking that question because that's one that can't be answered through scientific means. On the other hand, the Bible is really not going to provide the means to cure disease or explain where disease comes from in the first place...because you need, in many cases, a genetic (and hence evolutionary) basis to do so.

There is fine science going on, but I feel like it's being obfuscated by people with distasteful messages on religion or people who cannot or will not distinguish between the realms of science and religion.

You knew this would get my hackles up, didn't you? :-)

Kim & Dave said...

I like your wife's observations! Very true!

Amy said...

Well said, Luke.

Stephen Douglas said...

Hi Luke, thanks for your thoughts on this. My apologies in advance for this long comment

I must agree with "Sea of Serenity" here. Proposing a disprovable (falsifiable) framework for explaining observed phenomena, making predictions that will hold true if the framework is correct, and testing those predictions is scientific, and it is being done by mainstream science all the time. The idea so many Christians have that there is a cabal of scientists, of which many devout Christians are in fact a constituency, are purposefully suppressing the truth is absolutely amazing to me; it amounts to the slander of thousands of Christians who have closely examined the scientific evidence and, often resulting in great personal loss such as isolation from friends and family, have come to agree that common descent makes the most sense. You don't have to be up on evo-devo to recognize the clear signs (especially in genomic research) of common descent.

To underscore my contention that creationism doesn't stand up to the level of honest inquiry that science should, look up some creationist journals, and tell me something. Laying aside the question of whether they should rather be publishing in mainstream science's journals, how often do you see creation scientists critically questioning one another's stuff? Saying, "You've misread the data here; that's actually problematic because..."? "This line of inquiry, while suggestive, is not particularly good evidence because..." Instead, what I've seen in creation science is someone claiming something that bolsters the already non-negotiable presupposition and everyone congratulating him -- in short, doing what folk science is meant to do: "provide comfort and reassurance that the rest of one’s worldview is OK" (Van Till). In stark contrast stands the scientific community, constantly questioning one another's research, even when it would help shore up conventional evolutionary theory; if you start reading Science Daily or any of the articles on the (Christian) ASA feed, you'll see that just about every article describing new research or proposing new hypotheses that calls into question earlier understanding or other lines of research will actually quote someone saying any number of those things I mentioned above. And that's just a taste of the contentious world of science journals.

But this difference is not surprising if, as I contend, the idea did not originate with scientific data in the first place. Your point, I believe, was something along the lines of, "But mainstream science starts with the presupposition that evolution is true." To a certain extent that's true, but you can't ignore the history of the specific presupposition in question. It is assumed as a working theory because it has been built from the ground up by scientific evidence, not religious convictions. Against considerable opposition among serious scientists, the theory of common descent with modification has been supported by every type of data thrown at it, predicting a mechanism for passing traits down (Mendel's work on genetics was unknown to Darwin), seamlessly integrating the existence and testimony of DNA when it was discovered, etc., even though there have been thousands of opportunities for falsification at every turn. The fascinating examples of nested hierarchies originally posited by comparative anatomy presented the opportunity for outright falsification of the theory of evolution from several fields of science. But instead, what we find is that the idea of nested hierarchies that first suggested common descent has been brilliantly supported or modestly modified by such varied factors as the fossil record, atavisms (chickens with teeth, humans with tails, whales with feet), and DNA comparisons, all in ways that special creationism doesn't have answers for. There is no one who would look at that sort of data and decide, "God created every species, or genus at least, separately." However, when people kick off their careers trying to prove that statement, we do find plenty of people who ignore or pooh-pooh the data I mentioned and set about finding ways that the speed of light might have changed over time, explaining the decreasing complexity of fossils further down in the geologic column (the cute answer: complex animals were able to climb higher in their attempt to escape the Flood), etc. So in short, scientists do bank on common descent starting billions of years ago because those theories are the only ones that make sense of the data; creationists are creationists because that is the only way they can make sense of their interpretation of Genesis.

I must confess to a little confusion at your use of your wife's statements. Notice that she's not denying that "that kind of thing" is being found (and it is: keep your eyes on that ASA RSS for a paltry sample of what's going on in the literature), only that "variations within a species" are not being reported. I suppose I'm at a loss for how that would contradict the other claim; in fact, we expect variations within species to be found, as that is one of Charles Darwin's original contentions for the mechanism of evolutionary change. But maybe I'm missing your point.

If you're serious about wanting to hear the evidence, you would be amiss not to check out the blog of Dr. Stephen Matheson at Calvin College in Michigan, Quintessence of Dust, and of course check out your dad's copy of Beyond the Firmament. Dig in and enjoy!\

Steve Douglas

Steve Douglas said...

A slight correction: I said "whales with feet" when I meant "whales with leg bones". There's a difference, but not an extraordinary one in terms of what it suggests: whales, as mammals, were already hypothesized to have started off as four legged land animals before returning to the sea. The subject of whale evolution is particularly juicy for evolutionary theory, especially factoring in the transitional forms that have been found.

Jenn said...

Okay, I am going to admit right off that some of this is way over my head. But I do believe in a Creator who created and it is laid out plainly in the Bible. There is One Creator and the answers for how our world came to be is in Genesis.
My husband and I have been watching a DVD series on Creation by Dr. Hovind. These are wonderful and even my children are enjoying them. Check out his web-site- www.
He makes a good point about the whole whales with feet issue, among many other things

Luke said...

Mrs. C, that's a very interesting point about not crossing the line between understanding ideas and "sitting under" that teaching. Very thought-provoking. Good stuff!

Cherish, I don't mind ruffling your feathers from time time, especially if I learn a thing or two in the aftermath <smile>. And, actually, I agree with everything you said (and, some of it, I tried to say in my post <smile>). You make great points, and I'm nodding right along! Just one example: I think the Bible requires evolution--going back to Noah and only taking two of every creature. And, yes, people are too often throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Agreed. Absolutely.

Thanks Kim and Amy! I'm always afraid I'm going to say something poorly and make people angry. I'm glad I didn't do it this time <smile>.

Stephen, thanks so much for stopping by and shelling out so much information. I truly appreciate it!

"Christians ... have closely examined the scientific evidence and ... have come to agree that common descent makes the most sense." I'm hearing more and more about these guys, and that is pretty cool. Great point. And the more I hear from my dad, the more sense this is all starting to make. ...starting <smile>.

I am starting to understand--again, slowly--the difference in the level of self-criticism between the two camps. Part of my problem is largely due to the fact that the responses I encounter amount to not much more than name-calling from the "scientific community." And that's why the books my dad has been telling me about are so refreshing: There are no red herrings, straw men, or simple bashing. They are presenting evidence and ideas in a way that even I can understand <smile>.

With that, though, I have trouble figuring out where the scientific community actually stands with all this. There is too much noise (as Cherish pointed out) and not enough real data making it to me. In fact, I have never heard of any of the actual discussion going on surrounding this topic.

Your response to my point about presupposition/starting point is well taken. And, in most cases, I think you are right. On the other hand, I'm still less than convinced that the guys at ID are truly completely unscientific in their reasoning. I still honestly believe there is real query into this issue. Of course, I could be operating on really old data and in the recent years advances have been made to prove me wrong...

My wife's comment is based on the observation that there is strong motivation to find a "new species" or a "link" between them in the fossil record, rather than objectively consider that it may be a variation within the species. This is much like the constant push to find the "oldest __whatever__" in archeology. This bias could easily be skewing the results. Is that clearer?

I have subscribed to the feed you suggested. Any other resources you can point me to that are presenting in a way that a layman, such as myself, could understand are much appreciated! And I plan to continue to glean as much as I can from my dad... <smile>

As for whales, I've heard them expressed as a great indication that both sides are correct... and so I still wait for a good conclusion to that matter as well <smile>.

Again, thank you for taking the time to help me out on this!

Jenn, I'm not familiar with Dr. Hovind, but I wouldn't be surprised if he is seriously looking into this issue from a scientific background. May we all get closer to the truth!


Esthermay said...

As Christians, we miss the point altogether when we begin to "reason" and offer scientific or prove"able" explanations for what we believe.

As a simple SAHM, I laugh at commenters who are trying SO hard to prove their point with human reasoning and scientific proofs. It's not that we don't understand these things. Please, some of us SAHM-homeschoolers have master's degrees and even PhD's. We're not "slow." We just find it fruitless to argue a point that God has already proven!

Proverbs 3:5 says,
Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding. . .

As Christians, God's Word is the absolute final authority on all things. . . .

"Sitting Under" is not indoctrination if a curriculum (or any other teaching material) is Biblically-based. The issue then becomes trusting the source.

I myself have trouble with some of Sonlight's® curriculum on Evolution as represented in "Berenstein Bears" for the younger kids. Mr. Berenstien Bear is CLEARLY an evolutionist (How Sonlight® missed this escapes me, but. . . .) I trust Sonlight overall in a source of Biblically based curriculum.

I love your wife's response about the grants. Absolutely! Government grants and lobbying groups have prevented TRUTH from being know to the general populations for decades in this country. It will only get worse!

Good debate here.
Back now to:
What's Under the Sea.

Steve Douglas said...


Thanks for your thoughtful, fair-minded comments.

I did want to point out that even most Young Earth Creationists (including Answers in Genesis) have butted heads with Kent Hovind. He's a great salesman (think "used car salesman), but before taking his credibility very seriously, make sure you check out these two pages:

I applaud AiG for its article, "Arguments creationists should not use". Unfortunately, this website documents that Kent Hovind has no qualms about using most of these discredited arguments.

Heather the Mama Duk said...

I am SO with Esthermay!

What I find funny about the argument that Creationists are wrong because of suppositions is that it can very easily be turned around. Obviously Evolutionists are wrong because of suppositions on their part. Neither is true.

The funny thing is Creationists can also believe in evolution... just not the whole come from monkeys/bacteria thing. It's clear that things evolve. That doesn't mean, however, that the first humans weren't humans. Unfortunately most curricula (non Christian worldview type that is typically found in public school) doesn't acknowledge this at all.

Luke said...

Esthermay, Sonlight does carry books with Evolutionary thought in it. These pages are rarely--if ever--scheduled. Sonlight's materials are still very Young Earth Creationist in approach, and there are typically of notes for the "questionable" materials we do carry. On the other hand, we feel that it is best for students to first encounter these ideas with their parents, so we try to make the debate issues surface at appropriate times.

Steve, I don't doubt there has been some head-butting <smile>. Thanks for the link to the "Arguments not to use"... I have, unfortunately, used some of those in the past <smile>. Ah well, learn new things every day! Good stuff.

Heather, as things stand now, I'm with you that "It's clear that things evolve. That doesn't mean, however, that the first humans weren't humans." Absolutely.

A quick comment everyone (but I'm almost out of time this week, so I'd be happy to talk about this more next week if you want):

I do not have a problem with looking at the science behind these questions. I know I have misinterpreted the Bible in the past, and where I do, I would like to get it right. For instance, there used to be a strong belief that the earth was the center of the universe. There were many political reasons for this belief, as well as some religious ones. That was shown to be false. Today, the church is no weaker for realizing its error and correcting.

I think we should keep our ears open and learn what we can. But, on the other hand, I don't see a huge problem if we errantly hold to these views for a while (if it were to turn out we were wrong on the age of the earth too). The age of the earth doesn't matter all that much to my daily life of trying to be like Christ.

Just a couple more thoughts I have at the moment. Thank you all for sharing yours!



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