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Creationist Geology and Intuition

Reports of the National Center for Science Education
Title: 
Creationist Geology and Intuition: Isn't science just common sense?
Author(s): 
by Kevin Padian
NCSE President
Volume: 
17
Issue: 
6
Year: 
1997
Date: 
November–December
Page(s): 
28–29
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.
The dismay expressed about "The Mysterious Origins of Man," a pseudoscientific jumble of Bible distortion, garbled geology, warped paleontology, and gonzo archeology that aired on NBC-TV in February 1996, burned up phone and fax lines, tied up modems, and sent postal workers scurrying around with stacks of letters to editors and broadcasting executives. Jere Lipps, then Director of Berkeley's Museum of Paleontology and President of the Paleontological Society, led the charge on behalf of science and was recently rewarded with NCSE's "Friend of Darwin" award for these and other efforts.

The uproar about the program reached the pages of scientific journals such as Science, mass-market magazines such as Time and a bunch of internet talkgroups and bulletin boards. The network responded, "Hey! It's not our fault. We do entertainment!"; the producers responded, "We don't know what you're getting all upset about. It's true, isn't it?"; and the NBC executive responded, "Oh, come on. everyone knew it was just opinion."

Perhaps Kris Krishtalka, a vertebrate paleontologist who directs the Natural History Museum at the University of Kansas, said it best when he was quoted in Science (March 8, 1996): "I'm sure in a few months [NBC News anchor] Tom Brokaw will have a special on the deplorable state of science knowledge among American school children." Unfortunately, we now know better; NBC rebroadcast "The Mysterious Origins of Man" several months later.

It is well known by now that the "Mysterious Origins" people are Hare Krishna people, not biblical fundamentalists, and they think that all the life forms on earth are hundreds of millions of years old, not a few thousand. However, there are instructive comparisons between the two groups, and their approaches to the distortion of science and the selective presentation of often apocryphal evidence are in many ways similar.

What Makes This Strategy Successful, and Why Should We Care?

The answer is that their line is persuasive to the poorly educated in science — which happens to include the majority of American adults and adolescents. But people like to be persuaded. They especially like to be persuaded that their views are right, and that they are intelligent people capable of figuring out things for themselves. What the so-called experts know is just their opinion, after all. It may not be right. Look how many times the "experts" have gotten the rest of us into trouble!

I was reminded of this in re-reading Tom McIver's revealing article, "A Creationist Walk through the Grand Canyon" (Creation/Evolution Issue 20, 1987). Tom signed up for a field course, as something of an undercover anthropologist, at the Institute for Creation Research. In this course, participants were led through the Grand Canyon, and its geology was explained through the window of "creation science." So, for example, participants were told that the Coconino Sandstone, a Permian deposit with a great many nice footprints of amphibians and reptiles, could not be formed from desert dunes because the angles of these beds are supposedly inconsistent with the bedded layers in the Canyon. Instead, of course, they were all formed in the Noachian Flood. Participants were taught to distinguish "creation" rock (preCambrian) from "Flood" rock (Cambrian and later).

Melver reported that none of the participants expressed any doubts whatever about the veracity of this kind of explanation; in fact, they were incredulous that anyone could accept the traditional geologic story. "How could this whole enormous canyon have been formed by such a small river, as the evolutionists claim? Where is the necessary downstream deposition of eroded canyon sediment? What about all the alleged missing layers? We shook our heads in wonder and genuine pity at the ability of evolutionists to accept such utter absurdity."

There are abundant clues as to why this teaching strategy is successful. It makes people who know very little about a complex subject feel confident about their ignorance. McIver writes: "Our opinions were solicited, although most of us had no previous geological training." This is consistent with the creation-science tradition of amateur nature-watching. "Creation science relies upon a naive empiricist philosophy of science:
  • science is built up of common-sense observations;
  • nature (like Scripture) is perspicuous;
  • ordinary folk, if not blinded by theoretical speculations and materialist, evolutionist idols, can participate in this enterprise of understanding God's creation.

In other words, traditional "creation science", like Krishna pseudoscience and "Intelligent Design" panaceas, provides people with validation of what they want to believe. There is no need for fancy theories, complex instruments, or laborious testing of hypotheses. It's American populism — your view is just as good as anyone else's. People love to be asked, "What do you think?"

There is a subtle flattery to this approach. How much harder it is for a scientist to remonstrate, "Well, we have to see where the facts lead us. We have to form hypotheses and test them. We have to examine many different lines of evidence. We may not have enough information to get to the right answer." Hmph. That doesn't make me feel as good as that fellow over there did. At least he thought my ideas were important.

It is a seductive idea that ordinary people can understand the natural world with only the most superficial training, and that it is as likely to be correct as the views of that fellow over there with the PhD. But it also has a parallel in religion. In most faiths, there is a hierarchy of clergy and a standard system of tenets. This does not simply mean a holy book, like the Bible, the Torah, or the Tao; rather, it means an orthodox interpretation of these views, developed through history by scholars and clerics (and invested with all the institutional prejudices of that history).

The tradition of American fundamentalism is outside this institutional scholasticism because it has no hierarchy, it does not particularly value academic scholarship, and it places the validity of religious interpretation squarely on the individual preacher (See Ronald Numbers's masterful book, The Creationists). If you have witnessed, if you believe, if you understand, then you can pretty much preach and interpret however you like, as long as you can get people to listen. This is not to say that fundamentalist clergy cannot be scholars or cannot interpret the Bible accurately, any more than one would assert that anyone with a PhD degree in a scientific field is widely read in science, let alone inerrant about scientific matters. But this is why the absurd literalisms of many fundamentalist preachers, pointed out by historians, theologians, biblical scholars, and scientists, make no impression on their beliefs or teaching. One man's view of the Bible is just as good as that pointy-headed theologian's over there; after all, he probably doesn't share my Faith, so why should anything he says be trusted?

If anyone can receive the Word, if they believe, and can interpret the Bible correctly, then certainly anyone can interpret the phenomena of the natural world, which is of course the handiwork of the Creator. Hence the parallel between the "common-sense" or "populist" view of religion, and that of nature.

McIver continues: "Yet, despite this tradition of obsolete common-sense empiricism, with its harsh criticism of evolution and other modern scientific theories for being nothing but biased, abstract speculations, creationists indulge in hypothesis-spinning of the most reckless sort. We were encouraged in this: what scenarios could we devise which would account for the observed data — fossil footprints, various strata, faults and unconformities, or whatever — and still preserve the absolutely required literal interpretation of Genesis? No discrepancy is perceived, because creationists know that the Bible is totally inerrant."

Here, the two components of this world view are combined. Anyone can figure out the science; and the Bible tells us all we need to know. It may seem odd that a person would reject a secular scientific view of natural phenomena on the grounds that it is authoritarian and a belief system, but would accept with ease an authoritarian view of natural phenomena based on religious knowledge that has little or nothing to do with the proximal evidence of the natural world. But it is just as odd to think that a person could reject a secular scientific view of natural phenomena with nothing whatever in its place, able to be swayed by the flimsiest prima-facie case for human and dinosaur footprints together, human artifacts 55 million years old, or continents slipping halfway around the earth suddenly every 41,000 years. The uncertainties of science, and its philosophical methods of forming hypotheses and testing them, are not congenial to you if you like things simple, and accept that the average person can come up with explanations as good as those of the most highly trained scientist, just by sitting down and thinking a little. After all, science is supposed to be an open-minded process, isn't it?

The best answer to this, perhaps, is the well-known aphorism that "science is open-minded but not empty-headed." It builds on itself, it is continually self-correcting, it has expectations, and if these are not met by the evidence then it looks for other evidence in the system that would explain why. People from all religions and cultures can participate in this community endeavor as long as they follow the precepts of scholarship and hypothesis-testing. But don't be disappointed if the "populist science" folks don't seem overly impressed by this. And you won't just find them in the pews.They'll be on the bus next to you, reading the astrology column; they'll be listening to the salesman in the jewelry store at the mall talking about the healing powers of crystals; and they'll be perusing the offerings in the New Age section of the bookstore.