I continually hear creationists make the following claim: “Evolutionists and creationists both have the same amount of evidence, they just interpret the evidence differently.” The argument is basically that evolution and creation are on equal grounds scientifically, and the facts that scientists present are actually just interpretations of the data, and the scientists’ interpretation is no more valid than the creationists’ interpretation. As I will demonstrate, however, this argument is complete nonsense. It, once again, demonstrates that creationists don’t understand how science actually works.
First, this argument inherently assumes that all interpretations are equally valid, but that is obviously ridiculous. Just because there are two interpretations doesn’t mean that they are both rational. More importantly, the way that scientists use the word “interpret” is very different from how most people use it. Personally, I don’t like the term “interpretation” because I don’t think that it accurately represents what scientists do. The term “interpret” implies that the process is subjective, but science relies on objectivity. So, we don’t “interpret” the evidence, rather, we examine the evidence and draw logical conclusions from it. The term “deduce” more accurately illustrates what scientists do.
Allow me to demonstrate this with a court room example. Suppose that John Smith is on trial for murder. We know that he had motive, he has no alibi, we found his DNA at the crime scene, we found the murder weapon in his home, and we found the victims blood in his trunk. The defense, however, has decided ahead of time that Mark Williams is guilty, even though none of the evidence actually points to Mark (there is no motive, no DNA, no weapon, and also no association to John Smith). Now, suppose that the defense gets up in court and says,
“Both sides have the same amount of evidence, we are just interpreting it differently. The prosecution started with the notion that John Smith is guilty, therefore they have interpreted the evidence to indicate that he committed the crime, but if we start with the notion that Mark Williams is guilty, then we can easily interpret the evidence to be consistent with that view. You see, Mark had a secret motive that no one knows about, and after committing the crime, he placed John’s DNA at the scene without leaving any of his own DNA, and he broke into John’s house and car to plant evidence, again without leaving any indication that either had been broken into.”
Obviously, the defense’s “interpretation” is nothing more than baseless speculation, and it would be completely inadmissible in court. It is not an interpretation of the evidence, rather, it is a manipulation of the evidence to try to make it fit a preconceived idea (in technical terms, it’s an ad hoc fallacy). The prosecution’s interpretation, however, is a simple exercise in logic. They started with the evidence, then arrived at the most logical conclusion. This is a key difference between scientists and creationists. Scientists start with the evidence, then draw a logical conclusion; whereas, creationists start with the conclusion that Genesis is literal, then they try to make the evidence fit that conclusion.
Creationists will of course object to this because they claim that scientists are starting with the “naturalistic” viewpoint, then using that viewpoint to interpret the evidence in favor of evolution/an old earth, but this is pure nonsense. We arrived at the conclusion that evolution is correct and the earth is old, because of the evidence, not the other way around. I’ll illustrate this using varves.
Varves are alternating layers of light/fine and dark/course sediment that accumulate in lakes as a result of seasonal changes (light/fine layers = winter; dark/course layers = summer). We can verify that these correlate with seasons because we see varves form today, and at some lakes, we find algae in the dark layers, but not the light layers (algae only blooms in summer). While varves around the edges of lakes can occasionally accumulate more than one layer a year from storms, varves in the center of the lakes only accumulate one layer each year. In the center of some lakes, we have millions of sets of alternating layers. So, how should we interpret the data? The answer is obvious: these lakes are millions of years old. Consider:
- A set of two layers (varves) forms every year in these lakes
- The fact that these layers represent distinct seasons is confirmed by the algae
- Some lakes contain millions of varves
- Therefore these lakes are millions of years old.
Notice, this is not an interpretation in the normal sense of the word, rather this is a logical deduction that follows necessarily from the premises. Further, we did not need a “naturalistic” starting point to arrive at the conclusion.
Now, let’s consider the creationists’ “interpretation” of the varves. The most common one goes like this: “actually, these were formed during the flood, through an unknown mechanism. Somehow, the flood managed to sort these particles into alternating layers of sediment, and it managed to sort the algae, and these layers managed to form only over lake beds, and they formed at a rate of over 10 sets of layers per minute.”
This is in no way shape or form an interpretation of the data. It is a complete and total rejection of the data. This is not science, it is pseudoscience. The scientists’ interpretation is a logical conclusion that follows from all known facts. The creationists’ “interpretation” is an illogical ad hoc fallacy that completely ignores the facts, and proposes an unknown and completely absurd mechanism. Even if these layers aren’t precisely one per year, the rate that you would need for creationists’ “interpretation” to be correct is outrageous (roughly one varve every 30 seconds). One of these interpretations is science, the other is not.
Further, if we grant creationists the ability to create unknown mechanisms in order to derive interpretations that match their pre-existing biases, then an infinite number of interpretations become possible. This is the problem with ad hoc fallacies: it is always possible to generate an ad hoc argument. This is also why Occam’s razor is important. It tells us that the solution that makes the fewest assumptions is usually the correct one. In other words, the more unfounded assumptions there are, the less likely something is to be true. The creationists’ “interpretation” consists of multiple assumptions staked on top of each other and is, therefore, logically invalid.
Fortunately, there is an easy way to test whether or not your interpretation is at least potentially valid. Ask yourself the following question, “what if I showed the data to someone who had absolutely no knowledge or biases about the topic, what would they conclude?” In the case of varves, if we showed them to someone who had no knowledge or biases about the age of the earth, they would never conclude that some unknown mechanism caused them to form in roughly one year. Rather, they would conclude that those lakes are several million years old. This clearly demonstrates that scientists are not “starting with a naturalistic explanation” then interpreting the data to fit that conclusion. Rather, we are starting with the evidence, and the naturalistic explanation happens to be the only logical conclusion given those data. To put it simply, if you have to start with the assumption that your conclusion is correct before the interpretation makes sense, then the interpretation is wrong.
Finally, I need to make an important point that usually goes unmentioned in this discussion. Science works best by making a priori predictions. In other words, scientists generally try to make predictions about what the data should look like before examining the evidence. So, for example, the theory of evolution predicted the existence of intermediate fossils, and today we have hundreds of intermediates between reptiles and birds, reptiles and mammals, amphibians and reptiles, fish and amphibians, etc. Creationists look at those fossils and try to interpret them as part of God’s design for creation, but there is a clear difference between what scientists are doing and what creationists are doing. Evolution predicted the existence of the fossils before they were found. In other words, it was proactive. In contrast, creationists are acting entirely retroactively. They predicted that intermediate fossils should not exist, therefore every time that one is found, they try to “interpret” it as a specially created species that just happens to have half the features of a bird and half the features of a dinosaur (for example). The problem, again, is that their “interpretation” is completely ad hoc. You wouldn’t accept it unless you were already convinced that creationism was true.
In summary, scientists are not starting with the assumptions that evolution is true and the earth is old, then interpreting the evidence to fit those assumptions. Rather, we are making and testing predictions about what the evidence should look like if evolution is true and the earth is old, and we are drawing the only logical conclusions from that evidence. In contrast, creationists are starting with the assumptions that evolution is false and the earth is young, then they are manipulating the data to fit those assumptions. So the idea that scientists and creationists both have the same evidence and are just interpreting it differently is completely and totally incorrect. Science always goes from evidence to a conclusion, and anytime that you start with a conclusion, you are, by definition, doing pseudoscience.
NOTE: it is true that scientists do not always agree on interpretations (particularly with phylogentics), but that is because in some complex situations, there are multiple valid deductions and it is difficult or even impossible to determine which one is the best, but these disagreements are generally resolved as more data are collected. Also, a young earth “interpretation” never shows up among the list of logical possibilities. There is no evidence anywhere that leads to the conclusion that the earth is young.
Dude, this is garbage. The creationist position does not “inherently assumes that all interpretations are equally valid”. It merely recognizes that everyone brings their worldview with them in their interpretation of the evidence. You are pretty much ignoring that you are bringing a priori naturalistic assumptions with you when you look at the evidence. Furthermore, you claim that science is deductive but it is not, it is inductive. The reason you don’t like the word “interpretation” is because then you might have to let go to the ideas that float your own boat and rethink everything which might cause you to be unpopular with your peers.
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Look at the example from varves. Please tell me exactly how a naturalist viewpoint was necessary for that “interpretation”, and give a creationist “interpretation” that does not commit an ad hoc fallacy. If you cannot do that, then you must admit that scientists are using logic (in that case deductive) to arrive at conclusions without necessitating a naturalist viewpoint, whereas creationists are starting with the assumption that the creationism is true, then they are trying to make the evidence fit that conclusion.
Regarding inductive and deductive, science uses both. See this post for details
“In summary, scientists are not starting with the assumption that evolution is true, then interpreting the evidence to fit that assumption. Rather, we are making and testing predictions about what the evidence should look like if evolution is true, and we are drawing the only logical conclusion from that evidence. In contrast, creationists are starting with the assumption that evolution is false, then they are manipulating the data to fit that assumption.”- That isn’t true. Creationists do not start with the assumption that evolution is not true, they start with the assumption that Jesus was raised from the dead (which is actually a historical fact for which there is a mountain of evidence, not scientific but historical). Evolutionists start with the assumption that miracles cannot happen because miracles cannot happen (which is reasoning in a circle, thank you David Hume for screwing up).
“Creationists do not start with the assumption that evolution is not true, they start with the assumption that Jesus was raised from the dead.” Um…what? Read creationists literature, they openly admit that they are starting with the assumption that the Bible is true and literal (which means that evolution isn’t true) and are using that assumption to interpret the evidence.
“Evolutionists start with the assumption that miracles cannot happen because miracles cannot happen.” Evolution has absolutely nothing to do with whether or not miracles occur, so I have no clue what you are trying to argue here.
Creationists do not hide the fact that they use presuppositional logic when formulating their “theories”; that is, they start by selecting their desired outcome and then seek only evidence that supports that outcome. They readily and openly admit that they sift facts through a filter, discarding any facts that do not fit with a literal interpretation of the Bible because they “simply cannot be true.” Presuppositional logic may be fine for understanding some foundational parts of the gospel message. It is of dubious value when used as an apologetic tool. But it fails miserably and completely as a scientific method. Let’s be clear — this is not science. If you seek answers to questions about the natural world using presuppositional logic, you will open yourself up to any number of incorrect answers. This goes a long way toward explaining why the results disseminated by the various “creation science” and “intelligent design” organizations rarely agree with each other! Which “Bible-based” outcome would you like? You can choose from many different ones, simply by believing the results from the various organizations who claim to do science but actually do a parody of it (Institute for Creation Research, Answers in Genesis, Creation Science Evangelism, Discovery Institute). I say “believe” rather than “accept”, because your reception of these results will be based on faith, not reason, nor trust in the practice of reason. These organizations lambaste the teaching of evolution and “materialistic” science, claiming that it is an example of a heinous relativism that pervades the American educational system. They are encouraging relativism by using presuppositional logic, since they can hardly come to agreement on the age of the Earth, much less the details of how life arose.
Even extremely intelligent persons who are trained in the scientific method, with degrees from prestigious universities, may fall into the trap of thinking that yielding the scientific method to presuppositional logic is acceptable if done under the guise of Christian education. After all, the end justifies the means, right? Author Michael Hawley, in his book Searching for Truth with a Broken Flashlight, explains the psychology of this trap. In short, people will believe what they want to believe, and when they let this drive their approach to science, they will construct all sorts of flawed arguments to prove it to themselves. In many cases, they simply let themselves submit to the argument from incredulity. The human mind excels at both of these logical failings. Some will turn this around and say that this is exactly why scientists accept evolution and other theories; they want to “believe” in evolution. They completely miss the point of how and why the modern scientific method has been applied since its inception almost 200 years ago. When the scientific method is practiced using deductive logic with integrity, the impact of individual beliefs and human failings such as confirmation bias is minimized. When over 99% of scientists from different specialties and a variety of backgrounds (including many evangelical Christians) practice the scientific method with integrity and objective reasoning and come to agreement on a theory, you can trust that the theory is a solid one.
And some scientists who are held up by creationist organizations as doing research which supposedly disproves evolution, do not actually dispute common ancestry. Michael Behe, a long-time intelligent design proponent and the author of Darwin’s Black Box (1996), accepts the common descent of all species (including humans) as he describes at length in his latest book, The Edge of Evolution (2007). Michael Denton, who wrote the oft-quoted book Evolution: A Theory in Crisis (1986) now accepts common descent, as he explains in his more recent Nature’s Destiny (2002).
Why do we agree about atomic theory — that atoms are composed of electrons, protons, neutrons, and that protons and neutrons are in turn constructed from quarks? Nobody has ever seen these tiny particles. But we trust that the practice of the scientific method has yielded accurate results because of the sheer weight of the evidence in favor of atomic theory. We don’t have all the answers about atomic theory. Scientists are still debating what quarks are made of. Yet, this doesn’t mean that we toss atomic theory in the trash or consider it a “theory in crisis”. It’s extremely unlikely that any new discovery will turn our current understanding of atoms on end. Does science, as it currently stands, have all the answers about evolutionary biology? Of course not. However, all of the basics — mutation, genetic drift, gene flow, common descent, and natural selection — have withstood the test of over 150 years of research, and the evidence from genetics and developmental biology within the last 20 years has provided exceptionally strong support for evolution that is in agreement with what we have seen in the fossil record. The 2010 NOVA documentary, What Darwin Never Knew, is a very approachable explanation of some of this recent research. Still, you refuse to accept this evidence simply on the basis that your interpretation of the Bible says it must not be true.
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Thank you! This is exactly what I have been trying (and apparently failing) to articulate.
Jude, thank you for that elucidating response. You have a method for writing that I appreciate reading. I feel that your reply captures the essence of the argument in a candid and approachable way. I have many friends and loved ones entrenched in the American denial of anything “science”. Who I mention are all intelligent, good people – but the intensity of negative emotions that often accompany even a mention of our 4.5 billion year old earth are heartbreaking. There must be a way towards a discussion rooted in reason that is not perceived as an attack and I find inspiration in your style.
Fallacy Man, you have a goal and you are working towards it. This marvelously verbose* website is shaped by your will to make an argument. You are creating something which, in my opinion, is a good draft towards an impressive work in arguing for science over unfounded pseudoscience in many forms. To be fair – and excessively obvious – Jude was able to read your piece first and expand on it: he was able to augment the points at which you made your argument weakest by formulating his response to fill in the gaps. Advice from my two hours here: integrate the methodologies outlined by Jude’s response into your website. Consistently keep improving it by providing clear, efficient, well cited pages and yourself by finding successful arguing styles and absorbing and practicing skills. I think you can be of useful to help educate the world on the validity of the scientific method.
Thank you both.
Thank you for the constructive feedback. It is truly appreciated.
A close relative has recently abandoned science, and gone over to the dark side. I’m afraid to try to bring him back, because I suspect that he, like so many others among us, desperately need their religious beliefs, to maintain their sanity. Without Hope, where do they go? They need to believe the fantasy, to give their existence meaning.
You don’t state it, but I’m guessing that your friend is Christian. You suggest that he has abandoned science rather than coming from a worldview which never embraced it in the first place. So he once valued science, and you may be able to reason with him.
There are Christian organizations which promote real science, and do not make the mistake of mistaking the methodological naturalism of science with the philosophical naturalism of atheism. I take it from your comment that you are an atheist. However, if you sincerely want to help your friend learn to appreciate real science and push back against the pseudoscience often associated with religious apologetics, there are resources available at BioLogos and the American Scientific Affiliation, both of which are Christian organizations who value integrity in science — evolution and all. If you check out my own Web site (click on my name), at the bottom is a long list of helpful resources, and links to many other organizations with similar views (see Appendix A and B).
If you are trying to get your friend to shake their religious belief entirely, I can’t help you. If you manage to shake his faith, what good have you done? From a Christian perspective, none at all. From a perspective of one who values science, none at all, and all you’ve accomplished is add fuel to the fire that “science makes atheists”. Not helpful to anyone.
I think your friend can do a lot of good in his own Christian circles if he can reject the pseudoscience and leave his faith intact. A true Christian faith doesn’t require, or even ask for, proof of anything. That’s why it’s called faith. (I know my statement is at odds with a lot of the apologetic materials out there). If you want to explore this idea further, I’d again point you to my own site.
And to Fallacy Man: I’ve enjoy all of your articles I’ve read so far. Have you considered making a Facebook page to point to your site and promote your new posts? It would make it easier to share your articles on Facebook.
Thanks for this comment. I was going to make many of these same points, but you have already made them for me (especially recommending the American Scientific Affiliation).
Regarding facebook, I do actually have a facebook page for this blog. There should be facebook button at the top, right of the page, but if for some reason it isn’t showing up, here is a link:
I just can’t even converse with someone who thinks that the earth is 6000 years old, and that the theory of evolution is a conspiracy constructed by science.
I fully understand your sentiment, but I think that it’s important to try. Most creationists won’t listen, but there are a few who are receptive to facts and evidence, and it is worth the effort to bring those individuals into the glorious light of evolutionary theory.
Reblogged this on Origin Prometheus and commented:
It becomes a bad habit to keep hearing the same things over and over again and still not listen (I am looking at you, creationists). It should become clear that science is not an anti-creation organisation. We are simply describing the world around us and God happens to be unneeded in the process.
Creation science is not science. It is a way of justifying your a priori assumptions about the universe. ‘Interpret’ is a bad way of describing what we are doing with the evidence. A better way of putting it would be that we are following the evidence and we are not trying to alter its path. We go wherever it goes.
A great post!