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.