Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Stupid Theist Tricks:  Science Denialism

A discussion at Victor's blog goes to show how much Christian ideologues are willing downplay the validity of science in order to make their theism seem more reasonable by comparison.  Two cases in point appeared in a single thread recently.  In one of these, Ilíon makes the claim that scientific methods of measurement are not trustworthy.  In the other case, crude makes an argument that even well-established scientific theories are cast into doubt because they are subject to be refuted by science at some time in the future.  Both of these claims have some truth to them, to be sure.  But both of them are grossly overstated.  Let's see why.

We'll start with this statement from Ilíon:
And as you continue to refuse to understand, rock layers don't come with date tages, and "light from distant galaxies" doesn't come with JPEG metadata dating its time-in-transit. The dates that some scientists assign to these things depend upon quite questionable assumptions.

As I've specifically asked you, specifically, before -- how far from earth is the Perseus Arm of the Galaxy? Is the Perseus Arm about 6189 light years distant, as astronomers now say it is, or is it about 13,962 light years as they said until about ten years ago? And why should anyone trust that the new figure is closer to the truth of the matter than the old? For, after all, the newer, "more accurate" "measure" of the distance is merely based on a different set of assumptions.

And -- even assuming that the newer figure for the distance to the Perseus Arm is based on correct assumptions and is roughly correct -- why should anyone trust that any of them know what in the Hell they're talking about when that claim that some "light from distant galaxies" has been in transit for 13+ billion years ... based on more quite questionable assumptions?

Moreover, have any of these astronomers taken into account the (supposed) findings of quantum mechanics; specifically the "observer effect"? What if "light from distant galaxies" is, let us say, for lack of a better term, "timeless", until someone observes or measures it? What if the reason that astronomers are *always* expressing surprise at how "mature" the galaxies are from (allegedly) 13 billion light years away, and thus (allegedly) 13 billion years ago, is because they are actually observing those galaxies as they exist right now, not as they existed 13 (alleged) billion years ago.
This is based on sheer ignorance of the measurement methods used, and the underlying assumptions.  In previous discussions, he has said that dating methods are not valid because one method relies on another for its validation, and thus there is a circular dependency.  This is the trope that is commonly found on creationist websites.  It is false.  The argument goes something like this: Dating method A is based on "assumptions" of an old earth.  Method A is used to calibrate method B, and method B is used to calibrate method A.

There are many dating methods, and they have various degrees of accuracy or certainty.  Some of them are extremely accurate within a certain range of ages, such as those that involve counting annual layers.  It is true that some methods may be calibrated and verified by comparing them to all other methods that cover the same parts of date range.  In this manner, various independent methods are corroborated.  It is also true that some methods provide relative, as opposed to absolute dating.  So for example, the age of a fossil found in a certain geographic strata can be determined by an independent method of aging the strata, and everything found in that strata is known to be deposited in the same time range, but this is not circular.  It may also be true that once the age of a particular type of fossil is determined, it may be used to help determine the age of the context where it is found in other places.  Again, this is not circular.  For the most part, dating a particular object makes use of as many independent methods as possible in order to provide the best level of assurance.  Young-earth creationists may be interested in reading this article that enumerates some of the many ways we can be certain beyond any reasonable doubt that their pseudo-scientific quibbling about the validity of dating methods doesn't hold water.

Ilíon goes on to cast doubt on methods for determining the distance to stars.  He cites the fact that recent estimates of the distance to the Perseus arm are significantly different from earlier ones, and therefore, you can't trust any of them because they are simply based on different "assumptions".  But scientific methods and assumptions generally get better over time, not worse.  What he doesn't mention is that there were two main distance estimates before the current one, and one of them agrees with the newer measurement (although with less accuracy).  It was based on the brightness of new stars, which provides a fixed reference from which calculations can be made.  The other method relied on an assumption about the relative motion of stars that has now proven to be wrong.  The more recent method relies on angular measurements and parallax (basically, the same way our eyes perceive distance by looking at an object from two different angles).  So unless Ilíon is willing to assert that our assumptions about geometry may eventually be proven wrong, we can safely say that this new estimate is highly accurate, and also that it gives us confirmation that the luminosity method works pretty well.

Let's move on to another stunning example from crude, who is attempting to make the case that relativity implies that a heliocentric model of the solar system is only a matter of perspective, and the old geocentric model turns out to be just as valid. 
Heliocentrism gave way to relativity. There's no preferred reference frame, from what I've read. Funny how that one sticks around.
So, it turns out that no - the earth does not go around the sun. Or at least, on a modern scientific understanding, it's as valid to say the earth goes around the sun as the sun goes around the earth.
As evidence for this, he offers an article that he googled, that contains a statement that seems to support his thesis:
Those who use relativity say that geocentrism can be right and is just as valid as heliocentrism or any other centrism. That’s correct!
Unfortunately, he evidently didn't read the article, which gives scientific reasoning to thoroughly debunk the idea that geocentricism is just as valid as heliocentrism.  Yes, it's valid from a limited perspective, but the geocentric model of the cosmos as it was understood in biblical times doesn't account for innumerable phenomena that we observe that are a direct consequence of the earth's motion.  Nor does it make sense to use that frame of reference  when you consider the trajectories of bodies in space.  Crude's big mistake is in believing that a new theory like relativity completely overturns everything we thought we knew, and that someday there will be yet another theory that will cause us to toss out everything again, perhaps leaving room for biblical myths and miracles to be true after all.  He doesn't understand that a new theory like relativity doesn't invalidate the old - it improves and refines our understanding.  We're not going to return to a geocentric model of the cosmos - ever.

This isn't the first time he has used this ploy.  Take an isolated scientific fact (perhaps something you found by searching the internet until you come across a statement that seems to say what you want to hear), and use it in a context where it isn't valid, in order to make a point that supports your theistic beliefs, without really knowing what you're talking about.  It's the same thing we hear when someone cites quantum mechanics as support for the plausibility of biblical miracles.  They simply don't know what they're talking about.

Crude isn't a science denier in the same sense that Ilíon is.  He's not trying to use pseudoscience to to discount the validity of real science.  Instead, he's trying to use selective bits of real science that he doesn't understand, to show that the ancient biblical understanding really wasn't wrong after all, while ignoring the vast body of broadly-based scientific understanding that doesn't serve his purpose.  Both of them try to sound as if they are better informed than someone who uses science to debunk the bible (on the assumption that most people are at least as ignorant as they are).  Both of them are appallingly dishonest.


  1. You might find it profitable to read this.

  2. I know all about Nagel's theist-friendly, armchair philosophy (see my discussion of armchair philosophy). His views are not based on a scientific understanding of cognition. His book has been panned by people who know something about the topic. See my discussion of Nagel.