Notes from Under Sky

A Level Playing Field

For creation science to be taught as a science, it has to be a science

Every now and then, some advocate of so-called "creation science" manages to irk me by challenging us to explain how it is the bumblebee can fly, when scholars of aerodynamics have allegedly shown that it can't. Well? Riddle me that, Dr. Snooty Scientist! That those same scholars assumed a fixed-wing bee (and said they did, just for the sake of a whimsical analysis) is something they ignore.

But this is beside the point. The scientific community never pretends to have the answers to everything. We only insist that the answers and explanations we produce derive from scientific methods—the formulation of falsifiable hypotheses, the design of rigorous experiment, careful observation, and the gathering and checking of evidence.

What is the scientific method NOT?

It is NOT literary criticism mounted against scientific papers. In many cases, scientific papers disagree with one another. That disagreement is not itself scientific evidence against natural selection.

Yet when I have asked people who call themselves creation scientists what their basic argument is, it is usually, "Evolution is a theory in shambles. Even its most outspoken proponents disagree on almost every aspect of it." But this is a non sequitur. Heliocentrism was not a theory in shambles, simply because Keplerian mechanics differed from Copernican mechanics in almost every detail. The overriding central principle—that the Sun is at the center of the planets—is retained, and that's what matters. In the same way, just because we don't agree with Darwin and Wallace that all evolution works in slow, gradual changes, doesn't mean that they were entirely wrong and that evolution must be torn down and worked anew.

Furthermore, the unspoken implication in their claims is that if evolution by natural selection is wrong, then creation science must be right, as though those were the only two possibilities. If, as they claim, it is human arrogance to claim that science can explain biological variation without the need for outside influence, then I contend it is arrogance thrice over to insist that there are only two alternatives—that there is nothing else to consider, that we have thought of everything possible. In order to be considered viable, without rancor, creation science must be presented as a positive thesis, standing on its own two feet (without having previously crawled on fins, I suppose).

What would this require?

First, creation science would have to be couched in scientific terms—that is, a hypothesis that explains at least as much as evolution by natural selection does. Evolution by natural selection explains a great many things well—despite what many creation scientists say—and it sets the bar for alternatives. (In fact, creation scientists would do themselves a great favor if they would stop continually trying to object to evolution by natural selection through flimsy statistical arguments and references to supposed violations of the second law of thermodynamics.)

It should offer a plausible mechanism—possibly incompletely described at first—by which the great variety in organisms has arisen. That mechanism, or its remnants, should be detectable in organisms either living or dead. Ideally, the hypothesis should not contradict observed evidence; practically speaking, this is not always possible. To be preferred to evolution by natural selection, the new hypothesis should explain evidence that is not well explained by natural selection. The explanation should not make special appeals to supernatural intervention.

Most importantly, the new hypothesis must be falsifiable. That is, there must be some evidence that, if found, would invalidate the hypothesis. Many people think that an invulnerable hypothesis is strong. On the contrary, it is weak. The strong hypothesis is one that could have been invalidated on numerous occasions, and yet was not.

We would also need a methodology to test the new thesis. What new evidence would bolster creation science and count against natural selection, and vice versa? These predictions should be made before the new evidence is actually found, not afterward in ad hoc fashion. The new evidence should not be mere absence of an "evolutionary link"; such negative findings are rarely compelling. Can the hypothesis be tested on today's organisms? If so, experiments can be designed to test it, especially on those matters in which it differs from natural selection.

Over time, I have seen and experienced many, many treatments of creation science, and not once has it been presented in this rigorous fashion. Not once have I heard of, or read of, someone saying, "Creation science predicts that the fossil record will show X, whereas if natural selection were the sole or predominant mechanism, we would not see X but instead Y. Let us see which is the case."

Not once have I heard of, or read of, someone saying, "If creation science is the correct explanation, then successive generations of this carefully controlled population will begin to exhibit only Feature P, whereas if natural selection is the correct explanation, they will exhibit not only Feature P, but Q, R, and S as well."

Not once have I heard of, or read of, someone saying, "The mechanism posited by creation science correctly predicts that the onset of warmer temperatures at the beginning of the Whatchamaceous Period would result in the development of creatures C, D, and E. If natural selection were the sole explanation, this would be statistically unlikely."

They all want to play postmodernist with biological science, as though it were just too much work to actually do the science. But until creation scientists do the science, lay the groundwork, stick their neck on the cutting edge of experiment and evidence, and stop making unfalsifiable claims, creation science is a misnomer and schools should fight to exclude it from the science classroom.

Copyright (c) 2004 Brian Tung