I’m Not Surprised, But I’m Not Sure What It Means

One of the many results of a poll taken at 200 conservative Christian colleges and universities.  It indicates that the science faculty in those institutions are more likely to be young-earth creationists than their fellow religion faculty.  (click for credit)

One of the many results of a poll taken at 200 conservative Christian colleges and universities. It indicates that the science faculty in those institutions are more likely to be young-earth creationists than their fellow religion faculty. (click for credit)

In 2011, Answers in Genesis published a book entitled Already Compromised. It was based on the results of an interesting poll. The pollsters (America’s Research Group and Britt Beemer) attempted to contact four faculty/staff members (the university president, the academic dean, the head of the science department, and the head of the religion department) at 200 different Christian colleges and universities. Of those potentially 800 people, they ended up being able to interview 312. They asked a wide variety of questions, focusing on how those individuals interpreted different aspects of the Bible. The results are presented in the book, along with ample commentary.

The conclusion of the book is that many Christian colleges and universities have “compromised” their theology, subordinating the teachings of the Bible to the scientific consensus. In other words, they have decided that they must force their interpretation of the Bible to “fit” the scientific consensus, which includes flagellate-to-philosopher evolution and a billions-of-years-old earth.

Now please understand that I do not agree with the conclusion of the book. I don’t think that those who believe the earth is ancient or that God has created through evolution are necessarily “compromising” their theology. Non-literal interpretations of various parts of the book of Genesis can be traced all the way back to (and before) the beginning of Christendom, and there are literal interpretations of Genesis that result in conclusions other than young-earth creationism. Thus, the whole idea that people who disagree with me when it comes to natural history are “compromised” is absurd.

Despite the fact that I disagree with the book’s conclusions, I am interested in the results of its poll, especially the one highlighted in the graphic above. According to the poll’s results on this issue, the heads of the science department in these 200 Christian colleges and universities are nearly four times more likely to be young-earth creationists than the heads of the religion department!

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More Confirmation of a Creationist Prediction

The centromere is the point at which a chromosome and its duplicate attach during cellular reproduction. (click for credit)

The centromere is the point at which a chromosome and its duplicate attach during cellular reproduction.
(click for credit)

Uninformed people often say that creationism cannot make testable predictions. Since testable predictions are a necessary part of any scientific theory, these people claim that the creationist view isn’t scientific. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth! Creation scientists regularly make testable predictions, many of which have already been verified by further scientific research (see here, here, here, here, here, and here).

One of the more stunning examples of a confirmed creationist prediction is given by the nature of DNA. Since the 1970s, evolutionists have taught (as an indisputable fact) that the majority of the human genome is made up of useless stretches of nonsensical sequences which have been collectively referred to as “junk DNA.” However, in a Herculean study of human DNA, the ENCODE team demonstrated that a minimum of 80% is used by the cell and therefore should not be referred to as “junk.” One of the scientists on the team (Dr. John A. Stamatoyannopolous) stated:

I don’t think anyone would have anticipated even close to the amount of sequence that ENCODE has uncovered that looks like it has functional importance…

Actually, there were several scientists predicting this very result! Creationists have been doing so for years.*

Well, now that we know the vast majority of the human genome is functional, some scientists have removed the evolutionary blinders from their eyes (at least when it comes to the nature of DNA) and have begun to look at regions of the DNA that scientists have been assuring us could not possibly have any function whatsoever. When they study such regions, they (not surprisingly) find that those regions do have a function, and it is often a very important one.

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The Difference Between Energy and Power

methane_bomb

As I have mentioned before, I am teaching a thermodynamics class at Anderson University. The first few lectures were mostly composed of review. It is important to do such a review, because some concepts are so critically important that I must be sure the students remember them and understand them well. Whenever possible, I like to do demonstrations to help the students visualize the concepts I am trying to get them to understand.

One of my very favorite demonstrations involves something surprising that happens when you burn natural gas in just the right way. It can be used to illustrate several different things, but I used it in my thermodynamics class to illustrate the concept of power. I hope you enjoy it:

Another Atheist Who Became a Christian

Nichole Cliffe wrote about her conversion in Christianity Today.  (click to view the article, from which this image is taken)

Nichole Cliffe wrote about her conversion in Christianity Today.
(click to view the article, from which this image is taken)

I have been pretty busy with the thermodynamics class that I have been teaching at Anderson University, as well as finishing up the last book in my elementary science series. As a result, I haven’t had a lot of time to write blog posts. However, I did want to share a very interesting article that I recently saw in Christianity Today. It is about another atheist who became a Christian. Her name is Nichole Cliffe. She is a journalist who grew up in Canada and went to Harvard University. She has written for different websites, including Slate, The Hairpin and The Toast, a website she co-founded.

As long-time readers of this blog know, I collect these kinds of stories, because I am fascinated by the many ways that God reveals Himself to people. This one is a bit different from the others that you will find here, however, because it has little to do with science or philosophy. Indeed, the author has no regard for apologetics. She says that coming to Christ involved figuring out what she already knew. It’s an interesting viewpoint, and I encourage you to read what she has to say:

Nicole Cliffe: How God Messed Up My Happy Atheist Life

More “Ancient” DNA Found

DNA that is thought to be more than a million years old has been discovered in the Bering Sea. (illustration by Lightspring via shutterstock.com)

DNA that is thought to be more than a million years old has been discovered in the Bering Sea. (illustration by Lightspring via shutterstock.com)

Over the weekend, I read a fascinating paper published in Geology, the peer-reviewed journal of the Geological Society of America. The authors of the paper report on their attempts to extract DNA from the sediments found at the bottom of the Bering Sea. They were successful in their attempts to find DNA, even in sediments that are supposed to be 1.4 million years old! This is a rather surprising discovery, since the half-life of DNA in bone is supposed to be about 521 years. In fact, the experiments done to obtain that half-life indicate that even at very low temperatures, no meaningful DNA could be extracted from bone after 1.5 million years.

So why is it surprising that the authors of this study found DNA in sediments that are supposed to be “only” 1.4 million years old? There are at least two reasons. First, wet sediment should accelerate the decay of biological molecules (including DNA) compared to the inside of a bone. Thus, DNA should become undetectable much earlier in wet sediment. Second, their results indicate that there would still be DNA found in much “older” sediments, because the “older” the sediment in their study, the more the DNA seem to resist decay.

But wait a minute. This is wet sediment. All manner of microorganisms can infiltrate wet sediment. How do we know that this DNA has really been in the sediment since it was formed? Couldn’t the DNA they detected be from microorganisms that recently started living there? That’s one of the clever aspects of this experiment. The authors looked at DNA that is found in the chloroplasts of cells that do photosynthesis! Since such organisms require light to survive, they wouldn’t have any reason to infiltrate the dark sediments. Even if they did get into those sediments for some reason, they would die in the upper layers, so the deeper (and therefore older) sediments definitely would not harbor any recent microorganisms that had such DNA.

In the end, it seems to me that they really did extract from the sediment DNA that had been there since that sediment had formed. That’s interesting enough, but there is something even more fascinating about what the authors found.

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Another Earth-Like Planet? Not Really.

An artist's conception of the newly-discovered planet Proxima Centauri b (click for credit)

An artist’s conception of the newly-discovered planet, Proxima Centauri b
(click for credit)

The internet is alive with exciting news. Space.com says that astronomers have discovered the “Closest Earth-Like Planet.” New Scientist says, “Earth-like planet spotted just 4 light years away.” Livescience.com says, “Found! Potentially Earth-Like Planet at Proxima Centauri Is Closest Ever.” So we’ve finally found an earth-like planet, right? Wrong!

The European Southern Observatory, whose astronomers actually found this new planet, is much more measured in its public announcement of their find. While it gives a few illustrations (like the one above) that are based almost exclusively on imagination alone, the announcement itself carefully discusses what is actually known about the planet. As far as they can tell, this planet is most likely a rocky planet (unlike Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune, which are mostly gas), and it is also possible that the temperature of the planet allows for the existence of water in its liquid phase, which most scientists think is necessary for life. Thus, it is possible that life might exist on the planet.

How did the astronomers at the The European Southern Observatory come to this conclusion? First, they observed the nearest known star to our sun, Proxima Centauri, for an extended amount of time. By analyzing changes in the light that comes from that star, they found that it “wobbles.” Sometimes, it moves towards the earth at about 3 miles per hour, but eventually, it turns around and starts moving away from the earth at about the same speed. This happens repeatedly at intervals of about 11 days. Pretty much the only way this can be explained is if a planet is orbiting the star, tugging it one way and then another as it orbits. Using this information and our understanding of gravity, the mass of the planet (currently being called “Proxima Centauri b”) has been calculated to be at least 30% more than that of earth, and its average distance from Proxima Centauri is about 4 million miles, which puts it 20 times closer to its star than earth is to the sun.

Right now, that’s really all that can be said about the planet with any degree of certainty. However, based on those calculations, some conjectures can be made.

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Coral Bleaching: A Death Sentence or An Adaptive Mechanism?

A coral reef in the Phoenix Islands Protected Area, near Coral Castles (click for credit)

A coral reef in the Phoenix Islands Protected Area, near Coral Castles (click for credit)

I do a lot of scuba diving, and I love coral reefs. They are probably the most beautiful things you can see under water, and they are usually teeming with fish and other wildlife. While there are other wonderful things to see in the ocean, I can’t think of anything better than nearly depleting a tank of air while slowly swimming over and around a coral reef.

However, there are times when coral reefs aren’t so beautiful. Compare the picture above, for example, to the following picture:

Bleached coral (click for credit)

Bleached coral (click for credit)

What’s the difference? The coral pictured above has bleached.

Corals have an amazing mutualistic relationship with microscopic algae called zooxanthellae. The corals provide protection and certain necessary chemicals to the zooxanthellae. In exchange, the zooxanthellae make oxygen, sugar, and other chemicals for the corals, and they also help the corals remove waste. It is a relationship that works wonderfully for both of them. However, there are times when corals expel their zooxanthellae. This causes them to turn white (as shown in the picture above), which is why it is called “bleaching.”

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Dr. James Tour Tells Us How Little We Know About the Origin of Life

James Tour is a giant in the field of organic chemistry.

James Tour is a giant in the field of organic chemistry.

A few days ago, a reader asked me to review an article by Dr. James Tour, as well as a video of a talk that he gave. I was initially hesitant to do so, because Dr. Tour is a giant in the field of organic chemistry. For example, he is the T. T. and W. F. Chao Professor of Chemistry at Rice University. For those who aren’t familiar with the academic structure of universities, only the most elite professors are appointed to a position that is named in honor of someone else. This is called an “endowed professorship,” and anyone who holds such a position is in the upper echelon of academia. He has won several awards for his outstanding research accomplishments, including being named by Thomson Reuters as one of the top ten chemists in the world in 2009. Not only is his research outstanding, but he is also an excellent teacher, having earned the George R. Brown Award for Superior Teaching at Rice University in both 2007 and 2012. What could I possibly add to the words of someone so knowledgeable and distinguished?

After reading the article, however, I do think I have something to offer. Because of the nature of what he is trying to discuss, his article is very, very technical. There were times, quite frankly, when my eyes glazed over a bit. I didn’t listen to a lot of the video (it seems to cover the same ground as the article), but it is also quite technical. For those who do not have the fortitude to make it through such a technical article or talk, I thought I could summarize it.

The “take home” message is straightforward: We have no idea how some of the most basic molecules necessary for life could have been produced by unguided processes. Why does Dr. Tour feel compelled to write a detailed article making a statement that, in my mind, is quite obvious? He explains:

Those who think scientists understand the issues of prebiotic chemistry are wholly misinformed. Nobody understands them. Maybe one day we will. But that day is far from today. It would be far more helpful (and hopeful) to expose students to the massive gaps in our understanding. They may find a firmer — and possibly a radically different — scientific theory. [Note that “prebiotic chemistry” refers to the chemistry that occurred on earth before life existed.]

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Watch Your Assumptions: They Can Lead To False Conclusions!

Poor assumptions can lead to myths instead of facts (image from shutterstock.com by Thinglass)

Poor assumptions can lead to myths instead of facts (image from shutterstock.com by Thinglass)

I am always on the lookout for experiences that can be turned into a “teachable moment.” Over the past two weeks, I have had two such experiences, so I thought I would write about them. The first one was a result of my article entitled Reflections on the Ark Encounter, which is a positive review of the latest attraction produced by Answers in Genesis. The day after it was published, I got a Facebook message from someone who had shared my post with a friend of hers. In reply, this friend asked if I was a “real” scientist. She assured him that I was and shared my Facebook page with him. She was rather taken aback when her friend sent her the following reply:

A mimeographed “PhD” from whatever fundamentalist “college” he sent his box tops to is not qualification to shine a real scientist’s shoes, let alone make claims about the natural world. Further, any parents who buy into this complete fiction, and indoctrinate their kids in this manner, are guilty of emotional and mental child abuse, and in my opinion should be prosecuted. I cant think of a better way to sabotage a child’s future in a modern, scientific and technological society.

This didn’t surprise me, of course. I am used to having my credentials questioned and being insulted because I don’t slavishly “toe the line” when it comes to today’s scientific consensus. That comes with the territory. Indeed, Dr. Dan Shechtman was asked to leave his research group because he dared to question the scientific consensus. Of course, the data eventually proved him to be correct and the scientific consensus to be wrong. However, that was until after being ridiculed as a “quasi-scientist” by one of the greatest chemists who has ever lived!

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A Really Undeniable Book, Written By a Real Scientist

A book that discusses some undeniable truths.

A book that discusses some undeniable truths.

Dr. Douglas Axe is a very interesting scientist. He did his undergraduate work at the University of California, Berkeley and got his Ph.D. in chemical engineering from Caltech. His thesis was focused on molecular biology, which is why you find his scientific papers published in The Journal of Molecular Biology, PloS One, and Biochemistry. He is also a co-author on a paper that appeared in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. Currently, he is the director of the Biologic Institute, which is a research organization that encourages its scientists to do their research from an Intelligent Design point of view. He is also one of the authors of Science and Human Origins, a book that surveys the evidence for human evolution and concludes that humans cannot be the result of an unguided, neo-Darwinian process. I recently had the pleasure of reading his latest book, Undeniable: How Biology Confirms Our Intuition That Life Is Designed.

The first thing you might notice about the book is its main title, which is the same as the main title of an error-riddled book written by Bill Nye. While Nye likes to call himself “The Science Guy,” some of his behavior is decidedly anti-science (see here and here, for example), and his book makes it clear that he doesn’t try to understand some of the issues that he discusses publicly. Unlike Nye’s book, this book is written by a real scientist who actually does educate himself on the issue about which he is writing. Indeed, most of what he writes in this book is directly related to the scientific work he has published over the years.

Before getting into the meat of the book, I think that a personal story he shares is worth noting. While he was a graduate student at Caltech, one of his final exams asked which biological molecule was likely the first “living” molecule. In other words, the person writing the exam wanted the student to relate what was currently the most fashionable conjecture regarding the origin of life. Here is how he describes his answer and its result:

I decided to give the expected answer in full and then – for extra credit – to state why I found that answer unconvincing. I explained why, contrary to the consensus view, I didn’t think any molecule has what would be needed to start life. As shrewd at that seemed at the time, I learned when my exam was returned (with points deducted) that we students were expected to not only know current thinking in biology but also accept it without resistance. We were there as much to be acculturated as educated. (kindle version, Chapter 1, emphasis his)

That is so true. If you ever wonder why so many scientists resist new thinking in the origins debate, it’s because they have been taught to resist it! Fortunately, some scientists (like Dr. Axe) don’t don’t take that lesson to heart. Instead, they do what scientists should do: question the existing paradigm when the data speak against it.

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