Posted by jlwile on November 7, 2011
Steven Newton is the Programs and Policy Director at the National Center for Science Education. He has a B.A. in History from the University of California at Berkeley and a M.S. in Geology from California State University at Hayward. Most importantly, he is a fervent believer in evolution. Because of this, he tends to watch trends in science education as well as the scientific community. His observations recently led to a very interesting article in New Scientist.
The article discusses the fact that young-earth creationists have been presenting at scientific conferences and publishing in the peer-reviewed scientific journals. Since he is a geologist, he is focused on meetings of the Geological Society of America (GSA), where young-earth geologists have presented papers and led field trips in recent years. While he thinks that this is a bad thing, he rejects calls to ban them from the meetings. He says:
Scientific organisations will continue to experience creationist infiltration; this week’s GSA meeting will include several presentations by creationists. But it is important for scientists not to overreact and to remember that science is far stronger than any creationist attempts to undermine it.
While his reasoning is deeply flawed, his final conclusion is correct. As a result, we should at least give him partial credit for his endeavors.
To see the flaw in his reasoning, you need to start with a question that he asks in his article:
It’s not surprising that they were able to do so: the presenters had received decent geology educations from legitimate institutions. Geologically, they could talk the talk and walk the walk. But why? What is the point of giving a talk on marine strata in the late Cretaceous, as Marcus Ross of Liberty University, a Christian college in Lynchburg, Virginia, did, when you actually think the Earth is only a few thousand years old?
He goes on to answer his own question, stating that these silly creationists are doing it just to gain legitimacy. While I expect that might be true in some cases, it is definitely not true for Dr. Marcus Ross. Dr. Ross speaks and publishes in his field because he is actually trying to improve the science in his field by shattering a paradigm that he thinks doesn’t work and demonstrating that there is a better one. I expect that’s true of many young-earth creationists who speak at scientific meetings and publish in the peer-reviewed journals of their field.
Of course, when you start challenging reigning paradigms, a lot of scientists become rather upset. As Newton writes:
Geologists are understandably fuming. After I wrote about attending a creationist-led field trip at the 2010 GSA meeting for the American Geological Institute’s magazine Earth, a number of GSA members expressed their outrage. Many proposed that presentations by creationists be banned outright.
Now if our young-earth ideas have no scientific merit at all, why should we be banned? Why not use us as an object lesson on how science should not be done? Why not use us as a source of amusement? I have been to a lot of scientific conferences, and I can tell you that most of them could benefit from a bit of humor!
Newton agrees that young-earth creationists should not be banned from the scientific conferences or from publishing in the scientific literature. If we use the proper methodologies (many of us do) and have the proper education (many of us do), we should be welcome to present our conclusions. After all, where’s the downside? If we are wrong, science will weather our attempts to “undermine” it.
But what if we are right? If young-earth creationists are on to something, science needs to change some of its paradigms. So as I see it, this is a win-win situation for science. If we are wrong, science isn’t hurt, and some conferences and journals get a bit of much-needed comic relief. If we are right, science strongly benefits by being forced to discard an unworkable paradigm. Either way, young-earth creationism is good for science.
One of the more interesting paragraphs in Newton’s article appears near the end. He writes:
The GSA is not the only organisation facing this issue: the Society for Developmental Biology, the Entomological Society of America and the American Society for Cell Biology have all encountered similar problems. And it’s not just at these relatively informal meetings that creationists have surfaced. Peer-reviewed scientific journals, such as the Journal of Paleontology and Geology, have published – almost certainly without being aware of the authors’ true views and motivations – papers by creationists arguing minor details of what they imagine occurred during Noah’s flood.
What does this sound like to you? To me, it sounds like young-earth creationism is on the rise in scientific circles. I don’t recall many young-earth creationists giving talks related to their views at scientific conferences back in the 1980s and 1990s, when I was doing original research and attending such conferences. I also don’t remember very many journal articles written by young-earth creationists back then. Now, even someone who thinks we are loons admits that we are doing both!
Yes, young-earth creationism is on the rise in scientific circles. I think it’s because more scientists are looking at the data instead of simply accepting what the “old guard” wants us to believe. Even if I am wrong and young-earth creationism is on the rise for some other reason, it’s hard for me to imagine a downside when it comes to scientific progress.