How Christianity and Science Can Interact

James Joule, one of the 19th century's most important physicists.
James Joule, one of the 19th century’s most important physicists.
Over the past few years, I have been writing a series of elementary science courses for home educated students. Since the courses discuss scientific concepts in chronological order, I have spent a lot of time learning the history of science. In the process, I have found that a lot of what I was taught in school (including university) about how science developed is simply false. I have also become acquainted with the views of many great scientists from the past, which has allowed me to learn from them. I want to discuss one of those great scientists in order to share something I have learned.

James Joule was born in 1818. Because his father was a successful brewer, chemistry was in his blood. He was taught at home for many years, and then his father sent him to study under John Dalton, the founder of modern atomic theory. Dalton suffered a stroke two years later, but his influence on Joule continued long after he stopped teaching. Even though Joule ended up taking over the family brewery, he spent a lot of time doing experiments, mostly focused on trying to explain electricity and magnetism in terms of Dalton’s new atomic theory.

However, the more experiments he performed, the more interested he became in the heat that was generated in electrical systems. As he studied heat, he eventually demonstrated that he could convert mechanical energy into heat. This allowed him to argue that heat is just another form of energy, which went against the scientific consensus of his day. Of course, today we know he was correct, and because of that, the standard unit for measuring energy is named after him (the Joule).

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Trees Exchange Nutrients Through an Underground Network!

This forest contains Norway spruce and larch, two of the trees studied in the experiment that is being described. (click for credit)
This forest contains Norway spruce and larch, two of the trees studied in the experiment that is being described. (click for credit)

Ever since I learned about it, the phenomenon of mutualism has fascinated me (see here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here). If you aren’t familiar with the term, it refers to a situation in which two or more organisms of different species work together so that each receives a benefit. One of the most common examples of this kind of relationship is found among fungi and plants (see here and here). The fungi (called mycorrhiza) extract nutrients from the plants, but in exchange, they provide the plants with critical nitrogen- and phosphorus-based chemicals that the plants have a hard time extracting from the soil. As a result of this relationship, both the plants and the fungi thrive. It is not surprising, then, that the vast majority of plants in nature form relationships with mycorrhiza.

Swiss researchers were recently studying trees in a forest, and they learned something rather surprising about these mycorrhiza. They facilitate the exchange of nutrients between different trees in a forest, even trees of different species!1 Why is this so surprising? Well, it is thought that trees in a forest are in constant competition with one another. They compete to expose their leaves to the sunlight so they can produce more food via photosynthesis. They compete for the nitrogen- and phosphorus-based chemicals that they must absorb from the surrounding soil. They even compete for the water in the soil. Despite this perceived competition, however, there seems to be at least some cooperation as well.

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Bill Nye Couldn’t Be More Wrong!

Me with a family whose eldest is about to finish an MD/PhD program.
Me with a family whose eldest is about to finish an MD/PhD program.

I have probably harped on Bill Nye’s errors far too much (see here, here, here, here, here, here, and here). Partly, this is because he continues to make them, when even a small amount of self-education would fix that problem. Partly, it is because some of his errors are so incredibly egregious. This post is a result of the latter situation.

In his error-riddled book, Undeniable, Nye makes the following statement:1

Inherent in this rejection of evolution is the idea that your curiosity about the world is misplaced and your common sense is wrong. This attack on reason is an attack on all of us. Children who accept this ludicrous perspective will find themselves opposed to progress. They will become society’s burdens rather than its producers, a prospect that I find very troubling. Not only that, these kids will never feel the joy of discovery that science brings. They will have to suppress the basic human curiosity that leads to asking questions, exploring the world around them, and making discoveries. They will miss out on countless exciting adventures. We’re robbing them of basic knowledge about their world and the joy that comes with it. It breaks my heart. (emphasis mine)

This is one of the most egregiously false things that Mr. Nye has claimed, and that’s saying a lot, given that it took me twelve pages to detail all of the errors I found in his book. I want to give you some idea of how egregiously wrong that statement is by just highlighting a few people I have met over the past six weeks.

Let’s start with the family pictured with me at the top of this post. The woman in the picture is a homeschooling mother. She has two young ones with her, but she wanted to tell me about her eldest son, who is in the fifth year of his MD/PhD program. Why is he getting two advanced degrees? Because he wants to do cancer research. To treat patients, you typically need an MD. Being trained to do original research typically involves getting a PhD. Thus, those who want to do original research in medicine often get both an MD and a PhD so they have all of the relevant training they need.

This mother’s son demonstrates in no uncertain terms how wrong Bill Nye is. I met her in Peoria, Illinois this past Friday, when I spoke at the APACHE homeschool convention. She came up to me at my publisher’s booth and told me that her son had asked her to inform me of two things: First, my science courses encouraged him to pursue medical research as a career. Second, they helped him excel at university so he could get accepted into medical school.

I am not telling you this to “toot my own horn,” even though a former pastor of mine says I play that particular instrument very well.* I am telling you this because my courses are young-earth creationist courses, and this mother gave her son a young-earth creationist education. Far from suppressing “the basic human curiosity that leads to asking questions,” this young man’s creationist education encouraged him to continue to ask questions, explore the world around him, and make discoveries. He has, most certainly, already felt “the joy of discovery that science brings.” Indeed, I suspect he will be experiencing that joy for the rest of his career.

Now, if this justifiably-proud mother were the only person I met recently who demonstrated Mr. Nye to be wrong, I probably wouldn’t have posted about her and her son. However, the Lord has led several such people to me recently, and I want to introduce a few of them to you!

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Adult Stem Cells Continue to Effectively Treat Illnesses

A diagram showing how a stem cell in bone marrow becomes different types of blood cells. (click for credit)
A diagram showing how a stem cell in bone marrow becomes different types of blood cells. (click for credit)

In a 2003 speech, John Kerry complained about the Bush administration, saying:

Nothing illustrates this administration’s anti-science attitude better than George Bush’s cynical decision to limit research on embryonic stem cells.

During the heat of the “stem cell wars,” this was a common refrain. Life-saving treatments could be produced with embryonic stem cells, and anyone who questioned whether or not it was morally acceptable to destroy one life in order to experiment with saving another was “anti-science.” Never mind that there are stem cells in everyone’s body, commonly called adult stem cells, and those stem cells also have the potential to cure illnesses. Everyone “knew” that using embryonic stem cells would be better.

What’s the difference between embryonic stem cells and adult stems cells? Well, most of the cells in your body have specific tasks. Your skin cells perform one set of tasks, while your muscle cells perform another set of tasks, your liver cells another set of tasks, etc., etc. These cells have all “specialized” so they can perform their tasks efficiently. A stem cell, by contrast, is a cell that hasn’t yet “specialized.” It can develop into many different cells, depending on your body’s needs.

Embryonic stem cells end up developing into all the cells that make up the body, so they are thought to be very, very flexible when it comes to what they can develop into. However, to get those stem cells, you have to kill the embryo. Adult stem cells, on the other hand have already specialized to some degree. For example, the drawing at the top of this post shows how an adult stem cell found in bone marrow can develop into various different blood cells. While that shows some serious flexibility, bone marrow stem cells don’t normally develop into wildly different cells, like skin cells. As a result, it is thought that adult stem cells aren’t as flexible as embryonic stem cells. On the positive side, however, you don’t have to kill anything to get adult stem cells.

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More Disagreement Between Climate Models and Data

A promotional banner for the film "The Day After Tomorrow."  (click for credit)
A promotional banner for the film “The Day After Tomorrow.” (click for credit)

The Day After Tomorrow was a 2004 film co-written, directed, and produced by Roland Emmerich. It depicted the destruction of a good fraction of the United States by a terrible weather calamity that had been brought about by global warming. While it was widely recognized as being scientifically inaccurate, it supposedly had a scientific premise. The idea was that global warming had caused so much polar ice to melt that it interrupted the North Atlantic current that transports heat around the world. As a result, outbreaks of violent weather occurred, causing terrible destruction. The media discussed the film a lot back then, and even Al Gore said that while it was fiction, it was a good starting point for a debate about climate change.

While no scientist would ever suggest that such a thing could happen as depicted in the movie (the timescale was way too short, for example), a study was published last year that suggested global warming has started disrupting ocean currents.1 In particular, the paper suggested that the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC) was slowing down. Since the AMOC is a “conveyor belt” of currents that move heat around the globe, the study got the media once again talking about the 2004 film.

Much like the science in The Day After Tomorrow, however, the science in last year’s study was (at best) speculative. It relied mostly on computer models as well as some “reconstructions” of surface temperatures that went back to 900 AD. Using these speculative tools, the authors claimed that their study

suggests that the AMOC weakness after 1975 is an unprecedented event in the past millennium. [emphasis mine]

Not surprisingly, a study that suggested something “unprecedented” received quite a bit of media attention. Equally unsurprising, a recent paper demonstrates that actual measurements of the AMOC indicate that there is no evidence for any kind of weakness.

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Another Evolutionary Prediction Falsified

Mnemiopsis leidyi, a species of comb jelly (click for credit)
Mnemiopsis leidyi, a species of comb jelly
(click for credit)
The best way to judge a scientific theory is to examine the predictions it makes about the observable universe. The more its predictions line up with the data, the more reliable the theory becomes. The less its predictions line up with the data, the less reliable the theory becomes. Since starting this blog, I have pointed out many instances where the predictions of evolutionary theory don’t line up with the observable data (here, here, here, here, here, and here). Dr. Hunter has an excellent review of several other instances. Now we can add yet another failed evolutionary prediction to this ever-growing list.

The animal pictured above is Mnemiopsis leidyi, a species of comb jelly. According to evolutionary theory, the comb jellies are “primitive.” Based on genetics, they are supposed to have evolved before some of the simplest animals on the planet: sponges. Even if you don’t believe the genetic arguments, most evolutionists would agree that comb jellies evolved well before the more “advanced” animals, such as roundworms.

One of the things that separates these “primitive” animals from the more “advanced” animals is their digestive tract. In animals like jellyfish and sponges, there is only one opening in the digestive tract. The animal must use that opening to take in food, and then later it must use the same opening to expel indigestible waste. According to the story of evolution, this “simple” digestive tract was the first to evolve, and then later, a more “advanced” digestive tract formed. In this more “advanced” digestive tract, there is one opening for taking in food and a different opening for expelling indigestible waste.

Since comb jellies are suppose to be among the “primitive” animals, evolution predicts that they should have “simple” digestive tracts. However, recent videos demonstrate that this evolutionary prediction is (not surprisingly) wrong.

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American Meteorological Society Survey Shows There Is No 97% Consensus on Climate Change

A stop sign in Washington, D.C. during a blizzard (click for credit)
A stop sign in Washington, D.C. during a blizzard (click for credit)

You’ve heard it a lot lately. 97% of climate scientists believe that climate change (aka global warming) is happening, and human activity is mostly to blame. It doesn’t matter that this figure comes from a terribly flawed study. It’s a great soundbite, so it is used a lot. Consider, for example, the president of the Sierra Club, which calls itself “the nation’s largest and most influential grassroots environmental organization.” In a recent testimony, he didn’t even know about the dramatic disagreement between the satellite temperature record and the global climate models that have been used to support global warming hysteria. Instead, he simply kept repeating the claim that 97% of scientists believe that global warming is mostly caused by human activity.

Now, of course, anyone who has been reading this blog for a while knows that the opinion of a group of people (even a large majority of scientists) means very little to me. If I am going to believe in something, I want the objective data to support what I believe. Opinions are not objective data, so I try to look at the evidence and think for myself. Unfortunately, there are a lot of people who don’t want to think for themselves. Like the president of the Sierra Club, they simply believe whatever the majority of scientists say. Well, a recent survey of the American Meteorological Society might be of interest to such people.

The American Meteorological Society describes itself in this way:

Founded in 1919, the American Meteorological Society (AMS) is the nation’s premier scientific and professional organization promoting and disseminating information about the atmospheric, oceanic, hydrologic sciences.

They surveyed their membership about climate change, and 4,092 of the members responded. This represents a 53.5% response rate. Not surprisingly, there was no 97% consensus to be found among the respondents.

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Yes, Earth Is Unique, But This Study Doesn’t Demonstrate That!

The earth as seen from space
The earth as seen from space
The earth is sometimes called “the blue planet.” Just as Mars looks red when viewed from the earth, the earth looks blue when viewed from space. Why? Because of all the water. About 71% of the earth’s surface is covered by water, and that’s one of the many, many factors that allows life to flourish on this planet. Based on the limited observations we have, there is simply no other planet like earth. To me, that’s not at all surprising. God created this earth as a haven for life, so it makes sense that there isn’t another planet like it.

Based on my news feed from a few days ago, you would think that a recent scientific paper confirmed this idea. The Daily Mail, for example, proclaimed:

Earth really IS special: None of the 700 million trillion planets in our known universe are similar to our own, study finds

Other sources, such as Science Alert and Discover agree. The latest, most cutting-edge physics demonstrates that earth is unique.

Because these headlines peaked my interest, I decided to look at the scientific paper that describes this cutting-edge research. When I did so, I learned that once again, the media doesn’t bother to try to understand the science that they report. In fact, the researchers who wrote the paper didn’t find the earth to be unique. They estimate that there are about 2×1018 similar planets in our observable universe.

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A Spinosaurus and a “Pregnant” T. Rex at the Texas Homeschool Convention

A spinosaurus drawn by Hayley, a Texas student who has used my courses.
A spinosaurus drawn by Hayley, a Texas student who has used my courses.

I love going to homeschool conventions. This past weekend, I spoke at the Texas Homeschool Convention, and it was a wonderful experience. I got to talk with a lot of interesting people, like the great granddaughter of Maria von Trapp. I also got a headache from discussing quantum physics, mechanistic naturalism, and determinism with two of the philosophers I mentioned in a previous post. Of course, I also got to talk with students who have used and are using my courses. One of those students was incredibly enthusiastic, asking me several questions about science. During the course of the convention, she drew me the wonderful picture you see above, which is of a spinosaurus. He is the villain in a story she is writing.

Speaking of dinosaurs, I got a very interesting question during one of my talks. A student who was obviously interested in science asked if I had heard about the pregnant Tyrannosaurus rex that had recently been found. I was surprised by the question for two reasons. First, I had not heard about it, and I try to keep up on the latest events in science. The fact that this student knew a current event in science that I had not heard about really surprised me. Second, it seemed strange that someone would say a Tyrannosaurus rex was pregnant, since all that we know indicates it was a reptile, meaning it laid eggs. I think the term “pregnant” refers to carrying a developing fetus, so it wouldn’t be applied to an egg-laying animal.

Due to the wonders of in-flight internet, I was able to investigate the student’s question on my flight home. Sure enough, there were a lot of news stories about a pregnant Tyrannosaurus rex (see this one, for example). However, when I found and read the scientific paper upon which the stories were based, it became clear to me that the news outlets were doing their typically less-than-stellar job of reporting on science.

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This Is Why You Shouldn’t Pay Attention to Most Surveys

A possible warning label for food?
A possible warning label for food?
As a nation, we seem to be addicted to surveys. We want to know what other people think about politics, education, celebrities, music, television shows, movies, science, etc. I have never understood that. While I might find a survey interesting from time to time, I honestly don’t worry much about what most people think. Perhaps that’s why it doesn’t bother me when people complain about my “contrarian” views, as one professor recently described them. While I strongly value the opinions of many people I know, I really couldn’t care less about what the majority of people (including the majority of scientists) think.

Well, I recently came across a survey that might help me understand why the opinion of the majority means little to me. It was done by the Oklahoma State University Department of Agricultural Economics. This particular survey is performed online monthly and tries to track “consumer preferences and sentiments on the safety, quality, and price of food at home and away from home with particular focus on meat demand.” Even though most of the questions on the survey are consistent from month-to-month, ad hoc questions can be added.

For the June 2016 survey, three new ad hoc questions were added. One of them asked the respondents whether they support or oppose a mandatory label on all foods containing DNA. It turns out that 80% of the respondents supported the idea! By contrast, 82% supported mandatory labels on foods produced with genetic engineering, and only 69% supported mandatory calorie labels on restaurant foods.

Now, of course, I suspect that most of my readers are educated enough to understand how silly it is to want mandatory labels on foods that contain DNA. However, just in case it escapes some people: Most of the food we eat contains DNA! When you eat a vegetable, for example, you are eating plant tissues that are made up of plant cells. Each and every cell holds the plant’s DNA in its nucleus. When you eat meat, you are eating an animal’s muscles, which are composed of muscle cells. Once again, muscle cells contain the animal’s DNA. It is very difficult to eat without ingesting the DNA of the organism you are eating!

Think about that for a moment. In this survey, 82% of people think there should be a warning label on foods that were produced with genetic engineering. However, the majority of those people also think there should be a warning about something that is in nearly every food we eat! Why in the world should we take advice about genetically-modified food from people who clearly don’t know much about the very molecule that is modified to make those foods? Also, since there were fewer people who supported mandatory calorie labels on restaurant foods, at least some of the people who are worried about DNA being in food don’t seem to be worried about how restaurant food can contribute to a real health issue: obesity!

This survey tells me two things: First, science education in the U.S. is abysmal. Of course, there are lots of other things that have already demonstrated that! Second, we shouldn’t listen to surveys when it comes to making decisions.