July 22, 2008
Scientific consistency and Conservapedia loopiness
One of the drivers of scientific research is the desire to seeking a greater and greater synthesis, to seek to unify the knowledge and theories of many different areas. One of the most severe constraints that scientists face when developing a new theory is the need for consistency with other theories. It is very easy to construct a theory that explains any single phenomenon. It is much, much harder to construct a theory that does not also lead to problems with other well-established results. If a new theory conflicts with existing theories, something has to give in order to eliminate the contradiction.
For example, Darwin's theory of evolution is a slow process, incompatible with the young Earth creationist theory of a 6,000-year old Earth. The acceptance of Darwin's theory was only made possible with the almost concurrent emergence of geological theories that argued that the Earth was far older than that. Creationists, on the other hand, want to go in the opposite direction and seek to discredit evolution so that they can hold on to a young Earth.
But while the scientific search for overall consistency results in more logical and satisfying theories and new breakthroughs, the parallel religious attempt to build consistency around a 6,000 year Earth leads to greater and greater loopiness, to the construction of an alternative reality that one can only marvel at.
Take for example, the fascinating response of some religious people to reports of Richard Lenski's interesting evolution experiment I wrote about yesterday. Andrew Schlafly (son of Phyllis Schlafly, a conservative icon) is the founder of Conservapedia, a religious alternative started to counter what they perceive as the anti-Christian, liberal agenda of Wikipedia. Conservapedia views everything through a Christian, right-wing, America-centered lens. It gives a lot prominence to arguments in favor of a 6,000-year old Earth.
The anti-evolution crowd contains many people who combine ignorance of science with arrogance and Schlafly exemplifies this. Even though he is not a microbiologist, he challenged Lenski's work with extraordinarily rude letters implying that there was shady work afoot and demanding to see the raw data, leading to a back-and-forth correspondence. You can read all the gory details here. Lenski's second reply to Schlafly is a masterpiece, combining a lesson in how to get slapped around politely with a good scientific explanation of his experiment.
One benefit of Schlafly's crusade is that Lenski's experimental results became elevated from something that just his biology subcommunity knew about to an internet phenomenon, widely discussed in the wider science and religion world. I myself heard about Lenski's work only because of the fuss that Andrew Schlafly created, so thanks Andy!
A prevailing theory among creation scientists such as physicist Dr. John Hartnett believe that the Earth was once contained in a time dilation field, which explains why the earth is only 6,000 years old even though cosmological data (background radiation, supernovae, etc.) set a much older age for the universe. It is believed that this field has since been removed by God, which explains why no such time dilation has been experienced in modern times. (my italics)
That is a typical religious explanation for phenomena – god did it and then hid the evidence that he did it. It always amazes me that these people claim to know exactly what god does and what god wants but plead ignorance as to why.
Take, as another example, Conservapedia's article on kangaroos. These marsupials are found only in Australia and the scientific understanding of how this happened involves theories of changes in ocean levels, the splitting apart of continents, and the speciation that results when animal populations get separated geographically and evolve independently from their ancestral forms, and thus diverge from their cousins on other continents.
After devoting just one line to the evolutionary explanation for the origin of kangaroos in Australia, Conservapedia expansively discusses the creationist explanation:
According to the origins theory model used by young earth creation scientists, modern kangaroos are the descendants of the two founding members of the modern kangaroo baramin that were taken aboard Noah's Ark prior to the Great Flood. It has not yet been determined by baraminologists whether kangaroos form a holobaramin with the wallaby, tree-kangaroo, wallaroo, pademelon and quokka, or if all these species are in fact apobaraminic or polybaraminic.
After the Flood, these kangaroos bred from the Ark passengers migrated to Australia. There is debate whether this migration happened over land with lower sea levels during the post-flood ice age, or before the super-continent of Pangea broke apart.
The idea that God simply generated kangaroos into existence there is considered by most creation researchers to be contra-Biblical.
Notice that this article disparages the notion that god created kangaroos out of nothing in Australia, but finds perfectly plausible the idea that god created the kangaroos out of nothing earlier, saved just a pair of them in Noah's Ark, and then after the flood had them hopping over to Australia to raise a family start a new life, like homesteaders in old Western films.
One would think that once one allowed that kangaroos could be created out of nothing, Ockham's razor would prefer the former theory. The only reason not to do so is to conform to Biblical myths. The Noah's Ark bottleneck has to be preserved at all costs.
It is a long journey from Mount Ararat in Turkey (where the Ark supposedly finally ended up) to Australia and this theory requires that the pair of kangaroos from the Ark either live long enough to get to Australia before they started breeding or that all their offspring produced along the way stuck with the family for the entire journey (can you imagine how maddening their cries of "Are we there yet?" would become) or that the successor lines of all the ones that were left behind along the way became extinct, leaving no fossil record anywhere else in the world. Or maybe they were raptured early.
Another possibility (which I just thought up or maybe it was god revealing the truth to me, undeserving heathen though I am) is that Noah's Ark was less like an emergency lifeboat and more like a round-the-world cruise ship, and that different animals left the liner at different ports of call: kangaroos at Sydney, koalas at Auckland, penguins in the Antarctic etc. This theory actually explains a lot about the geographic diversity of species and I offer it free to the creators of Conservapedia to add to their site.
Since Conservapedia, like Wikipedia, is a fairly open system that allows almost anyone to edit its entries, some suspect that much of the site's content consists of subtle parodies by people pulling the legs of Schlafly and his co-religionists, and that they have not cottoned on to it yet. For example, I found the above passage about relativity just last week but today noticed that the passage has been changed, to be replaced by the briefer "Prevailing theories among creation scientists such as physicists Dr. Russell Humphreys and Dr. John Hartnett are time dilation explains why the earth is only 6,000 years old even though cosmological data (background radiation, supernovae, etc.) set a much older age for the universe." Was the original a parody that the site editors discovered and scrubbed? Is the kangaroo explanation a parody? It is hard to tell.
It is a sad reflection on your credibility when readers cannot tell when the material has been created in good faith and when it is a hoax.
POST SCRIPT: Platypus
Steve Benen points out that new research mapping the genome of the platypus causes yet more headaches for creationists.