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Just the Facts, Ma’am: Creationism’s “Dragnet” View of Science

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August 27, 2014 Tags: Christianity & Science - Then and Now

Today's entry was written by Ted Davis. You can read more about what we believe here.

Dragnet still photo
Sergeant Joe Friday (left), played by the late Jack Webb, and Officer Bill Gannon, played by the late Harry Morgan, on the set of on the classic TV program, Dragnet. As everyone seems to know, Friday often asked female witnesses to tell him “Just the facts, Ma’am.” In fact, however, he never actually said it. It’s gone deeply into our collective memory, partly because the good sergeant was portrayed that way in parodies, but partly also because he did say similar things on the program.

Harry Rimmer’s strongest objections to evolution flowed from a rock bottom commitment to the “harmony” (a word he often used, including in the title of one of his most popular books of science and the Bible. BioLogos believes the same thing, but not in the same way: our concept of scientific knowledge is quite different. To understand this more fully, let’s examine Rimmer’s view of scientific knowledge.

He laid out his position succinctly early in his career as a creationist evangelist, in a brief article for a leading fundamentalist magazine, outlining the goals of his ministry to “the outstanding agnostics of the modern age,” namely “the high school [and] college student.” The basic problem, in his opinion, was that students were far too uncritical of evolution: “With a credulity intense and profound the modern student will accept any statement or dogma advanced by the scientific speculations and far-fetched philosophy of the evolvular [sic] hypothesis.” The key words here are “credulity,” “speculations,” “far-fetched,” and “hypothesis.” Only by undermining confidence in evolution, Rimmer believed, could he affirm that “The Bible and science are in absolute harmony.” Only then could he say that there “is no difference [of opinion]” between the “infallible and absolute ... Word of God” and the “correlated body of ‘absolute’ knowledge” that constitutes science.

What exactly did he mean by a “correlated body of ‘absolute’ knowledge”? He spelled it out in a pamphlet written a couple years later, Modern Science and the Youth of Today. Reread that title: his concern to reach the next generation can’t be missed. Describing himself unabashedly as “professionally engaged in scientific research” and a friend of “TRUE SCIENCE,” written in large capitals for emphasis, he added in bold type that “There is a difference between science and scientific opinion, and it is the latter that is often meant when we say ‘modern’ science.” Stating his definition of science as “a correlated body of absolute knowledge,” he then said this:

“When knowledge on a subject has been refined and is absolute, the knowledge of those facts becomes the science of that subject. But ‘modern’ science is the opinion of current thought on many subjects, and has not yet been tested or proved. When the test is made, this ‘modern’ science generally fails, and passes on to new theories and hypotheses, but this never hinders a certain type of dogmatists from falling into the same error, and positively asserting a new theory as a scientifically established fact. The author desires to clearly distinguish in this article between true science, (which is knowledge gained and verified) and ‘modern’ science, which is largely speculation and theory.”

In Rimmer’s opinion, it was precisely this false science—based on speculative hypotheses rather than absolute knowledge of proven facts—that led youth to “sneer at Christian faith because it is not scientific,” to “turn their backs on godly living and holiness of conduct, [and] to make shipwrecks of their lives as they drift away from every mooring that would hold in times of stress.” Thus, Rimmer concluded that “‘MODERN’ SCIENCE IS ANTI-CHRISTIAN!” In other words, genuine science is “Just the facts, Ma’am.”

Cartoon
Cartoon by Ernest James Pace, Sunday School Times, June 3, 1922, p. 334. The “hypothesis” of Darwinian evolution, full of hot air but “leaking badly,” carrying the gondola of “Science Falsely So-Called,” descends from the clouds of “speculation” toward a collision with the hard “facts.”

Distinctions of this sort, between “false” (modern) science on the one hand and “true” science on the other hand, are absolutely fundamental to creationism. Without such, it’s impossible to claim that science and a fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible agree. Take a low view of the “science” in the “hypothesis” of evolution, and you can say with William Jennings Bryan, “The word hypothesis is a synonym used by scientists for the word guess,” or “Evolution is not truth, it is merely an hypothesis—it is millions of guesses strung together” (quoting his stump speech, The Menace of Darwinism, and the closing argument he never got to deliver at the Scopes trial).

Let’s go further into this particular rhetorical move. Basically, Rimmer was appealing to two related currents in American thinking about science, both of them quite influential in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and still to some extent today. One is known as “common sense realism,” a form of Baconian empiricism originating in Scotland during the Enlightenment and associated with Thomas Reid. Thinkers in this tradition, including many conservative Protestants in America, hold that the common sense of ordinary people is sufficient to evaluate truth claims, on the basis of readily available empirical evidence—essentially a Baconian approach to knowledge.

That’s fine as far as it goes, but proponents are sometimes too empirical, too dismissive of the high-level principles and theories that join together diverse observations into coherent pictures. As the Christian astronomer and historian Owen Gingerich has so eloquently said, science is ultimately about “building a wondrously coherent picture of the universe,” and “a universe billions of years old and evolving is also part of that coherency” (Gingerich, “The Galileo Affair,” Scientific American, August 1982, p. 143). Proponents of common sense realism sometimes see such ideas, which lie at the core of all branches of modern science, as wholly unjustified speculations. This creates a large gap between the views of professional scientists and those of many ordinary people—a gap that is far more significant for the origins controversy than any supposed “gaps” in the fossil record.

A second idea embedded in Rimmer’s rhetoric was emblazoned on the gondola in the balloon cartoon: “Science Falsely So-Called,” which references 1 Timothy 6:20, “O Timothy, keep that which is committed to thy trust, avoiding profane and vain babblings, and oppositions of science falsely so called.” For centuries, Christian authors have used this phrase derisively to label various philosophical views that they saw as opposed to the Bible, including Gnosticism, but since the early nineteenth century natural history has probably been the most common target. Rimmer and other fundamentalist leaders of the 1920s had no problem with vast geological ages, so for them “Science Falsely So-Called” really meant just evolution. Contemporary creationists continue this tradition, but their targets are more numerous. They believe all of the historical sciences are false—cosmology, geology, paleontology, physical anthropology, and evolutionary biology. This creates such a large gap with professional science that it can never be crossed: YECs will always be in conflict with many of the most important, well established conclusions of modern science. Our mission at BioLogos is to provide a helpful alternative to both Rimmer and the YECs, an alternative that bridges this gap in biblically faithful ways.

Cartoon
This cartoon, drawn by W. D. Ford for Why Be an Ape—?, a book published in 1936 by the English journalist Newman Watts, shows exactly what Rimmer and other fundamentalists thought of evolution. As Bryan said, evolution is just “millions of guesses strung together.” Courtesy of Edward B. Davis.

Rimmer always pitted the “facts” of science against the mere “theories” of professional scientists. At the same time, he raised the burden of proof so high for evolution that no amount of evidence could have persuaded his followers to accept it. For example, let’s consider his analysis of the evidence for the evolution of the horse—a textbook case since the late nineteenth century. After noting the existence of twelve ancestral forms related to the modern horse, he asked,

“What of the millions upon millions of forms that would be required for the transformation of each species into the next subsequent species? What of the billions of varieties that would be necessary for the gradual development of a horse out of a creature that is more like a civet cat than any other living creature? Can intelligence and reason be content with twelve links in so great a gap, and call that a complete demonstration?”

Having set up the situation in this way, Rimmer knew full well that “so great a gap” will never be crossed—we will never find millions of transitional forms. He also knew his audience: most ordinary folk would find his skepticism and ridicule far more persuasive than the evidence presented in the textbooks. Eight decades later, the horse remains a textbook example of evolution, and creationists still demand more transitional forms—despite the fact that, as creation scientist Todd Wood admits, “the evolutionists got that one right”.

Pamphlets by Harry Rimmer
Rimmer discussed the evolution of horses in the larger of the two pamphlets shown here, which measures 5¼ x 7¾ inches. Most of his pamphlets were around that size. The smaller one, Modern Science and the Youth of Today, is very rare today; just a single copy is listed in the Library of Congress database of academic libraries. Published a few months after the Scopes trial, it was his first antievolution pamphlet. Courtesy of Edward B. Davis.

Unfortunately, Rimmer sometimes used even pseudo-scientific “facts” to defend the reliability of Scripture against scientists and biblical critics. Sadly, it’s still all too commonly done—the internet helps to perpetuate such things no less than it also serves to disseminate more accurate information. Indeed, the internet has done for plagiarism, even of really bad ideas, what steroids did to baseball for a generation. For much of the nineteenth century, by contrast, many highly respected Christian scholars had introduced a substantial body of literature harmonizing solid, respectable science of their day with the evangelical faith. Written in many cases by authors with genuine scientific expertise, such works had the positive purpose of forging a creative synthesis between the best theology and the best science of their day—exactly what we at BioLogos are doing.

I have not found a comparable body of literature from the first half of the twentieth century. As Bernard Ramm lamented long ago, “the noble tradition which was in ascendancy in the closing years of the nineteenth century has not been the major tradition in evangelicalism in the twentieth century. A narrow bibliolatry, the product not of faith but of fear, buried the noble tradition” (quoting the 1976 edition of The Christian View of Science and Scripture, p. 9). Ramm’s diagnosis was never more aptly applied than to Harry Rimmer.

Pamphlets by Harry Rimmer
These two pamphlets from 1927, both of which were recycled as chapters in his book, The Harmony of Science and Scripture (1936), contain the best-known examples of Rimmer using false “facts” to defend a traditional interpretation of the Bible against the “theories” of academic biblical scholars. One gives a version of the famous urban legend of a whaler who was rescued two days after being swallowed by a whale—the same legend that was later cited by creationist John C. Whitcomb, Jr., and many others in support of a literal interpretation of Jonah. The other relates a version of the preposterous claim that modern scientists have verified that a full twenty-four hours were “lost out of time,” as Rimmer put it: the long day of Joshua supposedly accounts for most of it, with the final forty minutes resulting from Ahaz’ sundial. Through the influence of Rimmer, more than anyone else, these two stories saturated conservative Protestant literature for three generations. Courtesy of Edward B. Davis.

Looking Ahead

In about two weeks, we’ll turn our attention back to Rimmer’s opponent in Philadelphia, Samuel Christian Schmucker, outlining his ideas on evolution, education, and religion. Even though he was a professor at a public college, he actively promoted a religious interpretation of nature in his classes. Like several of the top scientists he hobnobbed with, Schmucker believed that materialism was a dead letter. He was clearly mistaken—the New Atheists alone are sufficient to show this—but why not come back to see what he meant?

References and Suggestions for Further Reading

This material is adapted (sometimes without any changes in wording) from Edward B. Davis, “A Whale of a Tale: Fundamentalist Fish Stories,” Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 43 (1991): 224-37, and the introduction to The Antievolution Pamphlets of Harry Rimmer, edited by Edward B. Davis (New York: Garland Publishing, 1995). The Rimmer quotations come from “Combating Evolution on the Pacific Coast,” The King’s Business 14 (November 1923): 109; Modern Science and the Youth of Today (1925), pp. 1-2 and 11; and The Theories of Evolution and the Facts of Paleontology (1935), pp. 20-21.

For reliable information on common sense realism and the notion of “science falsely so-called,” see George M. Marsden, “Creation Versus Evolution: No Middle Way,” Nature 305 (1983): 571-74; Ronald L. Numbers, “Science Falsely So-Called: Evolution and Adventists in the Nineteenth Century,” Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation 27 (1975): 18-23; and Ronald L. Numbers and Daniel P. Thurs, “Science, Pseudoscience, and Science Falsely So-Called,” in Peter Harrison, Ronald L. Numbers & Michael H. Shank (Eds.), Wrestling with Nature: From Omens to Science (University of Chicago Press, 2011), pp. 281-306.


Ted Davis is Fellow of the History of Science for the BioLogos Foundation and Professor of the History of Science at Messiah College. At Messiah, Davis teaches courses on historical and contemporary aspects of Christianity and science and directs the Central Pennsylvania Forum for Religion and Science.

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GJDS - #86417

August 29th 2014

Ted,

Your article reminds me of my experiences with Darwinian evolution and creationists during my student days (alas many years ago). The impressions that have remained with me to this day have been that (a) extreme views were promoted by materialists who took evolution as an argument for their particular views of the world, and (b) extreme views were promoted by religious groups who, instead of attacking materialism, decided to provide an alternate (pseudo-science) view on biology and geology (I recall a book on Noah’s flood, which was used to ‘explain’ the geological features of the world, as an example).

 I was editor of our student newspaper during those years and I wrote articles against evolution mainly because of their insistence that life was material, meaningless, and without value. I think these groups espousing extreme views did harm to biology and to sound religion. From what you have written it seems this approach to evolution and religion had continued from the early 1900’s.


Ted Davis - #86421

August 29th 2014

Very interesting commentary, GJDS. Very interesting indeed. I’m tempted to ask which university you attended, but we’ll let that stay in the background.

I would say that both groups you mentioned were using science to support ideology. Ever since the French philosophes, the atheists have employed science as a club in culture wars, even going so far as to make a genuine religion out of science (Compte is the most obvious example, but there are still Compteans today).

And, Rimmer’s group redefined their own false science into “True Science,” which they could then use to support their ideology. When I see those sorts of things happening, as they still do all too often, I have good things to say about Gould’s NOMA view, despite its very serious problems.


GJDS - #86426

August 29th 2014

I think your comment is spot on Ted. I am outside of the US and during these days we were nowhere near as clearly delineated regarding science, religion and politics as it seems to be the case in the US. And as students we debated and argued just about anything. I am from an Orthodox Christian tradition, but I had little difficulty disagreeing with many things in that tradition (especially the role of priests – this is one reason I think that priests in our Church that may do the wrong thing to the congregation are swiftly removed – because we can be very critical). Nonetheless, I was struck by the sharp division demonstrated when Darwinian evolution was part of our arguments, especially in view of so little opposition or teaching against it from our tradition.

I confess I was intrigued by the emphasis from US creationists/evangelists on the non-scientific aspects of nature (beauty, meaning, and value), could easily dismiss their attempts(s) at trying to sound scientific, but as a science student I was appalled by the ease with which Darwinists dismissed error in this field. Your comment regarding ideology is correct, but in those days I inevitably lumped ideology with politics, and differentiated the crazy antics of communists (who also used evolution for their ends) from science. Even though our debates in those days seem messy to me now, I think they reflected the malaise that is dogging thinking in biology even to this day. I also have firmed in my opinion that theological considerations (in all traditions) are much more difficult intellectually (and the obvious range of opinions and outlooks that result from such effort) as they require a very detailed and thorough evaluation of new thinking in any field (especially the Natural Sciences) before any are incorporated in some way within our theological considerations. On Science, I agree with the great poet Pope that the standards for evaluating science come from Nature herself and can well do without ideologues.


Ted Davis - #86422

August 29th 2014

Give me an “F” for spelling. His name was Auguste Comte.


Gregory - #86430

August 30th 2014

After an exhausting summer, now finally back home, a quick request for confirmation from Ted.

Does ‘evolutionism’ qualify as a “science falsely so-called” in your opinion?

Talk of ideology is welcome here and also of ideologues. These things are real, not just ghosts to be avoided. I’d really like to see Ted grapple with the ideology of ‘evolutionism’ more than he has so far, and perhaps, to distance himself from it (and also, eventually, from the ideology of Darwinism), as BioLogos has partially done.


Gregory - #86431

August 30th 2014

Ted quotes a particular translation of 1 Timothy 6:20, “O Timothy, keep that which is committed to thy trust, avoiding profane and vain babblings, and oppositions of science falsely so called.”

The term ‘science’ seems to be a translation anomaly. I just checked 49 English translations of that passage (in about 4 minutes), and only 4 use the term ‘science’: KJ21, original KJ, JUB & Geneva 1599.

The JUB speaks of “vain things and arguments in the vain name of science”.

The Greek word from the passage is ‘gnosis’. Why do you prefer that translated as ‘science’, Ted? Or were you just using that translation to make a point?

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1+Timothy+6:20&version=WYC


Ted Davis - #86436

August 31st 2014

You make an excellent point, Gregory.

I deliberately chose the King James translation, Gregory, b/c that’s the version used by American and British fundamentalists in Rimmer’s period and for a few decades after his time—and by nearly all English speaking Protestants prior to the twentieth century.

As you point out, the Greek word is “gnosis,” which is one reason that post-Reformation commentators often identified the target as Gnosticism.


Gregory - #86543

September 4th 2014

You’re welcome Ted. Can I ask also if the King James translation is still the one used by most YECs today, in your view? If so, would a focussed critique of that translation, in particular of such passages as the one highlighted re: “science falsely so called”, in any way help in BioLogos’ mission? Sure, it’s a different strategy than showing evangelicals that good science should not be feared, but one regarding exegesis, which seems to be very important in terms of the biblical literalism of YECs.


Jon Garvey - #86556

September 5th 2014

Gregory

A “critique” of the KJV in its use of science is not necessary - merely an observation that words acquire new meanings over the centuries. Greek γμοσις = Latin scientia = middle English knaulage. The KJV translators were exactly right, but English-speaking societies in the nineteenth century began to restrict “science” (unnaturally) to mean “natural philosophy”, and later to squeeze that restricted meaning to include non-natural “philosophies” like social science, economic science etc.

Even in Rimmer’s day, it’s more likely he was consciously exploiting a linguistic loophole for rhetorical effect (though “knowledge falsely so-called” would have done his work, if less pointedly) than that he was ignorant of the change in meaning.

AFAIK Creationists are not especially wedded to the KJV nowadays. Any translation is capable of abuse - I remember hearing a Methodist fundamentalist quoting “What God has joined, let no man put asunder” to anathematize nuclear fission. And I’ve also heard respected theologians use the word κενοσις to mean the renouncing of divine attributes, rather than its contextual meaning of “humbling oneself”.

In my view, Ted captured the historical context very well in quoting Rimmer’s use of the KJV: perhaps he was optimistic to assume that most people are well aware of that translation’s ubiquity until the 1960s or so.


Gregory - #86432

August 30th 2014

Oh, and a contemporary Hollywood film sequence retelling of Genesis like this is powerful, even coming from an agnostic (quasi-atheist) Jew: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FFCXHr8aKDk


Ted Davis - #86673

September 9th 2014

Let me announce a change in schedule for my next column. Owing to the current discussion of Steve Meyer’s book, the next installment of this series won’t appear for another couple of weeks.


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