Tiny Tails Wagging Gigantic Dogs
In my last blog post I addressed some questions of logic that had been raised on a popular anti-evolutionary blog, and how scientific arguments are often caricatured to make them appear to be committing logical fallacies.
In this post, I examine another example of the misuse of logic and evidence by the opponents of evolution. I want to suggest that anti-evolutionists don't actually use evidence as evidence. Rather they use evidence as rhetoric--a debating tool designed to score points in arguments. Evidence is not, by these defocused lights, a pointer toward truth. Rather evidence is a distraction, undermining truth.
There are several examples we could look at but I think one of the best relates to the dinosaurs. I was reminded of this recently when I had dinner with an enthusiastic young earth creationist and witnessed firsthand how comfortably he wielded the arguments against the well-established scientific consensus that dinosaurs went extinct millions of years before humans first appeared.
There are four arguments that creationists use against the scientific picture of dinosaurs, all of which came up in my dinner conversation:
- Dinosaur and human footprints have been found together in a riverbed in Texas.
- There are cave paintings of dinosaurs that could not have been made unless the human artists had seen dinosaurs.
- Dinosaur soft tissue/blood cells have been discovered that cannot be millions of years old.
- Worldwide legends of fire-breathing dragons are based on human encounters with dinosaurs.
In a discussion about evolution, the age of the earth, or even the general reliability of science these "arguments" are launched into the conversation as if they prove something significant that scientists don't understand. But most people wielding these arguments have no clue about them. Consider the following:
- The dinosaur and human footprint argument has been so thoroughly repudiated that even the two leading young earth creationist organizations have repudiated it. The head of the Institute for Creation Research, geologist John Morris, has written an article about the collapse of this "evidence" and Answers in Genesis includes this logical clinker on its list of "arguments that should be avoided."
- Cave paintings contain a vast roster of interesting and inexplicable patterns, not unlike contemporary museums of modern art. Just as people see clouds that really do resemble Homer Simpson, or smears on windows that look like the Madonna, we should not be surprised that cave art contains things that look like dinosaurs--and unicorns and flying horses and space ships and various monsters. But here we have to ask a question: what is the best explanation for a cave drawing that resembles a dinosaur? Let me offer some possibilities: a) a cave-dad is using visual aids to tell cave-kids a horror story about giant lizards; b) a cave artist is drawing a picture of an actual lizard; c) cave artists are being creative; d) a cave artist is drawing a picture of an actual animal he saw. Is "d" really the most reasonable explanation?
- The dinosaur "blood" that can't possibly be 70 million years old was a highly speculative inference and far from conclusive. A recent analysis concludes "What previously had been identified as fragments of blood cells due to the presence of iron were actually microscopic spheres containing iron, known as framboids." To jump on this isolated a curious fact as "conclusive" is far from scientific. And to suppose that it refutes the entire geological column, which clearly demonstrates that dinosaurs were long gone before we got here, is absurd.
- The "dragons were dinosaurs" argument is incredibly fanciful and unbelievable on so many fronts. For starters, dragons are only one of a roster of mythical beasts. Are unicorns and griffins also real, because folklore speaks often of them? How about abominable snowmen? Men on the moon? Flying horses? In the days before cameras, people relied on stories from travelers about fascinating creatures from afar. Very few medieval Europeans ever saw a lion, and yet they all believed in lions based on stories they heard. Some people told stories of dragons and, not knowing what existed beyond their horizons, people accepted these stories as real, and passed them on.
All four of these arguments circulate with vigor in anti-evolutionary circles. I have heard them many times, most recently over dinner. Web sites proclaim them. The "true believers" that wield them as arguments against evolution, however, don't understand them and are blissfully unaware that they are simply irrelevant.
The most peculiar feature of this phenomenon, however, is the selective endorsement of science. If a scientist reports that he has found evidence--like soft dinosaur tissue--that dinosaurs are not as old as we thought, that scientific conclusion is treated respectfully by the anti-evolutionists because it agrees with their interpretation of the Bible. But when those same scientists report later that there may be a better explanation for the data--one that is compatible with evolution--this evidence is rejected as a part of the "conspiracy" to suppress the evidence against evolution. Science, it would appear, lacks integrity, except when it is undermining evolution.
Karl Giberson directs the new science & religion writing program at Gordon College in Boston. He has published more than 100 articles, reviews and essays for Web sites and journals including Salon.com, Books & Culture, and the Huffington Post. He has written seven books, including Saving Darwin, The Language of Science & Faith, and The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age.