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

| By on Reading the Book of Nature


Dragnet still photo
Sergeant Joe Friday (left), played by the lateJack 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 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.

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.


About the Author

Ted Davis

Ted Davis is Fellow of the History of Science for the BioLogos Foundation and Professor of the History of Science at Messiah College. A former high school science teacher, Ted studied history and philosophy of science at Indiana University, where his mentor was the late Richard S. Westfall, author of the definitive biography of Isaac Newton. With the English historian Michael Hunter, Ted edited The Works of Robert Boyle, 14 vols. (London: Pickering & Chatto, 1999-2000), but his interests include the whole 2000-year interaction of Christianity and science. Author of dozens of scholarly articles and essays, Ted is one of few historians who have written extensively about both the Scientific Revolution and modern America. He and his wife Kathy enjoy theater, music, and traveling to new places.

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