Monday, March 2, 2015

Ironic Tribalism in National Geographic

The front cover of the March National Geographic was a bit of an eye-opener. In case your subscription hasn't arrived yet, here it is:

Ain't that subtle.

Honestly, the cover article, "The Age of Disbelief" by Washington Post writer Joel Achenbach, isn't that bad.  The article's mostly about climate change, and it hardly mentions creationism.  Achenbach describes some really interesting studies, including one by Dan Kahan at Yale University that showed that basic scientific literacy did not correlate with acceptance of human-caused climate change.  Instead, scientific literacy correlated with an increasing polarization of opinion about climate change.  Knowledge of science is used to reinforce preconceived worldviews, which I'm not the least surprised by.  Frankly, that sounds remarkably similar to claims made by many creationists for many years:  We all have the same facts and the same reasoning abilities, but when you add to those the assumptions which are necessary to make conclusions from facts, we can end up in really different places.  There you have it, folks, right in the pages of National Geographic.

Achenbach describes Kahan's work in terms of tribalism.  As Achenbach describes it, Kahan's work revealed two basic tribes (there would be many local varieties of course, but two overarching themes).  First is the egalitarian, communitarian tribe that is skeptical of big business and are much more likely to accept government regulation.  The second tribe is more individualistic and hierarchical and wants government to butt out and are more apt to trust others (like big business) to behave responsibly.  How you reason and how you interpret data are basically determined by the tribe you belong to, not by some objective standard of truth.

What made the article most fascinating, though, is the way it dances back and forth between commenting on tribalism in a sort of meta-tribalistic fashion and being overtly tribalistic.  On the one hand, Achenbach quotes Science editor Marcia McNutt very favorably: "Science is not a body of facts ... Science is a method for deciding whether what we choose to believe has a basis in the laws of nature or not."  OK, that goes a little weird at the end, but I'm 100% in favor of science as a method not a body of truth.  Achenbach also emphasizes the fallibility and uncertainty of science.  Because science is a method conducted by fallible and limited humans (my words), science is always susceptible to changing and revision and updating.  Nothing is ever final in science.

On the other hand, Achenbach is clearly a member of a tribe and has no reservations about showing his true colors.  He writes, "... evolution actually happened.  Biology is incomprehensible without it."  That's nonsense, of course.  There are huge swaths of biology that can be understood without knowing about evolution.  Historically, it's even more absurd.  Evidently, no one knew a thing about biology until Darwin's Origin of Species.  How could Darwin even make an argument for evolution from biological data and have other people understand and accept it based on their own understanding of biology?  No one could understand biology without evolution?  It's just absurd, but there are enough tribalistic voices saying that very thing in modern science as they battle against the "threat" of creationism.  "To reject evolution is to reject science," so we're told, even though by this very article's standard, that's probably not true.  Rejecting evolution is only at best rejecting a particular tribe's take on science.

Beyond the evolution question, Achenbach shows his cards again and again.  Science is not just a method.  Science is knowledge.  He opens the article with an anecdote on fluoridation and transitions to the article's theme by writing, "We live in an age when all manner of scientific knowledge ... faces organized and often furious opposition."  Even while admitting that science is a method that can only ever offer provisional interpretations of data, he quotes NIH director Francis Collins, "Science will find the truth ... It may get it wrong the first time and maybe the second time, but ultimately it will find the truth."  And after his evolution comment, he comments, "Being right does matter - and the science tribe has a long track record of getting things right."

Understanding human tribalism and especially how different tribes interpret evidence and use the method of science ought to give us all pause.  That's the crucial message I take from this article.  There is no tribe that is impervious to demands of their tribe, and that goes just as much for science as any other tribe.  When there's a tribal conflict, we ought to be just as critical of ourselves as we are of the other tribe, but usually we just trot out our own "experts" to quote data and arguments that reinforce our tribe's beliefs.  But if our own tribe's beliefs are pre-determined and somewhat impervious to data and logic, shouldn't we be more careful about our own beliefs before we go attacking the other tribe, regardless of what tribe we're from?  How can we choose which tribe is right?  (Remember I'm not a post-modern. I do believe in truth.  I just don't believe that science has a monopoly on accessing truth.)

The irony here is that Achenbach assumes that his tribe is the right one.  After all, they have a great track record, right?  But that's the very essence of tribalism!  My tribe is right, and your tribe is wrong.  It doesn't get us anywhere.

Maybe what we need for tribal squabbles are people who actually go between the tribes?  We need good listeners, people not to find fault or to preach the message of their own tribe.  We need people who genuinely want to understand where the other tribe is coming from.  Basically, we need to remember to love our enemies and pray for those who spitefully use us.  Somehow in all these debates over vaccines and climate and evolution, that great command has gotten lost.

Having read this far, I'm sure the science tribe is sputtering in frustration, "But we do have a better track record!"  Is it plausible that evolution is just a problem of bias?  Is it realistic that the consensus of climate researchers is mistaken?  Isn't that ludicrous?  How could so many scientists be so wrong?  Let's talk more about that in my next post.

Feedback? Email me at toddcharleswood [at] gmail [dot] com.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

It snowed last night

I may live in Tennessee, but there's nothing but Michigan in my veins.  This is a proper snow.

Feedback? Email me at toddcharleswood [at] gmail [dot] com.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Reader question: But what about INTELLIGENT life on other planets?

After my post on extraterrestrial life, I was asked directly about intelligent life on other planets.  I want to preface my thoughts by saying that this is not my thing.  I know that this question has a long, long history in Christian thought, and I know that lots of Christians (including some prominent creationists) have some pretty strong opinions on the matter.  I've never really lost much sleep over this, and I'm bound to step on somebody's toes with this post.  So if you're sensitive about this subject, you've been warned!

The basic question is this:  Would the discovery of intelligent life from another planet falsify the Bible or invalidate Christian theology?  Frankly, after thinking about it all week, I'm not sure what the big deal is.  I understand that there are a few verses and passages in the Bible that make it seem like humans are the most important part of creation.  Certainly, Revelation portrays the coming kingdom as God being with His people on the earth in the New Jerusalem.  That seems important.

Another point that young-age creationists would raise is the idea of the universal Fall.  Creationists (like me) believe that human sin altered creation so that now "the whole creation has been groaning" (Rom. 8:22).  That groaning came from the curse placed on creation because of Adam's sin.  So if there is intelligent life on another planet, then that would seem to be part of the creation that is groaning, which means they've also been cursed because of human sin.  That seems unfair.

We could also look at the passages of the New Testament that emphasize that Christ died once for sin (I Pet. 3:18, Heb. 9:28, Rom. 6:10), which is taken to imply that there would be no redemption available to intelligent life on other planets, since Christ died here and not there.  Otherwise, He would have died twice, and that's not what the Bible says.  This flows into the exclusivity claim of Christianity: Christ is the only way to God.  Religious pluralism is false; therefore, there can be no alien Jesus, because that would be a second way to God.

And so, conclude some, intelligent life on other planets would falsify Christianity (or the Bible or theology or whatever).  As I write it all down, I can see how this would be persuasive, but there are a few hangups that I have.

First, this notion of fairness strikes me as really strange.  Christians (or at least Christian creationists) already have a fairness problem.  We believe that Adam's sin was the source of the curse on creation and the sin nature that all humans now possess.  How is that "fair?"  I didn't eat the fruit in the garden, but now I have to suffer for it.  More than that, why should my cat die for something humans did?  How is that "fair?"  I don't know.  Christian thinkers have been pondering that for ages, and I don't know that we have a good answer, other than just asserting that that's the way it is.

I rather think our human concept of fairness is the problem.  We seem to operate under a sort of economic concept of morality: You get what you pay for.  If you're good, you'll be rewarded; and if you're bad, you will be punished.  If someone's good and they get punished, we decry the unfairness of it.  But that's exactly the problem that Job wrestled with millennia ago, and I'm not sure that God ever really gave him a good answer.  What Job got though was much better than an answer.  Job encountered God, and that turned out to be enough for him.  (I suspect God's presence is what we're really after when we complain about fairness anyway.  That, and we're rejecting our own depravity, but that's a topic for another time.)

That brings me to my second concern about these sorts of arguments.  What kind of truly Christian argument says, "If this happens [whatever it is], then my faith is false."  Really?  Your relationship with God is so tenuous and theoretical that an alien invasion would cause you to abandon Him?

For me, the reality is fairly simple.  If a Klingon battlecruiser or Dalek invasion or even the Death Star suddenly showed up in orbit around earth, I would pray like I've never prayed before.  I wouldn't think twice about it, because my God is the God who delivers.  Just like He delivered Noah through the Flood, Israel out of Egypt, Judah back from exile, I know He can deliver again.  He preserved Joseph and David and Elijah, and I know He has guided me.  I can look back over my Christian life and see His provision and guidance over and over.  ET isn't going to change my experiences with Him, and it wouldn't change my confidence and faith that He will deliver me again.  I don't know that I can explain how the exclusivity of Christianity would work in a universe with alien life, but I think we could figure it out.

OK, I think that's enough about aliens.  This isn't a UFO blog after all, so in the next post let's direct our attention back to the creation as we know it now.

Feedback? Email me at toddcharleswood [at] gmail [dot] com.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

CGS Call for Abstracts

Tim Clarey sent along this call for abstracts for the geologists this summer.

Origins 2015: Call for Abstracts

The summer conference of the Creation Biology and Creation Geology Societies will be held at Truett-McConnell College in Cleveland, GA on July 23-25, 2014.  We invite abstract submissions relevant to the life and earth sciences and the issue of origins.  Submissions must offer positive, constructive interpretations or criticisms.  All abstracts will be reviewed for suitability and content.  Submissions will be judged on scientific merit, adherence to the guidelines, and relevance to creationism.


*Abstracts should not be longer than 700 words, including references.
*An abstract should be a complete summary of the paper, including any relevant findings or conclusions.
*Abstracts should be written in English
*Names and affiliations of all authors should be included.  Authors working independently should identify their affiliation as "Independent Scholar."

Geology Abstracts should be submitted by email attachment to  Abstracts are due April 4, 2015.

Feedback? Email me at toddcharleswood [at] gmail [dot] com.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Let it snow

What a week!  I have not forgotten about updating my blog, but this week has been a little goofy.  First, I spent the weekend in Pittsburgh on a project, which I'm really excited about and can't wait to tell you all about in the near future.  My schedule had me leaving Saturday afternoon, so I spent six hours on a four-hour drive looking at this:

That was not fun.  I always love snow, but that's a bit much.  I kept thinking, "I'm going south, eventually it will clear up."  It never did, but the Lord preserved us anyway.

Since getting back to Dayton, the temperature has not gotten above freezing, which is super weird.  It rarely gets this cold for this long.  Here's the view outside of Core Academy HQ this morning:

Meanwhile, I've gotten a pile of good questions from readers of this blog, and I'm thinking about my responses.  I haven't had time to write anything down yet, but I wanted you to know that I read your questions and they're really interesting.  You really got my brain working.  There will be more discussion of extraterrestrials, theistic evolution, immunology, and disease, as soon as I get a chance to write.

Meanwhile, I'm finishing up editing our spring wildflower course.  Check it out!

Feedback? Email me at toddcharleswood [at] gmail [dot] com.