Thursday, May 24, 2018

International Conference on Creationism 2018 Schedule!

The ICC posted their schedule today, and you can find it at their website.

And if you're thinking, "It sure would be nice to have a printable version where I could highlight my planned schedule," have I got a deal for you!  Check it out!

Download a PDF of the ICC 2018 schedule!

Feedback? Email me at toddcharleswood [at] gmail [dot] com. If you enjoyed this article, please consider a contribution to Core Academy of Science. Thank you.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Who are the creationists?

This year brings us yet another survey trying to diagnose what's wrong with creationists.  Oh goody.  I've commented on such studies before, and I'm always interested in what else I can find from the survey data that the authors of the research didn't really highlight in their publications.  Here's a sample of past "fun with surveys":

So here we go again, this time with Weisberg and colleagues from the March issue of BioScience.  In a survey of 1,100 people, they tried to examine factors that influenced respondents to be creationists and found several of the usual suspects.  For example, they found that the more religious you are, the less likely you are to accept evolution.  Likewise, those who self-identify as liberal or very liberal are more likely to accept evolution, and conservatives and "very conservatives" are more likely to reject it.  No surprise there.

Their study added a few new things, which I thought were very helpful.  The biggest innovation was their Evolution Knowledge Test (EKT), a series of 26 questions that examined participants' knowledge of evolution.  Not surprisingly, creationists tended to have substantially less knowledge about evolution than non-creationists.  Or so it seems.

The other innovation they added to the survey was a revision of the Gallup evolution question, which focuses on human evolution.  Gallup gives three options when asking about the participant's view on how humans got here: humans evolved with guidance from God, humans evolved but God had nothing to do with it, and humans were created by God in their present form.  That's an interesting question, but it's got some limitations (human origins are emotionally charged and might bias answers, for example).

So Weisberg and colleagues re-wrote the question and answers.  Here's their version:

Which of the following best describes how YOU think animals and plants came to exist on earth?
  • Animals and plants were created by God in more or less their current form
  • Animals and plants developed through natural processes, which were guided by God the entire time.
  • Animals and plants developed through natural processes, which were set up by God but continued on their own.
  • Animals and plants developed entirely through natural processes.

Their version of the question takes away the bias of asking about human beings, and it also gives another option, which they call the Deist option ("God set up natural processes and let them go").  With that single question, they divide people into Creationists (first answer), Theistic Evolutionists (second answer), Deists (third answer), and Naturalists (last answer).

I find this strategy better than the Gallup question but still unsatisfactory.  First of all, if you haven't thought a lot about evolution and creation, you probably won't understand the question very well because it's got some specialized jargon.  On the other hand, if you have thought a lot about creation and evolution, you might not be happy choosing any of those categories, or you might even think that more than one category applies to you.  So right off the bat, I have trouble with the rest of the study, and I think some of the results are influenced by this drawback.

For example, much to my surprise (and delight, if I'm being honest) the Creationists and Theistic Evolutionists did equally poorly on the EKT.  You can easily see that in the distribution of scores:

The mean EKT score for all 1,100 participants was 53.84%, which corresponds to about 14 questions.  The mean EKT scores for Creationists and Theistic Evolutionists were 46.33% and 48.46% respectively, but the distribution of their EKT scores was indistinguishable.  So on average, Creationists do as poorly on the EKT as Theistic Evolutionists.

Anecdotally, I think that finding may well be true.  It has been my experience talking with young evangelicals in particular that they accept evolution even though they don't really know much about it.  It's kind of the trendy thing right now.  In this case, however, I'm just dubious of the question that divides the camps into Creationists and Theistic Evolutionists.  I'm not persuaded that the respondents understood the choice they were making.

Not convinced?  There's more.

A surprising 44.7% of Creationists in the study did not identify as "born again Christian," despite creationists being predominantly evangelical Protestants.  Of course, that language isn't used in all Christian traditions, so we should look at other factors.  When asked about church attendance, 30.8% of Creationists said they attended "seldom" or "never," and 9.6% of Creationists said that religion was "not too important" or "not at all important."  The religious affiliation of Creationists included one "Atheist," one "Agnostic," and 29 "Nothing in particular."  So more than 10% of Creationists have no religious affiliation.  In the arena of politics, you might expect Creationists to be stuffy, ultra-right wing Republicans.  If so, you might be puzzled to see 23% of Creationists identifying as "Strong Democrats" and 21% as "Very Liberal" or "Liberal."

Does any of this seem fishy to anyone else?  It's certainly possible to have politically liberal creationists, but that seems like a big rarity in my experience.  I'm also quite dubious of the non-religious creationists and especially the "Atheist Creationist."  I just don't know how that works.

Leaving aside the problem of identification, I also wondered what makes an "above average" Creationist, which in the context of this study means the people who chose the "Creationist" option on the evolution question but still got better than the population average on the EKT.  That's 82 people, by the way, a relatively small group (just 7.5% of the entire survey sample and 29% of the Creationists).

I compared those 82 above average Creationists to 200 below average Creationists in the study, using every factor I thought might be important.  There isn't much that distinguishes them, at least at first glance.

As you can see, the fraction of each group that are women, born again, attend church at least once a week, and claim that religion is important to them are nearly the same.

Nevertheless, there were some demographics that were strikingly different between the above and below average Creationists.

Above average Creationists were far less likely to be Catholic, liberal, or Democrats than their below average counterparts.  Most strikingly, the above average Creationists were twice as likely to have at least some college education than their below average counter parts.

Weisberg and colleagues asked four questions about factors that influence the respondent's beliefs about evolution.  The responses were on a four-point scale of not at all important, not too important, somewhat important, and very important.

The below average Creationists were more likely to say that family beliefs or what they learned in school were somewhat or very important in shaping their beliefs about evolution.  The above average Creationists were more likely to say that the quality of scientific evidence was somewhat or very important in shaping their beliefs about evolution.  We'll talk about what all that might mean a little later.

Weisberg and colleagues also included a series of questions that attempted to gauge the respondents' understanding and knowledge of science in general.  There were several groups of these, and I looked at three: ten questions of science trivia, two questions about scientific theories, and two questions on reasons for belief.

The ten questions of science trivia (I examined only the multiple choice questions) are there ostensibly to evaluate the respondents' science knowledge, which I suppose is a good thing.  I call them trivia because that's basically what they are.  They ask whether the earth orbits the sun and how long that takes, and that sort of thing.  If this had been the only gauge of the respondents' understanding of science, I would have been dissatisfied, but together with the other questions (discussed below), I think these are useful.  I found a substantial difference between the above and below average Creationists in their responses to these questions.  Above average Creationists correctly answered an average of 7.29 questions, while the below average Creationists correctly answered an average of only 5.35 questions.  The average correct answers for all 1100 respondents was 6.87.  So not only are the above average Creationists better than the average of all respondents on the EKT but also on general science knowledge.

Two questions also probed the respondents' understanding of scientific theories.  Respondents were asked to rate their agreement on a scale of 1-5 (strongly agree to strongly disagree) to these two statements: "Once a scientific theory has been established, it is never changed" and "Scientific theories are just scientists’ guesses."  Neither statement is true, so higher scores (stronger disagreement) represent a better understanding of science.  I added them together to give a score range of 2 (strongly agree with both) to 10 (strongly disagree with both).  Above average Creationists scored an average of 6.96, while below average Creationists scored an average of 5.74.  The above average Creationists' score is just about the same as the population average of 6.93.

Two final questions examined the respondents' decision making about beliefs.  They were asked their responses to these two statements, "There is good scientific evidence for it" and "I feel it is true in my gut," on a scale of 1-5, with 1 being "terrible reason for belief" and 5 being "excellent reason for belief."  In this case, since we're evaluating scientific ideas, evidence is good and gut feelings are not good.  So I inverted the numerical values of the "gut feeling" question and added the two responses together to get a 2-10 scale just like on the previous question.  Higher numbers mean more esteem for evidence and less for gut feelings.  Above average Creationists scored an average of 6.22, and below average Creationists scored an average of 5.85.  That's not a dramatic difference, and both groups are below the population average of 6.51.

What does all this mean?  My interpretation of this data is that there are two big groups mixed into this survey that are not easily separated given the present survey questions.  One group is knowledgeable about science and evolution and makes informed decisions.  The other group does not understand science well and maybe doesn't even understand the questions they're being asked.  So you end up with a bunch of nonreligious Creationists, which doesn't make much sense to me.

I think this is supported by the evidence of the demographic differences between the Creationists who scored above average EKT scores and those that did not.   The above average Creationists were much closer to the stereotypical Creationist: religiously committed, politically conservative Protestants.  We also see that the above average Creationists had more education and better scores on the science trivia questions and the questions about scientific theories.  Above average Creationists were also less likely to attribute their views on evolution to their education (which they might disagree with) and more likely to attribute it to the quality of the evidence (which they may be acquainted with and judge as poor or inadequate).  One very intriguing part of this is their scores on the two reasons for believing questions.  Above average Creationists scored about average in their assessment of evidence vs. gut feelings, which makes sense for a group acquainted with evolution (as judged by their above average EKT scores) but who nevertheless choose to reject some or all of evolution as a model for the origin of life's diversity.  They are not necessarily persuaded by scientific evidence alone.

My interpretation also fits well with my own anecdotal experience talking with people about creation and science.  I've found that people respond very well to my personal testimony or my Christian convictions on creation, but when I start talking about the science, things dramatically change.  Some people zone out.  Others try to change the subject.  I've even had a few people get angry with me.  Science is hard, and people have a hard time understanding it.

And that brings me to my final point on this Weisberg survey:  What's in this Evolution Knowledge Test anyway?  Speaking from my own personal experience as an educator, I thought these questions were difficult, like college-biology-class difficult.  That's my personal "gut reaction," though.  Let's look question by question at this test to see if we can find any patterns where the Creationists went wrong.  Here are the fractions of each group that chose the correct answer for each question:

Notice anything interesting?  Everybody does about the same on almost every question?  Yeah, I noticed that too.  There are only a handful of questions where the four groups of respondents answered in substantially different ways.  The biggest of those that I see is question 21:

During the industrial revolution, the English countryside became covered in soot and ash, and the native moth species became darker in color. How do scientists explain this change in color?

  • Predators were able to see the lighter moths better and ate them, leaving the darker ones to reproduce.
  • All of the moths needed to blend into their environment in order to survive, so they all gradually became darker as they got older.
  • Dark-colored moths learned how to hide from predators by landing only on sooty trees.
  • All of the baby moths born after the trees became sooty were darker than their parents.

This is a widely known example of evolution among creationists, and it is widely believed to be bunk.  It is one of Jonathan Wells's Icons of Evolution, and knowledgeable creationists would probably deliberately choose a different answer than the expected one.  That question should probably be dropped from the EKT.

As I said, there are lots of EKT questions where everyone answered poorly, like questions 6, 8, 13, 18, and 23.  Three of those (6, 8, 18) were choices on questions that asked respondents to choose all that applied, so I'm not surprised some of the correct responses were missed.  Question 23 is of special interest to me because I think it reveals a common misunderstanding on the part of the public:

Scientists think that, over the course of time, all species advance from more primitive to more advanced states.
  • True
  • False
  • I don’t know
The statement is false.  In evolutionary thinking, most species will go extinct over the course of time.   Nevertheless, when the public hears about evolution in the popular culture, it is very common to emphasize how fossil forms were primitive and gave way to the more advanced forms we see in the present.  This question is ripe for misinterpretation due mostly to the way science and the science media describe their work.  Only 18.9% of all respondents answered it correctly.

So are there any other questions where Naturalists do substantially better than Creationists in the survey?  To figure that out, I took the fraction of Naturalists who got the right answer and divided it by the fraction of Creationists who got the right answer for each question.  That tells me how many times better the naturalists were than the creationists in answering questions.  Here's what I found:

Looking at this graph, we can see a number of questions (1, 6, 9, 13, and 21) where the Naturalists did at least twice as better than the Creationists.  What strikes me the most about this result is that the questions where Naturalists are so much better than Creationists are the same questions where everyone did pretty badly.  Questions 1, 6, 9, 13, and 21 were answered correctly by only 35%, 20%, 38%, 27%, and 39% of all 1100 respondents respectively.  So on the questions that confused most people, the Naturalists were confused the least.  Or to put it another way, the general confusion about science that caused some people to select the Creationist option on the Evolution question also caused them to do especially poorly on these EKT questions.

So what have we learned?  Weisberg and colleagues want us to emphasize the role of science education in persuading people that evolution is true, and I'm sure that is a factor.  I'm also sure that eveolution education will not persuade all people that evolution is true, and I'm very skeptical that they have correctly differentiated "real" Creationists from people who are just confused about evolution.

What I'd love to see is a battery of questions that help diagnose a person's position on creation and evolution.  Minimally, we need a question like this:

How important is your belief about evolution and creation?
  • Extremely important
  • Important
  • Not important
  • I don't care at all
I suspect that a Creationist who doesn't care about the issue might also have a poor understanding of science and may well be easily persuaded to adopt a different view.  Alternatively, those Creationists who think their view on evolution is very important will likely be very different from the ones who are just confused (as I believe Weisberg's data hint at).

As to diagnosing a person's position on creation and evolution, I think it would be perfectly reasonable to ask them to choose a word that most closely resembles their own position on creation/evolution: Young-earth creationism, old-earth creationism, intelligent design, skeptic, evolutionist, etc.  That should be supplemented with a series of other questions probing acceptance or rejection (strongly agree to strongly disagree) of a variety of statements about origins:
  • All living things on earth have descended from a common ancestor.
  • The earth is billions of years old.
  • The universe is billions of years old.
  • All life originated by a miraculous intervention of God.
  • Species never change into other species.
  • Humans evolved from primitive, non-human ancestors.
  • There is good evidence for evolution.
  • My religious beliefs tell me how God created everything.
  • My religious beliefs are incompatible with evolution.
  • My religious beliefs are incompatible with billions of years of earth history.
  • I am certain that my beliefs about evolution are correct.
  • God guides evolution directly.
  • God established natural laws, and the universe developed on its own.
  • God established evolution, and life developed on its own.
These questions would help distinguish the various camps in the creation/evolution debate, and that would be incredibly helpful in comparing their EKT scores.  As I have argued here, multiple groups are at play here in the creation/evolution debate, including people who just don't understand and probably don't care.  If we don't correctly distinguish these groups, our survey work will not help us to genuinely understand anyone.

Check out the original paper (if you can get it):

The original survey data are publicly available here (check my work):
Public Understanding and Acceptance of Evolution

Feedback? Email me at toddcharleswood [at] gmail [dot] com. If you enjoyed this article, please consider a contribution to Core Academy of Science. Thank you.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Did Homo naledi really bury their own dead?

A modern human cemetery at Glendalough.

After my piece last week on the brain of Homo naledi, I was reminded of the recent paper in PNAS describing the classification of hominin "burial" sites.  Since that paper casts some doubt on the conclusion that Homo naledi buried their own dead, I suppose I would be remiss to not share a few comments and thoughts.

First of all, the paper by Egeland and colleagues provides a "machine learning" approach to classifying accumulations of hominin bones.  Their objective was to evaluate claims that certain hominin sites represent deliberate burial (strictly in the sense of body disposal, without any of the mortuary symbolism that would accompany modern human burial).  The idea behind the analysis is to give a computer various characteristics of these bone sites and train the computer to recognize burials.  Their results showed that modern human burial sites were recognized by the computer as distinct from accumulation of bones due to predators (like leopards eating baboons) or scavenging.  So far, so good.

Also included in their sample of hominin bone sites were three very interesting locations: Sima de los Huesos ("Pit of Bones") in Spain, Skhul (a modern human burial site) in northern Israel, and the Dinaledi chamber (where Homo naledi was originally discovered) in South Africa.  The Skhul site is notable as one where a purportedly symbolic item was buried with two of the bodies: The jawbone of a pig was buried with skeleton Skhul V and a bovine skull with Skhul IX.  Egeland and colleagues included Skhul V in their sample, but it grouped with the "Leopard Refuse" site and separately from the undisturbed modern human burials.  That's odd, since I understand Skhul is accepted as an example of an intentional burial site.

Sima de los Huesos is a remarkable site in north central Spain, representing the remains of a deep pit into which hominin bones accumulated.  With more than 5,500 skeletal elements recovered from at least 28 individuals, Sima has turned out to be one of the richest hominin fossil sites in the world (although Rising Star and Homo naledi will surely challenge that title).  Recently, DNA testing of one of the bones matched DNA from other known Neandertals.  The surprising concentration of bodies in this pit, along with the presence of a hand ax, led researchers to suggest that it was a deliberate burial site, where bodies were dropped into the ground.  In the clustering results of Egeland and colleagues, Sima de los Huesos clustered together with the Dinaledi chamber, a sample of modern human remains that had been scavenged, and a site called Misgrot Cave from South Africa, which appears to be a mass mortality site of baboons.

Based on these findings, Egeland and colleagues conclude
Our results indicate that nonanthropogenic agents and abiotic processes cannot yet be ruled out as significant contributors to the ultimate condition of both collections [Sima (SH) and Dinaledi (DC)]. This finding does not falsify hypotheses of deliberate disposal for the SH and DC corpses, but does indicate that the data also support partially or completely nonanthropogenic formational histories.
Let me see if I can translate this: They acknowledge that their findings do not falsify deliberate burial, but they say that other explanations cannot be ruled out either.  Those other explanations are burial followed by some kind of disturbance or accumulation of bones by some other means (predators, mass death, etc.).  So in other words, their study can't rule out any explanation for how the bones got there.  Interesting.

Let's think again about the context of the Dinaledi chamber, which lies at the end of an hours-long journey underground in the complete dark zone of a cave at the bottom of a 39-foot tall chute that is on average 8 inches wide.  In that chamber are almost nothing but Homo naledi bones, many of which are still in articulated pieces.  The preservation is virtually unprecedented, as indicated by some of the impossibly small bones discovered.

So I find myself frowning with great skepticism when Egeland and colleagues seriously entertain the possibility of predators messing with the bones in the Dinaledi Chamber.  Given the context, I think we can take that right off the table.  It's extremely unlikely that a predator or predators would go that far back into a dark cave with that many bodies of heavy hominins.  It would have to be a really large predator, and how could it get down into the Dinaledi Chamber and then back out again?  On the other hand, if we want to entertain the possibility that predators messed with the bones before they were deposited, then how did the bones get down there?  And how did they get their in large articulated chunks, like complete hands?  This really stretches my imagination to the breaking point.

The other possibility suggested by the analysis of Egeland and colleagues is that the Dinaledi chamber is a burial site that has been disturbed in some other way, which is actually something suggested from the beginning.  Lee Berger's team originally proposed that the bodies had been disturbed multiple times as the water level rose and fell in the chamber.  Burial would account for the strange concentration of so many individuals and so many bones in such an inaccessible location, and water disturbance would explain how the bodies became damaged and disarticulated but in a way that keeps substantial body parts (arms, legs, pieces of torsos) together.  So I'm not really surprised that Egeland and colleagues found that the Dinaledi Chamber did not look like modern undisturbed human burials, since I don't think anyone ever suggested that they would.

I remain confident that Homo naledi will turn out to be fully human, descended from Adam through Noah, and made in the image and likeness of God.  At the end of time, when we gather around the throne of God in a multitude from every people, tribe, nation, and language, I hope I'll see some of them there.  Despite the work of Egeland and colleagues, I think the burial evidence, as well as multiple baraminology studies of hominins and the recent discoveries about the brain of Homo naledi, supports my understanding of Homo naledi as human.

But if I'm wrong, that's OK too.  I find it hard to imagine alternative scenarios to explain Homo naledi, but my imagination is not the measuring rod of what is or is not true.  What I can be certain about is that creationists currently disagree about Homo naledi, so I think we should all be very suspicious of anyone who says that the mystery of Homo naledi has been definitively and finally solved.

The most exciting thing about Homo naledi is that excavation and fossil discovery is still going on.  Last I heard there were three different locations of Homo naledi bones in the Rising Star Cave.  There will be Homo naledi discoveries to last a lifetime.  Who knows what the researchers will discover?  In the mean time, I hope all creationists will be gracious and generous with each other while the data continue to roll in and we learn more about this fascinating hominin.

Feedback? Email me at toddcharleswood [at] gmail [dot] com. If you enjoyed this article, please consider a contribution to Core Academy of Science. Thank you.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Cranial capacity isn't the whole story

Almost exactly a year ago, I published the graph shown above with the cranial capacity of hominins over conventional time.  I've seen this graph again and again from otherwise credible evolutionary biologists, and it's primarily used to discredit creationist claims about the uniqueness of human beings.  I guess I'm supposed to take from this that humans don't show obvious discontinuity from other (potentially nonhuman) creatures when you look only at one variable, brain size.  I've always found the graph a bit confusing because I'm not sure any evolutionary biologist would accept this as fully representative of human history any way.  And no one thinks modern humans emerged in some sort of march of progress, right?  Right?

This is NOT how evolution is supposed to work, right?

With the publication of Homo floresiensis and Homo naledi, we had two important fossils that seriously deviated from the major trend, representing late-surviving and small-brained individuals.  I was generous in my first write-up of this, noting that these were at best two out-lying points and that doesn't negate the trend.

This week, a description of the endocast of Homo naledi was published by Holloway et al. in PNAS.  Endocasts are models of the interior surface of the brain case of a skull.  They're not perfect imprints of the brain surface, but they do reveal some information about brain organization.  Now the headlines accompanying this article are fairly conservative, but a few are talking about how "human" their brains are.  The Daily Mail (a thoroughly credible news source, I'm sure) says Homo naledi could talk, which is more than the study can say for sure.

Holloway and colleagues showed a number of features of the H. naledi brain that are associated with complex behavior and social interaction and, yes, even language.  None of that automatically means H. naledi could talk, make tools, or engage in complex behavior, but it does mean that the brain of H. naledi is different in those areas from the brains of modern apes (and fossil australopiths).

What really caught my eye in their paper, though, was this closing sentence:
Brain size evolution was not a unitary trend in human ancestry, and we must work to understand a more complex pattern.
Hey, that's what I said!  Well, sort of.  I wouldn't have used the words "evolution" or "ancestry," but the sentiment is similar.

At this point, I would guess that maybe we're seeing two brain organizations that might help us creationists recognize what is or isn't human.  That would be extremely gratifying.  (I should note that Australopithecus sediba has the more ape-like brain organization, distinct from that of Homo naledi, so it'll be interesting sorting that out.)  At this point, it's still just a guess though.  We need more data!

Speaking of more data, shouldn't Little Foot be published soon?

Holloway et al. 2018. Endocast morphology of Homo naledi from the Dinaledi Chamber, South Africa. PNAS DOI 10.1073/pnas.1720842115.

Feedback? Email me at toddcharleswood [at] gmail [dot] com. If you enjoyed this article, please consider a contribution to Core Academy of Science. Thank you.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Yes, you have to love the stubborn too

Two weeks ago, I posted some thoughts for young creationists attending ICC this year.  You can read that letter right here.

I was hoping to inspire the young people attending ICC (some for the first time) to think beyond just the intellectual or logical appeal of what happens there.  I wanted them to think about Christian virtues of loving God and loving neighbor.  I especially wanted them to think about loving neighbor in spite of their neighbor's stubbornness.  It's easy to brush people off who don't agree with you, but following God's command to love each other is most important when it's difficult.  And it can be quite difficult.

Reactions were, not surprisingly, all over the map.  The vast majority of people who wrote or responded were very positive and appreciated the reminder.  Thank you for that.

Others were more negative.  Some people think I'm a hypocrite because I of all people have no business encouraging people to try to get along.  Some people think I'm clueless about the real nature of the culture war.  Some people think I'm dangerous and leading people astray.  I hope that those reactions are unfair, but they are concerns I share, to be honest.  I don't want to be sinfully unkind to people I think are kooks, but I don't have a lot of practice with that.  I genuinely don't know how to interact with people that I am sure are utterly and fundamentally wrong about the creation/evolution debate.  I have to work on that.

I also pray fervently that I'm not leading people astray, but given the statistics of young people leaving the faith, it would be naive to say that none of my former students have fallen away.  When you expand that sample of students to include the thousands and thousands who have read things I published on my blog, then there are certainly former Christians who probably point the finger at me as part of their journey to unbelief.  That's true of everyone, really: ICR, AIG, CMI, etc.  Being a public voice risks misunderstanding and speaking into people's lives that aren't quite ready to hear or comprehend what we say.  It's tragic, but there it is.  God help us all.

As to being clueless about the culture war, that's really where we all disagree, isn't it?  I'm really sure I'm not wrong, but I don't want to be cocky about it either.   How about you?

There was one reaction in particular that I heard from several people, and I wanted to add some thoughts to maybe clarify what I wrote.  I said that the Christian community shouldn't have to deal with the rough and tumble world of truth debating as practiced in secular graduate schools.  Some people thought that was incorrect.  We should be able to stand up for truth and speak to error even in the Christian world.  Especially in the Christian world.

That's definitely true.  Looking at the letters of the apostle Paul, I see plenty of time that he forcefully confronted error, even to the point of calling out Peter himself.  He didn't pull punches either.  He delivered Hymenaeus and Alexander to Satan, so they would learn not to blaspheme.  He wished that those who insisted that converts had to be circumcised to become Christians would emasculate themselves, which in context means, "Don't stop with the circumcision.  Keep on cutting!"

But Paul got worked up for very specific reasons.  He demanded that the gospel of the grace of God not be hindered with trying to earn God's favor through keeping the Law (which is futile).  He insisted that we do nothing to threaten the unity of the church where Gentiles and Jews worshiped together.  Other issues weren't so important to him.

His famous "love chapter" in I Corinthians 13 was given in the context of disputes over spiritual gifts and how one should behave in a church gathering.  He gave fewer strong condemnations there, only admonishing us to practice our gifts wisely for the sake of other people.

In the same epistle, he addressed the controversy of eating idol meat.  On the surface, this sounds like a very simple issue: In Corinth, it was possible to purchase meat that had been sacrificed to idols.  To me, it sounds like eating such meat would be participating in idol worship, but there were Corinthians believers who did not see it that way.  Perhaps idol worship was so pervasive, it was hard to even know when you were getting meat sacrificed to idols?  Perhaps they just thought, idols aren't real, so what's the big deal?

Paul has some interesting things to say about idol meat.
...we know that “all of us possess knowledge.” This “knowledge” puffs up, but love builds up. If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know (I Cor. 8:1-2).
That's a pretty strong statement about knowledge: If you think you know something, you don't know as you ought to know.  Our knowledge is incomplete.  In I Cor. 13, he says that we see through a glass darkly.  We don't know everything.  So what does that mean for standing up for truth?

Paul's reaction seems to be tied up with the reactions of the "weaker" Christians.  Paul said we were free to eat whatever meat we wanted, as long as we eat it with gratitude to God, but if it offended a weaker Christian, Paul says we shouldn't eat it.  According to Paul, "... if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble" (I Cor 8:  If Paul's freedom in Christ threatens another believer, then he is willing to give it up for the sake of that other believer.  When he says we must bear one another's burdens, he means it.

What does that mean in the context of creationism?  Does this mean I should never say anything that might offend someone?  That seems impossible.  This is a debate.  Someone, somewhere is going to be offended by anything.  More importantly, I don't think Paul is talking about just any old offense.  He's talking about making a weaker Christian fall away from the faith, or as he says, " your knowledge this weak person is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died" (I Cor 8:11).  That's where we need to watch out.

First, let's be careful how we express enthusiasm for our ideas.  We all have a tendency to inflate the importance of our beliefs about creation, but nobody's soul is worth having the right or wrong idea about creation.  If you can't agree with me about creation, don't let that put you off from the gospel of Jesus Christ.  The gospel is far more important than agreeing with me about created kinds.

So what do we do about the guy who insists that the gospel is damaged if we don't accept and preach the whole truth, including geocentrism?  This is what I was talking about when I said that the Christian community should not have to practice or tolerate the secular, scientific attitude toward truth discovery.  In the academic world, we would repeat the many reasons why the earth orbits the sun and not vice versa.  We would bury them in logical, rational arguments based on evidence.  We would probably do it loudly.  We'd likely get angry when the other person doesn't listen.  It would probably descend into jokes, mockery, and scorn.  I speak from experience (on both sides).

I remember my first ICC when the name of a dinosaur hunter came up.  I don't even recall exactly what the dinosaur hunter was presenting at ICC, but it had to do with discovering living dinosaurs.  I remember a trusted colleague told me, "Oh him.  He's a nice guy.  Got some weird ideas though."  My colleague's kindness made me angry.  I remember thinking, "Weird ideas?  He's damaging the church and the testimony of Christ with his nonsense!"

But what if the real damage to the church comes not from our odd scientific beliefs but from the broken fellowship that they cause?  After all, the New Testament emphasizes over and over again that our Christian testimony is tied directly to our obedience to the Lord's command to love one another.

Even more, if we really want to claim that false scientific beliefs harm the gospel, then every Christian who ever lived has harmed the gospel.  Does that even make sense?  Has the gospel lost its force or power because Theophilus of Antioch believed in a flat earth?  Or because Augustine of Hippo believed in spontaneous generation?

Back to Paul: Since Paul discussed the issue of idol meat in I Corinthians, we may infer that we are permitted to talk about issues over which Christians disagree.  We shouldn't interpret loving the weaker Christian as a total gag order.  We can continue talking and perhaps even debating the correct answer to the great questions about creation.

But we must also follow Paul's lead in first considering the needs of the other side in the debate.  What motivates them?  Why do they choose to believe what they do?  Do we have shared values on the points about which we disagree?  How can those shared values inform the disagreement we're having?  Perhaps most importantly, how will my response to our disagreement reflect on the gospel of Christ?

I've tried to practice this recently with at least one person, and I've found it quite fascinating.  I disagree strongly with this person's take on creationism, and I know the work he's done contains errors that invalidate his conclusions.  While reading one of his articles, I was amazed to find a personal anecdote that helped me understand his entire approach to science and creationism.  No wonder we disagree!  Suddenly I found myself much less interested in the minutia of his errors (which I still think are important) and much more interested in addressing the yawning philosophical differences that probably prevent any meaningful interaction in the first place.  I still don't have a clue how to move forward from here, but I can at least see better why we disagree.  Seeing that deeper need kind of took the fight out of me.  That's got to be a start, right?

In the Resurrection, we'll all find out about all the wrong, weird ideas we believed while we were still in corruptible flesh.  Remember: Now we see through a glass darkly, but then, face to face.  If God can extend grace to cover our ignorance in the here and now, shouldn't we do the same for others?  And if God can cover us with His grace while leading us into greater understandings of truth, shouldn't we follow that example as well?

The tone of Christian debates must be different from the way the world debates things.  Somehow the call to bear each other's burdens must apply to academic debates as well.  I'm the first to admit that I haven't even tried to do this.  So maybe I should start.  How about joining me?

Feedback? Email me at toddcharleswood [at] gmail [dot] com. If you enjoyed this article, please consider a contribution to Core Academy of Science. Thank you.