March 31, 2014

An Interesting Argument against Creationism

Neil deGrasse Tyson, host of Fox’s new series Cosmos, made a very interesting point in yesterday’s episode. It should not, of course, be necessary to argue against the ignorant, anti-scientific (yet pseudo-scientific) notion of “creationism.” Alas, it is, and this program has taken several opportunities to attack religious nonsense without being too explicit about it.

Episode 4 made a point I had never thought of, namely, that were the universe only 6,600 years old—I think I have the number mentioned right—we could see stars only 6,600 light years away. Yet we can see stars billions of light years away. In other words, one only has to look at the sky to realize that creationist theories are wrong.

What Cosmos failed to do in episode 4 and has failed to do in earlier episodes is to justify some of the scientific facts that it promulgates. This would be difficult in some cases, to be sure, but often a credible case can be made for a scientific idea without offering an absolutely convincing proof. That may not be true in quantum mechanics, but it is certainly true for, say, the speed of light.

We have gone to the moon and therefore have fairly direct evidence of how far away it is. Moreover, we have bounced laser light off a mirror on the moon, and we know how long that took. There may be simpler ways of measuring the speed of light, but the average viewer ought to be able to appreciate such a measurement and, assuming some honesty among scientists, that that speed is what it is represented to be. I’m not sure what is the easiest way of establishing that many stars are very far away—I suspect that an argument involving trigonometry would work—but I cannot imagine that such an argument would be too difficult to construct.

Whereas I find the argument from the nature of what we see in the sky quite convincing, I have no doubt that a creationist could devise some cockamamie alternative explanation. (Creationists have never heard of Occam’s razor, apparently.) In any case, I appreciate the ideas presented in Cosmos, but I wish that the series would go at least a little deeper into its subjects.

5 comments:

  1. Unfortunately the same breed of very committed creationist who believes that God made fossils then put them in the ground to test the faith of modern believers would simply say that God started the supposedly far-away light much closer to Earth making it appear to be much older/from further away than it could be. Creationists don't believe in the development of the universe in any way, so they don't believe in light taking all this time to slowly reach us - they believe rather that when God make the heavens that all the stars that are visible now were visible then, instantly. The speed of light is a product of maintenance of the universe, not creation. I'm not suggesting this is reasonable, I'm just telling you why this won't convince anyone who's committed to creationism. They are remarkably good at shutting out the facts.

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  2. I tried to watch but between the commercials and superficial nature of the program I got frustrated and turned it off.

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    1. I agree that the commercials are numerous and intrusive. It’s too bad the producers didn’t find funding to allow the series to be shown (on Fox or elsewhere) without commercials.

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  3. I have watched only the first and third shows so far (I also find the commercials annoying). The program is visually stunning and interesting in many ways, but in retrospect after the first show I had to agree with Tobias Haller that the over-long section on Giordano Bruno was misguided. The third episode further made me feel that Tyson is a little too preoccupied with showing how religion has got it wrong and science has got it right. There doesn't seem to be any acknowledgement that many people--including many scientists--have religious beliefs that complement, not contradict, modern scientific understanding.

    As to the idea that the vast distance of the stars is the best refutation for the creationists belief in a 6600 year old earth... While a valid point, I don't think it is a very effective approach, simply because it relies on scientific knowledge that is not at all obvious to the scientifically illiterate. Simply looking at the night sky gives no direct hint that the stars are thousands or billions of light years distant. You need to know about the expanding universe and red-shifted starlight to know that the stars are vastly distant. I would think that the fact that we can find marine fossils in geologic strata that are highly visible and well above sea level is a much more obvious clue as to the ancient age of the earth. Yeah, the literalists can give us weird ideas about God planting them there to test our faith, but the scientific explanation obviously makes much more sense than that. Remarks I have heard from some of my literalist relatives show that one thing that gives them real difficulty is: dinosaurs! And you can go look at them yourself right here in Pittsburgh.

    Bill Ghrist

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  4. Here is a neat little explanation of all the ways young-earth creationists use to insulate themselves against intrusive knowledge. It isn't convincing stuff, but it isn't meant to convince you the scientist and rational-person, it is meant to shore up their own convictions on which they already have a lot riding.
    http://www.patheos.com/blogs/slacktivist/2014/04/03/young-earth-creationism-and-the-problem-of-telescopes-part-2/

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