a conversation with ken smith

This began with a birthday greeting Ken gave me on Facebook Monday, 5/5/14. I discovered that he was no longer teaching at Trinity Bible College, but that his vigorous mind was still active. I obtained his permission to include a few of his remarks. The flavor of these remarks is polemical, worrying the glib orthodoxies of the Scientific community and the Young Earth Creationist (YEC) community. I hope you enjoy these remarks as much as I do.

First I’ll post the thread from mucholderthen I found on Tumblr.com, then Ken’s remarks. My part of the conversation seems more like minimal encouragers than substantive so I will not expand on them unnecessarily.

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mucholderthen:

NEW POLL shows that a Surprising Number of Americans Distrust Science
For a change, evolution squeaked by at 55% [including 24% at “sort of confident”]
CBS News

[Many] Americans still question some of the basic concepts of modern science, according to a new Associated Press-GfK poll with a representative sample of 1,012 U.S. adults age 18 or older.

Overall, Americans show more skepticism than confidence in the scientific concept that a Big Bang created the universe 13.8 billion years ago.
There was also considerable doubt about the science behind global warming and the age of the Earth.
“It is enormously distressing that science, which is our most powerful means for gaining insight into the world, insight into truth, is so mistrusted by so many people,” Brian Greene, a professor of physics and mathematics at Columbia University, told CBS News.

Greene, who co-founded the World Science Festival and World Science U. to help educate and excite the public about science, says understanding scientific ideas is not just academic — it’s essential to a vital democracy. “Issues like climate change or nanoscience or genetically modified foods — I mean all of these issues, and a thousand others, are scientific at their core,” he said.

We chatted for a bit after that. Ken sent an article he wrote to Jim Bradford of the Assemblies of God (AG) about the problems posed by the YEC in the AG. In the article he said that he had seen the Nye/Ham debate and wasn’t impressed with either Nye or Ham. Nothing new there. I agreed with Smith, but suggested that Nye’s rational was not to argue for a proof from science that Ham was wrong, but rather to treat the debate as a conversation. So the substantive issues that the scientific community holds against the YECs were not exposed in a way that would make a slam dunk case against YEC. In response to my remarks, Ken sent the following rejoinder to the science poll from mucholderthen.

From Ken Smith:

I took a look at the confidence in science poll. Thanks for the link. My take on it might be different from yours. I hope you don’t mind a lengthy explanation. Having not been able to stand in front of a class and pontificate for a year or so, I will do so right here.

In one sense our problem with science in America (and maybe the West generally) is far far worse than is understood by the people who devised and conducted the poll and those who tweeted out laments concerning its results. That is because the nature of the poll itself—including every single question, measures nothing more than adherence to the pronouncements of authorities who claim to represent science, and has no real reference to what science actually is, which is a method and not a result. One way of saying it is that the poll reflects a naively fundamentalist conception of science that is not markedly different from the fundamentalist conception of religion. If you check the right boxes, say the right confessions, you’re considered saved.

Maybe this sounds radical but in fact it’s not radical at all. An elementary working understanding of philosophy (which is rare nowadays and alarmingly rare among people who actually work in scientific fields) would reveal deep problems with every single statement in the poll.

Take the first one, for example, “smoking causes cancer.” For anyone adequately familiar with Hume’s inquiry about cause and effect relationship, red flags go up immediately. If the statement read “there is a high correlation between smoking and various forms of cancer” or even “smoking creates physical conditions that are highly conducive to the initiation and growth of cancer” then the poller would be on safer ground. But the three word slogan “smoking causes cancer” is, I believe, quite misleading and unscientific. It may be a socially useful statement but that is not the same as being scientific.

The first five statements all have serious problems with causality and/or ontology and require clarification to be meaningful in any true scientific sense. The one about vaccines is too overbroad to be meaningful. The first red one, the one about rising temperatures, is just plain misleading. Before one can possibly answer it, one must know what time period one is talking about when one says “the average temperature of the world is rising.” If the question were delimited to, say, 1850 to 2014, the empirically accurate answer would be clearly yes, the global temperature did rise (leaving aside, for now, the vital question of whether the concept of “average global temperature” is a scientifically meaningful statement. If delimited to, say, 1930 to 2000, the empirically accurate question would be “not sure.” If one delimited the question to 1998 to 2014, the empirically true answer would be clearly, “no, it is not rising.” If one delimits the question to a period in the future, (say, 2014 to 2050, or even 2000 to 2100, one is then dealing in speculation informed by certain assumptions that may or may not be correct. One who either does not understand that this is speculation, or fails to inform his audience that this is speculation, is simply not dealing scientifically.

So the answer to the question depends first on the definition of the terms, and then one can move to the empirical evidence, which is sometimes fairly plain, sometimes quite complex, and sometimes contradictory. When people claim that the average global temperature “is” rising, but do not explain their terms, they are either deceiving themselves or trying to deceive other people.

This is not really hard to understand. Or it would not be, if people were only educated to think scientifically as opposed to trained to respond in a certain way to slogans that are backed by the force of allegedly scientific cultural authority. The trouble with Bill Nye and unfortunately with most science educators is I think that they lack the background to really go much beyond the level of parroting authorities that happen to be established at one particular time period (and they often they parrot the views established at a time period that has already slipped into the past).

When we get to the last three questions, I have no particular problem with the plausibility of any of the statements. I’m not the slightest bit phased by the reality of deep time or deep space, but the preciseness of these numbers seems to convey a sense of arrogance. But they are the “right” answers and that is apparently enough for the people who made this poll and who take it as a measure of whether people possess adequate respect for [allegedly] scientific authority. If I were examining a person for scientific literacy, I would want them to not tell me the “right” answer, but explain some of the evidence that has led to the understanding that this is, given the current state of knowledge, the most plausible answer available.

The last one, about the big bang, is deeply problematic. I have no particular problem with the big bang theory, and it may well be true as described, but I don’t think it deserves the slavish reverence that it usually gets. There are plenty of empirically solid thinkers (I prefer to use “empirically solid thinkers” instead of “scientists”) who reject it and prefer the “older” steady state theory that Thomas Gold advocated. That doesn’t mean they reject stellar expansion rates, etc., but that they interpret their significance in different ways. In relation to faith, I think it’s a mistake to marry theology with a particular theory like this, although I do think it’s fine for theology and such theories to go out on a casual date once in awhile. When I hear William Lane Craig (for example) rant on about how the big bang proves the creator of the Bible, I think “I like you, Will, I like you, but hey, you are taking this way too literally.”

Ultimately the problem with philosophy, and why it is dangerous, is that by its nature it simply can’t help but undercut the dominant assumptions of any given age or social space that it confronts. And philosophy that does not confront does not to me seem to be real philosophy. I entirely understand that there are many “scientific” circles in which a person who practices any sort of rigorous philosophical thinking–and does so out loud–will be unable to function easily within that circle. Much the same is true in religious circles.

I’m probably as disgusted as you are by the awful science and theology and philosophy that supports the YEC movement. So my criticisms aren’t the same ones that somebody like Ken Ham would launch. At the same time, I have a bit of sympathy for my YEC friends who get ragged on so much by people whose actual understandings are every bit as primitive as those of the YEC’ers themselves.

I take Ken’s point seriously. His critique of the poll is trenchant. His critique of YEC, not included here is also a well considered characterization along parallel lines with my critique. Though I have some acquaintance with the histories of the YEC position, Ken’s is more well developed. My critiques are with the poor rational skills displayed by the YECs. The Ark is too small, the flood’s probably local, literalism is unsupportable in Genesis 1-11 if the Scripture is to be considered true: logical contradictions in a literal interpretation come to the surface, etc. But Ken’s point about the poll is deeper than any supposed support of science or religion. He reminds me of the necessity for critique of the presuppositions of polls like that. His philosophical critique cuts to the issue. The poll assumes certain prejudices.

One prejudice I would like to needle a bit is the one about global warming. I think Ken made a good point with the temperature averages over time, but only obliquely. He attacks the fuzzy nature of the declaration, not the question about whether global warning is a danger.

First, it is obvious that humans are damaging the ecosystem. But to say on that account as the poll does, that “The average temperature of the world is rising, mostly because of man made heat-trapping greenhouse gasses,” goes beyond the evidence we have. Those who are convinced that humans are primarily responsible for this effect do not happily admit evidence of naturally-occurring cyclical temperature shifts. But to even suggest that temperature rising can also be natural, and that some of the rising temperature today is natural, has become the language of science deniers. Rubbish! We know we are damaging the environment and we also know that private citizens, small business, corporations, and government are all complicit in this. But to say that humans are either solely or mostly responsible for the current global rise in temperature (acknowledging Ken Smith’s critique) is irresponsible rhetorical politically correct crap. It is said in an alarmist way to generate anger against our bad behavior and get us to change. Should we change? Of course! Will we? Maybe not in time to save the planet for future generations. But if we kill ourselves off, the planet will perhaps restore itself. It might not either, but that is too fatalistic for my temper. I’m doing my part to comply with the 4 Rs and ride my bicycle, replace incandescent lights with LEDs and CFLs, maintain and drive my car as long as I can drive, etc.

More from Ken Smith:

I have been reading articles about what seems to be another change in scientific orthodoxy, as the fixation on saturated fats as causes of heart attacks is very rapidly going by the way side. But for decades informed people accepted the direct connection as an indisputable fact, and anyone who challenged the notion was regarded as a crank or a tool.

Of course I am well aware that promoting the idea of challenging orthodoxies has its own pitfalls, because it’s quite easy to challenge orthodoxies from an ignorant, knee-jerk sort of approach that doesn’t involve any real digging or critical thought. This has always bothered me about YEC’ers—sometimes they will make a valid criticism of the dominant paradigm, but it’s almost always opportunitist criticism, and not criticism that is tied to a real rational framework that could itself hold up against basic criticism. They are like a stopped clock that is bound to be right for a short time twice a day. On the other hand, sometimes their opponents come across as constantly adjusting their clocks but doing so in secret, so that nobody notices that their clocks aren’t really running quite as well as they like to claim.

This is probably enough fun for now. I need to go mow the lawn . . . I’m back and editing. I need to work. Bye.

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