Judging theories on their merits

Darwin's Tree of Life DrawingIn Friday’s The Daily News Online in Batavia, NY, John Cantillion wrote a letter to the editor in response to a piece by Reverend Fred Jensen a few days before. I didn’t read the original piece, but the reply by Mr. Cantillion was just so awash with misinformation and theological chest thumping that it was virtually screaming for a response.

The original topic by Reverend Jensen was “Science and religion should cooperate as well as co-exist.” Jerry Coyne and Chris Mooney are currently having their own debate, but I come down pretty squarely in Coyne’s camp. However, they’re both scientists and (I think) atheists, so they’re not that far apart generally. Cantillion, however, seems to have wandered off into the “science and religion go hand in hand and compliment each other” field, one that I don’t believe Coyne or Mooney endorse.

Cantillion starts off with a bang in the first paragraph, claiming biblical scientific credentials because the book of Job describes the water cycle, something he says was not “scientifically” described until the mid 1500′s. For those of you who are biblically challenged, here are the verses in question from Job chapter 36 (NSRV).

27 For he draws up the drops of water; he distils his mist in rain,
28 which the skies pour down and drop upon mortals abundantly.
29 Can anyone understand the spreading of the clouds, the thunderings of his pavilion?

I’m pretty sure those verses don’t qualify as being “scientifically” described, either, but that’s Cantillion’s first bit of evidence for biblical science. More quoting from Job, this time from chapter 26, verse 7.

He stretches out Zaphon [or the north] over the void, and hangs the earth upon nothing.

This passage, he states, is “an apt description of the earth in space.”

I’m pretty sure it’s not.

After his first paragraph of proselytizing, Cantillion continues…

There is a legitimate case for fear when a portion of science is eliminated because it does not agree with the worldview of those in power. Science looks at all the views, and based on empirical evidence, chooses the best one. Declaring one theory to be illegitimate and then forcing all evidence to fit the theory that has been declared to be legitimate is not science.

I wholeheartedly agree with that entire paragraph (as long as it remains out of the context of the rest of his letter). Science should be based on empirical evidence and should not be twisted to suit the political agenda of the day. It should be based on observable facts, should be testable, and should be peer reviewed.

What’s the problem with Cantillion’s view, then? The problem is that, after that one paragraph, the rest of his letter is mind-numbingly anti-science, anti-intellectual, and anti-rationality.

The theory of evolution is just that, a theory, not scientific fact. It has strengths and weaknesses.
[...]
Creation science is a theory just as evolution is. Let it stand or fall based on its merits, or lack thereof, as demonstrated through empirical evidence, not prejudice.

Here’s where things take a turn into creationist-land. The “just a theory” line is a classic creationist talking point and shows a complete lack of understanding of what a scientific “theory” actually is. When the statement is used in conjunction with evolution, not only does it show a lack of understanding of the definition of the word, but it shows an even greater lack in understanding of evolution… what the theory states, and what the evidence is. When that line is trotted out, it’s a pretty safe bet that it will be followed up with Ray Comfort’esque ramblings… which in this case, is excruciatingly true.

Creation science is not “a theory just as evolution is.” Creation “science” isn’t even “science.” If it was to stand or fall based on its merits, it would have fallen decades ago, as it has with reputable scientists, but that’s not what creationists really want. What they want is for creationism to be what is taught in schools. They want creationism to be taught as fact. They want creationism to be exempt from any sort of real scientific scrutiny so that they can claim it as true.

Cantillion continues with this

If evolution is really so superior to creating, why is every effort being made to eliminate the theory of creation from public awareness so that only the theory of evolution is known and believed? If the theory of evolution is truly so superior over creation, then put them side by side and let evolution destroy creation once and for all.

First, nobody is trying to eliminate the biblical account of creation from public awareness. What rational people are doing is removing it from (or rather keeping it out of) the science curriculum, where it has no business. The science curriculum should be teaching science, a branch of which is biology, a part of which is evolution… by natural selection. Evolution is not a matter of “belief” or “faith.” It’s a matter of scientific evidence processed using the scientific method.

As for the second part, evolution and creationism have been put side by side and evolution has destroyed creationism. Sadly, it hasn’t been “once and for all” because the creationists won’t accept anything but the overwhelming victory of their biblical (or Koranic) version of creation over any scientific, evidence-based alternative. So no matter how much evidence is presented, no matter how much “proof” is piled up and presented to a creationist, it makes not a lick of difference because it doesn’t match their beliefs, to which they desparately cling despite the contradictions between the facts and their beliefs.

Cantillion asks…

The strategy being used [to support evolution] is not science, but politics. Why is politics needed to prove and establish the theory of evolution, unless it cannot be established by empirical evidence?

I find Cantillion’s statement strange because what’s actually happening is the exact opposite of what he claims. Evolution is completely supported by science. Creationism is what is desparately seeking political support because that’s the only support it can possibly muster in a scientific world. Cantillion doesn’t seem to get the dependencies correct. Evolution depends on science. Creationism depends on politics.

He goes on to criticize Reverend Jensen for what he seems to think are poorly chosen examples of God’s hand in creation and then really goes off the deep end.

Everyone has a religious faith of some sort. Even an atheist has religious faith. An atheist cannot prove that God does not exist. Therefore, it takes at least as much faith for an atheist to believe that there is no God as it does for a religious person to believe that there is a God. So then, not mentioning God and not praying is not being neutral regarding religion but is, in fact, promoting atheism. All religious faiths do not get us to the same place, unless atheism is true. Then everyone just winds up dead. Atheism, not science, is at the root of evolution.

I find it difficult to not use profanity here. Lack of a belief in a god is not, in any way, shape, or form, religious faith. It’s true that atheists cannot prove that God does not exist. However, most atheists do not make an irrefutable claim of absolute knowledge regarding the existence of God (as Creationists do), so no proof is necessary. As an atheist, I’m not stating that a god does not exist. I’m stating that I have no evidence for the existence of a god… any god. So, no… it takes no faith to be an atheist.

So, contrary to the absurd conclusion at which Cantillion arrives, not mentioning God and not praying is definitely neutral regarding religion. Leaving out religious actions is neutral to religion. Praying, reading bible verses, singing hymns, and teaching creationism are all actions that are most assuredly not religion-neutral.

As for the last sentence, the claim is just absurd. Evolution is based on evidence… factual, observable, testable evidence. Again, Cantillion gets his cart before the horse. Atheism is not the root of evolution. Evolution is, however, quite a gaping hole in the creationists’ claims.

Cantillion goes off on Reverend Jensen again at this point in his letter, but starts his criticism with this bit.

All the religions of the world cannot be held in equal esteem. Christ, Mohammed, Buddha, Confucius, and other great spiritual leaders are not equal and are in contradiction with one another.

I have to agree that great spiritual leaders contradict one another. I’m not sure what point Cantillion was trying to make here, but he inadvertently (I assume) brought up one of the main arguments atheists use regarding the truth of religion. There are so many religions, all of which claim to be true, that it’s not difficult to conclude that the most likely answer is that none of them are.

Cantillion finished with this…

Jesus claimed to be God. It is Jesus who causes the lame to walk and the blind to see, not religion and not science. Science proves what God has already established.

Unsurprisingly, Cantillion is wrong again. Science has long ago created prosthetic devices allowing the “lame” to walk and, just recently, the blind to see.

Go figure


1 Comment

  1. I am constantly amazed at the audacity and hypocrisy of creationists to distort facts and outright lie to further their own bigoted agenda.

    Nice job working through that idiocy with some much needed rationality, Dan.