Be sceptical about the skeptics!
- Part 1: Putting Feathers on Reptiles
- Part 2: Proteins and Casket Draws
- Part 3: Fridges and Hot Air
- Part 4: That Matter of the Shrinking Sun
Part 4: That Matter of the Shrinking Sun
Creationists are often accused by evolutionists of not quoting, or referring to, other scientists’ work accurately or in context. This is particularly so when the doubts of an evolutionist can be misconstrued to imply he’s given up evolution. Such impressions are never intentional. What our opponents forget is that quoting other scientists’ work and statements is common practice, and conventionally such quotes are never intended to imply anything more about the authors’ beliefs, etc., than what is so stated in the statements quoted.
What is more serious is complete misrepresentation, particularly if a proper reading of a scientist’s work clearly indicates that scientist’s position on the issue being discussed. Under such circumstances unintentional misrepresentation should never occur. But if misrepresentation does occur, it raises serious questions about the intent of the scientist quoting another’s statements. In my experience, most creationists try to be exceptionally careful in this area.
However, one would least expect to see blatant misrepresentation in a book whose authors claim that creationists misquote, make basic errors, misrepresent, etc. But such is the case in the Skeptics’ book, in the article on page 22 entitled, ‘Is the sun shrinking?’
Quite correctly the Skeptic author reported
‘Gilliland (1981) has examined much of the data available from the early 18th century up to now. He concluded that the major change in size has been a periodic oscillation, with the sun shrinking and expanding over a 76 year cycle, with the last maximum occurring around 1911. However the experimental scatter in the observations (see Gilliland 1981, fig. 3 on p. 1149) is such that fairly sophisticated mathematical techniques were required to extract this information.’
However, when the Skeptic author says that ‘Gilliland stated that there was also the possibility of a steady shrinkage of about a tenth the rate proposed by Eddy and Boornazian, but that the experimental errors were such that zero shrinkage was also possible’, he is ascribing to Gilliland doubts which Gilliland did not have. This misrepresentation is rather blatant since Gilliland says in his abstract, or summary of the main points and conclusions in his paper:
‘A secular decrease of about 0.1 second of arc per century over the last 265 years is also likely from an objective analysis of the available data’ (p. 1144).1
This is no claim of possible zero shrinkage. Furthermore, in the body of his paper Gilliland says rather sternly and critically of his colleagues:
‘In the partially justified, but perhaps overzealous, criticism of the early Eddy and Boornazian (1979) claims there is a distinct possibility that much smaller but still fundamentally important (any trend less than -0.004 second of arc per century is faster than the Kelvin-Helmholtz gravitational contraction rate) secular trends are being inadvertently disclaimed’ (p. 1150).
Further down the same page he says:
‘Given the many problems with the data sets, one is inexorably led to the conclusion that a negative secular solar radius trend has existed since AD 1700, but the preponderance of current evidence indicates that such is likely to be the case.’
‘Thus, with allowance for possible systematic errors in both the meridian circle and Mercury transit timing observations, a negative secular trend of solar radius is still supported.’
But the misrepresentation and errors don’t stop here. The author in the Skeptics’ article goes on to refer to Stephenson’s 1970 paper on ‘The Earliest Known Record of a Solar Eclipse’2 and says:
‘In any attempt to use these early records additional complications arise due to the gradual slowing down of the earth’s speed of rotation, due to friction from tides. This would lead to an accumulated time error of 8 or 9 hours by July 17, 709 BC, the date of the earliest recorded total eclipse.’
Now while the Skeptic author is not attributing this accumulated time error of eight or nine hours by July 17, 709 BC to Stephenson, his figures are none the less very wrong, since a straightforward reading of Stephenson’s paper gives the correct figure:
‘Accurate computation of an ancient solar eclipse for a given place is limited by the non-uniformity of the Earth’s rotation and the tidal recession of the Moon from the Earth. Irregularities in the Earth’s rotation are chiefly the result of tides, but other causes are changes in sea level and electromagnetic coupling between the core and mantle of the Earth. A computation of a solar eclipse which ignores these effects may be in error by up to about 4h in time and 50 per cent in phase near 1300 BC’ (p. 651).
The Skeptic author then goes on to give the reader the impression that when ‘Stephenson (1982, p. 161) in fact concludes that observation supports a rate of shrinkage of about 0.16 seconds of arc per century’ etc., ‘that observation’ is the one in the previous sentence when the Skeptic author says, referring to the total eclipse of July 17, 709 BC, ‘At this time the sun cannot have been much, if any, larger than at present or the eclipse would not have been a total one.’
While this latter statement may be true, the impression left with the reader is that Stephenson on p. 161 of his 1982 paper on ‘Historical Eclipses’3 discusses the total eclipse of July 17, 709 BC. Nothing could be further from the truth. Nowhere on p. 161 does Stephenson even mention the July 17, 709 BC total eclipse, and when he does talk about a rate of shrinkage of about 0.16 second of arc per century Stephenson only derives that conclusion from the ‘six total solar eclipses from AD 1715 to 1925’ as well as ‘the observed duration of 30 transits of Mercury’. Stephenson only mentions the July 17, 709 BC total eclipse once in his whole paper, and that is in a table on p. 157 where no mention is made of any comparison of the sun’s size between then and now.
And what of Stephenson’s shrinkage rate of 0.16 second of arc per century? The Skeptic author says the error in this figure is about 0.14 second of arc per century ‘so that there is no solid evidence of shrinkage’ and ‘this agrees with Gilliland’s conclusion’. While he is correctly reporting Stephenson’s shrinkage result of 0.16± 0.14 second of arc per century, it is wrong for both the Skeptic author and Stephenson to say that there is no solid evidence of shrinkage or that this is ‘essentially a null result’ (Stephenson, p. 151). Such statements are misleading at best and dishonest at worst. The calculated shrinkage rate of 0.16± 0.14 second of arc per century is not no shrinkage, but says that there is shrinkage at a rate of somewhere between 0.02 and 0.30 second of arc per century.
This is exactly what Gilliland meant when he said, as quoted earlier, that many colleagues, in their rush to criticize those who claimed the sun was shrinking, were overlooking or inadvertently disclaiming a much smaller but still fundamentally important long-term shrinkage trend. That’s why Gilliland confidently suggested a shrinkage rate of almost 0.2 second of arc per century for the sun’s diameter (0.1 second of arc per century for the solar radius).
To be sure, Stephenson’s results agree with Gilliland’s conclusion, but the Skeptic author again misrepresents Gilliland when he states ‘there is no solid evidence of shrinkage. This agrees with Gilliland’s conclusion.’ Gilliland did have solid evidence of shrinkage and concluded the above small rate of almost 0.2 second of arc per century, very close to Stephenson’s 0.16 and within the 0.02–0.30 range that is the correct Stephenson result, Stephenson’s misleading reporting notwithstanding.
So how does the Skeptic author answer his own question: ‘Is the sun shrinking?’ He says:
‘To answer the question posed in the title of this section—the sun oscillates up and down in size, but there is very little evidence of steady shrinkage.’
Note that the ‘no solid evidence of shrinkage’ at the end of his previous paragraph has become ‘there is very little evidence of shrinkage’. Of course he’s wrong since both authors whose work he has drawn from (i.e. Gilliland and Stephenson) agree that there is evidence of a shrinkage rate of around 0.16–0.20 second of arc per century within the range of 0.02–0.30 second of arc per century to account for the error margins. Indeed, as we have repeatedly seen, Gilliland is adamant that ‘one is inexorably led to the conclusion that a negative secular solar radius trend has existed since AD 1700.’
How dare the Skeptic author conclude with the comment that ‘any creationist arguments based on such shrinkage should be treated with caution indeed’ when in the space of less than one page he, the Skeptic author, has repeatedly and blatantly misrepresented other scientists’ conclusions and made glaring errors in order to attempt a refutation of creationist arguments.
We have every reason in fact to be skeptical about the Skeptics and their attempts at answering the powerful creationist arguments if this is the level of their use and abuse of science, other scientists’ work, and the ethics of writing. Unsuspecting readers should be clearly warned not to be fooled.
But why should the Skeptic author want the answer to his question to be that there is no shrinkage of the sun and no solid, or little, evidence of steady shrinkage?
Because even if we take Stephenson’s bottom-of-the-range figure of a mere 0.02 second of arc per century (tiny shrinkage indeed), this means that, using the evolutionists’ own uniformitarian assumption of extrapolating this shrinkage rate backwards in time, just as they extrapolate further back 10–15 billion years to the ‘big bang’, only 100 million years ago the sun would have been too large for life to exist on earth!
But this won’t do for the Skeptic author who, like other evolutionists, believes life has been on this earth for at least three billion years, so the sun must not be shrinking. Notice that his conclusion is not based on the evidence, since we have just seen that the solid evidence does support a small shrinkage rate, but on his a priori commitment to evolution, that is, his starting belief in evolution before he even looked at the evidence. Yes, we should be skeptical about the Skeptics and their arguments.
(For a fuller treatment of the topic ‘Is the sun shrinking?’, see our three-part article in Creation magazine, vol. 11, nos 1, 2 and 3. See also Evidences for a Young Sun)
- Gilliland, R.L, 1981. Solar radius variations over the past 265 years. The Astrophysical Journal, 248:1144–1155. Return to text.
- Stephenson, F.R., 1970. The earliest known record of a solar eclipse. Nature 228:651–652. Return to text.
- Stephenson, F.R., 1982. Historical eclipses. Scientific American, 247(4):154–163. Return to text.