How objective are scientists?
First posted on homepage: 12 June 2013 (GMT+10)
Re-posted on homepage: 5 August 2020 (GMT+10)
Are scientists always objective? Do they always interpret the evidence with an open mind? Some time ago I experienced first-hand how a scientist’s beliefs affect the way he looks at the evidence.
Whilst a geology student at university, I needed to identify a fossil. After consulting the Atlas of Invertebrate Macrofossils 1 I had tentatively identified it as a belemnite2 of the genus Hibolites. However, paleontology was not my specialty so I sought advice from an expert.
The research paleontologist at one of the major universities in our state was the obvious choice.
I had always found him helpful even though he was unimpressed by my ‘young earth’ stand. For over 30 years he had written extensively on paleontology, and was now the only lecturer on the subject at that university.
I wanted to be sure I was not making a wrong identification. I also wanted to be more specific in my classification.
I showed him the belemnite and explained that it was found near Warwick, U.K. (In hindsight I must not have made it clear that it was from the U.K. There is also a town called Warwick in the state of Queensland, Australia.)
He looked carefully at the specimen using his hand lens.
‘No, this is not a belemnite,’ he announced, ‘it is an iron concretion.’
I was amazed. It looked like a belemnite to me. But then, he was the expert.
‘Iron concretions can do funny things,’ he explained. ‘People who are not experienced in this field can be easily tricked by them.’
Well, he was the authority, so I reluctantly accepted his assessment. We talked a bit more. I showed him the diagrams from the Atlas that looked like my specimen. I then mentioned afresh that I was talking about Warwick, U.K.
‘U.K.!’ he exclaimed. ‘Let me have a look at that again.’ A second time he looked carefully at the specimen.
‘Yes, it is a belemnite. When you look carefully you can see the way it is formed on the edges here. I thought you were talking about Warwick, Queensland. It is actually a very nice specimen. Some of the markings on the guard are preserved.’
The confusion occurred because he knew the local geology of Warwick, Queensland. He did not think that belemnites could come from the area because the outcrops were the wrong ‘age.’
His geological knowledge was impeccable. But his wrong identification of the fossil illustrates how the geologic age system can be self-reinforcing.
There may well have been fossils found in the ‘wrong place’ but even so, not necessarily recognized as such.
We talked some more. I thanked him for his assistance. However, I don’t think he realized what an amazing demonstration he had provided of how his preconceptions affected his science. Even careful observation of a hand specimen under a magnifying glass can be wrongly interpreted if it does not fit one’s preconceptions. And preconceptions are so strongly linked with one’s worldview.
That is why creationists must not be deterred when apparent conflicts arise. They simply signal that we need to ‘dig deeper.’
We should not rule out the possibility that the data itself was wrongly recorded as a result of pressure from evolutionary preconceptions.