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National Geographic claims creationists are at war with science

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National Geographicnat-geo-cover

National Geographic (NG) is a respected popular science magazine with millions of subscribers. So it is unfortunate when they use that platform to promote anti-creation propaganda under the guise of science. The cover of the March 2015 issue is “The War on Science”, and the featured article by science writer Joel Achenbach, “The age of disbelief”, intends to explain why so many people doubt the scientific establishment on a range of issues—from global warming to vaccines to the Apollo moon landings. And, of course, no ‘war on science’ article would be complete without a reference to creationists. But rather than shed light on these controversies, NG has only managed to spread more confusion.

What is science?

When we analyze NG’s claim that there is a war on science, first we have to understand what they understand science to be. And they turn out to be a little confused about what science is and what it does. On one hand, they say, “Scientific results are always provisional, susceptible to being overturned by some future experiment or observation. Scientists rarely proclaim an absolute truth or absolute certainty” (41). But they also say, “Science will find the truth … It may get it wrong the first time and maybe the second time, but ultimately it will find the truth” (41). So which is it—provisional statement or truth?

The article speaks about the scientific method as if it is carried out largely infallibly by the scientific community. However, the growing problem of scientists committing fraud shows that this process should not be blindly trusted. Some scientists even believe it is acceptable to lie to get people to believe their favoured scientific theories. So one can be forgiven for not trusting them, particularly if they make forays into the area of origins, which is ultimately a philosophical belief about history.

Also, how does science arrive at the truth? Achenbach states: “The news media give abundant attention to such mavericks, naysayers, professional controversialists, and table thumpers. The media would have you believe that science is full of shocking discoveries made by lone geniuses. Not so. The (boring) truth is that it usually advances incrementally, through the steady accretion of data and insights gathered by many people over many years” (41). Well, it often does. But there are plenty of instances where it did not. The same article also features the stories of Galileo, Darwin, and Pasteur, all of whom were “lone geniuses” opposing the scientific consensus. So which narrative does NG want us to believe? It seems they want us to accept the consensus, except when they don’t.

In fact, there are several instances where creation scientists have made important contributions to their areas by asking questions no one else was asking. For instance, Dr Raymond Jones noted that goats in Hawaii could eat the toxic Leucaena shrub, but Australian animals would get sick. Other scientists scoffed at him when he hypothesized that the bacteria in the rumen of the Hawaiian goats allowed them to digest the toxin. He even had to fund his own research (eventually reimbursed) to prove that the goats had a special bacterium, new to science and subsequently named in his honor (Synergistes jonesii), that when transferred to Australian goats allowed them to eat the shrub without getting sick.

Dr Raymond Damadian was not deterred from his ideas about nuclear magnetic resonance when skeptics said that the technology would mean having to rotate a patient 10,000 revolutions per minute, and theoretical physicists said that his ideas were beyond the laws of physics—and it’s a good thing, because MRI has saved countless lives.

And what about non-creationists like J Harlen Bretz who was ridiculed for his hypothesis that the Channeled Scablands of the northwestern US were carved catastrophically by a massive flood? Bretz was scorned by the scientific community for 40 years, and his idea was denigrated as “too biblical” since it violated uniformitarian geology—until evidence for the source of the water was discovered and the Lake Missoula flood suddenly became evident to all.

Only time will tell whether those who oppose the scientific consensus at any point in time will turn out to have been right. Would the 17th century opponents of Galileo have said he was waging a ‘war on science’? In fact, the scientists of the day were opposed to Galileo’s statements, not on theological grounds, but on scientific grounds. Even though he was right, he didn’t have the scientific proof at the time.

Category confusion

The full range of ‘attacks on science’ cited by NG includes: opposing the fluoridation of water, disbelief in the Apollo moon landings, belief in a flat earth (which the church never taught), distrust of genetically modified food and vaccines, concern that the Ebola virus might become airborne, opposition to climate change, and creationism.

But this is a guilt-by-association ploy. People hold such views for a variety of reasons, so each issue should be evaluated on the merits, not lumped all together as though every creationist also denies that the earth is a sphere. We don’t. Many creationists are in agreement with the scientific consensus on most of the issues in that list, because there is testable, repeatable evidence that the earth is round (fun fact: the head of the Flat Earth Society is an evolutionist!), for instance, and good evidence that the Apollo moon landings happened. In fact, Dr John Sanford, who is responsible for the gene gun that is used to genetically modify plants, is a creationist!

But even people who distrust genetically modified food aren’t ‘waging war against science’. They have valid concerns about unintended effects of genetic modification (and CMI has advocated caution in this area). People who don’t think humans are the primary force behind climate change point out, not unreasonably, that the majority of Earth’s climate is determined by the sun, and the earth has undergone warmer and cooler periods in the past (and a global Flood around 4,500 years ago), and so wonder whether that might not be a factor.

But whether the skeptics of the so-called consensus are right or wrong on each of these issues, they aren’t characteristically trying to tear down the entire scientific enterprise—they merely think that the gatekeepers of the scientific establishment have misstated, misinterpreted, or misapplied the facts on the particular question in dispute.

Are creationists waging a war on science?

NG cites a statistic that 1/3 of Americans believe humans were created in their present form, but still treats creationists as if they were weird aliens. Achenbach asserts: “Modern biology makes no sense without the concept of evolution, but religious activists in the United States continue to demand that creationism be taught as an alternative in biology class” (35).

This is illustrative of the condescending tone of the entire article. Achenbach dismisses creation with little more than elephant hurling and an argument from authority. (Try counting how many times he appeals to ‘consensus’.)

In fact, Achenbach commits the fallacy C.S. Lewis called Bulverism—devoting all kinds of space to explaining why your opponent is wrong (through superficial psycho-analysis) before you’ve shown that he is wrong. Achenbach claims that peer pressure, not rational assessment, is the primary driving force behind rejection of the scientific consensus:

Science appeals to our rational brain, but our beliefs are motivated largely by emotion, and the biggest motivation is remaining tight with our peers (45).

Achenbach also admits that his arguments against those who oppose the consensus are ineffective. He says, “Throwing more facts at them doesn’t help” (45). But instead of taking this as a cue to find more persuasive arguments, he blames his opponents for not thinking rationally.

Yet this cuts both ways, according to the sociological research Achenbach relies on. Significantly, Achenbach admits that those who affirm the consensus might also be motivated by emotion and peer pressure. He reports:

In [Yale University researcher Dan] Kahan’s descriptions of how we decide what to believe, what we decide sometimes sounds almost incidental. Those of us in the science-communication business are as tribal as anyone else, he told me. We believe in scientific ideas not because we have truly evaluated all the evidence but because we feel an affinity for the scientific community. When I mentioned to Kahan that I fully accept evolution, he said, “Believing in evolution is just a description about you. It’s not an account of how you reason” (45–47).

Furthermore, this belief in evolution is not necessarily indicative of superior scientific knowledge. The NG article noted that science knowledge led to polarization regarding controversial scientific topics, not increased adherence to the consensus view. Elsewhere, Kahan has pointed out:

First, “believing in evolution” is not the same as “understanding” or even having the most rudimentary knowledge of science knows about the career of life on our planet. Believing and understanding are in fact wholly uncorrelated.
That is, those who say they “believe” in evolution are no more likely to be able to give a passable—as in high school biology passing grade—account of “natural selection,” “random mutation,” and “genetic variation” (the basic elements of the “modern synthesis” in evolutionary theory) than whose who “disbelieve.” Indeed, few people can.
Those who “believe,” then, don’t “know” more science than “nonbelievers.” They merely accept more of what it is that science knows but that they themselves don’t understand (which, by the way, is a very sensible thing for them to do …).1

Another evolutionist, Gordy Slack, was even stronger:

When they say that some proponents of evolution are blind followers, they’re right. A few years ago I covered a conference of the American Atheists in Las Vegas. I met dozens of people there who were dead sure that evolutionary theory was correct though they didn’t know a thing about adaptive radiation, genetic drift, or even plain old natural selection. They came to their Darwinism via a commitment to naturalism and atheism not through the study of science.2

Yet Achenbach fails to appreciate how this undermines his entire argument. Instead of conceding, he immediately doubles down on his bald assertions, pounding his bully pulpit even harder:

Maybe—except that evolution actually happened. Biology is incomprehensible without it. There aren’t really two sides to all these issues (47).

But the author does not really know that it happened, because no one was there to see the first land animal crawl out of the ocean (or to see God create it on Day 6, for that matter). Creationists and evolutionists alike interpret the same evidence in line with our beliefs about the past. The test of which is more sound scientifically is which is in line with the evidence we find, and which can be used to make practical predictions that are later confirmed. And there are a number of cases where creation scientists have done exactly this.

Physicist Dr Russell Humphreys proposed a creation-based model for the origin of earth’s magnetic field, and predicted calculations of the sun and other planets in the solar system based on their being created out of water as Scripture teaches (2 Peter 3:5). He predicted the strengths of the magnetic fields of Uranus and Neptune, which were 100,000 times the evolutionary predictions. Humphreys’ predictions were confirmed when the Voyager 2 flew past Uranus and Neptune in 1986 and 1989. This is a genuine instance of creation scientists and secular scientists making very different predictions, and the creation-based theory ‘winning out’.

More recently, the creationist RATE team and secular scientists both made predictions about how quickly helium trapped in zircon crystals leaks out (i.e. diffusion rate). Helium is produced as a result of uranium decay in the crystals. It turns out that helium escapes the crystals fairly easily, so if they were really 1.5 billion years old, all the helium would have escaped. The actual diffusion measurements completely matched the creationist predictions, and the leak rate actually gave an age of 6000 ± 2000 years—i.e. in the same vicinity as the biblical range!

Geologist Steve Austin’s research on the Mt St Helens disaster shows how large-scale geological features can be formed by catastrophe, including sedimentary layers, canyons, polystrate fossils, and rapid recovery of the landscape. This is completely contrary to evolutionist predictions that such landforms would take millions of years. And Dr Austin predicted that a floating log mat would eventually sink root-first down to the bottom, be buried at different levels, as we find at Specimen Ridge in Yellowstone. The initial stages of this process have been observed at Mt St Helens as well.

So not only do scientists who happen to be creationists do real science in other areas, scientists with explicitly creationist assumptions are doing science based on those assumptions, and their predictions consistently prove superior to evolutionary predictions.

Skeptics are good for science

NG seems to be advocating a world where we all trust the scientific authorities. But if Pasteur had been content to accept the scientific consensus of the day, he would not have made his ground-breaking discoveries. If Darwin had accepted the scientific consensus of his day, he never would have published his books on evolution. If people today accepted the eugenic ‘science’ consensus of 100 years ago, as liberal theologians did, we never would have come to the view today that people of all races are equal (though that has always been the biblical teaching).

The reality: the war within science

No one is really at war with science, but there is a very real war within science. Evolution is the ruling paradigm, and the elite within scientific circles are desperate to keep creationists out. This is because, if the world is billions of years old, we evolved from single-celled creatures, and there is no God, then there is no one to whom we’re accountable. If, however, the earth and people were created by the God of the Bible, then we’re accountable to Him, and that is a truth that they do not want to contemplate.

The first scientists saw themselves as thinking God’s thoughts after Him, to paraphrase the great astronomer Johannes Kepler. The founders of nearly every area of science were dedicated Christians who saw their science as a logical extension of their faith in God. Indeed Scripture tells us that the creation declares God’s eternal power and attributes, so the scientists who seek to suppress that truth are culpable for their unbelief. True science will point people to the Creator.

Published: 19 March 2015

References and notes

  1. Kahan, D., What does ‘disbelief’ in evolution mean? What does ‘belief’ in it measure? Evolution & science literacy part 1, Cultural Cognition Project, culturalcognition.net, 19 June 2013. Return to text.
  2. Slack, G., What neo-creationists get right: An evolutionist shares lessons he’s learned from the Intelligent Design camp, The Scientist, June 2008. Return to text.

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