An Apologist’s Version of the Foundations of Geology

The next module in Dr. Jay Wile’s Exploring Creation with General Science confronts geology. Wile is a young earth creationist who has already accused scientists of loving “radiometric dating because they want to believe the earth is billions of years old.” Unsurprisingly he dismisses uniformitarian geology with its incessant and inexorable changes in favor of catastrophism, a sort of Flood geology:[1]

In my scientific opinion, the most important data support catastrophism, and the data in support of uniformitarianism are rather limited and can mostly be “explained away.”[2]

As appealing as this might be for Wile, even William Buckland might have been hard pressed to accept Wile’s catastrophism. Buckland at least tried to formulate an old earth creationist model that did not unduly privilege the Flood. For Buckland, the deluge could not have deposited all the strata in a single year. Wile doesn’t seem to see that as a problem (more on this in the next two posts).

This module focuses mostly on vocabulary, basic geology terms: types of rock, weathering and erosion, and the Grand Canyon’s Great Unconformity. The real payoff, for Wile, comes in the next two modules. There he presents his case for catastrophism.

This module along with the preceding one and especially the following two seem tangential to his main subject, which subject is basic biology. These four modules serve only to provide him with the space to undermine evidence for an ancient earth and to assert his young earth creationist ideas. Like the first couple modules, which served only to let him undermine well-established scientific findings.

  1. Melvyn Bragg and guests explored the history of catastrophism in a recent In Our Time – Catastrophism. It is worth a listen.

    Note, Wile’s catastrophism has nothing to do with comets or asteroids that might have caused the extinction of dinosaurs. As becomes clear in the next module, his singular catastrophe is the Flood.  ↩

  2. Although Dr. Jay L. Wile, PhD in chemistry, gets points for honesty, we might worry about his rhetorical stance here and its implicit argument from authority. Expertise is not fungible. A degree in chemistry doesn’t, by itself, give Dr. Wile expertise in geology. Nevertheless, in comments like this he asserts his superiority over his middle-school-aged student and their homeschooling parents (assuming the parents read their homeschooling texts carefully).  ↩

Wile on Archeology, Geology, and Paleontology

The first substantive modules in Wile’s Exploring Creation with General Science promises to introduce historical sciences, archeology, geology, and paleontology as a way of introducing “life science.”[1] Wile doesn’t deliver on that promise. Instead, he offers an idiosyncratic method for evaluating historical evidence, which he then applies to the Bible, a critique of methods of dating artifacts, and finally a wildly tendentious claim that the Bible is the best source for studying the history of human life.

Once again, Wile begins reasonably enough, pointing out that we can use archeology to supplement the historical record.[2] But then he goes a step further, characterizing archeology as scarcely more than a handmaiden to history:

archeology’s main strength lies in uncovering and clarifying the history of civilizations for which we do have historical records.

In Wile’s model, archeology confirms or contradict historical evidence, i.e., documents. But it is only one of the ways documents are evaluated. Wile here introduces three tests that “historical science” applies to any document: the internal test, the external test (the domain of archeology), and the bibliographic test. The internal test looks for internal contradictions. The external test evaluates a document against other historical facts, drawn from other historical documents and archeology. The bibliographic test tries to determine if the document is a faithful copy of an eye-witness account or of a reliable report of an eye-witness account. To illustrate these three tests, Wile applies them to the Bible and finds. He explains away contradictions to ensure that the Bible passes the internal test. He cherrypicks archeological evidence that confirms Biblical passages. Finally, he claims that the text of today’s Bible differs little (and only trivially) from the ancient Old and New Testaments and is, therefore, “faithful to the original eyewitness accounts.” All this leads him “to the scientific conclusion that the stories and account in the Bible are more trustworthy than any of the other accounts we have about the Roman Empire and other facets of ancient life!” We might wonder about Wile’s definition of “scientific” here—his three tests from the “historical sciences” come from an old introduction to English literary history and folklore.[3]

Along with illuminating historical documents, archeology helps us learn about humans’ prehistory. But here, Wile cautions, we have to be careful because we have no good way of learning the age of an artifact. Spoiler alert: Wile is a young-earth creationist. The two methods archeologist use to date artifacts—dendrochronology and radiometric dating—are fraught with problems of accuracy and precision. Dendrochronology can be accurate only back to ca. 6600 B.C. Carbon–14 techniques are less reliable, and all but unreliable if the artifact is older than 3,000 years. Yet, Wile concludes:

many scientists love to use radiometric dating because they want to believe that the earth is billions of years old and that man has been living on earth for hundreds of thousands or even millions of years.

It’s fascinating to see Wile whose faith drives his analysis charge scientists of being dogmatic. At a minimum, Wile opens himself to the charge of being blind to his own prejudices. More severely, he reveals his own hypocrisy.[4]

Wile’s three tests, his “scientific” analysis of the Bible, and his rejection of radiometric dating all serve his broader point: the Bible is the best source for understanding all human history on the planet.

Module #5 is a fascinating example of selective logic, vague definitions, non-sequiturs, and unintentionally funny assertions—such as when Wile writes: “If you start deciding to reject parts of biblical history, you have really departed from the science of history and are more or less making up the rules as you go.” The module’s implicit goal reinforces that of the first two modules: distort uncertainties to undermine scientific techniques in an effort foster doubt in and suspicion of scientific results.[5]

  1. “Life science” is Wile’s term for basic human anatomy and physiology.  ↩

  2. Geology and paleontology receive a passing mention and potted definition at this point. The next two modules focus in turn on these two sciences.  ↩

  3. I had never heard of these tests before reading Wile’s book, or at least I had never heard of them labeled “internal,” “external,” and “bibliographic.” Wile does not cite any source for these tests. Some digging around reveals that sometime in the 1970s, an popular apologist extracted them from some obscure book published in 1952 by a scholar who worked for the U.S. Air Force. They have become a set piece in reformed Christian apologetics over the last 50 or so years.

    Wile is like so many other apologists who have used “science” to demonstrate the truth of the Biblical account. Its success depends on a bloated definition of science as well as a selective application of that “science” to the Bible.  ↩

  4. In his history of science survey he accused them of being swayed by arguments from authority. Here again, he perverts a perfectly reasonable warning into something absurd.  ↩

  5. For example, radiometric dating. Yes, radiometric dating is uncertain, sometimes millions of years off. But when it dates objects to billions of years old, the uncertainties are insignificant. Similarly, radiocarbon dating has a degree of uncertainty, but that uncertainty is small compared to the age of the object.  ↩

20-Sided Reviewer’s Die for History of Science

And now, for a little late summer levity.[1]

In an effort to make reviewing manuscripts easier and faster, I put together this little template for the 20-Sided Reviewer’s Die for History of Science.[2] Now, instead of having to read through the entire manuscript, trying to identify and evaluate the argument and sources, you just have to toss a die a few times (see instructions on template).

20-Sided Reviewer’s Die for History of Science, with instructions.
20-Sided Reviewer’s Die for History of Science, with instructions.

A pdf version is available as a download if you want to make your own.

  1. I should emphasize: this is a joke. One that arose during a recent conversation with a colleague about how much time and effort it takes to review a manuscript.  ↩

  2. This die was inspired by the 20-sided die at Pocket Art Director™. The template was clearly adapted (nearly copied—so if you are Pocket Art Director™ and are you upset, let me know so I can remove it) from Pocket Art Director™’s Print My Own template. The “Like” and “Dislike” icons I used were designed by Eugen Belyakoff from the Noun Project: Like and Dislike  ↩

Wile On Science & Technology

This post continues the analysis of Jay Wile’s Exploring Creation with General Science by looking at the last two and least contentious[1] of the prefatory or framing modules. After some comments about how scientists come to the wrong conclusion because they rely on flawed experiments,[2] “Module #3: How to Analyze and Interpret Experiments” seems reasonable for a middle-school science class. It introduces various features of experimental science, e.g., experimental variables, control groups, blind experiments.

“Module #4: Science, Applied Science, and Technology” revives an out-dated understanding of science and technology. Science is a pure, curiosity driven investigation of nature untainted by worldly concerns. Scientists, who hope to explain “some facet of creation,” do “not care one whit about whether or not the knowledge gained is useful.” Applied science, by contrast, seeks to make something useful or to find a better way of accomplishing some task, either by developing a new process or a new machine. Lowly technology, while similar to applied science, “is often the result of applied science” or science or accident. Wile’s distinction reflects a difference between “knowing why” and “knowing that” something happens and privileges knowing why. It also assumes that “knowing why” is a purely intellectual project motivated by curiosity, unlike applied science and technology, which answer to worldly concerns. Module #4 also includes a vaguely incongruous discussion of simple machines as examples of applied science and technology.

Now that we understand what science is and is not as well as its limitations, Wile feels students are prepared to learn about geology and paleontology, “two of the most controversial fields in science.” Modules #5 through #8 promise to cover these controversial fields.

  1. While most people outside the history of science and the history of technology would find “Module #4: Science, Applied Science, and Technology” reasonable, the disciplines have largely moved beyond Wile’s 1950 categories used to describe science, applied science, and technology.  ↩

  2. It seems strange to see Wile once again using Percival Lowell’s Martian canals as an example of science reaching erroneous conclusions. Few people would consider Lowell an experimental scientist. And insofar as he performed experiments, his conclusions reflect less flawed experiments than the limits of his instruments and over interpretation of his observations.  ↩

Ernst Haeckel’s Letter to E.D. Cope

E.D. Cope received letters from all sorts of people, including one from Charles Darwin’s son Francis, who sought copies of any letters Cope and Darwin might have exchanged. Another of Cope’s correspondents was the German biologist Ernst Haeckel. Haeckel is best known for his particular theory of evolution, which combined aspects of Darwinism with German Naturphilosophie and Lamarckian ideas, best known for its central tenet: “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny.” The development of any individual organism from embryo to maturity recapitulates the evolutionary steps that successive ancestors of the species had reached.

Haeckel wrote to Cope in December 1894 asking him to forward along some books to other addresses.

Ernst Haeckel’s letter to Cope asking him to forward the “enclosed books.” (Source: Quaker and Special Collections, Haverford College)
Ernst Haeckel’s letter to Cope asking him to forward the “enclosed books.” (Source: Quaker and Special Collections, Haverford College)[1]

Jena 4.12.94
Dear Professor Cope!
Will you be so kind, to send the enclosed books to their adresses [sic]?
I hope you have received my „System. Phylogenie”.
With best thanks for your valuable works presented
Yours very truly
Ernst Haeckel

Regrettably, there is no evidence either of the “enclosed books” nor the “adresses [sic]” to which they were to be sent. Haeckel also mentions his Systematische Phylogonie, one of his more famous works.

If Cope had received a copy of Haeckel’s text, there is no evidence of it. It is interesting to note that Haeckel indicated that he had already forwarded a copy of his own book to Cope (or had requested that a copy be forwarded to him) and that Haeckel had received copies of Cope’s “valuable works.” It would be fascinating to see copies of these texts to look for how the two might have read each other’s work. It is also interesting that Haeckel felt comfortable enough with Cope to ask him to send along books to other recipients. Perhaps the two had met during Cope’s years in Europe—he had spent considerable time in Germany during his trip.

[Reposted from PACHSmörgåsbord: Ernst Haeckel’s Letter to E.D. Cope]

  1. Haverford Special Collections has a considerable collection of Cope papers. See Edward Drinker Cope Papers.

    Regrettably, there is no evidence either of the “enclosed books” nor the “adresses [sic]” to which they were to be sent. Haeckel also mentions his Systematische Phylogonie, one of his more famous works.  ↩