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Batten #3: Science versus Wishful Thinking

March 17th, 2008 · Posted by Hugo · 4 Comments

I’m going on holiday, so I’m now posting daily sections of the talk with only brief comments in between. Think of this as audience participation time. (Hopefully not audience speculation time though, I’d love it if my comments remained the least informed of the lot. ;) )

Hat tip to Auke for his transcript. Key:
{ } description of non-verbal events, actions.
[ ] time stamp, minutes:seconds, from Auke’s audio recording.
< > word unclear, sounds like.
Bold: my additions/corrections. Please keep in mind this is a transcript of a live talk, not something Dr Batten thoughtfully and carefully wrote himself.

[05:36] Let me show you what happens. This is actually a dinosaur family tree from the Chicago Field Field Museum of Natural History, and we have the dinosaur family tree there. And uh we have all these different types of dinosaurs, uh sauropods, and uh tyrannosaurs and so on, and birds, birds are in there, what are they doing there? Well, of course the latest hypothesis is that dinosaurs evolved into birds, and birds are just a feathered dinosaur. The only problem with that is that archaeopteryx, which is a real bird, according to evolutionary dating, actually precedes by a long shot any of its supposed ancestors that are being portrayed in the museums and in popular treatments around the world.

But a good scientific question to ask about this is, what is the evidence? Is that a scientific question? What’s the evidence, for this, the family tree for dinosaurs? Well, here’s the fossil evidence for this family tree. In fact, here’s the fossil evidence in museums around the world for all the different tips of the branches. Things like sauropods, 287 fossils represented there, tyrannosaurs, 78 fossils, uh when we look at the common ancestors in the rest of the family tree, though, how many fossils represent that? {audience laughter} None, absolutely none. And that’s the picture for all the family trees, in fact, there are fossils for the tips of the branches, but not for the supposed family tree. In fact, this is an exercise in story telling, imagination, and uh, in fact its part of what’s called historical science and uh so uh this is part of historical science, where you have a fossil in the present, and you make up a story about the past, trying to explain how the fossils got in the present. Now, this story about the past is a story, its not a fact, but they’re taught in science classes as if its a fact. The stories are always stories. In fact, the stories are driven by the belief system of the person telling the story. <..> I have the same facts, so I can determine a different story to explain the facts we have in the present.

None? Absolutely none? And that’s the picture for all the family trees? Isn’t this an outright lie?

This contrasts with operational science, or experimental science, where we can do experiments on things directly. So you can do experiments on the fossil in the present, do all sorts of measurements and tests and things, and uh what not, but you can’t do an experiment on the past. That’s a story about the past. And its acceptability is determined by its plausibility, and whether it fits with the world view of the predominant numbers of palaeontologists, and the world view of most palaeontologists is, there is no god, to be accountable to, god didn’t create things, everything everything made themselves, evolution is a fact. So that is the framework within which the fossils are interpreted. Operational science, now if I said to you water starts to boil at 110 degrees Celsius at sea level, of course y ou all know that is incorrect. But is it scientific? I submit to you it is scientific to say such a thing. It is incorrect but it is scientific because but you can do an experiment to check it. That’s what makes it scientific. There is no experiment you can do to check an age of dinosaur 65 million years ago. Someone says oh but you can radioactive date things, no you can’t, because all those dating techniques rely on assumptions about the past that you cannot prove are true.

Yes, we can come up with many different stories, and we cannot prove them true. We cannot even prove the theory of gravity true, we can only fail to prove it false, again, and again, and again…

Radioactive dating relies on the assumption that things didn’t spontaneously and abruptly change. (Or in theistic language, that God is trustworthy when it comes to the laws of nature and the universe.) For example, the earth didn’t in fact suddenly start rotating about the sun the moment we came up with the theory. We assume that if it is currently rotating about the sun, and it is currently not flat, that this was most likely the case for the whole duration of the existence of that thing we call “the earth”.

Using story telling and imagination, we could postulate that God created a small section of flat earth, and then continued creating the universe as humans started exploring further and further, that the distant galaxies were only created in the last few hundred years, as we started looking that far. (The Truman Show.) Actually, we can postulate that God created the universe last Thursday, including our memories of the past, and the fossil record and the starlight in transit. (We could also postulate about gods throwing thunderbolts when they’re angry.) However, I’m sure everyone would agree this is not a useful thing to postulate when you’re trying to do science, so instead, we apply Occam’s Razor and assume that, lacking any evidence to the contrary, radioactive decay in the past occurred in much the same fashion as it does today. And we’re ready to improve our scientific models of reality as soon as we do find evidence to the contrary.

All systems that deal with the past, depend on assumptions that you cannot prove are true. That includes any system. It doesn’t matter which system you are talking about. This historical science is actually day-dreaming about the past, based on evidence we have in the present. Its not the same as the technology and the wonderful inventions and discoveries of modern science, that tells us how to cure cancer and different things like that.

“Day-dreaming” is heavily biased. If Batten was interested in being more objective, unbiased, scientific or scholarly, he would go for something like “reconstructing the past, based on evidence we have in the present”. That would be true. And because we cannot prove assumptions true, we instead try to prove them false, thereby weeding out the bad ideas and keeping the good and useful. And evolution is an extremely useful theory in the context of understanding and curing cancer, even if the young earth creationists would argue “ah, micro-evolution though, not macro”…

So why would Batten be so biased, if his “truth” is really true?

In fact, one of the palaeontologists said this, Dr Milford Wolpoff, a well known palaeo-anthropologist,
“I believe a philosophical framework is not something that can be eliminated in order to provide objectivity. In my view, objectivity does not exist in science. Even in the act of gathering data, decisions about what data to record, and what to ignore, reflect the philosophical framework of the scientist”
and he speaks as a palaeontologist, someone dealing with historical science. {comments about outside noise}

According to a creationist site, that comes from Wolpoff, M. 1999. Paleoanthropology. 2nd ed., Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill, lv. Philosophical frameworks do indeed have a great impact, which is why we need to be aware of that, and why Wolpoff wrote that warning. (I’d love to see more context for this quote mine.)

While we’re talking about philosophical frameworks, your reading of the Bible also has a philosophical framework that cannot be eliminated to provide objectivity. If you’re open-minded enough (this is for the Christians), try out another set of reading lenses. See Marcus Borg’s “Reading the Bible Again for the First Time” (amazon, kalahari).

This this really isn’t that important in experimental science, it doesn’t matter if you’re an , or or post-modernist or whatever, water still boils at 100 degrees Celsius at sea-level. So, ah, of course if you’re post-modernist believe that science is a construct of the western mind-set, maybe you don’t worry about doing experiments, and maybe if you’re a real true eastern mystic, who believes that the universe and the world around us, is just a figment of our imagination, some sort of illusion, you wouldn’t bother doing experiments on it either. So, in fact that’s one of the reasons science developed in a Christian framework, not in another framework.

Typical misrepresentation of post-modernists and eastern mystics, nicely illustrating why I prefer to label myself as someone that rejects all labels. ;)

And then, an outright lie about the origins of science. Can I call Batten a liar? For a primer, take a look at Wikipedia’s article on the History of Science. Look at the Greek history, and at science in India, China, and Islam. In fact, I’ve read Islam had a good scientific thing going, until Christians “bombed” them back to hell during the crusades.


You know, even if reality is a figment of our imagination, we can still use empiricism to experiment on the reality we are imagining. Pretty sweet! The “only our imagination” idea is still dangerous though. I tried to imagine there were no more creationists, and that failed. Maybe I didn’t imagine long enough, but my temporary insanity was hurting the people I see (imagine?) around me, so I’m back at empiricism and reason. If reality is indeed just imagined, I do recommend sticking to the passive exploration of that imagination through empirical experiments, improving that reality through normal verbal and physical interactions, instead of forcibly trying to imagine things differently. You might just end up undoing this existence. Isn’t our current reality good enough as is? ;)

Categories: Religion and Science
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4 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Pieter // Mar 17, 2008 at 11:11 pm

    The creationist is huddling underneath the warm blanket of his favourite idea. The world is cold outside, radio-carbon dating makes no sense, just a few minutes longer…

  • 2 Hugo // Mar 18, 2008 at 9:15 am

    I went to bed too late last night. And then I was still lying awake, that half-awake half-asleep state, as a result of a mosquito. In that state, your mind sometimes starts mingling in dreams, or dream-emotions at least. Somehow my mind attached, to the mosquito, the emotion of some creationist or fundamentalist that just. won’t. understand. what I’m trying to say, and I cannot figure out what wording to use, knowing I should rather just drop it, ignore it. Gaah, I hate mosquito’s!

  • 3 Rinus // Mar 20, 2008 at 10:32 am

    Lightning struck a tree in a plantation. As all trees are of equal age and length, the probability of hitting any tree is equal.

    But the probability than that specific tree would be hit is so small! You can prove it mathematically! Thus it must be due to some ‘intelligent’ interference!!

    Hugo, you are right! It MUST be a god throwing a thunderbolt in anger at that tree!

    (Not to mention the probability of someone winning the lotto. Yet someone does. ‘God’ does work in strange ways!)

  • 4 Kenneth Oberlander // Mar 30, 2008 at 3:18 pm

    That Archaeopteryx quote is wrong on so many levels. The urvogel has a mixture of birdlike and non-birdlike characteristics, which is what we would expect from an hypothesis of bird-from-nonbird origins. What is amazing is that the non-bird characteristics of the non-bird ancestor are unfailingly dinosaurian…as for the precedes its ancestors comment, has the poor fool never heard of ghost lineages?

    As for his pathetic attempt at phylogenetics and family trees, all I can say is: meh. The good docter doesn’t know a synapomorphy from a synapse. We don’t have evidence for common ancestors in our trees because the real common ancestors almost NEVER fossilise! Instead, we infer what the true common ancestor looks like by examining the close relatives of this common ancestor that actually did fossilise. If he rejects this argument, then he must reject being related to his siblings, cousins, grandparents etc etc., and we could never predict his chances of having a particular characteristic by examining his close relatives. It is exactly the same argument.

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