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Why is the Age of the Earth Important?
Bones, Rocks and Stars – Introduction

July 18th, 2009 · Posted by Hugo · 8 Comments

Today we start with a series of blog posts surrounding Chris Turney’s book, Bones, Rocks and Stars. The book is all about “the science of when things happened”, from things recent to things quite old: namely the Earth. (He mentions the age of the universe too, but not in that much depth.) Today’s post: only the intro!

Like a good thesis or academic paper, the book’s introduction serves to frame the material covered by the book, and explains why it is important. After all, Chris Turney is a published scientist, he knows how to write papers. However, he also writes accessible and entertaining popular science, the kind any literate lay-person can appreciate and understand, no college degree needed! (Read some reviews).

Important!

So what makes this so important? Turney mentions two examples of its importance, two weighty examples: the massive extinction of the world’s fauna and flora, and extreme climatic change. Humans have obtained great power and influence over the environment, our actions might just have some huge consequences we did not expect.

In order to develop some understanding of what the future holds, we need as good an understanding of how our mightily complex planetary ecosystem fits together as we can muster. The only way of gaining such an understanding is to study the past — a past that is, according to the evidence we’ve uncovered, several billion years long. Ignoring what we can know about the past would be irresponsible, would leave us blind with regards to what the future holds, would be an act of refusing to act as stewards for our planet.

The book explains what we know, and more importantly, how we know it.

Controversial!

Turney explains some of the controversies around time, e.g. Chapter 1 covers some of the conflicts around our calendar system. In the introduction he mentions some controversy surrounding a pop song:

If you haven’t read the book yet, see if you can spot it. Let’s play at being pseudo-intellectual-art-critics in the comments below. :-P

For your friendly neighbourhood creationist?

How accessible would this book be for a young earth creationist? (Here I return to my old excessively verbose ways ;) Feel free to skim or skip if you’re not grappling with such questions.)

If they’re interested in the subject matter, it looks to be very accessible. Turney approaches dearly held beliefs with the necessary sensitivity and empathy, even the epilogue on creationism (I’m briefly skipping to the end) sticks to facts and doesn’t ridicule. He remains open-minded as scientists should: he does not get dismissive, he simply requests evidence — “until creationism provides compelling evidence”, second last paragraph. The book serves enough examples of what kind of evidence lead to our current scientific conclusions, and he points at some events that should leave this kind of compelling evidence, if creationism were true.

One thing I did make a note of was a paragraph on page 3, stating:

“The key word we hear with creationism is ‘belief’. No matter how much science proves otherwise, some creationists still choose to believe the world is only 6000 years old. I might believe that the world is flat or that little green men live on Mars; should I get a teaching slot alongside electrostatics and gravity? I hope not.”

I think that’s about the worst it gets. What do you think, does that feel like ridicule? If you know my habits, you know how hyper-sensitive I can get when I’m on the lookout for things that could be negatively perceived — I get absolutely absurd. ;) (And of course, when I’m worked up and “writing with passion, I’m prone to throw out negative words myself.) In and of itself, the sentence in question simply illustrates, clearly, how mere “belief” is inadequate for motivating the teaching of something in science class — for science you do need compelling evidence.

So what’s the potential problem? …the use of stereotypical examples. Stereotypes can be very loaded in someone’s mind: their use can provoke emotions from previous encounters, even if the current context doesn’t rationally justify those emotions flaring. We’re human, you know! For people with a strong in-group/out-group thing going, perceived negativity or ridicule can trigger a reaction of “this book seems biased against us, it is therefore not neutral and its contents cannot be trusted — I should stop reading”.

I think the ideal is really quite simple: give a book like this to a creationist from within the context of a friendship. “Here is a book that explains the science, it illustrates quite well why I believe what I believe. If you would like to understand my views and the views of others better, take a look at it.” By connecting the material to a good friendship, the friendship can lend it some goodwill, provides it with a friendly face, which helps overcome our tendency to interpret material we disagree with in the worst possible light.

Chris Turney’s book does explain, before the paragraph in question, that beliefs are matter of personal choice. He agrees that that is perfectly fine (oh, he’s such a liberal, isn’t he!). He is only taking exception to people trying to force personal beliefs into a science class. Simultaneously, he points out the limitations of science: “No one should claim that science has the answer to life, the universe and everything”. I like! The way this book is put together, I can’t imagine even a fictitious person who I wouldn’t be prepared to lend this book to.

All that said, I remain particularly keen and curious how this book is perceived by young earth creationists. If you’re a young earther (or possibly an until-recently-a-dedicated-young-earther) and you read this book, please come share your thoughts, experiences and feelings with us? Thanks!

Getting your hands on it:

In South Africa, I ordered the paperback version from Loot for R128 (+R20 shipping). If you would like to borrow that copy, I can add you to the waiting list. Otherwise, consider buying your own, to be lent to friends and family. It can’t hurt to have more in circulation! ;-)

(Yes, I should impose a word limit on myself. Fewer next time!)

Categories: Religion and Science
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8 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Michael // Jul 19, 2009 at 1:05 pm

    Nice!

    Have you read “The Science of God”? Can’t remember the author, but he’s a great bridge-builder! Busy with my honours thesis so I don’t have time to read your recommended any time soon, but I’ll follow the comments! Cheers!

  • 2 Kenneth Oberlander // Jul 19, 2009 at 1:23 pm

    Hugo:

    (Yes, I should impose a word limit on myself. Fewer next time!)

    Dude, this should read a low word limit! ;-)

    If I can get hold of the book, I’ll gladly join in the discussion. However, the Stellenbosch Bib doesn’t have it, and I’ve spent way too much on books already recently…

  • 3 Jake Hayes // Jun 11, 2013 at 1:07 am

    Hey all, I’m a Christian who knows the Earth is 6,000 years old, and I have proof. All I’m asking is scientific proof the Earth is older! Too much to ask? Seems like it.

    First of all, the rock layer. The rock layer is formed in such a way that either it’s millions of years old, or there was some massive event that deposited a LOT of sediment about 4,000 years ago – oh, say a flood. Also, “There are numerous locations around the world (including the famous Grand Canyon) where we observe massive sections of strata that have been tightly folded, without evidence of the sediments being heated.” (answersingenesis.org)

    For much MORE scientific evidence, see:

    http://www.answersingenesis.org/get-answers/features/young-earth-evidence/

    http://www.creationtips.com/flooddate.html

    http://www.answersingenesis.org/articles/2007/05/30/how-old-is-earth

    https://www.apologeticspress.org/apcontent.aspx?category=11&article=157

    I’m sorry, but even carbon dating reveals diamonds, some of the oldest substances on Earth, to be about 55,000 years old. It’s simply impossible for there to be any other way.

    Email me @ shadowkillerthedragon@gmail.com if you want to know more. I’m also thinking about starting a website to explain things to non-believers.

    In short, it requires much more faith in something much more absurd to believe the Earth is old, and I’m not even getting in to the origins of the universe (everything from nothing? even if you accept that, interspecies evolution never has happened. Dogs evolving into OTHER DOGS we see often, but ANY ANIMAL evolving into ANY OTHER ANIMAL has never happened, and we’re supposed to take it ON FAITH that it could? Science is asking us to “believe;” CHRISTIANITY is showing facts! Not the other way around!

  • 4 Hugo // Jun 21, 2013 at 6:18 pm

    If we’re playing the linking game, then I’ll join in, wheeeeee: http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/faq-noahs-ark.html

    Jake, you cite carbon dating of diamonds at 55,000 years, how is this relevant to your belief that the earth is 6,000 years old? I don’t understand this point, and is something I find worth discussing. I’d like to know how you think about such things.

    Anyway, more linking game, on diamonds: http://www.nhm.ac.uk/nature-online/earth/rock-minerals/diamonds/age-of-diamonds/ – presented with this blurb: “Diamonds could have formed as early as the first continents on Earth, around 3.3 billion years ago. But how do scientists know this? And can they be sure?”

    I would also be interested in discussing your views on epistemology – specifically what you believe converts any observation believed to be true, from a “belief” into a “fact”. If you’re interested. Discussing some of the other points mentioned in your comment are not of that much interest to me (what I recognise as untruths about evolution, for example).

    If you really want to know about “scientific proof of the earth’s age”, you could start with Wikipedia as a neat primer (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Age_of_the_Earth) – or if you’d like to work through the book “Bones, Rocks & Stars” with me (precisely the post you’re commenting on), I’d be happy to have someone to discuss with, would help motivate me to finish reading!

  • 5 Hugo // Jun 21, 2013 at 6:19 pm

    (Pardon the delay in approving your comment, Jake – too many links, then WordPress suspects it may be spam and holds it in a moderation queue.)

  • 6 Jake Hayes // Jun 21, 2013 at 8:44 pm

    Yay, somebody who will finally address my concerns about the age of the earth with science!

    As for the diamonds, look to http://www.answersingenesis.org/articles/am/v7/n4/carbon-14 , which argues : ” Diamonds supposedly 1–3 billion years old similarly yielded carbon-14 ages of only 55,000 years.
    Even that is too old when you realize that these ages assume that the earth’s magnetic field has always been constant. But it was stronger in the past, protecting the atmosphere from solar radiation and reducing the radiocarbon production. As a result, past creatures had much less radiocarbon in their bodies, and their deaths occurred much more recently than reported!”

    As for epistemology, a fact is a fact when there is no unexplained contrary evidence to it. So, I guess you could say I’m an extreme skeptic.

  • 7 Jake Hayes // Jun 21, 2013 at 8:51 pm

    As for the Flood, remember that the animals weren’t necessarily adult size – and the ark was huge. http://www.creationtips.com/animalark.html details how very few animals really had to go on – remember, water animals wouldn’t have to be aboard. Best estimate: 35,000 animals were aboard a three-story tall boat.

    picture : http://www.creationtips.com/Pix/ark_animals.jpg

  • 8 Hugo // Jun 23, 2013 at 4:33 pm

    More creationist links. Meh. A long time ago I spent a lot of time reading websites like those. My current conclusion is that it isn’t really worth my time to bother reading more – this is another point that we could discuss. (When is a website like this is worth reading and responding to?) I may be convinced by such a discussion that there’s value in me reading and responding to some more.

    Might be more useful to turn it around, let the question be: did you read any of the links I shared? Specifically the Talk.Origins one (http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/faq-noahs-ark.html) and Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Age_of_the_Earth). If so, did you feel it was worth your time? If not, I mostly understand (I don’t really expect you’ll read all my links), but that is precisely the point I’d like to discuss. How do you think and feel about my links? (And then I’ll try to adjust my approach to yours.)

    Your stance on epistemology is what I find very, very intersting: “a fact is a fact when there is no unexplained contrary evidence to it.” Consider this in the context of:

    Science is asking us to “believe;” CHRISTIANITY is showing facts! Not the other way around!

    Assertion of facts. Your epistemology has much higher standards than scientific theories, yes. Science is based on the fact ;) that it is extremely hard to know anything for certain. (I wrote about this at http://www.thinktoomuch.net/2007/10/06/what-is-science-4-of-12/ – where I made the teasing assertion “science can’t prove anything!” ;) ). So science works with varying degrees of confidence. I’d say a fact is, I just observed an apple fall. The fact is not that the apple will always fall to earth.[1] When we go beyond the simplest of observations (where arguably the fact is just that you observed it, too, not even that it really happened :P), we enter the realm of theories. The theory of gravity. ;) Of the bending of space-time. Indeed, observations support one theory more than another, so we have more faith in one theory than another. Thus we’ve replaced Newtonian physics with General Relativity, as observed by the bending of light and relativistic effects on atomic clocks and GPS satellites.

    So moving on: a simple question, do you consider Noah’s Ark to be a “fact”? Do you consider it at the level of there being “no unexplained contrary evidence to it”? (I’m looking for an example of something that you would not classify as being at “fact” level in your epistemology, but that you still have high confidence in, that you still believe. I want to know what you call that and how you think about it.)

    [1] (The counter for the “gravity fact” vs “apple fell observation” fact: if we’re closer to the moon, the apple will fall to the moon, not to the earth. If we’re in orbit around the earth, the apple is also in orbit, free fall never hitting the earth. So “an apple will always fall to the earth” is quite obviously not a general “fact”, it needs more specific context.)

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