Re: [asa] Sins of pseudoscience

From: Stephen Matheson <>
Date: Mon Jan 21 2008 - 22:55:44 EST


I agree that it's been a very good conversation, with several people contributing respectfully and even eloquently. (Cf. Merv's brilliant reference to "time-bomb falsehoods.") I know some people are frustrated by the noisiness of this listserv, but I've seen much worse in my day. And anytime you can regularly read the thoughtful comments of David Campbell, Keith Miller, Loren Haarsma, you, Ted Davis and so many others, you've got a chance to learn a lot.

The professional vs. lay apologist distinction is a very important one; thanks for affirming that. It is only in the context of public (esp. published) apologetics that I seek reform. My fiercest objections to creationism have never been scientific in nature. Integrity is the topic I'm addressing in this discussion, not hermeneutics or genomic data interpretation.

I'll be careful to avoid "ONLY debunking folk science," and invite you to hold me accountable to your standard, with which I wholeheartedly agree. On that count, if we disagree at all, it's merely regarding the robustness of (evangelical) theological frameworks for "rejoicing in all of God's truth." I'm more confident that you are, I think, in the ability of evangelicals to embrace a view of creation uncontaminated by bogus folk science. But I strongly affirm your basic point that merely exposing dishonest creationism is irresponsible (not to mention uninspiring).

You claim to have identified an area in which we disagree. But I disagree. :-) While I highly value your criticism re "blind spots" that we scientists display, I think you have misunderstood me in this thread. When I wrote that "A lot of the talk about the nature of knowledge, humility, etc., is missing the point dramatically," I was referring very specifically to "whether particular Christians are telling the truth about what science says and knows about such questions." This is, in my view, *very* different from any assumption or intimation that "truth claims made by science are absolute." Note the example that I used: the claim that common descent is unsupported by fossil evidence. That's dishonest. It's not dishonest to *dispute* the conclusion, or to claim to find the fossil evidence for common descent unconvincing. But it's dishonest to say that common descent is unsupported by fossil evidence. I've provided similar examples on my blog (!
 m) (sorry about the blogwhoring, BTW). When someone says "I think the earth is less than 10,000 years old," they're not being dishonest at all. When someone says, "There is no evidence for an ancient earth," they're promulgating a scandalous lie.

My problem, then, with discussions about knowledge/truth/certainty/humility/yada/yada/yada is that they are often injected at inappropriate times in the discussion. (I do not mean to suggest that you have done anything inappropriate in our discussion, BTW.) It's subtle, but suspiciously red herring-like... Commentator: "Gee, it seems like that article by Jones really misreprested the evidence against Smith's theory." Respondent: "Ah, but what is truth, really?" As I've written before: you don't have to be wrong to be dishonest, and you can be honestly mistaken. I'm merely frustrated by Christian ignorance of science. I'm horrified by Christian dishonesty about what science has said and done. Even a single occurrence would be an outrage; the reality is that there seem to be too many to count.

So I think we can work really well together, and I hope that some of your suggestions will be taken seriously. I, for one, would make more room for the ASA in my life if I detected more work on projects such as those we've hinted at here.

>>> "David Opderbeck" <> 01/21/08 9:46 PM >>>
Steve, thanks for these comments. This is one of the best discussions we've
had on this list.

We certainly agree on one thing: this is a critical issue for the ASA, and
the time is growing riper and riper for the ASA and other concerned
evangelicals to make the necessary space for incorporating the facts about
common descent into our theology and apologetic.

Re: "pride" -- you make a good point here. I guess we have to distinguish
"professional" apologists from the average person in the pew / church leader
/ pastor. For the professionals, there is no excuse for not getting the
facts right. If you hold yourself out as a leader who has expert "answers,"
you are held to a higher standard. And even for "regular" folks, there is a
difference between saying "this is what I think" and saying "this is the *only
*way to think." I agree with you whole-heartedly that the populist nature
of American evangelicalism, our political clout, our financial success,
etc., has made us proud, and even aggressive. IMHO, that is not the way of

I hear what you're saying about giving people in the pews freedom to leave
folk science behind without sacrificing faith. Just this Sunday, I attended
a lecture at a prominent church in New York (I had posted a link to this
list) at which exactly that kind of freedom was given, and I went home
pumped and rejoicing! BUT, and I think this is absolutely critical, that
happened in the context of a supportive community in which the overarching
purpose clearly was to edify the body of Christ, submit to God's truth, and
advance God's kingdom. It was not ONLY a debunking of folk science, but in
fact it was primarily an affirmation that we can rejoice in all of God's
So, I think in substance we fundamentally agree. And here is one practical
suggestion: we MUST get local ASA chapters going in strength. It's through
mustard-seed small groups of communities of faithful people that change
really happens.

Now, there is one key thing on which we probably still disagree. You said:
"*A lot of the talk about the nature of knowledge, humility, etc., is
missing the point dramatically." *This, I think, is a classic blind spot
among scientists who are concerned about the faith-science interface. You
will talk against "scientism," but then your practical epistemology
essentially is scientistic, because you assume that truth claims made by
science are absolute (at least, it seems to me that you make such an
assumption). But that just isn't so. Evolution as we now understand it is
an analogy, a model, and it *will *be superceded someday by a better model
-- not blown away, but superceded as quantum physics superceded Netwonian
mechanism. The scientists need to accept that the faith-science dialogue
must be a dialogue going *both* ways. The goal is to let scientific and
theological models inform *each other* so that we collectively better
understand the totality of God's revelation. So there is room for humilty
on both sides, particulary where critically important questions -- say, that
nature of humanity and original sin -- are concerned.
On Jan 21, 2008 8:45 PM, Stephen Matheson <> wrote:

> Loren's post is getting at what I consider to be one of the most important
> issues that a group like the ASA must confront.
> Iain has added an important aspect to the discussion ('survival
> mechanisms'); thanks for that. I agree that sins of pride and sloth do not
> cover all of our concerns when it comes to dishonesty in Christian
> scientific commentary, although Loren certainly didn't imply this.
> I read very little of this listserv, but I make it a point to read David
> Opderbeck. I value your contributions very highly, David. Here is how I am
> weighing what you wrote most recently.
> Your point about "limitations of time and calling" is reasonable, but I
> thought it failed on the issue of 'pride.' It may be that most Christians
> don't have the time or resources to search out issues at the cutting edge of
> the science-faith interface. But a Christian who has not done this, but
> speaks as though they have, citing authorities (Strobel, Ross, Ham, Wells,
> take your pick) and pronouncing judgment on the conclusions of entire fields
> of scientific endeavor, can hardly plead "limitations of time and calling."
> I know at least one person who used to do this regularly, and while reading
> Gordon Glover's wonderful new book, I learned that he identifies himself as
> a similar former sufferer of this malady. It's called pride, and
> evangelical Christianity is deeply sick with it. Loren's point is, in my
> opinion, crucially important.
> And speaking for myself: this issue is NOT whether particular Christians
> believe this or that about the age of the earth or the modes by which God
> created organisms. The issue is whether particular Christians are telling
> the truth about what science says and knows about such questions. These are
> not questions about which there is uncertainty; those questions are
> different. A lot of the talk about the nature of knowledge, humility, etc.,
> is missing the point dramatically. My opinion, FWIW.
> Regarding how to rebuke public figures: I'm not sure how to issue a rebuke
> to a public ministry that is deliberately misleading people about the
> evidence for common descent. I've attempted twice to contact one particular
> (and prominent) ministry, the second time through a specific person
> representing a local chapter. My intent was to accept their public
> invitation to "dialogue" and to challenge them to adopt -- then adhere to --
> standards of scientific integrity. They could do this relatively easily,
> without any change whatsoever in their core beliefs. (Which I find
> unworthy, but that's beside the point.) I have received no response. I
> would be very interested in a discussion with you and others on this
> listserv regarding how we (as individuals or as a group) might go about
> encouraging reform among prominent Christian apologists. Personally, I
> worry that the continual emphasis on graciousness, etc. is indicative of an
> unwillingness to pursue such action, but I'd love to be proven wrong. It
> seems to me that this should be an important project for the ASA.
> David, you are right to be concerned when we start "talking about the
> moral character of specific *people*". I have two responses, meant to
> expand and balance your comments. First, I'm not sure we need to
> specifically address people's "moral character" at all. In my view, there's
> a difference between identifying a claim or a conclusion as inaccurate,
> misleading, or even dishonest, and identifying a *person* as such. For
> example, the claim that common descent is unsupported by fossil evidence is
> a malignant falsehood. Repeated after being shown to be false, it becomes
> misleading and even dishonest, and we are right to note this publicly.
> Whether the persons who wrote/repeated/disseminated the nonsense are
> themselves dishonest (whatever it might mean to characterize a person in
> that way) is, to me, beside the point. Second, I'm not sure that our
> reluctance to correct/rebuke is solidly scriptural. All the talk about
> graciousness needs to be balanced with some sober consideration of, for
> example, the behavior of Paul and of Christ himself, and of admonitions such
> as those in James 5:20. We may disagree about how to prudently proceed in a
> particular situation, but let's not pretend that the best course of action
> has been plainly delineated in the Bible. For the record, I'm inclined to
> believe that continued polite silence in the presence of open dishonesty --
> spoken in the name of Christ or the church -- is potentially profound moral
> failure and plainly unbiblical.
> That leads me to my last comment. I was uncomfortable with your response
> to John Walley on the "On telling the truth..." thread. You referred to
> John's illustration of Arlington Cemetery as "overblown." But I thought his
> point was extremely important, and I don't think we should move forward
> without it. The point is this: lies about science can be devastating to
> people's faith, and that's a reason to identify and CORRECT those lies. We
> should sense an urgency to purge Christendom of dishonest folk science, just
> like we should sense an obligation to strengthen -- vs. imperil -- the faith
> of those who are weak. You are focused on the damage that can be done to
> people's faith when they learn that their favorite apologist was dispensing
> folk science, and I commend you for that concern. My worry is that our
> failure to clearly and firmly confront the rampant dishonesty of these
> claims will lead to precisely the catastrophe that you fear. If you think
> that fear is "overblown," then you should accompany me sometime when I talk
> to an audience about evolution or ID. Young people come up afterwards and
> thank me, for giving them hope and encouragement in the face of difficult
> challenges. They're grateful to learn the truth about science, to see that
> robust Christian faith can embrace science. It seems that they are grateful
> for the opportunity to leave folk science finally behind, and to stop
> worrying about the damage that science can do to their souls. In other
> words, they're *encouraged* to learn that folk science is misleading and
> inaccurate. I'm not claiming to have a statistically-significant result
> here; I'm just saying that I'm not at all sure that you are right when you
> dismiss John's warning as "overblown."
> People can "lose their faith" when they learn, perhaps from a mocking
> scoffer like Richard Dawkins, that their vision of the faith-science
> relationship is a house of cards, built on a foundation of lies. I doubt
> that it matters a lot at that point whether the folks who constructed those
> falsehoods were sincere or evil, brilliant or stupid, or of course a complex
> combination of all of the above.
> I trust you'll take my criticism as constructive, building on your
> important ideas. That's how it's meant.
> Steve Matheson
> >>> "David Opderbeck" <> 01/21/08 3:17 PM >>>
> Loren, I think you make some important points. I agree somewhat with
> Iain,
> however, that we seldom employ a consistent level of rigor to all of our
> beliefs. But there is a sense in which we *shouldn't* try to do so. This
> is the age-old question of "faith seeking understanding" -- a question of
> epistemology and human limitations. We all think we "know" lots of things
> that will be revealed as mere specks of the Truth when we finally stand in
> God's presence.
> Aside from this general problem of "knowing," I think there are two other
> problems with prying to closely into the moral character of the beliefs of
> others: (1) a pragmatic concern for limitations of time and calling; and
> (2) a spiritual concern for the health and witness of the Church.
> As to (1), I'm not sure it's fair to characterize the average Christian's
> misperceptions about science as "sloth" or "pride." Take the average
> pastor
> who rejects evolution without really understanding it. Do we really
> expect
> that harried, overworked, overstressed, underpaid person, who is
> constantly
> nit-picked to death while dealing with the church budget, stubborn elders,
> legions of people lacking the slightest Biblical literacy, epidemics of
> pornography and divorce, sudden deaths and family tragedies, and
> everything
> in between, to have the leisure to invest the extraordinary amount of
> effort
> required to develop a serious position on the relation between Christian
> faith and the natural sciences? Heck, I've spent countless hours on it
> for
> almost three years now, I've read hundreds of books and articles and
> communicated with dozens of experts, and my views are still incoherent in
> places.
> As to (2), let's say there are at least some Christians in the public
> spotlight who really should know better, or who should at least not make
> public statements without learning more. Here a rebuke might be
> appropriate, but how should that rebuke be delivered? For example, does
> scripture advise us to correct an erring brother by tossing accusations
> onto
> the Internet for all the world to see?
> Now, I will agree there is a balance here. When we are talking about
> *ideas
> *, public commentary in journals, on websites, etc., is an appropriate
> form
> of commentary -- and even then, as Christian leaders we need to be
> particularly careful that we present ideas graciously, in a way calculated
> to edify the body, with particular concern for those who are weak in the
> faith. We can debate ideas robustly through these means. When we are
> talking about the moral character of specific *people*, however, I'd argue
> that a great deal more circumspection is required of us.
> On Jan 21, 2008 2:08 PM, Iain Strachan <> wrote:
> > Interesting post, Loren.
> >
> > However, I think sometimes it's more complex than just pride or sloth
> (the
> > sins you mention); sometimes it can be a survival mechanism that makes
> one
> > cling on to falsehood.
> >
> > I've a friend who believes she is sensitive to just about all kinds of
> > electromagnetic fields, from mobile phone radiation right down to the
> mains
> > AC, which she switches off at night. While I believe (of course I could
> be
> > wrong) that this is pseudoscience, the alternative was unacceptable to
> her;
> > before she came upon this explanation which she can "do" something about
> > (avoid EMF exposure), she was suicidally depressed. Swallowing all the
> > pseudo-science about "electro-sensitivity" has given her a reason not to
> > kill herself - has told her that she doesn't have mental health problems
> -
> > that the problems are in the environment and not in her head. My wife
> and I
> > have had to bail her out on occasion when she was on the brink of
> suicide;
> > but now all that is put down to the effect of EMF's. It is a coping
> > strategy.
> >
> > In the same manner, victims of rape and other sexual abuse often blame
> > themselves. They feel shame for allowing the abuse to happen; that it
> was
> > their fault, they asked for it; they should have done something to stop
> it.
> > No matter how much it's true that they could not control what happened
> to
> > them, you can't tell them that it's not their fault. Why is that?
> Because
> > the alternative - that they were truly out of control - is totally
> > unacceptable. The feeling of shame is actually easier to live with than
> the
> > fear that they might have the same thing happen and be similarly out of
> > control. Of course they should have stopped it; they argue; that way
> they
> > can believe they could stop it if it happened again.
> >
> > Likewise, the YEC David Anderson I wrote about earlier told me "if I
> > believed, as you do, that the earth is billions of years old, I would
> give
> > up my faith and become an atheist". What is one to do? Be responsible
> for
> > the collapse of someone's faith? Or is it better to be an atheist than
> to
> > base one's faith on a lie? If someone's faith cannot survive at the
> same
> > time as accepting billions of years/common ancestry etc, is one to say
> that
> > this faith is worthless?
> >
> > I kind of think not - if you examined what we all thought and believed,
> > there is probably some bit of irrational dishonesty that we all cling on
> to
> > for dear life. If we applied rigorous scientific scrutiny to all
> aspects of
> > our faith, we'd probably lose it. I believe God answers prayer, but I
> doubt
> > if I could come up with hard scientific evidence that this happens. So
> > when we ask our fellow Christians to pray about that situation and it
> > improves, then we give thanks to God for answered prayer. But if it
> doesn't
> > get better ( e.g. the person being prayed for dies, the failing marriage
> > does fail), then we sort of rationalise it - it was God's will.
> >
> > Equally, Dawkins clings on to the idea that God if He exists has to be a
> > part of the material universe, and that His existence is a scientific
> > question, because that's the only way he can demolish the horrific idea
> that
> > there might be a God (via his Ultimate Boeing 747 gambit).
> >
> > I think the sad fact is that all of us are dishonest. I honestly
> believe
> > that ;-)
> >
> > Iain
> >
> >
> > On Jan 21, 2008 5:53 PM, Loren Haarsma < > wrote:
> >
> > >
> > > From the ASA's front webpage:
> > > "The American Scientific Affiliation (ASA) is a fellowship of men
> and
> > >
> > > women in science and disciplines that relate to science who share a
> > > common
> > > fidelity to the Word of God and a commitment to integrity in the
> > > practice
> > > of science."
> > >
> > > From time to time, we discuss how to put some theological backbone
> > > into that statement about scientific integrity.
> > > Like many of you, I hesitate to say that someone is "lying" when
> > > they
> > > repeat some bad science / folk science / pseudoscience claims which
> are
> > > certainly false, but which they believe to be true. But even if it
> > > isn't
> > > "lying," there can be real sin in these situations, and it might be
> > > useful, at times, to call it sin.
> > >
> > > For some time I've been wondering how best to do that. I offer
> the
> > > following thoughts for discussion.
> > >
> > > When a bad bit of pseudoscience is repeated -- whether it is a
> > > terribly flawed argument about origins issues, or a claim about some
> > > alternative medicine quackery, or a bit of conspiracy theory about how
> > > "big business" is suppressing engines which can burn water, or
> anything
> > > of
> > > the sort -- the person who is repeating the pseudoscience might
> > > genuinely
> > > believe it. They might even think that they are doing good by
> repeating
> > >
> > > the pseudoscience claims. What might be the sin in these cases?
> > > There is the sin of sloth. If you are aware that your claim is
> > > outside the consensus of most experts, you ought to put some serious
> > > effort into studying and testing the claim before repeating it.
> > > There is often the sin of pride. If you are aware that your claim
> > > is
> > > outside the consensus of most experts, it ought to make you humble and
> > > cautious in your claims, not proudly proclaiming that you and your
> small
> > >
> > > group are obviously right and the consensus of experts is obviously
> both
> > > wrong and stupid.
> > > Real harm comes to people who hear the pseudoscience repeated,
> since
> > > this can hinder them from ultimately getting at the truth. (And in
> the
> > > case of medical quackery, it can cause real physical harm to people.)
> > > Real harm comes to the good reputation hard-working experts whose
> > > consensus opinion is discarded whenever pseudoscience claims are
> > > accompanied (as they often are) by the claim that those experts are
> all
> > > stupid, biased, immoral, or all of the above.
> > > Real harm comes to the cause for which the pseudoscience is being
> > > advanced. Those who hear the pseudoscience and recognize it as
> > > pseudoscience will be prone to think badly of the cause behind it. It
> > > is
> > > a terrible shame when the cause being hurt this way is the gospel of
> > > Christ and the church.
> > >
> > > But it seems to me that those who repeat pseudoscience are not all
> > > guilty in equal measure. It depends whether one simply accepts and
> > > occasionally discusses it, or actively promotes it, or actually
> invents
> > > it. Some analogies might be useful.
> > > If someone hears a bit of (false, hurtful) gossip about a member
> of
> > > their church, and doesn't repeat the gossip themselves, but doesn't
> > > investigate it, and then thoughtlessly discusses it with fellow church
> > > members when the topic is brought up by someone else, that is sin. If
> > > someone hears a bit of gossip, doesn't investigate it, then goes
> around
> > > repeating it, that is worse. But if someone pulls together a few
> > > factoids, assumes the worst, and makes up a false bit of gossip on the
> > > basis of those factoids, and then starts spreading that gossip, then I
> > > think that is sin of pride and sloth almost on the level of outright
> > > lying
> > > (even if that person falsely believes that they have actually
> "deduced"
> > > the truth of the gossip they invented).
> > > Another analogy: Some of you might remember, around 1980, some
> > > photocopied fliers went around some churches claiming that a prominent
> > > company was openly giving company profits to the satanic church, and
> > > that
> > > the symbol on their products was proof of this satanic connection.
> > > Lies.
> > > But some well-meaning Christians copied these fliers and posted them
> > > from
> > > church to church, generating and spreading copies of copies of copies,
> > > and
> > > for a few months the lies kept spreading. (This same claim was
> repeated
> > >
> > > and spread in the mid-90's via email forwarding.) Those who started
> the
> > > fliers certainly sinned. But those who merely copied and distributed
> > > the
> > > fliers without first adequately investigating the claim, whatever
> their
> > > motives, also committed sins of sloth and pride to some extent, and
> > > caused
> > > real harm.
> > >
> > > We must always be quick to examine sin in our own lives, and slow
> to
> > > point fingers at others. But there are appropriate times to confront
> a
> > > brother or sister in Christ, out of love, to speak a word of warning,
> to
> > > name a sin for what it is, and to point out the harm it can cause.
> > >
> > >
> > > Loren
> > >
> > >
> > >
> > > To unsubscribe, send a message to with
> > > "unsubscribe asa" (no quotes) as the body of the message.
> > >
> >
> >
> >
> > --
> > -----------
> > After the game, the King and the pawn go back in the same box.
> >
> > - Italian Proverb
> > -----------

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Received on Mon Jan 21 22:56:06 2008

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