The young earth creationist astrophysicist Jason Lisle gave three talks in Tucson on November 16 and 17, 2005, on creationist astronomy. I attended these talks and took some notes. It is clear that deception and obfuscation were used to make the audiences think that a 6000 year old universe was a plausible scientific explanation. This obviously has serious consequences for science education, but also undermines Christianity by creating unnecessary conflicts between science and faith.
This is a personal reflection of the talks. After the introduction, there is a section on each of the talks, namely creation astronomy, the Big Bang and what do we really know. This is followed by some after talk interactions, conclusions, postscript I and postscript II, and finally some footnotes.
Answers in Genesis (AiG - http://www.answersingenesis.org) and the Institute for Creation Research (ICR - http://www.icr.org) are the two best known young earth creationist organizations in the USA. Many so called creation scientists who work for these organizations are sent around the USA and elsewhere in the world to talk on creationism in various churches as a part of Christian apologetics. One of the main tenets of young earth creationism is that the first few chapters of Genesis are scientifically accurate, and the employees of these organizations are required to sign an oath to that effect. In particular, they hold to a strict interpretation of Genesis, such that the universe is about 6000 years old and creation took place in 144 hours, i.e. in 6 regular 24 hour days, even though the Bible does not say when creation took place, and there are valid interpretations of the Hebrew word “yom” for day which could mean long periods of time rather than 24 hours. Some footnotes are given at the bottom, and the terms I coined myself are marked with an asterisk.
One of the newest employees of AiG is Dr. Jason Lisle, who came to Tucson to talk at two churches on November 16 and 17, 2005, on creationist astronomy. This is a personal commentary of my views as both a Christian and a professional scientist engaged in research in astrophysics as well as astronomy education of his visit.
Dr. Jason Lisle has a Ph.D. in solar astrophysics from the University of Colorado at Boulder, and his bio can be found at http://www.answersingenesis.org/home/area/bios/j_lisle.asp. While he was studying for his Ph.D. in Colorado he was engaged in genuine scientific research, and had a number of peer reviewed scientific papers published. He also reviewed other work, which is mentioned in the conclusions. He gave three Power Point talks at two churches, during which I took notes. After his first and particularly after his last talk I engaged him in some discussions.
Creation Astronomy: Viewing the University through Biblical Glasses:
This was his first talk given at Christ Community Church, 7801 E. Kenyon Dr., on Wednesday, November 16, 2005, from 7:00 PM to 8:00 PM. About the first 10 minutes were used by the host to introduce the speaker and his background, after which Dr. Lisle talked for the remainder of the time.
During the presentation he showed various spectacular pictures, many taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. He started his talk by quoting many Bible verses to say the Bible was scientifically accurate, and consistent with conservation of mass and energy. The passages quoted were the following: Ge. 2:2, 22:17 and 32:12, Job 9:8, 26:7 and 26:10, Ps. 19:1, Pr. 8:27, Isa. 40:22, Jn. 1:3, Heb. 1:3 and finally Col. 1:17. This was to set the stage so that the audience would believe the Bible was scientifically accurate, for those who did not already believed it, and later this was re-enforced by two further quotes from Isa. 45:18 and Ps. 115:16. He conveniently omitted passages which appear to contradict modern science if taken literally, and even those he quoted could have a number of interpretations. This is a good example of Henry Ford theology1. Creationists always like to quote Isa: 40:22 "He sits enthroned above the circle of the earth, and its people are like grasshoppers….” to point out that the earth is a globe, but the Hebrew word here for circle is “hug”. If Isaiah really wanted to emphasize the earth is a globe rather than perhaps a circular disk, he could have used the Hebrew word for ball, which is “dur”, as in Isa. 22:18 “He will roll you up tightly like a ball and throw you into a large country…” Well never mind, he then went on to the main part of his talk.
A major theme of his talk, in common with other young earth creationists, is about the authority of the Bible. This was restated throughout his three talks in various forms, such as man’s fallible interpretations of the past against God’s infallible word, i.e. the 11th Commandment2 and a misapplication of Sola Scriptura3. If I remember correctly, the generally accepted scientific age of the Earth and the Universe were mentioned, namely 4.5 and 13.7 billion years respectively, then he went on to explain why these were all wrong, and the whole universe is only about 6000 years, citing a number of problems, many of which do not exist or are seriously misrepresented. Here are some of them which I noted down, followed by my replies:
He concluded by stating that the universe has a supernatural design, which is fine, but that is a theological argument not science. Very little was said about the light travel time problem for distant stars, which for a 6000 year old universe is the most obvious and serious challenge. He mentioned the horizon problem associated with the Big Bang (BB), which was discussed in greater detail the next evening, then finished by advertising some creationists books for sale.
Big Problems with the Big Bang:
This was Jason Lisle’s second of his three talks, and the first on the second evening of his visit to Tucson. This and his last talk were held at Palo Verde Baptist Church, 2151 N. Palo Verde Blvd., on Thursday, November 17, 2005, with this talk running from 7:00 PM to 8:00 PM.
After another introduction by the host, he gave his presentation, first giving a brief review of the conventional understanding of the BB and the age of the universe - so far so good. He pointed out that the only prediction of the BB model was the cosmic microwave background radiation6, which was true in 1964, but there have since been more predictions which have been confirmed, and which he did not mention. He made the same statement that Duane Gish of the ICR likes to make, namely that the processes of creation were different in the past, but did not explain how they were different, and of course omitted to mention that we can see the past from the light travel time from distant objects. He also made the statement that according to naturalism7 the universe will end as heat death8, but from creationism there will be judgment and restoration. The ultimate fate of the universe may be heat death, but statements about judgment and restoration are philosophical and not scientific.
He then went on with the main part of his talk, with the statement that creationism is based on God’s word, who was there as opposed to man’s guesses, who was not there. This is an argument frequently used by AiG, and is another embodiment of the 11th Commandment. This was followed by the very dogmatic statement that even if the BB were good science, it has to be rejected because it contradicts the Bible. In fact of course it contradicts his interpretation of the Bible. He made a couple of correct statements about a good scientific model, namely it is simple and makes predictions, citing the heliocentric model9 as an example of the first and Newton’s law of gravity and the discovery of Neptune for the second. However, he omitted to mention that Newton’s law of gravity incorrectly predicted a planet inside Mercury’s orbit which was called Vulcan10. The matter was resolved by relativity. Much more seriously, he omitted to mention falsifiability11 as a hallmark of a good scientific model, yet his creationist model falls down on all three arguments, it is not simple because God is infinitely complex, no predictions are made (with the exception of the luck of Russ Humphreys), and it is not falsifiable, because if the basis of a scientific theory is an infallibly true interpretation of an infallible true Bible, contradictory evidence is by definition false, and has to be dismissed. In science there is no such thing as an infallibly true theory.
He then continued with a list of difficulties associated with the BB, some of which have been resolved, and in any case his creationist model has even more difficulties. Here is a listing of some of them with my replies:
He concluded the talk by mentioning Jn. 3:19 and Jer. 17:9, and stated that we cannot determine truth by ourselves, and have to refer to the Bible to obtain truth, which is restating the 11th Commandment. Following that logic, Pythagoras’s theorem is not true, because there is no evidence that he consulted the Hebrew writings before formulating his theorem. The same can be said about Euclidean geometry in general. Then he ended by stating the Bible is the foundation of science, it is a history book, the laws of physics are logical, and the Bible is accurate. After the talk ended there was a short break.
Astronomy: What do we really know?
This was Jason Lisle’s last talk at Palo Verde Baptist Church, and his last talk in Tucson on November 17, 2005. The talk was advertised to run from 8:30 PM to 9:30 PM after half an hour’s break after the previous talk. However, it started at 8:15 PM, so I had to hurry back to the sanctuary of the church, and got settled in just as it was starting. Again Power Point slides were used extensively.
The main theme of this talk was distinguishing operational science from origins science, which is perhaps the favorite argument used by AiG. He started by talking about separating truth16 from evolutionary fiction, and pointed out two big mistakes scientists make, namely accepting fiction based on bad science, and rejecting truth by denying operational science consistent with Scripture. However, his definition of science is different from what scientists use, and holds science hostage to a particular interpretation of the Bible. In the light of some of his other statements, perhaps the most galling statement he made was that Christians have a responsibility to defend the truth. This is the height of hypocrisy.
He then went on to state that in biblical creation truth must always agree with God’s word, and ideas that do not agree with the Bible are wrong. He also warned that one should not pull from the Bible more than what it teaches. Several times it was mentioned that the BB was wrong because it contradicts the Bible, as well as it being bad science, and quoted our old friend Isa. 22:40 again to back this up.
An important statement he made was that origins “science” is weaker than operational science, and used quotes for origins science to imply it is not real science. He listed the main characteristics of origins science as follows: (1) lacks testability, (2) highly sensitive to biases, and (3) is an attempt to answer a history question using science. A history question is better answered by consulting a history book, i.e. the Bible. For operational science he stated the following: (1) converges to truth because it is testable, (2) it is much less sensitive to biases, and (3) it is a creationist concept. He stated that most of physics is operational science, and does not have any problem with it, but a large fraction of astronomy is origins science, which he does have a problem with, which is funny because he studied it up the Ph.D. level.
For astronomy he showed a Power Point slide with two columns, one listing operational science and the other origins science. Under the operational science heading were listed: physics, distances, composition of the stars, temperatures of the stars, dark matter and black holes. I was surprised that dark matter was included, because many creationists deny it. Under the heading for origins science were listed: cosmology, stellar evolution, star formation, formation of the Earth and Moon, and the ages of stars. For some reason creationists have a problem with star formation, which is one of big areas of research.
He stated quite correctly that the composition of stars can be determined by spectroscopy, and showed a spectrum with dark absorption lines, the temperature of stars can be determined by color, and distances of stars can be found from the cosmic distance ladder. He also stated that dark matter is backed by the observations of the rotation of galaxies and gravitational lensing17. How he reconciles the latter with the light travel time from distant galaxies is a mystery.
He also stated quite correctly that a common misconception is that truth should agree with a person’s intuition or “common sense”, giving a good example of relativity, which is not intuitive. He said there are many things in science and Scripture that are true, but are difficult to understand, mentioning the Trinity as another example.
He then concluded with mentioning a couple of creationist journals, TJ and CRSQ, which are peer reviewed by other creationists, i.e. other people who have signed an oath that science must conform to a 6000 year old universe, amongst other things, and stated that a regular science journal will reject creationist material out of hand. That is not necessarily true, if a creationist does good science, the work could be accepted, but if he makes claims that have been falsified by the evidence, such as a 6000 year old universe, then it will be rejected because it is wrong. Likewise if a creationist uses God or miracles as an explanation, that is not science and cannot be accepted. Three truth tests were mentioned, namely: (1) science must agree with God’s word, (2) operational science is OK, and (3) it has to fit the peer review criterion (presumably the creationist version). This concluded his last talk.
After Talk Interactions:
Unlike regular talks and seminars where there is an open public questions and answers session as a part of the formal seminar, followed by personal informal discussions afterwards, there were no formal questions and answers sessions, and one could only have informal discussions at the front with the speaker after the first and third talks. This appears to be a common practice with creationist seminars, and I suspect it is done to avoid the creationist answering “difficult” questions in public. In the case of astronomy, the most obvious is the light travel time from distant stars and galaxies.
I decided to have some interactions with him after his first talk, but as I had to leave relatively early, I could only interact with him briefly. Knowing that he has a Ph.D. in solar physics, I asked him that if the Sun were only about 6000 years old, how could he explain the fact that the abundance of helium in the center is consistent with about 4.5 billion years of nuclear burning. Many creationists duck these types of arguments by stating that they are full of assumptions, but I knew that he knew that that argument would not work, so he basically said that God created the Sun to appear that way. After his third talk I had a bit more time, and pressed that point further with no success.
More for the benefit of the other people standing around, many of whom were probably creationists, rather than for Jason Lisle himself, I asked him about various orbital resonances in the Solar System, and in particular the Kirkwood gaps18 in the asteroid belt, showing irrefutably that the Solar System is much more than 6000 years old. The Kirkwood gaps can be directly tested by placing test particles in a computational model of the Solar System, and just calculating the equations of motions, there are no assumptions other than the orbit of Jupiter has not changed, and the law of gravity has not changed. I pointed out to him that after a few hundred thousand or million years of simulated time on a computer, asteroids in certain orbits are ejected, which confirms the Kirkwood gaps, to which he replied that God created the Solar System to appear that way. This is the common creationist cop-out argument, when all else fails invoke the appearance-of-age argument as an explanation.
A common defense for the creationist appearance-of-age argument is that Adam was created mature in the Garden of Eden in order to be fully functional. There are two problems with this, quite apart from whether Adam existed or not as a real individual: (1) his remains are not around today (or have not been identified), whereas starlight, rocks and asteroid orbits can be directly observed today, and (2) one could argue that if Adam existed, he had to be mature to be fully functional, but, say, the Kirkwood gaps or the craters on the Moon perform no function other than to deceive us into believing in a false and non-existent past history of a 6000 year old Solar System. I argued with him that he was following a God of deception rather than a God of truth. Another problem with the appearance-of-age argument is that it is not science because it is not falsifiable even in principle, i.e. the argument by implication is that God being omnipotent could fool us in such a way that humans could never test this argument out to see if it is true or false even in principle. This type of argument is junk science and trailer trash theology.
My coup de grace was to produce some papers he published and reviewed when he was a research student in Colorado. At http://www.boulder.swri.edu/~joel/seminar98.html under the entries for February 18 and April 22, he reviewed a couple of papers on luminous blue variables, where timescales of millions of years are mentioned. I asked him how he could square that with his belief in a 6000 year old universe. He looked rather surprised when I produced these papers, and could only say that he had to keep his beliefs under wraps when he was studying for his Ph.D. A colleague of mine at work had contacted his old thesis advisor in Colorado, and his advisor was most surprised to hear of Jason Lisle’s beliefs, because he was a good student. Note that it is a matter with his creationist beliefs that is an issue, not his Christian beliefs.
My final question as I was leaving was to ask him what scientific evidence would make him change his mind, to which he replied that none would. I replied that that is dogma19, which is OK in religion, but not science, therefore he is not doing science if he cannot accept any contrary evidence, even in principle, to which he tried to redefine what science is. Logically, if a dogmatic belief does not accept even in principle any contrary evidence, then any evidence, including supporting evidence, is irrelevant. The supporting evidence he showed during his talks is in fact irrelevant, and only shown to convince people in the church that the universe is about 6000 years old, but in fact none of this supposedly supporting evidence stands up to scrutiny, or is not relevant to the argument.
Jason Lisle is engaged in so called creation science, which is an oxymoron. It is not science, but pseudo-science, because it makes infallible claims about truth, which have to conform to a particular interpretation of the Bible, and any interpretations that contradict it are wrong by definition, regardless of the evidence. On the other hand, science is open in principle to new evidence that could change theories. The aim of so called creation science is to make it sound scientific by using various technical words and deceive the audience who usually knows little about science.
Most young earth creationists know little about science, so I can give them some slack, but in the case of Jason Lisle who knows astronomy and astrophysics, I find it very hard to avoid believing that he is not bearing false witness in the name of God, and I do not think God likes people lying for Him. What are worse than complete falsehoods, are truths and half-truths mixed in with falsehoods, so the audience gets the impression that what is being said is plausible, and they do not have the knowledge and skills to see through this. A particularly nasty tactic is to scare the audience with the possibility that they could go to Hell if they do not accept creationism. This is never explicitly stated, but it is implied by the impression that creationists are the only “true” Christians. Another tactic is to throw in irrelevant arguments, and point out difficulties with, say, the BB, which may or may not be true, but certainly do not support a 6000 year old universe. Also what is not said is as significant as what is said, and old and obsolete data is frequently used in the apologetics. The 11th Commandment is frequently used as another support.
Young earth creationism practiced by the professionals who work for AiG and ICR is a nasty game in deception and obfuscation, with hypocrisy thrown in, it drives a wedge between science and Christianity, it drags Christianity into the ghetto of anti-knowledge, it undermines the image of Christianity in the eyes of people who have an education in science, but worst of all, it can have serious consequences for children brought up in that background, then take a science course in college or university. It is likely they will have a faith crisis, and could even walk away from Christianity. See for example http://home.entouch.net/dmd/gstory.htm. What is rather unpleasant is that when I get into an argument with a creationist, they think I am arguing against the Bible or God, rather than what they believe. Another interesting link is http://www.talkreason.org/articles/MegaCreation.cfm.
What most creationists do not understand, is that science does not explain away the universe in the absence of God, it in fact shows how God did the creation through the BB and other processes. We should celebrate the brains God gave us and use them to understand the universe, rather than throwing them away and falling into the pit of creationist ignorance. Christianity is about a relationship with God through Jesus, it is not a cheap and quick cop-out used to explain the physical nature of the universe. Not only do creationists sell God short, they have hijacked Christianity by implying that they are the only “correct” Christians. The irony is that the rise of modern science was greatly influenced by the concept that God created a rational universe that man could understand through reason, which young earth creationists repudiate by implying that God has hidden many truths of nature through a veil of deception and illusion.
Finally, a big mystery is what is the motivation for Jason Lisle’s involvement with creationism? For someone like D. James Kennedy one could be charitable because he knows little science, so his motives could be sincere, but that is not the case with Jason Lisle who knows the subject he was talking about at the these meetings. The most favorable explanation is that he is so deluded that he no longer can think rationally. Somewhat less favorable explanations are that he is in it for the money and/or the pride. Getting a research position at a university is difficult, and if you get one it is a lot of hard work with bad pay. Going around the country talking about creationism and writing glossy creationist books is easy and pleasant work, with easy money, and one is at the top of the field with no competition. One can bask in the glory of showing Christians that one is a “true” Christian who knows science.
At these creationist talks there are usually many books on young earth creationism produced by AiG and the ICR, most of which are not sold at Gospel Supplies here in Tucson. I often brows through them, but on this occasion I was too engaged with the speaker to have time to look through any of them.
Amongst other things, in the fall of 2005 I was teaching astronomy at a local community college in Tucson. In one of the mid term exam questions, I asked my students to explain the difference between science and pseudo-science, and give an example of each. One student stated that Christianity is pseudo-science, I pointed out that that is a misunderstanding about Christianity which the creationists are responsible for causing. Partly in view of this, I asked my students to attend the talks on November 17 as extra credit. Three of them turned up for the first talk, and told me a few days later how appalled they were by the whole thing, with the speaker using deception to fool the audience.
A couple of weeks after Jason Lisle's visit to Tucson a visitor from the University of Colorado gave a seminar on extra-solar planets in the Department of Physics at the University of Arizona. I attended the seminar because this is my area of research, then afterwards I asked the speaker if he knew Jason Lisle. It turned out that not only did he know him, he was on his Ph.D. thesis examination committee! Moreover, in common with several other people, he knew of Lisle's beliefs, although apparently Lisle's thesis advisor did not. Quite rightly, the University of Colorado awarded him a Ph.D. on the merits of his academic performance and his research, regardless of his personal beliefs.
Apparently, when asked after his thesis examination what employment he had lined up, he was very vague. Although Lisle's motives for studying for a Ph.D. cannot be proved, the suspicions I had that he had every intention from the beginning to become a professional creationist and studied for a Ph.D. to add credibility to the wider creationist community, were strengthened after my converstion with the speaker, who agreed that this was likely.
Christopher M. Sharp © 2005
1*) Henry Ford theology - In one sentence a creationist will say that science always agrees with the Bible, then in another one he will say that when science and the Bible disagree, the science is wrong. This is of course tautology, and is based on an urban legend that Henry Ford was supposed to have said that you can have a car of any color you like, so long as it is black.
2*) 11th Commandment - “Thou shalt not think, thou shalt just believe by faith alone and not ask any questions.” Versions of this are Ps. 118:8 "It is better to trust in the Lord than to put confidence in man" and 1 Tim 6:20 “O Timothy, keep that which is committed to thy trust, avoiding profane and vane babblings, and oppositions of science falsely so called.” These and other biblical quotes are often taken out of context and used by creationists to support this commandment.
3) Sola Scriptura – This is from Martin Luther and means Scripture alone. Its original intension was to get away from the traditions and dogmas of the Roman Catholic Church, but creationists misuse it to support the 11th Commandment.
4) Oort Cloud - This is a large cloud of comets in the far out reaches of the Solar System which has been deduced from the orbits of long period comets. A recently discovered object called Sedna could be an inner member. Creationists deny this exists and never mention long period comets.
5) Kuiper Belt - This is a belt of icy asteroids or planetoids outside the orbit of Neptune, and Pluto is considered a member of it. The first objects other than Pluto were discovered in the early 1990s. Creationists continued to deny its existence even after several hundred objects were discovered.
6) Cosmic microwave background - In the 1940s it was predicted that there would be background radiation left by the Big Bang, which was discovered by accident by Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson, who won the Nobel Prize in 1978 for the discovery. Creationists appear to have no satisfactory explanation for it, and made no predictions for its existence.
7) Naturalism - In fact there are two forms, philosophical naturalism which posits that the natural universe is all there is, and is a form of atheism, and methodological naturalism, which only deals with the natural universe and makes no assumptions about a deity, the supernatural, or meaning or purpose. This how a scientist who is a Christian should operate. The supernatural cannot be used in science, because it cannot be tested, and lies outside science, that is why using God as a scientific explanation does not work.
8) Heat death - This is the second law of thermodynamics. In a closed system energy available for work decreases, and eventually becomes unavailable when all objects have reached the same temperature. Assuming the universe is a closed system, this is the ultimate fate of the universe according to our present understanding. In fact the universe will get very cold.
9) Heliocentric model - This is of course the Sun centered model of the Solar System. Both the Roman Catholic and Protestant churches had a lot of problems with it about 400 years ago, because a plain reading of the Bible appears to contradict it. There are some geocentric creationists around even today.
10) Vulcan - This has nothing to do with Star Trek, but in the 1800s a hypothetical planet inside Mercury’s orbit was proposed to explain why Mercury departed from its expected orbit, as was the case with Neptune perturbing Uranus. Vulcan was never found, but the motion of Mercury’s orbit was later explained by relativity, which modifies Newton’s law of gravity.
11) Falsifiability - A good scientific theory is falsifiable, at least in principle if not in practice. Stating that God created something with the appearance of age is not falsifiable even in principle, thus it is not science.
12) Simplicity - A good scientific theory has an underlying simplicity.
13) Inflation - The universe appears to have undergone a period of exponential inflation during the first split second of its existence, then continued expanding at a more normal rate.
14) Epistemological nihilism - This is another device creationists like using, and basically states that because we do not have complete knowledge of something, the knowledge we do have is totally useless. Creationists like to invoke this as a cop-out when trying to explain how we can see distant stars in a 6000 year old universe, by saying we do not know everything about light.
15) Population III stars - Stars like the Sun are about 98% by mass of hydrogen and helium, with the remaining mass being in the other elements. These are population I stars. Population stars have a much smaller but still non-zero abundance of elements heavier than helium. Population III stars have nothing other than hydrogen and helium, apart from possibly a tiny fraction of lithium, and are proposed to be the first stars in the universe.
16) Truth - There are in fact several types of truths, and the Bible deals mostly with theological truths. Truths uncovered by science depend on the evidence, and in general cannot be held accountable to what the Bible says or does not say.
17) Gravitational lensing – A galaxy or cluster of galaxies can bend light passing close to it or through it from a distant object because of its gravity.
18) Kirkwood gaps - These are gaps in the orbital periods in the asteroid belt corresponding to simple ratios with Jupiter’s orbital period, and are caused by the gravitational effects of that planet.
19) Dogma - An axiomatic belief that something is true without evidence. All religions have this, including secular belief systems such as Marxism. The problem occurs when a truth claim is made about the physical universe which is contradicted by the evidence, as is the case with young earth creationism.