Back in April of 2013, some photos of a 4th grade science quiz given at Blue Ridge Christian Academy made rounds on the Internet. It was not any ordinary science quiz by any means. Rather, it was a creationist propaganda tool masquerading as a science quiz. It was handed out to students after the screening of a creationist video that attempted to “teach children the history of the universe from the Bible, with a special emphasis on teaching dinosaurs from a biblical perspective” (source).
The quiz in question contained 18 questions and the images showed it filled in my a young student. Examples of questions included “The earth is billions of years old” (the student answered “false”), “Dinosaurs lived with people” (the student answered “true”), “What did people and animals eat in the beginning?” (student answered “plants”), “What caused there to be fossils” (the student circled “global flood”), “the next time someone says that the earth is billions (or millions) of years old, what can you say?” (to which the student wrote the creationist classic “were you there?”).
Astonishingly, the teacher gave the student full marks.
The information leaked when a concerned friend of one of the parents saw it and posted it on Reddit. Instead of publicly acknowledging the problem, Answers in Genesis decided to dig their heals in and state that the information provided in the video was of high scientific quality. In fact, AiG has written several articles on the issue on their website. In this blog post, we will be taking a look at one of them (“Shenanigans” or “Scientifically Sound Answers with Eternal Significance”?) written by Dr. Elizabeth M. Mitchell and can be found here.
The contamination of K-12 science education by creationist propaganda
Dr. Mitchell starts of her defense of teaching creationism as science by describing what Diane Baker (school director) has to say:
Baker says the school does teach students mainstream science but does so from a biblical perspective.
There is no such thing as mainstream science “but from a biblical perspective”. What is actually happening is that they are letting biblical creationism contaminate the teaching of mainstream science. When a teacher shows creationist video material to children and make them take tests were the rejection of mainstream science and the uncritical regurgitation of vacuous creationist talking-points is awarded, then what is being taught is not mainstream science but creationist propaganda.
The school does not demand that students or parents agree with their worldview. “We are teaching kids how to think. Part of what we do in every class is to teach kids to articulate what they believe,” says Baker. “Our students are well versed,” explains board member Joy Hartsell. “They know evolution. The big bang theory. They are taught what the world believes. We believe the Bible and we teach from that context.”
Indoctrinating children with creationist falsehoods about science is not even remotely similar to teaching kids critical thinking. Feeding their brains with scientific error is not the same as teaching kids to articulate what they believe. Telling them creationist misinterpretations of evolution and the big bang is not the same as teaching them mainstream science. In science class, children should be taught science, not the religious dogma that is creationism.
Using creationist falsehoods to defend creationist teachers
So what actual arguments do Dr. Mitchell bring to the table? Unsurprisingly, she trots out the same old creationist canards that have been debunked and disproved thousands of times already:
Teaching kids in a Christian school that the observable facts of science affirm the biblical history of life’s origins, however, is not “shenanigans.”
Science does not support the biblical account of the origin of life. Here are just a few examples of how modern science disproves young earth creationism:
- Modern science points out that all forms of life are related by common ancestry, where as young earth creationism rejects common descent and believes that different “kinds” of animals (never given a biologically valid definition of “kind”) were created pretty much in their present form (although allowing for variation within “kinds”).
- Modern science shows that different groups of organisms arose at different times, sometimes hundreds of millions of years apart. Young earth creationists believe that all “kinds” of animals were created out of nothing during a single, seven-day week.
- Modern science demonstrates that the last of the non-avian dinosaurs died out around 70 million years ago and never lived with humans, whereas young earth creationists assert that humans and dinosaurs lived together.
So yes, claiming that modern science supports the origin of life as portrayed in Genesis is definitely high-grade shenanigans.
Teaching kids to critically evaluate the unverifiable assumptions used to glean millions of years from radiometric dating methods and to impose them on the fossil record is not “shenanigans.”
Young earth creationists are not teaching kinds to critically evaluate the assumptions of radiometric dating methods. They are indoctrinating them with the idea that the earth is just a few thousand years and telling them to spout “where you there?!” anytime someone attempts to explain the scientific facts to them.
Dr. Mitchell does not state what these so-called “unverifiable assumptions” of radiometric dating methods are, but presumably she is talking about constant decay rates, no contamination and initial daughter concentrations. However, these are not assumptions, but testable claims. Constant decay rates have been supported by observations of supernovas and the Oklo reactor, the absence of contamination can be tested by the isochron method and the initial daughter concentration can be read of the y-intersect of an isochron diagram. These points are discussed in additional detail in the article Refuting “Radiometric Dating Methods Makes Untenable Assumptions!”. Needless to say, spreading creationist misinterpretations and falsehoods about radiometric dating and calling it “critical thinking” is shenanigans.
Teaching kids to discern the difference between what can be observed and tested in the present and what can only be assumed about the untestable past is not “shenanigans,” […]
Teaching children to reject the massive amount of scientific evidence for an old earth and common descent of all life and instead telling them that religious scripture contains the absolute truth is the very definition of promoting disproved assumptions about the past and ignoring observes and tested science.
Surely the job of an educator is to teach kids to evaluate what they are told—even what they are told in the popular media and in textbooks based on the interpretations of mainstream science.
The problem with the “critical thinking defense” of creationism is that they are restricting the critical thinking to a few scientific models that contradict their religious beliefs (evolution, big bang etc.), do not put the same effort into critical thinking of other scientific models (insinuating that all other science should not be questioned) and the complete lack of critical thinking towards creationism.
Intermezzo: who is Dr. Elizabeth Mitchell?
According to her AiG biography, Dr. Mitchell “operates under the conviction that accurate history never violates biblical history, that correct scientific understanding of our past will never contradict God’s eyewitness account in the Bible, and that genuine understanding of God’s Word builds faith in Jesus Christ.”
This means that Dr. Mitchell rejects any scientific evidence that contradicts her religious beliefs and her literal interpretation of the scriptures of her religion. This does not by itself demonstrate that her claims are wrong, but it goes to show that Dr. Mitchell’s approach lacks intellectual honesty and scientific integrity.
Evidence-based science versus religious dogma
Despite a complete lack of understanding of radiometric dating, Dr. Mitchell decides to move on, this time exposing her ideological commitment over evidence:
One person responded to the fact students were being taught to evaluate the millions of years claims in the light of biblical history by commenting, “I went to a school like this in South Carolina. Now I’m a college professor who spends his days trying to undo the damage this rubbish has done.” What this professor calls “damage,” however, is nothing more than a commitment to accept God’s account of how and when He created the universe instead of man’s version of events no man witnessed. And faith in God’s Word is “damaging” to the positions of those fallible human beings who shake their fist at God.
No, it is a commitment to what people thousands of years believed that a deity did. It is very ironic that young earth creationists like to point out that scientific methods contain assumptions and inferences yet be so blind to the assumptions and inferences in their own belief system. If Dr. Mitchell rejects the conclusion of modern science because humans are fallible, then she must also reject young earth creationism as both the people who wrote the bible and the contemporary young earth creationists who interpret the bible are also fallible humans. If Dr. Mitchell responds that those individuals are divinely inspired, we can point out that the belief that they were divinely inspired is a belief that fallible humans came to hold and thus have the same problem. Her objection is therefore deeply circular.
Yes, it is enormously damaging to uphold the beliefs of people who lived thousands of years ago over the reliable conclusions of modern science and this has nothing to do with whether one is a believer or not. For the same reason we should not blindly trust Aristotle or Galen on medicine, we should not trust the authors of the Bible on the history of life.
As data presented in Already Gone has shown, children’s needs for critical thinking skills and discernment are best served by teaching them the claims of both evolutionists and creationists while demonstrating how the facts of science affirm Scripture.
How is critical thinking promoted by presenting creationist misinterpretations of science and indoctrinating them using creationist propaganda?
The scientific status of evolution and creationism
Dr. Mitchell continues her tirade against modern evolutionary biology by asserting the following:
Experimental science must be observable, testable, and repeatable.
Great, so Dr. Michell has admitted that young earth creationism is not an experimental science. Good.
Evolutionary claims about our origins are not, and evolutionists cannot provide objective evidence for its fantastic claims. Molecules-to-man evolution rests on worldview-based interpretations of scientific data and imaginative story-telling about the past.
The claims of modern evolutionary biology do make predictions that can be observed, tested and repeated. In fact, independent lines of evidence from biogeography, biochemistry, genetics, development, paleontology etc. all converge on the same general conclusion of common descent. This convergence of independent phylogenies is an incredibly strong piece of evidence for common descent. Other forms of evidence includes the existence of fossils with intermediate features, anatomical atavisms, endogenous retroviruses and so on. For an in-depth coverage of the evidence for common descent, see Douglas Theobald’s excellent text 29+ Evidences for Macroevolution: The Scientific Case for Common Descent.
Young earth creationism, on the other hand, not only lacks evidence but directly contradicts huge mountains of evidence from almost all biological disciplines.
Creationist falsehoods about abiogenesis, evolution and mutations
Abiogenesis, for instance, is never observed in biology, but most evolutionists believe life came from non-living elements through natural processes.
First of all, abiogenesis is a scientific field that deals with the origin of life. This is not the same as evolution, which deals with the origin of biological diversity. Modern evolutionary biology does not, in any way, depend on having a full-fledged model for the origin of life (no more than production of pharmaceuticals need to account for the origin of atoms).
Second, direct observation is not a requirement for being considered science. Rather, a model must make testable predictions. Abiogenesis is a very new research field, yet some progress has been made. It is possible to synthesize amino acids and nucleic acids from common chemical building blocks under plausible prebiotic conditions. Scientific research related to the origin of life is regularly published in top-tier scientific journals.
Third, Dr. Mitchell probably confuse abiogenesis with spontaneous generation. Spontaneous generation is the disproved idea that fully-formed organism can form from rotting meat in a very short period of time. Abiogenesis, on the other hand, is a process that involves the increasing complexity of self-replicating molecules.
Evolutionists claim new, more complex living organisms evolved through natural processes, but biology reveals that living things reproduce “after their kinds,” as the Bible indicates. Evolutionists claim that variations in living organisms eventually produce novel genetic information and new kinds of creatures, but biology demonstrates that living organisms only vary within their kinds.
As explained before, there is plenty of evidence for common descent. There are also many observed examples of speciation (here and here). A creationist that reject common descent will try to argue that the speciations are still “within the same kind”, but since this concept cannot be given a coherent scientific definition, it is just a method of moving the goalposts with “kinds” becoming broader and broader.
Evolutionists claim mutations provide the raw material for evolution, but mutations destroy genetic information rather than create new genetic information as evolutionists claim.
“Information”, like the word “kinds” is a term that creationists often leave undefined, or define it in a way that makes it irrelevant to evolution. So what do creationists really mean when they say that mutations cannot add information? Do they mean that mutations cannot provide additional genetic material? This is disproved by the existence of insertions. Cannot create genetic variation? This is disproved by the existence of single-nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs). Cannot contribute to the origin of novel genes? This is disproved by the origin of citrate metabolism in E. coli. For more information about this particular creationist trope, see here and here.
Dr. Mitchell admits the ideological basis of her beliefs
In another stunning admission, Dr. Mitchell explains:
And just why are the age of the earth and the origin of life questions of eternal significance? Simply this: if the history in God’s Word cannot be trusted from the very first verse—then how can the claims of Jesus Christ be trusted? Jesus Christ is the Son of God who came to die in our place to redeem us from sin, save us from hell, and restore us to a right relationship with God, who loves us.
Teaching children to doubt what God’s Word says about our origins—and especially the origin of sin and guilt—undermines their understanding of why there is death and suffering in the world. Most importantly, casting doubt on the true origin of sin undermines the logical connection between the first Adam’s sin, our own sinful natures, and the redemptive work of Jesus Christ.
In other words, modern evolutionary biology and an old earth cannot be true because that would mean that her religious beliefs were ridiculous. This goes to show that if evidence and religious dogma conflicts, Dr. Mitchell will reject evidence and uphold her religious beliefs, a way of thinking that is intellectually dishonest.
Now, I am by no means an expert on the Bible, but this argument seems flawed. Just because a certain narrative A (the Genesis account of the origin of sin) appears to fit with the narrative B (the redemptive work of Jesus Christ) and A is false does not in itself mean that B is false. This is because there might exists at least another narratives other than A (let us call this narrative A’) that also fits with B. For Christians that accept modern science, A’ might be e. g. the evolved capacity for humans to be selfish and violent.
The main reason that Dr. Mitchell rejects evolution and an old earth is because she thinks that it would undermine the biblical narrative of Jesus. This ideological need makes Dr. Mitchell put forward many classic creationist tropes against evolution that has been disproved time and time again.
Teaching creationist propaganda is not a good way to promote critical thinking, modern science does not support the biblical account of the origin of life, radiometric dating does not make unverifiable assumptions and common descent is supported by a massive amount of scientific evidence.
In the end, her religious justification for her rejection of modern science is also found to be wanting.