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Why Scientists can be Wrong, Part 1

By John Ankerberg
Ankerberg Theological Research Institute

Part 2 – Excerpted from Handbook of Biblical Evidences

The history of science reveals many instances where the majority of scientists have been convinced as to a particular theory and yet been wrong. Further, when it comes to the discussion of the creation/evolution issue, many scientists today simply seem to be closed-minded. Why? Because modern science is committed to the ideology of evolution, and any time a philosophical commitment to a particular ideology exists, there will probably be a reluctance to consider alternate viewpoints. Yet consider again the comments of Dr. A. E. Wilder-Smith, the deliverer of the Huxley Memorial Lecture at the Oxford Union, Oxford University, February 14, 1986: “May not a future generation well ask how any scientist, in full possession of his intellectual faculties and with adequate knowledge of information theory could ever execute the feat of cognitive acrobatics necessary to sincerely believe that a (supremely complex) machine system of information, storage and retrieval, servicing millions of cells, diagnosing defects and then repairing them in a teleonomic Von Newman machine manner, arose in randomness—the antipole of information?” In other words, “How could any scientist in possession of the modern facts we now have logically continue to exercise faith in naturalistic evolution?” As molecular biologist Michael Denton observes of the created order of living things, “To common sense it does indeed appear absurd to propose that chance could have thrown together devices of such complexity and ingenuity that they appear to represent the very epitome of perfection.”

Nevertheless, there are many reasons explaining why scientists who accept evolution can be wrong. Among them we mention four.

A. A false belief can be accepted by mistakenly assuming there are no legitimate scientific theories to replace it.

Dr. Wilder-Smith observes that when the modern scientific establishment adheres to evolutionary belief, it is “certainly not because experimental evidence encourages the establishment to do so.” He explains that a commitment to materialism is the problem. Thus, “There exists at present no other purely scientific alternative which postulates a purely scientific materialistic basis for biogenesis and biology. To repeat, there is at present no purely scientific alternative to Darwin. Creationism, being religious, is of little use to the materialistic thought of today. It is simply an irrelevant subject worthy only of ridicule. Scientists whose upbringing and education are Darwinian and therefore naturalistic, have for this reason no real alternative to Darwinism. Here we have perhaps one of the main reasons for the victory of Darwinism even today, even though the accumulating evidence of science is steadily against the theory.”

But what if there is a legitimate scientific option to evolution which is not materialistic? For example, as we will discuss later, Yale Law School graduate Wendell R. Bird fully documents that the theory of “abrupt appearance” is entirely scientific—and also that such a theory was capable of being advanced scientifically by scientists of an earlier era. Further, he shows that creation itself is not necessarily religious; it too can be fully scientific. The discussion in J. P. Moreland, ed., The Creation Hypothesis (IVP, 1994) reveals that theistic science is anything but an oxymoron and merits real consideration among scientists. In fact, unless we arbitrarily, or by default, allow scientific naturalism to provide the rules of the game convenient to its own worldview, the concept of theistic science must be considered a valid competing hypothesis to the current naturalistic paradigm. The question of whether or not scientific naturalism can be challenged is long past, and the issue of a scientific theory of creationism is already settled.

B. A false theory can be accepted because scientific facts can be misinterpreted or unnaturally forced to fit a dominant theory.

The facts of the natural world are in the possession of every scientist, whether creationist or evolutionist. The issue in debate is the interpretation of those facts, whether it concerns the fossil record, origin-of-life experiments, or phylogenetic similarities. Yet scientific facts may not only seem to fit a false theory, but scientific facts themselves may become irrelevant because of the intrinsic appeal of a particular paradigm whose own preservation becomes paramount:

Yet no matter how convincing such disproofs [of evolution] might appear, no matter how contradictory and unreal much of the Darwinian framework might now seem to anyone not committed to its defense, as philosophers of science like Thomas Kuhn and Paul Feyerabend have pointed out, it is impossible to falsify theories by reference to the facts or indeed by any sort of rational or empirical argument. The history of science amply testifies to what Kuhn has termed 'the priority of the paradigm’ and provides many fascinating examples of the extraordinary lengths to which members of the scientific community will go to defend a theory just as long as it holds sufficient intrinsic appeal.

In other words, once scientists are trained to interpret data in a particular manner, they rarely question the relevance of their interpretations. The perceptual grid of scientific naturalism forces data to be interpreted in very specific ways that may not be correct. Worse, scientific data must be made to fit the prevailing dominant theory. (Thomas Kuhn pointed this out in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.)

For example, the geocentric theory of the sun orbiting the earth dominated science for several hundred years. Although a heliocentric alternative was considered as early as the Greek astronomers, the geocentric theory was, by the late middle ages, “a self-evident truth, the one and only sacred and unalterable picture of cosmological reality.” But, as with all false theories, there were innumerable facts that got in the way. The response of scientists was to invent “explanations” to account for the irregularities. As more and more explanations were required to deal with more and more problems presented by undeniable facts, by the early sixteenth century the entire Ptolemaic system had become “a monstrosity” of fantastically involved explanations and counter-explanations. Never¬the¬less, “so ingrained was the idea that the earth was the center of the universe that hardly anyone, even those astronomers who were well aware of the growing unreality of the whole system, ever bothered to consider an alternative theory.”

The eighteenth-century concept of phlogiston is also instructive. The theory of phlogiston “assumed that all combustible bodies, including metals, contained a common material, phlogiston, which escaped on combustion but could be readily transferred from one body to another.” Scientific experiments with zinc and phosphorus appeared to prove the phlogiston theory. The concept was fully accepted for a hundred years and debated for another hundred years before it was finally disproven. But in fact, “The theory was a total misrepresentation of reality. Phlogiston did not even exist, and yet its existence was firmly believed and the theory adhered to rigidly for nearly 100 years through¬out the 18th century.”

As was true for the geocentric theory, awkward facts were cunningly assimilated, explained away, or ignored. It was the false theory itself that determined how science dealt with facts. The facts themselves had to bow to the truth of phlogiston. Thus, as time progressed and more discoveries were made that made it increasingly difficult to believe in phlogiston, the theory was not rejected but “was modified by the insertion of more and more unwarranted and ad hoc assumptions about the nature of phlogiston.”

In his Origins of Modern Science, Professor H. Butterfield observes how the phlogiston theory actually led to scientists being intellectually incapacitated to deal with the evidence: “. . . the last two decades of the 18th century give one of the most spectacular proofs in history of the fact that able men who had the truth under their very noses, and possessed all the ingredients for the solution of the problem—the very men who had actually made the strategic discoveries—were incapacitated by the phlogiston theory from realizing the implications of their own work.”

In a similar fashion Denton comments, “It is not hard to find inversions of common sense in modern evolutionary thought which are strikingly reminiscent of the mental gymnastics of the phlogiston chemists or the medieval astronomers. The Darwinist, instead of questioning the orthodox framework as common sense would seem to dictate, attempts of justifying his position by ad hoc proposals, . . . which to the skeptic are self-apparent rationalizations to neutralize what is, on the face of it, hostile evidence.”

Thus, the great many intractable scientific problems with modern evolutionary belief do not constitute a disproof of Darwinian claims but rather situations that require adjustment to the belief in order that the belief be preserved at all costs.

Part 2

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