Darwin Day 2015: Scotland’s creationist ‘dinosaur’ John Mason is fighting to take God back to school
With further memorable comments on creationism, miracles, and the age of the Earth.
Unfortunately, despite the headline, Mason is not fighting to take anything back. He is merely attempting to maintain the status quo. As I commented on the ibtimes site,
The shocking truth is that Mason is not fighting for change, but to maintain the status quo. He is reacting to attempts [Parliamentary Motion; Scottish Secular Society Petition] to get the Scottish Government to issue guidance to stop separate creation being presented in Scottish schools as a viable alternative to the established science of evolution and an old Earth. At present, no such guidance exists, and the Scottish Government, so far, is pretending that none is necessary.
Here, without cherry picking, is what Mason is reported as saying on the subject:
I don’t like creationism. It’s not a word that I ever use myself, like ‘fundamentalist.’ I’d see that as being a part of a package that’s more than a belief that god created the world. If that’s what you mean by creationism I’m fine with that, but I feel it has a lot of baggage. It gives a wrong impression.
I’m a mainstream Christian. The key thing is only that God created the world, I don’t get excited whether it’s six days or 6 million years. I don’t think timescale is important.
That’s why I put in the [Parliamentary] Motion with the option of God creating the world, be it over 6 days of six million years. That’s not fundamental to me. There are some things fundamental to Christianity, such as Jesus dying on a cross, but how long God took to create the world is not one of them.
In the words of the ibtimes reporter, Gareth Platt, Mason continues by insisting that neither creationism nor evolution can be proved by science. I want to press him on this… So, I ask my interviewee, how much proof do you need?
None of these positions can be disproved by science. Science has to know its limitations. The Bible says Jesus turned water into wine. Science can look at that wine but, assuming that miracle happened, science could not tell us whether that wine was five minutes or five months to make.
If God creates miracles, science is out of its depth. I don’t think science can make a statement on where we’ve come from, it is based on the assumption that God hasn’t created a miracle.
To discover something means finding out things that are already there. My fundamental belief is that God created the world and all the rules of science, so science cannot find out that god doesn’t exist. I’m totally committed to the truth so I want science to find out new things. Other people start off with the assumption that god does not exist, so there are assumptions being made on both sides.
The idea of a God that creates the world is a very central belief to Judaism, Christianity and Islam. There’s nothing revolutionary about it. It is fundamental to the whole Christian belief that there is a creator, and Christianity would unravel if creationism was proved wrong.
I don’t see how you could be a Christian, Muslim or Jew and not believe that God created the world. Even those who accept evolution would say there was a God who set it in motion.
Concerning the East Kilbride scandal, Mason believes
that particular church probably went too far. It’s a privilege for any group to be operating in schools, we’ve got a long historical relationship between churches and schools and the state, [but] clearly we are now in a more secular society so the churches should be sensitive.
I am against abortion. I have no problem with gay rights, although I voted against same-sex marriage. But there’s a wider issue here. We’re trying to ensure that all minorities are respected, and there’s been more progress on some issues than others.
Let me comment briefly. I agree with John Mason when he says that we should be careful about how we use the word “creationism”, because it is so easy to slide from the general idea of God creating the world, to the specific anti-scientific belief that he did so more or less as described in some Iron Age document. Indeed, Mason does exactly that during the interview. That is why the Petition that I helped draft does not refer to “creationism”, but to “separate creation… as a viable alternative to the established science of evolution”
I also agree that if we assume a God who can do anything, it follows that he could have made a world that looks 4.5 billions (not just millions) of years old, within a universe that looks 13.8 billions of years old, in six days. I cannot imagine why he should wish to do any such thing, and indeed have said that I regard the suggestion is blasphemous, since it has him perpetrating the largest possible act of total deception. But let that pass. Perhaps John Mason has more insight into the mind of God than I do. However, if we are only supposed to teach those facts that could not be illusions resulting from a miracle, I don’t see how we can ever teach anything. After all, maybe the entire universe with all our memories was created only five minutes ago, by a God with a very twisted sense of humour. Science, I admit, can never disprove such a theory.
I am glad that John Mason admits that at Kirktonholme, the church “probably” went too far. As I commented on the ibtimes website, the church handed out, to every pupil in school assembly, two books saying, among other things, that dinosaur graveyards were the result of Noah’s flood, that radioactive dating is a trick to discredit the Bible, that evolution is an indefensible theory, and that the reason so many people accept it is in order to justify their moral irresponsibility. It does indeed show a certain lack of sensitivity to tell schoolchildren that the Curriculum for Excellence syllabus is a lie and that their science teachers are tricking them.
As for his final sentence about minorities, I do not have the faintest idea what he means. I know that some of John Mason’s allies pay me the compliment of reading my posts, and would be glad if one of them would tell me.
by Paul Braterman
Science, it is often said, is restricted in principle to the search for natural causes. Is this a fundamental rule for doing science? Or merely a useful procedural guide, derived from experience? Is it even true? Or meaningful? Does it matter? These questions are addressed in an important series of papers in 2010, 2012, and 2014, by Maarten Boudry at the University of Ghent and his colleagues. They conclude that it matters a great deal, that the alleged restriction does not in fact exist, and that appealing to such a principle in argument is harmful to the cause of science. I agree.
I will deal with the first four questions in reverse order. Can we make a meaningful distinction between the natural and the supernatural? I was initially inclined to say no. If something occurs, it’s part of nature. It is a law of nature that water doesn’t turn into wine, but if you believe that the miracle of the wedding feast of Cana really happened, then you need to modify the law to say “Water doesn’t turn into wine, except when Jesus tells it to.” Maarten persuaded me that this was not a helpful line to take. Like all attempts to define a problem out of existence, it is logically unassailable, but useless. It denies us access to the very distinction that we should be clarifying.
The question, however, is more difficult than it seems. After all, we do not know everything that there is to be known about nature. We readily apply the label “supernatural” to purported phenomena such as telekinesis or telepathy, in which mind is regarded as operating on matter or on other minds without material agency, but we do not have a satisfactory account of mind-matter relationships anyway. Other prime candidates for supernatural status, such as precognition and remote viewing, would if real involve transcending the usual space-time framework, but space and time are much less rigidly defined now than they seemed to be before Einstein. The limits of natural explanation have been extended in the past, by invoking action at a distance (gravity, then other forces), intrinsic randomness (quantum mechanics), and more recently particle entanglement (quantum mechanics again). Presumably they will be in the future, in ways yet undreamt of. So the fact that something cannot be explained by today’s science need not force us to invoke the supernatural. What would, then? Boudry and Taner Edis suggest a test for what they call unphysical causation, but it is highly technical, with their criterion based on demonstrated access to uncomputable numbers (I will not attempt to reproduce their argument). However, they suggest some examples. What, for instance, if Lourdes started producing undeniable miracles in large numbers, including the regrowth of amputated limbs, but only for devout Catholics? What if all organisms were found to contain an identical section of DNA, whose diffraction pattern spelt out the message “© Yahweh 4004 BC”? What, I might add, if we really did start receiving messages from the dead?
Searching for messages is not a new idea. There are cottage industries within both Christianity and Islam, producing evidence that the authors of the Bible or the Qur’an are referring to scientific facts unknown by mere mortals when these books were first written. For instance, does the reference to the “circle of the Earth” in Isaiah 40:22 imply that the author knew that the Earth goes round the sun? Do the numerous biblical references to God stretching out the heavens show an awareness of the expanding universe? Mohammed is said to have “split the moon”; is this a reference to its formation by accretion? Few of us would find these examples convincing.
Or, to take a much more sophisticated (and lucrative) example, what of the “Bible code” claim that computer searching of the Hebrew text according to certain counting rules reveals messages about post-biblical, including recent, history, placed there on purpose so that, when computers became available, we would be able to read these messages? The claim was taken seriously by enough people to put three successive volumes on the best-seller list. But that tells us nothing about its truth. This is testable, in at least two different ways, and fails both tests miserably.
Firstly, is the text special? Test: take some other, undoubtedly secular, text, apply the same methodology, and see what happens. Many people have done this with remarkable results. My favourite is an analysis, by the geophysicist Dave Thomas, of the Amazon website excerpt from the third book in the series, from which he unearthed the messages that the Bible Code was a “vain hoax” and “megalomania”. Well, that’s English, not Hebrew, but Hebrew should be even easier since it is written with consonants only.
Secondly, are the predictions correct? Take this example: Bible Code II predicted that Yasser Arafat would be shot by Hamas gunmen. In fact, he died of an infection, and Hamas had nothing to do with it. Again, the same book predicted Libya acquiring weapons of mass destruction; in fact, Libya renounced its plans in that direction, opening up a brief honeymoon between Gaddafi and the West. There were also predictions of an end-times nuclear war, and had any policy makers been paying attention to these (not inconceivable when millions of Americans await the Rapture) the consequences could have been serious indeed.
Why have I spent so much time on this silly example? Because it gives the answer to all but one of my original five questions. Despite the problem of definition, we would all agree that if the Bible Code claims had been correct, they would have been evidence of supernatural agency. So yes, the distinction (Question 4) between natural and supernatural is meaningful. More importantly, this example shows that we do in fact investigate supernaturalist claims using the methods of science (Question 3; science is not restricted to the search for natural causes; so the initial assertion is not true). It follows at once that when occasion demands we cheerfully violate the purported restriction on how we do science, which therefore cannot be a fundamental rule (Question 1).
It is only after the Bible Code claims have been convincingly shredded that we can decide that claims of this kind are not worth our time and trouble. It was only after exhaustive card-guessing experiments had failed to reveal any evidence for ESP (and after the published evidence for its reality was found to be faulty if not fraudulent) that people decided it was just not worth while continuing in that direction. It was only after spiritualists had repeatedly been exposed as fakes that scientists more or less stopped investigating them. For a while, even such distinguished scientists as Alfred Russel Wallace took their pretensions seriously. However, nowadays such investigations are undertaken more to unmask fraud and protect the public than in the hope of new discoveries. (In this endeavour, scientists have been joined by professional magicians, from Houdini to James “the amazing” Randi, illustrating to my mind the artificiality of separating off “science” from other kinds of factual enquiry.) Much the same, but with less emphasis on fraud, can be said about hunting for ghosts. In this century, there have been several studies of the effects of intercessory prayer on recovery from illness. No effect (or in one case, a small negative effect, tentatively attributed to the added stress of the situation), and a recommendation from Cochrane Reviews, which collate data from clinical trials, that no further work of this kind be undertaken. In each of these cases, the scientific search has been abandoned, not because of some overarching principle about the nature of science, but because plain experience showed it to be pointless. A priori rejection of the supernatural had nothing to do with these decisions, which were based purely on experience. Experience that would never have been attained if scientists really were debarred from submitting the supernatural to investigation.
Science, as P. J. Medawar pointed out in his devastating critique of Koestler’s Act of Creation, is an extremely practical activity, and it is commonplace for lines of enquiry to be abandoned because they were getting nowhere (I can confirm this from bitter experience, as a sometime experimental chemist). Thus, as Boudry and colleagues remind us, the Royal Academy of Sciences in Paris decided in 1775 to have nothing more to do with proposals to build a perpetual motion machine. This was many years ahead of the development of the laws of thermodynamics, which tell us that such a machine is impossible, but so much effort had been spent to so little effect that the Academy decided no more was warranted. Not because (as we might now be tempted to say) such a machine would require a supernatural mechanism, but because they didn’t think there was any chance of it working. The suggestion made in Question 2 is correct, and can be extended beyond the supernatural to futile questions in general; when, as often happens, we turn aside from investigating this or that incredible claim, we do not do so on principle but because experience warns us that we would be wasting our time.
Now for the final question, does it matter? Yes, obviously, as an intellectual question. Also, I think, from the point of view of the individual researcher. We all of us carry philosophical baggage, but scientists to my mind should do their best to travel light, so unnecessary principles should be deliberately discarded. But, most importantly, as part of the ever-necessary strategy of defending science from its enemies. As I shall argue in my next post, the principle that science is only allowed to look for natural causes is widely seen as a bastion against obscurantist encroachment. But this is a strategic error. It is an unnecessary and inaccurate metaphysical add-on to science, an easy target for its enemies, and should be abandoned.
I thank Maarten Boudry for helpful suggestions. Illustrations: Book cover from Amazon; “Vain Hoax” from Dave Thomas at New Mexicans for Science and Reason here (see also here). An earlier version of this post appeared on 3 Quarks Daily.
 This discussion refers to Michael Drosnin’s Bible Code books, rather than to the original statistical puzzle posed by Eliyahu Rips, who has dissociated himself from them.
 New Statesman, 19 June 1964, reprinted in Pluto’s Republic, OUP 1984