APS News Readers Respond to "Creationism Versus Physical Science"
Copyright 2000 Paul Dlugokencky (aDailyCartoon.com) for APS News
(first printed - November 2000 issue)
First and foremost, teach critical thinking, including the fallacies of pseudoscience. As an irrational belief that is made to look scientific but that is not supported by scientific methods, "creation science" is a perfect example of pseudoscience. Second, teach radioactive dating as an application of nuclear physics, and present the main geological ages along with supporting radioactive and non-radioactive evidence. Third, discuss the creationists' anti-evolution argument based on the second law of thermodynamics, and the scientific reply (see Brush's article). Fourth, present big bang cosmology and the supporting evidence: the expanding universe, the three-degree background radiation, "ripples" in the background radiation, and quantitative agreement between big-bang isotope-formation predictions and observed isotope ratios in our galaxy's oldest stars. Fifth, discuss the search for and possibility of extraterrestrial life, including the hypothesis of the chemical origin of life on Earth and supporting experimental evidence. Always stress the theme of "how do we know," i.e. present lots of evidence.
I include these topics in my liberal-arts college physics course for non-scientists and can testify that, while many students disagree with some specific conclusions, nearly all students find these topics instructive, interesting, and even fascinating.
Professor Emeritus of Physics, University of Arkansas
Recently, I have found this conflict very difficult to understand. Physical Science and Creationists (indeed, religious persons of virtually every creed) agree: The Universe had a beginning. You would think that this fundamental agreement would be infinitely more significant than the relatively minor detail of just how long ago that was. It would appear, however, that Creationists are not really "Fundamentalists", as they style themselves, but rather, "Literalists", which makes all the difference.
Another example: Brush reports, "If you teach children they are descended from animals, the reasoning goes, they will assume they can behave like animals." But as he correctly points out earlier, this is the fallacy of assuming entropy increase only. What, one may ask, would the reasoning be if you teach the children that they are "ascended" from animals?
Los Alamos, New Mexico
In his helpful discussion, Stephen G. Brush mentions the guilt by association between evolution and secular humanism introduced by televangelists. The televangelists I have viewed are merely objecting to the claim that evolution is an unsupervised, impersonal process (1996 Statement on Teaching Evolution of the National Association of Biology Teachers). Such a claim is a logical fallacy identified by Aristotle (350 BC). For, on the basis of evidence from the material world, evolutionists are claiming that there is no personal supervisor of evolution outside the material world. It is as though Hamlet claimed that there was no Shakespeare because he could not find Shakespeare within the confines of the play.
Finally however, in 1997, 138 years after Darwin's Origin of Species, the NABT deleted the two words: unsupervised and impersonal from their definition of evolution. This removal of the challenge to the supernatural should remove much of the opposition to evolution by thoughtful people.
John A. McIntyre
Texas A&M University
The notion of a Creator who brought space time and all into being is central to the book of Genesis and no scholarly exegesis can expunge that from it. Those who believe in a Creator are not all "Young Earth Creationists" as Stephen Brush implies and attacks.
Darwin meant by evolution the process whereby life arose from non-living matter and subsequently developed entirely by natural means. This is a form of scientific materialism that Freeman Dyson decries in "Science and Religion Can Work Together." (APS News, November 2000) Richard Dawkins, famed author of "The Blind Watchmaker," has said that Darwin made it possible to be an "intellectually fulfilled atheist."
Scientists and teachers ought to make it clear, as Brush indicates, that evolution and cosmology are working assumptions, not established facts. Unlike physics, evolution and cosmology are sciences in the sense of forensic science. The evidence for evolutionary transition of humans from apelike ancestors is not abundant enough to conclude, beyond a reasonable doubt, that it has occurred. That is why the overwhelming majority of Americans still believe in a Creator.
The foundation of modern science was laid down by devout Christians (Galileo, Kepler, Newton, Maxwell, Planck, etc.) who studied nature to know more about its Creator. It was the extension of the evolutionary ideas of Darwin to an atheistic world view that accentuated the false antagonism between science and religion. Such mixing of science, philosophy, and theology must be openly discussed. What people object to is the teaching of an atheistic world view in the guise of science. Students of faith ought not to come out of biology classes with the notion that there is no God. Otherwise, theology and not merely biology is being taught in such classes.
Clearly everything evolves. However, it is not self-evident to me that the fundamental question of origins is a truly scientific question. If not, then the answer must be sought in the very same places where we seek answers to questions regarding meaning, values, and purpose. One must never forget that an explanation of the totality of the human experience may lie outside the realm of science.
The honest pursuit of an answer to the question of origins may lead ultimately to an Intelligent Designer. Max Planck, Nobel laureate and father of quantum physics, said: "God is at the beginning of every religion and at the end of the natural sciences." Let us not forget that our nation is founded on the creed that our freedom and unalienable rights are endowed by our Creator.
University of North Carolina at Wilmington
Stephen G. Brush's essay makes some good points about creationism. Unfortunately, he repeats some untrue statements about secular humanism that have been promoted by televangelists. Secular humanism is a philosophy that originated in the Enlightenment. It is based on the idea that a good, moral life can be led without the belief in a deity. The humanistic approach is that human affairs in the natural world are more important than concerns about the supernatural or an afterlife. For example, the US Constitution is a famous secular humanist document, in which the government is founded on the practical concerns and needs of citizens, rather than requiring a religious justification. Humanists base their morality on reason and compassion in a way that is consistent with scientific evidence about the world and human nature. Although there are not a large number of people who call themselves secular humanists, there are a growing number of local organizations led by the Council for Secular Humanism in Amherst, NY, publisher of Free Inquiry magazine.
I am delighted that Professor Brush has added his name to the regrettably small cohort of physicists who take seriously the threat of creationist teaching in American public schools. As physicists, we must always bear in mind that no matter how specialized our own interests may be, science is a seamless whole. This is especially true from the point of view of teaching scientific methodology, a vital area which students too often fail to grasp. If, for example, biological evolution is "only a theory," why, then, perhaps quantum mechanics is "only a theory" as well. I urge physicists to take heed of what goes on in their local schools. Those who wish to look into the specifics of what goes on in their home states may refer to my recent study, Good Science, Bad Science: Teaching Evolution In The States, The Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, Washington, D.C., September 2000. Single free copies may be obtained by calling 1-888-823-7474; the report is also posted on-line.
Lawrence S. Lerner
California State University, Long Beach
I'm always amazed at the extremes to which Creationists will go in harming science education. Yet, in so doing, I believe, they also hurt themselves if their goal is to get closer to God. As an Orthodox Jew and a physicist, let me give another perspective. One of the most famous Jewish sages and legalists, Moses Maimonides (12th century C.E. author of Guide to the Perplexed) explained that one very important way to get close to God is to learn and understand His creation. This means studying and uncovering the mysteries of the physical universe using the tools of science. The models scientists create in cosmology or biology may indeed be working hypotheses subject to modification as new observations are made, as Brush pointed out. But they none-the-less seek the truth and are generated using the very tools given by God to man- his mind and senses.
I'm also amazed at how limited the Creationist view of even the Bible can be. They take a simplistic English translation of an original Hebrew text and think they can make conclusions from it. Volumes of Biblical exegesis have been written trying to understand what the original Hebrew text of Genesis means at its various levels. The Jewish view has always held that the world is 5761 years old, as counted from the moment a human soul was placed in a human body.
The 13th century talmudist, kabbalist, and physician Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman of Gerona, stated that all matter and energy that composes the universe was created in the first instant of God's creation. Everything else was formed from the basic building blocks of material following the initial creation, and follows a general evolutionary trend from simple and chaotic to complex and ordered. Furthermore, says R. Nachman, time was created at the initial instance of creation, and the universe was created starting as a "small, thin, point". All this came many centuries before any Big Bang theory and while the rest of Europe thought the world was flat.
More recently, physicist Gerald Schroeder has written two books (Genesis and the Big Bang, Bantam Books, and The Science of God, Broadway Books) detailing his thesis that the Biblical version of creation can coexist in harmony with the modern standard cosmological model without having to resort to a metaphorical understanding of the first chapter in Genesis. He states that the first six Genesis days were indeed six twenty-four hour periods of time, though measured in a different reference frame, one looking forward in time rather than backward as we do now. Time, as viewed dynamically from this reference frame with its extreme gravitational potential dilating time, behaved very differently from time as measured on earth today. The two reference frames came into synch on the sixth Genesis day, when the first soul was placed in a human body. I personally would love to see his thesis written up as a paper for review in the physics community. Such a paper might help me evaluate his thesis better as well as appreciate and understand the meaning of this other preferred reference frame.
University Heights, Ohio
APS Should Go Metric
When is APS News going to embrace the metric system? The article on the physics of pole vaulting in the November 2000 issue has a mixture of inches, feet, meters, etc. If we, physicists, cannot get it right, how can we expect others to eventually do? I hope to never again see the abomination of inches, feet, and pounds in APS publications...
University of Missouri-Columbia
More on Powers of Ten
In the Astronomy Greatest Hits (APS News, October 2000), you give Copernicus as the proponent of a heliocentric system. Aristarchus (about 310-230BC) had already proposed a heliocentric system. As Archimedes wrote in his book Psammites: "His (Aristarchus') hypotheses are that the fixed stars and the Sun remains motionless, that the Earth revolves about the Sun in the circumference of a circle, the Sun lying in the middle of the orbit, and that the sphere of the fixed stars, situated about the same center as the Sun, is so great that the circle in which he supposes the Earth to revolve bears such a proportion to the distance of the fixed stars as the center of the sphere bears to its surface". Archimedes disagreed with this hypotheses of Aristarchus. Even great men can be wrong sometimes.
University of California, Los Angeles
Whose Famous Formula, Part II
It is true that specific cases of the mass-energy equivalence were known before Einstein's famous paper in 1905. The equation E=mc2 was proposed (or implied) by Paul Langevin, Henri Poincar, F. Hasenoehrl and others (not mentioned in the Letter by C. H. Thomson (APS News, October, 2000)). It is also true that Einstein derived the formula on very general grounds, as rightly pointed out by Abraham Pais (quoted in the Editorial reply). But it is equally true that Einstein's (first) derivation of the formula was based on a faulty reasoning (petitio principii), as revealed by Herbert Ives (J. Opt. Soc. Am. 41 (1952) 540). The same author argues that the first correct and generic derivation of the formula should be attributed to Max Planck (Sitz. der preuss. Akad. Wiss., Physik, Math. Klasse 13 (June, 1907)). (See, also, Max Jammer, Concepts of Mass, 1961)
Evidently, just as the now called Special Relativity was in the air around the turn of the century, so was one of the most famous formulae in physics (considered wrongly by many to be essentially an outcome of the latter). It belongs to the class of relations that connect qualitatively different entities, as the case with Euler's formula - exp[i(pi)] = - 1, or Boltzmann's (statistical) relation for the entropy.
Institute of Physics, Belgrade
Paean to Religion Ill-Placed
In the November 2000 APS News, Freeman Dyson asserts that science and religion are both trying to figure out why we are here. But the whys of religion and science differ. Science asks why in exploring and understanding the physical universe, while the why of religion (discounting the creationists) concerns purpose and interposes an undefinable god. Moreover, what does Dyson mean by religion? It seems to me to be what the Priests say, a domain of shifting meanings, sometimes interpreting of the mysteries of (man's place in) the world, other times trying to establish codes of human conduct. It is all about indefinable, vague, and shifting notions of god. Religion and science do not in fact address the same reality.
Furthermore, what is this infallible scientific dogma that Dyson uses as a straw man? In trying to demonstrate that neither party, scientific or religious, holds The Whole Truth, he trivializes the problems of the conflict of rationality and God. Dyson seems to resent the fact that scientific materialists scorn God, i.e., are insensitive to the religious and religion, and hence to morality. But why equate religious beliefs to morality? Moreover, it seems unfair to equate the influence of scientific materialists and religious creationists. For one thing, their numbers are vastly different, even if the media exaggerates their importance. Church and state problems are not exaggerated; school prayer and support of religious instruction are issues that challenge us everywhere.
Finally, Dyson praises the social importance of churches and temples in Princeton in creating a cohesive and healthy community. The other side of the coin can be found in Israel, Afghanistan, Turkey, and in religious conflict throughout history. It is highly questionable whether religion is the essential mortar in building a diverse, tolerant, and cohesive community.
I can't object to Dyson's desire to warn us of the possible consequences of unbridled technology upon life, and that scientists ought to consider moral issues of life and humanity. But his paean to religion as the home of a beneficent morality and sensitive humanity is ill placed.
Morton K. Brussel
When Something Seems Too Good to be True, It Probably Is
In a Letter to the Editor in the November 2000 issue of APS News, Professor Stuart Samuel informed the community that, according to a web site I choose not to identify, physicists are not only the highest paid scientists, but they earn $20,000 per year more than any other scientists.
This conclusion is grossly misleading. It is, quite simply, based on a comparison of apples and oranges.
The data were collected at the institutional level. This is a reasonable and cost effective approach to data collection. However, it does have shortcomings.
By way of example, tens of thousands of people work in the private sector with physics degrees at the bachelors, masters or PhD levels. But, very few are identified by their employers as physicists. Compound this with the fact that virtually all of those whose job title identifies them as physicists are PhDs, a few are masters and only a handful have bachelors degrees.
Compare this trend to engineering. There are well over a million people employed as engineers in the US. Most of them have a bachelors degree, about one quarter have a masters or professional engineering degree, and only a few have a PhD.
At the other extreme is the world of computer and information science. Go to the tech support group in any company in the US and compare the fields of bachelors degrees of the workers. Half or less will have bachelors degrees in computer science, systems engineering or a closely related field. Half or more will have degrees in mathematics, physics, social science, and any of the liberal arts majors including philosophy, history and religious studies. They are all paid similar salaries for similar work regardless of field of degree.
In short, when you ask employers, "how much do you pay your physicists?" they are reporting on some of the PhDs and very few lower degree holders. When you ask the same employers about practitioners in other fields, they are reporting salaries that are largely earned by lower degree holders.
The salary an individual earns is driven, to a large degree, by several factors: level of highest degree, years of experience, type of employment (academe tends to pay less than government which tends to pays less than the private sector), and the kind of work they do (e.g. job title or primary work activities). For example, physicists who are employed as engineers tend to have the same salary range as the engineers with engineering degrees working in the same sector of the economy with similar experience levels.
I have been studying the role of physics and the role of physicists in the education system and in the economy for twenty years. During that time I have come to several conclusions.
Physics is fundamental and physics is ubiquitous. Physics and physicists play a fundamentally important role. Physicists add to our knowledge base. They participate in innovation and technological breakthroughs. People with physics degrees (at any level) pursue a remarkably diverse range of professionally challenging and intellectually stimulating careers. Physicists succeed. The vast majority of people with physics degrees report that, if they had the opportunity to do it over again, they would major in physics.
Physicists are well paid. People with degrees in physics are among the highest paid of all fields. For example, people with bachelors degrees in engineering, computer science, pharmacology, mathematics and physics tend to have higher salaries than people with bachelors degrees in any other field (Monthly Labor Review, December 1995).
However, it is also important to remember that, anecdotal evidence not withstanding, physicists do NOT walk on water. During international recessions and other economic downturns, physicists suffer just like every one else.
I encourage you to sing the praises of physics and to sing the praises of physicists. But question and challenge every data source especially if that source tells you what you most want to believe.
Visit our web site www.aip.org/statistics. I am confident that it has the most accurate data and the most even handed interpretation of the trends affecting the physics community. However, I encourage you to challenge even the data that comes from my unit. We expect physicists to question our data. Your criticisms and scepticism keeps us on our toes. In addition, your questions and comments help us understand whether we have explained our research findings clearly and whether we are addressing the issues of greatest concern to the physics community. In short, we exist to serve your needs for timely and accurate data.
Director, Statistical Research Center; American Institute of Physics