The evolution of creationist astronomy

Bad Astronomy
The entire universe in blog form
May 28 2009 10:01 AM

The evolution of creationist astronomy


Oh you wacky creationists! You make it all too easy. A warning: while easy, it does take some time to debunk a creationist's blatherings. So I indulge your allowance of this somewhat lengthy dissection.

As you may recall, last week I took a creationist to task for creating (haha!) a video about astronomy as told from a young-Earth creation viewpoint. That is, one that is completely wrong.

Phil Plait Phil Plait

Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death From the Skies!  

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Now, I did decline to debunk his video on its claims, as I'm rather a busy guy these days, and all his arguments boil down to "science doesn't know this yet", which is a losing fight and always will be. That "yet" will kill you. Science learns, while dogma doesn't.

Instead, I challenged him on the use of the world "evolution", because it's painfully obvious he is using it as a buzzword meant to sway people emotionally, and not rationally. Evolution is of course a word used like a blunt instrument by creationists to gather the flock... and then, usually, shear them. And when they use it, it's also very clearly an allusion to biological evolution.

Well, the guy who created the video, Spike Psarris, has posted a rebuttal! He does indicate that I don't attack his specific points, but as I said clearly I didn't intend to as there's no need.

What I find fascinating is his long discussion about the word "evolution". Now, let me say that he makes a point when he says astronomers use the term themselves. I never deny that, of course, because I am very familiar with the term. Astronomers use the phrase stellar evolution to mean the physical changes a star undergoes as it ages. For example, a star like the Sun will eventually become a red giant when there is no longer any hydrogen in its core available for fusion. That's one stage in its stellar evolution.

I'll be the first to admit it's a poor term. It was borrowed from biologists, obviously, but the meaning was changed. While biological evolution is change over time, it's the way a species changes over time (or more accurately, the alleles in that species' chromosomes). In astronomy the term is used for an individual star (and sometimes, but less often, for other objects like galaxies and planets). So it's really not the best term to use for astronomy.

However, Mr. Psarris is sneaky. He says that since astronomers use the term, it's OK to call astronomers evolutionists! But I call shenanigans on him. First, as I said, it's clear that is not why he uses the term in the video. Second, calling astronomers evolutionists because they use the term themselves is like calling doctors "tongue depressorists" or calling carpenters "ladderists". It's one aspect of a much larger field.

Third, (in general) creationists deny biological evolution can happen. Is he then using the term because he is saying that astronomical evolution can't happen either? Because we do see stars exploding, and we've seen stars undergoing individual changes that fall under the astronomical use of the word evolution.

We also know planets change over time (even creationists have to admit that; in their mythology the Flood of Noah was a global change), as do galaxies... of course, they would deny we see galaxies change, since that takes millions of years. But we can look at millions of galaxies and see them at different stages in their lives, proving the astronomical flavor of evolution statistically. In fact, we see remnants of galaxies eaten by our Milky Way, showing it has definitely changed over time.

So by calling us evolutionists, what exactly is Mr. Psarris trying to do? I maintain my original point: despite his attempt at misdirection in his rebuttal, it's still clear that the reason he uses that word is to generate an emotional response in his listeners. It's as hollow and empty a use as any other political term hung by one group on an opposing group. Anti-choice, pro-abortion; neither is entirely accurate, and both clearly were coined just to elicit a visceral response, not a rational one.

Another point. He makes a big deal claiming that I call him a liar in my previous post. In fact I do not, and I never use that word. I imply he has born false witness, but actually that literally means not telling the truth. That's different than a lie; people can simply be wrong, and think they are right.

That may seem like I'm splitting hairs, but I would argue that bearing false witness would include using a term you know is not really appropriate even if you think that the core of your argument is correct. It's a method of speaking that is less than truthful without actually being a lie.

I think that's what's happening here. If he was simply mistaken in the arguments in his videos, he was already on shaky ground. But his rebuttal takes a big old jackhammer to his stance; it's clearly a thinly-veiled attempt to justify his misuse of the term "evolutionist".

Oh, one more thing, too. Active, vocal creationists are nothing if not ironic. About my arguments he says:

Well, when your gun is out of bullets, you have to shoot blanks.

There’s a debating tactic that’s as old as the ancient Greeks. When your opponent is correct and you can’t refute his arguments, you use an ad hominem attack instead.

In fact, I do not use an ad hominem attack: I don't attack him personally at all, I attack his (mis)use of a word. He is also setting up a false argument here; you can use an ad hominem when your opponent is dead wrong, too. Just because one person uses an ad hominem -- which, remember, I did not -- does not mean the other person's arguments are right.

So his methodology is clear: misdirections and distraction. As for his claims themselves... if someone wants to sit through his sample videos and provide arguments for or against what he is claiming, please feel free to do so in the comments here. I'll note that a lot of his references are old; some predate or come early on in the Galileo mission, when a lot of things were discovered about Jupiter that took some time to explain. I welcome any planetary scientists who wish to talk about this!

[Update: It's been brought to my attention that other sites have debunked these specific claims point by point, like PseudoAstro (which is now in my RSS feed reader!) and World of Weird Things.]

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