Righting America

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Science and the Problem of Inerrancy | Righting America

by Patrick Thomas

Today’s post is from Patrick Thomas, whose work has mostly been behind the screen of rightingamerica.net. Below, he considers our recent posts on inerrancy at the Creation Museum and Ark Encounter to provide an introduction to our forthcoming series Putting Observational Science to the Test.

Central to AIG’s belief in inerrancy is an insistence on literal readings of the Bible. But the Trollingers have shown that neither Ark Encounter nor the Creation Museum evinces the kind of inerrancy and literalism that AIG insists upon. Noah, his family and friends have a cozy, comfy home on the Ark while renderings of dragons in the Creation Museum serve as the mythical proxy of evidence that dinosaurs lived among humans. Despite AIG’s insistence on inerrancy and the literal reading this inerrancy requires, “artistic interpretations” at Ark Encounter and the Creation Museum leave many visitors scratching their heads.

Inerrancy and literalism also pose particular problems for the Creation Museum’s use of science as a means of evincing a young Earth. A prime example of this can be found in the Biblical descriptions of the universe. Taken literally, the Bible’s geocentric cosmology presumes that

…the Earth is flat, circular, and immovable and is surrounded by a sea. Enclosing both the Earth and the sea is a fixed dome or firmament with stars embedded in it. The Sun crosses that dome each day. Above the dome are heavenly waters and a heavenly realm beyond that. (Righting America, 104-105)

Thankfully, AIG recognizes a heliocentric universe. Still, what is the significance of AIG’s departure from the inerrancy and literalism of a Biblical conception of the universe (other than, of course, centuries of evidence to the contrary)? The answer to this question helps to show how science operates at the Creation Museum.

In his book Six Days (Master Books, 2013), Ken Ham provides a revealing distinction between “observational science” and “historical science.” According to Ham, the former is an authoritative approach to scientific inquiry that “deals with knowledge that is gained by observation and repeated testing in our present world” (58). Only observational scientific practices, which borrow from the scientific method to document processes in the present, can be considered “real” science.

By contrast, “historical science” – that is, scientific inquiry that “deals with history – the past” (59) – is rife with contradictions, open to interpretation, and susceptible to scientists’ own beliefs systems. In short, for Ham, because the past cannot be observed, any attempt to explain the past through the scientific method fails the litmus test of observational, aka “real,” science.

[Sidenote: Ham’s reliance on observation as the only true way of knowing also leads to some ridiculous claims about how Noah built the ark.]

In Righting America, the Trollingers explain how AIG’s definition of observational science is used to de-legitimate evolution and reframe any scientific evidence in favor of evolution as erroneous. They also demonstrate that the Creation Museum is unsuccessful in its efforts to thwart evolution as real scientific knowledge (see pages 85-103). But like the Trollingers, I still wonder: how can the Creation Museum both espouse biblical inerrancy and literalism and contradict Biblical cosmology in favor of the modern heliocentric view of the universe?

In fact, it cannot. This is one point that AIG must concede in favor of presenting a scientific display of the universe that appears to employ modern science to confirm a young Earth. Instead, the Creation Museum must display a modern conception of the universe to appeal to visitors and, consequently, retrofit Biblical cosmology around modern scientific evidence. Here, the Trollingers’ conclusion to their “Science” chapter is especially apt:

Rather than dethrone science, science appears to be privileged to the point of imposing a modern universe onto the text of the Bible…Indeed, when it comes to how the universe is made to appear to visitors, it seems that modern science rather than a literal Bible rules at the Creation Museum. (Righting America, 108 – emphasis mine)

What the Trollingers’ examination reveals, then, is that inerrancy and literalism aren’t just problems for and about Biblical interpretation; they are also problems for science. And it is not “science” per se, but a very special, highly constrained type of science – that is, observational science – that counts as valid scientific knowledge at the Creation Museum.

Of course, a true test of any scientific apparatus, like that of observational science, is to see how well that apparatus holds up to scrutiny. In our upcoming posts, that’s precisely what we will do.

We’ve asked a group of scientists to consider Ham’s distinction between “observational” and “historical” science and to apply the apparatus of “observational science” to their own work. Using Ham’s definition of observational science, we wanted to know:

  • what kinds of conclusions could they draw?
  • what impact might this special conception of science have on their scientific practices?
  • what kinds of scientific research would Ham’s observational science enable, and what kinds of research would it inhibit?

We hope you will enjoy their responses (as we do!) and let us know what you think of them.