In a world dominated by magical thinking, superstition and misinformation, give yourself the benefit of doubt. This is one skeptic's view of the Universe; natural wonders and supernatural blunders.
"Tell people there’s an invisible man in the sky who created the universe, and the vast majority believe you. Tell them the paint is wet, and they have to touch it to be sure."
“If people are good only because they fear punishment, and hope for reward, then we are a sorry lot indeed”.
“Skeptical scrutiny is the means, in both science and religion, by which deep thoughts can be winnowed from deep nonsense.”
The person who is certain, and who claims divine warrant for his certainty, belongs now to the infancy of our species. It may be a long farewell, but it has begun and, like all farewells, should not be protracted.
Earlier this month, Ken Ham, the founder of the Creation Museum, in Petersburg, Kentucky, held a debate with Bill Nye at the museum. Within the creationist crowd, Ham represents the young-Earth wing, which believes that the planet is around six thousand years old. He also has other extreme interpretations of biblical claims: for example, he believes that the Tyrannosaurus rex and other dinosaurs were actually vegetarians that lived in the Garden of Eden before the fall of Adam and Eve.
Ham often stresses a line of argument made within the broader creationist community, which resonates, at least somewhat, with the public at large. “There’s experimental or observational science, as we call it. That’s using the scientific method, observation, measurement, experiment, testing,” he said during the debate. “When we’re talking about origins, we’re talking about the past. We’re talking about our origins. You weren’t there, you can’t observe that…. When you’re talking about the past, we like to call that origins or historical science.” In other words, Ham was saying that there is a fundamental difference between what creationists call the “historical sciences”—areas of study, like astronomy, geology, and evolutionary biology, that give us information about the early Earth and the evolution of life—and other sciences, like physics and chemistry, which appear to be based on experiments done in the laboratory today.
On the surface, this does not seem completely unreasonable. There is, after all, a difference between an observation and an experiment. In the laboratory, one can have much better control when attempting to establish cause-and-effect relationships. However, to suggest that somehow this qualitative difference between observation and experiment translates into any sort of deep qualitative difference between the different sciences mentioned above is to demonstrate a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of science itself.
In the first place, science doesn’t involve merely telling stories about history. If it did, scientific explanations might not have any claim to a higher level of veracity than religious stories. The stories that science does tell have empirical consequences, and make physical predictions that can be tested….
…take my favorite example: the prediction of a genetic relationship between the great apes and humans via a common ancestor, as taught in many (I wish it were all) introductory biology courses. Humans have twenty-three pairs of chromosomes, where all the great apes have twenty-four pairs. If they have a common ancestor, this difference must be explained. One possibility is that two of the chromosomes in the great apes fused together at some point in the human lineage. But this makes two testable predictions. Each chromosome has a characteristic end, called a telomere, and a distinctive central part, called a centromere. If fusion had occurred, then one of the human chromosomes should, in its central region, include the remnants of the two fused telomeres, lined up end to end. It also should have, at between roughly a quarter and three-quarters of the way along the chromosome, a structure identical to that of the centromeres of the great-ape chromosomes. This prediction, tested in the laboratory today, and not in the distant past, has been beautifully verified…