03/24/2014 05:03 pm ET Updated May 24, 2014

Cosmos , Answers in Genesis, and Science as Conspiracy Theory


Robert Grosseteste -- yes, that Robert Grosseteste (1175-1253), the medieval thinker and the bishop of Lincoln -- has made scientific headlines. A collaboration between physicists and medievalists has found that "[i]n his treatise on light, written in about 1225, Robert Grosseteste describes a cosmological model in which the Universe is created in a big-bang like explosion and subsequent condensation."

No, Grosseteste had not secretly solved Einstein's theory of relativity or performed the other equations necessary to prove the Big Bang as scientists describe it today. But Grosseteste was a keen observer of the world around him, a dedicated scientist, and a man fearless in exploring the frontiers of knowledge. He had insightful and original things to say, particularly about the nature of light. And, yes, he was a bishop of the Catholic Church, although (perhaps this comes as no surprise) he had frosty relations both with the popes of his day and the archbishop of Canterbury.

I am reminded of Grossetestes' contributions to scientific advancement when I see the reaction of biblical fundamentalists to the remake of Carl Sagan's Cosmos. Three decades after Sagan first brought theorizing about the universe and all within it to the popular imagination, this new version of Cosmos means to present, in docu-drama format, the recent discoveries in the world of science.

The episodes that have aired so far might be subject to some mild criticism. (I wish, for example, that Grosseteste might have been given equal time as that tragic episode in church history, the condemnation and burning at the stake of Giordano Bruno). That said, I like Cosmos. I like its commitment to curiosity, to imagination, to its cheerful admonition to always be daring in the pursuit of truth. I like the story it has told so far, about how the universe assumed the shape it has today, and how life evolved from simple to complex.

However, I am dismayed (though perhaps I should not be surprised) by the request by Answers in Genesis for equal time in Cosmos for creationist viewpoints. Answers in Genesis is the organization founded and managed by the Australian preacher Kenneth Ham and dedicated to a literal young-Earth creationism that declares that the Earth was created in six 24-hour days around 6,000 years ago. Kenneth Ham is also the moving force behind the Creation Museum in northern Kentucky and Bill Nye's recent debating partner on the subject of evolution. He is even now engaged in raising funds to build a large mockup of what he thinks Noah's Ark might have looked like.

As I wrote last May, Christians must confront scientific illiteracy. And this is a good opportunity to do so. Answers in Genesis should absolutely not receive any air time. None. They do not have a valid scientific viewpoint to present, and television networks should not humor them by pretending they have something valuable to say.

Let us consider the review of the Cosmos episode "Standing Up in the Milky Way" that appeared on the Answers in Genesis website on March 11, 2014. Signed by Dr. Elizabeth Mitchell, a Tennessee obstetrician, the review challenged the "cosmic calendar," which estimates the age of the observable universe to 13.8 billion years. Dismissively placing quotation marks around "observational science," Mitchell attacks the 13.8-billion number as something that is based on "interpretations of scientific data."

Mitchell wields the term "interpretations" like a dirty word. To her, there are "observations," that are pure and pristine, and "interpretations," which are flawed human suppositions about what the observations say. Mitchell, of course, knows better. She know. She must know. Her medical education would have taught her this much, that data, standing alone, cannot convey meaning. Data is nothing more than meaningless trivia without an intelligent mind seeking to order it, arrange it, give it meaning -- in a word, interpret it. Interpretation is essential to scientific inquiry, as, indeed, it is to all learning.

Unfortunately, the Answers in Genesis project rests on nothing more than insinuations meant to arouse suspicions in the unsophisticated or the unwary. In brief, it does not seek to be scientific so much as to treat scientific inquiry as a conspiracy theory by secularists intending to undermine a good, old biblical worldview.

Mitchell, who seems to present herself as some kind of expert on the origins of life, has produced a whole stream of essays in the same vein as her review of Cosmos. In an essay on March 15, 2014, she purports to debunk some recent findings about the "Cambrian explosion," that period of time, around 550 million years ago, that saw an explosion of multicellular life. What caused this sudden explosion? What role did oxygenation play? And what led to the oxygenation? Primitive sponges growing in shallow seas? Small, unicellular animals? Serious scientists are engaged in vigorous debate on these questions.

Mitchell, however, takes the existence of this debate as evidence of an irresolvable controversy that ought to be answered by recourse to the Bible: "[I]f we accept God's eyewitness account in the Bible declaring that He created a habitable earth and all kinds of living things about 6,000 years ago," then this debate is put to rest.

Again, this is not science. It is not even good theology, even assuming for the moment that the creation account was meant to be taken literally. Mitchell describes God as giving an "eyewitness account." But nothing in the creation account makes this claim. The creation account is a third-person narrative, told by an unidentified third party, reciting stories of God's mighty deeds. To say that it is an "eyewitness" account, in other words, is an interpretation not derivable from the words of the text.

For its success, Answers in Genesis depends on something very deep in the American folk consciousness: conspiracy theory. You can go all the way back to the beginning of the Republic and find embedded in the American consciousness a suspicion that there were roomfuls of very intelligent men and women conspiring clandestinely to bring about wicked results. Taking Answers in Genesis' requests for equal air time would only contribute to rising scientific illiteracy in this country. And in a competitive global marketplace, where science is the key to remaining an advanced society, Answers in Genesis must remain on the margins.

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