Science as Anecdotal Gerontology

I read here and there that the world is 4.5 billion years old, and I marvel at the science that gets one to such a conclusion. Yes, I know that they’re extrapolating from current phenomena – rates and directions of celestial motion, radioactive decay, sedimentation, etc. – but they’re working with a tiny data base and with no way to verify or falsify their confident assertions.

Look at the math. It would be generous to say that we humans have been observing and recording nature’s regularities for 4,500 – 5000 years. That’s our source, if you include the earliest, primitive writing about seasonal flooding, crop yields, planetary movements, and such. So our research sampling represents, in round numbers, one millionth of the time span in question (4,500:4,500,000,000). That would be like conducting an American political poll by surveying three people our of three hundred million. And again, the cosmologists, unlike the pollster, are in no position to get a bigger sampling. They’re stuck with the “three.”

And this applies to whatever sort of physically sophisticated readings you have in mind. The long-range reliability of carbon 14 or potassium argon dating (neither of them without their problems in terms of variant and even false readings) is verifiable at best by the tree rings in some bristlecone pines in California, one charmingly named Methuselah. Beyond that, without independent grounds for verification, we’re simply working with theoretical projections.

Since there are 8,760 hours in a year, then one millionth of the life of a 114-year-old man would be a single hour. So let’s imagine that we presume to pontificate on the lifetime of this fellow on the basis of brief observation of his behavior on a Tuesday afternoon, August 13, 2015, 3:00 to 4:00 p.m., while he’s feeding squirrels and reading the newspaper on a Cherokee Park bench in Louisville, Kentucky. (We can’t consult other phenomena/people; he’s the only “universe” we have.)

We conclude, based on this hour’s behavior, that 100 years ago, he was decrepit and sedentary. When he tells us that, thanks to a nutritional supplement, he gained a pound last year, and we weigh him in 140 pounds today, we announce that he weighed 40 pounds as a teenager (Or if he lost a pound this year, we conclude that he was a 240 pound youth.) Committed to the principle of uniformity, we can’t do otherwise. No allowance for adolescent growth plates and spurts. We don’t even know what those are, for we have only the millionth hour of his life from which to draw all our conclusions.

But what’s a scientist to do? For starters, he might show a little humility. It’s one thing to speculate from a small sampling when follow-up tests are an option, e.g., re the claim that consuming parsley and Fresca in the same day will reduce one’s susceptibility to pancreatic cancer. It’s quite another to say, “Okay, let’s run that universe-origin test again to see if we’re on to something with this 4.5 billion claim.”

Hume is famous for posing the “problem of induction” that says we can’t say for sure that the next X will lead to Y even though all the X’s we’ve observed have led to Y. Well, here we have the “stupendous problem of induction,” since there’s no possibility of verification or falsification, two touchstones of serious science. All we have is the one lonely case (our actual universe) and a minuscule, late, and irremediable sampling to draw naturalistic conclusions. This isn’t so much “inference to the best explanation” as “non-scientific hubris.”

It wasn’t till the 20th century that scientists declared the speed-of-light to be “constant,” so we’re working with readings from more like a hundred millionth of the supposed age of the universe. Who’s to say that in the previous 4.499… billion years, light moved at the same speed?

So what’s the alternative? Well, of course, the Bible says there was supernatural, divine creation, intervention, intensification, acceleration, conflagration, nullification, etc., (for example, see Psalm 104:6-9). And biblicists aren’t in a bind to posit a stupefyingly long span of years to accommodate the Rube Goldberg story of evolution. So they’re free to countenance a young earth, more consonant with a “childlike” (cf. Matthew 18:3; Hebrews 11:3), not childish, reading of Scripture. Of course, God’s fingerprints are all over creation, marks of his “intelligent design” as well as his miraculous doings, including Noah’s flood.

Ah, but the old earthers say this doesn’t pass muster as science.

Look who’s talking.