Monday, April 11, 2011

Ray Comfort, Science, and Murder Mysteries

The Atheist Experience TV show, a public access show based in Austin, TX, featured an hour-long phone discussion with professional apologist Ray Comfort recently.  The show hosts, Matt Dillahunty and Russell Glasser, invited Mr. Comfort to call in where the three discussed atheism and the belief in God. 

One particular item that Mr. Comfort touched on stood out to me as evidence of sloppy thinking.  The show hosts mentioned that Comfort dismisses the findings of science, and the hosts speculated that it was because the science disagrees with the conclusions that Comfort has already learned from the Bible.  I was expecting Comfort to make some well-worn argument about the lack of certainty of science or that some other scientists disagree with the general consensus.  Instead, he made a different argument which I thought was interesting.  Comfort said that he doesn't pay attention to what science concludes about, say, the age of the universe or the process of evolution because "science is always changing."  With specific regard to the age of the Earth, he went on, a hundred years ago the answer was a billion years different than it is today, and he even got Dillahunty and Glasser to agree that a hundred years from now the consensus view of the age of the Earth could be a billion years larger or smaller.

Dillahunty responded that it was very unlikely that science was going to swing back to the answer that the Earth is 6,000 years old as is the common age accepted among Young-Earth Creationists, but I think that was the wrong line to take.  Comfort shrugged his shoulders and said that he didn't know how old the Earth was, but that science doesn't either, so why bother?  Rather than get focused on what the age of the Earth is, as Dillahunty did, I would have hammered Comfort on why he holds a double standard about the method of science, not the results.  And the double standard can be clearly seen when thinking of murder mysteries.

I'm sure Comfort has watched a murder mystery on television or read one in a book, and even if he hasn't the basic formula mirrors that of real murder investigations.  A detective is assigned to solve a murder.  Based on his preliminary investigations, he may suspect, say, the butler.  After further gathering evidence, he learns that the butler has an airtight alibi, so he continues to hunt for evidence.  Then he may suspect the murderer was the victim's neighbor.  After more evidence is gathered, the detective may finally be convinced that the suspect was a jealous lover.  When he's gathered enough evidence, arrests are made, a trial is set, and the suspect is tried before a jury.  It's the same formula, played out countless times, in fiction and in real life, and it works.

I wonder if Comfort, watching an episode of a murder mystery show at home, turns off the television midway through the episode.  I wonder, if having watched the detective announce, "Well the murderer couldn't have been this person because he was out of town on the day of the murder, so I'll continue to search for more evidence," if Comfort would throw his hands up in disgust and say to himself, "Why bother paying attention to what the detective is doing--his answer keeps changing!"

I'll bet cash money that Comfort doesn't feel that way.  I'll bet that Comfort understands all too well that in a criminal investigation, the conclusion may change based upon the new evidence uncovered.  So why does he not understand that the same principle is at work during a scientific investigation?  The process is identical--something happened in the past, be it a murder or the formation of a planet.  The investigator, either a detective or a scientist, searches for clues and evidence to how the event came about.  Initial suspicions may have to be thrown out or modified as more evidence is uncovered.  Finally the investigator announces, to a district attorney or to the scientific community, what he believes to be the final solution to the mystery, and he presents his evidence, and even then the answer may change if new evidence is brought to light.

I'll also wager that Comfort understands all this.  He doesn't dismiss the initial findings of criminal investigations because he understands perfectly that additional evidence can change the conclusion.  But he does dismiss the findings of scientific investigations--not because the answer may change as new evidence is uncovered--but because the findings contradict what he has decided the answers should be.  He has decided ahead of time that he wants the formation of the universe, our planet, and life to mirror what the Book of Genesis laid out long ago.  If science agrees with Genesis, then he's fine with that.  If not, then he waves his hand and declares the scientific method as invalid.  This double-standard held by Comfort is either blatantly dishonest or an example of self-delusion.

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