Reasons to Believe

What Does It Take to Kill a Scientific Model?

In his first letter to the Thessalonians, Paul writes,1

Test everything; hold fast to what is good.

Paul does not say, and nowhere in his epistles does he imply, that we are ever to hold on to the bad. But when it comes to testing, how can we unambiguously determine what is good and what is bad?

As I wrote in my blog article “What Is a Scientific Model?,” the best way to distinguish the good from the bad is through a scientific model. A scientific model is a detailed description and explanation of a set of phenomena that accounts for its observed and inferred features as well as its origin and complete history. Because of incomplete knowledge about the set of phenomena and human biases in interpreting the set of phenomena, every model will be challenged by data that does not fit the model.

These challenges or model anomalies provide an excellent tool for determining whether a model is good or bad. If the model’s anomalies get more numerous and more problematic as the quantity and quality of relevant data grows, the model is in need of major alteration or outright rejection. On the other hand, if a model’s anomalies become fewer and less problematic, that is a strong indication that the model describes and explains true reality.

There is another very powerful test of a model’s worth. These days, this test is seldom applied, but if it were applied, it would settle many major controversies—especially spiritual controversies. That test is the capacity of a model’s defenders to propose scenarios to resolve or explain away anomalies in the model.

A scenario is not a hypothesis or a theory. A scenario is a specific possibility that could explain an observation, an experiment, or a set of data. It need not be a probable explanation, but it must be a reasonably possible explanation. A good example would be a defense attorney proposing an alternate explanation for a committed crime that shows the defendant to be not guilty beyond reasonable doubt.

A hypothesis is a proposed explanation for a phenomenon or observation that can be tested by one or more available means to show whether or not it is true or likely to be true. A theory is a hypothesis that has already passed a number of scientific tests but for which more tests could be employed to verify it. Also, a hypothesis does not become a theory unless it can explain not just one phenomenon or observation but a wide range of phenomena and observations.

Because the standard for a scenario is so much lower than that for a hypothesis or a theory, the inability to conceive of a scenario to resolve or explain away an anomaly, unless the anomaly is trivial, is considered catastrophic for the model. To go back to the courtroom example, scenario failure is established if a defense attorney or members of the jury are unable to come up with a scenario whereby the crime is not committed by the defendant. In that case, they have established that the defendant is indeed guilty beyond reasonable doubt and, thus, deserves to be sentenced for the committed crime.

On the other hand, a model is considered to be strong and on the pathway to truth if scenarios can be proposed to resolve or explain away all the nontrivial anomalies. Even better is when more than one scenario can be proposed to resolve or explain away each anomaly or when a pathway can be outlined to transform some or most of the anomalies into testable hypotheses.

Some examples of scenario failure that have profound spiritual significance are as follows.

Example 1: Missing Building Blocks for Life’s Origin
Origin-of-life researchers freely admit they have no hypothesis for explaining life’s origin on Earth by naturalistic means alone. They hold out hope, nevertheless, that a hypothesis might arise in the future. Such a hope is forlorn, however, given the lack of any scenarios that could conceivably lead to such hypotheses.

An intractable problem for all naturalistic models for life’s origin is the missing building blocks. Ribose, the five-carbon sugar that is critical for the assembly of nucleobases into DNA and RNA molecules, is not found outside of living organisms, the decay products of living organisms, or sophisticated biochemistry laboratories.

Geochemists and astrochemists have conducted diligent searches for abiotic ribose throughout Earth and the universe. None has been found. Though it is possible that ribose may exist at abundant levels below current detection limits (parts per billion), such an extremely diluted concentration of ribose will be of no help for any conceivable naturalistic model for the origin of life.

Do origin-of-life researchers have a scenario to explain where ribose might be hiding and how it can get from its hiding place to Earth’s surface? The answer is that all conceivable hiding places have already been searched and found empty. Furthermore, there is no reasonable scenario to explain how ribose, even if it were found to exist at sufficient abundant levels in interstellar molecular clouds and comets (the best possible sources), could be transported to Earth’s surface without being destroyed.

Not only is the crucial building block molecule (ribose) missing but so too are the basic amino acids (arginine and lysine2), which are crucial for assembling many of the proteins that are essential for the survival of life. Without natural sources for essential building block molecules or any scenario to explain where such natural sources conceivably could exist, there is no possible naturalistic model for the origin of life. Thus, the missing molecular building blocks are a showstopper for all naturalistic models for life’s origin.

Homochirality Problem for Life’s Origin
One definitive showstopper is sufficient to reject a model. In the example of naturalistic models for life’s origin, there is not just one showstopper, but many. Another intractable problem for naturalistic models for life’s origin is that all the building block molecules must be homochiral in order for them to be linked together to make protein, DNA, and RNA molecules. The amino acids must all be left-handed in their configurations and the ribose sugars must all be right-handed.

In the book Origins of Life, I devote an entire chapter to documenting the search for a naturalistic pathway for achieving the needed homochirality.3 None has been found either anywhere in or on Earth or anywhere else in the universe. Laboratory attempts to achieve the homochirality explain why.

What is needed is a powerful source of circularly polarized ultraviolet radiation where all the radiation is emitted at only one wavelength. The only natural source of circularly polarized ultraviolet radiation is in the near vicinity of black holes and neutron stars where other forms of radiation would destroy the building block molecules. Furthermore, the circularly polarized ultraviolet radiation from these sources is emitted over many wavelengths—not just one.

The missing homochiral building block molecules, thus, are another showstopper for all naturalistic origin-of-life models. It is sufficient scientific grounds for rejecting such models.

Example 2: Catastrophic Plate Tectonics Model for a Global Flood
Recently, I had a short public debate with a young-earth creationist (YEC) leader on the age of the universe and the extent of Noah’s flood. After the public debate, we had a private conversation about the scientific merits of the catastrophic plate tectonics model, which was the cornerstone of the YEC leader’s interpretation of Noah’s flood as a global event that was responsible for virtually all of Earth’s geological features and fossils.

The catastrophic plate tectonics model proposes that during the five months in which the floodwaters rose, Earth suffered about 8,000 miles of lateral plate tectonic movement and several tens of thousands of feet of vertical uplift and descent of continental and oceanic crust. This much movement requires an acceleration of the decay rate of radioactive isotopes by much more than a factor of a billion times.

I pointed out to the YEC leader that no matter what the energy source for his proposed catastrophic plate tectonics, that much Earth movement in such a short time period would evaporate all of Earth’s liquid water, destroy the ark, kill all life onboard the ark, and wipe out all of Earth’s bacteria. He agreed but added that I was too conservative. That much plate tectonic movement in that brief time window would turn the entire surface of Earth into molten lava.

I asked the YEC leader if he or any other YEC scientist had a scenario for explaining how Noah, the ark, and the liquid water on which the ark was floating could survive such catastrophic plate tectonics. His answer was no, but he thought God had performed some kind of miracle. I then asked if he or any other YEC scientist had a scenario for what kind of miracle God could have performed that would have preserved Noah, the ark, and the liquid water on which it floated and yet be fully compatible with their catastrophic plate tectonics model. His answer was no.

I followed up by asking if he or his young-earth cohorts had a scenario for explaining why measurements of radioisotope abundances in stars at look-back times corresponding to all their suggested dates for Noah’s flood show no evidence for accelerated radiometric decay, why radioisotope abundances in ice core and tree ring layers corresponding to all their suggested dates for Noah’s flood show no evidence for accelerated radiometric decay, and why the ice core layers show no evidence of a planet-encompassing flood. His answer again was no.

The YEC leader and scientist did admit to me, but not publicly, that there were several major problems with a recent global flood model that accounts for virtually all of Earth’s geological features. However, the fact that he and his colleagues cannot even suggest possible scenarios for solving these problems is catastrophic for their model. Consequently, the model lacks scientific merit.

Example 3: Light Travel Time Problem for a Young Universe
No one doubts that the universe is big. Direct, assumption-free, distance measurements establish that most of the galaxies are billions of light-years away.4 For physical life to conceivably exist in the universe, the velocity of light must take on a specified value that remains constant throughout the entire history of the universe. Therefore, dividing the lower limit to the distance of galaxies—established by direct distance measures—by the velocity of light yields a minimum age for the universe. This minimum age exceeds 1 billion years.

In this case, YEC leaders have publicly acknowledged that for their model to stand, they must come up with reasonable scenarios to explain the light travel time problem. Over the past 50 years, they have proposed 11 such scenarios. However, each of their scenarios is unreasonable in that they either are contradicted by indisputable measurements, make provably absurd claims, or imply provably absurd consequences.5

A good analogy is the scenarios proposed by flat-earth proponents to explain away the physical evidence for a spherically shaped Earth. They may impress laypeople who lack training in physics and astronomy, but they have no credibility with people who possess such training. However, a big difference between flat-earth proponents and YECs is that YECs admit that their scenarios are inadequate, whereas flat-earth proponents do not.

The lack of a reasonable possible scenario for explaining how light can traverse billions of light-years of space in just thousands of years is another fatal blow to YEC models. It is one of many fatal blows.

What Does It Take for Scenario Failure to Kill a Scientific Model?
The two worldview examples I have addressed here, atheistic naturalism and young-earth/global-flood creationism, suffer from multiple scenario failures. Such failures raise an obvious question: Why haven’t such failures led to the abandonment of the models undergirding these worldviews?

One answer is that there are powerful nonscientific reasons for why people so tightly cling to provably failed models. A second answer is that so few people see and understand the failures.

A response to the first answer requires a change of heart on the part of the models’ proponents—a willingness to consider alternative models and the humility to publicly admit that they were wrong. Such a response requires the agency of the Holy Spirit working in the hearts of the models’ proponents.

A response to the second answer can be achieved through education. The greater the percentage of the human population that recognizes and understands a scenario failure, the greater the pressure builds toward persuading the model’s proponents to abandon their model. Such education is a key component of the Reasons to Believe ministry. However, such education needs to be conducted with humility, gentleness, and respect. These fruits of the Holy Spirit will make it easier for proponents of failed models to have a change of heart. Another thing that will make it easier is testimonies of how we repented of hanging on to provably false models for too long. If we are honest, each of us has a testimony of hanging on to false scientific models for too long.

Endnotes

  1. 1 Thessalonians 5:21 (NRSV).
  2. Hugh Ross, “Rare Amino Acid Challenge to the Origin of Life,” Today’s New Reason to Believe (blog), Reasons to Believe, April 11, 2011, http://www.reasons.org/articles/rare-amino-acid-challenge-to-the-origin-of-life.
  3. Fazale Rana and Hugh Ross, Origins of Life: Biblical and Evolutionary Models Face Off (Covina, CA: RTB Press, 2014), 125–36.
  4. M. J. Reid et al., “The Megamaser Cosmology Project. IV. A Direct Measurement of the Hubble Constant from UGC 3789,” Astrophysical Journal 767 (April 2013): id. 154, doi:10.1088/0004-637X/767/2/154; C. Y. Kuo et al., “The Megamaser Cosmology Project. V. An Angular-Diameter Distance to NGC 6264 at 140 Mpc,” Astrophysical Journal 767 (April 2013): id. 155, doi:10.1088/0004-637X/767/2/155.
  5. For explanation and documentation, see Hugh Ross, A Matter of Days: Resolving a Creation Controversy, 2nd ed. (Covina, CA: RTB Press, 2015), 161–80.

Subjects: Creation vs. Evolution, Faith, Origin of Life, Young-Earth Creationism, Noah's Flood, Prebiotic Chemistry