A few weeks ago, astrophysicist Dr. Luke Barnes (Western Sydney University) published an excellent article in Premier Christianity Magazine, in which he gives his story of changing his mind about the age of the Universe, revising his view from being a young earth creationist to embrace an old earth. I resonated with much of Barnes’ story, since my own intellectual development on this topic has followed a similar trajectory. More than a decade ago, as an undergraduate student, I too would have identified as a young earth creationist. However, the more I have come to understand of science and epistemology, the more implausible young earth creationism has seemed to me. I now see the antiquity of our earth, and indeed our cosmos, as being supported by an avalanche of data, spanning multiple scientific disciplines. While I do not doubt the sincerity of young earth advocates — and am often quite inspired by their piety — it is my considered opinion that young earth creationism has, regrettably, done more damage than good to the public perception of Christianity.
Last week, physicist and engineer Dr. Jim Mason published an article, also in Premier Christianity Magazine, offering an alternative perspective. The article is titled “Why I’m finally a young earth creationist,” and outlines some of the reasons that persuaded Dr. Mason of a young earth. Though it is no secret that I am critical of young earth creationism, I was particularly concerned by the mistakes that Mason makes in this article, both in regards to the scientific method and scientific facts.
The article contains a short abstract, which reads,
Writing in response to Dr Luke Barnes’ article on why he no longer believes in young earth creationism, physicist and engineer, Dr Jim Mason shares his own story, and explains why he believes a “plain reading” of Genesis leads to a young earth viewpoint.
This brings me to the first problem I have with this article. The issue of disagreement is not, and never has been, whether young earth creationism is the “plain reading” of the early chapters of Genesis. It unquestionably is. The more pertinent question is whether the “plain reading” always ought to be the reading that one prefers when interpreting Biblical texts, particularly when the plain reading puts the text into conflict with overwhelming scientific data. The sun revolving around the earth is the most face-value interpretation of some Biblical texts (particularly Joshua 10:1-15, in which God is said to have miraculously caused the sun to stand still in the sky while Joshua fought the Amorites). Since we now know that the sun does not move in relation to the earth but rather the earth revolves around the sun, we interpret this and similar texts (which talk about the sun rising and setting, e.g. Ps 113:3) phenomenologically, even though this is not the most face-value interpretation. If our interpretation of Scripture seems to conflict with our scientific interpretations, we must adjudicate between three possibilities:
- We have misevaluated our interpretation of Scripture.
- We have misevaluated our interpretation of the scientific data.
- The Scripture is in error (if this is the case, then its ramifications need to be determined).
If we are to invoke ad hoc auxiliary hypotheses in order to render the scientific data and the text of Scripture consistent with each other, the evidence that one has adduced for the veracity of Christianity must be sufficient to bear its weight. Furthermore, one should opt for the auxiliary hypotheses that result in the least epistemic cost — that is, that result in the lesser probabilistic hit to Christianity. I doubt that the evidential case for Christianity, strong though I believe it to be, is sufficient to bear the weight of a young earth interpretation of the natural sciences. However, I believe that an old earth interpretation of the early chapters of Genesis, though not the most face-value reading, is not sufficiently implausible to overturn the positive case for Christianity. If, therefore, I were to be persuaded that the text of Scripture does indeed compel one to subscribe to a young earth view, then, in my view, the hypothesis that Scripture is in error should be preferred over concluding that the earth and cosmos are, in fact, young (i.e. on the order of thousands of years). However, alternative interpretive approaches that do not entail a manifestly false implication should be fairly evaluated before such a conclusion is arrived at. For a more detailed discussion of this, I refer readers to my articles on interpreting the early chapters of Genesis, in particular my essay on the propriety of allowing science to illuminate Scripture.
Mason gives his story of going to University to study engineering physics and being exposed to a course on geology (which gave a very different interpretation of the geologic column than what he had grown up to accept). He was also given a subscription to Scientific American, which contained numerous articles that contradicted a young earth view of the Bible. Mason states that “in deference to the presumed authority of the authors, I just assumed that they were correct.” And what were the implications for Mason’s faith? He explains, “By about mid-year, I’d made a conscious decision that all those Bible stories, while fascinating, were completely wrong. Therefore the rest of the Bible must also be wrong, meaning that God did not exist. Moreover, being absolutely certain that I was right, I was not shy about declaring my position as an atheist.” This sentence consists of one logical leap after the other. How does it follow from the conclusion that one or more aspects of the Bible are factually in error to “therefore, everything the Bible asserts is wrong”? In what way is the unreliability of the early chapters of Genesis (if, indeed, they are unreliable) epistemically relevant, for instance, to the historicity of the events pertaining to the life of David, the exile in Babylon, or the reliability of the gospels and Acts? This simply does not follow. Of course, depending on one’s theology, one could make an argument that the downstream consequences for Christianity are so severe that it amounts to a falsification. However, this is not the same thing as asserting that “everything the Bible asserts is wrong.” Furthermore, there is a spectrum of positions in between the view that the accounts in the early chapters of Genesis are “completely wrong” and that they are completely without error. For example, one might argue that certain aspects of these chapters — perhaps the long ages in Genesis 5 or the flood account, for example — contain legendary accretions and embellishment though being based on real people and events. One could, in principle, argue that the testimony of Jesus to the historicity of Noah and the Ark (Matt 24:27-28), for example, provides a rational justification for believing the event to be historical while also acknowledging evidence (such as the apparent implications of the text of the flood’s global proportions) that suggests that at least some portions of the text are not accurate. Of course, such an approach is dependent upon the strength of the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus (which I take to be quite strong) which substantiates His testimony as something to be heeded. This way of looking at the text, in my view, would have much less severe consequences than concluding that the entire narratives are made up. Thus, there are more nuanced ways of approaching these topics than adopting one of the two extreme positions (i.e. either the account is wholly made up or wholly without error). See my article here for a more detailed discussion of the theological ramifications of errors in Scripture.
Mason tells of how he remained as an atheist for more than a decade, and went on to earn his BSc in Engineering Physics and PhD in experimental nuclear physics. “Then,” Mason recalls, “in response to one of life’s curve balls, I was confronted by the C.S. Lewis question: ‘was Jesus a madman, a conman, or the God-man?’ Being a practising engineer by this time, I decided that this question had to be answered on the basis of evidence. Eventually I concluded that—contrary to my expectation—the evidence overwhelmingly showed that Jesus was the God-man.” I agree with C.S. Lewis’ argument. The evidence, in my assessment, very strongly suggests that the historical Jesus asserted that He was God, a proposition that is extremely difficult to be sincerely mistaken about unless one is completely insane (and the Jesus of whom we read in the gospels does not seem to be completely insane but rather collected, intelligent and in control). But Jesus also was willing to endure an excruciating death for this belief, even predicting and anticipating it multiple times in advance and connecting it with His Messianic identity and mission. It is therefore very difficult to conclude that he was deliberately setting out to deceive people, since a willingness to be martyred for a belief (particularly in excruciating circumstances) is strong evidence that one holds that belief sincerely. This, then, provides evidence in favor of Jesus being who He claimed to be, Israel’s Messiah and God manifest in human flesh. There are of course other arguments that further bolster this conclusion, such as the case for the resurrection (which I have discussed at length here) and the case from fulfilment of Messianic prophecy (see my article on this subject here).
Mason elaborates on how he attended a church for some time but did not hear the Biblical gospel, eventually accepting an invitation of some friends to attend a Bible-believing church, hearing the gospel, committing himself to Christ and being born again. Mason remarks,
At this point, although saved, I was “double-minded” (James 1:8). That is, I accepted God’s gift of eternal life with its implications that the Bible is true, but continued to accept evolution (in its broadest sense) and big bang cosmology, even though they both contradict a plain reading of the Bible. Various schemes had already been concocted to ‘interpret’ the Bible to mean something other than what it plainly says, to ‘resolve’ these discrepancies. I was unaware of these at the time, so cannot say which one I used, though I suspect it was an amalgam of them all. However, I knew that there were significant questions about this discrepancy to which I did not have reasonable answers. Consequently, I was never as outspoken about my Christian faith as I had been about my atheism.
Mason’s insinuation that believers (such as Luke Barnes) who accept the evidence for big bang cosmology and the vast antiquity of our planet are “double-minded” is somewhat patronising. As earlier stated, I agree with Mason’s assessment that the young earth interpretation is the most face-value reading of the early chapters of Genesis. However, is it so face-value that an alternative interpretive framework cannot be rationally defended in view of overwhelming scientific data that confirms an old earth? I do not think so.
Moving on in his story, Mason notes,
Another decade passed. Then, on a whim, I attended a seminar conducted by two young-earth creationists, Dr John Morris and Dr Duane Gish. It was something of a ‘road-to-Damascus’ experience for me. I went with the attitude of “let’s see what these weird people have to say”. But I left with the realisation that these people were not the least bit weird. Rather, what they said made a lot of sense. I needed to find out more.
And so I did…and the more I found out, the more amazed I was at the consistency between the empirical evidence and the plain reading of the Bible as history. But more importantly, I learned things about science that I had not been taught in school and that have a profound influence on one’s perception of science – in particular, the alleged incompatibility of science and a plain reading of the Bible.
I do wonder whether Mason repeated his earlier mistake and accepted what he was now hearing from Morris and Gish on their presumed authority, or whether he made a conscious effort to find out what critics of creationism might have to say in response to their arguments. As I have argued before, whenever we come across an argument that is supportive of a position that we like (or that relaxes some cognitive dissonance), we should always (to minimize the risk of deceiving ourselves) strive to discover any evidence that might reduce the evidential force of these data.
Now comes the most egregious paragraph in Mason’s article. He writes,
Science does not prove hypotheses/theories to be true, only that they are false. The best it can do is provide evidence that is consistent with a theory but this does not prove the theory to be true. The same evidence could be consistent with some other theory. Evidence that is consistent with two (or more) theories does not provide a basis for choosing between these theories. However, evidence that is inconsistent with a theory demonstrates that it is wrong.
This is completely false. Evidence can be consistent with two or more theories while supporting one to a greater degree than the other(s). Indeed, if one tries hard enough, it is relatively easy to make evidence consistent with any theory (if sufficient auxiliaries are invoked). What determines whether the evidence supports one theory over another is not whether the data is consistent with the theory but rather which theory better predicts the data. For example, one could postulate explanations that accommodate the number of craters on the moon within a young earth paradigm (e.g. see here). But does a young earth view lead one to expect so many craters on the moon just as well as an old earth view does? No, it does not. Another problem for the young earth view is the fact that we are able to observe distant light that came from stars that are millions of light years away (a light year is the distance it takes light to travel in one year). If the Universe were only six thousand years old, then we should not be able to see that light. One can postulate elaborate explanations for this in an attempt to make the data consistent with a young earth (e.g. see here). However, the fact remains that the distant starlight phenomenon is more probable given an old Universe than given a young Universe. For that reason, though it can be viewed as consistent with both hypotheses, the distant starlight phenomenon provides evidence that confirms an old Universe.
Mason’s statement is also a double-edged sword, since an atheist could likewise assert that evidence that has been traditionally used as points of leverage in arguments for God can be viewed as being consistent with atheism. For example, the fine-tuning of the laws and constants of our Universe is consistent with the multiverse hypothesis, or even with the hypothesis of a very large stroke of luck. But is it just as well predicted on atheism as it is on theism? I would argue that it is not. Likewise, one could concoct explanations of the data pertaining to the resurrection of Jesus that is consistent with said data, but that does not mean that the evidence fails to confirm Jesus’ resurrection.
Mason’s thesis would moreover result in the breakdown of the legal system, since all sorts of far-fetched defenses in court could be described as being consistent with the forensic evidence, though that does not mean that the data fails to confirm the guilt of the defendant by virtue of the fact that the data is better predicted — that is, more probable — given that the defendant is guilty than that he is innocent.
Mason further writes,
Science is all about doing repeatable experiments and not everything that is billed as science qualifies. Dr James Gunn is quoted in an article in Science as saying, “Cosmology may look like a science but it isn’t a science. A basic tenet of science is that you can do repeatable experiments, and you can’t do that in cosmology.” In the same article, Dr Michael Turner, a theoretical cosmologist says, “The goal of physics is to understand the basic dynamics of the universe. Cosmology is a little different. The goal is to reconstruct the history of the universe.”
I would argue (as would most philosophers of science) that historical scientific inquiry — such as geology, evolutionary biology and cosmology — are properly described as belonging to the discipline of the natural sciences, even though past events are not repeatable in the present. The historical sciences make use of the so-called abductive method of inference to the best explanation and thus are empirically tested in a different way from disciplines that investigate the inner workings of the cell or the atom (i.e. the way things work in the present). Since historical events cannot be repeated but only inferentially reconstructed, historical scientific disciplines are more akin to a crime scene investigation. Just because the crime has already taken place (and cannot be repeated in a laboratory setting) does not mean that we cannot make well supported inferences about past events.
Data do not speak for themselves but need to be interpreted within a framework or paradigm – a set of assumptions about the nature of reality. Disciplines tend to get captured by a ‘ruling’ paradigm that forms the unquestioned framework for interpreting data. Inconsistent data are typically disregarded using various rationalisations or accommodated by ad hoc ‘adjustments’. Aristotle’s geocentric paradigm for the solar system ‘ruled’ cosmology for centuries, despite the need for myriad ad hoc ‘adjustments’. It was eventually replaced with Newton’s centre-of-mass paradigm, but not before Galileo was deplatformed by contemporaneous peer review.
It is certainly true that empirical data is not self-interpreting. However, that does not mean that the correct interpretation is all up in the air. The more experienced one becomes in their field, the better one is at exercising good judgment and evaluating data correctly. Mason is right that interpretation of data is inseparable from one’s set of assumptions about the nature of reality. This is where Bayesian priors come in. Bayesian priors attempt to quantify the probability of a hypothesis being true based only on the background information (before new data is considered). For example, if I walk into my kitchen and see a cake baking in the oven, I could conclude that it was made by my wife or I could conclude that it was made by my landlord. Both are consistent with the evidence. But which of those has a higher prior probability (based just on the background information) of being correct? I have independent evidence that I am married and that my wife sometimes bakes cakes. However, I do not have independent evidence that my landlord bakes cakes, nor that he would have motivation (or legal right) to bake a cake in my kitchen. Thus, the Bayesian prior is very significantly higher for the hypothesis that my wife baked a cake than it is for the hypothesis that it was baked by my landlord. Therefore, though the data in this case is consistent with both propositions, it lends much greater support to the hypothesis that the cake was baked by my wife.
Scientific data, therefore, is not approached with a completely blank slate. Rather, it is approached within a much broader context of what has been already established to be probable on independent grounds. Though it is common for scientific theories to have anomalous data (that is, data that does not quite fit the paradigm), it is legitimate to postulate auxiliary explanations of the anomalous data provided that the theory in question is sufficiently well supported on other grounds. Of course, if anomalous data continues to accumulate, it could eventually be sufficiently strong to overturn the theory and justify searching for an alternative that better accounts for all of the known facts. But one should not toss out an otherwise well supported theory simply because a relatively small amount of data appears to conflict with it. As analytic philosopher Lydia McGrew has argued convincingly, ad hoc rationalizations of incongruent data are not always bad practice, provided that one is candid about the fact that one’s theory has become less probable than it was previously. 
Peer review, while advertised as ensuring the veracity of published material, does not actually do this. Numerous frauds have been documented. Rather, it serves to enforce the orthodoxy of the ruling paradigm. This is well illustrated by the experience of Dr Mary Schweitzer, who first discovered soft tissue in dinosaur bones: ”I had one reviewer tell me that he didn’t care what the data said, he knew that what I was finding wasn’t possible,” says Schweitzer. ”I wrote back and said, ’Well, what data would convince you?’ And he said, ‘None.’”
I agree with Mason’s concern about the peer-review process. Colleagues of mine in the intelligent design research community have had similar difficulty getting their research even considered, let alone fairly peer-reviewed. It is indeed a problem that needs to be addressed.
Mason further notes,
Cosmology, geology, and palaeontology/evolution are all attempts to reconstruct the history of the universe, the Earth and life on Earth respectively. They have all been captured by ruling paradigms – big bang, uniformitarianism and neo-Darwinism respectively – that cannot be directly tested by repeatable experiments. These paradigms are all based on the philosophical assumption of naturalism – that nature is all that exists – that, a priori, decrees that God does not exist (or at least, made no practical difference to natural history). Peer review and the publication process ensure that no other perspective is allowed.
Mason’s claim that Big Bang cosmology is “based on the philosophical assumption of naturalism” is patently false. Luke Barnes, whose article in Premier Christianity prompted Jim Mason’s own piece, is a Christian who affirms Big Bang cosmology. Clearly, then, it is highly simplistic to assert that the Big Bang is “based on the philosophical assumption of naturalism.” Furthermore, during the twentieth century, the Big Bang was heavily opposed by the scientific community for decades, largely due to its theistically-friendly implications. Indeed, the previously favored model, known as the steady state theory, is much better predicted on atheism than the Big Bang cosmology, which implies that the Universe had a definite beginning in the finite past. The evidence that the Universe had a definite beginning, however, mounted over time, culminating in the discovery and confirmation of the cosmic microwave background radiation in 1965, thereby securing the Big Bang cosmology as the best supported theory of cosmic origins.
In his article, Mason offers a handful of scientific arguments in favor of young earth creationism. He quotes a statement by Neil deGrasse Tyson that “The scary part is that if none of us knew in advance that stars exist, frontline research would offer plenty of convincing reasons for why stars could never form.” However, it is not at all clear to me how this supports a young earth view of creation as opposed to merely undermining the sufficiency of physical processes (as currently understood) to account for stellar evolution. Mason also claims that “The presence of radioactive carbon in samples from essentially every layer in the geological column clearly indicates that these layers are not hundreds of millions of years old, because after 90,000 years (at most) radiocarbon would be undetectable.” Astrophysicist Hugh Ross, responding to this argument, comments,
When YECs detect carbon-14, they find it at low levels, corresponding to age dates older than 30,000 years (not 3,000 to 6,000 years old, as their model predicts, by the way). These low levels make it reasonable to think that some of the carbon-14 signal comes from contamination of the sample by, say, microorganisms picked up from the environment.
These low levels also make it conceivable that some of the detected carbon-14 is due to a ubiquitous carbon-14 background. Cosmic rays are continuously producing radiocarbon from nitrogen-14. Because of this nonstop production, carbon-14 is everywhere and will show up at extremely low levels in any measurement that is made, even if it isn’t present in the actual sample.
It is also possible that some of the carbon-14 in the fossil and coal samples arises from the in situ conversion of nitrogen-14 to carbon-14 driven by the decay of radioactive elements in the environment. Because fossils and coal derive from once-living organisms, there will be plenty of nitrogen-14 contained in these specimens. For example, environmental uranium and thorium would readily infuse into the interiors of fossils, and as these elements decay, the high energy they release will convert nitrogen-14 to carbon-14.
Hugh Ross also argues that “Ironically, the low levels of carbon-14 detected in fossils and geological specimens by YECs actually argue against a young Earth, not an old Earth,” since “If fossil and geological specimens are between 3,000 and 6,000 years old, then somewhere between 50 and 75 percent of the original carbon-14 should remain in the sample. This amount of material should generate a strong carbon-14 signal. The fact that these specimens all age-date to 30,000 to 45,000 years old means that less than 2 percent of the original carbon-14 remains in these samples—if the results of this measurement are taken at face value. It becomes difficult to explain this result if these samples are less than 6,000 years old.”
Mason further asserts, “Soft tissue in dinosaur bones clearly indicates that these bones cannot be millions of years old, since biological tissue disintegrates rapidly.” Though I agree with the identification of the collagen fragments that have been identified as coming from dinosaur tissue, I do not consider the preservation of dinosaur collagen fragments (particularly in an environment devoid of oxygen, water and microbes) to be particularly surprising on an old earth hypothesis.   The basic structural unit of collagen is an intertwining of three protein chains known as a triple helix. The individual chains, at particular points along the length of the triple helix, form chemical bonds with each other, forming cross-links. Numerous collagen triple helices assemble to form collagen fibrils, which in turn assemble to form collagen fibers. Given the highly intertwined and cross-linked structure of collagen, it is not particularly surprising to find fragments of this molecule preserved for sixty-eight million years. For a more detailed discussion of this subject, I refer readers to biochemist Fazale Rana’s book, Dinosaur Blood and the Age of the Earth. 
To conclude, I found Jim Mason’s defense of young earth creationism, despite his impressive scientific credentials, to be disappointing, in particular its simplistic perspective on scientific epistemology. It is dangerous (and, in my judgment, wholly unnecessary) to assert that the entire edifice of Christianity rests upon a young earth creationist view. Unfortunately, this perspective is common among young earth creationists. I fear that this approach will result in more people, like him, leaving the faith upon going to college or University, where they will be exposed to much of the data that reveals the earth to be very old. A casual perusal of apostasy testimonials on YouTube will confirm that this is a reality.
 Lydia McGrew, “On Not Counting the Cost Ad Hocness and Disconfirmation,” Acta Analytica 29, no. 4 (Winter 2014): 491-505.
 James D. San Antonio et al., “Dinosaur Peptides Suggest Mechanisms of Protein Survival,” PLoS One 6, no. 6 (2011): e20381
 Elizabeth M. Boatman et al., “Mechanisms of soft tissue and protein preservation in Tyrannosaurus rex,” Scientific Reports 9, 15678 (2019).
 Fazale Rana, Dinosaur Blood and the Age of the Earth (California: RTB Press, 2016).