Don’t Assume Too Much: Not All Assumptions in Science Are Bad

From Issue: R&R – June 2013

It might be tempting to get the wrong impression and think that making assumptions in science is a bad practice, especially upon reading various writings from the creationist community. Creation scientists, for instance, correctly relate many of the problems inherent in the assumptions of evolutionary geologic dating techniques that tend to yield extremely old ages for the items they test. But do not fall victim to the same fallacy that the evolutionary community makes in assuming too much. As is the case with the fact that scientific theories can be good things (see Miller, 2012b), the practice of making assumptions in science also can be a good thing.

A Scientific Assumption in Practice

Consider a real-world example from the engineering field. Let’s say I want to design a remote control vehicle to be used on a one mile strip of paved road. The road has been blocked off for my use, and I have maintained the road well, re-paving it when necessary. I have constructed fences around the road to keep animals off of it, and I check the road regularly to make sure that it is smooth and clear. The remote control vehicle is equipped with the necessary sensors that will allow me to keep track of its velocity and heading at all times, since I will be controlling the car from a building several miles away from the strip of road.

With all of that information, I begin developing the equations that will allow me to control the vehicle from a distance. However, the equations get significantly more complex if I do not make certain assumptions about the motion of the vehicle. So, I decide to make the assumption that the car will have 100% traction as it travels down this strip of road. In other words, I assume that it will never slide from side to side or skid—an assumption which could save me a lot of extra time and money. I check the weather report for road conditions and determine that skidding conditions are unlikely during the testing period. The assumption that I will have 100% traction, and can eliminate those variables pertaining to traction from my equations, is a reasonable one—one that will not cause significant error in my equations. There may be a few small rocks on the road, or a heavy gust of wind that might cause a very small amount of error due to my assumption, but by the end of the one mile strip of road, I can maintain, with a very high degree of confidence, that the car will likely still be on the road and very close to the location that I anticipate.

What if I were to take this same remote control vehicle, with the same assumptions in place, and use it in an off-road setting—out in the middle of nowhere, with no road, and on extremely rough terrain? Would the assumption that there will be 100% traction be a reasonable assumption in that setting—one that would not cause a significant amount of error in my equations? How likely would it be that I will know exactly where my car is by the end of one mile of off-road navigation?

Assumptions often have to be made in science, but those assumptions have to be made very carefully or the end results can be significantly affected. Invalid assumptions can cause the scientist to draw conclusions that are not in keeping with the actual evidence. The key for the scientist is to make assumptions that are reasonable and that do not significantly alter the end results. The problem is that much of the alleged evidence for evolution has been gathered under unsubstantiated, unreasonable, and even false assumptions that contradict the actual evidence.

Unreasonable Assumption 1: Abiogenesis

Consider, for instance, the assumption of abiogenesis. In 1960, G.A. Kerkut published The Implications of Evolution. Therein he listed seven non-provable assumptions upon which evolution is based. “The first assumption is that non-living things gave rise to living material, i.e., spontaneous generation occurred” (p. 6). Evolutionary geologist Robert Hazen, who received a Ph.D. in Earth Science from Harvard, is a research scientist at the Carnegie Institution of Washington’s Geophysical Laboratory and a professor of Earth Science at George Mason University. In his lecture series, Origins of Life, Hazen said:

In this lecture series I make a basic assumption that life emerged by some kind of natural process. I propose that life arose by a sequence of events that are completely consistent with the natural laws of chemistry and physics. In this assumption I am like most other scientists. I believe in a universe that is ordered by these natural laws. Like other scientists, I rely on the power of observations and experiments and theoretical reasoning to understand how the cosmos came to be the way it is (2005, emp. added).

The entire discipline of evolutionary biology is built on the assumption of abiogenesis. But is abiogenesis a reasonable assumption? Is there any evidence to support the assertion that life could come from non-life? Absolutely not. Quite the contrary. There has never been a scrap of empirical evidence that shows that such a thing could happen. In fact, there is a scientific law which prohibits the idea (see Miller, 2012c). The assumption of abiogenesis, upon which evolution stands, is unreasonable and should cause the scientist to scrap the idea in favor of one that does not require such an outlandish assumption.

Unreasonable Assumption 2: Uniformitarianism

What about uniformitarianism? According to the McGraw-Hill Dictionary of Scientific and Technical Terms, “uniformitarianism” is

the concept that the present is the key to the past; the principle that contemporary geologic processes have occurred in the same regular manner and with essentially the same intensity throughout geologic time, and that events of the geologic past can be explained by phenomena observable today (2003, p. 2224).

Uniformitarianism is a fundamental assumption of evolutionary geology. Much of the alleged evidence for deep time—an extremely old age of the Earth and Universe—is based on the principle of uniformitarianism. But is it reasonable to assume that all, or even the majority, of  “the events of the geologic past can be explained by phenomena observable today”? How could one possibly make such an assertion? How could one know whether or not something catastrophic happened, perhaps only once in history, that would have, for instance, completely altered the geologic strata? The idea of “catastrophism,” to which creationists subscribe, allows for such phenomena, and is a much more reasonable assumption upon which to interpret geologic evidence.

Consider, as one example of the effect of catastrophic events on geologic phenomena, recent scientific discoveries concerning rapid petrification. For years it had been assumed that the process of petrification is a uniformitarian process that takes millions of years to complete. However, in 2004, five Japanese scientists published research in the journal Sedimentary Geology which casts doubt on that assumption. The team studied mineral rich, acidic water from the explosion crater of the Tateyama volcano in central Japan—water which runs over the edge of the volcano as a waterfall. Wood had fallen in the path of the water. The surprising discovery was that the wood had become petrified with silica after only 36 years as the water flowed over the wood (Akahane, et al., 2004).

As a further investigation of this phenomenon, the scientists attached pieces of wood to wire and placed them into the water flow. After only seven years, the wood had turned to stone—petrified with silica. Wood petrification had occurred due to the nearby volcanic activity as well. Using a scanning electron microscope, they found that silica petrification occurs in the same way that the wood petrification occurred in the volcanic ash near the volcano (Akahane, et al.). This single discovery completely contradicts the assumption of uniformitarianism, and yet many more could be cited. Catastrophism, on the other hand, is much more reasonable, since it allows for catastrophic events such as volcanoes, meteors, and floods.

Unreasonable Assumptions 3, 4, & 5: Basis of Dating Techniques

The Second Law of Thermodynamics tells us that the Universe is running down or wearing out. We are running out of usable energy. Matter, itself, is breaking down. Various elements break down into other elements over time, and the breakdown appears to be at constant rates today. Scientists are able to measure the rate at which parent isotopes decay into daughter isotopes with an amazing degree of accuracy. This ability is an amazing technological feat, unsurpassed in known human history. However, a major issue arises based on what evolutionary geologists do with the information that they gather from this process. Using the known decay rates of the elements they are studying, evolutionary geologists extrapolate backwards in time to try to determine how old a specimen is.

While this procedure might seem reasonable on the surface, there are significant issues with this practice. The older a specimen is said to be, the more inaccurate the dating technique is known to be. The margin of error grows higher and higher. One reason scientists are aware of this fact is because different dating techniques are often used to date the same specimen, and completely different ages result—often differing by millions of years. It is reasonable to conclude that the primary reason for this discrepancy is the effect of unrealistic assumptions that initiate the process of age extrapolation (cf. Kulp, 1952, p. 261; McDougall and Harrison, 1999, pp. 10-11; Friedlander, et al., 1981 for a discussion of the various assumptions inherent in the dating techniques). Ironically, the evolutionary geologists, themselves, acknowledge that “violations” of the assumptions “are not uncommon” (McDougall and Harrison, p. 11).

One major assumption upon which radiometric dating techniques are based is that, while a specimen might currently have various daughter elements in it, it is assumed that no daughter element existed in the specimen at the beginning of its decay. In other words, the dating technique assumes that the rock was initially completely composed of the parent element. But how could one possibly substantiate an assumption about the initial conditions of a specimen’s decay process, especially when the commencement of its decay was hundreds or thousands (or according to evolutionists, millions or billions) of years ago? Is it not possible, and even likely, that a specimen might have been initially composed of more than one element that blended together during a geologic phenomenon before that rock’s decay processes began? Is it not possible that various rocks were even created by God from the outset, composed of more than one daughter element, due to the usefulness of having those elements already in existence, rather than awaiting their emergence through decay processes? How could one possibly conclusively assert that any specimen was initially composed only of the parent element?

A second assumption upon which radiometric dating techniques are based is that the amounts of parent and daughter isotopes in a specimen have not been altered during the decay process by anything except radioactive decay. So, according to this assumption, the specimen being examined is in a closed system. In other words, the amount of the elements present in a sample have not ever been affected by outside elements. But how likely is it that in thousands of years of geologic processes (or even worse, millions of years, again, according to evolutionists)—lava flows, floods, mudslides, meteorite activity, etc.—the amounts of the various elements in a specimen have not been affected by outside forces?

Evolutionary geologists, again, recognize that this assumption oftentimes does not hold up. According to Ian McDougall, professor of geology in the Research School of Earth Sciences at the Australian National University, and T. Mark Harrison, professor of geology in the Department of Earth and Space Sciences at the University of California, Los Angeles, “Departures from this assumption in fact are quite common, particularly in areas of complex geological history” (1999, p. 11, emp. added). To suggest a closed system for a specimen that is believed to be very old is a reckless, unreasonable assumption, (1) when there is clear evidence that a closed system cannot be guaranteed, and (2) when, in fact, there is compelling evidence that ancient Earth was rocked by a global catastrophe that most certainly would have violated the “closed system” assumption (cf. Whitcomb and Morris, 1961) and created an extremely “complex geological history.”

The third assumption of such dating techniques is that, in keeping with uniformitarian principles, the nuclear decay rate of the elements being measured have remained constant throughout history. While the other assumptions can be seen on the surface to be unsustainable, the problem with this assumption might not seem as evident at first glance. One might expect that the rate of decay of various elements would be “set in stone” as it were—more like scientific laws. However, recent research by a team of scientists (known as RATE) that was presented at the International Conference on Creationism in 2003, indicates that the nuclear decay rates have not always been constant (Humphreys, et al., 2003). The RATE team had several zircon crystals dated by expert evolutionists using the uranium-lead evolutionary dating technique and found them to be 1.5 billion years old, assuming a constant decay rate. A by-product of the breakdown of uranium into lead is helium. Content analysis of the crystals revealed that large amounts of helium were found to be present. However, if the crystals were as old as the dating techniques suggested, there should have been no trace of helium left, since helium atoms are known to be tiny, light, unreactive, and able to easily escape from the spaces within the crystal structure. The presence of helium and carbon-14 showed that the rocks were actually much younger (4,000 to 14,000 years old) than the dating techniques alleged. Since these zircons were taken from the Precambrian basement granite in the Earth, an implication of the find is that the whole Earth could be no older than 4,000 to 14,000 years old. The results of the crystal dating indicate that 1.5 billion years’ worth of radioactive decay, based on the uniformitarian constant decay rate assumption, occurred in only a few thousand years. How could such a thing be possible? How can the two dating techniques be reconciled? By understanding that the rate of decay of uranium into lead must have been different—much higher—in the past (cf. DeYoung, 2005).

Evolutionists have no qualms openly acknowledging the assumptions inherent in evolutionary dating techniques, since without these assumptions in place, there would be no way to date the Earth or anything on it using science. The standard practice of geologists today, in light of this, is to “do what you can with what you have.” However, if the dating assumptions are too unrealistic to allow for an accurate date of anything, shouldn’t the dating methods be deemed untrustworthy or even abandoned, if that is where the evidence leads? It makes no sense to ignore the issues and accept evolution as fact along with its deep time proposition based on such faulty evidence. How is it scientific to use such dating methods in spite of the near certainty that they will not provide accuracy when dating extremely old specimens? In truth, because of the effect of catastrophic activity on the Earth over the centuries, the only sure way to attain the date of the Earth and its elements is through divine revelation. However, as the next assumption shows, that reasonable option has been eliminated from the table as well, due to evolutionary assumptions.

Unreasonable Assumption 6: Naturalism

According to the National Academy of Sciences, “The statements of science must invoke only natural things and processes. The statements of science are those that emerge from the application of human intelligence to data obtained from observation and experiment” (Teaching About Evolution…, 1998, p. 42, emp. added). So according to this modern definition of “science,” anything non-natural is ruled out. In other words, science must be approached through the assumption of naturalism and materialism. Therefore, God is deemed unscientific by this definition (even though He actually instituted the field of science, cf. Miller, 2012d), since He is non-natural and non-material.

Recall the earlier concurring statements by geologist Robert Hazen of the Carnegie Institution, in which he stated that he assumes that life came about through a “natural process…completely consistent with natural laws…. Like other scientists, I rely on the power of observations and experiments and theoretical reasoning to understand how the cosmos came to be the way it is” (2005). Richard Lewontin, evolutionary geneticist of Harvard University, unabashedly said:

Our willingness to accept scientific claims against common sense is the key to an understanding of the real struggle between science and the supernatural. We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to naturalism. It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door (1997, p. 31, 2nd-4th emp. in orig.).

So regardless of the evidence, the bulk of today’s scientific community has agreed to wipe God and supernatural phenomena out of the definition of “science,” not because of the evidence for or against God, but because of the assumption of naturalism. Again we ask, is this a reasonable assumption?

Remember that not all assumptions in science are unreasonable. If an assumption does not significantly alter the end results, it may be a fair, legitimate assumption. However, the assumption of naturalism significantly alters one’s results—yielding completely different answers to important questions compared to the answers that would be given using an approach without that assumption in place. Further, the assumption of naturalism proves to be unreasonable, first, because it is not in keeping with the evidence, and, second, because it is self-contradictory.

According to science—the First and Second Laws of Thermodynamics—in nature, nothing comes from nothing and nothing lasts forever (cf. Miller, 2013). So according to the scientific evidence, in order to explain the origin of everything in the Universe, since it could not have naturally lasted forever or come from nothing, it had to have come from Something outside of “nature”—outside of the Universe. According to the Law of Biogenesis, in nature, life comes only from life and that of its kind (cf. Miller, 2012c). So again, according to the scientific evidence,  since life could not have naturally come from nothing, it had to have come from Something outside of “nature”—outside the Universe. Naturalism does not work in explaining the scientific evidence on these points. It cannot offer an explanation for the origin of the Universe or life in keeping with the evidence. So would it not be reasonable to re-define “science” in such a way that no option is eliminated from consideration based on the faulty assumption of naturalism?

If the scientific evidence points to something, i.e., Someone, supernatural, why not be allowed as scientists to follow the evidence where it leads? Just because one cannot empirically observe something happening, does not mean that one cannot use science to determine who did what, how they did it, when they did it, where they did it, and with what they did it. Forensic scientists engage in this process every day. Indirect evidence is a legitimate source of scientific information, and the Universe is saturated with indirect evidence for the existence of God.

As an approach to science, naturalism contradicts the scientific evidence, and what’s more, it contradicts itself. The naturalist says that everything must be explained through natural processes. However, naturalism requires unnatural phenomena—like abiogenesis and the spontaneous generation or eternality of matter—in order to explain the origin of the Universe and life (cf. Miller, 2012a). Such things not only have not been witnessed by scientists, but in fact, all the scientific evidence is contrary to them. How can a self-contradictory approach to science be the very perspective that defines science? Why are simple logic and common sense being rejected by so many in the scientific community today?

Conclusion

Assumptions are oftentimes necessary in operational science, and they can be effective and productive in helping scientists to solve problems and make advancements and important breakthroughs; but assumptions must be made with caution. The evolutionary community has a strangle-hold on the minds of many in the scientific community today and, all the while,  evolution is riddled with issues, many of which come down to the fundamental assumptions upon which evolution is based. Why do so many people insist on making such far-fetched, unreasonable assumptions? In the words of Scottish philosopher David Hume, “No man turns against reason until reason turns against him” (as quoted in Warren, 1982, p. 4). Many have turned against reason in spite of the evidence, since the evidence has turned against them. But why be so irrational? Why continue to hold to such a bogus, baseless, irrational theory? The reason for most of humanity’s rejection of truth throughout human history was stated succinctly by God through Paul nearly 2,000 years ago. Some people simply do “not like to retain God in their knowledge,” because His restrictions, though given for our good (cf. Romans 7:12; Deuteronomy 6:24; 10:12-13; Psalm 119), tend not to harmonize with our fleshly desires (Romans 1:20-32).

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