January 12, 2007 | David F. Coppedge

Evolutionist Lost Faith Over Flawed Geology Lesson

A college student’s Biblical faith could not survive a geology lesson that seemed to offer convincing proof that the earth was old – much older than the Bible said it was. This test of his faith was a tipping point. He began to question the Bible, and ended up becoming a prominent evolutionist. His books and articles present a halfway sympathetic view of his former creationist friends, but he is convinced now that science has disproved the Bible and established the truth of evolution.

But now, the rest of the story: that evidence that challenged his faith back then has since been shown to be wrongly interpreted – so wrong, in fact, that even secular geologists now agree with the creationist interpretation!

The man is Ron Numbers, now a professor of the history of science and medicine at the University of Wisconsin. The geology lesson was about the fossil forests in Yellowstone. In the 1970s, geologists taught that what looked like 30 separate forests had grown on top of each other, one at a time, only to be buried by periodic volcanic eruptions. A sign at Specimen Ridge in the park explained this as a matter of fact. Estimates ranged from 20,000 years minimum to 30,000, or 50,000 years or more were required – in any case, far more than a conservative Genesis timeframe could allow.

Current sign at Yellowstone's Petrified Tree exhibit (9/06/15)

Current sign at Yellowstone’s Petrified Tree exhibit (9/06/15); photo from Mt St Helens in the background. Caption describes similarity.

On May 18, 1980, an explosive event with profound repercussions for geological science took place. Mt. St. Helens erupted.  In one day, this event literally overturned the long-age interpretation of Specimen Ridge. In the Roadside Geology book about Yellowstone sold in the park, geologist William Fritz described his reaction to mudflows he witnessed along the Toutle River in Washington.  “It was just like Yellowstone!” he exclaimed. Since that widely-observed natural experiment in catastrophic geology, the work of volcanic mudflows has become the leading explanation for how the Yellowstone fossil forests were emplaced, layers and all. The old sign that explained the old theory to millions of park visitors is long gone.

When telling his life story, Ron Numbers has pointed to that premature lesson about the Yellowstone fossil forests taking tens of thousands of years to form as the incident that began turning him away from creationism to evolutionism. Most recently, in an interview in Salon Magazine published January 2, he was asked at what point his ideas about creation began to change. He responded,

I wish I knew. There are a few moments that proved crucial for me. I went to Berkeley in the ’60s as a graduate student in history and learned to read critically. That had a profound influence on me. I was also exposed to critiques of young earth creationism. The thing that stands out in my memory as being decisive was hearing a lecture about the fossil forest of Yellowstone, given by a creationist who’d just been out there to visit. He found that for the 30 successive layers you needed — assuming the most rapid rates of decomposition of lava into soil and the most rapid rates of growth for the trees that came back in that area — at least 20,000 to 30,000 years. The only alternative the creationists had to offer was that during the year of Noah’s flood, these whole stands of forest trees came floating in, one on top of another, until you had about 30 stacked up. And that truly seemed incredible to me. Just trying to visualize what that had been like during the year of Noah’s flood made me smile.

He went on to describe how he and a fellow Bible-believing student wrestled all night with the implications of this explanation. “Before dawn, we both decided the evidence was too strong,” he said. This was a crucial night for me because I realized I was abandoning … the authority of Genesis.

He did not indicate whether he had ever heard “the rest of the story” about Yellowstone.

And thus, an evolutionist professor, who writes books against creationists, was molded – partly but significantly from a flawed interpretation of geological evidence. Ron Numbers is the embodiment of a fable we told in our 11/13/2006 commentary. An evolutionary explanation is presented as a matter of fact; it shakes a student’s faith; the damage is done; he “sees the light” of evolution and becomes a convert. Then, years later, new evidence comes out showing that the creation explanation was trustworthy all along.

In both that case and this one, we are not saying that secular geologists have come running back to Genesis confessing their sins and saying the Bible-believers were right. Of course they continue to talk long ages; the Yellowstone eruptions were umpty hundred thousand years ago with multiple episodes, the Nevada eruptions were similarly age-old, etc. (as if they were there with a stopwatch).

What’s important to remember is that data does not interpret itself.  Look again at the other story links at the end of the 11/13/2006 commentary. Despite geologists’ philosophical commitment to the geologic column and its evolutionary foundation, they continually revise their stories, sometimes overturning them completely, as new evidence comes in (e.g., last week, 01/03/2007). It just so happens that the latest interpretations of the Yellowstone and Nevada deposits are consistent with a catastrophic, flood-geology, young-earth view. As such, they present neither a necessary nor sufficient reason to doubt the trustworthiness of the Bible. The sudden catastrophic model is superior in many respects to the slow-and-gradual model. Since the Bible-believing scientists propounded this idea before it became the new consensus, even when Ron considered it incredible and laughable, and no one took it seriously at the time, you could even say that in this instance the Bible-believing, young-earth creationists have been vindicated.

It’s ironic that the old-age view was presented by “a creationist.” Obviously not all creationists accept the Genesis timetable. But creationists who subscribe to an old-earth or theistic-evolution view should ponder the impact of that view on Ron as a student. It did not help him resolve conflicts between the Bible and “science” – it eroded his trust in the Bible completely. Some old-earth creationists like Davis Young have touted the Yellowstone fossil forests as proof positive that the earth could not be fitted into a few thousand years. Now they have egg on their faces. Regardless of one’s position on the age of the earth, one lesson is clear: what science is claiming today is always subject to change. Using today’s consensus to argue against the Bible’s history, which has withstood scrutiny longer than any scientific claim, is risky business and of doubtful support for Biblical worldview construction.

Ron Numbers’ view of creationism is more nuanced and sympathetic than that of the typical Darwinist, owing to his personal experience. But since that fateful geology lesson, it appears he began interpreting subsequent scientific claims through a new lens – an evolutionary, materialist lens. One can only wonder how differently his life would have turned out had someone rushed into that class at the end of the lecture, yelling, “Wait!  Mt. St. Helens has just erupted, and billions of tons of logs are being deposited in layers along the Toutle River in a matter of hours! It’s just like Yellowstone!”

As stated in the 11/13/2006 commentary, unbelief often becomes a deep trench once it starts. It is highly doubtful Ron Numbers would retrace his worldview journey back to that point if someone were to tell him about the paradigm shift at Yellowstone. By this time he has cut too deep a trench to climb out. His reputation among his peers is also on the line. Few people who publish books taking strong positions ever change their minds. The twig is bent; the die is cast. He is no longer the Learnuh, he is the Mosstuh. He has seen the light. Miracles can happen, but the new Yellowstone story is unlikely to make someone who touts the so-called “overwhelming evidence for evolution” change sides at this late date. Pastors, parents, and Christian teachers wanting to prepare students for adulthood should take some sober lessons from this case study.

In the first place, Biblical history should be presented as more than just stories. It needs to be shown to correspond to actual historical events. The new Archaeological Study Bible is a great resource to show the correspondence between Biblical history and archaeology and history from other sources.

Secondly, Christian students should not be insulated from contradictory ideas. Conflicts are inevitable anyway, so it is very counterproductive to avoid them. Children and teens want to know their beliefs are sound. Instruction about scientific controversies must be age-appropriate, of course, but in Ron’s case, why did it take college age at Berkeley (of all places) for him to discover critical thinking? That should have started before age 10. (Note: “Critical thinking” at liberal universities often becomes imbalanced questioning of traditional values and religious beliefs – see quote by Berkeley law professor Phillip Johnson in the header of the Baloney Detector). It is by facing difficulties head-on that confidence in one’s worldview is built. Like Johnson has often teased, we should teach students more about evolution than the schools want them to hear! A student can’t understand our modern world without understanding Darwinism and evolutionary theory and the best arguments put forth to support it. But, unlike in public schools, they should also get the scientific arguments against it. A vast majority of American citizens believe that.

Thirdly, and even more important, students should learn the limits of science. They need to develop a healthy skepticism of the ability of fallible human science to make knowledge claims about the past (or even the present, for that matter).*

Ron grew up in a Seventh-Day Adventist church. Though outside the mainstream of Protestant tradition, SDAs are staunch Bible believers. However much his well-meaning parents and teachers might have thought they were protecting students by teaching only the young-earth view and avoiding contradictory scientific views from secular geology and evolutionary biology, it is clear in hindsight that insulation from challenge can backfire. By high school and college age, young adults are questioning the beliefs they were taught as children anyway. We should help them learn how to do it right. Dodging hard questions or making a child feel guilty for doubt is a bad example. It gives the impression that Christianity is anti-intellectual, or too weak to stand up under examination. The great Christian physicist James Clerk Maxwell believed that Christianity was the only system that allowed full and free investigation, without sacred spots that were off limits to scrutiny.

Chuck Colson and Nancy Pearcey gave a memorable example of facing controversy in chapter 5 of their book How Now Shall We Live? (Tyndale, 1999). They portrayed a father confronted by his daughter’s questions about evolution. He didn’t have ready answers at the time. But he did a brave thing that made an impression on her: he answered, “I don’t know, but I’ll find out.” And he let her know he was willing to lay his own faith on the line to find answers. So with his daughter, he did a research project on the evidence for creation and taught her more than just answers to her specific questions: he taught her that a Christian need not be afraid of investigating the evidence. He showed her that the way to handle a doubt is to confront it with research and honest analysis of both sides of a controversy.

If Ron Numbers had left the safety of church and home armed with critical thinking skills and an arsenal of sound strategies to consider skeptical claims fairly, how much different would his life had been? It’s hard to say. Some students will rebel for other reasons: perhaps, a rationalization to explore their lusts, or a desire to fit in with a peer group. It appears, though, that Ron has maintained a soft spot for his childhood worldview, as if nostalgic for it. Some ardent anticreationists grew up in a church but were completely unprepared for the allure of evolutionary propaganda. They not only embraced it readily, but became ardent foes of Christianity. E.O. Wilson and Michael Shermer come to mind. From Ron Numbers’ own testimony, though, it seems he and his friend sincerely wanted to keep their faith. They respected truth and yet were conflicted by what appeared to be solid evidence against what they had been taught. A solid education in handling difficulties and controversies honestly and critically is good insurance against sudden challenges by conflicting ideas.

It goes without saying that bad beliefs deserve to fall when unable to withstand a challenge. Some Christians fall for foolish ideas that are not supportable from the Bible or scientific evidence, like myths of NASA support for Joshua’s long day, or speculations about where heaven is in the visible universe. Critical thinking demands the honesty to abandon a belief that is no longer defensible after rigorous investigation of the evidence and research into all the well-reasoned points of view. The same standard cuts both ways. When will the evolutionists abandon Haeckel’s; embryos, junk DNA, vestigial organs and the other discredited props for their beliefs?

Unfortunately for Ron, his doubts about a young earth were aggravated by legitimate doubts about the credibility of SDA’s prophetess Ellen White – a writer no other Christian groups consider authoritative. This contributed to him tossing the whole religious package altogether. Most SDAs are very congenial and sincere people, but any Christian who gets too closely tied to one particular sect or denomination should take warning. Beware if you belong to any group that becomes ingrown and isolated, trusts only its own material and shuns fellowship with other true Christians in other denominations. Sectarianism can pose a setup for rejection of all Christianity by the young when maybe the fault is with unusual teachings or practices of the denomination, not the Bible itself. The more a church, tradition, or a strong leader becomes the authority rather than the Bible itself, the greater the risk.

Science is a search for truth, but it is not the truth. It is limited in its domain (the observable world). It is done by fallible humans.  Science is tentative at best, and often wrong. There are deep and abiding philosophical doubts about the ability of mere mortals to comprehend reality by our senses with any confidence that what we deem scientific today is true, necessary, universal and certain.* It bears repeating: evidence does not interpret itself. Over and over in these pages you have read about evolutionists twisting and forcing contradictory evidence into the rigid container of their world view. The same evidence can often bear one or more other equally-valid interpretations. At best, science can claim evidence is consistent with a belief but cannot thereby claim it is True with a capital T. Even the claim of consistency is a judgment call. It often involves willfully ignoring some inconsistent evidence rivals might consider weighty.

The next time someone shows you supposedly incontrovertible evidence that the Bible cannot be trusted, and that science has proved it wrong, don’t be so quick to believe the claim. Like the father in the story above, go find out. The Bible has withstood millennia of attacks from all sides. Sometimes you may have to wait a few years for the scientific consensus to shift back, or for a volcano to blow the old theory up in smoke. A world view worth living by is one that is rooted and grounded in conviction that has been tested by challenge. Victorious faith requires both exercise and ammo.  Young people should go to “world view boot camp” for both. Exercise teaches one how to use the armor, and the sparring of ideas allows quality armor to show its true mettle.

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