Skull Wars

  A recent Newsweek cover story about ancient life in America reveals a controversy that sheds light on some important truths about the nature of science. Twenty years ago, archaeologist Tom Dillehay discovered bones and artifacts from a prehistoric settlement in Chile, which he dated as 12,500 years old. But that couldn't be right, his colleagues argued. For it was considered a scientific fact that the first inhabitants of the Americas appeared approximately 1,000 years later. What's more, it was considered a scientific fact that they were Asians who came across a land bridge spanning what is now the Bering Strait. Dillehay's colleagues were angry that he was upsetting their settled theories, and most of them gave little credence to his findings. At professional meetings, they even refused to shake his hand. But as Newsweek reports, the archaeological establishment has now finally been forced to accept Dillehay's conclusions. In fact, over the years, archaeologists have uncovered much evidence that the Americas were settled even earlier than Dillehay's findings suggested, and that these early settlers included not only Asians but also Polynesians and even white Europeans. Dillehay's experience highlights an important fact about science, namely, that all science is inference. That is, in science we build chains of inferences from bits of data and then draw conclusions. And because inference is a creative human activity, it is inescapably fallible. Now, some chains of inference are fairly short and direct, as in a basic physics experiment. In other cases, however, especially when we want to explain something that happened in the past, the chains grow far longer and more fragile. We have to employ many more assumptions. As a result, the possibility of getting the conclusion wrong increases dramatically. And unfortunately, once assumptions are made, they become entrenched. In Tom Dillehay's case, the majority of his colleagues had embraced false assumptions—which affected their ability even to see the new evidence that Dillehay had discovered. Now, why does all this matter to Christians? Well, we often hear it claimed that "science has shown" this or that about the past—for example, that all life evolved by mutation and natural selection. Sometimes Christians respond to these claims about naturalistic evolution by saying we can't confirm it—that no one can observe what happened in the past. But a better response would be that all science is based on inference, and that the sciences dealing with the past build much longer chains of inference and are hence more open to question. The Newsweek story is a reminder that we should always feel free to question so-called scientific orthodoxy—especially when it is based on long chains of inferences about the distant past. The more links in the chain, the easier it is to be influenced by non-scientific factors—such as whether the scientist believes in God or is committed to a completely naturalistic worldview. The result is that what is presented as "science" may be little more than a scientist's personal worldview. Christians need to make this distinction clear. We ought to be the ones to sort it out and stand for true science and sound reason. For our God is a God of truth.


Chuck Colson


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