A particular focus of your work is to nurture a creationist research community. Why is this important?
Our ultimate aim is to glorify God and to know him better. Just as we can learn about an artist by studying his paintings or an author by reading his books, so we can learn about God by studying his creation (cf. Psalm 19:1; Psalm 111:2; Romans 1:20). A good way to do this is to use the tools of scientific research to build models – unifying frameworks that guide our research in useful directions. As in other areas of Christian ministry we believe that this work is best done in community, where we can learn from and be accountable to one another, rather than setting ourselves up as ‘lone-ranger' researchers.
So what is a scientific model?
A scientific model is a conceptual framework that can be used to explain the patterns we observe in the natural world. You can think of a scientific model as a ‘story’ that tries to make sense of a broad range of data, showing how the various bits of data relate to one another and fit together. One hallmark of a good model is that it explains lots of data in a single framework. Another is that it allows us to successfully predict future observations or experimental outcomes. Models can be tested by collecting more data or carrying out further experiments, and our new observations may lead us to modify the model or even to reject it. Models will change as new data are gathered.
Can you give me an example of a scientific model?
Perhaps a good example is plate tectonics, the model that says the earth’s crust is broken into a series of interlocking plates that move relative to one another. The movement of these plates is considered to be the means by which a former supercontinent broke apart to give the present-day arrangement of continents and oceans. This model helps to explain many features of the earth’s geology – the way the east coast of South America ‘fits’ the west coast of Africa like a jigsaw piece, the matching rock layers and mountain belts on either side of the Atlantic Ocean, the distribution of earthquakes and volcanoes, and the structure of the sea floor among many other things. This is impressive! Plate tectonics was only developed in the 1960s but has been so successful at explaining geological data that almost all scientists today have come to accept it.
So you’re saying that creationists need to build models like this?
Yes. We need to develop scientific models that are consistent with the observational data – but in addition our models need to agree with the Bible’s outline of earth history. This is challenging but also a great opportunity for us to show that the Bible makes sense of the world. Consider plate tectonics again. The slow break-up of the supercontinent (over tens of millions of years) doesn’t fit with the Bible’s short time scale of earth history. This led some creationists in the mid-1990s to propose a new version of plate tectonics in which the plates separated very rapidly during Noah’s Flood. The new model (called Catastrophic Plate Tectonics or CPT) turns out to be even better at explaining the earth’s geology than the old slow-and-gradual model of plate tectonics. CPT explains all the things conventional plate tectonics explains, but also a lot of things that conventional plate tectonics doesn’t explain so well. It’s a good example of the success creationists have had with model-building in the last few decades.
Does this mean that conventional models are without value?
No. On their own terms they are good models and may be supported by a great deal of evidence. It’s just that we think we can develop even better models based on the Bible. It’s nonsense to suggest (as some of our critics do) that creationists have to throw out 99% of all science. In fact, creationist models are often quite similar to conventional models, but with interesting modifications. In the case of plate tectonics it’s the time scale that was adapted. In other words, we apply the same principles and methods of science as our evolutionary colleagues but link the data together with a different story. Of course, no model is perfect and we must guard against ‘cherry-picking’ evidence that supports our position while ignoring data that doesn’t. Difficulties should be acknowledged and addressed although they don’t necessarily invalidate a model that successfully explains a lot of other things.
What role does the Bible play in your scientific thinking?
The Bible is the starting point for all our work. The plot-line of the Bible – centred on the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ – is expressed in some big theological themes that run through the whole of scripture. In particular, the biblical teaching of the physical descent of all humanity from Adam, physical death from Adam's sin and a global flood requires us to make a radical reassessment of the conventional long time scales of earth history. These are our ‘non-negotiables’ and we assess our scientific models according to their compatibility with these scriptural data. Of course, the Bible doesn’t tell us everything – it provides only a broad historical framework – and that gives us a considerable degree of freedom to assess competing models on how well they fit the scientific evidence. It’s important to realize that the Bible doesn’t endorse one particular scientific model.
Critics say that your belief in the Bible stops you being objective. What do you say to that?
Bias is a problem – but not one unique to creationists. All scientists have worldview commitments of one kind or another. Take Richard Dawkins, for instance. In his book, The Blind Watchmaker (1986, p.287), he wrote: “…even if there were no actual evidence in favour of the Darwinian theory (there is, of course) we should still be justified in preferring it over all rival theories.” He is evidently so committed to atheistic naturalism (the idea that matter is all there is) that he would accept evolution even if there were no evidence for it! The answer to bias is to be aware that it is a problem and to consciously and critically assess our interpretation of the evidence. This includes seeking input from those with different views and making sure that our work is subjected to rigorous peer review.
So what work have creationists been doing to develop new models?
We’ve already mentioned Catastrophic Plate Tectonics. CPT was proposed by a multidisciplinary group of six scientists including geologists and geophysicists. Another collaborative project was RATE (R adioisotopes and the A ge of T he E arth). This five-year research programme uncovered multiple, independent lines of evidence that radioactive decay rates had been accelerated in the earth’s past and that radiometric dates were overestimating the true age of earth’s rocks and minerals. And creation biologists have been developing new ways of classifying species according to their created kinds and new models of how they have diversified since the time of creation, among other things. We should note that the scientists involved in these modelling efforts are highly qualified in relevant disciplines. They have PhDs from top universities. That doesn’t make them right, of course, but it shows they have some understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of conventional models.
How is BCT contributing to creationist model-building?
We are already working in collaboration with other competent researchers and groups. For example, Paul Garner was part of the team led by Dr John Whitmore that spent about six years investigating the Coconino Sandstone of central and northern Arizona and we are supporting Dr Bill Worraker in his ongoing research on the Flood heat problem. Collaborative work is very important because no one person can be an expert in everything. To really make progress with model-building we need experts in many disciplines working together. Unfortunately we still lack creationists with expertise in many key areas.
Can anything be done to address this lack of expertise?
Yes. We are investing in the training of students who have the potential to become the next generation of researchers. We are seeking to introduce our approach to origins studies through engagement with science students in conferences and training programmes. We also want to encourage students in UK university degree/research programmes and to provide mentoring for them during their studies. Our long-term vision is to have a physical base including a museum and specialist library that will serve as resources for students and researchers.
Won’t this mean students studying in evolutionary departments?
Creationist students need the highest quality scientific training and some of the best people to provide that training may not share our beliefs. This is an outworking of God’s common grace to all mankind, just as some of the best experts in biblical languages may not be Christians. This may mean a student working within a research environment where evolutionary history is assumed. In such a context we’d encourage students to be open about their beliefs and to explain where they do not accept the assumptions of evolution. Much can be learnt from the research process in evolutionary departments, drawing conclusions from the evidence that are appropriate given the starting assumptions, even where we believe some of those assumptions are flawed. This approach is not so different to that adopted in many other fields of study. For example a Christian historian may believe in God's sovereign control over events, yet that belief will not necessarily feature in their analysis of particular historical events.
What kinds of research are you likely to support in the future?
Our focus will be on facilitating research programmes that help to build positive models rather than merely providing arguments against evolution. Our research priorities will be shaped by questions arising from these creation models rather than responding to evolutionary challenges. This means that in assessing the merits of different research projects we will be ready to support projects that have long-term value in building a robust creation model even if they do not appear to directly deal with immediate apologetic concerns. Scientific projects that can be advanced in the UK will be a priority. We also want to create a network that encourages dialogue between theologians and scientists and undertakes biblical research in areas that can inform scientific models.
Where will this research be published?
It may be appropriate to submit some of it to mainstream journals but much of it will be published in creationist journals. However, we will always aim for excellence in scholarship. That means making sure that our research projects and publications benefit from rigorous peer review. We believe that peer review has a practical, theological basis and, while not perfect, is the best way to maintain high scholarly standards.
Okay, that’s all quite exciting but developing new scientific models involves a lot of hard work! Wouldn’t it just be simpler to focus on the weaknesses of evolution?
There is a place for exposing the weaknesses of evolution and lots of organizations do that. And it’s true that it takes much more effort to develop our own models. However, we doubt that picking holes in evolution is the most effective way to persuade people that they should take biblical creation seriously. People are likely to cling on to even very flawed theories unless they are offered something better. They may even become convinced that evolution isn’t right without necessarily embracing creationism. We believe that our approach – focused on building and promoting scientifically robust creation models – will have the most effective apologetic impact in the long run.
Where can I find out more about creation model-building?
A good place to start is Paul Garner’s book, The New Creationism: Building Scientific Theories on a Biblical Foundation (Evangelical Press, 2009). This is a popular summary of the work creationists have been doing to build scientific models in biology, geology and cosmology. For more advanced study we recommend Leonard Brand and Arthur Chadwick’s textbook, Faith, Reason, and Earth History: A Paradigm of Earth and Biological Origins by Intelligent Design (Andrews University Press, 2016), now available in its third edition as a free download.