Metaxas’ editorial on science & God cites few real experts & nothing recent

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Metaxas CPAC

Gage Skidmore via Flickr Creative Commons

Eric Metaxas speaking at the 2013 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland.

Eric Metaxas made a splash recently with his Wall Street Journal op-ed on science and the existence of God. It was tailor-made for social media, with a title that could be shared without even being read. The headline said it all: Science increasingly makes the case for God.

But is it? The answer is of course, “no.” And you don’t need a Ph.D. in physics to argue against him. Take the article on face value. Fact-check the names. Metaxas does not present the work of scientists. The arguments he cites are not recent or signs of a change in science. Not even close.

No, what Metaxas does is cherry-pick a handful of people that he presents as evidence that science is “increasingly” questioning the plausibility of a creator.

This is an acceptable strategy if you’re a lawyer or an apologist, but it’s piss-poor scholarship. He presents his evidence as if these scientists both represent the larger scientific community. They are not. It turns out that only a couple of the “scientists” Metaxas quotes are actually in science, and even then they are on the fringe of science.

He also presents science as “recently” discovering more and more evidence that God must exist.

… it turns out that the rumors of God’s death [in 1966] were premature. More amazing is that the relatively recent case for his existence comes from a surprising place—science itself.

Metaxas CPAC

Eric Metaxas speaking at the 2013 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland.

Metaxas offers no “recent case” for God — even the “scientists” in the article formed their conclusions decades ago, closer to 1966 than to 2015.

Fred Hoyle

Hoyle is mentioned as being the “the astronomer who coined the term ‘big bang.'” Metaxas repeats this again in the YouTube clip above. Hoyle coined the term alright, but he did so as part of a 1950s radio series in which he disputed the theory that there was a beginning to the universe. Hoyle was one of the last to believe that the universe has always existed; there was no creator because there was no creation.

Hoyle didn’t buy into the big bang, but he did believe that the building blocks for life and viruses came to earth via comets and meteors. Earth was too young to produce life, but maybe “superintellect” used carbon to form life throughout the universe. The large jumps in evolution resulted from meteorites bringing such life to earth.

Swine flue? The AIDS virus? Those are the most recent cases Hoyle claimed to have been extraterrestrial viruses.

Hoyle didn’t come to his conclusions about “superintellects” or the big bang because of recent evidence. He was writing about them more than forty years ago.

Perhaps the strangest part of Hoyle’s inclusion in the op-ed is that Metaxas writes that Hoyle was “greatly shaken” by “developments” that showed the unlikelihood of the universe forming in the big bang. No. This wasn’t what mattered to Hoyle; he didn’t think the universe had a beginning. Instead, as Metaxas reports in his book, Hoyle was surprised in the 1950s by the high levels of carbon found in the universe. Hoyle could have cared less about God forming the universe because the universe was never created. Hoyle did care about carbon, because that’s what a “superintellect” could use to form life throughout the universe.

Peter Schenkel

Schenkel isn’t a scientist, at least not one that studies biology of physics. Still, Metaxas quotes a 2006 article by Schenkel as if he were an expert on the search for extraterrestrial life. He isn’t. Schenkel’s 2006 piece in Skeptical Inquirer introduces him as “a retired political scientist and author of many books, among them three on extraterrestrial intelligence: ETI: A Challenge for Change, The Message from Yon and Contact: Are We Ready For It?” Only one of these books (ETI: A Challenge for Change) is about science policy, and it was published through a vanity (or self-published) press 25 years ago. The other books are science fiction novels.

Putting aside Schenkel’s lack of credentials (I can’t even figure out where he was a political scientist), his questioning of ETI occurred decades ago. There is nothing recent about his conclusions.

Paul Davies

Davies is the one scientist Metaxas discusses who supports the argument in the editorial. That’s mostly because Davies is the one who came up with it. But Davies also knows that his fellow scientists (meaning nearly all of them) disagree with his conclusions. Davies has made more of a public argument for some type of creator over the past couple of decades, but this isn’t because he discovered new evidence. As early as 1982, Davies examined the likelihood of the universe in his book The Accidental Universe. The Templeton Prize winner, like the others mentioned, did not come to this conclusion recently.

John Lennox

Metaxas describes Lennox as an “Oxford professor,” which is accurate. He is not a scientist. He lectured in mathematics. He also works on ethics and Christian apologetics. But he is not a scientist. He did not come to his conclusion that there must be a creator by examining the evidence, he is one who interprets the evidence gathered by others as support for his religious views.

Bad math

There is one point that Metaxas makes that should have alerted everyone that he was playing to his rhetorical skills rather than his mathematical ones. He states,

As factors continued to be discovered, the number of possible planets hit zero, and kept going. In other words, the odds turned against any planet in the universe supporting life, including this one. Probability said that even we shouldn’t be here.

Ok, so the number of possible planets is not just close to zero. It’s not even zero. It’s actually less than zero. That’s right: the probability of us existing is not just really, really small. It’s so small that it goes past never happening and into an imaginary world where probabilities can be negative. That is a miracle.

I can appreciate the difficulty of trying to communicate complex evidence into popular writing. That’s what this blog is all about. And sometimes we need to make statements with less precision than we would in a peer-reviewed publication. Nuance is lost in the effort to make the main point clear. But what I can’t support is an argument that makes a claim and then offers evidence that, on its face, is inaccurate.

I like my numbers to fit basic mathematical definitions. If I say something is “relatively recent” compared to 1966, then I would cite people who came to their conclusions closer to today than 1966. And, if I was going to say that “science” was doing something, then I would reference experts in the field, not academics who dabble in science on the side.

But then again, maybe this another reason why Metaxas gets a lot more “likes” on Facebook than I do.

All of this has nothing to do with the existence of God or a creator. This is about an argument claiming that science is “increasingly making the case for God.” It isn’t. Or, if it is, I haven’t seen evidence for it yet. There is no reason to go into theological or philosophical debates about recent scientific evidence for God when there is no recent science being presented.

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  • I realize it isn’t your field, but if you want to comment on his work you might have addressed the substance of his argument, rather than the point in time one or another of his quoted experts said x, y, or z.

  • Dee Parsons

    John Lennox didn’t merely lecture in mathematics. This would be akin to saying that Bill Clinton dabbled in politics.

    To begin, he is a Professor of Mathematics at Oxford. According to Wikipedia: “He (Lennox) has published over 70 peer-reviewed articles on mathematics and co-authored two Oxford Mathematical Monographs and has worked as a translator of Russian mathematics.” He also teaches science and religion at Oxford. There is far more.

    Mathematics are the building blocks for science. Astronomy, physics, chemistry, etc. all rely on complex mathematics.

    I appreciate your argument regarding Metaxas’ assertions. However, please do not throw the baby out with the bathwater.

  • Doc Anthony

    Metaxas wrote,

    “As factors continued to be discovered, the number of possible planets hit zero, and kept going. In other words, the odds turned against any planet in the universe supporting life, including this one. Probability said that even we shouldn’t be here.”

    So, (with all due respect), exactly where is the scientific refutation or disconfirmation of Metaxas’ specific statements there? I don’t see it in Tobin Grant’s article. Please show me?

  • Ben in oakland

    I don’t know, doc. How many planets have been discovered in the past 10 years? There was an article in the paper just this week about a few more being discovered that seemed to be in the goldilocks zone.

  • Jack

    This is embarrassing. I expected a disciplined, focused, well-structured, fair-minded and hence devastatingly effective critique of the Metaxas op-ed. What I got instead was, “trust me, it’s a bad op-ed” interspersed with sneers, jeers, and put-downs. I learned more about the personality of the writer than the content of the op-ed.

    My advice is to have a “do-over:”

    Have someone else who doesn’t like the Metaxas piece write a second article, but make it more precise and better-organized and focused.

  • Larry

    Tobin Grant expected a well supported, factually correct and well reasoned op-ed from Metaxas about God and science. But that is not what Metaxas gave.

    Life is full of disappointments.

    Its the same old junk Christians always trot out when they want to claim to a lay audience that their religious belief has some kind of scientific basis. Non-experts cited, quote mining and reliance on outdated or inappropriate concepts. Grand assumptions made but nothing to show for it.

  • Larry

    But Lennox is not a scientist. Mathematics are the building blocks for science. Astronomy, physics, chemistry, etc. But Lennox is not an expert in ANY of those fields. Its like saying a bricklayer is capable of expounding about building an entire city block from an architectural point of view.

    One must know the limitations of their expertise.

  • Larry

    If one is claiming their view is scientifically or objectively credible, they live and die on the basis of the experts they cite. Bad experts = nonsense. Its why nobody outside of Fundamentalist Christianity takes “Creation Science” seriously.

    One need not address the substance of an argument if its very foundation is shaky. Attacking the experts is attacking his argument at its core.

  • Larry

    An old article

    Researchers: Newly found planets might support life
    http://www.cnn.com/2013/06/26/tech/innovation/new-habitable-planets/
    From June 26, 2013
    “The discovery is the largest number of “habitable zone” planets ever found within a single system, said Guillem Anglada-Escude of the University of Gottingen, Germany, who led the team of astronomers.

    The findings were published… in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics.

    The findings are only the latest in a recent string of identifications of planets that may host life. “

    The “statistical argument” for a creator is inherently silly. It essentially says, “I have no perspective of the size of the universe. I am ignorant of current science. I am too unwilling to leave a question open. So I will say God did it.”

    Its amazing how many “scientific arguments for God’ are based on the writer’s own ignorance or willful misrepresentation. All of the arguments employed were demolished philosophically centuries before the science caught up to the issues.

  • Bunch

    Most scientific atheists never prove God does not exist, they just prove that the religious view of God is not valid. All religions are the work of man, not God. Religions are man’s attempts to explain God’s creation and man’s place in it. Suffice it to say, men are fallible and all religions are therefore fallible. Easy stuff..

    The real issue of whether God is the author of Creation is not provable by man using science as we know it today. So for that matter science is unable to prove that God does not exist and is not the author of creation.

    I would like to point out the astronomical absurdity of all creation occuring from the big bang. All creation being located in just one small planet of the universe. And all of the materials to fulfill all of creations needs being located by happen stance on this one blue planet. So far, scientific atheists propose that life exists all over the universe, but so far, no proof at all. Just proposals, theories, like the big bang. No evidence. And by life, I mean higher level, not bacteria or amoeba types. Science has failed to prove that God did not create the universe and our wonderful blue planet and US.

    Science picks on religions and mans feeble ideas over 2000 years old to say that God does not exist because man was not smart enough to explain God better. But the ineptitude of current science to prove that God is not real and that God is not the creator of the universe and US only proves that man still does not know enough about origins and should therefore limit its criticism of religions and God to what science can actually prove.

  • Bobby

    From Wikipedia: “A scientist, in a broad sense, is one engaging in a systematic activity to acquire knowledge.”

    A professional mathematician is easily classified as a scientist according to this standard.

  • Gregory Peterson

    Didn’t Immanuel Kant and David Hume have something interesting to say about proving the existence of God? Hey…18th Century can be said to be relatively recent, considering the age of the world.

  • There’s quite a striking takedown of this post at:

    http://www.evolutionnews.org/2015/01/still_taking_ai092671.html

  • Brian

    The scientific refutation of the thing of nonsense you’ve just quoted as is stated in Toby’s article is that you cannot possibly have a probability value less than zero. Zero is the lowest possible probability value, because it denotes impossibility.

  • Brian

    “Most scientific atheists never prove God does not exist, they just prove that the religious view of God is not valid.”

    We don’t have to prove that god doesn’t exist. We are not making the claim that would fundamentally change our understanding of the nature of universe (everything we know about the universe says that there is no need for a god for the universe to exist and have turned out as is). Theists do, when they claim that there is a god(s) who created the universe and all in it, therefore the burden of proof is on them.

  • Brian

    Oh wow, a creatard webiste. Please come back when you’ve got something that is actually worth reading for its scientific value or level of truthfulness.

  • lpadron

    Patiently awaiting Mr. Tobin’s, who is also not a scientist and probably less qualified to interpret scientific than Mr. Lennox, reply to the post referenced above by Nice Max…..

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    Just like earth’s environment is filled with oxygen and nitrogen molecules, similarly the entire universe is filled with root material and root cause (soul). Both are invisible particles. Soul has consciousness but inert, and the root material is active but unconscious. All objects in the universe are created by their individual souls and from this root material. They all obey the same laws of nature – reincarnation, destiny (birth-maturity-death), and yogic power.

    If you replace god in Bible, or Gita by soul you will not find any contradictions. On the other hand those books will appear more consistent and meaningful. Human soul has tremendous power, same as god, called yogic power. For more details look at https://theoryofsouls.wordpress.com/