Saturday, August 25, 2007

How about a little fire, Scarecrow?

Sometimes it's hard to tell when someone is just being facetious. Or rather I should say that while it's not difficult to detect, it's difficult to know how seriously to take a facetious argument when it's simply setting up a series of straw men and then sarcasticly knocking them down.

Blogger morbo tries to scare the creationalist* birds away which, while perhaps a noble endeavor, leads him into all manner of scarecrow-building. I'd normally not comment** at all, except that such a fine series is seldom found in one post. And I have to admire his ability in that respect.

Quoth he:
... the Bible makes so many other scientific claims that, by [Creationalist] logic, should also be taught in public schools.

For example, consider the claim that certain languages have a common origin. According to the Book of Genesis, God created all of the languages in the world during that fracas at the Tower of Babel. So why do we allow linguists to lead our young people astray by talking about the Latin roots of certain English words?
The reason that this is such a fine straw man is that it stuffs just enough truth in this scarecrow to get the non-Bible reader hooked. The Bible does say that God confounded the original, single human language at Babe, but it doesn't say the result was "all the languages in the world including modern English." Obviously, at the time of the episode (let's say 5 millennia ago) or even at the time Moses included it in his new bestseller (3+ millennia ago) there was no English. What the Bible does not say but which can be reasonably concluded by those who take Babel as an historical episode (as I do) is that the process begun at Babel did not end there. To insist that a literalist ought to believe that English is a static remnant of Babel is a straw man.
Also this: Genesis 1:16 claims that the moon gives off light. The passage reads, “And God made two great lights; the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night. He made the stars also.”
And we still say, Over in the bushes and off to the right, two men talkin' in the pale moon light. Sheriff John Brady and Deputy Hedge, haulin' two limp bodies down to the water's edge.

Warrant may be lying to us about the bodies in the wishing well, but no one will doubt that they are simply using a figure of speech to explain how they saw the errant lawmen. The moon does give off light even though it does not originate that light, an interpretation well within the limits of Genesis' prose***. But when you force and then defeat an interpretation that no one actually holds, that's a textbook straw man.
The Bible has much more to teach us about science, history and even math. Did you know, for example, that pi equals three? Why aren’t we teaching this controversy?
The conundrum of Hiram's bowl (1Kings 7:23) reads like this:
And [Hiram] made a molten bowl, ten cubits from the one brim to the other. It was round all about and five cubits high. A line of thirty cubits compassed it round about.
So here was have a circle with a diameter of 10 and a circumference of 30, which proves that the Bible claims pi = 3 when we know it's 3.14159 and something.

In all fairness, Morbo here links to a piece that links to a piece that does give a decent answer to this conundrum. There are others (like here, which I consider a $50 solution to a 5c problem) as well. But I would rather like to show that the value of pi is 3, or rather that 3 is exactly the number we should expect to get for pi, given the data we have:
  • The diameter of the bowl is 10. How many significant digits is that? 1 (2 if we want to push it, but "it is impossible"**** to prove that, and we're all scientists here so we'll stick with what we can prove).
  • The circumference of the bowl is 30. How many significant digits is that? 1.
  • What is pi to 1 significant digit? It's 3. QED
Remember, we're dealing with a non-technical description of an item of art measured in a somewhat undefined***** length (not unlike a "hand's breadth," also a measurement used in the passage) and which is probably rounded off. It is frankly imposing on the text to presume that 10 cubits means 10.00 cubits. It could just as easily be 9.5. Or 10.412367943. Or 14. Context people, context. Imposing on the text creates a straw man, in this case because no literalist claims the Bible says pi = 3; only those looking for errors make that claim.

Morbo's argument is that if creationalists are going to take the Bible 'literally' then there's a whole bunch of other stuff they ought to be arguing for as well. The fact that they don't means one of two things: either they are inconsistent or he is forcing a different interpretation on 'literally' than the literalists (and we'll conflate creationalists with literalists here just to humor him) themselves do.

He's pretty sure of the first, but I know which one my money is going on.

* To quote Bloomberg. And as regular readers will doubtless have noticed, I've never argued in favor of creationalism being taught as science (it's not) and I'm not going to start now.

** mostly because I think much of his straw-stuffing is being done on purpose to make a point. That said, I've seen his examples presented seriously in enough places that I would probably address them some time. Why not today?

*** Of course, this is where my argument gets in trouble, because he's going to claim that for consistency's sake those who take Genesis "literally" can't simultaneously take it for prose - as I do - they must mean the moon is the same manner of "light" as the sun when it's not. But they don't claim that; nor, to my knowledge, did *any* ancient astronomer no matter their knowledge of or interpretation of the Bible. I also checked both Josephus and Philo - not astronomers but an historian and a Jewish philosophizer - and neither hold such an interpretation. But he is perhaps correct that literalists are inconsistent, at least according to his understanding of literalism.

**** "Zeroes at the end of a number are significant only if they are behind a decimal point as in (c). Otherwise, it is impossible to tell if they are significant. For example, in the number 8200, it is not clear if the zeroes are significant or not. The number of significant digits in 8200 is at least two, but could be three or four. "

***** A cubit is the distance from a man's elbow to the tip of his fingers. What's that in millimeters?

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