How do scientists communicate with each other? What are the latest research results? How can one learn about theories and how they are regarded by the scientific community? Where can you talk to scientists about their work? A partial answer to all of these questions is: scientific conferences. It is possible to stay somewhat current within a particular area of interest by subscribing to scientific journals, but journals are a one-sided conversation and often don’t even tell all of that side. So research publications can only take you so far with respect to having a full grasp of the significance of recent discoveries.
Social media sites like Twitter allows anyone to hear about very current results and ideas from conferences but this is still a far cry from personal attendance. Being at a scientific conference allows for true interaction. It is at these conferences that someone can ask professors and students directly about their work and get to hear them talk more openly about the challenges of their research. There are frequently formal banquets and lunches in which issues in the discipline are brought up and discussed. There are poster sessions were researchers are available to discuss the particulars of their work. These are all great opportunities for anyone interested to find out more about how the data was collected and how it is being interpreted.
Asking questions and then being able to follow-up those questions with other scientists and getting to know the person behind the research are indispensable tools for obtaining a complete understanding the current state of scientific research. How important is conference attendance? Faculty assessing job candidates and tenure and promotions packages pay attention to community engagement as a means of assessing a scientists contributions to their field and as a predictor of how well they will stay current in their research and teaching.
On a broader level, the maintenance of a thriving and healthy scientific community depends greatly on the ability and willingness of researchers to engage in open dialogue and share experiences. This isn’t just true for the sciences but could be said of the social sciences and even faith communities. Pastors who just read theology books but don’t interact with other pastors at conferences or other gatherings are missing out on a large element of personal and spiritual growth.
Challenging yourself by learning from leaders in your chosen profession
I was motivated to write about the importance of attending scientific conferences when I noticed who was attending the American Association of Physical Anthropologists (AAPA) annual meeting held in Atlanta Georgia this past week: Dr. Todd Wood. If you don’t know the name, that may be because Dr. Wood is not a famous anthropologist. Dr. Wood has a B.S. in Biology from Liberty University and a Ph.D in Biochemistry from the University of Virginia. He has been involved in research, published papers and been employed at the Clemson University Genomics Institute as a professor at Bryan College, and most recently heads up an organization called the Core Academy of Science (http://www.coresci.org/). But most notably he is a young earth creationists. He isn’t a big-name creationist a la Ham, Snelling, Morris, etc., but he is something that they don’t appear to be – serious about knowing what is happening in science and seriously excited about learning new things.
Unlike the vast majority of his YEC colleagues*, Dr. Wood attends secular scientific conferences. He has been attending Society for Evolution annual meetings for many years and this year he joined this large gathering of anthropologists for their annual meeting. There, hundreds of talks were given by anthropologists and related professionals describing ongoing research projects happening all over the world. This year a highlight of the meeting was more than a dozen talks providing more details about the large group of hominid bones found deep in a South African cave – the Homo naledi discovery. These bones have elicited a lot of speculation about their origins and so the chance to hear brand new results on many aspects of the bones that had not yet been reported was highly anticipated. I’ve written about these several times (most recently: Bones of Contention IV: A YEC Homo naledi status scorecard).
Dr. Wood doesn’t just attend these meetings to pick up soundbites he can use to scold evolutionists with, but out of a love of learning. He wants to know what the best and brightest are doing and saying. Yes, he holds to a different interpretive framework for the evidence than that he encounters at these meetings but that doesn’t mean he or any other YEC can’t attend and interact with researchers with whom they don’t share a common interpretation of the data.
I find Dr. Wood’s writing to be very informative and engaging. In my opinion he has produced the most insightful work among all young earth creationists. I am looking forward to his paper on the Homo naledi fossils which is sure to be a much more thorough analysis than those provided by Answers in Genesis or the Institute for Creation Research. Sure, I think some of his interpretations are wrong but I have to respect the fact he doesn’t hide the data he doesn’t like. He confronts the latest research and he is open about where the data – as currently known and understood – don’t work in favor of the young earth view.
I can’t stress enough how important it is that he keeps himself up-to-date with the latest findings and works to fully understand current theories in science. This has lent him – possibly not to his liking or benefit – more praise from outside of creationist’ circles than within them.
Answers in Genesis needs to follow Dr. Wood’s example
Ken Ham makes the bold claim that the vast majority of Christian and non-Christian geologist and biologist have misunderstood and misinterpreted evidence in an effort to suppress the proper interpretation of Bible. To support this claim he employs a small group of scientists who regularly write articles that “refute” 200 years of bad science and respond to the latest hot scientific stories.
His staff, though many have advanced degrees, are frequently asked to respond to scientific research far from their area of expertise (eg. Dr. Mortenson, who is not a geologist or biologists writing about Stone-Age artifacts or Dr. Purdom, a molecular geneticists writing about evolutionary theory). Ken Ham has never been involved in scientific research. I don’t get the sense, reading his blog, that he ever reads any original research papers but rather relies on learning about the latest discoveries from Fox News summaries or Science Daily reports. Popular press articles which are very unreliable sources. Reading the original research articles is much better but even then that still only gets you a bit closer to the original data. You can still fall short of really understanding many theories and the meaning of the latest results by reading alone. Journal articles are frequently the synthesis of a lot of work but often only present a very small window into the full scope of the complexities of a research project. This is why attending professional conferences is so critical to fully engaging ideas and being conversant in science.
I would submit that no one can make bold claims with any authority that “all the evidence points to a young earth” and that there is no evidence for evolution if they are not intimately familiar with the evidence and have a working knowledge of how that evidence is interpreted. By not having a good understanding of the evidence, Ken Ham preserves some form of plausible ignorance and can make his claims with a clean conscious. However, as the leader of a movement that seeks to provide an alternative understanding of geological history, he and his employees have a responsibility to be well-informed actively participants in science not simply by-standers taking chip-shots. The millions of Christians that are expecting answers to their questions assume those answers are coming from people that have a deep understanding of the topics they discuss and are providing them with an accurate assessment.
Small cost – big benefits
I believe there were be many benefits to AiG employees to attend scientific conferences and the cost – about $2500 per conference – is but a tiny fraction of the AiG budget so they can surely afford the investment. It is a small price to pay for Ken Ham to tout that his scientists are keeping up with the latest developments of science. Ken Ham should send Dr. Snelling to an AGS meeting every year and Drs. Purdom and Jeanson to the Evolution Society meetings each year. A $7500 investment to have them learn a lot of geology and biology that is more relevant to the responsibilities of their employment than their past education. Dr. Snelling is the editor of the AiG “research” journal so he should definitely be spending more time interacting with secular research rather than just reading about it since most of the articles in the journal he edits are critiques of secular science rather than original creation research.
If AiG scientists are going to present an alternative viewpoint to conventional theories then they must understand those secular theories very well to be able to both test their own ideas and to present their arguments in an effective way. This is the reason that Todd Wood is often times very effective in his argumentation. He is far more familiar with how science functions, the data themselves and the fine points of current debates. As a result he doesn’t make silly statements and gross over-generalizations as many YEC writers are prone to do.
Some big downsides to attending scientific conferences
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the some significant downsides to attending conferences. By getting up close and personal with current research and the people that are doing the work it will be far more difficult for them to make blanket negative statements about the character of scientists and the quality of their work. Either consciously or unconsciously by not engaging in conversation and having a personal relationship with those whom they criticize from afar, they dehumanize the opposition.
They will find out that many scientist are very thoughtful and are capable of discussing the significance of their data. They will find out they aren’t simply out to undermine God with every breath the utter and every word they write. They will discover first-hand the depth of the scientific evidence against a young earth and they will realize that the data are not kind to their position. The data aren’t just made up by scientists hell-bent on proving the earth is old but rather the data are real and abundant and interpreted in a logical and reasonable way.
In other words, by attending conferences and really listening to talks and meeting with scientists they will be placed in a situation where they will see and hear things they can’t unsee and unhear. And this is why Ken Ham doesn’t want them there. By all appearances and from personal experience he doesn’t allow his employees to engage in any significant interactions with non-Christian scientist and especially compromising Christian scientists. The latter are the most dangerous and are to be avoided at all costs because their words are from the devil and can’t be trusted. This behavior is common in insular organizations such as AiG. The more isolated the members become the more distanced they are from the real world. As a result it becomes more and more difficult from members to critique each other and to understand the outside world which makes their critiques of that world less and less reliable as well.
The reduction of contact and dehumanization of the opposition is a tried and true technique for maintaining fealty to a leader or movement. In recent years AiG has become increasingly isolated from world – just as they preach that they must – but since they are in the business of providing responses to the secular world they have to engage that world to understand it lest they just provide answers to strawmen they have created.
Finding truth wherever it might be found
Some parting words about engaging science and finding awe in learning about creation rather than treating it like a problem that needs to be solved. These words come from the blog of Dr. Todd Wood. Upon returning from taking in the entire annual anthropology conference he wrote some thoughts about what he learned there. Here is a bit about what he said about learning about human evolution.
“Still, it seems like a creationist ought to have something to say about all this human evolution and fossil and genetics business. A few thoughts come to mind. First, it’s a lot to take in. Listening to the standard creationist rhetoric, you might think that “all the evidence supports creation,” but the reality is a lot more complicated. I do believe in the end that it will all make sense within the creationist paradigm, but in the here and now, it’s not always obvious how to interpret this or that piece of data. The story of human origins is much, much more challenging than just affirming a “historical Adam.”
Dr. Wood is challenged by the data he sees. He is able to maintain his faith and beliefs even while challenged by the data. This is partly because he has developed a healthy respect for science and has always been able to hear all the data and not feel that he has to have every answer right away.
He ends his post in a way that I truly wish I could say I thought all the time and am glad he reminds me of why I became a scientists.
“At the end of the day, I’m an explorer. I’m standing on the edge of an amazing frontier. Every new fossil discovery is another corner of that frontier opened up. Every new genome sequenced is a map to parts hitherto unknown. I say we have nothing to fear. I say let’s go explore!”
To this I say – Amen!
Cover image credit: NASA Ames
* I am not claiming that no other YECs have attended professional conferences. ICR scientists have given talks at AGS (American Geological Society) meetings in the past and I am sure a few others have attended other conferences in areas of biology. My concern here is that attendance means making a earnest effort to get to know the science not just doing it to say you have gone or giving a talk so that it looks good on the resume.