Response to Jonathan Sarfati

Dr Ken Smith

On 1 March 2005 I responded to a posting by Rowland Croucher to the Internet newsgroup aus.religion.christian, usually abbreviated to a.r.c  This is not a Christian newsgroup, but is for discussion of various things Christian as they relate to life in Australia.  Because of the passions which can be engendered discussions of two topics, abortion and creationism, are not encouraged, but, since various people insist on bringing creationism in, I (and others) make regular comments, trying to correct creationist errors and misunderstandings in various areas of the physical sciences.

Part of this posting is below, but the relevant part for purposes of this article is that I mentioned John Stear's "No Answers in Genesis" site, or NAiG for short.  Rowland put this post on his widely visited John Mark Ministries site (in a slightly abbreviated form).

Don Batten from "Answers in Genesis" was unhappy that Rowland's site should inform people about the existence of NAiG (he made some other criticisms of me which aren't relevant here: interested people can read his whole posting here) and suggested that people should look at the article Jonathan Sarfati had written.

However, Sarfati had also posted a version of this to the NAiG Guestbook. In this version some, but not all, of the rather vitriolic ad hominem comments of the posting on the creationist site were removed.

I had looked at this earlier, but decided that the two responses on NAiG here and here were adequate.  However, since there was the likelihood of further postings to the newsgroup I looked again, and since my wife was mentioned, I showed her a copy and, to put it mildly, she was not amused.  She has made her own response she is of age and can speak for herself (I am sure that creationists would like me to follow the precedent set in John 9:21), as she has been doing since before we were married in 1955 and you can read what she wrote here.

I'll truncate my earlier posting to a.r.c to just the relevant bit and make some remarks there.  Using the standard > at the start of a line to indicate something quoted on a newsgroup it reads:

 > Another bit of history for people.
> A number of people in Australia have become so concerned about the
> errors being propagated by Answers in Genesis that John Stear set up
> a site index.htm
> with the title "No Answers in Genesis".
> Many people, particularly Australians, have contributed to this site.

One wonders, as a starting point, why the full version of Sarfati's article is found on the True Origins site (another creationist site) rather than on the Answers in Genesis site, but we can leave that for other people to sort out.

Let me just say that my wife's immediate reaction was that Sarfati seems not to be capable of accurately reporting activities within Christian circles, and this simply reinforced her ideas about the lack of reliability one can place on creationist claims.

I should mention that she has no scientific credentials apart from what she has picked up listening to discussions among various groups of Christian scientists (note the lower case "s" on "scientists") over many years.

But here is my response to Sarfati.  First, here is the paragraph about me, from the True Origins site.  It is part of a list of other scientists, and the section is headed:

Profiles of some other Australian Skeptics and others who feature on John Stear's site

Deleting all the others we come to his paragraph about me, and here it is, in full: 

Ken Smith

A retired mathematician, who attends a Baptist church, and former joint Skeptic of the Year for a book he co-edited attacking creation and mocking the Bible.  Hardly a peep from him when his professed religion is attacked in the Skeptic, but he hardly ever misses the chance to write some inflammatory ridicule about those who actually believe the Bible.  For example, Plimer (remember, a former Australian Humanist of the Year), in p. 10 of Telling Lies  for God, gave "special acknowledgement" to Smith among others, and Smith later praised this Bible-mocking book to the skies.  But one would think that a retired mathematician would have realised that pi is an irrational number rather than terminating after five decimal places as Plimer claimed.  But then, if Smith had pointed out this schoolboy-level mistake by Plimer, then one of Plimer's favourite Bible-mocking arguments would collapse, and Smith never seems to want to undermine a skeptical attack on the Bible!  (for answers to this argument, see Does the Bible say pi equals 3.0?)

The version which Sarfati modified, presumably to make it more acceptable to the average non-creationist reader and posted on the NAiG guestbook reads: 

A retired mathematician, who attends a Baptist church, and former joint Skeptic of the Year for a book he co-edited attacking creation and mocking the Bible.  Hardly a peep from him when his professed religion is attacked in the Skeptic, but he hardly ever misses the chance to write some inflammatory ridicule about those who actually believe the Bible. 

Note that approximately two-thirds of the content of the posting to the creationist site, and that all about the value of pi, has now disappeared.  If I made such an egregious error about pi, surely Sarfati would have wanted this trumpeted to the skies, especially among the anti-creationists who regularly refer to NAiG!  In the interests of completeness, the comments which follow are about the full list of his statements about me.

For a start, I'm not sure why he describes me as one "who attends a Baptist church".  I have been a member of a Baptist Church, in NSW or Queensland, since 1949.  Maybe Sarfati wishes to draw some subtle distinction between simply attending a church and being a member, with the few privileges and the many responsibilities that membership brings.  I have no wish to blow my own trumpet unless specifically asked, so I won't mention my other Christian activities here.

In the next part of the first sentence Sarfati immediately attempts to muddy the waters by failing to quote the title of the book.  It was "Creationism: An Australian Perspective".  The subject was creationism, not creation.  Creationism is the idea that the universe was created only about 10,000 years ago, in six days of 24 hours each, and that virtually all the geological strata, with their fossils, were formed in a single year-long deluge, commonly known as Noah's Flood, but sometimes referred to by creationists as "a global hydraulic cataclysm" in an attempt to hide its religious origins.  Creation, as either a theological or scientific term, is quite different.  And the word "creationism" as used in theological discourse is also quite different from what is commonly termed "creationism" these days.  I don't know whether the Answers in Genesis library has a copy of The Macquarie Dictionary, but the theological meaning of "creationism" is given first, then the other meaning.  The only thing the compilers of the dictionary missed was the emphasis among modern creationists on the date and duration of the creation events.

There are two uses of the word  "creation" to be found in science.  The first is as a word with no attached adjective, when it refers to the origin of the universe.  In this sense it can be found in many books, technical as well as popular, about cosmology, as well as meaning 3 in The Macquarie Dictionary.  The other is in the phrase "special creation", which refers to the idea that each of the living organism we see around us was "specially created", usually by a supernatural being of some sort, rather than having evolved from earlier living forms.  I found a reference to this in The Penguin Dictionary of Botany (1984) where the entry read, in full, "See creationism".  This idea held some sway at earlier times but was abandoned by scientists and many religious people early in the 19th century, and finally laid to rest as a viable scientific concept by Charles Darwin.  (There are some minor other uses, such as creation operators in quantum mechanics, but these are irrelevant to the present discussion.)

As for his claim about the book "mocking the Bible", people should read the book for themselves (it is out of print, but with a slightly revised Introduction it is available on a CD from the Australian Skeptics).  Sarfati seems to have difficulty with the concept of freedom of belief.  In the book it is clearly stated that the views of the authors are not necessarily those of the Australian Skeptics, nor are the views of the Australian Skeptics necessarily those of the authors.  If Sarfati wishes to continue stating that the book "mocks the Bible", he is expected to quote relevant extracts from it in support of his claims.  We are familiar with "guilt by association", most famously espoused by Senator McCarthy in USA, and more recently about Muslims, but one would have expected a modicum of Christian charity from members of an organisation such as "Answers in Genesis".

In the next sentence Sarfati writes  "... he hardly ever misses the chance to write some inflammatory ridicule about those who actually believe the Bible."  Sarfati provides one example which might, by a very large stretch of a very fertile imagination, be construed in this way, which I will take up later, but fails to provide even one example of this "inflammatory ridicule" from the pages of The Skeptic or other places.  Can he provide, say,  half a dozen  examples, so that I can make an appropriate response?

The one example he does give is taken from Professor Ian Plimer's book "Telling Lies for God".  Sarfati starts by mentioning the "special acknowledgement" Plimer gave to various people who had provided him with information.  I am listed, with many others, but Sarfati has omitted the context, a technique well-known among creationist writers.  Plimer actually writes "Although the views expressed in this book are my own, special acknowledgment is due to ..." and he lists 28 names and mentions some who prefer to remain anonymous.  Sarfati seems to be ignorant of the canons of scholarly writing.  The standard practice is to thank all those who have contributed in any significant way to the formation of the author's ideas, but only in rare cases have any of these read any portion of the book before publication.  Those who have perused earlier versions of the text receive special mention for this in the "Acknowledgments".

The remainder of Sarfati's item is devoted to a comment about a review I wrote of the book, and criticisms, at some length, that I overlooked a mathematical error Plimer had made.  In fact, I read the relevant pages particularly carefully and was pleased to note that Plimer had obtained at least some of his information about pi, the ratio of the circumference to the diameter of a circle,  from a limerick widely known and appreciated in scientific circles: 

'Tis a favourite project of mine,
A new value of pi to assign,
I would set it at 3,
For it's simpler, you see,
Than 3 point 14159.

Plimer is only one of many scientists who have memorised this to use as a good approximation for the value of pi.  Sarfati made the ill-informed criticism that Plimer stated that the value of pi was exactly 3.14159.  Judging by the length of this part of his article, Sarfati seems to think that because Plimer didn't use the word "approximate" in this part of the book, and I didn't criticise Plimer for this omission, then we are both guilty of some heinous sin.  In fact Plimer was writing about creationists' insistence that the Bible is "inerrant", and the problems this brings, and simply gave one of the commonly used values for pi.  I am very well aware that pi is a transcendental number, not just an irrational one, as Sarfati implies.  But I have also read widely in the history of mathematics, about which Sarfati seems to be rather ignorant.  If the context is read in chapter 7 of the "First Book of Kings", it seems quite clear that the writer had access to various records, since his descriptions of the furnishings of Solomon's Temple seem to be taken from what we would describe today as a collection  of plans and specifications.  These were drawn up around 950 BC.  And what was the widely accepted value of pi in those days?  Mathematical texts are extant from Egypt and Babylonia, and those for the relevant periods both use 3 as the value of pi.  Had the architect used any other value he would doubtless have been dismissed as ignorant and incompetent.

Ever since I first learned a bit of the history of calculations involving pi, at school many years ago, I have been puzzled that so many conservative Christians want to abandon this bit of evidence for the historical nature of the Book of Kings, and try to make it into a modern record.  So if Sarfati wants evidence that the Bible quotes its sources fairly accurately, he will accept that the value used is both approximate (after all, it's good to better than 5%) and appropriate.  Sarfati cited an article by another creationist Russell Grigg.

Those who are interested in such things might like to have a look here for some of the convoluted reasoning adopted by people who insist that the Bible is "inerrant", in trying to make an ancient piece of religious writing into a modern scientific record.  Might I suggest that it would be wise if Sarfati, and other creationists such as Russell Grigg, who also seems to think that pi is simply irrational and makes no mention of its transcendental character, ignored all those attempts which have been made, by well-meaning but historically challenged people, to bring this ancient value of pi into line with more accurately known modern values. 

Finally I will make just one comment on Sarfati's second paragraph, allegedly about me but in fact more about my wife.  Barry Williams in his reply to Sarfati has made a response to this paragraph, and my wife's response is mentioned above.

I'll just add one further point.  Sarfati seems unaware of what the Baptist Union of Queensland actually believes.  He concludes his paragraph with the sentence: 

Presumably they [delegates to the Quarterly Assembly of the Baptist Union of Queensland] were astute enough to realise that such a close connection to the predominately atheistic Skeptics was not a good thing for a president of the Baptist Union which officially believes in biblical inerrancy!

If he takes the trouble to actually look at the Declaration of Principle of the Union, the official doctrinal statement, he won't find any reference to "biblical inerrancy".  It simply states that we believe in "The Divine inspiration and supreme authority of the Old and New Testaments".  The precise interpretation given to these words is a matter of liberty of conscience, one of the most fiercely defended beliefs of those who call themselves Baptists.  Baptists do not have any equivalent of the Pope, to provide them with some "inerrant" set of doctrines, or an "inerrant" interpretation of the Bible, despite the efforts of some to insist that the only "Christian" interpretation of Genesis is the one they have adopted from Mrs Ellen G. White.  But that's another story.