To what extent should we assume good faith?

In the discussion Critique of the video Genesis Impact @jpm said this:

There are some times when we should be assuming good faith on the part of YECs, especially when they are new to more informed conversations about science and faith. I have friends and relatives who have no scientific background who haven’t a clue what I’m talking about when I discuss these things. I wouldn’t expect any of them to see what’s wrong with asking questions such as “if we evolved from monkeys then why are still monkeys” for example.

On the other hand, there are other times when we face clear-cut cases of dishonesty. When I hear arguments from PhD scientists, speaking within their own area of expertise, that clearly flout the basic principles of GCSE mathematics, or that are clearly contradicted by their own photographs, for example, these are people who quite clearly should know better. They don’t have the luxury of the excuse of ignorance.

The problem is knowing where to draw the line. Sometimes we have to respond to bad arguments and falsehoods for the benefit of other people in the conversation, or people who are just looking on. But there have been times when I’ve taken it too far and continued to respond to them long after the conversation ceased to be productive. Proverbs 26:4 says “Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you yourself will be just like him,” and when it all starts going round and round in circles, it just makes both sides look bad.

So my question is: at what point do you draw the line and conclude that someone is approaching the discussion in bad faith? My own litmus test is how they respond to Deuteronomy 25:13-16. When I first started quoting that verse of Scripture to YECs, I expected them to at least make some attempt to justify the YEC approach to weights and measures, or at the very least to respond with tu quoque, “but evolutionists tell lies too.” I didn’t expect them to respond by telling me that I was taking those verses out of context, or by otherwise denying their relevance. To me, such a response crosses a rubicon and indicates to me that the people making it know fine that they aren’t telling the truth but are just demanding that we endorse demonstrable falsehood anyway.

Is this a reasonable assessment? Is there anything else that I should be taking into account? At what point do you disengage with people who are approaching conversations such as these in bad faith, and how do you do so?

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Maybe there is a blinding or blinders that only allows the individual to see and affirm the party line, and anything and everything else is ignored as being irrelevant, so it is not and cannot be included in their thinking, even if it is eminently reasonable. It has the appearance of deliberately being untruthful, but given their presuppositions and vocabulary, maybe it is not.

Take the meaning of the word secular – many if not most YECs cannot get their heads around the idea that it is not synonymous with atheistic. The party’s glossary says that it is, so any discussion is doomed from the start, as we have current evidence. When that becomes obvious and the very most fundamental meanings of words are not understood or agreed upon, walking away (with varying degrees of exasperation ; - ) may be the only wise choice.

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When I see the Gish Gallop I sometimes lose faith in the conversation. If I use 2 or 3 arguments from a website I think has solid arguments, and then I watch them get shot down with ease, one after the other, I would take pause and really start to question the arguments I am getting from that website. However, if my purpose is just to put up a smoke screen of arguments without caring about their accuracy, then I would keep posting those bad arguments as quickly as I can.

I also lose a bit of faith in other people when they make claims that could easily be checked by a 5 second Google search. This example is not nearly as egregious as the Gish Gallop, but it does make me question how honest they are in what they say. For example, have YEC’s ever typed “hominid transitional fossils” into a Google search? Have they ever gone to the images tab and just paged through them for about 30 seconds?

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I agree with you that we need to disengage when a discussion is not in good faith. If everyone would work on that a bit, it would make the job of moderating a lot easier! But that perhaps is a bit of a tangent.
Personally, it is really irritating when it becomes obvious the intent is to preach one’s view, not to honestly engage in discussion. If someone approaches a topic with humility and openness to learn, it is a lot easier to forgive mistaken assumptions. Perhaps we have a bit easier job in discussion with YEC adherents, as many of us were in their shoes at one time and have considered the arguments before, and sometimes have even argued the same points, whereas evolution is a bit more abstract and complicated. Sort of like the difference in Newtonian physics and relativity. Newtonian physics can describe a planet’s orbit in plain terms that child could understand, but relativity can explain it much more exactly.

Ultimately, if someone is making no effort to understand an opposing argument, even if not convinced, shows no desire to learn anything new, and lacks the humility to admit they may be wrong, I think it would be wise to withdraw from the conversation.

Even then, I admit I get sucked in, and read comments that I just can’t leave alone without a rebuttal all the time. Fortunately, if I delay a few minutes, I find someone else has already made my point!

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I have watched you issue these challenges with interest too, James; and please correct me if I missed something but; If I’m not mistaken you have not received even just one response to that challenge, have you! It speaks volumes to me when the “responses” from YECs here totally ignore 90% of the points made in a prior post (including never giving any answer to your ‘weights and measures’ challenge) and instead pivot immediately to other talking points (or even just repeat what they’ve already said - without any support). Another response that has seen recent popularity around here is to ignore everything just written and reply with a “scripture barrage” that fails to engage with or answer anything others have been talking about.

The one thing to keep in mind is that YEC people who do venture in here are so vastly outnumbered in this particular space that they typically have half a dozen challengers responding to them at once. So nobody can reasonably expect them to give answer to every challenge thrown their way. But it should never be too much to ask that they at least respond to some challenge, or at least even just one or two points.

[I’m tempted to take their complete silence in regard to the “honest measurement” imperative as a concession on their part that they know in their hearts what you speak is true - and that they cannot productively concede that and still defend the indefensible. So they pivot immediately to anything else.]

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There aren’t too many (as in none that I recall) that are willing to pick up the Jeremiah verse, either:

This is what the LORD says: If I have not established my covenant with the day and the night and the fixed laws of heaven and earth…

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I always assume good faith. Because it goes to motivation. In which fear is the key; survival of identity, ego. Even in ‘lying’ Ph.D.s. The superglue of money bonds the good faith born of folk epistemology. The internet is a discourse aberration from family in particular. There is no kinship, no love, no relationship to maintain. I have one stepson who is a holocaust denier and another who is a flat earther. For real. In secular England. I do everything to maintain the relationship as we are not in the market place of ideas.

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I think the nearest that I’ve got to an attempt to justify YECs’ approaches to measurement was about a week ago in a discussion about Steve Austin’s dating of Mount St Helens dacite. I explained how error bars work, the difference between random and systematic errors, and that readings of 2 million years do not justify claims that other readings a hundred times larger could also be, to all intents and purposes, zero. The response that I got was an assertion, without any reasoning to justify it whatsoever, that they do.

I pointed out that this was like having a set of bathroom scales with a zero error that made them read 0.3kg, then stepping on a completely different set of bathroom scales and concluding that when you get a reading of 90kg, that could mean that you weigh nothing. So far I haven’t had a response to that.

This is something that I find particularly frustrating with YECs. When addressing their claims, it’s not complicated stuff about geology or anthropology that I have to explain, it’s the most basic fundamentals of how measurement and mathematics work. Stuff that gets taught to teenagers when they’re still at school. Stuff that’s foundational to every area of science, whether you call it “operational” or “historical”. But time and time again, I find that I’m having to explain these fundamental, elementary basics even to YECs with university degrees in science. And I’ve never had a meaningful response to any of these explanations that didn’t consist of either a flat-out denial without giving any reasoning, or changing the subject.

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As a fundamentalist of over 26 years, I followed the leader. When they deconstructed, exponentially acceleratingly, I was in the 50%+ who could follow. Nothing external, under any circumstances, could have touched me in all that that I was aware of. I’d have just doubled down. I suffered loss of identity. Wept for it. That was just the beginning. I still do having lost nearly all since in another 26 years.

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Hi, James -

Some thoughtful responses here thus far, and I’ll add a thought or two of my own, if that’s OK. First off, I frequently marvel at your own patience in going back & forth with some of our YEC visitors. It’s a level of patience that I certainly don’t have. I usually think of these folks, including our friend referenced in the other thread that you mentioned, as the forum’s YEC of the month. It seems like a guy like that comes along about every month to try to set the rest of us here straight. And most of them have no idea that they’re in way over their heads, dueling w/ guys like you who have worked hard for their own graduate degrees in some field of the natural sciences. And they never offer up a single original thought; the rest of us have heard it all before…many times.

But to your point, I’d submit that there’s something of a litmus test for honesty on the part of our YEC bomb throwers, and it’s this: let’s agree upon a hypothetical number for a possible age of the universe, north of which no committed YEC would allow. For example, the upper limit of an acceptable age of the universe for most YEC’s is perhaps 8,000 years, and even that assumes about a 30% aggregate math error in Archbishop Ussher’s old chronological calculations based upon the genealogies of Genesis 5 & 11, etc. So let’s take that number and double it to 16,000 years, just to stress that we’re not being cute about it, and let’s then ask a straightforward yes or no question – do you, our YEC friend, allow for the possibility in your own thinking that someone could present to you scientific evidence that is so compelling that something in the universe is north of 16,000 years old, that you would realize that you have no choice but to concede that your YEC model is wrong? Do you allow for such a possibility in your own thinking? Notice that YEC’s have set themselves up here with a really low bar. We’re not proving the validity of biological evolution or big bang cosmology, just that the universe – or something in it – is north of 16,000 years old.

How one answers that question is vital. If the answer is “no,” then one is conceding that the YEC model is not a scientific question at all, at least in that individual’s own approach. The likely reason is that that individual’s position is that any such non-YEC compatible scientific claims violate the infallible truth of God’s word. If scientific information must first pass through one’s theological filter in order to be believed or not, than the issue is not about the validity of that scientific information; it’s about the makeup of that theological filter, and thus the whole question is now a theological question rather than a scientific one. And that’s fine if one wishes to hold that position. There’s a rich discussion that can be had there, much of it centering around biblical exegesis approaches and the like. But none of it has anything to do with radiometric dating or biological evolution or transitional fossils. After all, one has just admitted that if somebody dug up millions of compelling transitional fossils next week, it wouldn’t change his mind.

But if our YEC friend answers “yes” to our question above – that is, given sufficient evidence, he or she would concede that the earth/universe are much older than the YEC model claims – the issue now becomes a scientific question, including whether such a burden of proof has been met already. And our YEC friends thus now have some pretty heavy lifting to do if they wish to provide evidence to support their own positions, and submitting them for peer review.

I suspect that if most of YEC advocates are honest, they’d answer “no” to the question at hand. It’s really a biblical exegesis issue for most of them, and all that quasi-scientific stuff put out there by AiG and the like is just window dressing. But what’s maddening is that most of the YEC’s of the month around here aren’t honest, and they effectively engage in circular arguments. I’m willing to offer up out of the gate that my own answer to the converse question is “yes” – that is, I’m willing for someone to prove to me scientifically that the universe is six or seven thousand years old. Of course there’s the caveat that they’ve got their work cut out for them.

My final thing to add here is that it’s my own position that “creation science” has been a catastrophic boondoggle for conservative protestants, going back to Henry Morris in the 1960’s. If one just reads through the Apostles & Nicene creeds as the core beliefs of the Christian faith, there’s a good bit in there that’s quite frankly crazy – a virgin being impregnated by the God who created the universe, resurrection of the dead, eternal life in some new physical bodily form – all of that’s pretty nuts if you really stop and think about it. Yet all of us who are Christians accept those things as mysteries of the faith, even though we don’t allow for similar beliefs in any other facet of our lives. For example, if the teenager across the street gets pregnant, under no circumstances are you inclined to believe that God’s behind it.

And perhaps the primary reason that we believe those crazy things is because they’re articulated in the scriptures. So if a Christian also wants to hold a YEC perspective, because he/she believes strongly that this, too is claimed in the scriptures, I really wouldn’t argue. They can simply say, “Yeah, I know the YEC position is unsupported by modern science, but so is resurrection of the dead, and we Christians all believe that.”

Yet there’s no Institute for Virgin Birth Research, nor an Institute for Bodily Resurrection Research. It’s just the creation angle that got built into this quasi-scientific enterprise, and it’s unfortunately done a good bit of harm to the church here in the States.

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There’s a difference between YECism and the Resurrection or the Virgin Birth. Extraordinary though the Resurrection and the Virgin Birth may be, we don’t have evidence that actively contradicts them. Imagine discovering, for example, that the ancient Romans had had CCTV cameras, that some of their footage had been preserved, and that the footage in question included an illicit liaison between Mary and another man in a hotel somewhere. Or that it included views from multiple angles of Jesus’s disciples coming in the middle of night and stealing His body from the tomb. Sure, we may not have CCTV footage of the dinosaurs or of Lucy or Homo naledi, but the evidence that we do have is still that strong in terms of how actively it contradicts YECism. We have radiometric dating. We have lake varves, ice cores, tree rings, chemostratigraphy, lead in zircon crystals, distant starlight, distant galaxy collisions, you name it. Multiple lines of evidence that contradict a young earth every bit as forcefully as CCTV footage.

I remember the time when I was “a guy like that.”

It was my second year at university, and I was in a Bible study group being led by a geology student. The Bible passage we were discussing was Romans 1, which of course contains verses 18-23, which of course I took to refer to “evolutionist” scientists who were overlooking the clearly obvious flaws in the three basic assumptions of radiometric dating. I was all ready to go in with all guns blazing to take it down.

He responded to me by saying, “Look, I’ve read all that young earth stuff. It is a joke.” I’ll never forget the way he emphasised the word “joke.” He continued: “I’ve read some of their papers and they take, like, two shells that they find on a beach somewhere and from that claim that the whole scientific community has been getting it completely wrong for over a century. It’s laughable.” His emphasis of the word “laughable” was similarly unforgettable.

Then he showed me his lecture notes on isochron dating.

I sat there staring at his notes in stunned silence for ten whole minutes. I’d never heard of isochron dating before. None of the young earth takedowns of radiometric dating that I’d read had even mentioned it. But now, here he was, telling me that radiometric dating does not make the assumptions that YECs claim that it makes.

I learned two important lessons that day. First, if you are going to challenge a scientific theory, you need to make sure you are challenging what researchers in the field actually do in reality, and not an over-simplification of it. Second, if the challenge you are reading is expressed in terms that an A level student can understand, what you are seeing debunked is almost certainly an oversimplification and not the actual theory itself.

It seems that most of our YECs of the month have a bit of difficulty learning those two important lessons.

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I appreciate your thoughts and interactions. You are probably far beyond me in many areas. This shows that you were willing to reconsider your position quickly–faster than many of us that reason more with our hearts.

However, I realize, too, that if someone tells me that I have been lying (even if I have been less than rigorous with the facts), I shut down and become defensive pretty quickly. The reason is that the word carries such strong connotations. Many YEC interact their way because they have other motives–(preventing people going to Hell, honoring the godly folks who told them otherwise about the fact of the Earth, a true belief that the Bible’s account, as I understand it, must trump everything else–these are things literally taught to me in my elementary and middle school Christian texts, and even by my own pastor currrently). In our minds, there are many things that cause us to say untrue things, without an intent to “lie,” per se.

As a result, the label seems to stir personal feelings, rather than an ability to impersonally assess the facts.

I can expect to shut down a relationship, and say goodbye to discussion of logic, with anyone I tell has dealt dishonestly with the facts. Practically, it seems more helpful to note, as you have, that we all struggle with this–place the facts before them–and use words like “inconsistent with the facts,” etc.

I have been greatly struggling with this lately in terms of Covid. I still hear belligerent people in my community–many of them fellow Christians or even family members–angrily calling scientists and colleagues “liars” and accusing us of going out of our way to start a new world, socialist order on pretext of preventing Covid. “Build Back” - for Better or for Worse? - American Decency

I have, just in the last week, been excessively blunt in my responses to people bringing these sorts of objections up. I really need prayer on how to respond best.

I do think that some people–maybe a significant portion–can respond well to blunt response. However, most (like me) can’t tell when that is.

I would love to read a psychologist’s take on that.

Thanks, again, for your teaching. Your resources and sensitivity are exemplary.

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Good point.

I think there’s also a bit of a tendency to over-spiritualise the concept of lying itself. The Bible tells us that it is the devil who is the father of lies, so that means it’s all too easy to view lying solely as referring to things that appear to contradict the Bible (or that contradict what we think the Bible is saying). With that kind of mindset it’s all too easy to lose sight of the fact that misrepresenting physical evidence, quote mining, exaggerating, or fudging calculations is lying as well. That is why I’m so keen to emphasise things such as the Bible’s demands for accurate and honest weights and measures. It tells us that the Bible’s own concept of what constitutes honesty and what constitutes lying is firmly grounded in physical reality.

One point I’ve been making a lot lately is that honesty has rules, and if someone doesn’t want to be called a liar, they need to stick to the rules. while at the same time if they’re going to accuse someone of lying, they need to explain which of the rules are being broken. Having said that, they do need to know and understand what the rules are. I would generally give a lot of slack to someone who left school at sixteen and hasn’t set foot in a laboratory since. Pastors and teachers need to be held to a higher standard though, because they are in a position of trust, and need to be making a good-faith effort to fact check what they are teaching to the best of their ability. And trained scientists need to be held to the highest standards of all, because their pastors and church leaders will often be depending on them for guidance on these subjects.

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Yes, I think that’s a big key. The Bible can’t contradict itself if it’s true. The only caveat is that I think that my pastor (as sincere as he is) would say that we can’t be seeing the things in this world accurately if our measurements contradict what he reads in the Bible. That is easier for non-science people to say–especially if their degree, or life study, is in Scripture.

My desire for certainty tempts me to say, de facto, that the Bible’s message must be simple, and must be what I read in it with my Western eyes. It’s really hard to give that easy certainty up.

I am afraid that realization that things aren’t so simple, and that fundamentalism can given an untrue interpretation, will send people away from the church.

The mindset that everything has to have a “good” or “bad” origin, such as the “just world hypothesis” fits in with that mindset you are describing. It’s not easy to realize that things are just the way they are–not good or bad, but not easy to understand, either. I like Lee McIntyre’s note

A more popular consensus seems to be that conspiracy theories are a coping mechanism that some people use to deal with feelings of anxiety and loss of control in the face of large, upsetting events. The human brain does not like random events, because we cannot learn from and therefore cannot plan for them. When we feel helpless (due to lack of understanding, the scale of an event, its personal impact on us, or our social position), we may feel drawn to explanations that identify an enemy we can confront. This is not a rational process, and researchers who have studied conspiracy theories note that those who tend to “go with their gut” are the most likely to indulge in conspiracy-based thinking. This is why ignorance is highly correlated with belief in conspiracy theories. When we are less able to understand something on the basis of our analytical faculties, we may feel more threatened by it.

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People are complex. It is possible to be both a sincere Christian, and a thief, or in some cases a con man. I know loving Christians who have questionable business practices, They have a fish on their business cards but don’t do the work as promised, whereas the guy down the street who drinks, smokes and cusses gets the job done. Organizations reflect this, and when an organization depends on a narrow interpretation for survival, and any deviation from it would cause financial ruin not only for one’s self, but the extended family working there, loss of power, prestige and honor, and a failed legacy, one can rationalize a lot of things to stick to your guns on that interpretation. And, we are all weak and might well do the same thing. So, we have to give a little grace.
At this point, I try to never pick fights, but when they come to your house, see no problem with defending yourself. To get back to the title question, I think when you conclude that the conversation is not in good faith, the problem is whether to just withdraw, or to confront. It may vary with the circumstance, like Proverbs states, and we need to pray for wisdom.

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Hey, James McKay!
This is a really important question, and it certainly fits many of the posts I’ve seen here lately. The heat has been turned up!
I have marveled at the amount of work you put into your replys to people, who clearly don’t read them or care to think about what you say. I do understand how disheartening it is to put so much work into clear communication about detailed and challenging topics, and then realize it was probably not even read, much less digested.
A few thoughts relating to your question:

  • You can often tell pretty quickly, if the other person is reading well what you wrote. Did they come close to spending as much time reading and digesting as you did thinking and composing? If not, consider if spending much more of your time is a valuable investment.
  • Some of these conversations look like a Kung Fu movie fight sequence to me, the non-science outsider. No one person can be engaging thoughtfully with more than one person at a time on the topics you all are covering, although they may try to make it look like they can. Force the other person (and yourself) to slow down by withholding replies for even a day. Go breathe, and enjoy your day. Let other folks in the forum have a crack at it. Pray for the other person.
  • As verbose as I can be, I will say, “Less is more.” Don’t allow them to pull you into every rabbit hole. Focus a discussion on one thing (at a time) you think is key. Bring them back to it repeatedly. Even be clear, “We aren’t done with this first thing. It’s not time to go on to the snipe hunt you just brought up.”
  • It often looks like YECs who come here are working off some sort of script or fixed body of “knowledge”. You’ve noticed it, too, because you point out commonly used YEC false arguments. I think, much like the folks who knock on my front door, they have learned a script and specific line of reasoning, which they are not trained to think beyond. I have asked some off script questions in the last few months, and they were simply ignored, although they were relevant to the conversation. My guess is that, when these types of questions are left unanswered, it’s largely because the person just doesn’t know what to do with them and is far more motivated to regurgitate something they feel like they “know.”

Finally, try not to get pulled into the whirlwind. You know that the stakes are not what these folks believe them to be. They think they are fighting for their eternal souls and believe we are here to lead them to perdition. The ornrey ones are not ready to think differently, and they don’t have a trusted geologist friend like you did, who was able to both deal with science and scripture faithfully. Sometimes it helps to ignore people for a while, so you can breathe. It’s ok to do that.

I think a lot of us here appreciate the hard work you put into teaching here. And other people you never hear from do, too. They’re learning from reading what you write.

Stay cool. You’re doing great.
KD

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I’ve been amazed at how patient you’ve been about it and I like your test question. Of course, it is easy for me to say but I think you should leave off at any point at which it becomes unpleasant or uninteresting for you. In general I try to always start by assuming good faith but if I come to doubt that I look for greener pastures unless the person is especially important to me.

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“These days the forum seems to be bloated with YEC gas.”
It will pass. :wink:
I am sure that is because of the articles. It is sort of ironic that the AIG articles probably sent a lot of people here. Hopefully with good effect to help some see we are not quite the force of darkness projected. In any case, it is good to hear different people voice their questions and concerns, and hopefully will result in better understanding on both sides of the ball. (Gotta get a football analogy in there, being Super Bowl weekend.)

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If it leads more YEC’s to realize there is better way to be a Christian than to wear the hair shirt of science denial, then I say open a window and let if fly.

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Thanks everyone for your replies. There’s some good advice here on how to assess whether someone is approaching these discussions in bad faith or not, and if so, how to respond.

There is another important issue here, and that is the issue of trust. If someone is making claims about science that they should reasonably be expected to know to be untrue, this raises the obvious question of what else are they claiming that is also untrue? They may not be consciously lying, as they may simply have failed to do their homework, or they may have some crazy ideas about what differentiates truth from falsehood, or they may simply be being sloppy, but it still casts serious aspersions on the reliability of just about everything they say, and the more blatant and egregious the falsehoods they are coming out with, the more this is the case.

This raises the question of what we should reasonably expect someone to know to be untrue? This is why I expect more of pastors and teachers in the Church, as they are in a position of trust, and making claims that they should reasonably be expected to know to be untrue is a breach of that trust, and for that reason, they should be at least putting in some due diligence to try and fact-check their claims as best they can. It is also why I expect even more still from trained scientists in the Church. They understand how science works, and as such they can not be excused on the grounds of ignorance if they make bad arguments.

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“Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” -Colossians 4:6

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