Bad Astronomy

Creationist beaned in Boston

Recently, a young-Earth creationist named Nathaniel Jeanson gave an invited talk in Boston, and besides the usual crowd of believers, a group of skeptics attended as well. Rebecca Watson penned a wonderful description of the event (and on Skepchick as well), complete with audience – and speaker – reactions.

I don’t generally go to talks by creationists, as it would be a rare event indeed for them to say something original, or accurate. But Rebecca noted this:

Because his work at Harvard focused on biology, that was the bulk of his talk, but before reaching that discipline he first dismissed both astronomical and geological evidence for evolution and a multi-billion-year-old universe. Of the former, he declared that when we observe galaxies around ours, they are spread out equally to the “north, south, east and west” of Earth, and therefore we are literally at the center of the Universe (and therefore blessed by God?). This is silly. Mountains of research suggest that the Earth occupies a wholly unremarkable corner of a Universe that is vaster and more ancient than Jeanson’s comparatively puny philosophy can imagine.

I listened to a recording of the talk for this part, and Rebecca reports his argument faithfully. His argument is totally wrong. I know, shocker. His basic assumption is that the Universe has a physical edge, which is incorrect. There is a visible limit for the Universe, a farthest distance we can see. That distance is about 13 billion light years. We can’t see any farther away because there hasn’t been time since the birth of the Universe for a photon to get any farther. You can consider objects that have moved more than 13 billion light years away from us, but we simply cannot see them due to the expansion of the Universe.

You might therefore naively make a map showing all the objects in the Universe, and lo, we are at the center. But that would be true for any and every single point in the Universe. If you are on Alpha Centauri, or in the Andromeda Galaxy, or sitting near a young quasar 10 billion light years away, you would look out and still see yourself apparently centered in the Universe. The whole point here is that there is no special location in the Universe, no preferred point.

So, BZZZZZT. He’s wrong.

But, we knew that.

Of course, Jeanson ignores another rather obvious and difficult problem: if the Universe is 6000 years old, how do we see galaxies billions of light years away? Creationists have to bob and weave a lot to answer that one. Perhaps the light was created already on its way, or the Universe was created appearing old already. But that would be awfully tricky of a creator, trying to fool us by providing millions of individual bits of evidence of an old Universe but then saying it’s young.

I thought deception was someone else’s purview in the Bible.

Anyway, its stuff like this that’ll probably keep me away from live lectures by creationists in the future. Trying to wrap my head around creationist astronomy is like trying to ride a unicycle around a Moebius strip: it’s off-balance, physically impossible, full of one-sided arguments, and in the end you don’t go anywhere.