Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Fun with Numbers: Exploring the creationist argument from population growth

I must admit, sometimes I secretly wish that the ardent defenders of faith would unveil some startling revelation that would give us all pause. Mind you I wouldn’t expect it to last very long. I suspect that any god who hasn’t made their presence unquestionably known by now isn’t likely to do so. Still, it would be nice if once in a while we got some new material from creationists because, quite frankly, I get tired of hearing the same discredited bunk from dozens of different parrots.

Take Joe Cienkowski and his latest vanity tract as a prime example of what I find so wearisome in the YEC crowd. For those of you that haven’t met Joe, he’s the self-published author of such illustrious tomes as Atheism is a Religion. He’s a young Earth creationist and has referred to himself as a biblical literalist, although like most he chucks literalism for interpretation when it suits him. Though lacking any sort of higher education, Joe fancies himself a purveyor of “true science” and “Christianity’s Chief Apologist.” He is, or at least should be, famous for the stunning proclamations that “all rectangles are squares” & “there are three types of atoms: electrons, protons, & [neutrons]” (Joe actually repeated electrons, but I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt)

But let’s not spend too long on Joe’s personal shortcomings and hypocrisy. Joe has a new, ahem, book out that “proves humans can’t be more than thousands of years old.” He’s been hyping it for months, calling it the Grand Reality Project. Well then, this sounds serious.

Though I haven’t read the work ( frankly, I’m reluctant to plonk down money on anything that lines the pockets of YEC, especially when they’re pimping their faith) Joe was kind enough to post a youtube video where he not only holds the book up for all to see but also briefly outlines the argument within. The book itself seems rather thin, especially for something as revolutionary as this claims to be. Not much room for a bibliography. Or a detailed analysis of the subject. Or anything really except the tired repetition of a pitiful misunderstanding of population dynamics and math in general.

The video says it all really. Joe trucks out some lovely homemade charts and posters “detailing” the human population timeline and other standard Joe talking points. Joe isn’t modest about his Grand Reality. He’s convinced his revelation is going to stand the scientific community on its ear. Never mind that it’s failed to do so for the past 20 years. Joe isn’t saying anything new here. Henry Morris has tried it, Kent Hovind has tried it, and at a glance at least a few dozen creationist websites have tried it. Did Joe miss these attempts and the lackluster response of the scientific community when he was doing his research? Of course not. Chances are, given how often he parrots Hovind verbatim, Joe didn’t do any research. Research takes time. Plagiarism is easy.

Unlike Joe, I did do some research. Perhaps it’s because I am a voracious reader and wannabe writer, but I found it rather easy to find a wealth of information on the subject of population growth as it relates to creationism. Also unlike Joe, I’m willing to give credit where it’s due. Many people have already covered this ground and I’ll use their arguments where needed, though most of that won’t factor in until my next installment. For now, we’ll do things by the numbers.

The human population argument essentially states that between some past date and the present, there has been a large increase in the human population. Drawing from this, the creationist asserts that a similar increase happened in the years prior to their initial date and thus humans could not have been around more than X years. Seems simple, right? Not something that needs be given a second thought? At least, that’s what creationists would have you think.

The first thing that really bears consideration is that anything before that initial date is an extrapolation. It’s nothing more than a possible scenario that may or may not be the case. How likely this extrapolation is the correct one depends on the quality of the data and its relevance. At the moment, though, we can ignore that (we’ll get to it) because the important point here is that it is only a possibility. That something is possible does not necessarily mean that it is actual. The creationist is trying to move between the two without doing the heavy lifting of proof.

Consider this as an example: I am in the park pushing a young boy on the swing. Because it is possible that I am the child’s father, does this mean that I am actually his father? No, it does not, nor does the (unlikely) possibility that the human population could have developed in a few thousand years mean that it actually did.

So let’s look at the numbers and the creationist analysis and see how it holds up to scrutiny. The current world population is estimated to be roughly 6.87 billion[1]. According to most reasonable estimates, we reached our first billion some time around 1800[2]. Based on the United Nation’s ’99 publication The World at Six Billion, the estimated world population at 1 CE was 300 million[3].

These numbers are, with small differences, the same ones that Cienkowski uses in his chart. Good so far. Joe then happily tells us that in a little over 200 years, there is an 86% decrease in world population. You read that right folks, an 86% decrease. Joe has gotten things a little mixed up. If there really had been an 86% decrease in 200 years, either the population in 1800 was 49 billion or I’m hallucinating a lot more people than I thought.

Joe’s gotten into a bit of a confusion here, and I’m hard pressed to say whether the muddling is just a failure to understand the subject or an attempt at obfuscation. I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt: he sees some correlation in the numbers and doesn’t quite know how to express it properly.

Usage errors aside, Joe isn’t particularly wrong here. If we start at the present and look back in time, (which I’m going to do so I keep things in terms that Joe understands) we do see an 86% population reduction over 200 years. Impressive yes, but not particularly relevant.

To prove the point, let’s work this out. Let’s apply that 86% change over the 200 year period from 1800-1600 (still looking backwards). Given the final population of 1 billion, the world population in 1600 should be 140 million. Looking further back, the population in 1400 was roughly 19.6 million, 2.7 million in 1200, and a whopping 20 people in the whole world at 1 CE. Something has gone seriously wrong here. These numbers don’t agree with the estimate for the world population in 1 CE and they make most of the stories in the bible seem sketchy (who needs a census when there are only 20 people in the entire world?).

The problem here is that I’m applying the slope I derived for the population curve beyond the area of fit. The Industrial Revolution had a tremendous impact on the population growth rate, and trying to use a post-Revolution rate of increase (or rate of reduction since we’re looking backwards) for pre-Revolution numbers is an application error. The factors that made the RoI so high were not present for much of human history so trying to use the derived RoI for those periods is at best wrong and at worst duplicitous.

The same principle holds true for any prediction. Without good reason to believe that the rate of change in our unknown portion closely mirrored that of the known, our “predicted” numbers are likely to be in error. If we have good reason to believe that it was not the same, which is the case here, our chances of a valid prediction drop even further.

But perhaps I’m not giving things a fair shake. Joe provides us with another data point and maybe if I use this number, I’ll see the light. First off, let’s ignore the period from the present to 1800, as that seemed to muck things up. Let’s calculate what our rate of change is from 1800 to 1 CE.

% Change = ((P1 – P1800)/P1800)*100
                 = ((300M-1000M)/1000M)*100
                 = (-700M/1000M)*100
                 = -0.7*100
                 = -70 %

So, from 1800 to 1 CE, we have a -70% change in population, a 70% reduction over roughly 1800 years. Now let’s try that extrapolation again. In 1798 BCE, the population was 90 million or so, another 1800 years back, in 2598 BCE it was about 27 million. Wait a minute, I’ve forgotten something. Take a look at Joe’s chart, or better yet, let’s see what he says in a tweet he sent me (after much duress I might add).

“ @recreant888 According to #Bible, flood happened about 4400 yrs ago;8 people survived; this fits perfectly with 250 million in the year zero”

So according to Joe, around 2400 BCE, a global deluge wiped out all but 8 people. But the extrapolation says that there were still several million people in the world at the time of the flood.

Just to be fair, and to head off any whining, let’s use Joe’s numbers now and calculate the population right at the end of this alleged global culling. Now we have a 75% reduction over 1800 years, or 62.5 million in 1800 BCE. To get to the flood 600 years earlier, we need to get an estimate of the rate of change in that time. We can do this by dividing 75% ( the change in 1800 years) by 3 ( the number of times 600 goes into 1800) which works out to 25%. Those of you with any inclination to numbers will know that this method won’t be entirely accurate, but it works for our purpose here and, let’s be honest, the numbers are already jacked; another error isn’t going to make much difference.

Using our estimate, we come to a world population immediately following the end of this flood of about 46.9 million people. Not 8. So once again, despite what Joe claims, the numbers don’t accord.

All right, maybe I was a little premature in discarding the numbers from 1800 to the present. Maybe I need to use the world population now and in 1CE to get accurate results. I’ll even take Joe’s word for it and agree that it represents a 96% reduction in population from the present to 1CE. Much better, right? How does this one work out? Using Joe’s numbers, about 8 million people at the end of the flood. Well, at least I can see how he might confuse this one. Still off, though.

So here we have three different ways of looking at the numbers, with three different results, none of which seem to match up with Joe’s assumption. Joe likes to harp on the numbers, to say that we can’t argue with them, but I’ve done just that. I’ve argued purely with the numbers, three times. Maybe next time, I’ll address things like population dynamics, stability, carrying capacity, and other factors that affect growth rates, but for now it’s just numbers. I’ve given Joe’s numbers three chances to reach his conclusion and each time they didn’t agree. Three strikes, Joe, you’re out.

[1] http://www.census.gov/ipc/www/popclockworld.html
[2] http://www.census.gov/ipc/www/worldhis.html
[3] http://www.un.org/esa/population/publications/sixbillion/sixbilpart1.pdf