When PZ Myers and Jim West Agree

Well, when they sort of agree. While PZ has a lot more to say than Jim does, they agree that Carl Drews and Weiqing Han’s PLoS One paper on fluid dynamic modeling as applied to the parting of the Red Sea is crap ill advised. And on this they are both correct. While the paper, “Dynamics of Wind Setdown at Suez and the Eastern Nile Delta,” was published back in August, Jim and PZ responded to two differing but similar recent summaries. PZ also looked at the paper itself but I’m not so sure Jim did.
Here’s two thirds of the abstract from the paper.

Wind setdown is the drop in water level caused by wind stress acting on the surface of a body of water for an extended period of time. As the wind blows, water recedes from the upwind shore and exposes terrain that was formerly underwater. Previous researchers have suggested wind setdown as a possible hydrodynamic explanation for Moses crossing the Red Sea, as described in Exodus 14.
. . .
Under a uniform 28 m/s easterly wind forcing in the reconstructed model basin, the ocean model produces an area of exposed mud flats where the river mouth opens into the lake. This land bridge is 3–4 km long and 5 km wide, and it remains open for 4 hours. Model results indicate that navigation in shallow-water harbors can be significantly curtailed by wind setdown when strong winds blow offshore.

I omitted the “Methodology/Principal Findings” section of the abstract.
Jim thinks this is case of “science dabbling where it don’t belong.” “Scientists, hear me” he says, “the Bible doesn’t need your explanations.”
PZ thinks the paper is “a simple exercise in post-hoc rationalization of an unfounded event in a myth, gussied up as if it were science” that is motivated by the Christian faith of at least the lead researcher. PZ quotes from the conflict of interest declaration in the paper,

Competing interests: The lead author has a web site, theistic-evolution.com, that addresses Christian faith and biological evolution. The Red Sea crossing is mentioned there briefly. The present study treats the Exodus 14 narrative as an interesting and ancient story of uncertain origin.

That and the content of the paper provide reasonably strong support for PZ’s position. But while Jim and PZ appear to disagree as to the motivation for the paper, at root their views are the obverse and reverse of the same tablet. Both dislike the paper because it lacks salience. The paper attempts to answer a question that no serious student of the Bible, believing or not, is asking. And no very few (other) scientists, believing or not, are interested in this question either. Most scientists , like most Biblical scholars, don’t even think it is a question.
Except for the occasional misguided foray into quantum mechanics by a few desperate theologians, Bible/science synchronism is so nineteenth century.
ABC Evening News decided to do a segment on this useless study. I guess it was a slow news day or their ratings among the science illiterate are down.
Update: September 23, 2010
I highly recommend Alun Salt’s abnormally interesting post on this paper. Alun discusses the problem of historiography and under what circumstances and in what venues such a paper might be acceptable.

2 thoughts on “When PZ Myers and Jim West Agree”

  1. Chris,
    I sure shouldn’t try to speak for Jim, but I don’t think his reaction is so out of line my understanding of his position. As I read him, he wants to divorce any hint of an event (my word, not his [I think]) account from the theological and anthropological content of the narrative that includes that event account. On the one hand, it is unimportant rather there was an event or not. On the other, it is probability better if there were no event underlying the event account. This allows him to keep the theology and anthropology without risking that it falls with the event. He also sees this as an antidote to fundamentalism. Any attempt to “prove” the event account, any event account, runs the risk of being countered if wrong or losing the antidote against fundamentalism if correct.
    But perhaps I’m wrong. I too would like to hear a clear statement on this subject and the Exodus would provide as good a focus as anything else.

Comments are closed.