This article appeared in the "Editor's File"
in The Textbook Letter, March-April 1997.

Wrong Again

William J. Bennetta

Somewhat belatedly but with an undiminished sense of relief, I note that Earth still turns and life goes on. The world was supposed to end last October, according to Archbishop Ussher, but Ussher's prediction of Earth's demise, like his famous assertion about Earth's beginning, has turned out to be wrong. Let me take this opportunity to revisit the archbishop, some of whose ideas are still reflected (albeit vaguely and obscurely) in schoolbooks.

In TTL for March-April 1996, in a review of Glencoe's middle-school book Merrill Earth Science, Peter U. Rodda noted that Glencoe's treatment of the history of Earth included this murky statement: "Before radiometric dating was available, many people had estimated the age of Earth to be only a few thousand years old [sic]." Rodda pointed out that this was misleading, because the people who believed that Earth was "only a few thousand years old" had derived that belief from biblical lore. They had not "estimated" the age of Earth in any scientific way.

Other textbooks make similar, evasive references to the belief that Earth originated only thousands of years ago. In Holt, Rinehart and Winston's Biology: Principles and Explorations, for example, the student reads that "There is no doubt among scientists that our planet is very old. However, some people disagree, believing that Earth is no more than 10,000 to 20,000 years old . . . ."

Actually, lots of people believe that Earth is even younger than that, but what's important here is that Holt does not identify the "people" or tell say why they disagree with the findings of science. The student may well infer that these people are merely impelled by personal perversity, but that isn't so. Most of the people in question belong to specific religious sects, and their beliefs about the age of Earth are based, directly or indirectly, on the Holy Bible.

The Bible itself makes no statement about Earth's age, but various religionists have tried to infer the age from biblical narratives. The most famous and influential attempt was made more than three centuries ago by the Irish churchman James Ussher, Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland, who summed the lifespans of the patriarchs listed in the Book of Genesis, refined that sum by making some theological assumptions, and deduced that the biblical god had created Earth on 23 October in the year 4004 BC. This result, which Ussher promulgated in 1650, has been printed as a margin-note in many editions of the Bible and has acquired the force of scripture among many fundamentalists.

Ussher did more, however, than to infer the date of Earth's origin. He complemented that feat by figuring out when Earth would end. His method was quite plausible (by the standards of his day) because it incorporated the prediction, already made by other religionists, that Earth would endure for 6,000 years. After finding that Earth had begun in 4004 BC, Ussher could add 6,000 years and say that Earth would end in AD 1996, presumably on 22 October. (There is a minor complication here because Ussher was still using the Julian calendar, not the Gregorian calendar that we use now. The day that would have been 22 October 1996 on the Julian calendar was the day that we called 1 November 1996, as it came and went without bringing the predicted cataclysm.)

The figure of 6,000 years had been obtained by combining material from two sources. One source was the first creation myth in the Old Testament, which told of a creation process that took six days of divine labor. The other source was a verse in the second epistle of Peter, part of the New Testament. Here is how that verse has been rendered in the King James Version: "But, beloved, be not ignorant of this one thing, that one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day."

So if Earth arose during a process that took six divine days, and if a divine day was equal to 1,000 earthly years, then Earth's existence would be limited to 6,000 years. You see that, don't you?

If you don't, you'll have to study the craft of learning about nature by interpreting religious texts. It's not easy, and it depends on archaic premises and procedures that are vastly different from those used in science -- and this is why the matters at hand are important. The history of ideas about Earth's past and future, if presented honestly, can be used to great advantage in showing students how science differs from mysticism (as I have tried to suggest by telling about Ussher and by telling why "some people" believe that Earth is young). Students are poorly served, however, when the writers of science textbooks evade issues and conceal material facts.

William J. Bennetta is a professional editor, a fellow of the California Academy of Sciences, the president of The Textbook League, and the editor of The Textbook Letter. He writes often about the propagation of quackery, false "science" and false "history" in schoolbooks.


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