Honey, I Shrunk the Sun!

Evolution of a Creationist Myth

by David Bloomberg

I have noticed, in my time as REALL's chairman, that most creationists often follow similar tactics in their attacks on science. They seem to know they cannot win in the scientific arena, so they take their message directly to the less-informed public -- often in the form of "debates" and, increasingly, letters to the editor of newspapers.

These forums provide creationists with a unique opportunity to set forth their claims with little chance of being immediately challenged, as would happen if they, for example, tried to submit a scientific paper to a peer-reviewed journal. In a debate, it is possible that their opponent might have the information handy, but no one person can have all the necessary information, and creationists often make claims that span biology, physics, geology, etc. while the scientists debating them probably only studied one of these fields. In addition, it may take a minute to put forth a false claim, but an hour for an opponent to show why it's false.

A letter to the editor is even better. Anybody can write a letter. They can make any claims they want. There is no "fact checker" for such claims, and there is no opponent who can counter even one erroneous statement immediately. If a reply is published, it often appears one to two weeks later and may not even be seen by some who read the first. Again, there is the problem that correcting an erroneous statement takes much more time and space than making the claim to begin with. I will detail one such example here.

A letter appeared in the State Journal-Register on October 27, from F.R. Hedinger. In this letter, Hedinger was responding to an earlier article about the sun in which there was a statement that the sun is 4.5 billion years old. Hedinger claimed there was no proof to support such this and that it was a "statement of belief." From there, Hedinger launched into a claim that several observatories have been measuring the sun since 1836 and that they have "established that the radius of the sun has actually been shrinking by about 5 feet per hour." If this were true, and if it had been true since the beginning of the sun's existence (which Hedinger assumes), that means the sun would have far too large to allow life on Earth to evolve and, Hedinger claimed, "A 4.5 billion-year-old sun would be absolutely impossible." Hedinger went on to state, correctly, that "it is wrong to present beliefs as facts," (Hedinger should have taken this advice) but adds, without a shred of evidence to back it up, "the evidence uncovered by science more and more tends to confirm the account as presented in the Book of Genesis and to discredit the theory of evolution."

Here we have a perfect example of what I described earlier. Hedinger made a number of claims and provided virtually nothing to back them up. That which Hedinger did provide, about the observatories, certainly sounds like it backs up the claims, and the casual reader would probably have no reason to disbelieve them.

However, I'm not a casual reader. The claims sounded bogus and vaguely familiar to me, but not so familiar that I could immediately fire off a letter in response. A bit of research was in order.

I called the National Center for Science Education (NCSE), who provided me with the information I needed to respond to Hedinger's letter. In addition, they sent me everything I will use to further detail the "shrinking sun myth" in this article.

As I mentioned earlier, it takes very little space to make an erroneous claim, but a great deal more to correct that error. Hedinger's claim about the shrinking sun took only a few lines, but there is a whole book chapter explaining how this myth came to exist: "The Legend of the Shrinking Sun," in Science Held Hostage by Van Till (1988). Even responding with just the most important information would have taken pages, but in a response letter to the editor, I only had a couple of paragraphs to make my point.

I summed up Hedinger's error in my letter (which was printed on November 13) by saying "Hedinger has misquoted the tentative conclusion of a 1979 presentation. Further studies showed this to be incorrect, and even one of the authors has since reversed his conclusion!" Certainly, I would have liked to provide more information, but there just wasn't room, so I added our address and web page, and am writing this article to further explain exactly why Hedinger is wrong.

Did a study ever conclude that the sun appeared to be shrinking at a rate of five feet per hour? Yes. But that is only the beginning. The study in question was presented at the 1979 meeting of the American Astronomical Society by John Eddy and Aram Boornazian. It generated a considerable amount of interest because of the puzzle it presented. If, as these results indicated, the sun had been shrinking at such a rate, it meant paleoclimatic evidence and conventional solar models needed to be re-evaluated. Indeed, this was why Eddy and Boornazian presented their paper the way they did. They did not consider the results ready for formal publication so they presented it as a puzzle in a brief talk at the meeting. By doing so, they encouraged other scientists to evaluate their data and interpretation. The vast majority of scientists understand that this is a good example of how a scientific investigation should proceed. Unfortunately, many creationists did not; but more on that later.

The Eddy and Boornazian results were disputed almost immediately. In the same month as the presentation, another group published a paper in Science that showed results of less than 1/4 the shrinkage rate. In 1980, another paper concluded the rate was about 1/7 what Eddy and Boornazian had found. Another look at the data by a different team of scientists found that the high shrinkage rates "are the results of instrumental and observational defects rather than real changes," and that team determined there was no overall change over the past 250 years, though there was an 80-year cycle of shrinkage and expansion. Similarly, an extensive article in Astrophysics Journal made the case for a cycle of 76 years of shrinking and expansion. Since then, additional papers have been published which verified the cyclical change but failed to verify the original shrinkage result.

Perhaps the most important paper, and one I alluded to in my response letter, was a 1984 report by Eddy -- one of the original authors of the shrinkage presentation -- and Frohlich. They found that, from 1967 to 1980, there was an increase in the sun's diameter equivalent to 8 feet per hour. The behavior they found is extremely consistent with a 76-year cycle.

So, the tentative paper by Eddy and Boornazian spurred more research, which ended up invalidating their results but finding new, better information. They presented a puzzle and the scientific community solved it. The data does not support long-term, rapid shrinkage of the sun. The scientific method worked!

But then came the creationists.

The puzzle presented by Eddy and Boornazian quickly was adopted by creationists as "scientific evidence" or "proof" that the Earth must be young, and therefore evolution incorrect. In 1980, Russell Akridge, a physicist at Oral Roberts University, published an article in the Institute for Creation Research's (ICR) Impact publication. He made two errors of assumption, and went on from there. First, he accepted, without question, the tentative results from the Eddy and Boornazian presentation. Second, he assumed, without cause, that such a shrinkage had always occurred since the sun's birth (or, as he more likely believed, the sun's creation). This assumption ignored the possibility of any sort of cycles in the sun's size.

With these assumptions, he calculated that the sun would have been twice its current size 100,000 years ago, and would have been as large as Earth's orbit 20 million years ago (both of these claims were repeated verbatim in Hedinger's letter to the editor). Akbridge went on to conclude that the source of solar energy might very well not be thermonuclear fusion!

As Van Till wrote about this article, "These were bold claims, asserting the imminent collapse of a major portion of the contemporary paradigm of astrophysics. The credibility of a scientific claim, however, is established not by its boldness, but by its adequacy to account for physical phenomena in an accurate, coherent and fruitful manner." Unfortunately for Akbridge, and similar to so many of his creationist cohorts, his claims don't hold up under scrutiny.

Van Till went on to say, "Though it may not have been apparent to his untrained readers, Akridge's uncritical acceptance of a single report -- a report greeted with skepticism by the relevant professional community, a preliminary report not yet tested by comparison with other relevant studies -- represented a serious failure to perform with integrity the critical evaluation expected of professional scientists."

Once Akridge's article was in the creationist literature, it became part of their "scientific proof" against evolution, making it almost impossible to correct. Indeed, it has taken on approximately the same status as an urban legend. Thomas Barnes, then the Dean of the graduate school at the ICR, wrote an article about six "evidences" for recent creation in a 1982 Christianity Today. The list was concluded with the shrinking sun claim.

Even though Barnes' article was written after numerous scientific papers casting doubt on the original shrinking sun result, there was no evidence that he even considered these conclusions; he merely repeated Akbridge's claims. Such repetition without any interest in more up-to-date analyses showed up in other ICR material as well.

Thus, a legend was born. I have no idea where Hedinger got the misinformation about the "shrinking sun" -- whether it was an old ICR publication such as I've mentioned here, or whether there is a newer one that continues to put forth this myth as fact. It really doesn't matter, as Hedinger's letter has now only expanded the reach of the myth, at least locally. Maybe my letter helped to stem the myth a bit, maybe not. The best we can do is to keep plugging away and correcting their errors whenever we see them.

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