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Canaanite DNA Episode Reveals Limits of Science and of Science Reporting

The other day I pointed out the roll call of media venues that majorly screwed up in reporting on genetic analysis that shows the extent to which modern-day Lebanese descend from ancient Canaanites. Science and popular journalists spun this as a proof against the Bible’s historicity. In fact, it confirmed the Scriptural account that, despite God’s commandment, the ancient Israelites let the Canaanites live beside them.

It was impressive to see how widely the media misreported this story. When National Review senior editor Jay Nordlinger visited with us recently for a Discovery Institute event, he reminded his audience of the delightful old journalist’s saying about how some stories are “too good to check.” That seems to have been the case here. Without calling a grand jury to investigate, I would have to guess the explanation is simple: journalists followed the lead of an initial press release and mindlessly repeated the axe-grinding line they found there.

Some thoughtful voices have now offered further helpful reflections on the episode. Old Testament scholar C. John Collins finds here a lesson about scientism, the idea that science and “The Scientists” deserve some special, fawning deference in matters well beyond the purview of science:

It was the scientific paper itself that raised the question of the Bible (see above). Oddly, in an extensively footnoted paper, they offer no Biblical references. The journalists took that up for themselves; but they (or their editors) didn’t think it worthwhile to question the scientists’ premise. The members of the scientific team have impressive credentials and institutional affiliations, but not a single one of them (so far as I can tell) is qualified in Ancient Near Eastern or Biblical studies. (The same would apply to Alan Cooper, cited in the Australian ABC story.)

Science and scientists serve a valuable role in our culture. But we do a disservice, both to them and to our own intellectual responsibilities, when we attach an authority to them beyond their discipline. Poor Stephen Hawking is being treated as an oracle on all manner of things besides mathematical physics! C.S. Lewis addressed the way in which certain scientific people were given too much deference in ethical discussions about vivisection (God in the Dock, 315):

“Now I dread specialists in power because they are specialists speaking outside their special subjects. Let scientists tell us about sciences. But government involves questions about the good for man and justice, and what things are worth having at what price; and on these a scientific training gives a man’s opinion no added value.”

A lab coat adds no extra oomph to anyone’s pronouncements about the Bible!

Meanwhile a friend, the same correspondent who alerted me to the Canaanite conundrum, notes a wonderful irony. The misreporting here ascended all the way from general-interest newspapers such as The Telegraph up to the pinnacle of American science, the journal Science, published by the vaunted American Association for the Advancement of Science. The latter had to run a correction on its original reporting of the story. Now check this out. Science ran their article on Canaanite DNA on July 27. Not even a week later, August 2, the same journal published this headline:

The Greeks really do have near-mythical origins, ancient DNA reveals

Ever since the days of Homer, Greeks have long idealized their Mycenaean “ancestors” in epic poems and classic tragedies that glorify the exploits of Odysseus, King Agamemnon, and other heroes who went in and out of favor with the Greek gods. Although these Mycenaeans were fictitious, scholars have debated whether today’s Greeks descend from the actual Mycenaeans, who created a famous civilization that dominated mainland Greece and the Aegean Sea from about 1600 B.C.E. to 1200 B.C.E., or whether the ancient Mycenaeans simply vanished from the region.

Now, ancient DNA suggests that living Greeks are indeed the descendants of Mycenaeans, with only a small proportion of DNA from later migrations to Greece.

It goes on from there. They reference a research article in Nature, and that’s all very interesting. But notice, as our correspondent points out, the striking contrast. The science journalists can’t wait to leap on evidence they think embarrasses the Bible – even if that means collectively failing to consult their sources on what the Bible actually says. It’s too good to check!

But oh, Greek myth. That’s a different matter entirely. DNA evidence there confirms the “semi-mythical” account. And if DNA decisively refuted the semi-mythical origins of modern-day Greeks from ancient Mycenaeans, would anyone bother to report that, much less with the heedless, stampeding glee we saw in the Canaanite DNA business? Somehow, I can’t picture it.

Photo: Prior to invading Canaan, ancient Israelites sent spies who scouted out the land and brought back a sample of its impressive produce; exterior, Duomo of Milan, by Yair Haklai (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons.