Why Simple Answers and Easy Evidence Often Don’t Float: Lessons from Ducks

I picked up a New Era magazine (the Church’s magazine for teenagers) and read a cute and instructive little article, “When Ducks Don’t Float” by Webdi Wixom Taylor (May 2010 issue). As young children, Wendi and her two sisters received three newborn baby ducks. Wendi thought their little wading pool would be a perfect home for them. They filled it with water and set each of the ducks onto the surface–only to watch in horror as all three ducks sank straight tot he bottom of the pool. The quickly rescued them and puzzled over what went wrong, for everyone knows that ducks float and surely these lightweight little creatures should float, too. They speculated that they had been too sudden, and that if they just slowly set the ducks down onto the water, all would be well. Once again, all three sunk straight to the bottom. Absolutely stunning–this just made no sense.

They dried them off and then noticed there was a phone number on the box they came in. They called to ask for help and received some surprising new information: newborn ducks don’t yet have the oil on their feathers that makes them repel water. Without that oil, the feathers absorb water and the ducks will sink. This fact didn’t fit and caused more confusion, for the girls had seen baby ducks just a few days old on the water following their mother–of course baby ducks could float!

There was yet more to digest in order to understand their problem. The patient person at the pet store explained that normally, baby ducks pick up oil from their mother as they huddle under her wings, allowing them to float shortly after birth, but these ducks didn’t have their mother to give them that protection. On their own, they needed more time before they would have their own oil and be safe on the water.

I think the article is intended to remind young people of the importance of the training and help we get from our parents, but I was most intrigued by the collision between logical expectations and the complexities of physical reality. Ducks float, everyone knows that, but here were ducks that sank. That made no sense, and neither did the explanation about newborn ducks not yet having oil on their feathers. Observations were clashing with the teachings of the pet store person. Only after getting further information about mother ducks and the oil they provide to their babies could things fit together and make sense.

Religion is that way, too. Critics and impatient observers can easily find problems and puzzles to demonstrate that our religion doesn’t float. Responses from Mormon apologists can be easily dismissed with some argument or observation, just like the explanation about baby ducks and oil. Sometimes their are good answers and even faith-building evidences, but only if one is willing to understand some complex details. Many issues involving the Book of Mormon and the Book of Abraham come to mind. Ditto for almost any issue involving the apparent clash of religion and science. And then there are the vagaries and complexities of Church history, where many legitimate unknowns remain due to incomplete and often contradictory information.

I’ve heard people say that all the writings from Mormon people, myself included, to defend their faith wouldn’t be needed if it were actually true, because there would be simple, easy answers for everything. Poppycock. There aren’t simple, easy, and accurate answers for numerous simple questions like what is matter, what is time, how does light work, or even who invented the airplane or why don’t my ducks float? Asa we begin to deal with the collision of the Divine and the mortal, things can be vastly more complex. There are answers, but one must be willing to search and be able to understand that long-held assumptions–like all ducks float–may no longer be accurate.

In our journey for truth, there are difficult things to be mastered, and some puzzles that will not be understood for decades to come, perhaps not until after this life. Let us beware of making judgments too rashly or too harshly. Don’t be surprised when reasonable answers to simple questions regarding our faith involve several complex considerations along the path too resolution. The Gospel of Jesus Christ that is taught in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is true, in spite of some errors of mortals and gaps in our understanding, and is worth a lifetime of study and pondering. If something doesn’t seem to float, don’t give up and walk away. Call the Help Desk on high, reach out to others with knowledge that can help, and keep seeking. This approach has brought many rich blessings in my personal journey, along with a lot of old assumptions being cast off along the way.

In spite of some disappointments and many puzzles still unresolved, I am able to honestly declare that the Book of Mormon really is part of the Word of God and is a divine record intended for our day, and valuable evidence for the divine call of Joseph Smith as a prophet of God, mortal and fallible though he was. I can also declare that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is a precious gift and an instrument to bring us closer to God and Jesus Christ, with power and authority from God that can bless our lives and our families more than any other organization.

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Author: Jeff Lindsay

114 thoughts on “Why Simple Answers and Easy Evidence Often Don’t Float: Lessons from Ducks

  1. "The Gospel of Jesus Christ that is taught in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is true, in spite of some errors of mortals and gaps in our understanding, and is worth a lifetime of study and pondering."

    I love this point. I find it frustrating when people expect perfection in all things when those here, on this earth, running and maintaining the Gospel are obviously imperfectly mortal.

    I appreciate your blog and your willingness to share your insights.

  2. I find your metaphor interesting, but the conclusion is fundamentally flawed. Science does not just find flaws with religion, it provides alternate, reasonably explanations. In your analogy, religion is the claim that ducks float. Science is the one that comes in to the rescue when religion fails miserably to explain observable phenomena.

    The scriptures would have us accept that young ducks float, even as we see them sinking to the bottom of the pool. We are to believe that all mankind descend from two people, 6,000 years ago. We are to believe that the Earth was covered in water and that two of every animal was on a ship, from which all animal kind descended. We are to believe these absurdities, even though science has provided very reasonable, simple answers. These are answers which are not beladen with inherent contradictions.

    Science does not throw up its hands in defeat when observation does not match expectation, that is religion. Science starts delving and asking questions, any question. Science even dares question its most fundamental corner stone beliefs, something religion would never consider doing. Religion instead waits to be told the answer then refuses to question the answer once it is received. Even if the answer does not fit with observation, it is accepted and embraced. All the while, the duck sits on the bottom of the pool and drowns.

  3. Thanks for your insights, they're always so interesting to read! I like that analogy, about religion. So the ducks that don't float in religion are kind of our own (and the world's) misunderstandings, right? And the oil that actually helps our understandings in the end is a combination of scripture study/reflection/prayer/friendly discussion, right? Please straighten me out if I'm totally off track. πŸ™‚

  4. The difference is that science or even simple observation can lead us to let go of an inaccurate idea like ducks can swim before they've developed fully.

    Religion is not an explanation of that. Religion is the fuzzy thinking that persuades people to hold onto inaccurate ideas instead of trying them out and letting them be refined by reality.

  5. I think perhaps what Mr Bailey is saying is that sometimes when we see a sunken duck, science (and/or reason) tells us it is a sunken rock, not an underdeveloped duck. I agree that sometimes religion tells us a sunken rock is an underdeveloped duck.

  6. Interesting post, Jeff. πŸ™‚ I really wish that religion had such understandable and bulletproof explanations like the baby ducks sinking does. My beef is not that all things that seem simple to me on the outside need to be as simple as they at first seem but that they eventually need to be broken into coherent logical pieces that fit with observation and are repeatable and testable.

    Scientific understandings like how a ducks feathers work and how ducks float is something that may not be readily apparent but upon explanation becomes more coherent and understandable then it was at the beginning. For me personally, religion does not have such explanations. I don't know how many times I've had parts of the gospel explained to me (eternal families, purpose of life, etc) and read scriptures about these things and come back more confused then when I started. It can be argued that I'm looking at it incorrectly but it seems to be a stark example that the things of religion simply don't follow the same logical rules as understanding duck feathers.

    When having it properly explained a person can't really deny (without sticking their head in the sand) the apparent wisdom in the explanation. Religion on the other hand is not so cut and dry. Esentially it seems like you've used a scientific explanation (and showed how they often go against a person's 'gut' instinct) and then tried to say that religion is the same. I'm just not seeing it.

  7. "Reality." All of you assume you know what that is. In that, I believe you all to be "fundamentally flawed."

  8. We are to believe that all mankind descend from two people, 6,000 years ago. We are to believe that the Earth was covered in water and that two of every animal was on a ship, from which all animal kind descended. We are to believe these absurdities, even though science has provided very reasonable, simple answers.

    Good example of my point about discarding old assumptions as we deal with complexity. Does Christian religion really require belief in scientific absurdities? Many have assumed that the scriptures demand this, but the concepts used to illustrate God's role of Creator can fit broader interpretations. E.g., the Hebrew word for "day" can mean lengthy era, not necessarily 24 hours. Looking to ancient writings for a Stone Age audience as a guide for modern science puts unreasonable expectations on the text, and can lead to unnecessary disappointments, or hasty and foolish rejection of religion.

    Likewise, the scriptures can accommodate other views on the Flood without demanding that it be global. I discussion some of these issues on my LDSFAQ page on science and religion.

  9. Jeff, the fact that you have a following of nattering-nabobs-of-negativism who are so dedicated that they feel they must "protect" the unwary reader from your LDS teachings continues to amaze me.

    Kudos to you man. If you weren't so right, and so good at it, the antis would be ignoring you.

  10. And Michael, using an image of a vicious murderer as your icon really makes me wonder. Reconsider who is behind the icon you proudly wear. I know, in our pop culture he's portrayed as some kind of hero, but like so much in our world, it's a lie.

    For starters, read the essay by Dr. Douglas Young, Professor of Political Science & History at Gainesville State College
    February 10, 2009.

  11. @Micheal "The scriptures would have us accept that young ducks float, even as we see them sinking to the bottom of the pool."

    Your correct about that, but then you fail to answer the question. Do you ducks float? Based on the observation alone the scientific answer would be no. But the answer is really yes and no. Some ducks do and some don't. The story obviously answers the question why this is so, but the literal reality is Yes and No. In todays world there are ducks that can not literally float and will drown, and yet there are still those that do.

  12. Jeff, if you look closely, his icon is not of Guevara. It's the face of someone else, placed onto the iconic Guevara poster. Or perhaps a completely new photo created and modified to look like the style of the famous Guevara poster.

    My first inclination is to suspect he photoshopped his own photo onto the head of the poster.

  13. Does Christian religion really require belief in scientific absurdities?

    Yes. I love how people like yourself love to play a shell game using the outmoded "God's day is really long" argument. You think that by making that statement, suddenly all of the scientific absurdities that fill Christianity are explained away. Please note that I said nothing of the world being created in six days. Instead, I referenced things that are critical components of Mormon doctrine.

    Say what you will, a core doctrine of Mormonism is that Adam & Eve were literal people from whom we all descend. This doctrine is reaffirmed again and again by prophets, the temple ceremony, Adam-Ondi-Ahman, etc… You cannot talk your way around this; it's just not possible. And frankly, the idea that all mankind descend from common genetic material 6,000 years ago is most definitely a scientific absurdity.

    Secondly, I mentioned the flood. Liberal Christians can get away with claiming the flood is a metaphorical story, but Mormons do not have that luxury. There are too many prophets (Joseph Smith for example) who have affirmed the literal nature of the flood. If you dismiss their words, then why not dismiss the remainder of their words? How are we to know which words are true and which are not? You can say the direction of the spirit, but that begs the question of why the spirit told JS and so many others that the flood was universal and you that it was localized.

    These are just two examples of numerous scientific absurdities that Mormonism begs us to accept as fact.

    Looking to ancient writings for a Stone Age audience as a guide for modern science puts unreasonable expectations on the text, and can lead to unnecessary disappointments, or hasty and foolish rejection of religion.

    I would argue that looking to Stone Age writings as a guide to modern morality is just as fool-hardy.

    If you weren't so right, and so good at it, the antis would be ignoring you.

    OK. I don't mean to be rude, but that is a really stupid statement. By your same argument, I must be right on my blog because otherwise people would be ignoring me. Keith Olbermann and Glenn Beck must both be right, because otherwise people would be ignoring them. Oh brother.

    And Michael, using an image of a vicious murderer as your icon really makes me wonder.

    Oh good. Let's toss some good 'ole ad hominem in the mix. I was afraid you might miss some logical fallacies. Kudos to Bookslinger in noticing that it is actually a photo of myself, modified to look like Che. It is meant as a joke.

    But, let's say it wasn't meant as a joke. Let's say that I am an avid supporter of Che Guevara (which I am not). That fact would be completely irrelevant to the discussion at hand. The only reason you bring it up is in an attempt to discredit me without having to engage my arguments (i.e. ad hominem).

  14. Michael,
    You make some good points. But to think that science and religion have the same goal will always send you astray.
    Even if by Mormon doctrine I accept the flood as universal, I don't have to accept that all the animal kingdom came from that one ark. Just as the BofM is scripture that comes from a different set of people, so could there have been more than one ark with a different set of animals set down in a different area when flood waters receded. Why do we not have this info? Because wether the flood was universal, local, or never happened has no bearing on my journey to the celestial kingdom. I'm happy to wait for further knowledge to come forth without throwing prophets and religion aside. It's the same for Adam and Eve. They could very well be who all current humanity came from. Religion doesn't say that humans descended from common genetic material starting 6000 years ago. It says that Adam and Eve were our first parents, created in the image of God. You came from your parents the same way just a few generations later. πŸ™‚ We also belive that there are other similar earths with people on them doing the same thing we are, learning the gospel and using free agency to make choices. This is something that has been going on forever and will continue forever. So to put Mormons in the catagory of depending on all humanity evolving from 6000 year old genetic material doesn't even come close to what is really believed. That's just more unoiled duck feathers.

  15. @ rich
    "So to put Mormons in the catagory of depending on all humanity evolving from 6000 year old genetic material doesn't even come close to what is really believed. That's just more unoiled duck feathers."

    I'm not quite following you here. Does the church believe that Adam and Eve were the literal first humans on earth and that all others descended from them? I was under the impression that it did.

    If that is the case then how is there not a contradiction with modern science?

    These discussions are ultimately futile because religion is so slippery. You can never pin it down to anything exact. There's always going to be 'interpretation' or convenient reasons (from the POV of a non believer) as to why it's bunk and believers are always going to have personal feelings about he subject ("I received a calm feeling that it is true") over any other sort of argument.

    I just wish religion would take a more honest route with things and quit claiming that it's as valid as any scientific theory is. It's not remotely the same thing.

    Apologetics can always come in with increasingly convoluted explanations for why things aren't meshing between religion and observation but I have yet to see an explanation of this sort that doesn't a.) make the whole subject less coherent or clear then it started out as or b.) convinces anyone that didn't already start out with the preconceived notion that the doctrinal point is true.

    the bird feather analogy (IMO) is not applicable to religion. We can study feather in a repeatable definable way. We cannot do the same thing with the tennants of the gospel. There are no physical testable observable evidences that point to the teaching of the gospel standing on the same level as why ducks float.

  16. Matthew,
    The analogy actually does fit well in the context I perceived. First of all I was taught about Adam and Eve exactly as you said, that the were the first humans on the earth. It may or may not be the truth, science certainly says no. Are we missing information, within religion, that would better answer this for us? Most certainly we are. Why don't we have an answer for you to test on this topic? My salvation doesn't rest on whether or not the story is scientifically accurate. I need to worry more about loving God and loving my neighbor.
    Here's in fact a good example of Jeff's title. I had a conversation with an atheist on another blog. He told me that there were no cities in the Americas in 2500bc, my timetable may be off because I take this from my poor memory. It started because of the BofM claiming that in fact there were people with cities that far back, Jaredites. So when I showed him a link to a site where that had recently found a city that dated to the time period he replied that there were no near eastern civilizations in the Americas that far back. I said yes but 5 minutes ago there were no cities at all and now we have evidence of one. I never said it had to be near eastern, he did.
    My point was religion and science have different goals. And I think I would find several who agree that they can complement each other instead of being in conflict.

    And you are absolutely right, "Apologetics can always come in with increasingly convoluted explanations for why things aren't meshing between religion and observation" But don't forget that they are people just like you and I trying to figure out this crazy world of ours. Religion isn't interested in finding out how the duck floats as much as it is trying to use the story like Jeff did as an analogy and usually a faith building gospel principle illustrating story.

  17. "Because wether the flood was universal, local, or never happened has no bearing on my journey to the celestial kingdom."[sic]

    I hear this claim all the time, but I find it to be completely wrong. Things like the flood and Adam & Eve most definitely do have bearing on your journey to the celestial kingdom. If they are not true, then the prophets have been lying to you. If the prophets have been lying to you, how do you know that what they are telling you about the celestial kingdom is true? Once again, do not bother saying the spirit, because the spirit tells different people such divergent things so as to remove all hope of an appeal to that mystical force for direction.

    "Religion doesn't say that humans descended from common genetic material starting 6000 years ago. It says that Adam and Eve were our first parents, created in the image of God."

    Umm… how do the first and second sentences differ? If we all descend from Adam & Eve a mere 6,000 years ago, then we most definitely do come from a common set of genetic material (i.e. Adam & Eve). For example, my brothers and I come from common genetic material, my parents. A complete scientific absurdity is the claim that 6,000 years of mutation could lead to the diversity we now see in the human genome.

    "I just wish religion would take a more honest route with things and quit claiming that it's as valid as any scientific theory is"

    I agree 100%.

  18. A complete scientific absurdity is the claim that 6,000 years of mutation could lead to the diversity we now see in the human genome.

    A few thoughts:

    1. The bible doesn't demand the belief that The Fall occurred 6,000 years ago. It may have actually been longer.

    2. There's a lot left out of the Bible. There's more to the story that we don't have. Moreover, God is not obligated to give us the entire story. He may have purposely held back much of the details. 'Sides, the Bible doesn't claim to explain _everything_.

    3. Current rates of mutation aren't necessarily indicative of past rates of mutation.

    4. The God of the Bible would be powerful enough to miraculously change people's DNA, or to cause "fast" mutations. The Bible does talk about God placing "stumbling blocks" to test the faith of mankind. Variations in DNA may be one of the intentionally placed stumbling blocks. And if it is, God is also under no obligation to inform us of that.

    It's really silly of you guys to demand scientific proof for items of faith. Faith needs no scientific proof. That's part of the definition of FAITH.

    Do you nattering nabobs go to blogs of other religions (Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Shinto, Muslims, etc) and demand scientific proof from them? Do you mock their religions for lack of scientific backing for 100% of their beliefs?

    Why don't you guys go to some Muslim imams and treat them the way you treat Mr. Lindsay and other Mormons and see what happens?

    There are many times more Hindus and Muslims who need your "rescuing" than there are Mormons. Mormons are just a drop in the ocean.

    GO! Save the World! Billions of Hindus, Buddhists and Muslims are waiting to be scientifically rescued by your amazing intellects!
    Think of all the good you could accomplish!

  19. @ bookslinger,
    I think the thing that Michael and I are both responding to is the idea that religion is not a odds with science. The only way to make such a presumption is to either a.) ignore what the world teaches us via the scientific method or b.) claim that the wild in congruences are caused by some missing piece of information.

    That people believe the church because the spirit told them it's true is fine. It doesn't convince me or anyone else but if that's their reasoning for it then so be it. To say that the ideals of any religion are self evident, logical or that they fit perfectly with scientific knowledge (as is often claimed) is a totally different ball game. Jeff is proposing (if I understand correctly, and perhaps I don't) that critics of the church do so because they refuse to look at the details, that these details explain what at first seems to be non sensical into a rational and logical explanation.

    For me personally there are any number of aspects of LDS theology that don't mesh at all with objective deconstruction. If that isn't a good way to go about understanding gospel things then so be it. I have a really hard time accepting anything that will always remain so illusive but for some it's not an issue. That's fine. πŸ™‚

    I don't know about Michael, but for me the reason I intereact on this forum and others regarding LDS theology is because I was brought up in the church, served a mission and have nearly everyone I hold near and dear to me being a devout member of it. I would very much like to find a way to know if the church is true or not. My life would be a LOT better if the church was true and I could know that. Oftentimes these sorts of discussions get me in hot water with friends or relatives because they take it as some sort of personal attack, anonymous forums allow me to question and probe without having to risk any personal relationships. My intention is certainly not to convince visitors of this site that the church is some sort of evil false organization.

    Does that make sense? Hopefully I'm explaining things correctly.

  20. Also, I'm not seeing how I or Michael have treated Jeff or any poster on this forum in a bad way. I'll speak for myself anyways.

    Often times criticism of an ideal that someone holds dear is taken as a criticism of the person that holds it.

    Let's say for a moment that we were to somehow know with certainty that religion is definitely a man made creation. I wouldn't use such an idea as evidence that the people that have believed in religion are deluded, ignorant or in any way inferior. There are any number of variables (what we were born with, how our environment has shaped us) that lead us towards our life decisions. I fully accept that the heartfelt beliefs of my family and friends in the church are sincere and important. That I think they are most likely based on something that is not real is not meant as a criticism of them.

    TL;DR version- it's hard to separate a person from their heartfelt beliefs when discussing things and as such it may feel more personal then it's meant to be.

  21. @ rich,
    Thanks for the response and thoughts.

    From what I'm gathering you seem to accept that science is not going to ever prove the validity of science but you also don't see it as ever being disproved by science as there are so many pieces that we don't have.

    Forgive me if I'm putting words in your mouth. If this is what you are saying, then I agree completely. Religion is mainly based on the metaphysical and as such it's silly to suppose that the physical will every prove or disprove it. All we can do is look at any specific claims that DO relate to the physical.

    I think from Michael and I's perspective religion is frustrating because it seems so scant on any of the specifics that could be shown to be correct or incorrect. Basically it's a nightmare for someone that is obsessed with objective outlooks on things because very little of it can be observed that way. Then whenever there is something in that direction it seems that apologetics will quickly sweep it under the rug or come up with elaborate explanations of how this doesn't really apply to their theology. Jeff sees criticisms against this sort of argument as being like the person that doesn't understand how duck feathers work but the same argument can easily be used by any religion out there.

    I remember not too long back that there was a post about the trinity and the catholic viewpoint of how the three are separate but one. There was a lot of vague ridicule of the idea that three people could be separate and yet the same. The idea on it's surface seems prepostorous. Yet for most devout catholics there are ways in which they find this to be a sensible theory. To them, Mormons just don't quite understand how the duck feathers work. The same types of things will come up in nearly every religion out there and also in all the various superstitions that exist. Conspiracy theorist have very complex and convoluted explanations for why they believe what they do. From their POV it all makes sense once you understand all the little pieces. To me it seems illogical to say that all these wildly different world views are correct, and definitely to say that because a person has a complex set of pieces that they use to claim a theory that these pieces are actually worth studying.

    Hopefully this is coherent. I'm throwing a lot of things into the mix and may have made this overly complex. πŸ™‚