Three days ago there was a debate held at the Creation Museum in Kentucky in which Bill Nye, known by many as “The Science Guy”, debated Ken Ham, the founder/CEO of the Creation Museum, regarding whether or not the creationist/young earth view of evolution and the age of the earth was a valid scientific… something. This is a very difficult debate to review because so much of the debate really boiled down to an argument over semantics and wording. In order to do both sides justice, this review would need to take great care to make sure that the word choices are accurate and precise.
But we all know I don’t have the patience or follow through to do that.
That caveat aside, I still want to toss around some of my own thoughts having just watched the debate, which I highly suggest you do as well since it’s currently hosted for free on youtube, and some other places as well I’m sure. WARNING: the debate is over two hours long and contains lots of big words.
As I mentioned above, I really felt like the debate boiled down to an argument over word choice and semantics; I know that’s not an entirely fair assessment, but I think that is the view a lot of people will come away with having watched the debate. If you watch the debate you will hear a lot of mentions of “Science” (obviously), “Natural Law”, “Historical Science”, “Predictions”, and “Observational Science”. At the risk of over simplifying the debate; Ken Ham feels there is a distinct difference between science that happened in the past of which there is no record and that of which we can see and record today, where as Bill Nye feels that there is no separation, or at the very least is no evidence that supports a need to separate the two.
I’ll give an example that is discussed in the debate that I believe should sum up this rift fairly succinctly. Scientist have for years been drilling into the ice in the arctic to collect samples just like in the movie “The day after tomorrow”. I know you might be thinking “Wait, that movie was terrible”, to which I would reply that you are missing the point and are a movie snob who can’t enjoy a dynamic story that features a perfect blend of action and drama.
These long cylinders of ice they collect have layers to them, much like how trees have rings for each year it lived. These layers are only formed through a full rotation of seasons where there is a build up of ice during the winter with a melting over the summer.
Bill Nye, and by extension most mainstream scientist, point to this as a way of determining how old something in the ice is. If you find a microbe that is all the way down some 10 thousand layers, then it mean that the microbe is 10 thousand years old. Scientist know that to be the case because they have observed through experimentation that ever year a new layer is added to the top of the arctic ice. Because they can tell with certainty that each year they have observed the ice a new layer has formed, they can predict that going forward there will be a new layer added each year, and that each layer that currently exists represents one year of the ice samples past.
Ken Ham, and other scientists that prescribe to the same view as he does, believe that because no one was there to actually witness these layers forming, there is no way to know that these layers only formed once every year. Instead it may be possible that a thousand years ago these layers formed at a rate 40 or 50 times as often as they do now. This is why he separates science into two categories; what can or has been observed and recorded, and science that happened in the past in absence of observation.
If you stop and think about these two viewpoints you can see why they would butt heads, and ultimately come to an impasse. One side, which represents the majority of scientists, believe that what holds true today, and continues to hold true through repeated testing in the future, must also hold true in the past. The other side in the minority says, “but how do you really know?”
Yes, I know that being in the majority doesn’t automatically make you right, and there are many instances in history where the majority was incorrect. That being said, I still find the logic of Ken Ham to be flawed and troubling, mostly because it reminds me of the type of logic I’ve heard from people who don’t believe we landed on the moon.
I worked with a woman who believed that the moon landing was a hoax, and nothing I said would dissuade her from this view because in her mind she had the ultimate rebuttal. No matter what I presented as evidence, her response was “Well were you there?”
Me: If you have a telescope that is powerful enough you can see the landing sight.
Her: Have you actually seen it though?
Me: Myth busters actually did a test where they shot a laser at a reflective pad that was left on the moon and it bounced the laser beam back to them there by proving that we landed on the moon.
Her: How do you know they didn’t fake that? Were you there to shoot the laser?
Me: They brought back moon rocks from the moon that are completely unlike any rocks from the earth, in part because they are littered with impact marks from meteorites of all sizes since the moon does not have an atmosphere to protect its surface.
Her: Did you actually see any of these rocks?
Me: Yes, when we had a NASA guest speaker at my school as a kid.
Her: How do you know they were really moon rocks and weren’t fake?
I could go on but you get the point. If someone already knows what the answer is, and they believe it with certitude, then they will manipulate the facts, and the conditions that apply to those facts, to support the answer they believe. Kind of like on a cop show when a shitty cop is like “I think the ex wife is the murderer”, and the rest of the episode shows how the much more competent cop let’s the clues and facts of the case lead him or her to the guilty party thereby absolving the innocent ex wife of the murder.
That to me is the crux of the debate in my opinion, and as long as I’m tossing around opinions, here’s mine as it relates to Ken Ham’s view of creation and evolution: Although things like the age of the earth and evolution over the past 14 million years was not observed, the laws and theories put forth by popular science have a very very high degree of probability especially when compared to the young earth model that postulates the earth is only six thousand years old.
So, is it possible that the earth is only six thousand years old and that many laws of physics and nature behaved dramatically differently a few thousand years ago? Yes, but only because science is not all knowing and never claims to be and there are almost never absolutes. And when I say yes, that shouldn’t be interpreted as there’s a 50/50 chance, or even a 1 in a million chance.
The better questions is: is there any scientific reason to believe the earth is only six thousand years old? No.
There is no evidence to support that the laws that govern the universe (which obviously includes the earth and everything on the earth) were ever different than they are today. I can’t prove that magical tree elves don’t exists. That doesn’t mean that a belief in magical tree elves, of which there is no evidence of their existence, should be given equal billing with a belief backed by fossil records that prehistoric horses with three toes existed.
I know that using an analogy like the one above can sometimes come off as being condescending, especially since religion is involved in this debate, but i feel the comparison is still just. If the bible didn’t exist, there’s noting in nature and science that would lead you to come up with a hypothesis or theory that was in any way similar to the book of Genesis’ story of creation or of Noah and the Great Flood.
Ok, now that I done with the substance of their arguments, let’s talk about the more superficial aspects that a lot of the media has focused on in the aftermath of the debate. First of all, I’m not going to answer the question, “Who won?”, cause I think for most debates it is a stupid question that has no real meaning. In fact I think that way of thinking is counter productive since it makes debating complex issues devolve into a contest where the winning side is determined by factors that shouldn’t have any impact on the discussion.
For instance, Ken Ham’s suit looked like it was about 5 sizes too big and it was kind of distracting. Ham’s visual aids were way better than Nye’s. Nye had a propensity to stray off topic, and seemed to assume a level of knowledge by the audience that probably wasn’t reasonable. Those things don’t actually have anything to do with the viewpoints of the two debaters, but sadly it is the type of thing that many will focus on.
If someone was on the fence before watching this debate (first of all… why?) and they are the type of person who puts more value in how someone presents their argument and them selves than in the nuts and bolts of what the are presenting, then I could see those people swinging towards Ham’s corner. Honestly Nye was kind of at a disadvantage from the jump since this specific topic is something that Ham lives and breaths. Nye on the other hand has a much broader knowledge base that isn’t focused as sharply on this topic as it is for Ham.
Ham also has an argument that is much easier to communicate to a wider range of people, versus Nye’s argument that is more complex and nuanced. As I kind of mentioned much earlier, Ham is basically saying “Yeah but you weren’t there so you don’t know”. That is a very easy argument for someone, especially the less intelligent, to digest. Nye was also disadvantage in this regard by the fact that he, and all of science, embarrass the unknown and are happy to admit they don’t have all the answers. People like things that are simple without ambiguity. There were several instance during the debate where a question supplied by the audience led Bill to say that something like what came before the big bang is a mystery but he’s excited to find out what the answer might be. Ham has the much simpler response and confident inspiring answer that the bible answers the question and the answer is God.
What about people who were on the fence (and once again, … why would anyone be on the fence about this?) but were more concerned with the substance of the arguments? I think that group of people, which is probably a very small number, would have been more likely to have been swayed by Nye. Sadly I think most people who watched this debate already had their mind made up, and were not really that open to new ways of thinking. Really, if you already believed in the young earth theory, what are the odds that anything said during the debate would make you change your mind?
And if you already believed in evolution as theorized by Darwin and backed by mainstream science, you probably wouldn’t have changed your mind either because…. well lets be honest, it’s because you are right and Ham is wrong.