Sunday, February 09, 2014

My Thoughts on the Ken Ham vs. Bill Nye Debate

Part 4: What Bill Nye Did Wrong.

In parts 1 through 3 I focused primarily on problems I have with Mr. Ham's young-earth creationism.  I was pretty hard on Mr. Ham, but I feel he deserved it.

In this last part, I want to talk about something that really bothered me about Bill Nye's presentation, and in fact it's something I've seen many other writers do, including Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and others.

It's a real problem because, well, I really think it detracts from what Bill Nye was trying to say.  It is a real stumbling block for a listener or reader like me -- a reasonably intelligent, educated person with a religious background.

Repeatedly, over and over throughout the debate, Bill Nye keeps referring to the Biblical accounts Ken Ham is defending as "Ken Ham's".  As if Ken Ham were defending a silly view he had come up with on his own, and which was new and unique to Ken Ham.  In addition to this, he keeps referring to Ken's views as being based on "an American English translation of the Bible".  This latter is really taking away seriously from the power of his argument, because any hearer with a grain of sense is going to realize that what Ken Ham is defending does not originate merely with a 20th-century "American English" translation of the Bible.  The worldwide flood, the seven days of creation, Adam and Eve, etc., etc. are all present in the original Hebrew and Greek manuscripts and have been believed, argued, and written extensively about for many centuries and in many languages.

Bill Nye is not alone is this.  Many great scientific writers do this, and I honestly can't understand it.  It does not add a smidgen of power or authority to their argument to speak this way about the ideas they are trying to argue against.  In fact, it reduces their power.

If I could rewind time and advise Bill Nye about his presentation, here's what I would say to him:

Never refer to the ideas Ken Ham is defending as if they originate with, or are unique to, Ken Ham.  The worldwide flood is "Noah's flood".  The seven days of creation are the "Genesis account of creation", etc.  Realize that even though Ken Ham is the man you happen to be debating now, you are not taking issue with anything Ken Ham invented or originated.  When you trivialize Ken Ham's case that way, you trivialize your own case as well.

Don't speak as if what Ken Ham is defending is founded upon anything recent.  Understand that the Biblical account Ken Ham is defending has been around for millennia.  By saying that Ken Ham's ideas are dependent only on an "American English" translation of the Bible, you not only reveal your own ignorance of his case, but suggest that you believe the texts in their original languages to be a better foundation for belief, and that's not what you want to say.

In short, you don't have to treat Ken Ham with any particular respect, in order to treat the very old, widely revered ideas he's defending with the respect they deserve.  By treating your opponents views with respect, you earn respect for the ideas you're presenting (which also don't originate with you).

Richard Dawkins at least tries to do something like this toward the end of "The God Delusion", even though he repeated Bill Nye's error many, many times throughout the rest of the book.  He at least tries to give credit to the Bible as a beautiful and hugely influential work of literature, largely the foundation of civilization throughout the world, required reading for any educated person, full of beautiful ideas, etc.  Unfortunately, that chapter seems a bit out of place in Dawkins' book (I felt), given all that had come before.

It would have been nice to see Bill Nye take at least a few moments to say a few words like that, if only to show his listeners that he knew what he was dealing with.

Imagine how much more ignorant and ridiculous Ken Ham would have looked if he'd continually referred to "Bill Nye's big bang", and "Bill Nye's evolution theory".  Ken Ham, to his credit, knew better than to do that.  In my opinion, this is the main reason why anyone thinks Ken Ham won the debate.  If Bill Nye had changed nothing in his presentation except to refer to "Noah's flood" and "the Genesis account", and removed "American translation", he would have had a knock-out victory across the board.

My Thoughts on the Ken Ham vs. Bill Nye Debate

Part 3: Making Predictions in Science

It's not clear to me at all that Ken Ham knows what Bill Nye is talking about when it comes to making predictions.

At (as I recall) two points during the debate, Ken puts up a slide supposedly illustrating the "predictions" his brand of creation science makes.  The first "prediction" listed is "evidence confirming an INTELLIGENCE produced life" (caps are Mr. Ham's).  This is not a prediction.  Also, none of the items listed on that slide are predictions, or even remotely anything like predictions.

A prediction, as Bill Nye uses the term, would be something like "if hypothesis X is true, then we ought to be able to observe Y".  Or, "if hypothesis X is true, then doing Y ought to produce result Z".  Perhaps  no one we know of has yet done Y, or if they have they didn't record the result -- and perhaps current technology isn't even capable of doing Y or measuring result Z.  But in principle, the hypothesis is falsifiable.

Falsifiability is very, very important in science.  In fact, if it's not falsifiable, at least in principle, it's not science.

A classic, oft-cited example of this is Einstein's predictions of how distant stars ought to be observed to move when their light passes very close to a nearby star, such as the sun.  When Einstein made these predictions, there was no telescope on earth capable of observing distant stars that close (from our perspective) to our sun.  But Einstein did the math, based on his relativity theory, and made very specific predictions about exactly how stars should appear to move as they were observed to come out from eclipse behind the sun.  Then, years later, with improved telescopes, the observations were made and agreed with extreme precision to Einstein's predictions.

A prediction, of the kind Bill Nye is talking about, says something like this: "If X is true, Y is a necessary result.  If Y can be shown to be false, then X is also false."  It's a gauntlet the scientist lays down and says "Here's what my theory predicts.  If you can show this to be false, you can destroy my theory".

For example, suppose I postulate the theory: "Santa Claus lives at the North Pole, and maintains a large, underground factory where thousands of elves manufacture toys."  Then I make this prediction:  "All these living creatures, and the necessary machinery of such an enterprise must generate a lot of heat energy.  Thus, highly sensitive infra-red photographs of the polar region taken from space ought to record a high level of heat energy radiating from the polar region."  I may not have access to satellites capable of taking such photographs, or the resources to launch them.  Maybe when I made the prediction, satellites capable of photographing the North Pole in infra-red didn't even exist.

What I've done there is make a prediction.  And I can take pride in my scientific hypothesis until some enterprising young upstart at NASA manages to appropriate time on a satellite above the North Pole and takes the photos.  When he publishes his findings, showing no significant heat energy radiating from the polar region, my theory takes a nose dive, along with my funding and respect in the scientific community.

Let's look at another of Mr. Ham's "predictions": "evidence confirming the TOWER OF BABEL" (again, caps are Ham's).

Again, this is not a prediction.  However, there are some predictions that might be made with regard to the Bible's "Tower of Babel" story.  The story tells of a time in human history when all the people of the earth spoke a common language.  Then, though a miraculous intervention by God, all the people were made to speak different languages all of the sudden.  And this all happened roughly 4000 or so years ago, in a specific region of earth.

Ok, so it seems to me that a good "creation scientist" might make some predictions based on this information.  This being a huge event taking place in a known region, at a fairly well-documented (in the Bible) period of time, we ought to be able to find evidence in archeological records that at one time everyone recorded everything in one language, and then suddenly at a specific point in history, all manner of different languages began to appear in that region, and spread out from that region.  A "creation scientist" might make the prediction: "If the Biblical account of the Tower of Babel is true, then no recorded history can exist anywhere in the world dating from before the Tower of Babel event, that's not in the common language of pre-tower earth". 

Once that prediction is made, if anyone can show ancient writings or engravings of any kind, from disparate parts of earth, demonstrating the use of different languages, then -presto!- the "Tower of Babel" hypothesis is disproved and people stop thinking about it as a part of true history.

But of course, nothing Ham is calling a "prediction" is actually anything like a scientific prediction, or is falsifiable.  It masquerades as science, but is not science.  It's like that game of shells where the guy manipulating the shells promises a reward if you can guess which shell hides the bean, but he's removed the bean from the game entirely, so there's no way to win the prize.

If you read the articles at the Answers in Genesis website regarding predictions made by creation scientists, here is the pattern Ken Ham's brand of creationists appear to follow when making predictions: "Some other scientists have presented evidence that X is true.  X contradicts (my interpretation of) what the Bible says, so I will study all the evidence the other scientists presented and see if I can imagine some explanation to explain the evidence, with the Bible still being true.  If I can come up with an imaginary scenario which could produce the evidence seen, without contradicting the Bible, then I will continue to regard the Bible as true and publish my findings as science."

So, think about a "Santa-ist" (not a "Satanist" -- this is a different thing altogether!) who encounters the evidence showing no heat energy radiating from the North Pole.  If he's a Ken Ham-like Santa-ist, he will proceed as follows: "Santa and his elves might have a sophisticated heat shield above their facility.  Heat shields do exist which can block radiated heat so that it cannot be detected from space.  Here, let me wow you with some complex information about these heat-shielding materials.  Santa and his elves must have such a shield."  He will call that a "scientific prediction" (he is, after all, making a kind of "prediction" that Santa has a heat shield over his underground facility) and consider it a good day.

But that's not a scientific prediction, because it doesn't suggest any kind of experiment that could, in principle, falsify the theory.  What it is is a logical fallacy called (in Latin) petitio principii, or "begging the question".  This happens when you offer as proof to one theory, an explanation that is as much in need of proof as the original theory.  And this is something Ken Ham does over and over throughout the debate. 

Saturday, February 08, 2014

My Thoughts on the Ken Ham vs. Bill Nye Debate

Part 2: The Fossil Record

When I was a kid growing up in churches, I can remember how creationists loved to talk about the "fossil record".  In particular, they loved to talk about "missing links". The picture they drew of the fossil record was one where a fossil was laid down every now and then of a particular individual creature who happened to be unlucky enough to fall into a bog or something.  Thus, to create an evolutionary continuum, one had to fill in a lot of wide gaps, or missing links.  One got the impression that these fossils were few and far between, and that it took a lot of imagination to envision a hereditary linkage between them.

Bill Nye starts out his 30 min. presentation talking about limestone underneath Kentucky, where they are holding their debate.  He makes the startling statement (and Ken Ham will never address this) that every layer of this limestone (millions of layers going down for miles beneath the ground) contains fossilized creatures which "lived out their lives".

But Bill Nye doesn't really take this far enough, in my opinion.

When I was with the Integrated Ocean Drilling Program, I traveled all over the world and spent a lot of time with scientists studying long cores brought up from underneath the ocean floor.  Rather than talking about ice cores, I wish Mr. Nye had looked into what the IODP does.  The IODP regularly brings up many hundreds of meters of continuous core from underneath the ocean. I'm talking about hundeds of meters (even miles) of continuous core going straight down beneath the ocean floor. These cores are sometimes frozen, sometimes solid rock, or mud. They often show the same kinds of bands (like tree rings) which can be used for measuring their age, but this is just one of several independent ways the age of sections of core can be measured. Experiments are done on samples taken from the cores using instruments on board the ship, and these experiments give age estimates which generally agree to a high degree.  And they agree not only with other samples from the same core, but with other samples taken from cores that come from all over the world.  All of this information from literally thousands of miles of core samples taken from hundreds of locations from pole to pole is publicly available, and tons of research has been done on it.

And of course, the age estimates are always in the millions of years.

But there's another thing: every cubic centimeter of the stuff (be it rock or clay or mud, etc) is filled with tiny fossils. These little beings are called foraminifera and diatoms (and others). And they can be seen to be evolving over time. They evolve gradually and lay down so many fossils that if one took photos of samples from every few centimeters one could literally make a movie documenting ages and ages of evolution, though smooth, continuous changes (in fact this has been done).

They evolve both inside and out, and in many ways. If one looks at two specimens from, say, 100 meters apart in the core (which might equate to a few million years), they look as different as a polar bear and a pumpkin. The only way we know they are related by descent is that a complete record of their gradual evolution is available to us.

This is partly what Bill Nye was talking about when he was talking about the order of fossils in layers. When you look at these layers of tiny fossils, they occur in a very specific and predictable order.  If anyone were to find a sample containing creatures from different layers, it would be like finding an iPhone on Mars. It just doesn't happen. Anywhere. Ever.

I concur with Ken Ham's assertion that Christians (and people of other faiths) can be good scientists.  Aboard the IODP's ship, the JOIDES Resolution, I met many scientists from all over the world who were believers in God. In fact, I would say that a surprisingly high percentage of the scientists I met were religious in one way or another. Many of them would pray before meals, or could be found reading their Bibles (or other sacred books) on the decks now and then.

But I never met a scientist aboard the JOIDES Resolution that was a young-earth creationist. The reason is, the evidence for a long history of earth (and life on earth) over many millions of years is just absolutely overwhelming, and incredibly well documented with every core that comes up.  

My Thoughts on the Ken Ham vs Bill Nye Debate

Part 1: Ken Ham's distinction between "experimental science" and "historical science"

Ken says there is a distinction between science that involves things we can see and touch, and science that involves things that happened in the past, which we can't see or touch.  He seems to want us to believe that the latter involves nothing but arbitrary assumptions and therefore nothing in "observational science" can provide information which might, for example, help us figure out which of two contradictory statements about the past might be true. 

Moreover, Ken asserts that only "observational science" uses the "scientific method". 

Frankly, this distinction does not exist.  Moreover, all science is founded upon the scientific method.  Let me give an illustration (which does not originate with me, but I forget where I heard it):

Let's say you're exploring a house, and in one room you discover a long spring hanging from a rod extending from the wall near the ceiling.  At the lower end of the spring is a weight.  The spring is gently rising and falling in a regular motion.

After watching the spring expand and contract, with the weight moving up and down, several times, your think to yourself, "I wonder how long ago this was set in motion?"  Of course, it immediately occurs to you that if you measure the period of the spring and how it is changing over time, you can calculate an upper-bound on the amount of time that has elapsed since the spring was set in motion.  Let's say you do this, and determine that the spring cannot have been set in motion more than 5 hours ago.  In other words, if the spring was set in motion more than 5 hours ago, it would have had to pass through the floor below it, or past the rod at it's top, before slowing down to it's current motion.

So I will point out right away that the "science" you are doing is "observational", and yet it gives you a bit of information about the past.  Not a lot of information (yet), but it's something. 

Now, let's say a guy named Alex walks into the room and says "Oh yeah, I hung that there 15 minutes ago."  Having said this, he leaves the room.

Now you have an individual's eyewitness report that the spring-and-weight system has only been there for 15 minutes, and you have a choice to make:  should you accept Alex's word for it, or keep investigating?  If you accept Alex's word, your question is answered and there's nothing more for you to do with regard to your original question (and you are not doing science any more).  If you choose to withhold acceptance of Alex's report, you can keep investigating (and doing science).  Since you enjoy investigating, and nothing else in the house has been this interesting, you decide to keep investigating.

Let's be perfectly honest though, and admit that Alex is a person that you have learned to mistrust. Last week he told you that your shoes were untied, and when you looked down to see, he flicked your nose and laughed.

In any case, you now examine the spring-and-weight assembly more closely. You examine the means by which the spring is connected to the rod, and find that a metal band was wrapped around spring and rod, and fastened with a screw.  Using a powerful magnifying glass, you discover that each time the spring moves up and down, the slight movement of the spring is engraving tiny scratches on the metal band in a distinct pattern.  Moreover, this action is causing the spring to move ever-so-slowly along the band, so that new scratches are always being made on different parts of the band.  Also, the movement of the band against the rod is making marks on the rod.  On top of that, the scratches are continually exposing fresh metal to the outer environment, resulting in corrosion, and you can plainly see that the newer scratches show less corrosion than the older ones.

After a lot of careful analysis, using a powerful microscope to photograph the band in great detail, and many experiments involving making scratches on other metal bands and measuring the results over time (all of which is clearly "observational"), you trace back through each scratch and measure the corrosion on each one, and are able to count exactly how many times the spring has scratched the metal band.  The levels of corrosion on each scratch, along with your count of the scratches, give two independent means by which you can measure the amount of time since the spring was set in motion, and it comes to 3 hours, 10 minutes.  In other words, the corrosion measurements indicate that the oldest scratch is 3 hours, 10 minutes old, and the count of the scratches (along with known facts about the period of the spring, etc.) gives an initial start at 3 hours, 10 minutes ago.  That's a significant agreement between two independent sources of information!

Now, have you proven that Alex lied to you?  No, you haven't.  There could be several explanations for your observations.  Alex might have placed scratches on the bands in just the right pattern to make it look like the spring had been there for longer than it actually was.  Or he might have used a spring, band and rod that he found somewhere, which had already been hanging somewhere else for a while.

Also, I concede that you are making assumptions.  Perhaps in the past the gravity of earth within this room was different than it is today, causing the spring to behave differently.  Or perhaps the atmosphere in the room was different in the past, causing the metal to corrode differently.  But are these assumptions unwarranted?  Are they more unwarranted than the assumption "Alex is telling the truth"?  Also, there might be many more experiments you could perform to test whether or not the atmosphere in the room or the force of gravity within the room, has been changing.  These changes will have had effects on other parts of the room, such as the walls, or furniture, or the paintings on the wall.

The point I'm trying to make is that there is no difference between "observational" and so-called "historical" science.  It's all observational, and all science makes use of the "scientific method", which involves making a hypothesis ("perhaps X is true"), designing experiments to test implications of the hypothesis ("if X is true, Y should happen when you do Z.  Let's do Z and see if Y happens!"), which then either disproves the hypothesis ("Y didn't happen, so X can't be true."), or gives further strength to (without ever proving absolutely) the hypothesis ("Y happened just as I predicted, so I can be more confident that X is true!").  That's the "scientific method" as I understand it.

Therefore, the following is not science at all:

1. The Bible says X is true.
2. If X is true, Y should happen if you do Z.
3. Y didn't happen, but X is true anyway, because the Bible says so.  God is mysterious.

Or, what more frequently happens (and what Ken Ham seems content with):

1. The Bible says X is true.
2. There's no more to say.  X is true.  Let's sing a closing hymn.