Saturday, February 08, 2014

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.


At 8:56 AM, Blogger Carole Brenton said...

“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.”

This is the most telling part of your whole blog. What if ‘Alex’ had been trustworthy in times past?

A big part of science is our presuppositions. Presuppositions are our most basic assumptions about the world. Presuppositions are things you take for granted: like your own existence, the reliability of your memory, your continued personal identity, moral laws, laws of logic, induction, and many others. Most people assume all of these things, but they don’t stop to think about why they assume these things. All the above presuppositions make sense in a creation worldview, but are problematic in non-creation worldviews.

Science actually rests on a large number of critical presuppositions. In addition to those listed above, one must assume that his or her senses are reliable. What good would it be to do an experiment if my eyes do not accurately relate to me the results of that experiment? And what good would it be to have accurate eyes if light traveled erratically? We presuppose that light travels in an orderly way. What good would it be to do any experiment if the universe did not behave in an organized, logical fashion? We presuppose the universe continually behaves in an orderly, logical way. Hopefully, you’re now beginning to see just a few of the presuppositions that are rationally necessary for science to be possible.

Carbon dating, for example, is based on all the above presuppositions and many others. It presupposes (in addition to all the more abstract presuppositions listed above – induction, reliability of the senses, etc.)

1. that C-14 decayed in the past as it does today;

2. that the C-14 in the atmosphere of the past was the same as today;

3. that the system is uncontaminated;

4. the laws of probability;

5. the equivalence of C-14 atoms.

As it happens, carbon dating provides powerful confirmation of the biblical timescale. Scientists have found C-14 in coal and diamonds that are supposedly millions of years old (or over a billion years old for the diamonds) in the evolutionary view. But C-14 has a half-life of around 5,700 years—it decays to the point that it can’t be detected before even one million years have passed. Are evolutionists convinced by such evidence that the earth really is just a few thousand years old as the Bible teaches? Or do they simply dismiss such evidence and assume that there must be some sort of contamination (despite the lack of evidence of contamination) simply because of their presupposition that the earth is billions of years old?

Clearly, presuppositions vastly affect our interpretation of evidence. You assumption that ‘Alex’ is untrustworthy is a telling presupposition. I have a very different view of ‘Alex’.

At 6:47 PM, Blogger Timothy Blaisdell said...


There are a lot of ways I could respond to you. It's hard to know what to write first.

Regarding 'Alex': Alex is not quite equivalent to God. Alex more represents... the whole system of Christianity, which sort of tells us stuff.

As a mostly benign example, I think I remember two preachers telling me as a child, from the pulpit, that men have one less rib than women, as a sort of proof of the Biblical account. That was 'Alex' talking.

As a less benign example, consider our shared experience as children growing up. Recall how it was. Were there negative aspects to it? I don't say that there weren't wonderful things about it, but if there were some bad things, some preventable bad things, what system primarily upheld and served as enabler for those bad things? I feel very strongly that it was 'Alex' who enabled them, provided a sanctuary where they could thrive undetected for a long time.

I can understand if you feel differently.

Regarding the "presuppositions" stuff, there's so much I could say.

For starters, I was careful in my illustration to try to give a feel for how powerful it is to have multiple, independent sources agree about a finding. In the story, the estimates from the corrosion of the metal and the estimates from the scratches gave the same age for the spring system. When that happens, or especially if you have three or four or more sources of information that agree with pretty good precision, it's begins to matter less that maybe one of the sources might be wrong. At that point, you need to have some explanation that can make all your sources wrong, and all wrong in the same way.

Now, you said something interesting I'd like to say something about. You indicated that the idea that the earth is billions of years old is a "presupposition" in the same way that a creationist presupposes that the Bible is accurate. The thing is, those are not both "presuppositions".

Think about my spring-and-weight illustration. Let's say Alex were someone I had a very high level of trust in -- someone, let's say, I considered infallible. Now when I go back to the spring, my belief that Alex has told me the truth really is a presupposition that I'm bringing to my investigation. It may color my thinking, the way presuppositions can. Rather than being open to the evidence as it is, I may start looking only for things that can lend credence to Alex's statement. That is what a presupposition is.

Now, let's say later on, Alex, or some of Alex's followers come back in the room, and I show them the evidence I found. They scowl at me and say "You just have a presupposition that this spring is older than 15 minutes." What are they doing there? They are being tricky. They are speaking as I've learned 'Alex' often speaks. The results of my research are not presuppositions I came in with.

At 5:59 PM, Blogger Timothy Blaisdell said...

Today a conversation I had led me back to this post.

I felt it might be important to enumerate a few of the ways "Alex" helped to enable the negative aspects of my/our early years.

It was "Alex" that said (and he said it a lot) that a woman must obey her husband. That a woman should "call him Lord", like good ol' Sarah.

It was "Alex" that told women they must "keep silent in the church", and referred to "old wives' tales" as things not worthy of consideration (don't husbands tell tales?).

It was "Alex" that worked over many years to make divorce more of a social stigma than spousal abuse, so that a woman who left an abusive relationship was rejected socially without question, while a man who beat his wife or raped his children could hide indefinitely (without question -- and again, even if he confessed what he was doing to his [male] pastor, the pastor would provide counsel only in the most discreet fashion, to protect the man's reputation/livelihood/etc.).

I feel, but I concede that I may be wrong, that it was the sheltering walls of Alex's house that enabled and abetted this situation for many years (years during which we happened to be children), just as his house aided and abetted the practice of slavery in previous years.

Today, Alex has abandoned the defense of slavery, and I admit (happily!) that Alex no longer gives the support he once did to abusive relationships. Just the other day, the pastor of my church, having just spoken on divorce, hastened to add that in cases of physical or emotional abuse, one should not try to "stick it out", but should flee and get help. When we were kids, few pastors would have said that.

In addition (to return to the point of my original post) Alex also propagated the idea that the universe was created in 6 days, with all species in (or near) their current forms, and many other ideas that (as I see it) have been refuted by mountains of evidence. Why should I continue to follow Alex's advice?

At 10:20 PM, Blogger Timothy Blaisdell said...

Carole, are you still reading this?


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