Sunday, February 09, 2014

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. 


At 2:32 PM, Blogger Carole Brenton said...

I will concede that I, too, was disappointed that Ham didn’t seem to respond to that question as well as I wanted him to. However, I think his repeated insistence that there are actual bona fide scientists that hold to the creationist worldview was never truly appreciated by Nye.

Nye repeatedly opined that a young earth worldview caused people to not ask questions and were therefore not really scientists. He repeatedly intimated that scientists “on the outside” (i.e., not working for the Creation Museum) were ‘real scientists’ and those working for the Creation Museum were not. (I found these comments condescending and not worthy of a man of his credentials.) To which Ham again listed real scientists who held to a young earth worldview, one of them being Dr. Raymond Vahan Damadian, the inventor of the MRI. In fact, if you watch Ham’s comments about the debate recorded on the following day, Ham explains that Nye revealed afterward that he thought all those scientists Ham mentioned worked for the Creation Museum. How Nye could think that the inventor of the MRI was employed at the Creation Museum in Kentucky baffles me!

Be that as it may, in all honesty, I had no idea who this Raymond Damadian was. Never heard of him. And I will confess that I’m very bad at names. Maybe Nye has that problem, too. But did he not hear Ham say that Damadian was the inventor of the MRI??? A quick google search reveals that Damadian is an avid creationist. And yet he was able to postulate the bazillion hypotheses that must’ve been necessary to come up with the science behind the MRI. In fact there are many scientists in every field of science who hold to a young earth worldview. Sadly, many of them hold their views privately because of people like Nye. In fact, on Christian Answers’ website they list 57 scientists who believe in a young earth. Why only 57? Because, as the website explains, “Some scientists would rather not have their name made public due to justified fear of job discrimination and persecution in today's atmosphere of limited academic freedom in Evolutionist-controlled institutions.”


I find Nye’s view that those who study and labor in the field of science and hold a creationist worldview cannot do ‘real’ science bigoted, prejudicial and arrogant.

At 8:18 PM, Blogger Timothy Blaisdell said...

Right off, I find it interesting that in response to part 2, you felt the need to call me out for what I said (at the tail end of a long post giving hard evidence for my points) about never encountering a young-earth creationist on the JOIDES Resolution, but here you praise Ken Ham's "repeated insistence that there are actual bona fide scientists that hold to the creationist worldview", saying that Nye "never truly appreciated it".

If you want to know why Nye didn't appreciate it, maybe you should read your own response to part 2. Also, note that Ham didn't bring up the other scientists as a kind of "point of interest" at the very end of an argument based entirely on hard evidence, but brought them up (as you correctly observed)repeatedly, right from the start, and throughout the debate.

And I believe Nye did actually say something positive about the MRI guy. I'd have to watch the whole thing again to find what he said, but I seem to remember him mentioning that guy in a positive light.

I completely agree with you, like I said, that Christians and other religious believers can be great scientists. Certainly there is no doubt that in areas where the science is mainly about engineering, building a better mousetrap, one's religious beliefs never come into play. And of course, regardless what Ken Ham may think, there are many, many scientists out there that are devout Christians and fully embrace millions-of-years cosmology and geology and even evolution.

In at least two of Richard Dawkins' books (The God Delusion and The Selfish Gene), and also "The Believing Brain" by Michael Shermer, the authors spend a good deal of time marveling at Francis Collins, who manages to be a scientist of truly epic proportions (the Einstein of genetics, etc.) and a passionate Christian at the same time.

If you haven't read "The Language of God" yet, you really should. That was the book that, more than anything else I can name, convinced me that evolution (or something very much like it involving all life on earth having common ancestry) is a fact. And in there, it's plain and plain that Collins is a passionate Christian. He's also a lover of C. S. Lewis (a good thing in my book), and probably quotes him on every 3rd page.


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