Like many evolutionary biologists (and scientists in general), I had deep reservations about Bill Nye’s decision to debate Ken Ham today at the Creation Museum in Kentucky. My reservations were three-fold:
Debates are not about truth, they are about winning - science, the complete opposite. Science is settled by data and lengthy rational discussion in the scientific literature, not by one hour grandstanding without any real-time fact-checking.
All the ticket and DVD sales go to directly undermine his life’s work. (i.e. funding The Creation Museum.)
Bill Nye is not an evolutionary biologist and I was not sure that he would have the knowledge at his fingertips required to counter the bizarre unusual examples that Creationists always like to drag out in an attempt to discredit some aspect of evolutionary theory. (I know I couldn’t without the internet and time to look into them!)
I even uttered the words (or whatever the online equivalent of utterance may be): He’s “lost” before he even starts.
Like many evolutionary biologists (and scientists in general), I also did not intend to watch the debate, believing it to be a train-wreck in the making. When, however, a reminder from Why Evolution is True popped up in my inbox just after I had got myself a coffee, I changed my mind - I hadn’t even realised it would be on at a sensible time Down Under. (11am as it happens.)
Happily, I was wrong on a few counts. Bill Nye made a very good account of himself. Ken Ham did not wind me up like Creationists are prone to do and, whilst contradicting himself in places and misrepresenting specific scientific techniques on occasion, he was actually fairly easy to listen to and made a compelling case: just not the case I think that he thought he was making - but I’ll come back to that.
I’m still not sure that Bill Nye should have agreed to do it but three realisations/revelations (four if you count his performance) have certainly made me question my earlier judgement:
The topic. Crucially - and in a big mistake by Ken Ham - the debate was not “Creation versus Evolution”. Ham was not able to pull out the usual Creationists smoke and mirrors, partly because he is a Young Earth Creationist (YEC) and has little room for manoeuvre. Instead, the topic was: “Is creation a viable model of origins in today’s modern scientific era?” By putting the focus on YEC and not evolution, there was less of the focusing on gaps in our knowledge (as if they somehow invalidate the positive evidence) and more focus on the evidence - or lack of it - for YEC.
Apparently, the ticket sales would not be sufficient to cover the costs of running the event, so the Creation Museum might actually make a loss. I am sure that they will recover this from DVD sales to the faithful, although given how exposed the YEC position was in the debate, I’m not sure they’ll want to.
Rather than simply being a debate between the two, they also had to answer questions handed in by the public. These were some of the most revealing of all.
There are a lot of points from the debate that are worthy of discussion, and I might write a few more posts in future if I have the time/energy. One point really stood out, though, so it is worthy of a mention now.
The end is Nye for Young Earth Creationism as “Science”
One of the most interesting things was how Ken Ham did not even try to pretend that his YEC was not wholly and utterly derived from his religious belief. This was not a matter for debate and it was Ham, not Nye, that exposed it. He made it clear that, in his view, Christian theology does not make sense without a literal Biblical Creation. (I happen to agree with him there but that’s definitely another post!) He also made it clear that Genesis was the starting point, had to be true and there was absolutely no way that he would ever accept any evidence or interpretation that contradicted it.
One of the questions from the public was what it would take for the speakers to change their mind. For Nye: a bunch of different observations incompatible with naturalistic evolution and/or an old Universe. For Ham: nothing.
Ham’s tactic to cover this up was a new one to me, I must confess. Rather than claim that YEC is not a religious position, he claims that “molecules to man” evolution is a religious position. (Rather odd given the number of “Theistic evolution” religious believers out there.) Apparently, not believing the Bible is a literal God-inspired manual for life that trumps all evidence - even if that opinion is itself based on external evidence - is religion.
He then made a big effort to convince people that YEC is consistent with the evidence. There were the usual quotes from YEC PhDs and a big thing about distinguishing “observable science” and “historical science”. (From what I can gather, anything that can be shoehorned into being “consistent” with YEC is “observable science”, and anything that cannot is “historical science” and therefore “impossible to know” and open to other interpretations.) He also made a big thing of scientific interpretations being based on “assumptions” and therefore quite possibly wrong, whereas he could present a different set of assumptions and suddenly the data is consistent with the Bible.
And here is the crux of the matter. With these admissions, Ken Ham is demonstrating exactly why YEC is not science - and why a scientific interpretation of evidence is not religion...
Religion starts with the conclusion and makes up assumptions to fit the data to it. Science, on the other hand, starts with a set of assumptions and then asks what conclusions are most feasible given the data and these assumptions. This is big difference between science and religion - between evolution and YEC. Does the conclusion lead the interpretation of the data or does it fall out of it?
Crucially, where YEC invents assumptions to make the data fit, the assumptions of science are themselves scientific conclusions and/or explicitly tested. For science, it is not enough to simply say that data X is consistent with explanation Y. For science to accept Y as the current working explanation, data X has to be more consistent with Y than competing explanations. Certainly, Ken Ham’s team can come up with all manner of just-so unlikely explanations as to why apparent evidence for an old earth or shared ancestry can be explained away but are they likely? More to the point, what are the chances of them all being right? YEC ignores the weight of consistent probability that opposes their position - because their position is not derived from evidence. As Ham and Nye made clear together: in the modern scientific era, this is just not a viable model of origins without extraordinary faith in deceptive powers.
Of course, YEC starting with its conclusion and therefore not being science is an old chestnut but I still find it interesting that Ham did nothing to dispel this and actually reinforced it. I’m doubtful that this debate will make any difference but it really should have put the misguided representation of YEC as science to bed, once and for all.