Thursday, February 06, 2014

The Bill Nye - Ken Ham debate

I don't know if I need to explain this as it seemed to be a pretty big media event, but Tuesday there was a creationism/evolution debate between Bill Nye ("The Science Guy") and Ken Ham (CEO of "Answers in Genesis"). As far as such debates usually go, this was a good one, and I felt that since it was a topic I like to cover on my blog from time to time, I'd give a sort of after-commentary here outlining what I think each debater did well as well as what they did poorly.

Interestingly, Bill Nye did extraordinarily well, considering that he is not a biologist, nor does he seem to know much of anything about the Bible. It seems to me that for debates like this, the evolution side would best be served by a debater who really knows their biology. I don't think that ended up being as big of a handicap for Nye as his lack of knowledge about the Bible in the end, as he made some arguments against the Bible that any reasonably-informed Christian could sweep aside as misinformation.

But I wanted to start with Ken Ham, both because he was the one who won the coin toss to speak first, and because I was far more impressed with his arguments than I think I ever have been with a creationist. As I think I've said before many times, creationists seem to often have a near-complete lack of knowledge of what evolution really means or how it works. Ham, however, seems to have a good grasp on the science, and doesn't make the mistake of outright denying evolution in any form. Rather, he points out what are really some near-obvious facts: Darwin spent a lot of time studying finch beaks in the Galapagos, and while there really is a striking amount of variation to be found there, the fact remains that with all that variation, they're all still finches. The point that Ham makes here is that while evolution definitely occurs, it's hard to show that animals evolve into entirely different kinds of animals. Yes, lions, tigers, pumas, and housecats all have a common ancestor, but they're still all cats.

Ham furthermore makes an important distinction between what he calls "observational" science and "historical" science. Observational science is science where you do experiments and make real-time observations of phenomena, while historical science is where you take what you know about natural phenomena and extrapolate that knowledge into the unobservable past. Since the past is unobservable, then historical science consists largely of guesswork, and standard evolutionary scientists have suggested that all life comes from a single, large family tree, while Ham is suggesting that we should think of all of life as being comprised of a sort of "family orchard" where different classes or "kinds" of animals all branch from a single ancestor that is completely unrelated to any other "kind". He points out that this model fits in just as well with biology as we know it today, but happens to also fit with the Biblical account of creation.

Also, a minor, but vital point that Ham makes is that there are plenty of young-earth creationist scientists that are doing just as much for innovation and technology as any atheist scientist. One of his chief examples is that of the inventor of the MRI, which revolutionized modern medicine, and yet that scientist/inventor believes that the earth is only 6,000 years old.

Bill Nye, however, had plenty of interesting things to say, many of which were seemingly pretty devastating to Ham's position. Nye had a lot to say about the fossil record, which consistently progresses from simple animals to more complex organisms, showing evidence that the modern species that we know must have had simpler biological ancestors. Also, he points out that if all the animals in the world at one time were kept on Noah's ark, which landed after the flood in the Middle East, then there should be fossil remains of Australian animals like kangaroos in the Middle East, but no such fossils have ever been found.

Actually, Noah's ark was a big point of contention for Nye. Mathematically he showed that if the ark had had only a few thousand "kinds" of animals that led to the millions of species that exist today, that would imply evolution that operated at a rate of 11 new species daily for the last 4,000 years. Evolution like that would be hard to miss!

One of Nye's last points was that the standard model of evolution has actually at times predicted archaeological finds, and one of the things that is considered the hallmark of a scientific theory is that it has predictive ability. Nye suggested that Ham's model does not have predictive ability, a challenge that Ham never addressed.

As for weaknesses (apart from the fact that neither debater seemed to me to successfully rebut any claims made by the other), Ham at one point made the claim that science is being forced into a naturalistic mindset, and it needs to be opened to other possibilities. While I agree that alternative theories like creationism need to be considered, I can't say that I'm convinced that there is a value to non-naturalistic science. Nye repeatedly attacked the validity of the Bible by using the "telephone game" metaphor, which implies that the Bible is a translation of a translation of a translation, etc., when in fact each new version of the Bible that is published makes use of better textual evidence than previous ones, and is usually a translation directly from what are considered the best ancient texts.

In the end, I think both men really knew their stuff well, and presented their own arguments excellently, but like so many debates before, I don't think either of them was at all swayed by the opposing argument, and I bet both men considered themselves the winner. I found it entertaining, but I'm not sure that anything really useful was accomplished on either side.