On Tuesday night, Bill Nye the Science Guy debated Ken Ham (founder and head of Answers in Genesis) at Ham’s Creation Museum in Kentucky for a lively debate which centered around the following question: “Is creation a viable model of origins in today’s modern scientific era?” The debate was moderated by Tom Foreman (CNN) and he kept a tight leash on the evening, making sure that both Nye and Ham had equal time to comment and respond. They each gave a five-minute opening statement, followed by a half-hour presentation (each), then time for rebuttals, and ended the evening with quite a few questions from the audience.
Some scientists are annoyed with Nye for giving Ham what they consider to be unnecessary publicity and a platform from which to espouse his unique beliefs. While I understand these concerns, I have a slightly different take: as someone who was raised by young-earthers (I actually met Ham at a creationist conference in upstate New York when I was a kid…yes, that was our family vacation that year!) I am really hoping that parents of similarly-minded households the world over will sit their kids down and force them to watch this debate or that said kids will find their way to it on their own, because it may in fact be the first time in their young lives when evolution will be presented to them in a way that is logical, balanced, and non-biased. This debate represents an incredible opportunity to reach out to these kids, and perhaps even some of their parents.
Ham’s remarks and responses are as frustrating as they are expected, but what I found consistently maddening was his adamant refusal to acknowledge any possibility whatsoever of our ability to accurately gauge the age of the earth through non-Biblical means. His reasoning is thus: the word ‘science’ has been “hijacked by secularists” who have combined what he considers to be two separate concepts: “origins/historical science” versus “observational/experimental science”. Historical science, for Ham, is anything which mankind was not there to witness/observe firsthand…
Nye brought up numerous examples of how we can easily gauge the age of the earth (as well as the entire cosmos) by observable phenomena from both the past and present, yet Ham repeatedly fell back on the same argument, which goes something like this (paraphrasing): “Those observable properties can change over time and we can never be sure that any physical law or property is ever constant/consistent”, thus rendering moot the numerous examples which Nye attempted to present. Carbon-dating? “Things change…we can’t know that these results are constant.” Cosmic background radiation? “Things change…we can’t know that these results are consistent.” Ham’s a one-trick pony and it becomes embarrassing rather quickly when you realize that this is his major line of defense.
It is also interesting to note that Nye could have used this same argumentative tactic of “historical science” against Ham’s own religious beliefs, by pointing out that Ham was not around to witness/observe any of the Biblical events upon which he bases ALL of his theories. Nye missed a huge opportunity here to call Ham out on this hypocritical fallacy, though I have little doubt that Ham would have responded with something to the effect of: “God’s word is infallible because God says so, so therefore: God.”
For the most part, however, Nye did a superb job of presenting his case with clarity, dignity, and several moments of witty (as well as respectful) humor. In addition to the numerous examples which he provides, he also repeatedly asked a question which Ham never once attempted to address: “What is it that you can predict? What can you provide us that can tell us something about the future, not just about your vision of the past?” And of course the answer is: nothing. And here is the core issue, as far as I can tell, when it comes to having these sorts of conversations with members of my own family and others who agree with and support Ham’s positions: no matter what new observable information comes along, it will *always* be forced to fit within the limited confines of their preexisting belief model…
It can be pretty incredible to watch the Olympian feats of mental and metaphysical origami which young-earthers are forced to perform in order to bend/shift/force new data into their predefined model, as opposed to the open system of science which actually looks forward to abandoning prior theories and ideas, once new information is presented and the data is demonstrated by the ability to reproduce said results. Scientists celebrate these moments as learning experiences for growing and moving forward, while people like Ham remain static and fixed. Nothing changes for them, and as for new scientific discoveries: if not rejected outright, they are battered and beaten into sanctimonious submission, then filed away into the unassailable vault of their mental worldview. It is a continuous zero-sum game between their ability to reason and their faith in the unshakable.
On the issue of Intelligent Design, Nye also nails it: “The idea that there’s a higher power that has driven the course of events in the universe and our own existence is one that you cannot prove or disprove. This gets into this expression: agnostic. You can’t know. I’ll grant you that.” That is the only necessary and appropriate response when it comes to teaching ID in schools, and I don’t see why a teacher shouldn’t be free to say just that: “We can’t know via science, so that’s why we aren’t gonna discuss it within a science classroom. Moving on…” Perhaps a separate philosophy class could be offered in which students are presented with a succinct history of ALL the world’s religions, starting off with their various creation myths and then tracing the historical impacts (both positive and negative) which all of these belief systems have had. These sorts of conversations could potentially be helpful, assuming they are presented within a neutral context.
The debate will be available here for the next several days, though it looks like Ham is already offering pre-sales of the DVD on his website. I hope that this debate will begin to generate some form of conversation (and perhaps even questioning) amongst those children of creationists who are lucky enough to see it, and for whom I feel epic amounts of empathy! These poor kids did not ask to be born into such wacky situations…as if the world isn’t a challenging enough place to begin with! Sure, let’s just stunt their education by a century and a half, and then watch as they hop over all of these ridiculously unnecessary hurdles in an infuriating attempt to catch up with the rest of the world…
If you are one of these questioning kids and you happen to be reading this, please know that yours will not be an easy journey, though take heart: it will be endlessly rewarding if you can find the inner-strength to see it through to completion! And no, you do not have to give up your faith along the way. As Nye said, it’s something that cannot ever be proved or disproved. You can still have faith in your god and believe that vis allowed the universe to unfold in ways which are observable, testable, and verifiable by the rigorous standards of the scientific method. This should not lessen the grandeur of your deity, and for many it actually enhances it. If you are ever able to break free of the stilted/stifled mental barriers which have been erected around you, please know that your life will be all the richer for your newfound ability to fearlessly question the universe with an open (albeit healthily skeptical) Mind. This ability is a tremendous gift and if you allow it to do so, it can help guide you throughout the various adventures of your life…this is my promise to you