Thursday, February 6, 2014

Bill Nye vs Ken Ham : Post-Debate Review

So I, like many of you out there in the atheist blogosphere, watched the big debate between Bill Nye the Science Guy and Answers in Genesis' Ken Ham.  Going into it, I was expecting not too much from Bill and pretty much the same old same old from Ken Ham.  Mainly why I wasn't expecting much from Bill had not to do with his scientific understanding (which is quite considerable), but because of tactical practices that are part of the process of formal debate. The problem with the practice of debate with its rules put in force is that it is less about what is true and more about who argues well, and how you lay traps and keep someone from really being able to make the actual point.  Simultaneously, if you can get someone into a trap, you never have to actually make a point of your own or provide any real reason for your position.  This is why people like Duane Gish or William Lane Craig are generally successful in debates.

WLC likes to strawman and lie about his opponent's positions and lie about science.  The lies about science are obscure enough that it would take some serious effort or existing knowledge of a subject in order to uncover them.  The lies about the opponent's position are designed to rouse ire and goad the opponent into wasting time reprimanding WLC for his crime.  Gish, on the other hand, takes the tactic of rapid-fire switching between subtopics, ensuring that people can only really respond to a fraction of the questions posed (note that because creationists set up this false dichotomy, they assume that if a given question isn't adequately answered by their adversary, they win by default).  This latter is the primary tactic that Ken Ham used in his opening statement.  From there on, it was a lot of the usual fallacies of "historical science vs. experimental science" and a lot of "you weren't there" and "the Bible is automatically true" bullcrap.  The most cringeworthy example of this for me was during the Q&A where Bill was asked about the origin of matter, and in Ham's response to Bill's answer, he said "there's a book out there that actually tells us where matter came from."  Ugh...  right, the book says so, therefore it's the right answer.  He did it again with the "where did consciousness come from" question as well.  I really felt like wringing Ken Ham's neck right there.

I will give both of them kudos for their etiquette.  I have to admit that if it was me up there, I don't think I'd be able to stomach Ham's claptrap long enough to maintain any sense of decorum.  Bill is nothing if not polite.  I think my favorite moment overall, though, was the question to Ham which asked what would be necessary for him to change his mind.  A bit of a long-winded preaching in which he almost seemed to be trying to convince others to take his side, but ultimately, he states plainly that he would never change his mind for any reason whatsoever.  That, to me, shows that he has no capacity to claim a scientifically reasonable position.  If he won't change his mind about things, then that is in every sense unscientific.  I do wish Bill had gone there, but his response was to show that he actually would change his mind given the right evidence... and the important detail left out is that this is essential to being scientifically-minded.

So the plus points for Bill -- I am glad that he brought up dating-related data that involves more mundane methods of measurement (e.g. ice-cores, tree rings, etc) that on their own defeat a 6,000 year universe.  The difficulty of these is that there is no real counterargument against these methods for creationists.  Although things like an ice core don't give you billions of years, it at least gives you close to a million, which is still orders of magnitude greater than what Ken Ham and his ilk presuppose.  I do think he did a good job pointing out the ridiculousness of the "creation orchard" or the rock layering and so on.  Things like needing 11 new speciation events per day or needing to alternate between summer and winter every other day for the past 4000 years is pretty awesome in its power to demonstrate the absurdity of the claim.  I think this is a good example of using the creationists' own poison against them.  It is really quite time-consuming to try and explain how things would actually work out under a literal Bible world or how we know the things we know, but it is quite a bit quicker to poke holes in Ham's sophistry.  I do think this is a better approach for formal debate, so he kind of surprised me here, and it works especially well here because he's arguing against someone whose position holds to axioms which are so massively in error that illustrating that in numerical fashion shows very clearly just how preposterous they are.  It's far better than Dawkins' width of the U.S. analogy because this is dealing with the arguments themselves rather than making an analogy.  But overall, the best thing that Bill Nye did is something he didn't do;  He didn't take any of Ham's bait.  He didn't fall into the usual traps and just made his points exactly as he saw fit.

Ken made at least one valid point, which is that there are plenty of ways in which one can do real good science in which being a YEC does not directly impinge on your ability to function.  It is the same sort of compartmentalization that most religious scientists apply wherein they are not really bringing their god into the lab.  Ham made efforts to point out that many of these YEC scientists are also formerly published in reputable journals (although the fact that many of them work for Ham is a bit telling), but leaves out the sort of content that was in those publications.  The point is that there is no chance whatsoever that they would have published young-Earth Evangelical Christian content in a science journal...  it would have been pretty ordinary research results or confirming studies or whatever.

The rest of Ham's argument (really the entirety of his argument) was the whole "historical science is different from regular science" shpiel and the extension of that argument is that extrapolating to the past requires assumptions and therefore assuming the Bible is admissible.  That's pretty extreme.  Never mind the abject dishonesty of the first part here, but even if I were to grant that assumptions must be made, he never really got into how the Bible is admissible.  It was a whole lot of "I choose to assume the Bible", and then claiming that it bears out.  Of course, there wasn't an isolated example of a prediction he could make that was either unique to his assumption or anywhere as specific as real scientific theories can offer.  His use of presuppositional apologetics and the equivocation fallacy that the existence of natural law necessitates a "law-giver" was not really all that heavy in his actual statements and arguments, but appeared a lot more in the Q&A afterwards.  He tries hard to hide the circularity, but in the Q&A, he loses that battle and in one case even lets out the circularity in the span of a single sentence where he says that the Bible is true because the Bible says so.  One point where I will give Ham credit for is that he briefly started to get into the racism canard, but he never invoked Godwin's Law or started talking about Hitler and Stalin et al.  That is something that other creationists of his stripe would otherwise do.  Thank you for that, Ken.

There are areas where I feel Bill fell a little short of ideal.  In particular, he put a lot of stress on the predictive power of scientific theories, but I feel he should have also made a point about the specificity and accuracy of those predictions.  The two major examples he brought up were Tiktaalik (for evolution) and the cosmic background radiation (for the Big Bang).  These are both really good examples in themselves, but an important factor to take in is just how precise these predictions were.  Tiktaalik wasn't just predicted to exist, but its morphology was exactly predicted, as was the location where its fossils were found, the rock layers it would be in, the materials that would be in those rock layers, etc.  The cosmic background wasn't just predicted and then found to match, but the key is that how exactly the data matched the prediction is so tremendously accurate that you need at least a 25 Mpix image of the graph to show the error between the prediction and the raw data.  That is why you have no justification under any circumstances not to take these kinds of theories seriously.  Ken Ham made a rather clunky argument for the Big Bang as an interpretation of the verse that says that "God stretched out the heavens", but even if I grant that -- it still fails to say how you would predict the CMB, let alone to that level of precision.  Nye could have gone further to point out that factor in order to really put forward the significance of a theory's predictive power.  Ken seemed to at least understand this to some degree when he claimed to put out his extremely loose predictions for creationism like "we should expect the existence of logic", but again, even if you grant his presuppositional apologetics, that is where his predictive power ends.  There's no specificity here.  There's no precision.  There's no detail.  There's just a nebulous claim that can't even be shown to be explicitly tied to the viewpoint.

An example that Bill probably could have used if he had the time was to bring up the human chromosome #2 example.  The important thing about this prediction is not just that we were able to predict the remnants of a chromosome fusion site, but that that prediction was a necessary one.  By that, I mean that given evolutionary theory and the extent of what we know about genetics, there was no way room for any other possibility.  It could not not be true unless common ancestry between humans and other great apes was false -- i.e. a failure to find it would have disproven common ancestry.  Can Ken Ham even offer anything to that extent?  i.e. something that is so specific to the Bible that a failure to show it would disprove your theology?  Well, based on the Q&A, even if something like that could be offered by other creationists, Ham is not and will not ever be one of them.  It is not just beyond him to put something like that on the table, but he won't even consider it.  I recall Richard Feynman once bringing up the point of how testing a hypothesis in science often means starting with the position that "we could be completely wrong."  Show me the moment when a YEC starts evaluating his religious presuppositions with the position that he/she could be completely wrong.

A bit of a dangerous game that Bill played was the political and economic angle in which he stressed the importance of proper science education and how it will weigh heavily on the U.S.' future and its ability to compete going forward.  While I'm sure anyone reading this would agree with his sentiments, I never got the impression that he was fully prepared to respond to the political implications that could have come up in rebuttal or in Q&A.  Fortunately, it never actually bit him back, but if it was me, I would have relegated issues like that to a smaller side issue just to avoid the risk.  Had it been an opponent like William Lane Craig or Dinesh D'Souza, that argument would have turned out quite differently...  but then Craig is not fully anti-science nor does D'Souza takes as extreme a position as Ham does (though he's more extreme on the political end), so there's that difference, too.

Ham, unlike a lot of YECs correctly identified the scientific method, which is all well and good on its own.  Indeed, that is something Kent & Eric Hovind, Carl Baugh, Sye Ten Bruggencate, et al have never done.  The major flaw in his application of science is that he focuses exclusively on the experimentation and observation part and not at all on the "testing" part.  If anybody remembers the conversation between Michael Shermer and Georgia Purdom, Shermer asked her at one point how she would put her creationist beliefs to the test and actually bother verifying it...  her response is that she wouldn't even consider doing that; and that too, is the issue with Ham's approach to science.  I mean, even if we consider the fact that common ancestry with other great apes is an established truth, something like the chromosome #2 search was an example of putting that to the test.  We test even those things which are established fact all the time.  But even aside from YECs being unwilling to test their beliefs, I think the reason he didn't swerve into that is because it undermines his separation between "historical science" and "observational science."  Testing scientific hypotheses, including those ideas which lie in the realm of "historical" science means being able to compute the consequences of those ideas and then see if those predictions hold water.  Because this is equally applicable to hypotheses about the past as it is the future, that is exactly why real scientists do not differentiate between two different "kinds" of science.  It's all science.  Leaving bits out of the scientific method (or at least relegating them to a status of negligible importance) just so he can leave room for his archaic belief system is basically the M.O. for his entire enterprise...  and even then, he has to lie about radiometric dating, rock layering, geology, astronomy, cosmology, etc.

One of Bill Nye's points about the Ark trended down that path of how sea-worthy the Ark would have been had it ever been built, and Ham's response to that invoked a spurious claim that Noah was better than anyone today and wood was different back then and that magical protection and divine guidance made it all possible.  When you have to add in all these extra details and throw in more super-powers and fudge in more stuff just to make it fit...  and yet, doing all that is more plausible to you than the notion that you are wrong?  Well, Ken; I invite you to examine what that says about you and how rational you are.