In my last post, I talked about the recent debate between creationist Ken Ham of Answers in Genesis and the Creation Museum and evolutionist Bill Nye “The Science Guy”. In that post, I noted that there has been a trend in recent years for scientists to avoid these kind of debates to avoid giving the creationist views any kind of false legitimacy. However, the fact that almost half of Americans believe that God created humans in our present form within the last 10,000 years means that this is a legitimate debate to have in many people’s minds, whether we like it or not.
But now, I want to look at the actual arguments made by Mr. Nye and Mr. Ham in their debate. The topic of the debate was, “Is Creation A Viable Model of Origins?” Which I believe was a good choice because it avoided the direct question of whether creationism or evolution is true, which probably would not be very productive.
For full disclosure, I reiterate that I am a Christian, and I also believe in evolution.I and many other people believe that Bill Nye won this debate–that is, he presented a better argument, whether or not the audience agreed with it. How did he do this? I think there are several points.
First, he backed up his argument. Bill Nye, of course, answered the debate topic by saying that no, creation is not a viable model of origins. He then explained the large body of evidence for a billions-of-years-old Earth that Young Earth Creation simply fails to account for. Ken Ham, on the other hand said that not only is creation a viable model of origins, but that it is the only viable model. However, he didn’t really back this up. He made a lot of points casting doubt on the scientific method, but very little that said why creation works and everything else doesn’t.
Second, Bill Nye had a more powerful counterargument to Ken Ham. He said that all it would take is a single (convincing) piece of evidence–like a fossilized rabbit in Precambrian rock–to overturn the entire evolutionary paradigm, and the billions of years, too. I say credible because Ken Ham did claim some evidence like this, such as this article, in which 40,000-year-old wood supposedly found in 30 million-year-old rock. The problem with this is that, yes, this would overturn our theories of the age of the Earth (or at least our dating methods) if it could be verified. I can only find mention of this evidence in creationist research. In order to be convincing, the dating would have to be independently verified by a mainstream laboratory, and other explanations would have to be ruled out. As Carl Sagan said, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”.
And no, the scientists would not hide the results. If anyone could verify a claim like that, it would be the easiest Nobel Prize in history.
Ken Ham, on the other hand, never really addressed Bill Nye’s claims. His argument focused on the distinction between what he calls “historical science” and “observational science”. These are real terms, but Ham was using them to mean things they weren’t intended to mean.
Observational science is, in simplistic terms, the science of the present. When we look at how things are today or do experiments today and learn about the universe, and when we use this to develop new technology, this is observational science. Historical science is the science of the past. It involves looking at the evidence and figuring out what happened and what things were like in the past.
Ken Ham’s philosophy is that no one was actually there in the past to see what happened; therefore, we don’t know (scientifically) what happened for certain. Because we don’t know what happened for certain, we can’t trust anything that science says about it. Ham unabashedly begins with the assumption that the Genesis account of the Bible is literally true, and, therefore, anything that science says that contradicts that is wrong.
And here is a point where I think that Bill Nye actually missed a killer argument. A big part of Ken Ham’s argument was to point out what he considers to be unfounded assumptions of the evolutionist side. You’re assuming that erosion happened the same way in the past. Since we weren’t there to see it, we can’t be sure of that. You’re assuming that radioactive decay worked the same way in the past. You’re assuming that genetic variation happened at the same rate in the past. You’re assuming that the expansion of the universe and the speed of light were the same in the past.
Just once, I wanted to see Bill Nye answer, “Yes! That’s the point!”
Ken Ham has one fundamental assumption–that the Genesis account is literally true. I believe that science starts from a different fundamental assumption, even if it’s rarely stated: that the laws of nature worked the same way in the past as they do in the present. We assume that we can extrapolated the rate of the expansion of the universe backwards to say the universe is 13.8 billion years old, and we assume all those other things too because without them, Ken Ham is right. We can’t say anything about the past.
But this is how science works. We assume that the past worked the same as the present because that’s the only way we can do science. Deep inside the math, this principle is embedded in one of the most fundamental principles of physics: Conservation of Energy.
And this is why creationism is not good science and, at the very least, not a scientifically viable model of origins. It allows the rules in the past to change however they need to to get from Point A (God creating the universe in c. 4000 BC) to Point B (today, or at least generally agreed-upon history). That is not compatible with science, in my mind, and that is why, Christian though I am, I do not accept it as science.