Nye v. Ham: What Is ‘Science’?

picture of Harry KellerBy Harry Keller
Editor, Science Education

It was billed as the great evolution versus creationism debate, but it didn’t turn out that way. How could it?

The official topic of the debate was “Is creation a viable model of origins in today’s modern scientific era?” However, the debate seemed to go nowhere near that question.

I must add here that I am a scientist who accepts all of the evidence supporting the age of the Earth and of the universe. Ken Ham is a “young-earth” creationist who believes both have existed for roughly 6,000 years. These creationists have a counterpart in another sort who are willing to put aside the literal idea of a “day” in creation. This debate would have better been served by one of those instead of Mr. Ham.

The debate was filled with slides and loads of data. So it is that the debaters had to rely on certain repetitive themes to avoid putting the audience to sleep. Mr. Ham often referred to the Bible as the word of God, an entity who was there in the beginning and so would know. This theme appealed to the true believers in the audience, which was well over 500,000 including those watching and listening over the Internet feeds.

Bill Nye (the science guy who really is an engineer) hit back with many facts to show that the Earth is lots more than 6,000 years old. His facts mostly showed that it may have been even a million years old, while science has put together, over and over again, evidence of a history of more than four billion years. The “young earth” people made his job too easy.

Ken Ham countered with the argument that figuring out the ages of rocks and fossils is not very exact and even can be very far off. His approach was, in essence, to sow “reasonable doubt” in the evolutionists case about the age of the Earth. But, evolutionists regard the age of the Earth as just another bit of evidence. The real issue for them is the creation of new species through the agency of natural selection.
Even creationists of all stripes accept natural selection just as they do artificial selection, as in breeding plants, dogs, sheep, and so on. Sure, species can change their characteristics, as with the finches in the Galapagos Islands, but they insist that new species cannot arise in this manner. If you agree with the age of the Earth being but 6,000 years, then they have a point. New species are not likely to be seen on such a short time scale, especially if you restrict your analysis to species visible to the naked eye.

Bill Nye had his lines set for his true believers also. He trotted out patriotism. If we don’t teach evolution in schools, then our country will fall behind in global competition. He could be correct here, but evidence supporting his thesis is mainly circumstantial.

All of the above misses the true target of this bit of theater, our schools. Well, except for the last patriotic bit, in passing.

No one, except for a few zealots, really cares what you believe. Nearly everyone cares about our children. Most care about ALL of our children. The debate should have been about what goes on in the science classes of our schools.

You can have different views about this but should at least agree that science classes should teach science, not philosophy or religion. Various brands of creationism, such as “creation science” and “intelligent design,” have sought to sidestep this problem by casting themselves as some sort of science. They’ve also tried to hijack the scientific concept of skepticism.

However, science is about disprovable hypotheses. If you make a statement that cannot be disproved, then you are not discussing science. While some statements involving supernatural forces can be disproved, it’s quite easy to make ones that are not and even to transform the disprovable ones into ones that cannot be disproved.

Any attempt to disprove action by an omnipotent being runs straight into the counter that omnipotent means “can do anything.” How did all of those fossils get buried so deeply? How did those isotopes decay so much? God made them that way to confound us and test our faith. I hope you see the problem here. It doesn’t matter whether this reasoning is correct or wrong. Either way, it’s not science.

So it is that this debate answered nothing. It gave Bill Nye a nice paycheck and Ken Ham a platform upon which to market his creation museum and garner many more visitors and thus make more money. If you follow the money, both won. If you’re a creationist, then you’ll say that Ham won. If not, you will think that Nye won. In that sense, both lost because neither will have gained many new recruits to their side of the debate.

The details don’t matter. Unless the debate cleared up in lots of minds what science is and what science is not, then we all lost.

Evolution, Darwinian evolution (as amended over the decade), is now the central defining tenet of biology, of all biological science. Scientists cannot proceed to design new medicines and find the causes of disease without this central tenet. You can choose to call it a handy model or accept it as true reality. However, denying it is like denying that the Earth circles the Sun. Your models of how the world works will eventually fail.

We must teach our children science in our science classes. We can teach all sorts of philosophical concepts in other places. Evolution is science. Creationism is not.

One Response

  1. “Is creation a viable model of origins in today’s modern scientific era?”

    Neither I nor the debaters answered this question. This may be because it’s basically unanswerable. What exactly does “viable” mean?

    If it means that you can build a world-view around it, well, lots of people have — including Ken Ham. If it means that you can build science around it, then it fails miserably basically because it’s a supernatural model, and the supernatural is not part of science.

    If you can step back and consider what an omnipotent being could do and how it might be done, then evolution could just be the mechanism being guided by a guiding hand. Science does not go there, however.

    The scientific study of evolution illustrates that it COULD happen without a guiding hand. To scientists, God is irrelevant to this discussion. Such an attitude does not deny God. It simply doesn’t care.

    And that’s the essence of science. Science does not set out to prove or to disprove any tenet of any religion, although some scientists and even non-scientists may take this approach. Science, practiced properly, simply unearths evidence, gathers data, and interprets in ways that are predictive. It tests those predictions and accepts or rejects hypotheses based on those tests.

    You cannot test supernatural predictions because they are so slippery. Does prayer work? If not, something was wrong with your prayers. By rejecting all failures just because they failed, you are violating the scientific approach to understanding the universe.

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