Reflections on the Bill Nye Young Earth Debate
Last night, I watched a ‘debate’ between Bill Nye and Ken Ham, a creationist who fervently believes that Earth has only been around for about 6,000 years, and he has been crusading to have his Bible-based interpretation taught as science in public schools. Some people have wondered why Nye agreed to speak with him. They say that this just gave Ham an underserved audience. But the reason Nye gave for agreeing to the debate is simple. The future of our nation depends on the scientific literacy of its people. Ham’s effort to undermine science education in America is therefore a disservice to the nation and to humanity as a whole. Nye felt he could not let it go unchallenged.
Ham began the debate by twisting definitions so that the word ‘science’ could incorporate his viewpoint. He attempted to make a distinction between ‘observational science’ and ‘historical science’. This distinction, according to Ham, highlights a central point of his argument. In his opinion, it is wrong to presume that the natural laws we observe today are the same natural laws that existed in the past. He gave no logical reason for why or how they might be different other than that no one was around at the time to tell us one way or the other.
This seemed to be an underlying theme influencing many of his opinions. I got the impression that he believes Truth is something given to people by God. people should not try to discover anything fundamental themselves, or at least not take their discoveries too seriously, because this will lead them astray. Natural laws discovered by human observation and study would be a case in point. He seems convinced that natural laws must have been different in the past because extrapolating discoveries about natural processes that exist today to understanding events that happened in the past requires that the Earth be several billion years old. He knows this is not true because his interpretation of the Bible says the world is much younger, and he knows the Bible is the absolute authority on such matters. He also did not provide a logical reason for this opinion. If this all seems incredibly circular to you, you’re not alone.
The most disturbing revelation for me came after the formal debate. Someone in the audience asked the two men what might change their opinions on this subject. Bill Nye said that strong evidence would do it, and I think most modern people would accept that this is a sound answer. Only a madman would not be open to changing his mind in light of new information that contradicts his previous opinion. Ken Ham had a different answer, though. He was a Christian, he said, and nothing could sway him from his beliefs.
To me this sounded extremely arrogant. I know there are many people who adhere to a specific religion and believe there is something special about its holy writings, but that is not what Ham said. The Bible, like all holy books, is a religious work. It is open to interpretation, and I have to assume that some interpretations could accommodate scientific discoveries. But what Ham is saying is that his interpretation, his opinion on the Bible is not subject to question. Evidence doesn’t matter. Men who thought like this once ruled Europe, and it led to crusades, holy wars, the Inquisition, and the suppression of new ideas. We call that period the Dark Ages.
Humanity eventually progressed, and a different way of thinking embodied by the Enlightenment emerged. The Enlightenment changed things. Americans should be familiar with it. Our nation was founded on its principles of individual liberty and equality. Human civilization prospered greatly because of it, but one basic idea of the Enlightenment may be most important in this particular context. That is the idea that people can understand nature by looking at it objectively. Rather than basing our understanding of reality on tradition, the dictates of the king, or on religion, why not base our understanding of reality on, well, reality? We can look at it, investigate it, and figure out how things work by careful observation and testing. It’s a simple recipe—observe, hypothesize, test, repeat. Today, we call that ‘science’. The concept seems so much like common sense to most people of our time that we find it amazing that people did not always do things this way. Despite the increased peace, health, and prosperity this way of thinking has brought us, Mr. Ham apparently thinks it is a bad idea.
Books, even holy books, are written by people. Even if they are somehow divinely inspired, the people who put pen to paper are still entrenched in the cultures of their time. What they write is filtered by what they understand. The Old Testament was written about twenty-five hundred years ago, and I have to wonder how a person of that time would interpret a divine inspiration about history, basic biology, or planetary formation, let alone DNA, germs, relativity, evolution, quantum mechanics, nuclear fusion, electricity…. People of the time may not have even had a concept of ‘billion’ let alone the ability to appreciate that a number like this related to the age of the planet they lived on. I doubt they even could grasp the idea that they were on a planet orbiting a star or that there were billions of other planets orbiting around other stars. I think Ken Ham’s assertion that these people could provide an accurate accounting of the age and creation of the universe, even if they had divine help, to be unrealistic. That his interpretation of what they wrote is the only legitimate one and that it overrides all scientific evidence seems patently absurd. I think it far more likely that Ken Ham’s exaggerated opinion of his own infallibility is unwarranted.
I can say that Ham had some nice color slides and he speaks with a charming Australian accent. As long as you don’t listen to what he’s saying, he seems perfectly rational. Scary, huh?