Last night I watched the creationism debate between Bill Nye (the science guy) and Ken Ham (the Christian nutjob). I had heard that Nye destroyed Ham, but I don’t think that’s true. Nye did a good job, of course. But it was impressive to watch just how slippery Ham was. He, along with the whole young earth creationist movement, has done a great job of developing talking points that sound like real science.
In the past, this was just cherry picked and deceptive claims that things like carbon-14 dating were not accurate. And indeed, that kind of stuff was well on display. But Ham introduced me to something new. Ham pushed an arbitrary distinction between “experimental” science and “historical” science. He claimed that of course creationists believe in experimental science. But they don’t accept historical science.
The basic idea here is that we can’t say how things got to where they are now because no one was around to measure how they were. It actually sounds plausible and I’m sure the creationists have focus grouped the hell out of this talking point. But it makes no sense. They are saying that maybe the laws of the universe were different before the fall. But the same argument could be made of experimental science. Maybe sea level gravity is only 9.8 m/s/s when we’re watching. Maybe when I’m asleep it is half that. How can we know?! It is just an assumption that gravitation is constant.
A critical part of science is inference. When I woke up this morning, everything was wet. The truck was glazed with water, the road was wet, the trees were dripping. But it wasn’t raining. I inferred that it rained last night. But according to Ham, this is improper—it’s historical, not experimental science! Maybe it didn’t rain last night. It could be that a fairy came to my town last night and sprinkled water everywhere.
So when Ham attacks “historical science,” he is attacking science in general. In fact, he is attacking the idea that we can know anything. And that would be fine if he would just admit that. But he won’t. He wants to have it both ways. He is honest enough to admit that he takes it as given that the Bible is inerrant. It is the only fact that cannot be questioned. But on top of that, he will use the idea of science to justify it.
An example of Ham’s thinking is how he dismisses hundreds of years of geological research. Instead of all the evidence pointing to slow changes over vast amounts of time, he thinks that these things just happened as a result of the flood. This is magic thinking. It’s the same as disregarding light scattering and ozone absorption and saying that we have red sunsets because God made it that way to appeal to our sense of beauty. That might be a nice story, but it is nothing that can be built on. It doesn’t tell us about anything other than that one thing.
That isn’t science. It is apologetics. It really isn’t any different than Biblical apologists who harmonize the Bible. For example, there are two stories of the creation of Eve. In one, they were both created at the same time. In the other, Eve was created from Adam’s rib. Any reasonable person would say, “That’s just two creation myths that were documented in the Bible. No mystery there.” But no! For Christian fundamentalists, they must both be literally true. So the apologists came up with Lilith. She was the one created at the same time as Adam. But she was such a feminist harpy that Adam was sad. So God got rid of her and made Stepford wife Eve. Of course, you would think if that happened, it would be included in the Bible. But what’s a fundamentalist to do?
I don’t particularly care that Christian apologists do this. But Ham is soiling science and it makes me angry. As with most modern conservatives, Ham is fundamentally postmodern. He only believes that truth is to be found in his interpretation of the Bible. So everything else—all the tools that humans have developed to find truth—are used in a massive and deceptive effort to prove that the Bible is literally true. And that makes him nothing more than a charlatan.
But the issue is much bigger than religion. I have no doubt that eventually society will get past its belief in Christianity and move on to see it as no more true than myths of Zeus and Odin. So the long term effects of Ham’s work is to devalue honest intellectual discourse. And in the debate, you can see the frustration that Bill Nye is experiencing. He’s engaged in an entirely different process than Ham. For his part, Ham totally undermines his case to any but the true believers. As the debate goes on, he gives up all pretense at debate and simply proselytizes. In the end, it’s rather sad. His overall argument seems to be, “I want to believe silly things and have people still respect me.”
But that doesn’t make Ham and the young earth creationists any less dangerous. He is arguing for the destruction of science, history, and pretty much every other way we have of finding truth. I was personally offended by it all. He repeatedly mentioned the work of three scientists who agreed with him as though that meant something. He claims that you can have biochemistry and gene splicing and still know (not think, know) that humans were created as they now are 6,000 years ago. No you can’t. Humans believed this stuff for a long time and then the evidence from various fields showed that it was wrong. You simply can’t have science if you start with the unquestionable assumption that the Bible is literally true. It poisons science and it poisons society.
Here is the video. I started it 13 minutes in, so you miss the countdown and the Creation Museum advertisement.