Environmental Ethics
and Public Policy
Ernest Partridge, Ph.D

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The Gadfly Bytes -- February 20, 2014



Ernest Partridge

Earlier this month, Ken Ham, creator and curator of the Kentucky “creation museum,” invited Bill Nye, PBS’s “Science Guy,” to debate “origins.” The debate took place on Ken Ham’s home ground, the auditorium of his museum. Given the protagonists the topic, “origins,” inevitably led to a contest between a literal interpretation of the Book of Genesis (“young-earth creationism”) and evolution.

It was, of course, a rout: The Seattle Seahawks vs. Pee Wee football champs. An authentic debate is a confrontation between two arguable points of view. Against Bill Nye’s citation of scientific evidence, Ken Ham had nothing but his Bible and the strange claim that science can tell us nothing about remotely past events. “We weren’t there to see it,” as he said time and again. An astonishing claim that deserves a closer examination, and a rebuttal.

“Observational Science” and “Historical Science.”

In his opening remarks, Ham distinguished “observational” and “historical” science. A theme that he repeated throughout the debate. Nye correctly countered that there is no such distinction. He is right, but unfortunately he did not pursue the point. Had he done so, his demolition of Ham would have been complete. So we will pick up where Nye left off.

Ham’s essential point is that “observational science” – of the here-and-now – is solid. But “historical science” about the past events that we cannot observe, notably evolution, is bunk. Thus Ham’s persistent taunt: “Were you there to see it?” Ham’s apparent assumption is that if we can’t observe something directly, it has no scientific relevance.

But consider a few things in the “here and now” that we can’t “observe:” atoms, genes, sound waves, radio waves (the electro-magnetic spectrum), gravity.

Gravity? Yes, gravity. We don’t observe gravity, we observe its effects from which we infer gravity. Likewise for atoms, genes, sound and radio waves, etc. Their existence and their properties are inferred from observational (empirical) data and from experiments with that data.

Precisely the same can be said of inferences to past events – what Ham calls “historical science.” Therefore, if scientists can talk meaningfully about atoms and genes and waves, they can talk just as meaningfully about the cause and dates of rock stratification in the Grand Canyon, the evolution of human ancestors, the Big Bang, the formation of the sun and the earth, etc.

Does Ham mean to tell us that we don’t know for sure that Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, since there are no living eyewitnesses? According to Ham’s rule, we do know, of course, that John Kennedy was assassinated for there still are living witnesses. But when the last of these witnesses dies, will the Kennedy assassination then be reduced to an unverifiable “myth”?

“Of course not!,” Ham would surely reply. “We know that Lincoln was assassinated because we have records of the event.” With that presumed reply, the trap closes on Ham’s argument.

Of course we have records of the Lincoln assassination!  Likewise, we have records of evolution and the four-billion history of the earth. These records are “written” in DNA, in the rocks and in the data collected from telescopes – evidence available to present-day observation.

And so Bill Nye was right: there is no distinction between “observational science” and “historical science.” It’s a pity that he didn’t explain this more thoroughly..

And yet, having attempted to debunk “historical science,” Ham proceeds to insist nonetheless, that we can, in fact, know about the past. “It’s in the Bible.”

About the Bible.

Ah yes, The Bible! Where to begin? Still worse, where to end? So much to say. Fortunately, I can be brief here since I have written and posted on the subject elsewhere.

As Bill Nye correctly pointed out, The Bible can’t be inerrant due to the many translations of the lost sources. Even if the original texts contained the infallible word of God, neither the numerous translators nor the bishops at the Council of Nicaea who selected the books, were infallible. So it follows that neither is the Bible.

Still worse, the miraculous events depicted in the Bible are not noted in contemporary accounts elsewhere. Not, for example, Joshua’s commanding that the sun stand still at the battle of Jericho. How strange that they didn’t take note of this in Babylonia or China.

Or consider the remarkable event that attracted so much of Bill Nye’s attention: Noah’s ark, and the universal flood. Where did all that water come from? Where did it go? That must have been some downpour! Suppose that the deluge dumped twenty thousand feet of rain in forty days and nights – sufficient to cover most of the land.. That comes to 500 feet a day or more than a twenty feet an hour. Seems to have escaped the notice of those chroniclers in China.

It won’t do to trot out that old circular argument that the Bible must be the word of God because the Bible says so. The Qu’ran or the Book of Mormon both claim to be the Word of God (or Allah), and surely Ken Ham will not concede that they are the Word of God just because they say so. Yet the Bible, and only the Bible, was Ham’s support.

Once in a debate with a fundamentalist minister, I was challenged: “Who are you to doubt the Word of God, Creator of the Universe”? I replied, “surely I an not qualified to quarrel with God. But all I hear at this forum is your voice, Reverend, not God’s. Perhaps God spoke directly to Moses on the mount, or the Mormon prophet, Joseph Smith, or to Mohamad.  But if so, the rest is hearsay. You tell us that God spoke directly to the authors of the Bible, but not of the Book of Mormon or the Qu’ran. How then am I to answer the Mormon or the Moslem who say otherwise? Unless and until God speaks to me directly, I choose to believe none of them, yourself included.”

Ken Ham asks us to believe the Bible on his word. He has no more standing to do so than the Mormon or the Moslem, both of whose claims he steadfastly rejects.

Why Bother Debating Young Earth Creationists?

Nye did a creditable job. I’d grade him a B. But there were many worthier defenders of evolution and science. Richard Dawkins comes to mind, though he had little regard for the very idea of debating a creationist. Philosopher of Science, Philip Kitcher, author of the excellent book, Abusing Science: The Case Against Creationism (MIT Press, 1986) would have been an ideal opponent.

Dawkins’ dim view of the Nye/Ham debate was echoed by numerous noteworthy biologists, agnostics and atheists. The debate served no useful purpose, they said. It gave creationism an appearance of legitimacy before a large audience. It implicitly treated evolution as an unsettled “mere theory” whereas, in fact, it is settled science – a proven fact.

All good points, and for awhile I was inclined to agree with Dawkins. But now that I have seen the debate and reflected on it, I believe that on balance that such encounters can be worthwhile.

It is doubtful that the debate changed the minds of any devoted creationists in the audience – surely not the mind of Ken Ham. But it may have affected the minds of a few wavering believers with minds open ever-so-slightly to evidence and reason. Surely there are among us numerous former fundamentalists who have yielded to the weight of scientific evidence and to a critical analysis of their childhood faith. I can testify to this “deconversion” for I am one of these individuals.

Moreover, a steadfast refusal to debate can only damage the reputation of the evolutionists. Such a refusal will not end the creationists’ challenges to debate. Eventually they will find some secularist like Bill Nye who will take the bait. Meanwhile, the string of refusals will only prompt the creationists to gloat that their would-be opponents were “cowards” who obviously have something to hide from the public.

And as Bill Nye brilliantly demonstrated, a debate serves the purpose of displaying for all with eyes to see and with minds to reflect, the paucity of the creationists’ case.

Creationism maintains its hold on approximately half the American population (by some accounts) through its inclusion in a “faith-based” thought world that seals itself off from the reality-based world of science. Encounters such as the Ham/Nye debate expose the faithful to evidence and reasoning that may be new to them.

When the evolutionists refuse debate, their would-be opponents taunt them with the question: “What are they afraid of?” Good question! And the simple answer is “nothing”! If the faithful dare to confront their myths with scientific fact and critical thinking,, well then, let ‘em have it!

Copyright 2014 by Ernest Partridge


Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in the field of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. He has taught Philosophy at the University of California, and in Utah, Colorado and Wisconsin. He publishes the website, "The Online Gadfly" (www.igc.org/gadfly) and co-edits the progressive website, "The Crisis Papers" (www.crisispapers.org).  Dr. Partridge can be contacted at: gadfly@igc.org .