Thursday, February 6, 2014

Review of the Debate, Part 1

Bill Nye (left) and Ken Ham being introduced to the audience.
Even before Tuesday night's debate began, there was quite a bit of controversy over whether it should even be done.  Many people complained that it would only give credence to creationism in the mind of the public, representing it as on par with the evolutionary view.  Others claimed that debates are unproductive and merely cause division and controversy.  Personally, I am a proponent of debates, not because I think any of the participants will be convinced of the opponent's side, but because it gives the audience a clear picture of both opposing views, so that no straw men can be set up.  Technically there is no "winner" of a debate, but it usually works out that each individual in the audience will tend to favor the performance of the participant that the individual agreed with initially.  Therefore, today I see creationists lauding Ken Ham's performance, while I see evolutionists cheering for Bill Nye and joking about Ham's statements.

Of course, I am a creationist, so I agree with most of the things that Ken Ham stated, but I will try to give each participant their due credit in this review.


Ken Ham's Introduction


As decided by coin toss, Ken Ham had five minutes to present his opening statements first.  As any good debater should, he began by defining the critical terms of the debate, specifically the word "science."  He mentioned that it it is derived from the Latin term scientia, meaning "to know" (though a more accurate translation may be "knowledge").  He then emphasized one of the fundamental creationist views about science—that it is divided into observational and historical science.  This would be one of the key issues of the rest of the debate.  Observational science is the direct study of the universe as it can currently be seen through the use of observation and experimentation.  Historical science, according to most creationists (myself included), is the study of the past using clues from the present and is based on the fundamental philosophical framework (worldview) of the investigator.  Because of its reliance on assumptions, it differs significantly from observational science and should possibly be given a different name.  Ham claimed that, because of this distinction, belief in evolution and origins has no bearing on technological development and innovation, yet school textbooks refer to both observational and historical science simply as "science."  He then pointed out that the debate is really a debate between two worldviews, not one over evidence.  Yet, he said, the creation model is the only model of origins that is confirmed by observational science.  I can't say I agree entirely with that last statement, as he just spent several minutes distinguishing observational science from the study of origins; however, he did say it was "confirmed," not "proven."


Bill Nye's Introduction


Bill Nye, ever the entertainer, began his opening statements with an amusing anecdote about bowties, seguing into the statement that two stories are being presented at the debate.  He rather quickly rejected Ham's distinction between observational and historical science, citing crime shows like CSI as demonstrations of how data gathering and experimentation can be used to reveal a past event.  Personally, I think this is a weak argument, as forensic science can and does frequently make incorrect interpretations of the evidence, demonstrating that it also relies on assumptions.  Nye then attacked the idea of a historical Noachian Flood, pointing out that the order of fossils is consistent, yet one would expect animals to swim upward and mix during the Flood (see a previous post for my explanation of the order of the fossil record).  As he would do several times during the debate, Nye said that billions of religious people do not subscribe to young-earth creationism, yet are perfectly happy and content in their beliefs.  I assume he said this to counter any idea that evolution is a threat to one's personal faith, but it is irrelevant to the question of whether creationism is actually valid.  Echoing his pre-debate statements, Nye concluded with a warning that continued rejection of science will inhibit the progress of the United States, and that creation is not a viable model of origins.


Ken Ham's Presentation


To reaffirm his previous assertion that creationist beliefs do not affect the progress of science, Ken Ham introduced several active creationist scientists who contribute to their respective fields, including inventor of the MRI Raymond Damadian, astronomer Danny Faulkner, and engineer Stuart Burgess.  In a video clip, Stuart Burgess mentioned that there are many other creationists in scientific fields who are afraid to speak out about the origins issue because of pressure towards naturalism.  This does not surprise me, as I know a number of young-earth creationists who are making their way into the fields of engineering and science, yet the naturalistic view is so pervasive that anyone who disagrees with it is considered uneducated and unfit to work in these areas.

Ham then accused non-Christian scientists of borrowing from the Christian worldview in assuming consistent laws of logic and nature.  This may be a new concept to many, and it is likely that such non-Christian scientists will scoff at this assertion because these laws are now so well-established.  After all, creationists like Ken Ham are typically accused of rejecting the laws of logic and nature.  However, I don't think Ham's claim is as outlandish as it might initially seem.  Modern science has its roots in the medieval Christian Church, where nature was studied because it was thought to reflect God.  It was reasoned that if God is consistent and unchanging, then His creation should be as well.  Therefore, the fundamental laws of nature were sought and eventually found.  The idea of an unchanging creation was taken to an extreme, however, in two apparently contradictory ways.  First, it gave rise to the philosophy of uniformitarianism, which led early geologists to ascribe an old age to the earth.  Second, it resulted in some initial resistance to the idea of evolution, because it was thought that animals had remained unchanged since Creation (neither creationists nor evolutionists claim this today).  Nevertheless, it seems that the idea of natural laws is indeed founded in the Christian worldview, if indirectly.  Ken Ham challenged Bill Nye to explain how one could expect such natural uniformity from a strictly naturalistic point of view.

Continuing his distinction of observational and historical science, Ham noted that even some textbooks distinguish physical geology (defining the rocks) and historical geology (interpreting the rocks).  I use a similar distinction to describe the difference between my degree in geology and my wife's degree in geological engineering.  Geology has a large component of interpreting the rocks to discern history, whereas geological engineering is concerned strictly with the rocks as they are now (and what they might do in the near future).  Ham gave several examples in which creationists and evolutionists agree on the given evidence in the present, but disagree on the related interpretations of the past.  As I often emphasize at the beginning of my talks on creation, the debate is not over the evidence itself, but over the interpretation of the evidence.  Ham readily admitted his fundamental reliance on the Bible as the ultimate authority and said that the alternative is to see man as the ultimate authority.  That last claim may have been a bit exclusive, but it made sense in the context of this debate.

After thoroughly distinguishing observational and historical science, Ken Ham said that observational science can still confirm predictions from models made by historical science.  He gave several examples of predictions made by the creationist model, including intelligent design, organisms reproducing "after their kind," a global flood, one race of man, the Tower of Babel, and a young universe.  I don't like the way he presented these, as they are far too vague and leave too much room for interpretation to be scientifically tested.

He did go into detail on a few of them, starting with reproduction after kinds.  He described how organisms have only ever been observed to give rise to individuals of the same "kind" (which Ham roughly equates to the Family level of classification) and noted that genetic studies show a single origin for dogs.  I am not sure why he included the dog study, as genetic studies also supposedly show that humans and apes have a single common origin.  The study from which he quoted was apparently more concerned with when and where dogs originated than from what they originated.  It does not help Ham's case much, as both evolutionary and creation models would expect a common origin of dogs.  He did point out that while diversification within kinds is observed, the changes necessary to unite all kinds into a single tree are not observed, and yet both are described as "evolution" and taught as science.  Ham mentioned some studies of bacteria that were claimed to have disproved the creation model, but he provided a counterclaim from a creationist microbiologist.

As for the single race of man, Ham talked about the differing predictions of the biblical and evolutionary models, saying that evolution predicted multiple races of man (citing Darwin and some old textbooks) while the Bible supports a single race, descended from Adam.  He then mentioned recent genetic studies that showed that there is, in fact, only one race of human, genetically speaking.

Continuing in his vein of distinguishing observational and historical science, Ham said that while operational science can show that the earth is not flat, it can't show that the earth is millions of years old.  This was possibly intended as an indirect jab at people who erroneously claim that creationists believe the earth to be flat.  In the context of this discussion, he also addressed statements previously made by Bill Nye that it was nonsensical for young-earth creationists to use technology, a strange argument that I have heard from others as well.  Ham clarified that medical and technological developments are the result of observational science, in which creationists agree with evolutionists, but that the origins issue falls in historical science and is therefore an unrelated matter.

In his concluding statements, Ken Ham claimed that the distinction between observational and historical science teaches people to think critically about the difference between belief and observation, and he challenged evolutionists to be upfront and honest about the role of belief in the study of origins.  Ham added that creationists do not hesitate to admit their basis on their own beliefs about the Bible, and that continuing to teach evolution in schools without distinguishing observation from belief is essentially religious indoctrination, the very thing against which Bill Nye is fighting.  Ham believes that kids should be taught science, but that it can only be effectively taught with the right foundations.  Though he didn't specify what he meant by "foundations," I don't believe he was implying that all children should be taught the creationist worldview in schools.  Rather, the distinction between observation and interpretation should be clarified as the children are taught science.


Bill Nye's Presentation


Bill Nye opened his main presentation with both barrels, giving numerous evidences that disprove the young-earth creationist position, or so he claimed.

He first brought up the existence of corals in the limestone of Kentucky, a sample of which he brought with him to the debate, saying that coral reefs could not grow and be buried in limestone numerous times in 4000 years since the Flood.  This is apparently a misunderstanding of the creationist view, as creationists such as Ken Ham believe that the limestone was formed catastrophically during the Flood, not after it.  He may have been implying, as others have done, that the fossilized coral reefs did not have time to grow in the midst of the Flood.  Creationists like Dr. Andrew Snelling counter these claims by noting that the fossil reefs do not resemble modern reefs, so they may not have been reefs at all, but the remnants of a reef that was destroyed, transported, and buried catastrophically.

Nye next mentioned the snow-ice layers in ice cores, which reveal 680,000 annual layers built up in places like Greenland and Antarctica.  He says that 170 winter-summer cycles would be required every year since the Flood in order to produce these results, something that is highly unlikely to go unnoticed.  This is a favorite argument of old-earth proponents, and I have heard it many times.  Unfortunately, Nye did not reference a specific study, but I did find one that reports on an ice core from Antarctica that records 740,000 years of time.  Interestingly, the age was not calculated by counting the layers, but rather by counting the fluctuations in oxygen isotope ratios in the ice and air bubbles and matching them with the established Ice Age timeline.  Michael Oard of Answers in Genesis further notes that the old ages must already be assumed when dating ice cores with the established techniques, because the layers are assumed to have compressed over time.  He suggests, therefore, that the large-scale fluctuations in ice cores that scientists interpret to be climate cycles in the Ice Age may themselves be annual layers, rather than the small-scale variations.

Another popular argument against a 6000-year-old earth is the existence of older trees, which Nye brought up next.  He talks about the Bristlecone pine trees of the western US being older than 6000 years old, which is odd, considering that the oldest Bristlecone on record is dated as being 5062 years old.  Admittedly, even that age puts the germination of the tree roughly a century before Noah's birth on the creationist timescale.  However, the tree was not dated by direct counting of rings.  Rather, it was "crossdated."  Crossdating attempts to match the rings from multiple trees in order to construct a continuous timeline.  It is difficult for me to say how much error is possible in such a process, but considering the relatively small amount of time in question (about 600 years), I don't think it is a definitive argument against the young-earth timeline.  Additionally, it is not necessary that, if its age is accurate, it was submerged for the full year of the Flood.  I find it unlikely, but not impossible, that it could have survived several brief submerging events over the year, particularly if it was located on a mountain.  The other tree mentioned by Nye, Old Tjikko, gave me some pause.  This Norway Spruce, located in Sweden, is dated as being 9550 years old, much longer than creationists like Ken Ham say the earth itself has been around.  However, it was not dated by counting tree rings, but by carbon dating the roots.  This is because Old Tjikko is a "clonal" tree; that is, multiple trees can arise from the same root system.  The trunk of the tree is estimated to only be a few hundred years old.  The problem, then, is pushed over to radiometric dating.

Turning to the Grand Canyon, Bill Nye claimed that Noah's Flood should not have formed the neat layers seen in the walls of the canyon; nor could the rocks have formed so quickly.  He noted that ancient riverbeds appear to traverse the canyon from wall to wall, buried in the rock layers.  He also postulated that, if the Grand Canyon was formed by draining Flood water, then such a feature should be found on every continent.  In response to the first two claims, creationists frequently refer to the Mount Saint Helens eruption, in which pyroclastic flows nearly instantly formed several meters of neat layers of ash.  It is reasonable to think, then, that sediment-laden water flowing in a similar manner could produce similar layers.  I find odd Nye's claim that rocks take a long time to form, as it is fairly well-established now that rocks, particularly sedimentary rocks, can form quite quickly.  The only part that was thought to take "a long time" was the slow deposition of the sediment.  The "riverbeds" seen in geologic layers, if indeed they are riverbeds, are not necessarily a mystery to creationists either.  The ground did not need to be totally submerged for the entire duration of the Flood, so some evidence of draining water is not unexpected.  It is also possible that underwater currents could produce such features, but I know of no studies that have investigated this possibility.  As for Nye's claim that the Grand Canyon should be on every continent, he perhaps does not realize that many creationists, including myself and Ken Ham, attribute the Grand Canyon not to the primary drainage of the Flood, but to drainage of a large lake that formed in western North America after the Flood.  Other canyons may have formed elsewhere, but the arid climate of the southwest maintained the Grand Canyon's structure while others were eroded by water and vegetation.

Nye claimed that mammals are never found buried with trilobites, essentially arguing that biostratigraphy (order of fossils) shows that they were not buried in a single event.  He said that if a fossil was found in the wrong layers, it would change the field of science.  As explained in an earlier post on the "reinforcement syndrome," such anachronistic fossils remain unidentified because of the assumption of an orderly and rigid biostratigraphy; and even when they are properly identified, their presence in the "wrong" rocks is frequently explained away by "reworking" or other means.

Showing a chart of hominid skulls, Nye asked, "where would you put man?"  I am not sure exactly what Bill was intending with this argument.  It is possible that he assumed that the variety of hominid skulls immediately proved that humans are not distinct creations.  Such hominid remains have been discussed numerous times on this blog, however, so I will not elaborate on that here.

Bill mentioned the lack of kangaroo fossils between the Middle East and Australia, referring to the creationist hypothesis that the Australian fauna arrived there via a land bridge between Asia and Australia immediately after the Flood.  While indeed there are no kangaroo fossils found in that area, they would not necessarily be expected to be there in the creationist view.  In the uniformitarian model, fossils would be expected wherever creatures lived, because fossilization would be a relatively regular occurrence over long ages.  Over the course of a few hundred years, however, it is much less likely that a dead kangaroo would have encountered the quick burial necessary for fossilization.  Nye also makes the interesting claim that there is no evidence of a land bridge between Asia and Australia.  Several sea level simulations, however, show the Indonesian islands uniting with the mainland with a sea level drop of 100 meters or so, forming a nearly complete land bridge between Australia and Asia.

Continuing on the same topic, Bill Nye calculated that to reach the current variety of species from the kinds that were on Noah's Ark, we would expect to find 11 new species each day, an idea at which he scoffs.  While exact numbers are hard to come by, Discovery News reported that 15,000 new species are discovered each year on average, which equates to 41 species per day.  I have heard similar numbers reported elsewhere as well.  It seems, then, that the numbers are not a problem for the creation model.

Nye also talked about giant boulders sitting on top of the ground in Washington state, implying that a large lake broke an ice dam, flooded the region, and left behind the boulders.  If they were deposited during the Flood, one would not expect them to be on top of the ground, but amid the rock layers.  As Ken Ham would later inform him, however, creationists do not dispute this interpretation, as they do not believe that all rocks were formed and placed during the actual Flood event.

Attacking the idea of Noah's Ark directly, Nye wondered how eight unskilled shipbuilders could build a ship large enough to contain 14008 individuals and strong enough to float on turbulent seas when a more recent large wooden vessel, smaller than the Ark, twisted, leaked, and sank at sea despite being built by experts.  Ham would later refute this argument, but the greatest flaw is assuming that Noah's family was unskilled and the only one building the ark.  Nye also criticized the amount of room in the Ark, saying that even modern zoos come under fire for not giving animals enough room to roam.  The Ark, however, was intended to keep the animals alive for a year, not to keep them comfortable for the rest of their lives like zoos, so the comparison is hardly justified.

Like Ken Ham, Bill Nye also provided some verified predictions made by his model of origins, while simultaneously accusing creationism of being unable to do so.

Nye's first example of prediction was of the transitional fossil Tiktaalik, thought to be the intermediate between lungfish and amphibians.  I covered this fossil last month in light of recent studies.  While the expected existence of a transition between two groups could arguably be called a "prediction," it is a rather vague one in my opinion.  Additionally, there are many other gaps in the evolutionary tree that have predicted intermediates for which fossil evidence has not been found.  The fact that evolutionists always seem to go back to Tiktaalik demonstrates how few fulfilled predictions there actually are in the tree.

Nye's second example confused me.  He related a study of topminnows that showed that sexual reproduction built resistance to parasites.  He was apparently trying to demonstrate that predictions made by evolutionary theory were confirmed in this study, but his point was not very clear.  This case is more like a hypothesis being tested and verified rather than a rigid prediction being proven true.

Moving to space, Nye referenced the cosmic microwave background radiation as proof of the Big Bang's validity.  He claimed that it was predicted by cosmologists, and that the resulting data matched their predictions exactly.  While it is true that the background radiation was predicted, the measurements were significantly different than predicted.  Temperature predictions varied from 5K to 28K, while the measured temperature was about 2.7K.  There may have been other variables to which Bill was referring that matched exactly, but he did not go into detail on this.

As expected, Nye eventually discussed radioactivity, specifically rubidium-strontium dating.  This is hardly a confirmation of a prediction, as he would later admit that the age of the earth relies almost entirely on radiometric dating, so there is nothing to compare the results to.  To learn how radiometric dating is viewed from a creationist standpoint, see my recent series on the subject.  Likewise, Bill's next argument concerning the distance of stars was covered in a previous post.

To conclude, Bill Nye referenced Adolphe Qu├ętelet's "reasonable man," saying that a reasonable human being would see the combined weight of evidence from ice cores, trees, rocks, and starlight to conclude that the creation model of origins is not viable.  He then noted that the Constitution promotes "progress of science and useful arts," saying that teaching creationism is contrary to this goal.


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