Friday, February 21, 2014

Notes on the Nye vs. Ham Debate

I have had the pleasure to watch a debate between serious contenders. I make it no secret that I have found creationist videos very disappointing at the intellectual level. Things like "man coming from monkeys is so ewwwww" just don't cut it.

I wanted to hear a creationist with a real case, and I wanted to hear a counterpoint to the claims. I am specialized in one field, so that makes it hard for me to evaluate the quality of the claims in another field. That was what I wanted to hear from Bill Nye.

The executive summary: creationists, is that all you got???

The introductions were putting the foundation for the rest. Ham hinted that observational science isn't really capable of giving us a clear picture of what happened in the past, and that is where historical science came in the picture. Nye gave us a useless anecdote about bowties and then told us that the disctinction presented by Ham doesn't really exist. I was left on my hunger...

Ham had his presentation, which continued on the lines of "real scientists can be creationists" and "public schools are teaching a religion to our kids". To me, that was a huge waste of time away from the actual argument he needed to make. I understand why he did it, since that is probably his take-home point, but that goes against what the debate is about.

He did manage to give a few real points nevertheless: 1) that both creationists and evolutionists use the same evidence, but essentially have their preconceptions generating the interpretation for it (so much for science!); 2) evolution totally happens, but within the same species, so we need very few pairs of animals to yield the current biodiversity.

I didn't appreciate the sleight of hand he pulled on E.Coli and on the fact that humans are all of a same race. Taking specific instances of a scientist getting debunked is just not real evidence. I'm also not appreciating that he keeps on repeating himself, nor taking jabs at some of his opponents. Just make a case, please.

Nye started with evidence, real evidence: the snow ice cycles, tree growth rings, sedimentation strata, non-mixing fossils, rate of emergence of new animals, topminnows, etc. I didn't understand the skulls example. I found the evidence of the snow ice, tree rings, of the topminnows and of the Rubidium-Strontium decay very compelling. The age of the universe dated to 13.7 Billion years was new to me. I thought we were still in the ~5-6 Billion years range. Nye would have benefited from explaining why the stars at more than 6000 light-years away were significant. That is because a star at this distance must've emitted a photon more than 6000 years ago so that it could reach us now. I'm sure we can adjust the number to compensate for the universe's expansion, but the principle remains.

Ham's rebuttal got interesting but didn't last long. He showed example of contradictory dating results. And then went back to preaching.

Nye's rebuttal showed that he was not well prepared about his opponent's dogma. The theology is not very complicated, and I would've expected less confusion about it and focus on real data. He then started dismissing the Bible as the telephone game, which is is a) an unfair caracterisation and b) just opening a can of worms we don't need. It was not all bad though. He pointed out that Astronomy's job is looking at the past, and claimed that radioactive dating methods are accurate (but with no real evidence to support it). At least, he put his finger on the problem: creationists' claim that the natural laws have changed. But just dismissed it away.

The Q&A had a little bit more stuff, but not much. I learned that the magnetic pole flipping was useful to determine continental drift, and that the only way we can get increased complexity is because the sun is giving us energy (though the actual mechanism is left unsaid).
Nye was driving the point that Ham's model was not able to make any predictions. As such, it was not at the scientific level. Ham kept on his only two points: we can't directly observe what happened thousands of years ago, and that some physical processes do not allow for billions of years. I squinted at that slide and saw 'Niagara Falls' in there. That's not much of case - if the falls are young then it doesn't matter how fast or how slow they are eroding.

In an interesting flip-flop, Ham asserts that scientists need God because they need to have the laws of logic, the laws of nature and the uniformity of nature in order to do their work. This is a case of having your cake and eating it too: the laws of nature have changed in the past, but they won't anymore. What???

In conclusion, Ham wasted a lot of his time not arguing his case. We needed less theology and more evidence. The crux of the argument is that the laws of nature aren't constant over time. A single case of one law of nature that changed would've been enough. Just one. And then claim "if this one has changed, then it is reasonable to think that others changed." But since he didn't have any such evidence, he was left with seeding doubt with Nye's evidence. That, and saying 'the Bible says it, so it is true', notwithstanding that there are plenty of people (including me) who read the Bible and don't conclude a young Earth at all. So we have: one empty argument and another that is inconclusive, and lame-o debating tactics. You can call me disappointed.