Despite tactical errors, Bill Nye is right

Tuesday night, Bill Nye (the Science Guy) had a webcast debate with Ken Ham, founder of the Creation Museum. In many respects, this was a silly idea. Nye wasn’t going to change any minds, and I think he fell into the traps creationists try to set: distracting him into side issues, for example, or redefining the terms of the debate. Moreover, the Creation Museum benefited monetarily from the event.

I admire Nye for being willing to make the attempt, but in the end, I think the event was a wasted opportunity. The whole reason for the debate was not to contest the relative merits of creationism versus science. Rather, the spark for the event was Nye’s contention that teaching creationism in schools is dangerous. And I agree with him – for two fundamental reasons that Ham illustrated beautifully throughout the debate, but I don’t think Nye ever articulated.

Nye used the majority of his time to present a long list of scientific means to determine the age of the Earth or the Universe, along with evidence for evolution. But that’s not the field on which Ham wanted to do battle. (Why would he? There, he’d lose.) Instead, Ham spent a good deal of his time trying to draw a distinction between what he called “observational science” and “historical science,” the distinction being that “historical science” concerns things that happen in the past. In Ham’s worldview, all conclusions drawn from “historical science” are invalid because, as he put it, we weren’t there to see it. No distinction between these two flavors of science exists in academia, and therefore, argued Ham, we need to make sure our children are properly educated to know the difference. This is big danger number one.

As it is practiced in the real world, in fact, there is only one type of science. We call it “science.” This is basically how it works, though there are variations on the theme:

  • A scientist notices something interesting.
  • She decides to explore the phenomenon further, and devises carefully constructed experiments, tests, models, or proofs to tease out aspects of it.
  • She examines the results of these efforts, and attempts to generalize them to a fundamental principle that governs other, similar, phenomena.
  • The scientist then moves from her proposed principle to predict some other kind of phenomenon, and the cycle repeats.

Now, I want to point out that my third bullet is an inductive step. That is, we make some specific observations and, with them as a model, propose a more general rule. I don’t think that any self-aware scientist would omit or gloss over that step – instead, we embrace it! It is an enormously powerful and successful thing to do. To give a famous example, Newton used induction to come up with his universal law of gravitation. As the story goes, he looked at a falling apple and at the orbiting Moon, and generalized from those examples to a physical law that governs the dynamics of almost everything in the cosmos. There is no logical proof or deductive line of reason that can start at some simple axiom and give us Newton’s law of gravitation, but with every datum we observe, the induction grows stronger. I can feel gravity pulling me down now, and if I throw a ball into the air, I can observe it falling. But more than that, I can extend the induction: if I hold a ball in my hand, and I plan to toss it in the air, then by science I can know that it will fall to earth again, even if I’m not able to observe the future. This is how humans learn everything in our early years: we observe the world, we touch the world, we play with things, we break things, we burn and scrape ourselves, we figure out how to catch moving objects, and we slowly build up an inductive model of what it is like to be a living creature. We generalize based on our prior experience.

The danger in teaching a distinction between things that we directly observe (Ham’s “observational science”) and inferences that we draw from those observations (his “historical science”) is that that would be to teach students that inductive reasoning doesn’t work in all cases. It would be to teach them that we all have different experiences of the Universe, and that it is not possible to generalize one person’s experiences and observations to cover the phenomena seen by another. It would be to teach them that the best anyone could hope to do scientifically is to describe the world, and that we cannot possibly state general principles. Newton can only state that the apple falls and the Moon orbits – but he cannot formulate his laws of gravitation and motion. Ham’s assertion was that if we weren’t alive in the past to see these things, how could we know that sediments formed over millions of years or stars lived over billions? But, by that very argument, how can we know that the Roman Empire fell? How can I know that my grandfather is really my grandfather? How can I know that gravity won’t suddenly start pushing everything up tomorrow?

Induction, that’s how. But if you allow logical induction, you have to allow logical induction. You must allow that the scientific methodology I outlined above produces meaningful results. The distinction Ham introduces between “observational” and “historical” science is a false dichotomy. An extra rule. It’s a way, I think, for creationists to try to have their cake and eat it, too: a way to deny the fossil record but still allow that they can talk on cell phones. The problem is that all science is “observational science,” and if we teach students otherwise, we will be unnecessarily introducing a large gap in their critical thinking skills.

That one was a bit subtle, but Big Danger of Teaching Creationism Number Two is more obvious. A number of times during the fascinating question-and-answer portion of the debate, someone would ask Nye a question like, “what happened to atoms and molecules before the Big Bang?” Nye would give the scientist’s answer: “I don’t know.”

When the question turned to Ham, the creationist would smile and say, “Well, Bill, there’s this book, you see…”

From the scientific perspective, Nye’s answer is exactly right. But I think he should have owned that answer. He should have said, “I don’t know. And, as a scientist, I am comfortable saying ‘I don’t know.’ My knowledge has limits. Humanity’s total body of scientific knowledge has limits. But that, right there, is why we have scientists! Scientists want to find things that they don’t know. Then they want to look at them, turn them over, poke them, and eventually we do know a little more about them. That’s how we discover and explore. And if we knew everything, then there wouldn’t be any need for scientists. So, to a scientist, saying ‘I don’t know’ isn’t an admission of failure. It’s an announcement that we’ve found something interesting and everybody should have a look.”

By taking a complex question and simply stating that the answers are in Genesis, Ham cuts off all questioning and curiosity. If we were to teach such a doctrine to students, we would be teaching them not to ask follow-up questions, not to investigate problems they find interesting, not to mull over ideas, and not to critique their teachers or peers. We would be teaching them that there is only one way to think, and one source of answers to every question they might have: Ken Ham’s interpretation of the American English translation of Genesis.

(For Nye was right to point out that it is Ken Ham’s particular interpretation of this particular translation of this particular religion’s bible that we are talking about. Ham’s presentation leaned heavily on the specific English words used to describe certain events in the bible, which are, of course, not the terms of the source language. And Ham freely admitted that his own interpretation is involved: in response to a question about whether he took everything in the bible literally, he said…no. It was his judgment call what to take as fact and what to take as fiction.)

Worst of all, from a scientific view, by teaching students that the answers are all written down already we would be teaching them that there are no more worthwhile questions to ask. As soon as they think of a question about the world, the phrase “God did it” can close the book on the issue. You might be able to stretch a line of inquiry out a few more sentences by following up with “why” or “how,” but the fundamental problem still exists. It would be like starting all the students off with a cheat sheet that’s good for every test for the rest of their academic career.

I think this is what has Nye so worried about creationism. We live in a world of problems, and we need scientists, engineers, and doctors to fix them. That means we need people who ask lots of questions. We need people who aren’t satisfied with the answers, and keep asking questions, and keep trying to get solutions. That’s how we come up with inventions and discoveries! And that’s why the doctrines that inductive reasoning doesn’t work and that God did everything the way he did it just because have no place in a serious science education system.

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