Pop Science: In Case You Didn’t Feel Like Showing Up, Top Arguments In Bill Nye’s Science vs. Creationism Debate

Published on February 28th, 2014 in: Over the Gadfly's Nest, Science and Technology |

By Jesse Greener

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The overwhelming consensus by scientists is that the Earth is experiencing human induced global warming, and there is strong evidence pointing out that the sixth mass extinction on the Earth is underway. Yet somehow, there is disbelief about the measurable fact that temperatures are rising and weather patterns are changing, not to mention disbelief that humans have anything to do with it.

On the leading edge of this kind of denial are the 46 percent of Americans who believe in creationism. We are talking about believing that the Bible is literally correct. This means accepting that the Universe is 6,000 years old, that the Ark was actually built by Noah and his family (from which all terrestrial life on Earth traces its origins), and Adam and Eve and the whole nine yards. Leading this crusade, if I may, is Ken Ham, curator of the Creationism Museum. You may remember Ham and his museum which were featured previously in Bill Maher’s documentary Religulous. (You can watch the entire movie if you get bored with this review)

Earlier this month, Bill Nye “The Science Guy” traveled to Ham’s home turf in Petersburg, Kentucky to debate. You can read play-by-play reviews of the debate and you can even watch the whole thing yourself. (Warning, it’s two hours plus in length.) Reviews were mixed. On the one hand, Nye was condemned for giving creationists a platform, whereas others such as Phil Plait thought it was high time that the “educated masses” recognized that creationism and its anti-science foundations need to be taken seriously and confronted.

Personally, I agree with Plait. First of all, 46 percent of Americans is hardly a small minority that can be ignored. And I am not one for simply finger wagging, which is all we would have left to do if we don’t jump into the details. But even as a scientist myself, I admit that I would probably have avoided scratching the surface in the discussion with someone of Ken Ham’s ilk before hearing the arguments. Happily, the debate is reigniting discussions about evolution and acquainting people with the arguments on both sides. In this vein, I thought I would do my part by reviewing some of Bill Nye’s key arguments.

1. Creationists’ big new idea of “historical science” tries to cut the legs out of evolution theories.

A key point of Ken Ham’s is that real science works in the observable world—the here and now—while evolution deals in the historical realm, which cannot be tested because it’s finished. Hmm, interesting, but after about three seconds this argument already starts to sound fishy.

Bill?

America, do you remember your old favorite TV show CSI, where they use forensic science, to determine what happened when no one was looking? Right. With this simple analogy, he taps into America’s love of detective stories and catching “bad guys” to remind everyone that this so-called historical science is already perfectly well accepted. Some useful examples of forensic arguments against creationism, included:

Missing the boat: If all species came from the Ark 4,000 years ago, supposedly located in Turkey, then shouldn’t there be bones of kangaroos and other Australian-only animals along their migration path from Turkey to Australia? No evidence has ever been found for kangaroos in South East Asia, or for a land bridge they would have needed to get there in the first place.

Tree ring circus: Tree ring measurements place some trees older than 6,000 years (can you imagine?!), which should have all been wiped out by the great flood 4,000 years ago.

On thin ice: There are ice layers that have been measured to have 680,000 summer/winter layers.

But Ham sticks to his bible: you weren’t there, so you can’t say how God laid it all out in the beginning.

Nye: 4/5. High score for going on the offensive against “historical science,” but minus one point for not reaching out to the Sci-Fi crowd, who would have loved more focus on some spacey arguments. For example: the known distance of stars and galaxies more than 6,000 light years away proves that the light has been traveling for more than the age of Ham’s universe.

2. The Ark.

I know, I know . . . but creationists are serious about this, so let’s talk.

Bill Nye points out that the first wooden ships roughly the same size as the Ark were built by professional ship builders, yet they were not particularly seaworthy, because they could not withstand the forces applied to them by the sea. With this, he appeals to our BS detector. Are you really saying that Noah and his family could have possibly designed, built, and manned such a complex vessel, which professional ship builders thousands of years later could not even do? Nye also pointed out how enormously difficult it would have been to take care of all those animals let alone finding and capturing them in the first place or being able to understand and satisfy their diverse dietary needs.

Bill Nye: 4/5. He did a good job of poking holes in this fable, but loses a point for failing to mention that even with the help of hordes of zealots and huge government subsidies, Ken Ham’s attempts to rebuild the Ark are going to cost between $20 and $40 million. This has the potential of sinking his whole museum.

3. Fish sex.

Nye pointed out that while some fish can reproduce themselves, having both male and female genitalia; those fish which reproduce via “normal” sex are statistically healthier. Off the top of my head, I can’t remember how this fit into a debate on evolution, but just talking about sex and fish genitalia in the creation museum was a nice touch. (One bonus point.)

4. Dogs are dogs.

Ham doesn’t deny that there is evolution within a species (microevolution), which gives all sorts of different types of dogs, but it is the idea that dogs and cats share a similar ancestor that he’s opposed to. Nye’s counters with a simple calculation that shows even if there were no crossovers between species, the number of species today (in the millions) which would have had to evolve in the time since Noah’s flood, would be on the order of ten new species per day. Given that reproduction cycle of even a fruit fly is at least one day, this is obviously unreasonable. (Two bonus points.)

5. Vegetarian lions.

Here Nye goes on the attack by unearthing a belief of creationists that all creatures, including lions, sharp-teethed dinosaurs, and razor-clawed hunting birds, were originally vegetarians. Ham relies on his classic fallback position of “If you weren’t there you can’t know how they didn’t use their claws and teeth to climb trees or pierce really, really tough fruit’. OK, whatever Ham. Just bringing this up is a victory for Nye. (One bonus point.)

6. Where are all the grand canyons?

Nye wonders rhetorically: since even creationists accept that retreating flood waters carved out the Grand Canyon, shouldn’t we expect grand canyons on every continent seeing as Noah’s flood supposedly covered the entire earth? (One bonus point.)

7. Nah nah, you can’t prove me wrong, “I have a book.”

If Richard Dawkins couldn’t beat Bill O’Reilly at a debate about creationism, should we all just throw in the towel? . . or maybe Dawkins just sucked at debating (hint: it’s the latter). Many science supporters complain that for all the eviscerating Nye did to the creationists’ worldview, he could never win outright because Ham refuses to give up. For example, to an audience member’s question, “What would it take for you to admit you were wrong?” Nye says “evidence” and Ham says he already has enough evidence, his Bible, so he can’t be wrong. Nye reminded Ham that the Bible has been translated hundreds of times and could hardly be counted on as historical evidence, even if the original was accurate. Personally, I think it is a victory for science when its detractors are forced to rest their case on the Bible as their ultimate proof.

Nye: 3/5. Nye backs Ham into the corner, forcing him to fall back on his faith. But he loses two points because he missed the chance to use this as justification why creationism doesn’t even belong on the same planet as a science textbook.

8. Nye’s challenge to “creationist scientists.”

Nye repeatedly demanded of his adversary that we need the predictive power of a worldview if it will be put on par with science. It is a good argument that cuts to the heart of the differences between real science and faith-based pseudo-science and puts the ball in the creationists’ court to do better. It also has a “bring it on” feel that science’s proponents could use a dose of these days. (Two bonus points.)

Conclusion:

Sure, Nye could have done better. For example, I thought he missed the chance to undermine one of the more “science-y” creationist arguments about the Second Law of Thermodynamics and he overplayed his schoolboy wonder for human curiosity too much for my liking. And the entire debate was very Eurocentric, ignoring the fact that First Nations people can trace their roots back in North America well before 6,000 years ago.

But in the end, Nye exposed the gaping holes in creationists’ worldview and arranged a handful of winning arguments that are easy to understand. Most importantly, he managed to strike up a much-needed conversation about science and its role in our society, demonstrating why he is one of the best science communicators of our time.

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