Archive for the ‘science’ Category

For anyone who has been sleeping under a rock, Ken Ham and Bill Nye the Science gathered for what could be a rehash of popular stereo-types.  About a year ago, I wrote a piece on Bill Nye and Young Earth Creationism (YEC). This blog then will skim over the hits and misses that both men made in the debate.  As a caveat, I only watched the debate up until end of the rebuttals.  This was because that’s where the basic points were laid out, and because I ran out of shots of rum to keep me though this circus.  Without further ado, here’s how I think both men did and why we need to do better next time.

Bill Nye

Bill Nye made it clear throughout his debate that he had an axe to grind with YEC, not with Christianity in general.  This kept the debate from devolving into atheism v Christianity.  It also demonstrated, though not very vividly, that YEC is not a majority viewpoint.  Bill Nye theological fluency is limited (more on that later), but he is trying made his presentation different.

Nye made two points that Ken Ham did not deal with adequately.  First, he demonstrated that there were trees, with greater than 4000 tree rings meaning that these tress are more than 4000 years old.  Bill Nye made other arguments for the age of the earth, but I felt that this point was the easiest to understand.  Also, it pokes an eye in the global flood.  Furthermore, Nye took on the claim that Animal “kinds” went into the arc.  After that, YEC claims that micro evolutionary change created the species we know today.  Nye demonstrated, with math, how many new species per day that would mean.  Far too many, in his view, to be justified.

Bill Nye also argued that the genesis account might not be trusted because it is old, and has been translated many times.  Unfortunately, this point is where Nye shows a lack of theological fluency.  If we assume that if a book is old and a book has been translated, then it is not trustworthy, we have a serious problem with history.  In fact, there may be very little that we can know about the ancient world.  Furthermore, YEC aren’t particularly sophisticated in their reading of the Bible, but they are not so daft to believe that English is the only language they need.  Nye seemed out of his element when dealing with the Bible.

Nye, kept this message going: bring on the evidence, and scientists will happily change their minds without hesitation.  This is a noble ideal.  It is how science is perceived at a popular level.  Now consider the following three examples.  First, Blaise Pascal did an experiment with a mercury tube, a saucer, and a hike up a mountain.  He thought he demonstrated once and for all that vacuums can exist.  However, his detailed papers were harshly received, particularly by Rene Descartes who declared, “he [Pascal] has much vacuum in his head.”  Second, astronomer Robert Jastrow, an agnostic, detailed the story of how scientists reacted as evidence for the big bang in “God and the Astronomers.”  Scientists slowly accepted, but begrudgingly in part because of its theological implications according to Jastrow.  Finally, when every geocentric astronomer and Aristotelian physicist fought hard against Galilleo’s model in part because they needed to keep their jobs.  The point I am making here is Nye’s message about scientific objectivity is an ideal that does not so easily translate into reality.  Scientific paradigms do not turn on a dime.

Finally, and most importantly, Nye reiterated that he can’t accept that scientific laws changed.  However, at no point did I notice that Ken Ham made the claim that they did.  Nye then, seemed to be batting at a straw man with this assertion.

Ken Ham

Ken Ham is a rhetorician.  He is a sophist.  He is an ad-man.  As an ad-man, he uses celebrity endorsements.  In this case, his endorsements are a series of passionate scientists who endorse creationism like Bill Cosby Sells Jell-o.

As crass, and even artless as this was, it helped make Ken Ham make his strongest point.  Central to Nye’s thesis is this: creationism hold science back.  Look at fire alarms, rocket ships, and medicine.  The implication for Nye is not that we use the same laws to argue for origins that we do to make technology, it seems that as long as long as creationism is around, the progress of technology will slow down.

Ken Ham does not need to argue against this point, because his endorsements demonstrate that it is possible to contribute to science despite endorsing young earth creationism.  If a scientist can design a solar panel for a satellite or do research in bacteria growing on fruit, than I think an empirically minded person has to shrug their shoulders and admit that creationists are contributing to technology and medicine like any other.

I am not comfortable agreeing with Ham.  Nonetheless, he’s has a point.  The efficacy of the Polio vaccine rested on the isolation of the virus and a lot of animal testing, not an evolutionary model of human origins.  The process of Pasteurization kills microbes in milk no matter how old we believe the earth is.  The Apollo 8 capsule still went to space and back, even though the astronauts had the audacity to read the Genesis account over the radio.

While I realize that there is more Nye’s thesis, I think Ham laid down evidence -yes evidence- that Nye needs to overcome.  If a someone is a young earth creationist and contributes to technology and medicine, that’s a problem.  Nye can call them inconsistent.  He can declare them unfit to teach.  But he has a much harder time demonstrating that they hold back tangible, practical, scientific development.  Furthermore, Ken Ham asked Nye what medical advancement depend on the “molecules to man” evolutionary model.  Nye did not directly address this in his debate.

Better Debates

It may seem like I am coming out in support of Ham, but I’m not.  Like most people in this debate, I watched it with my mind made up, and it wasn’t going to change.  The real reason for debates like this is to deepen people’s understanding of both sides, and hopefully, see which one is better.  There has been some great message board discussion, here though are ways that debates like this might be better.

First, focus the question.  Part of the reason why neither guy looked great in this debate is that the question is too broad.  Rather than “is YEC an viable belief about origins” let’s focus it into specific aspects of YEC.  How about: is a global flood viable?  Are tree rings a viable indicator of the age of the earth?  How about radio carbon dating, or permafrost?  Could there have been a ship the size of Noah’s Arc and would it have been seaworthy?  The reason for this two fold.  First, meta-narratives like YEC and Macro-evolution are made of hundreds of tiny parts.  Second, when people change their mind about something, they do so slowly.

A second way to make the debate better is Bill Nye’s limit theological fluency.  The biggest gaffe that any speaker can make before Christians -not simply YEC fundies, but more ‘moderate’ Christians, and Christians scholars- is to disparage the Bible because it is old and translated.  This is informal logical fallacy (appeal to novelty) or what C.S. Lewis called “chronological snobbery.”  Additionally, the sciences of linguistics, archeology, and anthropology all play a role in the translation and understanding of the Bible.  So if we use science to translate it, why do we complain about its translation?

While there is no reason for Bill Nye to be what he admitted he is not (a theologian), he might have solicited the help of a few.  Nye presented, through perhaps a dry statistic, how many Christians disagree with Ham.  That’s a good start.  Now, imagine how much more effective that would have been if he gathered a few video clips as Ham did with his creationist scientists.  Perhaps Nye tried to recruit them, and failed.  I don’t know.  I wasn’t there.

Finally, Ham should debate someone else.  This doesn’t mean that I don’t appreciate that Bill Nye debated him, but the following scenarios might help:

  • Ken Ham versus a Christian Theistic evolutionist: Is death before humankind reconcilable with a “goodness of creation”?
  • Ken Ham versus a Christian Old Earth Creationist: how old is the earth?
  • Ken Ham versus an Old Testament Scholar: what is the message of Genesis 1:1-2:3?

In sum, this debate did stimulate important discussion online.  It did demonstrate the vast gulf between the two views.  Hopefully the discussion will deepen in the minds of the people who watched it, and inspire them to a sense of greater investigation, and avoid the simple reinforcing of trite stereotypes.

In a recent interview, Clint Eastwood spoke on his opinions on gay marriage.  He said we have more important things to talk about.  I like his sentiments on that political football.  I’d like to extend them to the recent Bill Nye the Science guy comment about evolution.

Bill Nye recently posted a  short video on creationism in America.  He later posted a follow up to defend his statements.  This  created a lot of inflamed responses from the creationists wings of Christianity.  Particularly Worldview Everlasting’s recent youtube response.  Jonathan Fisk, host of Worldview Everlasting, is evidently a young earth creationist (YEC).  So what do we make of this pair of dueling internet memes?

The first issue is whether or not Bill Nye is attacking religion.  I’d let the reader watch the two videos and ask yourself this: can you tell Bill Nye’s religious views are?  I honestly could not.  Bill Nye might be as a mad dog of an atheist as Hitchens.  If he was, he showed remarkable restraint.  There was no accusation that religious people inherently are destructive.  He did not broad brush Christians with fringe, cultish, wackos.  He did not make a mockumentary about religious people.  He did not make an asinine expose based on a flat-out lies.  In fact, he kept a laser beam focus on what he discussed.  It’s down to a few points:

  1. It is ironic that creationism is so popular in a technologically advanced society.
  2. If part of the population does not believe in evolution, it holds society back as a whole.
  3. Belief in creationism faces a lot of problems, such as the fossil record and star distance.
  4. Children should not learn creationism because we need scientifically literate voters.

In his follow up CNN video, Nye clarified himself.  He’s really not out to get at anyone’s religion.  He thinks that it is important to believe evolution, because that’s important for a democratic society.

Now, let’s move on the Pastor Jonathan Fisk’s response.  First, let me note this was an 18 minute video response to a two minute promotional video.  That alone should raise some eyebrows, but it does not mean that his response is off.  His youtube fans have said that he understood Bill Nye correctly.  Did he?  For sake of brevity, I’m choosing only a few points to respond to.

At his opening, Jonathan Fisk misinterprets Bill Nye.  Bill Nye says that a denial of evolution is unique to the United States and then says that we are most technologically advanced nation.  Fisk jumps at the word “unique” and charges Bill Nye with a factual error.  He continues to argue that the point about technology has no logical relation.  This is unfair, uncharitable and nit-picky.  The principle of charity -which says you must interpret the opposition’s arguments in the most generous way possible- dictates that Bill Nye probably did not mean that only Americans deny evolution.  I think he probably means that when compared to other first world countries, this is the only one where it so endemic.  Secondly, the issue of technology is part of the problem that Bill Nye wishes to discuss.  He probably feels it is ironic.  That interpretation of Bill Nye’s opening statements is more charitable than Fisk’s video.  The beginning isn’t the only time that Jonathan Fisk violates the principle of charity.  He unfairly presents Bill Nye’s comments about tectonic plates as well.

About three minutes into his response, Jonathan Fisk asserts that the study of science has roots in Christianity.  After all, Christians believed that God created a regularity in nature.  Monks began to look closely at the natural world for that reason.  Thus, QED, the intellectual foundation of science owes more to Christianity than Bill Nye realizes.  After all, who founded the first hospitals?  Bill Nye should not act that Christians contributed nothing to western civilization.  Atheists do not own science.  However, Bill Nye never discussed whether atheists or Christians owned science.  He never asserted that Christians did not contribute to western civilization.  He never discussed the historical and intellectual foundations of science.  He never brought up the metaphysical questions of “why is the universe ordered?”  This makes Jonathan Fisk’s statements completely irrelevant to the discussion at hand.

Reverend Fisk did interpret Bill Nye correctly on at at least one point.  Bill Nye said that if you do not believe in evolution, your world becomes overly complicated.  One example he gave was the age of stars and the star distance problem.  For anyone who is unfamiliar with this, the argument is like this: light travels at a constant speed.  We measure the distance of stars by light-years.  We observe stars that are greater than six-thousand light-years away, therefore the Universe must be older than six thousand years.  Additionally, a star’s life cycle lasts billions of years.  We observe stars that are different stages in this dramatically long life cycle.

Fisk’s response is this:

I’ve never been able to wrap my head around this one: that atheists can’t believe … that God created a star that’s halfway burned…  That light could only start where that star is.  He couldn’t also just make light where earth is, from the star.

This is a common creationist response.  God created a half-way burned star, and created some light-on-its-way from the star.  This additional theory is what what overcomes the star distance problem for the creationist theory.

It’s interesting to note that even Answers in Genesis does not endorse this response.  But more to point consider this: what evidence is there that God created light-on-its-way?  Sure, I can imagine that God did that, but that is not the same as saying that he did.  Is there a verse somewhere in Genesis 1-11 that covers that?  Is there some kind of empirical data that would lead us to believe that that?  Did the apostle Paul cover it in his letter to the Ephesians?  In other words, is there any reason to believe that light was created between earth and a distant star other than young earth creationism?

For all of his sneering at Bill Nye’s poor logic, I think it is fair to point out ad hoc reasoning here.  Ad Hoc translates “add this” from Latin.  Basically, if your theory (in this case, Young Earth Creationism) is in trouble, you simply imagine another theory and “add this” to tape over an obvious problem.  The geocentric astronomers appealed to ad hoc reasoning too.  They believed that everything in the sky moved in perfect circles around earth.  However, they observed a problem: Mars and the other planets appeared to move back and forth.  So they ad hoc‘ed epicycles: That is, the planets must move in circles around earth, and then smaller circles too.  Thus, the problem was overcome.

Ad hoc reasoning isn’t always bad, but using it too much is like plugging so many corks into a leaky boat.  Eventually, you realize that you’d feel safer if you get into the less ad hoc boat.  I do not know if Reverend Fisk realizes how bad light-on-its-way makes young earth creationism look.

This isn’t to say that everything Bill Nye said is beyond question.  How important is evolution for a voting populace?  Some important political issues in our time are immigration, bank regulations, free-speech in a digital age, student debts, and healthcare.  It is not clear to me, at all, how one’s belief or disbelief in evolution affects an opinion on any of those important matters.  Additionally, Bill Nye believes if you don’t believe in evolution, you can’t do any other science either -espeically practical things like medicine and engineering.  This also not clear to me.  It seems to me that you could be a genius at architecture and be rather clueless about evolution.  Medical research is probably a lot closer to evolutionary biology.  Yet even here, I think doctor could be theoretically inconsistent, but practically a good physician.  I don’t care if my doctor believes the earth is six thousand years old.  I care that he prescribes the right medicine with some decent bedside manner.

Interestingly, I feel that both Nye and Reverend Fisk are showing their tendency to generalize.  Nye equates a belief in evolution with upright citizenship in a democratic republic.  Fisk equates young earth creationism with all of Christianity.

I cannot say much for Nye on this, but in regards to Fisk I’ll say this: I suspect he realizes that he does not speak for all Christians.  I suspect that he realizes that his views aren’t a majority.  Fisk might tow the line for the LCMS, but he probably doesn’t even speak for all of Lutheranism.

In this brings me back to Clint Eastwood.  There’s a lot of things Christians can get passionate about.  There are a lot of things that are important to discuss, explore, and to do.  When it comes to science and faith, issues such as NOMA, Augustinian Science, or that razor thin line between metaphysical naturalism and methodological naturalism are all worthy points of discussion.

YEC, however, is no hill to die on.  Like Clint Eastwood said, we got more important things to talk about.

>In this third blog I must deal with a seemingly straight foreward appeal that Dr. White makes – the appeal to science. His claims are twofold: the Holy Spirit can use science to correct Christian viewpoints on sexuality, and that science, those it does not yet know why, shows that homosexuals do not have a choice in their orientation. I must confine my response to the first claim. I believe that Dr. White’s appeal to science makes the serious mistake of oversimplifying it, and in the end it gets Soul Force no traction.

White is clear on the role of science. He writes, “Often, the Holy Spirit uses science to teach us why those ancient words no longer apply to our modern times.” After that, he cites a psychological study that concludes homosexuality is not a mental disorder. Instead, it something caused by yet unknown pre-natal and post-natal conditions. He also appeals to a 19th century social scientist, Karl Ulrichs, who showed that homosexuals “are a whole class of people whose drive to same-sex intimacy is at the very core of our being.” He even further explains that science, not scripture, is the proper tool for judging homosexuality and sexuality in general.

There is good reason why White appeals to science. Science, in our context, is enshrined as objective, unbiased, and unquestionable. As Rorty said, Science is the religion on the Enlightenment. It is pursued with the same zeal. It claims to have the same scope of explanation (everything). Some have even described scientists as the priests of our society. Most importantly, science is free from religious (and more broadly philosophical value) concerns. Science must be all this things for Soul Force’s argument to work. If White can make a good appeal to science, then we (good citizens of western civilization) must concede.

The problem is science is not so simple. Science (following Thomas Kuhn), is never done as objectively as we thought it was. Science is always done from a specific paradigm: a set of rules, assumptions, and questions. These paradigms come before the conclusions of science. They influence what it looks at. They decide what science will talk about. They set the parameters for what counts as a “proof.” They exclude data that does not fit the paradigm. Something other than the (high school textbook version of) the Scientific Method decides what makes up these paradigms. Most importantly, paradigms may not be neutral in the sense that Mel White needs them to be. This understood, how should Christians approach psychology? What will show us what “ancient words” no longer apply?

Consider the following examples. The famous psychologist Jean Piaget concludes that it is natural for children to believe that everything has purpose and/or is guided by God, but as we grow into maturity we learn to forego these notions and think scientifically. A more recent scientist, Herbert Simon, argued that altruism (helping others instead of reproducing yourself), is best understood through survival traits: our survival ability to learn from others (in this case, altruism) accidentally overrides the more rational need to reproduce our own damn genes.

These are appeals to science. It is a similar discipline that White appeals to. Now, what Christian sees these conclusions and says to them self, “I see! It is good to know that the Bible passages about altruistic behavior no longer apply, since science has shown it does not really come from God. In fact, the idea that religion is for grown-ups seems wrong now too. Christianity should now be properly restricted to children. I am glad I am an up-to-date Christian who knows that science corrects ancient words.” I do not think many people would. But why are we justified in doing so?

To be clear, I do not believe that science cannot inform faith. What I believe (and credit Alvin Plantinga for) is that science, especially the social sciences, are not wholly neutral and free from philosophical value judgments as Mel White may believe. Many “conclusions” about science may demand a philosophical commitment to atheism. Plantinga argues that science often makes its allegedly neutral conclusions (such as Piaget’s and Herbert Simon’s), from the perspective of certain philosophical values (what makes a person “mature”) that are in conflict with faith. When science does influence faith, it must be done from the perspective of faith.

This is why the appeals to psychology and such cannot help Mel White’s case. Value judgments about homosexuality precede the conclusions of science. They make up part of the paradigm. Many more value judgments –free will, the mind, human origins, etc- also make up the paradigm. These hidden assumptions need to be dealt with before we jump on board with Ulrich. For Christians, these values are informed and influenced by the Bible and Christian tradition. Using science to tell Christians what Bible verses don’t apply puts the cart before the horse.

Far more could be said here. It is short for sake of brevity. What I am showing here is that Mel White needs an objective, value-free, and neutral basis (“science”) in order to make his appeals here on homosexuality strong. The problem, he doesn’t have that, because science [i]isn’t[/i] that. If Mel White wishes to invoke Ulrich and expect us to follow, why would he not also follow Simon and Piaget? Certainly, there are ways to bring science into the debate, but not simply on the “science says this ‘is,’ therefore, this ‘ought’” type of argument.

Mel White makes one last appeal to Science. It is mixed in with the emotive appeals that are run throughout the article. He of course, references the familiar story of the Copernican revolution. I intended this to be a fourth blog, but it feels superfluous. Besides, I am growing tired of dealing with this subject. My final blog will contain a very timely (thanks facebook!) explanation of how I feel about Prop 8. You know, that proposition that I want to abstain from voting on.

Thanks for reading. Now go read Kuhn. 😀

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