Last night was the controversial debate between international science superstar Bill Nye the Science Guy and international man of ridicule Ken Ham. You might have noticed I live blogged the debate as it was happening. That was quite an interesting experience, and I wasn’t sure at the time what I would have to say that I didn’t say more concisely in a timestamped one liner.
So I sat with it.
I feel before I go on that I should reveal that I am not really on either side here. I firmly agree with Mr. Nye that science should be taught in science classrooms, and that it is a failure, not only of our education but our competitive spirit to allow religion of any brand to bully its way into the minds of kids dressed as anything other than what it is.
However, like Mr. Ham, I don’t have any strong objection to the idea existing that an Intelligent Designer might have had a hand in setting this whole circus we call reality in motion. I think such ideas are better discussed in philosophy classes or humanities, or even metaphysics. That’s about as close as I can come to Mr. Ham, and as kind as I’m likely to be to him in the remainder of this wrap-up.
The more I sat with the debate, the more what really stood out to me was the compassion with which Bill Nye treated the whole affair. He was cordial but firm, and he used his time at the podium rarely to attack the ideas of creationism and more to point out the wonder and complexity of the world revealed by science. His simple question, throughout the entire night, was “can your ideas reveal the same wonder, and lead us to discover new wonders, with any reliability?”
I think we all knew that neither side in this debate was going to win, partially because reconciliation between the two is all but impossible because they do not rely upon the same measure of truth. Mr. Nye relies upon testable data and watching whether ideas are useful in predicting undiscovered natural phenomena. He is comfortable with uncertainty (a fact he displayed over and over again during the question and answer phase where his answer was as often as not “I have no idea! Isn’t that exciting? You’ve just asked a great question! Maybe a kid from your state might one day find out the answer??”)
Contrasting that is Mr. Ham, whose premise is that all the answers ultimately are the same, which is “God did it”, and that uncertainty is detrimental to the fabric of society. The fundamental and irreconcilable difference between the two positions is that one treats questions as indications you are making progress, and the other classifies questions into those which are permitted and those which are dangerous.
However, I continue to come back to Mr. Nye’s compassion. I was stunned when during his closing statement, as he quoted his mentor Carl Sagan casually and without credit, saying, “We are a way for the universe to know itself” that I had tears in my eyes. It was then that I began to suspect why Mr. Nye had arrived on that stage, and why he spent his time mostly offering new information, rather than directly attacking his opponent.
Bill Nye didn’t come for the creationists. He came for their children.
Let me state that in a way that sounds less creepy. What Mr Nye’s stated reason for engaging in the debate was to bring a spotlight to the critical importance of science education to the future of America. He repeatedly stated that in order to stay at the forefront of innovation and industry, our young people would have to embrace and be inspired by science.
And then he spent almost every moment on that stage holding out the hand of opportunity to his opponents, saying, “Come with me! We’ll figure it out together!”
I was raised in a pretty Christian home. I wouldn’t say it was “crazy” but I know that as a young Christian I would probably have been made to watch this debate at some point, by my parents, by my church, or through a Christian media outlet. Because Mr. Nye was so kind and so neutral, these Christian outlets will feel comfortable showing their kids the debate. Whereas had he been brutal the debate might have just gone into an archive. But now, what I predict will happen is that an entire generation of kids raised in homes that treat intellectualism like a corrosive acid to the mind who might not otherwise be permitted to be exposed to the complex and marvelous world of science Mr. Nye holds up will get that taste, and in turn, be able to ask the hard questions that lead to discovery.
Bill Nye swallowed his pride as a scientist to do exactly what a science educator is supposed to do: he inspired minds. He didn’t express vitriol, he didn’t treat his opponent with disrespect, he didn’t come armed for bear with a bullet for every argument presented by Ken Ham.
He came with the wonder of science, and the questions that make that wonder possible, and held out a hand to everyone in that room, and everyone watching.
Contrast this to what Mr. Ham used his time to do. From the beginning Mr Ham’s agenda was clear. Rather than answering the question of the sufficiency of creationist worldviews to predict and meaningfully contribute to scientific advancement, he used his time to prove two things: Creationists are being persecuted unjustly, and evolution is a religion not a science. He used his time as a platform, not for scientific inquiry, but for politician style stumping.
It wasn’t surprising at all. It wasn’t a shock that he couldn’t answer the questions the moderator, the audience, and Nye himself asked of him. But I think it is useful to point out some repetitive flaws in Mr. Ham’s reasoning. I do this so that one day, if someone is looking for cogent critiques of the debate, they have a record not just that Mr. Ham was wrong, but the way in which his REASONING went wrong.
I do this because I am not a scientist but I love science. I am a writer, and a rhetorician, and this is the best contribution I can make to this debate. My own mentor, a brilliant woman (and incidentally a Christian), Trish Roberts-Miller, spends most of her time researching and interacting with some of the most heinous arguments and reasoning on the planet. She publishes book on Pro-Slavery rhetoric and Nazis. And do you know what she taught me? The answer to bad rhetoric is not to silence it. The answer is more rhetoric. Bad speech should be responded to with good speech.
This is my attempt at good speech in response to Ken Ham.
Read my critique after the jump
Things to Notice About Mr. Ham’s Arguments
1) The first thing that raises red flags is the number of talking-head introductions Mr. Ham incorporates into his presentations. He introduces somewhere around 10 scientists who admit to the camera they believe in creationism and list their credentials. And that is ALL. This is crucial to notice. This is an appeal to ethos. Which is to say, an appeal to authority. Appeals to authority are not necessarily bad. However the specific way Mr. Ham uses them are. Look back and try to see any data or information these talking heads give. Do they answer any question beyond “I think creationism is the only viable explanation for things”? Do they ever state why they believe this? Do they ever offer information? Rarely. An appeal to authority is an important component of persuasion, because it helps an audience judge the value of the information provided by someone speaking to them. That isn’t bad. However, when an authority is brought in only to “endorse” someone else’s message, often it is because the individual speaking wishes to distract from otherwise weak reasoning. In this case that is precisely what is happening. Mr. Ham nestled these interviews between his claims, so that by association the weight of the ethos or authority held by those other scientists would be transferred to what he was saying. Contrast this to Mr. Nye, who mentioned where his data arose from (what scientists and theories he was quoting) which lent authority to his claims, but only in so much as the authority directly related to the data.
2) (argumentum ad ignorantiam, argumentum e silentio, divine fallacy, onus probandi, circulus in demonstrando, continuum fallacy, cum hoc ergo propter hoc, etymological fallacy, fallacy of composition, false dilemma, fallacy of many questions, fallacy of single cause, false attribution, ignoratio elenchi, mind projection fallacy, moralistic AND naturalistic fallacy, argumentum verbosium, red herring, argumentum ad populum, appeal to consequence, appeal to motive, appeal to tradition, and Straw Man)
No the above list is not a long Harry Potter style incantation. It is a list of the formal and causitive fallacies inherent in Mr. Ham’s reasoning. These are just the ones I had in my notes. I tried to use the names that would make them easiest to find on wikipedia, because it would take me pages and pages to point out each time one of these was used, or the complex ways they built upon each other to form the foundation for Mr. Ham’s arguments.
However, I wanted to highlight two fallacies which were, more than anything, endemic in what Mr. Ham stated, and seemed to me to actually be embraced as truth by him (rather than being a tactic used to make a point, like the abuse of ethos above). That is the false dilemma, and argumentum e silentio (or argument from silence or lack of evidence). A false dilemma is one in which you present two alternative answers to a question, and argue as though one of these two options MUST be true, ignoring that other options might exist. In this case, the major false dilemma, and I would argue the false dilemma that caused the whole debate in the first place, is the idea what either evolution OR Mr. Ham’s own brand of biblically based creationism must be true.
The reason this is an attractive way to set up the debate for Mr. Ham is that he does NOT have to prove why creationism is correct or even sufficient, but rather, he only has to demonstrate that evolution theory is NOT sufficient, and in so doing, prove that by default his way of thinking is correct. Or at the very least, that creationism is equally relevant to evolution. This reasoning seems to be legitimately embraced by Mr. Ham. He seems unaware that by the same logic ALL religion or theory should be taught in the classroom. He doesn’t seem to understand that without demonstrating the VIRTUE of his particular brand of creationism, the logical form in which he is pouring the debate could be used to argue for anything from Satanism to Pastafarianism.
Secondly, the major bullet with which he seemed to load his argument guns (shut up, I’m a rhetorician, arguments guns are totally a thing) is the idea that just because it cannot be disproven, it must be true. (This fallacy only works one way, by the by. Wherein that same thinking is turned towards creationism, the answer is always, “But the Bible says so, and that is sufficient evidence”.) The basic premise seems to be that lack of evidence that creationism is false and evolutionary theory is true means that evolution is false and creationism is true. And this seems to be the “burden of proof” model Mr. Ham is legitimately laboring away under, and in somewhat good faith. He doesn’t seem to mean it triumphantly when he makes a point in this manner, but rather with an earnest sort of “don’t you see?!” to his demeanor. He seems to honestly believe that the unsolved questions of the evolutionary model of the universe (which really, I hate having to type evolutionary theory because he is really attacking all disciplines of science) are a bible shaped hole in the argument, and that merely showing wherein the literary stories of the bible could be used to cover over inconsistencies is legitimate proof of their sufficiency for inclusion in science education.
They are not.
3) The final point I want to make about Mr. Ham’s atrocious turn at reasoning in general is concerning the inordinate amount of time he spent trying to prove that modern, non-deity centered scientific theory is a religion. In almost every turn he took at the podium, Mr. Ham attempted to point out that the theory of evolution, or as he called it “historical science” is somehow as much a faith as his own brand of creationism. He spent time rigorously making a distinction between Historical and Observational science, which he felt separated useful science he likes (like science that makes cell phones and email and snazzy cars) from science the complicates his worldview too much. He tried at every turn to point out that Mr. Nye has a component of faith to his worldview and that because he did, the “persecution of creationism” was hypocritical.
And really, I want to point out that EVEN HAD HE WON THIS POINT, it would have entirely been a Pyrrhic victory. Because at the very beginning of the debate, in his opening lines, Bill Nye said, “Tonight you are going to hear two stories, and I’m asking you to decide which story is more useful”. The problem is that Mr. Ham believes that Mr. Nye believes in science like a religion, and that he devalues Mr. Ham’s religion as less valid than his own. The actual reality is the Mr. Nye believes that his worldview is every bit as false as Mr. Ham’s is, but that his has a greater preponderance of evidence in support of it, and further, is more useful for inquiry and advancement. He doesn’t believe his view is “correct”. He thinks it is a stepping stone in the never ending chain of human understanding, that always reaches UP. And in misunderstanding that Mr. Nye had conceded that his own point of view could just as easily be false as Mr. Ham’s meant that Mr. Ham wasted a lot of time trying to prove something that was simply irrelevant, like trying to prove Mr. Nye had brown hair or a fabulous bow-tie.
Lastly, I wanted to bring up one question that was asked by the audience and addressed to Mr. Ham. And this is an issue which really kind of invalidates the idea of a conversation at all, and is the exact reason why so many people were pulling their hair out that Bill Nye even WENT to this debate.
The question was “What if anything would make you change your mind?”
Mr. Ham fumbled around on this question more than any other, and I think it is more telling than anything else he said that night. He eventually came back to “Well, my experience has shaped my worldview, and I invite you to ask the same questions I did”. Which is a dodge. But what it demonstrates is that Mr. Ham is not inviting discussion, but rather evangelizing in a cloak made of science.
The absolute most fundamental condition for productive public argument is the willingness of both sides to fairly consider the evidence presented by the other side, and to be willing to adjust their views based on the evidence. Without this basic condition being met, there is actually LITERALLY no point to the debate, in terms of the outcome.
Bill Nye, on the other hand, had two or three specific points of data that he identified as game changers for him, some relating to the great flood, and some relating to kinds and the “creationist orchard”. He came in prepared to have his mind changed. I doubt he thought he WOULD, but the point is, he could articulate a scenario in which he COULD change his mind.
Beyond any other flaws in reasoning, the fact that Mr. Ham was unable to answer this one question is the most damning piece of evidence against him. All the other flaws can be worked out in the context of a willingness to engage in good faith argumentation.
I will leave you again with how stunned and moved I am by the compassion Bill Nye showed by attending this debate and by so ethically and sensitively presenting his points. It was, quite possibly, one of the most beautiful pieces of rhetoric I have ever witnessed. I do not know how effective history will prove it to be, but even if Mr. Nye failed, he failed doing the absolute right thing. And I think it is the spirit of wonder and compassion evinced by his own mentor, Carl Sagan, which has been passed down to him and is now flowing outward from him, a new Holy Ghost, if you will, that moves among us. Not born by books, but living in the spirit of curiosity and self-betterment common to all life.
Thank you Mr. Nye. You taught me something about love last night.