Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Bill Nye debates Ken Ham

Evolution vs creation

If you have 2.5 spare hours, you may want to watch the debate between a creationist and an evolutionist.

The moving content begins around 13:00.

Bill Nye is known as "The Science Guy" who became famous after he stole Professor Proton's shtick (and Sheldon Cooper's wallet). Ken Ham is an Australia-born founder of various creationist facilities. A CNN host moderated the debate somewhere in Cincinnati.

Their yesterday's debate was sort of friendly. Once viewed as the prototype of a bitter intellectual war, the creation-vs-evolution cold war morphed into a pleasant piece of debate. It can't be compared with the climate change debate which is much more vitriolic. I think it's largely because of the societal implications of the climate panic – and because it's not clear where the front lines are. In the religion-based debates, everyone knows that everyone has heard most of these things and the believers or creationists have a certain concentration in some regions and it is only changing slowly. In the climate debate, the concentration of the enemies could be around the corner.

When it comes to the climate change, Bill Nye would be a hardcore Young Earth creationist who believes that the climate began to change not 6,000 but just 100-200 years ago. The climate was created to the man's image and nothing about it is natural, he believes. He is a complete lunatic. But when he talks about the longevity of the Universe and the Earth and about Darwin's theory of the origin of species, he is just fine. I think that he designed the case very cleverly.

Ken Ham is a pleasant, modest man. He is a believer. You will hear the proper creation defended, with God as the unmasked primary authority, without any postmodern tactical labels such as the Intelligent Design.

I think that it's clear that the evidence just doesn't work for him and he knows it. That's why lots of his focus goes something else than actual empirical arguments. We hear the testimony of several inventors and scientists who are fundamentalist Christian believers. Raymond Damadian, the inventor of MRI, is probably the biggest achiever among those. Well, I think that Damadian's contribution is a bit overhyped. MRI would be impossible without the underlying physics, NMR, that was found by Isidor Rabi in 1938 (with improvements by Felix Bloch and Edward Mills Purcell in 1946).

1938 may look like a long time ago and your humble correspondent may look "not that old" but my former colleague (with whom I would often communicate during academic dinners) would actually do some important work – Ramsey method – before Rabi. ;-) Yes, it was Norman Ramsey who is no longer among us.

Ken Ham also offers complaints about the harassment of scholars who are Christians, complaints that often sound like conspiracy theories. He added comments about the hypothetical decay of the society that results from the secular science. I know that much of this criticism of the Academia is completely justified. On the other hand, it is very clear that Ken Ham focused on the sociological would-be arguments because the actual empirical evidence doesn't allow him to present a convincing case. For the same reason, climate Young Earth creationists such as Bill Nye (in another context) love to talk about 97% consensuses and dying grandchildren because their actual scientific case makes no sense whatsoever.

Ham believes that a "secular religion" is being sold as science – it is sometimes true but in most cases, it is not because some assertions called "secularism" are actually supported by proper science. And he made a big deal of the division of science into "empirical science" and "historical science". Bill Nye rejected this division and it seems to me that the division was indeed designed to make you believe that the laws of Nature are changing with time, that miracles could be possible in the past but impossible today, and that nothing is obliged to fit in a complete picture quite generally.

Well, in principle, the laws of Nature could be variable. But the strong assumption that they are not variable is compatible with all the observations which is a highly nontrivial confirmation of the assumption that can't be overlooked. And if one allows the laws of physics to change at all times, the theory designed not to contradict the empirical data is too loose and "fudged" and unconvincing – or unlikely.

Bill Nye had the task to debunk a rather easy target – the young Earth. I would probably pick almost identical evidence as he did. By parallax, billions of stars are clearly further than 6,000 light years. The number of species (tens of millions) is too large to evolve from 7,000 "kinds" ("big species" relevant for the Big Flood proposed by Ken Ham) in 6,000 years (this calculation was partly demagogic because the 10+ new species predicted for every day could very well emerge in the tropical forest where no one sees them, so it wouldn't be a contradiction; after all, people are discovering new species at a comparable rate even in this real, Darwinian world).

The ice cores exhibit up to 650,000 annual cycles, also impossible in 6,000 years. Geological layers allow us to go to millions of years. These long timescales may also be deduced from the radioactive decay of some isotopes with long lifetimes, and so on, and so on. The Young Earth picture is clearly incompatible with any kind of reasoning where you expect to make sense of the doable empirical observations.

Back to Ken Ham. We can't observe the age of the Earth and many other things because they fall into "historical science", he argues. This is bizarre. Every science is historical to some extent because all the data we use to develop, refine, and test theories are observations of something in the past. The past is known although sometimes some extra "indirect" work is required to translate the direct observations of the traces to the events in the past. Some of these analyses are more indirect than others but there is no qualitative "gap" that could allow you to divide the science into historical science and empirical science.

It may make sense to talk about the "historical science" as a science about some one-time events that are "no longer repeatable" while the empirical science is about the lab experiments that may be reproduced as many times as you want. That's OK but there are very thick relationships between these two groups of insights. Some one-time historical events influenced something we can repeatedly observe today; and the one-time historical events were also affected by some laws whose validity we may repeatedly test in the lab, too. Some natural scientists have more of the "unrepeatable historical component" in their research, others have less, but as long as they are doing any natural science, it is impossible for them to live just with one "would-be part" of science.

Ken Ham also talked about some problems with radioactive dating methods. Except for the (wrong) claim that the methods (significantly) disagree, I didn't understand anything in these arguments, probably because it makes no sense. Ken Ham would also criticize the inconsistency of Old-Earth Christians. Their "misbeliefs" are argued by the words of the Bible. Too bad. And all dating methods are unreliable etc. – the only good method is to trust a witness who was there, namely God.

Bill Nye responded similarly as I would – why it's bizarre that they (including lions) had to be vegetarians before the Big Flood etc., why it's strange to place so much faith on a Bible translated many times into English (and censored at various congresses). We always observe the past because the speed of light is finite, and so on. Bill Nye is troubled that interpreters of the Bible such as Ken Ham are supposed to have a stronger authority in finding the truth than the fossils you may find in your Kentucky garden.

Ken Ham is reduced to enumerating about a dozen of fellow believers who have PhDs. It's not just "his models". Well, it wouldn't really matter to a scientific ear. Even if it were just his models, it could be right if it would be empirically viable. The ark may have hosted just 2 x 1,000 animals so there is a plenty of room over there. ;-)

Ham complains that the ice core layers estimate the age only when they rely on "assumptions". Sadly, he doesn't present his alternative set of assumptions that would be compatible with the existence of the numerous layers as well as with the Young Earth. And how did Bill Nye dare to question Noah's ability to build bigger boats than the 19th century engineers? Sometimes it sounds like a parody. ;-)

Concerning the speed of light (and distance of many stars), Ken Ham made an amusing argument that made me laugh out loud. The Big Bang Theory has the horizon problem (he didn't know the right terminology but he meant it), so everyone has a problem, so we're tied. ;-) The only problem is that the horizon problem is harmless for all questions about the Universe that is more than a fraction of a second old and the Big Bang Theory and proper astronomy still explains all the data; Ken Ham's picture breaks down as soon as he encounters first old tree or fossil or anything like that. So it is not a tie. The learning is a gradual process and the Big Bang Theory is able to describe 14 billion over 6 thousand i.e. 2 million times greater portion of the spacetime, with much more natural initial conditions.

Nye said that the shipbuilding is getting better, not worse, species are probably being lost, not created. And the assumptions that Ham complains about are supported by something, by some previous knowledge (or, I would add, by the tests that the assumptions pass later). Bill Nye also explains the possibility of your making a revolution in science.

At 1:50:00, they begin to ask visitors' questions.

First one for Ham: how the celestial bodies are explained and what is their purpose in the Grand Design? The answer is that they are receding now and we don't know the reason but it's probably done in this way for His glory, ;-) to nurture His ego. He is great, indeed. He is infinite. We are small. Wow. Bill Nye talks about kids' curiosity and asks Ham for predictions.

Nye says that "what was before the Big Bang" is a mystery. I would disagree with this approach to the answer. And what will happen in the future? Nye says lots of wrong things about the history of cosmology, wrong years etc. Nobody knows why the expansion is accelerating. People laugh and they have a reason. I find this summary by Nye misleading. Ham informed Nye that there's actually a book out there that explains where we came from and it says, in the first sentence, that at the beginning, God created Heavens and the Earth. Ham adds lots of bizarre spiritual dogmas that "matter can't create information" etc.

Ham is asked about the extra evidence aside from the Bible he has but he starts to talk about "majorities are not always right" which is true but he clearly failed to give an answer to the question.

Nye says that we don't know how consciousness arises from matter. Well, I would say that we know most of answers to refined versions of this question that are demonstrably meaningful. Nye repeats that without science education, the U.S. economy will fall behind. Ham says that the book out there also answers the consciousness question. Ham says that life is meaningless without afterlife.

What would change your mind? Ham effectively says "nothing, I am a Christian". But they may at least refine the detailed geometry of the Big Flood. ;-) Bill Nye enumerates dozens of groundbreaking types of evidence – that stars are nearby, and so on – which could change his mind. Bill Nye is asked to enumerate non-radiometric estimates of the Earth's age. Stars' age, deposition rates, etc. Story about Kelvin's burning-coal model of the Sun. He could know many more methods... Ham says that only meteoroids were radiometrically dated, not Earth. He claims that lots of methods contradict billions of years.

Ham is asked about the rate of continental drift 6,000 years ago. He apparently has no clue what continental drift is. ;-) Instead, he offers a name of PhD literal Christian geologists. Suddenly, he starts to talk about catastrophic plate tectonics. He would repeat that nothing can be said about the past so the question remains unanswered. I mean, if you're asked about a number, this vacuous tirade of conspiracy theories just can't replace this number.

Nye says a few basics on the plate tectonics. Of course that plate tectonics is another way to show the longevity of the Earth that he had previously forgotten. He also points out that various clocks always "differ a little bit" which doesn't mean that they're fundamentally wrong. Nye picks green as the favorite color, Ham picks blue. Ham won this one.

Nye is asked how he reconciles evolution with the second law of thermodynamics. It is a fantastic law, he says. Some intro to heat losses and entropy. The answer is that the Earth isn't a closed system. The energy from the Sun drives it. Well, the Earth is really converting high-energy heat quanta to low-energy heat quanta by which it increases the entropy of the radiation, which allows the Earth-bound processes to reduce the entropy. Nye didn't "quite" explain that. Ham repeats his thesis that energy and matter can't create life, just God has a license for that. ;-) Entropy is too much for Ham.

Ham, would you still believe Jesus if the Earth were shown to be old? Ham answers that it's impossible to prove the age of the Earth using the scientific method (to him because he is already stuck, I must add). Nye, is there place for God in science? He talks about believers who still like science or use its results.

Should we take the Bible literally, Ham? Stone those who touch a pig to death, marry several babes. He takes it "naturally" but what it means is arbitrary. God said that multiple women are wrong. Nye complains that Ham has the power to divide the Bible to "real stuff" and "poetry". Has Nye ever believed that evolution was achieved by a higher power? Nye chooses to be an agnostic about a higher power here but the ID is wrong because the complexity increases without a designer as a mediocre model of life is being eaten by the better model. Nature is bottom-up and it fills Nye with joy. Ham claims that there's no function ever created that wasn't there previously, genetically. Bizarre. One first has the genes and the animals with functions is built around the DNA. But all pieces of DNA and corresponding functions were created for the first time; most of the people's organs' genes are not in the genes of primitive bacteria, clearly.

Ham, is creationism used to produce a single useful product? Ham: yes, many (including secular inventors) are borrowing from the Christian view. So the Bible says that God invented the clothes etc. ;-) He enumerates Maxwell etc. who were creationists, too. Ham repeats the names of creationists in science; Nye repeats the "lack of predictive power". They haven't trained enough material. ;-)

Nye is asked how growing IQ is compatible with smart folks in the past. He says the IQ isn't growing, just the fitness. Ham says that there's just survival of the surviving and it is a tautology with no new information. That's an interesting argument but it's completely wrong. The survival of the fittest implies and explains that and why the complexity is increasing.

Most important pillar of his belief. Ham: the Bible, better than any religious text and it has everything (a five-minute summary of the Bible follows). Nye: information and process we call science. It fills him with joy. And we want to know: is the E.T. listening? It drives us.

Warning to the audience: county is under snow emergency now. Too bad that Nye hadn't just talked about global warming in the previous monologue.

The Daily Beast has a thoughtful article saying that Nye has lots and had to lose (but he loves media attention) but I disagree with that. He did a very good job and it had to be too clear that Ham didn't actually have any answers to any real questions. There are surely believers who don't care and who won't change their mind – most people won't. But I think that sufficiently curious and technically skilled listeners regardless of their religion or irreligion were affected – in Nye's direction.

By the way, Nye and Ham continued to debate at Piers Morgan's CNN show. Ham destroyed Morgan's plans for the segment when he revealed that he is a climate alarmist whacko just like Bill Nye and Morgan himself, in contrast with Morgan's expectations. So Ham and Nye essentially differ only in the point that according to Ham, global warming is a punishment for a human who touched a pig; while Bill Nye thinks it's a punishment to a human who exhaled some CO2 after he touched the pig.


  1. kashyap vasavadaFeb 5, 2014, 3:50:00 PM

    Very thorough review of the debate Lubos. I watched it in real time. It was interesting,
    polite and civil. Considering that Bill Nye is not a scientist, he did an excellent job. Just a couple of points: Damadian’s early suggestion about MRI was faulty and did not work out. That is why the Nobel committee awarded 2003 Physiology and Medicine Nobel prize to Lauterbur and Mansfield whose contributions led to the real MRI
    machines. I am also glad that Bill Nye mentioned that billions in Asia (eastern religions) do not have any problem with science. I mentioned this point to him in an e-mail sent before his debate, not that I am claiming that his mention was a result of my e-mail!! In any case it is only a small minority of Christians who believe in young earth creationism from a literal, misguided interpretation of Bible. As Bill Nye mentioned, the current director of NIH is a devout Christian and as good a scientist as they come! I think, even in U.S. young earth creationism will go away in few years.

  2. Thanks for the interesting comments and refinements.

    Again, I am impressed by the number of your Indian men who seem to be genuinely interested in theoretical physics - sometimes I am even afraid that they could be too theoretical. ;-)

  3. After you believe The Flintstones is a live-shot documentary,

    "all knowledge is subjective and based on one's position in society"

  4. I don't know about anyone else, but I would have preferred Evolution had been represented by someone who isn't a climate alarm pushing moronic communist.

    I would agree, of course, that given how bad Ham sounds, that might seem unnecessary. Like bringing a tactical nuke to a knife fight. Still, I would prefer no one ever pay attention to Nye again. So next time bomb them back into the stone age with someone who is better than just memorizing the facts he is supposed to believe.

  5. Damadian was certainly not the inventor of MRI.

  6. I'd like to know whether science ,especially theoretical physics,promotes atheism or agnosticism.

  7. How can you take someone like Ken Ham even serious?

  8. Can we assume that Ham has taken the bible literally and concludes that it proves global warming? Jesus walked on water. if one listens to the climate alarmists I and the polar bears will encounter water warm as the Galilean sea and no longer walk on it.
    Wait, perhaps the bible can be used to show global warming is entirely god and not man made. After all long before Jesus, did Noah get the arctic polar bears and the Antarctic penguins on the ark by having the, walk to it?
    Some people will cling to their bibles, their superstitions, and their ignorance no matter what reason has to offer. I am not equipped with the politeness or patience or even handedness that you demonstrate in this post.

  9. In my humble opinion, hypothesizing that countless human brains spring into existence spontaneously from quantum fluctuations in the cold dark void of space, fully formed with a complete set of memories and impressions of the "world", and that one is far more likely to be such a "brain", at the instant right after coming into existence and before freezing to death, than being a living, breathing, thinking human being, is no crazier than thinking that the creator of this world for unfathomable reasons decided to fool humans about the age of the creation by "faking" fossil etc. evidence and changing natural laws in mid-history.

  10. What is the meaning of creationist? Strange word. More important: what does the term believer mean in your opinion? Maybe a blogger spending his time to communicate, an humble correspondent, may look as a believer while a stupid lier saying he's a believer could be considered an atheist. It depends on the observer, on which side he is... assuming that you really *believe* that there is an horizon btw the 2 sides from which *you* can not come back :)
    Best regards from a troll)) ...

  11. Not sure on that. He wrote the 71 paper and got the patent that was ultimately upheld by our Court.
    But two others got the Nobel for it. The marketing folks invented the name for NMR medical imaging, though. MRI was considered more desirable by omitting Nuclear which was considered a "bad" word.

  12. I was wondering perhaps if any of you have ever read anything by Gerald Schroeder? I mention it only to say the fundamentalist Jewish approach is very different from a Protestant one. Also, and I've been waiting for 3 years for an appropriate post to say this, but there is a very eerie correspondence between Jewish mystical thought and string theory. I sometimes (whimsically, not seriously) think maybe the mystics did have angels try to explain how the universe works to them but since they were pre-Newton they just didn't understand the math. Before you laugh, in brief - God removes himself from an area in order to make room for creation, God has 10 separate aspects (dimensions) plus creates time, the aspects rupture, breaking the pure states and leaving the universe in the flawed way that it is. It goes on, but...
    More seriously, although I know you give it a relatively low probability as an explanation Dr. Motl, it could be the case that the fermi paradox is real, the rare earth hypothesis is true, and the reason our theories are unnatural and that anthropic explanations seem to be true is in fact because the universe was designed specifically to support our form of life. And in biochemistry/molecular biology (something I have some advanced training in) sure, its obvious evolution occurs, but when you get to the basics of life (DNA, RNA, enzymes, ATP, photosynthesis, etc...) it is sometimes very hard to believe this stuff just arose by itself. The respiratory chain is just amazing - so hard to believe it somehow slowly evolved. Anyway, if you felt like commenting about Schroeder, I'd be especially interested. I can't vouch for his physics, but his Biblical scholarship is mainstream orthodox Jewish thought.

  13. Clarification: what I meant to say explicitly, but somehow left out, is that although I understand why scientists don't want to use God as an explanation for anything, I think people should be willing to keep an open mind (not for what Ham is arguing here, that's clearly stupid and not for the literal truth of the Bible), and if some of our fundamental theories lead us to the design argument as the highest probability, we should embrace that. I know in the past there has always been the "God of the gaps" argument, but our theories are getting pretty fundamental here and it seems as if were starting to run out of choices. Maybe there is no SUSY, and the Higgs is light because God needed it to be that way (just like that Carbon nuclear resonance that Hoyle found).

  14. Pat Robinson objects to young Earth creationism and Ken Ham: