February 07, 2014

Reality vs. Truth

Okay, I finally got around to the odd "Ham and Nye Sandwich" debate.  Historically speaking, debates have been a regular part of philosophy and science just as much as they have been a part of politics.  Famous debates resonate through the ages, from ancient Greece through to modern times; but the best of these debates has always been those within their own circles: conflicts of faith between different aspects of that faith (ie. Sunni vs. Shia, or Catholic against Protestant) and ones in science debated among those who work in the same field (cosmologists debating 'Big Bang' or 'Steady State' views of the universe).

That changed in the 20th century, with debates moving from live confrontations to published ones as communications became easier around the world.  Not that the arguments didn't happen because long-distance disagreements could carry on almost instantaneously; telephones are lovely that way, but most debates happened in magazines and journals rather than town halls or schools.  No, it was less about the speed with which views could be exchanged as is was about finding more people to argue with.

It was easier to bump shoulders in a smaller world, so bump they did!

The most obvious reason why this was such a cool thing is that instead of having local (mostly) smart guys hash out their differences, people from all over the world could chime in with their own views, pointing out things that might have never occurred to the original few.  That's good.

Push that to modern times, and it's gotten a bit noisy: currently, millions of people can pop up any opinion they want at pretty much any time, being just as anonymous as they'd like.  Which is, I think, a great thing.  Sure, this means people of all intelligence levels can spout whatever they like; but those same people can also be easily exposed to counter-arguments, proofs, and, well, reality.  Those folks who do eventually grow beyond the smaller world they live in to see the larger that surrounds them will have every opportunity to reach facts and philosophies that challenge what they know.  That exposure changes people: whether they accept what they see is essentially irrelevant.

Which brings us to lunch.

Some folks in the scientific community, especially in the United States, believe that scientists shouldn't engage in debates of this nature ie. against young-Earth creationists like Ken Ham.  The thinking there is that debate "legitimizes" believers, giving them an unearned platform to reinforce demonstrably false ideas with debate tactics rather than factual research.

I both agree and disagree with this view.  I agree that Ham would treat the debate as a forum for "point scoring" with the friendly audience rather than effectively rebut most of the issues brought up by Nye (he got a solid point in I'll mention).  But I disagree in that the debate would be viewed by people who had only heard about evolution from creationists or those who were otherwise opposed to evolution - as could be shown by the interesting social experiment one attendee did.

My primary concern with this debate, and why I didn't watch as it was livestreamed, was the audience itself.  Not the people  in the audience, mind you (it was held in the hilarious Creation Museum); but the fact that there was one.  There is absolutely no reason for any serious argument to have an audience.  It is actually a pet peeve of mine when it comes to this kind of thing - even in politics, I think Presidential/Prime Ministerial debates should be either with a single moderator or done entirely in writing.  Then the transcript can be released to the wolves to work over as they will; but at least there wouldn't be any "knowing winks to a cheering throng" silliness.

That being said, what are the takeaways from the debate?  Most of it was straightforward stuff that we've seen from each of these participants before: Nye arguing that science is essential to understanding the world, and Ham insisting there's nothing to understand because the Bible has told humans everything they need to know.  (As an aside, I wonder how many young Earth supporters knew Ham was in favour of vaccines, given the general overlap?)

First, Nye made a mistake insisting that someone who believed in a young Earth was a denier who couldn't be a productive member of the scientific community: this provided an opening of Ham to show people who had contributed very successfully to research and engineering despite their beliefs.  Someone can be utterly wrong in certain parts of their lives, but if those don't conflict with daily interactions, what do they matter?   I know someone who literally thinks the Queen of England can't leave the country or else she'll get arrested on genocide charges: this doesn't change his ability to be a sales clerk.

Second, there's some very special definitions of "science" required for Ham's cosmology (and biology, geology, physics...) to work: the idea that there are two seperate branches of somehow parallel science, "observational" and "historical", is one of the most bizarre things I've ever heard.  Science - all science - is based on what can be observed, and that means what's in the present.  That also means the conclusions reached are continuously changing as new information becomes available, but that's to be expected.  One of my favourite sayings is "intelligent life which ceases to change ceases to be intelligent".  One of Ken Ham's favourite sayings is "were you there?"  He uses that as a defense against geological and biological evidence of an Earth older than he wants: the science could have been difference then, because you weren't there to watch it happen.

It's an argument that reminds me of infant non-permanence, and I'm a bit confused how it convinces anyone of anything.  But then I encounter this in the Answers in Genisis Statement of Faith:

"By definition, no apparent, perceived or claimed evidence in any field, including history and chronology, can be valid if it contradicts the scriptural record. Of primary importance is the fact that evidence is always subject to interpretation by fallible people who do not possess all information." 

Similarly...

Third, there was one question after the presentation from CNN's Tom Foreman, during the questions from the audience segment, that caught my eye.  It perhaps should have been the very first question asked, and is the most important one from the entire two hours. (Bold text mine.)

Q: What, if anything, would ever change your mind? 

Ham: “Well, the answer to that question is, I’m a Christian. And as a Christian I can not prove it to you, but God has definitely shown me very clearly, through his word, and shown himself in the person of Jesus Christ. The Bible is the word of God. I admit that is where I start from. I can challenge people, that you can go and test that. You can make predictions against that. You can check the prophecies. You can check the statements in Genesis. You can check that. And I did a little bit of that tonight. And I can’t ultimately prove that to you. All I can do is to say to someone, look, if the Bible really is what it claims to be, if it really is the word of God and that is what it claims, then check it out. Now the Bible says if you come to God believing that he is, he’ll reveal himself to you. And you will know. As Christians we can say we know.  And so as far as the word of God is concerned, no, no one is ever going to convince me that the word of God is not true.”

Nye: “We would just need one piece of evidence. We would need the fossil that swam from one layer to another. We would need evidence that the universe is not expanding. We would need evidence that the stars appear to be far away but they are not. We would need evidence that rock layers can somehow form in just 4,000 years, instead of the extraordinary amount. We would need evidence that somehow you can reset atomic clocks and keep neutrons from becoming protons. Bring on any of those things, and you would change me immediately. The question I have for you though, fundamentally, and for everybody watching. Mr Ham, what can you prove? What you have done tonight, is spent most of, all of the time, coming up with explanations about the past. What can you really predict? What can you really prove, in a conventional scientific, or, in a conventional, I have an idea that makes a prediction and it comes out the way I see it? This is very troubling to me.”

Intelligent life which ceases to change ceases to be intelligent.

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posted by Erin Butler at 3:08 pm

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