Fundamental Flaws: The aftermath of the Ham vs. Nye debate

Hello all,

As many people may have noticed by now the Bill Nye (the science guy) vs. Ken Ham (creationist) debate that was webcast last week has gone somewhat viral (note, you have to fast forward through the 13 mins of pre-feed to get to the debate – can’t their web guys edit?), and many pundits have pitched in with blogs, commentary etc. Click here to see one such example of the responses.

However, virtually all of them have focused on the substantive content of the arguments rather than the nature of the argument itself. Clearly, many of the arguments made by Ham were untenable, such as refuting the huge body of scientific work that demonstrates the likely age of the earth, engineering science that notes the improbability of building a wooden ship the size of the ark that was actually seaworthy, and most significantly life-science that notes for Ham’s arguments to work in the 4000 years required we would need 11 new species being created a day to explain the diversity of life we now see on Earth.

There were many logical fallacies presented too, the ones made by Ham I noted were:

  • Appeal to Authority
  • Ad-hoc Reasoning
  • Appeal to Conviction
  • Circular Reasoning
  • Exception (special pleading)
  • Non-sequitur
  • False Dichotomy
  • Straw Man
  • Tautology

…for a good explanation of all these see our Good Science Guide in the resources section.

I also suspect many Christians were embarrassed by Ham’s attempts to present ill-conceived arguments as “science” to support Christian creationist beliefs. In my experience the majority of religious leaders and believers today do not support a literal analysis of scripture. They hold beliefs that are informed by these ancient texts but acknowledge they were written by humans well before the discovery of much of everyday established knowledge (e.g. electricity) and are therefore products of their time, and contain many errors. Attempting to present them as “the word of god” and factually accurate (as Ham did in several slides) is rather a minority and fundamentalist view. Sadly this represents the sort of thinking that is adopted by groups such as the Taliban, The National Liberation Front of Tripura, the Klu Klux Clan, and many other extremist groups.

Despite their non-sequitur, the main problem with these sort of arguments is really that you cannot refute metaphysical arguments with scientific rationale. As Karl Popper, and Bertrand Russell and many other have considered you can’t prove the unprovable and presenting unfalsifiable claims (such as a miracles occurred, or that god exists and is the creator of the universe) as scientific hypotheses is a fruitless pursuit. There can never be sufficient scientific evidence to demonstrate god does not exist (it can always be argued god exists outside our current abilities to perceive or detect him/her) and absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. All we can do is look at the arguments and take a position. The believer will adopt faith, whilst the atheist or agnostic generally adopts scientific rationale. This could not have been clearer when a viewer asked “What would make you change your mind?” Nye responded that evidence would make him a believer, whilst Ham responded that nothing would as he had unconditional faith.

So, we should consider why Ham and his followers would wish to try and promote a scientific rationale to support their position. Basically, this is an attempt to manipulate educational policy in the USA to incorporate a very specific religious ideology instead of a broad and secular curriculum, and to target the science curriculum. This I believe the main reason why Nye accepted the challenge to appear in this debate at all. Creationism is not science in any shape or form, so suggesting it should be taught in the science curriculum is very problematic, let alone supplant scientific theories such as evolution. Teaching it as a part of religious studies might make sense, but not as a viable alternative theory in the science curriculum.

Ham’s position to get creationism into the science curriculum is as good an example of new sophistry as you are likely to find, and actually seems the ultimate example of “bait and switch,” a practice that Ham actually accused the scientific community of making in his presentation. Bait and switch is a selling method in which a customer is attracted by the advertisement of a low-priced product but then is encouraged to buy a more expensive one (as the original is now unavailable). In this case Ham presents the bait by arguing that science actually supports the creationists view of the old testament account of the existence of the world, but then as the argument proceeds to switch science out for completely unscientific dogma based on scripture: the word of god, the bible explains our existence, no carnivorous animals existed before original sin, languages developed after the Tower of Babel etc. etc.

This sort of expansion of the term “science” to incorporate all forms of inquiry and explanation, and a poor public understanding of what science is (conflating science, pseudoscience and non-science) is an increasing trend, and one of the main reasons Roger and I originally set up this blog; in order to counter such anti-science agendas.

The creationists view that you can somehow separate “observational/experimental science” from “historical science” makes absolutely no sense at all, and is an invention purely designed to support the creationist position. It represents a good example of the logical fallacy of special pleading. Science deals with the present, past and future, and directly observable and unobservable entities in order to test theories, explain and predict events. If we accept Ham’s position on this, then anything that occurred before humans existed, or anything we can’t directly observe or test by experiment today cannot be explained by scientific inquiry. However, as most scientific theories assume some form of continuity of phenomena or universality (at least in our universe) science does not generally differentiate between what can be demonstrated now and what was true 6000 years ago (apart from in terms of age of the phenomenon or environmental conditions a the time). If we follow Ham’s rationale then any conclusions drawn from what Ham calls “historical science” become meaningless. This conveniently cuts off much of current scientific knowledge. including most astrophysics, paleontology, genetics, and  evolutionary biology. The solution Ham presents is to defer to scripture, but the argument as to why scripture is more accurate that the “flawed” historical science is not made. I.e. exactly why is a nearly 2000 year old text more believeable than “historical” science? Does it not suffer from exactly the same issues with verifiability as “historical” science?

Lastly I found Ham’s characterization of science as a western Christian tradition rather offensive and patronizing. He completely ignores the great Asian, Arabic and Indian historical traditions in the development of modern science. In India, Brahmagupta (ca. 598-668) a mathematician and astronomer developed the Hindu-Arabic numerical system pioneering the use of zero as a number circa 628. This is now used as the scientific standard throughout the world. The great Islamic thinker Alhazan, Ibn al-Haytham was a prime exponent of scientific thinking, making great contributions in the development of the scientific method and in the fields of physics, astronomy, mathematics and particularly optics.

In all its rather a depressing situation that the very simplistic creationist curriculum should be taught as science at all in US public schools, but sadly it still seems very widespread there. I do wish Bill Nye had tackled the fundamental philosophical problems with Ham’s presentation, but believe he probably focused on the substantive content more as he thought this would probably make more impact. On the bright side I thought Bill Nye gave an excellent, intelligent, passionate and very respectful response. He clearly won the debate in those terms, and is an inspiration to us all as a role model for science education. Cool bow-tie too!

Onwards and upwards!






The Life of the Positivist Dinosaur

I was recently categorized as being an “allopathic positivist dinosaur” by a student in an online course. I must admit I quite liked the dinosaur bit (the Liopleurodon was always a favourite as a kid) , but apart form the obvious issues with ad-hominem arguments I was also interested to see what the students knew about positivism, and the ideas of Auguste Comte, but sadly (as I suspect is the case with many students) they didn’t know who he was.

The charge of positivist thinking seems to be rather a common position taken in modern thought in my discipline and seems to give opponents to science a convenient label to apply to anyone who holds contrary views to their own, or challenges non-scientific healthcare or supports evidence-based practice. As with most arbitrary labels used to create binary opposite catagorizations, they seldom reflect the  complex reality, but I suspect that very few of my students, and quite a few of my academic colleagues really know what positivist thinking is and where it arose (otherwise, they probably wouldn’t misuse the label) .

Positivism was a school of thought originally advanced by the Frenchman Auguste Comte, often thought of as the founder of sociology. It was based on a return to the notion that the senses, experiences and their logical and mathematical treatment were the exclusive source of all worthwhile knowledge (i.e. positive experience). Comte proposed that systematic inquiry should be the same across both natural and social sciences and research findings could only be proved by empirical and testable means. He is most well known for his assertion that societies advance through three distinct phases:

  1. The theological stage; where the foundation of belief is faith and custom based, referring to deities for explanations and the social base of society is the family
  2. The metaphysical stage; where beliefs become based upon reason, thinking about the world, but without empirical foundation, and the state becomes the social base, and lastly
  3. The scientific stage, where belief is based upon scientific knowledge, and society turns to humanity as the social base.

Positivist philosophy was further developed by Emile Durkheim (1858-1917) who rejected many details of Comte’s philosophy, but accepted his ideas that the social sciences were a logical progression of scientific inquiry into the field of human activity. Durkheim supported the use of the hypothetico-deductive method in the social sciences and suggested the notion of social realism. This idea was an argument for a return to epistemological realism, in that Durkheim proposed that external social realities exist in an objective reality independent of an individual’s perception of them.

At the time this view opposed the empiricist viewpoint, as even empiricist thinkers such as David Hume had suggested that reality was altered by human perception, and realities were thus perceived, and did not exist independently of our perceptions having no causal powers of themselves (Morrison, 2006). Whilst Comte, argued social laws could be deduced from empiric work, Durkheim suggested that sociology would discover the nature of society itself. Overall, these positivist ideas are closely linked to empiricism, and strongly influenced the following development of logical positivism, and pragmatism.

Much of the criticism of modern science by postmodernists is focused on characterizing science as positivist thinking. But, this is rather a straw-man argument as modern science has moved far from these ideas, which came to their peak of influence in the 1930s and 40s. Modern science involves a wide range of tools and techniques and this sort of thinking is long-gone (like the dinosaurs). If anything, post-positivist modern science recognizes there are many different approaches to gathering data and examining evidence,and all still fall within the framework of empirical science. Following Kuhn’s  The structure of scientific revolutions  (1996) science has adopted a plurality of thinking in terms of how  human thinking influences human knowledge, and that our knowledge at any given point reflects the psycho-social limitations of our thinking at that time.

So if you are charged with positivist thinking, ask the person raising the challenge in exactly what way does modern science reflect the thinking of Comte, Durkheim and other positivists?  I suspect they won’t have a good answer to that.




Comte A. (1818) A General View of Positivism (translated by J.H. Bridges)

Kuhn, T. (1996). The structure of scientific revolutions (3rd ed.) University of Chicago Press.

Morrison, K. (2006). Marx, Durkheim, Weber: Formations of modern social thought.(second ed.). London: Sage.








“What’s so funny ‘bout peace, love and understanding?”

Hello again! I’m back (briefly) to add a quick entry.

I’ve deserted Bernie and left him bravely struggling to maintain the blog while I’ve been busy writing a book on science for science teachers.

That’s actually proving much harder than I’d expected and both in search of inspiration and to test some of the key ideas I’m writing about I took myself off to the International Organisation of Science and Technology Education (IOSTE) Congress in Tunisia last week. I like IOSTE a great deal as it has a genuine commitment to Social Justice, Human Rights and Sustainable Development. In other words it sees a role for science in all those things…and so do I.

My paper (which should be online soon) concerned the science of love. Now even for a liberal organisation such as IOSTE I thought that that might be pushing it, but the scientific committee must have see some worth in it as it was accepted for presentation. I never hold out much hope at international conferences, especially when, like this one, you have seven ‘parallel strands’, in other words seven papers being presented at the same time. This usually means you end up talking to about three people, two of whom don’t speak your language and the third is there by mistake. However, this was somewhat (worryingly at the time) well attended.

After the obligatory joke I got going. In schools in the UK at elementary level (known as Key Stage 1) the science involves mainly observation. Children are often asked to observe and draw each other’s faces. These are then stuck on the wall and in some post-modern statement their diversity is ‘celebrated’. Well that’s all fine and dandy, but I’ve begun to think that we need to tread a bit more carefully here on two counts. Recognising diversity is one thing, but stressing it is something else and whatever it is, it isn’t science.

OK when we want to identify something, say a flower, from a guide we may look for individual characteristics depending on how the guide may be set out, but nevertheless, we at least recognise that what we’re holding is a flower. One really important thing about taxonomy is that living things share characteristics. Similarities are far more important biologically than differences. Indeed, taxonomic classifications are often built on that. Stressing differences amongst children always runs the risk of dividing them up by skin colour, hair colour, eye colour, all of which are pretty small fry when compared to our remarkable similarities. Division is only one step away from isolation. I’ve already spoken about this in an earlier blog, but perhaps in relation to science teaching, it’s worth stressing again.

Having argued for similarity to be stressed as a means of combatting partition, I went on to talk about the teaching of evolution in schools. How is it that even now people leave school with scratchy ideas (or none at all) when it comes to understanding evolution as a process? Still it seems that people associate evolutionary success with attributes such as strength and agility and at best large complex brains and opposable thumbs. Well, OK the last two are quite important, but so are love, empathy and compassion. In fact such traits are incredibly important evolutionary behaviours. They become especially so when you consider statements like the UNESCO Seville Statement on Violence (1986) that clearly states that Humans have no genetic predisposition to violence and aggressive behaviour. It is not our ‘nature’ to be aggressive; in fact ecologically we are incredibly social creatures. Aggression and violence are therefore, according to UNESCO at least, learnt behaviours.

This is really important, as we can unlearn such behaviour. I genuinely feel that science therefore, and good science at that, has a great deal to contribute here.

I developed this line a bit further and talked about science and its potential to break down barriers, combat totalitarianism and to be seen as a global process, not just some sort of European invention.

At the end it seemed to go pretty well, most were awake and nobody had stormed out (I must encourage Bernie to do that some day) but I think the real point is that science MUST promote hope. Hope for the future, like it did when I was a kid. If we just see and talk about the science of doom we undermine this. But if we need to inspire hope in the future, a good question would be – what do you hope for…what do you really hope for?

Take a while and think about that and I bet when it’s really stripped down it comes to peace and love, and what’s so funny about that?