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!






Seasons Greetings: The wonders of integrative science

Hello all,

As usual Roger and I have put together a little something extra for our holiday blog. This year we have tackled the brave new world of integrative science. Now many of you may have noticed a growing trend in integrative science which combines traditional scientific methodologies with other more spiritual and intuitive forms of inquiry. So to avoid any confusion we have created a video scribble to explain the intricacies of this important subject.

So kick back, grab a savoury snack and a beverage (or an iced drink, for readers in the southern hemisphere), and click on the link to enjoy this short video presentation that will explain all. We proudly present: the Wonders of Integrative Science…

Happy Holidays all!

Roger and Bernie

P.S. It has been suggested that there may be some issues with our critical reasoning here, so in the spirit of good science we will award a fabulous prize to any reader who can identify all of the logical fallacies, and problems in the video!

Happy New Year: the tongue of all our fears…

Happy New Year to everyone.

Roger and I hope the return to work has not been too stressful for all. Given the world failed to end as predicted we have a good set of posts planned for 2013 to further the cause of the understanding of scientific philosophy and rejection of pseudoscience and bad science.

This week I received a copy of McLean’s magazine through the mail. To those outside of Canada  unfamiliar with this glossy periodical, it is basically a version of “Hello” for the “chattering classes” (to borrow Waugh’s term).  I confess now, I am only receiving it now as I got a free three month subscription from my cellphone provider as I am rather a skinflint and couldn’t bring myself to actually pay for a copy.

Anyhow, apart from the usual doom and gloom stories predicting the collapse of the housing market in Canada and the imminent fall off of the Fiscal Cliff stateside, there was an article on Chinese medicine and diagnosis of illness by clinical examination of the tounge.

It described the use of using tongue examination as a standard diagnostic practice used by traditional Chinese medical  (TCM) practitioners and Naturopaths. Apparently by examining your tongue you can diagnose anything from GI problems, allergies, asthma and  some practitioners even claim cancer (OK, not of the tongue – as that would be a tad obvious). There is a website by the Miami TCM practitioner James Rohr explaining the use of this technique and a video of the same. He has even produced a very cool “Tongz” App for smartphones so people can self-diagnose. The argument given is that western invasive diagnostic tools (such as blood lab work or radiography) are expensive and inaccessible to many and that the same results can be obtained by clinical examination of the tongue.

Practitioners make the usual non-science claims for efficacy; i.e. has been used for thousands of years, appeal to the masses (of patients who believe in it), bad western “allopathic” medicine vs good Eastern holistic medicine etc., and explain the  theory behind it being disorders of the flow of the bodies natural “chi” energy with disease processes causing abnormal presentations of the tongue. Quite remarkable really, but to be fair there is a grain of truth (as with many CAM therapies) in this. Unfortunately, there is also a lot of nonsense too.

Clinical examination of externally visible tissues and organs is very much a part of modern medicine. This is an art studied and practised by doctors and nurses, and assessed in their education and training particularly in the notoriously difficult Objective Structures Clinical Examinations or OSCE’s doctors and nurse practitioners have to pass. You can lean a lot by clinical examination. e.g. anaemia indicated by pallor, jaundice indicating liver disease or renal dysfunction, or barrel chest indicating chronic asthma. Indeed examination of the tongue and oral mucosa can give some useful diagnostic information (particularly about oral hygiene standards), but to suggest you can diagnose Asthma from a ridge in the tongue as one practitioner claims, or insomnia is clinical nonsense. There is no evidence base for this, and so far no rigorous scientific studies have been able to identify the presence of any chi energy flow in the body. Indeed, practitioners  explain this as an energy flow that cannot be detected by modern scientific instruments, and so falls into the realms of magical explanation.

That is not to say that there isn’t some form of chi energy flowing through all of us, and that its disorder is associated with disease, and manipulation of it can improve health. Scientific inquiry may simply not have discovered it yet. However, if that were the case we would at least expect some clearly demonstrable results and consistent repeatable instances. What’s more it would seem there is a massive conspiracy by the scientific medical profession to ignore the evidence of thousands of years that we can diagnose a whole range of illnesses by simple examination of the tongue.

What is worrying is that people accept these explanations without questioning this. Naturopaths claim to be (and in many places are accepted as) scientific doctorly prepared practitioners, but then support this sort of mystical nonsense. If it works, why can’t we measure the results and devise a clear set of clinical guidelines for tongue diagnosis that are effective in scientific terms?  This is really the same argument that traditional healers in some countries use when explaining how they diagnose illness by examining the entrails of slaughtered animals (i.e. resorting to magical explanations).

Unfortunately, it just doesn’t work, and if we look at most of the diagnoses made by tongue analysis, they are more easily explained by other more obvious signs. For example I can tell if someone is tired without looking at their tongue (wrinkled skin around the eyes, bloodshot eyes, rubbing of the eyes, yawning, and cognitive slowness) or constipated (by asking when they last had their bowels open) or eats a lot of sugar (by their dental status), or is anaemic (conjunctival and skin pallor) etc.

The diagnoses given through tongue examination are also generally very vague. Frankly, looking at the tounge and claiming “you are tired and eating too much sugar” is not an astounding diagnosis, but claiming it represents a diagnostic science does smack of quackery. That is not to say many TCM and other CAM practitioners are not bonafide genuine practitioners, who actually believe in this stuff, and I am sure many do. But, I must admit when I see CAM holistic practitioners championing natural traditional therapies, with cool websites, awesome tans, and enough cosmetic dental work  for my local dentist to retire to the Bahamas, I do being to ask “what is the probability…”



Eckler, R. (2013) Tongues are Wagging, Maclean’s Magazine, January 14