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!






Savita Halappanavar: why we need science based health policies

Sadly last week was not a good week for women’s reproductive rights. Savita Happenavar died in Ireland though what we be regarded as medical negligence in many countries. Cases of medical malpractice  are unfortunately, not that uncommon, and physicians and nurses do sometimes make mistakes that result in fatalities. This is the reality of modern medical practice, and these events are a favourite item for the media; only to be trumped by news of the outbreak of war, political sex scandals, or such items as “gorilla runs amok at zoo” it seems (try googling the latter and you will find it occurs unnervingly frequently).

However, the well publicized tragic case of Ms Happenavar appears to be the direct result of an archaic belief based policy, and resulting medical indifference to the mothers rights compared to those of the unborn child. Although the exact details are unclear the following events seem substantiated:

1) The 17 weeks pregnant Ms Happenavar was admitted at University Hospital Galway on 21 October

2) She complained of back pan was found to be miscarrying her baby.

3) As her condition deteriorated she asked medical staff several times over a three-day period to terminate the pregnancy, and was advised this was not possible as Ireland “is a catholic country” and the foetal heart was still beating. Halappanavar objected that she was neither Irish nor a Catholic, but to no avail.

4) She died of septicaemia on Sunday 28 October. due to complications which seem to have arisen directly from the ongoing miscarriage.

University Hospital Galway is to carry out an internal investigation, and the Health & Safety Executive  has launched a separate investigation. Also, Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Enda Kenny indicated there could also be an external inquiry into the death.

As Roger noted a few months back, science generally has little to say about what is right and wrong in the world, as that falls under the domain of human ethics. However, here we have a case where there was a known diagnosis, clear evidence of the likely outcome, denial of the patients wishes, and her eventual death on the basis of religious argument. At the very least this case seems a clear breach of the hippocratic principle of “do no harm” as the obvious outcome of death of both the mother and unborn child without intervention would have seemed inevitable to any physician with experience in this area.

What is interesting is how how Irish catholic physicians have interpreted the scientific evidence to suit their own beliefs. The absurdity of the Irish anti-abortion law is well documented and includes such nonsense as technically not considering ectopic pregnancies as abortion (as the foetus has not implanted in the womb). This is, presumably, because if they did they would have 1% of all pregnant women regularly dying which would probably be beyond even the catholic public’s tolerance. In 2010 the European court of human rights ruled against the Irish state in favour of a woman who had to travel to the UK to terminate a pregnancy while undergoing chemotherapy, and in 1992 the supreme court ruled that a suicidal teenage rape victim did have the right to an abortion. Recently Irish medical experts speaking at a major International Symposium on Excellence in Maternal Healthcare held in Dublin concluded that ‘direct abortion is not medically necessary to save the life of a mother.’ This was based on the argument that such occurrences are incredibly rare. Well, even if they are exceedingly rare (excluding ectopic pregnancy) there would still be the odd case where the only option to save the mother’s life would be termination of the foetus. Anyone who has worked in an acute care area and cared for septic patients would understand the risk. If in Ms. Happenavar‘s case a termination was unnecessary, we have to ask then what medical treatment should she have had in order to save her, and why didn’t the doctors do these life-saving procedures; as termination was “unnecessary?”

Tragically, the results are the death of a healthy young women, and impact on her family. The scientific medical evidence would likely have resulted in the termination of the pregnancy to save the mother in most other western nations, and this seems like another clear example of womens reproductive rights being dictated by a religious minority of mainly men. To my mind this is a prime example of why we need health policies based on scientific evidence based practice, rather than metaphysical belief.