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The Utility and Futility of Debate

ken-ham-bill-nye-debateOn the evening of February 4 at 7pm EST Billy Nye and Ken Ham debated on the topic of whether “creationism is a viable model of origins in today’s modern scientific era?”

The Richard Dawkins Foundation’s Dan Arel wrote what many scientists have thought for a long time. Don’t debate creationists, it just eggs them on.It is typically the position of scientists to discuss data and how it should be interpreted, but not to simply debate on a larger idea that does not hinge on some critical observation. There are many reasons for this: 1) It’s too large in scope to actually present all the evidence for and discuss it rationally, 2) This debate in particular is coming about more than a century too late (when there was new data challenging the old paradigm, and 3) debate doesn’t actually solve anything.

It was also argued that Bill Nye might not be the best representative of the field of biology and its primary tenet. It would be counter productive to have a debate of questionable utility and then not send the best qualified person for the job.

But it happened. You can watch the whole debate here:

I was fidgeting in my seat waiting for the thing to start thinking, ‘this could go poorly, what do I really know about Bill Nye? By being held at the Creationist Museum in Kentucky, Bill is definitely speaking before a potentially overwhelmingly biased audience. I hope he’s done his homework.’

Dino with a saddle at the Creationism Museum

Dino with a saddle at the Creationism Museum

The two took the stage, were introduced to the audience and the rules of the game were outlined (intro statements, a 30 minutes opportunity to build a case, then shorter Q&A style back and forth.)

Mr. Ham won the coin toss and went first. In his opening statements he spoke very well, redefined a couple of terms for us, like ‘science’ (which he broke into observational science and historical science) and talked a bit about the theory of knowledge (what can we know? What counts as evidence?)

I was thrown off by some of his definitions and didn’t like his assertion that we cannot use observations of the laws of nature today and apply the lessons we learn to the past, but overall, he came off fairly well and charismatically.

Then Mr. Nye took the mike and started telling a story about bow ties. I like bow ties and I think he pulls it off very well, but I didn’t like where this was going. Luckily, he came back to his message and gave a strong introduction that settled my nerves somewhat.

For the meat of his talk, Mr. Ham really went all out to establish the language that could be used and what he deemed admissible as evidence. The short story was, we can’t know anything about the past, except from the eye-witness account of history the Bible gives us (God’s Word). Anything else is ‘Man’s Word’ and inherently faulty.

-Great! we can agree on something! I also believe that humans make mistakes, misremember things, etc. This is why data beats anecdote.

So, what’s troubling about this?

Well, a lot. It means we can’t really learn anything. We cannot expect the same rules of nature to apply tomorrow as they do today. And we can know nothing about the past by studying the world as it is today. This sounds suspiciously, and tragically, like David Hume’s Empiricism, i.e. we may think we observe causation, but this is impossible – and even if we are not wrong, every instance of the world is new and different, so we can’t extrapolate from past experience at all. Mr. Nye, like myself, had a problem with this and repeatedly asked, ‘Where does this leave us? Can we make no predictions about how the world will work? ‘ (not a direct quote)

Rather than getting too hung up on epistemology, Nye did an extraordinary job discussing the Earth, Life on this Planet and What evidence we have for these things. My favorite part of his talk was the example of Kangaroos in Australia. How did they get there? (he relied on Mr. Ham’s story of the flood) If all animals left Noah’s ark, how is it that all the marsupials marched directly to Australia leaving to trail of fossils along the way?

Nye pursued several lines of reasoning, including the kangaroo story above, fossil progressions, plate tectonics and paleomagnetism. I would have included more biochemical evidence for the relationship between all life, but that’s just me.

However, I feel like it all came down to one question. One that, perhaps, should have been asked right at the beginning. If the answer to this one is ‘nothing’ then you just undermined the purpose of your debate.

“What, if anything, would ever change your mind?”

Jonathan Holowoka, writing for the Liberty Voice, claims that Nye’s performance was something that all scientists should be proud of and that he effectively rebutted the concerns expressed by the Richard Dawkins Foundations.

Dan Arel answered, admitting that Nye did not fail in any of the ways he worried about in his first column. However, he remains convinced that the debate was useless and may still have done harm.

 
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Posted by on February 6, 2014 in Education, Uncategorized

 

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The nature of truth

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The Valley of the Shadow of Death

There was an interesting podcast by RadioLab this week concerning the nature of truth that I wanted to comment on. There were a number of stories in the broadcast, as always. One on yellow rain is getting the lion’s share of attention on the RadioLab site for the treatment of one of the guests that many listeners objected to. However, that is not the one I would like to focus on. In fact, I really only wanted to mention the podcast because I thought it was a good introduction to a topic that I find troubles a lot of people.

First, the podcast. I would point you towards the short, “In the valley of the shadow of doubt,” about one of the earliest photographs taken during wartime. In fact, the episode is about two photographs by the same person, Errol Morris, who was documenting the Crimean War in 1855. The two photographs depict the same scene, titled ‘In the Valley of the Shadow of Death’ that depict a road in the Ukraine. In one, the road is littered with cannonballs. In the other, there are no cannonballs on the road, but there are many off on the side of the road in ditches an on the hills.

The question that the photographs bring up is, ‘Which one was taken first?’ That is, did the photographer come upon a road littered with cannonballs that were removed – or did he come across a road surrounded by cannonballs that he moved in order to catch a more interesting shot?

Of course, we can never know.

There are reasons that can lead us to believe one thing or another (personally, I think one argument is stronger) but there is no way to know absolutely one way or the other. This is the real question that the episode brings up, “Can we ever know truth?” This is a very basic question in science. Most scientists agree (I am presuming) that we can never know anything with certainty. We can only rule out unlikely answers and give support to one theory or another.

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Wielder of Occam’s Razor

We can blame Descartes for starting this with his Discourses on the Method published in 1637. He started the trouble by giving us the scientific method, a method for uncovering the way the world worked. In his pursuit of this, he also realized that we cannot really know anything. He admitted only one thing that we are sure of. Cogito ergo Sum. But from this modest beginning, he also built up a structure and assured us that we have to assume that we can trust in at least logic, and that, until there was reason to believe otherwise, we may as well proceed as if the world we see around us does exist – evidence that he read his William of Occam (1288-1348).

Natural Philosophers and scientists have been fairly comfortable with this state of affairs for years. Assume that the theory with the most data supporting it is true up until the point that new data demands a change in thinking. At this point, we are instructed to drop the old idea and embrace the new one until it inevitably is displaced.

But these words mean different things to different readers. Some may read this as, “See, they admit it, they know nothing. And even worse, the are certain that their ideas will be proven wrong sometime in the future.” Others think, “Yes, of course. How else could one perceive the world?” And they’re both right – in a manner of speaking. It is assumed that much of what we know will change over time. But we also have the security of knowing that our understanding of the world is getting better all the time and it is unlikely that with new ideas we will entirely abandon out old ways of thinking. Rather, we expect to tweak this ideas.

And this would all be fine. But there is another school of thought that comes mostly from the journalists. That is the idea that every position / point of view is equally valid. There are a lot of questions that come to mind where I do think opposing ideas have equal value. These are political questions mostly. However, when journalists come to interview scientists about some finding or idea, two (or more) sides often don’t have the same weight of evidence behind them.

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…hungry……

If I were to ask you where teeth go after they fall out and are placed under a pillow, you might say, “The parents take them and give the children money.” You might say, “the tooth fairy comes and leaves the money in exchange for the teeth.” I tell my son that the tooth fairy needs teeth because she eats them and couldn’t survive without nourishment.

Not all of these hypotheses are equally likely. I have to admit that I’ve never seen the tooth fairy, but someone must have left a camera out to get this picture…

Back to RadioLab. So, what’s true? Does the weight of evidence make something true? Does it make it more likely to be true? Does evidence mean nothing?

On a deep level, perhaps we never know anything. But I can also say this: data is nature’s voice and sometimes it pays to listen.

 
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Posted by on September 26, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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