Bill Nye decided to be a fireman this week.
You know the bromide about firefighters, right? Unlike us, they run into burning buildings. Well, Nye took on creationist Ken Ham in a few hours of emotional debate this week about the merits of "creation science."
It's always a tough call deciding whether, as a scientist, you should argue publicly with the creationists. It's a dilemma that I encounter frequently in another subject area: Does it make sense to bandy words with someone from the UFO community?
Many of my colleagues believe that arguing with either group is a no-win situation. That's because creationists and UFO supporters are often quite practiced in hammering their opponents with a flood of specific incidents or phenomena -- drowning them in a tsunami of evidence (mostly bad) for which there's no time to mount an adequate defense. Their tactic is to entangle the enemy in a briar patch of detail. According to astronomer Dave Morrison, this stratagem is known as the "Gish gallop" -- a reference to Duane Gish, a chemist who was well versed in presenting his creationist ideas to the public.
Beyond the tactics, many scientists assume that peoples' minds are made up on this issue, and consequently a debate -- while occasionally entertaining -- is simply useless. It's not going to change anyone's stance.
Given this maudlin milieu, you've got to admit that Bill Nye was brave -- and in my mind, right -- to take this on. Maybe he couldn't win (whatever that means), but at least he didn't abandon the field to those who think four centuries of science have been useless. And if Nye swayed even a few fence sitters, then it was a worthwhile exercise.
The debate itself consisted of a structured agenda of presentations, rebuttals, rebuttals to rebuttals, and questions from the crowd -- followed by their own rebuttalments. Ken Ham, CEO of Answers in Genesis, and evidently considered by much of the Kentucky crowd to be a local hero, spent a lot of time trying to discount uncomfortable (for him) aspects of modern science, such as the age of the Earth (he believes that its important history goes back only four millennia) and, for that matter, the age of the cosmos. He repeatedly set up a false dichotomy between "observational science," which he thinks is good and proper, and historical science, which tries to infer what has happened in the distant past and which he considers bogus. The past can't be reliably determined, he avers, because "we weren't there."
So anyone who thinks that dinosaurs preceded humans or that South America split off from Africa many millions of years ago is just talking off the top of their noggin. Worse, they're wrong, because Ham interprets the Bible to say otherwise. And if it's not in the good book, it's doubtful. Data be damned.
Bill Nye attempted to rebut Ham's arguments (which he daintily described as "unsettling") by presenting a series of interesting research discoveries that show, for example, the clear-cut workings of Darwinian evolution, or the evidence for a universe that's billions of years old. To his great credit, he also made several pitches to both the state of Kentucky and the youth of America to get involved with real science. Science is interesting and beautiful, for sure, but it's also a cornucopia of practical payoff, and essential to our future.
Frankly, it's unclear whether the fascinating examples proffered by Nye had much effect on his opponent, and that's because the two debaters were operating under different rules. Nye repeatedly tried to refute Ham's clumsy interpretations of science discovery, but the creationist couldn't be easily cornered because he simply didn't accept the premise of science's methods. He doesn't understand, or just gives little credence to, what "predictions" mean to a scientist.
Stepping back, one has to say that Ham's articulate fiction was a retrograde bummer. He described a cramped theology that would discourage young people from engaging in what is arguably humankind's greatest achievement: understanding natural law. For example, quantum mechanics. It isn't laid out for us in the Bible or other liturgical writings: It was found by people using their brains and their labs. And it's not merely a weird idea, it's an essential cornerstone of technology (including such mundane devices as our cell phones).
Faith is a personal matter, and should never be a cudgel to stifle inquiry. We tried that approach about 1,200 years ago. The experiment was called the Dark Ages.