Sunday, February 16, 2014

Ken Ham, the Anti-Scientist

Much of this critique will be based on the content of the Ham v. Nye debate, although virtually everything Ham said is simply what he's been saying for decades.  Throughout this post, I'll be providing direct links to the relevant parts of the debate.

Ham opens by noting that our culture does not consider creationists to be scientists, using language like "scientists v. creationists." In this post, I will be arguing that Ham's views are anti-science. I mean this not as (just) an insult, but as a factually accurate description. Thus, Ham provides a perfect example of why drawing a dichotomy between scientists and creationists is entirely justified.

Ham counters the dichotomy with an example of a creationist who is also a scientist. I'm not familiar with the particular example, but I agree that people like this exist. One could have an anti-science view of origins while fully deserving the title of scientist in another area, simply by taking a scientific approach to only the latter. Similarly, someone could axiomatically assume that the Roman Empire never existed, and still do excellent historical work on ancient Egypt. It may seem surprising that someone could refuse to use reason regarding one topic while being quite skilled at using reason in another, but this happens regularly, and to far more than just creationists.

Next, Ham makes a distinction between historical science and observational science. "Historical science" and "non-historical science" sound like accurate phrases to me. "Observational science," on the other hand, carries a false assumption. The implication is that questions of historical science cannot be settled via observation. This is equivalent to saying that the scientific method is not a useful tool for learning about the past, which is precisely what it means to be anti-science on questions of historical science. It's quite ironic that moments after Ham criticizes the language "scientists v. creationists" for bringing in an assumption, he shows the assumption to be true by defining terms in a way that bring in his own anti-science assumptions.

There is a very good reason both historical and non-historical science are lumped together as simply science. In both cases, theories are tested based on their ability to make true predictions. Many data points are desired, and the more the better. If a theory makes many true predictions but then several false ones, we go back to the drawing board, and see if the theory needs to be modified slightly, or even fully replaced by a more accurate one. When the predictions are consistently right (or at least close), we have strong evidence that the theory is at least very close to accurate. No step of this reasoning is affected by the theory dealing with a historical question – with both historical and non-historical theories, all we need is sufficient data. This is simply the scientific method. I've explicitly explained something so basic because a grade school understanding of the scientific method is sufficient to expose the error in Ken Ham's anti-science views.

With a particular historical question, we may have enough clear evidence to settle it by means of the scientific method, or we may not. Ham assumes axiomatically that we do not. This is distinctly different from claiming that, in this particular case, we lack sufficient information. To know that the evidence cannot exist without looking is equivalent to saying that the scientific method does not help us figure out what is true. When a theory makes testable predictions, the results of the test give us evidence one way or the other. To disagree with this statement, as Ken Ham does, is to be anti-science.

Ham admits that his view of historical science is based on the Bible. So both sides agree that creation is not based on evidence – I'm glad he cleared this part up. He claims that mainstream science is similarly not based on evidence, but again, he's forgotten about the scientific method.

But then he further explains an already explained position and seems to contradict himself: "creation is ... confirmed by observational science." What role is left for evidence? Ham has systematically ruled out any way that evidence could influence his beliefs. The Bible is sufficient for him to be certain, and he cannot even imagine hypothetical evidence that could change this. Ham is talking out of both sides of his mouth, momentarily playing lip service to the idea of supporting a historical claim using evidence, despite the fact that his worldview provides no room for something so rational.

Ham claims the debate isn't evidence for evolution versus evidence for creation, but rather dueling interpretations using the same evidence. Ham seems to be thinking in terms of a static set of facts that both sides are trying to explain. What he's forgotten, again, is none other than the scientific method. A theory makes a prediction regarding currently unavailable data, and then scientists proactively search for new data to either confirm or disprove the prediction. The results of the experiment are quite likely to produce strong evidence for or against the theory. Denial of this fact is not merely anti-science, it is anti-math. Furthermore, as a couple examples will show, Ham does seem to think in terms of some facts being evidence for creation, and others as evidence for evolution, despite his assertions to the contrary.

Ham showed some charts that illustrate how species vary within a "kind" as would be predicted by creation. The question is, does Ken Ham think the data behind these charts are evidence for creation? If no, then how can he claim that this data confirms his creation model? If yes, then why claim that evidence can't support one side or the other? It seems that Ham wants people to think "there's no such thing as objective evidence" when looking at evidence for evolution, while applying ordinary scientific reasoning when looking at evidence for creation.

Of course, Ham doesn't even hint at how his "orchard of kinds" differs from looking at the branches of the evolutionary tree with the trunk not pictured. Perhaps the goal was to give us an example of an invalid evidence-based argument in the hopes of persuading us that all evidence-based arguments are invalid?

Most blatantly of all, Ham pulls up a chart titled "hundred of physical processes set limits on the age of the universe" proudly asserting, "more than 90% of these processes give an age less than billions of years." There you have it. According to Ham, we have more than 90% of the pieces of evidence supporting a young(ish) universe on one side and less than 10% supporting an old universe. So the debate really is about comparing evidence for evolution against evidence for creation. (Although, I wonder what Ham thinks we should conclude if, hypothetically, all the valid techniques give an old age?  Never mind, he's already answered that. If all the dating methods all said 4.5 billion years, we should trust the Bible and conclude that reality is in error.)

I'm overwhelmed by the audacity of this snake oil salesman maneuver. He puts up the slide, claims huge amounts of evidence against an old universe, and then moves on in 11 seconds before anyone has had a chance to read it. If this slide is what he says it is, it should have been a focal point of his opening speech. Ham does not name a single process giving a young age, but instead uses a bare assertion of lots of evidence as a throwaway line. After all, evidence is boring and the real point is the Bible anyway, so let's talk about something else.

But I'm not bored by the evidence! In fact, I find the list to be absolutely fascinating!  "5. Human population." But the universe is older than the human race. My understanding was that this is actually a point of agreement between scientists and Ham. "22. Oldest living plants." Similarly, the oldest living person limits the age of the universe to an absolute maximum of 115 years old. What's going on there, Ken? Are you assuming that plants never die? Did you move on so quickly because the arguments for creation make the most sense when thought about for only a fraction of a second? (Or better yet, don't think at all, and just believe the Bible.) This slide doesn't give us evidence that mainstream dating methods are unreliable. It gives us evidence that Ken Ham is a pathological liar.

Think about the outrageousness of this error a bit longer. Creationists have presented scientists with their champion, and their champion thinks mainstream science's methods of dating are unreliable because there aren't any plants that are billions of years old. The remaining question is if the debate is "scientist versus creationist" or if it's really "scientist versus liar." In principle, we could have enough evidence to decide between the two, although I'm not persuaded that we do.

When Ken Ham is called anti-science, this is not merely an indictment of Ham's conclusions. This is not simply defining scientist as "someone who agrees with me." Ham is an anti-scientist because Ham teaches people to distrust evidence and to reject the scientific method in favor of the Bible. Ham is an anti-scientist because he uses lies as a substitute for evidence.


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  3. Excellent breakdown of the debate. And great blog, too! I have a few of your posts bookmarked.