Friday, March 21, 2014

The Unnecessarily Necessary Debate

On February 4th William Nye, The Gentleman of Science went to Kentucky to debate Kenneth Ham, The Proponent of Humans Riding Dinosaurs about whether or not creationism is valid. They each had a 30 minute presentation, followed by a rebuttal, followed by a bunch of audience questions that they each responded to. The whole thing took a little over two hours, and you can watch it here if you want (skip ahead to 17 minutes). If you can believe it, I’ve got some thoughts on the debate.

First, I was mildly surprised by Ham because I don’t think he quite qualifies as crazy. He’s illogical, kinda dense, and most certainly wrong, but I think he genuinely believes his own rationalizations for how the Bible could literally be true despite all the evidence to the contrary. He talks like a sane person, and he makes some arguments that could be construed as worthwhile if you don’t think about them for longer than a second. I mean, a few of the things he said even hold water. If you ever wanted an honest look into how a religious person can compartmentalize their irrationality into a corner of their brain without breaking it, Ham can give you a pretty good insight. I genuinely appreciate his honesty and I even appreciate his passion, misplaced though it may be.

With that being said...Ham made some really stupid arguments. In the spirit of being less offensive in my writing, I’m going to be as civil as possible in deconstructing his terribly, terribly illogical points. I will even refrain from using the word “fuck” when discussing Ham or his arguments because I am (arguably) a mature adult...although it should be noted that I was unable to do that in the first draft of this post. So: what did Ham get wrong?

One of his biggest points was that evolution and the myriad forms of dating are somehow not science because they don’t involve direct observation. This is one of those points that sounds reasonable until you think about it for two seconds...because we haven’t been capable of recording observations for the past four billion years. That only started a few thousand years ago which, not coincidentally, is when Ham thinks the entire universe began (even though Egyptian history predates the Bible). OK Ken, I concede that we don’t have scientific records available from a million years ago (much less four billion)...but what’s the alternative? Are we supposed to treat the Bible as an accurate historical record? Did you sit down with God to interview Him about how He created the universe? Did you watch Eve eat that apple? Did you watch Noah build his ark? Did you watch God write the 10 commandments with his lightning pen? Did you witness the events at the tower of Babel? This stuff was all written as if it was observed, but there’s no conclusive evidence pointing to it being true; there wasn’t exactly a lot of journalistic integrity in 1000 B.C.

This leads to the issue of faith on both sides. Ham has faith that the Bible is literally true, whereas I have faith that extrapolations based on scientific evidence provide a reasonable estimation of the truth. To Ham, I’m making a bigger leap of faith than he is but, of course, Ham is not a reasonable man. Another of his big points was about how reasonable people assume that the natural laws used to estimate ages haven’t changed over time. Here’s my question: is it more reasonable to assume that the things we can observe now are following the same laws that existed millions of years ago, or is it more reasonable to assume that the universe followed a different set of rules 6,000 years ago despite the fact that we’ve never seen these laws violated? Is it more reasonable to base our worldview on assumptions and extrapolations from what we’ve observed, or to base our worldview on the assumption that a 3,000 year old book is the literal truth according to an omnipotent being whose existence we have no evidence of? We’re all working off of assumptions; I prefer to make my assumptions based on logic and evidence rather than the Bible. Of course, logic and evidence have led me to believe the Bible is, at best, only occasionally accurate so I am admittedly biased...toward logic.

Ham seemed to think he was making some kind of argument in his favor when he asked, ”Where do the laws of logic and nature come from if not from God?” Wait, what? That’s supposed to be some kind of self-explanatory “gotcha?” There’s no reason whatsoever to assume that a god is needed in order for natural laws to exist. None. What’s the difference between “these laws exist because God created them” and “these laws exist because that’s the way things are?” This boils down to whether or not God created the universe, and the existence of natural laws is not an argument in favor of either side on that issue. I don’t want to spend any more time on the origin of the universe here because it doesn’t currently have a satisfying explanation--you either have the Lawrence Krauss “universe from nothing” theory (where the definition for “nothing” sounds suspiciously like “something”), or you have the “God created everything” theory (which doesn’t explain where God came from, so it doesn’t explain anything). Let’s move on from that quagmire.

In what was probably the most telling moment of the entire two hours, Ham freely admitted that nothing could change his mind on this topic because, in his view, it’s impossible to disprove the notion that the Bible is the word of God. Nye, on the other hand, answered the same question reasonably: evidence would change his mind. Any evidence at all that goes against the theory of evolution, and he’d gladly embrace it. It’’s incredibly frustrating to know that Ham feels this way, and that many religious people feel the same. How can we possibly have an honest debate when one side unequivocally refuses to be persuaded, regardless of literally all the evidence in the world? How can one have any intellectual integrity whatsoever if they are unable to change their mind? Ham can’t even think of something that would sway him. I appreciate his honesty, but it’s quite discouraging if, like Nye, you care about the scientific literacy of the country. At some point you have to stop trying to pound the square peg of scientific knowledge into the smaller round hole of theism. There are, of course, reasonable Christians who agree that the world is much older than 6,000 years and that evolution is far and away the best explanation for the diversity of life on this planet. Then again, there’s also Ken Ham.

Ham won’t even agree to simple math when it disproves his beliefs. Nye made a phenomenal point about how quickly we’d have to churn out new species if we only had 4,000 years to go from some small number of animals that Noah saved to some very large number of animals that currently exist. Nye originally used 7,000 as the number of different “kinds” (Ham’s term) of animals on Noah’s ark, although Ham later argued that the number might be as small as 1,000 in an attempt to make the ark itself more plausible without realizing that it would make the speciation problem 7 times worse. Estimates vary wildly for the current number of species, although Internet says the current best estimate is 8.7 million. At the high end of, say, 30 million species with only 1,000 of them on the ark, we’d have to generate more than 20 new species every single day: (30,000,000 - 1,000)/4,000/365. In other words, (Total Current Species - Species on Noah’s Ark)/Years Since Noah’s Ark/Days in a Year. At the low end of 5 million species, 7,000 of which were on the ark, we’d still have to come up with 3.4 new species every single day and this is the absolute best-case scenario for the speciation problem.

Life is currently diverse enough (what with our 5-30 million existing species) that we could probably hit that rate of 3.4 a day. Then again, we’d also have to factor in the problem of species going extinct, which inevitably happens as a result of both natural and unnatural selection (turns out we humans are greedy when it comes to space and resources). The problem gets really messy here, because we’re currently losing an estimated 100-200 species a day depending on whose numbers you like, and we’re not really sure how many new species a day are being generated. We’re also not sure how many species have already gone extinct--cataloguing all the species that currently exist and have ever existed is a near-impossible task, but that number would need to be added to the total number that would need to be generated since Noah. There’s also the issue of how long it would take to even split from one to two species when there are only two members of the entire species to start out with. Speciation typically happens when populations are geographically split and the two populations favor different adaptations; in reality this tends to take thousands of years for animals with a reasonable lifespan, and that’s after the geographical split. It can occur quicker than that, of course, but it’s not common (certainly not common enough to happen to 100% of all original species many times over).

In short, it’s flat out impossible for a small enough number of animals to fit on the ark to proliferate into the ridiculously large number of animals that have existed in the past 4,000 years...unless you subscribe to the theory that God has been creating new species literally out of thin air for 4,000 straight years (and if He was going to do that, then what the hell was the point of saving any animals to begin with?). He would, of course, have to sneeze out new species in secret where no one could observe Him, because heaven forbid that an omnipotent being would actually provide evidence that He exists. Luckily for God, He can sneeze in secret because He doesn’t need anyone to say “bless you” since He’s God and all.

There’s been plenty of discussion over whether the debate was even worth having. There are some people in the secular community who viewed the debate as a bad idea because they felt it lent credibility to the creationist point of view simply by having the debate. There’s some merit there--the Theory of Evolution shouldn’t require any debate since it’s a scientific theory, meaning it’s a collection of facts. Reasonable, informed people do not doubt that evolution is responsible for the diversity of life on this planet, but the simple fact that Nye agreed to this debate makes it seem as though there might be a viable counterpoint to evolution. However, as ridiculous as Ham’s viewpoint may be, one-third of the country doesn’t believe in evolution so there is clearly a good bit of education that is still needed on the subject.

There are also some people that think the debate is pointless because whether or not we share ancestors with every other animal on Earth doesn’t materially affect the present or future. I get the point that the knowing the age of the planet isn’t a big deal on its own, but that doesn’t mean that believing in creationism doesn’t have drawbacks. For example, a belief in creationism tends to go hand in hand with a lack of understanding of science (which in turn leads to things like denying climate change, which certainly is a big deal). Ham used clips from a few people with PhDs in his presentation as if to say, “Look! Some scientists are creationists, ergo creationism is legit!” I don’t mean to downplay the difficulty of attaining a PhD, but having one doesn’t make that person right. Also, for what it’s worth, three-fourths of people with postgraduate degrees believe in evolution along with a whopping 97% of scientists, so it’s harder to find smart people who don’t believe in evolution than those who do.

An interesting (although not surprising) note from those surveys: both Republicans and religious people are less likely to believe in evolution than their counterparts. This is relevant because people are likely to throw their political support behind the politicians who hold the same views (misguided though they may be), regardless of how terrible those politicians are. These people make laws so they are, unfortunately, important. This goes back to the big picture of the influence of religion. I am far from being a bleeding heart liberal, but there is just soooooo much blatant idiocy being driven by the Religious Right that it hurts. I knew people in college who would vote straight Republican solely because they were the more pious party, and questions like “Do you believe in evolution or creationism?” feed into that nonsense.

Here’s a crazy point, and one that makes Ohio more tolerable to live in: in the Pew survey from 2013, white mainline Protestants (i.e. the “moderate” or “liberal” Christians) are the group most likely to believe in evolution, edging the unaffiliated group 78% to 76% (I would assume this is mostly due to the fact that “unaffiliated” would include those who identify as “spiritual but not religious” rather than strictly secular people, but this stat is impressive nonetheless). To be fair, half of them think that God guided evolution vs. only a fifth of the unaffiliateds, but at least they’re not living in total denial of the insurmountable evidence on this topic.

Finally, this debate is important because a misunderstanding of evolution is one of the biggest barriers that prevent people from breaking away from religion. It was a huge stumbling block for me for many years, so it’s a topic I’ve had strong opinions on ever since I done got myself some education on it. The reason it’s so important is because it can stop the doubt about the validity of religion in its tracks--my train of thought used to go something along the lines of “Man, religion is kinda messed up, and it’s rife with logical fallacies...but humans are really, really complex. There’s no way we could have come about through random mutations from something as simple as a single-celled organism. Welp, I guess that means God is real.”

Everyone thinks about the origins of life at some point, regardless of their viewpoint on religion. “Where did we come from?” is truly a universal question. I can’t speak for everyone who was raised religiously, but many of us never gave the question much thought because we simply didn’t think there was a viable alternative to “God created everything.” Evolution doesn’t make sense without an adequate explanation of how it works, and for a long time I didn’t get that explanation. Ergo, for a long time I couldn’t seriously entertain the idea that God doesn’t exist. Above everything else, that is why this debate is so important.