February 5, 2014 by earlbellinger
I like that Ken Ham guy from the science/creation Nye/Ham debate last night. I think he has many of the makings of an awesome skeptical position, and there’s nothing I love more than a good skeptical argument. I agree with him that there is a divide between observational science and historical science. His objections are important: when scientists try to infer the past, there is an assumption that the laws that hold today hold everywhere and at every time; and furthermore, there are potentially many models with various initial states that could explain where we are today.
Of course, this argument is not new. Bertrand Russell said it a century ago when he argued that the universe could have been created five minutes ago with all of our memories implanted into us. We would observe the present and falsely assume a wholly unreal past.
Where I think Ken Ham was mistaken, though, was when he failed to apply his criticism and skepticism equally to both sides. He swept his entire own argument under the rug by saying that since historical science (of the outside) relies on such assumptions, creationism must be true. He failed to evaluate the strength of the assumptions in science verses the strength of the assumptions in creationism. He considered no models for creation other than his own, and failed to present any compelling evidence whatsoever for his over any others.
Consider the following: I claim that the debate between Ham and Nye did not occur yesterday. You object: “but Earl! We have video evidence of it!” Sure, we do have a video of it, but were you there? Did you see it in person? There are many different ways I can imagine that video evidence coming into existence. Maybe sophisticated computer graphics put it together. Maybe it miraculously poofed into existence. You are assuming this video came about in the same way that every other video you know about came out.
Do I have the freedom to pick my favorite explanation from a hat? Is each model just as good as any other? Certainly not! The past is not arbitrary, so not all models are created equally. I have to provide evidence for converging onto my solution, which is precisely what Ken Ham fails to do.
Scientists are trying to find the most consistent explanation that makes the fewest and weakest assumptions. I do not think Ken Ham shares this pursuit. He seems to think that when it comes to explaining the past, all models are just as good as each other, so why not pick his? It would be much more compelling for him to explain why we should pick his. The benefits of applying the models of empirical science to the past and elsewhere are clear; their rejection, not so much.
What’s more, he claims that no amount of evidence will ever change his mind. This is not the stuff of reasonable debate. While Ken Ham’s belief is not necessarily logically inconsistent, neither are infinitely many other useless theories, and each of them share the quality of having no empirical basis whatsoever. If one did, the debate would end. All would be converted. Why give up inferences rooted in observational facts in lieu of superstitions rooted in fantasy?
Finally, the “predictions” presented by Ken Ham in his defense of so-called “creation science” are not predictions in any sense of the word; they are textbook examples of postdictions. Every single one was to the flavor of:
Man observed this phenomenon four thousand years ago (e.g. that dogs exist). Using divine inspiration, man wrote this observation in this big book. Now we read this big book and see that we observe that same phenomenon (dogs existing) today! Therefore the prediction is true.
If you read this post and then afterwards you claim that you are predicting that this post is here, you have made a postdiction, not a prediction whatsoever! (Not to mention that several of the postdictions like baraminology, the creationist taxonomic system, are patently false — but those arguments were addressed by Nye.) These are very different than the kinds of predictions made by science, which allow us to postulate the existence of phenomena that we have never before encountered, and then discover them!
In short, I think that Ken Ham brought up many good points, but he made the classical Cartesian error of throwing away his own critical philosophical underpinnings when evaluating his own deeply held beliefs. There are far better skeptical arguments to be made, but then again, I suppose you don’t get a million viewers unless someone wears a tinfoil hat.
Edit: I have been asked elsewhere to clarify why I agree with the claim that historical science and observational science have differences. Please visit my reply here.