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Wednesday
Feb052014

Two Science Videos

You have probably seen or at least heard of the Bill Nye vs. Ken Ham debate about science.
Here's the video:


(starts at about 12:30)

 

In that video, you can see Bill Nye saying informative things about how we know the age of the Earth and so on, and you can see Ken Ham make painful linguistic distinctions that lack any explanatory power. Ham is obsessed with the distinction between "observational science" and "historical science" which is a concept he made up to cover the part where his theories about the past don't reconcile with science in general. Bill Nye explains the many, many problems with believing the Earth is 6,000 years old and how that belief conflicts with overwhelming observable evidence.

The most striking contrast to me between the two men is actually the quality bar each has for what qualifies as an "answer" to a scientific question. For example, "where did stars come from?" is a question. Ham is enthusiastically satisfied with the answer "the bible tells us God created stars." Meanwhile Bill Nye (and I'd hope any thinking person) finds that empty, and basically a non-answer. Nye wants to know the process through which stars form, the natural laws and physical states that made it possible for them to form, the nature of the fusion chain reaction going on, and so forth. If Ham were to read my words here, he would predictably say that the fusion chain reaction is part of "observable science" so Ham is just as interested in that, but that where a star came from is [arbitrarily placed in the made-up category of] "historical science" so "the bible says God created stars" is a complete answer. Astonishing. I'd hope for more intellectual curiosity than that.

Logic students could study the debate to see the many fallacies Ham uses. There's undertones of the common "if you can't explain a given phenomenon, that means a supernatural being must have done it, rather than a process we do not yet understand." What a strange thing to default to! If you want to argue something, I guess you can just declare your position as the default. (I declare that a teapot is orbiting Jupiter. If you have no evidence on it either way, I guess there really is such a teapot!) This same fallacy came up several time when Nye was asked to explain things currently unknown by science. Nye honestly tells us he doesn't know, and shows us this yearning to learn the answers from more science. Ham tries to frame this as a "gotcha," as if not knowing any of several currently unanswerable problems somehow means we throw out everything we do know and default to Ham's fantastical, supernatural non-explanations.

He also uses the fallacy that non-perfect data means "we can't know anything." Don't dozens of different radioactive dating methods show the Earth is billions of years old? Maybe, but they don't all say exactly the same thing (pretty sure he's exaggerating that, but let's just go with it for now). Check this out: THEREFORE the Earth is 6,000 years old. Again, if there's any shred of non-perfect data, you can declare that we can't know anything about the subject, so we should default to the crazy impossible situation that the Earth is 6,000 years old, and created by a supernatural being that acts outside the laws of nature. If there's perfect data on a subject, just declare it non-perfect and use the same tactic. I laughed when Nye said that if Ham walked into a clock store and saw that the clocks were all set to slightly different times, that he'd think it means we can't know anything about time.

Nye used a clever rhetoric trick at one point that I think is good for dealing with a nonsense claim. The thing about a nonsense claim is that it implies other nonsense if true, so can you expose that from more than one angle. Nye subtly attacked one idea from two sides at once, forcing Ham's position to rest somewhere inbetween two impossibilities. The two sides of attack had to do with how many species were supposedly on Noah's arc and how rapidly species branched into more species since then. In one argument, Nye explains the infeasibility of caring for tens of thousands of animals on a boat built by 8 people who were unskilled in boatmaking. In a separate argument, Nye compares the number of species alive today with the number supposedly on the Arc 6,000 years ago, and computes that it must mean there are 11 new species every day. Wouldn't we notice 11 new species every day?

Ham defends his figures saying that Nye greatly overestimates the number of animals that needed to be on the arc. It could have had just 2,000 he says. And that's the trap. Nye points out that if that's the case, it just makes the other problem even more absurd. Now there has to be even more than 11 new species every day for the story to be true.

Another fallacy that is at least more interesting is something I'd call "appeal to catchy phrase." For example, "You can't get something from nothing." Or "you can't get life from matter without God." Ham made both of those claims, and assumed them to be true. The thing is, those are actually incredibly bold claims, far stronger than Ham seems to realize. On the second one, "Non-living matter usually does not turn into living matter" would be a pretty conservative claim (not one he made though). What I mean there is that if you have a rock, it doesn't tend to turn into something alive. Or if you have a pool of sludge with no life, it doesn't tend to actually create life (though it might attract already existing life). Those are fine claims. But to say you CAN'T EVER get life from non-life would require you to know everything that could possibly ever happen. What if actually you CAN get life from a pool of sludge rich in the protein building blocks of life if you wait trillions of years and repeat this on trillions of planets or something. I certainly can't prove you can't. And we have pretty strong evidence that this unlikely thing did happen once. You can't start your debate with a first principle of assuming otherwise, simply declaring that catchy phrases are true statements about what's possible.

Then there's "you can't get something from nothing." That sounds nice, but is that really true? The physicist Lawrence Krauss wrote a book explaining that you can. Krauss says a discussion of this topic is basically just nonsense unless you have a pretty advanced understanding of physics. When you talk about "nothing" you mean "the absence of things." Ok fine, but what things? If we have a given space that might have "nothing" in it, then what things aren't in it? Obvious things like rocks and trees and apples, meaning things we can see. Ok that's a good start. But at some point in science we learned about *air*. That's an invisible thing and from then on "nothing" probably meant "no air, either." What about photons(light) or electrons? Quantum mechanics shows that space is actually teeming with quantum particles that leap into and out of existence. You have to know this stuff to even talk about what "nothing" means, and Krauss says that when you do know it, it becomes more like "of COURSE you can get something from nothing, we'd expect that, and it's what we've observed to be true as well." By contrast, Ham's counter-argument uses the appeal to catchy phrase "you can't get something from nothing," and ends all examination and critical thinking right there.

Honestly, it's painful to list out more fallacies from Ham. I leave it as an exercise to the viewer to find more. It's also painful to watch the debate at times because it's just so remedial. Bill Nye could surely teach us more about science if he weren't so hamstrung explaining the most basic things to someone with an absurd, untenable position. So...let's raise the level of discourse.

I mentioned the physicist Lawrence Krauss. Krauss, Daniel Dennet, and Massimo Pigliucci have a long conversation about science in this video:

They talk about what science can know, and what it maybe can't know. They talk about how if science can't know something, it's not like another way of knowing would have a shot either. Are there even other ways of knowing? This video starts out with Krauss saying maybe they won't disagree at all because they are all smart and reasonable people. I'm not sure how ironic he meant that. They are on the same page on many things and that allows them to discuss things at miles and miles higher of a level than Nye was able to in his situation, but the the rift between Dennet as a philosopher and Krauss as a physicist does come out. A lot is under the surface of their discussion.

Dennet deals with the philosophy of consciousness. I recommend checking out his various books and videos. Here is my short summary of his work, which I think he would agree with. Consciousness is deeply difficult to study. There's a large set of ideas you can have about it which are almost certainly wrong. If you haven't thought about it or studied it at all, you are pretty likely to think wrong things. Dennet can't necessarily tell you right things, because we don't quite get it yet, but there's a bunch of wrong things he can identify that we can pretty safely cross off. He's basically trying to keep sciences honest and steer them into framing their questions correctly. (Example of bad framing: "where is the immortal soul located in the brain?") Scientist tend to be pretty skeptical of philosophers, and I think for good reason. Reasons Krauss explains in very diplomatic terms. Yet he also acknolwedges what the value of philosophy is to some parts of science. It's interesting to see Dennet's take on these things.

Anyway, if you have several hours, then there are two science videos for you. The first showing a bunch of bad answers to questions and why those answers are bad. The second raising good questions to stimulate your mind.