Sunday, March 9, 2014

Some (Probably Not) Final Words on the Nye-Ham Debate

With the current bout of winter storms, snow shoveling, illness and other disruptions hopefully out of the way, I hope I can catch up on some pending posts and comment responses…

As I noted in the first post after the debate (Quick Notes on the Nye-Ham Debate), Bill Nye did very well.  Numerous other sites thought so as well. 
Perhaps a biased sample, to be sure, but even polls at some Christian sites felt Nye had won.
Christian Today Poll Says Bill Nye Won Debate With Ken Ham 
as well as
Salon: Pat Robertson begs Ken Ham to shut up 

Ars Technica had an article about Ham's claims of the 'two' sciences, 'experimental' and 'historical':

One of the major successes of the debate is that traditionally we see media-savvy creationists take on media-unsavvy scientists.  In those cases, the scientist, always aware of the nuances and uncertainties in real science, is often made to look the buffoon by the creationist.  When this happens, even science supporters recognize that the science side did poorly. 

But Bill Nye is much more media savvy and aware of the limitations of the television medium and he kept on message.  I was impressed that at in the third cycle of the debate (the responses to rebuttals), Ken Ham's voice was quivering, suggesting he was genuinely nervous.

Of course, this does not mean that Bill Nye persuaded anyone who was already firmly committed to creationism.   Phil Plait wrote responses to examples provided by some of the people who were clearly not convinced.
Bad Astronomy: Answers for Creationists
Do these people holding their cards of questions that they think these are 'clever' scientific questions?  While they might be competent to sell or repair cars, or jobs where the knowledge base is limited, they'll have real problems with any job that requires knowledge and experience in more leading-edge applications.  It is no surprise that the leading-edge technical jobs are slowly moving to nations that are NOT trying to teach creationism as science while many technical jobs in the U.S. remain unfilled.

Now let's go over a few of the whoppers that Ken Ham tried to pass off as 'Creation Science'.  I  originally expected Ham would spring a bunch of new claims from 'creation science', but was rather surprised that he repeated much of the same old garbage that has been floating around for some years.

Ham's Discordant Radioisotope Dates example

One of the old staples of creationist pseudo-science is an attempt to discredit radioisotope dating.  The particular example Ham used, and the errors behind it, is well documented.  The original claim is presented at How Old Is the Earth?
"in Australia, some wood was buried by a basalt lava flow, as can be seen from the charring. The wood was ‘dated’ by radiocarbon (14C) analysis at about 45,000 years old, but the basalt was ‘dated’ by the K-Ar method at c. 45 million years old!"
But Carbon-14 dating accuracy has a limit of about 45,000 years due to the very short half-life of carbon-14 of 5730 years.  Is it any coincidence that the Young-Earth Creationists (YECs) chose this age?  It's not as if this is an UNKNOWN limitation to this dating method.

Wikipedia: Radiocarbon Dating:
"The limit of measurability is approximately eight half-lives, or about 45,000 years.".  1/2^8 = 1/256 ~0.4%
To use carbon dating incorrectly and then advertise the results as evidence of failing of dating methods is dishonest to the point of lying.

Odds are the actual dating reported the wood sample age was at least 45,000 years.
Bill Nye did not catch the distinction of the two different dating methods, and I am unclear if Ham even specified the two radically different tests used.

This is as dishonest as using an invalid medical test.  If a doctor was testing whether you had a specific disease and ran a medical test on you incapable of detecting the disease, and then stated that the test didn't show the presence of the disease, you would/could/should sue that doctor for malpractice.

In first rebuttal cycle, Ham invokes the old claim about 'assumptions about initial composition' being required in radioisotope dating.  Are YECs STILL repeating that old lie?  Isochron dating uses multiple measurements and can find the age independent of knowing the initial composition.   
Wikipedia: Isochron Dating Isochron Dating
The TalkOrigins article shows examples of how this method works in spite of not knowing the initial composition.  The exercise also shows how changes such as diffusion of parent or daughter isotopes show up as error bars on the resulting age, and the uncertainties are still much smaller than what YECs need.

Ham at a couple of points seemed to say that natural laws don't change.  But the reason why the Universe appears old is that certain natural laws appear to be unchanged, no matter how far back we look in the cosmos.  Nye could have nailed him with the point that they would HAVE to change to make a big universe appear young.  Yet observational astronomy suggests decay rates, atomic and nuclear spectra, gravitational constant, etc. have stayed pretty constant (beta decay can be slightly altered by chemical means) even in distant parts of the cosmos.  The 'assumption' that a number of natural laws are constant is a large part of 'observational' science.

Creationist Dogs
Ken Ham tried to sell the Biblical notion of 'kinds' with an example using dog ancestry.  He conveniently fails to mention the active human intervention in dog breeding.  Nor does he mention the genetic connection of dogs to wolves going even further back.  But even more interesting is that Ham did not mention the timescale for these events.  Fortunately, another blogger managed to catch some of the details of the canine genealogy which Ken Ham chose not to tell his viewers, namely, the time-scale of of Ham's own graphic which shows substantially longer than 6000 years. Ken Ham's Dog Slide

And the Creationist Starlight Problem
Ken Ham tries to defend the starlight problem in creation science by invoking the horizon problem in cosmology.  But the cosmological horizon problem becomes an issue BILLIONS of light years out, while creationist models have a problem right in our own Milky Way galaxy!

On Salvation
Ham concedes that Christian salvation is based on a belief in Christ, NOT belief in a young universe.   Funny, as one of the popular chants of the YEC crowd is that to believe Christ really lived requires literal interpretation of the Bible, and to believe ANY of it to be true, for logical consistency, requires that one believe ALL of it to be true.  By stating this, Ham begins to sound like he is one of the 'wolves' Christ warned his followers about, using a claimed belief in Christ to support other agendas (for more details of the biblical basis for this, see Creationist Junk Debunked). 

So we can make a summary of Ken Ham's tricks in this debate:
  1. Use tests in regimes where they cannot give valid results (discordant dates).  Would you want your doctor doing this for your medical tests?
  2. He mis-describes the limitations of the tests (isochron dating), bearing false witness.
  3. He leaves out many bit of information from his own evidence that is contrary to his position.

Who's Ph.Ds are We to Believe?
Ham states that his claims are backed up by a number of Ph.D. scientists.  Funny, but a number of Ph.D. scientists also DISAGREE with these interpretations based on their interpretation of the SAME Bible! 
  • The Ph.D. scientists at the Institute for Creation research make different claims about radioisotope ages than Ham's Ph.Ds at Answers in Genesis, quietly concluding that the dating methods are reliable, but for the assumption of constant decay rates (Gondwana Research: RATE).
  • There are Ph.D. scientists claiming the Earth is the center of the Universe dynamically using the same Bible (Geocentrism Debunked: The New Geocentrists).  
  • There are Ph.D. scientists saying the universe is old, based on their interpretation of the same Bible (old earth creationism, Biologos, ReasonsToBelieve).
What's up with that?  Why are we to believe the work of Ken Ham's Ph.D. scientists over the others, even those who are using the same Bible?  Of course, many of these organizations has different material that they want you to buy.

Even in these cases, no one has actually made a discovery of some physical principle from astronomy, physics, or chemistry based on these interpretations, they all 'retrofit' the scientific discoveries to fit their interpretation.

The Limitations of 'Creation Science'
Note that all of Ham's examples used 'creation science' to EXPLAIN things, but not one of his examples, even the creation scientists he interviewed, used 'creation science' to actually DO things.  Theories of gravity, originally used to EXPLAIN the motions of distant planets and stars, are today USED to actually travel in space.  Heliocentrism and relativity are just two of the discoveries that have already flown in the face of these types of biblical 'interpretations' and both have real-world implications (space flight and GPS). 

Creation science requires the 'creation scientist' to limit their knowledge in ways that can dramatically impact their ability to make leading-edge discoveries, or even to use them if discovered by others, impacting applied science.  Galileo recognized that his observations contradicted the accepted religious model.  Did anyone prior to Galileo see the same evidence, but refused to report it because it conflicted with their religious beliefs?

What future technical and economic opportunities will future 'Creation Scientists' miss? 

The bottom line is that creation science can only survive by invoking magic for old events, or events that we don't (currently) understand.  Nye's CSI analogy, presented early in the debate, becomes even more apparent, since as little as 400 years ago in the Americas, various mysterious events in human affairs, such as a person's death, or even farm animals with severe birth defects were 'explained' by invoking witchcraft and burning people at the stake using justifications not that different from Ken Ham's 'explanations'.

Even more important, what opportunities have we already missed because of this infection of pseudo-science into our technical communities?

1 comment:

Jon Fleming said...

At the time of the debate there wasn't a good web resource on that "old" wood. Now there is at "45 thousand-year-old fossil wood encased in 45 million-year-old basalt": Conflict Revisited.

Isochrons are used more in geochemistry than in geochronology nowadays. The most widely used method is U-Pb, in which the initial Pb concentration is known to be essentially zero because of crystal-growth kinetics (as acknowledged by the RATE group at Helium Diffusion Rates Support Accelerated Nuclear Decay:

"Samples 1 through 3 had helium retentions of 58, 27, and 17%. The fact that these percentages are high confirms that a large amount of nuclear decay did indeed occur in the zircons. Other evidence strongly supports much nuclear decay having occurred in the past.11 We emphasize this point because many creationists have assumed that “old” radioisotopic ages are merely an artifact of analysis, not really indicating the occurrence of large amounts of nuclear decay. But according to the measured amount of lead physically present in the zircons, approximately 1.5 billion years worth—at today’s rates—of nuclear decay occurred. Supporting that, sample 1 still retains 58% of all the alpha particles (the helium) that would have been emitted during this decay of uranium and thorium to lead."

In addition, U-Pb can often produce a valid age even if the system has not remained closed.

Probably the second most widely used is Ar-Ar, which also often produces a valid date even if the system has not remained closed but also can produce a valid dateif the sample had initial daughter product ("excess argon"). The most impressive display of the latter is BGC's tour-de-force of dating the 79 CE eruption of Vesuvius, an incredibly young event by geological radiodating standards: 40Ar/39Ar Dating into the Historical Realm: Calibration Against Pliny the Younger.