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Science

We were wrong about Bill Nye

Nye and Ham

Many of us in the scientific community have a longstanding policy not to debate with creationists, in part because doing so gives an unwarranted credibility to their disingenuous arguments. So when Bill Nye chose to debate Ken Ham in the Creation Museum on whether creationism was a viable explanation for life, there was a lot of wincing and predictions that Nye would unintentionally do damage to public perception of evolution. I was also skeptical that this debate would do any good. But I think that most of us scientists had overlooked the fact that Nye is an experienced entertainer as well as science educator–a combination of traits that most of us don’t possess, and one perfect for this venue. Nye did an astounding job at calmly explaining the overwhelming evidence for why creationism (with special attention to Noah’s ark and the flood) simply couldn’t explain the origins and diversity of life on earth. Ham, on the other hand, seemed really flustered and didn’t even make an attempt (beyond trotting out token creation scientists in an attempt to give creationism some legitimacy) to address the questions at hand with evidence. He was completely out of his league, and it showed.

Ken Ham's explanation of evolution

Screenshot of one of Ken Ham’s slides explaining what a non-Young Earth Creationist Christian must believe about God’s plan.

One of the most telling parts of the debate was the question that was asked of both men: “What, if anything, would convince you to change your mind?”

Ham’s answer: “Nothing.”
Nye’s answer: “Evidence.”

I really encourage you to watch the entire debate here, but if you’re not up for three hours of viewing (and I don’t blame you), you can see shorter excerpts and an interview with Nye here.

And here are some other reactions to the debate:

http://wonkette.com/541213/bill-nye-expert-at-explaining-science-to-children-finds-it-too-complicated-for-a-creationist

http://scienceblogs.com/gregladen/2014/02/05/who-won-the-bill-nye-ken-ham-debate-bill-nye/

http://freethoughtblogs.com/pharyngula/2014/02/04/live-blogging-the-nye-ham-spectacle/

http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/bill-nye-defends-evolution-in-kentucky-debate/2014/02/04/7faa3184-8dfd-11e3-99e7-de22c4311986_story.html

Nye was right to do this debate. Not only did he win with excellent presentation and overwhelming evidence, he managed to convey to viewers the beauty and humility of the scientific process. Nye didn’t have any problem saying to some questions: “I don’t know–but I can’t wait to find out!!!”: the motivation that drives every single scientist when he or she goes to work in the morning. If nothing else but this gets conveyed to the people who watched the debate, I’d still be pretty happy. I don’t know if the people in the Creation auditorium had ever heard the evidence he presented before. (They seem to be proud of their lack of understanding of evolution). I doubt he changed any of their minds, but I can’t help but wonder if some of the people watching the stream went to bed last night with a slightly better understanding of the scientific process. I hope they did.

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About Jennifer Raff

Scientist, martial artist, reader. In pursuit of the extraordinary.

Discussion

30 thoughts on “We were wrong about Bill Nye

  1. Make this offer to any creationist:

    You believe that we should require schools to teach intelligent design. We can do that. I just want you to do a few things first.

    1. I want you and your fellow intelligent design advocates to scour the libraries of any major university that grants a PhD in the sciences. Here are a few examples (this is not an exhaustive list):
    Berkeley
    Brown
    Caltech
    Chicago
    Columbia
    Cornell
    Duke
    Harvard
    Johns Hopkins
    MIT
    Northwestern
    Penn
    Princeton
    Stanford
    Yale

    2. While you are scouring those libraries, I want you to find the following peer-reviewed scientific journals or any journal that scientists consider legitimate:
    Nature
    Science
    Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
    Any journal with cell/cellular, chemistry/chemical, molecular/molecule, biology/biological, physics/physical, or nature/natural in its title.

    3. Within these scientific journals, find original scientific research articles. They have the following features:
    A cumbersome and esoteric but highly descriptive title that concerns the actual research
    An authorship byline with the names of the individuals who were involved in the research
    An abstract, a leading paragraph that describes the research in enough detail that an individual reading it will know what questions the research answers, but is also succinct enough that it can be read very quickly
    Introduction
    Materials and experimental methodology
    Results and data
    Graphs, diagrams, photographs, etc.
    Conclusions
    Discussion
    Bibliography

    4. Now find one thousand original scientific research articles from any of the mentioned peer-reviewed scientific journals concerning intelligent design. Once you have done that, we can teach intelligent design in school! Those evolution people will have no trouble finding one thousand articles concerning evolution. They will find one thousand in a day! You intelligent design people can take all the time you need!

    Posted by Adam Perrotta | February 5, 2014, 1:08 pm
  2. Interesting. I actually thought that a number of Nye’s explanations were a bit weak, and some of them suffered from a lack of understanding of the creationist mindset. I do wish he would have spent more time on a smaller number of topics, so that he could show in just how much detail scientists go about investigating things, how the scientific community as a whole tends to hammer models from every conceivable direction.

    But it is exciting to me that the general consensus seems to be that he won anyway.

    Posted by Jason Dick | February 5, 2014, 1:34 pm
    • I don’t think his performance was perfect by any means. But how many of us would have done better? I give him props for going in front of a hostile audience, when he didn’t even have much support from the scientific community, and doing a terrific job despite some blunders.

      Posted by Jennifer Raff | February 5, 2014, 2:20 pm
      • Fair enough :)

        Though I’m not entirely certain the audience was all that hostile, considering the chanting of, “Bill! Bill! Bill!” that there was near the end. And the response has been gratifying.

        I was a bit uncertain going into this, but in the end I’m glad he did it.

        Posted by Jason Dick | February 5, 2014, 2:44 pm
  3. Forgive me for playing “Devil’s Advocate”, but let’s just say that someone is a Creationist and believes that God flooded the Earth and warned Noah about it. If someone could believe that, then why could they not also believe that this powerful God could not also create and protect the diversity of life on the planet?

    Posted by Jaye-Allison Winkel | February 5, 2014, 2:53 pm
    • I believed that. Until about the age of 21. It was a science class in university (astronomy, when we were studying the distances to the stars) that convinced me that had to be wrong. So yes, being convinced out of those beliefs absolutely does happen. The trick is to slip it past the creationist’s defenses. For a discussion of those defenses, see Morton’s Demon:

      http://www.talkorigins.org/origins/postmonth/feb02.html

      Posted by Jason Dick | February 5, 2014, 3:25 pm
      • How fascinating! Can you tell us what, specifically, changed your mind?

        Posted by Jennifer Raff | February 5, 2014, 4:15 pm
        • I was raised to believe that the Earth, and the rest of the universe, was somewhere in the range of 6,000-10,000 years old. I had a number of ad-hoc justifications for this before studying astronomy, but in general didn’t think about it too much about it while I was in university.

          By the time I took that astrophysics class, I had a good grounding in special relativity and electricity and magnetism (and thus the behavior of light). When we then examined the various methods that are used to determine the distances to stars, it became obvious that there was simply no possible way to fit them within a universe that was only a few thousand years old. Furthermore, the ad-hoc justifications just could not be reconciled with what I knew about special relativity or electricity and magnetism (what I knew at that time included both some of the consequences of the theories and some of the experiments used to confirm them).

          Bill Nye mentioned the parallax method, for example, which uses simple geometry to measure distances. Typically what’s done is we use one method to measure the distance to nearby stars, and then a different method to measure the distances to stars slightly further away, calibrating that method against the nearer method. There are lots of such methods: main sequence estimates, cepheid variables, Type I-A supernovae, and many more. Add them together, and we quickly get very robust measurements of stars out to billions of light years. I didn’t know this at the time, but it turns out that there are a few very special circumstances that allow us to make geometric measurements of the distances to objects even further away. For example, see here:

          http://www.evolutionpages.com/SN1987a.htm

          Once I had been convinced that observations proved our universe had to be older than a few thousand years, I questioned everything, and found religion to be wanting. The biggest issue for me was that in science, I found that scientists really search deeply for the correct answer. In comparison, I found the religion I grew up in to be shallow and unsatisfying: answers were provided to prevent further questioning. While within science, answers encourage more questions, and those questions are tackled with enthusiasm. This is why I think Bill Nye would have been even more effective if he’d really tackled one issue in great depth: religion cannot offer anything remotely approaching the depth of investigation that science can.

          Posted by Jason Dick | February 5, 2014, 4:38 pm
          • Compliments to Jason Dick. That is a really articulate exposition of why creationism just cannot be. Absolutely first class!
            Richard Feynman once put it rather more simply when he compared the scale of “what’s out there”, referring to the universe, to the parochialism of religious explanations. But I do like your account of your own experience.

            Posted by Peter Vintner (@pvandck) | February 5, 2014, 5:39 pm
          • Thank you for sharing your story!

            Posted by Jennifer Raff | February 5, 2014, 5:43 pm
          • Fascinating indeed, but you went on to study astronomy in the first place! What if you had gone into architecture or accounting? What percentage of students choose to study science? I’m confident science can open the eyes and minds of some people willing to pay attention but its like telling third world malnourished kids to eat more.
            Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against you. I just think that the way things are going we WILL have creationism thought in schools throughout our countries within the next generation if something is not done.
            Best wishes!

            Posted by joaquinbarroso | February 5, 2014, 7:43 pm
          • Well, right, joaquinbarroso, this is precisely why I think we should have a stronger focus on science education in K-12, especially in terms of how scientific discoveries are made.

            Nearly all of science in K-12 that I saw back in the 80’s and 90’s essentially consisted of, “Hey, look at these cool facts! You need to remember them.” I’d really like to see a national overhaul of science education that steps back from specific facts, and instead acts more like a history of science course, where students step through the experiments and discoveries in a limited number of specific fields. It would be especially nice if there was a focus on those topics that directly contradict conservative religious doctrine as well as other common superstitions, though that would be an extremely hard sell.

            I’d also like to see some formal logic classes taught.

            Posted by Jason Dick | February 5, 2014, 8:03 pm
    • Sure, and God could will all the rain into existence and then make it disappear, etc. He could have used magic to make the ark work and keep the animals alive.

      But stars are too far away, there are too many layers of sediment, too much radioactive decay, differently weathered mountains, etc. Again, God could have done all that.

      Following that train of thought, you wind up claiming God simply put everything here making it look old, which is the omphalos hypothesis.

      I can’t prove you’re wrong, but I could just as well argue everything was created last Thursday, thanks be to Maeve.

      Posted by Ben | February 6, 2014, 8:38 am
  4. Fascinating as all your posts!
    I barely know how to begin describing what I feel whenever creationism is thrown around. It is so inconceivably wrong at so many levels! Its just a bunch of BS of course, the problem is we KNOW it is, but they BELIEVE it isn’t!
    When you say Nye won because of the overwhelming amount of evidence presented, it’s obvious he appealed to the scientist in you (and to the scientist in me; I would have thought he’d won even before the debate took place!); but creationist advocates do not need evidence; they don’t ‘believe’ in science, so the scientific method means squat to them! That, in my humble opinion, is not the most efficient way to win the ongoing struggle between both factions.
    The most efficient way would be going back to having many -and I mean a lot!- of scientists in decision-making positions in order to bring some balance back and, eventually, tip the scale to the side of sanity. Sounds as imposition, maybe even fascist, I know, but its in this way science and rationality are loosing the battle in the first place!
    Remember that episode of “the big bang theory” where the following conversation occurred?
    Sheldon: I’ll stay in Texas teaching evolution to a bunch of creationists.
    His-Religious-Mom: Remember, everyone is entitled to their opinion.
    S: Evolution is not an opinion, its a fact!
    HRS: And that is YOUR opinion!

    Well, this is the way most of these debates will occur, and that is MY opinion.

    Posted by joaquinbarroso | February 5, 2014, 7:36 pm
  5. I’ve watched the first two hours of it, pretty interesting exchange.

    One editorial note, unless he reused it later, your screenshot misrepresents the point Ham was making: he was explaining that if you’re a Christian and you’re not a YEC, you have to believe that there were millions of years of blood and suffering contrary to Genesis. It wasn’t trying to explain evolution, but responding to a point Nye made about how billions of Christians, Muslims, etc. aren’t creationists.

    That aside, after watching this, I think Nye did well because he was able to go on the offensive about things that are clearly impossible, e.g. the ark, layers of sediment, ice core samples, ages of trees, etc. That’s all stuff an audience can clearly understand: the Earth must be older than 6 thousand years. There wasn’t much discussion of the process of evolution itself.

    And, note how he avoided math. To explain carbon dating, you’re trying to describe a decay function, so you’ve lost already. A 9,000 year old tree has rings, fossil sediments have layers. Even in their discussion of the “kinds”, Nye was able to show how different species were in the fossil remains from top to bottom. All of that is completely intuitive.

    I doubt he’d have as much success debating an ID proponent as they can choose exactly what to debate. An IDer is going to swing back between abiogenesis and the precise mechanics of evolution, and can happily claim, “oh, I don’t believe *that*, I believe *this*.” I think your advice would still be sound in that case.

    Posted by Ben | February 6, 2014, 8:25 am
    • Fair critique, I didn’t remember exactly the point he was making with that screenshot. I’ll update the caption–thanks!

      Posted by Jennifer Raff | February 6, 2014, 8:36 am
    • Strange, that like Nye (who is an entertainer, thus given some leeway), you are still repeating weak examples that have been discredited or marginalised, for supporting your beliefs. It’s remarkable how, as soon as some “winning” point has been made, the evolutionist thinking stops. (Yes, I concede that you do have the defense that your thoughts are simply some arbitrary results of evolution, a mindless process).

      Another example, right here, is Jason Dick, testifying how he came to doubt creation due to inter-stellar distances, yet he never seemed to have the same concern about the virtually constant value of background cosmic radiation. When “rescue hypotheses” are presented by evolutionists, to explain this, they are fine. When creationist scientists (yes, there are such beings) show how these hypotheses explain a young universe, its suddenly invalid.

      I encourage you to try to be a little more consistent.

      Posted by Mike Van In | February 17, 2014, 5:21 pm
      • Your comment is kind of hilarious to me. I actually have a Ph.D. in physics, and have done quite a bit of work studying the CMB in particular. The significant amount of work I’ve done in early universe cosmology has done nothing but make creationist claims seem all the more ludicrous.

        I can absolutely guarantee you that there is nothing in any creationist has ever put forward that comes anywhere remotely close to explaining the nature of the cosmic microwave background.

        The day a creationist comes up with a creation-based explanation of the CMB, as well as simulation software that uses that explanation to predict the power spectrum of the CMB, is the day I eat my hat (note: creation-based explanation means it must not just have a moment of creation around 13.8 billion years ago with naturalistic laws following afterwards, but must actually have some significant deviations from the naturalistic model).

        Posted by Jason Dick | February 17, 2014, 7:07 pm
        • Jason, hilarity comes from both camps, since from your response it is clear that all you “can absolutely guarantee” is that you are personally unaware of credible creationist hypotheses for CMB. Yet you see that as a compelling argument. I also find your assumptions of my ignorance speaks volumes, once again.

          Can I alternatively point you to some articles written by third parties, scientists who are creationists and that you seem to have overlooked in your apparently deep research – or are you already convinced that nothing will shift your beliefs (remember that we share the same data – It’s our worldview that determines how we interpret it – I don’t reject the data – I simply disagree with your interpretation and your appeal to consensus)? I suspect the latter, since your spectacles are unavoidably tinted by your worldview.

          Regardless, do yourself a favour and have a look at just one (also from a Ph.D (in physics!)- if that’s an important criteria for credibility. This includes a link to his CV to allay any anxiety about his credentials): http://creation.com/recent-cosmic-microwave-background-data-supports-creationist-cosmologies.

          At the very least, you’ll have the opportunity to think about a more convincing retort for the next creationist that babbles about light-speed, time, gravity and missing dark matter.

          Posted by Mike Van In | February 18, 2014, 7:06 am
          • Without a way of calculating the power spectrum of angular anisotropies of the CMB, creationists have nothing.

            Posted by Jason Dick | February 18, 2014, 10:02 am
          • Jason, your point eludes me.

            Posted by Mike Van In | February 18, 2014, 11:44 am
          • This doesn’t surprise me. I doubt few people outside of cosmology have any understanding of what the power spectrum of the CMB is, or why it is so important.

            There are two important points to make. First, early universe models typically predict that the statistical properties of the hot and cold spots on the CMB are what people in physics call “Gaussian” (sometimes also known as “normally-distributed”). This is a very specific prediction, and many early universe models actually predict some deviation from this. I doubt you’ll ever see a creationist even mentioning the word (or a synonym). So far, we have detected no deviation from Gaussianity of the CMB.

            The second important point is the power spectrum. The power spectrum of the CMB encodes the answer to the question: if I look at a specific location on the sky, what is the average difference in temperature of all points some specific distance away? We find, for example, that you expect the largest average temperature differences at right around one degree separation on the sky.

            This function, the typical temperature difference vs. distance, is a smooth function that is easy to measure and is impacted by many subtle details of the early universe (for example, the amount of normal matter, the amount of dark matter, the curvature of the universe, and a few other parameters that would take longer to explain).

            Any alternative theory of the CMB that doesn’t also provide a prediction for the CMB power spectrum (as well as explaining why the CMB anisotropies are Gaussian) is completely worthless.

            Posted by Jason Dick | February 18, 2014, 3:49 pm
          • Succinctly put, thanks Jason. It may come as a mild surprise that I am familiar with the definition of Gaussian, by the way. I imagine that most statisticians, and anyone who followed the progress of NASA’s WMAP survey, et al, will know this “rare” definition – and there will be many creationists included in these sets. I am also familiar with the main results compiled by the NASA team that enabled them to win the Gruber Cosmology prize, their estimates of dark matter, dark energy and the small remaining fraction that is baryonic matter. Inevitably, I perused their LCDM data sets for the cosmological parameters model matrix. Obviously, the data is more meaningful to astrophysicists than to an interested bystander like me – but I assure you that you may use big words when making your point.

            You seem to be misunderstanding my comment. Since I am not an astrophysicist, yet can comprehend some of these apparently clubby terms, I was not surprised that a host of similar enthusiasts would be even more familiar with them. And we haven’t even got to the crowd who put bacon on the table by knowing exactly what these terms mean.

            No, Jason, I was wondering how you would make your assertion if you had read the link I gave you. I understand that it is evolution that is on the back foot, having to explain the Gaussian distribution. Is it not obvious that the creationist perspective of “the stars being stretched out” by God on the fourth day of creation brings an inherent explanation for this? (Could have been the fourth second or the fourth billion years, except that our ‘strangely persistent’ scriptures inform us that it was the fourth day – the only reason that I accept that time interval). The rescue hypotheses, especially CDM is useful but not necessarily true. From the evolutionist perspective it MUST be true, because you don’t care what theory is speculated upon to explain the mass anomaly, as long there is no God involved.

            Posted by Mike Van In | February 18, 2014, 5:13 pm
          • PS. Jason, if you keep making the mistake that creationists don’t know any science, then you are going to go out on an embarrassing limb, my friend. Take care and keep well.

            Posted by Mike Van In | February 18, 2014, 5:17 pm
          • No, Jason, I was wondering how you would make your assertion if you had read the link I gave you. I understand that it is evolution that is on the back foot, having to explain the Gaussian distribution. Is it not obvious that the creationist perspective of “the stars being stretched out” by God on the fourth day of creation brings an inherent explanation for this?

            Because it’s too vague a statement. You cannot possibly get a Gaussian distribution out of that statement, let alone a very specific power spectrum.

            Posted by Jason Dick | February 18, 2014, 5:34 pm
  6. Although the “evolution vs. Creation” debate is frustratingly endless, persuading Creationists to accept evolution is a waste of time. Evolutionists need to fortify their own ranks before going to the battlefield. A large number of people in this country believe in creation, but why is that? Imagine two warring factions, a Red Army and a Blue Army. The Red Army readily accepts anyone sympathetic to their cause. Further, the Red Army is always selling their cause to the masses and actively persuades others to join them. They market their message everywhere. The Blue Army, meanwhile hides itself in obscurity from the masses. The do not make themselves very accessible to those who support them. They do not actively recruit at all. Instead, individuals wanting to join the Blue Army must take a battery of tests. Of all the candidates, meeting the Blue Army’s requirements, only a small fraction are permitted to join. The rest are discarded. Obviously, the Red Army will have more numbers than than the Blue Army. In real life, the Red Army is the Creationists and the Blue Army is the evolutionary biologists. Evolutionists need numbers, not arguments, to win the debate. That means actively increasing the number of evolutionary graduate programs and professorships. It means actively creating industrial jobs that apply the concepts of evolution. It means actively engaging Creationist claims with published, robust, openly accessible research. It means building more research facilities while tearing down publication paywalls. Anyone wishing to study evolution, even as an unpaid volunteer, must be welcomed. There is no such thing as too much science.

    Posted by Adam Perrotta | February 8, 2014, 7:33 pm
    • This is a very honest approach. Build numbers because evolution relies on consensus, not facts. The more scientists that testify that there is proof (as long as they agree there is), the more true evolution becomes. This amusing paragraph I just saw is such a good example of the common appeal to authority and the reliance on consensus instead of science:

      “No matter what Ham may claim to the contrary, evolution is fact. Only two percent of scientists claim otherwise in the United States. Ham’s “evidence” is based off the Old Testament of the Bible, which he cited throughout the debate as historical fact. Nye’s evidence, however, is peer-reviewed science with mountains of evidence and thousands of experts to support it.” http://kansan.com/opinion/2014/02/14/bill-nye-the-science-guy/

      Many evolutionists are discouraging debate because it gives creationism “undeserved credibility”. Yeah, sure! Good scientific method folks – if only you could see how religious you are about protecting your beliefs.

      Posted by Mike Van In | February 17, 2014, 5:38 pm
      • Public debates are not science. They have a tendency to reward rhetorical tricks much more than careful analysis and evidence. Creationists love them because they don’t need to actually back anything up. They can just pile assertion on top of assertion, and try to use their charisma to win over the audience.

        This is why actual science is done in writing. It’s slower, more careful. It lets other people check the author’s work, and even do it themselves. Creationists have nothing comparable, despite their claims to the contrary. They have no experiments or theories.

        Posted by Jason Dick | February 17, 2014, 7:28 pm
        • Where did anybody ever assert that public debates are science. Your second sentence is valid. Public debates are publicity stunts but they do ignite thinking in the audience – exactly their purpose.

          Most of what you’ve written is emotional rhetoric. And you make the usual mistake of hijacking “science” as the opposite of creationism. Evolution is a belief stemming from a trust of hypotheses. This forms your opinion that it’s fact, per Joaquin’s amusing quote, above. Obviously, if you are wearing evolutionist spectacles, then everything has an evolutionist tint. Spare us the regurgitated “mountains” of evidence. Be honest for your own sake, not mine, if you’re “more fit for survival” then you’ll out-survive me.

          Posted by Mike Van In | February 18, 2014, 12:10 pm

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In pursuit of the extraordinary

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