Feb 07 2014

Questions from the Nye-Ham Debate

There has been a lot of discussion about the Bill Nye-Ken Ham creationism debate from the other night. Questions about whether or not the debate was a good idea, and who won, are probably too overwhelmed with subjectivity for there to be any definitive answer. We talked about it on the SGU this week so you can listen to the next show to hear my thoughts.

One sideshow that emerged from the debate that I do want to talk about came from journalist Matt Stopera. He reports:

I asked 22 self-identifying creationists at the Bill Nye/Ken Ham debate to write a message/question/note to the other side. Here’s what they wrote.

Take a look at the 22 photos – this is not a scientific survey by any means, but probably does reveal something about what the “rank and file” creationist on the street believes. I thought it would be fun to actually answer the 22 questions, since there are likely to be many creationists out there who believe the same sorts of things.

1) Bill Nye, are you influencing the minds of children in a positive way?

This is an easy one – yes! Bill Nye is famous and loved among skeptics because he has had a huge positive influence on spreading enthusiasm for science and promoting scientific literacy. The likely implication of the question, however, is that Nye is somehow having a negative effect by being anti-religious. This is a theme that will crop up throughout the questions, looking at the world through a thick religious (specifically Christian) filter.

2) Are you scared of a divine creator?

Of course I can’t answer for Nye (although I strongly suspect what his answer would be) so I will answer for myself. Simply, no. First, I see no compelling evidence (not even remotely compelling), neither have I heard any valid arguments, for the existence of a divine creator or anything like it.

But, given that I have limited knowledge and perspective, I can’t say absolutely that one does not exist. I don’t worry about it, though, and certainly the absence of definitive knowledge is not sufficient reason to act as if this one remarkable claim were true.

Further, if something like a divine creator exists, why would an atheist fear that? Such a being would very likely not concern themselves with the details of my existence (the notion that such a being would be intimately concerned with the details of our lives seems like massive egocentric hubris). If it were, I have no fears of being judged. I cannot see how such a powerful being would fault a mere human for being logical and evidence-based. I don’t see why such a being would demand something as irrational as faith, and punish people for not being irrational.

So the question is really asking – do you, as someone who does not believe in a god, fear the existence of an inconceivably personal, petty, irrational, and even childish image of such a god? It doesn’t keep me up at nights.

3) Is it completely illogical that the earth was created mature? i.e. trees created with rings, Adam created as an adult…?

Yes, it is completely illogical, in the sense that this is a bit of ad-hoc special pleading that only serves to render the notion of creation unfalsifiable and therefore outside of the realm of science. The now common rejoinder is – God could have also made the earth 5 minutes ago but with all the fake history of 13.4 billion years, including all your fake memories.

Also, as I have pointed out before, when you think through this claim, God would not only have had to create things “mature” but with a deliberate fake history. He would have had to not only create starlight on its way to earth, but light from fake stars that never existed, that went supernova before the creation. God would have had to create an elaborate fake history.

What this is also stating is that the universe looks as if it is old and as if evolution were true – that is the scientific answer we get when we observe reality – but this reality is an elaborate deception made by an omnipotent being. We are trapped in the Matrix and can’t get out.

Of course, there is no way to distinguish (and this is the point) actual history from the perfectly fabricated history. That’s why the idea is pointless.

4) Does not the second law of thermodynamics disprove evolution?

No. It does not. I have discussed this question at length before as well (it is an old canard that will just not die). The quick answer is that the earth is not a closed system but one that receives lots of energy from the sun. Life can use this energy to evolve. There is simply no thermodynamic problem.

Some creationists try to back up a step and say – well, the universe as a whole is a closed system. But that is irrelevant. Entropy is increasing in the entire universe, but that does not mean that it has to increase everywhere equally. You can have temporary local decreases in entropy if energy is being added to the system, which means that there is a larger increase in entropy elsewhere – i.e. the sun.

Creationists have their hands on a very flawed and superficial understanding of the second law which they twist, in their ignorance, to attack evolution. Their arguments have been destroyed countless times, and they have no valid response. But it is still a useful deception (apparently) for the creationist masses.

5) How do you explain a sunset if there is no God?

Planetary rotation.

6) If the Big Bang Theory is true and taught as science along with evolution, why do the laws of thermodynamics debunk said theories?

Because they don’t. See #4

7) What about Noetics?

What about it? The Institute for Noetic Science was founded by astronaut, Edgar Mitchel. It’s dedicated to the notion of finding evidence for ESP or consciousness in the universe. They have not produced any valid evidence for ESP or anything outside of conventional science. It’s the vanity project of a celebrity. Noetics is not even valid, let alone a source of evidence that calls into question evolution.

8) Where do you derive objective meaning in life?

This is a very revealing question. First it assumes there is objective meaning, and also implies that less than objective meaning is not worthwhile. It also (in the context of this debate) is an argument from final consequences – evolution can’t be true because if it is we are just animals and there is no objective morality.

Evolution can be true regardless of the perceived moral implications. Those alleged implications are also highly problematic and rife with assumptions and poor logic. Here is a longer discussion of the topic.

I also feel this issue (which is a false issue) is used to hook believers – if you believe in evolution then you are immoral. The point is to maximize motivated reasoning against evolution, then all that is needed is some misinformation and plausible deniability.

9) If God did not create everything, how did the first single-celled organism originate? By chance? 

No, by evolution. Evolution is a non-random process in that certain configurations are selected over others. A great deal of biochemical evolution took place prior to the first cell arising. There are still questions about what types of chemical evolution might have led up to the first living cells.

Also – the typical creationist misleading argument is to point to a contemporary eukaryotic cell with all its evolved complexity and then falsely argue that biologists believe such a cell arose “by chance.” This is absurd. Modern cells are the product of several billion years of evolution. The first cells were definitely much simpler, perhaps just a lipid bilayer surrounding some RNA and proteins.

By now you can see the pattern – the questions are largely either non-sequiturs, or tired old anti-evolution myths manufactured by creationists.

10) I believe in the Big Bang theory. God said it and “BANG” it happened. 

This, of course, is not a question, just a zinger. But, again, it is revealing. During the debate Ham essentially took the position that while Nye may have all of science and research on his side, Ham has the bible on his. This is the “goddidit” position. This is overtly choosing one’s religious faith over science. Adults, of course, have the right to do that, but it just admits that creationism is a religious belief. It’s not science.

11) Why do evolutionists/secularists/humanists/non-god believing people reject the idea of there being a creator God but embrace the concept of intelligent design from aliens or other extra-terrestrial sources?

This is just a bit of distortion and propaganda. The answer is – we don’t. There is no evidence for any sort of top-down design in nature, alien or otherwise. The evidence all points to bottom-up evolutionary design.

12) There is no in between…the only one found has been Lucy and there are only a few pieces of the hundreds necessary for an “official proof.” 

I am assuming that this is a clumsy framing of the – there are no transitional fossils – claim. This is a factual claim, and it is demonstrably wrong. I invite any creationist to look up the fossil evidence for themselves. It is all there, published, in museums, described on websites and textbooks, with photos and everything.

The notion that Lucy is the only (let’s be generous and say “human”) transitional fossil is just nonsense. I write about “transition denial” here and here.

Here is a list of prominent human ancestor fossils with references. That took all of 30 seconds on Google to find. These are just the best hundred or so. There are literally thousands of specimens. There are also plenty of reasonably complete skeletons that are unambiguously transitional. The same is true for many evolutionary transitions – dinosaurs to birds, land mammals to whales, reptiles to mammals, and countless others.

This claim always bothers me because of the necessary intellectual laziness. This is a demonstrably false factual claim, and the evidence is right there for anyone to see. Just take a look.

13) Does metamorphosis help support evolution? 

Why, yes. Just like many aspects of biology, the telltale signs of evolutionary history are there.

I am not exactly sure what the point of the question is, but I have heard metamorphosis brought up by creationists as an alleged counter to evolution. The claim goes something like this: a caterpillar enters a cocoon, its body turns into mush, and then a butterfly emerges. The implication being that this is such an astoundingly complex process, how could it have evolved?

This is just another version of the – how did the eye evolve, or any other complex structure.

However, the metamorphosis of a caterpillar into a butterfly has to be seen in the context of all insects. Insects generally have a larval feeding stage and a mature mating stage. Maggots turn into flies, for example. The larval stage includes what are called imaginal discs that contain the cells (with the genetic information) to create the adult tissue.

Caterpillar metamorphosis is just a version of this common feature of insects. It may be an elaborate version, but it is not unique. It did not come out of nowhere. It has antecedents and relationships. In other words – it is part of an overall pattern in nature that is consistent with common descent through evolution.

14) If evolution is a theory (like creationism or the Bible) why then is evolution taught as fact?

This is the “just a theory” gambit. It comes from a misunderstanding of the definition of scientific theory. A scientific theory is not a guess, and does not imply anything about certainty. It is an explanatory framework that is testable scientifically. Therefore, creationism and the Bible are not theories.

Evolution is a scientific theory, but it is also well-established beyond any reasonable scientific doubt. It is therefore also a solidly confirmed scientific fact. It not only accounts for the data we have, but it has been remarkably successful in making scientific predictions. There are also no viable competing theories.

The question is good evidence, however, of how creationism promotes scientific misunderstanding and illiteracy.

15) Because science by definition is a theory “- not testable, observable, nor repeatable” why do you object to creationism or intelligent design being taught in school?

Because they result in scientifically illiterate people who can ask such questions.

The principle of charity motivates me to assume that the questioner meant “evolution” and not “science.” There is simply no way to make sense of the question as written – science is, by definition, not science?

Evolution is testable, observable, and repeatable. We can observe anatomical features of living animals and their geographic distribution. We can make predictions about what we will find when we sequence genes of different animals (and now even some fossils) and see if the patterns fit what evolution would predict. We can predict generally what kinds of fossils must exist if evolution were true, and look for them.

There are, in fact, multiple independent lines of evidence that point only to evolution. The genetic evidence by itself is an undeniable home run.

Meanwhile there is no evidence for creation or intelligent design, and these notions are not even scientific as formulated by their proponents. They are classic pseudosciences, nothing more.

16) What mechanism has science discovered that evidences an increase of genetic information seen in any genetic mutation or evolutionary process?

At last, a coherent technical question. It’s still complete propaganda, but it is at least a real question.

There is plenty of evidence for processes that increase genetic information. The most basic is that of gene duplication. Sometimes, in the reproduction process, a gene, a group of genes, a segment of a chromosome, or even entire chromosomes is duplicated. Where there was one gene in the parent, there are now two genes in the offspring. This is an objective increase in genetic information.

Because there is now a redundant copy of the gene, one copy is freed from selective pressures to maintain its current job, and it is free to mutate and take on other functions. We can see from examining genes (looking at non-coding sequences, mutations, insertions, etc.) that genes also display a pattern of common descent – genes evolved from other genes.

Again, if this were such a burning question (rather than just regurgitating propaganda), it would not take much time on the internet to find fairly definite sources.

Another mechanism is viral insertions – literally inserting new genetic material into a genome. There is even evidence that sometimes these pseudogenes can mutate and become functional genes.

17) What purpose do you think you are here for if you do not believe in salvation?

Again, irrelevant to the question of evolution. The universe is what it is, regardless of our interests and desires. It is massively narcissistic to think that the universe is here just for us, for our salvation. It’s quite possible that we have no objective purpose, that we simply are, and we make of our lives whatever we do.

18) Why have we found only 1 “Lucy” when we have found more than 1 of everything else?

Because you are being lied to and you are believing the lies uncritically and without checking out the evidence for yourself. I linked above in #12 to a list of fossil hominids. Lucy isn’t even the only specimen of Australopithecus afarensis.

19) Can you believe in “the big bang” without “faith?”

Sure, with the caveat that within science we don’t really “believe” anything in the same sense that those with religious faith “believe.” Rather, we assess the totality of evidence and determine what the current most likely answer is that is consistent with that evidence, is best at making predictions, and is most compatible with everything else determined by science. At some point we pass a threshold where it would be (as Stephen Gould put it) “perverse to withhold provisional assent.”

There is solid evidence for the Big Bang, and at present it’s really the only theory that accounts for what we observe. There is still a great deal that is unknown – we are plumbing pretty deep into cosmology, quantum mechanics, and relativity. But that the Big Bang occurred is well-established, sufficient to accept it as the prevailing theory.

No faith is required.

20) How can you look at the world and not believe that someone created/thought of it? It’s Amazing

Of course, I look at the world and think, “how can people believe this was all just magicked into existence by some impossible being?”

In any case, our emotional gut reaction to the astounding complexity and beauty of nature is hardly an argument or a reason to accept any particular explanation.

When you follow the process of science and use logic and evidence to explore questions of the origins of nature, evolution is the answer you get. There is no controversy here.

21) Relating to the big bang theory…Where did the exploding star come from?

This question is good evidence that people need a basic education in science. Clearly the questioner hasn’t the slightest clue what the Big Bang theory actually states. It wasn’t an exploding star (I’m not even sure where that idea could possibly have come from). The Big Bang was a rapid expansion of space-time itself from a singularity. It was a quantum event. Here is a discussion from space.com.

22) If we came from monkeys then why are there still monkeys?

The series ends with a classic. First, humans did not evolve from monkeys. Monkeys are on a different branch of the primate tree, not leading to humans. Often the question is framed as, “if we evolved from apes” or “from chimps.” We did not, however, evolve from modern apes. Apes and humans evolved from a common ancestor.

The question is the equivalent of asking – if I came from my parents, why do my parents still exist? It is rooted in ignorance of evolution.

The concept of species, while many people think of it as a concrete thing, scientifically is quite fuzzy. There is no sharp demarcation line between one species and the next. Rather, there are populations of interbreeding creatures. These populations are fluid. They can migrate, merge, divide, and intermingle.

When a population divides and becomes separated, they will drift in different directions, and may start to live under different selective pressures. Eventually they may become so divergent that they no longer share genetic material, and are separated beyond the species barrier. This is called a speciation event. Whatever these two populations eventually evolve into will share the parent population as a common ancestor.

Humans and chimps, for example, share a common ancestor they each split off from about 8 million years ago. There probably was some gene sharing for a period, but for the last 6 million years or so chimp ancestors and human ancestors were separate. Eventually they evolved into chimps and our ancestors evolved into modern humans. But chimps are as evolutionarily distant from that common ancestor as we are. That ancestor was not a chimp. It was an ape, one population of which evolved into chimps, while another evolved into humans.

Conclusion

Stopera states that he asked 22 people for their questions, and here they are. I don’t know for sure if he discarded some answers or if some people refused, or if there was any selection process. In any case, the distribution of questions is not surprising to someone who has been engaging with creationists over the years.

Their questions are either just a reaffirmation of their religious belief, or are based upon factual lies or distortions about evolution.

They also change remarkably little over time. Creationists are still preaching about the second law of thermodynamics, and alleged lack of transitional fossils, and that evolution is “only a theory.” It doesn’t matter how many times scientists destroy these myths. That’s the nature of propaganda.

But today we have the internet. All of these questions (the ones that actually were science questions) could be answered by investing a relatively small amount of time on the internet. You don’t even have to make a trip to the library anymore. The answers are just a few clicks away.

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Note: I notice my friend, Phil Plait, had the same idea I did. Here are his answers.  If there are any other good responses online, add the links in the comments.

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