Written By: Peter Boghossian and James Lindsay
Excitement is building rapidly for a public debate between science educator Bill Nye, “The Science Guy,” and Christian Young-Earth creationist Ken Ham, president and CEO of Answers in Genesis—the ministry behind the nationally embarrassing Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky. The event is to be held at the Creation Museum on the fourth of February with the debate topic, “Is creation a viable model of origins in today’s modern scientific era?”
The only legitimate answer to this question is, “No.” Because this response is obvious yet a debate is still scheduled to take place, a great deal of controversy has arisen. Many oppose the debate because, echoing biologist Richard Dawkins, it gives the “oxygen of respectability” to the creationist position. (Ham surely knows this. In fact, in a release about the event Ham said, “Having the opportunity to hold a cordial but spirited debate with such a well-known personality who is admired by so many young people will help bring the creation-evolution issue to the attention of many more people, including youngsters.”)
We agree with Dawkins and think the debate is an appalling idea—and that dwelling upon that now won’t help matters. What is important is realizing that the real issue is not about creationism and evolution. All serious controversy on this specific topic was settled nearly a century and a half ago and will not resurface. The scheduled debate—is creation a viable model in a scientific era—like so many others of its type, is really about one simple issue: should faith be considered a means to knowledge?
Creationism, then, is little more than a tragic sideshow in this more relevant, more widespread, and higher stakes debate raging at the heart of contemporary US culture. The popularity of creationism is merely a barometer for the influence and acceptance of science denial rooted exclusively in the popularity of faith-based systems of thought.
The debate between Nye and Ham is, at bottom, about how we know things. Ham’s position relies entirely upon faith, which ultimately regards divine revelation as its source, with the allegedly revealed truths passed along by tradition and authority. A key problem for this method of claiming knowledge is that revelation is indistinguishable from, to be blunt, simply making things up. Anyone can claim that anything was revealed to him, and even if many people do so independently, it would remain to be confirmed that the alleged revelation corresponds to objective reality. Another insuperable problem lies in the fact that neither tradition nor authority is a foolproof method for passing information with high fidelity. Traditions get modified. Authority is subject to corruption.
By contrast, Nye’s position relies upon the scientific method, summarized by the phrase “evidential evaluation of falsifiable hypotheses.” In other words, science aims to disconfirm its hypotheses and uses evidence to do so. This falsification process is a powerful way to eliminate bad ideas, and nothing proves an idea false better than its disagreement with reality. The humility of science is its chief tradition, which, to paraphrase physicist Richard Feynman, lives in recognizing that no matter how beautiful our hypotheses, if they disagree with evidence, then they are wrong. Observable evidence is the fundamental authority in science since even one observation confirmed to be out of agreement with theory overturns the theory.
Through the scientific method we can increase our confidence in those ideas that survive their encounter with observations of reality. (The mathematical discipline of statistics is a highly refined tool for exactly this purpose, and, with the scientific methodology so equipped, we can glean the wheat from chaff with staggering precision.) Speculations about reality that survive the scientific process of falsification can reasonably be termed “justified true beliefs,” which is a philosophical definition of the term “knowledge” dating back to Plato.
By contrast, faith—and theology more broadly—does not possess or employ a mechanism for falsification and appears only incidentally interested in observation. When it engages in observations, theology only attempts to confirm, however desperate the effort. In short, the essential tool of theology is confirmation bias (that is, starting with a theory first and working backward to fit the evidence with it), and so armed, it brazenly employs faith either as a means to apply more confidence to its cherished hypotheses than evidence will warrant or as a shield to protect that effort from the criticism it deserves. This renders faith a patently bad way to claim knowledge, and perhaps more tragically, an effort in furthering the delusions of those who employ it in an attempt to possess truth.
Over half of republicans believe that “God created humans in present form within the last 10,000 years,” a view shared by 40% of the US electorate. Many of these individuals are likely to be excited to see Ken Ham standing on a stage next to Bill Nye and asserting that faith-based conclusions are just as reflective of reality as conclusions that come about as a result of the scientific method. The rest of us only hope Bill Nye is able to frame his arguments exclusively in a manner that exposes creationism as a symptom of a larger cultural crisis—using faith to know anything at all.
About the authors:
Peter Boghossian, Ed.D.
Portland State University Philosophy Department
Author, A Manual for Creating Atheists
James Lindsay, Ph.D.
Author, God Doesn’t; We Do: Only Humans Can Solve Human Challenges