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In Bill Nye,creationism,debate,evolution,Ken Ham,science

The Blissful Ignorance of Bill Nye

by Lawren Guldemond

In the recent debate between Bill Nye and Ken Ham about creationism, Ham repeatedly made the point that there is a divide between observational science and historical science. Bill Nye repeatedly responded that scientists do not make such a distinction, and that he could not accept Ken Ham’s view that the laws of physics are different now than they were 4,000 years ago. To anyone who understood Ham’s line of argument, it was obvious that Nye simply didn’t get it. 

Ham was not proposing that the laws of physics were different in the past; that is not Ham’s position, but Nye misconstrued it that way many times during the discourse. Ham’s point was that the scientific process that we employ so successfully to discover knowledge about the nature of matter and biology cannot actually be employed to determine the ancient history of life, the earth, and the universe. Ham uses the term observational science to refer to knowledge gained by the scientific study of things that we can directly observe, such as the nature, structures, and behaviours of atoms, stars, and living things. Careful observation of these subjects has yielded great discoveries and technological advances in biology, chemistry, physics, engineering, and astronomy.  Ham uses the term historical science to refer to the scientific study of events that transpired long before anyone now living was around to observe them, such as the origins and ancient history of life, the earth, and the universe. We cannot make careful observations about ancient events, because ancient events are not tangible things that we can observe today. You cannot put an ancient event under a microscope to study it the way you would study muscle tissue.  That is why Ham makes a distinction between observational science, which uses observations about nature to discover new knowledge about the properties of nature, and historical science, which uses observations about the current state of nature to make inferences about its ancient history.

Bill Nye’s response to this was simply to insist that, “There is no distinction between observational science and historical science; these are constructs unique to Mr. Ham.” In light of Mr. Nye’s repeated misrepresentation of Ham’s position as holding that natural laws were different 4,000 years ago than they are today, it seems that Nye simply did not comprehend the essence of Ham’s distinction. For Mr. Nye, the assumption that Ham’s distinction is invalid and unnecessary allowed him to ignore the implications of it. Those implications are that the scientific methods which yield us so much knowledge about the nature of the world around us have limitations, and are incapable of discovering complete and reliable knowledge about the ancient history of the world around us.  Ham’s point highlights an important question underlying this debate: what are the limitations to the knowledge that we can obtain through scientific methods? We have already seen Ham’s answer to this.  As for Mr. Nye, he seemed blissfully unaware that the question existed. Throughout the debate, Bill Nye seemed to be proceeding with the assumption that scientific enquiry can tell us everything, without significant limitations.

To Mr. Nye, and those multitudes who share his overconfidence in scientific enquiry, it may seem that there is no reason to doubt our ability to infer what happened in the deep past. If we can figure out what atoms are doing in the present, surely we can also figure out what they did in the past. We have accumulated a formidable body of knowledge about the laws of physics and the forces of nature, so surely we can just make some calculations and extrapolate back in time to determine the trajectory of the history of life, the earth, and the universe. You might indeed arrive at the correct answer by doing so; then again, you might not. How would you know if your answer truly was correct? There are, in fact, some very good epistemological reasons undergirding Ken Ham’s distinction between observational and historical science. One reason is that our ability to project how complex physical interactions will play out is demonstrably limited. Another reason is the staggering complexity involved in making conjectures about the earth’s natural history. Given the scale and diversity of the matter involved, the possible interactions are nearly astronomical, and it is impossible to rule out unforeseen or misunderstood factors, properties, processes, and interactions. Yet another reason is the impossibility of conducting genuine testing and observation to confirm theories, when the time frame extends beyond our own era. Although Mr. Nye was ignoring these issues, and perhaps even unaware of their existence, they are important points that warrant careful consideration. 

Regarding our ability to predict, it is not as reliable as Nye confidently boasts. For instance, in December 2011, a comet dubbed Lovejoysurvived passing through the sun’s corona, a mere 120,000 km above the stellar surface. A NASA website stated that it was “something that many experts thought impossible.”[i]The article quoted Karl Battams, an astrophysicist and computational scientist,[ii]as saying, “It’s absolutely astounding, I did not think the comet’s icy core was big enough to survive plunging through the several million degree solar corona for close to an hour, but Comet Lovejoy is still with us.”[iii] Furthermore, the NASA article stated that the tail of the comet wriggled wildly. The author said the cause of this might perhaps be plasma waves, or perhaps magnetic loops, but no one knows. I would have thought that professional astrophysicists could have accurately predicted what would happen when a comet travels deep into the sun’s corona. What results when a ball of ice, rock, and dust is exposed to a very intense dose of the sun’s heat and radiation for a short duration seems like it should be rather simple math for scientists, yet the results were not what they predicted. Please do not imagine that I am displaying any disdain for the expertise of Mr. Battams and the other surprised astronomers, because I am not.  My point is that even our best experts are still discovering surprising things about the complex interactions of matter, even in very short and directly observable time frames. Their predictive ability did not match up to the   complexity of the physical interactions in this scenario. 

Consider also the limitations of weather prediction. Our meteorologists deliver very accurate weather predictions, but they can only grapple with the complexity of the system for short time frames. Notwithstanding the awesome supercomputers which they utilize,[iv]their predictive ability falls off sharply as the time frame of the forecast is extended from hours to days to weeks and beyond. 

Determining the historical course of the interactions of the great mass and variety of all the matter that is the earth during time frames spanning millennia presents a much greater problem than predicting the weather or the survivability of a comet in the sun. The complexity is greater by an enormously exponential magnitude.  Furthermore, in the case of the comet in the sun and the daily weather, we can observe how the events differ from the predictions and continually correct and hone our theories. In the case of the deep past, however, we cannot observe differences between the events and the theoretical extrapolations. Consequently, scientists cannot really test whether their theories about the deep past are correct.

Another reason to doubt our ability to infer what happened in ancient natural history is the impossibility of conducting genuine testing and observation to confirm theories. I presume most scientists would say that the way they verify the validity of their theories is by rigorous experimentation, in accordance with the scientific method. You make observations, form a hypothesis, and then devise and conduct experiments to verify whether it is really so. But the problem with the deep past is that you cannot do genuinely valid experiments to falsify your ideas. You may calculate what happened in the deep past based upon things that you have scientifically proven about the behaviour of matter, but you have no way to verify whether the equations you have devised to model what happened in the past actually account for all relevant factors. If you have not actually done experiments spanning thousands and millions of years, then you have not proven what really happens over thousands and millions of years. You did not inaugurate and conclude any multi-millennial experiments, because you were born much too late to have started any experiments several millennia ago. Instead, scientists make observations of things which they reckon are many millennia old, but then everything hangs on the correctness of the theory that says the evidence is indeed so many thousands, millions, or billions of years old. Observing what happened over a century, and then extrapolating from that to figure out what must have happened over thousands of centuries is not the same thing as actually observing thousands of centuries of natural history. Epistemologically, it is not equally valid. The result is that no assertion about the deep past can ever be truly experimentally tested in accordance with the full scientific method. Out of necessity, the experimental step of the process must be skipped. Consequently, scientific theories about the deep past do not get scientifically proven, they get acclaimed as true by the community of scientific academics.

Many may say that this absence of long-age experimentation is of no consequence. We are so good at figuring out what atoms are doing in the present that surely we can also figure out what they did in the past. This is just hubris. Experiments often expose errors in our assumptions, theories, and calculations. When their results are contrary to the predicted outcomes, they make us aware of new factors, properties, processes, and interactions of whose existence we had been unaware. The Lovejoy comet’s grazing trip past the sun demonstrates this. When we venture into the realm of the deep past, where we cannot genuinely do experiments or make contemporaneous observations, we are deprived of the genuine verification that these things provide. What we are left with is only the ability to make scientifically informed conjectures about the deep past; we cannot really know if there are unanticipated factors that will render our calculations null and void. Although we may be perfect in the execution of the calculations, we can never verify whether all relevant factors have been incorporated into the equations.

Evidently blissfully unaware of such epistemological problems, Bill Nye maintained confidence in our ability to calculate what happened in the past. Yet, contrary to Mr. Nye, I assert that a reasonable man would conclude that we do not have good warrant to believe in our own ability to scientifically calculate what happened in the deep past with certainty. Furthermore, I assert that Ken Ham is right, that reliable knowledge of the origin of life, the earth, and the universe, can only come from a witness who was there—the God who made the heavens and the earth.


  • Very fine article Lauren. Scientists quite regularly are not aware of the discipline of epistemology at all, as I am sure you know. A book that might interest you in this regard is Dr. Mortimer J Adders work “What Man Has Made of Man.” It deals with assumptions as to fact and reality among psychologists and psychiatrists. Ron Galloway a fellow blogger with Faith Beyond Belief

  • “You cannot put an ancient event under a microscope to study it the way you would study muscle tissue.”

    Really? Because that’s all that astronomers do, only with a bigger lens. Apparently the author of this article seems to think that light travels at an infinite speed, when in fact, anyone with basic scientific literacy knows that even though it is literally the fastest thing in the known universe, it still travels at a finite speed.

    This is why we can measure how far away stars are from the earth in light-years (the amount of distance a particle of light travels in one year), and how we also know how old the stars are, and we can see many that are farther away from us than 4000 light-years by orders of magnitude. This simple scientific observation entirely destroys Ken Ham’s young earth hypothesis.

    Furthermore, even if, for the sake of argument, it’s granted that the earth -is- in fact, four thousand years old. Even if you could somehow get that far, the rest of your work is still ahead of you. You’ve still yet to prove that god, any god exists, as that is an entirely different claim.

    • Lawren G.

      Fury,
      Can you go back and watch the birth of the universe? Can you go back and watch the formation of the earth as it happened?
      If a given star is 5,000 light years away, and if there are no undiscovered quirks to the way that light behaves when crossing vast distances of space, then what we observe tonight through a telescope would be a beam of light that our eyes can interpret as an image of that star as it was 5,000 years ago. There’s no dial on any telescope that let’s you switch to a view of how that particular star looked 3,000 years ago, or 6,000, or 1,000. You cannot pick a star and then adjust your telescope so that it can show you an image of that star on the ancient day when it was born. The beams of light that emanated from that ancient event have come and gone. You have missed your opportunity to observe them. So when you make declarations about how and when that star was formed, you are not talking about something that you observed happening, you are talking about something that you’ve only theorized about.
      Regarding geology, depending how close you’re standing to the rock, it takes just a few nanoseconds for light that bounces off the rock to reach your eyes. So, yes, technically you’re looking at the past not the present, but a few nanoseconds are rather irrelevant to the argument. You’re observing rock formations as they now exist (or, rather, ever so slightly earlier on this same day), and making conjectures about how those formations were formed eons ago. You did not observe their formation as it happened, when it happened, and you cannot go back in time to be there. Faint light from the event may still be out there somewhere, halfway across the universe now, but you cannot position yourself to observe it.
      I stand by my statement – you cannot put an ancient event under a microscope to study it the way you would study muscle tissue.

  • Fury: I am not aware of anyone who argues that if the age of the universe can be measured in thousands of years, then God exists. While FBB does not have a position on the age of the universe, you’re right that the age of the universe does not make any case for God on its own.

    Your reply does not invalidate anything that author said in the quote you provided. You only talked about telescopes, not microscopes. They are not the same thing, so as far as your response is concerned, you seem to have demonstrated the author is correct.

    Notice that the article had nothing to say about the age of the universe, while much of your reply dealt with this. Therefore, much of your reply had nothing to do with the article itself.

    Just a factual correction: I believe that Ham says the universe is between 6000 to 10 000 years old, not 4000.