Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Through the Looking Glass and Into the Creationism Museum

by Chelsea Ennen, who regrets that "Ham on Nye" was taken before she could use it.

Like a fair percentage of people my age, I grew up watching Bill Nye in school.  The lanky, bow tie-clad former aeronautics consultant specialized in teaching the sciences to kids on his clever, engaging show Bill Nye the Science Guy.  I could probably call any one of my childhood friends, say “Richie, eat your crust!” and they’d immediately remember his plate tectonics episode.  Nye has a gift for teaching, so I was thrilled to see he would be participating in a major scientific debate.  Each presenter would be given half an hour for opening arguments followed by a question and answer session.  While the official topic was “Is creation a viable model of origins in today’s scientific era?” the big question hanging over both presenter’s heads was “Should creation be taught in public schools instead of evolution?” To question whether or not creationism belongs in schools is to question whether or not religion belongs in schools, and both Nye and Ham often mentioned the importance of what we teach the next generation.  While I’m sure he was pleased with himself, Ham certainly didn’t make much of a case for creationism to be taken seriously.
President of both the creationism museum that hosted the debate and the organization “Answers in Genesis,” Ken Ham used his half hour to try and convince the audience of rather labored and disjointed theories.  He quoted several Bible verses as responses to scientific findings and went on and on about the difference between “historical” (or mainstream science) and “observational” science, saying that something like the big bang theory shouldn’t be taught in schools because no one was there to observe it happen and prove it to be true.  He based many arguments on fundamental misunderstandings of scientific facts, including the second law of thermodynamics: a concept often cited by creationists as proof against evolution.  Basically this law refers to the idea that in isolated systems disorder and entropy will always increase.  Ken Ham used it to refute evolution, where organisms become more and more advanced and complex.  However, as Bill Nye explained in his rebuttal, the earth is not an isolated system- we receive energy from the sun.  I find much of upper-level science difficult to follow, but even I could see that Ham blatantly bent the facts to serve his argument.  If you don’t have three spare hours for the full debate, you need only visit for a full record of Ham's beliefs, beliefs which it is important to remember are not held by the majority of Christians.  
 If anything got me through watching this debate, it was Bill Nye.  His hair was graying, but he looked mostly the same as I remembered him - complete with bow tie, effervescent charm, and a knack for explaining scientific concepts to humanities brains like mine.  When I found out the debate was actually about evolution versus creationism I wondered why Nye was speaking instead of someone like evolutionary biologist and outspoken atheist Richard Dawkins, but since the debate was aimed toward the general public, Nye’s clear and accessible teaching style was very appropriate.  He discussed carbon dating, fossils, astronomy, and, of course, evolution, with impressive articulation and poise.  I highly recommend his portions of the debate as an engaging lecture in their own right.  
However I couldn't help but wonder, as the hours ticked by, how this event even came to be.  I was watching it for the spectacle, but why was a renowned scientist dignifying Ham's arguments with a response?  It occurred to me that if Richard Dawkins had been there instead of Bill Nye, he probably would have tackled Ham to the ground within minutes of his opening remarks out of sheer frustration and rage, as would a good deal of other big names in the scientific community.  In a piece written for CNN's religion blog, Nye addressed those of us who questioned his decision to accept Ham's invitation. 
"In short, I decided to participate in the debate because I felt it would draw attention to the importance of science education here in the United States...The facts and process of science have enabled the United States to lead the world in technology and provide good health for an unprecedented number of our citizens. Science fuels our economy. Without it, our economic engine will slow and eventually stop." -Bill Nye
Science has given us vaccines, MRI machines, pacemakers, warm houses in winter, the internet, smart phones, planes, trains, automobiles, everything we touch in our day to day lives.  Not too long ago it was assumed that influenza was an unavoidable evil but today a new vaccine comes out every year.  A bit further back in time but still in relatively recent history, pneumonia was a death sentence, but now antibiotics have reduced it to a couple weeks in bed with chicken soup.  Now that science has taught us the consequences of suntanning, people are putting on sunscreen (also a result of scientific research) and preventing deadly melanomas.  There are thousands of examples that prove how science has served humanity, served humanity in ways Ken Ham has benefitted from whether he agrees with it or not, but I doubt he stopped to think about how science makes it possible for him to broadcast his debate to the world and to create his website.     
A passionate advocate for education, Nye asked the audience to consider these advancements in health and predict what would happen if a whole generation of medical researchers were not taught science correctly.  I was immediately disturbed by the question’s implications: what if the scientist destined to cure cancer or Alzheimer’s or AIDS didn’t get the education they needed because of someone like Ken Ham?  So many people wouldn't be alive now without the scientific advancements we've already made, but what about the ones we have yet to make?  On the other hand, don’t the people who agree with Ham just as passionately as I disagree with him have a right to be heard?  Where do we draw the line between what parents teach their children outside of school and what is acceptable for curricula nationwide?
The problem Ham refused to recognize, the real reason that creationism shouldn’t be in textbooks even though it is anyone's right to believe in it, beyond questions of adverse effects in future research and development, is that creationism is based on the Bible and therefore relies on a belief in God.  There is no such thing as an atheistic creationist: to believe in creationism you must believe in a creator, but a belief in evolution does not necessarily eliminate faith in God.  Bill Nye even discussed this fact and pointed out what was really the crux of the debate: 
“there are billions of people around the world who are religious and who accept science…the exception is you Mr. Ham…you want us to take your word for what’s written in this ancient text to be more compelling than what we see around us, the evidence for a higher power, for spirituality, is, for me, separate.” –Bill Nye  
 While it would have been a shame to miss out on Bill Nye’s lecture, he really could have started and ended the debate with this single statement.  Ken Ham will only respond to criticism by quoting a religious text, so the scientific community can only address him by saying that proving God’s existence is not science’s responsibility; it is a separate issue.
That word “separate” is problematic for people who share Ham’s beliefs when it’s included in the phrase “Separation of Church and State,” which refers to the idea that religion must stay out of the government and, by extension, public schools.  Whenever this law is brought up in creationism/evolution discussions, someone inevitably cries out that their freedom of religion is being violated by the exclusion of creationism from schools.  On the contrary, “Separation of Church and State” is meant to preserve freedom of religion - and freedom of religion also means freedom from religion.  It means if you believe in Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, Wicca, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster of Pastafarianism, you have the right to practice your beliefs without being coerced into anyone else’s.  It also means that atheists shouldn't have to put up with religious doctrines in a public school setting.  Teaching science shouldn’t be about teaching religion; it should be about teaching the mainstream science that does not implicitly rely on faith in God.
Teachers aren’t telling kids that evolution disproves the existence of God, and no one is stopping parents from teaching the creation model outside of school.  Ken Ham’s arguments stretched past the limits of sense so far I almost expected him to jump off the stage and follow a white rabbit back to Wonderland, where his logic would be at home.  But, really, it doesn’t matter what I think about Ken Ham, because my opinions on him hinge on our differing opinions of God’s existence, and no one has the right to force their religious beliefs - or lack thereof - on anyone, especially not children.  Bill Nye the Science Guy has always been a valuable classroom tool, and always should be, because what Nye teaches- fact based evolution- has everything to do with science and nothing to do with religion, unlike Ham’s creation model.  So to all the Christian parents out there, feel free to keep this article with all my heretical mean spiritedness out of schools- just don’t use Ham’s lecture either. 

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