Appearing in Illinois to talk about Physics and Aliens

Next week I will be in Illinois to give a couple of talks quite unrelated to each other.

First, on Wednesday of next week (April 23rd), I will be giving a presentation related to my physics education research at Illinois State University. I will focus on the origins of physical intuitions, such as why students continually believe that motion requires an active force contra Newton’s first law. There will be some nice history of science along with my own data collection that went into my thesis. Hopefully I can get this published in the not too distant future. I don’t think this talk will be open to the public and if mostly geared for undergrad physics students.

My other talk is the next day at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign for the student group, the Illini Secular Student Alliance. This will be about aliens/ETs and if they have been visiting us. This will be similar to a talk I gave to my local SSA group a few years ago (video here), but I have updated several things and go much more into the modern UFO phenomenon. The focus will still be largely on the “ancient astronaut theory” and there will be much-deserved reference to the efforts of Jason Colavito, Michael Heiser, and Robert Sheaffer. You can also see some of the things I have previously written about with respect to this subject here. The talk is more open and it should be recorded; once the video goes up I will post that.

Later this year I am slated to give another talk here in Columbus, and I still have the Star of Bethlehem Conference in the Netherlands in October. So, I will get to provide lots of jibber-jabber. If you want more, feel free to ask. :)

Recent Post about Cosmology, Inflation, and Genesis

Just a few days ago, a featured article went up at Bible and Interpretation about the recent news concerning gravitational waves and strong evidence for cosmic inflation. This is the second article I have had published there (the first one was about the Star of Bethlehem), and it looks like it has already received some positive comments. In particular, some very nice things were said by Dr. James Tabor and Dr. Hector Avalos, two well-known voices in biblical studies.

What I looked at was what the new cosmology news was, how it was not proof of the accuracy of the biblical account of creation in Genesis 1, how Gen 1:1 does not in fact indicate creation ex nihilo, how the sort of contortions one tries to make Gen 1 fit science would work just as well or better for other ancient mythologies, and the recent news if anything supports a universe that does not require a creator. And if none of that interests you, well, nobody’s perfect :)

Go give my article a read, leave a comment, tell your friends, enemies, and a random person on the street with WiFi.

On the Trouble with Bruno and #Cosmos

Since its debut on Sunday before last, the new Cosmos series has garnered a lot of attention. It has been fun to some degree seeing those that are in denial of many of our more astounding scientific truths try to combat what is shown by Cosmos-host, Neil deGrasse Tyson. A FOX station in Oklahoma, for example, accidentally cut out about 15 seconds of the first episode that spoke of early human ancestors. An accident that is too easy to interpret. Clearer are the responses from folks at Answers in Genesis, who have to hate on the whole of cosmology, geology, and biology.

However, perhaps what has gotten the most flack from creationists and pro-science folks is the representation of the execution of Giordano Bruno for heresy in 1600. In particular, over at the NCSE blog, Peter Hess and Josh Rosenau claimed that the show was promoting the false narrative of the history of science and religion as always or primarily adversarial, how Bruno wasn’t really a scientist, that his cosmological views didn’t really cause him to get burned, and that a more nuanced approach is necessary, among other complaints. Rosenau also links and quotes from other sources that similarly claim how Cosmos screwed up the history of science.

Some of those criticisms are valid and worth mentioning. However, the primary attack on Cosmos‘s accuracy is demonstrably false, that the episode was claiming that Bruno was killed primarily for promoting the Copernican model and that science and religion are at odds. The false narrative that many are attacking is itself a false narrative. Continue reading

Reflections on #Cosmos Episode 1

Cosmos-Banner-md

Last night I was able to watch the first episode of thirteen of the new Cosmos series, hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson. Fortunately, I was able to watch it on the big screen at a local theater, and while waiting there was an episode of Family Guy showing. Interesting, that episode was about understanding and dealing with death. Cosmos, on the other hand, was set to breath new life into science education on TV.

I will not do much to compare this with the original Cosmos from 1980, but to note a couple of things. One is that the sorts of use of verbiage by Tyson is notably different than that of Sagan. Carl had a melodious use of language that gave his speech rhetorical power and poetry. Tyson is hardly laconic, but it did not sing as Sagan seemed to. On the other hand, the pacing and mood of this new Cosmos is faster and feels more up-beat. Sagan made the whole of the story into a sort of epic that was reminiscence of watching The Ten Commandments when compared to Tyson’s approach. The universe still has the same level of grandeur now as it did in 1980, if not more, but Tyson allowed for more show and less tell, having a lighter touch, and when he spoke it wasn’t trying to seem so much as Moses come down the mountain. This all has advantages and disadvantages, but really it is only different. Tyson is not Sagan, Sagan is not Tyson. Each has the sort of character and approach that works. The differences mean that this Cosmos will not replace the previous version. And that is for the best. Tyson speaks with his own voice, one that he has found to resonate in our time, and I am glad the script is allowing him to be him and not simply trying to be Sagan again.

So, onto the episode itself.

The episode began by handing off the baton from Carl Sagan to Tyson with editing, voice-over, and grace, beginning at the same place Sagan did in 1980, standing on the shore to represent our place relative to the cosmic ocean. And now Tyson stood there, ready to take us into the ocean with a new, CG-rific ship of the imagination.

What the episode set to do is provide a sense of scale in space and time. First was to provide us a sense of our coordinates or cosmic address in the universe–and even in the multiverse. From the corona of the Sun to the jewels of the planets, not to mention Pluto. The Oort cloud was also presented, but of course the scale quickly widened to included the local galaxies, our supercluster of galaxies, the edges of the observable universe. After this came a historical interlude about the famed martyr for scientific inquiry, Giordano Bruno. The animation style I thought was brilliant and really enjoyed it. I will come back to the story of Bruno later. But after that, the time scale was considered, using the cosmic calendar implemented before by Sagan, but with updates on the development of life on earth, not to mention great visual effects. I also liked the use of actual, practical effects to produce a moving Tiktaalik, a rarity in this day of computer graphics. But most importantly, it put into scale just how little time human history has been around comparatively–a matter of seconds compared to the cosmic year.

Lastly, there was a return to Sagan, his love of science and making that love known, and Tyson revealed his close connection to Sagan when he was a young man from the Bronx. I saw some people complaining it was hagiographical, but it seemed appropriate, didn’t inflate the facts (Sagan did a lot of work in so many planetary science projects in the 20th century and had several papers published in Nature), and the personal connection I found sweet. Perhaps there was too much focus on Sagan rather than the science, but for an introductory episode, trying to carry on Sagan’s legacy, I find that difficult to fault.

I for one found watching this first episode a good experience, and I think it helps set up a good beginning for the series. Not much science was provided, but that is expected for the intro to a 13-part series. Just like the first Cosmos. But there are some things I believe some will find in somethings fault. In particular, the story of Bruno was at the center of the episode, especially his ordeals and final execution by the Catholic Church. Continue reading

A good piece about Carl Sagan

Aaron Adair (Gilgamesh):

The new COSMOS is coming, and there are some really great pieces reminiscing about the late Carl Sagan. We all await to see his legacy continue this Sunday.

Originally posted on Why Evolution Is True:

With Neil deGrasse Tyson’s presentation of “Cosmos” (produced by Ann Druyan and Seth MacFarlane) set to premiere this Sunday, people are harking back to the original “ Cosmos ” of Carl Sagan. That original ran for 14 telvision episodes at the end of 1980, and I remember it well. Sagan was mesmerizing, and his excited presentation didn’t seem an affectation, like that of some science gurus, but a true reflection of his personality.

One of the best retrospectives I’ve read is a piece in the new Smithsonian by Joel Achenbach,  “Why Carl Sagan is truly irreplaceable“. Have a read when you have some leisure time and (preferably) a good libation.

There’s a lot of fascinating stuff: about Sagan’s meeting with Timothy Leary, in prison for LSD use, about Sagan’s habit of dictating his books, and about his own prolific use of marijuana (I didn’t know that he was…

View original 542 more words

Does Matthew’s Gospel Pre-Suppose a Supernatural Star of Bethlehem?

A few days ago at the National Catholic Register, a blog post was put up about the Yuletide star that I have been so interested in. The author of the piece, Jimmy Akin, wrote up about how the text of the Gospel of Matthew does not necessarily talk about a Star that moves around in such a way that it can only be supernatural. Akin, who besides having a cool red beard, is a Catholic apologist, and he categorizes his efforts here about the Star under apologetics (as seen on the blogs tag). I read the blog entry after I saw it come up in a search on Twitter, and the first thing I noted was that he said that the text does not support the supernatural reading, but he never actually cited the Greek text! I left a responses in the comments there, and I was invited to participate more there. My main comment on the Greek was then picked up, along with my book, by Akin, who then wrote another blog post on this subject. There he looks at my arguments about the Greek terminology and tries to show that I am forcing the text too much. To that, I wish to respond.

First off, there are a couple of minor mistakes or almost mistakes he does correctly notice. For example, I said that the Magi were the “direction object” of the verb prago, but that should be “direct object”. Strangely enough, the very next line in my book I get it right, so my fingers are the problem here in creating this typo. In fact, while writing this paragraph, I made the same mistake, and it’s one I have noticed doing several other times. My fingers are possessed by Legion, for my letters are many! Now, it’s a minor error and doesn’t affect my argument, and it doesn’t even demonstrate a lack of knowledge of Greek (it’s just a typo), but such corrections are good for me to know. Another one is how I say after the preposition epano that the noun/adjective/pronoun should be ‘declined’ in the genitive. The more precise way of saying anything should have been that it should be in the ‘case’ of the genitive. It’s not quite an error since cases are a subset of how nouns/pronouns/etc. are declined. Inflexive languages decline nouns/adjectives/etc. to indicate number, gender, and case. But I should have been more precise. Again, these things don’t affect my arguments at all, and Akin is clear on that as well.

Now, before getting into the issues that Akin has with my use of the Greek that would undermine my translation and interpretation of the text, I think there are some serious issues with Akin’s conclusions even without any refutation. In other words, even if I grant Akin’s points, his conclusions that the Star was something naturalistic or scientifically explicable does not follow. Because of that, I will focus on that first, and then I will show that his refutation of my interpretation of the Greek doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

First, he still translates the verb proago as to mean ‘to go before’, and in this case that is going before the Magi. His own sources say that it means “to lead ahead, go before, lead the way, precede”. And the root verb here, ago, is a verb of leading and motion. In fact, it even means to carry something away to a certain destination. As such, the Star is still traveling, even supposing my translation of the term is wrong. This is further confirmed by the use of the verb erchomai (used in 2:9 as a participle) that says the Star ‘arrived’. And lastly, the movement has a termination, as proven by the use of the proposition ‘until’ (heos) and then the verb meaning ‘to stop/stand’ (histemi). Most importantly, this motion in in the direction that the Magi travel, and that is south. But, as I noted in my book, all stars and planets move east to west in the sky and could not in any reasonable sense be said to move in the direction of Bethlehem as seen from Jerusalem.

In an attempt to counter this, Akin uses the example of being lost on a camping trip, seeing the Moon to the south, and using it for directions. As such, saying the Moon “led” you anywhere doesn’t imply anything supernatural. But this is quite odd considering I don’t know of anyone that even said the Moon leads you any place. If the Moon (or any other object, for that matter) is being used as a directional guidepost, then no one talks about that in terms of leading or ‘going before’. The example is one that doesn’t fit even English diction, and I would be impressed to find an example in Koine Greek. Moreover, even this attempt does not fit the context of Matthew, again because of the term ‘until’. In Akin’s example, the Moon acted as a guide post and led him home “until it stopped”. Huh? This makes no sense to me.

The only way for Matthew to have avoided saying the Star was moving to the south, he should have used a term indicating position, such as the verb ‘to be’ and the preposition meaning ‘before, in front of’. In English, then the text would be rendered as “the Star was before them”. But this again will not make sense because of the use of ‘until’. This same preposition has the same thing pointed out by David Strauss all the way back in 1835 when he showed the scholars of his time that they couldn’t consistently re-translate the text to get a naturalistic version of the Star.

However, what I find the most damaging is what Akin left out in his response: he never discusses the the verbiage used to say that the Star stood over a single house. It is strange considering I thought it was the point that did the most to show the unusual nature of the Star, and it is the point I provided the most evidence to support. But Akin didn’t address it at all. What I argued was that the use of the preposition epano, followed by a noun/adjective/etc. in the genitive case — I got it this time ;) — indicates close proximity or being right on top of an object. I provide many examples of this construction from Matthew’s Gospel, other NT writings, and I also point out how it is totally inconsistent with how Greek texts talk of astronomical phenomena.

Another point to consider on top of all the syntactical evidence I provided, I also showed how my interpretation is consistent with everyone else with an opinion on the subject from antiquity up to 1800, and now one is hard pressed to find a NT scholar that diverges from the supernatural interpretation. Particularly in my comment on Akin’s first blog on the subject, I cited the following from the Oxford Bible Commentary on the Star (p. 849): “This is no ordinary star, and attempts to identify it with a planetary conjunction, comet, or super-nova are futile”, and all of the ancient commentators “rightly recognize that the so-called star does not stay on high but moves as a guide and indeed comes to rest very near the infant Jesus.” In my book, I particularly cited St. Augustine (someone a Catholic would probably find authoritative on a lot of things) and Johannes Kepler. In my article for Zygon, I provided lots of sources all indicating the same thing for nearly 2000 years (see also Allison, Studies in Matthew, pp. 17-22.) One is hard pressed to find a recognized NT scholar, Catholic or Protestant, that differs from saying that the Star is described as supernatural. As such, this hardly rests on my authority, but instead on virtually everyone that has read the story in the original Greek.

Given that Akin’s arguments against me, if unrefuted, do not lead to his conclusion, that he does not deal with the most difficult aspect of saying the Star was not supernatural, and he must go up against just about every authority on the subject, that leaves his position untenable. And this is without me even arguing against my supposed refutation.

But now to get into what Akins thinks I did wrong that does affect my arguments–that is, if you are still awake. Because if you are, the rest of this can get really dry and boring and is all about linguistics and grammar… but grammar can be fun.

On the use of the aorist tense of the verb histemi, Akin says that the aorist does not indicate an instantaneous action, but rather it leaves the matter “undefined”. However, it seems that Akin is not being careful in his usage of how the aorist term is defined and used. What his sources indicate is that the aorist tense does not indicate if the action is continuing or still affecting things. However, the aorist is used to give an action in a snapshot. This can be compared to another major past tense used in Greek, the imperfect. As my intro to Greek textbook put it, and Akin’s cited paper, not to mention other authoritative sources, the imperfect is like a movie film strip, while the aorist is a picture. To get a simplified grasp on this in English, at least with respect to the verb histemi, it is the difference between “it stopped/stood” (aorist) and “it was stopping/standing” (imperfect). The latter we sometimes call the past progressive.

In linguistics, the aorist is said to have perfective aspect, meaning it is a unit without any subdivisions or internal complexity. It is complete in itself. For an example in English with something progressive happening to compare, observe this sentence:

While the boy was walking down the sidewalk on his way home, he saw a large bird.

The verb form of ‘was walking’ is progressive and imperfect, while the verb form ‘saw’ has perfective aspect. The first moment of seeing the bird in question is an instant. Now, the seeing may continue on after that first moment, and that is usually the case, but the seeing had an instant it started. What the aorist captures is a moment in this walk.

In Akin’s example of the built fire, the use of the aorist indicates that the building of the fire had been finished; there is an instant that you can say the fire is built. Akin says that in this example you don’t know if the fire was only starting to be built, but that’s not true in this context; if someone said something was ‘built’ then I would think it was done. Akin has confused things, but it can be rectified. Using the aorist of ‘built’ does not indicate on its own that the fire had just been built or if its building has simply been completed in the past; it also doesn’t tell us if the fire still exists.  Again, it’s the snapshot. If we were considering the process, we would say that the fire ‘was being built’. In the case of ‘to stand’, the use of the aorist doesn’t clarify if the situation of standing had just started or if we were just considering a moment when someone was standing. For example, you see someone has “stood at attention”. That person could have already been standing at attention, and so we are looking at an instant of the time when that person was standing. This doesn’t make sense in the case of building something; we don’t say a building has been built before its completion. So if Akin used my example or corrected his, his point would have more strength.

Coming back to Matthew’s text, in 2:9, the Star ‘going before’ the Magi until ‘it stood’ in place. The use of the aorist here indicates that it came to a stop; that there was an instant it had stopped or stood in place. If the imperfect had been used, it could indicate that the Star had been standing in place for a while and never had to have been moving. But the use of terms that indicate motion, not to mention the use of the word ‘until’ (heos), this stopping or standing begins in an instant. It is the context with the aorist that indicates a sudden change in verb action. The use of the aorist indicates the completion of the movement of the Star and the beginning of it being stopped in place. In this context of motion verbs and the preposition ‘until’ makes clear that the stopping happened in an instant. And that is consistent with what is said by Akin’s source paper on the abuse of the aorist:

“The aorist is well suited to action which in itself is punctiliar whereas some other tenses, e.g., the imperfect, are not. But the aorist is also suited to actions which are in themselves linear, unless one wants to stress its linear nature. It follows, then, that the action covered by the aorist may or may not be punctiliar, and the presence of the aorist does not in itself give any hint as to the nature of the action behind it. Contextual factors are primary for any attempt to go behind the aorist to the nature of the action itself.”

The context with the aorist in Matt 2:9 clearly indicates the moment the Star stopped.

Now, all of this is rather beside the point because, even in Akin’s reading, the Star was ahead of the Magi until they arrived. In other words, the stopping of the Star in place is still in a moment in time. He thinks that that moment is when the Magi reach the house of the Holy Family. Never mind if that is what the text actually says; he is still having the Star stop at a particular time. Just as I do. Which makes his whole grammar lesson, which he doesn’t quite do right, entirely pointless.

Now, on to proago. In the commonly used Bauer Greek-English lexicon, it states that the verb was intransitive in the case of the Star and Magi. That is, it did not take a direct object. This is a bit strange, considering that the word ‘them’ is in the accusative case before a verb that is normally transitive. If you have a direct object and transitive verb, that indicates the verb is doing something to the object. For example: “I threw the ball”; ‘threw is the transitive verb, and it affects the direct object, ‘the ball’. Reading the Greek, because ‘them’ is in the accusative case, which usually indicates a direct object, one would expect that it means the Star is proago-ing the Magi. And this is how it is rendered in several translations, which I cited in my book.

But even taking the Bauer lexicon, does it means the Star is not leading them? As Akin’s own citation indicates, the verb in the intransitive case means “to move ahead or in front of, go before, lead the way, precede.” In all of these English equivalents, we still have movement and leading. So in Matt 21:9, the crowds “went ahead”, but they are still traveling in the direction that Jesus will walk. There may not be direct leading, but there is still movement and following of a certain path. Similarly in Matt 26:32, Jesus will “go before” his disciples to Galilee, meaning Jesus travels there; he isn’t teleported and acting as a homing beacon. The only word in the English-Greek lexicon for proago that seems to have wiggle-room is “precede“, since it may just mean being in front of rather than traveling ahead. But considering that it is grouped with several other attempted equivalents, which all indicate motion and leadership, ‘precede’ must also mean to move in the direction that you are leading ahead. It is an abuse to take a translation dictionary, ignore all of the versions that contradict your position, and go with the one that could fit what you want if it was decontextualized from all the rest that indicate a more precise meaning of the word.

Even if we decontextualize as Akin has done, it won’t work. Again, the use of ‘until’ makes this translation implausible. If the Star simply preceded them, it would still have preceded them when they arrived at the house. ‘Precede’ also ignores the participial form of erchomai, which means to come or arrive. Akin has to make nonsense of this passage even when abusing the dictionary of choice (also, the most authoritative Greek-English lexicon for classicists is that of Liddell, Scott, and Jones, or the LSJ, but Bauer’s is a great resource, too).

Lastly, to deal with how Akin talks of the Star stopping over “the place where the child was”, he says “when they approached the house—from whatever angle they approached it—they noted that the star was in the part of the sky above the house.” First off, a star up in the sky is no more over one house than any other. It’s also not clear if Akin means the Star was at zenith or still to the south. If the latter, then the Star would still be preceding them, so ‘until’ makes that senseless, as noted above.

On the other hand, it seems that Akin wants the Star to be at zenith while the Magi were in Bethlehem. But that will not work with his belief that the Star was seen to the south from Jerusalem; the distance between the locations is so small that the Star would have been just as at zenith in Bethlehem as in Jerusalem to naked-eye observers. In other words, the Star can’t both be towards the south and then directly above… unless the Star moved south, which makes it supernatural. In either scenario, there is either a grammatical impossibility or an astronomical one.

And this also fails to fit the Greek anyways, as I note in my book. The Star is not simply up above in the sky. The wrong preposition is used for that (epano instead of huper). This reading by Akin fails at all levels.

So, I will leave the discussion with the reminder that all authorities on this subject, ancient and modern, agree with me on the the supernatural description of the Star. This case hardly rests on just my authority, though my reasons for my reading are very well justified. Considering I am reading the text the same way every other expert does, it is a near-impossible case to argue against without re-doing a lot of ancient Greek semantics. That was already attempted in the early 19th century, and it didn’t work then.

Astrology News on the Radio in Canada with Me

Yesterday while I was working on things, my phone went off, saying I had a call from Alberta. I’m pretty sure this is the first time I’ve received any calls from Canada on my phone, so it was surprising. But more importantly it wasn’t a crank call; rather, it was a radio station in Calgary that was going to be talking about a new study on how many people in the US think astrology is legit science. You can look at this study here.

It is part of a larger science literacy study by the National Science Foundation, and they ask about astrology as a benchmark for the acceptance of pseudo-scientific beliefs. Why astrology? In part because it is very much bunk, and numerous studies show that astrologers cannot predict personal characteristics better than chance, and the agreement between astrologers, even using the same astrological methods, agree little more than at the level of chance. (I discuss this a bit in my book, The Star of Bethlehem: A Skeptical View). In part also because the idea of astrology is nearly omnipresent; a horoscope is found in just about every major newspaper, it’s on the front pages of other news sites, and it has a fair bit of popular press because of celebrity endorsement, such as pop singer Katy Perry. So belief in astrology as scientific or a useful practice can be a good barometer for non-scientific belief acceptance.

The recent study shows that still a small majority of Americans think that astrology is “not at all scientific”, but it is at a recent low. Over at Mother Jones, Chris Mooney provides these graphs for how rejection of astrology has changed over the years and how acceptance of astrology appears among different age demographics.

The thing to note is that astrology has a far greater acceptance among millennials verses other age demographics.

So, what is going on here?

Back to that phone call, I was invited onto 770 AM CHQR for a chat with hosts Angela Kokott and Dave Taylor about this new finding, why people buy into astrology, and why it seems to be growing. You can listen to the whole show by going to this website and picking the date of Feb 13 and at 3 PM to listen to the right show. I get on the air about 11.5 minutes in, give or take. The audio file will not be up for long, so go get it now!

To explain the growth, especially among young people, I said that it may partially be explained by the changing religious demographics. Millennials are more willing to reject traditional forms of religion, and branches of evangelical Christianity usually have only bad things to say about astrology, keeping their flocks away from it. Another factor, that I didn’t mention on the air, was that there has been recent economic and political stress, and such things often cause people to look for answers in domains that are outside what is mainstream or accepted by the elites (i.e., scientists). Compare the data from the late 1970s/early 1980s. The US had gone through the terrible Vietnam War, the Nixon resignation, stagflation, and failures of foreign policy under Carter in both Iran and Afghanistan. No wonder it was boom times for pseudo-science in that period, not to mention the counter culture movement that grew up in the 1960s. So, with the current issues of the sluggish economy after a world-wide banking debacle, the bailout of the super-rich, the continuing flat wages of most workers who can even get work, and a gridlock federal government, it isn’t looking like the elites of the country can do anything right. That makes things rife for pseudo-scientific ideas to gain a foothold.

This is also frightening because the decline in belief in astrology through the 1980s and 1990s was in part because of the organizing of skeptical groups to show it doesn’t work. In Nature, there was a paper published showing astrology didn’t work, and other well-designed studies showed similar results. The group CSICOP (now CSI) was getting well-organized after earlier issues dealing with astrology. But now a lot of that progress seems to have been reversed. This certainly will require a lot of work on the part of skeptic groups, but it won’t be easy considering that there is usually not the best amount of communication between believers in astrology and its detractors.

It’s not something that needs more study. Astrology has been shown by dozens of well-designed studies to not work better than what is expected by chance. Moreover, the apparent successes of horoscope “predictions” can be seen as either using statements that fit anyone (called Barnum statements, see the Forer Effect), or there is the use of cold reading, where the participant is asked by the astrologer vague or leading questions for the participant to place their answer in such a way as it appears that the astrologer knew the answer from the horoscope. And let’s not forget that for astrology to work you have to break the fundamental laws of physics, a non-trivial issue. But for someone that really believes, that won’t change things. Just like with creationists, it isn’t the evidence for astrology that attracts people but some other need it apparently fulfills, such as telling you something about yourself or your purpose. I recommended some ways of talking to people to get them to reason out of astrology before, but I may need to do something more in depth to really make it work. And it looks like of people my age and younger, they need to hear it.

(Also note: one of the authors of the study is John Besley of Michigan State University, my alma mater. Go Green!)

Thoughts on the Nye/Ham Creationism/Evolution Debate

The end is Nye!

Sorry, made that joke last time, but now it seems better suited.

So last night was the much-trafficked debate between Bill Nye, the Science Guy, and AiG founder Ken Ham. Now, I am obviously biased towards the scientific consensus; evidence tends to do that. However, I have to say that I was pessimistic about how the debate would go. I didn’t figure either side would really win, but rather it seemed there would be a lot of talking past each other. And while that happened to an extend, overall I think Nye handled things rather well.

To be less biased, check out this poll from Christianity Today, hardly a secularist haven. There, it says Bill one the debate; with nearly 25,000 votes, Bill has 92% of the vote in his favor. And this was even before was posted at Pharyngula, which likes to crash polls like this to show they are not scientific. The bias should have been expected in the opposite direction that what it is, so it seems among at least the tech savvy, Nye was perceived to be the winner.

Perhaps that was in part because Nye did well to present a slurry of observations that were inconsistent with a young earth or having a wooden boat carry itself and all animal “kinds”, while Ham did not present anything that was really evidence for earth’s lack of antiquity or why evolution doesn’t work. There was a bit about radiometric dating (I’ll get to that later), but his presentation was more focused on what he perceives to be the nature of science and how creationism is important to his world view. But perhaps the point that stands as the biggest highlight is the question from the Q&A session when Ham was asked what would convince him that he was wrong. Answer: a long pause, and basically saying he’s a Christian, so that’s that. Nye, on the other hand, clearly and concisely named several things that would be evidence against his views on evolution and geology. That must have been the most stark contrast between how these two people operate and understand things, and I’m not seeing people saying that that was a good talking point for Ham. For the record, I watched the debate at a meeting with Christians and non-believers, and while some were willing to find a better way to understanding Ham’s pause and final answer (suggesting he was at least thoughtful), it was still fairly obvious that it was antithetical to science and even good theology (and I agree).

If you want the blow-by-blow, here is one good synopsis for each part of the debate. PZ Myers also live-blogged the event. NBC’s Alan Boyle summarizes the event rather well. And you can watch the debate here if you are tempted.

Noteworthy: as of posting over 700,000 people watched this particular stream. Overall, at least a million people watched.

So, how about the arguments themselves? Now, Bill obviously focused on the science and facts that show there world to have greater antiquity that a mere 6000 years, but he did touch on something that I proposed to be the ideal method for this sort of debate: make a theological point to undermine the fundamentalist position. Nye did this in two ways: showing how millions, if not billions, of people have religious beliefs and accept evolution; and how the YEC position has to rely on the interpretation of texts and thus the interpreter’s own authority. Now, if Bill had a stronger background in the Bible and theology he could have expanded on this. It would also have helped to have Bill avoid making statements about how the Bible came about via the telephone game; it’s neither an accurate model nor something that his fundamentalist audience would appreciate. There are certainly translations issues, but we do have the books of the Bible in their original languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek), so we aren’t divorced so completely from the original text. However, knowing how ancient literature needs to be contextualized would be helpful. Considering there are several creation accounts and flood legends in the Ancient Near East, all written centuries or millennia before Genesis, that should affect how one reads the book and see that there is the use of a common literary trope, not a history report. If Nye could have done more to hold the feet of fundamentalist readings of the Bible to the fire, that would have made his case even stronger to his prospective crowd he wanted to convince.

On the other hand, there was Ham’s scientific case… Ham argued that creationism made predictions just like real science does, but his examples are both historically inauthentic and otherwise really what’s predicted by evolution and thus not in favor of creationism. For example, Ham says that the Bible tells us that all humans are of the same kind and thus there is one race. Well, evolution says all humans have a common ancestor, so that’s not really different. Ham also says how evolution is racist, as if racism didn’t exist before 1859; rather, there has been plenty of religiously-inspired racist attitude before and after. The “Curse of Ham” (not Ken, thought that is a pox on us all) was used to justify all sorts of terrible view related to racism and slavery, and it was based on biblical interpretation and bigoted attitudes. Moreover, followers of the Bible in the past were not that great and figuring out what to do with the Native Americans. There was a theological debate whether they were a separate creation from Adam and his descendants. Seems like the creation account with its global flood and thousands of years couldn’t account for two continents of people. This was “resolved” for some by claiming the American Indians were really Jews from the lost tribes, a main staple of Mormonism for example. Jason Colavito talks about this in a recent blog post.

The point here is that Ham’s model does not produce predictions like evolution does, and what he does claim to be predictions are already accounted for by evolution and in detail.

When Ham talks about radiometric dating (and he had prepared to talk about that with slides even before Nye took the stage it seems, and Nye hardly talked about this dating method in his 30-minute talk), he shows how incompetent or perhaps dishonest his cronies are. To counter the utility of radiometric dating methods, Ham talks about a layer of basalt laid in the ground by a lava flow. That lava flow went over some old tree stumps. The basalt had a date of millions of years using uranium or argon-based, but the tree, presumably at least as old if not older than the basalt, gave an age of around 45,000 years using Carbon-14 dating methods. Here is the problem: those trees had no carbon in them to date! How can I know that? Because the trees had to have been petrified. If it was still wood, it would have burned up when there was that lava flow. Moreover, the image Ham provided showed what looked like petrified wood to me. And if something is petrified, all of the organic materials are replaced by minerals and is thus mostly silicates. That is, all of the carbon has been pushed out of the tree, so there is no carbon 12 or carbon 14 to check for. At all. So no wonder they got a date of close to 50,000 years, the upper limit to what age C-14 dating can give answers; it’s been pegged at that range because of no signal. But the thing is, this data was given to Ham by Andrew Snelling, who has a PhD in geology. He must have known the trees were petrified and had no carbon in them. To date them using a method that cannot work no matter what date the trees were (again, because there was not fraking carbon in them) is either the height of incompetence or he was dishonest and had to get results to promote creationism even if they were based on a lie.

Bill unfortunately didn’t make this realization and gave an answer that wasn’t geologically feasible, and Ham also pointed out the trees were encased in the basalt, making Nye’s explanation more untenable. But it’s all based on either arrogant ignorance or right-out deception (though not necessarily by Ham, since he’s not a geologist).

But to focus on the debate, both sides were civil and professional. Since in science the debate looks like this:

the way it off Ham didn’t look like that. And he certainly didn’t give off the used care salesmen vibe that Kent Hovind did (before he went to jail for tax fraud). That is in some ways a victory for the creationist cause: it didn’t look stone age. Of course, Bill was able to make many good points to show that it was at least backward-thinking, and the question of what would change minds will perhaps be the biggest take-away rather than the number of ice core rings in Greenland. Often I think Bill gave this expression that is summarized by this new meme:

That may be a good summary right there.

So, I won’t claim Nye “won” the debate. As Joel Watts notes, each side sees their side as the one with the facts and on the side of right. However, Bill had the ability to call upon a great diversity of scientific knowledge and background, which he usually explained well (though not so well when it came to explaining sex and fish), and he made points about what we would have to have seen if we had such rapid speciation as Ham’s model claims to have. He prepared well. Ham, however, had little on that (and he even made it worse by claiming there were even fewer “kinds” on the Ark and thus making speciation problems greater by an order of magnitude), and instead he basically said that he was a presuppositionalist, starting from the Bible (that he magically knows how to interpret, including the parts that aren’t literal, like how God needs to rest, etc.).

And on the other hand, Nye’s main line of argument was that creationism undermines science education and makes the US a less competitive economic power. Nye reiterated that several times, but I think Ham’s video anecdotes from scientists who are creationists undermined that fairly strongly in some people’s eyes. Nye could have undermined that testimony by saying how none of them have used their creationist views to do their science, while geologists, physicists, astronomers, biologists, etc. all use their contra-creationist views to do good, published science. And Bill could have said how the historical sciences actually have helped us in our technology. For example, observations from astronomy are historical and they confirm general relativity; without GR, you can’t have a working GPS system. Evolutionary algorithms are used all the time for designing things, showing that the underlying idea behind Darwin’s theory has real-world application; how a creationist could say it works well in designing cars and autonomous robots but not bird wings can only be done through special pleading. Oh, and let’s not forget about vaccines for viruses that have to change to jump from farm animals or birds to humans; you can only understand that with genetics, mutations, and natural selection. But none of these points were made, and anecdotes are a powerful form of evidence to a person’s mind, even if they aren’t powerful in any statistical sense. While Nye was forceful on the need for students to learn the best science and thus exclude creationism from the science classroom, his case did receive a torpedo he would have deflected.

But Nye did do well in undermining Ham’s distinction between observational and historical science, noting how this isn’t what happens in the real world. No one saw the murder, but CSI makes a lock-solid case using circumstantial evidence all the time. Ham didn’t have any good response to this and could only repeat himself. The only way I can tease out something useful in Ham’s distinction is that he is differentiating between fact-gathering science and theoretical science. The past is given a hypothesis to explain the facts we now have, but that would all be applicable for current events. I don’t observe gravity, only its well-measured, highly-predictive effects. The ball falls from my hand with an acceleration of 9.8 m/s/s is the observation; gravity is the explanation. Similarly, the ratio of elements in a rock is such-and-such; the explanation is years of radioactive decay. You could claim that balls are pushed down by angels or Satan took out the argon in rocks to make them look older, but that is the far less conducive hypothesis. But the sorts of gathering facts and making explanations is done the same for current events as well as past ones; there is no distinction then between historical and observational science, except in so far as the evidence for things happening now are usually more certain and precisely measured.

Now, the last question: was it worth having this debate? I was skeptical before about this particular format, largely because this was set up in such a way to be a major cash cow from the struggling Creation Museum and their Ark Project. I am less certain of that now because, according to the reports I linked to above, the cost of the debate was much more than the ticket sales, at least by a factor of two. For all we know, Bill’s speaking fee was the price of all the tickets put together. As for publicity, creationism is already well-known and believed in the US, so I don’t think this really created much new exposure; the market is pretty much saturated, and there has been almost no movement in the numbers of who is a YEC in decades, so people knowing about this debate isn’t really going to help the YEC cause. But because Nye presented things well, it may have exposed many believers to some good science for once, and this to a group that has to be insular to the scientific and academic world. Penetrating that bubble is necessary, and I think Nye did that. So overall, I think this was a debate worth having and ultimately favored Team Science.

It wasn’t perfect, but Nye pretty much achieved his goals. Kudos.

Should There Be Creation/Evolution Debates? Thoughts on the Upcoming Nye/Ham Rumble

The end is … Nye?

Okay, so the news has been out for a while that Bill Nye, the persona behind one of the big science education TV shows of the 90s, a former vice president of the Planetary Society, and a big advocate for science literacy, will be debating what would appear to be his Bizzaro-world double, the famous creationist Ken Ham. Ham is perhaps best known for being the head of the organization Answers in Genesis and its Creation Museum in Kentucky.

The topic of the debate seems to be focused on the topic of what explains the world better: the modern scientific consensus on astronomy, geology, biology, and physics, or the position of a large number of people with little to no scientific background but have a peculiar reading of one Ancient Near Eastern text. However, in the minds of many on Ham’s side, this is really a battle between “True” Christianity and atheism. And many in the secular community look at this as the continuing fight between science and religion, which in a sense also makes this a debate about God rather than science.

More importantly for many atheists and other non-believers is the question if such a debate in principle should happen, let alone between Bill Nye and Ken Ham.

Some, such as Brian Magee of AHA, Dan Arel of RDF, and biologist Jerry Coyne, are very direct in how this entire venture is wrong-headed, both in in concept and in this particular instance. Richard Dawkins has said in numerous past statements that debating creationists in general is counter-productive. Others, such as Maggie Ardiente of AHA, find there to be more than just a silver lining; rather, it is a potentially great thing to happen. At the Thinking Atheist radio show, there was a great number of perspectives on this subject, as can be heard here:

While my sense is that the secular crowds are more against this debate than for it, I think it’s worth considering first the idea of having these debates in the abstract, and then come down on the points of how the upcoming debate is good or bad, based on the Platonic Form of the ideal debate. Continue reading

Critical Thinking or Opening Pandora’s Box

Critical Thinking or Opening Pandora’s Box.

I will need to talk more about this in a future blog post, but this is some very good information about how teaching critical thinking isn’t at all straight-forward. Factual knowledge is needed, too. After all, it’s hard to assess the quality of your argument is you don’t know what are the facts that could prove or disprove it.