Upcoming talk at MIT

This Monday, February 27th, I will be giving a talk for the Secular Society of MIT as part of a lecture series they are starting called Course 0. This will be a part of helping people engage in critical thinking on the subjects of science, religion, secularism, and many intersecting cultural areas.

As is usual for me, this talk will highlight my research on the Star of Bethlehem, and because of that Christmas theme, that means people will be wearing the ugliest Christmas sweaters they can. I encourage it! This does appear to be a public event, so let’s see who all in the Greater Boston area wants to come. I’ll also have my book available. Details in the FB link here.


Recent Math Book Reviews

Connecting to my previous post on the need to be well-read-up in order to do critical thinking, I am going to be doing a series of book reviews.

Here I want to discuss a few books published recently and which I have read in the last few months that are focused on math. They are not books on how to do math (i.e., textbooks), but instead they discuss mathematical concepts and their relations to ways of thinking about the world. Sometimes they touch on theological issues, sometimes a lot. But all three are good reads.

Dot, Dot, Dot: Infinity Plus God Equals Folly 

Infinity is a really, really weird concept. It takes any intuitions we have and makes us say apparently silly things. But there are rigorous ways of dealing with infinity, but there are also limitations, even for the most brilliant mathematicians.

One of the points is that you never really reach infinity. No matter where you start on a number line or how long you count forward, you never even get closer to infinity. This means that it is not possible to use something finite to create an infinite set. That is, you cannot construct infinity from finite sets and operations. Hence we get lazy when writing a set that is supposed to go on forever with … (hence the title of the book). And yet we can talk about infinite sets. In fact, we can talk about different sized infinities. If that didn’t make sense to you, then you are getting the point about how weird infinity is.

In this book, mathematician James Lindsay shows many important points about how infinity is used and understood by mathematicians and how the terminology is poorly used in other contexts, especially when applied to God. In many ways the book is focused on problems with the infinite god concept, but what I found as one of the more interesting threads running through the book is the problem with mathematical Platonism. What Lindsay shows very well is how much math is a human project. We chose the various axioms and definitions, and those different choices can lead to all sorts of amazing conclusions. But showing how much math is a human invention, it shows that there isn’t really a “true form” of the set of all rational numbers and the like. We chose the rules. Historically, there have been arguments about whether negative numbers are really numbers, or if i is a number or not. Or even if zero is a number! Why do most people consider these objects numbers in the end? Because of what we can do with them. They are practical, even imaginary numbers (I couldn’t do the physics I learned in grad school without them).

Seeing the human side of math (rather than the human side of certain mathematicians) was excellent, especially when it comes to the sorts of concepts that bugger human comprehension. I value the volume for doing more than just showing what makes an infinite God incoherent, but it shows how much math is truly a human adventure and not simply that boring stuff forces on you in school.

The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules our Lives 

Infinity blows our intuitions away because of how far it is beyond our experience, but we live in a world where apparently random things happen. Nonetheless, we get confused and confounded by probabilities all the time. Here physicist Leonard Mlodinow shows many aspects of the historical threads that touch on how we developed and understand probability. There is plenty of talk about gambling with games of chance, but that’s largely because a lot of probability theory was first developed to understand just that. Sometimes we joke that lotteries are a tax on those that are bad at math, but really understanding math (especially statistics) belies that argument (a really good anecdote for that is talked about in the next book below).

When it comes to thinking about things in the political arena, this book is great because of the focus it provides on judicial cases. There are plenty of ways that probabilities can be abused, where meager evidence is made to look extraordinary by making sins of probability calculation. In particular, not all probabilities are independent. Consider the following numbers that I have made up: 1/3 of men have a mustache, 1/3 of men have a beard. What is the probability of a man having a mustache and a beard? If you multiple those two fractions together, you get 1/9. However, these are hardly independent probabilities; if you have a mustache, you are more likely than average to have a beard as well. Heck, with current fashion trends as I have noticed it may be more rare to have a mustache without a beard–perhaps it makes people think porn-stache. Why would this sort of consideration be important? Well, suppose you have an eyewitness say a suspect has a mustache and beard. If you nab a person fitting that description he won’t be nearly as likely a suspect as you think; it is not 1 in 9. Moreover, considering that in a given city there could be a million people, then the chances of nabbing the right suspect by using these criteria are really bad. And yet a case like this (with some additional details) was used at first to convict a couple of a significant crime.

It’s number games like this that make it in fact difficult to know what are the real numbers if you are on a jury. You can be told that a DNA sample matching a random person is less than one in a million, and so you think a positive match in a court case means that person’s blood being at the scene of the crime is really high (more than 99.9999%). But a more relevant probability is the lab making a mistake, like mixing up which sample to test. That is much more probable. Still not likely (less than 1 in a 100), but not as super-solid as you think.

So if you are deciding a person’s life, an idea of what constitutes good evidence and what reasonable doubt would mean should be well-shaped. Even if you don’t have numbers, thinking about things in terms of less than, more than, equal, much less than, etc., is very important to making such decisions. And for a lot of other things. We live in a world that is governed by the unpredictable and probabilistic, and not just at the quantum level. Books likes this from Mlodinow help tune our probability intuitions. Also, Mlodinow is a great and humorous writer.

How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking 

The title is ambitious, no? But there is truth in how powerful thinking mathematically can be. A refrain of this book is that math is the extension of common sense. Instead of thinking of math as a bunch of algorithms to memorize and steps to get to the “right” answer, what math is supposed to do is model ones thinking. And if you model your thinking clearly and consistently, then you can more confidently achieve accurate results.

More importantly, though, it to see if you project your reasoning does it lead to nonsense? In the first section of this book by mathematician Jordan Ellenberg there is a lot of emphasis on how not all curves are lines. By that, he means that not all trends are so straight-forward as have more, get more. For example, there is the concept of the Laffer Curve. This is about what should the tax rate be if the government wants to maximize its income. Obviously if the tax rate is zero, then the government will take in nothing. If you raise the tax rate, then you can bring in more money. But does that mean a higher rate rate always brings in more? If you made the tax rate 100%, then no one would have an incentive to work since all of their money is taken from them. Might as well not work at all, or find ways of hiding it. So again, the government will take in no income. Thus, the optimum tax rate for government income must be between 0 and 100%. Where that is is an empirical question (and if that is a worthy goal is another question), but clearly increases the tax rate is not going to necessarily mean more income. And of course, if you absurdly make the tax rate greater than 100% then no way will anyone work since you will owe more than you have no matter how much you work. In other arenas, it is clear that following a linear model of the relationship between things is not reasonable and even ridiculous.

Now, there is some overlap between this book at the previous two above, but Ellenberg’s volume covers a lot of areas in math and its relation to arguments and concepts in the real world, sometimes with surprising results. Would you guess that using a finite geometry you can figure out what are the best lottery tickets to pick are, given certain lottery rules for winning? A group buying up tickets in Massachusetts did, and they pulled in some serious dough.

One of the sections of the book I found most interesting is how our measure of public opinion can give contradictory results. Suppose on third of voters want to not cut spending, one third want to cut spending and cut it from defense, and one third want to cut spending and cut it from entitlements. If a politician doesn’t cut spending, 2/3rds will be unhappy; if a politician cuts spending in defense, 2/3rds will be unhappy; and if a polotician cuts spending on entitlements, 2/3rds will be happy. In other words, no course of action is the “right” one, as no matter what a majority will be against you. Now, you could instead rank priorities. For example, the first person may say their first choice is to no cut spending at all, but if spending had to be cut it should first come from defense before coming from entitlements. Another person can also rank their choices as they see fit. If you say the first choice is given 2 points, the second choice 1 point, and the third choice 0, then you can add up the choices of everyone and find where the ranked preferences lead. This method, called the Borda count, is similar to how your GPA is calculated (A = 4, E/F = 0), and it is used in some elections around the world. With it, you can get a different result than you would with the majority vote system. You could imagine how it would have affected the 2000 US Presidential elections; almost all of the votes for Ralph Nader would have gone to Gore and then Gore would have wold Florida (and thus the presidency), so a Borda count could have changes the history of the first decade of the 20th century (how much, I don’t know). But there exist other ways of potentially running a voting system, and they all have points to consider. If you consider all the options, you realize that it is possible to get different results with different polling/voting methods. So it’s almost like there isn’t really public consensus on issues, unless there is a significant majority.

I won’t get into everything Ellenberg goes into, and I want to leave his stories of the various mathematicians and statisticians as he tells them. But the key point is that you can see how you can build your own mathematical models of what you think is correct or fair and reasonable and see that it implies. Don’t consider math just stuff with calculators but a way of thinking. It won’t guarantee you are right, but it’s a far more useful and enlightening way to figure out the world. The real world, not just that of abstractions.

Critical Thinking and Expert Consensus

Here’s a problem: how to you know what is right if you don’t explore the question for yourself?

While we should strive to only accept those things which we can verify for ourselves, that is simply impossible to do in all things. We can’t all do our own cancer treatment studies, for example. Doing just one such study takes huge amounts of time, money, effort, and knowledge in getting results and interpreting them. And that would be just one study. What about food safety, or discoveries in modern physics? It’s implausible that you will be trying to double-check that you can create your own superconductor at higher temperatures.

So either you have to be ignorant about so much that is important in the modern world, or you need to accept the work done by others. But how reliable can that be? We know individuals lie or are mistaken all the time, and being an expert or well-experienced in a field doesn’t stop that from happening. It’s easy to point to examples in recent times, such as scientists paid to argue against the connection between smoking and lung cancer as well as other examples detailed in Merchants of Doubt. However, one of the authors of that book, Naomi Oreskes, argues that we should still trust the scientific enterprise as she details well in this TED talk.

Simple summary of why we trust science.

In particular, Oreskes says we should put our trust not in individuals experts but scientific consensus, a wisdom of the crowd of experts in a subject. And the reason that the scientific consensus should be given weight rather than, say, the consensus of astrologers on their subject, is because of the nature and values of science, especially its organized skepticism. So, if there is a group of people with expertise in a subject, and if that community of experts evaluates a claim and it goes through debate and is analyzed with good data and skeptical inquiry, and that group comes to a consensus, those of us outside of that group have good reason to trust the results of that group; at the very least, it is much more likely that they are right than wrong, and you are unable to determine otherwise.

Or are you?

The question now arises as to when might you have reason to doubt the consensus? Perhaps now those outside of the group doing the research can evaluate the claims because so much of the data and analysis papers are online we can go figure it out for ourselves. The problem is, that is much harder than one thinks. That point is made well in Harry Collins’s book Are We all Scientific Experts Now? With the particular example of so-called Climategate, we see what happens when emails by the researchers are cherry-picked and misunderstood to mean something dastardly. Additionally, Collins shows the healthcare disaster in South Africa when the president of that country did his research online and then denied the use of anti-retroviral drugs to alleviate the spread of HIV to newborn children. Doubting the consensus to go with the minority report or fringe view tends to lead to misunderstanding and even suffering.

But why do people outside of the expert researchers fail to examine the evidence properly? And are we doomed to just trust the consensus no matter what? What can a regular person do to make sure that they have justified reason to trust any or all given consensuses? About two months ago, Richard Carrier posted a blog entry on that subject on how to evaluate an argument from consensus, and since then he has discussed the question in a few different places, in particular this video chat on Inspiring Doubt.

Carrier does make good points about when a consensus may not be a reliable consensus (if the experts haven’t evaluated the methods critically or having considered the opposing arguments, which is why astrologers cannot be trusted when they state astrology works), but one thing in particular comes up in that blog post and his interview: our use of critical thinking skills to evaluate the arguments of the experts, especially if against a fringe view. And while it is true that if you can see someone continuously using fallacious arguments you have reason to doubt the strength of that person’s position, there is trouble with using critical thinking. This is in part to something echoed by Chris Hallquist, Julia Galef, and Luke Muehlhauser, and in part it is related to the talk I will be giving at the upcoming SSA East conference next weekend.

So, what is wrong with critical thinking?  Continue reading

Faith-Based Initiatives for the Star of Bethlehem in Secular Places

One of the points I have tried to drive home with my research on the various hypotheses about what was the Star of Bethlehem has been that it is more a religious rather than scientific exercise. In my 2012 article for Zygon I showed how naturalistic explanations for the Star only started when miracles were becoming ridiculous to the scholarly and had to mad-dash for anything to save face. Now the project is in the hands almost exclusively of those that are not Bible scholars or historians. I also showed examples of how such research was directly said to be used for apologetic of faith-based ends.

In my book, The Star of Bethlehem: A Skeptical View, I expanded a bit on this when I also looked at the use of the UFO explanation for the Star. An additional point was made by the author of my preface, Bob Berman. He noted how planetaria had been pushing this show for decades and either didn’t care or knew that it was impossible. It was popular and traditional, so that seems to be enough reason for these things to last.

I haven’t stopped looking for sources, and I just came across another one where the director of a major US museum states rather clearly that the presentations are, in part, to renew the faith in those watching or listening. The location in question is the Franklin Institute, a notable museum in Philadelphia named after its famous resident, Ben “100 Dollar” Franklin. The Institute has had a journal since a very early point in its history, going back to the 1820s and continues today. As is normal, the director of the museum can have some space to editorialize and the like.

In a Dec 1954 issue of the Journal of the Franklin Institute, director A.C. Carlton provided a note about the museum’s Star of Bethlehem presentation. Among other things, he said

To those who see the demonstration for the first time there comes the awed realization that here is a new method for replenishing faith by reviving old traditions and investing them with new vigor.

Carlton noted that for those who had seen the show before only need to be reminded of its December traditional presentation. In other words, it is a show that brings in an audience and it does so because it “replenish[es] faith” in old traditions. That is hardly a secular goal, let alone a scientific one.

That it strikes a popular chord may also be a clue as to how this show became a part of the standard planetary curriculum since the 1930s. Instead of an astronomer or historian of science, it appears to be that the first planetarium show about the Star of Bethlehem came from a certain James Stokley (1900-1989). Educated with a bachelors in education and a masters in psychology from U Penn, Stokley became a science news reporter in DC for a while before visiting planetaria around the world and being inspired to become a director of such a place. The planetarium was hot and new in the 1920s in Europe and America, and considering how massive and amazing the Zeiss projectors were, no wonder it captured his imagination.

In the 1930s, it seems his dreams came true as he was a major presenter in planetaria such as the Fels Planetarium of the Franklin Institute and later the Buhl Planetarium. According to his obit he had a column in Science News for over 50 years and spent most of the 1930s working at Fels. It seems there he developed the first Star of Bethlehem show, which proved to be very popular, as noted by the Biographical Encyclopedia of Astronomers and in Theaters of Time and Space: American Planetaria, 1930-1970. It seems that Stokley, because of his journalism background, knew what chords would strike with an audience and how to be a good showman, so it seems that it takes someone of such background to present something that would be controversial to experts but great for laymen.

(Also of note, Stokley gave the first planetarium show even viewed by Albert Einstein, and Stokley later became a professor at my alma mater, Michigan State.)

You can read this good article on Buhl Planetarium’s Star of Bethlehem show and its history, again noting the influence of Stokley. I think I have a new line in researching the influence of the content of planetarium shows and how religion has become such a big part of what is seen during the holidays. At this time though, it seems that a significant reason why the Star of Bethlehem has become such as big part of early and recent holiday science shows is because it proved to grab an audience, especially when the show is well-crafted and pulls on the faithful heartstrings.

My Talk on Ancient Aliens and Modern UFOs is Now Up!

Good news, everyone! My talk for the Illini Secular Student Alliance at UIUC back in April is now up for everyone to see. In my presentation, I talk about the 20th century origins of the ancient astronaut hypothesis (now in its modern TV form, Ancient Aliens), the sorts of claims about the past and why they don’t hold up, and into the sorts of claims related to modern UFOs and alien visitations–that is, close encounters. I also get to bring up my research and book on the Star of Bethlehem.

You can watch the talk here (kindly recorded and edited by Illini SSA group members):

At the end I provided a bunch of links to useful websites, which I reproduce here:

If I made any significant mistakes, feel free to let me know. And of course, I don’t mind if you let others know about the presentation. 🙂

The Decline and Fall of Classical Education? MSU and the Future

The other day a post went up by the David Meadows (a.k.a., the Rogue Classicist) about a story from Michigan State, my alma mater. It was about the story of the last person to graduate from MSU in classics. That is because in 2009 the university decided to bring down the hatchet on certain departments for budgetary reasons. Sadly, one of those was the classics department, and now they are no longer taking on new majors. A search through the course catalog shows that they are still teaching Latin, but Greek has little to no presence now. Classical studies also shows nothing.

The full article from the Lansing State Journal included a few statements from one of my professors in Greek from MSU, William Blake Tyrrell.

He said MSU was “giving up its commitment to what a university should be.”

I can very much get behind that sentiment. It’s symbolically sad also given that the mascot of MSU is the Spartan; now Spartans have to go somewhere else to learn the language of the Spartans (or at least one of its variants).

For a bit of personal background, I took a year of Greek and Latin at MSU in my senior year because I wanted to have greater access to ancient sources, in particular related to my interests in biblical studies. By no means am I anywhere near the fluency of my professors, but I certainly believe I learned a lot from them. Strangely, that has also helped me in my physics research since I also had to look at Greek and Latin sources when examining physics concepts through the ages. So I may be a bit biased. Then again, the chopping block had also come down on the geology department, and I think that that was a poor idea as well.

But it is worth reflecting on the need for such a field of study in modern universities. It is not possible to have all possible departments at all universities; for example, MSU doesn’t seem to have had anything in Assyriology or anything with cuneiform studies–a script that had been used by several civilizations for thousands of years, longer than has the alphabet. And it’s not like there aren’t more things to discover in that field (I’m currently reading Irving Finkel’s The Ark before Noah who shows great passion for the subject and that the British Museum has plenty more even in its cabinets to discover and translate). Even besides having the money to fun every such academic pursuit, there also needs to be student demand. When I took Latin, we had about a full class, and the second semester was still pretty full; in Greek, the first class was relatively small and the second semester was less than ten (I think about five at the end). That won’t be reflective of all places (I have been told that here at OSU there are about 50 people in classical studies majors right now), but it is a reality that there isn’t a groundswell of student demand for dead languages.

Along with that, there is the question on how to make sure that what you learn with a degree in classics translates into making a living. Outside of academic pursuits, it is hard to directly translate ones ability to read archaic Greek into cash or employment. Is it the case then that learning these things is really just for those with the extra time and money to take the classes rather than it being something that has a demand in itself from society? Is this little more than something for the privileged?

I would like to argue that that isn’t (totally) true, and there is reason to have such studies in universities even if other possible pursuits are not also included. The primary reason is that it is really impossible to understand so much of the modern world Americans (and Europeans) live in and how it was shaped. Whether we are talking about how the Founding Fathers came to their political ideas (they read their Cicero, for one thing), or much of modern literature that is filled with allusions to Greek and Roman myth and history, or, even more fundamentally, understanding our very language. While learning Akkadian would be necessary to understanding ancient Mesopotamia, it has much less impact on our way of speech than does Greek, let alone Latin. Personally, I think I have been understood the structure of English better by learning these languages, even more so than when I have been taught modern ones.

Now, why teach the Greek myths rather than, say, Chinese ones? Why consider the poetry of Homer necessarily more highly than an African or Far Eastern authors? To this, there is not a good response. I would be hard-pressed to claim that Homer and Virgil were the best poets in the history of the world, better than what any other culture had produced. On the other hand, it is the case that in the West we are much closer to the myths of Homer than of anything from China, be it phrases such as “between Scylla and Charybdis” or our awareness of the names of the Greek gods even in a non-pagan, Christian (or secular) society. My physics students know when I am referring to the Odyssey (they can just barely remember the name of the cyclopes, Polyphemus). Our heritage is still the most bound up with the Mediterranean and its ancient peoples and stories. There is still the pull from legends of Jason and his Argonauts, or the intrigue of the late Roman Republic and early Empire. It is not because these civilizations were the best ever, or even the best in their time, but because they are the ones that still echo to us in this day and age. That should be reason to know what was written by these people–they in effect made us the way we are. That isn’t to say we should not learn Chinese stories or the language, just that our cultural heritage should prioritize knowing itself.

I don’t know if petitioning MSU will have any effect, but all I can do is encourage people to know their own pasts. To be fair, learning these old languages is hard (I am no master, not by a long shot), but to understand the cultures that produced them and produced the myths and stories that make our current cultural background should be rewarding to all. And sometimes fun (my favorite sentence from Latin: malo malo malo malo). And not having people knowing this fills me with μήνιος.

Okay, time for some preposition exercises with a lion.

Reflections on #Cosmos Episode 1


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

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.