We can do better.

Last year Bill Nye described in a Youtube video why he thinks that Creationism is inappropriate for children. Representatives of the Creation Museum had a response,

There is a lot about the character Bill Nye plays on TV that rubs me the wrong way, all it really manages to accomplish is to celebrate a hollow cargo-cult-like impression of science with a precious little bit of (unfortunately often incorrect) education; beakers without things to mix or measure, fuming liquid nitrogen without things to keep cold, experiments without questions to answer. However in this video Bill Nye is largely incoherent, repeatedly demonstrably wrong in trivial ways, doesn’t put forth or prove a meaningful thesis, and fails to present evidence for his points or meaningfully engage with the ideas of the people he is opposing.  We can do better.

There are not two sides to what a modern scientific theory is. For a theory to be a good one, it must be validated by solid data from diverse sources and approaches, explain natural phenomena, and be useful for making verifiable predictions of what those phenomena will do. The theory of evolution by natural selection is all of these things while the theory of Intelligent Design is only able to explain phenomena based on unrepeatable and subjective reasoning. That does not mean that creationism as an artistic representation of who we are through a metaphorical description of where we come from is stupid, bad, or even unreasonable. However it does mean that as an explanation of natural phenomena it is unverifiable, as well as more importantly, fundamentally not useful. This is the biggest reason why Intelligent Design has no place being taught next to or as a viable replacement for the extraordinarily useful theory evolution in a science classroom. To do so would be to fail to teach science, not just as the collection of facts your teachers tried to cram into you once upon a time but the as the practice of trying to understand the natural world in an intellectually honest way.1

The dichotomy between historical and observational science that the video tries to separate as the central thesis of both the video in the FPP falls together with this understanding of how scientific theories and models actually work, and more importantly, have value. Theoretical models of how both current and past phenomena work have value when they are backed up by agreement from different ways of looking at the phenomena, provide insight into the nature of the phenomenon, allow you to make predictions about the things you will find out next about the phenomenon, and those predictions turn out to be at least close. Ken Ham and the Creation Museum staff seem to have conceded that this is true for the study of natural phenomena in the present, but it is equally true for the study of past phenomena.

For example, the theory of evolution has been verified by the study of the molecular mechanisms of cellular and particularly viral life, and has a mathematically definable predictive value for the discovery of how known mechanisms work in unknown creatures. It works really well – I posted a workshop like thing on metafilter a while ago that you can use to play with doing it yourself. One might say that when God made all of life he gave every creature similar to every other one in a complex inter-relationship that just happens to look exactly like they were related to each other, but then there is work like Rich Lenski’s that shows the generation of new species in 31,000 steps – all of the various steps observed in real time.

Similarly, the theory of evolution has been verified and has predictive value in diverse disciplines such as Biochemistry, Bioengineering, Biogeography, Bioinformatics, Biomathematics, Biophysics, Botany, Cell biology, Developmental biology, Ecology, Embryology, Entomology, Epidemiology, Epigenetics, Genetics, Herpetology, Histology, Ichthyology, Mammalogy, Marine biology, Microbiology, Mycology, Neurobiology, Oncology, Ornithology, Population biology, Paleontology, Pathology or Pathobiology if you really must, Parasitology, Physiology, Phytopathology, Sociobiology, Structural biology, Synthetic Biology, Virology, and Zoology. None of these really make sense in the absence of how fantastically useful evolution is. If a young earth creationist were to try to really study how each of these disciplines work, they would need to at least pretend to accept evolution’s predictive power. This is the paper that David Menton mentions to solidify his argument that evolution is useless, and if you read it, it is clearly making a much more nuanced point.

Even from a theological point of view, the video says something that demonstrates a fundamental lack of biblical literacy:

“Or do we start with the bible, the written revelation of the eyewitness account of the eternal God who created it all”

The Bible is not a homogenous book, and only one of the smaller sections makes any claim to being an eyewitness account of someone who witnessed God, the Epistles of Paul. Every other section of the Bible is written from either a third person perspective or the perspective of someone who makes no claim of themselves actually witnessing Jesus or God. Even then the only account of Paul witnessing God is told from the a third person perspective by his disciple Luke in Acts who did not himself witness the event.

1It is also depressing to me how few of my students in the advanced college level science courses I’ve instructed come equipped to be able to accurately express what a scientific theory is or what one is valuable for.

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