During his debate last night with the Creation Museum president, Ken Ham, science educator Bill Nye made a simple yet profound response to an audience member’s question. His answer: “I don’t know.”
The question was how human consciousness developed from nothing more than matter and energy. Later in the debate, Nye responded again with “I don’t know”?when asked what came before the Big Bang, the massive explosion that belched all of the star stuff out into the cosmos.
To many watching the debate, Nye’s admittance of uncertainty must have served as some sort of confirmation that even ‘The Science Guy’ himself doubts his own academic principles. But there are different levels of “I don’t know.” In some contexts it might imply ignorance; in others, laziness; in others still, self-doubt. Nye’s “I don’t know” is none of these.
On the contrary, his response reveals an acknowledgement that, though no reasonable or satisfying answer yet exists to either question, one might very well arrive to solve the mysteries that religion and Creationism only purport to explain. As Nye said to Ham:
To you, when [the Book of Genesis] says [God] invented the stars also, that’s satisfying. You’re done… But when I look at the night sky, I want to know what’s out there. I’m driven.
That’s the fundamental difference between Nye and Ham, who were there primarily to debate whether Creationism is a viable enough topic to teach in American science classes. Whereas Nye sees opportunity for growth and exploration in unknown fields, modes of thinking, and mysteries — the “I don’t knows” — Ham sees omissions in knowledge as an assault on the Word of God.?All of life’s answers, according to Ham, can be found in one book. Since the field of science is known for its many (current) omissions in knowledge, what does it mean to teach Creationism — which claims to have all the answers — in a science classroom?
Throughout the evening, the one question that Nye continued to press Ham to answer remained, unsurprisingly, unanswered:
Can the Creationist model be used to make reasonable, empirical predictions?
After all, the scientific method has resulted in many predictions that have been proven true. French mathematician Urbain Le Verrier mathematically predicted the existence of the planet Neptune before it was seen through a telescope. Dmitri Mendeleev, the creator of the periodic table, accurately predicted the existence of then-unknown elements.?Immunologists Almroth Wright and Alexander Fleming predicted decades ago what scientists now warn us about bacteria, namely, that they are increasingly and dangerously becoming resistant to antibiotics as a result of our overreliance on them.?The list goes on, but the implicit subtext of Nye’s question — which, again, Ham could never answer — is simply: How is Creationism practical?
To millions of people, faith in the Word of God has countless benefits — too many to name here — but practicality is not one of them.?There is no Creationist method to compete with the scientific method, the primary system humans have used to gain new knowledge and insights into natural law for the last 400 years.?That Creationism isn’t “practical” does not necessarily mean it’s meaningless to study, of course. Many interesting subjects are impractical yet worth our attention — Norse mythology, humoralism, phrenology — but few people would argue that we should be teaching these topics in today’s science classrooms.
Yet that’s precisely what Ken Ham advocates: teaching unempirical, “magical” (to use Nye’s description) concepts that are strictly at odds with modern science and the scientific method. What’s science if not an exploration of the world around us? Science is asking questions, making observations, formulating hypotheses, skinning your knee when you’re wrong, but getting up anyway to figure it out another way.?Science is sometimes having to say “I don’t know” as Nye did.
With Creationism, on the other hand, there is no sense of inquiry and no need or desire to look past the same old set of answers. On more than one occasion during the debate, Ham cheekily “refuted” Nye’s protracted response to an audience member’s question with:
There’s a book out there that tells us where matter came from… It’s the only thing that makes logical sense.
The book of course being the Bible.?If all we need is a millennia-old book to explain everything about natural law, physics, astronomy, chemistry, and other fields of science, then why are so many professional scientists wasting their time in labs and out in the field? Clearly, there’s much more to learn and discover about our world and ourselves that the Bible doesn’t begin to touch upon.?This?is what we want to instill in our nation’s young people: a sense of discovery and a hunger to solve the “I don’t knows” in life.
Another vital distinction between Bill Nye and Ken Ham is how they reason. As an engineer and scientist, Nye is aware that the burden of proof falls on his shoulders when he claims that the earth is 4.5 billion years old. Such a bold assertion requires some explanation. Ham, however, need only point to the Bible as proof that the earth is a mere 6,000 years old, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.?And how do we know that what’s in the Bible can be trusted? Because God wrote it. And how do we know for sure that He wrote it? Because the Bible tells us He did. This type of cyclical logic doesn’t square with the fundamental processes of scientific inquiry, which our young people sorely need for this country to remain competitive on a global scale.
Indeed, such disdain for anything other than what fits in the Bible’s scope of ideas often leads to academic atrophy.?We saw this with President Reagan’s Secretary of the Interior, James Watt, who allegedly believed that protecting the environment was pointless because the Second Coming was imminent.
We can prevent this archaic, outmoded, and dangerous way of thinking about the natural world if we strongly discourage our school districts from teaching Ken Ham-style Creationism in science classrooms and instead urge them to focus on the principles of modern science.?Students in other countries, some of them not considered our allies, are already outpacing us in science, mathematics, and engineering. It’s only a matter a time before this results in a national security crisis, a warning Bill Nye emphatically made several times throughout the course of the evening.
If you have two hours and 45 minutes to spare, I encourage you to watch the entirety of the debate and see how essential it is to keep Creationism out of our science classes.
Edited by Kyla Davis
_________________________________________________________________________________________________ Joseph Guyer?lives in Texas. An ad man by trade, he firmly agrees?with Bill Clinton that there is nothing wrong with America that can’t be cured by what is right with America. You can read more of his work at?Liberals Unite?and follow him on Twitter?@joerobguy.