Last week bore witness to a debate on the viability creationism as a lens for the natural sciences. For nearly three hours Bill Nye, a renowned public champion of science, faced off against Ken Ham, the director of the creationist organization Answers in Genesis. Regardless of who “won” the debate, the dialogue was less likely to sway hearts and minds than it was to reinforce the preconceived opinions of the interested parties. Nevertheless, this debate provided an explicit illustration of the fundamental impasse between individuals who rely on a notion of faith, and equate it to truth without subjecting it to further review, and individuals who rely modern scientific perspectives, which constantly seeks to test and revamp their understandings. This impasse has implications not only for natural science but also for social science.
Bill Nye illustrated how the perspectives and beliefs of a scientist are ultimately derived from empirical observation. Nye explained how revisions in these beliefs are contingent upon the emergence of new information. Alternatively, Ken Ham offered a perspective in which empirical observations are interpreted through the lens of the Biblical account of creation. Ham explained that the foundations of his perspectives and beliefs are firmly rooted in the Old Testament. Where scientific assumptions are the subject of continual scrutiny and evaluation, Ham confirmed that his core beliefs are not subject to revision. Ham insists that creationistic perspectives are compatible with the scientific method. However, this point is undermined by the fact that the ability to question and test any assumption is a key tenet of scientific practice.
Ham’s central argument seemed to revolve around the fact that both he and Nye’s beliefs are built upon assumptions. From Ham’s perspective, the assumptions underlying the scientific interpretations of empirical observations are no more valid than assumptions derived from literal interpretation of the bible. Nye suggested in a post-debate interview that Ham is conflating scientific doubt, the idea that an event or a phenomenon invalidates a claim, and scientific uncertainty, the idea that an event or phenomenon is yet to be explained.
Lost in Ham’s assault on scientific assumptions is the fact that not all assumptions are created equally. What differentiates robust scientific theories, which are often presented as fact, from less accepted theories is the amount of evidence that corroborates their claims. For instance, countless studies of organisms and their molecular components have demonstrated that living things are genetically related and that natural selection actively governs the evolution of biological organisms. For this reason, evolution is accepted as fact within the scientific community and is used to interpret the natural world.
However, theories involving the precise shapes and compositions of early life are based on less-substantiated assumptions. While theories on this subject remain the subject of active investigation and debate, they are seldom presented as scientific fact. Scientific progress hinges upon the ability to strengthen critical assumptions for scientific theories through objective experimental evaluation; a process that is at fundamental odds with the idea of accepting the literal words of the Old Testament, or any religious text for that matter, as indisputable fact.
While the subject of the debate was narrowly defined, the implications of this impasse between faith and scientific inquiry are far-reaching. The ability to use evidence to discern a reasonable assumption from an unreasonable one requires critical thinking ability; a skillset currently under siege in several conservative states. Indeed, Nye cited concern for the integrity of scientific education as the central reason for accepting the debate. A key danger in teaching creationism, or any other faith-based belief system, as scientifically sound theory is the implication that explanations for all of remaining unknowns in the natural worlds lie within the teachings of that faith. We can see this pattern in secular contexts too, where beliefs predicated upon “gut instincts” or “common sense” are presented as sufficient to explain problems and questions posed both in the natural and social sciences.
While the source of this conflict between faith and scientific inquiry stems from specific implications of natural sciences, the effects of anti-science sentiments also influence social disciplines that make use of the scientific method. Criminology provides a poignant example.
The discipline of criminology, amongst other things, aims to improve society by making sense of the deviant behavior that leads to crime and the associated costs to society. One of the constant refrains in the US is that the death penalty is an effective deterrent to murder. Irrespective of this not being the case, many politicians and members of the public continue to assert their belief in it being true. The consequences are numerous, but to look at just one: economically, death penalty cases are more expensive than non-death penalty cases.
Another example is drugs. Conservative commentator Peter Hitchens has stated that he believes that if the state were far more severe in its punishment of drug crimes, then drug use would decrease. In the US we have seen this logic applied via zero-tolerance policies and mandatory sentencing. Yet, once again, the deterrence research does not support this claim and we continue to incarcerate people in the United States at an alarming rate, with clear economic, social, and political impacts. In this case, it is clear that “common sense” fails to correspond with the scientific knowledge. When beliefs predicated only on the prevailing “common sense” are used to craft policy, they effectively undermine scientific knowledge.
Yet politicians often evoke the notion of “common sense,” because resonates with the public, who have been conditioned with images presented to them through popular media and culture. There is, however, no one “common sense” especially in regards to complex questions like the death penalty and drug control/regulation. Views are common only within the media circles from which they consume information. Nonetheless, many in the public seem to believe in the universality and infallibility of common sense. However, what meets the eyes is not always what it seems and there is a need to dig deep beyond the superficial façade of problems to build the required knowledge to advance effective policy.
In short, we cannot let beliefs that are not built upon scientific inquiry govern our policy. We must respect Bill Nye’s mission to advance a clear understanding of what science is and how the scientific process works, keeping in mind its applicability in both natural and social science. If we fail to teach this to the coming generations, we risk producing policy that not only fails in its stated goals but exasperates problems. The forefathers wisely separated the church form the state. Nonetheless, today there is an element of belief that still deeply affects policy, by not concerning itself with developing knowledge, predicting outcomes, and reexamining the knowledge when those outcomes fail to pass as predicted. When we pass on that process, it is not possible to advance solutions to problems.