Last night, Bill Nye "The Science Guy" indulged creationist Ken Ham in a debate over the origins of the Earth, specifically over the question "Is creation a viable model of origins in today's modern scientific era?" As The Wire argued yesterday, the fact that Nye even agreed to this debate gives creationists more credibility than they deserve — noble as his efforts to educate the public may be.
Still, we did learn a few things from the debate last night about the ways in which creationists use the English language. "We need to define the terms" was basically the theme of Ham's defense of creationism. By questioning the very meaning of the words that Nye and other scientists deploy in their arguments, Ham very cleverly calls the arguments themselves into question.
For example, take this slide that Ham used in the debate. When you start to unpack the meaning of these sentences, the debate takes on a whole new character.
According to Ham, secularists have "hijacked the word 'science'" because they refer to 'creationists' as separate from 'scientists.' He argues that creationists should be considered scientists, because they rely on experimental and observational science, even though they may reject scientific theories they haven't observed. "You can't observe the past," Ham points out, in the same way, one supposes you can't observe God in action. This is the type of "science" that doesn't rely on traditional idea of theory and evidence (see below) and leads people to ask serious questions like, "If we came from monkeys, then why are there still monkeys?" which most scientists would argue isn't really science at all.
Creationists, however, like to equate the theory of evolution with the theory of creationism, implying that the words mean the same thing in both cases. But in the world of science, theory has a very specific meaning, built around observations and facts. Creationist "theory" is more deeply rooted in beliefs and traditions, and so has more in common with a conspiracy theory than a scientific one. While scientists generally refer to all observed conclusions, even those that turn out to be wrong, as a theories, simply calling something a theory doesn't make it more convincing or more evidence-based.
While debating Nye, Ham argues that science textbooks are "imposing the religion of naturalism/atheism on generations of students," an attempt to flip the science vs. God religion on its head by calling anti-religion, evidence-based models religions of their own. He's not wrong to say that people believe in science like other people believe in religion, but that doesn't address the fact that the reasons for these beliefs (and the texts they are based on) are very, very different.
Nye brought out a block of limestone as evidence that a flood like, say, the one that prompted Noah to build an ark, could not have happened within the time-frame that the Bible allows. This is the type of evidence that scientists rely on, because it is reasonable and repeatable and uses the scientific method to determine the age of the rock, and then conclude that the factual age of the rock can help us determine the theoretical time of a hypothetical flood. Arguing that we should flip the chain of evidence — assuming the flood and figuring out the explanation of the rock from there — make the usual understanding of the word meaningless.
The definition of science as "not-supernatural" is not an arbitrary decision. Maybe that word just doesn't mean what Ham thinks it means.