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Date: 2014-02-08
Tags: science

Since the Bill Nye-Ken Ham debate, I’ve been following the subject on Twitter. What’s come to my attention is that many people don’t understand what science is. It doesn’t help that certain terms are thrown around by people no realizing they are confusing if you don’t understand the multiple context they can be used in.

To start, science is being used to refer to methods, collections of knowledge, theories; as such I won’t use the term in this article. So, let’s define some terms:

  • Observation or Evidence — Something that can be seen and measured now (e.g. wavelengths, pressure, temperature, and locations)
  • Theory — A proposed model of how something works
  • Predictions — Expected observations if a theory is true
  • Support — When evidence agrees with a theory, it is said to support it (NB a theory can never be proven, only supported)
  • Disprove — When evidence disagrees with a theory, it is said to disprove it (NB a theory can be disproven, meaning it is not universally true)
  • Scientific Method — The process by which a theory is proposed and tested by observations for support

Ken Ham claims that “historical” science isn’t the same as “observational“
science because we weren’t there to witness the past. What Mr. Ham fails to
realize though, is that a theory only discusses the past in terms of how the
present is. It’s meaningless to say “We didn’t see it so we don’t know“
because the scientific method only deals with observations, which by
definition are something from the present. As such, scientists are not
describing the past through fanciful story, but in terms of “if that
happened, then we should see this” or “We see this, one explanation (which
also fits other observations) is _____”.


Take for example the idea that a large asteroid hit the Earth:

Theory — An asteroid large enough to substantially alter the Earth’s climate for a long period of time, resulting in a mass-extinction event.


  • Iridium Abnormality — Iridium is very rare in the Earth’s crust except for a very thin layer at the Cretaceous–Paleogene boundary.
  • Chicxulub crater, Yucatán Peninsula, Mexio — a large crater (180km in diameter and 20km deep) dated to the end of the Cretaceous and large enough to cause major climate change
  • Decline in biodiversity at the Cretaceous–Paleogene boundary — The fossil record shows a large loss in the types of creatures found after the Cretaceous.While absence of evidence is not evidence, the shear amount of the decline seen statistically points to something happening. Alternate explanations for the loss, or a reason the loss of fossils wasn’t a loss in diversity are welcome, but so far there haven’t been any.

Possible counter-evidence (and reasons for rejected)

  • Volcano’s deposited the Iridium layer — No sustained volcanic eruption has lead to world-wide sedimention and minor climate change for more than a few hundred years (Mt. Rinjani). It was not large enough to cause a mass extinction or cause a large deposition of rare-earth materials. So, while possible, there is no evidence to support it.

In the absence of any other reason, to explain the evidence the theory of an
asteroid impact is considered supported and not disproven. Note! This
doesn’t make it true or fact. Note! This doesn’t rule out other
explanations. This just means that it’s the best that we have right now.


Now, Ham dismisses radiometric dating because the rates of decay may have
been different “back then”. While possible, we have no observations or
reasons to support that theory. Additionally, radiometric dating techniques
agree reasonably well with other techniques, such as sedimentation rates
which rely on different physical processes. In the absence of evidence, we
cannot support Ham’s theory and continue to work with the theory that is
supported by the evidence we have today.

NB Ham mentions some basalt rock and a tree. I’ve been unable to find any
non-creationist source that even mentions this. Before a claim of “it’s
being hidden” is made, I would like you to consider that such a claim, when
substantiated, would make someone’s career and solidify their place in
history texts.

Also, Ham constantly references the Bible, and by proxy God, as the reason and
proof of his theories. God is not testable. Science can neither support or
disprove God; God is outside of what science can discuss. That doesn’t make
God unreal or anything else, it simply means we cannot observe and test God,
which I don’t think a Christian (or any religious) should be terribly opposed

“Science” is not a cult or religion in opposition to religion. “Science” is
the application of the Scientific Method and the collection of observations
and previous applications. “Science” is capable of changing and admitting it’s
wrong when presented with evidence; it’s a way of understanding the physical
world around us. Religion is a way of understanding the spiritual world and
our relationship with God. Science and religion have very little to do with
each other until someone begins calling one the other.

I bet you’d get upset if I called a chess match a game of soccer.