The nationally streamed debate in Kentucky between a spokesman for Science (Bill Nye) and an adherent to the Biblical version of biogenesis (Ken Ham) was a national embarrassment (not to say disgrace). That one has to argue for the scientific worldview in the twenty-first century in a nation which has a prestigious history of scientific discoveries, inventions, and international prizes revealed a known and much-regretted fact: That a good deal still needs to be done to spread the spirit and knowledge of science to the general educated public at large, let alone in schools. It is of little consolation that billions of people belonging to other mainstream religions will side with Mr. Ham’s insistence on the validity of scriptural authority on matters relating to the physical world, though allegiances will be to different ancient texts in other cases. The debate was painful to watch for those who have been touched by the knowledge harvested in the past few centuries, and the whole event was no laughing matter, notwithstanding some awkward claims made with a straight face.
In fact, the debate was not between evolution and creationism, nor simply between science and religion, but between reason and unreason, between perspectives that value experiments and coherence in our understandings of the world, and those that honor the legacy of one’s distant cultural ancestors. It was between different ways of acquiring knowledge about the wonders of the world: the rational and the non-rational, the questioning and the respect-for-authority mode.
Dr. Nye was persuasive with all the meticulously accumulated data from geology, paleontology, and biology that he clearly presented. Mr. Ham was persistent in his reverence for the Holy Book and in the literal reading of seven-day creation, Noah’s Ark and the like. One could admire his deep devotion to Christ and after-life, and empathize with his concerns about what strikes him (and many others) as an alarming deterioration in traditional values which have resulted in sexual promiscuity, unwanted pregnancies, increasing drug addiction and the like. It is not clear that these social changes are the result of accepting Darwinian evolution or the big-bang theory. It is not impossible to teach healthier values in a science-respecting framework.
Leaving aside the technical error of saying that Hubble had discovered the recession of stars – actually it was the recession of galaxies – and showing a diagram in this context on how Bessel had determined the distance of a star, Nye pleaded the cause of science with passion and frustration, posing fruitlessly some questions several times to his opponent in the debate. Though most scientifically inclined people like myself were sympathetic to him, there were a few things he said on science’s behalf which have little to do with the merits of science’s case.
Nye kept saying that the scientific question gives him great joy. True, but this eureka-ecstasy cannot be experienced by those who have not done science, and they are the vast majority. Then again Hams gets similar joy from reading the Bible and signing the Psalms. That does not make his position stronger either. Then Nye kept warning Kentuckians that if they did not adopt the scientific worldview, the United States would fall behind in its scientific leadership. Well, for quite some time now the U. S. has been among the leading nations in science, in spite of anti-evolutionists. The fact is, as long as there is a body of serious scientists in any nation, there will always be creative scientists. This is not an argument against science education but a recognition that scientific breakthroughs, like good art and great music, are always done by only a select few everywhere. Then again, Nye’s threat that if we do not embrace science we will fall behind economically is not valid either. Dubai and Saudi Arabia are doing economically quite well, thank you, without subscribing to Darwin and while upholding their own holy book.
The greatest argument for science is that it expands our mind and our enhances our values too. The tug today, in the United States as elsewhere too in the world, is between those (cultures and individuals within cultures) who choose to linger in the past, fettered by worldviews and values that are anachronistic and sometimes unconscionable, and those who are informed by the immense body of knowledge that the sciences have brought to humankind and have been awakened by the transnational, transreligious, and transcultural worldview that the scientific quest has sculptured. That worldview is ennobling, magnificent and mind-expanding in its own right, far more so than any that humanity has constructed over the millennia.
The intelligent recognition of the scientific worldview need not deter us from respecting the views of distant generations as fruits of past endeavors of the human spirit, or from valuing their insights in so far as they are uplifting and foster love and compassion, or from enjoying the great art and music and poetry that religious visions have prompted in all cultures. But honoring the great visionaries of the past should not arrest the exciting quest for new knowledge and understanding accruing from exploration and new insights, nor repudiate the fruits of that quest.
February 5, 2014