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Wednesday, June 25, 2014

The U.S. needs more scientists, and Ken Ham isn't helping

In February of this year, millions of Americans tuned in to see how popular scientist Bill Nye would fare in public exchange with Ken Ham, president of the largest organization promoting young-Earth creationism. I've already given my thoughts on the debate, but a few weeks after the fact, a good friend of mine challenged a key accusation from Bill Nye, which got me thinking. During his closing remarks, Nye exhorted the audience to extinguish YEC from the public sphere for the sake of our society:

"I say to the grownups, if you want to deny evolution and live in your world, in your world that's completely inconsistent with everything we observe in the universe, that's fine, but don't make your kids do it because we need them. We need scientifically literate voters and taxpayers for the future. We need people that can — we need engineers that can build stuff, solve problems."

I don't doubt the sincerity of Nye's invitation, with which I (and many of you) can empathize fully. The underlying implication, however, is that one cannot succeed in the natural sciences if one is caught up in the young-Earth paradigm touted by Ken Ham. Being the sharp public speaker that he is, Mr. Ham anticipated this sort of accusation in his opening presentation, during which he broadcasted short interviews with U.S. scientists that accept the young-Earth position. I would conjecture that Nye's exhortation thus fell on deaf ears among the audience, who had just witnessed firsthand that YEC's can be effective scientists and engineers.

Evolution and technological development

In particular, Ken Ham highlighted the work of creationist Raymond Damadian, who invented the MRI. Through this case in point, Ken Ham established well that believing in a young Earth and rejecting evolution does not necessarily cripple you from solving scientific problems and developing the technology needed in our modern world.

Ham proceeded to challenge Nye to cite one piece of technology that could not have been developed apart from accepting an 'old Earth' and 'molecules-to-man' evolution. We should give Mr. Ham credit for making his point clearly, but in the spirit of honest discourse, we must recognize that his challenge is extremely misguided.

In limiting this challenge to 'pieces of technology', Ken Ham subtly tried to link the theory of evolution to all other disciplines, as though this foundational principle of biology were some sort of epistemological framework on which all secular knowledge is built. This overstated connection—completely foreign to actual scientists and most Christians—is illustrated well in a couple graphics used by AiG and creationists around the web. The first appeared in Ken Ham's presentation, as I recall:

According to this cartoon, believing in evolution and/or 'millions of years' constitutes a philosophical framework that sprouts all the world's problems, as well as an attack on the integrity of sacred scripture. Alternatively, this set of beliefs is a tree of 'bad fruit' that is rooted in sin:

What is missing from this implied philosophical connection is a sound argument to support it. The theory of evolution is not morally prescriptive (i.e. it cannot tell you what you ought to do in life); rather, it is an explanatory framework through which relevant data in biology, geology, anthropology, etc. are scientifically coherent. If we share a common ancestry with other primates, it does not logically follow that you can freely rape women (as YEC Darek Isaacs put it). Following the logic of Ken Ham, the observed fact that genocidal dictators with military support often do get their way would imply that they ought to get their way. As for the rest of us, we can distinguish between an objectively descriptive theory in science and a morally prescriptive philosophy.

Ham's false dichotomy between a system where "man decides truth" and "God's word is truth" serves well to keep his audience skeptical of both evolution and mainstream geology. Ultimately, however, we must deal with the fact that to read and understand God's word, we utilize the same cognitive abilities that allow us to reconstruct the common ancestry of life on Earth over millions of years.

Coming back to Ken Ham's challenge, we might be hard pressed to find a piece of technology that demands a belief in evolution or an old Earth. Of course, this is as meaningful as finding a successful businessman who rejects string theory. On the other hand, thousands of scientific instruments (including mass spectrometers, seismic detectors, and equipment to read the human genome) were developed to test hypotheses that confirmed 'molecules-to-man' evolution and an old Earth. Genuine scientific inquiry inspires and facilitates technological development like a catalyst, so as far as I'm concerned, Ham's challenge has been answered countless times.

Why are Evangelicals underrepresented in the sciences?

So it's possible to be a creationist that designs medical equipment, invents better cell phones, or builds spacecraft. But how does the prevalence of young-Earth creationism affect public attitudes toward science? I would hypothesize that by selectively undermining entire subdisciplines (like geochronology, climatology, or evolutionary ecology), Ken Ham and his organization have all but extinguished the genuine curiosity that would otherwise drive members of his audience toward those fields. Why spend 6 years in poverty (i.e. graduate school) to specialize in a subject rooted in lies and bad science? Why contribute to scientific research that begins with a rejection of God's word? Intentionally or not, Ken Ham has scared young scientists from taking the necessary steps to realize their dreams and make an impact on the scientific community. If you believe that the Bible is God's word, and God's word is truth, then this is a step backward for Christianity.

And even if you don't, but still believe that science is foundational to modern society, you can agree this is a step backward for humanity.

Only two weeks after the Ham/Nye debate, Christianity Today reported on a study that confirmed my suspicions. Despite the overall positive tone, given that a large percentage of 'rank and file' scientists identify as Christian, I noticed immediately that Christians are underrepresented in the scientific community compared to the general population. This feature is quantified in Table 5 of the original study by Ecklund (2014) from Rice University:

According to these polling data (n = 10,241), Evangelical Protestants are the single most underrepresented religious group among U.S. scientists. Mainline Protestants and Catholics, who are more likely to accept mainstream biology/geology, are slightly better represented, consistent with my purported connection to the 'science skepticism' of creationist claims. Ecklund (2014, p. 13–14) writes:
"Evangelical Protestants... are more than twice as likely as the overall sample to say they would turn to a religious text, a religious leader, or people at their congregation if they had a question about science."
It is important to note that being religious does not necessarily deter one from becoming a scientist in the U.S. While atheists/agnostics are better represented among scientists, unsurprisingly, it is not nearly to the same extent as Jewish Americans or the catch-all category of Middle and Far Eastern faiths. So I would encourage you to read the original study, which I don't intend to review exhaustively here.


Among religious groups where YEC ministries have the greatest impact, relatively fewer congregants pursue careers in the natural sciences. Ken Ham may believe that one can be an effective scientist as a creationist, and he may be right. But Bill Nye's exhortation to extinguish YEC from the public sphere for the sake of modern society is equally valid. It appears the prevalence of YEC in the U.S. can impact our reputation as a leader of research, technology, and design.


  1. Sorry, I posted the below comment at the WRONG blog entry (one dated 6 June).

    I value scientific knowledge about the past even if it has no direct technological or practical application. If we evolved I wish to know that we did and that it took a very long time.

    It seems that Mr Ham does NOT - unless of course the knowledge is Bible interpretations rather than any genuine scientific discovery gradually acquired.

  2. The problem is that so called creationist scientists have to perform an extreme level of mental compartmentalization to accept rigid dogmatic adherence to biblical creation and follow the rigours of the scientific method simultaneously. Very few people are capable of this. The truth is that the process of science demands a deep level of skepticism, which the concepts of instantaneous creation, a global flood and a young Earth have been falsified, again and again, by multiple, independent lines of evidence. In contrast, both evolution and deep time have passed with flying colours.

    That's why so many YECs end up rejecting the faith altogether at college - once they end up gaining in-depth knowledge of how scientists arrive at their conclusions, they undergo a huge spiritual/mental crisis. How many Andy Mcintoshes or Raymond Damadians will you have? An infinitesimal speck to the number of non-YEC christian/atheist scientists who established breakthroughs in science and technology.

    What do you think? Did you experience this as well, as a devout Christian in a controversial scientific field?

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