Jeff Spevak, Writer

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Evolution vs. creationism: A Ham on Nye sandwich

A handful of science Grumpycats warned Bill Nye to not do it. Don’t get onstage and debate that creationist guy. It’ll lend credibility to the anti-science crowd.

Nye went ahead with it anyway. Tuesday night he crawled into the den of ignorance, defending evolution against Ken Ham, founder of the Creation Museum, right there on Ham’s home turf. A so-called learning center in Petersburg, Ky., that suggests dinosaurs and humans once lived side by side. For me, this was must-see Internet.

Bill Nye the Science Guy is one of my heroes.  He speaks truth to lunacy.

For more than two hours, in what was generally a civil debate, Nye and Ham went at the question of whether Ham’s claim that creationism is a realistic explanation for the existence of mankind. The combatants each got a five-minute opening statement, followed by a half-hour slot to plead their case. I’ve included the entire video here, including the 13 minutes of pre-show New Age music to calm you down.

Ham started, and presenting a slide show of murky logic, the most obvious point being his contention that there are two kinds of science: Observational science and historical science.If I understood Ham correctly, observational science is what scientists can see today. Historical science is stuff that happened in the past. Since we’re not there, he argued, we don’t really know, do we?

The yawning hole in Ham’s logic here is enough to sail an arc through: If “not being there” refutes scientific data – such as counting tree rings to see how old the tree is – doesn’t that also refute using The Bible as a historical record? It isn’t an extemporaneous document. It’s authors didn’t know Adam and Eve.

Nye countered with fossils, geology, the stars. Science facts that add up to the Earth being 4.6 billion years old, not the 4,000 to 6,000 that Ham believes it is, as a literal interpretation of The Bible suggests. Nye went after the physical impossibility of a worldwide flood, and the logistical improbability of a Noah’s Ark. He pointed out that the sharp teeth of lions shows they weren’t vegetarians during Noah’s time, as Ham claims. The further Ham got from his opening half hour, the more ragged his argument grew.

The final portion of the debate was questions from the audience. They were a tough audience. They wanted to know, how do life forms develop a conscious state? Nye admitted he didn’t know some of these answers. He didn’t know what was there before the Big Bang, and the creation  of the universe. No one does, he said.

“There’s a book that has the answer,” was Ham’s reply to those big questions.

Bill Nye the Education Hero said several times during the debate that we can’t allow a generation or two of American kids to go though school with an improper science foundation. We’ll fall behind, he said. We must invest in research. America must continue to innovate. Faith and religion can be a wonderful thing, but they doesn’t create life-saving medical procedures. They don’t create the Internet, they don’t create the advances in farming that allow the Earth to feed seven billion people. The Bible may be inspirational literature, but it doesn’t have all of the answers. Moses wasn’t splitting atoms.

The scientists who pissed and moaned about Nye going onstage with a creationist don’t understand that he’s standing up to forces that want to spend our increasingly limited resources on religious dogma. And it has to be their religious dogma, not that of any of the thousands of gods who have walked the planet for centuries.

Nye is standing up to the people who would cut NASA funding in favor of vouchers for charter schools whose curriculum are irradiated with dubious academics. The anti-science Neanderthals are dangerous. Today, one out of every three Americans do not believe in evolution.

What was perhaps Nye’s most-brilliant comment of the night seemed to pass unnoticed, after he admitted we don’t have answers to many of the world’s mysteries. Some day, he insisted, perhaps we will, if we keep working at it. Nye came off as a man delighted by the wonder and mysteries of the universe. Ham, as he pointed out, is simply satisfied with the answers that he reads in The Bible.

Hey, are you calling Carl Sagan stupid?

Marijuana_jointWith the onrushing Super Bowl featuring combatants from the two states that have legalized the recreational use of marijuana, this seems as good a time as any to recall a conversation during a dinner party at our house over the holidays.

It was late in the evening, post meal, and 10 of us were sitting at the dining-room table, surrounding a mountain of empty wine bottles. There would be hell to pay in the morning. It was getting pretty loud in the room. And someone asked, “What’s the hardest drug we’ve all taken?”

When the question came around to me, I kind of ignored it. That’s how I deal with any problem Maybe it’ll go away. It’s how I handled the broken latch on the front door. I put off taking it apart, put it off, put it off… and then, one day, it was magically working again. It still is. Pretty cool.

But someone kept pushing me on the drug question. I guess they figured the local rock music critic would have quite a story here.

“I think you’re going to be disappointed,” I said.

They were. Just about everyone had larger experiences in narcotics than I have. Mostly hallucinogens. No one volunteered any encounters with exotic excretions from amphibians, but they hit all of the benchmarks. Acid. Mushrooms.

And every one of these reprobates is a solid citizen. With a job. A loving, long-term personal relationship. With well-balanced kids, or content pets. A creative force in music or art.

Their drug days are now over, or at least so sporadic as to hardly count.

Now, not for a minute am I suggesting that there isn’t a drug problem in this world. There is, and it’s significant. I have friends who have fallen prey to it. I raise this issue not simply because of Sunday’s Stoner Bowl, but because there has been a lot of odd talk about dope over the last month.

David Brooks is the frequently wrong conservative columnist of The New York Times. I say frequently wrong because Brooks likes to write about the economy, then his co-worker Paul Krugman, a Pulitzer Prize winner in economics,  follows up with a column that has to clean up the mess. So Brooks has a habit of writing about things in which he has no expertise.

But not marijuana. Brooks has expertise there. He used to smoke dope as a teenager. Then he got bored and moved on to bigger things, like telling the rest of us how to lead our lives. He started off the New Year by creating quite an Internet giggle with a column called “Weed: Been There. Done That.” His point, which you can read here, was Colorado and Washington were wrong to legalize it. He wrote:

What sort of individuals and behaviors do our governments want to encourage? I’d say that in healthy societies government wants to subtly tip the scale to favor temperate, prudent, self-governing citizenship.

I’m not going waste any time beyond this one sentence to point out the hypocrisy of the anti-government conservative folks suggesting our government should encourage specific individuals and behavior.

Brooks offers a half-hearted argument that smoking marijuana is a health hazard. Then, citing his personal experience as a young man, Brooks gets to his main point. That pot is bad because it makes you stupid.

I wonder if Brooks has ever written a column that called for the criminalization of alcohol. Because – besides studies that show it is more of a health hazard than pot – in most people’s experiences, getting drunk makes you act stupid. Other things Brooks might want to criminalize, because they make you act stupid: television, gambling, your college friends, Fox News, NASCAR, love.

Has Brooks ever eaten too much at Thanksgiving dinner, loosened his belt, flopped onto the couch and fallen asleep during the second half of the Cowboys game, rather than being productive and writing that next brilliant piece for the Times? Perhaps turkey should be criminalized.

Brooks isn’t the only buzzkill conservative. In a TV interview this week, Ann Coulter said American commerce is under threat because she suspects her pool cleaner was a pot head. On the very same day that Brooks gave us the straight dope on dope, the Washington Post‘s Ruth Marcus also attacked the country’s move toward legalization. After confessing that, yes, she has also done the deed. In her young, carefree, presumably immature days. “On balance, society will not be better off with another legal mind-altering substance,” is her argument. (Interestingly, that’s also how a lot of us feel about guns, which kill 30,000 Americans a year, way more people than marijuana.) Like Brooks, Marcus ignores evidence that marijuana offers some health benefits and cites studies that suggest smoking a lot of dope – lab rat and Tommy Chong levels, I suspect – lowers your IQ. I noticed that she makes this argument just a few sentences after she writes “an occasional joint strikes me as no worse than an occasional drink.”

Ruth! Which is it?

I don’t know. Once again I hate to disappoint, but it’s very possible Brooks, Marcus and Coulter have smoked more dope than I have. My main concern with the criminalization of marijuana is that it’s a weapon in the drug war on poor people. Another thing we learned this week is the only person in the country who doesn’t agree that pot is less a hazard than heroin and crack is the head of the Drug Enforcement Administration, Michele M. Leonhart.

Does smoking pot make you stupid? Brooks and Marcus survived the experience and have been rewarded with coveted positions as high-profile commentators on the rest of us and our foibles. Does experimenting with drugs more powerful than pot make you stupid?  Somehow our smart and witty holiday dinner guests escaped the brain trauma.

But Brooks and Marcus don’t have to take our word on it. The astronomer and teacher who opened the limitless possibilities of the cosmos to us, Carl Sagan, was an enthusiastic consumer and pot advocate. He credited smoking dope with helping him focus on the big questions of the universe. Surely they’re not calling him stupid.

The sad and funny untruths of Pro-Lifers

From the window of the bus this morning, on my way to the office, I saw that the Pro-Lifers, as they call themselves, have taken over the lawn of the Kenneth B. Keating Federal Building on State Street, filling it with gruesome photographs of dead fetuses. One poster equates a woman’s right to choose with Nazi genocide and Ku Klux Klan lynchings.

The display is offensive and exploitative. Yes, photos of abortion procedures are shocking and uncomfortable. As are photos of heart transplants and cosmetic surgery. Shock tactics do not take the place of thoughtful decision making.

In that regard, the display is also ill informed. The Pro-Life point of view is not backed by science, only faith. Its defenders endlessly repeat dogma that has been refuted by the medical community, but facts do not matter as the Pro-Lifers make their arguments. While access to abortion has been the law of the land for decades, and is supported by a majority of Americans, access to the procedure is becoming increasingly difficult for American women. Laws have been passed requiring women to undergo medically unnecessary tests before they can get an abortion. North Dakota has banned abortions after six weeks of a pregnancy, at a point when many women do not even realize they are pregnant. Texas likes that law, and wants one of its own.

The Pro-Lifer’s tool is intimidation. Doctors have been murdered, bombs set off at health clinics. Pro-Lifers are at war with Planned Parenthood, which does outstanding work with health issues on behalf of economically disadvantaged women, and actually spends very little of its resources on women who have determined that they must terminate a pregnancy. Which they do in consultation with their doctors, and not ill-informed Congressmen.

One of many inconsistencies here is the typical Pro-Lifer’s attitude about life post-pregnancy. They do not want to spend tax dollars on the health and education of the country’s young people. They are all for defunding health programs for not only newborns and children, but medical programs that ensure the good health of a fetus. Pro-Lifers are generally apoplectic at the idea of families bringing their Mexican babies here in the hope of escaping poverty. Pro-Lifers are generally pro-death penalty. Pro-Lifers are often fine with civilian casualties, including children, as collateral damage for the wars we are waging in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Leave it to the genius of George Carlin to define Pro-Lifers: “They will do anything for the unborn, but after you’re born you’re on your own.” Check out the classic Carlin video here. As is often the case, truth is not only stranger than fiction but it is also, sadly, much funnier.

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