The Ken Ham / Bill Nye Debate: what we can learn to prevent a tragedy like this from happening again…

Image               I attended the debate between Bill Nye (“The “Science Guy”) and Ken Ham (of Answers in Genesis (AiG) and the Creation Museum) on Tuesday night (by webcast at a local church, now available here and here), and though I didn’t pull my hair out and found it moderately interesting, I came away disappointed that so little was said.  Both sides have claimed victory which is pretty standard for these sorts of affairs.  Also standard was that this was enabled by the fact that both sides spent a little over an hour each picking holes in the other’s theory while mostly avoiding confronting any of the problems brought up against their own.  By about half way through the second hour (and especially into the question-and-answer), it was clear the debate was really over, with the unfortunate outcome that both sides walked away satisfied in their own strengths and their assessment of the other’s weaknesses.

                If you haven’t seen the actual debate, I do recommend it, especially if you’re new to these issues, as both sides presented frankly fairly predictable talking points for their positions.  The actual event was nothing near a “Scopes Monkey Trial”, much less a battle between science and religion: the real battle was between Ham’sYoung Earth Creationism (YEC hereafter) and Nye’s populist and vaguely agnostic science.  Being neither an agnostic nor a Young Earth Creationist, I didn’t really have a dog in this fight.  I wasn’t aware before the introductions that both men have relatively little formal education in their respective fields: Nye has a bachelors in mechanical engineering while Ham has an undergraduate degree in environmental biology and some graduate work in education.  Neither has any background in Biblical studies, philosophy or history, and it showed.  I was repeatedly frustrated: one comment would be made from either side (more often Ham’s) and I would think, “ah, now we’re getting somewhere”, but the ball would be dropped and they would go back to talking points.  This was true even when the comment would’ve been a coup for one side or the other.  Though the debate lasted nearly three hours, for all practical purposes it was over after each side made their opening remarks and their 30 minute position statements.

                Both sides were adept at poking holes in the other’s theory.  To his credit, Nye probably stayed on topic a bit better.  The question they were debating was “is creation a viable model of origins in today’s modern scientific era?”  Ham’s points largely boiled down to:

  • “Evolution” is used equivocally in science education; for a discipline valuing precision and reasoning, these things are often lacking in science education
  • It’s perfectly possible to be a YECist and a scientist (he gave several brief interview snippets with such scientists)
  • Science has an experimental arm (like chemistry) and a historical arm (like paleontology); this latter is beholden to secularist interpretive paradigms  which skew the scientist’s ability to reconstruct history accurately
  • AiG prioritizes “the account based on the Bible, taking it literally as Jesus did”, meaning a recent (6000 years ago) creation over 6 24-hour days and a global flood
  • The real battle is over authority, i.e. the authority of the Bible or the authority of scientists wedded to secularism

 

Nye in a sense had the easier job and was better at staying on target, largely restricting his comments to poking holes in Young Earth Creationism while not presenting what (I think) he assumed everyone knew:  that science has developed the theory of evolution as a satisfactory and helpful theory of origins.  His specific criticisms:

  • Multiple lines of evidence point to an old earth: limestone layers, Antarctic ice layers, ancient trees, rates of soil deposition, radiometric dating as well as astronomical evidences
  • Creation science has its problems: high rates of speciation after the flood which are not observed now, fossil evidence which is inconsistent with Middle Eastern origins of many animals (e.g. kangaroos), and the lack of observational evidence to support a recent catastrophic global flood.
  •  He also brought up logistical problems in the story of Noah, and on several occasions questioned the reliability and universal applicability of the Bible (though this was by far his weakest area, creating many cringe-worthy moments for someone who does know something about the Bible)
  • A repeated refrain concerned the dangers of YEC: it would weaken science and technology education and possibly imperil America’s leadership in these areas.

 

A rebuttal period followed these position statements, but it was frankly fairly unproductive.  Ham advocated trust in the Bible over trust in the interpretations of scientists, no doubt a good talking-point for Christians but obviously not going to impress any non-Christians.  He called into question the results of some radiometric dating, and generally called into question the idea of death existing before the Fall (i.e. death could not have occurred before Adam and Eve existed and sinned).  Nye largely responded by insisting that radiometric dating is accurate, that fish shouldn’t be afflicted with death because of human sin (“are fish sinners?” he asked at one point), and accused Ham of “magical thinking” in claiming that rates of speciation have changed over the last few thousand years.  The debate was largely over at this point, however, and it tended to degenerate into “your theory is SOOOO dumb…” after this.

There was a question-and-answer session after their presentations and rebuttals, but what was most amazing was each speaker’s unfamiliarity with the other’s ideological community.  For instance, one asked Ham (both had a chance to respond to each question), “can you think of anything that would change your mind?”  This question is straight from the skeptic manual of How to Talk to Christians, but Ham interpreted it as a call to battle, “here I stand, I can do no other.”  His supporters clapped, in other words, while his opponents rolled their eyes.  A more nuanced approach to the question (perhaps the subject of a future post) did not occur to him apparently.  “How did consciousness arise from matter” and “where did atoms come from”, both clearly weaknesses of materialism were asked of Nye; his response?  It’s a “mystery”, which says to Christians that he refuses to accept the truth of the Bible and says to skeptics that he’s humble and a good scientist.  “If YEC is untrue, can you still be a Christian?” (I was paying attention now):  no, according to Ham, “if you believe in millions of years, you have a problem with the Bible”.  And so goes the remainder of my respect for Answers in Genesis, though I’ve no doubt they’re wonderful people.

 

So what was the end result of all this?  My hunch is that YECers will go away affirmed: Nye just doesn’t understand what naturalistic presuppositions he brings to his scientific interpretations, he doesn’t understand the Bible, and he’s obsessed with sex like most evolutionists (he spent about 5 minutes discussing the advantages of sexual reproduction in fish).  Likewise, skeptics walked away affirmed: Ham doesn’t understand science, doesn’t understand that most people don’t agree with the Bible, and can never be convinced otherwise no matter what the evidence shows.

There are bigger ways to understand each of these issues and arrive at an intellectually consistent way to look at the Bible, the age of the earth, the nature of the scientific enterprise: these were not discussed.  There were tantalizing hints that came and went in a flash during the debate:

  • Nye repeatedly referred to YEC as “Ken Ham’s Creationism”; I don’t think this was meant to goad, but to point out that there are other ways to believe in a God who created the universe and the earth without buying the whole YEC meal package.  Alas, Nye didn’t bring up any other theories, though his Biblical literacy is poor enough that it’s probably good he didn’t, as I doubt he could articulate it coherently, much less to Ham’s satisfaction.
  • Ham mentioned that scientists are working from Christian assumptions, such as belief in an ordered and predictable universe where human effort is both productive and meaningful.  “Now we’re getting somewhere interesting,” I thought.  But it was not to be: Ham mentioned it once more, but did not pursue it, and I doubt Nye even knew what he was referring to.
  • There was some mention of the need to interpret data (whether Biblical or geological or biological or astronomical), but this was also not developed.  Both ultimately seemed to agree that some things just didn’t need interpreting: evidence is evidence, they just differed on whether the Bible or radiometric data required more interpretive gymnastics to rely upon.  Clearly neither man appreciated that there is no such thing as interpretation-free evidence: nothing just “speaks for itself”.  Who knows how many microbiologists threw away contaminated petri dishes before Alexander Fleming said, “say, I wonder if this mold might have some sort of ‘anti-biotic’ property, so to speak?”  The reader of the Bible and the classifier of fossils both bring ideological baggage with them; what are we to do with it?  Alas, neither speaker went here.
  • Nye at a couple points brought up the issue of whether natural law can vary.  For instance, YEC says that Noah only brought onto the ark “kinds” (roughly analogous to the “family” level of taxonomy) which then rapidly (over a few hundred years) diversified into the millions of species over the entire earth that we see today.  Does natural law change like this?  Ham did not directly respond, and it would’ve been interesting for Nye to push the point: does God not only intervene in the miraculous, but change classes of physical laws and constants for periods of history? What would this sort of theology do to scientific inquiry?  Did this God of order and truth only make the universe “appear” to be old?  Did he make Genesis intentionally debatable, and if not, why didn’t he make it clearer?  Why is it clear to Ham, and so unclear to others (including many Christians)?  Again, theology is not Nye’s strong point, so he was well not to go here.  He did offer a general argument against Christianity generally known as “the argument from pluralism” (there are so many gods, how can you know the right one?), but he neither developed it, nor did Ham point out its difficulties.

 

            In short, Nye spent his time attacking Ham’s estimate of the age of the earth, while Ham spent his time attacking the philosophy of naturalism.  Both left their own ideological cities unguarded while they went to attack the other’s city.  The end result is two destroyed cities, but little else.  A truly neutral observer likely left thinking, “well, I can’t be a young Earther, but the science seems so tentative, and there are a few scientists who buy it; I guess we’ll never know.”  Fortunately, people of this mindset probably ignored the whole debate from the beginning.  If you pushed me, I would say that Nye “won” the debate in the sense that at least he addressed the actual question (“Is creation a viable model”) more directly.  I ultimately think Ham has a sturdier worldview (i.e. Christian theism), but his commitment to a young earth is baggage he’s not willing to leave behind in the race toward the goal, so he’s likely to lose the race.

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