Today, Ken Ham, a young earth creationist, debated against Bill Nye an agnostic famous for “The Science Guy” program, on the topic: “Is creation a viable model of origins in today’s scientific era?” The debate was watched by over 500,000 people and generated a huge amount of interest. Here, I’ll review the debate section by section. Then, I’ll offer some thoughts on the content as well as a concluding summary. If you watched the debate, you may want to just skip down to the Analysis section. The debate may be watched here for a limited time (skip to 13 minutes in to start debate).
Ken Ham Opening
Ham began by noting that many prominent scientists argue that scientists should not debate creationists. He wondered aloud whether that might be because creationism is indeed a viable model and some don’t want that to be shown. He then showed a video of a creationist who was a specialist in science and an inventor, noting that creationism is not mutually exclusive from science.
The three primary points Ham focused on were 1) the definitions of terms; 2) interpretation of the evidence; and 3) the age of the universe is not observational science. Regarding the first, Ham noted that science means knowledge and so evolutionists cannot claim to be doing science. Regarding the second, he argued that both creationists and evolutionists observe the same evidence; they simply interpret that evidence differently. Regarding the third, Ham observed that “We weren’t there” at the beginning of the Earth and so we can’t know through observational science what happened.
Bill Nye Opening
Nye noted that the primary contention of the topic was to see whether the creation model lined up with the evidence. Thus, we must compare Ken Ham’s creation model to the “mainstream” model of science (his word). There are, he contended, major difficulties with Ham’s model, including the fossils found in layers in the Grand Canyon. He noted that there is “not a single place” where fossils of one type cross over with fossils of a different type or era. Yet, on a creation model, one would expect vast amounts of mixing. Thus, the creation model fails to account for the observational evidence.
Nye also noted that there are “billions of people ” who are religious and do not hold to creation science.
Ham again emphasized the importance of defining terms. He then presented a few more videos of creationists who are active scientists in various fields. One, a Stuart Burgess [I think I typed that correctly] claimed that he knew many colleagues who expressed interest in creationism but were afraid for their careers.
Non-Christians, Ham alleged, are borrowing from the Christian worldview in order to do science. The reason for this is because their own worldview cannot account for the laws of logic, the uniformity of nature, or the laws of nature. He asked Nye to explain how to account for these aspects of reality without God.
The past cannot be observed directly, he said, and concluded that we can’t be certain that the present is like the past. Thus, we must only deal with the observed facts that we can see now. On this point, the disagreements are over the interpretation of the evidence. That is, there is a set of evidence that both people like Nye and Ham approach. According to Ham, it is their worldviews which color their interpretation of the evidence such that they use the same evidence and get entirely contradictory conclusions.
The diversity of species which is observed is only, Ham argued, difference in “kind.” Thus, it cannot be used as evidence for evolution. The word “evolution” has been “hijacked” and used as evidence for unobservable phenomena extrapolated from that which is observed. The various species demonstrate a “creation orchard” as opposed to an “evolutionary tree.” One may observe different creatures, like dogs, each stemming from an a common origin, but none of these are traceable back to common descent, rather they exhibit discontinuity in the fossil record.
There is a major difference, Ham alleged, between “observational sciences” which looks at the things we can see in repeatable events now and “historical sciences” which extrapolates from the evidence gathered what happened in the past. We can never truly have “knowledge” regarding the historical sciences.
Nye began his presentation by noting that the debate took place in Kentucky and “here… we’re standing on layer upon layer upon layer of limestone.” The limestone is made of fossils of creatures which lived entire lives (twenty or more years in many cases) and then died, piled up on top of each other, and formed the limestone underneath much of the state. The amount of time needed for this is much longer than just a few thousand years.
Nye also turned to evidence from ice cores, which would require 170 winter/summer cycles per year for at least a thousand years to generate the current amount of ice built up. In California, there are trees which are extremely ancient, and some trees are even older, possibly as old as 9000 or more years old. Apart from the difficulty of the age of these trees, one must also wonder how they survived a catastrophic flood.
When looking at a place like the Grand Canyon, one never finds lower layer animals mixed with higher level animals. One should expect to find these given a flood. Nye challenged Ham to present just one evidence of the mixing of fossils of different eras together; he said it would be a major blow to the majority sciences.
If the flood explains animal life and its survival, one should observe the migration of animals across the earth in the fossil record; thus a Kangaroo should be found not just in Australia but along the way from wherever the Ark rested. However, these finds are not observed. Finally, the Big Bang has multiple lines of evidence which confirm it as the origin of the universe.
Ham argued that we can’t observe the age of the Earth. No science can measure it through observational evidence; rather it falls under historical sciences. One should add the genealogies in the Genesis account in order to find the age of the Earth. Whenever a scientist talks about the past, “we’ve got a problem” because they are not speaking from observation: they were not there.
Various radiometric dating methods turn up radically divergent ages for artifacts from the same time period and layer of rocks. The only infallible interpreter of the evidence is God, who provided a record in the Bible.
Rocks are able to slide in such a way as to interpose different dated objects next to each other.
Nye noted that Ham kept saying we “can’t observe the past,” but that is exactly what is done in astronomy: no observation of stars is not observing the past. Indeed, it takes a certain amount of time for the light to get to Earth from these various stars. The notion that lions and the like ate vegetables is, he argued, preposterous. Perhaps, he asserted, the difficulty is with Ham’s interpretation of the biblical text.
Nye then compared the transmission of the text of the Bible to the telephone game.
Ham again pressed that natural laws only work within a biblical worldview. There only needed to be about 1000 kinds represented aboard the ark in order to represent all the current species. Bears have sharp teeth yet eat vegetables.
Nye asserted that Ham’s view fails to address fundamental questions like the layers of ice. The notion that there were even fewer “kinds” (about 1000) means that the problem for Ham is even greater: the species would have had to evolve at extremely rapid rates, sometimes even several species a day, in order to account for all the differences of species today.
I’ll not cover every single question, instead, I wanted to make note of two major things that came up in the Q+A session.
First, Nye’s answer to any question which challenged him on things like where the matter for the Big Bang came from was to assert that it’s a great mystery and we should find out one day. Second, Ham’s response to any question which (even hypothetically) asked him to consider the possibility that he would be wrong was to assert that such a situation was impossible. In other words, he presupposed he was correct and held to the impossibility that he could be wrong.
Ken Ham’s position was based upon his presuppositional apologetic. He continued to press that it is one’s worldview which colors the interpretation of evidence. The facts, he argued, remained the same for either side. It was what they brought to the facts that led to the radically different interpretations.
There is something to be said for this; it is surely true that we do have assumptions we bring to the table when interpreting the evidence. However, apart from the problem that Ham’s presuppositional approach with creationism is unjustified, Ham failed to deal with facts which really do shoot major holes in his theory. For example, it simply is true that, as Nye noted, when we observe the stars or distant galaxies, we are observing the past. Ham was just wrong on this regard. Moreover, other observational evidence (though not directly showing the past) does demonstrate that the Earth cannot be so young as Ham supposes. Furthermore, his hard and fast distinction between historical sciences and observational sciences is more of a rhetorical device than anything.
Ham’s position, I would argue, fails to account for the evidence which Nye raised (along with a number of other difficulties). Moreover, he continued to paint a picture of the Bible which rejects any but his own interpretation. In other words, he presented a false dichotomy: either young earth creationism or compromise with naturalism. However, I did appreciate Ham’s focus on the Gospel message. It was refreshing to have him present a call to belief in Jesus Christ as Lord and savior in front of such a massive audience.
Nye did an okay job of trying to show that there may be more to the debate than simply creationism-or-bust for Christianity. Indeed, he actually went so far as to say there is “no conflict” between science and faith. Instead, he argued that Ham’s position is the one which generates such a conflict. His rebuttals provided some major reasons to think that Ham’s creationism could not account for the evidence. In particular, the difficulties presented by the proliferation of species after the flood and the fossil record were solid evidences.
However, Nye’s presentations had a couple difficulties. First, he failed to account for polystrate fossils: the very thing he challenged Ham to present. There really are such things as fossils which are found out of sequence (thanks to ElijiahT and SkepticismFirst on Twitter for this). That’s not to say they prove young earth creationism. Far from it. So Nye seems to have been mistaken on this point. Second, he presented the Big Bang theory as though Fred Hoyle somehow came up with the hypothesis, yet Hoyle is well known for denying the Big Bang. Third, the notion that the interpretation, translation, and transmission of the Bible through time is anything like the telephone game is a tiresome and simply mistaken metaphor.
Both men were extremely respectful and I appreciated their candor. Each had several good points; each had some major flaws in their positions. The dialogue as a whole was interesting and helpful.
Readers by now should realize that I have to confess my title is a bit misleading. I was impressed by the tone of both speakers, though I thought they each made major gaffes alongside some decent points. The bottom line is that I find it unfortunate that we were exposed to a false dichotomy: either creationism or naturalism. There is more to the story. As far as “who won” the debate, I would argue that because of this false dichotomy, neither truly won. However, it seemed to me Ham had a more cohesive 30 presentation. That is, his presentation stayed more focused. Nye’s presentation jumped around quite a bit and had less directness to it. So far as “debate tactics” are concerned, one might chalk that up to a win for Ham. However, Nye successfully dismantled Ham’s presentation in the rebuttal periods. Thus, one was left with the impression that Ham’s view was indeed based upon his presupposition of its truth, while Nye was more open to the evidence. Again, I think both are wrong in many areas, but I hope that Nye’s tearing down of Ham’s position will not demonstrate to some that Christianity is false. As Nye noted, it may instead be Ham’s interpretation which is wrong.
There was much more to cover here than I could get to, so please do leave a comment to continue the discussion.
Naturalis Historia– This site is maintained by a biologist who presents a number of serious difficulties for young earth creationism.
Gregg Davidson vs. Andrew Snelling on the Age of the Earth– I attended a debate between an old earth and young earth creationist (the latter from Answers in Genesis like Ken Ham). Check out my overview of the debate as well as my analysis.
Debate Review: Fazale Rana vs. Michael Ruse on “The Origin of Life: Evolution vs. Design”– Theist Fazale Rana debated atheist Michael Ruse on the origin of life. I found this a highly informative and respectful debate.
Reasons to Believe– a science-faith think tank from an old-earth perspective.
Other Reviews of the Debate
Ken Ham vs. Bill Nye post-debate analysis– The GeoChristian has a brief overview of the debate with a focus on what each got right or wrong.
Ken Ham vs. Bill Nye: The Aftermath– Luke Nix over at Faithful Thinkers has another thoughtful review. His post focuses much more on the topic of the debate as opposed to a broad overview. Highly recommended.
Ken Ham vs. Bill Nye: The Debate of the Decade?- Interested in what led up to this debate? Check out my previous post on the topic in which I urged Christians to write on this debate and also traced, briefly, the controversy leading up to this debate.
The image used in this post is was retrieved at Christianity Today and I believe it’s origin is with Answers in Genesis. I use it under fair use to critique the views. I make no claims to owning the rights to the image, and I believe the image, as well as “The Creation Museum” are copyright of Answers in Genesis.
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