Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Initial Thoughts on the Bill Nye/Ken Ham Debate...

I took three pages (front and back) of notes but do not have them with me.  My first thought is that Ken Ham is the better debater.  His presentation was well-packaged and just vague enough in places that you couldn't quite grab a hold of it.  I was extremely impressed that he was so open and forthright about his Christianity.  That was gratifying to see.  Bill Nye, on the other hand, is an excellent presenter and had a wit and charm that served him in very good stead.  For the most part, he was able to hold his own and present the message he wanted to get across.  There were, however, a number of golden opportunities that Bill Nye missed that were very frustrating to watch.  Here are some that I remember:

  • Ken Ham stated that his model of origins is viable and that there is evidence for the Garden of Eden, the biblical flood and the Tower of Babel.  There isn't.  Bill Nye's argument against the feasibility of floating a large wooden vessel was ineffective and his argument against the possibility that 16 million species could not have fit on the ark was, in my opinion, not well constructed.  The biogeographical arguments alone sink the world-wide flood model. 
  • Further, had Nye spent even five minutes talking about how flat Ham's theological construct is and that there are many, many Christians who do not interpret the bible in the way that Ham does, his presentation would have been much more successful.  Nye focused on the fact that the bible has been translated and re-translated many times.  That won't fly.  The historical integrity of the bible is actually quite good. It is Ham's interpretation of the Bible, according to the vast majority of biblical scholars, that is suspect. 
  • Ken Ham's initial presentation included the testimonials of real-life, practicing scientists who are self-professed creationists and yet publish in secular journals.  This gave a credibility to his presentation that creationism sorely needs.  What Nye should have done is mention that none of the people that Ham invoked deal directly the palaeontological, genetic or geological evidence involving the age of the earth.  Nye should then have said the reason for that is that 99.9% of scientists practicing in those fields don't accept Ham's model for origins.  It would be even more damaging if he had then brought up counter-examples of scientists who are Christians, such as Davis Young, Carol Hill or Dennis Venema who do not accept Ham's world view.
  • When Ham began his diatribe about how we can never know the past because there were no observers (an expanded version of his "Were you there?" argument), Nye gave only two rambling examples of how predictive science is by using the discovery of the Devonian transitional tetrapod Tiktaalik and the 3K background radiation evidence for the big bang found in the universe.  Those examples should have been expanded and there should have been others.  For example, he could have mentioned the prediction of Charles Darwin's that we would find the oldest human ancestors in Africa because that is where our closest living relatives are found, or the prediction that, aside from finding living marsupials in Australia, we would find marsupial fossils in South America and Antarctica based on our knowledge of continental drift, or the hypotheses that resulted in the discovery of the meteorite impact crater in the Yucatan Peninsula that likely meant the demise of the dinosaurs. All of these came true.
  • In a related point, Ham makes a mention of the fact that we cannot know the past.  Nye should have pointed out that the Bible was written in the past and that there is no one around today that existed at the time that it was written down.  The answer to "were you there?" is "No, I wasn't, but neither were you."   The bible has been painstakingly reconstructed from ancient texts and manuscripts and, as noted above, the process has been largely successful.  The same is true of the historical sciences, which are trying to piece together a reconstruction of the past world. 
Bill Nye addressed none of these arguments.   He had a message that was "good science education is absolutely necessary for the good of this country and Ken Ham's model doesn't provide it."  He varied from it very little.  Ken Ham's message was that "the Bible has all of the information necessary to develop a well-rounded complete view of the universe, exactly as it is written."

Bill Nye also spent too much time wondering how anyone in their right mind could accept the world as Ken Ham portrays it.  That doesn't matter.  They do.  Thousands and thousands of them do.  He needed to get past that and was, seemingly, unable to.

People will be talking about this debate for years to come and, based on what I have read, supporters of both sides have claimed victory.  It seems to me that very few punches connected on either side, let alone any knockout punches.  It looked, instead, like a fifteen-round split-decision. 


  1. Your take on the debate is much more pessimistic than mine. I was expecting Ham to do a Gish Gallop all over Nye, and wasn't confident that Nye would be able to rein it back in. Ultimately, Ham spent far more time talking about how important it is to believe the Bible than he did providing actual arguments that the creationist model is viable.

    Nye DID miss some sweet opportunities to nail Ham's obfuscations. He should have pointed out that although studies support dogs arising from a single breeding population and humans are all of one race, there is NO evidence that the breeding population of dogs or humans was ever comprised of just two individuals.

    I got the sense that Nye had done his homework on why the creation model is unsound. I did not get the sense that he bothered to really know a lot of the creationist arguments against evolution or an old earth so that he could convincingly counter them. When asked about the second law of thermodynamics, for instance, he noted in passing that the earth isn't a closed system and then started rambling about car engines and fuel sources. This is why, some weeks ago, I lamented that it wouldn't be Ken Miller vs. Ham. Miller knows all the creationist arguments out there and how to demonstrate that they're pretty silly.

    Still, I think it's possible that some undecideds (or even creationists who weren't die-hard true believers) had their eyes opened to some of the cracks in the creation model. Most creationists *never* see someone taking on their favorite speakers, let alone in the charming, non-threatening way that Nye was able to pull off.

  2. Anonymous4:53 PM

    This is a very interesting take on the debate. I watched it, too, and felt that Bill Nye was the better debater. Ken Ham is a good speaker, don't get me wrong, but on the night, he seemed to go off topic a lot and evaded direct questions from Bill Nye.

    Specifically, Bill Nye asked what predictions Creationism make, and as far as I could gather, Ken Ham did not answer this question.

    Nye's comment about the feasibility of the ark and the number of species involved, although somewhat poorly constructed, was still pertinent. How COULD so many species evolve from the small number of 'kinds' in such a short amount of time, without being noticed and documented?

    I liked how Bill Nye referred to 'the Ken Ham model of Creation' and not merely 'Creation' and that billions of people believe in a deity while rejecting 'the Ken Ham model of Creation'.

    During the Q&A session, they were asked: What,if anything, would cause you to change your mind?
    Ken Ham: Nothing.
    Bill Nye: Evidence.

    I think that pretty much sums up the debate.

    Ultimately, it doesn't matter who 'won' the debate, because that is not how science is done.

  3. Two follow-up points:

    1. Reviewing the debate, I think Nye did much better in the opening arguments, but he lost the plot during Q&A.

    2. Nye's central premise - that having a lot of creationists in the country will stagnate American development - is unpersuasive to me for two reasons. First, technology developed outside the U.S. can be (and generally is) imported. It doesn't have to be invented here to benefit us. Second, it is perfectly possible to be a productive scientist who rejects evolution or an old earth so long as you are working in a field that doesn't make use of those scientific facts. When creationists start chairing the life sciences and geology departments of our major universities, *that's* when we need to worry about stagnation in those fields.

  4. Thanks for the summary. Like the vast majority of Americans, I did not watch the debate. Unfortunately for many skeptics and unbelievers Mr. Ham and his crowd represent Christianity and its attitude toward science and facts. And that does nothing but drive them away from the faith. Thanks for being a sensible voice in this.