On the evening of Tuesday, February 4 Answers in Genesis president Ken Ham debated Bill Nye at the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky, on the topic “Is creation a viable model of origins?” This event was watched by at least 3 million viewers on line.
So, how did it go? This NPR link gives a text summary (in reversed chronological order) of the phases of the debate, and a link to the complete 2:45 YouTube video of the debate.
Secular commentators seemed to come away pleased with Nye’s performance. For instance, Jennifer Welsh collected tweets which summarized Nye’s best lines, in a short article titled “Bill Nye Dominated His Debate Against Creationist Ken Ham.”
Rebecca Savastio provided a short synopsis of the debate which is a useful window into the affair, though her write-up is clearly biased against Ham. She concluded, “In the Bill Nye vs. Ken Ham debate, the answer to those asking who won is: it’s clear Nye emerged the winner because he relied on a large amount of fossil and scientific evidence. Ham relied almost exclusively on the Bible and provided no fossil or scientific evidence whatsoever.”
I respectfully disagree with Welsh and Savastio as to whether Nye’s performance should be celebrated by those who care about science education. Here is why: Although Nye did get in some good points (e.g. Antarctic ice cores showing 680,000 summer/winter bands), he never really cornered Ham with contradictions that were glaring enough to make conservative Christian listeners start to question YE creationism.
These Christians are the crucial audience for this debate. The nonbelievers who tuned in are exceedingly unlikely to change their minds. The secularists have their own religious prejudices, plus the physical evidence on their side, so Ham had no leverage with them. The Christians, however, are caught between what the scientists are showing them and what they hear from devout teachers and pastors, so they can go either way. Ham skillfully played to the Bible-believing Christians, basing his thinking on the inspired Word of God.
Some Things I Liked About the Debate
(1) Both men were polite and pleasant. The moderator did a good job keeping things brisk and fair.
(2) Nye was able to point out several evidences for an old earth, including the ice cores, tree rings over 6000 years old, thick layers of limestone, and the sequence of animal fossils in rock layers. Ham’s response here (“We didn’t observe those tree rings growing, we didn’t see those ice layers forming in the Antarctic) was manifestly lame. Nye noted that mainstream science is able to make significant predictions that can be tested. For instance, science predicted that animals with transitional features between fish and amphibians should have existed in a particular geological era. When scientists went digging in a fossil bed of that era to look for such transitional fossils, they found them.
(3) Ham’s spirituality seemed deep, sincere, and a clear source of moral grounding. He made his prior commitment to the Bible transparently clear, without ranting. He and his followers display moral courage in standing against the prevailing cultural views on origins. Nye’s motives seemed likewise honorable: though he has no use for religion himself, he was not trying to attack it. Rather, he is concerned about the large number of American youths who are being taught false views about science and physical reality, which can rob these youths of fully enjoying modern discoveries and which can inhibit their contributions to technical progress.
Some Things I Did Not Like About the Debate
(1) Nye’s biggest play to the audience, stated repeatedly, was that belief in YE creationism will hinder the progress in invention and innovation that the nation needs in order to remain competitive. Nye is simply wrong here. As I know from personal experience , it is quite possible to hold false beliefs about what happened six thousand or six billion years ago and still be a productive engineer or scientist. (We men excel at compartmentalization). There are a few fields like geology, astronomy, biology and some aspects of drug discovery where willful ignorance of evolution and deep time would be a significant hindrance, but even there the occasional YE creationist can make valuable contributions. Ham masterfully showed short video clips of several world-class inventors/engineers/scientists who stated on tape that they hold to YE creationism. Ham also noted that pioneering scientists of centuries past were also creationists. This thoroughly undercut Nye’s claim of the perilous consequences of teaching YE creationism.
(2) Nye let Ham get away with claiming that there are “hundreds” of methods for dating the earth, and that these methods mainly disagree among themselves and many of them support a young earth. Letting Ham’s claim just hang out there unchallenged gave support to the YE creationist position.
The lists of evidences proffered for a young earth are well-known, and have been refuted in detail. I have refuted many of these bogus YE claims here. More systematic debunkings are here, here, and here.
If Nye had been truly prepared for this debate, he would have combed through these lists ahead of time and maybe even had copies of these lists open on his computer. In order to defuse whatever YE evidence that Ham would present, Nye should have said in an early statement something like this:
Young earth creationists put forth several lines of evidence that are supposed to support a young earth and militate against an old earth. These evidences include items like the decay of the earth’s magnetic field, rate of recession of the moon from the earth, amount of helium in the atmosphere, amount of salts in the ocean, and occasional discrepancies in radioactive dating. Where these claims are amenable to outside investigation, they turn out to be false. In a few of these cases, such as the depth of dust on the moon, and human and dinosaur footprints allegedly found together, the young earth creationists have admitted their mistakes. In most other cases, they doggedly hang on, despite being shown that their claims are based on partial truths or outright falsehoods.
Radioactive dating is one of the clearest means to establish that the earth is billions of years old. This naturally makes it a target for young earth creationist denial. A number of attempts have been made by young earth workers using radioactive dating to produce results which refute the old earth understanding. When competent scientists examine this work, they find it to be sloppy to the point of dishonesty. For instance, it is well-known that radioactive dating will likely give unreliable results when applied to a rock which has been re-heated after its initial solidification. Nevertheless, young earth researcher Andrew Snelling collected a set of metamorphosed (partially re-melted) whole rock samples from the base of the Grand Canyon, and sent them off for radioactive dating by different methods. The different dating methods, as expected for this circumstance, gave discordant results. Snelling claimed that this demonstrated deep problems with radioactive dating in general, when the reality was that he had deliberately chosen samples that guaranteed invalid results.
This is not to say that scientists know everything about everything. The reason scientists still have jobs is that most discoveries which answer current questions also uncover new questions. Mainstream science explains, with predictive power, the vast majority of astronomical and geological evidence. It is unreasonable to ignore all that, and demand that science must be able to completely explain every single phenomenon in order to be considered trustworthy.
This sort of statement would have provided a global answer to Ham’s claims about many methods of dating which support a young earth, and also set Nye up to deal with whatever specific young earth claim made by Ham in the course of the debate. Had Nye diligently studied the popular young earth arguments and why they fail, he could have provided suitable responses to the two specific radioactive dating instances cited by Ham.
For instance, Ham referred to creationist Steve Austin taking some recently-congealed lava from Mt St Helens, separating out some of its minerals, and sending the minerals and whole rock off for potassium-argon dating. The dates on these samples came back scattered between 0.34 million and 2.8 million years old. Ham’s claim here seems damaging to the old earth cause, and Nye was unequipped to respond.
What Ham stated is true, but it is only a partial truth. The rest of the story (as stated in the various young-earth-debunking sites listed above) is that the radioactive decay of potassium to argon is a very slow process, so it was simply not possible for the laboratory to obtain valid dates for recent rocks by this method. It would be like trying to measure the width of a human hair using a yardstick. This was well-known to everyone, including Austin. The dating laboratory specifically stated on its website at the time that “We cannot analyze samples expected to be younger than 2 M.Y. [Million Years]”. Thus, Austin sent his samples to be analyzed by a technique known to be inadequate for the age range of these samples. As with Snelling’s Grand Canyon rocks, the intent was to obtain scattered, erroneous results, not to properly date the rocks. This is typical of the deception which pervades young earth science. (More on deception vs. truth here, regarding the features of the Grand Canyon).
Ham also cited a case where fossilized wood was supposedly encased in hardened basalt, down in a coal mine in Australia. When the samples were given to Andrew Snelling for radioactive dating, the wood was dated at about 45,000 years old by carbon dating, while the basalt was dated at some 45 million years by potassium-argon. The proper response to this claim would be that 45,000 years is about the upper limit for carbon dating, where it is very sensitive to contamination, and there is no guarantee that nature or the coal miners or subsequent handling did not introduce trace modern carbon into these samples. Also, the actual discovery place for the wood samples is not accessible for independent examination, so this whole episode remains anecdotal. It is thus inconsequential compared to the vast numbers of radioactive datings that do agree with each other (e.g. see here). Again, Nye was unable to respond properly here.
And when Ham flashed this slide:
to substantiate his assertion that there are many dating methods that militate for a young earth, the proper response would be, “Please, Ken, we both know that this laundry list has been around since the 80’s, and was addressed and refuted at TalkOrigins back in the 90’s.” But Nye was clueless.
Not only was Nye unequipped to answer Ham’s examples, he did not present his own affirmative examples as effectively as he could have. For instance, he spent a lot of time expressing his personal incredulity that Noah’s family could have built a giant wooden boat, but his opinion here would carry little weight with Christian listeners. He briefly flashed the slide showing some rock layers in the Grand Canyon, muttering something about “one type of sediment [ i.e. the Temple Butte formation here ] has intruded on another type.”
This all came and went too fast to have much impact on the audience. This was a wasted opportunity, because rock formations like this utterly disprove YE creationism. These “unconformities” are the key reason that European geologists concluded by 1830, long before Darwin or radioactive dating, that the earth must be far older than a literal reading of Genesis would allow. In the YE creationist scheme, all the horizontal layers that make up the upper 2/3 of the Grand Canyon must have been deposited during a one-year Flood. If Nye had spent two minutes on this photo, explaining and listing the sequence of events that MUST have occurred to make this formation (multiple rounds of deposition, lithification, uplift, erosion of hundreds of feet of solid rock, etc., which could not possibly have all been packed into one year), the debate would have been over. A year ago I wrote an article ( “Unconformities” Showed Geologists By 1800 That The Earth Was Very Old) on this very subject, using a photo of the same formation that Nye showed, so I was pained to see him fumble this.
(3) Ham asserted that the only proper interpretation of the Bible was that God created the world in six 24-hour days, 6000 years ago. Nye, to his credit, noted that there are billions of religious folks in the world who do not hold that view of creation. But that was as far as Nye could take it, since he is admittedly ignorant of theology.
Ham’s assertion is refuted by a reading of the early church fathers: some held that the creation Days where the common 24-hour variety, others said that the Days represented thousand-year periods, Origen saw them as merely allegorical, and Augustine wisely observed that it wasn’t clear exactly what sort of days they were.
Turning to modern times, Reasons to Believe lists about 40 well-known conservative Christian leaders and writers that endorse or are at least open to an old-earth perspective. These include names like Gleason Archer, Michael Behe, Chuck Colson, Norman Geisler, Hank Hannegraff, C. S. Lewis, Francis Schaeffer, C. I. Schofield, Lee Stroble, and B. B. Warfield. Billy Graham, the foremost representative of evangelical Christianity of recent decades, has no problem with evolution:
I believe that God created man, and whether it came by an evolutionary process and at a certain point He took this person or being and made him a living soul or not, does not change the fact that God did create man. … whichever way God did it makes no difference as to what man is and man’s relationship to God.
The Bible is full of allegory and metaphor. Jesus communicated mainly by telling stories that never really happened, and he directed his hearers away from blaming others (think: Adam) for their own sinful choices. When the prophet Nathan wanted to get King David’s attention, Nathan told the king about a rich man who seized a poor man’s lamb. Nathan presented that story as though it actually happened, though in fact it didn’t. It is unbiblical to insist that every story told in the Bible is literally true. II Timothy 3:15-17 clearly spells out the purpose of the Scripture, and it has nothing to do with teaching geology or biology. I have dealt with the treatment of Adam and the Fall in the New Testament here.
Ham’s approach (that a literal six-day recent creation is the only faithful Christian viewpoint) dooms a generation of young Christians to disillusionment when they eventually find out that the earth is old, and that our genomes show the
unmistakable imprints of evolution. There are also the thousands of science-literate folks who are repelled from consideration of the gospel by its association with Young Earth foolishness. Augustine (c. 408 A.D.) put it well:
Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the Earth, the Heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn…. If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason?
Professional versus Amateur
Ham has been writing and lecturing on his subject for decades. He has smooth answers for the common objections that folks have against YE creationism, and well-honed jabs against evolution. He thoroughly integrated his case with his reverence for the Bible and the God of the Bible, linking the YE creationist viewpoint with traditional morality and value for life. This is appealing to his evangelical Christian audience.
Nye was emphatically warned by his secular colleagues against entering into this debate. It is well-known that a typical debate format gives YE creationists the opportunity to spout untruths faster than a scientist can possibly correct them (the “Gish Gallup”).
Nye made some effort to prepare for the debate, but it was not nearly enough. He rambled at times, was incorrect on his biggest play to his audience (as explained above), and failed to exploit the errors in Ham’s claims. Although I hold the same general views as he does on physical science, he had me cringing as he repeatedly failed to give the sharp, clear young-earth-refuting responses which were available. It is hard to imagine that listening to this debate would give a single YE creationist the motivation to question the YE position.
Nye’s hubris gave the YE creationists all they could have hoped for: publicity for their position and website, a financial windfall, exposure for their personable spokesman, and surviving an encounter with a famous opponent essentially unscathed. I’ll bet attendance at the Creation Museum soars. From the standpoint of truth in both science and theology, this debate started as a bad idea, and ended as a squandered opportunity.
Eugenie Scott pointed out that debating YE creationists is fine, as long as the format is shaped to focus in detail on a few key controversial, predetermined topics such as transitional fossil forms, radiometric dating, and the second law of thermodynamics. “Instead of the “Gish Gallop” format of most debates where the creationist is allowed to run on for 45 minutes or an hour, spewing forth torrents of error that the evolutionist hasn’t a prayer of refuting in the format of a debate, the debaters have limited topics and limited time…With this format, the audience is given digestible bits of information and is not overwhelmed by a barrage of impossible-to- answer nonsense. The evolutionist at least has a fighting chance to teach something about science and evolution.”
I would be good with that, with the added proviso that the science advocate be well-schooled in creationism issues and preferably have a background in geology. For the purpose of helping Christians swallow the notion of an old earth, it would be better to have a fellow Christian like Ken Miller, rather than a (nice) pagan like Bill Nye, speaking for the side of science literacy.
Later in 2014, on his Primate’s Progress blog Paul Braterman offered some pertinent thoughts on why publically debating creationists is not a generally good idea:
In brief, the kind of debate suggested is not symmetrical. There are more ways of being wrong than being right, and the scientist is constrained by reality, while the creationist is constrained only by plausibility…We tend to believe what we are told, especially if we are hearing it from a speaker dignified by a public platform. Critical evaluation of complex arguments is always difficult, and in areas that we have not studied can approach the impossible. The spoken word, above all, is fleeting; we have time to form an impression, but not enough for critical analysis, making it the perfect medium for the seemingly learned non sequitur. Speech is also the natural medium for the rhetorical trick of equivocation, an apparently convincing chain of reasoning that depends on sliding from one meaning of a word to another. We cannot rebut creationist claims without publicising them, and rebuttals sound too much like excuses. In any case, rebuttals cannot possibly be more memorable than the claims rebutted, and the very act of debate suggests an intellectual balance that does not in fact exist.
Some of these problems still persist in writing, but less so…