In the Spring of 2010, evangelical Bible scholar Bruce Waltke, in speaking about the overwhelming evidence for evolution, said “To deny that reality will make us a cult, some odd group that is not really interacting with the real world.”
In response to this, Ken Ham, president of Kentucky’s Creation Museum, commented, “What he is saying ultimately undermines the authority of God’s word.”
Both statements seem to be true. (I don’t think you necessarily need to have faith in a god to accept the basic logic of Ham’s statement.) Also, that’s really all you need to know about young earth creationism. It is God’s word, and the FAQ on the matter is the Bible.
Last night, science communicator Bill Nye debated Ken Ham at Ham’s Creation Museum in Kentucky. This debate came about because of a statement Bill Nye made not long ago suggesting that creationism, and in particular efforts to force creationism into textbooks and, via other means, into classrooms, does harm to children and ultimately to society. Ham took that statement as a cue to challenge Nye to a debate, and Nye accepted.
Many people, myself included, objected to Bill Nye’s acceptance of this challenge. The reasons for that objection are outlined here, and here. I need not repeat them.
The debate happened last night. When it comes to creationism, I admit that I am not an objective observer, but I can try. I think Ken Ham did fine in that debate. He spoke before his own audience. A remarkably white but gender and age diverse gathering of followers of the Bible and believers in creationism seem to have responded well to Ham. His rhetoric was consistent. We know everything, we understand the most important issues of origins, creation, and evolution, and all of this information comes mainly from the Bible. There are a few other details.
At the same time, however, Bill Nye also did well in this debate, objectively speaking. He presented science, science, science and more science. He presented the science clearly, convincingly, chose his examples well, personalized the discussion wherever possible even to the point of doing a Lewis Black moment (pulling out a fossil he had picked up earlier in the week!). During the few moments when we were allowed to see the evangelical audience during Bill Nye’s presentation they looked, frankly, charmed. And how could they not be, Bill Nye is a charming guy!
In my view, again biased in favor of science because, well, because it’s the correct view, Bill Nye won the debate by a large margin. Friends on Twitter and Facebook equated the debate to the Superbowl, with Bill Nye being the Seahawks and Ken Ham being Denver. Apt. Perhaps even an understatement. Even a poll on a Christian web site gave a strong win to Nye
One could say that it was easy. Bill Nye made it look easy. He focused on the science, as I mentioned, but he also frequently applied that science to Ken Ham’s young earth creationism. One might wonder if Noah’s Ark could have stayed afloat during the great flood, with all those animals on it, for as long as the Bible says it did. But during this debate, Bill Nye sunk that Ark again and again. In addition to an excellent and convincing high altitude view of evolutionary science, and effective deconstruction of young earth creationism, Nye also made frequent and engaging references to the amazing outcome of unfettered scientific study and technology, which I think helps people appreciate and personalized science. He even made an argument from patriotism (not a scientific argument for evolution, but an argument for honest pursuit of knowledge).
Ken Ham’s argument for the young age of the Earth was unassailable. The Bible tells us the age of the Earth, period. Ham claims all of the dating methods are fallible, none are as good as eye witness evidence. (That would be God.) This is unassailable because it is untestable, but based on good science, we can say it is wrong. But you can’t really do much about a religious belief. Ham presented counter evidence contrary to the generally accepted science, but it was the usual bogus, incorrect, easily dismissed set of arguments. For example, some really old stuff was dated to really old (as it is) with the potassium argon method but to only 40-something thousand years using radiocarbon dating. The reason for that, of course, is that radiocarbon dating generally does not function beyond 40-something thousand years old, so all older material produces a young date with that particular method. If you measure the height of a great mountain with a ruler, the mountain will come out to be one foot tall, unless you get a bigger ruler. Also, somewhere in there I think Ken Ham made the argument that we should not wear clothes. Yet he was wearing clothes. Please explain.
An edited version of this debate, with just the Bill Nye parts, will make an excellent overview of why evolutionary biology is the way to go and young earth creationism is not.
There were definitely several moment where I wish I could have jumped on the stage and given Bill’s answer for him. For example, Ham scored a point by deconstructing functional interpretations of mammalian dental anatomy, in relation to the question of whether all the animals were vegetarians during Ark-times. I could have crushed that response in a way that would introduce even more evidence for evolution. But Bill Nye is an expert in other areas. Moreover, Bill Nye did the right thing by not responding to most of Ham’s specific points, but rather, continuing to return to his own main points. Nye, in a sense, provided a slower and more ponderous, and well done, science version of the Gish Gallop. He had a number of powerful points and stuck to them, and mostly avoided going off track.
The fact that Bill Nye did very well in this debate does not mean that we should all start debating creationists, especially at events with a door charge that goes to support an entity like the Creation Museum. Put a different way: Bill Nye is a professional. DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME. But the widespread concern, including that expressed by yours truly, for this particular debate was wrong. I will be happily be dining on crow today at lunch.