You will recall that last February, Bill Nye, the Science Guy, debated Ken Ham, the Not-So-Science Guy, on the question of creationism as a viable explanation for the Earth’s history. The debate was held in Ham’s home territory, at the infamous Creation Museum in Kentucky. Nye didn’t really debate Ham. He ate him for breakfast. Form now on we shall call him Ken Bacon and Eggs.
Anyway, people, including me, who have been engaged with the “debate” between science (evolution) and not-so-science (creationism of one kind or another) were very concerned when we heard that this debate might happen. There are reasons to not engage in such a debate. We worried. But then the debate happened and we saw the debate and the debate made us glad. Word.
Well, in May 2014, which as far as I can tell is in the future (Bill Nye has some amazing powers!) Bill Nye published an Article in the Center for Inquiry’s Skeptical Inquirer about the debate: Bill Nye’s Take on the Nye-Ham Debate. In it, Nye gives the story of how the debate came to be, what his concerns and hopes were, how he prepared, what happened during the debate, and the debate’s aftermath. I think Nye’s explanation for his decision to debate is very much worth a read and can be appreciated by anyone interested in this topic. His description of the debate itself is fascinating, as inside stories often are. Also of great interest are Nye’s comments on an aspect of this debate that concerned several people: The way in which the debate was used, or perhaps, was not used, as a means of fund raising. Nye opens up questions that he suggests may be best addressed by the community of journalists in Kentucky. Hopefully that will happen.
I strongly recommend that you read Bill Nye’s essay. It is very interesting, and I very much appreciate his writing it.
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.
It seems that terrorists who are really serious, reasonably numerous, presumably well funded, and certainly experienced have threatened to attack the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia (both of them). The fallback plan, it is assumed, is that they can’t attack Sochi so they pick some other random locations, maybe in Russia, maybe not, and attack them. (That is the part about terrorists being cowards, I assume.)
The Russians have security that is probably second to none in the world, or at least on par with the countries that have a lot of experience with this sort of thing and spend considerable resources on evading and avoiding terrorist attacks. One could say that this is a test of an important question. When terrorists who are among the most likely to succeed are put up against security that is second to none, with plenty of advanced warning (over four years), will the terrorists be able to get past the defenses at Sochi or will they be thwarted? Truly, this is an historic moment about to happen. Or not happen, as the case may be.
Meanwhile, in Kentucky, Bill Nye will be debating Ken Ham over the question “Is creation a viable model of origins in today’s modern, scientific era?” (See this post by Josh Rosenau for details and how to watch the debate live.) As Josh summarizes in his post, and as I said here, Bill Nye would have been well advised to not do this debate. But he decided to so it anyway. Bill is a practiced and excellent communicator and promotor of science. Also, over the last few weeks, he has been preparing for this debate, getting coaching from heavyweights such as Don Prothero. But Ken Ham and the Creation Museum are the epitome of modern day Medieval creationism. It is a little like Sochi…
This is a test of a less important question than the one that will be taken up by circumstances as Sochi: When creationists who are among the most likely to succeeded in front of an audience are pitted with a leading science communicator with the best possible training and resources, what will happen?
I can’t watch the debate. I will be busy doing this. That’s a bummer. But I will watch the recorded version of it (assuming they have such modern technology at a museum with displays showing humans and dinosaurs co-existing). I hope you watch it and please leave comments below on how you think it went.
One final thing. Some people are going to be mad at me for equating American Christian Creationists with Chechen Terrorists. I mean to do no such thing. The core reasons these terrorists exist is because a people has been repressed by a dictatorial regime (several, actually) for many years. The creationists have no valid reason to be fighting science and ruining education. At the same time, the terrorists have adopted methods to get what they want that are horrible, immoral, and cowardly and that cause random death, injury, and destruction. The creationists have adopted methods that are not nearly as horrible, still often immoral, often cowardly, but they generally don’t hurt anybody physically so that’s good. But, anti-science activism has led to a delay in doing something meaningful about climate change over the last decade, so in the end, the anti-science activists in general, including the creationists, will have some accounting to do as well. Just sayin’
Bill recently made a few comments on the debate on CNN.
Here, I’d like to list a handful of the points I’d make if I was doing this debate.
It is not necessary or even possible to argue against “creationism” because creationism is a belief system based on faith. Science, on the other hand, is all about arguing about interpretation of observations and developing the best descriptions and explanations we can of the natural world.
In the 18th century, western thinking, “Natural philosophy,” described and explained the world in a way that incorporated religious thinking and referred to scripture. That view is almost identical to the 21st century creationist view. “Intelligent design” is indistinguishable from Paley’s view of the natural world, which he wrote about in his book “Natural Theology: or, Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity” in 1809, which is a kind of capstone for the previous century’s thinking.
The 19th century, with Darwin and Wallace and a host of others advanced modern scientific thinking and challenged the previous century’s way of thinking. There was indeed a debate at that time, and evolutionary biology won that debate.
During the early 20th century, Darwinian thinking was advanced and revised to include a huge amount of ongoing observations about nature, including the discovery of genetics. By some time early in the 20th century, what might have been a valid debate about the nature of nature itself faded away and became a political debate instead.
That political debate, not a scientific debate, between a religious belief system (creationism) and science (evolutionary biology), persisted through the 20th century and into the 21st century and has been used by a minority of religious institutions and individuals as a tool. There is no longer a scientific debate about the validity of evolution, and there has not been one for a very long time.
Many of the criticisms of evolution maintained by creationists are about the age of the earth and the way that fossils are ordered in time. That ordering in time is central to evolution because it demonstrates dramatic changes in life forms. But those criticisms are not so much about the biology, but rather, about the physics and geology.
The physics that help us understand evolutionary change over time is the same science that the United States military uses to develop and maintain our all-important Nuclear Navy. It is the same physics that underlies the development of an important part of our power grid, the nuclear power plants. It is the same physics that underlies the development of the not-so-pleasant nuclear arsenal. Before creationists complain to biologists that the science of nuclear physics is wrong, they should take their case to the Military and the nuclear power industry, because if nuclear physics is wrong, we are all in a great deal of trouble.
The geology that helps us understand the record of evolutionary change in the past is the same geology that gives us the ability to engineer safer structures, build seemingly impossible bridges, locate and exploit important resources such as minerals and, of course, petroleum. Before creationists complain about evolutionary biology’s use of this geology they should talk to civil engineers and petroleum and mining geologists about how they must have all of that wrong as well.
Evolutionary biology also underlies our medical practices. Comparative anatomy is part of the proof of evolution, and it is also the source of much of our understanding of human physiology. The study and treatment of infectious disease and epidemiology is based on evolutionary thinking. Before creationists complain about evolution they should talk to our medical professionals and inform them that the basis of their efforts to treat and prevent disease and medical disorders is all wrong.
Unfortunately, the fundraising goal for this creationist project was $24.5 million. The groundbreaking of the park has been delayed numerous times.
LEO Weekly tried to find out from the state Tourism Cabinet what was going on, and their representative claimed that they’d heard nothing from Ken Ham’s organization. But, they lied. Emails obtained via the Freedom of Information Act indicate that there has been communication, and that the situation for the Ark Park is not good: Continue reading $4 Million Raised for Kentucky Ark Park→