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Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Ken Ham vs. Bill Nye: The Aftermath


Tonight Bill Nye and Ken Ham squared off on the topic "Is Creation a Viable Model for Origins In The Scientific Era?" Promoters of this debate have been promoting it as the "Debate of the Decade" and I had even heard the term "Scopes 2." Because I am a Christian and I disagree with Ken Ham's position on the age of the universe (I agree with Bill Nye, in that regard, but disagree with his worldview in general), it seems that I would be rooting for both or neither in the debate. Since I find that holding an incorrect view of reality (even within the confines of the correct general worldview) is damaging to defenses of the general worldview, I decided to watch this debate and offer my thoughts.

First, I want to state that I found that both participants were very respectful of one another so, it made the exchange easy to watch in that respect. What makes a debate more difficult to watch depends on the participants' ability to stay on topic and defend their contentions against critique. While I think that for the most part, they did stay on topic, there was a mix regarding their defense of particular parts of their contentions.

Summary of Ken Ham's Contention and Evidence

Ken Ham's contention was that young earth creationism is a viable model for origins. He did quite well by offering several of the philosophical arguments for a Creator: the origin of the laws of logic, consistency of the laws of nature, objective morality, consciousness, and information. However when he moved into defending a young earth creationism, his primary source of evidence was other scientists who held to that view yet were quite successful in their scientific endeavors. While he did not explicitly state that he was arguing from authority, it was clear that he was using the scientists as authorities in their specific fields to argue, at least, for the viability (but not necessarily the truth) of the young earth view.

Ken Ham made the distinction between observational science and historical science. He stated that historical science was not observable, so science cannot establish the age of the universe one way or the other. He stated that he gets his view of the age of the earth exclusively from scripture. He pointed out the fallacy that many supporters of evolution make regarding the observed evidence of evolution at the taxonomic level of family (and lower) to argue for the evolution of higher levels (i.e. class, order, phylum, etc.). He also claimed that "secularists" hijacked the terms "evolution" and "science" to "indoctrinate" our kids into the secular worldview. As usual, Ken Ham conflated evolution with billions of years and insisted that Genesis 1 teaches a young universe. Ham did not offer any scientific evidence that can exclusively be explained by young earth creationism (the philosophical arguments are compatible with other Christian views).

Summary of Bill Nye's Contention and Evidence

Bill Nye's contention was that the young earth model is not a viable model of origins. He made sure to establish that he makes no distinction between observational and historical science. Nye made it clear that he expected Ham to provide some evidence that could exclusively be explained by a young earth model. He also mentioned several times that if the young earth view is to be taken seriously as a scientific model, it needed to make testable predictions (which he contended that it did not). As evidence that falsifies the young earth model, he offered the number of fossils in limestone layers and number of seasonal ice layers that exceed the number of years the universe has been in existence based on the young earth view. He also spent a significant amount of time critiquing the idea of a global flood. One appeal was to the necessity for more "kinds" of animals on the ark than was physically possible to maintain and to explain the diversity of species today, even with extremely rapid evolution (this argument was later strengthened by a failed attempt by Ham to rebut).

Nye pointed to the predictability of the evolutionary paradigm by appealing to the predicted discovery of an animal that would be considered a morphological transitional form. He also explained that big bang cosmology made predictions that were later confirmed by observations. He explained that his model could explain any evidence for catastrophes that may be attempted to exclusively support a global flood. Nye made it clear that Ham must appeal to changing laws of physics since the flood to account for the evidence.

Summary of Ham's Responses and Rejoinders

In response to Nye's continued requests for evidence for the universe's youth, Ham kept saying that the past is not observable and that science has no way to establish the age of the universe. Regarding predictions, Ham appealed to the Bible having scientifically testable claims, but he mainly pointed to claims that are not exclusive to young earth creationism.

Ham stated clearly that he did not accept changing laws of physics, and that he could not "prove" to anyone that the universe was young because age is outside the realm of observational science. Ham did offer the origin of life as evidence for the necessity of a Creator (though this is not exclusive to the young earth model, it was exclusive between Ham and Nye.) Ham also constantly attempted to shed doubt on the strength of Nye's arguments by pointing out that any consistent connection between the past and present is merely an assumption (he primarily used this to respond to challenges from decay rates of radioactive material and geological evidence against his view).

Summary of Bill Nye's Responses and Rejoinders

Bill Nye made it clear that there is no real distinction between observational and historical science. He implied that any conclusion based on this false distinction is invalid. He emphasized this point by explaining that light takes time to travel, thus astronomy (the study of objects extremely far away) only observes the past- implying that age (history) is part of observational science. Nye attempted to undermine Ham's use of the Bible to establish young earth creationism in two ways: Ham's view is interpretation, not scripture, and scripture has been translated and retranslated over many generations, thus it can't be trusted. He also pointed out that if animal death is the result of sin, then animals must have sinned. Nye also reemphasized that Ham had not addressed any of the evidence that Nye offered to falsify the young earth view and the idea of a global flood.

Strengths and Weaknesses- Ken Ham

Ken Ham had the advantage of having the true general worldview on his side. However, he tossed this advantage to the side by insisting that young earth creationism is true and a necessary feature of the Christian worldview, but also insisting that no one can defend their view of the age of the universe scientifically. By doing that, he alienated any skeptics who do not already accept the Bible as an authoritative source of truth. Ham was "preaching to the choir;" and even stated in the Q&A that no evidence could convince him of the antiquity of the universe because science can't be used to establish age while the Bible can. Ham provided no predictions exclusive to young earth creationism and no scientific evidence that necessarily falsified evolution or big bang cosmology (he also conflated these two, but so did Nye to a point).

Ham had several missed opportunities with Nye. The first seemed obvious to me: since Nye is an engineer by training, Ham could have appealed to the simplistic design of Nye's inventions compared to the grand designs in nature; then asked why Nye was willing to grant that his were designed but nature's were not. Ham also did not address the simple complaint that the Bible is like the "telephone game." Ham was not willing to admit that his view of scripture was merely an interpretation (which he couldn't without completely undermining his insistence on the young earth view, and thus the entire Christian worldview, on his view).

Scientifically, Ham did offer the origin of life as a defeater for Nye's view. I wish that Ham would have made this one more clear and spent more time on it. It would have given Nye something scientific to critique besides the lack of evidence and predictions given.

Ham's biggest weakness was in his initial affirmation of the constancy of the laws of physics (thus reliability of the scientific method) but the distinction between "observational" and "historical" science and denial that the past natural events can be known. If the laws of physics are the same today as they were back then, then an extrapolation into the past is perfectly logical, and all those things that Ham denies are actually necessarily affirmed. Ham contradicts himself to establish God's existence and to escape the burden of proof. It is probably Nye's greatest weakness that he didn't point this out explicitly (but more on him below).

I do applaud Ken Ham for presenting the Gospel on several occasions, but since he had already lost credibility with skeptics, by avoiding the burden of proof and practically conceding to Nye that he does not have and never will have scientific evidence for his view of the age of the earth, a skeptic's acceptance of the Gospel would be based solely on a feeling akin to the LDS' (Latter Day Saints) "burning in the bosom" or blind faith.

Strengths and Weaknesses- Bill Nye

While Bill Nye provided an extremely strong scientific case for his view of the age of the universe (which I agree with) and against the young earth view, his view was philosophically bankrupt. He was lucky that Ham did not push the philosophical points at all. But he was prepared, in case Ham did.

I do think that Nye was careful in making it clear that many Christians reject young earth creationism and that there is no incompatibility between science and the Christian faith. By doing this, he framed the context in which all his critiques should be understood: they were ONLY to falsify the young earth model, but not necessarily the Christian faith. By recognizing that Christianity could still be true if his scientific critiques of young earth creationism were accepted. Nye built a bridge to audience members skeptical of his view while Ham burned bridges to audience members skeptical of his view (and left it to God to repair that damage).

Nye's biggest weakness was that he was defending a false worldview in general. He also did not address the one scientific critique that Ham did manage to muster up (the origin of life). His focus on the "joy of discovery" (as opposed to being satisfied with God as an explanation), did not really do much good because the same joy (plus much more) is available in the Christian worldview. In this great weakness of Nye's case, I think is where Ham showed his only really great moment: he pointed out that the "joy of discovery" is ultimately meaningless and purposeless if death is the end.

My Final Assessment

It is quite difficult to choose who I think won. Neither participant appealed to the other's source of authority to support their view, and both only appealed to their own already accepted source of truth. Nye appealed to science, which Ham's followers will dismiss because they accept Ham's distinction between observational and historical science, and they believe that science does not and can never say anything about the age of the universe or other historical events (including the flood). Ham pushed away skeptics of his view by disregarding their source of truth as being impotent to be a testing ground for scripture (which he didn't admit was really an interpretation of scripture, anyway) and refused to rise to any of Nye's challenges.

Both participants were entertaining their respective fans. While both made many statements of truth, Ham claimed that young earth creationism exclusively founds the Gospel (he did pay "lip service" to other Christians, though, by saying that the age of the universe is NOT a salvation issue). Nye also offered his own "lip service" to non-young earth Christians, but attacked the reliability of the transmission of the text (and weakly, at that, which Ham could have easily addressed but did not). Anyone who watched to "see their guy win" will likely be satisfied and not give the other view (or any portion of it) a second thought. However, because of the many statements of truth and falsehood on both sides, those who were looking for some kind of resolution or those who were on one side but doubting it, will be quite confused and dissatisfied. Each respective candidate won with their supporters, but both lost with their skeptics. This exchange was certainly not "the debate of the decade."

My Recommendations

For those who are confused on how to reconcile the true statements made on each side (Ham- the Gospel of Jesus Christ; and Nye- the reliability of science to give us knowledge of the past and the antiquity of the universe) yet reject the false ones, I highly recommend that you check out my Science and Faith page along with Reasons to Believe and the academic debates listed below.

For those who are looking for debates with a more academic or intellectual focus and scientific and philosophical robustness regarding the creation / evolution debate, please watch these:

*UPDATE* More great reviews keep getting published. I have them in two categories to help you decide the links to follow:

Reviews of this Debate:

Collections of Reviews Plus Additional or Summarizing Thoughts

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