In the widely-publicized debate with Ken Ham, Bill Nye could not account for the laws of logic, but it won’t matter to many listeners wooed by his charm.
Most of this entry will be the green-colored commentary by your editor (David Coppedge), a long-time follower of the creation-evolution controversy. Please realize that nothing is easier than Monday-morning quarterbacking. I doubt I would have the presence of mind and personality to face the cameras and a live audience under time pressure in public debate and do nearly as well as Ken did. I tried to watch the event through the eyes of a skeptic or fence-sitter. With great respect for Ken Ham and his influence, I regret to state that, in my opinion, he lost on presentation, though he scored significant factual and logical points. This was surprising, since I know him to be quick on his feet and logically astute. But most of the time, it appeared to me that Bill Nye had Ham playing defense, trying to justify his “extraordinary beliefs” as Nye characterized them. It was an episode one could use to argue that public debates are not helpful for solving disputes about deep, inscrutable scientific or philosophical issues; they become personality contests more than enlightening discussions (and Bill Nye has lots of experience in stage personality). In addition, so many data points get thrown up into the air, it ends up trying to fight a volley of arrows instead of a joust. It can’t be done in the time available, and no debater is likely to be expert enough to answer all of them on the spot.
Consider the emotional aspects of stage presence. Nye looked his audience in the eye, talking to them with a spirit of “the joy of science” and “the joy of discovery,” bringing in grand vistas of cell phones, satellites, astronomers and medical researchers all participating in the grand adventure of progress and understanding called science. (It’s all bosh, of course, since Ken Ham shares the same joy for what he kept pointing out is observational science.) When Ham spoke, Nye stared him down, with a serious look almost of a scowl of incredulity. Ham looked meek by comparison. The meek may inherit the earth, but they don’t win debates. Confidence, courage, and authority are important in one’s demeanor. We can all hope that later analysis will show who won on the merit of the arguments and evidence, but on the spot, when the cameras are rolling, you want to take control of the situation. Nye said several times that Ken Ham’s position was “troubling” to him (as if anybody cares). Ham could have responded, What’s more troubling–belief in the grace of a good and righteous God who has provided salvation and hope to millions, or belief in a mindless, purposeless universe that spawns amorality, nihilism and despair? Neither debater was disrespectful of the other; they shook hands before and after, and the moderator did a good job of staying neutral. But Nye appeared to be the one in charge. He got away with portraying creation as an “extraordinary view” in contrast to “science” that loves to “discover” things. But in actuality, what could be more extraordinary than believing Nye’s mind emerged out of hydrogen? What could be more extraordinary than believing nothing times nobody equals everything?
Instead of defending Darwinism, most of the time Nye grabbed the “science” ball and ran with it, positioning himself as the champion of discovery, progress, and even patriotism. Nye characterized the debate as “the world” against Ken Ham, “the scientific community” and “billions of religious people” against this one man’s narrow literal interpretation of an ancient book translated into English by processes as unreliable as the old game of telephone. When Ken Ham had the floor, he was often looking down at his laptop with his glasses on, as if preoccupied with what Powerpoint slide he could pull up to respond to the latest red herring from Nye. This caused him to stumble for words and lose his train of thought. In my opinion, Ken should have left the laptop at home, looked the camera in the eye, and taken control. At times it seemed he was giving one of his canned presentations to Christian audiences in churches. He should have realized he was not speaking to Christians, but to the world: to the Texas school board, to Washington politicians, to science students in classrooms around the country – and to the enemies of creation.
It’s unfortunate that the topic of the debate was “Is creation a viable model of origins in today’s modern, scientific era?” The very wording puts creation on the defensive from the outset. A much better question would have been, “Can Darwinian philosophy survive the information age in science?” Given the question, Nye easily took command of the “today’s modern, scientific era” phrase, leaving Ham to defend the viability of the “creation model” against that backdrop. It was rigged from the start. Imagine if Nye had to defend the quaint, Victorian myth of Darwinism in light of the overwhelming evidence for complex, specified information in DNA and the fine-tuning of the universe – powerful evidences almost completely neglected in Ken Ham’s presentation. Instead, Ham’s main repository of evidence was the Bible – sure to get Amen’s from the Christians in the audience, but unlikely to impress skeptics or fence-sitters swooning under Nye’s stimulating stories about ice cores, radioactive elements, and fossil skulls. (And that’s what it was: storytelling with adroit use of card stacking.) Did Ham forget that the Apostle Paul, when speaking to Gentiles, appealed to sense observation of creation in Romans 1, Acts 14, and Acts 17? Surely he knows this, because he teaches in his books and lectures the difference in approach one must use with today’s secularists. Doesn’t he remember Gish and Morris using only scientific arguments, not religious references, in their debates? This was not the place to defend Genesis. Discussions of the Ark and Babel are very appropriate downstream questions once the major question of design is decided, but not to modern pagans willing to accept Nye’s characterization of the Bible as an ancient text. How can an ancient text, flawed through translation, speak to “today’s modern, scientific era”? That was the picture being portrayed; it gave Bill Nye open season to ridicule details about the Ark, Noah, and vegetarian lions, without having to justify his fairy tale that unguided processes can turn hydrogen into scientists.
Let’s consider some of Ken Ham’s strong points.
- Several times he stated the importance of the laws of logic, stressing that the Christian world view accounts for the laws of nature and of logic. He asked Bill Nye to explain the laws of logic – something Nye failed to do. He pointed out that scientists rely on the creation worldview to do science. This is all right and good, but Ham should have hammered Nye on that till he got a response.
- When challenged with the distant starlight problem, Ham correctly pointed to the horizon problem, showing that secular astronomers have the same difficulty. Unfortunately, this is a technical subject that was probably lost on most listeners.
- Ham correctly stated that majority opinion is not a judge of truth. That point could have been reinforced by asking that since almost everything scientists believed in the year 1900 is now known to be false, how can today’s scientists be sure of what they claim today? What if scientists decide Darwinism is false – would Bill Nye accept the consensus then? Ham did mention a few cases where the majority is wrong, but Nye had a chance to respond with the myth of progress, that scientists were glad to find out the truth, and would love nothing better than to be proved wrong. Ham could have followed that up by challenging Nye if he would be happy when creation is decided by the consensus to be true and naturalism false.
- When Nye tried to take control of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, Ham correctly pointed out that the law produces decay, not information. Using an old illustration by A. E. Wilder-Smith, Ham noted that energy from the sun is insufficient, just as sunlight on a dead stick will not make it grow.
- Ken successfully pointed to scientific evidence that human beings all belong to one race, calling that a prediction of the creation model. Too bad he didn’t have time to go into the “scientific racism” of Darwinism that led to eugenics and two world wars; anyway, the point is that the Bible is the fountainhead of belief all men are created equal.
- Ham emphasized the necessity of defining terms, and pointed out the difference between operational science and historical science, but he seemed a bit blindsided by Nye’s comeback arguments about astronomy looking into the past and seeing the audience in the past. The distinction could have been tightened; e.g., when evaluating the origin of complex things, we know from our uniform experience that intelligent causes played a role – but unguided causes never do. That would have used Nye’s uniformitarian assumptions against him.
- Ken Ham also stated “What’s the point?” of doing science if death ends it all. That’s a key thought that undercuts Nye’s “joy of doing science” attitude. Bill Nye gave his “joy” pronouncement about three times, though, with more enthusiasm.
- Ken also got in a clear statement of the gospel. One has to consider how effective it was, though, against the backdrop of the other factors.
Ken Ham stated some truths but in a rhetorically weak fashion.
- He showed one of his favorite slides, pointing out that the Bible is the source of morality, marriage, clothing, salvation and other good Christiany things, while secularism leads to relativism. Problem is, many of his skeptical listeners would be glad that secularism leads to relativism! Aren’t many of them supporting “gay marriage” these days? It would have been much stronger to argue that the Bible is the foundation for science and reason, but secularism – especially belief in unguided natural processes – is self-refuting and therefore must be wrong.
- Ham also pointed out that evolutionism is religious, but did not score rhetorically with it. He could have shut Nye’s mouth with words to the effect that “Everyone who uses reason is a supernaturalist, and you, Bill Nye, are a thief!” Turning to the audience, he should have said, “Bill Nye is stealing from the creation world view to use reason and logic. How can he get those out of a big bang?” Turn back to Bill and say, “By employing the laws of logic, you are proving that you agree with me. Bill, get your own dirt!”
- Ham pointed out that dating methods rely on assumptions, but did not make a strong case that long-age results come from unreasonable assumptions. This allowed Nye to portray the billions-of-years results of rubidium/strontium etc. to rely on reasonable assumptions about the uniformity of natural laws, something Ham agreed in another point allows us to do science. He displayed a big unreadable list of some 90 dating methods that disagree with the long ages, but never gave any clear example of one. He could have argued that (1) these younger dating methods are more reasonable, and (2) they place severe upper limits on the age of the earth, tightening the noose by showing that even 100,000 years rules out evolution. Ham did, however, point out that radiometric dating can produce vastly inconsistent results.
- Ham pointed to several eminent scientists who are creationists, including Raymond Damadian (a great American, inventor of the MRI), Danny Faulkner and Stuart Burgess. That’s fine, but it’s weak in debate because it appears to be cherry picking. Bill Nye could point to many thousands of evolutionists in response. To his credit, Ham also got in the fact that Newton, Maxwell and Faraday were creationists. But the point is not that “some scientists are creationists” or “you can be a creationist and still be a good scientist.” The point to drive home is that the creation worldview is essential to good science, but secularists, like parasites, plagiarize creationist assumptions. Another way to reinforce the point is to show how evolutionism is worthless to all the good science Nye was pointing to (satellites, cell phones), which required intelligence and design. He could have quickly listed some scientific fields that routinely employ intelligent design principles, including engineering (Nye’s expertise) and SETI. What a coup that would have been against the leader of The Planetary Society!
- Ham said that we have the same evidence but just disagree on the interpretation of the evidence because of our assumptions. While that is true to an extent, what he needed to debate was the superiority of creation’s interpretations over evolution’s interpretations. He made it seem like it’s OK to just agree to disagree.
- Ham remarked, “There’s so much I could say,” asking the audience several times to go to the AIG website. If you can’t say it and have the facts at your command, it looks weak.
In some instances, Ham actually damaged the cause of creation by allowing Bill Nye to lead him down the primrose path. Ham should have studied his opponent and known what was coming. Nye’s goals were: (1) to link evolution to science, (2) to link evolution to science education and leadership in the world, and (3) to characterize creation as religion, a particularly narrow-minded one at that. Knowing those points were on Nye’s agenda, Ham should have been prepared to knock them out of the park and put the shoe on the other foot. But to the disgrace of the creation movement, he gave some answers that reinforced the stereotypes: Ham believes creation because he believes the Bible, and no evidence will change his mind, he basically said. Bill Nye followed by portraying himself as the open-minded guy willing to change his mind if there’s evidence: bring it on! That was a hit that should have been an out, and some tweets are saying that sums up the whole debate. Ken Ham could have bludgeoned that argument with counter-arguments showing evolutionists are not open-minded, that they have a philosophical commitment to materialism that is absolute. Instead of preaching to the choir in the auditorium at the Creation Museum, Ham should have spoken directly to the unconvinced, proving evolutionists are insufferable bigots denying academic freedom to skeptics of the Darwin idol and persecuting those who don’t chant DODO.
With the rhetorical upper hand, Bill Nye was able to get away with fallacies, half truths and big lies. Many of his “arguments” were mere assertions: e.g. (paraphrasing), “creation is not a viable model because I’m not convinced it is.” He said the second law leads to progress because it’s an open system. He said the discovery of radioactivity disproved Lord Kelvin’s age estimate and allowed all the time needed. He asserted that “survival of the fittest” creates progress because its “mediocre designs are eaten by its good designs.” He claimed radiometric dating is reliable. And he made good use of the splattergun approach, tossing in irrelevant and misleading quips about ice cores, fossil skulls, Lake Missoula, the big bang, distances to stars, sundials on Mars, and kangaroos crossing land bridges. Pointing to a fossil on the museum grounds, he boasted, “We are standing on millions of layers of ancient life.” Instead of getting embarrassed by the Grand Canyon as he should have been, he took control of it, claiming the Temple Butte intrusion into the Muav shows long periods of time. Where was the counterattack to shame Nye into admitting hundreds of millions of missing years between multiple layers just because evolution needs it? Ham showed the smooth contact between the Coconino and Hermit (which ought to have embarrassed Nye by its flatness and lack of evidence for 6 million missing years), but only to make a rhetorically useless point (in this context) that creationists and evolutionists have the same facts. Nye repeatedly got away with a serious philosophical blunder, claiming that good science makes predictions. Actually, that’s the fallacy of affirming the consequent. Ham fell into that trap, too, scurrying to find some predictions creation makes, making it look like he was coming from behind. Nye pointed to, of all things, Tiktaalik as an illustration of a successful evolutionary prediction! (see 1/14/14). All the while, Nye took repeated jabs at the Bible and young-earth creationism, repeatedly saying “4,000 years” instead of Ham’s 6,000, appealing to ice cores and species counts to claim there isn’t enough time, discounting Noah’s abilities, and making the Bible look unreliable.
In summary, it is with sadness I evaluate this debate as a loss for Ham, even though he did score well at times. If you subtract out the rhetoric and personality fluff, Ham did better. If you clear up Nye’s factual errors and logical fallacies, Ham arguably won. Still, I can see sound bites and video clips from this debate being used to advantage by evolutionists, and judging from some of the tweets, the NCSE and others are viewing it as a big win for them. (Skeptics reading this should understand I am NOT claiming that Nye won on evidence and logic – just on presentation. That kind of thing happened before in the Huxley-Wilberforce debate, where Huxley scored on emotion instead of facts.) I would much have preferred narrowing the topic to design vs undesign for the origin of life. That would be a tractable issue for a two-hour debate. The debate question was poorly framed, and the subject matter too broad. I think Ken Ham should have known his audience, opponent, and main message better. He should have played more offense and less defense. And it’s a reminder to all of us that presentation, not just facts, is important for making a winning case.
The intelligent design community may be able to profit from the debate. They can use it to argue “intelligent design is not creationism.” Ken Ham said very little about intelligent design, and the criticisms Bill Nye made about ID can be easily refuted. Nye clearly stated that evolution is a “bottom-up” worldview, opening up a vulnerability that philosophers and theologians will be able to engage without reference to Genesis. If in public dialogue we can move the issue back to the first question – design or unguided natural processes, top-down or bottom-up, intelligence or materialism – then progress can be made on all the subsequent questions. Design, the universal intuition of every human being, is not going away.
Again, Monday-morning quarterbacking is all too easy. I reserve the right to change my opinions after a second viewing. These are some first impressions; I hope they are helpful to AIG, which does a great job in its ministry, and to all of us who care about the creation-evolution issue. I want to thank AIG and Ken Ham for having the courage to invite Bill Nye to back up his bluff. Though I believe his arguments were unsound, Bill Nye showed himself to be a worthy competitor and is to be commended for debating on AIG’s home turf. Thanks to both for their civility, and to the moderator for a great job. Let the debate continue.
Check out CMI’s debate response, where they provide links to articles refuting Nye’s science claims. I expect AIG will have one soon.