A few days ago, I watched the already-famous, spirited debate between Bill “The Science Guy” Nye and Ken Ham, CEO of Answers in Genesis and the Creation Museum in Kentucky (click here to watch). As the debate was hosted by the Creation Museum of which Ham is the main proprietor, I would have guessed that the deck was stacked against Mr. Nye. In fact, several journalists had argued that Nye had lost the debate simply by showing up.
The debate lasted over two hours, which was very much appreciated. A topic, which asks if creationism is a viable model for the explanation of the world and its origins, has so many angles and themes that it requires a long time to discuss. The fact that each presenter was given thirty uninterrupted minutes to map out his central thesis and supporting claims was fascinating. We live in a society where media outlets give potential candidates vying for the most powerful seat on the planet only two to five minutes to state their case, with a measly thirty seconds for rebuttals.
A lot was discussed. Ken Ham posited that all of science is misleading because scientists conflate observational or experimental science with historical science. The latter is meant to describe all inferences that scientists make about what happened thousands, millions and billions of years ago based on models created in the last few centuries. While Nye noted that this distinction exists nowhere except in Ham’s head, it’s worth remembering that this is the singular crux of Ham’s argument (besides, of course, the infallibility of the Bible as many things, including being a “scientific” text).
Bill Nye was his adorable self as usual, gushing with enthusiasm. His passion for science was embodied by a metaphor that he repeated: if you’re in love, you want to tell the world. His signature bow-tie was present along with his often wacky gesticulations, silly anecdotes and even a joke or two. But these idiosyncrasies didn’t get in the way of his unrelenting push for science education, which is certainly jeopardized by creationism muscling its way into public school classrooms.
But my main issue with the debate was that Bill Nye, for all his vast knowledge of the scientific process and its discoveries, was just too nice. Of course, he had to be. He was in the lion’s den with what I can only assume was his faithful pride giving him a shot at possibly changing their minds. I’d compare the act to attempting to knock down a salt pillar with a fly swatter – you might do it eventually, but each swat does nothing and you’ll just tire yourself out in the end. But you have give him credit (and love him) for trying.
I’m not saying Nye should have been mean, condescending or disparaging. That wouldn’t be in his nature, it would set back the cause and only further antagonize scientists in the eyes of the creationist flock. But so often, Ham would resort to the Bible as his only explanation, citing an ancient text not written by scientists for an explanation of the infinitely complex world that surrounds us. Not only does it contradict his assertion that we cannot explain or describe what we did not witness (as he was not present when the Bible was written or when the Flood happened). But we do have hieroglyphs that pre-date the Flood, if it had happened when Ham claims – do those not count?
This is where someone else, perhaps a Sam Harris or the late Christopher Hitchens, might have played a risky card. Nye was simply too polite and cordial every time Ham brought up an apocryphal explanation for a natural phenomenon or spoke down to Nye with patronizing pity while offering that there actually is an explanation for atoms and the cosmos, and it’s written in a book (maybe you’ve heard of it?).
Harris or Hitchens would have taken the bait, probably to their detriment. They might have asked Ham why he disregards such methods as carbon dating or radioactive decay when something as ancient as the Bible is beyond scrutiny. They might have asked why he doesn’t bother entertaining the rich histories of ancient cultures that would have gotten swept away in Noah’s flood.
The issue is, Nye did start to ask some of these questions but the hesitance in his voice toward the end of each question suggests that he dialed back the skepticism. Precisely because he’s such a good steward of education, he kept all of his questions and comments civil. But the real question he was probably asking to himself was, how can you base all of your knowledge of the world on something that can’t be proven? No one can prove god is real, or that the Bible was channeled divinely from heaven to a mortal interlocutor. Ham simply insists that it is. It’s extremely likely that his entire worldview is based on the whims of radicals who died thousands of years ago.
However, some might argue that delving into the existence of god would have been outside the scope of the debate. Even though the question posed at the start asked about creationism, which is inseparable from belief in the Judeo-Christian god, I can see why Nye kept the discussion from tumbling down that deep, dark rabbit hole.
But if that weren’t frustrating enough, equally infuriating was a question sourced from the audience. It asked both presenters whether there was anything that would get them to change their minds. Nye was frank, asserting that if credible evidence surfaced for something long thought to be an established scientific fact, he’d change his thinking in a heartbeat. I said the same thing in a previous post about the sudden appearance of a deity. Ham, however, was not as open-minded. He revealed the true problem with creationism and its followers: complete and total intransigence. He literally said that nothing would get him to think otherwise. In fact, his exact words were:
“I’m a Christian, and as a Christian, I can’t prove it to you, but God has definitely shown me very clearly through his word, and he has shown himself in the person of Jesus Christ, that the bible s the word of God. I admit that that is where I start from … no, no one is ever going to convince me that the word of god is not true.” (There was a lot more fluff in between, largely imploring people to read the Bible and to see for themselves).
No one, nothing, ever.
A more vocal and aggressive debater would have pounced on this. It exposed Ham’s hypocrisy for claiming that schools do not teach students to think critically, instead indoctrinating them with the “religion” of secularism by teaching evolution as a fact. Critical thinking involves taking new information and examining it from multiple angles, possibly allowing for a re-evaluation of your position on a theme. But if you are completely rooted in the infallibility of a religious tome and plan to use it to explain everything from the origins of the universe to why Japanese salamanders no longer have eyes, then how can you possibly claim that you are thinking critically?
But that question was not asked during the debate … except by me, yelling loudly at my monitor.