Ken Ham vs. Bill Nye the Science Guy

 In Influence, Pop Culture, Teachings, The Bible

Bill Nye vs. Ken Ham SquareAs you may have heard by now, last night (Tuesday, February 4) at the Creation Museum, a little debate went down. Creation Museum founder and Answers in Genesis CEO Ken Ham debated Bill Nye the Science Guy. The stated topic was:

Is Creationism a viable mode of origins in today’s scientific era?

The actual topic, of course, was Creation vs. Evolution.

If you’re familiar with Answers in Genesis, you know they’re committed to a very narrow, hyper-literalistic reading of Genesis 1-11. Bill Nye came to their attention a few years ago when he was featured in a Big Think video saying that Creationism isn’t appropriate for children.

This debate is the result of that conflict. You can watch the whole debate live for FREE right here, at least for a little while.

I had intended to live-blog, but the Creation Museum blocked all cell data and usage. So here’s my report – probably better thought-out anyway.

1. Basic Positions

Bill Nye

Mr. Nye began with several examples of observable phenomena in our present world that don’t jive with a 4,000 year time allowance (the time Mr. Ham gives since Noah’s flood). From ice core samples in the Antarctic to the fossil record to the vast number of species alive today, Mr. Nye repeated the same phrase over and over:

There just isn’t enough time.

He claimed that the ultimate goal of science is

An ability to predict based on clear, simple natural laws.

He demonstrates how “mainstream science” has done just that (through the discovery of Tiktaalik). Mr. Nye then charged that Mr. Ham’s Young-Earth Creationism model can’t predict, implying that YEC isn’t viable science.

He ended by showing his hand: what’s at stake for Mr. Nye is the future of our country. He wants a generation of educated young scientist who continue to place the USA at the forefront of innovation. He’s convinced that YEC – because it’s not a valid form of Scientific Inquiry – works against that vision.

Ken Ham

Central to Mr. Ham’s position is the insistence that there’s a difference between what he calls Observable Science and Historical Science. The two are exactly what they sound like: Observable Science is what all scientists do, regardless of their beliefs about origins. This is why – as Mr. Ham demonstrated repeatedly, many scientists who are 6-Day Creationists have made world-changing contributions to the scientific community.

Historical science, on the other hand, is what happened in the past – what we therefore cannot observe. For Mr. Ham, all positions regarding what happened before human observation are beliefs, and therefore ultimately religious. Teaching evolution as the fact of human origin is not, therefore, science, but naturalistic/atheistic religious indoctrination.

For Ham, the future is also at stake. He believes that a hyper-literal interpretation of Genesis is the foundation of morality and healthy-statehood. He blamed naturalistic philosophy for the breakdown of American moral fiber and the erosion of Biblical morality.

2. Kudos

Bill Nye

Mr. Nye did well to keep pushing Mr. Ham for an example of an effective predictive model his Creation Scientific method had generated. Mr. Ham did not produce any such model, while Nye illustrated several.

Mr. Nye also clearly identified a root disagreement between the two men, one that went unresolved. He noted that Mr. Ham sees a sharp, fundamental difference between Observational and Historical Science, while Mr. Nye sees them as part and parcel of the same basic mode of inquiry. Mr. Nye rightly pointed out the complete lack of evidence that natural laws somehow shifted 4,000 years ago.

Mr. Nye found very problematic the stance the position that the Bible as translated into American English is a scientific text, one that Ken Ham will interpret for you, and that said interpretation carries more weight than what we can observe with our own sense is highly problematic. Mr. Nye referred to it as “trouble”, and rightly so.

Finally, Mr. Nye observed that billions of people embrace faith but not Mr. Ham’s Young Earth Creationism. He explicitly stated that

I see no incompatibility between God and Science.

Ken Ham

Mr. Ham pushed Mr. Nye to acknowledge the limits to scientific inquiry, something Mr. Nye didn’t do. One of Mr. Ham’s strong points has always been to warn against scientific inquiry crossing the line into religious language and inquiry, and he continued to do that well tonight – though labeling the latter category “Historical Science” probably confused some people.

Mr. Ham also rightly pushed Mr. Nye to justify the ground for the obvious joy and love he has for Science and the process of discovery. There’s a nihilism at the core of naturalism, a lack of meaning and purpose that’s hard to overcome. Mr. Nye didn’t acknowledge this point at all, so it’s hard to tell if he has given it much thought.

Finally, Mr. Ham brought an excellent challenge to Christians who embrace theistic evolution. Mr. Ham first acknowledged that salvation isn’t based on one’s theory of origins, so those who follow Jesus and believe in evolution are still Christians. But he pushed that same group to explain the hairy theological problem of death. The Christian theological confession is that Death is an aberration, a consequence of sin, and the final enemy that will be defeated. But according to the theory of Evolution, death is the engine of adaptation and complexity. Without death, we don’t have frogs, apes or humans.

That’s a real issue, and one that any Christian who embraces the theory of evolution should grapple seriously with. Mr. Ham is right to point it out, though since Mr. Nye doesn’t seem to be a theist, it wasn’t really for him.

3. For Shame!

Bill Nye

Mr. Nye’s biggest mistake was his approach to the Bible. He accused the Bible of being unreliable as history because it has been translated and transmitted through so many centuries. He even made the dreaded Telephone Game comparison. This is foolish on a couple of levels:

First, the Bible is plenty reliable as an ancient document. The Dead Sea Scrolls confirmed over 60 years ago that the ancient techniques for transmitting written texts are shockingly trustworthy. The same goes for the oral traditions on which many of our Biblical texts are based. To doubt the Bible based on translation or transmission issues is silly.

Second, it assumes that Genesis 1-11 was at some point intended to be literal history or science. As though at some point there was a reliable scientific text we could agree or disagree with. That’s not the case (more on that on Mr. Ham’s side).

That feeds to Mr. Nye’s other big error – how he handled Noah. Again, he assumed a literal, historical Noah and historical ark. Granted, he was granting Mr. Ham’s position to demonstrate it unreasonable. But since doing so also implicitly allows the possibility of a personal, creator God, it’s a lose-lose situation. So what if Noah was unskilled? If God gave him the blueprints, the boat should float no problem.

Finally, Mr. Nye clearly believes that scientific progress can save us. This is ultimately the Modernist position – that we can through force of our own reason well-applied defeat Death. I can’t blame Mr. Nye – as a non-theist – for holding this position. But I know that he’s wrong. No matter how advanced our science gets, you can’t fix the human heart. The future looks a lot more like Battlestar: Galactica than StarTrek.

Finally, Mr. Nye didn’t address Mr. Ham’s questions about meaning and purpose. Those questions do get philosophical and therefore moved outside the scope of the debate, but they’re questions that deserve answers.

Ken Ham

Early in the debate, Mr. Ham quoted from an early-20th century textbook that used Darwinian theories of evolution to illustrate the “5 races of man”, of which the Caucasian was the most highly evolved. Mr. Ham then points to this as proof that Evolution is a fundamentally flawed worldview.

He then goes on to contrast it with his interpretation of Genesis 1-11, which claims that all humans come from one race. This was a shockingly disingenuous tactic. He claimed that if we use the Bible as our foundation, we will always have a just culture. Mr. Ham did not compare early 20th century interpretations of Scripture, or those who used the Bible to uphold slavery, segregation and European imperialism, the genocide of Native Americans, etc.  I’d be entirely shocked (and more convinced) if Mr. Ham could produce a single serious scientific paper from the last decade that suggested multiple races of humans. To compare contemporary Biblical interpretation with scientific theories from a century ago is nothing but cheap rhetorical flourish.

But even worse was the picture of Mr. Ham’s approach to Scripture that emerged during the Q&A. Mr. Ham was asked if he takes the whole Bible literally. He responded that he reads it “naturally”, which he then defined as according to the obvious (natural) genre. Psalms, for example, are obviously poems, so we read them as poems. He then claimed Genesis is obviously history.

That’s where I have the problem. Genesis 1-11 is “obviously” history only to modern English readers. If we read Genesis 1 in Hebrew (which, having no formal Biblical training, Mr. Ham is unable to do), we would see that Genesis 1 is obviously an epic poem. It has meter. It rhymes. Further Genesis 2-3 sound a lot more like a creation myth than literal history, what with God making people out of mud and talking animals and whatnot. Finally, with the discovery of the round ark, we now have two other Ancient Near Eastern flood stories older than poor Noah.

Does any of that mean it’s definitely not historical? No. But it’s obviously not obvious. Mr. Ham’s position is either willfully ignorant of Biblical scholarship or purposefully misrepresenting facts. Either is disturbing for someone who wants to be taken seriously as a Christian or a scientist.

Mr. Ham was asked what would change his mind, and he said “Nothing”. No new evidence could sway him. Nothing will ever convince him that his reading of the Bible is wrong. That the Earth might not be only 6,000 years old. And that’s the problem. As Mr. Nye pointed out, the scientific community embraces new evidence that disproves theories. And Mr. Ham explicitly announced that his worldview precludes that as a possibility.

In other words, Mr. Ham isn’t a YEC because the evidence leads him there. He believes in six literal days of creation 6,000 years ago because the Bible requires him to.

But the Bible doesn’t require us to take that position at all. That isn’t even good biblical interpretation. It’s Modernist, anachronistic and breaks nearly every basic rule of interpretation.

In the end, that’s the most damning evidence against his position: if he is not open to being proved wrong, to reshaping his views in light of new evidence, he is in fact anti-science. Because that’s what science is.

4. Closing Thoughts

I thoroughly enjoyed the debate. I don’t know that anyone’s mind was changed (judging by Twitter, I’m nearly certain of it). What struck me most was the language the two men used.

Mr Nye spoke primarily in terms of hope and joy. I couldn’t help but feel the profound optimism for the future that exuded from him. At one point, one of my friends whispered, He’s an evangelist. Mr. Nye truly believes that humanity’s future is bright, and that through scientific advancement we’ll continue to improve.

Mr. Ham, on the other hand, spoke a lot about fear. He bemoaned the loss of a moral center, warned against creeping secularism and hidden agendas. This is embedded deeply in Mr. Ham’s theological system. Sin is destroying the world, and things are only going to get worse until Jesus comes back.

I find myself caught between the two positions. I’m under no illusion that we will save ourselves through progress, technology or scientific advancement. No amount of progress can fix the human soul.

But at the same time, I am a Wesleyan Christian, and I have a profound trust in the Holy Spirit’s sanctifying work in the world. I believe that the globe is a lot better off than it was 100 years ago – the global life expectancy is longer, the infant mortality rate lower. No one is ever going to die of Smallpox again. Ever. And Polio is next. How can I not celebrate those things? How can I not see in them evidence that the image of God is still present in this world?

I believe the Holy Spirit is working even now to make all things new. I believe that scientific inquiry is evidence of our ineradicable image-bearing natures. And I don’t see any conflict between those two things.

YOUR TURN: Did you watch the debate? Who won in your opinion?

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  • Okay JR., I have to be in the classroom from 6-8 so you’re my eyes and ears on the ground. Straight up these two guys are about as polar opposite on the scale as possible.

  • Angela Romine

    I agree a lot of unreasonable things occurred and were recorded in the Bible and Torah. These unnatural occurrences were supernatural.

  • Annie Arnone

    Well said! More to come once I finish my homework. 😉

  • Kenneth O’Shaughnessy

    Here’s where Nye goes wrong in my opinion “He claimed that the ultimate goal of science is: ‘An ability to predict based on clear, simple natural laws.'” Nope. It’s the ability to falsify an hypothesis, and accept as probable those hypotheses that can be tested empirically and not falsified. This does involve prediction models, but the goal is always to find holes, and try to fill them with the highest probability, or abandon the hypothesis – never to come to a conclusion, or to assume that something is “proven”. Science, like theology, “proves” nothing. Ever. His repeated insistence that Ham provide an example of the Creation worldview making a prediction that was then verified was sad, considering Ham’s presentation of Creationist inventors right at the beginning. This was not a winning point for Nye. And for that matter, Newton.

  • Galadhatan

    For the most part I agree with you, JR, especially (could one really argue otherwise) on their basic positions and kudos. I’ll have to rethink more deeply your criticism of Ham. (I seem to keep finding myself aligning with him, which was unexpected.) In a debate shy on respectable biblical interpretation, of the two Ham seemed to indicate at least an awareness of nuanced biblical interpretation (your point of epic poetry of Genesis is new to me). But I don’t agree that what you science is (changing one’s mind) is so: I felt the same intractability from Nye as from Ham, at least as far as underlying worldviews go. As for your closing thoughts, I applaud your layout of the two alternatives. But (perhaps since I’m not a wesleyan, and I am a historian), I am not optimistic about the future of our society: I certainly don’t feel this world is better than 100 years ago (but neither is it worse: history is, by and large, a constant). Nor am I a modernist, as you point out about Nye. I would, though, like a world perhaps that returns to an emphasis on philosophy, story, and mythology!

  • Great summation of the debate. I’m glad it went down, but feel like the enemy is the only one who wins in these situations. He gets us majoring in the minors, and the Gospel gets lost.

    For me, a more interesting debate would have been one featuring Hugh Ross (instead of Ham).

  • Thanks Chad. I don’t imagine the debate was anything other than good media exposure for both sides. Bill Nye got to talk directly to conservative voters. Ken Ham got secular media attention which translates into donation $$ for him.

    When did I get so cynical? 🙂

  • I’m waiting with baited breath!

  • I didn’t disagree with Nye – the ultimate goal of science is those predictive models. Yes it’s theories and whatnot as you illustrated, but the goal of those is to improve/control our universe.

    Nye’s example of the fossil record and missing amphibian link was compelling (to me). I didn’t hear Ham offer any comparable reply. His were all “here’s how we massaged the observable data to fit into my hyper-literalist framework”.

    That said, I don’t think Nye was fair about Creation Scientists being unable to contribute – as Ham demonstrated.

    There’s a lot more underneath all that to excavate and discuss, but neither man seemed interested in that direction.

  • Nye clearly laid out the conditions under which he would change his mind: one piece of evidence confirming the predictive models YEC Science has constructed. He gave multiple specific examples of those pieces of evidence and why the YEC models predict them.

    He definitely seemed intractable, but I think that’s because he’s so skeptical that such evidence exists and yet hasn’t been found yet.

    Ham, on the other hand, refuses to acknowledge that his reading of Scripture could be wrong – despite the fact that he has no formal training.

    I suppose I could see how reading Michael Chrichton’s Eaters of the Dead could be mistaken for history, especially a couple-thousand years from now. But surely anyone who actually knows Old English wouldn’t mistake it for anything other than an Epic Poem, right?

    Ham has what seems to me to be a willful and invincible ignorance concerning Biblical Scholarship. He doesn’t have to get a PhD in Hebrew or anything, but this research is out there. Plenty of scholars have been talking about it for a long time. Just not in scientific journals. Because it’s not… you know… science. It’s literature.

  • Trevor Miller

    Objectively, Nye walked away with the debate easily. He mainly stayed on point, arguing the actual question under discussion of whether creationism presents a scientific model of cosmology, and made clear what he believes is at stake if America’s science education starts to include “alternate theories”. Ham didn’t debate, he preached, and pandered to the very friendly audience in the room. When presented with telling points like the distance to observable distant stars requiring a much older universe than Ham allows or the lack of complex life forms mixing with lower ones throughout rock strata, Ham completely failed to address these hard questions in favour of quoting scripture and presenting biblical genealogies as scientific evidence.

    While I think Nye did an outstanding job of presenting his position, we would have been better served by having Ham face off against a theologian who could have dismantled his embarrassingly bad approach to hermeneutics and exposed him fully for the fraud he is. He’s teaching a pessimistic, anti-human heresy, and my hope from the exposure he’s getting from this debate is that more people will be able to see him for what he is, a pious fraud.

  • Adam

    JR, well said, nice write up. I want to throw out what I think is a fair theological view of death that I think is consistent with theistic evolution. This is by no means exhaustive, but I don’t think the view of death as mere aberration is the only appropriate view. Death is not merely something to be defeated, but something that has been/is being/and will one day be totally redeemed. In this sense it allows for adaptation, the furthering of life, the seasons and years, etc. I think this is consistent with Jesus death…one that leads to life, that it is built into the very fabric of creation.

  • Nice, Adam! Thanks for sharing that perspective!

  • Unfortunately, “we” weren’t in charge of setting up the debate, nor was it hosted for “our” benefit. This was to benefit the Creation Museum through and through. I find it fascinating that the two debaters are primarily media personalities who only have Bachelor’s degrees. Ham has – according to his bio – no formal theological training at all.

  • Stephanie Charsha

    I think that Mr. Nye compared text translation to the game of telephone because, as he put it, Mr. Ham is using the American English version of the text. Like you said, he wasn’t using the Hebrew version and in doing so missed out on the epic poem quality genesis has. Considering those things I think that it’s a good example especially considering how wrong Mr. Ham got it (as you put it). He was probably also poking fun a little bit. Yes, translation has seemed to have done just fine. But when you consider how The Iliad was an oral story and eventually written down, we know that some of the poem is wrong (some of the armor and weapons listed wouldn’t have been there) based on the time it was supposed to have taken place. And it was considered an oral history, an accurate account of what transpired. So yes, occasionally things get mistranslated and meaning can be lost. And it’s true that that COULD (not that it did) have happened with the bible.

    Mr. Nye treated the bible as literal translation because that is what Mr. Ham was doing in the context of this debate. It’s weird that you’re faulting him for arguing against points that Mr. Ham brought up. Was he instead supposed to say, it’s not literal and I’m not addressing it. I think he touched on how other religious people agree that it’s not literal, but he can’t speak for them because he isn’t religious (he was right not to speak for them and if he had that would have been a whole new point against him). Mr. Nye can’t assume that Noah suddenly got the blueprints for a workable boat. That completely goes against everything logical Mr. Nye bases his science on. I mean that’s magic, or as interpreted by Christians the will of God giving Noah what he needed (which is fine for Christians but not for someone who thinks you need to learn skills instead of waiting for God to give them to you because he thinks you need them).

    Mr. Nye believes science will save us. It will allow us progress. It will help us with our flawed bodies. It will help America be a better country. At no time (unless I missed it) did he say that science will allow us to defeat death and live forever. And we may not fix the human heart, but we can help it last longer. And if our future is BSG, ugh count me out, unless I’m Starbuck, then count me in, she is so awesome (new Starbuck, not classic).

    I cannot think of a better way for Mr. Nye to explain his reasons for meaning and purpose, unless I’m misunderstanding the critique. He continues with life and science because of the joy of discovery. Do you mean why does he live without the endgame of getting into heaven in mind? Why exist in the now if there is no heavenly future? If you don’t believe in heaven, then this is all you have. You enjoy life as much as possible. You find answers to all the questions you have, because you don’t think (as I dreamed when I was a child) that there is a giant library in heaven where you can find all the answers you craved (like what REALLY happened to Amelia Earhart).

    I think you did a fantastic job of laying out all these points. And I can definitely see where you’re coming from in your critiques of both. It really bothered me that Ham said nothing would ever change his mind. And that he never addressed the question asking about how he interprets other literal questions (like wearing pig skin). Hopefully this isn’t too hard to follow. My brain was jumping around a bit.

  • Aaron Kretzmann

    There were so many times one would ask the other a question, but because of the debate structure, they couldn’t answer, and I wish that could have been handled differently.

    It’s funny that you mention your friend said “[Nye] is an evangelist” because out of his mouth came “If you love something you want to tell everyone”. Love motivates me to share my faith with friends, family and people I do not know, something I did not see from Mr. Ham. After Mr. Nye’s 30 minute speech, I feel Mr. Ham appeared defeated, and that was a tough site to see.

    Moving to the question that the debate centered around “IS CREATIONISM A VIABLE MODE OF ORIGINS IN TODAY’S SCIENTIFIC ERA?” I think the fact that if anyone is able to say anything than Mr. Nye’s claim of absolutely not, then the answer is yes. I find it odd that we live in an accepting society, where we have a mentality of what is right for you is ok for you, however, when teaching Creationism of any kind is off limits. Why not teach both? These are the two leading beliefs in the entire world. That could just be me coming from a Christian school learning about creationism, but it seems like a logical fit with our society, present two commonly held beliefs, and let the students decide. Both were arguing that there’s was the only way, and to abolish the other. Is there room for both? I think there could be. That could get me stoned by some Christians, but I stand by that until someone challenges me.

  • Hi Stephanie!

    I agree that a lot of what Nye did was respond to Ham’s assertions – I was just frustrated by the fact that it could easily have been an endrun around Ham’s whole position – which again, he sort of did.

    You’re right – Nye didn’t explicitly claim that science will save us, but this has been the claim of the myth of progress for centuries.

    As for Mr. Nye’s purpose – yes, I mean what’s the goal of discovery? What’s the purpose and/or source of joy? I’m all for “enjoy life as much as possible”, but there are some pretty real limits to that philosophy, not least that it doesn’t provide sufficient ground for morality and ethics. Ham was right to push Nye to justify these claims.

    Thanks for your engagement. Glad you stopped by!!

  • Don Priest

    I think the only thing it proved is that they disagree. And, I already knew that.

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