Ken Ham vs. Bill Nye the Science Guy
As 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
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.