The Bill Nye / Ken Ham Creationism Debate

On February 4th, 2014, Bill Nye debated the curator of the Creationist Museum, Ken Ham, on whether or not creationism is a viable method for discussion the origins of life.  I thought it was silly for Bill Nye to debate such a person, as I don’t consider them to be serious people.  There is no way to “win” a debate with such a person, as their position is based upon a faith, and faith cannot be tested.

Before we get into the debate itself, it is important to define creationism in the context of this specific debate.  Many of us view creationists as uneducated.  We think of them as people who simply don’t understand the world and retreat into myth.  And while this is true for many, if not most, creationists, that is not what we are talking about here.  There is another branch of creationism that has very educated people in it, many of them PhDs, and as constantly emphasized by Ken Ham in the debate, these creationists have done things like build spacecraft and the MRI machine, they are astronomers, they are molecular biologists, they have published peer-reviewed scientific work, and on and on.

Understanding these creationists is key to understanding the debate about creationism in classrooms.  Understanding their worldview helps us better understand the fight in Texas, say, over what should be taught in textbooks.  So, let’s begin.

Throughout the debate, it became clear to me that creationism in its modern incarnation is really no different from those that disavow anthropomorphic (i.e. man made) climate change, or those that want to stop (or delay or spread out) childhood vaccinations.  Despite evidence saying their view is wrong, they hold onto it even tighter, even more convinced that they are right.  From this, I’ve seen patterns in their behavior, and I think it comes down to 3 tenets:

  1. Tenet #1: Concede the Obvious:  First, you have to concede many scientific points of your opponent, because they are obvious.  You have to, for example, believe that animals evolve.  Note that this is very difficult for the uneducated creationist, and is how you first differentiate your garden variety uneducated creationist from the educated creationist.
  2. Tenet #2: Keep Minority Opinions at Your Fingertips: Secondly, you have to keep all contradictory opinions to the mainstream belief in an easily accessible Rolodex, to use as if it were a trump card when arguing with the mainstream viewpoint.  Whether it is a scientific paper you hold dear, a gap in the evidence on the other side you wish to exploit, or historical data where the mainstream viewpoint changed, you have to have it at the ready to “throw down”.
  3. Tenet #3: Accuse Your Opponent of Your Behavior:  Otherwise known as having a persecution complex.  Creationists’ belief is based upon faith, so they have to challenge the other side as if it, too, were faith based.  Once making that attack, they can then say the majority is using their faith to persecute you, the lonely scientist who just wants the ‘truth”.

The debate highlighted all 3 of these tenets, and Ken Ham did it quite brilliantly, as I hope to show below.

In order for a creationist idea of the universe to be true, they first have to frame the debate.  Ken Ham managed to do this by doing something I thought was impossible, by redefining the term “science”.  Modern creationists redefine science into two categories.  In this worldview, the first type of science is “observational” science, which is the kind of thing you can see and test.  This is the kind of science that “even creationists” do.  It involves the scientific method, the development of a theory, testing it, etc.  The second kind of science is called “historical” science.  The main definition of historical science is “we weren’t there, so we didn’t observe it, so we just don’t know.”

And if you are willing to look at science that way, you can see how all 3 of the above tenets come into play.  You can concede that evolution occurs because we have seen it, but you can then also claim that you can’t assume it was like that in the past when you didn’t see it.  You can throw doubt on the “majority” opinion, by pointing out the times when majority opinion has been wrong, and thus show that since scientists made assumptions about the past that were wrong, they could very well be wrong now.  And you brilliantly create the third tenet out of whole cloth – since mainstream scientists don’t view science in two forms (observational vs. historical) this “majority” are completely missing the point, and have “hijacked” the term to fit their “secular belief system”.

It’s quite brilliant when you think about it.  It’s throwing a major monkey wrench into the scientific process by saying there are two types.  But there aren’t two types of science.  There is only one.  We observe things that are going on now, and we actually are able to make judgments on the past from it.   In many cases those judgments are wrong, and when they are, the theory is thrown out.  But when they are right, they confirm the theory.  We can study earthquakes and volcanoes, and understanding the geology, eventually come up with the theory of tectonic plates, and we can then test that.  We can look for evidence in the mountains where we think two plates slid on top of each other, and test the rocks to see whether that is true or not… and it is.  And we can make predictions based upon those tectonic plate movements on what the future would look like.  Creationism, on the other hand, can’t do any of that.  If the world is only 6,000 years old, we can’t look at that mountain and make any assumptions on things such as tectonic plates.  And this is very important for actual, practical knowledge about how to build things in the future.  If you don’t believe in tectonic plates, you wouldn’t have proper building codes.  And then when the earthquake happens, you would have no idea why, and hundreds, thousands, or millions of people will have died.

One of the most entertaining aspect of this dual definition of science comes in the science of evolution.  Creationists do, for example, admit that the virus for the common cold mutates, and that’s why we can’t completely cure it.   But since the Bible tells them that God created everything as it should exist, and since we weren’t there when He did it, we can’t, therefore, claim that evolution can do anything but exist in a narrow window.  In the creationist worldview, there were animal forms, called “kinds”, and they got on Noah’s boat.  They later got off the boat, and bred and mutated and that’s why we have all the species we have today.  Thus, they concede evolution (mutations since the Flood) while maintaining a belief that God made a flood, and that he stocked the boat with animals of specific “kinds”.  And He created everything anyway, so there was no evolution to even create the “kinds”.

This theory answers a lot of questions about Noah’s Ark.  It conveniently solves the problem of having a boat big enough to hold every animal species.  You actually don’t under this theory.  Instead, rather than the boat holding every one of Darwin’s finches discovered on the Galapagos, you only need one pair of the “finch kind” which then mutated after the flood.  You don’t have to have lions and tigers and cheetahs, you just have to have a “cat kind” which then mutates after the Flood.

Now, that’s brilliant, right?  You’ve executed tenet #1 by conceding that evolution exists.  You get to throw in tenet #2 every so often, by throwing down scientific papers that show how we’ve gotten some dates wrong about various forms of man or other animals, and you get to use tenet #3 by saying evolution requires you to “believe” in missing links we haven’t found, while a creationist doesn’t need to do that because there aren’t any missing links.  To believe in the missing link becomes the religion, and the Bible becomes “fact”.

Bill Nye did great job debunking this, by using a silly thing called “math”.   I’m going to use different numbers than Mr. Nye did in his debate, but the result is the same. Creationists estimate that as few as 4,000 (2,000 kinds) to as many as 50,000 (25,000 kinds) were on the ark.  Scientists today say there are about 3 million to 100 million animal species today (if you include viruses and insects in rain forests we haven’t found yet), with over 95% of them being invertebrates.  Additionally most species are species that live underwater and thus wouldn’t need to be in the ark.  So, let’s take the lowest possible number, 3 million, and take 5% of that, which leaves us with 150,000 species.  And let’s take the high end of species saved on the ark – 25,000.  As the great Flood was supposed to be 4000 years ago, this means that:

(150,000 modern species – 25,000 Flood species) ÷ (4000 years)

= 31.25 species / year

In other words, every year, 31.25 new species would have to have been created since the flood, or just under 3 per month.

Think about that.  We’ve been looking for different species since the mid-19th century when naturalists such as Darwin started looking for them.  And we have seen nothing like this in the last 150 years.  We don’t find a species of lion that then becomes a new species.  In 150 years, don’t you think we would have observed that?

Now, the 31.25 species per year being found is a kind estimate – it took the lowest possible number of current species with the maximum number of saved species such that the number of mutations (to create new species) would be low. What if we take the other end – with the most species, the smallest number of them on the ark, so 5% of 100 million, and 2,000 kinds:

(5 Million modern species – 2,000 Flood Species) ÷ (4,000 years)

= 1,249.5 species / year

= 3.4 species / day

3.4 species per day?  Um… OK.

Now, what is amazing about this argument about evolution is that it isn’t even consistent within the creationist community.  While Ken Ham talked about evolution within “kinds”, he later seemed to discount that even this kind of evolution exists in a later argument.  In this argument, he pointed to a scientist who, through manipulation of the environment of a solution of e-coli, caused those e-coli to evolve.  By doing what we say evolution will do, which is to take random genetic mutations, which are then chosen by natural selection, he created a new species of e-coli.   You can find a link to the experiment here.

You would think that this would be something creationists would hold onto as proof, because it shows evolution happening very quickly.  And clearly, it needs to happen quickly for the earth to be so young.  Yet, other creationists, including a molecular biologist, have criticized this.  They have actually said that the changes aren’t evolutionary.

Why would creationists do this, as it seems like it would prove their point? I think this gets to the fundamental problem with the worldview.  While these educated creationists are, in theory, willing to accept certain scientific principles as described in tenet #1, the majority of their audience, the uneducated creationists, aren’t, and so even the educated ones go immediately to tenet #2 and tenet #3 – they attack the scientists for making such a claim by stating other claims in the past have been proven false, and claiming that these scientists who have demonstrated e-coli evolution are simply using a secular definition, and are hijacking the term for evolution.

Now, this is just the tip of the iceberg of the problems creationists have.  You can look at other wild claims they have made for the ark story to be true, but don’t hold up.  For example, the world was flooded for almost a year according to the story.  However, that would have killed essentially every plant, and every seed of every plant, and Noah didn’t stock a bunch of plants.  So, how can we have trees that are over 6,000 years old and one Bill Nye described which appears to be 9500 years old, if it was under water?  The Bible says that all animals were vegetarians before the great Flood.  That certainly is convenient because it would be really difficult to have carnivores on the Ark for a year.  But they all of a sudden became carnivores through a rapid evolution only after the Flood?  Why?  Kangaroos are native to Australia.  If a Kangaroo ancestor was on the ark, and the ark was in the Middle East, how did it get to Australia?  They can’t swim.  Creationists postulate a land bridge.  Where is it?  Nobody has ever found one.  And the list goes on and on.

When faced with all this evidence, tenet #2 comes into play.  Because remember, in the worldview of creationism, we can’t look to the past – we can’t look at what we see now and make a prediction on the past. Ken Ham did what creationists do with tenet #2.  He said, “the majority of doctors used to think you could perform surgery on one person and then deliver a baby on another person without washing your hands in between, and now we know that’s not true.” He pointed to an elementary school book in the late 19th century that talked about “5 distinct races (species) of human beings, with Caucasians being the most advanced”, where today we know that there is only one.  Scientists were wrong in the past; therefore you can’t trust it now.

And, this incorrect knowledge that scientists have disseminated in the past leads right into tenet #3 – that scientists are pursing their own dogma (i.e. a religion) and crowding out critical thinking (i.e. creationism is true science).  I felt Bill Nye knocked this one down easily, because as he pointed out, the minority opinion in science is welcomed, because scientists actually like being wrong.  This was clearist in the announcement of the discovery of the Higgs boson.  This has been the Holy Grail for particle physicists, yet just before the announcement, many particle physicists, those that strongly believed in the math behind the theory of the Higgs boson, were hoping that it wouldn’t be found – they were actively hoping to be wrong.  The idea that science just dismisses all minority views out of hand is simply not backed up by historical data.  It’s true that it might be derided for a long time, but scientists are constantly hoping to be wrong.

In summary, this was a good debate.  No minds were changed, because again, creationists aren’t interested in learning they might be wrong.  For me it was educational as I actually learned how the modern creationist thinks, and I think it is important to understand the thought process so that we aren’t just being snarky when dismissing them.


3 thoughts on “The Bill Nye / Ken Ham Creationism Debate

  1. A very interesting analysis. I am not as charitable as you are, the only thing I have to say to creationism is that it’s moronic. All the more so if the person is educated. I wonder if they are mentally impaired in some very profound way.

    • Oh, don’t get me wrong, I think it is moronic. The logic is severely flawed. But at least I better understand what the logic is. I feel a lot better arguing against their crazy points now that I understand how they got there – i can anticipate where they are going. Think about all the times you get into an argument with somebody who has a crazy ideology, and you end up with a moment where you are sitting there with your mouth agape because you can’t believe what that person just said. And it’s the sitting there in stunned silence that causes the people with the crazy ideologies to think they “won”. Nothing frustrates the crazy ideologues more than you anticipating their point and not letting them get that kind of satisfaction.

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