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A Commentary on the Bill Nye, Ken Ham Televised Debate of Monday Evening February 4th 2014.

Reprinted from Reports of the National Center for Science Education Vol 34, No 2 (2014)

By John W. Patterson
Emeritus, Iowa State University
April 2014

On Monday February 4th two well-known figures debated the question, ”Is young earth biblical creationism scientifically viable in today’s world?”

Ken Ham repeatedly insisted that it is; that the universe as we know it was created by God in six 24-hour days some six thousand or so years ago. Ham presides over the AIG ministry (Answers In Genesis—the debate sponsor) and over the for-profit Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky, where the debate took place.

Bill Nye, widely known TV’s “Science Guy,” presented the “unpopular” view that Mr. Ham’s biblical creationism is not scientifically viable at all. (I say “unpopular,” because creationists in the audience likely far out-numbered Nye’s supporters.) To the scientifically literate, however, Nye clearly won the debate by patiently outlining many reasons why the overwhelming majority of competent scientists today Ham’s faith-based creationism as scientific nonsense. So successful was Nye, in fact, that Pat Robertson, the famous TV Evangelist--whose presidential campaign back in the 1980s was heavily supported by young earth creationists—said the following in a clip aired after the debate by Lawrence O’Donnell on his MNBC program, The Last Word:

“. . . to say that it all came about in 6000 years is just nonsense. . .
I think it’s time we’d come off of that stuff and say, this isn’t possible. . .”

Having followed creationist debates since the late 1970s—and debated in six or more myself—my assessment of the debate will differ from those who, to my astonishment, seem completely unaware that creationism is still being taught as science in many of America’s public schools.

First and foremost, Mr. Ham’s honest candor sets him markedly apart from any of the creationist debaters I have listened to or debated in the past. Previously, creationist debaters would insist that neither debater should make any reference whatever to religion or the bible. With this precondition in place, they then proceeded to deliver unsettling barrages of thinly veiled apologetics, polemics and code phrases that, to the delight of creationists in the audience, provided indisputable support for such nonsense and The Genesis Flood (TGF) interpretation of the geological column and an age of the universe the order of 6,000 to 10,000 years. The presentations were invariably couched in scientific-sounding words and phrases, often incorrectly applied, then supplemented with numerous out--of-context quotes deliberately fashioned to misrepresent the scientific authorities being quoted. With all this in place, the entire community of anti-creation scientists would be ridiculed as a group. (Three of the more notorious creationist debaters, in my view, were the late Henry M. Morris and Duane T. Gish of the ICR (Institute for Creation Science) and the still-active Walter T. Brown, who is Director of his own CSC (Center for Scientific Creation—now headquartered in Phoenix, Arizona). All this explains why anti-creationist groups such as the NCSE (National Center for Science Education) and especially academic scientists consider such debates to be counter-productive at best. But again, this debate was completely different and I for one applaud Ken Ham for being the first creation science debater in my experience to be honest about the biblical basis for all young earth creationism. Also he did not rely on the misquoting of renowned scientists, preferring instead to honestly quote credentialed creation scientists.

However truthfulness has its price. Ken Han’s candor spared Nye the burden of having to refute the kinds of obfuscations and distortions that debaters like Morris, Gish, Brown and others typically have used in the effort to direct attention away from the biblical basis for creationism. Because of this, some will say that Mr. Nye should have done much better than he actually did. I think Nye deserves the benefit of the doubt here; in my opinion he chose to be much more gentlemanly than a lesser man would have been under the circumstances.

That said, I think the February 4th debate will unleash unprecedented divisiveness within the creationist movement. Their traditional ministries such as the ICR, CSC and the less visible CRS (Creation Research Society, now also headquartered somewhere in Arizona) will condemn Ham’s candor as a harmful blunder. Why? Because their less candid polemical debate strategy had been so successful for so long. Now there will be far less public confusion about the distinctions between evidence-based legitimate science and the faith-based biblical varieties so successfully propounded by debaters from the ICR, CRS and CSC, among others. In this connection, the more recent ID (Intelligent Design) variety of creationism stirred consierable dissention when it abandoned the young earth timeline in favor of modern science’s deep time perspective. But, like the young earth ministries whom they left behind, the proponents of ID also strive mightily to disguise the theological-apologetical nature of their Seattle-based Discovery Institute. But Ham’s approach lays so bare what’s really behind all creationism, I suspect a particularly vicious kind of internecine dissention will result from widely promoted TV debate streamed from Petersburg, Kentucky on 2/4/14.

The one thing I wish Nye had not left out, has to do with the why modern science so completely ignores God and supernaturalism in general when striving to explain natural phenomena. In science, interpretations and explanations are deemed credible according to their predictive capacity and how much mystery and fearful bewilderment they eliminate. Nye spoke to the predictive poverty of creationism, but failed to point out that explanations involving supernaturalism (and God especially) necessarily increase the amount of unfathomable mystery and bewilderment beyond anything that ordinary nature can entail. In science, supernatural explanations are considered worse than none at all for two reasons: First they tend to stifle meaningful inquiry by any who accept such fruitless explanations. Second and more important, religious explanations do the opposite of what genuine ones are intended to do. For creationists a felt need for salvation the fearsome mysteries of this world is a good thing. Modern science, by contrast, seeks the opposite. Science seeks to enhance the human understanding and control of nature, not only by eliminating as much mystery and fear as possible, but also by opening new vistas to explore and devising new methods for exploring them. Frequently scientific endeavors lead to unexpected new understandings of fascinating new phenomena and in many cases to a certain betterment of the human condition.

Comments (2)

Whether science satisfies all our need to understand the human predicament I don't for my own part know. Nor do I know why there is such a strong movement in the United States to find explanation and consolation in biblical literalism and very odd pretences to supporting scientific evidence. Has Mr. Ham really accepted that he holds to his beliefs completely in the teeth of scientific evidence? That would indeed be painful honesty, cutting off one of the rails, the pretended science, on which his movement runs.
#1 - Martin Hughes - 04/17/2014 - 20:07

Well done. I knew of the debate and did not watch it because I do not like the premise of debates, which seems to posit that someone who is a good orator is therefore more credible. I remember watching Paul Krugman being bullied by Bill O'Reilly, who generally acts like a thug, and thinking what a travesty this was, to assume that because one presents a more powerful, even threatening persona, that one is therefore somehow more believable or is presenting more factual information. Of course this probably is a characteristic of our so-called 'caveman' brain, which creationists would even deny exists, to assign validity to the more masculine presence. I marvel that we live in a time where Bill Nye has come to entertain the kind of celebrity he does and was even invited on a dancing competition show. Having been raised evangelical I have come to a belief system that I am comfortable with, though not a materialist, I am certain that the abrahamics are politicized spiritualities foisted onto local populaces by land conquest and therefore all invalid. I am interested in what came before, spiritually, that was obliterated by forced religionism. One HUGE question and issue I have that no one ever seems to address is the application of the word "evolution" to the human brain, and the traditions of society. I am wanting someone to elaborate on the constant insistence that man is "evolving" intellectually. Is there a basis in science for this? I have heard that our brain has changed little in the last 50,000 years. I am more inclined to believe that we may use different parts of our brain now more than others, or differently, but I can't even state how disturbed I am that violent and xenophobic characteristics of abrahamic societies are constantly being underwritten by the premise that our brains are "evolving" somehow. As abrahamism in particular seems to be nothing more than survival and conquest of the most violent males in a long dismal historical lineage, I suppose one could get away with claiming "survival of the fittest" describes this...however but given that population explosion is causing severe problems on our planet and this is due in part to the advent of agriculture and pastoralism (which also originated the depraved genital mutilation of children) and its prohibitions of birth control and abortion (also overloading women with children too close together and consequently creating love-deficit and sociopathic and personality disordered adults) it is very hard to take when even the most religiously abrahamic insist that their religion is better than those of the primitive people they minister is quite ironic to me that they MUST believe in evolution of some time in the sense that what came later is more advanced than what came before, or they would not believe their religion and culture superior to the primitive people they sicken and corrupt. While I do think it is amusing that creationists claim validity of their religion based on such a scientific principle as evolution, I have to conclude that looking at the picture realistically it is clear that what has come after in religious terms has almost always been more violent and harmful to women and children than what came before. Therefore it is maddening to hear the later abrahamic religions being lauded because of 'human evolution' when if anything they tend to enslave women, underwrite corporal abuse and sexual violation of children, and devalue the lives of low status males rendering them servants of the few high status males in the culture. Hunter gatherer culture by many reports was egalitarian and non-hierarchical. How can this be? Species evolve but humanity, under the duress of violence, continually devolves to systems of belief that cause mental instability in most or all of its members (by brutal child-rearing methods). I do think it interesting that the Hebrew bible felt forced to mention hunter gatherer reality (the garden of Eden), and my guess is that the reason for this is that either there were still known HG tribes around in the vicinity or the tribal memory of being pushed off tribal land was still present in the collective memory. The myth of course serves to set up their cultural tradition of misogyny with a reason but in my opinion it is a fatal mistake for it proves this to be a conqueror culture before which a more "evolved" culture existed. I wish someone would take the time to explain how this description of the human brain 'evolving' (seemingly independent of the rest of the body) is a truth or a falsehood.
#2 - alane west - 11/15/2014 - 18:00

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