Bill Nye’s science vs. creationism “debate” with Ken Ham – some random thoughts

Some musings on the creationism debate between science educator Bill Nye and young-Earth creationist Ken Ham.

I didn’t watch last night’s debate between Bill Nye “The Science Guy” and Creationism Museum co-founder Ken Ham for two reasons. First, I had more important things to do, like kissing my kids goodnight, painting my basement, cuddling with the cats, making my wife’s coffee, and getting a good night’s sleep. Second, I’m generally against scientists debating non-scientists on scientific subjects. Most scientists don’t have the personality or the training to do well in a debate setting, even when they’re right. A non-scientist with training in debate and rhetoric could take the position that the sky isn’t blue and still win the debate against an untrained scientist.

I was even more against Nye debating a creationist, not just because he’s a scientist debating science with a non-scientist. Nye is a public feature, a science educator, and the president of The Planetary Society, and as such his participation would only serve to guarantee the debate would gain lots of public attention. And Nye has performed poorly in other, similar debates in the past. Essentially, this debate was high risk with little opportunity for reward.

From what I’ve read this morning, however, Nye did very well and that the risk may have, in fact, paid off. Nye pointed out that there was a living tree in Sweden that is known to be 9,300 years old, significantly older than the approximately 6,000-year old Earth that Ham believes in. And Ham’s responses tended to be along the lines of “no-one was there, we can’t trust the science, and the only eyewitness – God – says the Earth is ~6,000 years old.”

Somehow I’m reminded of a line from the Armageddon satire “Good Omens,” by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett:

The whole business with the fossilized dinosaur skeletons was a joke the paleontologists haven’t seen yet.

I’m also reminded of “Inherit the Wind,” the dramatization of the Scopes “monkey” trial in what remains to this day one of the first and most important debates about evolution, science, and Biblical literalism.

I wonder where the whole science vs. creationism thing will go now. I seriously doubt that more than a handful of people who watched the debate changed their minds. And even if this debate turns out to be a watershed moment for Ken Ham and his Creationism Museum (positively or, I hope, negatively), there is certainly someone waiting in the wings to take up Ham’s young-Earth mantle. After all, Biblical literalism is both simple and easy, while oftentimes reality is complicated and/or difficult (and if issues such as vaccine safety, Fukushima radiation, and industrial climate disruption have taught us anything it’s that a significant minority of people would rather deny reality than accept a reality that is complicated and/or difficult).

I still don’t think the Nye-Ham debate was a good idea. But maybe the debate can be made into something good. It will take a lot of effort on the part of lots of people, but every step away from the intellectual dark age represented by young-Earth creationism is a good thing not just for the United States, but for humanity at large.


35 replies »

  1. I can’t believe the press this silly event has gotten. You know Ken Ham is an outlier when even Pat Robertson takes him down: It’s a waste of time and attention to legitimize this “debate” as a meaningful event, when young earth creationists are such a fringe group. For the record, I am one among MANY Christians who embrace science and believe in evolution. I can’t stand trumped-up events like this one that try to suggest Ken Ham represents a “Christian” view on anything. Ugh.

    • Important point – from what I’ve read Nye wasn’t debating evolution vs. creation, but rather a broader science vs. creationism.

      Even Nye pointed out that Ham’s young-Earth creationism was out of sync with most Christians.

  2. The further past the Bible Belt you go, the worse it gets. Tennessee has actually passed Monkey Law legislation allowing Creationism to rear its holier-than-thou head in the classroom once again. Just as this debate proved, an open forum for argument of religious vs. science falls on deaf ears for those blinded by their faith. Read about how the pulpit has been opened in our schools at

  3. Frankly if what evolutionary scientists say is true then the evolution / creation debate should have been settled 100,000 years ago.
    God spoke into existence a universe with the appearance of age. It has to be this way. Everything created by man has an appearance of age especially when taking into account the sum and history of a product and its parts.
    To me the most amazing thing is that around the globe “Recorded History” is recognized at about 4-6000 years BC. Isn’t it fascinating that with the millions upon millions of years we have with humans evolving in complexity we only have recorded events and dialogue for the last 6-8000 years.
    Shouldn’t we have evidence of recorded history long before this or did humans not attain the necessary skill set until 6000 years ago? This would be millions of years after much of our cognitive and social skills were developed and reinforced throughout human culture and subcultures.
    It does not make sense – at all. We should have a much longer documented and recorded history if evolution is true.
    Do not rely upon “cave paintings and drawings” as examples – these cannot be dated. They will use material found in the vicinity of a “cave painting” date that material and then extrapolate the results to the painting or drawings. Hardly scientific.
    If any recorded information could be found that was 20 – 100 thousand years ago then evolutionists would have a case, but they can’t make a case without evidence. They have to admit that the oldest recorded history we have is under 10,000 years old. That admission up against millions of years of complex human evolution doesn’t look good.
    Doesn’t it seem peculiar that humans have only recently figured out the intricacies of written/visual communication and the means to accomplish this “higher level of communication”. These facts, against the backdrop of millions and millions of years of evolution seem to make the evolutionary model implausible. Evolutionists are not fighting creationists at this point they are trying to fight historical facts. We should be discussing existing documentation that goes back hundreds of thousands if not millions of years…but there is none.
    It is too much to swallow that it took millions of years to get to an era when knowledge and the means for gaining knowledge just happened to explode over a 6000 year period.

    • But why would God lie to his creation like this? Because that’s essentially what you’re saying when you claim God created the universe with the appearance of age.

  4. Something from the other side:

    In this light, the debate proved both sides right on one central point: If you agreed with Bill Nye you would agree with his reading of the evidence. The same was equally true for those who entered the room agreeing with Ken Ham; they would agree with his interpretation of the evidence.

    That’s because the argument was never really about ice rods and sediment layers. It was about the most basic of all intellectual presuppositions: How do we know anything at all? On what basis do we grant intellectual authority? Is the universe self-contained and self-explanatory? Is there a Creator, and can we know him?

    On those questions, Ham and Nye were separated by infinite intellectual space. They shared the stage, but they do not live in the same intellectual world. Nye is truly committed to a materialistic and naturalistic worldview. Ham is an evangelical Christian committed to the authority of the Bible. The clash of ultimate worldview questions was vividly displayed for all to see.


  5. I cant imagine why anyone would hold, participate in or watch this debate.

    As a scientistic thinker (Rosenberg. i.e., an athiest) the value of the scientific method is obvious to me and I believe it with my entire being. But if you get right down to it, I cannot prove electromagnetic radiation, subatomic particle physics, quantum mechanics, etc any more than the creationists can prove their cockamamie theories. I believe basically because:

    1. It’s a cohesive theory that makes intuitive sense to me.
    2. It’s been proven, at least in the form of predictable experiments and technological advancement, which relies on the underlying science.
    3. Some really smart guys say it’s true and I respect intelligence.

    A creationist would counter that with:

    1. It’s a cohesive theory that makes intuitive sense to me.
    2. It’s been proven, in the form of the Bible, which is by definition inerrant.
    3. Some really good guys say it’s true and I respect goodness.

    How in the world are you ever going to win a debate when the two sides don’t agree on the rules for winning?

  6. The other thing that irks me about this whole situation is the binary opposition it sets up: EITHER a scientific explanation OR a non-materialistic explanation. I would contend that there can be a both/and understanding of the origin of the universe, in the sense that it can originate materially, but may not be devoid of a spiritual dimension, either. I find Ham and his ilk ludicrous in their rejection of reason and intellect, but at the same time, embracing a scientific view of the origin and evolution of life does not preclude a belief in God or a non-material element to the universe, either.

    • Wendy, what do you mean by the term “spiritual dimension”? As you frame your response, imagine that I have just leaned in across a seminar table and phrased my question very calmly and deliberately, but you can almost feel the trap being laid as I smile pleasantly and coillegially in your direction. It’s a smile you have seen before.

      • To me, “spiritual dimension” is the non-material realm. Not observable, not measurable, known intuitively. A sense of meaning or direction behind the universe, the existence of life, the human experience. Not something that can be “debated” with a scientist, because it is not within the realm of scientific study.

        • So, if I hear what you’re saying, then you’re postulating a dimension that we can’t honestly even talk about reliably. I was thinking about this earlier, after your last reply. In the absence of anything beyond this intuitive sense, not only can two people who come from different traditions not really know that they’re talking about the same thing, I’m not sure the two people sitting side by side in the same pew can. I never thought about it in quite these terms before.

  7. Actually, if I were going to enter into a discussion in which I wished to make a case for the existence of a spiritual dimension, or God, or the sacred, or whatever you want to call a non-material aspect to reality, I would turn the task over to British religion historian Karen Armstrong, whose “The Case for God” is probably the best effort I have read in this vein. It’s essentially an intellectual history of the idea of/impulse toward the divine, spanning human history. Ambitious indeed, but she is a scholar who is up to it. Check out the synopsis here: But I have no personal desire to try to convert agnostics or atheists — I leave them to embrace the perception of reality that makes the most sense to them. Thus, I don’t feel a compulsion to get into any sort of debate on the existence of anything beyond the material.

    • I haven’t read Armstrong but know her by reputation. Instead of the Nye vs Creationist clownshow how much more interesting would it have been to have her discussing things with somebody like Dawkins…..

      • Yes, a conversation between the likes of Armstrong and Dawkins would be far more interesting. The Nye/Ham thing is a joke – and I can’t believe how much attention has been paid to it. I suppose the engaging angle in a conversation between Armstrong and Dawkins would be a debate over whether a belief in God (NOT defined as an anthropormorphized old man in the sky) is unreasonable or untenable. Her book is not so much an apologia as a tremendously thorough tracking of the notion of God, or the sacred, in human thought and culture. Yet she concludes not by regarding it as an expression of an endemic need for “solace” (why would humans have such a need if we came about by random events to lead purposeless lives?), but as, quite possibly, a pointer to a non-material dimension of existence that is real – though of course, not “provable” by scientific methods.

        We’re tracking in different kinds of discourse here. I think that’s the big problem that conservative religious apologists get into when they try to make their case using the Enlightenment paradigm – it’s a different kind of knowing. Sure, that leads to some folks jettisoning rational knowing entirely – the old “the Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it” ‘argument.’ But Armstrong makes a very rich proposal that it is possible to be both a rational, scientific human while also recognizing a sacred element to life. As I write this, I’m reminded of an occasion at CU’s Center for Environmental Journalism several years ago — I was part of a conversation in which one of the influential Echo Hawk family (John? I can’t recall which one) from the Native American Rights Fund was speaking to a group of Ted Scripps Fellows (journalists in residence at CU). The subject had something to do with resource use and lands sacred to Native Americans. I remember at some point that one journalist asked him if he believed in a scientific view of the origins of the earth. And he said yes. And then he said he also believed in his people’s narrative of the origins of the earth (as told through myth). He said he had no problem believing both, because they explain different things – the how, but also the why. My own view is much in keeping with this. I’m not so sure that it is “solace” I seek, per Otherwise’s assumption, as answers to the bigger questions that science can’t tell me.

  8. why?

    i understand why someone would argue for god, but not why someone would argue against. If wendy believes in god and it gives her solace, why in the world would anyone try to talk her out of it? seems mean spiritied to me, as penn of penn and teller has argued.

    the common athiest argument that belief in god leads to wars etc is bullshit. people do bad things and find reasons. if it wasnt god, it would be manifest destiny or quantum mechanics or your dog telling you to do it.

    • Not sure what you’re criticizing here. I was saying that a discussion between Dawkins and Armstrong would be intelligent and useful, unlike any engagement with the creationist dingbat from the other night.

  9. i’m saying it would be intelligent but not useful. people who believe have deliberately suspended rationality in one aspect of their thought system and a rational argument is useless. if through some miracle (a little joke there) you did convince them, it would be cruel because you’d deprive them of whatever psychic reward they get from believing. Wendy took umbrage at me calling it solace, but I wasn’t trying to be perjorative. They get something out of it, whatever you call it, so why take it away? or try to?

    people who don’t believe will only be swayed by a rational argument, and of course there isn’t one, unless you buy the silly Armstrong “if so many people believe this there must be something to it” circular tripe.

    the truth is that there are no questions beyond science, but people seem determined to believe there are. and if they believe there are questions beyond science, then by definition they believe the answers will be.

    • You write, “the truth is that there are no questions beyond science” — how can you be sure? What scientific evidence is there for that claim? Is this not an ideological position in itself?

        • Like I said, there is no proof – of an observable, scientific kind, which is by definition what constitutes “evidence” in a scientific paradigm – of a non-material phenomenon. So it’s pointless to have a debate about “proving” something like the existence of God. If you embrace only the scientific paradigm for what constitutes truth, then there are no questions beyond science. And you are left with naturalism as an ideological position. It’s not one that resonates as “the whole truth” for me.

        • This is a deft assertion, Wendy, because you’re subtly suggesting that the scientific paradigm is only one way of looking for truth. You know, of course, that in order for us to have any kind of discussion at all we have to have some point of agreement from which to proceed. So what is it, then, that an apologist for the non-scientific way of looking at truth, has in common with one who insists on the rules of empircism and rationalism?

          The rules of scientific inquiry aside, I think we’d all agree that if we’re going to talk about the truth, we have to have some kind of construct that allows us to, at a minimum, compare our thoughts. If we don’t, then literally the most we can say is that “I feel something.” We can’t even describe it or qualify it, right?

          You know me well enough to know that I’m a hard rationalist. Who’s also a pagan of sorts. And who used to write poetry and believes strongly in things like “artistic impulses.” So my position in this discussion is probably open to assault from a number of angles. And I wrestle with the ambivalence associated with knowing things that I can’t articulate.

          I keep meaning to do a post about the word “debate.” I have a lot of trophies in storage from my days as a champion debater, and it drives me nuts seeing what people like creationists and climate denialists have done to the word’s public image. The point will be to set out some basics about what is required for a debate to occur.

          We’re obviously wrestling with some of that now. You have to have at least one common assumption and you have to have a shared language and a construct for evaluating ideas. Not always easy, I know.

          For those of you who didn’t suffer through the doctoral program that Wendy and I met in, this little exchange is freakin’ nothing. I’m waiting for Denny to stumble in, have a flashback and run screaming.

      • read athiests guide to reality. sam’s not a fan, but i think rosenberg does a pretty good job of proving there’s nothing beyond science. basically, he says the second law and natural selection explains everything and does so in a pretty convincng way.

        the real problem is that we have, according to biologists, brains six times larger than we need, so we have to SOMETHING with all that excess thinking power. we’ve come up with conciousness. conciousness is illusory, more or less an echo of what our brains are doing in the background to run our lives, but it’s such a powerful illusion that we have build our whole waking lives around it .

        the fact there’s not a god has been proven over and over. scientifically. historically. logically. the best and brightest have always questioned god (e.g., gibbons, darwin.) but people continue to believe in god and all manner of superstitions. in part it’s an intelligence and knowledge issue of course–for the stupid, ignorant and lazy, superstition provides easier to understand answers to the big and small questions than does science. but even the intelligent who work at it keep finding reasons to believe, e.g., tesla and lord kelvin. the answer is obviously that for some of us, most of us, the need to believe in non-science is hardwired in. our subconcious will always find reasons to believe. no matter what the non-believers say, the believers will say, “how can you be sure?” and the answer is you can’t. there is an infintesimally small chance there is a god and and that it’s the god people envision, sentient, interventionist, capricious, etc.

        it’s like a three year old and “why?”

        • by the way, “i’m a hard rationist.” i don’t think so. i think you’d like to be, but the fact you entertain the idea there’s something else outs you. it’s ok. superstition and the like are 90% of what we as humans like to talk about–zombies, god, the lottery, history.

        • i don’t think so. i think you’d like to be, but the fact you entertain the idea there’s something else outs you.

          This is because you’re being hamstrung by an impression of me that isn’t accurate. You rather enjoy that impression, I think, and you disregard it when I explain that you’re wrong.

          To be clear, I DO NOT believe there is “more,” as you put it. I do not believe in the existence of a mystical or trans-scientific dimension. Period. I believe that there are a great many things that science can’t explain YET. There is more going on with things like consciousness, for example, that we can currently explain, and I have all kinds of questions about that as-yet-undefined terrain.

  10. You guys familiar with The Truth Project? Del Tackett talks about materialists looking for answers in the box when that’s not where all the answers are.

    Otherwise: “the fact there’s not a god has been proven over and over.” Man, I don’t know where you get your “proof,” but I’m seriously doubting your credentials here. Biology 101, science doesn’t “prove” anything, rather, “the evidence indicates…”

    “the truth is that there are no questions beyond science” Then why do we keep asking them? Hardwired, you suggest? Perhaps there’s a reason for that.

  11. The way I see it, the Bible is much easier to believe than the theory of evolution. But as it has been said before, we came into this conversation with presuppositions. Every side is clinging to what they believe.

    Just food for thought…

    Scenario 1. Evolution exists (negating the Bible). What now? Live, learn, love, grow…. die. That’s all she wrote.

    Scenario 2. The Bible is true (rendering evolution non-existent). Life has purpose. You still live, learn, love, grow, and die. After that… eternity. Where you will spend it depends on whether or not you believe that Jesus paid for your sins and granted you free access to his kingdom.

    Just to reiterate, both sides of this argument require faith. Evolution hasn’t been moved from the “theory” category, and the Bible is definitely disputed.

    As for me, I’ll go with the more believable one.

    • Keaton, which is easier to believe: a) that Zeus casts lightning bolts when he’s angry, or b) that rain and ice moving through storm clouds transfers electrons from the bottom of the cloud to the top of the cloud, creating a voltage potential that occasionally exceeds the dielectric breakdown voltage of the atmosphere and enables a rapid and massive flow of electrons from the negatively charged region to the positively charged region, equalizing the voltage potential, in a phenomenon we call “lightning bolts.”

      It’s always easier to believe that God (or Zeus, or Thor, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster) caused or created things.

    • No, Keaton, only one side of the argument requires faith. The other one relies on actual evidence. Mountains of testable, verifiable, empirical evidence that not only explains the world but predicts it. Faith is what you rely on in the absence of evidence.

      For some people I’m sure it’s easier to believe that Genesis is literal. Which is interesting because Genesis 1 and 2 directly contradict each other. The thing is, it’s easier to believe – and I hate to be overly critical here, but this is fact – because the truth of the world is complex. People who either aren’t very smart, or who aren’t educated, or who are simply lazy intellectually are going to gravitate to the simple answers.