Thanks to everyone for their comments on the previous post. From what I see here and on Facebook and in some discussions here and there, it seems as though insights and opinions differ, but not too starkly. I mentioned then that I would share my own thoughts, so I will do that in this post.
First, though, a few links. I was able to put together a commentary on the matter for the Tomorrow’s World website. The need to aim at 650 words or less limits what you can say, and the audience will be rather broad (including mostly people who did not see the event), but it is an opportunity to direct folks to additional alternatives, including our own understanding of the biblical record. That commentary is here: “Creation vs. Evolution: Bill Nye and Ken Ham Are Both Wrong!” Here’s the leading paragraph:
When science-advocate Bill Nye faced off in debate Tuesday night against Ken Ham, CEO of Answers in Genesis, the issue of creationism vs. evolution gained a rare degree of media scrutiny. Nye had called the teaching of creationism “a dangerous choice,” and promoters saw the opportunity for a profitable public event. Certainly much attention came to the subject. But, amid all the controversy, was there something that both participants missed?
(Click here for the rest)
Also, I thought that Elizabeth Dias of Time magazine had a very funny “blow by blow” report on the whole thing. It can be read here: “What You Missed While Not Watching the Bill Nye and Ken Ham Creation Debate.” My favorite bits of her work were her tongue-in-cheek comments about Ken Ham’s “drop the mic” moments. Very funny. (Well, my sort of funny.)
And the irritated reaction of Intelligent Design scientists was very understandable, and they went to the Internet to make their (pretty good) points. They published several pieces in Evolution News and Views–listed here in this search. Among them, I enjoyed “In the Ham-Nye Debate Not So Much as a Glove Was Laid on Intelligent Design”–which points out the very real distinction between Intelligent Design work and the work of Creationists–and “The Ham-Nye Creation Debate: A Huge Missed Opportunity” — which discusses, well, exactly what the title says. (They also encourage you to listen to a more serious and enlightening debate between Intelligent Design theorist Stephen Meyer and UC Berkeley paleontologist Charles Marshall.)
However, back to the point of my post. In one of his ENV posts pointing out that the science of Intelligent Design and Creationism are not the same, David Klinghoffer made an insightful summary comment: “Isn’t it interesting that Bill Nye chose to debate Ham, then, where their respective views are incommensurable and no meaningful conversation is possible.”
This is a great way to summarize much of the Nye/Ham debate. In some ways it might as well have been a discussion about which spices bring out the flavor of barbecued unicorn.
Yet, there were things to be seen, and each fellow made some good points, not all of which were related to the “official” question being debated, which was “Is creation a viable model of origins in today’s modern, scientific era?”
The question, alone, embodies a number of problems. “Creation,” for instance, could mean many things. The implication is that Ken Ham’s favorite understanding of the events of the book of Genesis is “the” understanding, and Mr. Ham spent precious time here and there defending his position not against Mr. Nye’s arguments, but against the idea that there are other possibilities, highlighting the problematic use of that word without qualifiers. Also, what constitutes “viable”? It’s a good word, but “viable” clearly differed in the minds of the debaters While that wouldn’t be enough to make it a bad debate–indeed, the positions could have (and sort of did) revolved around just that point: “What does it mean to be a viable model?” But the participants could have profited the audience with a clearer presentation of their positions on how they individually determine a model’s viability.
However, the fuzziness and lack of focus in the debate was rooted in the fact that each man had motives other than the simple question at hand. For instance, Ken Ham wanted to ensure he had the chance to share his faith to the hundreds of thousands who were/would be watching. (The video on YouTube currently sits at more than 827,000 views.) Also, he wanted to demonstrate that it is possible to believe in the Young Earth Creationism model he supports and still be a working, active scientist. That isn’t relevant to the debate, technically, but is a part of the contention motivating the debate, to be sure. On Bill Nye’s part, he seemed to want to give religious people permission to think differently than Ken Ham and to make the pitch to the viewing audience that America is going to fall behind scientifically in the world if viewpoints like Ken Ham’s are taught to our children. Again, this last point isn’t relevant to the viability of Ken Ham’s Creation model, but it is a big part of the impetus behind the debate.
Those things said, let me try to boil down my observations and reactions to the debate.
Overall, I agree with Evolution News & Views’ statement that the biggest victim of the debate was the Truth.
On one hand, it is great to see discussions of this sort on a bigger stage. Origins should matter to us. But on the other hand, this debate helped to cement in the minds of many, I believe, that these two individuals represented “the” two sides of the issue. It is not a two-sided issue, and these two, together, certainly did not represent the universe of possibilities. Our own contention, for instance, represented in today’s commentary, is nowhere to be found. Intelligent Design is nowhere to be found. Neither is the view of many with whom I would disagree (theistic evolutionists, et al.) but whose views I respect as serious attempts to understand the issues at hand. Consequently, this debate served to simply solidify the stereotype that the issue of origins is a matter of science vs. the Bible. And that’s a shame.
The best impression, overall, on the official question of the evening was made by Bill Nye, in my opinion.
It doesn’t mean I agree with him, to be sure. And both men made points that the other left hanging, so it isn’t as though the matter was truly settled, even in “debate” terms, if you will. If it had been a boxing match, there was no “knock out,” and the match would have come down to the judges.
And if I were the judge, I’d say that while neither man really “won”, the better impression was made by Bill Nye. I thought he did a good job of pointing out that the scientific evidence seems to contradict Ken Ham’s model and he suggested the idea that since there are many religious people in the world who don’t see things as he does, maybe he doesn’t have the Bible right, either.
On this second point, he was weak, and had he done as Ham did (which I will mention in a moment) by presenting testimony from, say, theistic evolutionists–even big namers, such as Francis Collins–he would have been more decisive. It would have robbed Ham of the force of his claim that the Bible must be considered as evidence that his position is true.
However, it seems as though this would have contradicted the heart of Nye’s approach, which is that such considerations should not enter into the interpretation of evidence, at all.
That doesn’t change the fact, though, that his examples meant to damage the idea of a young earth did a good job. The “winter-summer” cycle present in what seems to be 680,000 years of snow fall; the number of new species that would need to be generated daily over 4000 years from Ham’s choice of “kinds” (did his homework there, props to Nye); the pressing of the issue that even one fossil of a struggling animal, swimming for dear life during the flood, showing up in a “wrong” strata would disprove his case and that finding it would make you a “hero”; the lack of kangaroo fossils between the ark’s understood resting spot in the Middle East and Australia… All of these combined to give the edge to the idea that Ham’s model isn’t viable. Well, that’s too strong. They gave the edge to the idea that his model is “less viable than advertised.”
It isn’t that Ham didn’t score points. His comment about how 90% of the other dating methods disagree with a billion-years-old earth (I wish his print had been bigger in that slide), his example of trees being found that were found fossilized in rock, in which the trees were dated at 45,000 of years old, while the rock encasing it was supposedly dated at 45,000,000 old — all of these did have their effect, I believe. But, in the end, they weren’t enough, in my opinion, to counter the weight Nye’s examples seemed to carry. (At least some of his examples. His picture of various skulls and the claim that they needed time to evolve, for instance, seemed to fall flat.)
And Ham’s argument that the data must be interpreted was made well, though I think it could have been made better. Even just a few more choice examples–like the recent case of a single discovery, in particular, one single skull, throwing much vaunted human “family trees” into disarray–would have better illustrated the under-appreciated role assumption plays in building our understanding of the data. If Ham didn’t drop the ball on this, I do think he fumbled it a bit. That’s a shame, because those who are a part of his Answers in Genesis team have serious credentials and could have provided a number of easily summarized examples. All Ham could do was refer to those papers vaguely, mentioning that they are highly “technical”–meant to be a positive description (and it is), but surely coming across to some as a bit of a smoke-screen.
So, in the vague battle that this debate represented, on the issue that was supposedly at the heart of the matter, I think the edge was had by Bill Nye.
On one of the important “between the lines” issues–that teaching kids Creationism will mean we will no longer be able to practice good science–Ken Ham won the point.
Ken Ham trotted out a number of videos of various, credentialed scientists with PhDs in solid scientific fields who passionately vocalized their support for Ham’s Creation model, including the inventor of the MRI. Their appearance wasn’t, in my opinion, strong enough to win the main, “official” question in Mr. Ham’s favor, but they did help to win the day for one of the underlying motivations behind the whole debate: The idea, pressed by Mr. Nye, that we are risking destroying science education in America if parents teach Creationist ideas to their kids. The existence of these working, active scientists in their fields of expertise seemed to be living proof that Nye’s point was too strong–that his viewpoint was driving by either ideological beliefs or by ignorance of the caliber of people who claim belief in Creationism.
That was an important win for Ken Ham, and regardless of the official “result” of the debate–whatever in the world that would be–it was a win for the credibility of his organization and museum.
And given the extreme nature of the Young Earth position, the softer claim–that one cannot do good science unless one believes in evolution–was also refuted by those examples. Richard Dawkins’ statement that those who do not believe in Darwinian or neo-Darwinian evolution is either “ignorant, stupid, or wicked” is simply either ignorant, stupid, or wicked, itself. And Ham did a good job of showing the statement for the lie it represents.
(On this last point, it is a shame that the overwhelming focus of this debate was the age of the earth. Every other interesting element of origin-related discussions was marginalized, I believe. A real shame, and part of the stereotype reinforcement effect I mentioned above.)
In short, if the statement to be debated was Bill Nye’s claim that (my paraphrase) “Unless our young people abandon these Bible-based ideas of Creation and embrace evolution America will fall desperately behind scientifically,” that point would have been lost to Ken Ham.
One other point: Ken Ham also did a pretty decent job of defending elements of the story of Genesis against criticism. The kinds-into-species ratios is worth further thinking, and I think Nye scored a win with that one. But other points, such as his claim about the unfeasibility of a wooden ark, fell short. His comparison to the experience of the USS Wyoming, along with the accompanying chart of boat sizes, was an excellent attack, and I give him credit for it. But Ham defended well, pointing out that other cultures (I believe he mentioned China and Egypt) have done much better with much larger than his example. And his on Nye’s claim that a handful of “unskilled workers” couldn’t have built such an ark–a standard trope of anti-Genesis folks–Ham’s response was a surprisingly effective and humorous dismissal: “Why would you say Noah was unskilled? I didn’t meet Noah. Neither did you.” (By the way, that is Elizabeth Dias’ record of the comment, which she humorously characterized as Ham’s first “drop the mic” moment.) Of course, if you believe that Noah was called and personally spoken to by the Omniscient Creator and Designer of All Reality, there is not an issue with his level of previous boat building expertise, regardless of what it has been, let alone when you consider the stated lifespans of the day. Those points could have been made, but Ham’s dismissal was better: effective, short, and sweet.
There were some surprises that added to both the enjoyment and the frustration of watching the debate.
For example, Bill Nye mentioned the discovery of the Big Bang as a “plus” for the naturalistic science. That is comical, because the Big Bang story is actually a cautionary tale of what happens when scientists are too afraid of the theological implications of their work–a fear which delayed the acceptance of the Big Bang for quite some time. (In fact, “Big Bang” was a derogatory term coined for the theory–a fact that was conspicuously absent in Nye’s discussion of the term’s origin.) More on this can be read in the Tomorrow’s World article, “Where Did the Universe Come From?” When all the information is considered (initial entropy conditions, et al.), the Big Bang theory is powerful evidence for not only a created universe, but an intelligently crafted universe. Even the fad of the day–multiverse concepts–have not diluted the power of the Big Bang theory and its current mutations as evidence.
However, Ken Ham was not in a position to capitalize on this and did not even seem to bother. (Other than in his later “Bill, there’s a book that tells us where matter and energy came from” comment, which was fun.)
It was a nice treat to see Ham make the point that science depends on assumptions that cannot be scientifically proven, namely that the laws of logic are dependable and valid, that there are trustworthy laws of nature to be discovered, and the uniformity of nature in the universe. (To advertise myself, this week’s Tomorrow’s World program–“What Is Truth?”–makes a similar point, though it differs in that the point is made by a fellow my wife believes is more handsome than Ken Ham. :) )
However, Nye could have capitalized on those points by granting them for the sake of argument and then stressing that it is those very three principles–the laws of logic, the laws of nature, and the uniformity of nature–that allow us to extend what we experience today into the geological record to understand what occurred in the past, and they are the reason why the “old earth” conclusion is drawn. It’s not an undefeatable point, but one I think he could have made some points with by using his opponent’s points against his own position.
Bill Nye made some false and misleading statements, I notice, but I don’t think he did them knowingly or purposefully. For instance, he mentioned the Tikaalik fossil as a good example of evolutionary theory making a prediction and being shown to be right. However, since its discovery Tikaalik has been demonstrated not to be the link that it was thought to be, neither in nature or in timing. Also, his argument that nature is not “top-down” like in Ham’s model but is “bottom-up” is under increasing attack within the pro-evolution community. Those points were well-covered in one of ENV’s articles, but it is possible as a “popular” scientist and not one up on the latest discussions or publications, maybe he wasn’t aware of these things.
On the “top-down” model of life’s development–a model much more in line with the idea of a Creator and Designer than modern evolutionary ideas–even atheist Thomas Nagel seems to have moved to search for alternatives to evolution, considering purpose-oriented natural laws as a God substitute. Nye is behind. But, frankly, most public, pro-evolution folks seem to be behind on this.
More could be said, to be sure, but I have other things to do this afternoon!
If you missed the debate, in a sense you didn’t miss much. Nothing has changed. Most everyone who felt this way or that still feel this way or that. But it was a good airing of two particular points of view. There are better comments about the debate than mine, and those interested should shop around the links I have provided, as well as others. For me, I’m feeling done with this! Or, actually, not too done. I hear from my brother-in-law that there is a bit of tussling going on over on Facebook about my commentary today. I think I will poke my head in and take a look. But after that, I’m done! :)
Again, feel free and add your own thoughts below.