Today was the day, the much-anticipated debate between Bill Nye and Ken Ham. While there was plenty of controversy leading up to the event – some of which I discussed myself – the debate itself went off well. My general takeaway is that while Ham craves the legitimacy of real science for his biblical beliefs, any reasonable examination of his claims will reveal them to be nothing but crass preaching with a thin veneer of scientific language for camouflage. For the next few days (today is Feb 4th, 2014) the debate will be available here. If you were planning to watch a Lord of the Rings movie, but thought a debate on evolution would be a better use of time (lots and lots of time), go take a look.
The interesting thing about this debate is how badly Bill Nye did. He was so focused on getting his own points out that he never disputed Ham’s more outlandish claims. He let too many absurd assertions stand without challenge. Nye, of course, was clearly knowledgable about numerous subjects that came up; I would never criticize him for his scientific literacy or his passion. But passion does not necessarily make a good debater.
“What do you mean respond? Did you hear the bullshit he was spewing?”
Debating is a rare skill. You not only have to be knowledgable about the subject you’re debating, but you also need to have a fair grasp of what your opponent’s stance and strategy will be. For example, Ham released a video as a rebuttal to some of Nye’s criticism’s of creationism recently, and my wife and I were discussing a point Ham made. In the video, Ham says of Nye, “I hope he did not apply any of his evolutionary principles to any of Boeing’s airplanes…” Ham is trying to make an erroneous correlation between biological and mechanical structures, which is absurd.
Carol said that she would respond to that by saying that evolutionary principles do apply to airplane design. There is a clear evolutionary path from the basic canvas planes the Wright Brothers flew to modern jumbo jets. It’s a similar process, wherein components that work well get kept, adjusted, and refined, while components that hinder are abandoned for more effective ones. The design of a plane has, in fact, evolved.
No, this didn’t evolve from an emu. It just had a common ancestor with one.
In a rare moment of inspiration, I saw why this wasn’t a line of argument she wasn’t to pursue. See, Ham would like nothing more than for his opponent to establish a connection between biological and technological evolution. He could then use that connection in two ways. First, he would use it to buttress his assertion that there are “kinds” of animal, and they don’t change (a dog can be a corgi or a wolf, but they’ll always be a dog) by saying that while planes have grown more technologically powerful and refined they were always planes. Secondly, he would point out how planes only got to be the way they are because they’re designed by intelligent beings.
Instead, I would draw attention to the differences between biological and technological evolution. I would point out that planes are designed to be efficient machines without extraneous parts. Humans, on the other hand, are filled with leftover information in their DNA, which gives us things like our appendix or tailbones. The things in our bodies which don’t serve any observable purpose, but are instead leftover attributes from earlier ancestors.
You have no idea how sad it makes me to see you without a tail. These are so much fun!
The problem with Carol’s argument is not that it’s wrong, but rather that it opens the door for him to give more evidence to support himself. Plane design has things in common with evolutionary principles, but there are also significant differences. It’s important to know which side of that argument Ham could use for his own purposes and avoid it. Focusing on the differences between technological and biological evolution strengthens the argument against creationism without leaving an opening for counter argument.
And that’s the important part of debate. You have to anticipate the pitfalls that you’re walking into, and be prepared at a moment’s notice to pounce on the logical holes in your opponents argument. It’s a rare skill to have, and without it, it’s next to impossible to be effective at a formalized debate structure.
Early debate training simulator.
Nye missed so many chances to obliterate Ham’s silly and absurd arguments. I cringed time after time as Ham would hand Nye a perfect opportunity to point out the irrationality of creationist thought, and Nye would let the chance pass time and time again. A better debater wouldn’t have let so many of Ham’s absurd arguments stand without challenge.
For example, the foundation of Ham’s argument was built upon his suggestion that there is a difference between what he calls “observable science” – that which you can do in the lab now to create new technologies – and “historical science” – that which (as he puts it) makes unfounded assumptions about the history of the world. This was a point he came back to again and again. He tried to use all sorts of sciencey sounding words to make this point, but it basically boiled down to “You weren’t there, you can’t know.” He was trying to say that just because the laws of physics work now doesn’t mean they always worked that way. Therefore, Jesus.
How Ken Ham thinks paleontology works… I can’t tell you how much I wish that were just a joke.
I can’t tell you how often I was frustrated that Nye never took this argument head-on. He danced around it, and challenged some of the peripheral assertions. Mostly he objected to Ham’s claim that radiometric dating was unreliable by pointing out that it’s unreasonable to assume that the laws of physics acted differently in the past than they do today. But that’s just the icing on the mountain of crap Ham was piling up.
I wanted Nye to challenge Ham on the very suggestion that just because we weren’t there means we can’t know. For instance, I think it’s well established that the Civil War happened despite the fact that nobody living was there to see it. The immense amount of evidence tells us, in great detail, about the war and the events surrounding it. Similarly, nobody would suggest that the Roman Empire didn’t exist. There’s less evidence for it, but still enough to put together a fairly accurate narrative of the Empire’s existence. Once that’s established, all Nye would’ve had to do is establish that while there is no written record of prehistoric times, there is a profound amount of equally compelling evidence of not only the age of the earth, but much about its history before man.
“I’ll give you some goddamned evidence of prehistoric man.”
Ham also kept referring to what he called, “molecule-to-man evolution”. Nye should never have let that stood. Ham was trying to suggest that the theory of evolution covered all of history from the big bang to modern times. He was building up a straw man by blatantly and purposefully misrepresenting his opponents views just so he could convince the audience that it’s absurd. Of course it’s absurd to talk about the evolution of molecules, there was no such thing and nobody is suggesting there was. All Nye had to do was point out that if Ham couldn’t even accurately represent the scientific model of the universe, there’s no way he could possibly know enough about it to debunk it. Ham was arguing against a stance that nobody took, and therefore his entire argument was meaningless. Ham case against molecule-to-man evolution made no more sense then if Nye argued against Ham’s insistence that Jesus was still alive, lived in Montana, and wanted us all to kill each other. It’s pointless to argue against a claim nobody made, but Ham attempted it anyway, and Nye never called him out for it.
Ham also tried to use quotes and clips of prominent scientists who were creationists. People like Stuart Burgess, a professor of engineering design, or Danny Faulkner, an emeritus professor of astronomy (from Liberty University even!) who has joined the Answers in Genesis team. Ham is trying to suggest that there are real bonafide scientists who buy into his crap. But if you’re paying attention, none of these creation scientists are experts in any field necessary to understand evolution. Nye let that pass without challenge as well, which is unfortunate because it would’ve been so easy to dispute.
Fluid dynamics? I only know about Flood dynamics.
This is a common tactic by creationists, to try to set up a dichotomy between the poor underdogs who support creationism and the big mean atheist scientists who won’t listen to reasonable argument. They want to set up a David and Goliath (ha!) underdog narrative – evoking names like Galileo – to suggest that though they’re in the minority, the debate is still real. It’s all crap; there is no debate. No scientist has ever had a creationist paper published in a major journal because it doesn’t stand up to peer review. Intelligent Design is not a scientific theory that can stand up to scrutiny, and it makes no predictions that can be verified or recreated (a point Nye did a very good job of establishing).
Creationists like to put together lists of scientists who believe in young-earth creationism like this list put together by Creationist Ministries International, which has over 200 names. While the list consists only of people who have doctorates, many of them are in fields unrelated to evolution, such as mathematics or philosophy (there’s even a plastic surgeon). Even those whose expertise is in a relevant field, they usually have degrees from creationist colleges like Liberty University or Bob Jones University.
It’s a pointless endeavor, because it’s just an appeal to authority. It’s entirely irrelevant how many scientists creationists get to agree with them when the facts clearly don’t. However, in response to these lists, the National Center for Science Education put their own list of scientists together. The list consists only of people with a PhD in a field related to evolution. Also, they only accept scientists whose name is Steve. So far they have over 1300 names on the list.
Don’t argue with the Steves. They know more than you.
Another infuriating move that Ham kept pulling was trying to redefine terms, such as the difference between “observational” and “historical” science I mentioned earlier. It seemed as if Ham knew his arguments couldn’t stand on their own merit, so he wanted to change the meaning of words until they supported him. He even tried to redefine the word science early on, saying,
“We need to define terms correctly. We we need to define creation/evolution in regard to origins, and we need to define science… I believe the word ‘science’ has been hijacked by secularist. Now, What is science? Well, the origin of the word comes from the classical latin scientia which means to know, and if you look it up in a dictionary it’ll say science means ‘state of knowing, knowledge’. But there’s different types of knowledge, and I believe this is where the confusion lies.”
Ham is entirely unwilling to debate Nye on even ground. He has to change the meaning of terms to fit his argument because without doing that his argument falls apart completely. Nye, unfortunately, was so focused on making his own points that he allowed Ham to do this unchallenged.
Samuel L. Jackson the Science Guy never would’ve let that slide.
Late in the debate, however, Ham’s attempted to redefine terms backfired on him in the most spectacular fashion. He was asked, “Do you believe the entire bible is to be taken literally…. for example, should people who touch pigskin – i think it says here – be stoned? Can men marry multiple women?” Ham knew that to admit to taking the bible literally would leaving him open to challenges about Old Testament morality, so instead he tried to dodge. He said,
“Do I believe the entire bible should be taken literally? Well, remember in my opening address, I said we have to define our terms. So when people ask that question… say ‘literally’, I have to know what that person meant by ‘literally’. Now, I would say this: If you say ‘naturally’ and that’s what you mean by ‘literally’, I would say yes, I take the bible ‘naturally’.”
It was such a cheap and obvious attempt to wiggle out of an uncomfortable question that it felt Ham lost the debate in that moment.
“Wait, what does literally mean again?”
I have a lot of criticisms for how Nye handled himself. But it’s clear that he won the debate handily. The Christian site Christian Today posted a poll asking people who they thought won the debate. At the time of writing, Bill Nye has 92% of the over 15,000 votes. He did what he needed to do, which is get the facts out there. While he didn’t challenge Ham’s erroneous claims, Nye allowed the facts stand on their own. Ham had no answer for that.
In the end, Ham fell victim to his own absurd theories. The nonsensical nature of young-earth creationism is apparent, and no amount of dancing around, changing terms, or creationist experts can change the fact that the evidence just doesn’t support their point of view.