On February 4, 2014, Answers in Genesis President Ken Ham debated Bill Nye (“the Science Guy”) on the topic of “Is creation a viable model of origins?” I cannot say that I was disappointed with the debate, because I had very low expectations for it in the first place, and it was about what I anticipated.
I had hoped that Ken Ham would take a “mere creation” approach, which would focus on the sorts of things most Christians agree upon when talking about origins. He could have focused on topics that are especially vexing for non-theists, such as the origin of the universe (or multi-verse, if you prefer), or the origin of life. Instead, he chose to focus on typical young-Earth topics such as the age of the universe and Noah’s flood. Bill Nye was also a disappointment (and again, I had low expectations). His background is in engineering and physics, not in the more pertinent subjects of geology and biology, and it showed. His knowledge of the Bible was downright at the middle school level, as I’ll discuss later.
My main complaint about the debate is that, for the most part, it presented the audience with a false dichotomy: young-Earth creationism or naturalistic, atheistic (or at least agnostic) science. Ken Ham acknowledged that there are old-Earth Christians, and that salvation is based on one’s relationship to Christ rather than what one thinks about the age of the Earth. But he also made it clear that he views the old-Earth position as a compromise, as opposed to his pure “biblical” creation interpretation. Bill Nye actually did a better job of acknowledging that there are billions of people in the world who are religious and yet do not accept young-Earth creationism, but it was also clear that he viewed this religiosity as “belief” as opposed to scientific knowledge.
I’ll start with some positive aspects of both men’s presentations. The debate was very cordial, respectful, and orderly.
I think that the best point that Ken Ham made was that non-Christian scientists have no good explanation for why we have laws of logic, laws of nature, or uniformity of nature (the laws that work here also work the same way over there, and worked the same way in the past). Ham said that non-believers have had to borrow these concepts from Christianity, and to a large extent, this is true. It is not that Christians, or theists, are the only ones who believe in logic, laws, or uniformity, but that they are the only ones who can give a rational explanation for the existence of these properties of the universe.
Bill Nye made a number of good scientific points related to the topic at hand.
- He described the concept of fossil succession: fossils occur in a specific order in the geologic record wherever one goes (he focused on the Grand Canyon), and correctly pointed out that there is not a single location where fossils are out of place. I wish he had elaborated on this for the sake of his audience. One does not find dinosaurs in the Permian (they belong in the Mesozoic), and one does not find elephants in the Cambrian (mixed in with trilobites). If young-Earth geology were correct, we would expect to see a considerable amount of “turbulence,” as Nye put it, in the fossil record, with a number of fossils being found in the wrong layers. It does not happen.
- He also described cores taken from ice caps. For example, there are ice cores drilled from Antarctica that contain a 680,000-year record of ice deposition. Nye calculated one would have to have 170 annual layers created per year to form these since Noah’s flood 4000 years ago, and that this is a preposterous idea.
- Nye used the local (Kentucky) geology to point out another problem with YEC flood geology. The thick layers of limestone in the area are built in places of billions of coral organisms, which are entombed in their life positions in complete ecosystems. One would not expect a global flood to pick up coral organisms and plant them all in such a way to look like they grew there in place.
- Nye also drew attention to the problem of modern biogeographic distribution of species: How did Australian mammals, for instance, such as the kangaroo, all migrate to Australia over a now-missing land bridge without leaving any straggler populations or a trace of their passage (such as fossils) between Ararat and Australia?
Unfortunately, both men made serious blunders as well:
Ken Ham got his science wrong – Of course, there are many things wrong with the young-Earth creationist arguments about the age of the Earth and the geological work of Noah’s flood. I’ll highlight a few from the debate:
- Though I agree with Ham that historical science is done with somewhat different methodology than experimental, laboratory science, I think he stretched this point too far. Ham’s presentation of the historical scientific method almost makes it sound like some sort of postmodern guessing game, where opinion A is just as good as opinion B. No, something really happened in the past, such as the ice ages. Explanation A (the conventional geological explanation) might explain most known observations very well, while explanation B (the YEC explanation) fails miserably. It is not “one answer is just as good as another; you cannot prove anything,” as Ken Ham would have us believe. There are explanations that work, and explanations that do not work.
- Ham gave one of his favorite statements, which I’ll paraphrase as, “From reading Genesis, we would expect the flood to produce billions of dead things laid down by water, and when we look at the geological record, we find billions of dead things laid down by water.” The main scientific problem with this is that one would expect a global, catastrophic flood to produce disorder, with a chaotic mixture of sediments and organisms. Instead, we find distinct layers, sometimes very pure, of various sediment types, preserving what appear to be ancient sedimentary environments and ecosystems, some of which obviously formed in fairly quiet settings, with a very distinct order of fossils from oldest to youngest.
- Ham discussed radiometric dating, both in terms of the assumptions that go into the dating procedures, and in terms of conflicting radiometric dates. This could merit a whole series of articles in response, but I’ll just say that in most cases we can have a pretty good idea what the initial parent-to-daughter isotope ratios were, whether or not there has been gain or loss of isotopes from the sample, and that all reports of variable decay rates in the scientific literature indicate that this variability is minor. There are discordant (i.e. conflicting) radiometric dates out there, but overall the methods give highly consistent results. I would say that the whole YEC RATE research program had to happen because of the overwhelming evidence (even to YECs) that in most cases the first two assumptions about radiometric dating are valid and that most dates are indeed concordant, which has left YECs with nothing to work with but variable decay rates.
- Ken Ham also mentioned the planes that crashed in Greenland in 1942, and have subsequently been buried by over 200 feet of snow and ice, showing (to YECs) that thick ice caps could form quickly. What Ham didn’t tell the audience was that these planes were found near the edge of the ice sheet, where precipitation is much higher than in the dry interior where ice cores are taken. If the planes had crashed in the interior, their remains would still be at or near the surface of the ice cap.
Bill Nye got his science wrong – This is where Nye’s lack of geological training showed through.
- As he was discussing layers in the Grand Canyon, Nye showed a slide where a channel of the Devonian Temple Butte Formation is cut down into the Cambrian Muav Limestone. He described it as being “intruded” into the underlying formation, which makes it sound like an igneous rather than a sedimentary process. Still, his point was valid, that fossils of the Devonian are not found in Cambrian rocks, and vice versa.
- He also gave a shoot-from-the-hip explanation for something Ken Ham brought up. Ham described a situation where a basalt flow enclosed some woody material, and the basalt gave a potassium-argon age of something like 45 million years, while the organic material gave a carbon-14 age of something like 40,000 years. Nye suggested that this could be explained by thrust faulting, where one layer slid horizontally over another. I kind of groaned when he said this, as one would not invoke thrust faulting without good field evidence. There are better explanations for such situations. I shoot from the hip sometimes, and often it does not go well.
Bill Nye got his theology wrong – I did not expect him to have much knowledge about the Bible or theology, and he demonstrated deep ignorance about how we got the Bible.
- Nye stated several times that he does not understand how one could believe a book that was written 3000 years ago, then translated, and re-translated, and re-translated, and eventually translated from one of these latter re-translations to make our English Bibles (the telephone game). In reality, how the Bible was formed and where our modern-language translations came from looked nothing like this.
Ken Ham got his theology wrong – One would hope that one of the most influential Christians in America (and Ham does have a tremendous amount of influence in some circles) would get his theology right, but many theologically conservative Bible scholars would disagree with Ham’s interpretation of Scripture.
- Ham likes to use the phrase “biblical creationist” to describe his position, implying that any Christian who is not a young-Earth creationist is somehow an “unbiblical” creationist. I have many reasons for believing that the Bible is neutral or silent on the question of the age of the universe. Being that these are biblical reasons, I would say that makes me a “biblical creationist” as well.
- One example that Ham brought up was the use of genre (literary type or category) in biblical interpretation. He stated that biblical interpretation involves a “natural” reading of the passages, and I agree. In general, historical narratives are meant to be read as real history, and poetic passages (such as the Psalms) are meant to be read in a much more figurative way. However, Ham lumps the entire book of Genesis together as “historical narrative” when it is clear that the literary structure of chapter one is different than the rest of the book, and actually quite distinct in ancient Hebrew literature.
Overall, I did not find the debate to be at all helpful. I did think that Nye’s scientific arguments were stronger than Ham’s (as YEC is rather indefensible scientifically), but they could have been stronger, and Nye demonstrated deep misunderstandings of Christianity that are, unfortunately, much too common among skeptics. Young-Earth creationists who watched the debate probably thought that Ham crushed Nye. Atheists who watched it probably thought that Nye demolished the silly arguments of the young-Earthers. For the rest of us, the debate was a lose-lose affair. There was little in Ham’s presentation that would cause a non-believer (especially a non-believing scientist) to consider Christianity, and Nye’s weakness on geological issues hampered his effectiveness.
I would have much rather seen a debate between a Christian old-Earth geologist and a YEC geologist, or a debate between a YEC biblical scholar and a old-Earth biblical scholar. But then only 500 people would have watched it nationwide rather than 500,000.
The debate is archived at http://debatelive.org/.
Grace and Peace
22 thoughts on “Ken Ham vs. Bill Nye post-debate analysis”
As always, great analysis. I have not watched the whole debate yet. I might just skip it now.
Kevin, excellent analysis, thank you. And thanks for your continued influence in this important area!
Considering the entire OT and the Gospels were complied and derived from oral traditions the telephone game metaphor seems entirely appropriate, but incorrectly applied. Most of the the source of errors could probably be attributed to person to person storytelling before anything was first written down. Then the translation and copying errors Nye was referring too could creep into the text as the Bible was translated from Hebrew (OT)/Koine Greek (NT) into Greek, then Latin, then English and so forth. In light of this, is his telephone game metaphor really that inappropriate?
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Statistique, I do think the telephone game metaphor is inappropriate because though the Bible was translated into the various languages you mentioned, our modern translations are coming from the original language. Sometimes a New Testament author may quote from the then current Greek translation of the OT, but otherwise our translations are from the Hebrew or Koine Greek they were written in.
Concerning changes made in the oral tradition before it was written down, there may be something to that, but in the example of the Gospels, they were written down pretty early.
But I think the telephone game metaphor gives people an inaccurate impression about the Bible.
In the game of telephone the message usually gets unrecognizably garbled. For scripture, there is a myriad of textual variations, far more than most conservative Christians really want to face up to, but those variations do not affect the basic meaning of the passages and, more importantly, do not change any major doctrines. The exact wording of the message may have changed slightly over time but the message still remains intelligible.
Also, it is a misconception of our written-language-based culture to assume that anything orally transmitted is not reliable. As a quick example, from http://indigenousfoundations.arts.ubc.ca/home/culture/oral-traditions.html “The passing on of these stories from generation to generation keeps the social order intact. As such, oral histories must be told carefully and accurately, often by a designated person who is recognized as holding this knowledge. This person is responsible for keeping the knowledge and eventually passing it on in order to preserve the historical record. … Oral narratives, on the other hand, do not have to be told exactly the same way—what is fundamental is whether or not they carry the same message.” (On my to-read list is “The Lost World of Scripture” by Walton and Sandy which I hope will delve into this idea more deeply.)
So, I think the telephone game metaphor is inappropriate because it conjures up a picture of receiving a completely different message than was originally sent. By contrast, comparing the earliest manuscripts with today’s translations shows that the message has stayed remarkably consistent across millennia.
Good comments, Carol :)
C & W, those sound like reasonable answers. Thank you! What would be a better label for translation ambiguities and other variations then and do you think they or the seemingly haphazard picking and choosing of what texts to include in the NT at the various Synods contribute to a bigger source of error/variation?
I’d call them textual variations, if you are talking about the small variations that exist among the various texts we have. Concerning differences in translations, they are just small differences in wording because a different group of people are doing the translating. Sometimes they are based on the translators using a different family of texts to translate from, which would mainly be the difference between the KJV & NKJV (one family) and other modern translations (the other).
I wouldn’t call confirming the canon a haphazard picking and choosing of texts. I think the various decisions confirmed what the church as a whole considered Scripture. I don’t know that much about the history of these things.
I’d like to know what Carol has to say.
Excellent analysis! As an agnostic I would’ve preferred to hear a debate with an old earth creationist. It’s simply impossible for me to respect the credibility of a YEC. However, a compelling argument made from someone else….could possibly sway me.
One question though….Being that Genesis is also a book in the Hebrew Bible, are there also Jews who subscribe to this same belief? If not, why not?
@Steve. I totally agree. In fact, Dr Hugh Ross from Reasons to Believe (www.reasons.org – Old Earth Creationism) has been following this debate closely, and is open to debating either men, though he has debated Ken Ham a few times.
As a Christian, this debate was a lose-lose for me. Ken Ham misrepresents the Bible and Science in almost every way (except regarding the Divinity of Christ). Whilst he says that you can be an OEC and be saved, he then throws heretical accusations at OECs how they compromise the Bible and are causing young people to leave the church! His arrogance knows no bounds, since young people themselves have said that it is YEC teachings that make the Bible look more like a fairytale story.
I praise God for the Reasons to Believe science apologetics ministry. They speak the truh in love – even towards Ken Ham.
I agree with willjacksonphoto. The selection of the NT canon was not haphazard. There were careful criteria of what could be considered — mainly was it written by or written in collaboration with an apostle (one of Jesus’ 12 named disciples). While a few books of the current NT were heavily debated, many were viewed as scripture long before the councils confirmed the full canon. I am not familiar with how Jews determined what was part of the OT canon, just that the diaspora Jews recognized a few more books in their canon than the Jews in Israel.
I think liberal, critical scholars would attribute most errors in the Bible to deliberate choices of the authors. The Old Testament was concocted during the exile as the Jews sought to understand why they had suffered so greatly under Assyria and Babylon. Jesus was a historical figure, but he couldn’t possibly have performed all those miracles so those stories must have been added by his followers to justify Christianity (i.e. solidify their own power). The telephone game metaphor doesn’t even fit these scenarios because in telephone the message gets garbled from unintentional corruption, not from deliberate fabrication. In my opinion, the NT was written down within the lifetime of eye-witnesses to the events of Jesus’ life so it would have been impossible to make up stories of miracles and have them believed. If there is an all-powerful Creator God then miracles are possible and the stories of Jesus’ miracles are plausible and serve to confirm that Jesus is indeed sent from God, died for our sins, and rose again.
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Re textual variations, I question that none of these have implications for doctrine. Matt Slick of CARM rejects the longer ending of Mark because it says that Jesus appeared “in a different form” to different disciples, casting doubt on the physical resurrection. That’s a pretty central doctrine for most Christians.
Hello, first time to your site and I want to say first that I appreciate you writing this blog and compiling a plethora of information in one place for people like me. You have a lot of information and it is going to take me a little while to read everything but as I was going through some archives I noticed your review of the Ham/Nye debate and it was of interest because I have watched the debates and read several other analyses. Anyway, I hope that gives my reasons for posting on such an old thread but I felt like I needed to point out some of your critique between the debaters. It appears you unfairly lopsided your points against Ham which upon further inspection were points that seemed weak and irrelevant such as Ham using a term biblical creationist. This point made your list and was simply due to your personal feeling of an implied slight against your world view even though others may not feel that way and makes your point unnecessary to be included. Additionally, you cite Ham’s incorrect theology as a difference of interpretation even though you can find plenty of biblical scholars with differing interpretations. I think to say someone has incorrect theology due to an interpretation is a grey area. So, incorrect theology is not the correct topic for Ham’s so-called difference in theology unlike Nye’s incorrect theology where he just completely misrepresents biblical knowledge such as how the bible came to be. The last example, is your point on Nye’s geological errors where after you point his error but you excused it because it still made the point. This, in my opinion, is very parallel to Ham’s explanation of the ice cap build up but you seem to lambaste Ham a little more and basically implied that there was a known deception on his part even though you do not know for sure Ham himself could be unaware of the actual precipitation rates of the ice caps. You further even demonstrated ‘matter of factly’ that if the planes had been found near the interior that they would be near the top. Perhaps. However, the counter-point for Ham was not to illustrate that ice caps can lay down quickly but was to reinforce the recurring motif of the role of assumptions and how they are applied, in this case, to ice cores.
The real goal of the debate was to determine whether a creationist worldview can provide a working framework for scientific discovery. I think yes but that is the debate. One of the main driving factors is the belief that a young earth scientist cannot do real science. The importance of this debate is that the anti-religious are saying that you are less of a scientist especially if you believe in a young earth.
The saying that nothing makes sense except for in light of evolution, for me, nothing makes sense except for in the light of a creator. The more I go through life and the more I learn and study I realize the overlying consensus of knowledge is that we, as a scientific community, really do not know anything at all and we have produced great conjecture and story telling to fill in explanations and to make sense of historical science. I tip my hat and the explanations are worth thinking about but it is not anything I am going to wager my everlasting soul on. Nye several times just kept saying that we are supposed to take Ken Hams word for it but the irony is that it is exactly what we do with a lot of science.
Stating that fossils are always found in order in strata, I do not believe to be correct. Seeing a fossil tree trunk going through “millions off years of strata” must be ignored to come to such long age conclusions. Be careful, there are many good scientific reasons for a young earth, especially when seeking Bible error as reason for rejecting a young earth.
Tim B. Thanks for your comment. These “polystrate fossils” have been understood for a long time. No geologist would claim that the sediments surrounding these tree trunks took millions of years to deposit. Instead, these sediments, in many cases, were deposited in normal sedimentary settings, such as in a flood plain in a coal swamp. Evidence for this includes that the tree roots are embedded in the clay soil at the base of the trees, which is very difficult to explain in a young-Earth flood geology scenario.
This is not about “seeking Bible error” because 1. I believe the Bible is the inerrant and authoritative Word of God, and 2. The Bible makes no claims about the origin of sedimentary rock layers, such as what these so-called polystrate tree trunks are found.