Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Debate Review: Bill Nye vs. Ken Ham

This is not a full review, but rather some observations and notes. Bill Nye vs. Ken Ham, with the debate question being, “Is creation a viable model of origins in today’s scientific era?” Tom Foreman of CNN was the moderator, and he did a wonderful job, not appearing to be biased toward one side or another throughout the actual debate portion. The debate itself was pretty tame. However, the format of the debate was absolutely baffling. After a five-minute introduction by each man, each of them had a 30-minute presentation, followed by an alternating sequence of two 5-minute rebuttals, and then a question-and-answer time. Five-minute rebuttals just aren’t going to help much for substantive debate.

Ham was the first to speak, and he proposed the much more ambitious project of showing that, “Creation is the only viable model of historical science confirmed by observational science in today’s modern scientific era.” This proposal was not shown conclusively by Ham. Fortunately, however, he did not need to. He only needed to show that creation is viable, not necessary. He then brought up what would become a key argument between Nye and Ham, and I found both of them to be philosophically na├»ve when it comes to the philosophy of science. Ham said there was a difference between “observational science” and “historical science.” Nye thought there is no such distinction. Ham is actually correct, in a broad and basic sense. There are things in science for which we have no direct observation. No one can observe, for example, the Big Bang event itself. From this, Ham felt that only worldviews could adjudicate. However, what Nye missed (by denying that science uses something other than observation) and what Ham missed is that science uses inference to the best explanation. This inference to the best explanation is important since it does allow for certain assumptions to come into play. These assumptions include amount and decay rates of certain materials, among other things. Many scientists feel they are rational to hold such rates, given the uniformity of nature. Even Ham acknowledged that all scientists believe in the uniformity of nature: however, creationists tend to posit a global Flood (Noahic in description).

Nye spent much of his time criticizing a Noahic, global Flood. While interesting, this was not the debate topic. This would have been good for a topic that said, “Is young earth creationism a viable model…?” As it stood, however, it was all irrelevant. It simply doesn’t follow that creation is discounted or disconfirmed by a disconfirmed global flood. It may be that young earth creationism is (although that wasn’t clear even from the debate), but not creationism. Nye also tended to use weasel words and claims with respect to Americans becoming scientists. He said he was concerned that, if people do not accept evolution, Americans will not lead the way and advance in science. However, he did not demonstrate any link or even association between these things. In fact, Ham showed there are some scientists who have contributed greatly who believe in creation. However, this entire point was irrelevant; Ham could have accepted that people who believe in creation do not advance anything in science, but it doesn’t follow that creation is unscientific. That’s reasoning about the behavior of someone who holds a position to the position itself.

Now Ham was not reasoning perfectly, either. He challenged Nye to account for the uniformity of nature and the laws of logic. However, this won’t help the debate topic, either. Suppose Nye has no idea how to account for these things. It doesn’t follow they aren’t rational, and it doesn’t follow that creationism is true! Ham seems to claim that one can’t come to the age of the earth because “you weren’t there.” He does well at the beginning to criticize mostly evolutionary accounts, but he does make a mistake in reasoning when he says: public school rejects creation on religious grounds, but observational evidence confirms the creation orchard, therefore, public schools reject observational science. Strictly speaking, that doesn’t follow.

While most of Nye’s comments and discussions were either irrelevant or “weasel words” (more on that later), he did have a surprisingly good section. If I had my way, Nye would have done the entire debate the way he did this 15-20 minute section. He provides evidences of longer periods of time. There are trees that are over 9500 years old, ice rings that indicate 680,000 years, and so on. These all directly challenge young earth creation. However, again, it must be emphasized that this does not do anything at all to creation a a whole. Nye also mentions that there is no evidence of kangaroos moving from the Middle East to Australia after a Flood. However, for the good (as in skilled), there is also the bad (as in confused). Nye confuses kinds and species. He insists that kinds are identical to species, which doesn’t work. Nye explains the Big Bang more clearly than about anyone I’ve ever heard. He’s an excellent teacher. Nye tends to take potshots. He framed Ham’s position as a lack of understanding natural law.

Ham came back to point out inconsistencies in dating methods. I’m not too qualified to discuss these scientific matters, but Nye didn’t seem to address this (again, it may be [on both sides] due to the format of the debate). Nye also engaged in “weasel words” several times throughout the debate, especially toward the end. This is when you slip in words that qualify or imply things about your opponent’s position that make it appear less credible without proving them. For example, Bill Nye said, repeatedly, that the Bible makes claims “and it was translated many many times over 30 centuries,” thus implying that what the Bible says is not what was written. He even used the telephone analogy, which of course is faulty. This is because it is: a) irrelevant to the debate topic, and b) the Bible wasn’t transmitted by one individual per link in the transmission chain, who whispers a sentence.

Finally, in the question-and-answer portion, Nye discredits both that one can know God exists and intelligent design. However, he offers absolutely no argument for the first claim (in fact, quizzically, he says “I’ll grant you that,” as though this is a common Christian claim). The second claim, that intelligent design is, at best, inconclusive, is that evolution explains the complexities of life. But that misses the point. Intelligent design, in the context of the question, allows for evolutionary processes, just ones that are guided or put into place by a designer. In fact, it argues that from the specified complexity found in organisms, one can infer a designer as the best and most rational explanation. Nye completely misunderstood this.

So, who won? It’s tough to say, when the actual debate topic was avoided for most of the time. Even the modified debate topic was largely ignored within the scientific evidences. Most of it was spent on presuppositions and assumptions that required a better grasp of the philosophy of science than either men had. To Ham’s credit, he did not directly teach that if young earth creationism is false, then Christianity is false. However, he avoided a question that directly asked him if it were to be conclusively shown to him that evolution were true, would he still believe in God. He claimed that the antecedent was impossible. Even so, many hypotheticals with impossible antecedents can be discussed. To me, the refusal to answer the question indicated that he would stop believing in God, but I don’t want to put words in his mouth.

With the debate format, it made it difficult for each man to respond to the other’s (small amount of) evidences. Instead, each man provided his own evidences and came close to completely ignoring the rest. This debate was more interesting leading up to the night than it was itself. At one point, Nye bizarrely makes the metaphysical claim that “we are one of the ways the universe knows itself.” And this is the point. These men are not philosophers, not actually scientists (in the academic sense), and not theologians (in the same sense). This debate would have received far less attention, but would have been far better, with philosophers of science and/or theologians.


  1. Good overview on it, and I completely agree. Most of the time the discussion was taking place in realms where both participants were woefully under-armed to properly address the main points.

  2. I enjoyed your review, but I think that bringing out the laws of logic more explicitly would have helped Ham. All he ultimately had to do was prove that creationism (either young or old earth) deserves to be in the conversation. If it is viable, it deserves to be considered. He did not need to prove the absolute truth of it.

    As a result, I would have gone after the presuppositions of naturalism which involve an assumption in the validity of logic. If you can demonstrate that both of these belief systems are indeed based on presuppositions, you can reasonably ask the question, "Why is only one of the censored?" If he can get to that point, it is a victory for Ham. All he needed to do was prove that creationism belongs in the conversation.

    1. I certainly wouldn't have minded that in a conversation on God's existence. However, the question was specifically to take place in a scientific context. Suppose Nye had no idea how to account for the laws of logic. It certainly wouldn't follow that creation is a viable model for science. After all, even if it were to be established that naturalism is false, all that follows is that supernaturalism is true. It wouldn't follow, for example, that God did not use evolution. I am a creationist, for what it's worth. :)

  3. I did an in depth search today for an unbiased review of the debate last night. Not a review that took sides of whether who was right or wrong, rather who was better positioned to build an argument and expose the flaws in the argument of the other. I agree with the comments above that this review is the best analysis I have found of that. Of course I have my own opinion on the facts/opinions of the debate but overall I thought they were no Harvard Law students when it came to their debate performance last night.

    Thanks for the review Randy. I will try to forward this to some friends so that your review gets the attention it deserves.

    1. Thanks for that, and thanks for dropping by and commenting! :)

  4. "There are things in science for which we have no direct observation. No one can observe, for example, the Big Bang event itself. From this, Ham felt that only worldviews could adjudicate. However, what Nye missed (by denying that science uses something other than observation) and what Ham missed is that science uses inference to the best explanation."

    You are on the right track here, but this is too tepid. It is not just that "there are things in science for which we have not direct observation." Rather, ALL scientific theories, by their nature, appeal to unobservables. Gravity, to use a very familiar example, is not directly observable. We observe its presumed effects, of course--falling bodies, the movement of the tides, the movement of the planets, etc. But the force of gravity itself, the so-called law, is a hypothesis, not a potentially observable "entity." It is a hypothesis which, if accepted, serves to bring together and explain these very diverse sorts of phenomena. And this feature is characteristic of all scientific theories: such theories are not collections of observed events, but ways of predicting and explaining such events. This does not discredit science in the slightest, but is simply a description (very familiar to anyone who has done any study in philosophy of science) of its nature.

    The point, then, is that Ham's distinction between observable and historical science is completely bogus. If we had to depend on "being there" and directly observing the substance of scientific theories there would be no science whatsoever. Instead, the kind of reasoning involved in making scientific claims about the past is exactly the same as the reasoning that is used in all aspects of science (and in our everyday reasoning as well). There can be no serious debate about this.

    What Ham is doing, clearly, is simply invoking his distinction as a way of justifying ignoring all evidence whatsoever about the past: we can't use reason to know anything about the past and so--the Bible must be true (why not the Koran in that case? Or the Bhagavad Gita? Is Christianity the only religion with a creation story?). It is a distinction designed to confuse people and muddy the waters, and it seems to be partly successful.

    But really, at bottom, Ham's argument comes down to saying "You can't prove that yesterday happened!" And you know what? He's right. I can't prove that yesterday happened if everything that we ordinarily take as evidence is systematically excluded. This is the classic strategy used by the philosophical skeptic. If you find that a convincing argument, then Ham's your man.

    1. I appreciate your thoughts, but I don't think it follows that his distinction is "bogus;" indeed, if anything, I thought it emphasized that there is such a thing. However, it doesn't mean what Ham thinks it means, as you have pointed out. It's clearly a different thing to experiment and form inductive inferences based on these observed experiments than it is to form adductive inferences to the best explanation. As you rightly note, both are needed for good science, and I support both fully. So, in that, you are quite correct.

      I don't know that it's fair to say Ham "designed" this distinction to confuse people and obfuscate. It seems far more likely, at least to me, that he is philosophically naive (it runs rampant these days, on both sides of the aisle).

      I also think Ham doesn't want to say he denies the uniformity of nature; I think he wants to say that God is the foundation of reality, the Bible is God's Word, the Bible teaches young earth creation, ergo, young earth creation. Yet it seems clear, at least to me, that if you grant certain assumptions that scientists make (because they are rational to make them), then you do get an old earth/universe with a Big Bang-like cosmology. So then, Ham must deny these assumptions (or at least some of the crucial ones, anyway).

      For Nye, I can completely understand his bewilderment. For him, this isn't controversial within a scientific sense. It's all basic science. He's not lying or being mean or whatnot; he just thinks (mistakenly) that Ham is trying to deny natural law. Even if it turns out Ham is doing just this, he isn't consciously doing so. I was underwhelmed by the debate.

    2. autocorrect changed "abductive" to "adductive."

    3. Thank you for your response. I agree that the debate was underwhelming, but still there may be something to be learned from the positions each individual was attempting to embody. Look, I am far from a fan of scientism; I do not at all believe that science is an adequate way to understand the deepest and most important questions that human beings confront. But that doesn't mean this particular debate--and the more general type of debate it represents--is best characterized as a clash between systems with different sets of assumptions. It is more fundamental than that.

      You write: "Yet it seems clear, at least to me, that if you grant certain assumptions that scientists make (because they are rational to make them), then you do get an old earth/universe with a Big Bang-like cosmology. So then, Ham must deny these assumptions (or at least some of the crucial ones, anyway)." But my point was that it is misleading to describe Ham as simply making a few "assumptions" that Nye doesn't share. Rather, Ham's distinction between observational and historical science (a distinction, by the way, which IS bogus, since there is no such thing as "observational science" in the way he presents it) has the effect of saying that we can legitimately ignore ALL the evidence of the physical sciences, at least insofar as they bear on the question at hand. That is not an "assumption" in any meaningful sense of the term; it is the complete abdication of the use of reason as a way of addressing the issue.

      There is no *arguing* with someone who insists on taking such a position. That is why I likened it to the insistence that yesterday did not take place. What are you going to say to such a person? There is no fact, set of facts, or logical principle that can be brought to bear since all of these are ruled out of court at the outset. It is tempting to invoke Schopenhauer here and say that Ham's position requires not a refutation, but a cure.


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