For anyone who has been sleeping under a rock, Ken Ham and Bill Nye the Science gathered for what could be a rehash of popular stereo-types. About a year ago, I wrote a piece on Bill Nye and Young Earth Creationism (YEC). This blog then will skim over the hits and misses that both men made in the debate. As a caveat, I only watched the debate up until end of the rebuttals. This was because that’s where the basic points were laid out, and because I ran out of shots of rum to keep me though this circus. Without further ado, here’s how I think both men did and why we need to do better next time.
Bill Nye made it clear throughout his debate that he had an axe to grind with YEC, not with Christianity in general. This kept the debate from devolving into atheism v Christianity. It also demonstrated, though not very vividly, that YEC is not a majority viewpoint. Bill Nye theological fluency is limited (more on that later), but he is trying made his presentation different.
Nye made two points that Ken Ham did not deal with adequately. First, he demonstrated that there were trees, with greater than 4000 tree rings meaning that these tress are more than 4000 years old. Bill Nye made other arguments for the age of the earth, but I felt that this point was the easiest to understand. Also, it pokes an eye in the global flood. Furthermore, Nye took on the claim that Animal “kinds” went into the arc. After that, YEC claims that micro evolutionary change created the species we know today. Nye demonstrated, with math, how many new species per day that would mean. Far too many, in his view, to be justified.
Bill Nye also argued that the genesis account might not be trusted because it is old, and has been translated many times. Unfortunately, this point is where Nye shows a lack of theological fluency. If we assume that if a book is old and a book has been translated, then it is not trustworthy, we have a serious problem with history. In fact, there may be very little that we can know about the ancient world. Furthermore, YEC aren’t particularly sophisticated in their reading of the Bible, but they are not so daft to believe that English is the only language they need. Nye seemed out of his element when dealing with the Bible.
Nye, kept this message going: bring on the evidence, and scientists will happily change their minds without hesitation. This is a noble ideal. It is how science is perceived at a popular level. Now consider the following three examples. First, Blaise Pascal did an experiment with a mercury tube, a saucer, and a hike up a mountain. He thought he demonstrated once and for all that vacuums can exist. However, his detailed papers were harshly received, particularly by Rene Descartes who declared, “he [Pascal] has much vacuum in his head.” Second, astronomer Robert Jastrow, an agnostic, detailed the story of how scientists reacted as evidence for the big bang in “God and the Astronomers.” Scientists slowly accepted, but begrudgingly in part because of its theological implications according to Jastrow. Finally, when every geocentric astronomer and Aristotelian physicist fought hard against Galilleo’s model in part because they needed to keep their jobs. The point I am making here is Nye’s message about scientific objectivity is an ideal that does not so easily translate into reality. Scientific paradigms do not turn on a dime.
Finally, and most importantly, Nye reiterated that he can’t accept that scientific laws changed. However, at no point did I notice that Ken Ham made the claim that they did. Nye then, seemed to be batting at a straw man with this assertion.
Ken Ham is a rhetorician. He is a sophist. He is an ad-man. As an ad-man, he uses celebrity endorsements. In this case, his endorsements are a series of passionate scientists who endorse creationism like Bill Cosby Sells Jell-o.
As crass, and even artless as this was, it helped make Ken Ham make his strongest point. Central to Nye’s thesis is this: creationism hold science back. Look at fire alarms, rocket ships, and medicine. The implication for Nye is not that we use the same laws to argue for origins that we do to make technology, it seems that as long as long as creationism is around, the progress of technology will slow down.
Ken Ham does not need to argue against this point, because his endorsements demonstrate that it is possible to contribute to science despite endorsing young earth creationism. If a scientist can design a solar panel for a satellite or do research in bacteria growing on fruit, than I think an empirically minded person has to shrug their shoulders and admit that creationists are contributing to technology and medicine like any other.
I am not comfortable agreeing with Ham. Nonetheless, he’s has a point. The efficacy of the Polio vaccine rested on the isolation of the virus and a lot of animal testing, not an evolutionary model of human origins. The process of Pasteurization kills microbes in milk no matter how old we believe the earth is. The Apollo 8 capsule still went to space and back, even though the astronauts had the audacity to read the Genesis account over the radio.
While I realize that there is more Nye’s thesis, I think Ham laid down evidence -yes evidence- that Nye needs to overcome. If a someone is a young earth creationist and contributes to technology and medicine, that’s a problem. Nye can call them inconsistent. He can declare them unfit to teach. But he has a much harder time demonstrating that they hold back tangible, practical, scientific development. Furthermore, Ken Ham asked Nye what medical advancement depend on the “molecules to man” evolutionary model. Nye did not directly address this in his debate.
It may seem like I am coming out in support of Ham, but I’m not. Like most people in this debate, I watched it with my mind made up, and it wasn’t going to change. The real reason for debates like this is to deepen people’s understanding of both sides, and hopefully, see which one is better. There has been some great message board discussion, here though are ways that debates like this might be better.
First, focus the question. Part of the reason why neither guy looked great in this debate is that the question is too broad. Rather than “is YEC an viable belief about origins” let’s focus it into specific aspects of YEC. How about: is a global flood viable? Are tree rings a viable indicator of the age of the earth? How about radio carbon dating, or permafrost? Could there have been a ship the size of Noah’s Arc and would it have been seaworthy? The reason for this two fold. First, meta-narratives like YEC and Macro-evolution are made of hundreds of tiny parts. Second, when people change their mind about something, they do so slowly.
A second way to make the debate better is Bill Nye’s limit theological fluency. The biggest gaffe that any speaker can make before Christians -not simply YEC fundies, but more ‘moderate’ Christians, and Christians scholars- is to disparage the Bible because it is old and translated. This is informal logical fallacy (appeal to novelty) or what C.S. Lewis called “chronological snobbery.” Additionally, the sciences of linguistics, archeology, and anthropology all play a role in the translation and understanding of the Bible. So if we use science to translate it, why do we complain about its translation?
While there is no reason for Bill Nye to be what he admitted he is not (a theologian), he might have solicited the help of a few. Nye presented, through perhaps a dry statistic, how many Christians disagree with Ham. That’s a good start. Now, imagine how much more effective that would have been if he gathered a few video clips as Ham did with his creationist scientists. Perhaps Nye tried to recruit them, and failed. I don’t know. I wasn’t there.
Finally, Ham should debate someone else. This doesn’t mean that I don’t appreciate that Bill Nye debated him, but the following scenarios might help:
- Ken Ham versus a Christian Theistic evolutionist: Is death before humankind reconcilable with a “goodness of creation”?
- Ken Ham versus a Christian Old Earth Creationist: how old is the earth?
- Ken Ham versus an Old Testament Scholar: what is the message of Genesis 1:1-2:3?
In sum, this debate did stimulate important discussion online. It did demonstrate the vast gulf between the two views. Hopefully the discussion will deepen in the minds of the people who watched it, and inspire them to a sense of greater investigation, and avoid the simple reinforcing of trite stereotypes.