Bill Nye vs Ken Ham Debate
On February 4, 2014, there was an historic debate between Bill Nye “the Science Guy” and Ken Ham, President of Answers In Genesis. The topic up for discussion was “Is creation a viable model of origins in today’s modern scientific era?” In this article, I respectfully offer my own personal post-debate commentary.
General CommentsAs a matter of background to this event, I want to clear up a common misconception. Many viewers assumed that it was decided to have an epic debate regarding creation vs. evolution and that these two individuals were chosen as the best candidates to represent each position. In reality, what led to the debate was something quite different. Last year (2013) Bill Nye created a video that went viral on the internet, in which he harshly criticized the idea of biblical creation and all those who would believe such nonsense. Ken Ham created his own reply (as did many other people and organizations). A reporter allegedly suggested that since these two men disagreed so vehemently with each other, they should participate in a debate. The rest is now history. Even though both of these men are very gifted individuals, neither would be considered the ideal candidate for such a confrontation.
It is not my intention to disparage either of these men in this commentary, but to simply focus on various claims that were made and the structure of the debate in general. It’s easy to play “arm-chair quarterback” and offer poignant commentary after the fact, so I do not want to come across as being overly critical of Ken Ham’s performance. At the same time, I do want to offer information that should be of an encouragement to all of those who saw the debate and were left with questions afterwards and also some concerns as to why it wasn’t more of a clear “victory” for the creationist point of view.
Laying my cards on the table right up front… I did not personally feel the debate went as I had hoped (i.e. I was fairly disappointed). Ken Ham is very gifted at what he does, but debating is not his forte. In fact, he has not formally debated since the 1990s. This was actually stated in Ken’s introductory bio, which to me, conveyed the feeling of being defensive or making excuses before the debate even began. (I am not saying that this was his intention at all, just that it could be perceived negatively.) It’s somewhat like agreeing to race someone and then as you step up to the starting line you say, “Just so you know, I sprained my ankle last week and it’s still a little sore.” On the other hand, I can completely understand why it was good for people to know that… so they would understand that formally debating (along with all the special skills necessary for that type of a venue) is not something that Ken is greatly experienced in.
There certainly were highlights for creationists, so I do not want to give you the impression that the whole thing was a complete fiasco. I would say that the biggest highlight was the fact that the Gospel was clearly shared. Now you might argue that discussing the Gospel is not really an appropriate or necessary thing for the purpose of the debate, and you’re right, but it’s never a bad thing when the Gospel is shared. Ken had a captive audience and he took advantage of that to share the most crucial truth anyone could possibly share with anyone, so I am thankful for this.
There were a few instances where it came across as if Ken Ham was responding to Bill Nye’s assertions by just saying something like, “Well, that may be true, but I don’t accept that, because the Bible says…” I know exactly what Ham meant, but it came across as if he was simply deciding to believe the Bible in spite of evidence to the contrary from Nye. In reality, there were great weaknesses in Nye’s claims that should have been at least briefly addressed before stating that the Bible is his ultimate authority. Ham was coming at things from a “presuppositional apologetics” approach and those of us familiar with this view could see that. However, for the vast majority of the rest of the audience, a number of Ham’s arguments were less than convincing. For the record, I myself believe this to be a very biblically-founded approach, but for this particular venue, you don’t have enough time to define and defend this view in the context of the debate.
Added to all of this, Ham seemed fairly nervous and not as relaxed and passionate as he usually is when delivering his message. Overall, Nye seemed very witty and generally likeable (except for his occasional condescending remarks, such as the use of “Ham’s creation view, “Ham’s flood”, and “we in the outside world”, etc.).
Bill Nye used a debate technique in which you throw so many questions or challenges at your opponent that there is no possible way they can respond to them all. Then, when they don’t address something, you accuse them of avoiding that issue and claim they have no answer. On the other hand, if they do attempt to address most or all of what is raised, they will not have any time to say what they were prepared to say, spending the majority of their time on the defensive, which never looks good. It would have been much better to have drawn sharp attention to this by saying something like, “You are bringing up an awful lot of topics, some of which are not even pertinent to the debate, but let me now quickly point out how your arguments are greatly flawed with one or two of your points as an example.” After this, you move right back to making the case you came prepared to make.
The use of “straw man arguments” was also a common tactic by Nye. For those of you not familiar with this, it is a situation in which you claim your opponent believes in something that in reality they don’t (i.e. the “straw man”), and then you set out to disprove it. It often involves something that sounds silly to begin with and is easily discredited. I’m a bit surprised Nye did this, because it shows one of two things: Either (a) he is actually very ignorant of the creationist position, or (b) his case is so weak and he doesn’t have enough legitimate arguments that he has to resort to claiming we believe things that he himself knows we don’t (which conveys outright dishonesty).
Another surprising claim made by Nye was that “If someone finds something that disagrees with mainstream science, that’s the greatest thing. That person will be embraced by the scientific community.” While I am sure this happens on occasion, more often than not, those found “bucking the system” are ostracized and harshly treated. (See: Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed and Slaughter of the Dissidents). This is especially true of anyone questioning evolution.
Specific IssuesNumerous specific claims were made by Bill Nye that were not addressed appropriately either because of the lack of time or for other reasons. It is not possible to address at length every aspect of the debate (without writing another book), but I will now offer commentary on many of the issues, in no particular order.
Observational vs. Historical Science
One of the first points Ken Ham made was the distinction between "observational” and “historical” science. Nye completely rejected such a distinction. This show’s Nye’s lack of understanding of how science really works. He certainly is schooled in things like electricity, gravity, weather, etc., but his ignorance (or perhaps bias) shows when it comes to events that happen in the past, because we cannot approach them in the exact same way. We cannot observe the eruption of a volcano that occurred 500 or 1,000 years ago, but we can observe volcanoes today and make inferences and deductions about such past events. Nye is apparently not aware that even those within the evolutionary community see such a legitimate distinction, as is evidenced in the following from Scientific American (one of the leading secular scientific journals), quoting a scientist who was one of the world’s leading evolutionists:
“For example, Darwin introduced historicity into science. Evolutionary biology, in contrast with physics and chemistry, is a historical science—the evolutionist attempts to explain events and processes that have already taken place.” (Mayr, Ernst, Scientific American, “Darwin's Influence on Modern Thought”, Nov 24, 2009)Kangaroos
In an effort to make fun of the Genesis flood and the ark, Nye said that if kangaroos hopped all the way from the middle east (where the ark landed) to Australia, why don’t we see kangaroo fossils along the way. This line of reasoning shows Nye’s lack of knowledge about how fossils form. The vast majority of fossils would have formed as a result of the flood, while all the catastrophic action was rapidly burying plants and animals, subsequently allowing them to fossilize. When creatures die and are not buried rapidly, scavengers will consume their flesh and their bones will begin to disintegrate, long before fossilization could occur. Therefore, we would not expect to find kangaroo fossils along the way, as they migrated out from the general area of Turkey. However, Nye’s humorous description of this alleged “problem” served well to make the biblical account of the flood seem very silly and certainly not scientific.
While discussing how evolution has been so successful in making predictions about what we should expect to see, Nye mentioned Tiktaalic as a prime example. He said that according to evolutionary theory, they were expecting to find a link between fish and amphibians in a certain area and that’s exactly what they found… Tiktaalic, the missing link! Apparently, Nye isn’t keeping up with the latest findings (which really aren’t all that “new” since what we now know was discovered almost 4 years ago)… Footprints of quadrupeds (four-footed creatures) have been found that according to the highly touted radiometric dating techniques are 18 million years older than Tiktaalic! If four-footed creatures were around millions of years prior to Tiktaalic’s arrival, then it is obvious that Tiktaalic is not the creature that gave rise to quadrupeds. (Note: I am not saying that I agree with the radiometric dating results, just that even according to their own authorities, Tiktaalic has been discredited as a “missing link”.)
Nye discussed the origin of sexual reproduction, which surprised me because of how much of a challenge this actually is to evolutionists. His main point… that sexual reproduction has advantages over asexual reproduction. I completely agree, but stating that it has advantages does not even begin to explain how it developed by accident over millions of years to begin with! It’s like saying that since a laptop computer has advantages over using paper and pencil, that explains how paper and pencil transformed on their own into a computer! It’s one of evolution’s biggest challenges to go from having a cell duplicate its internal components and then divide, making more copies of itself, to developing a “pink” and a “blue” version with complimentary parts that work together just right… part of what’s necessary residing in one organism and the rest residing in the other. (I am being overly simplistic on purpose here… in reality, this situation is unbelievably complex.) Even the world famous atheist Richard Dawkins is not too eager to address this conundrum: “There are many theories of why sex exists, and none of them is knock-down convincing... Maybe one day I’ll summon up the courage to tackle it in full and write a whole book on the origin of sex.”
Ice Cores & Tree Rings
The age of the Earth was front and center throughout much of the debate. Much could be said about this, but the most significant thing in my mind is that this particular issue is one of the easiest things to use to poke fun of the biblical creation account. Not because there isn’t a vast amount of evidence for a relatively young Earth, but because when dealing the general public, the vast majority of them have grown up being taught that the Earth and universe are billions of years old and that it has been “proven” by the best science we have. That is, it’s not something that’s up for discussion. Anyone who rejects this “fact” is obviously not living in the “real” world. To reject an old Earth and universe requires, in most minds, a blind commitment to religion and an abject rejection of science altogether. With that backdrop, it is very difficult to convince people otherwise, in just a few minutes. I am personally convinced that given enough time, the vast majority of people would agree that young Earth creationists have a very strong case for their view, even if they wouldn’t immediately change their own mind. It’s a topic that takes much more time to address properly, therefore, making it very easy to throw out challenges that cannot properly be addressed in the confines of the current debate. I have included three entire chapters in my book Let There be Light regarding this issue. The first of which deals with the relevance of this issue (i.e. why are we even talking about it), the second covers what Scripture actually says and the third deals with what we know from science.
One of the evidences highlighted by Nye was ice core dating. It seems pretty straight-forward… you drill through the ice, count how many layers you see and instantly know how many years passed from bottom to top. The obvious assumption here being that one layer formed per year. Here’s the rub… there are examples where multiple layers have formed in a single season. These are instances in which there are other factors that allow us to know the age in advance. If we know from instances where we can check the layers per year against known dates and see that there are multiple layers per year, why would we assume, when the age is not known to begin with, that only one layer would appear per year?
The most famous example is that of a World War II P–38 Lightning fighter plane. It crash-landed in Greenland in 1942 and was buried by the subsequent snowfalls. A recovery effort was made, but instead of finding the plane under a small amount of ice, it was found under 250 feet of ice, much to everyone’s amazement! In just 50 years (1942-1992) 250 feet of ice had accumulated… much more than had been expected.
It is a similar situation with tree-ring dating. In many circumstances, we see one ring per year, but there are others where we see multiple rings per year. The Bristlecone Pines are typically referenced in defense of the trees being almost 9,000 years old. However, the environment in which these trees grow (White Mountains of eastern California) have been known to produce multiple rings per year. While there is still much research to be done, it is clear that assuming one ring per year is one that can easily lead to misleading age estimates.
Swimming Between Layers
While stating that there was no evidence for the flood, Nye said that if there really was a flood, we should expect to see fossils of creatures “swimming between the layers”. This is a very uneducated statement, because it shows a lack of understanding as to what exactly would have happened during the flood and was just another attempt to mock and ridicule the biblical text. The fact is that there are many examples of things that stretch through many layers. One example is that of polystrate fossils. These are usually fossils of trees that cut through many layers, providing compelling evidence for rapid catastrophic deposition of sediment, as opposed to slow, gradual accumulation. If the typical “millions of years” view that Nye holds to is true, it would require these trees to begin growing in one layer and then stand there (without rotting away) for hundreds of thousands or millions of years while waiting to be buried by subsequent layers. This is quite preposterous and goes against known science and common sense.
Another key point here is that just because a certain creature was around during the time of the flood, doesn’t mean it would get fossilized in each layer. This is another one of Nye’s misunderstandings. For example, we have fossils of the coelacanth fish that are believed by secular geologists to have become extinct 70 million years ago. However, these creatures have been found still alive today, and not only are they still alive… they haven’t changed in 70 million years! The point is that even though these creatures have been alive the whole time (from their first appearance in the fossil record supposedly about 360 million years ago until today), they apparently didn’t leave any fossil evidence for the past 70 million years! It makes much more sense that those layers were not laid down over millions and millions of years, but rather rapidly in a worldwide flood as described in Genesis 6-8.
Commenting on the building of the ark, Nye stated that Noah and his family were “unskilled” and could never have built such a large vessel. How does he know they were unskilled? He doesn’t. In fact, people of that era (specifically just after the flood) built huge pyramids which we cannot reproduce today with the best equipment known to man! Unskilled? I don’t think so. As far as only 8 people building the ark, God gave them the design and there’s no reason that Noah could not have contracted other’s to help in its construction. We have no indication one way or the other, but I think it is very likely that there were those among the scoffers who said, “I think you are crazy and delusional, but if you are willing to pay me, I’ll help you build this silly thing!”
Nye claimed that creationists incorrectly use the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics against evolution. He said that the 2nd Law applies only to “closed systems”, but the Earth is an “open system”, receiving energy from the sun, allowing order and complexity to increase (the opposite of what we would expect from this law). Once again, I am surprised that one who claims to know so much about science would make a statement like this. My best guess is that he just heard this claim from other evolutionists and is simply repeating it without knowing much about this himself.
Here’s the problem with his argument… Simply introducing energy into a system does not work to increase its organization or complexity, in fact, it is very destructive. Take for example, the following situation. Let’s say you’re the proud owner of a 2007 Ford Freestyle and you decide you would rather have something a bit flashier like a 2014 Lamborghini. Believing that introducing your Freestyle to some additional energy will help improve your vehicle, you rent a flame thrower and let loose! Will your unsuspecting car eventually turn into something better like a fancy sports car, or will it quickly be a candidate for the nearest junkyard? I think the answer is obvious. You gave it plenty of energy, so what’s the problem? The problem lies in the fact that you were missing a conversion system that is capable of harnessing the great amount of raw energy and converting it into something useful. The engine in your car is capable of converting exploding gas into something useful, which is what allows your car to function. Plants use photosynthesis to convert the sun’s energy into something useful, specifically “food”. However, without such a preexisting conversion system on the “primeval” Earth, the sun would only serve to make things worse and worse over time, not better and better.
Even the basic formula for disorder (aka “entropy”) shows this relationship. The more energy you introduce (“dQ” – that’s energy, not Dairy Queen) the greater the entropy or disorder (“S”). Mathematically, when you increase a value in the numerator on one side of an equation (in this case “dQ”), the value on the left side of the equation (in this case “S” or entropy or disorder) also increases. There is a direct relationship, the more energy from the sun, the more disorder it generates.
Numerous times Nye claimed that creation does not make any testable predictions. This is absolutely false and Ken Ham pointed this out, but did not have enough time to address it as he would have liked. Nye also seemed to ignore the examples Ham did share, so perhaps sharing more would not have made a difference in Nye’s mind. Here are just a few example predictions:
- We would expect that non-living molecules would not self-assemble to form living creatures. In fact, one of the best scientific laws we have today is called the “Law of Biogenesis” which states that life only comes from pre-existing life.
- The Genesis creation account would predict that creatures today may produce a nice variety, but always within their general “kind”. This is what we see today… dogs, dingoes, coyotes and wolves can all breed together, because they are generally speaking, the same kind of animal. However, everything we have actually observed in biology indicates there are limits and breeding similar animals never leads to the creation of something that is truly a different “kind” of animal.
- If mankind has been on this Earth only a relatively short time (as compared to starting to evolve from an ape-like creature 6-10 million years ago), we would predict to only find evidence of writing going back a few thousand years, which is what we do find… the earliest written records only go back about 5,000 years. However, if “modern man” supposedly evolved by about 100,000 – 200,000 years ago, why don’t we have any records of that time period (especially given the fact that these ancient people were building monolithic monuments and tracking solar phases)?
- There are other predictions, such as the magnetic fields of other planets in our solar system. Russ Humphreys (Ph.D. Physicist and personal friend of mine), using scientific models based on the biblical creation narrative and associated relatively short timeframe, not only matched the known magnetic fields of certain planets, but also successfully calculated the magnetic fields of Uranus and Neptune which were completely unknown at the time (i.e. made a very exciting successful prediction).
- Humphreys (et al) also made predictions of helium leak rates in zircon crystals (I know, I know, you were hoping that some day someone would address this fascinating issue). His results matched almost perfectly the data that was subsequently gathered. On the other hand, the prediction of this according to typical evolutionary timeframes (millions and billions of years) was off by a factor of 100,000!
What Would Cause Doubt?
What would cause Nye to doubt the immense age of the universe… he said “We would just need one piece of evidence” then he listed the following things that would potentially disprove his view:
- Fossil that swam from one layer to the next.
- Evidence the universe is not expanding.
- Evidence stars appear to be far away but aren’t.
- Evidence that rock layers can form in just 4000 years.
- Evidence you can reset atomic clocks.
I will comment on each of these very briefly…
- Fossil that swam from one layer to the next. I already addressed this issue earlier.
- Evidence the universe is not expanding. Most creationists feel that there’s good evidence that the universe is indeed expanding, but that doesn’t automatically mean it started from a single point 13.71 billion years ago and subsequently became more and more complex over time, eventually producing human beings that are supposedly capable of understanding the history of all of the accidental, random progress prior to their arrival! Secondly, Scripture says seven times that God stretched out the heavens, so it’s very possible that we are currently seeing the affects of that.
- Evidence stars appear to be far away but aren’t. Again, creationists believe those stars really are very far away, but that doesn’t mean that the universe is billions of years old! There are various models, using known laws of physics that show how it would be possible for light to travel those vast distances in only thousands of years. In addition to that, even those who believe in the Big Bang have a problem with distant starlight. There’s not enough time in their model to allow for such vast distances to be traversed by light, so they resort to ad hoc solutions to adjust for this conundrum, as opposed to using known laws of science.
- Evidence that rock layers can form in just 4000 years. Just one example (of many)… Mt St. Helens (1980) laid down a 25 foot thick stratified pyroclastic layer within a few hours! Also, subsequent to this eruption, a miniature Grand Canyon 100 feet deep (named “Little Grand Canyon”) was formed by a mud flow through solid rock in one day!
- Evidence you can reset atomic clocks. You don’t have to reset atomic clocks to show the flaws in radiometric dating. All it takes is to examine the assumptions behind these methods and also highlight all of the contradictory results that have been produced when using multiple methods. I cover this in more depth in my book, Let There be Light.
Nye boldly claimed that there was no evidence for a worldwide flood and went on to say that if there were such an event, we should expect to see Grand Canyons on other continents, but we don’t. He probably won’t want to change his name to “Bill Nye the Geology Guy” anytime soon, because (apparently to his surprise) we do have massive canyons on all continents. Try these for example:
- Copper Canyon (Mexico) is deeper and longer than the US’s Grand Canyon.
- Indus Gorge (Himalayan Mountains) is the world’s deepest gorge.
- Yarlung Tsangpo Grand Canyon (Tibet) close to the deepest canyon in the world.
- Kali Gandaki Gorge (Nepal) also close to the deepest canyon in the world.
- Fish River Canyon (Africa)
- Recently discovered Grand Canyon under the ice in 2013 (Greenland) possibly the longest canyon in the word!
All the Species from Noah’s Ark
Regarding the flood and Noah’s ark, Nye stated that it would be impossible to generate the 16 million species of creatures he believes are around today from just 7,000 “kinds” on the ark starting just 4,000 years ago. Using the math he highlighted (but skipping it here for brevity sake), he claimed it would mean that we should see 11 new species appearing on the Earth every day. However, this grossly misstates the situation and sadly shows Nye’s lack of understanding of the biblical model which he sets out to dismantle. For sake of time (and space) I will not go into all of the detail here (which has been elsewhere discussed at length), Nye errantly has air-breathing animals (on the ark) subsequently giving rise to marine creatures, bacteria, viruses and beetles. First of all, the Bible says that Noah only took the “air-breathing” animals on the ark, so that would exclude bacteria, viruses and even most, if not all, of the insects and related creatures, many of which could survive outside the ark in small populations on floating log mats (which has been demonstrated). The number of species today that would be related to those having been on the ark is a much smaller number and speciation rates (that we observe today) occur much more rapidly than scientists had expected. Also, the number of current species is generally exaggerated for a number of reasons, which I will not detail in this particular response.
ConclusionOverall, I am glad there was a debate, even though it didn’t go as I would have liked. I will not be too harsh about it, because if I were debating Bill Nye, I’m sure others would find fault in something that I said or did as well… we’re all human.
I hope the debate serves to get people talking about Christianity and the Bible and I trust that it will lead to conversations that might otherwise have never occurred. When I was younger, I shared my testimony in many awkward ways… ways that I certainly would approach differently today. However, God is faithful and he could use even my feeble attempts to share the truth, and still does.
Discussing the creation vs. evolution debate is very interesting and foundational to the Christian faith, but we must never see it as an end in and of itself. We must use it as an introduction to the Gospel message, which is really what the world needs. More and more people are wandering aimlessly without a moral compass, looking in all sorts of places for the answer. As Christians, we have that answer and need to work diligently to share it with as many people as possible, in a loving and gracious manner.
If you are interested in learning more about creation vs. evolutions debate, I would highly recommend reading my book, Let There Be Light, which is very readable, yet contains very powerful arguments for the inspiration and trustworthiness of God's Word!
If you have any other questions about the debate, creation, the Bible or Christianity in general, please feel free to contact us any time. We'd love to hear from you! You can even arrange a FREE ENGAGEMENT or seminar at your church, school, conference or camp.
Author: Jay Seegert (Co-Founder & Principal Lecturer, Creation Education Center)