I did something I’m not particularly proud of last night: I watched the Ken Ham/Bill Nye debate online. Part of me feels a little guilty being party to this sham, but I was genuinely interested in seeing how the two sides presented their cases. As you might expect, it wasn’t particularly pretty.
This took place on Ham’s home turf in front of his home audience, so Nye might as well have been presenting to his bathroom mirror. The crowd not only didn’t respond at all to his quips (even crickets would have been welcome), they didn’t appear to even be paying attention to what he was saying. The hostile environment, combined with Nye’s less-than-compelling credentials, didn’t give me particularly high expectations for his performance.
He was ok.
The question at hand was “Does creationism adequately explain the origins of life in this day and age?” Nye did an adequate job of rebutting some of Ham’s claims, and he provided some nice, anecdotal evidence and thought experiments to accompany would could have been an exceedingly dry performance. He did let himself get dragged down into the minutiae when I believe a more productive approach would have been to challenge some of Ham’s premises.
Ham was Ham. He’s a one-trick pony. His whole shtick is to try to redefine words like “science” and “evolution” to mean something that they don’t mean and to define the whole argument as a difference of world views: Creationists approach science from a creationist point of view; atheists approach it for an atheist point of view. Like many creationists, he demands a much heavier burden of proof of the other side than of his claims.
Needless to say, they spent most of the night talking past each other.
It’s difficult to know exactly how tied Nye’s hands were. This was Ham’s event and it was entirely on his terms, in his venue, asking his questions, and in front of his audience. I don’t know if any other conditions were agreed upon prior to the event, but Nye certainly seemed hesitant to really sink his teeth into Ham’s obviously fallacious statements. Perhaps it was just good manners; he was clearly aware of the crowd’s hostility towards his position and the tension in the room every time he questioned the absolute authority of the Bible.
Off the top of my head, and please understand that I’m not a scientist of any sort, the approach I would have liked to have seen would have been a less specific response to Ham’s individual errors and instead a broad attack on his premises.
For example, Ham kept claiming that the debate was about a difference in worldviews that determined how you evaluated the same evidence. As I noted previously, Ham tried to frame the debate as a difference of world views: Creationists approach science from a creationist point of view; atheists approach it for an atheist point of view. This is not true, and a scientist who begins with either assumption and sets out to find data to prove the assumption is doing it wrong. The purpose of science is to find the truth, and, that being the case, if it turns out that new data disproves your previous beliefs, then you change your beliefs. What Ham is calling science is the antithesis of science. He and his ilk are starting with a conclusion and cherry-picking data, misrepresenting facts, and generally ignoring information that doesn’t support their conclusion.
Ham is also very fond of trying to pretend that the word “science” has been twisted to describe two very different things that shouldn’t properly be conflated: “Observational” science that can be witnessed firsthand, and “historical” science that he regards as nothing better than hearsay. This is, of course, an utterly false dichotomy. No legitimate scientists make this distinction. But to Ham, it’s all nonsense since we can’t prove that the laws of physics were the same in the past as they are now. He even suggested that the speed of light could have been different. This assertion is, of course, nonsense, but he pulls an even better rabbit out of his hat next. He claims that there’s only one eyewitness to the events at the start of the universe: God. Ergo, His account should be regarded as the definitive one.
Which leads me to the riskiest avenue of attack, which is noting that the Bible wasn’t even written until long after the events in question and that its accounts of events have changed many times over the course of various translations. Nye hinted at it, describing the game of “telephone,” but he didn’t really drive the point home. I wish he had. Attacking radioactive isotope decay as not 100% accurate and then suggesting that a particular translation of the Bible is 100%, literally word-for-word accurate is the sort of thing that would get you dinged in 8th grade debate club. Nye could have gone for the jugular here, but he was too nice to do so, I suppose.
So, that was that. I’m glad I saw it, but I hope I never see another one.