What we learned from the Ham/Nye Debate

Last night saw the highly anticipated debate between Bill Nye the Science Guy and Ken Ham of Answers in Genesis. I watched the debate online despite my fears that the debate was a horrible idea, for reasons articulated by many in the skeptic community. Chief among these fears was the concern that Bill Nye, an engineer and not a professional debater, was not the right person to offer arguments in support of biological evolution, and that any weakness in Nye’s style or preparation would be seized upon by Ham as an indictment of the entire scientific community. I didn’t know much about Nye, other that that he is a TV personality that appeals to kids, and I had a gut feeling that he got involved in this debate more for his own exposure than as strategic move in support of science.

Also, there was the valid concern that, no matter the outcome of the debate, it would be a financial boon for the Answers in Genesis organization, as well as the Creation Museum in Kentucky, and the idea of any scientist doing anything that would generate material support for such a travesty of science makes me wretch. So for these reasons, I was understandably wary of this debate.

I was actually in for a pleasant surprise. For one thing, the debate topic wasn’t evolution at all. The debate topic was “Is creation a viable model for origins”. Now, while Nye may not be qualified to speak expertly about biological evolution or even Big Bang cosmology, he is absolutely qualified to speak about what does and what does not constitute a scientific model. He knows what features and attributes a model of a physical system must possess in order to qualify as scientific, and that was the button he pressed throughout the debate.

All said, I think Nye made his case that there is nothing scientific about creationism pretty convincingly, and Ham flopped worse than the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII, which actually surprised me.

Ham made some admissions I didn’t expect him to make.  (During the conversations with YECs I have from time to time, there are certain concessions and admissions that they typically refuse to make, either by relentlessly evading the questions or by outright lying about the answer.)

Ham wisely ignored particular questions, asked repeatedly by Nye, such as “Why should we take the word of an ancient book over the evidence that we see right before our eyes?He also ignored questions about the fossil record. This sort of thing is to be expected. But, much to my astonishment, Ham was forthright and honest when asked questions that most YECs intuitively know they should dodge at all costs. That’s not to say he wasn’t evasive… rather that he was inexplicably foolhardy in what he chose to be honest about.

The first admission that struck my attention was Ham’s declaration that “I admit, my starting point is that God is the ultimate authority”. By “God”, he means the bible (he has presumably never had an actual conversation with God, and he makes clear that he believes all the answers he needs are in the bible), specifically the book of Genesis. This declaration was a bit surprising, because most scientists understand that science is an inductive process, rather than a deductive process. Ham’s declaration that he starts off with the answers and then sets out to support them by seeking out evidence that will support them constitutes an admission that he is doing science backwards.

Scientific discovery begins with questions, not answers. Scientific curiosity is borne not of knowing, but of not knowing and desiring to find out. Facts are compiled to create models, not to support models that are pre-made. To begin with what you think is the answer and then setting out to prove it is science in reverse.

It would have been nice if Nye had pointed that out, but again, he’s not a professional debater, so a little latitude is in order. To his credit, Nye did hammer Ham with the question: Can your alleged scientific model make any verifiable predictions? This was a question posed to Ham at least 4 times, and was never answered, addressed, or even acknowledged. Nye, on the other hand, cited example after example of scientific predictions made using the natural selection model, all of which were eventually observed.

But the most shocking admission from Ham came during the question and answer period. The question was “What would it take to change your mind”. It was posed to both participants, and it is a question that has been asked many times before, normally phrased as “What evidence, if discovered, would compel you to abandon your current theory of origins?”

Despite the poor phrasing of the question, Ham was unhesitant and unambiguous in his response. He said that, as a Christian, nothing could possibly change his mind. No amount of evidence, no future discovery, nothing at all could compel him to revise or abandon his beliefs that the universe was created 6000 years ago.

Ham tried to turn the question around to Nye who, being a scientist, then proceeded to list of over half a dozen examples of evidence which, if found, would compel him to revise or abandon his current model of natural selection, and stated that there was no real limit to the number of such discoveries that could be made. He made it clear that he will gladly go wherever science takes him, and that he welcomes evidence that runs contrary to the model he currently finds most compelling.

As a scientist, Nye knows that no scientific model is considered final; no scientific model is considered absolute; no scientific model is closed to revision based on future discoveries. That is not how science works. A scientific model must be testable, verifiable, falsifiable, and able to make predictions. Nye pointed out that discoveries in science are embraced and welcomed.  They are appreciated and they compel change. This is one of sciences strengths. Ham’s admission that there is no possible discovery – no possible evidence – that could falsify his model, constituted a literal admission that his model is not scientific. 

Once again, Nye missed an opportunity to hammer this point home. But again, the latitude. Debating isn’t easy, and it’s difficult to keep your mind focused on the points you’d like to make while simultaneously keeping watch for opportunities to seize on your opponent’s subtle admissions. Nye no doubt had a list of talking points that he worked hard to stay on, and I get the feeling that this morning he’s realizing how many missed opportunities he had during that debate.

But this is not to say that he did a bad job. Indeed, a poll on the Christianity Today website indicates that an overwhelming majority of respondents felt Nye made the more convincing argument. And as long as the video of this debate exists, we have undeniable proof that Ham is not coming from a scientific standpoint. He reiterated over and over that his beliefs are rooted in the bible, and that where any inconsistency exists between what we observe and what we read in Genesis, in his mind Genesis wins by default.

Ham tried a few tricks of his own. When Bill Nye spoke of discoveries that have yet to be made, Ham – a couple times – retorted (paraphrased). “you know Bill, we do have these answers. They are in the bible!” This was intended to be clever I guess, and I kept expecting Nye to point out that primitive explanations to unexplained phenomenon do not constitute a scientific model, nor do they provide any useful information. But as these remarks came during the question and answer period, Nye had no opportunity to respond specifically to those remarks. Ultimately I don’t think it mattered… the tactic was weak enough that I doubt even Ham’s allies found it very convincing.

From this debate, we’ve learned that Ham either doesn’t realize, doesn’t understand, or doesn’t care what qualifies a model as “scientific”. We’ve learned that his model doesn’t qualify. We’ve learned that the answers to the most important questions are not found in Genesis. We learned that scientists such as Bill Nye are not afraid to admit when they do not have the answers. We learned that Ken Ham accepts primitive explanations with absolute certainty and gives them primacy over any possible future discovery. We learned that Ham’s beliefs regarding scientific matters are, by his own admission, not rooted in science. They are, by his own repeated admission, rooted in his religion.

And I learned not to jump to conclusions about a scientist just because he wears a bow tie. Ya dun’ good, Science Guy.