A Commentary on the Bill Nye, Ken Ham Televised Debate of Monday Evening February 4th 2014.
Reprinted from Reports of the National Center for Science Education Vol 34, No 2 (2014)
By John W. Patterson
Emeritus, Iowa State University
On Monday February 4th two well-known figures debated the question, ”Is young earth biblical creationism scientifically viable in today’s world?”
Ken Ham repeatedly insisted that it is; that the universe as we know it was created by God in six 24-hour days some six thousand or so years ago. Ham presides over the AIG ministry (Answers In Genesis—the debate sponsor) and over the for-profit Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky, where the debate took place.
Bill Nye, widely known TV’s “Science Guy,” presented the “unpopular” view that Mr. Ham’s biblical creationism is not scientifically viable at all. (I say “unpopular,” because creationists in the audience likely far out-numbered Nye’s supporters.) To the scientifically literate, however, Nye clearly won the debate by patiently outlining many reasons why the overwhelming majority of competent scientists today Ham’s faith-based creationism as scientific nonsense. So successful was Nye, in fact, that Pat Robertson, the famous TV Evangelist--whose presidential campaign back in the 1980s was heavily supported by young earth creationists—said the following in a clip aired after the debate by Lawrence O’Donnell on his MNBC program, The Last Word:
“. . . to say that it all came about in 6000 years is just nonsense. . .
I think it’s time we’d come off of that stuff and say, this isn’t possible. . .”
Having followed creationist debates since the late 1970s—and debated in six or more myself—my assessment of the debate will differ from those who, to my astonishment, seem completely unaware that creationism is still being taught as science in many of America’s public schools.
First and foremost, Mr. Ham’s honest candor sets him markedly apart from any of the creationist debaters I have listened to or debated in the past. Previously, creationist debaters would insist that neither debater should make any reference whatever to religion or the bible. With this precondition in place, they then proceeded to deliver unsettling barrages of thinly veiled apologetics, polemics and code phrases that, to the delight of creationists in the audience, provided indisputable support for such nonsense and The Genesis Flood (TGF) interpretation of the geological column and an age of the universe the order of 6,000 to 10,000 years. The presentations were invariably couched in scientific-sounding words and phrases, often incorrectly applied, then supplemented with numerous out--of-context quotes deliberately fashioned to misrepresent the scientific authorities being quoted. With all this in place, the entire community of anti-creation scientists would be ridiculed as a group. (Three of the more notorious creationist debaters, in my view, were the late Henry M. Morris and Duane T. Gish of the ICR (Institute for Creation Science) and the still-active Walter T. Brown, who is Director of his own CSC (Center for Scientific Creation—now headquartered in Phoenix, Arizona). All this explains why anti-creationist groups such as the NCSE (National Center for Science Education) and especially academic scientists consider such debates to be counter-productive at best. But again, this debate was completely different and I for one applaud Ken Ham for being the first creation science debater in my experience to be honest about the biblical basis for all young earth creationism. Also he did not rely on the misquoting of renowned scientists, preferring instead to honestly quote credentialed creation scientists.
However truthfulness has its price. Ken Han’s candor spared Nye the burden of having to refute the kinds of obfuscations and distortions that debaters like Morris, Gish, Brown and others typically have used in the effort to direct attention away from the biblical basis for creationism. Because of this, some will say that Mr. Nye should have done much better than he actually did. I think Nye deserves the benefit of the doubt here; in my opinion he chose to be much more gentlemanly than a lesser man would have been under the circumstances.
That said, I think the February 4th debate will unleash unprecedented divisiveness within the creationist movement. Their traditional ministries such as the ICR, CSC and the less visible CRS (Creation Research Society, now also headquartered somewhere in Arizona) will condemn Ham’s candor as a harmful blunder. Why? Because their less candid polemical debate strategy had been so successful for so long. Now there will be far less public confusion about the distinctions between evidence-based legitimate science and the faith-based biblical varieties so successfully propounded by debaters from the ICR, CRS and CSC, among others. In this connection, the more recent ID (Intelligent Design) variety of creationism stirred consierable dissention when it abandoned the young earth timeline in favor of modern science’s deep time perspective. But, like the young earth ministries whom they left behind, the proponents of ID also strive mightily to disguise the theological-apologetical nature of their Seattle-based Discovery Institute. But Ham’s approach lays so bare what’s really behind all creationism, I suspect a particularly vicious kind of internecine dissention will result from widely promoted TV debate streamed from Petersburg, Kentucky on 2/4/14.
The one thing I wish Nye had not left out, has to do with the why modern science so completely ignores God and supernaturalism in general when striving to explain natural phenomena. In science, interpretations and explanations are deemed credible according to their predictive capacity and how much mystery and fearful bewilderment they eliminate. Nye spoke to the predictive poverty of creationism, but failed to point out that explanations involving supernaturalism (and God especially) necessarily increase the amount of unfathomable mystery and bewilderment beyond anything that ordinary nature can entail. In science, supernatural explanations are considered worse than none at all for two reasons: First they tend to stifle meaningful inquiry by any who accept such fruitless explanations. Second and more important, religious explanations do the opposite of what genuine ones are intended to do. For creationists a felt need for salvation the fearsome mysteries of this world is a good thing. Modern science, by contrast, seeks the opposite. Science seeks to enhance the human understanding and control of nature, not only by eliminating as much mystery and fear as possible, but also by opening new vistas to explore and devising new methods for exploring them. Frequently scientific endeavors lead to unexpected new understandings of fascinating new phenomena and in many cases to a certain betterment of the human condition.