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Bill Nye Won Last Night's Creationism Debate

AP Photo/Dylan Lovan

Let me start out with a tweet contributed (but not written) by reader Barry:

Well, I watched most of the Ham/Nye debate last night on “Is creation a viable model of origins?” I stopped watching after both rebuttals, though, as I had work to do, so I have no idea how the audience Q&A session went. I expect readers who watched the whole thing will weigh in below.

How did the principals do? Well, Nye did surprisingly well, though he made a few glitches and missed some good opportunities. Those glitches and missed opportunities were probably visible only to scientists, though. But Ham’s performance was execrable. That’s not just the opinion of a biased scientist, but also of religionists. Here are the results of a poll at Christian Today asking readers “Who won?”

92% for Nye!

Now perhaps this poll was invaded by evolution-lovers, but I doubt it. The most likely explanation is that these are liberal Christians who were turned off by Ham’s reliance on the Bible as an inerrant guide to science, and by his incessant preaching. NBC News science editor Alan Boyle also has a piece, “Who won Bill Nye’s big evolution faceoff?“, but he doesn’t answer the question (he can’t, as he’s a news person).

At any rate, there’s a lot to say, and, as I’m pressed for time this morning, I’ll just emit a stream-of-conscousness flow of thoughts:

  • Ham made a serious mistake, I think, in concentrating on affirming Biblical literality, and also preaching about the need to accept Jesus as Saviour. That clearly showed that he was committed to accepting creationism from the outset, and made him look closed-minded. It also didn’t help that he didn’t stick to the topic, but chose to talk about Jesus, including the implication that children who accepted evolution were less likely to accept Jesus. Those are all nonscientific considerations that, given this debate topic, were irrelevant. And I think Ham’s evangelicalism helped Nye win. 

  • Ham’s reliance on Biblical literalism was also a bad scientific move, and he should have been less explicit about it. To a rational person, the Ark story really is dumb, for Noah and his sons simply could not have built a seaworthy vessel and peopled (animaled?) it with two of each “kind.” Nye pointed out the flaws in this, including that such a boat could not float (true), and that we don’t know what “kinds” are anyway. Ham’s response was to admit, as those of his ilk often do, that “kinds” diversified into many different sub-kinds—through evolution. That’s a serious problem for Ham, for it is an explicit admission that evolution occurs. He responded, as he had to, that evolution occurs only within “kinds” (creationists never define what “kinds” are). But the fossil record belies this, for we have many examples of transitional fossils between what anyone would consider different kinds: fish and amphibians (like Tiktaalik, which Nye mentioned), between amphibians and reptiles, between reptiles and mammals, between reptiles and birds, between land animals and whales, and of course, between early and modern humans, with early fossils showing intermediacy between the features of apelike ancestors and modern humans. Had I been Nye, I would have concentrated much more on the fossil record than on problematic issues like the origin of sex (we still don’t understand why sexual reproduction evolved).

  • Ham should not have mentioned that all animals were herbivores (and that roses were thornless) before the Fall. For one thing, there’s nothing in the Bible that says such a thing, and, of course, Noah’s flood, in which lions were sequestered with antelopes, occurred after the supposed Fall of Man, so there would have been carnage on the Ark. Nye pointed out—and to me this was the high point of the debate—that a lion’s teeth were not there to help it eat broccoli. In response, Ham said that bears have teeth like lions, and most are herbivores. In truth, the teeth of omnivorous bears are not at all like those of lions. Again, any rational person, even a Bible-believer, would have trouble believing that the Fall instantly turned grass-munching cats into carnivores.

  • Ham’s concentration of “observational” versus “experimental” science is clearly a new tactic of young-earth creationists, one that’s the theme of creationist Ray Comfort’s execrable film, “Evolution versus God.” And it’s bogus. Science based on historical reconstruction, when done properly, is just as valid as science based on direct, real-time observation.  As Nye pointed out, much of cosmology, including our knowledge of the Big Bang, is based on historical reconstruction. But such reconstruction is not just limited to cosmology, or even science: everyone firmly believes many things that happened in the past that they didn’t have a chance to observe. Had I been Nye, I would have said, “How do you know that Abraham Lincoln was President? After all, you never met him?” How do we know anything about Greek civilization, or that there were Ice Ages? It’s time for someone to write a popular article debunking the phony distinction between “observational science” and what Ham calls “historical science based on belief.” Historical science is no more based on “belief” than is experimental science. And neither is based on belief, but on methods that have been proven to give us truth about the cosmos—as opposed to using the Bible as a research manual.

  • Nye did a pretty good job defending evolution, and calling out Ham for crazy stuff like the Ark story and the supposed inconstancy of natural laws. But he could have done better. In response to Ham’s claim that there’s no way to test whether radiometric dating is accurate, or that different minerals in the same rock give different dates, Nye could have mentioned that we do indeed have ways to judge whether radiometric dating is reliable, in particular the isochron method. Nye used the term “higher” and “lower” animals, which even Darwin realized is not valid terminology under the theory of evolution (every species is equally “evolved” in terms of how long its ancestors have been around: we’re all about 2.5 billion years old. I realize that this is the quibbling of an evolutionary biologist, but stuff like the accuracy of fossil dating represented a missed opportunity for Nye.

  • In sum, the debate was Ham’s to lose, and he lost, largely because he exposed his “science” as an a priori commitment to the literal truth of an ancient man-made text, something that even evangelical Christians have largely rejected. He lost the chance to debate the facts by repeatedly bringing in God and Jesus. The debate was Nye’s to win, and he did win, because he prepared properly and, though he could have done better, did well enough. He was cool, amiable, and funny.

Two final remarks. After the debate I was fulminating about Ham’s performance, grumbling about his being a “liar for Jesus.” My friend said that no, Ham wasn’t lying—he truly believed the palaver he was spewing. And I realized that she was right. Ham’s brain has been so deeply marinated in his faith that that organ has simply become impermeable to facts. He really does believe in Noah’s Ark, the Fall, and talking snakes, and must reject or rationalize facts that don’t comport with his Sacred Book.

That is a mindset that I don’t understand, and, being a scientist, perhaps can never understand. But it shows how religion can poison one’s mind so deeply that it becomes immunized to the real truth about the cosmos. Ham was not lying, but simply suffering from a severe delusion—one that should cause him cognitive dissonance but doesn’t.

So much the worse for him, but his delusions also cause him to poison the minds of children, and that is not all right with either me or Nye. It’s simply wrong to teach creationism to children, for that is teaching them lies, and I fault Nye a bit for helping the Creation Museum raise funds by participating in this debate. By so doing, Nye was subsidizing the brainwashing of the children he so wants to reach. But I forgive him, for he did a creditable job.

I hope that, in the future, Nye is not so emboldened by his success in this debate that he starts debating creationists. Eventually he will run into one that is not as Ham-handed as Ham, and he’ll lose badly. Moreover, as I’ve said repeatedly, debates are not the place to resolve scientific issues, and only give credibility to creationists. Would it be useful for a famous geologist to debate a flat-earther on the topic “Is the earth round?”

My advice to Nye is this: keep talking and writing about evolution, but not in a debate format. You’re charismatic, funny, and, most important, have the truth on your side. Learn a little bit more about radiometric dating, and about the crazy arguments that Biblical literalists are wedded to—like the bizarre and unscientific concept of animal “kinds”. Talk to people about how there’s no real difference between the accuracy and value of “observational science” and “historical science.” It is the combination of eloquence and truth, not his skill in a rhetorical contest, that will bring Nye his victories.