Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Nye vs. Ham: Science with a Side of Bacon

Like many people, I watched the three ring circus that was the Nye vs. Ham "debate" at Ham's House of Horrors, a.k.a. the Creation Museum, last night. Here are my impressions.

I thought Ham came out of the gate much stronger than Nye did. Even though his arguments were hollow (he didn't really make arguments, he just showed video clips of a bunch of scientists who also happen to be Creationists--not one of them a biologist), he had a smooth, watchable presentation. Nye, being the stranger in the strange land, tried to warm up the audience with a little story about bow ties, which fell with a more hollow thud than the Broncos at the Super Bowl. (I made a sports reference!) The crickets in that room were deafening.

From that point on, however, the balance quickly began to shift. Nye got a head of steam going, and his normal ebullience and enthusiasm for science asserted itself. Once he found his footing, he was "in it to win it." For his part, Ham seemed to have shot all of his ammo in the first volley. He was clearly on the defensive for the remainder of the debate. His pretense at scientific inquiry quickly collapsed like the facade it was under Nye's withering fire of questions.

Nye steered clear of getting bogged down in theology, preferring instead to stick with the science. Some people on Twitter were not satisfied with that, and wanted him to go after Ham about elements like Noah's supposed age at the time the ark was supposed to have been built (600 years old!). I, for one, think it was the smart play to stick with the science. While the pair were in Ham's turf physically, Ham made the crucial mistake of wading out into Nye's turf rhetorically. He attempted to parse and redefine terms, claiming that they had been "hijacked" by secularists. What this really meant, of course, was that he couldn't twist and bend science to fit his theology as is, so he needed to change definitions and move goal posts (what is it with the sports references in this one?) to make it fit, and Nye called him on it. Nye was also quite conciliatory to people of faith, reiterating that these extreme views were Ham's own convoluted construction, not the views of most of those scientists who also happen to be Christian. Science, he said, works very differently "outside" (as in, anywhere but within the walls of the Creation Museum).

Ham's approach to the debate was threefold:

- "You weren't there": Apparently, if you didn't directly witness something, you can't say for sure what happened. It seems that inference and deductive reasoning aren't a thing in Hamville. Several clever people on Twitter pointed out that Ham wasn't present for the writing of the Bible or the crucifixion of Jesus, so how can he know they happened?

- "These people are scientists who believe in Creation": Who give a shit? The fact that he was able to trot out a handful of scientists who happen to believe what he believes is meaningless. He himself inadvertently acknowledged this later in the debate when talking about evolution, stating that just because the majority of people believe something, that doesn't necessarily make it true. He also accused scientists of making a lot of "assumptions." Irony, party of one, your table is ready.

- "There's this book...": Predictably, Ham did what his ilk always do in these debates once the evidence starts piling up: he ran to the Bible to prove the assertions of the Bible. As the evening progressed, he reverted to this so often that by the end, he may as well have just stood mute, pointing at a Bible.

Though I think he allowed himself to get sidetracked at times by his enthusiasm, Nye still managed to very effectively turn Ham's argument around and convey the ethos of the scientific worldview. While Ham tried to highlight those things that science does not yet have an answer to as weaknesses, Nye played them up as strengths, explaining that the mystery of what is unknown is what drives scientists to search for answers. While Creationists are content with the "answers" in Genesis, scientists are driven to explore the unknown for real answers.

That was one of the two best arguments of the night. The other was in regard to the predictive utility of science, which Nye drove home with a jackhammer, and to which Ham had no response to at all.

Science, because it is based upon observation, evidence, and testing, has the capability of making falsifiable predictions. The ability to make accurate predictions about future events is part and parcel of science, and it is something that Creationism cannot do. That is the glaring hole in the argument for Creationism as a "science": it only purports to explain the past, and cannot be used to predict the future. This shows Creationism and the entire project of apologetics for what it truly is--a desperate attempt to square Biblical fairy tales with scientific reality in a hopeless bid for legitimacy.

The best part of the entire debate was the audience Q&A. The majority of the questions were directed at Ham, challenging him to explain and defend his views. By far the best question was whether Ham takes the entirety of the Bible literally, including stoning people for certain offenses. Ham did a tap dance that would have been the envy of Fred Astaire, and you could practically see steam coming out of his ears as he stumbled through his answer. He actually question what the questioner meant by "literally." It had a very Bill Clinton-esque "it depends on what your definition of 'is' is" feeling to it, and it was positively delightful to watch him twist and thrash like a marlin on the end of a hook.

In conclusion, this was far more entertaining than I thought it would be, with Nye being much more tactically savvy than I expected, and Ken Ham imploding far more spectacularly than I dared hope. I doubt that this debate changed anyone's mind, but Nye came into Ham's own house and made him sweat, and that was pretty satisfying. Now, of course, we get to watch the aftermath, as Ham fiercely tries to untie some knots and spin the event into a win. And so it goes...


  1. Interesting read. I'm from Southeast Missouri and stumbled upon this blog on The Thinking Atheist's Facebook comment section. Bill Nye did well, but I would have loved for him to ask Ham who created god? After all, Ham did insist that life cannot come from nothing . . . Doesn't that include his "living" god?

    1. Welcome! Yes, the "uncreated creator" argument is one of the more bizarre in the Creationist repertoire. "Everything has to come from something... except for God, who just always was here!" That thought is seriously so contradictory on its face that it shouldn't survive in one's head long enough to utter it out loud.