Bill Nye versus Ken Ham: Who won?

Bill Nye debates Ken Ham: Post-debate analyses and polls praised the 'Science Guy' Bill Nye in his debate against Creation Museum president Ken Ham. But some caution that the act of debating Ham lent credence to pseudoscience.

AP Photo/The Courier-Journal, Matt Stone
Creation Museum head Ken Ham, right, speaks during a debate on evolution with TV's "Science Guy" Bill Nye, at the Creation Museum Tuesday, in Petersburg, Ky. Ham believes the Earth was created 6,000 years ago by God and is told strictly through the Bible. Nye says he is worried the US will not move forward if creationism is taught to children.

On Tuesday evening more than 3 million people tuned in to watch "Science Guy" Bill Nye debate Ken Ham, founder of the biblically literalist Creation Museum on the topic “Is creation a viable model of origins?”

Mr. Ham believes that the world was created over a six 24-hour-day period about 6,000 years ago, and that all living land animals today are descended from those taken aboard Noah's Ark some 4,500 years ago.

Nye challenged Ham's literal biblical view on several fronts, pointing out that radioisotopic and ice core data shows that the Earth has been around for far longer than the 6,000 years that Ham says it is, as does our ability to view stars that are more than 6,000 light years away. Nye also pointed out that Noah's Ark, were it constructed the way the Bible says it was, wouldn't actually stay afloat. 

For his part, Ham relied heavily on arguments from authority, showing videos of various scientists who professed their belief in a geologically recent six-day creation, including Raymond Damadian, the inventor of the MRI scanner.

Ham also sought to distinguish between "historical science," which Ham says is mere speculation, and "observational science," which Ham equates with "real" science that leads to technological advances. This distinction is unique to creationists. 

Ham holds a bachelor's degree in environmental biology from Queensland Institute of Technology in Australia and a teaching certificate from the University of Queensland. Nye, who is best known for hosting the 1990s Disney/PBS children's science show "Bill Nye the Science Guy," holds a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering from Cornell. 

As of this writing, 92 percent of the more than 37,000 voters taking a poll on the British evangelical website Christian Today said Nye won (note that this is a self-selected poll, which could very well have been invaded by Darwinists).

Noting these poll results, anthropologist and science blogger Greg Laden wrote that friends "equated the debate to the Superbowl, with Bill Nye being the Seahawks and Ken Ham being Denver."  

Just before the debate, many scientists including Dr. Laden had said that Nye was making a mistake. He had also expressed concerns on Nye's lack of expertise on the topic of evolution. "Being really really pro science and science education isn’t enough," he wrote earlier on his blog. 

"But the widespread concern, including that expressed by yours truly, for this particular debate was wrong. I will be happily be dining on crow today at lunch," he wrote on his blog after the debate.

Nevertheless, he wrote, Nye could have dealt better with questions on evolution, but it is understandable evolution is not Nye's field of expertise, Laden points out in his blog.

"For example, Ham scored a point by deconstructing functional interpretations of mammalian dental anatomy, in relation to the question of whether all the animals were vegetarians during Ark-times, " he wrote. "I could have crushed that response in a way that would introduce even more evidence for evolution. But Bill Nye is an expert in other areas."

Jerry A. Coyne, a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolution at the University of Chicago, agrees.

"The debate was Ham's to win and he lost. And the debate was Nye's to lose and he won," Dr. Coyne told the Monitor. Nye missed some great opportunities and if he was on top of his game, he could have really called Mr. Ham out, he says.

For example – Ham is simply wrong in saying that there’s no way to test whether radiometric dating is accurate. "We have ways to cross check radiometric dating," he says.

Independent checks on radiometric dating include studies of coral deposits, plate tectonics, the periodic reversal of the Earth's magnetic fields, and the slowing of the Earth's rotation. 

Coyne took issue with Ham's distinction between "historical science" and "observational science."

"Science based on historical reconstruction, when done properly," writes Coyne in his blog. "Is just as valid as science based on direct, real-time observation."

"Had I been Nye, I would have said, 'How do you know that Abraham Lincoln was President? After all, you never met him?'" The fact is that there are documents, which tell us that he did exist. Similarly, there are clues within the universe that point to its origins.

But Nye's participation in the debate did lend a lot of credibility to the creationists lobby, Coyne says.

"Would it be useful for a famous geologist to debate a flat-earther on the topic “Is the earth round?," he writes." But I forgive him, for he did a creditable job."

Others, who neither favor Nye nor Ham, said that the debate did leave out other alternative theories that should have been part of the discourse.

"I was upset that both the parties kept talking on about the age of the Earth than on the elegance and complexities of life," says Michael J. Behe, a biology professor at Lehigh University and an advocate of Intelligent Design, a form of creationism that rejects a literal biblical view of origins, but asserts that there exist 'irreducibly complex' biological structures, such as protein transport mechanisms, that point to their creation by an intelligent entity. Dr. Behe is one of the few proponents of this view to hold a position in the biology department of an accredited university in the United States.

"I think neither of them did too well," he said.

Others say that Nye won not just on facts, but on style.

"Debate is a tool for showing who's a better orator, not necessarily who's right. And Ken Ham is no mean orator, usually," noted the National Center for Science Education, a not-for-profit membership organization that defends the teaching of evolution and climate science. "[Ham's] presentation was largely drawn from his stock presentations, sometimes rambled far afield, and often raced by so quickly that it was hard even to know what he was saying."

But Nye played to the gallery and charmed the audience. "During the few moments when we were allowed to see the evangelical audience during Bill Nye’s presentation they looked, frankly, charmed. And how could they not be, Bill Nye is a charming guy!" writes Laden.

Ezra Byer, blogging for the website Powerline Kingdom Ministries, a site that seeks to [Use] the Power of Media to Display Jesus, Develop Disciples, and Deepen Lives" argued that Ham lost the debate in the narrow sense, by failing to provide compelling factual reasons for why he held is views, but won it in a larger sense by raising awareness of biblical creationism, emphasizing the importance of a 6,000-year-old Earth, and preaching the Gospel to a large audience.

Byer suspects that Ham may have even thrown the game on purpose. He writes: " As I watched Mr. Ham’s mannerisms, you could sense a tremendous Spirit about him. He was gracious and the power of God showed through his life. There were multiple times I believed he could have hammered Nye on some of his inconsistencies but in my opinion chose not to."

Even those who thought Ham won the debate say the Creation Museum founder could have done much better. Don Boys, the author of "The God Haters: Shallow Scholars, Silly Scientists, Pagan Preachers, and Embattled Evolutionists Declare War on Christians!" [exclamation point in original] said Ham won but didn't hit a "grand slam." He criticized Ham for getting drawn into a discussion about the precise age of the Earth and the construction of Noah's Ark. Still, writes Dr. Boys, "this was not a Scopes Trial, 2014. Ken Ham was far more informed than William Jennings Bryan."

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