Did the Ham/Nye debate really happen?

While there’s plenty to discuss about what was (or wasn’t) said during the Ham/Nye debate, I think the crux of the whole affair comes down to how one understands science.

The foundation of Mr. Ham’s argument is his distinction between what he calls historical and observational science:

There’s experimental or observational science as we call it, that’s using the scientific method: observation, measurement, experiment, testing … all scientists, whether creationists or evolutionists actually have the same observational or experimental science … When we’re talking about origins, we’re talking about the past, we’re talking about our origin, we weren’t there, you can’t observe that, whether it’s molecules-to-man evolution or whether it’s the creation account. And when we’re talking about the past, we like to call that origins or historical science, knowledge concerning the past.

For Mr. Ham, this differentiation between past and present methodologies has profound implications:

You can’t observe the age of the earth, and I would say that comes under what we call historical origins science. Now, just so you can understand where I’m coming from, yes, we admit we build our historical origins science on the Bible … There’s only one infallible dating method, it’s the witness who was there, who knows everything, who told us, and that’s from the word of God.

But differentiating between observational and historical science is a contrived manipulation that bisects science in a way that favors Ham’s specific position. It’s a not-so-subtle attempt to level the playing field, to try and claim that there’s no substantive evidential differences between the two “sides” — which provides the justification for the claim that there’s a very real debate to be had about creation and evolution. After all, none of us were around throughout creation to see what actually happened there, right?

Mr. Nye ably responds:

As far as ‘you can’t observe the past.’ I have to stop you right there. That’s what we do in astronomy. All we can do in astronomy is look at the past. By the way, you’re looking at the past right now. Because the speed of light bounces off of me and then gets to your eyes and I’m delighted to see that the people in the back of the room appear just that much younger than the people in the front. So this idea that you can separate the natural laws of the past from the natural laws that we have now, I think is at the heart of our disagreement. I don’t see how we’re ever going to agree with that if you insist that natural laws have changed. It’s a — for lack of a better word, it’s magical.

Mr. Nye is correct — we can’t make any direct, in-the-present observations. It’s all in the past. When it comes to the natural world, we are only witnesses to past events. And the best tool available for understanding the natural world — past, present and future — is science. Not a bifurcated science, but a holistic, comprehensive and robust science. In the words of Mr. Nye:

I’m looking for explanations of the creation of the world as we know it, based on what I’m going to call science. Not historical science. Not observational science. Science.

If I were to accept as true Mr. Ham’s understanding of science, then if I walked outside and saw snow on the ground I wouldn’t be able to conclude that it snowed. If I came home and found my house in disarray with items missing I couldn’t conclude that I was robbed. If I stepped off the edge of a high cliff I couldn’t conclude that I was about to fall to my death.

From Mr. Ham’s point of view, a person who didn’t watch the debate would have to conclude that it didn’t happen. And despite any evidence to the contrary, the debate will continue not to have happened right up until the Bible says that it did.

Which will never happen.

The good news for Ham and his ilk is that they never have to learn anything new. The bad news for the rest of us is that, in the real world, the only thing ignorance leads to is more ignorance.

Dan WilkinsonDan Wilkinson
Dan is a writer, graphic designer and IT specialist. He lives in Montana, is married and has two cats. He blogs at CoolingTwilight.com.

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  • Matt

    Even 8-month-old infants understand that something can exist without directly observing it! It even has its own scientific name: object permanence.

    How self-centered Mr. Ham must be if he thinks the cosmos arrange themselves according to his own (extremely) limited viewpoint, and great swaths of time wither away for want of his (apparently) truth-giving gaze. Just disgusting.

    • Andy

      Right on, bro.

  • I don’t know, let’s hope not, because there are much more important things going in the territory between science and religion:


  • What debate are you talking about? I didn’t see a debate!

  • R Vogel

    When he says “There’s only one infallible dating method, it’s the witness who was there, who knows everything, who told us, and that’s from the word of God.” Does anyone else get the funny vision of an old thick bible scrunching itself up and talking like the Sorting Hat in Harry Potter?

    • Considering its content, I was thinking more like the talking sex book in Oglaf. The Harry Potter hat would never have talked like the Bible does. 😉

  • I saw an HL Mencken quote about that earlier today–that the world is moving forward so fast that a certain kind of person is going to find that progress very unsettling, confusing, and threatening.

    I’m re-watching the debate now and I’m up to the part where Ham is insisting that animals magically became carnivorous after the (literal) Fall of Man. I don’t think Ham knows a lot about animals if he thinks a vegetarian animal’s teeth, claws, eyes, and digestive tracts magically changed right on the spot in moments. That must have been a real surprise to the T-Rexes and sabertooth cats.

    Anybody else see the movie adaptation of Watership Down? Remember the creation myth there, how the animals were magically gifted with claws and teeth by Lord Frith? That’s what I think Ken Ham thinks happened. WHOOSH! And they all changed.