What I Loved About the Ham-on-Nye Creationism Debate

What I Loved About the Ham-on-Nye Creationism Debate February 5, 2014

nyeA lot of my friends moaned and groaned when Bill Nye agreed to debate Ken Ham at his bizarre Creation Museum in Kentucky. They contested that sharing a stage with him would unduly promote this fundy preacher to the level of “legitimate thinker.” Time will tell if their concerns were valid. I see what their point was, but I felt like Nye was after something worthwhile. And after watching last night’s debate, I think he did precisely what he came to do. A bunch of my friends were watching the debate, commenting on a Facebook thread in realtime. It was a blast for me, like a Super Bowl for skeptics and science nerds. Coincidentally, it seemed to me that the debate was about as one-sided as the other Super Bowl just two days earlier (for real though, what happened there, Denver?) But in a little bit I’m going to take a deep breath and head over to the fundy side of the internet in order to peek into that bubble to see how much praise they’re heaping on their guy today. For you see, that’s the way debates usually go. Each side usually feels they “won.” As long as one person up there was saying the same stuff that you already think, you will come away thinking your side won.

Having acknowledged that limitation of the very concept of having a formal debate—and having acknowledged the inescapable subjectivity of declaring a “winner”—let me just say that I loved how this thing went down last night. The whole thing. Sure, I had to sit through several little sermonettes from Ham (heard all that a million times before), and I had to watch him trot out the precious handful of science practitioners who still cling to the same sets of beliefs which he preaches. But there were several things I loved about last night.

I loved that the first speaker was decided by a coin toss. There’s a poetic irony in that. Think about it.

I loved that whenever Ham used a graphic to juxtapose the scientific consensus with his religious views, his own side of the graphic had to be represented in little cartoons. Cartoons. Need I say more?

I loved how infectiously Nye communicated his love of learning and discovery. He came to pass along his love for science, and he did a fantastic job. While Ham oozed intellectual complacency and scientific incuriosity (“Bill, I have to tell you…there’s a book that answers that question…”), Nye threw out several unanswered questions that still drive him today, hoping perhaps to infect others with his hunger to know more. He didn’t come just to share answers. For the scientist, the questions are as exciting and invigorating as the answers.

I loved watching the moderator struggle to even make sense out of some of the poorly-worded questions offered by the (almost certainly) fundamentalist-heavy audience. Who do you think bought up all those tickets within an hour of Ham announcing this event? I’ve had discussions with people from this insular subculture before, and I know how he feels. The moderator did quite well.

I loved it when Nye talked about fish sex. I was half-expecting to see audience members covering their kids’ ears for that part. There were probably some fun questions in the car on the way home. “Traditional fish sex.” LOL. I also loved it when he asked if the fish got diseases because they were sinners.

I loved how carefully Nye avoided ever saying the name of the museum he was standing in. Each time he almost said the name of the place, he would stop and just call it “this…facility.” That’s was shrewd. Clearly he wasn’t wanting to add any more publicity to the place than this event already had garnered. The main complaint I keep hearing from my friends is that this event will benefit Ham’s movement. I contend that even if it does in the short run, in the long run it will not.

I loved how clear it was that Ham had little of substance to offer outside of “Well, there’s a book, and I have to go by what that book says.” Nye could look absolutely anywhere and everywhere for evidence of the view he came to represent. Ham had only one place he could look, and it was obvious. Every time he repeated that refrain, he dug his movement’s own grave a little further. Anyone truly committed to following the evidence wherever it leads learned something last night.

I love that Ham’s narrow dogmatism and inflexibility will force Christians all over the world to differentiate between his approach and theirs. Generally speaking, the people participating in the /r/Christianity subreddit felt that Nye did an excellent job, far better than Ham (many others from multiple perspectives seem to agree). Granted, those who frequent reddit (even Christians) tend to be very science-positive, and not ultra-conservative. But this debate will make people think a little harder about their assumptions, and I think that’s a good thing. There will be as many Christians as skeptics facepalming at Ham’s remarks. Maybe now they will openly admit it.

I love how obvious it was that Ham cannot and will not change his mind. By his own admission (twice in one evening), his perspective does not allow for change or growth or modification. It is closed off, epistemologically speaking. He couldn’t have made it any more obvious. When Nye was asked what would change his mind, only time constraints could limit how many possible answers he could generate. For Ham, the time allotted for a reply was more than sufficient. His answer? “Nothing.”

Someone pulled a 3 minute clip from the evening which illustrates what I mean and it encapsulates the whole debate. If you don’t get a chance to watch the longer version (quite tedious at times, I’ll admit), perhaps you can view just this one portion. It really nails how the whole evening went:

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  • It’s reasonable to assume that “each side usually feels they won,” but in this case, I don’t think that’s happened.

    In fact, after combing through a couple hundred comments in creationist websites, and pages, I can’t find a single comment declaring Ken Ham the victor. On Ken Ham’s own facebook page, there are a few comments praising Ham for spreading the Gospel, as well as generic “God is good” posts, but there’s also a surprising amount of disappoint and confusion. For example, one of the most-liked posts comes from Alice Bennett:

    “I’m afraid this was a very, very big mistake. If this video goes viral no one, even some who once believed in our literal interpretation of the Bible, will now consider a young-Earth worldview. I may not agree with him, but I liked Bill Nye much more than I thought I would.”

    The sentiment is widespread. I stay subscribed to creationist Youtube channel called CMIcreationstation, and the only post-debate comment was this (from justsaynoNWO):

    “I hate to say it but Ham clearly was not the victor last night.”

    A Christianity Today polls reveals 92% of respondents felt Bill Nye won the debate:


    I wouldn’t be surprised if those numbers were influenced by traffic from atheists, but it remains a staggeringly high percentage.

    As far as I can tell so far, nobody–not even Ken Ham’s following–is willing to flatly state that Ken Ham was the winner here.

    That’s interesting.

  • Empire1432

    I am curious, if there was a twitter feed for those who are creationists. I was watching the #creationdebate feed last night and it was great to see the atheist community commenting, but I am curious if there was this same thing on the other side and what they were saying about the debate. There was really only a handful of comments from creationists last night on thread last night.

  • I really wish I could edit comments. Funny how you only notice your errors after you hit that “post” button….

  • LOVED this and the debate. While Ham droned on and on–he made his goal clear: “Use the bible to teach science only”, Nye made it clear that we don’t know all of the answers and these questions drive us. I know “why?” drives me.

    Unfortunately, ignorant people don’t like to hear the phrase, “I don’t know.” I actually read a comment about just that. The person seconds Ham’s “there’s a book” bs.

    I loved the part when Nye pointed out the origins of the book Ham is using, he asked the audience if they had ever played “Telephone” and then went on to describe his own experience with the game. Well played! Ham can call “magic” all he wants but magic =/= science. I love how Nye kept referring to Ham’s beliefs as just Ham and his YEC followers, instead of “Christian” or “Religious”. He was very tactful and polite, sure snarky at times, “You’ve taught me something.” (I really wonder what that was) though very restrained snark.

    I went into this on Nye’s side, and had a very hard time understanding where Ham was coming from so I have to agree, there was no clear winner…..but I do beleive Ny accomplished what he was after: make people understand that their voting affects their pocket books and that science will bring us into the future, creationism will set us back into the dark ages or keep us stagnant at best.

  • Thinker1121

    I loved the debate. So many skeptics have this (dare I say it?) fundamentalist view that if you give people good enough evidence to believe something, they will naturally reason to the right conclusion. People like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins have this fundamentalist view, and it’s totally anti-scientific and demonstrably wrong.

    Bill Nye, however, DOES understand this principle. The genius of his argument was that he framed the debate to appeal to conservatives. As I see it, the main reason conservatives have the reputation of being “anti-science” is that they see academic scientists as existing in “elitist bubbles” producing worthless theories that don’t matter in the real world. Bill Nye made the “so what” argument. He successfully showed how systematically rejecting evolution affects the general population who typically don’t have any interaction with the scientific community. Absolutely brilliant. It also helps that he’s a likable guy. As anyone who is in the business of persuasion knows, you have to speak to the heart before you will convince the head. Bill Nye gets it.

  • Both these guys have a B.S. Neither guy is well qualified to debate the science. It was a PR event for both. And Ham adds to what the Bible says. Most Christians do not accept his YEC view. http://textsincontext.wordpress.com/2012/05/03/in-the-beginning/
    Here was a recent debate by real scientists.

  • Esther O’Reilly

    I didn’t have a dog in the fight since I’ve never been sold on YEC anyway. For whatever that’s worth. But I heard that both Nye and Ham conducted themselves cordially, so that’s a win-win from a rhetorical perspective.

  • Wendell Neal

    My mind has been closed to the issue of creationism for a long time based on my understanding of organic evolution. Most people interested enough to watch the debate also already have a position on the issue and are seeking affirmation, so they hear what they want to hear and reject what they don’t wish to hear. Jonathan Haidt posits that even when presented with incontrovertable data, most double down on their position, regardless, and this propensity is not limited to ultra-conservatives. On a more positive note, science continues to chip away at faith based beliefs, a robust example being how affirmatively present DNA analyses affirm so many evolutionary relationships that are based on morphology. And, what better venue to make such points than such a debate?

  • mikespeir

    And it should be pointed out that that’s Christian Today, not Christianity Today.

  • Empire1432

    The fact that you think scientists create useless theories goes to show just how lost the conservative movement really is in this country and how little they understand about scientific pursuits. Just because what a scientist does on a day to day basis may not have an immediate financial benefit for a company, the culmination of knowledge from that scientists may one day be used as part of something we can’t even imagine. Basic scientific research, no matter how trivial it sounds like, is still science that could pay off big in the future. Scientists look at all kinds of things and question everything because you never know what you are going to find behind the door. Most discoveries were made by people who were doing basic research, and saw something very interesting. They didn’t go into the project with the thought they were going to get something specific out of it. The conservative movement should stop their groaning about scientific research and help to fund all scientific research no matter what it is. I would much rather have my money to fund scientific research, creating thousands of jobs for scientists, instead of putting massive funding into the military, so we can keep a military that is 10 times larger than the next largest one.

  • evangelical Christianity believes the Bible is the Word of God. Ken Ham knows that if what the Bible says about our origins can be disproved, then the whole house might be in danger of toppling. That’s why he is fighting this battle. Most of the evangelical Christians I was around for decades believe the same thing. They understand that if there is no literal Adam and Eve, then there is no original sin; and thus no sin nature from which we need Jesus to save us. They can try to morph evolution into the creation story as written in Genesis, but you still need an original Adam in order for the “second Adam” to have any significance whatsoever.

  • Good thoughts on the debate! I was there live yesterday and enjoyed the experience. I was in the atheist minority there and very glad I got a ticket to the event. I did a brief reaction blog last night at the hotel discussing the debate and the “museum” itself. Keep up the great blogging!

  • Thinker1121

    I am a professor in a research university. I know the value of science. :)

    But I also see a major problem in my university (which may be common in other schools too), which is that the incentive for professors is to get published and get tenure – and tenure is the kiss of death for productivity from my observations. I get so sick and tired of tenured professors who do nothing productive and then get angry when their funding doesn’t get renewed. So I value science, but I don’t value lazy scientists, and I get angry because these lazy scientists with tenure help to validate the concerns of the conservatives.

  • Misplaced effort on both sides. Making scientific statements is not what faith is for, I believe.

  • I *love* the way Ken Ham squirms when he’s asked the question in this clip. I think it’s very telling.

    So many emotions seem to go across his face. He looks nervous, for one thing, because he knows he doesn’t have a good answer. He even looks a little exasperated — like he can’t believe somebody would even ask him this. (I know I’m right, why should I ever think about changing?) But also — to me he seems unprepaired. He seems a little surprised, like he never thought someone would ask him this question. Like he’d never really considered what it would take to change his mind.

    This was already my favorite part of the debate, but seeing it again with all the facial expressions just makes it better.

    So did you go to the fundamentalist websites, then? What are they saying?

  • Gra*ma Banana

    I didn’t watch the debate. No one is going to change their minds over one debate no matter how persuasive or factual the presentation. And here is another facet to consider about humans and change…survival.

    “Because beliefs are designed to enhance our ability to survive, they are biologically designed to be strongly resistant to change. To change beliefs, skeptics must address the brain’s “survival” issues of meanings and implications in addition to discussing their data.

    Because a basic tenet of both skeptical thinking and scientific inquiry is that beliefs can be wrong, it is often confusing and irritating to scientists and skeptics that so many people’s beliefs do not change in the face of disconfirming evidence. How, we wonder, are people able to hold beliefs that contradict the data?”

    “Why Bad Beliefs Don’t Die” by Gregory W. Lester Skeptical Inquirer magazine November/December 2000

  • OverlappingMagisteria

    Here’s the summary from Answers in Genesis:


    Of course, they thought that Ham did a superb job and that Nye just brought up points that were previously refuted by creation “science”. I found it interesting that they see Ham’s inability to change his mind as a strength – it shows confidence, while skeptics saw it in the opposite way, as an admission of a closed mind.

  • What a trip. I guess I knew that’s what they were going to say, though it’s still painful to read. But look at this quote from the AiG article:

    Nye surprisingly said, however: “I would just need one piece of evidence” to have his mind changed.

    The creationist author thinks this is surprising. Now, if a scientist were writing this article, the thing that would come after the call for “just one piece” of evidence, would be a piece of evidence. The scientist would say “Here’s one piece of evidence, and another one; are those satisfactory?”

    Let’s look at what a creationist would say:

    Nye surprisingly said, however: “I would just need one piece of evidence” to have his mind changed. But in reality, Nye is not interested in evidence that will disprove evolutionary ideas. He would like to see a ministry like Answers in Genesis fail in its mission to reach and equip families with the truths of Genesis 1–11.

    So it’s not about evidence or science. It’s about a personal attack against their organization, and a desire to see them “fail”.

    Also note how differently this creationist author can make the same words sound. According to AiG, the first two questions “stumped” Bill Nye. He had to “admit” he didn’t know, and that his worldview is flawed. If you watched the debate, Nye did say ‘I don’t know,’ but then he explained why that’s a good thing. He spent his whole two minute reply talking about the wonder of discovery. If a creationist kid watches that, he might wonder about the truth of Nye’s statements. If all he does is read the AiG recap, he’ll come away just laughing to himself at Nye’s “failure”.

  • Empire1432

    The problem that you are talking about is one of organizational change at schools. The issue with the conservative movement is that they want to try and squeeze science funding to either to go pursuits they deem qualified or to nothing at all. They see anything that seems liberal as something they need to crack down upon. I get what you are saying about tenure, and I am sure their are issues with how the system works, however that is an internal problem for schools to deal with.

  • Empire1432

    As you left there that night, did it seem like any of the people in the audience had listened to anything Nye had said or were the blinders completely on. It would have been nice if they had done a before and after survey to see if anyone from either side had been swayed by the debate.

  • Agreed, I don’t see a problem with debating creationists. It seems the more we debate them, the more we show that the science is what counts. A debate is opinion, but not fact. After a debate people may question and start searching and when that happens the argument has been won as the facts do not lie.

  • Like Vox Day, I’m an evolution skeptic, although I don’t find YEC convincing:


  • As soon as the debate was over, they announced we were under a “level 2 snow emergency” so everyone was rushing to get out. There wasn’t much dialogue. But, the staff was trying to make sure everyone got a Bible tract before getting out the door.

  • Empire1432

    I can’t imagine what it would have been like to be in that place for that debate. I would personally want to debate with everyone there on the merits of their beliefs. It would drive me crazy.

  • I recently noticed your comment: “If you judge the value of this week’s creationism debate by how many minds are changed immediately, you’re being a bit shortsighted.”

    I’m not sure if this was directed at my comment specifically, but regardless, I agree completely. We’ll have to see how things shake out in a couple of years.

    If history has proven anything, it’s that faith (in all its forms) will mutate and adapt to its environment.

  • Totally agree. Religions don’t die, they evolve, fighting for their own survival just like living organisms. I’m sure Boghossian would say “just like a virus.”