The Great Debate (Wasn’t So Great After All)

The Great Debate (Wasn’t So Great After All) February 8, 2014

Ken Ham and Bill Nye had a big debate recently. I was of two minds about watching the debate at all. It seemed like such a waste of time. I mean, really: it seems like Christian creationists get a lot more out of these things than the reality-endorsing folks do; it seems like it legitimizes their claims when those claims deserve nothing of the sort, and makes it look a little like there’s some kind of massive debate going on in real science-land about whether or not there’s some kind of question about whether or not a magic wizard in the sky said a magic spell and poofed the whole universe into existence. (SPOILER: No, there isn’t any question at all in the vast majority of scientists’ minds.)

But then I began seeing a lot of buzz about it online and hearing people talk about it, and I sat down to watch it. I was all out of popcorn and booze, but it was still very good, and I really encourage you to sit through it because dang, there is a lot of good stuff in here.


Bill Nye
Bill Nye (Photo credit: eschipul). Look! It’s flying poo!

In this debate, Bill Nye the Science Guy goes up against Ken Ham, who is not a science guy at all but who insists that the magic-wizard theory is real live science with real legitimacy. Their debate topic was not about the existence of the magic wizard. It was purely about whether or not creationism can be considered valid science. The debate was held on the “home turf” of Mr. Ham’s “Answers in Genesis” Creationism museum, with an audience of mostly creationists observing. It was officiated by a third party, and each debater had set timeframes with which to present his best argument; then questions were accepted from the audience and answered by the two men.

The best “official” quote about the evening belongs to Dr. Jerry Coyne. On his blog, which includes an awesome takedown, he said:

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.

To everybody’s shock, Bill Nye won the day hands down and even more importantly proved that the debate wasn’t just some colossal waste of time or a legitimizing of Creationism. Far from it! We should have just trusted the Science Guy to know how to do this right. The overwhelming tenor of responses I’m seeing are surprise that it worked out as well as it did. One poll on a Christian site very famously reported that of respondents, 92% said Bill Nye won the debate–and when even Christians know something so obvious, you know it has to be legit (of course, that means that about 350 people as of the last time I saw the poll thought Ken Ham won, which probably says more about the extremely sheltered mindset some Christians have than about how well Ken Ham did).

But should we really be surprised Bill Nye did so well?

He stuck to the actual question, while Ken Ham treated this sterling opportunity as a chance at showboating his political and religious views.

Ken Ham dipped into all kinds of non-science issues. He began with a simple argument from ignorance, which he bolstered with numerous arguments from authority, and he did it in such a hamfisted and blatant manner that I don’t think many people missed that it was happening. He showed slides and clips of other creationists to try to bolster this pseudo-science’s legitimacy, which just made me wonder why the “science” couldn’t stand on its own legitimacy, and wrangled with blatant attempts to redefine big words he didn’t understand like “science” itself, and he did not provide a single bit of actual evidence to prove any of Creationism’s claims or even bolster his own claims about what his new words meant. Not a single one. He didn’t even present adequate evidence that we needed to accept his redefinitions, which I’d have thought would be an important step to establishing his claims. He didn’t bother with any of that. But he did spend a good long time talking about the Bible (make sure you check out around the 50-minute mark in that link up there–where he really gets on a roll), which very neatly demonstrated that Creationism is religious dogma and depends upon a religious outlook.

So Bill Nye talked about tree rings, while Ken Ham harped on abortion and gay marriage and what he saw as the destruction of civilization. Bill Nye discussed fossil records and Arctic snow-ice, while Ken Ham preached a salvation message and demonized science in between trying to make Creationism sound like science by making up his own definitions for it. Most of the time Mr. Ham just repeated his assertions that accepting evolutionary theory leads to immorality, a favorite dig of Creationists.

It went like that, over and over again, with Mr. Nye presenting evidence for how we know the Earth is super-old and how we know evolution happens and how science lets humans make predictions about stuff, and Mr. Ham presenting fallacies and flat-out preposterous ideas (like the idea that animals magically became carnivorous after the Great Flood, which he discusses around 1:30:00 in the video; I imagine that would have been very surprising for the carnivorous animals to suddenly discover their entire physiologies–teeth, claws, digestive tracts, everything–changing and their instincts altering in an instant), glorifying ignorance, and linking acceptance of science with a host of social ills and whining that children who hear about real science are (in his opinion) less likely to become good little child-soldiers for Jesus. Anybody with even the least bit of understanding of real history, especially human history, will spot quite a few problems with what Mr. Ham presented with his “Just-So Story” conceptualization (such as: “we wear clothes because Genesis happened!”). And his chart at 56 minutes will show that his agenda is quite simple: he wants to link Creationism with what he views as “moral absolutes” and the so-called “sanctity of life,” which means “fetus worship” more than actual sanctity of life. By contrast, according to his chart, accepting real science means sliding into moral relativism (which I think he means “relativism that isn’t Biblical,” since the Bible is chock-full of it), “marriage ???” (I think he means “gay marriage, ewww” here), euthanasia, and abortion (which go together in toxic Christian minds; when they are listed, toxic Christians mean that it’s ickie to let human beings decide what will happen to their own bodies).

Mr. Nye brought up all this scientific stuff, and Mr. Ham wiggled and squirmed around word definitions and made up concepts and ideas that he claimed made Creationism look more respectable; not only did the attempts themselves repeatedly and dramatically fail, but his constant attempts made him look very dishonest and thick-headed. As Mr. Nye himself says at 1:37, “I give you the lions’ teeth [regarding Mr. Ham’s claim that carnivores were vegetarian until after the Flood]; you give me verses as translated into English over what, thirty centuries? That is not enough evidence for me.” And it isn’t enough for me, either.

I kept wondering, “Why can’t Ham just show some evidence?” but I guess that’s not quite fair, since I know he has none. Literally all he’s got is criticizing real science and trying to redefine words, as if he’ll magically make Y true if he can just somehow prove X wrong, as if there are just two sides, real science and Creationism, and if he can just knock down real science, Creationism will win by dint of being the last pseudoscience standing–too bad that’s a faulty premise to begin with. I wonder if the Creationists watching were wondering why he kept talking about the Bible and redefining words instead of presenting evidence that a magic invisible person poofed the universe into existence.

Near the end an audience member asked the debaters what sort of evidence they’d need to think about changing their minds. Here it got very telling, and I know I’m not the only person who picked up on this: Bill Nye immediately and without hesitation talked about the evidence he’d need to see; it isn’t all that different from what you or I might require to reconsider the Theory of Evolution, I don’t reckon. He said that he’d just need one piece of real evidence, and he’d change his mind “immediately.” That’s what reasonable people do. If something comes along that really challenges our worldview, we test that thing so we know it is true, and if it is, we reformulate our ideas to incorporate the new information. Reasonable people know that false information does not help people make better decisions (link goes to a really cool essay about this topic). We need accurate information to help us navigate our world.

But then Ken Ham insisted that nothing would ever, ever, ever make him change his mind, so he didn’t know how to answer that question. “I’m a Christian,” he said, with a slightly bemused smile on his face, as if that answered everything. He seemed really flummoxed about how to answer beyond that, though I thought it was a disingenuous act since surely he’s been asked this question many times, and his folksy affectation of stammering and hemming and hawing didn’t fool me at all.

The sheer intellectual dishonesty present in such a statement staggers me. The arrogance. The pomposity. I don’t even know where to begin there. But I will start with this: Ken Ham is not a scientist at all. No real scientist thinks like that. No real scientist is so certain of anything; they all know their favorite theory ever could be disproven and they’re usually actually thankful to see it happen if it does. I can’t even imagine a grad student in science saying that. Every scientist I’ve ever heard or read has said pretty much what Bill Nye said. But Ken Ham is not a scientist. He is a zealot. And as we’ve discussed many times here, the truth doesn’t matter to zealots. Only belief does. And they will do absolutely anything, even lie, to maintain their belief. Like an addict craving a fix, a zealot’s mind will go to any lengths to find some kind of confirmation for the thing they need most. That is why Ken Ham lost. He approached this debate as a zealot would, not as a scientist did, and when he admitted that he couldn’t ever change his mind because his ideas were so far past reproach or disproving that he couldn’t even imagine ever being wrong, that’s when the whole thing fell to pieces.

I cringed to imagine all the Christians I knew were watching the debate who accept science and don’t deny it, who were realizing that Ken Ham very much has turned science-denial into an in-group marker belief–he was saying basically that to be a Christian in Ken Ham’s little world, a person has to deny science. Bill Nye even addressed that at least once, reminding him that millions of Christians accept science. But to no avail! Mr. Ham was saying that to be a Christian at all, to belong to this tribe, a Christian also had to be a Creationist. He was trying to claim and hijack the very word “Christian”–ironic, since most of his presentation involved trying to demonstrate that meeeeeeean ole libruls and atheists had “hijacked” the very word “science” to make it mean something antithetical to the kind of blind literalistic idolatrous faith that Ken Ham thinks makes someone a TRUE CHRISTIAN™. His mealy-mouthed, wheedling insistence at 57 minutes that he likes science and wants kids to learn science rings very false; what he very clearly actually means is that he only likes the kind of fake science that confirms his biases and wants kids to be indoctrinated into the curiosity-destroying, soul-crushing dogma that marks his worldview.

You will be happy to know that there’s already a backlash against how Ken Ham conducted himself. Formerly Fundie has written a very eloquent post claiming Mr. Ham “just carried the entire Jesus movement backwards.” And none other than Pat “Feminism magically turns women into crazy Wiccan baby-killers” Robertson has come out publicly telling Mr. Ham, “Let’s be real, let’s not make a joke of ourselves,” and imploring Mr. Ham to drop the Creationism thing as science has spoken and the magic-wizard junk-science idea lost long ago. Even Pat Robertson knows better than to push this junk science! Fred over at Slacktivist has also written an interesting essay about Creationism in general that takes on Ken Ham’s ideas with a shattering few facts about how the Bible cannot possibly be literal (to wit: camels are mentioned in the Bible long before any camels existed in that area; ironworking gets invented in the Bible long before ironworking actually existed; the Ark myth mentions clean and unclean animals long before Mosaic Law existed to define them as such).

I’m glad to see that backlash, because one criticism I have had of Christianity is that Christians don’t do a very good job of policing themselves. It doesn’t matter much to me why they’re combating this sort of nonsensical ignorance; I’m just glad they are. Sure, I can well imagine that Christians cringe when they see stuff like what Ken Ham says because they know it’s going to make it even harder to convert people or even look sane to outsiders when someone like that insists on stuff we know, flat-out know, just isn’t true. It becomes very obvious that they’re more interested in pushing their false ideas than they are about practicing all that “love thy neighbor” stuff that their Messiah thought was the most important thing they could do. But the problem goes much deeper.

I know that some Christian parents don’t want to teach their children about Santa Claus because they’re afraid that once the kid finds out Santa isn’t real, s/he might begin wondering how Jesus is any different–and might discover that Jesus isn’t much different at all.

And just like I once began wondering what else might not be true once I realized one or two things I’d been taught were blatantly, objectively, factually false, Christians who get indoctrinated into this horsepuckey are going to realize the truth one of these days about something about Creationism’s lies. It’s inevitable if someone digs enough; a famous story circulated after the debate with Creationists’ “questions for evolutionists,” and every one of these smarmy-git “GOTCHA!” looks on their big ole Jesus faces and big ole Jesus smiles hides a simple truth: every one of their “gotcha” questions has been answered, thoroughly, completely, and beyond question online and in various books, but these Christians literally don’t want to find out the truth; they have been told that their wide-eyed, disingenuous questions about the Laws of Thermodynamics and missing links are “gotcha” questions, and they’re happy to believe such a preposterous notion because it makes them feel smug and secure. But some of them may well leave that debate wondering; maybe one leg of the Creationism table has been knocked out, and unlike in real science, once one small aspect of the Bible gets disproven, the whole shebang has to be tossed out.

If their entire religion has been predicated upon the Bible being literal and totally inerrant, then when they discover the Bible can’t possibly be literal and totally inerrant, these Christians are going to be set up for an absolutely horrific showdown. They will have a choice to make: reality, or their religion. And like me, many of them will, after much devastating pain and more than a little anger and fear, choose reality and leave Christianity entirely.

That’s why Ken Ham drilled down as hard as he did on twining Creationism with Christian morality. He needed to make questioning it as difficult as possible. He needed to make acceptance of science sound like the most immoral and nasty and evil thing anybody could possibly do. He needed to make Christians, especially, scared to come anywhere near that showdown–because just entering the ring in that fight all but guarantees Creationism will lose, because when it goes up against real science, it is hitting way above its weight class. Even their top names, like Michael Behe, get destroyed when they enter that ring. The smart ones just avoid the fight altogether.

Between the bumper-sticker theology and the constant altar calls and earnest entreaties to non-Christians, it’s not hard to think that Ken Ham looked at this whole debate purely as a great way to sermonize and fling Christian poo at people who wouldn’t normally go anywhere near a church to hear a sermon or sit still long enough to have poo flung at them.

And if that isn’t a summary of Creationism/Intelligent Design itself, I don’t know what else could be.

This last image kinda sums up the entire difference between Creationism and real science:

anti religious facebook meme

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