Bill Nye Lost the Creationism Debate—Just by Showing Up

The state of the universe.
Feb. 5 2014 9:29 AM

Science vs. Fiction

Ken Ham and Bill Nye debate evolution at the Creation Museum.

Ken Ham, left, and Bill Nye, debate science and creationism.
Ken Ham, left, and Bill Nye, debate science and creationism on Feb. 4, 2014. The Nye vs. Ham showdown illustrated why challenging creationism is so frustratingly futile.

Screenshot courtesy YouTube

When you make up your own rules, you can always win the game—and no one is better at making up rules than Ken Ham. In the course of constructing his now-crumbling creationist empire, Ham has created an alternate reality in which humans hunted dinosaurs to extinction a few thousand years ago after peacefully using them for transport and companionship. Anyone who says otherwise—that is, anyone who accepts basic science—is just spreading the devil’s lies. (That includes me.)

Mark Joseph Stern Mark Joseph Stern

Mark Joseph Stern is a writer for Slate. He covers science, the law, and LGBTQ issues.

Bill Nye’s decision to debate Ham at the Creation Museum Tuesday night, then, was a puzzling one. Nye, “the science guy,” plays by the rules of the scientific method and accepts the fundamental principle of biology: evolution by natural selection. Ham fabricates elaborate tales about Adam and Eve coexisting with vegetarian ceratosauruses in the Garden of Eden. There’s not much to debate about these views: One is fact, based on empirical scientific evidence; the other is fiction, based on biblically inspired fantasy. Nye is an earnest educator; Ham is an exploitative fabulist. What substantive issue could the two possibly debate?

The answer, unsurprisingly, is absolutely none at all. In fact, the Nye vs. Ham showdown simply illustrated why challenging creationism is so frustratingly futile. Creationists begin with their conclusion—the text of Genesis is the literal history of the world—then work backward to find their justifications. It doesn’t matter if this leads to bizarre, preposterous pseudoscientific theories; logic, for creationists, can always be sacrificed on the altar of blind faith.

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And there was a lot of blind faith on display at the Creation Museum on Tuesday night. Ham opened his presentation by whining that those of us who accept evolution are “secularists hijacking the word science” and “imposing the religion of naturalism—atheism—on generations of students.” Evolution, Ham asserts, is “based upon man’s ideas about the past”—but “we weren’t there, and we didn’t observe it.” It’s hubristic, Ham claims, to accept a human-developed theory about the origin of life; the only reliable source of such information is “the biblical account of origins.”

Ham supports this strange and sinister version of creationism with a pet theory of bifurcated biology. According to his opening remarks, science is actually composed of historical science and observational science. The only apparent distinction between the two categories? “We observe things in the present; we’re assuming that that’s always happened in the past.” In case you didn’t get that point, Ham drives it home again: “There is a difference between what you observe and what happened in the past.” And because we can’t “directly observe” evolution in action, we must instead trust God’s word (as interpreted by Ham, of course—the authors of the Bible were surprisingly silent on the subject of dinosaurs).

This isn’t a retort, or a theory, or a philosophy, as Ham repeatedly insists. It’s an inane and baseless fallacy, a conclusion with no reasoning, a judgment with no facts. Yet every time Nye presented a careful explanation of evolutionary processes, Ham responded with the same smug line: “You don’t know that. You weren’t there.”

To his great credit, Nye grinned through his exasperation, patiently reminding Ham that his curious theory of “historical science” carries no currency on “the outside”—that is, beyond the walls of the Creation Museum and the wacky fantasies of young-Earth creationism. And though Nye visibly clenched his jaw when Ham called radioactive dating “assumptions” immediately before proclaiming that biblical genealogy proves that the Earth is 6,000 year old, he kept his composure the entire evening. Nye wisely avoided overly intricate explanations of natural selection, which Ham is adept at jumbling into nonsense. Instead, he stuck to basic, blindingly obvious empirical evidence: Neanderthal skulls that point directly to evolution; layer upon layer of rock formations, each millions of years apart; carbon dating and fossil records; even the impossibility of fitting 16 million species on a single ark made by eight humans with no power tools.

Yet it all fell on deaf ears. When Nye noted that a tree in Sweden is older than Ken Ham’s Earth, Ham scoffed: “We didn’t see those tree rings actually forming. We didn’t see those layers being laid down. You’re assuming things in regard to the past that aren’t necessarily true.” When Nye pointed out that radiometric dating places the Earth’s age at about 4.5 billion years, Ham sneered: “There’s only one infallible dating method.* The witness who was there and told everything and told us. From the word of God.” And when Nye explained that astronomy provides a glimpse into the past and the astonishing age of the universe, Ham held that “there is nothing in observational astronomy that contradicts a young universe. The reason I believe in a young universe is because of the Bible’s account of origins.”

Exasperated? Perfect—that’s just how Ham wants you. For all his witless rejection of data, Ham displays a certain brilliance in rankling non-creationists with his insistent irrationality. The maddening aspect of his creationism is not just that it’s ridiculous, but that he insists it’s a perfectly logical, empirically verifiable scientific explanation of the universe. It doesn’t matter how meticulously or forcefully Nye rebuffs the illogic of Ham’s views; Ham is always ready with a red herring rejoinder, a straw man riposte, an indignant counter-argument based on nothing but his own opportunistic exegesis. Nye has the burden of being tethered to facts; Ham has the luxury to create his own fiction.

And that’s why, despite presenting an overwhelmingly more cogent case for evolution than Ham did for creationism, Nye walked away from the debate the clear loser. By seriously engaging with Ham at the international home of creationism in front of more than half a million people watching the webcast, Nye legitimized Ham’s creationist lunacy more than any weird and declining museum ever could. Nye’s presentation was flawless, but his mere appearance was an error. Rather than keeping creationism tucked away on the fringes of intelligent discourse where it belongs, Nye inadvertently lent his esteemed brand to one of the most despicable pseudoscientific cults in the United States.

Tuesday night’s debate, however, may be less of a victory than a swan song for Ham, whose next project, a life-size “replica” of Noah’s Ark, is currently teetering on the brink of collapse. To finance the more than $100-million project, Ham’s company Answers in Genesis recently began selling junk bonds, unrated high-risk investments with no secondary market. Unsurprisingly, the bonds aren’t selling nearly fast enough, and the project faces default as soon as this Thursday. Given that the rest of Ham’s creationist conglomerate is already flailing, such a collapse might signal the beginning of the end for Answers in Genesis. Should that happen, Ham will likely be ready to lay the blame on his despised enemy, “the atheist lobby”—though he’ll really have no one to blame but himself. Ham may be able to deny the validity of evolution, of natural selection, of carbon dating and fossil records and basic physics. But it won’t be so easy for him to swat away the looming financial ruin that, through his own arrogance and myopia, he’s brought upon himself.

Correction, Feb.5, 2014: This article originally misstated that carbon dating places Earth's age at about 4.5 billion years. For dates this old, scientists use uranium-lead isotope dating and other methods rather than carbon dating. (Return.)

Mark Joseph Stern is a writer for Slate. He covers science, the law, and LGBTQ issues.

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