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Thursday, February 6, 2014

Ham and Nye agree: Ken Ham's creation model is not scientifically viable

Ken Ham deserves credit. As many predicted, he was better prepared to defend what he believes in a moderated public debate. That is not to say that he was successful, but only to clarify a point so frequently overlooked: creationists are generally neither stupid nor ignorant, and there is a reason that so many find Ken Ham convincing. But debate performance aside, let's recall the thesis of the debate:

"Is creation a viable model of origins in today’s modern, scientific era?"

Bill Nye's response is rather obvious. While Ken Ham initiated the debate to defend this thesis in the positive, however, in one sentence during the Q&A session, he managed to expose a subtle truth of his own position: the creation model to which he holds is not scientifically viable.

I will return to this point later, but first I wanted to review a number of comments made during the debate. No doubt, you'll find a hundred articles like mine today, so I'll try to keep these unique to my experience/specialty:

Who won the debate?

I would say that in asking this question, we are missing the point of public debate. Declaring a winner for any debate depends on a number of criteria (how well the debaters supported/disproved the thesis, the effectiveness of their rebuttals, how well they stayed on topic and within the rules of the debate, etc.). These points are relevant to members of a debate team, who are training to be lawyers, politicians, or businessmen, where they will be expected to be persuasive in a timed setting. In our case, however, it serves little purpose, for it gets us no closer to the real question: who sided with truth? Public debates are rarely effective tools for determining truth. Nonetheless, too many audience members expect that a debate is not fruitful unless one side capitulates in public recantation.

So what good is a moderated public debate? It informs the audience of the arguments supporting two sides of an issue, as well as the rebuttals considered valid by representatives from each side. If you failed to come away from this debate with a better understanding of what each side believes and why, then the winner of the debate is, well...not you.

Debate? What debate?

In my opinion, unless cross-examination comprises a significant portion of the event, it should not be called a debate. In cross-examination, one debater is allowed to pose only a line of questioning to the other (i.e. he/she cannot make statements or arguments, only ask questions; the opponent cannot respond only to those questions). This allows each side to focus on a specific point and force the opponent to defend it at every level. Without cross-examination, so many statements go unchecked that the audience is left only to trust one side or the other.

What we observed rather was an alternating set of presentations. Although informative, we should not be surprised that the topic of the debate was scarcely addressed. Furthermore, allotting only 5 minutes of rebuttal to a 30-minute statement is both unfair and unwise.

On this point, we should take note that not once did Ken Ham answer or try to support the thesis of the debate. He argued that creationists could be effective scientists and develop technology, that secularists have hijacked terms like science and evolution, that dating methods are in conflict, that he obtains his reconstruction of history from the Bible, and that naturalism presumes theism to conduct science and also leads to moral decay. All of the time spent arguing these points serves well for advertising, but does not help us to answer the question in debate.

Creation confirmed by observational science?

Several close exceptions were Ham's attempts to say that his creation model is confirmed by 'observational science', for example in that there is only one human race or that speciation can occur within 'kinds'. But he did not explain how and why his model predicts modern data. "Race" is not a rigid biological term, and as far as we can tell, the human 'races' descended from a large population in Africa—not a single family in Armenia/Turkey. The Hebrew phrase translated "after their kind", moreover, is better rendered "of all kinds", implying that God brought forth diversity from monotony and singularity. It does not necessarily support his idea of a phyletic "orchard"; if anything, it sounds like evolution!

So how do we test between Ken Ham's model and competing ones, like evolution? Ham cannot offer a method, because his model is not scientific; it involves only retrospective fitting of a model to known data, so it can accommodate any dataset. For example, the same genetic methods used to conclude that dogs derive from one ancient population of wolves also suggests that dogs share a common ancestor with all other mammals. To exclude this genetic evidence and cut off the evolutionary tree arbitrarily, calling it an 'orchard' instead, is both inconsistent and dishonest. Ken Ham undermines his own position in raising these points.

Defining science

As I've argued many times on this blog, Ken Ham's sharp epistemological distinction between observational and historical science is invalid. Historical science is derived from the experimental, in that rather than design an experiment to collect data, we collect data in nature to test and reconstruct the 'experiment' that already took place. Bill Nye was right to cite CSI as an example of how these facets of science complement each other. If we want to confirm the hypothesis that A killed B, we construct a model to explain data that can be collected after the fact: "We hypothesize that the DNA of this blood sample will match that of the accused, if in fact A killed B, because we know from experimentation that DNA provides a tracer in blood samples that is unique to the individual".

By this approach, we investigate Earth history by making predictions about what kind of data will confirm or disprove our hypotheses. These predictions should be very specific. For example, we can utilize microfossils to predict exactly where in Cretaceous–Paleocene marine sediments there will be a spike in Iridium concentration, based on the hypothesis that it was caused by a meteor impact. Likewise, we could already predict the age of the Chicxulub meteor impact associated with this Iridium anomaly, based on radiometric dates of igneous rocks at the Cretaceous/Paleocene boundary. Similarly, if you were to analyze pollen concentrations within post-glacial lake sediments of Europe, one could predict exactly at what depth those concentrations would shift, based solely on the radiocarbon dates of their organic constituents. Why? Because geologists have reconstructed climate anomalies such as the "Bølling-Allerød warming" and the "Younger Dryas cooling" and constrained their age. Using this model, we can also predict where and why oxygen-isotope values in ice cores from the Greenland Ice Sheet shift abruptly, simply by counting the annual layers of ice back to the proposed events.

“Molecules to man evolution has nothing to do with developing technology”

Ken Ham is nearly right: applied physics and chemistry can generally operate without ascribing to one model of human origins over another. But so what? This does not address the topic of the debate. Further, he does a great injustice to science implying that only applied sciences are valid. Theoretical and historical aspects of each field are vital in forming the solid foundation on which applied sciences operate. When it comes to technology, only very specialized fields within neuroscience, physiology, immunology, etc. are likely to be informed by evolutionary theory. But advances in evolutionary biology and 'old-Earth' geology have given us ample motivation and guidance in developing technologies that aid the historical sciences, from DNA sequencing to seismic surveys of the Earth's crust.

“We all have the same evidences; it’s a battle over how we interpret the past. It’s really a battle over worldviews and starting points.”

As predicted, Ken Ham devoted much of his time to this assertion. This put Bill Nye in the uncomfortable dilemma of switching to a philosophical debate or avoiding the topic altogether. Though it probably counted against him, Nye did the right thing in not trying to debate the veracity of Christian theism or the trustworthiness of the biblical record. Again, the topic of the debate was not "Who has the correct philosophical worldview/starting point?" but "Is Ken Ham's creation model scientifically viable?" Likewise, Ken Ham's discussion on the moral implications of evolution, the prospect of salvation, the purpose of life, and even the justification of laws of logic/nature in a naturalistic worldview were completely off topic. Even if Bill Nye had conceded that science lacks epistemological grounds and morality lacks authority without Christian theism, Ken Ham still would not have answered the question of the debate.

“Based on the Bible's record of history, I can predict that billions of dead things would be buried all over the earth; that’s what we find...”

Ken Ham is not alone in using this oft-repeated mantra to support his claim that the creation model makes accurate predictions. It lacks scientific rigor, however, and merely demonstrates that his model is but a rationalization of data. How does Ham know specifically that billions of dead things would be buried all over the Earth? Does Genesis provide a population estimate of the animal kingdom? Are we told what percentage of the Earth's surface was covered by ocean before the flood? How much by shallow oceans wherein life can thrive? To what extent were soils developed so as to provide enough nutrients from river runoff to support the planktonic food base? Secondly, why would we expect these life forms to be buried necessarily? Was it not possible that the flood killed but did not bury all organisms in neat, sedimentary layers?

To answer any of these questions, even from the biblical description of the seas 'swarming with life', he must utilize historical science—but as Ham himself claims, historical science is not so scientific. Ken Ham's creation model 'predicts' that we should find billions of dead things buried over the Earth because we've already found billions of dead things buried over the Earth.

Rapid post-flood speciation and the creationist 'orchard'

At several points, Bill Nye challenged Ken Ham to explain how 7,000 pairs aboard the ark could evolve into our modern selection of species in just 4–5,000 years. Nye's calculated rate of 11 new species per day does not accurately reflect AiG's model, since Ham claims that fish, insects, and many other organisms need not be aboard the ark, and these groups represent a bulk of species alive today. Regardless, the speciation rate required by the creationist orchard is astounding—impossible by our current understanding of evolutionary ecology. Not only is the rate unobserved in human history, it is orders of magnitude higher than the fastest known cases of speciation.

Complicating Ham's claim is the fact that most of the animals he envisions on the ark (mammals, birds, reptiles, and other organisms unable to survive in the water) are quite large, with relatively low fertility rates. Speciation occurs 'rapidly' (i.e. observable in human history) only among small creatures that reproduce quickly, like small fish and rodents. Large mammals like elephants, cats, wolves, and horses/camels require many times longer for genetic diversity to accumulate among isolated populations, because they take longer to mature and give birth to new generations. Nonetheless, we find fossils of modern species (i.e. must have been derived from the Ark pair) throughout what Ham must term "post-flood sediments", over a wide geographic distribution.

Some of these mammals, such as mammoths, camels, and sloths, are best known from Ice-Age sediments, particularly in Eurasia and the Americas. Let's take the case of an elephant-mammoth-mastodon 'kind', for which the average generation is ~20–30 years. Most of Ken Ham's researchers suggest that an Ice Age peaked ~400–600 years following the flood. This leaves, at best, 14–30 generations for a single pair of elephant-like creatures to evolve into more than a half-dozen individual species and distribute themselves around the globe. This scenario is absurd even for migratory grazers; do we need also to run the numbers for ground sloths, which populated both North and South America around the same time? [Edit: the number of fossil and modern elephants is far higher than I imply here; for more critiques of post-flood speciation rates in mammals/birds, see also the Natural Historian's articles on Baraminology]

Fossil repositories like La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles provide the final nail in the coffin. Not only were North American fauna already diverse by the time of the last ice age, but these species existed in rather large populations. Thousands upon thousands of individuals are encased in these tar pits, which represent but a fraction of the species' geographic extents.

"Tree rings, snow ice, and coral," says Nye

In a nutshell, Nye's list of things older than Ken Ham's universe is solid, but went largely unchallenged throughout the debate. Only in passing did Ken Ham suggest that glacial ice could accumulate 'catastrophically', giving the example of a crashed plane in Greenland being packed under ~250 feet of snow. The example is not relevant, though, since 1) these snow rates are not characteristic for those regions of Greenland/Antarctica where ice cores are obtained; and 2) geologists do not date ice cores by ice thickness, but by counting seasonally driven oscillations in texture and chemistry. So how is it that so many annually layered samples extend beyond ~6,000 years?

If given more time, Ken Ham might claim that multiple layers or growth bands could accumulate in a single year. Although such anomalies are documented, however, they are rare, but Ken Ham must consider them the norm to rationalize these data into his model of history. If such anomalies are the norm, then why don't we observe them today? 'Observational science' provides an excellent opportunity for Ham to test his extraordinary claims, but he avoids the topic altogether, because no observation confirms them.

On a final note regarding ice cores, we know the dating methods are robust, because they have been tested by individual lines of evidence. Lake sediments dated by radiocarbon and speleothems dated by U-Th disequilibrium all yield the same age of climate events found also in the ice cores' isotopic records. Ratios of hydrogen and oxygen isotopes vary within ice sheets due to changes in climate (such as temperature and moisture source). These climatic changes affecting Greenland, for example, also affect continental Europe, where cave and lake records capture the same climatic signal within their own isotopic, geochemical, or pollen ratios. The fact that hundreds of records overlap, despite that they are dated by independent radiometric systems, thoroughly contradicts Ken Ham's claim that annual band counts must have formed anomalously or catastrophically.

Were you there?

I was not personally present to witness every band forming within Antarctic ice sheets—does this matter? Ham's challenge only applies if every event of the past necessarily escapes scientific investigation. We must consider every criminal trial suspect, therefore, if we are to adopt Ham's anti-scientific claim. Although I watched on the internet a live stream of Ken Ham's debate, the debate is now a past event. So was my own birth, come to think of it. Can anyone prove that it ever happened?

Whether dealing with modern experiments or historical investigation, we all interpret the dataset before us. We do not even observe billions of dead things within the rocks; we observe only the shapes and remains of what we argue and interpret to be once living organisms through the historical scientific method. When studying natural phenomena, we apply the scientific method to constrain the objectivity of the observer, but all is yet subject to interpretation. We do not even 'observe' the isotope ratios obtained to date minerals, but we interpret electric signals from collector cups at the end of a vacuum tube. It is the scientific method, therefore, that allows us even to interpret properly modern phenomenon. All science is hermeneutic, and historical science is no giant leap into the unknown.

So no, I was not there. Neither was Bill. Neither were you, Mr. Ham. But that is the beauty of historical science—we can still know the past! Appealing to Scripture does not solidify your case, nor distinguish you from us. Why? Because you must still interpret the written word; you must still apply historical science to reconstruct that written word from its dynamic transmission through time and space. You neither wrote it nor observed it being written. So let's thank God together for historical science, without which we could not even read the Bible.

“You can never prove it’s old, so that’s not a hypothetical... Not using the scientific method.”

This single response by Ken Ham during the Q&A session allows us to declare Bill Nye a winner in this debate. When asked if he would retain faith in God if convinced that the Earth were old, Ken Ham remarked that science could never yield for us a reliable age of the Earth. For Ken Ham, nothing historical is subject to scientific investigation. If that is true, then at last, he has answered the question of the debate:

"Is creation a viable model of origins in today’s modern, scientific era?"

Ham can only defend his position by excluding the creation model from science altogether, as though to say, "No, it's not; but neither is yours."


Edit: I realized that Jimpithecus, author of the Science and Creation blog, had some very similar impressions of the debate. Read those comments here.


  1. These are some great observations. As someone that has talked much about the evolution on steroids creationism I think you have really nailed the problems. I especially like the generation time comparison. Also consider that there are 20 more fossil species of elephants that must have also speciated and gone extinct after the flood. I think we can thank Ham for doing this debate because he now has made it clear that believes his beliefs can't be falsified and that he really doesn't think that creation science is science.

  2. Excellent, thank you for the info! I tried to update it into the article. Feel free to link any other specific examples here.

  3. I had the same thought - that a type of guided discussion that allowed greater depth and definition of the issues would have been more useful. I also wondered how much of the science briefly mentioned was familiar to the average person - a discussion could have brought out the relevance of that too (for ex., the mention of the long-running E. coli experiment or Tiktaalik,) It also seemed to me that in some cases Nye didn't really know what AiG's arguments are on certain topics, but some of that takes a while of reading AiG's stuff to pick up on. There was a response video by AiG that I watched, and they were all excited about having more viewers than the Super Bowl, top-trending on Twitter, etc. http://debatelive.org/answers/

  4. "Ken Ham's creation model 'predicts' that we should find billions of dead things buried over the Earth because we've already found billions of dead things buried over the Earth." You have hit the nail on the head.
    Ham is a charlatan. So are these two:

  5. Were you there?
    As a Christian who is fairly conservative in my view of the scriptures, the most disturbing thing I find about Ham's "Were you there?" argument is that it denies faith. Ham teaches his followers that you can doubt/question the validity of any event by pointing out that person was not there. To Ham I would say, Garden of Eden? Were you there? The Ark and the Flood? Were you there? The sinless life, atoning death on the cross and resurrection from death of the Lord Jesus Christ? Were you there?

    Ham undermines the very faith that he claims to uphold. By Faith I believe in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. By faith I believe that Genesis tells me how God wants me to view pre-history. However, also by faith I believe I've been given a mind to observe the world that is set before me. To deny the evidence that is plainly there is something of an act of willful ignorance.

  6. The Nye-Ham debate was a waste of time, although this analysis of the debate is more accurate than not. The debate was a waste because it was really about evolution versus Young Earth Creationism (YEC). The debate was a waste also because most listeners were non-scientists and have no way of evaluating the scientific arguments of either side. Sadly they believed that one side had to be correct when both are wrong!

    The real problem is that the non-scientific members of the Church hold fast to the YEC position. The first step in the real solution is to show non-scientific Christians that Old Earth Creationism (OEC) IS biblical. Leave science out of it because you cannot convince a non-scientist, who has made up his mind that science is the enemy, by talking science, regardless of how sound the science seems to you. A non-scientist, especially one so convinced that science is the enemy, does not have the tools to understand.

    When I leave my church, I see a public middle school, that for the last 2 decades not a single student has heard the name Jesus. This is not the fault of unbelieving evolutionists, or scientists, or any unbelievers at all, but by the Church. The US Supreme Court correctly determined that YEC is not a science but a religion and, therefore, will not be taught as an alternative to the science of evolution. (This is not the time to argue if evolution is a science or religion. It is enough that YEC was determined to be a religion.)

    In Scripture,there is no PROOF of the age of Earth because throughout Scripture Jesus has been shown to be a God offering man choice. There is plenty of reason to believe that OEC is biblical. In fact the only Scriptural EVIDENCE of the age of Earth comes down solely on the OEC side.

    We need to address the non-scientific members of the Church through Scripture, the only thing they are able, and blessed, to understand.

    Back to this article saying how … " He (Ham) argued ... that secularists have hijacked terms like science and evolution …" Ham has hijacked the term "Biblical." When Ham refers to himself he slows down and emphasizes that he is a "Biblical Creationist." The implication is that OEC, myself included, are not Biblical. He even said so, in fact. So the hijacking of terms is a door that swings both ways.

    Finally, if Ham did not have that cute Aussie accent fewer Americans (non-scientific Christians, specifically) would believe him. Think not? Why do so many television infomercials use actors with the Aussie accent? After all what else does an Aussie accent (a faked one, in fact) have to do with green skillets?