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Monday, February 3, 2014

My (unsolicited) advice for Bill Nye: Don't teach the dichotomy!

With only a day left before the big event, I think it unlikely for these words to reach Bill Nye, who will not be scouring the internet for last-minute advice. Nonetheless, I write them for anyone watching the debate, in an attempt to mitigate the confusion that is bound to arise in discourse between Ham and Nye.

Why would there be confusion?

Because for Bill Nye, acceptance of a 4.5-billion-year Earth and the evolutionary paradigm in explaining the history and diversity of life is completely natural; it is a logical consequence of surveying mountains of evidence, available to scientists everywhere. For Bill Nye, an escape from creationism requires only that one see all the evidence in the right light, and I expect him to offer as much of that evidence as possible in the allotted time frame.

Ken Ham, on the other hand, has decades of experience in offering oversimplified explanations that turn Bill Nye's best evidences into the very foundation of young-Earth creationism. Galapagos finches? Mutating bacteria strains? Archeopteryx and Tiktaalik? Hominid lineages? Geomorphology and stratigraphy of the Grand Canyon? Radiocarbon dating? All of these evidences are converted to Ham's own warriors with two-minute soundbites. If you're skeptical of this, just check out the radio miniseries by Dr. John Morris (ICR), entitled "Back to Genesis". In each episode (which rarely exceeded a couple minutes), listeners were persuaded that actually, the fossil record is a problem for evolutionists! Or actually, the Grand Canyon is evidence for a catastrophic flood!

If it sounds as though I'm trying to mock Dr. Morris—I'm not. From the perspective of a YEC audience, his radio show offered a daily supply of hope and rejuvenated faith. It inspired listeners to live out their faith with confidence and joy, and few people complain about joyful neighbors and friends. Unfortunately, his devotional-style commentary of the state of science lacked one thing:


I do not doubt the sincerity of Dr. Morris or Ken Ham, but their interpretations of biological and geological evidences are flatly wrong. I say this with confidence, because few propositions in science have been more thoroughly disproven than that of a young Earth and a global catastrophic flood (and keep in mind, the goal of science is not to prove, but to disprove).

But now for the confusion. There is scarcely an evidence for Bill Nye's position that cannot be countered with a short, prepared, even witty retort from Ken Ham. For example:

"Well actually, radiocarbon dating offers more evidence for a young Earth. You see, geological materials like diamonds and coal that are supposed to be millions of years old actually contain traces of radioactive carbon, so they can't possibly be that old! But when you start with Bible's claim that a flood recently covered the whole Earth, you don't have to start with the typical assumptions of radiocarbon dating, such as that the atmosphere always contained the same amount of 14C as today. Therefore, we can better understand the results of radiocarbon dating from the perspective of a young Earth modified by a global catastrophic flood!" (my words, not Ham's)

This sort of reply will convince every listener inclined to believe Ken Ham. The problem is that every sentence above contains at least one error, so it would take far longer than 2 minutes for Bill Nye to undo the damage, and that's assuming he's heard these sort of arguments and knows how to respond in the first place.

So here's my brief advice to Bill Nye on how to get the most out of this debate:

1) Most importantly, don't teach the dichotomy! The primary reason that many Christians (myself included) reject young-Earth creationism is not that it lacks scientific merit, but that it is unbiblical. As many of Ham's supporters demonstrate, the conflict with modern science can be distorted, rationalized, or avoided altogether. It is their belief that they champion the orthodox, unadulterated teaching of God's word that fuels their efforts. Unless they are inwardly skeptical of this belief, no scientific revelation will move them to reconsider their position regarding evolution and a young Earth.

You may not be in a position to debate their biblical interpretation, but you can at least remind them that it remains just that: an interpretation. The text of scripture requires no less scientific rigor to understand fully than layers of fossiliferous rock, and the YEC's inability to reconstruct Earth history rivals their inability to tackle ancient literary masterpieces. In fact, the fundamental flaws are nearly identical, as YEC's approach the Bible, rocks, and DNA all with a strong confirmation bias; their conclusion is already in hand, and new data are interpreted to support what they think they already know. It pains me to hear YEC's described as those who ascribe to a 'literal' interpretation of scripture, because their approach is anything but literal, ignoring much of the literary, cultural, and historical contexts of the letter. As a result, their interpretations tend to be shallow, anachronistic, and oversimplified. These characteristics are elucidated when pressed to explain the details of the biblical text in light of their hypothesis, which force them into absurd conclusions (reductio ad absurdum, in a nutshell).

What most young-Earth creationists do not realize is that their nuanced view of scripture is relatively modern and may scarcely be called orthodox. It was largely rejected even by American fundamentalists at the beginning of last century, so it seems improper to call Ken Ham a fundamentalist due to his views on creation. Neither do they represent the mainstream of Christian views on creation, particularly among theologians and other scholars of religion and/or ancient literature. This is not a debate between biblical and non-biblical explanations of origins, but an examination of a new, religious movement with a very American flavor. Please, Mr. Nye, don't propagate the false dichotomy between evolution and the Bible.

2) Be sure to define 'evolution', and stick to that definition. For Ken Ham and his supporters, evolution refers not simply to an explanatory framework of biological and geological data, but to a complete worldview, comprised not least of metaphysical naturalism (i.e. atheism). With regard to its application in biology, do not conflate natural selection with the points of evolutionary theory rejected by Ham. Ken Ham does not deny that natural selection plays an important role in the diversity of life and survival of species through adaptation. In fact, he even accepts that speciation is responsible for the existence of most terrestrial animals and plants today (because otherwise, he can't fit all the animals into the Ark). As far as I know, there is even an exhibit in the Creation Museum devoted to explaining rapid speciation/evolution of animal kinds shortly after the flood. You have an opportunity here to expose the inconsistency on Ken Ham's part in accepting evolution so long as it helps his cause. Moreover, you can challenge the explosive rates at which he suggests that evolution took place in the past. Multiple species of large mammals arising from one pair within a few hundred years and distributing themselves across the globe? Hmm...

3) Despite that the prevalence of young-Earth creationism hinders public trust in and appreciation for science, don't pretend that all young-Earth creationists are ignorant of science and how to apply it. This debate will quickly degrade into a battling appeal to authority as names are given of this scientist or that, who believes this paradigm or that. Further, there is no point in discussing how many scientists reject Ken Ham's view or how few peer-reviewed publications support it. In such an exchange, Ken Ham need only appeal to a worldview/faith bias among the vast majority of researchers and editors, and he can sell this point well. Unless you are willing to engage the underlying philosophical mechanisms that drive and maintain scientific consensus (which is beyond the scope of this debate), you will not be able to respond to his appeals effectively, let alone in a language your audience can understand.

4) Don't let Ken Ham fall back on his mantra that 'evolutionists' and creationists simply approach the same evidence from different starting assumptions or authorities. What he is describing rather is a set of multiple competing hypotheses, which are not resolved by debating whose basic assumptions are better (e.g. naturalism vs. supernaturalism). Multiple competing hypotheses are resolved by formulating mutually exclusive predictions, and then collecting the data required to test the predictions of respective theories. Ken Ham is offering a testable hypothesis, but he will work as hard as possible to prevent you from actually testing it.

5) If and when you do test it, be focused! Undoubtedly, Ken Ham will dance through his list of 2-minute soundbites, and each one that you can't answer in detail will shed doubt on evolutionary theory and count in his favor. Taking the example of radiocarbon from above, challenge him on each individual point before he can move on to another:

You: "Where was it reported that diamonds and coal contain traces of radioactive carbon?"
KH: "In peer-reviewed journals, as well as lab reports from samples that we had analyzed."
You: "But geochronologists that specialize in radiocarbon dating don't believe that these samples are younger than millions of years old. Why not?"
KH: "Well, they suggest that it must be contamination! But these labs take precautions not to contaminate the samples. So if we trust they know how to run a clean lab, then it can't be contamination..."
You: "Yes, they do. But they also admit that no sample can be prepared without being exposed to at least some contamination from the atmosphere. That's precisely the reason for analyzing very old samples of coal and diamonds: to measure the level of contamination during preparation and resulting from electronic or chemical interference during analysis."
KH: "But our geologists believe rather that these samples contain radioactive carbon because they are young. They also believe the radioactive carbon in coal/diamonds is too much to result from radiocarbon."
You: "Did your geologists manage the radiocarbon labs that analyzed the samples?"
KH: "No."
You: "Did your geologists prepare the samples in the radiocarbon lab?"
KH: "No.
You: "Did your geologists design the latest equipment used for AMS radiocarbon dating, or publish papers on background interference and other noise during radiocarbon analysis?"
KH: "No."
You: "Could it be possible that your less experienced geologists, who do not specialize in geochronology, are wrong on this issue?"
KH: "We interpret the same data from a different starting point, so our conclusions are bound to conflict. We consider the effect of Noah's flood on radiocarbon and..."
You: "How much radioactive carbon was in the atmosphere before the flood?"
KH: "We don't know exactly, but probably 500 times less than today."
You: "Was it evenly distributed in the atmosphere?"
KH: "..."
You: "If it was, then all the plants and animals—all the organic matter that you say was buried in Noah's flood and is now contained in layers of sedimentary rock—should appear to be the same age if analyzed by radiocarbon, correct?"
KH: "Yes, they should appear to be much older than they are, because..."
You: "But these samples don't all yield the same age, do they?"
KH: "Not exactly the same age; they range from ~30,000 to 75,000 years."
You: "That is a massive range in radiocarbon activity—almost 8 half-lives! So it's not possible that this radiocarbon all came from the same pre-flood atmosphere, or else the data would be closer together. These data actually falsify the prediction of your theory. But the more fundamental problem is that if there were no radiocarbon activity ever measured in coal or diamonds or any other 'pre-flood' material, you would simply suggest that there was no radiocarbon in the pre-flood atmosphere. This is not at all a scientific approach, and in fact the scientific data conflict with your portrait of Earth history."

This is not a debate for discussing the full range of evidence for or against each other's position, but for exposing the pseudoscientific method by which Ken Ham's worldview must process it. The more detailed the discussion on any given point, the more likely he is to expose that.

I may be asking for a miracle in remaining optimistic about this debate...

But I, for one, believe in them.


Looking for additional commentary on this topic? Check out this advice from a former creationist (writing for Huffington Post) on the solidarity of the young-Earth paradigm, and why Bill Nye shouldn't underestimate or misjudge his audience.


  1. This is excellent analysis of Ham's debating tactics and of the persuasiveness that YEC arguments have for the faithful. I appreciate this very much.

    1. I appreciate your feedback! Many underestimate that persuasiveness, so it often goes unstudied and unchallenged.

  2. Unfortunately, the format didn't allow for the sort of back-and-forth required to debunk Ham's rubbish. Instead, with the respondent allowed the last word on any given question, it allowed Ham to make sweeping, completely false claims that there is no evidence of anything, or that evolution ignores the scientific method, etc, without having any allowed response by Mr. Nye. Unfortunately, this gives the appearance of there being no reposte to his lies, and he knew it. Too bad Mr. Nye is too much the gentleman to ignore the debate format and slam him repeatedly for his lies.

    1. Yes, and a debate without cross-examination is hardly a debate worth watching. I'll be commenting on this soon. Thanks for your input.

  3. As Ham pointed out last night, there are many other scientific methods of dating and most of them support an age of the earth orders of magnitude shorter than the common consensus. And the 4B+ age that we are often fed comes from a meteor!

    1. Unfortunately, Ham wasn't very honest on this point. Most of the "scientific methods of dating" to which Ham was referring don't actually exist or don't support his claim at all, and I've discussed many of them on this blog already. If you had any specifically in mind, I could show you what I mean.

      He was correct that the accepted age of the Earth (~4.56 billion years) derives mainly from dating of meteorites. There's nothing wrong with this, so long as the meteorites are indeed the same age as the earth and derived from the same material from which our solar system form. But still, it's only half true. The first time an age of 4.5 billion years was obtained, a Rb-Sr isochron was constructed from numerous chondritic meteorite fragments. This date was confirmed by a Sm-Nd isochron—unrelated geochemical system, same results. This tells us that the dating methods are indeed robust, contrary to Ham's claim that there are conflicts. An additional isochron is constructed using the U-Pb system, not merely from meteorite material, but also from Earth materials. Therefore, samples of the Earth do go into the final calculation of ~4.5 billion years.

      Although no rock on Earth is dated exactly at 4.5 billion years (why would we ever expect that?), we do have samples of zircon minerals that date to 4.2–4.4 billion years old (from Australia, no less; thanks for staying honest, Mr. Ham). The fact that Earth materials approach 4.5 billion years, but never actually reach it, confirms the meteorite-based age of 4.5 billion years for the solar system and for the Earth itself.

    2. Another important detail: the meteorite date of 4.5 billion years does not come from *a* meteor, but rather 86 meteors (at the time of the original publication; the number is higher now). In other words, the date is robust in that it is repeatable.