Comments about the Ken Ham/Bill Nye Debate

A selection of comments about the Ken Ham/Bill Nye debate (which I didn’t watch).

I think this is a demonstration about how some people think, and others don’t — they ‘believe’. (This divide between thinking and being is in a sense my core interest, and what I would write a book about in the sense of how science ficiton informs that issue.)

Shall never the twain meet? The Phil Plait item at the end has some progressive suggestions.

First a post from Adam-Troy Castro on Facebook, elaborating a point I’ve made before:

Answer to a creationist who wanted to know why it isn’t possible that God didn’t also create the tree rings and the fossil record and the Grand Canyon and all the other physical evidence of a world more than a few thousand years old, intact as is, just to test our faith.

“Strictly speaking, by that argument we can’t prove that the universe wasn’t created only thirty seconds ago, by a guy named Bob, complete with you, the ID you have on you, and your own false memories of a life you only think you lived. In the absence of using that as a functional life premise, it is more helpful and less insane, not to mention less flaky, to treat the universe as something operating by the consistent rules we observe, that we can measure, that we can explore, that was not salted with false evidence out of some divine creator’s whimsicality. It makes more sense for you to consider your own birth certificate a valid document, the photos of your deceased grandparents actual and important records, your memory of where you parked your car earlier today a reflection that the lot continues to exist now that it is temporarily out of your sight. If by contrast we accept your position that evidence of the universe existing before this creation thirty seconds ago is something that must be proven, then “Seriously, what’s the point of living?” becomes far more pressing a question than any your fellow creationists ask of the premise that the universe is a place whose grandeur arose by order and not by divine fiat.”

And then there is Jerry Coyne:

After the debate I was fulminating about Ham’s performance, grumbling about his being a “liar for Jesus.” My friend said that no, Ham wasn’t lying—he truly believed the palaver he was spewing. And I realized that she was right. Ham’s brain has been so deeply marinated in his faith that that organ has simply become impermeable to facts. He really does believe in Noah’s Ark, the Fall, and talking snakes, and must reject or rationalize facts that don’t comport with his Sacred Book.

That is a mindset that I don’t understand, and, being a scientist, perhaps can never understand. But it shows how religion can poison one’s mind so deeply that it becomes immunized to the real truth about the cosmos. Ham was not lying, but simply suffering from a severe delusion—one that should cause him cognitive dissonance but doesn’t.

So much the worse for him, but his delusions also cause him to poison the minds of children, and that is not all right with either me or Nye. It’s simply wrong to teach creationism to children, for that is teaching them lies, and I fault Nye a bit for helping the Creation Museum raise funds by participating in this debate. By so doing, Nye was subsidizing the brainwashing of the children he so wants to reach. But I forgive him, for he did a creditable job.

(Bold emphasis mine.)

Mark Joseph Stern, at Slate.

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.

Elizabeth Stoker, at Salon, points out that Ham isn’t having a scientific debate, but an ethical one.

It would be easy enough here to call Ham’s intelligence into question and berate him for so thoroughly and publicly missing the point of a hypothetical. But this evasion was only one of many refusals of engagement, which calls into question why, if Ham is convinced of the shoddiness of evolutionary science, he would avoid delving into the particulars of its problems. Indeed, the two men talked past each other for the entire evening: if Ham were really crusading to reveal the utter bankruptcy of evolutionary science, why would he let that happen?

This recalls the challenge to those who think evolution is “wrong” to point to evidence why they think it’s wrong. Find the evidence, write it up, get it peer reviewed, and collect your Nobel Prize. Don’t the anti-evolutionists realize that if evidence turned up that overturned the accumulated scientific conclusions of 150 years and tens of thousands of scientists, any scientist worth his salt wouldn’t jump at the chance to reveal it to the world and make his reputation for all time?

And Sean McElwee at Salon reflects on the history of Biblical literalism (with an absurd example) and echoes Stoker’s point.

Creationism is a fraud. It is like witchcraft, the 9/11 conspiracy theory or homeopathy; it is a closed system, one that reason cannot penetrate. Nye’s decision to debate Ham and the decision to even air the debate was absurd. Bill Nye accepted the debate assuming he was debating about evolution; he was not. Rather he was debating a political issue. As Ken Ham has said elsewhere, ”As the creation foundation is removed, we see the Godly institutions also start to collapse. On the other hand, as the evolution foundation remains firm, the structures built on that foundation–lawlessness, homosexuality, abortion, etc–logically increase. We must understand this connection.”


Both organizations (Ham’s Answers in Genesis and the Discovery Institute) are intimately intertwined with right-wing political causes. In the debate, Ham mentioned these ideas, noting that the Biblical definition of marriage is between one man and one woman. The goal is not to defend the absurd idea of young-earth creationism, but rather biblical literalism, the ideology from which fundamentalists draw their strength. If evolution is true, if the Bible cannot be interpreted literally, then women can preach and seek abortion and gays can wed. Throughout its history, religious fundamentalism has been a force to mobilize and defend far-right causes – creationism is merely a “wedge” to expose children to fundamentalist beliefs.

Rose Eveleth at points out that these kinds of debates don’t change anyone’s mind – in fact, recent research in psychology show that

There’s a good body of evidence that these kinds of debates not only don’t change minds, but further entrench people into whatever side they’re on.

…citing examples we’ve seen in David McRaney and elsewhere.

Still, I’ll give last word to Phil Plait later today on Slate, who suggests that a debate like this *does* have a positive effect, if only to expose the naïve faithful to the idea that evidence matters and is not necessarily the enemy of religion.

Let me be clear: Ham is wrong in pretty much everything he says; the debate last night gave ample evidence of that. I could list a hundred statements he made that are simply incorrect or grave distortions of reality. I won’t bother; you can find that information easily, including in my own blog posts about creationism.

But Ham is insidiously wrong on one important aspect: He insists evolution is anti-religious. But it’s not; it’s just anti-his-religion. This is, I think, the most critical aspect of this entire problem: The people who are attacking evolution are doing so because they think evolution is attacking their beliefs.

But unless they are the narrowest of fundamentalists, this simply is not true. There is no greater proof of this than Pope John Paul II—who, one must admit, was a deeply religious man—saying that evolution was an established fact. Clearly, not all religion has a problem with evolution. Given that a quarter of U.S. citizens are Catholics, this shows Ham’s claim that evolution is anti-religious to be wrong.

Well, one last link– not all religious folk are creationists. Even Pat Robertson, who’s expressed many looney-tunes opinions about how gays are responsible for hurricanes and so on and so on, says:

Even Pat Robertson Thinks Young Earth Creationism Is A ‘Joke’

To say that it all came about in 6,000 years is just nonsense and I think it’s time we come off of that stuff and say this isn’t possible.

This entry was posted in Evolution, Lunacy, Philosophy, Psychology, Religion, Thinking. Bookmark the permalink.