Posted by: paulgarner | February 5, 2014

Reflections on the Ham-Nye debate

Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock for the last few months, and if you have any interest at all in the origins question, then you’ll know that last night saw the long-trailed debate between Ken Ham and Bill Nye take place at Answers in Genesis’ Creation Museum in Kentucky. The event was also streamed live on the internet to tens of thousands of viewers around the world, including yours truly.

Ken Ham is well known to many as the public face of creationism while Bill Nye has a celebrity following in the USA as ‘the TV Science Guy’, though both are less well known here in the UK. Many creationists were excited at the prospect of seeing the two men face off, because so few creation-evolution debates happen these days compared to the heydays of the seventies and eighties when Duane Gish and Henry Morris regularly toured university campuses. By and large, anti-creationists were unhappy with Nye for agreeing to the debate, many feeling that a public platform of this kind simply gives creationists a credibility they don’t deserve.

So how did it go? Here are a few brief reflections.

Although I quite enjoy listening to adversarial debates I don’t think they’re always a good way to get at the truth of a matter, so I wasn’t looking forward to this event as much as some of my friends and colleagues were. And, sure enough, I was a bit disappointed with it overall. I’m not sure Ken Ham really took the right approach. There was too much of a scatter gun approach in my view, trying to cover too much ground in a short time. Something more focused would have been better, perhaps the presentation of a few case studies showcasing the predictive and explanatory success of specific creation models. That would have anticipated the repeated challenge by Bill Nye for Ken Ham to give some examples of fulfilled creationist predictions.

For his part, I thought Bill Nye displayed a lot of confusion and misunderstanding of creationism, in a way that often sapped the strength of the points he was trying to make. One glaring example was when he challenged Ken Ham to explain the Lake Missoula boulders in terms of Noah’s Flood, although creationists, like evolutionists, associate these with glacial flooding. Nye clearly hadn’t done sufficient homework to know that. On the whole, he seemed pretty well informed about the physical sciences such as astronomy but less confident when it came to the natural sciences such as geology and biology. And yet these disciplines are the most central to the question of origins.

Of course it’s easy for a non-participant to criticize from the sidelines and rather more difficult for those taking part in the heat of the moment, but I thought both debaters could have given more substantive responses to some challenges. Ken Ham, for example, didn’t seem well prepared to address Bill Nye’s points on bristlecone pines and ice cores. Not that creationists have these issues all sewn up (there are still plenty of unresolved problems!) but there are important things that could have been said and weren’t. Bill Nye missed some obvious comebacks too, I thought, such as his attempt to reconcile conflicting radiocarbon and K-Ar ages with a less-than-credible appeal to overthrusting, rather than the “contamination with modern C-14” argument that I was expecting.

So in my view there were no knockout punches on either side. In fact, I’d call it a score draw. But if you missed it, you can watch it here and judge for yourself.

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