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Bill Nye’s Take on the Nye-Ham Debate

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Bill Nye

Volume 38.3, May/June 2014

For a variety of reasons scientists are generally advised not to debate creationists, thus the certain trepidation when our colleague, the well-known television science educator and CSI Fellow Bill Nye, accepted an invitation for just such a debate about origins with creationist Ken Ham. The debate took place February 4, 2014, at the Creation Museum in Kentucky and was streamed live worldwide. Afterward the Skeptical Inquirer invited Bill Nye to give his own first-person view of this much-watched and much-discussed debate, the circumstances surrounding it, his preparations and strategy, and the reasons he decided to take part.

This whole thing started when a crew from BigThink.com asked me about creationism. I was in New York to promote Internet-based science education. While on camera, I remarked that if you, as an adult, want to hold on to a completely unreasonable explanation of the Earth’s natural history that is useless from a practical standpoint, that’s your business. But we don’t want our kids, our science students, to be indoctrinated into that weird worldview, because our kids are the scientists and engineers of the future. They need to be the innovators that drive the U.S. economy in the coming decades. These were offhand, albeit heartfelt, remarks, nominally off the topic I sat down to talk about. As of this writing, the excerpted video with my observations about creationism has logged over 6.3 million views.

debate on stage

Among the viewers apparently was one Ken Ham, who is the head of a congregation in Kentucky that holds doggedly to the idea that the world is somehow merely 6,000 years old. Furthermore, he has raised millions and millions of dollars for what he calls the “Creation Museum,” a facility across the Ohio River from Cincinnati, Ohio, in Petersburg, Kentucky. He wrote to me and challenged me to a debate. For several months, I put the offer or proposal aside thinking the whole thing would blow over. After all, his challenge was based on a minute and a half of video that exists with little context. He was persistent. So, as the weeks went by and we corresponded, I acceded the challenge. More specifically, I was willing to come to his facility if the topic was: “Is creation a viable model of origins in the modern scientific era?” Note that this title does not include the word “evolution,” nor does it connote or imply that we would discuss evolution specifically.

As you may know, once in a while I am invited to offer my thoughts on Fox News. And I love it—I love being in the studio right there with those reporters with the opportunity to look them in the eyes (or lens). As you may infer, I’m not much for their style, and I usually disagree with just about everything a Fox commentator has to say, but I relish the confrontation. I had that same feeling about Ken Ham’s building. I wanted to be in the belly of the beast. I drove by there when I was on other business in Cincinnati a few years ago. The building was closed, but driving around the grounds I saw numerous depictions of ancient dinosaurs. One infamous sculpture featured humans of apparent European descent astride a triceratops-style ancient animal adorned with Christmas lights. I wanted to see the inside someday.

I do about a dozen college appearances every year. It’s a privilege that I enjoy immensely. At first, I figured this appearance and this encounter would get about the same amount of notice as a nice college gig. There’d be a buzz on Twitter and Facebook, but the world would go on spinning without much notice on the outside. Not here: the creationists promoted it like crazy, and soon it seemed like everyone I met was talking about it.

I slowly realized that this was a high-pressure situation. Many of you, by that I mean many of my skeptic and humanist colleagues, expressed deep concern and anger that I would be so foolish as to accept a debate with a creationist, as this would promote him and them more than it would promote me and us. As I often say and sincerely believe, “You may be right.” But, I held strongly to the view that it was an opportunity to expose the well-intending Ken Ham and the support he receives from his followers as being bad for Kentucky, bad for science education, bad for the U.S., and thereby bad for humankind—I do not feel I’m exaggerating when I express it this strongly.

I believe I am generally not the stereotypical male who refuses to ask for directions. I feel locals usually know the way best. By analogy, to find my way through this debate (which was quickly becoming a big damn deal), I consulted the world’s foremost authorities on arguing or debating with creationists. I flew to Oakland, California, and consulted with the famed, venerable, and formidable Genie Scott, along with Josh Roseneau, and the staff at the National Center for Science Education (NCSE). They schooled me on what to do in great detail. Later that week, I managed to arrange a lunch with Don Prothero and Michael Shermer, two hardcore skeptics. Don even debated the notorious Duane Gish back in the 1980s. All of these people were wonderfully helpful. They were very patient with me and helped me figure out what to say and, especially, what not to say. They said to prefer the word “explanation” to the word “theory,” for example. I just can’t thank them enough.

With that said, and everyone profusely thanked, I was going to be on my own in this thing, and I had to make my arguments come from my heart (a metaphor for my point of view—from my brain).

bill nye and ken ham

I am by no means an expert on most of this. Unlike my beloved uncle, I am not a geologist. Unlike my academic colleague and acquaintance Richard Dawkins, I am not an evolutionary biologist. Unlike my old professor Carl Sagan or my fellow Planetary Society Board member and dear friend Neil deGrasse Tyson, I am not an expert on astrophysics. I am, however, a science educator. In this situation, our skeptical arguments are not the stuff of PhDs. It’s elementary science and common sense. That’s what I planned to rely on. That’s what gave me confidence.

With my experience as a science educator, I like to divide elementary science into three categories: life science (biology), physical science (physics and chemistry), and planetary science (geology and astronomy). And so with the remarkable help of the NCSE and skeptics, I chose arguments from each of these three disciplines.

On the slides in my “decks,” as they’re called, I do not use many words. My colleagues sent me dozens of PowerPoint slides for my use. Thank you of course, but my goodness you all, when I watch many of your presentations, it’s like reading a page of book projected on a wall. How can someone in the audience focus on what you’re saying, when there’s a blizzard of words in front of her or him?

Those of you familiar with creationism and its followers are familiar with the remarkable Duane Gish (no longer living—at least as far as we know). His debating technique came to be known as the “Gish Gallop.” He was infamous for jumping from one topic to another, introducing one spurious or specious fact or line of reasoning after another. A scientist debating Gish often got bogged down in details and, by all accounts, came across looking like the loser.

It quickly occurred to me that I could do the same thing. If you make the time to watch the debate (let’s say for free at http://billnye.com—wink, wink), I hope you’ll pick up on this idea. I did my best to slam Ken Ham with a great many scientific and common sense arguments. I believed he wouldn’t have the time or the focus to address many of them.

The night before the debate, I spoke at Murray State University in Murray, Kentucky. The students there were keenly aware of the next evening’s debate. I had a long car drive from one side of the commonwealth to the other. I could not help but notice the layers and layers of beautiful limestone everywhere along the road. We pulled over at a cut where some blasting took place for the road’s right-of-way, and I walked through a few centimeters of snow. I easily picked up three nice specimens of rock revealing several fossilized small shelly ancient sea creatures. I held one up during my opening remarks. There’s an irony that the Creation Museum literally sits atop overwhelming evidence of the true age of our planet.

I’ve got to mention another thing to you all. To a man and woman, all of my advisors, NCSE staff and skeptics alike, strongly felt that the desirable position in a situation like this is to go first. This, many of you believe, puts the onus on the other guy or gal to refute your points. I just don’t see it that way. This may be from experience in television, or it may be my misguided overconfidence; I wanted to go second in the confrontation.

To you go-firsters I say: “You may be right.” I mean you may be right, if this were a debate in an academic session, where there are thoughtful judges from the history department or tort instructors from the law school, who have the ability to determine who said what better than who to whom, per se, et cetera. But this debate was a television show. And my audience was on the worldwide web not in the auditorium. If I get the chance, I go second. I just don’t see it any other way. Whatever Ken Ham talked about, I pretty much planned to talk about what I wanted to talk about.

My agents and publicist induced Tom Foreman from CNN to moderate the event. Mr. Foreman was the ideal man for the job. He’s a thoughtful journalist with a great deal of experience in handling human conflict as he seeks the facts in a story. However, having a respected international journalist sitting on stage with us upped the ante. There would be even more focus and more scrutiny from an even bigger audience. As they say in the theater, if you stop being nervous, stop going out on stage. The key is to take that nervousness or anxiety and convert it to excitement. By the time the debate was ready to start, I sensed that Mr. Ham was nervous, while I was excited.

Tom Foreman, by long debate tradition, tossed a coin backstage. Ken Ham won the toss, and probably taking advice from his people, who were thinking a lot like my people, chose to go first. I was delighted.

From long experience behind unfamiliar lecterns in strange venues, I can tell you: something always goes wrong and you’ve got to roll with it. As I stepped up to my lectern, stage-right of Ken Ham, I realized that I had loaded a previous revision, an unintended version, of my first set of five slides for our first five minutes of presentation. I’ll let you, the viewer, determine which one I intended to leave out. Phew. . . .

If you take the time to watch, Mr. Ham repeatedly mentioned or droned on about the less-than-a-handful of scientists who subscribe to the weird idea that the Earth is crazy (or crazily) young. When my turn came, I talked about geology and the Grand Canyon. Creationists from the United States, or in Australian-born Ham’s case, in the United States, just can’t get enough of the Grand Canyon. I pointed out that not a single fossil form had tried to swim from one rock layer to another during his purported worldwide flood, only 4,000 years ago. Were we to find such a fossil, it would utterly change geology and our scientific worldview. I did a bit of engineering, pointing out that no wooden boat has ever been built as big as Ham’s imagined ark. In fact, the big ones that were built were smaller and generally twisted apart— and sank (for this I used a chart from Ham’s website). I made it personal where possible. The Nyes are an old New England family, many of whom sailed wooden ships. I also spoke of decades in the Pacific Northwest, where I observed the enormous boulders washed westward by ancient collapsing ice dams in what is now Montana.

In keeping with the idea of getting the audience to like me, I spent my first minute and a half on a joke about bow ties. I’m not sure how many of my academic colleagues would have made that choice, but I stand by it.

I pointed out that evolution is a successful theory, because it enables us to make predictions. I showed a map, a fossil, and an artist’s rendering of Tiktaalik, the extinct but quite real lizard-fish. And, I felt joy as I talked about the best theory we have to explain why meta-life forms like dandelions, velociraptors, humans, and minnows have and had sex. Yes, I said, “Sex—sex, sex, sex” to the auditorium audience. Many seemed to have their heads tossed back the way our heads move when we encounter an oncoming two-by-four.

I’ve met several people who loved (or very much enjoyed) my reference to kangaroos. Thanks to Genie and her colleagues for that: If kangaroos got off the ark in Mesopotamia, why aren’t there kangaroos in Laos? (Again, I used a map from Ham’s very website.) Then, from geology: If I find ice that has evidence of 680,000 layers of summer-winter cycles, how could the Earth be any younger? Thanks to Don for that. How can there be 9,500-year-old trees if the Earth is only 6,000 years old? And so on.

Something else I’d like to point out: From the beginning, I told Genie et al., that at some level, this thing has to be fun. Otherwise, it’s hard to be passionate and have the audience like you. Put another way, what is it that you or each of us loved about your favorite teacher or professor? I believe it’s his or her passion. It was Mr. Lang, my teacher who loved physics, who got me excited about airplanes, mechanisms, and electronics. To that end, I included a bit from astronomy. I talked about the big bang and why we, in the rest of the world, believe in it and are filled with joy by it. I figured that Mr. Ham would be at best apologetic, and at worst, just plain bewildered by it. I leave any conclusion about his reaction up to you.

Perhaps there was no winner, as this was not a scored debate. Nevertheless by all, or a strong majority of, accounts, I bested him. The fundamental idea that I hope all of us embrace is, simply put, performance counts as much or more than the specifics of the arguments in a situation like this. I admit that, for me at least, it took tremendous concentration. I was and am respectful of Ken Ham’s passion. At a cognitive level, he believes what he says. He really means it, when he says that he has “a book” that supersedes everything you and I and his parishioners can observe everywhere in nature around us. I respected that commitment; I used it to drive, what actors call, my “inner monologue.” I did not choose, as I was advised, to attack, attack, attack. My actor’s preparation helped me keep things civil and be respectful of Mr. Ham despite what struck me as his thoughtless point of view. I’m sure it influenced the countless people who’ve written to me and come up to me in public to express their strong and often enthusiastic support. Thank you all.

After the debate, my agent and I were driven back to our hotel. We were, by agreement, accompanied by two of Ham’s security people. They were absolutely grim. I admit it made me feel good. They had the countenance of a team that had been beaten—beaten badly in their own stadium. Incidentally, if the situation were reversed, I am pretty sure they are trained to feel bad about feeling good. They would manage to feel bad either way, which is consistent with Mr. Ham’s insistence on The Fall, when humankind took its first turn for the worse. And by his reckoning, we’ve been plummeting ever since.

In an interview after the debate, Piers Morgan of CNN asked Mr. Ham about climate change. Ham denied denying it, but I reminded the audience that he did deny climate change in at least one interview. It’s somehow connected, because it points to Ken Ham and his followers’ ability to exclude themselves from responsibility and from nature. It is weird and, for me, troubling.

A few weeks after the debate, Answers in Genesis held an online event in which they announced that they have or had raised the funds for their amazing “Ark Encounter” theme park, or “Ark Park.” I posted a tweet on the Twitter social media site, “Here’s hoping voters & journalists wonder: where did all those $ millions come so quickly? After a deadline?” Soon after that, Mark Looy of AIG sent an email to my office assuring me that the bonds had already been secured, before Feb. 4, i.e. before the debate—and before the unrated bonds’ deadline. I could not help but notice that Ken Ham made no mention of this during our encounter, i.e., during the debate itself. I also could not help but notice that his colleagues suggested that the debate helped close certain aspects of their Ark Park deal, later during their online event—at which not a single journalist, or anyone else for that matter, was present. These are details, but it does make me wonder, who donates those millions? I wonder if one project is leveraged against the other. I’ll leave it to the Kentucky journalism community to seek answers in this funding genesis.

I very much hope this whole business galvanizes the people in the Commonwealth of Kentucky and in neighboring states to take the time to think critically about creationism and to vote to remove it from science classrooms and texts. I frankly hope that in the coming few years not a single student in Kentucky is indoctrinated by the Answers in Genesis facilities and staff.

No matter where this leads, thanks to all of you, who’ve helped me over the years and in recent weeks to think critically and speak clearly about science and reason. It’s in the national interest to enlighten young people. The longest journey starts with but a single step. In this debate, we’ve already traveled a long way, but with projects like the Ark Park still in play, there is quite a journey yet ahead. If we keep making our arguments clear, and continue to vote and fight the political fights, together we can change the world.

Copyright Bill Nye

Bill Nye

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Bill Nye (The Science Guy) is chief executive officer of The Planetary Society. He learned his love of astronomy from Carl Sagan while earning a mechanical engineering degree at Cornell University. He was the writer, producer, and on-air talent for the Emmy Award-winning Bill Nye the Science Guy TV series from 1992–1998. More recently his program 100 Greatest Discoveries aired on the Science Channel. He is a Committee for Skeptical Inquiry fellow and was the keynote speaker at the recent Center for Inquiry/CSI/CSH Summit Conference in Tacoma, Washington.