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Bill Nye, Ken Ham debate - double default

Last night (February 4, 2014), Bill Nye ("the Science Guy") and Ken Ham, director of Answers in Genesis, held their debate. The subject should have been easy to defend. Instead, neither side scored a clear victory. In fact, by any objective standard, the outcome was a double default.

Bill Nye the Science Guy at The UP Experience 2010.
Ed Schipul, CC BY-SA 2.0 Generic License

An easy subject

The subject of the debate was:

Is creationism a viable model of origins in today's scientific world?

Had it been "Is creationism the correct model of origins?" the debate would have been more difficult and also more interesting. But surely anyone well-versed in origins science could have won for the affirmative. But Ken Ham went into the debate like a duellist carrying an unloaded gun.

Nor did Bill Nye make things especially difficult. Half his attack on creationism as a viable model consisted of shopworn "findings" of great apparent ages. These "findings" depend on conventional assumptions. Chief of these is an a priori assumption that relevant processes are uniform over time. No one has any reliable evidence that these processes have stayed uniform, but Bill Nye assumes it anyway.

The other half consisted of four different logical fallacies, and arguably five. Evolutionists use these fallacies all the time. Ken Ham could and should have countered them effectively. He did not.

Of course, the National Center for Science Education awarded the debate to Bill Nye. But even they said Bill Nye won with showmanship. "A showman's flair," says Josh Rosenau, is "the most vital tool of all in any oral debate over evolution and creationism."

Elizabeth Dias, in Time, wrote this entertaining and sardonic summary of the debate. She shows no bias, and spares neither side. She does not explicitly call the debate a double default. But when she says,

Your #TBT(uesday) to the ‘90s creation culture wars is complete. You survived. Now go get some sleep.

she does not say who won. Because neither side won.

So this will be the defense Ken Ham should have offered to Bill Nye, but did not.

Bill Nye plays the dating game

Evolution advocates always play the "dating game" in any debate. The Grand Evolutionary Paradigm of uniformitarianism, abiogenesis and common descent depends on a great age for the earth. Sure enough, Nye brought forth observations from the old standbys: ice cores, tree rings, and radioactive decay. Each of these depends on uniformitarianism: the idea that any process at work today have always worked, at the same rate, since time immemorial.

Bill Nye neglected to mention the pleochroic halos that Robert V. Gentry found beginning in 1965. (See here.) Those halos show that radioactive decay accelerated in the distant past. This violates the central assumption of radiometric dating: that radioactive decay is constant over time. (Decay does vary slightly by the seasons. But seasonal variation would average out over thousands of years, or millions.)

The problem: Ken Ham also did not mention the halos. He did mention Snelling's 1996 paper, "Radioactive 'Dating' in Conflict!" Snelling and his team found fossilized wood, having an apparent age of 45,000 years, buried in basalt with an apparent age in the millions of years. (Why didn't Nye blithely suggest that a crew of Aborigines buried the tree in some still-hard-to-explain ritual? Ms. Dias didn't think to ask. Bill Nye never mentioned Aborigines, though SECOA suggested he could have.)

Bill Nye also mentioned bristlecone pines to show an older age than 6,000 years. But in doing so, he forgot that most bristlecone pines are colony-like entities. Trying to date a bristlecone pine colony by some kind of cumulative sum of the ages of its members is fraught with peril. In fact the oldest single organism alive today is the White Mountains bristlecone pine that Edward Schulman and Tom Harlan found. It tops this list at 5,062 years of age as of 2012. Therefore it sprouted in 3051 BC. That is consistent with the astronomical date range that Brown and Hurlbut reported in May of 2013. (Ken Ham might want to revise his age of the earth upward, to 7,000 years, based on this finding.)

Ken Ham mentioned none of this. Bill Nye got away with telling half-truths, because Ken Ham did not think to call him on them.

Bill Nye appeals to numbers, the crowd, and authority

Evolutionists inevitably commit three related logical fallacies, sometimes all in one sentence. Bill Nye was no exception. He repeatedly spoke of "majorities" accepting evolution, and challenged the credentials of those who did not. That's three different logical fallacies:

  1. Argumentum a numeris (argument from the numbers)
  2. Argumentum a populo or argumentum a multitudine (argument from "the people," or the crowd.)
  3. Argumentum ab auctoritate (argument from authority, or literally from clout).

Ken Ham tried once to rebut that. He said,

Just because the majority accepts a thing, does not make it right.

True enough. But Ken Ham did not do enough to show why the numbers, the people, and the clout holders, are wrong.

Bill Nye appeals to emotion

This last was too much even for Elizabeth Dias to stomach. Bill Nye said at least five separate times, that if Americans do not embrace what he called "the process of science," it will fall behind the rest of the world in technology.

Ken Ham opened by distinguishing origins science from operational science. Origins science tries to tell us where things came from. Operational science tells us how things work. Bill Nye utterly rejected that distinction. To "prove" the distinction valueless, he cited the popular Crime Scene Investigation franchise on American television. In that, Bill Nye got it half right. Origins theory is like a crime-scene investigation. But Nye seemed to think all he need do was cite the dates, and he had the evidence. He then tried to suggest if anyone doubted these dates, that person would not be fit as an engineer or a medical researcher or an inventor. (Ken Ham also led with quotes from inventors who also accepted creation.)

Bill Nye resorts to lies

Bill Nye told one outright lie that Elizabeth Dias missed. He said if any scientist developed a new theory that trashed the old theories, his fellow scientists would welcome him with open arms. False! And he should know it is false. Every scientist who advocates creation, faces discrimination by his so-called peers. (That also applies to climate-change skeptics, as the Climate-gate archive made abundantly clear.) Nye cited Louis Pasteur as one who changed the paradigm about human disease. He failed to mention that a rival doctor forced Pasteur to recant his germ theory as his price for attending Madame Pasteur's labor-and-delivery after washing his hands. Nor did he mention Ignaz Semmelweiss, whose peers literally drove him to the insane asylum for suggesting doctors wash their hands after doing autopsies and before attending births.

More to the point, Nye repeatedly accused Ham of asserting that natural law itself changed. Ken Ham never said that. But he never said enough. No natural law says radioactive elements never change their decay rate. Radioactive decay does vary with the seasons, faster in Northern Hemisphere winter (perihelion) than in summer (aphelion). Neutrino flux from the sun regulates this decay. And plasma, or atoms stripped of their electrons, is subject to very high decay rates, and to fusions that are otherwise impossible.

Ken Ham's defenses

Ken Ham did try to defend his narrative in a few particulars. Nye cited an old experiment in wooden shipbuilding to say no one could possibly build a wooden vessel 515 feet long or longer. Ken Ham reminded him that the ancient Egyptians were better shipwrights than Nye gave them credit for being. But he gave few details. (The Egyptians, according to Tim Lovett, are one of the best examples of the technology that Noah might have commanded when he built his Ark.) Ken Ham also reminded Bill Nye that information cannot write itself. He also defended his model for biological diversity: an orchard of life, not a tree. Many ancestral kinds, not just one. Bill Nye tried to attack this, but offered no proof that all life derived from one ancestor. (An ancestor that, furthermore, self-assembled from a chemical soup only.)

But Ken Ham failed to challenge Bill Nye's assertion that no polystrate fossils were known. Nor did he challenge the central assumption of conventional paleontology: that all fossils are buried in sequence. Walter T. Brown could have told them both: fossils are buried in order of specific gravity. The fossil layers we see today, sorted that way during the Flood disaster. But Ken Ham also failed to challenge directly the name Bill Nye had to drop: that of Charles Lyell, the father of uniformitarianism.

A sad outcome

Ken Ham could have won handily, especially when defending such an easy proposition as whether creation is a viable model of origins. But even he is not the showman Bill Nye is. He also did not use the most effective arguments against those Nye presented. This could be because the creation movement has its own prejudices, that hinder the kind of cooperation that evolutionists practice.

Walter T. Brown has a long-standing challenge to debate anyone, on telephone conference or in writing. Tellingly, he has no takers. If Bill Nye really wanted to have a debate, he might accept Brown's recorded telephonic debate challenge. Of course he would have to accept a moderator who would not let him get away with appeals to numbers, the crowd, clout, or emotion. And in Brown he would have an opponent with the most comprehensive model of creation and the Global Flood that anyone has yet devised. That debate would have held even Elizabeth Dias' interest.