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Hearts and minds

by Donald Prothero, Feb 12 2014

I write this post just a few hours after watching the Ham on Nye “debate” last night. I’m still mulling over the details, and checking on line to see the evolving reactions to the events, but it’s running through my head so much now that it’s time to write it down so I can get back to work. Fittingly, it will post on February 12, Darwin’s 205th birthday. It couldn’t be more appropriate.

Let me start at the beginning. I was at Michael Shermer’s New Year’s Eve party last December 31st.  This is not just your average New Year’s Eve party: it’s in Shermer’s magnificent glass-walled view house at the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains with an amazing panorama of the lights of the city below.  He had his telescope out on the porch, and we all got a view of the four Galilean moons of Jupiter. The guests include Mr. Deity and “Lucy” (Brian Keith Dalton and Amy Rohren), D.J. Grothe of the James Randi Educational Foundation, lots of scientists including several JPL people, Shermer’s grad students—and Bill Nye. Late in the evening, Bill comes up to me and mentions that he had agreed to debate Ken Ham. He knew I’d beaten Duane Gish back in 1983, and that I was familiar with battling creationism over the past 35 years. After I talked to him and realized that the debate was set and he could not back out, I offered to help him prepare. Then about 3 weeks ago, he emailed me and we made arrangements. He spent a day in Oakland at the National Center for Science Education (NCSE), where a bunch of their staff helped him analyze Ham’s past debates and arguments (they have archives of every creationist out there), and suggest strategies. Since Ham had voluntarily  set the debate topic to defend the scientific value and truth of the Bible, Bill was not in the usual dilemma of having to defend and explain complex topics of evolution. Normally, creationists employ the “Gish Gallop” to keep the scientist on the defensive, trying to undo the mistaken ideas and lies the creationist has just said, and replace it with a more complex explanation. Instead, the NCSE staffers  recommended that Bill use this to his advantage, and do a “reverse Gish Gallop”: pile on the examples one after another, so that Ham wouldn’t have time or ability to answer them all.

On January 21st, Bill met with me at Shermer’s house, where Michael and I both tried to make additional suggestions and give him some specific examples. We both gave him copies of our old Powerpoints we used against creationists, and I gave him a copy of my 2007 book on evolution and DVDs of my Skeptic Society lectures on those topics. During the ensuing days, I spent a lot of time pasting together Powerpoint slides out of my many older lectures that I thought would work well, and sending them to him. As Bill got his own slides together, he shared them with me, Shermer, and Genie Scott and Josh Rosenau of the NCSE. We tried our own suggestions and tweaks, but ultimately it had to be something he was comfortable with and not words we had put in  his mouth.

Bill Nye with the NCSE coaches: (bottom, Steve Newton, Minda Berbeco, Josh Rosenau; Top, Glenn Branch, Ann Reid, Nye, Genie Scott)

Bill Nye with the NCSE coaches: (bottom, Steve Newton, Minda Berbeco, Josh Rosenau; Top, Glenn Branch, Ann Reid, Nye, Genie Scott)

Of course, I had a lot of trepidation when the event finally started online with their Lord of the Rings-Star Wars-influenced theme music, and the gratuitous ad for the Creation Museum (“Free for kids with paying adult”) at the opening. Sure, it was on Ham’s home turf with an audience almost entirely of his loyal flock (all debates with creationists have the audience stacked in their favor). Sure,  Ken was going to make about $25,000 of all the admissions from the attendees, plus money from DVD sales and other ancillaries. But what he really wanted is a big win and a publicity boost so he could get backers to fund  his “Ark Encounter” project that is about be canceled if it doesn’t sell $29 million in junk bonds by Feb. 6 (which it apparently didn’t) and $150 million by the funding deadline in May, or all his tax deals with the Commonwealth of Kentucky to build him roads and infrastructure will expire. Ken has his own sinking ship to worry about: his “Creation Museum” is losing money as visitation drops, his “Ark Encounter” is about to sink badly, so favorable publicity is the real issue, not the piddling amount he made in ticket sales and DVDs.

The debate itself was pretty much as I expected. Ham won the coin toss, and went first with a 5-minute opening, then after Bill’s first 5 minutes, he got a full 30 minutes to speak uninterrupted (followed by Nye’s 30 minutes). He did exactly as we predicted: play up this phony distinction he cooked up between “observational” vs. “historical” science (more on that in a future post), brag about the handful of scientists in the world who are Young-Earth Creationists (YECs), nearly all in irrelevant fields completely outside the only relevant disciplines: biology, paleontology, or geology. He was trying to make  the ridiculous assertion that if these people were good scientists and YECs, therefore YEC must be right. He trotted out the usual phony ideas about how mainstream science was in a great conspiracy to suppress religion, and to rule out the supernatural because we’re all atheists. Toward the end of his 30-minute spiel, he began spouting religion in earnest. During his entire presentation, he presented no evidence from science that supported  his cause, only an argument by association with scientists who are closet creationists. Big deal!
Bill’s opening and 30-minute presentation were pretty much his own inventions, with a few ideas we had suggested to him. In his opening 5 minutes, he shot down the ridiculous “observational vs. historical” distinction, emphasized the importance of science in our culture, and set the tone for his entire debate.  His first slide of the 30-minute time slot was an idea I gave him: point out that the “Creation Museum” is built on the very  rocks that refute the “Flood Geology” model, complete with a hand sample of fossiliferous limestone he got from the local road cuts (somehow, even though several feet of snow were on the ground). Again and again, he reminded everyone that YEC is a narrow sectarian belief held by a tiny minority in the world (including a minority of Christians, and an even tinier minority of Americans), yet they would force their views on the rest of us and interfere with science education. He got off the line about how many real evolutionary scientists are also good Christians, such as  NIH Director Francis Collins. But the bulk of his presentation focused on the ridiculous implications of the Noah’s Flood model and of the 6000 year old earth: how we have ice cores with 680,000 annual layers in them (I gave him that one) and tree rings going back over 6000 years; how the “Ark” would have torn apart because no wooden boat longer than 350 feet can survive the open ocean (let alone how it could have been built by 8 people in Noah’s family); how if only the “created kinds” were aboard, they’d have to speciate at a rate of 12 new species every day for the past 4000 years to account for the millions of species alive now (way faster than speciation as we observe it today, and a lot more evolution than most creationists would accept as well). Nye finished with the way science is about discovery and prediction of what we should find next (the opposite of creationism), giving as an example the Big Bang and the cosmic background radiation, and capped it with a reminder that our country, and our kids, need good science education if the U.S. wants to remain competitive in the world of future science and technology.
During the succeeding short 5-minute back and forth, and the 2-minute question session, the themes got somewhat disjointed, as both were no longer on their prepared remarks. Bill kept prodding Ham to suggest any prediction that creation science would make, and Ham dodged it. Even though the audience was supposedly stacked in Ham’s favor, some of the questions given to him were right to the point: they forced him to admit that he cherry-picked the Bible and didn’t take all of it literally; they exposed the shallowness of his science education; and many other questions that put him ill at ease, spouting “There is a book out there…” and falling back on the Bible rather than scientific evidence. Ham really stumbled when Bill pressed him about how a lion used it sharp teeth to eat grass. Ham was flustered, then retorted that bears and pandas eat plants. (Bill didn’t know it, but both bears and pandas also have blunt crushing teeth in the back for this very reason). Best of all, one question about what evidence would cause him to reject creationism forced him to admit that NO evidence would change his views. For anyone who was not already a hard-core YEC, that should have been the slam-dunk admission of defeat right there.

Both speakers had their good moments and fumbles. Many thought Bill should have gone for the jugular and attacked whenever Ham spouted another example of the idiocy of his beliefs, but Bill held back and instead tried to emphasize how Ken’s ideas go against common sense and everyday experience and logic. In few cases, Bill botched the explanation of the science he was discussing (a point only we scientists noticed), but Ham didn’t know enough  science to spot it and correct him. Ham kept going on and on from beginning to end about the inferiority of “historical science” and many of us thought Bill should keep addressing it, but he didn’t. As I’ll discuss at length in future posts, Bill didn’t drive home the punch line on several key points (some of which I gave him) as effectively as he might. Not being a geologist, he didn’t know the correct way to shoot down the ridiculous claim Ham made about the 45 m.y. old lava (dated by K-Ar) encasing a 45,000 year old piece of wood (dated by radiocarbon). I coached Bill a bit about radiometric dating, but he’s not spent a lot of time learning all the creationist lies. Thus, he didn’t know that radiocarbon is useless for materials older than 40,000 years, so no real geologist would even take such a date seriously–the wood is radiocarbon dead and not datable. He also could have hit home harder why the ridiculous question about the Second Law of Thermodynamics does not apply to the earth or evolution—it only applies to closed systems, and the earth is an open system getting energy from the sun.

But these are all quibbles. Most of us in the scientific community focus on nit-picking details and scientific correctness, which is why it is so hard to debate creationists who run roughshod over the truth and never look back. A better barometer was immediately apparent as they signed off. A portion of the crowd shouted “Bill, Bill, Bill” (as in the theme song of his old show)—so it wasn’t completely packed with creationists. Afterwards, Bill was mobbed at the podium by many well-wishers, while no one walked up to Ham, and he quietly left the stage.

As I monitored the chatter online and in the liveblogs and twittersphere and other media, there were a wide range of reactions. Many were like I used to be, thinking like scientists (“Bill didn’t explain this point correctly”, “Bill didn’t challenge Ham on this tiny detail”) or as experienced debaters (“Bill didn’t attack Ham on this point” “Bill left this outrageous claim unchallenged” “Bill didn’t attack the Bible enough”). But I’ve come to see that they’re missing the point. As Randy Olson (scientist and filmmaker of “Flock of Dodos” which skewers scientists for being arrogant and unwilling to communicate to the general public) points out, it’s not really a “debate” in the normal sense, where the opponents address common points and talk about the same topic, and score when they make an intelligent comeback or delicious riposte or bon mot. Bill and Ken were talking about two completely different topics with almost no overlap, so as in all these events, there is no real “debate” when the two sides don’t even agree on common definitions, common rules, standards of evidence, or even what is real.

What’s really at stake is the meta-debate, the overall impression created by the experience, which is the best way to win the hearts and minds (as they used to say about the Vietnam War). Nothing Bill could have said would change the minds of a typical YEC, any more than Ham’s Bible-thumping impresses real scientists. No, the real audience is the huge number of people on the fence, not sure of what to believe. I found that my 2007 evolution book reached a lot of these people effectively, and these people outside the room were the true audience. As Olson said and the NCSE people coached him, what really counts is to be likable, friendly, positive, upbeat, non-threatening, while explaining the science in a clear simple fashion at fifth-grade level, and not bullying or being condescending to the opponent or looking arrogant or smug as a scientist (These things are very hard for me to do, since I take the creationist’s attacks as a personal attack on my profession and my integrity. Another reason I won’t debate them any more). Bill didn’t attack Ham directly or belittle his idiocy and stupidity (most of us wanted to throttle Ham each time he spouted another lie). Instead, Bill was a gentleman, talking up the absurdity of his position and saying how it “troubled him,” how Ham’s ideas were against evidence and common sense, and generally letting the audience fill in the blanks when they too realized how silly YEC is. Bill has been a TV entertainer and science educator for 30 years, and he (along with Neil DeGrasse Tyson and the late Carl Sagan) are among the few scientists who are good popularizers that we need so badly. Even as the debate was winding up, most people no longer remembered any of the details or who scored points on whom, or who failed to reply to whose challenge. What they DO remember is that they liked Bill and he made science sound fun and interesting and important, while Ham came off as a dogmatic religious extremist who wouldn’t change his mind despite any evidence, and fell back on the Bible rather than scientific evidence each time he was challenged. Bill beat Ham on this issue, hands down!

If you doubt me, just look at the reaction to the debate. Not only did the audience in that room swarm Bill, but the chatter online has been overwhelmingly in his favor. Over 500,000 watched it live on YouTube, and at least a million more on different live stream links, an audience far larger than most scientists can generate except on TV shows. Ham’s own Answers in Genesis website so far has not posted anything crowing about their great victory–just a bland recounting of the points Ken raised without a summation of who they think was the winner! The PR-savvy Discovery Institute website, which always comes back the next day after a debate bragging about how they “won”, instead is criticizing Ham for making them look bad with all his ridiculous YEC nonsense. Now they have a post redirecting our attention to their own Stephen Meyer debating Charles Marshall, trying to steer away from what they call “Ham’s fiasco”. Even Pat Robertson scolded Ham for making Christianity look stupid! But the real clincher was a poll on Christian Today, a site that should favor Ham. As of their last posting, their poll shows Nye won 92% to 8%!

American science is under serious threat from all sorts of science deniers out there, including creationists, climate deniers, anti-vaxxers, quack medicine, and other ideologues who don’t like what science tells us and refuses to accept it. Science deniers currently dominate one of our major political parties, seriously threatening the future of science in this country, and our economic future. As Randy Olson has pointed out so many times, we’ve been hiding in our ivory towers, unwilling to fight back against the forces of science denial, and we’re losing ground. As the Discovery Institute knows so well, PR is important! We need people like Bill Nye and Neil DeGrasse Tyson and others expert at communicating science in a friendly, likable fashion more than ever if we are to hold back the forces of darkness.

43 Responses to “Hearts and minds”

  1. Ratabago says:

    A correction: in the paragraph beginning ” Bill’s opening and 30-minute presentation”, I think you mean millions of species, not billions.

    I’m not sure Ham was actually lying, I’m quite willing to believe he really is that deluded. Fabich, on the other hand, I feel needs to be asked some pointed questions. He has completely misrepresented Dr Lenski’s work. Given his claimed expertise it is hard to see how that could be accidental. I wish Nye had known enough about this to gently correct Ham over it.

  2. Vincent-louis Apruzzese says:

    Thank you very much for this description of the debate itself and keeping mostly away from the « should he have or should he not have » part of the discussion. He did do it and I feel I have a good idea how it went now. I perosnally think the problem with these fringe elements (evolution, climate change, vaccine deniers) is that they represent a very tiny part of the population but get far too much coverage and weight in the general media. Debating them might change some minds but getting news organisations to end the false balance policies they have developed over the years would really keep these these useless and uninformed ideas from getting more traction with the general public.

  3. kl green says:

    I watched the debate live. Nye was brilliant.

    I had expected that Bill would have his @ss handed to him, not because he’s not a smart guy or doesn’t know enough, but simply because he is constrained by facts, logic, and integrity.

    I think it’s good that Nye didn’t try to go for the jugular on every crazy point. He used a lot of self restraint. He was a perfect gentleman! He even said that he learned something from Ham! Look, everybody sees something like this and thinks, “Hey, he should have said this or he should have made that point stronger!” But Bill did great. Instead, Bill respected his audience – didn’t tell them what to think, but let them figure out that 2+2=4.

    Are there people who could have been more scientifically correct and beaten Ham more severely on the science? Without question. But one can win the facts and still lose the larger debate. Bill did great. I should have had more confidence in him.

    My first response to Ham’s opening statement would have been the same response Joe Pesci gave to the prosecution’s opening statement
    in the movie “My Cousin Vinny.” It would be technically correct and would no doubt cause those who agree with me to chuckle. But it would have last the debate.

    Also, every scientist is in the position where he has to speak outside his area of expertise. One of the great tactics of creationists is to hammer opponents in areas other than their own expertise. I noticed this first when I watched as a confused believer back when Duane Gish debated Russell Doolittle. Here you have two biochemists and you would expect this would get into some heavy chemistry – but not a peep on it throughout the entire debate until the very end when Gish mentioned it in passing.

    I learned something from Ham, too. Unlike Gish or Hovind, Ham seems sincere in his beliefs. What he’s saying is still stupid, but at least he’s not lying. That does not mean that I think he is intellectually honest. When a guy says essentially that the facts are irrelevant to his beliefs, then no matter how sincerely held his beliefs are, he’s lacking in intellectual integrity.

    In retrospect, I think Bill was right in doing the debate and in his approach. Creationism has to be confronted, but I doubt most scientists have the temperament to dispatch these guys without insulting the audience. I thank Bill for doing this – and I thank everyone who helped him prepare: you, Shermer, NCSE, whoever else.

    Debating the creationists doesn’t “legitimize” them. They’re *already* legitimate in the eyes of the true believers – and in the eyes of the fence-sitters who think, “Well, they both have good points, we should teach both!” A tie is a victory creationists. They NEVER have to win in any objective sense; they only have to create enough confusion that the audience is undecided. This debate illustrated a stark contrast for those fence-sitters.

    Nye represented the scientific approach: I’ll change my mind with the evidence.

    Ham represented the religious approach: There is nothing that can make me change my mind.

    Dressing up religious apologetics in science-y sounding words doesn’t and won’t ever make it actual science.

    • Gavin says:

      “I learned something from Ham, too. Unlike Gish or Hovind, Ham seems sincere in his beliefs.”

      I agree; except I’d say it’s Gish and Hovind’s rhetoric that’s insincere, not their beliefs.

      I still have to wonder what Nye “learned”, though.

    • WScott says:

      “My first response to Ham’s opening statement would have been the same response Joe Pesci gave to the prosecution’s opening statement
      in the movie “My Cousin Vinny.” It would be technically correct and would no doubt cause those who agree with me to chuckle. But it would have last the debate.”
      Ha! “Everything that guy just said is bullshit. Thank you.” I definitely would’ve laughed with you. But yeah, not the way to win a debate.

  4. Shane Greenup says:

    Great article Donald!

    I was interested to see you mention using “reverse Gish Gallop” as a strategy. How do you feel that worked out in the end? I wrote my own feelings about the debate immediately after it happened too, and that was one of the things which I felt didn’t work as well as focusing on 3 or 4 key arguments and ensuring that everyone really understood why those points destroy YEC, and then repeatedly pointing back to those well established points whenever necessary.

    Do you think lots of examples would work better than that? Maybe it is worth trying this approach in the next big debate which comes?

    (See my post here if you are interested:

    The other thing I just wanted to say, is that I am glad you mentioned the fact that debates are for the people who are on the fence. This is something I have been hammering on about for a while with rbutr, because so many people react with the “They’re never going to change their mind anyway!” line, ignoring all of the people watching who haven’t made up their minds yet.

    I wish more people would realise how much more common ‘unsure’ is, as a mindset.

    Again, great article! Thanks!

  5. Max says:

    This Time Magazine reporter gave Ham points for his God of the gaps arguments.

    Next question for Nye: How did the atoms that created the big bang get there? “This is the great mystery,” Nye, cornered by the creationists. Check.
    Ham chimes in: There actually is a book that says where matter comes from: it’s called the Bible. Mic drop #2 for Ham. Nye doesn’t flinch.
    Another question for Nye: How did consciousness come from matter? “Don’t know! This is a great mystery!” Mic drop #3 for Ham, even though Nye goes on and on about how much he loves mysteries.

    Missed three chances to explain God of the gaps.

    • tmac57 says:

      Good point on the GOTGs missed opportunity.It didn’t even occur to me at the time.But then again my response to the ‘where do atoms come from’ argument would have been that Ham was making an apriori assumption that everything that does exist must have a prior cause,and assuming that, either god has not always existed and had a prior cause (which was what?),or that god does not, in fact, exist,and at least we can see and measure matter (it exists)…not so god.

  6. Gavin says:

    To be fair, before it was linked in atheism subreddits, the Christianity Today poll “only” favored Nye by 87%. It should also be kept in mind that such web polls are pretty easy to hack.

    But I think this has been something of a turning point, on the order of the Scopes trial. Pat Robertson’s castigation of Ham is especially telling. For the month leading up to the debate, I’d been cheering for Bill’s courage, not just for standing up to a powerfully obtuse rhetorist on his own turf, but for bucking the fashion of non-involvement among evolutionary science promoters. The point wasn’t to “win” the debate, but to reach out to those unfortunate enough to have been born into fanatical families. For those to whom he’s shown the path of science and reason, Bill will be a saint.

    But his “win” was greater than my best expectations. I hope it encourages others to engage creationists more directly – and expect it will.

  7. Cephas Atheos says:

    I’m pleasantly surprised at the outcome of the debate – the feedback from both sides has been quite extraordinary. Bill may have flubbed a few technical points, but not in any deleterious way, and Ken came out of this looking (even to his own speznatz) tiresome and brittle.

    What I found telling was the attitude of the two sides. Bill appeared to be interested in everything Ken had to say, and it was interesting to watch him watching Ken throughout Ken’s dismal ad verecundiam presentation. Meanwhile, Ken avoided repaying the courtesy, as did many of the mostly male, completely Caucasian religious audience. Ken, to his credit, did appear to take notes during Bill’s talk, but strangely few of the points he seemed to be noting didn’t appear in his followup talk. It all seemed a bit…well…discourteous, in so many small ways.

    I was expecting Nye roadkill, much like the Phil Mason/Ray Comfort debate, which is still the best example of the Gish Gallop around. Poor old Thunderf00t hadn’t finished his first rebuttal of Ray’s idiotic non-sequiturs when Ray finished his entire meaningless stock of phrases.

    The sceptical community was blindsided by the team’s preparation, including the level of sophisticated appreciation of the traditional theist approach to these debates in the past! I really don’t think you could’ve done any better if you’d tried. You guys done good.

    And I suspect if he didn’t alienate the exquisitely sensitive sceptical community, Bill sure as hell didn’t switch off any potential converts!

    You guys should celebrate with some nice barbecued babies. We all did!

    • tmac57 says:

      One stylistic point that I thought hurt Nye a bit was his countenance while Ham was speaking. He was involuntarily frowning to the point of resembling Grumpy Cat. I can sympathize however,as I have often had people say to me “What are you frowning about?” when I was merely listening intently,or thinking to myself.It is really hard to know,or control what you look like when you can’t see yourself as the rest of the world does.Especially under fire.

  8. WScott says:

    Thank you and the rest of the team for helping prep Nye – it obviously paid off!

    “brag about the handful of scientists in the world who are Young-Earth Creationists (YECs)…He was trying to make the ridiculous assertion that if these people were good scientists and YECs, therefore YEC must be right.”
    Not to defend the Ham-ster, but I thought he was just trying to establish that it’s possible to do good science while believing in YEC. Many on the science/evolution side have argued that creationism is not compatible with a scientific mindset, so I thought it was a fairly clever move on Ham’s part. After all, he’s not trying to prove that creationism is “true,” just that it’s a plausible scientific theory which should be taught alongside evolution.

    It occurs to me a great way to counter that would be to compile a list of scientists that believe in astrology (there must be a few), therefore astrology should be taught alongside astronomy.

    “Best of all, one question about what evidence would cause him to reject creationism forced [Ham] to admit that NO evidence would change his views. For anyone who was not already a hard-core YEC, that should have been the slam-dunk admission of defeat right there.”
    This certainly seems to be the dominant post-debate meme, and rightly so. I haven’t had a chance to watch the whole debate, just clips, so I don’t know if Nye had a chance to get in the obvious response: “If you want to believe that, fine, but that’s not science.”

    “what really counts is to be likable, friendly, positive, upbeat, non-threatening, while explaining the science in a clear simple fashion at fifth-grade level, and not bullying or being condescending to the opponent or looking arrogant or smug as a scientist”
    Yeah, that’d be hard for me to do too. But it’s a key point. IMO one of the biggest challenges facing atheists & skeptics is that we too often come across as angry, arrogant and condescending. We may well be justified in feeling that way, but it doesn’t help our case to come across that way.

    • I’m not sure that Ham’s audience knows the difference between astrology and astronomy–or that astrology is not science..

      • WScott says:

        Probably true. But again, I don’t consider Ham’s accolytes *our* target audience here.

        On the other hand, the day after I posted this I saw a poll saying that something like half of Americans under 30 consider astrology scientific. So maybe it’s not such a great idea after all.

  9. Jack Siegel says:

    I watched the last hour and haven’t seen the archived version yet, but I was surprised that Nye didn’t play up the Geology or drug resistant bacteria as an evolutionary process. Regardless, he was played it right by being the nice guy.

    • He did do a bit of geology in his brief 30 minutes–but he wisely focused on arguments that EVERYONE could understand without any science background..

    • Max says:

      Young Earth Creationists don’t deny evolution within a “kind.” Nye argued that Young Earth Creationism actually requires evolution to go ridiculously fast for the “kinds” on Noah’s Ark to evolve into millions of species in a few thousand years.

  10. Professor Tom says:

    I was very happy with Bill Nye’s performance as well.

    It was also great to see him say, on more than one occasion, something like “I don’t know, we don’t have the answer on that yet. We have so much still to figure out, and that’s what makes science so exciting!”

    It contrasted with Ham, who would never be caught saying “I don’t know”. Ham seemed the arrogant one, with the answers to every important question right there in his hand, insisting people were silly to keep looking for answers when they could just read a book. He had it all figured out.

    A minor quibble is that I wanted Bill to hammer him a little harder on the silly “historical science” topic, Ham’s idea you need to have been there to know for sure. Such as “Mr. Ham, I assume that you believe that in the past there have been ice ages. By your logic, how would you know that, if you weren’t there?”

  11. Kevin Hower says:

    Someone I know recently posted a link to this video ( on facebook, and I don’t know enough about ice cores to speak intelligently on the subject, but the gist is that this guy is a creationist who is trying to argue that ice layers can form in less time. Just wanting to know some scientific sources to debunk this, even if just for myself. I am to the point that I am tired of arguing with idiots but I want to at least know the facts. Thanks!

    • Even if there WERE a mechanism for more than one ice layer per year (which there isn’t), the fact that we have 680,000 individual layers in the EPICA-1 core from East Antarctica would require a creationist to generate over ONE HUNDRED annual layers in a single year–NO WAY they can make this plausible!

      • tony-c says:

        The layers are also independently verified as annual by the evidence of known volcanic eruptions. It would have been nice to have time to unify and verify the data for an old earth with independent sources, but there wasn’t time, so some of Ham’s ad hoc answers leave room for doubt to the uniformed. Although his example of thick ice on a plane wreck may have made some people snicker, I imagine that some listeners would think Ham demonstrated that ice cores could be the result of a few big snow storms or something since Nye didn’t get to go into detail about how we can tell that they are annual.

    • tmac57 says:

      Try and track down any videos by Richard Alley. He is a go to guy on ice cores,and his presentation style is pretty accessible to non scientists. There should be plenty on YouTube.

    • Ratabago says:

      I’m not an expert in this, but my understanding of it is that for Greenland and Antarctic ice cores there is a subtle, but distinct, chemical and physical difference in ice formed by Summer snow fall, and Winter snow fall. The Summer ice forms at higher temperatures, and in prolonged sunlight. The Winter ice forms at lower temperatures, and in prolonged night. The result is visibly different.

      But the argument that these formed quicker should fall to simple common sense. There is a relationship between how much snow falls, and the resulting depth of ice. We have ice cores going back, I think, more than 800,000 years. For this to form in a mere 6000 years we need snow to fall at over 130 times the volume we observe it falling. Then we need a mechanism whereby it stops falling at that volume, and starts falling at the observed volume, as soon as we start observing it — yet it preserves the visible, physical, and chemical nature of the formed ice exactly when going from the unobserved falls to the observed falls.

      It’s hard to find anything accurate on this by googling. The creationist noise gets in the way. But here is an introductory piece on paleoclimate and ice cores.

      • tmac57 says:

        Now you see,this is just the kind of thing that is going to get you in trouble. God is just testing your belief in ‘him’ by putting all these red herrings in nature to try and get you to use logic and reasoning instead of faith.
        Just put down your brain…slowly step away…and no one will get hurt…much.

      • Ratabago says:

        “God is just testing your belief in ‘him’ by putting all these red herrings in nature to try and get you to use logic and reasoning instead of faith.

        And I fell for it hook, line, and sinker. Dagnabbit!

      • tmac57 says:

        Just remember O’Ham’s Razor:
        ‘The most simplistic answer is ALWAYS the correct one…ALWAYS!’.

  12. J_Brisby says:

    I remember arguing with a creationist in a chatroom once, and he brought up the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics and said it contradicted evolution. I was about to go into the standard response about how the law only applies to closed systems, but then in a moment of snarkiness I instead just asked if he could state the 2nd Law for me. He couldn’t.

    I mention this because every time the subject comes up, the pro-evolution response is to explain that the 2nd Law only applies to closed systems. It’s the boilerplate answer. And I think it’s the wrong answer to give. Yes it’s true, but it doesn’t really address the problem. The problem is that creationists don’t really understand the 2nd Law at all. They think it has something to do with junkyards and tornadoes and 747s, and I’m sure that to them, the ‘closed system’ response just sounds completely inadequate.

    Instead, any discussion of the topic should actually give a quick primer on what the 2nd Law actually says; basically that energy flows from areas of high concentration to areas of low concentration, that this flow of energy can be harnessed to do work, that when equilibrium is reached, energy flow stops and no further work can be performed, and therefore all energy sources will eventually run out. Then ask them to explain how exactly this contradicts evolution.

    • Tom says:

      I used to work with a y.e.c. We’d have discussions fairly frequently about his beliefs. Luckily he was good-natured enough, or I was gentle enough, that I was never reported to personnel for religious persecution or something.

      Anyway, this guy had a degree from an elite university, certainly top 20. He was doing a job which required intelligence. He could rattle off baseball statistics like some kind of savant. And yet there was absolutely nothing I could say that would ever change his mind on the “fact” that the flood happened and the earth was 6,000 years old.

      As the guy said in Cool Hand Luke, “Some men, you just can’t reach.”

      Events like this debate are never going to change the minds of the truly committed. I suppose the hope is that you reach some few who are already harboring kernels of doubt.

      • WScott says:

        No, these debates won’t change the deeply committed. But a large majority of people are in the middle, rejecting evolution mainly because they don’t understand it and have a hard time picturing the time frame involved, so it doesn’t seem to make sense to them. *Those* are the people these debates are aimed at.

  13. LadyAtheist says:

    I firmly believe that pink faeries made my car from magic pixie dust but yet I can still drive it! Assembly line my arse!

  14. Max says:

    I learned that Magnetic Resonance Scanning (but apparently not imaging) was invented by this Creationist guy, Raymond Vahan Damadian.

    He was passed up for a Nobel Prize, and of course some people speculate that it’s because he’s a Creationist.

    Now, on Point of Inquiry, Neil DeGrasse Tyson said that nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) was discovered by his physics professor, who was “interested in the behavior of nuclei in atoms in the galaxy. In the galaxy.” That gave the impression that this professor was into astronomy, but I don’t see any evidence of that. I did find that one of the physicists who discovered NMR was born into an Orthodox Jewish family, and “after reading about Copernican heliocentrism, he became an atheist. ‘It’s all very simple,’ he told his parents, ‘who needs God?'”

    • My point is that NONE of the scientists and engineers Ham waved at are specialists in the fields relevant to evolution: paleontology, geology, and evolutionary biology. Sure, they might be brilliant in their own fields, but they are complete amateurs when it comes to the evidence for evolution. Thus, their “authority” is irrelevant.

  15. Casey Burns says:

    Ham kept saying that “we weren’t there to see it” and at the same time touting the authenticity of a book written several generations back with origins that are unclear. Well we (in the present day) weren’t there to see it written and for all we know the Bible was nothing more than “The Onion” of Roman times. I am sure that part of all the “begatting” was the most widely read article.

    As a business strategy I suspect the Hamster was really hoping this debate stunt would boost support for his failing endeavor. How could it not fail? Unfortunately for him, his belief in its financial worthiness will be a poor match for its economic tirpitude. Hopefully it will collapse in failure and the good people of Kentucky (I know at least 2) won’t have to subsidize him with their taxes.

    Ken Ham should really spend some time around some wooden boat builders. That is, ones who build boats that really float, not the eyesore that he wants to build. He might just then rethink his hypothesis a little.

    • WScott says:

      I love it! Next time some Fundie uses the “Were you there to see it?” argument on me, I am *so* going to ask if they were there when the Bible was written. I doubt it’ll change anyone’s mind, but it’ll give me a happy.

  16. Mark S says:

    I’m a little torn on this like many others I suppose.

    On the one hand, I get the need to present the evidence in a friendly manner. Most people aren’t fanatics, they’ve simply been denied access to this knowledge and just aren’t aware of it. At the same time, I see why the wilful lying practised by Creationists is worthy of scorn and contempt. These charlatans know what they’re doing, even if Ham is perhaps just an extremely stupid version of them. I don’t begrudge any professional scientist the right to treat them with scorn and disdain. What knowledge we have now has been hard-won over centuries by extremely dedicated men and women. It deserves respect.

    That said, the hearts and minds approach does work. I’ve learnt this myself only yesterday. I have a close friend who was raised as a Seventh-Day Adventist. Over the last few years we’ve had discussions, and she’s asked why I don’t believe in a God, why I think evolution is true, and so on. I’ve explained the small about I’ve learned over time, referring her to the same books I’ve picked up so much from. Anyway as of yesterday she’s now watching YouTube videos and asking more and more questions. More importantly, she now understands it, and accepts it. It’s like the light of curiosity has suddenly been turned on.

    So I guess the lesson is it’s never too late. As long as they are willing to open their eyes.

  17. Max says:

    I didn’t see the point of Nye’s argument that the Bible had been translated many times. As if the original was more scientific.

    • tmac57 says:

      That does seem like a weak approach if science is your message.
      I suspect Nye’s point was that if you truly accept the bible as the absolute and literal word of god,you had better understand what it ‘literally’ says.
      Biblical scholars have been arguing for centuries as to the exact meaning of the earliest texts.I suspect they will never have an absolute and unassailable translation that everyone agrees is the original meaning and in the original context.

      • More to the point, the texts themselves have all sorts of copying errors, mistakes and ambiguities if you read it in the original Hebrew and Greek (as I learned to do). And many of the different sources have discrepancies with each other. So there is no such thing as ONE literal unquestioned translation, which, sadly, most Americans do not realize. (You’d be surprised how many think the originals were written in King James English!)

  18. Kevin Hower says:

    Thanks for the replies to my post and the info! Lots of stuff to learn! :)

  19. Adrian Morgan says:

    I’ve been letting this sit in my bookmarks for a few days due to lack of time. I trust I’ll still be read.

    Rather than discuss the debate, I’d like to riff on the opening picture, with the Darwin Fish and Jesus Fish on the podia.

    There exists a perception that the Jesus fish and six-day creationism are strongly correlated. According to that perception, if you see someone with a Jesus Fish bumper sticker, it is almost certain the driver believes the earth is less than 10,000 years old.

    Now, I believe that perception is false. A Jesus Fish bumper sticker tells you that the driver is actively involved in their local church and that Christianity is an important part of their daily life, but once that is accounted for I contend it is not a particularly strong Bayesian prior for their attitude to Genesis. Plenty of theistic evolutionists have Jesus Fish bumper stickers too. (My data is admittedly anecdotal, but on this question, whose isn’t?)

    So, why does the perception exist in the first place? I personally believe it’s because many people in the skeptical/atheist communities come across the Jesus Fish primarily in contexts where it is contrasted with the Darwin Fish, and in perceiving the former to be strongly correlated with Biblical literalism they are actually victims of confirmation bias.

    I’m raising this question because it’s something I’ve never seen addressed in a blog post, so perhaps it will inspire someone. Also, it is a topic I usually raise in my imagination when I fantasise about having coffee with the NCSE.

  20. Mark S says:

    Don, you make the Bible sound like a literary version of Chinese Whispers.

  21. Alan(UK) says:

    “He also could have hit home harder why the ridiculous question about the Second Law of Thermodynamics does not apply to the earth or evolution—it only applies to closed systems, and the earth is an open system getting energy from the sun.”

    It is a good thing that he didn’t. Assuming the technicalities of the creationist argument were not beyond our Ken, he would have easily won this one.

    Even starting to rebut the argument along these lines is to concede that evolution requires a reduction in entropy (it doesn’t). Subsequently failing to prove that entropy is decreasing on Earth (it doesn’t) is to lose the whole argument.

    Creationists will tell you that there is no such thing as a closed system*, the 2nd Law applies in an open system, heat input (as from the Sun) only increases entropy, and entropy does not decrease in one place (on the Earth) just because it is increasing somewhere else (in the Sun). It is futile trying to rebut these points because they are all true.

    *We can assume that both sides are using the term to mean what can be unambiguously called an ‘isolated system’.

    A thermodynamic system is defined by its boundary; an isolated system has a boundary that is rigid, impervious to matter, heat, electromagnetic and gravitational fields. There are not many of these around (not even the whole universe). The isolated system referred to in the Second Law is part of the Law, not where the Law applies – it applies everywhere, which is why it is called a Law.

    The thermodynamic state of a system is described by certain variables; entropy is one such. Like the mass of a system, its entropy is a single number applying to the system as a whole. The units of entropy are, the rather mundane, joules per kelvin. The thermodynamic state of the Earth does not vary much in the long term; the Sun (hot) heats the Earth (cool) but the Earth (cool) radiates the heat off into space (cold) so the temperature remains much the same. Sure, the heat from the Sun increases the entropy of the Earth but the heat lost by the Earth dumps the entropy into space where it travels away at the speed of light never to trouble us again. Thus the Earth is very far from thermodynamic equilibrium and has been in this state for billions of years and exhibits no sign of running down soon.

    The entropy of the Earth cannot decrease because of any increase in the entropy of the Sun (not that the entropy of the Sun is necessarily increasing). Any heat flow between the Earth and the Sun cannot be in the direction from the Earth to the Sun, from the cool to the hot, that is forbidden by the 2nd Law itself.

    Of course Ken would start on all the nonsense about machines wearing out and walls falling down, at least he would have the support of some real scientists of the last century or the century before. Ken could hammer home the point by saying that you cannot bring a dead body to life by heating it up. Giving examples is a creationist trick – everything is an example of the 2nd Law, the creationist just chooses cases where the outcome seems negative. Walls do not build themselves because the 2nd Law does not allow any real (that is an irreversible) process to return to its initial state along the same path. But then an awful lot gets ascribed to entropy that would be much better explained by gravity.

    Creationists know that if they trot out their tired old 2nd Law arguments, they will get back an equally erroneous rebuttal from someone who is working from a mishmash of half forgotten physics combined with bits gleaned from the creationists’ own arguments. All is now lost. The creationist goes in for the kill.