Thoughts on the Nye-Ham creationism debate

Young-Earth Creationism: The Flintstones for G...
Young-Earth Creationism: The Flintstones for Grownups (Photo credit: PatinaLatina)

The Bill Nye and Ken Ham debate happened, and by all accounts Nye wiped the floor with Ham.  (I watched a few minutes of it, but I’ve been racing against deadlines all week and had to content myself with the post game write ups.)  This doesn’t really come as too much of a surprise to me.  Nye has a lot of experience in science communication, and had the luxury of being right.  Ham had the liability of an insular anti-science position.

Unfortunately, from what I’m hearing, the debate didn’t really change anyone’s mind, at least not any in the direct audience.  Again, that’s to be expected too.  As I posted a while back, debates rarely change minds, except perhaps for people who were already teetering on the fence.

That said, the debate did make the ABC evening news on Thursday night, and that kind of coverage may be its best effect.  Most creationists are not hard core fundamentalists.  They’re just people who identify as Christians and feel that loyalty to that identification requires that they believe in young earth creationism.   Few have given the matter that much thought.  Seeing Bill Nye, the Science Guy, oppose creationism may make them ponder that belief.

I actually have to say that I feel sorry for Ken Ham.  It’s not like he’s a con man or anything.  He earnestly believes the message that he’s trying to sell.  He thinks he’s fighting the good fight.  At some point, he probably internalized that the Bible was the core guide to reality, and that Satan will use every trick to discredit it.  With that mindset, any compelling evidence probably just looks like clever trickery to him.

It’s easy to pat ourselves on the back and consider ourselves superior to him.  But we should remember that, there but for the whims of chance, go any of us.  If we’d had Ham’s background and nature, we’d be in the same position.

Ham is, of course, unreachable by any logic.  All anyone can do is try to counter his influence.  I’m convinced that ridicule is the wrong response.  Even if you tell yourself that you’re ridiculing Ham to convince others who may be watching, you’re ignoring the fact that humiliating rhetoric may simply cause people to rally to his side.

I like the tactic that Ethan Siegel used in his post responding to creationist questions, respectful but honest.  That, and instilling the true wonder of the scientific view of the origins of the universe and the earth, are probably the best start to drawing people away from an anti-science worldview.

7 thoughts on “Thoughts on the Nye-Ham creationism debate

      1. Yeah, that is true, and shouldn’t be overlooked. I guess you just have to treat him like a geriatric, or someone with Alzheimer’s; with kindness, but ensure there are no sharp instruments around.


  1. You might be right that evidence and debate don’t reach as deeply into people’s thought processes as we might like. That could pose a nihilistic world view – nothing can happen, nothing can change.

    And yet beliefs do change. They change radically from generation to generation. Even within a generation beliefs can change. As a teenager in the 1980s I was told by everyone (other kids my age, politicians, comedians on TV) that to be gay was wrong. Now few people of my age adopt that position, here in Britain.

    So beliefs change. In the case of acceptance of homosexuality (or women’s rights, or anti-slavery) surely no new evidence came to light. The moral debate changed somehow. I’m not sure precisely how, but it did. Debate must have been central to that process, for what else is there?

    I suppose it is a kind of herd process – as more people vocalize a belief, then it becomes acceptable for others to believe it too. And if nobody publicly supports a belief, then it will surely die.

    Creationism will fade away too, perhaps quicker than we think. In Britain it has already largely disappeared. It lives on in America, but it is surely dying even there.


    1. Beliefs definitely do change, but debate is only a minor part of the process. (At least outside of academic circles.) What really changed attitudes toward gays was their depiction on shows like ‘Wil & Grace’ and in other media, where gay characters were shown to be normal everyday people, not deviant freaks. That and many prominent gay people outing themselves.

      You could of course consider that to be part of the debate, but only in the broadest cultural sense. As I said in the post, in that broad cultural sense, Bill Nye prominently saying that creationism is false probably did more than the actual debate itself, but I suppose you could argue that he wouldn’t have gotten the press without the event.


  2. I, too, feel sympathy for Ham and, likewise, believe he is unreachable.
    A quote from Augustine that squarely faces the problem:

    Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn. The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men. If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods on facts which they themselves have learned from experience and the light of reason?

    Reckless and incompetent expounders of Holy Scripture bring untold trouble and sorrow on their wiser brethren when they are caught in one of their mischievous false opinions and are taken to task by those who are not bound by the authority of our sacred books. For then, to defend their utterly foolish and obviously untrue statements, they will try to call upon Holy Scripture for proof and even recite from memory many passages which they think support their position, although “they understand neither what they say nor the things about which they make assertions”.


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