Dear Bill Nye

Dear Bill Nye the Science Guy,

I watched your debate with young-earth creationist Ken Ham shortly after it happened back in February. Richard Dawkins and those who agree with him maintain you lost the debate before it ever started simply by granting Ham the legitimacy required to take his views seriously enough to debate. I don't necessarily agree, but if you are going to step into the ring with this clown, you need to make the merciless dismantling of his arguments hurt him more than the publicity helps him. Instead you squandered the opportunity and arrived unprepared. Ken Ham has been holding weekend conferences at churches all across the country for decades now. He says the same shit each time. He runs a creation museum in Kentucky for Christ's sake. A quick stroll through the museum past the exhibits showing people riding dinosaurs should have prepared you for what was coming.

And yet you seemed completely blindsided when he pulled a classic Ken Ham at the beginning of the debate and announced his philosophical conviction that the past is unknowable because we weren't there to observe it.

Ken tried to invalidate the entire concept of radiometric dating with a few cherry-picked examples and your mouth hung open as if he hasn't been doing that for twenty years.

Instead of smashing those softballs out of the park you spent valuable time claiming that teaching creationism in public schools would endanger innovation, technology, and America's place in the world; a claim you then backed up with no evidence.

Then you got stuck on the Noah issue. Yes, the logistics of eight people building the world's largest wooden boat and then stuffing every kind of animal in the world on it are ridiculous, but that's obviously a non-starter when you're talking to a room full of people who believe in talking donkeys, magical trumpets, and virgin births.

To be fair, it wasn't all you shooting yourself in the foot. Ken put on a fair showing. He made a good case that creationists can be successful scientists and inventors. And in lieu of evidence he plugged his real agenda- telling us the world's going to hell because evolution has eroded biblical values. He shared the good news of Jesus Christ. Even his supporters found it hard to ignore the dearth of evidence for Ham's young-earth creationism but they recognized the bigger picture of this debate, just like Richard Dawkins.

Another thing I'll say for Ken Ham is that he is very genuine. He almost cried at minute 57:50 in the debate when he talked about wanting children to know that they are special and that God loves them. He is definitely drinking his own Kool-Aid.

That said, his tract-style "Jesus Saves" message plus the appeals to reactionary conservative Christian morals aren't going to help out the Intelligent Design cause the next time one of these ID-in-the-classroom court cases comes up. Then again, ID in the classroom has already lost again and again in the courts, so maybe he's given up that avenue of recourse.

In some respects, it's hard to say Ken really made any mistakes. He's going into battle armed with a toy gun and a cardboard box, so expectations have to remain modest to say the least. He did well with what he had considering the circumstances.

Every time Ken goes into a debate, he knows he's a titmouse playing chicken with an oncoming steam engine as far as evidence goes. His only sliver of hope to equalize is by playing a few argumentative slights of hand he's picked up over the years. He's been playing the same ones for decades and it's inexcusable to go into a debate with Ken Ham and not be ready to crush these old parlor tricks like so many empty coke cans.

Let me show you how to sweep the legs.

Ken has a problem with the past- it does all sorts of disagreeable things that don't support creationism. So one day Ken asked himself, "How well do we really know this shady character, The Past, anyway?" It turns out that even the oldest people in the world can only give you eye-witness testimony back to around 1899, and even those earliest memories are pretty useless- time spent in the crib, rocking horses, bottles full of milk and other boring tidbits of that ilk. Now yes, a ton of physical evidence seems to suggest that evolution happened and that the earth is over 4 billion years old, but that's assuming the laws of nature worked the same back then as they do now... and where are the eye-witnesses for that...?

Young-earth creationism doesn't seem quite as ridiculous when you refuse to consider any of the stuff in red

You see where he's going with this. It's theoretically possible that instead of the earth actually being as old as it appears to be, gravity, light, radioactivity, biological life, etc. have merely conspired with one another to make the earth appear to be 4.5 billion years old. Then they switched over and started acting like they do today so that we wouldn't catch on to their little trick. Well they almost slipped one past us, but not Ken Ham. He was too sharp for their subterfuge.

The philosophy majors among you may notice that Ham's denial of the continuity of natural law feels a little like David Hume's skepticism towards "necessary cause" which he brings up in Section VII of An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. I wonder if Ken Ham knows that, or appreciates the gentle irony that David Hume was an atheist.

Is Ham's theory a baseless conspiracy theory that makes Big Foot, the Illuminati, and lizard people look reasonable by comparison? Yes. Is it theoretically possible? Also yes. It's one of those scenarios you can neither prove nor disprove because it makes no claims and is not falsifiable. Every time a piece of evidence comes in which would seem to disprove it, Mr. Ham can just widen the conspiracy a little more. Maybe Satan has been planting evidence that makes it seem like the earth is billions of years old. Maybe we're all plugged into the Matrix right now and the world around us (including evolution) is just a computer program. Maybe none of this exists and we're all just a troubled dream in a solipsistic universe which exists entirely inside Ken Ham's mind.

It might seem like Ken's gotten himself out of the thicket here and found a nice, internally consistent albeit ludicrously unlikely theory that gets him around evolution, but he's still got a problem. He wants to make the claim that creationists can also be scientists. For that, he needs natural laws to be consistent. You can't tune an MRI machine if the properties of magnetism are in flux. You can't do calculations or make predictions or really be an astronomer at all if you don't assume that the light traveling to you from a distant star is traveling at 3e^8 m/s and has been ever since it left that star. You wouldn't get into an airplane or take a medication if you really believe there's any chance the physics the engineer used or the biology the chemist used have changed since those products were made.

This time Ken has run out of clever tricks. He literally just flip flops between these incompatible positions at will, seemingly blissfully unaware of the growing mountain of contradiction trailing behind him. During the debate with Bill Nye you can watch Ken Ham talk about the uniformity of nature (31:19) and then almost with the same breath tell us that we're making an incorrect assumption when we believe that those laws worked the same way ten thousand years ago as they do today (33:16). His innocent obliviousness to the depth and breadth of his own hypocrisy is a breathtaking, dare I say beautiful thing to behold.

Ken Ham has yet another problem with his conspiracy theory, however. While well within the philosophical realm of possibility, the odds of it actually being true are infinitesimally minute. There's no more compelling reason to believe Mr. Ham's crazy-ass theory than there is to believe that we're plugged into the matrix or that Satan is planting evidence. Ken deals with this inconvenient fact by drawing a false equivalency between a very strong theory, evolution, and a virtually impossible and previously debunked theory, creationism. He accomplishes this more with simple word play than the scraps of evidence he cobbles together in support of young-earth creationism. The word play works like this- evolution is a theory. Creationism is a theory. By definition theories are not proven. Ergo the theory of evolution and the theory of creationism are equally unproven.

Give it a spin yourself. You can use any two items you'd like. My rusted-out 1980 Ford Pinto is a red car. Your 2014 Ferrari Berlinetta is a red car. Red cars are cool. Our cars are equally cool. Perhaps you'd care to trade? Neither probability, nor likelihood, nor gradients exist in Ken Ham's world. They can't or he'd have to give up his theory. Occham's razor is replaced by Ham's fist.

Beating Ken Ham in a debate should pretty much be like taking candy from a very old baby with an Australian accent. But it requires getting to and exposing the roots of his fallacies, not just trading facts with him on the surface while Ham is using rhetorical tricks to make facts irrelevant so that Ken can paint science as a religion and frame the debate as blind belief vs. blind belief. 

First lure him in with all the standard evidences for evolution and an old earth. Ice core drillings. Tree rings. Stalagmites formed one calcium-rich drip at a time over millions of years. Starlight from galaxies millions of light years away. Fossils in layers not indicative of a world-wide flood. Radiometric dating. Heat being emitted from the earth's core. Ham will try to avoid these at first, but will address them if pressed. Let him follow this Hansel and Gretel trail of bread crumbs, denying the historical uniformity of natural law all the way. Little does he know he's tying the noose you're about to hang him with.

After you've let Ham really illustrate what he's all about, it's time to spring the trap shut. After you've driven him down conspiracy lane, let him have both barrels, and do it in style. Reveal just how ludicrous this conspiracy theory is. Use metaphor and figurative language so that everyone in the hall really understands what it is he'd like us to believe.

In the debate, Bill Nye started out with a really good metaphor- the CSI television shows. He just never drove it home, and never brought it full circle. If the laws of nature are not constant, then we could never prove anyone did anything. Sure the suspect was seen running out of the victim's house. Sure he had the victim's blood on his hands, sure he was in possession of the murder weapon, but can we prove that the laws of reason, physics, gravity, etc. were the same in the time and location the murder took place? Maybe the murder took place in Ken Ham's bizarro world  where things are different.

By Ken's logic we stopped being able to prove the Civil War happened after the last witness died. Sure we have letters, but did the English language work the same way back then? No one's alive who can tell us for sure that it did.

Would you believe anyone else who told you that the laws of nature had conveniently changed? Would you believe the operator of a proposed nuclear plant if he told you not to worry about nuclear waste disposal because uranium half lives would be shorter in the future? Would a policeman believe a speeder if the offender tried to argue that the laws of relativity had changed in such a way as to merely make him appear to be exceeding the speed limit? Would you believe your spouse if you caught them in bed with their lover and they tried to tell you that the nature of light had changed in such a way as to make it appear as if there were a naked person in bed with them? Obviously not. These are all ridiculous, convenient excuses.

After you've revealed Ham's false equivalency between the theory of evolution and the conspiracy theory of creationism, make a much more apt comparison- creationism and the geocentric universe. Both are theories only in the sense that they are theoretically possible if we accept the unsupported premise that the laws of nature and their accompanying evidences are trying to trick us. Both were disproved hundreds of years ago by men (predominantly Christian men) who were willing to be honest with themselves and lay down their sacred cows on the alter of truth. Not the "truth" they wanted to be true, but rather the truth that actually was. Ken Ham said early on that the debate over creationism and evolution boiled down to world views and starting points. He was right. Evolution starts with the evidence left over from the past and constructs the theory that corresponds best with that evidence. Creationism starts at the bible and contorts the evidence from the past as far as required to get the desired result. Anyone familiar with the scientific method can predict where this latter methodology will lead; the same place it always does- error and self-deception.

Bill Nye tried to make the claim that creationism was detrimental to science but he forgot to bring evidence with him. He should have taken a page out of Neil deGrasse Tyson's book. Tyson points out that "God did it" as an explanation of the unknown is a curiosity destroyer and tells a story about Issac Newton to illustrate.

Ken admitted at the end of the debate that no piece of evidence would ever change his mind about the truth of creationism. He has a theory in search of evidence, instead of evidence in search of a theory. There is no falsifiability, no feedback loop, no possibility for error correction. That's not the scientific method. You can be a smart person and be a creationist. You can be an engineer and be a creationist. But you can't be a scientist while denying the scientific method. Newton had an excuse, but we know too much now. Turning a blind eye to the preponderance of the evidence makes you the opposite of a scientist.

Time permitting, Nye could have gone off topic like Ken did. Bill said that creationism doesn't make falsifiable predictions and he's right, but the bible does make predictions which can be tested.

"And these signs shall follow them that believe: In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues. They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover." - Jesus. That's a very definitive prediction from Jesus himself, and it's not an isolated reference. Healing is demonstrated, commanded, and the predicted again and again and again in the new testament. The apostle Paul wrote letter after letter in scholarly Greek to the early Christians, giving clear instructions as to how they should heal and what the results would be. They are some of the most literal statements in the bible, obviously meant to be taken at face value... and yet very few Christians take them literally, not because the instructions aren't literal, but because the predictions fail. Instead people like Ken Ham have decided they'd rather take the Hebrew creation epic literally, a dreamy passage written in prose and obvious metaphor, not because it is literal, but precisely because the story doesn't make any predictions.

If someone tells you they believe in a literal translation of the Bible as the unerring word of God, like Ken Ham does, why spend time on Genesis? That's just the tip of the crazy iceberg. Slavery. Snake handling. Faith healing. Gender inequality. Genocide. Silence on rape. The list goes on. Nail Ham to the wall with his bible, and reveal him for the troglodyte he is.

Sebastian Braff

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