Bill Nye debates Ken Ham: Creationism and the origin of the universe

The 'Space Window' at Washington National Cathedral. Stained glass window, with text: ‘Is not God in the height of heaven?'.

Image credit: NASA/Public domain.

First published on 16th February 2014. Last updated on 5th August 2017 by Dr Helen Klus

In February 2014, science educator Bill Nye debated young-Earth creationist Ken Ham on the topic of whether the literal interpretation of Genesis is a viable model for the origin of the universe.

At first glance, this debate may seem pointless, Ham is free to believe whatever he wants, as everyone should be, and science and religion are not in obvious conflict. There are many, many, many examples of religious scientists.

Ham does not accept this view, however, and believes that science and religion are in conflict. Specifically, Ham believes that his literal interpretation of Genesis is in conflict with the idea that the universe is older than about 6000 years, which is accepted as scientific fact, with evidence from all branches of science, including biology, chemistry, and physics.

Ham also believes that his views are in conflict with the idea that organisms, including humans, undergo evolution by natural selection. This is another accepted scientific fact with copious amounts of evidence.

Ham's views are dangerous because he believes that the literal interpretation of Genesis should be taught in science classes in publicly funded schools, and justifies this with many scientifically inaccurate claims. This is wrong for many reasons, but most obviously, because Ham's version of creationism, or creation science, is simply not science.

While the nature of science is always up for philosophical debate, it must, at the very least, make predictions that can be proven false. This is how science progresses. Astronomer and science communicator Carl Sagan described the ethos of science in the 1980s[1].

The differences between science and pseudoscience can be summarised as follows:

SciencePseudoscience

Tentative

Absolute knowledge

Looks for disproof

Looks for proof

Observation determines proof

Truth determines observation

Belief structure modified by observation

Belief structure unchanging

Self-modifying – attempts to correct errors

No changes – repeats errors

Ham's views are certainly not scientific because he claims that nothing will change his mind. In contrast, Nye states that his views, which are representative of the majority of the scientific community, would change immediately given scientific evidence that they were wrong.

Question: What, if anything, would ever change your mind?

"Well the answer to that question is that I am a Christian...No, no one is ever going to convince me that the word of God is not true."

— Ken Ham

"We would just need one piece of evidence...Bring on any of those things and [...] you would change me immediately."

— Bill Nye

It may seem obvious that something can't be science if it's not falsifiable, but Ham is a powerful man with many followers. He is the president of Answers in Genesis, a ministry which has offices in the UK and USA, and whose website - which claimed to have a million visitors a month in 2012 - promotes a wealth of scientifically inaccurate information.

Ham is also president of the Creation Museum in Kentucky, which again drastically misrepresents science, and Ham's views are not just available to those that choose to seek them out. It's currently legal to teach Ham's version of creationism in thousands of schools in the USA, most of which are in Louisiana and Tennessee, where it has been legal to teach creationism in science classes since 2008, and 2012, respectively.

It's dangerous to teach non-science as if it were science for many reasons. It's unfair on the students, who are being given misinformation by figures in authority, and hence being exploited. It may deter, or even prevent them from pursuing subjects that they may have otherwise enjoyed, and been successful at, and it may leave them unable to make informed decisions about what constitutes a scientific fact. This leaves them vulnerable to further exploitation by other means.

It's also bad for society as a whole because a lack of scientists will mean a lack of technological and medical progress, and a dip in the economy[2]. The biggest danger comes when people in authority use pseudo-scientific views to make uninformed decisions that lead to the suffering of innocent people.

Nye debated Ham in order to help resolve this problem through education, which may be the most effective approach. While creationism is clearly not science, and should not be taught in science classes, there's no point in attacking someone's personal beliefs, especially given that you can still believe in creationism without attacking science.

I have discussed elsewhere how it's possible that the world we experience is some kind of simulation. Natural philosopher Rene Descartes, for example, thought that, due to the limitations of our brains, everything can be doubted but our own existence, which is why he stated, "I think therefore I am"[3]. Philosopher George Berkeley argued that nothing can exist without a mind to perceive it, and so the external world must exist within the mind of God[4].

These arguments show that it's logical to believe that the universe was created at any time. It could have been created 5 minutes ago, and just made to look like it is billions of years old. Your memories may not be real. These are philosophical arguments that do not contradict science.

It's logical for a creationist to believe that the universe was created 6000 years ago, as long as they accept that it was made to look as if it wasn't.

The full debate is shown below.

Afterwards, BuzzFeed published 22 Messages From Creationists To People Who Believe In Evolution and vice versa. The former were addressed by astronomer and science communicator Phil Platt.

References

  1. Sagan, C., 1987, 'The Burden of Skepticism', Skeptical Inquirer, 12, pp.38–74.

  2. Casey, B., 2012, 'STEM Education: Preparing for the Jobs of the Future', US Congress Joint Economic Committee.

  3. Descartes, R., and Veitch, J. (trans), 2008 (1637), 'A Discourse on Method', Project Gutenberg.

  4. Berkeley, G., 2009 (1710), 'A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge', Project Gutenberg.

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