A Brazillion Creationists Out There

How powerful is creationism worldwide? Some pundits have suggested that creationism is unique to the USA. But recent news from Brazil indicates that global creationism may be gaining steam.

The latest report from Brazil comes to us from the National Center for Science Education. Proposed legislation in that country would introduce US-style creationism to Brazilian public schools. My Portuguese is no good, but according to the NCSE report, this bill insists that schools include creationist science, including “the ideas that life has its origin in God, the supreme creator of the whole universe and of all things that compose it.”

Why? Because, in the words of the bill’s sponsor, “the creationist doctrine is prevalent throughout our country.”

Is it? Some science pundits, such as Bill Nye, contend that this sort of creationism is “unique” to the United States.

In this case, The Science Guy is flat-out wrong. Creationism—even if we limit it to just the Christian kind—is a global phenomenon. And the reasons for that globalism matter.

Pundits like Bill Nye might assume that creationism thrives in those corners of the globe that have not yet been incorporated into the global conversation. In some isolated regions, this theory goes, the obvious truths of evolution have not yet penetrated.

But that explanation gets it backward. The reason for thriving creationism in Brazil is not due to ineffective science education. It is due, rather, to explosively effective religious education. That is, Brazilian creationists are not simply religious primitives who have been isolated from the gospel of evolution. Instead, they are religious innovators who have been connected to a global gospel of creationism.

As usual, historian Ron Numbers—my grad-school mentor—put it best. In his book The Creationists, Ron captures this experience with a pithy chapter title: “Creation Science Floods the World.”

A growing force in Brazilian politics...

A growing force in Brazilian politics…

Throughout the twentieth century, conservative evangelical Protestants have successfully spread their religion throughout Latin America, finding a particularly congenial home in Brazil.

As a recent study from the Pew Research Center for Religion & Public Life makes clear, US-style evangelicalism has aggressively moved into Brazil, courting the country’s Catholics and converting them in large numbers.

For a hundred years, evangelical groups have spread via missionary organizations into Brazil. As Andrew Chestnut of Virginia Commonwealth University explains, groups such as the Assemblies of God have been particularly successful in Brazil. With this Pentecostal denomination, at least, Brazilian locals have taken over and made it their own. And they are now asserting their power politically.

For instance, the author of the recent creationist legislation, Marco Feliciano, is an Assemblies of God pastor. And he insists that Brazilians are on his side. Poll numbers back him up. According to the NCSE report, fully 89% of Brazilian respondents think creationism should be taught in Brazil’s public schools. Nearly that many, 75%, think ONLY creationism should be taught.

I’ve argued in the past that evolution educators often have a missionary zeal to spread the truth about evolution. This news from Brazil suggests that evolution’s missionaries are just not as good as the creationist types.


US Government Employs Creationist Scientists

Thanks to the ever-watchful Sensuous Curmudgeon, we learn of plans to open a new, enormous creation museum near Boise, Idaho.  But in exploring the announcement of this planned mega-museum, we came across an interesting tidbit: Two of the creationist scientists involved in this project worked for the US government as geologists.  Does this mean that the government is funding creation science?  And does it prove the creationist claim that their experts are engaged in “real” science?

As reported yesterday by the Boise Weekly, the Northwest Science Museum has big ambitions.  Its founders want to open an enormous display area, 300,000 to 450,000 square feet.  They hope to build a full-size replica Noah’s Ark that could rival the plans of the more-established Creation Museum in Kentucky.

Big Plans for Boise

Big Plans for Boise

Whether or not the Idaho creationists succeed in their lavish plans, they will likely end up adding another stop to those who want to tour the nation’s many creation museums.  More interesting, the announced plans also raise crucial questions about creationism and government support for religion.

In their attempt to raise funds for their new project, the leaders of the Boise museum published a prospectus that includes information about themselves.  According to this document, the leadership team includes two experienced geologists.

Douglas J. Bennett, founder of the museum, has degrees in geology and science education from Boise State University.  For the past eighteen years, Bennett has worked as a geologist for the US Bureau of Reclamation.  Similarly, museum founder Brent Carter earned a degree in geology from a large public university and worked for 42 years as a geologist for the same US Bureau, retiring with the title of Chief Geologist of the Pacific Northwest Region.

More than the opening of a new creation museum, these careers raise important questions for those of us interested in issues of evolution and creationism.

First, some might suggest that long governmental careers for these ardent and active creationists implies government support for religion.  But does it really?  After all, the government likely hired them to do specific jobs.  They had the necessary qualifications.  Whatever they chose to do in their private lives wouldn’t be any of the government’s business.  Nor would the government be supporting these men’s religious work, as long as each geologist didn’t do his creationist research while on the clock.

More interesting, we have to ask what these careers tell us about the intersection of mainstream science and creation science.  In the recent debate between leading creationist Ken Ham and leading science pundit Bill Nye, Nye repeated his charge that creationism blocked kids from learning science.  Ham retorted with several examples of successful creationist scientists and engineers.

The careers of Bennett and Carter seem to help the creationist case.  After all, if they have both had successful careers as geologists, how can we say that creationists can’t do science?  One might suggest that the sorts of engineering tasks these creationists engaged in were not primary science.  But it seems to me a stretch to say that these creationist geologists did not have careers specifically in the science that is contested.  In other words, both of these men worked as geologists, though their religious beliefs gave them very non-mainstream ideas about that geology.

Consider—again from the museum prospectus—the tasks Bennett claimed to have worked on for the US government.  As part of his job, Bennett

Performed surface and subsurface geotechnical studies and exploration programs utilizing diamond drill, power-auger, test pits, tunnels, and other processes to secure data for seismotectonic, ground-water, and other special studies of dams, reservoirs, canals, tunnels, spillways, power plants, and related structures.

One might say that none of this engineering work includes primary geological research.  And if it did, someone who believed in a young earth and a recent world-wide flood would be at a crippling disadvantage.  But anti-creationists sometimes make a different point.  Bill Nye, for instance, has warned that a creationist nation will soon fall behind in technology and engineering.

The careers of Bennett and Carter seem to demonstrate the weakness of that argument.  Indeed, Nye argues that creationism will turn kids away from science-related careers.  But in the case of these two men, at least, it was precisely their religious beliefs that led them to careers in geology.

So does this case show government support for creationism?  Not really.  But it does offer evidence that creationism does not necessarily deter young people from going into science-related careers.  Indeed, because of the tumult over the nature of biology and geology, perhaps creationist beliefs actually drive some young people into careers in science.



Was I Fair to Ken Ham?

Ken Ham complains that I was not precise enough.  I think I was.

Here’s the issue: On his blog today, leading young-earth creationist Ken Ham chided yours truly for saying “Ken Ham” when I really meant something like “conservative Christians.”  Ham was reacting to a recent post of mine in which I asked about Ham’s inordinate influence over some conservative Protestant colleges.  In that post, I noted Ham’s recent pronouncements about leading evangelical schools such as Calvin College and Bryan College.  I wondered if conservative schools had to bend over backwards to satisfy Christian critics like Ham.  Did schools like Bryan College have to toe the Ham line in order to maintain their support base among conservative evangelical Protestants?

Be More Precise, Please

Be More Precise, Please

Ham said I needed to be “more precise.”  Ham made the fair point that Science Guy Bill Nye often used the unfair rhetorical strategy of reducing all creationism to simply Ken Ham.  Of talking about creationism as if it were just a one-man crusade to bilk taxpayers and fool schoolchildren.

When it comes to Bill Nye’s language, I agree with Ham.  Bill Nye–with whom I generally agree–does not always seem to understand creationism.  In a recent post, for instance, I agreed with Mr. Ham that Bill Nye “Misse[d] the Boat on Creationism.”  I have also agreed with Mr. Ham that Mr. Nye’s use of phrases such as “Ham’s followers” is sneaky and unfair.

But in this case, I was not doing any such thing.  In my essay about Mr. Ham’s influence on conservative Christian colleges, I was talking precisely about the work of Mr. Ham and Answers In Genesis.  If I was incorrect about the influence of Ham in the recent controversy at Bryan College, I’ll apologize.  But I won’t apologize for mistakes I didn’t make.

Ham also notes that I expand my questions to include the state of conservative evangelical colleges and sexual assault.  As ILYBYGTH readers know, this is a question that has been bandied about here recently.  Those who are new to the blog will not be aware that we do not simply attack “fundamentalist” schools as rape havens.  Indeed, our recent string of commentary began with questions about a journalist’s unschooled presumptions about the nature of fundamentalism.  We do not assume that sexual assault is somehow unique to conservative religious colleges, but it does seem that there is a connection between the opaque authoritarian cultures of many conservative colleges and a culture that blames the victims of sexual assault.

The central point of interest to me, though, then and now, is whether and how Mr. Ham has come to wield such authority over conservative evangelical colleges.  In the case of Bryan College, at least, Ham’s worries led to changes at the school.  I can’t help but wonder if Ham’s say-so is of enormous influence at similar colleges and universities.  This is not a question about conservatism in general.  This is not a question about creationism in general.  This is a specific question about the influence of Mr. Ham’s Answers In Genesis ministry.


Bill Nye Misses the Boat on Creationism

What does it mean to be a creationist?  Especially a young-earth creationist of the Ken Ham sort?  “Science Guy” Bill Nye argued the other day that creationism represents “striking science illiteracy.”

I like Bill Nye.  I like science.  But Nye’s statement represents a lamentable cultural illiteracy.  In the long run, it doesn’t help the cause of evolution education.  It does not help to bridge the culture-war trenches.

Around minute five of the video above, Nye begins to discuss his recent debate with young-earth creationist leader Ken Ham.  Nye humbly acknowledges that it might not have been a good idea to debate Ham.  But he went ahead with the debate.  Why?  Because Nye worries about the “striking science illiteracy” represented by young-earth creationism in the United States (around 6:23 in the video clip above).  Without science, Nye goes on, there would be no internet.  There would not be enough food for everyone.  Science and especially science education represent basic building blocks of a just and prosperous society.  Nye hopes that high-profile debates might help voters and taxpayers de-fund and delegitimize creationism in America’s public schools.

For the record, I agree that the “Ham-on-Nye” debate was a good thing for those of us who want more and better evolution education in America’s schools.  I applaud Nye’s bravery and his presentation skills.  But I wish he would not rely on this false notion that young-earth creationism represents a simple lack of knowledge about evolution.  It is not true, and it suggests bad policy approaches to improving evolution education.

Consider, for example, our best recent polls about science literacy and creationism.  As political scientists Eric Plutzer and Michael Berkman recount in their book Evolution, Creationism and the Battle to Control America’s Classrooms, creationists are not less scientifically literate than non-creationists.

For instance, one Pew poll from 2005 found that Americans who know about the scientific consensus in favor of evolution still support the teaching of creationism in public schools.  You read that right: Among the 54% of Americans who agree that scientists agree about evolution, large majorities (74%) supported teaching creationism, intelligent design, or some mix of evolution, ID, and creationism in public-school science classes.

Another poll that Berkman and Plutzer summarize found that general scientific literacy was not correlated with belief in evolution.  That is, whether or not one was aware of general scientific information had no relation to whether or not one evinced a belief in evolution.

As Dan Kahan noted recently, even the National Science Foundation has considered removing a question about evolution from its science-literacy poll.  Why?  Because there is no correlation between general scientific knowledge and beliefs about evolution.  What people know or don’t know about evolution does not give us any information about whether they believe it or don’t.

Knowledge is distinct from belief.

Bill Nye’s assumption that young-earth creationism represents a lack of scientific knowledge is more than just an embarrassing ignorance on Nye’s part.  The educational and political tasks in cases of naïve non-knowledge are worlds apart from the educational and political tasks in cases of intentional or constructed non-knowledge.  In the case of evolution education, if creationists were simply unaware of evolutionary science, then outreach programs would have a good chance of success.  The task would be simply to spread information.  But in reality, evolution education must recognize that many students and families are not simply ignorant, but resistant to this form of knowledge.  Educational efforts must strive first to understand the reasons for this resistance.  Only then can evolution educators hope to develop effective strategies to teach evolution.

Consider an example from outside the world of evolution education.  Imagine your task is to deliver polio vaccine in a rural area.  If the people in the area did not know about the vaccine, you could simply publicize the benefits and the location of the vaccination clinic.  Then people would bring their children to receive the vaccine.

But if the people in the area thought that the vaccine was dangerous, you couldn’t simply put up posters and distribute flyers.  You would have to engage in a very different task.  You would have to understand why people thought the vaccine was dangerous.  You would have to get to know the reasoning involved in order to offer counter-arguments that would be convincing.  Only if you could convince people that the vaccine was helpful and not dangerous could you ever hope to vaccinate large percentages of the population.

Bill Nye is talented.  Bill Nye is brave.  Bill Nye is smart.

But he continues to display a puzzling ignorance about the contours of creationism in America.  Instead of using his considerable influence to suggest pragmatic policies to spread evolution education, he continues to misdirect evolution education policy.  He needs to learn about creationism if he wants to debate it intelligently.


Ham on Nye: The Debate Continues

He-said-he-said.  Who are we to believe? Bill Nye “The Science Guy” and creationist leader Ken Ham have published reflections on their recent debate.  Nye explains his triumphHam says, not so fast.  To this reader, Ham seems to be on the defensive.

As ILYBYGTH readers recall, the debate itself occurred a couple of months ago.  Bill Nye traveled to Ham’s Creation Museum to tackle the question, “Is creation a viable model of origins in the modern scientific era?”  The debate rollicked over some familiar territory and included some surprises.  Ham focused on his idiosyncratic definition of science, split into authentic “observational” science and illegitimate “historical” science.  Nye piled on the traditional skeptical puzzlers: How could a tree be more than 6,000 years old on a young earth?  Why are there no fossils out of order?  How could an Ark survive?

In the pages of the Skeptical Inquirer, Nye recently offered his reflections on the debate.  He explains his strategy to pile on example after example of young-earth-confounding science.  He explains his decision to spend his first precious ninety seconds on a mild joke about bow ties.  He profusely thanks his advisers, such as the experienced creation/evolution debaters at the National Center for Science Education.  Nye’s tone is profoundly celebratory.  In short, he explains how and why he triumphed.

Perhaps not surprising, Ken Ham took exception to Nye’s comments.  Never one to back away from a challenge, Ham recently published a rejoinder to Nye’s memoir.  To me, Ham’s article seems strangely defensive.  Don’t get me wrong: I’m no follower of Mr. Ham.  But I have defended him against vicious verbal assaults from skeptics.  I have also taken The Science Guy to task for his woeful misunderstanding of the culture of creationism.  But in this case, Ham’s only defense seems to be to niggle around the edges of Nye’s memories.

Ham objects, for example, to Nye’s memory of how the debate came about.  The way Nye tells it, Ham persistently challenged Nye to a debate until Nye agreed.  The way Ken Ham remembers it, however, the whole thing came about at the suggestion of an Associated Press reporter.

Ham also objected to Nye’s repeated suggestion that Ham has a “congregation,” and that all of these museums appeal to “Ham’s followers.”  Such language, Ham protests, seems to be an effort to marginalize Ham’s Answers In Genesis ministry as a fringe cult.  Fair enough.  I would be surprised if Bill Nye knew much about the history of parachurch organizations in American (and Australian) evangelical Protestantism.  For evangelical Protestants, there is often a clear distinction between church and broader organizations that also help the cause.  Missionary groups, Bible leagues, youth organizations, and similar parachurch organizations are a familiar part of the evangelical experience.  Nye really does seem to miss this distinction entirely.  But does it matter?  Does it really hurt Ham’s cause if outsiders think of his work as a “congregation” instead of a “ministry?”  It seems the distinction only matters to members themselves.

Perhaps strangest of all, Ham claims to catch Nye in an embarrassing distortion of the truth.  Nye insists that he had never been inside the Creation Museum before the debate.  One time when he was in the area, Nye explained, he drove around the parking lot, but the museum itself was closed.  Nye says he saw the “infamous” statue of a dinosaur with early humans outside the museum.  But Ham seems to prove that Nye distorted this memory.  Ham produces a photo that apparently shows Bill Nye outside the Creation Museum in 2011.  Ham even notes a 2011 Facebook post that seems to confirm the date and duration (122 seconds!) of Nye’s visit.  The museum, Ham claims, was indeed open at the time.  Plus, there is no statue outside the museum that depicts humans cavorting with dinosaurs.  How could Nye have seen a statue that doesn’t exist?

Nye's 122 Seconds Outside the Creation Museum

Nye’s 122 Seconds Outside the Creation Museum

These sorts of nitpicks put Nye in an awkward position.  Why would Nye embellish his memories of his 2011 visit to the Creation Museum’s parking lot?

In the end, though, they don’t seem to make a difference.  Throughout this post-debate commentary, Ken Ham takes a decidedly defensive tone.  He pokes holes in Nye’s memories, but he doesn’t really challenge Nye’s central conclusion that the debate was a triumph for mainstream science.


Will Creationists Take Half a Loaf?

Okay, so here’s a deal: If science educators in public schools agree to remain neutral about creationists’ beliefs, will creationists allow teachers to teach their kids evolution?

I don’t rule the world, but if I did, that would be my cure for our creation/evolution battles.  Let me try to spell it out in a little more detail:

I’m working on a short book with philosopher Harvey Siegel, tentatively titled Teaching Evolution in a Creation Nation: Historical and Philosophical Perspectives.  Why would we attempt such a thing?  It wasn’t our idea.  Our little book will be part of a series cooked up by historian Jon Zimmerman and philosopher Randy Curren.  What if, they asked, what if we could get philosophers and historians talking to one another about educational issues?

This past weekend, the authors of these books gathered for a workshop at New York University.  Harvey and I made our case.  The high-caliber intellectual firepower gathered around the table asked lots of difficult questions.  Hardest of all, IMHO, was the one above: Will Creationists Take Half a Loaf?

In essence, given the long history of cultural battles over the teaching of evolution and creationism, Harvey and I make the following argument:

  • Creationism may or may not be science, but it’s not the best science out there.  Students in public schools must be taught the best science available.  At this point in history, that means the modern Darwinian synthesis.  (Bear with me for a minute here.  I know we can argue about what we mean by this, or whether or not that is the best name for mainstream evolutionary theory.  But for the moment, for the sake of argument, let’s proceed.)
  • Too many scientists and science teachers take this to mean that creationism must be purged from students’ minds.  If we consider creationism to be a form of religious dissent, that sort of attitude among mainstream scientists seems both cruel and pedagogically ineffective.
  • Teachers in public schools, therefore, must teach evolution.  Real evolution, not watered down with bogus religiously inspired alternatives.
  • But teachers must not make any claims on the religious beliefs of their students.  If students acquire a reasonable knowledge of evolutionary theory, their teachers will have succeeded.  Full Stop.  Public schools should tell students nothing about what religious beliefs they should hold.
  • In short, the goal of evolution education should be for students to understand or know evolutionary theory, but not (necessarily) to believe it.

One of the big issues that came up in our weekend workshop was whether or not students and teachers could really walk this line between understanding and belief.  How practical is it to ask students to “know” something they don’t “believe?”  But let’s leave that aside for a moment.  The question I’d like to ask this morning is different.

Assuming teachers could embrace this goal of “understanding-not-belief,” do you think young-earth creationists would go for it?  That is, would creationists who hold ideas that differ radically from the mainstream scientific consensus agree to allow their kids to learn evolution, IF the public schools agreed not to meddle with their children’s religious beliefs about evolution?

Smart people are skeptical.  With good reason.  At the recent blockbuster debate between young-earth creationist Ken Ham and science popularizer Bill Nye, for example, Ham did not take the role of a religious dissident, but rather insisted that creationism meant superior science.  Creationists have always insisted that their beliefs are better science, not just a religious dissent from good science.

So I ask again: Will creationists accept public education that teaches real evolution—and only real evolution—in science classes, IF that education remains stubbornly neutral about related religious beliefs?

Evolutionists Roast Ham


Thanks to the brilliant Matt Stopera, we also have a series of 22 questions evolution-believers would like to ask Ken Ham.

[If you’re just joining us, you can catch up on the details of the Ham-on-Nye debate here; some analysis here; and some of Stopera’s creationist questions here.]

As a preamble, let me remind readers that I am a “self-identified evolutionist” myself, so my comments here will be more along the lines of family disagreements than were my comments about the creationists’ questions.

I cringe the most when I see the snark inherent in some of these questions.  Worst of all, one questioner asked about the Flintstones.  This kind of question just poisons the well.  If I were a young-earth creationist reading this, it would reassure me that everything I believed about mainstream intellectual/scientific culture is correct. First, this kind of question demonstrates a determinedly hostile attitude toward creationist belief.  Second, it implies that creationists believe things they don’t really believe.  Third, it doesn’t demonstrate any knowledge about evolution or science, only a knowledge of kitschy old TV cartoons.  Finally, it proves that only creationists are willing to talk politely and civilly to those with whom they disagree.  As Ken Ham tried to prove in the debate itself, many creationists believe that evolution believers are “indoctrinated” into believing evolution by fake science that has “hijacked” the name science for its own anti-God purposes.  Closed-minded burns like this Flintstones question demonstrate first and foremost–to any intelligent creationist–that Ham was right.  Evolution, this question implies, is something we’re not even willing to talk about.  All we can do is make fun of those with whom we disagree.  A shameful repudiation of liberal civil values.

Also sad, some questioners chose to make only assertions.  One woman wrote happily, “Science rules!”  Not exactly a proud demonstration of the clear intellectual superiority of the modern evolutionary synthesis.

Happily, other evolutionists asked better questions.  The best point Nye made during the debate, IMHO, was the irrefutability of the fossil record.  Find a single exception, Nye repeated, and you’ll convince me.  The evidence is clear.  Several questioners challenged Ham to address that issue more clearly and directly.

Other evolutionists, surprisingly, focused on religious themes.  As one guy put it, “What’s with all the raping and pillaging, God?”  Now, this doesn’t have anything to do with evolution directly, but I think religious questions are the proper field of discussion here, not scientific ones.  It makes the most sense to me for evolutionists to challenge creationists–especially Ham’s brand of young-earth creationist–on the theological and logical problems with the religious attitudes at the heart of YEC.  Why should we believe in a six-day creation, in other words, and not the rest of the Old Testament?  Of course, intelligent YECs have answers to those questions, but by asking religious questions, IMHO, we keep this discussion where it properly belongs.

Stoperas HamOther questions seem less well thought out.  One person asked, for example, how one could doubt evolution, since there were entire disciplines devoted to it?  That seems like an ignorant question to me.  Why would anyone assume that something that gets studied a great deal must be true?  The history of science can give us plenty of examples of radically untrue notions that attracted lots of academic attention: quantity of angels on pins, phlogiston, phrenology…the list could go on and on.

Some smart questions demonstrated a more understandable ignorance.  One person, for instance, asked, “How can you deny microevolution?”  A good question, but one that shows a lack of knowledge about today’s young-earth creationism.  Creationist scientists these days are actually some of the most ardent advocates of the distinction between “micro-” and “macro-” evolution.  Creationists eagerly agree that microevolution occurred.  In the debate, Ham referred to this as the changing of God’s original “kinds.”

Finally, several of the questions asked about educational issues, the questions near and dear to our hearts here at ILYBYGTH.  Some were silly, such as one who said he required his textbooks to be newer than 4,000 years old.  This is not only silly in the obvious sense that creationists use lots of new textbooks, but in the deeper sense that YECs would call the Bible a “textbook” only in a unique sense.  The Bible to many YECs is indeed a storehouse of knowledge, but it is much more than that.  As Ham argued in the debate proper, the Bible has a unique status, something much more than a textbook.

Another made the great argument, “Keep religion out of my science classes!”  Even better would be if this person added, “Keep YOUR religion out of my science classes.”  This is indeed a strong point.  Whatever one may say about it, even Ken Ham agrees that YEC is a belief based in religion.  Indeed, he goes through verbal (and mental) gymnastics in his efforts to prove that evolution is also a religion.  Both sides agree, though, that science classes in public schools ought not teach religion.  And intelligent YECs admit that their evolutionary beliefs are frankly religious.

OK, nuf sed.  Three cheers for Matt Stopera.  This 22-vs-22 has been at least as illuminating as the debate itself.


Creationists Grill Nye


What did creationists want to ask Bill Nye?  In Tuesday’s big debate, we heard a series of audience questions, but there must have been many audience members who still wanted to ask more.

Journalist Matt Stopera was there, and he asked self-identified creationists what they would wanted to have asked Nye.  Whatever your analysis of the debate, these questions help us understand what creationists thought of Mr. Nye and his presentation of the evolutionary worldview.

Some of the questions demonstrate ignorance of mainstream evolutionary science.  One respondent, for example, wondered why there were still monkeys if we came from monkeys.  That’s not what evolution says.  This is the sort of simple, naïve ignorance that too many non-creationists think makes up all of creationism.  A couple of other questions asked similarly naïve questions.  How can there be a sunset without God, one asked.  Another asserted that since the world was “amazing,” there must be a God.  It doesn’t take a Bill Nye to poke scientific holes in that sort of naïve creationism.

But that’s not all there is to the intellectual fabric of American creationism.  The other questions show the diversity among creationists.  One question asked simply, “What about noetics?”  Another woman wondered how we can understand salvation if we believed in evolution.  Another challenged Nye: “Are you scared of a divine creator?”  Two people asked about the Lucy fossils.  Some asked what caused the Big Bang.  When this came up in the debate itself, Bill Nye frankly and enthusiastically responded that he did not know, but that non-knowledge and the excitement of discovery lay squarely at the heart of real science.

stopera nye

Some of the questions showed that creationists have learned science, but a very different science.  For instance, one woman wanted to know how evolution could account for an increase in genetic information.  This is a question mainstream science can answer, but it is often presented by creationist scientists as a decisive disproof of mainstream evolutionary science.  What does it matter?  It shows that some creationists are not simply unaware of mainstream science.  Rather, their knowledge about evolution has been occluded by a compelling–if not scientifically accurate–counter-knowledge.  This is different from people who just don’t know about evolution.

Several questioners wanted to ask Nye about schools.  “Are you influencing children in a positive way?” one asked.  Why not teach more than one “theory” of origins, a couple more wanted to know.

Thanks to Stopera for sharing this fascinating gallery of creationist conundrums.


Debate Analysis

So, the Ham-on-Nye has come and gone.  For those of you who missed it, you can still watch the debate for a couple of days.  Or you can follow our comments and discussion from last night.

I’m very curious to hear people’s reactions.  For me, as someone convinced that humanity had its roots long ages ago in a process that did not need (or receive) any divine guidance, I certainly did not hear anything from Ken Ham to make me question my beliefs.  Though I did find Mr. Ham to be engaging and warm.  Speaking from the “evolutionist” side, I thought Nye did a good job, though I wished several times that he had taken different approaches.  For example, I think it is a bad strategy to focus on the unlikelihood of Noah’s Ark.  As Steve Carrell can tell you, such questions can all be answered with a steadfast belief in the power of the supernatural.  They do not need to make naturalistic sense.

As I describe in my upcoming book, William James Bryan handled this “village atheist” objection nearly a century ago.  When arch-skeptic Clarence Darrow put Bryan on the stand at the 1925 Scopes Trial, Darrow pressed Bryan on the believability of the Bible.  How could Joshua have told the sun to stand still?  Didn’t Bryan know that such a feat would cause the Earth to melt?  Bryan’s reply shut down Darrow’s attack, IMHO.  As Bryan put it, to cheers from the audience, if Darrow had trouble believing in miracles, the problem lay not with the miracles, but with the man.  It does not seem as if Nye understands this fundamental epistemological attitude among many religious people, not only young-earth creationists.

How about you?  Did any creationist readers find Mr. Nye’s arguments new or worth consideration? 

Were there any other parts of the debate that you found surprising or intriguing?

Personally, I thought the best part of the evening were the last section, when both speakers took audience questions.  Questions two and four were the best.  Each asked Nye to explain a fundamental mystery of origins, to which Nye replied in each case, “Don’t know.  It’s a remarkable mystery.”  Then, in each case, Ham rebutted that it was not really a mystery at all.  It was explained in the Bible.  It was a humorous exchange, and illuminated the difference between mainstream science and Biblical knowledge.

Time for Ham on Nye!

Getting ready to watch the debate.  For those who are just emerging from their winter hibernations, I’m talking about the debate at the Creation Museum between young-earth creationist Ken Ham and “The Science Guy” Bill Nye.  You can watch live via debatelive.org.

I’ll update this post throughout the evening if anything comes to mind.  All are encouraged to put in their two cents in the comments column.

Here are some of the things I’ll be looking for:

  • Will Ham harp on the “observational” vs. “historic” science argument?  If so, will Nye call him out on the non-scientific nature of that argument?
  • Will everyone keep smiling?  If not, who will crack, and how?
  • Along those lines, will the Creation-Museum crowd give Ham an enormous home-field advantage?
  • Will Nye make the bad argument that creationism somehow prevents people from learning mainstream science and engineering?
  • Will Nye demonstrate his lamentable ignorance about the culture and history of American creationism?
  • What will either side say about other sorts of creationism, such as intelligent design, evolutionary creationism, or old-earth creationism?  I’m guessing neither will even mention them.

OK, nuf sed!  I’m going to go eat a taco and open a beer.  See you when the debate gets started.


6:30: While we’re waiting, I encourage everyone to consider looking into the history of creation/evolution debates.  As usual, the best source for these things is with my grad-school mentor Ron Numbers.  Ron’s blockbuster book The Creationists includes great source material about the long tradition of public debate about evolution.  Even more nerdily compelling, Ron edited a collection of debates themselves.  The volume is harder to find, but anyone with a decent-sized university library nearby should be able to find it or request it via inter-library loan.  For all with an interest in the history of these debates, it’s vital reading.


6:30: I gotta give the Creation Museum credit.  The other day when I tried to register to watch, I was a little skeptical that they would have it working properly.  But now they’ve got a nice set up with the format listed along the right side and an exciting countdown clock going.


6:45: We’ve got music!  And a visual of the Nye-Ham weigh-in…  I like the titles: Ken Ham, AIG CEO; Bill Nye “The Science Guy”


6:53: Ugh…whoever wins this debate, it won’t be the person who picked this elevator music…


7:00: Here we go! What’s going on?  A Ken Ham cartoon?  Kids come free–an ad for the Creation Museum.  We’ve been welcomed!  “Hundreds of thousands watching online.”  That’s us!


7:02: Who knew the moderator could make jokes?  Where did we come from?  He came from DC on a plane! Yuk yuk.  And a coin flip?  Perfect for a Broadway Joe Superbowl joke…


7:04: Did Ken Ham just say, “I’m a Nazi?”  Oh… “I’m an Aussie…”

Ham’s lead-off: evolutionists have “hijacked” the name of science to squeeze out creationism.

And he’s got experts: Stuart Burgess.  I’m not familiar with Burgess.  Anyone else?


7:07: Sure enough, Ham is leading with his main argument: “observational” vs. “historical” science.  Not the best approach.  But a better argument: we don’t need evolution to be good technologists.  A middle path: forcing evolution on school children is actually a religious argument.


7:09: Nye’s turn at bat: He leads with a joke about bowties.  And a long anecdote for a guy with only five minutes to talk.  Grandpa and his bowtie.  Maybe that will be a good way to make “evolutionists” seem less terrifying.

Oooh.  Nye is changing the question.  His new version: Does Ken Ham’s creation model hold up?  Looks as if he’s taking on Ham’s observational/historical distinction.  Wow!  Nye is great.

If CSI can tell about the past from clues, then so can scientists.  All of them use the SAME science.

Uh Oh, Nye is breaking out his less-powerful argument that creationists can’t be good technologists or engineers.  That one just doesn’t hold up!


7:16: Raymond Demadian.  A young-earth creationist and inventor of the MRI.  Now Danny Faulkner, AIG astronomer with PhD.  This is what worries me about Nye’s argument that creationists BY DEFINITION can’t do science or technology.  It is easy to find people who can poke holes in that assertion.

This bit drives mainstream science bonkers.  This is why the NCSE does its Project Steve.

7:20: Ham’s “We weren’t there” argument just doesn’t do much.  I think Nye’s CSI intro was a great way to predict this and defang it in advance.

NOW A GOOD ONE: a challenge for Nye–can Nye name a single technology that couldn’t be designed by creationists?

And snappy graphics: cartoon Nye vs. cartoon Ham.  The same evidence, interpreted differently.

7:25: Ham spends some time explaining the fact that evolution occurs, but only within biblical “kinds.”  That is, two ur-dogs on Noah’s ark created wolves, foxes, dogs, etc.

7:29: Whoops! Ham insists that public-school science teaches religion, since they teach evolution that has no basis in observational science.  Based on belief, not on observations.

Is it just me, or does Ken Ham seem nervous?  I’m surprised, since he is such a polished performer and public speaker.

7:32: Smart tactic, Mr. Ham.  He takes on Darwin as a racist thinker.  Biblical creationism, in contrast, insists that there can be no real racial differences.  Of course, he doesn’t explore the notion that today’s evolutionary scientists no longer argue that evolution proves the differences between races.  Nevertheless, as a political tactic, this makes good sense for Mr. Ham to focus on.

7:35: not as powerful: Ham keeps insisting (as we thought he would) on the intellectual paucity of “historical science.”  It would be a stronger argument to non-creationists like me if Ham kept it simpler–asked mainstream science to admit that there is SOME belief implicit in mainstream science.  But that belief does not inhere in mainstream science’s use of “historical science.”

7:37: Now Ken Ham enters into the theological roots of his belief system.  “We make no apology” for our religious roots.

7:40: Looking at Texas textbook battles.  Ham says the news slants the coverage, pitting “creationists” against “academics.”  Says that Kathy Miller of the Texas Freedom Network is really the one imposing religion on public school students.  By insisting on evolution, kids are indoctrinated in a belief system instead of discovering truth on their own.

7:42: More preaching to the choir.  Evolution leads to more abortion.

And, what’s the real point?  According to Ken Ham, young people must learn first and foremost that God loves them.


7:45: Now it’s time for Nye’s longer presentation.  Starting with limestone.  “We are standing on millions of layers of ancient life.  How could those animals have lived their entire lives in just four thousand years?”

7:48: As an “evolutionist” who reads creationist literature, I can hear the voices of creationist disputing Nye’s anti-flood, anti-young-earth examples–though there might be ancient trees and ancient rock layers.  But that does not refute the central argument of Ham and other YECs that such things are not observed, but assumed.

Oh, wait!  This fossil stuff is great.  There is NO EXAMPLE OF FOSSILS THAT CHANGE THE ORDER OF EVOLUTIONARY THEORY.  A flood would have produced much more turbulence.  Will this convince any YECs in the audience?

7:52: here’s another good one: If animals were all on the Ark, where are the kangaroo fossils on the way from Mt. Ararat to Australia?

How could one family have built an ark so big?  That doesn’t make sense.  Other great shipbuilders could not build a wooden ship that lasted in seas.  How could eight people have built a sea-worthy wooden ship?  Of course, the YEC answer here is easy: God can make anything happen.  I’m worried Nye here is not reaching any listeners.  Same with other arguments that Nye is not making: How could Jonah survive for days in a fish?  Etc.?  The answer is easy, and was the argument made by William Jennings Bryan in the 1925 Scopes Trial: Miracles are easy to believe if one has faith.

Plus, if all 16,000,000 species evolved in the last 4,000 years from the 7,000 “kinds” that went on the ark, that would mean we’d be seeing 11 new species every day.  Where are they?

I wonder if these mind-blowers will cause any creationists in the audience to reconsider their beliefs.  Or will they just dismiss them as bitter ravings from a confused non-Christian.

8:02: Nye overuses the word “remarkable.”  He uses it both in the usual sense, and as a veiled criticism of Ham’s scientific model.

Also, I wonder if Nye’s repetition of his sex argument (he’s making the point that some animals get genetic benefits from reproducing sexually, even in some fish species that are capable of asexual reproduction) will make some YECs uncomfortable.  Implies that Nye is a little too comfortable with sex.

8:13: good call, Mr. Nye.  The US Constitution says we should promote science.  But don’t specify this is only an issue for Kentucky, Texas, and Tennessee!


8:14: Time for rebuttals.  Ken Ham first.  How does he rebut radioactive dating?  Dates done by this method produce inconsistent results.  Stuff in the same layers show very different dates.  Plus, dating methods assume constant rates.  How do we know this?

And watch out for Christians who believe in an ancient earth.  Death cannot have happened before Adam’s fall.


8:20: Nye’s rebuttal.  Dating methods ARE reliable.  Why is the translated Bible a better source.  To Nye, that reliance on the Bible is “unsettling, troubling.”  But, again, why should it convince YECs if Nye is unsettled?

Nye condemns Ham’s argument as “magical.”  How will that convince someone who agrees wholeheartedly that it is miraculous?

If we use the Bible as a science text, what does that mean?  That Mr. Ham’s words are somehow to be more respected than what people can observe themselves.

Also, evolutionary theory is not racist.  Rather a simple matter of historic ethnocentrism.


8:25: Ken Ham counter-rebuttal.  Bears are vegetarian.  But they have savage teeth.  Fruit-bats, too.  That does not prove that lions might not have been vegetarians before the flood.  And why couldn’t Noah have built a better ark than we could later?  Don’t assume that people in the past were not as smart as modern people.


8:30: Nye counter-rebuttal.  Says Mr. Ham did not come close to addressing the huge problems with the numbers raised by the idea of a young earth.  Where did all the species come from?  There just isn’t enough time.  Nye says it is not “reasonable” to think Noah and 7 helpers could have built an ark.

What’s the central issue?  Ham says we can’t make assumptions about the past.  Nye says these are legitimate, not just made up.  Why should we accept Ham’s word for it that natural law changed completely four thousand years ago, without leaving any record?

And what about all the billions of religious people who disagree with Ham’s vision of the origins of life?

Whoops!  Says Ham’s model is based on the Old Testament, not the New.  That seems like another reach for Nye.  Those are questions YECs and others have debated for a looooooong time.

Great point: real scientists welcome proof.  If there is proof of a very different fossil record, no one wants to see that more than real scientists.


8:35: Q&A from the audience.

Question 1: for Ham: How does creationism account for the celestial bodies . . . moving further apart?

Ham: That’s in the Bible.  God says he is stretching out the heavens.

Nye: Where did we come from?  We all ask it.  Astronomy is a science devoted to this question.  They are not satisfied with an answer from the Bible.

Question 2: For Nye: How did the atoms that created the Big Bang get there?

Nye: We don’t know.  Scientists engage in what we call science in order to find answers.  We do not take anyone’s word for it.  Nor even The Word for it.  This is the heart of real science.  This is the problem with Ham’s approach.

Ham: There is a book that tells us the answer.  “That’s the only thing that makes sense.”  How else would there be matter?  It could only come from “intelligence.”

Question 3: Scientists produce evidence for evolution.  Besides the Bible, what evidence can you produce?

Ham: Don’t make an argument based on what the majority of scientists believe.  We can see from history the danger of relying on the majority of scientific opinion.  When it comes to the past, we can’t know scientifically, we can only know through belief.  We’re honest, mainstream scientists are not.

Nye: If any scientist makes a big discovery, that scientist will be embraced.  Science progresses by seeing what works and by always challenging its own assumptions.  It is not true (totally) that science is dictated by majority belief.

Question 4: for Nye: How did consciousness come from matter?

Nye: “Don’t know. This is a great mystery.”  Science is all about the joy of discovery.  We want to find out the answer to this question.  Something about dogs?  And self-doubt?  We must encourage young people to investigate the question of consciousness.

Ham: Goes for the laugh!  There is an answer, Bill.  It’s all in the Bible.  It is not a mystery.  And if it’s all about discovery, what about life after death?

Question 5: for Ham: What if anything would ever change your mind?

Ham: pause….”I’m a Christian.” As such, he goes by God’s guidance.  The Bible is the Word of God.  You can make predictions based on that.  I can’t prove that to you, but I can say, try it.  See if God will reveal Himself to you if you ask Him.  “No one’s ever gonna convince me that the Word of God is not true.”  But that doesn’t mean they don’t keep learning and asking and inquiring.  Would Bill Nye ever change his mind?

Nye: All I’d need is one piece of evidence.  One fossil in a different layer.  One piece of evidence that stars appear to be far away, but they’re not.  Says he would change his mind immediately.  GREAT ANSWER.

Question 6: for Nye: Is there evidence for the age of the earth besides radiometric evidence?

Nye: Deposition rates, seen by Lyell so many years ago.  Plus, radiometric evidence is very strong.  The weight of the evidence is so strong that creationists need to find a way to disprove it somehow.

Ham: The age of the earth came from studies of meteorites, not earth rocks.  Every dating method is faulty.  But most dating methods say the earth is much younger.

Question 7: For Ham: Can you reconcile the change in the rate continents are now drifting, to the rate they would have had to have traveled 6,000 years ago?

Ham: This also proves my point about historical vs. observational science.  Our researchers look at this often.  Plate movements today don’t necessarily equal the rates in the past.  That is an unwarranted assumption.  We believe in catastrophic plate tectonics.  A big shift at one point in time.

Nye: The evidence for sea-floor spreading is clear.  It leaves a record in the rocks.  We can measure rates of continental drift.

Question 8: for both: favorite color?

Nye: Green.

Ham: Blue.

Question 9: for Nye: How do you balance the law of evolution with the second law of thermodynamics?

Nye: Energy is always lost to heat.  Entropy increases.  Here’s the kicker: the earth is not a closed system.  The sun is always delivering energy.  Day and night.  Ha ha.

Ham: Energy or matter will never produce life.  God imposed information.  Matter could never do it alone.

Question 10: for Ham: Could evidence of an ancient earth make you change your belief in God and Jesus?

Ham: Science could never prove such a thing.  It would be “historical” science and therefore based on possibly faulty assumptions.  Therefore, the question doesn’t make sense.  I believe in a young universe because the Bible says it.  Frankly and openly.  But there is nothing in real science to contradict that.  There is nothing that will make me change my belief.

Nye: You CAN prove the age of the earth using observations.  Ham thinks everyone should take his word for it.  His vision of a book translated into English.  How does he know that life cannot come from something that is not alive?

Question 11: For Nye: Is there room for God in science?

Nye: Billions of people are religious and yet embrace science.  Does anyone here not have a phone?  Anyone here who doesn’t use medicine?  Anyone who doesn’t eat?  Science makes life possible.  That has nothing to do with religion.  People can be religious, for example Francis Collins.  Ham is the exception, not the rule, for religious people.

Ham: God is necessary for science.  I love technology.  All of that has to do only with “observational” science.  God makes science possible, since God created logic and natural processes.  The Bible and science go hand in hand.

Question 12: for Ham: Should the entire Bible be taken literally?

Ham: “Literally” has many different interpretations.  I take the Bible “naturally,” i.e., in the sense in which it was intended.  One can’t insist on Old Testament rules as laws today.

Nye: Only certain parts of the Bible are to be taken literally?  Others are assumed to be just poetry?

Question 13: for Nye: Have you ever believed that evolution was accomplished through way of a higher power?

Nye: The idea of a higher power can’t be proven or disproven.  We can’t know some things.  But intelligent design is a different matter.  ID has a “fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of nature.”  The watchmaker analogy doesn’t hold.  Nature adds complexity through natural selections.  Better designs survive.

Ham: Are there any examples of new functions that arose from genetic material that was present?  It doesn’t happen.  The information has to have been already present.  Information is not created.  Just switched on or off.

Question 14: for Ham: Name one institution. . . other than a church . . . that uses . . . creationism to produce its product.

Ham: Any scientist uses creationism.  They all use the laws of logic, which only make sense in a God-created universe.  Otherwise, how can we count on natural law if we don’t assume an all-powerful creator?  This is the only way to raise a generation of innovative youth.  Teach them to trust natural laws created by God.  Plus, creationist scientists publish in secular peer-reviewed journals.

Nye: Creationism does NOT have a predictive quality.  A Biblical worldview is only shared by a few people. What about everyone else?  Were they condemned?

Question 15: for Nye: If evolution says that humans are getting smarter, what about smart people in the past?

Nye: Wait: that is not evolution.  It does not mean that people are getting smarter.  Natural selection does not mean the best.  It means those that fit in the best.  The right germ could kill millions.  No matter how smart.  Those who are resistant will survive, not those that are smartest.

Ham: Evolution says that some fish will lose their sight.  That’s not an improvement.  Evolution never provides new information, new function.

Question 16: LAST QUESTION: for both: What is the one thing. . . upon which you base your belief?

Ham: Easy.  The Bible.  Salvation relies upon it.  Test it for yourself.  Look at the evidence.  It all proves what the Bible says.  God can prove it to you, too, if you seek after Him.

Nye: I believe in the process we call science.  It is always a process of discovery.  It is a process of always seeking new answers.  We can all do it.  We are all seekers after knowledge.  Closing point: if we abandon science, we will lose out to other countries.  The USA must embrace science education.


You can see the whole thing at debatelive.org for several days.

I’m going to bed.  Emotionally exhausted.  I’ll offer some thoughts soon on this debate.  In the meantime, thanks to all for playing along.  Please let us know what you thought.

  • Did one side come out on top?
  • Did anything surprise you?
  • If you started the debate strongly on one side or the other, what was the strongest argument you heard from the other side?  What drove you bonkers?