Why Ken Ham’s scientific defense of young-earth creationism just doesn’t make any sense

Ken Ham speaks during the Feb. 4 debate with Bill Nye (AP photo by Matt Stone).

Editor’s note: This weekend, we are bringing you a two-part series by Tyler Francke, exploring in greater depth the young-earth creationist perspective as presented by Ken Ham during his recent “debate” with Bill Nye. We are continuing our coverage on the matter not because we believe this single debate has any real significance on its own, but rather because many of Ham’s statements that night are at the core of the young-earth view his very large organization promotes, and therefore, are indicative of opinions to which large swaths of the evangelical community give their expressed or implicit assent.

Though Ken Ham is the ostensible focal point of these pieces, the real target are the ideas he represents — which are by no means held by him alone. Today, we look at the logical failings of his view; tomorrow, his misrepresentation of the Christian faith.

One of my favorite verses in the Bible is 1 Corinthians 14:20: “Brothers and sisters, do not be children in your thinking. Be infants in evil, but in your thinking be mature.” In a time when it seems all too fashionable for Christians to be stereotyped as mindless sheep, this verse helps me remember the rich intellectual tradition our faith has.

But sometimes, I can see all too clearly where those “stereotypes” come from, and — in those instances — I can’t say I blame any atheist who walks away thinking that Christians are dunces who have no idea how to think. One of those times was just this past week, as I sat listening to Ken Ham unroll some of the most childish, mind-bendingly illogical arguments imaginable, in defense of the very faith that we both uphold.

I will address only two of them in this piece, because I believe they are his main ones (other than his appeals to scripture), and because they were both refuted within the span of the debate — not just by Bill Nye but by Ham himself.

Ham’s overall argument, that his particular interpretation of the book of Genesis is scientifically viable, seemed to boil down to two points:

1. You cannot use science to determine what happened in the distant past.
2. Young-earthers have been shut out of the scientific process by secularists.

Ham’s thinking on the first appears to be as follows: He loves science! He thinks it’s great! Science has given us wonderful medicine and technology, and it’s shown us the earth is not flat. It’s just that, when you use science to analyze the evidence of the distant past — or anything else that wasn’t directly observed and can’t be re-created — it stops working immediately.

This, according to Ham, is the flaw of science. It is incredibly powerful in the present, but completely useless in examining the past.

That’s nonsense, of course. We can use geological and biological evidence to reconstruct the past as surely as a CSI team can use forensic evidence to investigate a crime. But it “sounds” good.

Where Ham got a little too greedy — and in the process, unraveled his entire argument — was closer to the end of the debate. You see, in a very narrow way, he’s right: We cannot prove the age of the earth. That is to say, we can’t know — for sure — that the rate of the decay of radioactive materials is the same as it has always been. It “could” have decayed a hundred, even a thousand, times faster before we started measuring it. We can’t say — beyond any doubt whatsoever — that light always has and always will travel at a constant speed. We do not have celestial traffic cops personally clocking every photon in existence to ensure they “keep it under 670,616,630 mph.”

We trust that these findings are reliable because of Occam’s razor (it just makes more sense that the rate of decay we see now is similar to what it was in the past, rather than millions of times slower) and because — as far as we can tell — the behavior of the fundamental laws of nature is constant and predictable. We’ve never found anything that would indicate otherwise.

So, all Ham has to do to be consistent in his views is deny that the laws of nature can be trusted. This would cripple the practice of scientific inquiry, obviously, but his claim that “historical science” is impossible does that anyway. Here’s the thing, though: He does not deny that the laws of nature can be trusted. In fact, he says just the opposite, arguing that all scientists are “like creationists,” having to “borrow” from the Christian worldview, because without God there is no reason to suppose that nature would operate according to fixed and rational laws.

But he can’t have it both ways. If we can’t do “historical science,” then we can’t do any other kind of science, because it all relies on the same assumptions of consistency, rationality and uniformity.

So, ultimately, Ham is talking out of both sides of his mouth. He says the only way we can do science is because God created a law-governed, rational universe, and then turns around and says we can’t trust the evidence of the past, because God could have ignored the laws that govern the universe when he was designing and creating the universe, and besides, the laws of nature may have been operating completely at random before we started paying attention to them.

Make sense? Of course it doesn’t. It’s a convoluted mess, but it’s what Ken Ham thinks we should all teach our children.

Now, the conspiracy theory thing. Let me say that I understand the need for this argument. If there’s no real evidence for the ancient age of the earth and evolution — as Ham and many other young-earthers claim — then how else can they explain the fact that 99.9 percent of all experts in the relevant fields accept the ancient age of the earth and evolution? It could only be because of some vast conspiracy in which atheist scientists ruthlessly punish anyone who dares contradict their presuppositions.

Unfortunately, reality just does not mesh with this idea, and this was clear before the debate even began. Plain and simple: If there really were a massive, worldwide conspiracy by mainstream scientists to shut out the young-earth faction, Bill Nye would not have agreed to the debate. Period.

Sure, many scientists thought it was a bad idea for Nye to do what he did, and for good reason. But he did it anyway, and he wasn’t outed as a traitor by all Science-dom or targeted for assassination by secularists, desperate to maintain their conspiracy.

That alone makes Ham’s conspiracy theory seem pretty weak. But the far more powerful evidence against it occurred during the debate, when Nye repeatedly asked, called, invited, begged and pleaded for anyone — kids, adults, Christians, non-Christians, anyone — to join as equal partners in the pursuit of knowledge and the scientific process. Want to change his mind? Easy, he said. Just show him one piece of evidence that falsifies the ancient age of the earth. Want to disprove evolution? Simple enough. Just show us a single fossil in rock layers where the theory of evolution says it cannot be, just a single human tooth or modern plant in the Devonian age, and the whole thing falls apart.

“You would be a hero!” Nye told the audience.

His position was unmistakable, and it wasn’t, “Just accept what I say because I’m smart and I have evidence.” It was, “Everyone, and children especially: Do science. Please. And if the evidence shows us that we’re wrong, so be it.”

This should go without saying, but a community that not only shares its data and findings freely but invites — even celebrates — those who can present evidence that challenges the reigning paradigm does not exactly look to me like the second coming of SPECTRE.

And thus, the second pillar of Ham’s argument went tumbling to the ground before his eyes.

I opened this article with a Bible verse. My implication was that Ham failed to meet this teaching of scripture, but I admit, this isn’t wasn’t entirely fair. Whether a person’s thinking qualifies as “childish” is a subjective question. I feel Ham’s thinking is childish; his supporters may be just as inclined to think that mine is.

But there are objective ways to measure arguments. One of them would be that an argument presented at a debate is not completely contradicted by another argument presented by the same person. Another standard I might propose is that an argument presented at a debate not be refuted by the very fact that the debate is happening.

By these standards — and I think, by any objective standards one might propose — Ham’s arguments, and his thinking, fail miserably.

Tyler Francke

  • Nancy R.

    Yes, point 1. I was incredulous that this was the best that Ham had to offer – isn’t he supposed to be a skilled apologist? Either God’s creation is reliable and trustworthy or it is not. To imply that it is not suggests an unreliable and capricious Creator. And Ham kept explaining that we couldn’t make sense of the past, because we weren’t there, and that the answer to all questions could be found in – well, “there’s this book.” His inconsistency and apparent lack of intellectual curiosity do not reflect well on his views, nor should they be a model for fellow Christians.

    • I agree. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Nancy!

  • DonaldByronJohnson

    One way to think of it is that ALL science in “historical science” this is because something happens and some time later we observe the change, there is some time between the thing happening and its being observed/detected in some way. If you break the link it is FATAL to science being able to be done, as all bets are off and your claim is that we live in a magical universe with science not being possible.

    • My thinking exactly. If it’s impossible to do historical science then it’s impossible to do any science, since they both rely on the same assumptions of consistency and rationality.

    • Agreed, and I thought Nye explained that well.

  • but where you there?

    • Shoot, I wasn’t. I just watched the debate on the live stream. So I can’t know that he actually said what I think he said. And even if I had been there, I can’t trust that anything I think was said is true unless I find validation of it somewhere in the Bible…

      • Ah, but you are forgetting Genesis Chapter 3 verses 25-30. “25 and as God watched Adam and Eve leave the Garden, Adam said to eve 26 “God will give to us both a descendant named after tasty tasty pig meat who will defend the truth of all that has happened here 27 and one day he will debate the devil’s servant known as science guy 28 and throughly defeat him to usher in the age of true understanding. 30 Oh, and Joshua Feuerstein will also do things.

        • You must be using the YECV translation of the Bible (Young-Earth Creationist’s Version). They revoked my copy a long time ago 🙂

          • Ah, I was wondering why my bible had Ken Ham’s face on the front.

  • ashleyhr

    Perhaps the likes of Ham have been shut out of the scientific process because they wish to REDUCE the scope of scientific investigations. As well as a consequence of the fact that – as we now better understand – they don’t seem to have a viable scientific model of (claimed recent) origins, and only ONE of the SIX Ham Bible inspired creation ‘predictions’ appeared to be any sort of meaningful prediction at all (that the discovered complexity of life might point to creative intelligence).

    • No kidding. If someone like Ham were in charge of scientific inquiry we would never have progressed outside the Dark Ages. What motivation does he have for seeking new knowledge? His only goal is to deny new knowledge unless it fits in with his preconceived notions. If Ham were in charge of scientific inquiry, it would go nowhere, because he already thinks we know everything that we need to know.

  • ashleyhr

    Message as just sent to AiG via their website:

    Far-fetched claims about creationist ‘predictions’, by David DeWitt.

    http://www.answersingenesis.org/articles/2014/02/08/creation-model-make-predictions

    “In the historic debate between Ken Ham and Bill Nye, Nye insisted repeatedly that the creation model was not scientific and that it did not make predictions. This was in spite of the several creationist predictions that Ken Ham had outlined in his opening statement. Though many more could have been given, this sampling should have sufficed.”

    What nonsense.

    At one hour and 58 minutes (when he finally sort of answered the specific question that was asked) Ham asserted that he had made ‘predictions’ earlier in the debate eg that there should be one human race today because the Bible indicates one race or that there should be ‘kinds’ of life today because Genesis 1 refers to kinds. What drivel. The Bible predicted NOTHING with respect to the (single) human race at the time it was written nor with respect to ‘kinds’ of living creatures then or now – it simply referred to the blindingly obvious that could be observed at the time ie people all appear to be the same and distinct from other animals, and other forms of life vary considerably and there are ‘kinds’ of birds or sea creatures and so forth.

    Ham first referred to intelligence, ‘kinds’, the flood, the human ‘race’, a ‘young’ universe and the tower of Babel during his main presentation – beginning at around 37 minutes. And – although I did not jot this down in my notes because the point made no sense to me – Ham in effect claimed that his creation model ‘based’ on the Bible made various ‘predictions’ that can be tested by ‘observational’ science (ONLY by ‘observational’ science not the other kind that Ham rejects).

    – that we should find evidence confirming that an intelligence produced life (I agree that mainstream science cannot disprove that the complexity of life was the result of ‘intelligent design’ though that does not rule out evolution of the said life from ‘simpler’ forms);

    – that we should find evidence today confirming reproduction ‘after their kind’ (well what else could possibly happen – and evolutionary theory does NOT say that a dinosaur gave birth overnight to a bird; he also cited a 2014 scientific paper pointing to a single origin for dogs – which of course humans bred from wolves by ARTIFICIAL selection ie domestic dogs are NOT part of whatever God created on ‘day six’ according to ‘kinds’);

    – that we should find evidence today ‘confirming’ Noah’s global flood (apparently the fact that there is a fossil record – who would have thought it, not the writer of Genesis though – is this ‘confirmation’);

    – that we should find evidence confirming ‘one race’ of humans (well we find one race TODAY as in biblical times quelle surprise – but also fossils of OTHER hominids which lived much earlier on, so that ‘prediction’ fails at least with respect to what we have discovered about the PAST);

    – that we should find evidence ‘confirming’ the tower of Babel (the evidence being that – hold the front page – in biblical times and indeed today different languages are spoken by humanity);

    – that we should find evidence of a ‘young’ universe (but we DON’T).

    Thus, in order, these ‘predictions’ are:

    – questionable;

    – not a prediction at all;

    – a failure since how could there NOT be a fossil record;

    – mostly not a prediction at all (unless you are predicting using the Bible that the single extant human species when it was written would not change in the next few thousand years) and partly a failed prediction (with respect to certain fossils we have found which date to pre-biblical times);

    – a failure (or if the prediction is that there will be many languages that is not a prediction but merely an observation);

    – an utter failure.

    Bill Nye ASKED for predictions from Ham because he understandably did not believe he had received ANY. As at least one person commenting on your Facebook page points out. And your foolish colleague Roger retorts: “one example of prediction that Bill gave was Tiktaalik, something that happened in the past. Ken’s examples were no different. Since the Bible is true, we would expect our study of genetics to confirm that”. ONE of Ken’s six ‘predictions’ actually was a prediction. The rest were either FAILED predictions or not predictions AT ALL. Pathetic.

    DeWitt is largely making excuses and offering diversionary tactics – days after Ham’s INEVITABLE failure to offer meaningful ‘creation model’ predictions (because his creation is simply NOT a viable model of origins for a modern scientific era).

    Though he is honest about the self-imposed, unnecessary and unscientific CONSTRAINTS that ‘creation scientists’ work under when formulating hypotheses. His refusal to accept a prevailing evolutionary view of Neanderthals (which was later overturned as more data became available) is not so much a ‘prediction’ as a lucky guess (that Neanderthals were more genetically similar to us than previously thought) and simply shows that science is never perfect and there is always more to learn before theories can be confirmed. Besides neither our species nor Neanderthals are/were descended from a literal Adam and Eve since no such ‘first couple’ really existed. So any ‘prediction’ by DeWitt is largely falsified by genetics and history.

    And did DeWitt specifically predict that our species interbred with Neanderthals? Probably not since I suspect he insists they were ‘fully human’ anyway. http://www.answersingenesis.org/home/area/bios/d_dewitt.asp

  • Darach Conneely

    Scientists can observe decay rates in the past. Distant supernovae produce radioactive isotopes and astronomers can watch the emission spectra from the decay of different isotopes. Emission from a radioactive isotope will form a peak as it is being produced and then used up. When the daughter isotope is radioactive too, it will have its own peak. The length of time between parent and daughter peaks tell you the decay rate. Scientists have also worked out uranium decay rates from a natural nuclear reactor in Oklo central Africa which was active in the precambrian, 2 billion years ago.

  • Dave Layzell

    Thank you! As an Atheist I don’t have any problem with anyones personal belief in their God, but Ken Ham and his Anti-science cohorts Ray Comfort and Kirk Cameron need to be stopped from promoting thier anti-evolution agenda. It’s immensely damaging to the thinking of children, and I strongly feel it’s up to (mainstream, sensible) Christians to challenge them on this, as they simply will not listen to Atheists.

    • While I agree with you, we Christians also hit a brick wall…because they fundamentally reject the idea that a true Christian can “believe” in evolution. We’re not Christians to them either!

  • rmwilliamsjr

    ham completely neglects several hundred years where the church defended slavery based on the hametic verses which at heart denied the unity of the human race. it appears that theology only advances by forgetting those foolish arguments from the past……theology can and does argue almost anything from the same text.

    • Mr. Ham neglects/ignores lots of things. The many, many, many, many various interpretations that other devout Christians have had over the years regarding the scripture he says is so “clear” is just one of them.