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.