Discussion Guide for Ham/Nye Debate on Creation vs. Evolution (Part 1)

This article was originally published in my column at the Colson Center. It is republished here with permission. For a complete directory of all my Colson Center articles, click here.

 “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” Genesis 1:1

Ever since the theory of evolution was catapulted into the public discourse in 1859 with the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, there have been a number of high-profile debates on the topic. The most prominent of these was, of course, the Scopes Trial of 1925.

On February 4th there was another high profile debate that history may consider equally momentous: a showdown at the creation museum between Ken Ham, the “Answers in Genesis man” and Bill Nye, “the Science Guy.” The resolution for the debate was “Is creation a viable model of origins in today’s modern, scientific era?”

Ken Ham is the president of Answers in Genesis, the author of numerous books and the founder of the Creation Museum. Bill Nye is a Science Educator, a popular television celebrity, actor, writer and scientist.

The fact that these two high profile figures even agreed to debate is a source of embarrassment for both sides of the divide. Ken Ham is an embarrassment to creationists who have labored hard over the last two decades to convince the public that there is good scientific evidence for intelligent design independent of appeals to religious faith. Ham’s entire argument involves appeals to faith while his use of scientific evidence is, by his own admission, post-hoc.

Evolutionists were equally embarrassed, aghast that one of their own would dignify creationists with a formal debate. As Dan Arel proclaimed at the Richard Dawkins Foundation,

“Scientists should not debate creationists. Period….When you accept a debate, you are accepting there is something worth debating. …Creationism vs. evolution however is not worth debating. Why? Simple, there is nothing to debate. Evolution is a scientific fact…

For years to come, churches, home groups, and youth groups will be playing and replaying this debate (which is available on Youtube here) to discuss it. It would be nice to think that the majority of these discussions will be intelligent analyses of the actual arguments of the two debaters. However, what tends to usually happen is that we become cheer-leaders for whatever side we happen to agree with, even when the arguments presented are faulty. This is especially the case in an issue like creation vs. evolution, where the question under debate functions as a locus of a more general network of deeply entrenched ideologies which make it difficult for us to sympathetically consider alternative viewpoints.

The idea that we should be able to sympathetically consider alternative viewpoints may strike many as counter-intuitive, even odd. For Christians, it may even seem unfaithful, at least when the competing viewpoints are contrary to biblical truth. However, being able to be attentive to alternative viewpoints is necessary not only for healthy relationships (a point I have developed here) but is also a necessary part of Christian mission. One of the things that made Francis Schaeffer such an effective apologist was that he labored to really understand what animates unbelieving thought and to address unbelievers on their own terms.

The purpose of this post, and the two to follow, is to assist with this type of thoughtful analysis. I will be providing discussion questions that force us to look beyond whatever position we may happen to hold to consider the debate on its own terms. When used in a small-group setting, you should first read and discuss the questions at the beginning of each section before reading my comments. After reading my comments, you should go back and re-discuss the questions.

The questions I will raise will be addressing concern four separate but related issues raised by the Ham-Nye debate:

  1. The Resolution and the Burden of Proof
  2. Science and Religion
  3. Science and Scripture
  4. Science and the Past

The rest of this article will deal with point 1, while two follow-up posts will look at the second through fourth points.

The Resolution and Burden of Proof

  1. What was the resolution of the debate?
  2. How important was the resolution to the speakers? That is, were their arguments tailored to fit the resolution, or did they wander off topic?
  3. How important was the resolution to you as you were watching the debate, and afterwards when you were reflecting on who won?
  4. If the resolution was not important to you when you were watching the debate, why?
  5. Did either speaker seem to understand the resolution better than the other?

This past year I have been helping to coach my ninth-grade son in debate tournaments, and I’ve also served as a judge for high school debates. One of the things I find myself saying again and again to the students is to be careful not to get so caught up in their arguments that they forget the actual resolution they are supposed to be debating.

Here’s why the resolution is so important. Only by attending to the resolution are we able to determine who has the burden of proof, and only by attending to the burden of proof will we be able to assess the relevance of the arguments presented.

In the Ham-Nye debate, the Resolution was “Is creation a viable model of origins in today’s modern, scientific era?” Because Ham was arguing that the answer to this question is ‘yes’, he is classed as the Affirmative, while Nye is classed as the Negative.

Now the burden of proof properly always rests with the affirmative – with those who are putting forward a case for something. As I explained last summer, if I assert “A is true because of X, Y & Z” and you are arguing against me, it isn’t actually necessary for you to prove “non-A is true” in order to undermine my argument: all you need to do is simply demonstrate how X, Y, and Z do not logically entail A.

Let’s take a real world example of this. If a politician argues that Obamacare is economically affordable because a similar program was economically affordable in Massachusetts, I don’t actually have to prove that Obamacare isn’t economically affordable in order to refute his argument: all I have to do is show that the evidence he is appealing to doesn’t support his conclusion – that, for instance, the example of Massachusetts is not sufficiently similar to Obamacare for the conclusion to be sound, or that what is true of a part is not necessarily always true of the whole.

In public debate, many people get confused about this, while many lay people consider it an arbitrary debating rule that has little practical relevance. However, understanding burden of proof (in both formal and informal argumentation) is important because it allows people to communicate without talking past each other. Often people who might otherwise be able to agree are prevented from doing so because the issue they are discussing gets complicated and confused by other issues. Only by clearly defining what two people are debating, and who has the burden of proof, are debaters able to take one issue at a time and sympathetically interact with each other.

Let’s apply this to the resolution of the Ham-Nye debate. Here the burden rested entirely with Ham since he was the one making a positive claim. The positive claim Ham needed to establish to win the debate was not that creationism is true, or even that it is the only model; rather, all he needed to show is that it is a workable (‘viable’) theory. (Remember that the resolution was “Is creation a viable model of origins in today’s modern, scientific era?”)

Early on in the debate Ham claimed that “Creation is the only viable model of historical science confirmed by observational science in today’s modern scientific era.” The word “only” was not required by the resolution, and by inserting it early on it the debate, Ham immediately made his case more difficult. It meant that Ham not only had to establish that young-earth creationism is a workable potential theory, but that every single other actual and potential theory has so many holes that it cannot even be considered viable.

Similarly, what the resolution required Nye to do was to establish that Ham did not meet the burden of proof, that Ham’s creation model has so many holes that it is not even a potentially viable model. As such, it was appropriate that the majority of Nye’s arguments were not arguments for evolution at all, but against young-earth creationism.

Curiously, a good portion of Ken Ham’s arguments were not arguments for creation at all, but arguments against scientific naturalism. Let’s suppose that we accept all these arguments; does it help establish an affirmative response to the resolution? Not really, for remember that the Resolution does not require Ham to establish that competing theories are false, only that creation is one viable model of origins. Moreover, the falsity of scientific naturalism does not automatically entails young-earth creationism, since young-earth creationism is only one among many non-naturalistic models of origin that have been affirmed throughout history.

Thus, we may legitimately question whether Ken Ham even understood the resolution he was supposed to be debating. This point was raised in a review of the debate by Reformed Christian Geologists, Jonathan Baker on his Questioning Answers in Genesis blog.

“we should take note that not once did Ken Ham answer or try to support the thesis of the debate. He argued that creationists could be effective scientists and develop technology, that secularists have hijacked terms like science and evolution, that dating methods are in conflict, that he obtains his reconstruction of history from the Bible, and that naturalism presumes theism to conduct science and also leads to moral decay. All of the time spent arguing these points serves well for advertising, but does not help us to answer the question in debate….

Ken Ham’s discussion on the moral implications of evolution, the prospect of salvation, the purpose of life, and even the justification of laws of logic/nature in a naturalistic worldview were completely off topic. Even if Bill Nye had conceded that science lacks epistemological grounds and morality lacks authority without Christian theism, Ken Ham still would not have answered the question of the debate.

Because Ken Ham spent the entire time arguing about issues outside the topic, and because Bill Nye stuck closer to the resolution, it often felt like the latter was ignoring the former. That is, it seemed as if Nye didn’t have satisfactory answers to the arguments against scientific naturalism. What a more philosophically sophisticated opponent could have done would be to point out that Ham had switched the ground of the debate, and that the resolution actually had nothing to do with the veracity of Christian theism. Nye missed this opportunity and so his tenacity in sticking to the resolution came off as ignoring Ham.

I will remark in closing that this type of departure from the resolution is not unusual in public debates. For example, I have remarked elsewhere that our political debates long ago departed from the canons of rational argumentation. What we typically find in public debates is that the actual “debate” is really only a forum to have a clash between different systems – systems that comprise what David Brooks has called the “underdebate.” The “underdebate” is the deeper set of implicit spiritual and emotional values that are stoked indirectly by the explicit debate and which are organically connected to our sense of self-worth. Whether we are debating health care, abortion, gay ‘marriage,’ gun control or evolution, the actual debate tends to trigger deep chains of associations in our minds that highlight a semi-articulated moral divide.

In the Ham-Nye debate, the “underdebate” was about the whole network of implicit commitments that become attached to the participants’ different positions. It was about the role of religion and science in American public life. It was about the type of education we should allow in the schools. It was also about the reality of spiritual knowledge vs. a purely naturalistic view of the world. It was about whether creationists are stupid. These were not the questions the debate was supposed to be about, but in another sense these were the only real questions the debate was really about.

Further Reading