February 10, 2014

Debate Between Bill Nye and Ken Ham: An Analysis

Last week TV personality Bill Nye had a debate with YEC apologist Ken Ham regarding Young Earth Creationism. While I don't agree with either participant in full, I do have a vested interest in the discussion, and remain open minded to both positions (I am much closer to Ken Ham's view though). I didn't really feel I was rooting for either one, but I was hoping that Ken Ham would come off well, and that Bill Nye would focus on the issue, and not push Atheism. Here I just want to give a general assessment of the debate.


I actually think the format was terrible. There are two things that I want to point out about this. First of all, this is an evidence loaded discussion. Four 5-minute rebuttals are completely insufficient to go over the evidence that the other side presented. In most debates that I have seen, rebuttals are typically 10 to 15 minutes. In this debate, there is an argument for them being longer, not shorter.

However, I would have opted for a period of direct questioning. This is quite common in debates, where one side is able to ask the other side a series of questions. A good example is Dr. Craig vs. Christopher Hitchens. Considering the degree to which Nye and Ham were talking past each other, an opportunity for either of them to have their questions directly answered would have been beneficial, if not indispensable.

The other format question that I had was the question: Is Ken Ham's perspective scientifically defensible? Not only is that horribly broad as a topic, but it forces Ham to be on the defensive for the whole debate. This gave one side significantly more control of the discussion than the other. I suppose this would be OK if Ham was willing to take such a position, but he clearly wasn't.

Opening Presentations

This round would go easily to Ham. His presentation was well thought out, and brought up some basic concepts that could be referred back to through-out the discussion. Nye's opening statement was kind of all over the place. There didn't seem to be much organization to what he was saying, other then just a list of criticisms. His point about forensics was probably his best point, but he didn't go anywhere with it, merely leaving it undeveloped.


I won't mention who one the rebuttals, since their length really made them a waste of time. However, the Q&A clearly went to Bill Nye. It wasn't that Bill Nye did a great job fielding questions, but that Ken Ham did a horrible job. I was quite disappointed. Here, what Ham needed to do was to come off as knowledgeable on a variety of topics. However, instead he merely came off as a broken record, repeating points he made earlier. Additionally, Bill Nye kept making the charge of predictability, which, according to Ham's historical vs evidential science distinction should have made irrelevant. But since Ham never directly dealt with it, Nye was able to say it over and over making is sound like Ham didn't have an answer. The result was that Bill Nye merely had to tread water, which is really all he did do.

Other Thoughts

  • Ham's strategy: Over all, Ken Ham's overall strategy was lacking. While seemed focused on making this historical vs. evidential distinction, but was significantly lacking of examples outside of the evolution discussion. When the topic came to the question of the age of the Earth, he seemed to rely more on other scientists from his organization, leaving him defenseless on the issue when it came to the Q&A.
  • Bill Nye's strategy: Many were criticizing Bill Nye going into the debate of not having enough of a background in biology to have a discussion on evolution. It is little wonder than the Nye focused on the age of the earth. This had the result of keeping the conversation in his wheelhouse, and keeping it out of Ham's. This IMO was wise of him, and gave him an advantage as the debate went on. 
  • Ham starting first: This was a huge mistake on Ham's part. Because of the nature of the debate, Ham was starting off from a defensive position. Therefore, it behooved him to focus on having answers to questions, and to attack Nye's arguments rather than establishing his own. By going first, this allowed Nye to basically ignore Ham's first presentation, and keeping him in control. If Nye went first, this would have been more difficult and Ham would have had a degree more control of the conversation. 

Winner: Bill Nye. Overall, it felt like Ken Ham didn't really show up and Bill Nye won by default. I've seen much better debates, and I've seen Ham in better form as well. In general I would say that I was rather disappointed. 

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