The Historian’s Outcry | On the Bill Nye versus Ken Ham Debate of Creationism

The debate was – as could be expected (see my posting before the debate) – neither apt to widen our knowledge about evolution nor, and that is far more precarious, nor did it shed much more light on Ken Ham’s creationism.

Nye gave his view on why we know that the earth is older than 6,000 years – ice cores, dendrochronology, cosmic background radiation, radio carbon dating, geology… – if we dismiss this knowledge we (and that is “we” spelled as in “US”) we will fall into “scientific illiteracy” and that will cost us our place as the leading nation at the forefront of scientific and technological progress.

Ken Ham responded as if he had read the challenge beforehand (well, yes, it was out on the media long ago): What exactly do we know if we see the Grand Canyon with all its layers of sediments? We just see what we see in the present. Knowledge of the past? No one of us “has been there” when the valley was formed. The past is speculative. Your interpretation is different, that’s all. Is there any reason why someone who believes that God created it all in 4004 BC (if we adopt Ussher’s chronology) should underperform as a modern scientist? Videos offered statements by modern scientists who confessed that are Young Earth Creationists and who protested: they were as good at their jobs as any of their secular colleagues. Was he, Ham, against the sciences? No, and that is why he would protest against that further “hijacking of the sciences” by secularists. Everything would improve if more people in the US praised the Lord for creating this world and accepted sin as what it was (details: all animals were vegetarians before sin, and there were no thorns on bushes, by the way) and if they were thankful to the Lord who sacrificed his son Jesus to redeem us from our sins.

All Muslims and Buddhist were silent. A great spirit of unison hovered over the waters of the US as the leading producer of IPhones and satellites. The debate could have ended here.

A small technical problem: the stability of natural laws – defeated only to be reaffirmed by the exceptional physics of the exceptional catastrophe

Nye detected the fundamental technical flaw and assumption brought up by Ham. Ham suspended all our natural laws for the flood period whereas scientists demand stability in all natural laws. That was brought to the point very late with a question from the audience: We can observe the continental drift. Our tectonic plates can be seen drifting apart and into each other as India does into the Eurasian shield. We observe with what slow speed. Nye accepted this as another beautiful example of why we know that history is far longer than 6,000 years and added some gloss on it with information about the changes of the magnetic field that have been recorded by new geological formations in that process. Ham confessed that he was indeed working with two epochs and a paradigm shift: One is the world as we observe today: slow continental drift. The other is what we know from the Bible: Adam and his people lived with all the kinds of animals God as had created them in one country, some kind of Biblical Pangaea. Then came the flood and moved Australia and the Americas into their present places, all that very fast and catastrophic. Once the catastrophe was done the continents could get into that slower and calmer pace we observe today.

Nye could not prove that natural laws had always been as we experience them today – nor could he prove that all this was of any importance today. Why not live, so Ham’s plea, today with the natural laws as we observe them today? Teach them! No objection. Yet allow us Creationists, that the years of the flood might have been special.

“Can the Bible predict anything?” – Nye wanted to know under the assumption that he and we needed stable natural laws in order to predict things. Ham had already reaffirmed these natural laws for the present as stable and was only too happy to hint at predictions the Bible made of the past: Without the Bible we would not know that God created life, we would not know that he created the different kinds of animals, matter, the expanding universe and conscience. Nye withdrew: conscience well, yes, that is most certainly a mystery. We should explore this mystery, we need better scientists to do that.

Devastating and foreseeable

Nye grew exhausted, and watching the debate one felt that he had not read Ham’s The Lie (the anniversary edition of 2011), the central publication at stake here; nor taken a proper tour thorough the museum’s exhibits (of which I have only seen what is available on the web, and that is ridiculous enough). Or maybe he just did not want to speak about museum’s exhibits of “creation science”. Ham’s theology is in any case flabbergasting — Nye realised this only late when the audience brought up its questions. And Ham’s approach to history – his “neither you nor me have been there” – that should have been suicidal in any academic debate but here we saw him get away with it. Nye gave him some looks of exhaustion for that.

Can the US survive if scientists believe in creationism?

queen _lizzieOf course. You can be the constructor of a spacecraft’s module and scurry through Ken Ham’s video presentation with the claim that you believe that alien lizards have infiltrated the human race and that Queen Elizabeth II of England and President Obama are representatives of that alien lizard nation — and you can still be a wonderful engineer. There will be no problem at all. You can be fully paranoid and function as a scientist.

The question is whether creationism is decent science or whether it is bullshit as philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt has defined it in his book on the same in 1986, and it is the latter as soon as the marvellous constructor moves from his work on robotic satellite arms to speaking about this his theory. The Nye-Ham debate did not deconstruct a single of the claims this pseudo-science has made in recent years. Nye presented his story and hoped it would do the job.

Creationism is a farce on Biblical Literalism and a web of fantasy answers on problems that do not even exist

If Ken Ham’s museum teaches us that Kangaroos were living in the vicinity of the ark before the flood when all men and all animals were living peacefully together in one country, if we learn that a flood drowned almost everything in 2300 BC, and that this flood rifted the canyons, and that threw the continents into their present positions, and that after 40 years of this flood the Kangaroos had to hop all the way from Turkey to Australia, which was now a separate continent in the southern hemisphere, and that the Kangaroos could hop all that way because the Oceans must have been filled with driftwood at that time, and that they took their way in the company of all the other marsupials from Koala to the now extinct Thylacinus cynocephalus which God had designed 1656 years before on day 5 of the creation so that they would eventually live together in Australia…

…then all this is mere fantasy. Ken Ham protests that he is getting all his answers from Genesis, and that he is a Biblical literalist for that? The Genesis does not mention any Kangaroos, it does not mention that thick layer driftwood covering the waters after the flood, it does not even mention the Americas and Australia. The entire story is not taken from the Bible. It is modern stuff taken from evolutionist literature and moved into the Bible in order to explain how a thing might have worked where we do not even have the evidence that it happened.

Biblical literalism, if I may say it as a fan of textual criticism, can be instructive. Ham fails to find out that those who accommodated themselves with the Biblical texts believed they were flatlanders. He is unable to explore their geographical scope. He is uninterested in the concepts the had of the universe and of God (a God neither he nor we are ready to believe in). The Biblical texts do not know of continents drifting apart, whether fast during the flood or slowly today. Nye felt he could attack Ham on his reading the Bible in “American English” but he did not get into the messy “science” Ham proposes on this his sacred ground.

And why should we bother?

— because of the politics behind this nonsense; because of this relief a vast percentage modern populations feel when they hear that the sciences might be wrong — wrong where they talk about climate change, wrong where they talk about vaccinations, wrong where they talk about the age of this planet. The sciences want to be critical? Here we are even more critical! Why should we bother? — because of this silent anti-intellectualism pervading the entire debate.

Ken Ham’s The Lie (2011) is not a book about a new theory that needs to be tested. Creationism is per se irrefutable. Only atheists, secularists, and evil forces would want to refute it, so the short cut doctrine that saves the precarious pseudo science from further needs to defend its views. It is indeed a problem to introduce anything as irrefutable as such a doctrine into our classrooms. Creationism would not only affect biology classes, it would stand at the core of history classes, it would wash away work of research in ancient history, it would reoccur in language courses with the power to demand new historical linguistics. The propagandists of creationism formulate (an impotent) call to cleanse our universities and to boot out all those who are spreading lies. Not that I am worried about this call, it has no power outside. But why should I like it?

Ham, wisely, did not speak about what one should do with all the academic institutions that spread “the lie”; and Nye, perhaps as wisely, did not challenge him on the ideal agenda that is never pronounced but always present in Ham’s prsentations.

And the historian’s outcry?

…is over that entire eye-witness statement Ham could make. The sciences are eye-witness-based institutions and history is not, we learned. Did not we historians already go through a thorough debate of why we should doubt any historical account extant: the debate of historical Pyrrhonism of the 16th and 17th centuries? Funny thing was back then and is today: We never solved that problem. Instead we came to the realisation that the entire documentary text base is fully problematic. And the eye witness? …was seen as the worst of all solutions to the problem of historical doubt. Historians like Pierre Bayle realised back in the 1690s that we should dismiss eye witness reports as the worst source of them all. Eye witnesses have notoriously partial personal views, they have always the most limited knowledge, they describe things as they occurred to them. You can manipulate them with your questions, they will manipulate you with their many political and religious agendas. They may say what they want, but we as historians will give them only the most relative positions in our reconstructions of the past.

Did we close our departments in the 1740s — after historians like Martin Chladenius had stated that all history was rather a kind of critical story telling designed to make striking fact based points in controversies? No. That realisation started a revolution: We moved the entire debate about the insecurity of evidence, the very discussion of tentative interpretations which we had begun as the debate of historical Pyrrhonism from the margin of our science into its very centre. History became an open debate of evidence and its possible interpretations.

Ken Ham is right: Neither he nor Nye were around when the Grand Canyon was formed. Both, I may add, were not around when Napoleon was walking on this globe (and they were not in Germany yesterday, by the way). The “where were you when it happened?” question is just of no relevance. Its a dead move in a chess match that is decided already. And the natural sciences? Are they the happy land where history does not exist? Or should not they confess: They are themselves a historical science throughout. The test results of a clash of atoms produced in a hadron collider are all and entirely historical. You are not at the spot where these particles smash into each others, and then they are too fast anyway to allow you any observation. What you get is a test result, and you begin to interpret the remaining evidence. You do this after a test in the collider. The interpretation of evidence is the job of the astrophysicist, of the physician, of the geologist and the palaeontologist, and it is the job of the historian.

What we need then?

We need to confront the agenda. Ham might be the jovial man who loves the sciences as much as his opponent – the sciences have no reason to love him for that because he remains a person who is telling the world that they are part of huge conspiracy. This is not a debate about individuals who believe in God the good and olden way. This is if anything a debate about a massive movement of unpleasant social and political implications. We can handle this movement with astonishment and utter disbelief, as Nye did yesterday, but this will might only strengthen the peculiar confrontational power this movement is enjoying.


  • The article found a reply by Jairo Melo — “La ciencia histórica después de Ken Ham” — on his blog Acerca de Jairo Melo, March 16, 2014. (And reminds me I wanted to add some thoughts of 18th-century historians on the validity of historical knowledge…)

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