The debate was over when Ken Ham responded to the question, “What would change your mind?”
The answer was, in effect, ”Nothing.”
I’m sure that lots of people heard him say that and jumped for joy: this at last was the throwdown to science that Christians were waiting for: ”God said it, I believe it, that settles it. We win.” Science is fraudulent, God is eternal.
What’s tragic is that any Christian should think that a debate was necessary, if the goal was just to get to that point. Just say it, or put it on a bumper-sticker. You don’t have to debate anybody for that. It’s like debating the proposition, “I’m right and you’re wrong.” Fine, you win.
But for the rest of us, the debate was about whether Ken Ham’s Creationism is valid as science. That was how the debate had been billed.
So for everybody who doesn’t believe what Ken Ham believes, Nye won, hands down, in that moment. Ken Ham was basically admitting, “I don’t do science. I confirm my prejudices.”
Science has this irritating trait of changing, and a lot of Christians have been taught that this shows the weakness of science relative to the Bible.
But in fact, science changes because what we know changes. A scientist who does not change his opinions with the evidence is a bad scientist. Christians have (whatever their enemies may say) historically been no slower than everybody else to acknowledge that this method is a good one, and Christians have had (like everybody else) to adjust to science, changing their interpretations of the Bible because the evidence of creation itself forced them to either adapt or retreat into irrationality.
See, science doesn’t “prove” things. What it does is fail to disprove them. You put forward a hypothesis, and that hypothesis makes a prediction: “If you are right, we should see….” I try to disprove it. If I can, the hypothesis fails, and if not, it hangs around, growing and changing with the evidence that has not disproven it. This is a rational method in that it depends on reason: “If your hypothesis is true, then it must necessarily follow that…” And we can then test the hypothesis by testing the prediction. The method infers things from observed data. It works no matter who employs it. Christians can do it, Muslims, atheists…. it doesn’t matter who you are, the observational data are still the same.
Ken Ham and his followers rightly detect that their interpretation of Genesis is “falsified” (disproven) by the same evidence that supports Darwinism and an old earth. But they also believe that no observation, no data, no science can ever truly contradict their interpretation of the Bible. If it does, the data itself must be false (so the thinking runs). Note that for them, their conclusion (“The earth must be young because our interpretation of Genesis says it must be”) falsifies the data. This is the reverse of science, in which the data falsify the conclusion, the conclusion does not falsify the data.
Their confidence is admirable. But it’s irrational in two ways.
First, there is their pride that they cannot be moved from their position by any weight of evidence. Ham has made it his mission to give them a cloak of authority to say, “Well, there _is_ no evidence on ‘the other side,” which is simply false. HIs Answers in Genesis website calls into question scientists’ consensus about such things as radiocarbon dating, the interpretation of the fossil record, and astrophysics. For non-specialists, the arguments there are just technical enough to sound persuasive; and now and then a good point is raised. For instance, Answers in Genesis is fond of implying that there have been no true observations of species-change: this is not true, but it _is_ true that it’s infrequently noted in scientific peer-reviewed journals. (Their statements are based on a quibble about what a “species” is.)
But what the non-specialist does not always know is that “problems” in science are not like “problems” in theology or biblical interpretation. The relatively small number of published observations of speciation (which have been repeated in labs) do not falsify or contradict Darwinism. What they do is invite us to predict what we should see under certain conditions: and unsurprisingly (for everybody but Creationists), we do see it. The (in)frequency with which we see it is data, not a deathblow.
The second way in which the Creationists are irrational is in their antiscientific method (and this is why Ham lost the debate so badly).
Ham was fond in the debate of telling Bill Nye, “You don’t know, you weren’t there.” It’s difficult to imagine a more bewildering comment for somebody who wants to defend his theory as valid science, because science depends on nature keeping its own records. Your own body can tell your history to a specialist: your smoking and drinking history, what bones were broken and when, how well you cared for your teeth, even what sort of diet you’ve had. I don’t have to have been there to see it all: your body, a physical object, remembers. So do trees. But so do light, and isotopes, and rocks, and water, and ice-cores.
Ham accepts this up to the point that the evidence of nature contradicts his Young Earth Creationist interpretation of Genesis (and it does contradict it, constantly). At that point, he questions whether nature has always worked the same way. He takes the Bible for his warrant: nature changed when sin came into the world. Problem solved: anything that contradicts Genesis (he usually has in mind radiometric dating) is skewed by the changes in natural law.
Notice what that means, though: nature does not tell us anything we can really know, since we have no access to the pre-Fall laws of nature (except what Ken Ham tells us they were). As an example, consider his view of the lion, which (he says) was an herbivore (plant-eater) on Noah’s Ark and in the Garden of Eden. If you know anything about lions, you know they are incredibly badly equipped to eat plants. Suddenly, everything we know about the physiology of jaws, digestion, teeth… out the window. We have to invent new laws _for which there is no evidence_ to accommodate a pre-Fall nature.
As with lions, so with isotopes. Dating rocks has to do with the decay-rate of certain atoms in rocks that has been observed to be reliably uniform. Ken Ham can’t have that, because if that decay rate is constant, the geological record completely falsifies his interpretation of Genesis. What to do? Ah yes. That rate is really _not_ constant. And he bamboozles people who know very little about it into thinking there’s no good reason to think it _is_ constant.
All of this is to say, Ken Ham does not do science, because the evidence does not support his position, and he lost the debate badly.
But he, and his followers, believe they won, and he encourages them to always believe they’ve won so long as their beliefs resemble Ken Ham’s. This is both sad and a little alarming.