TIME Controversies

What You Missed While Not Watching the Bill Nye and Ken Ham Creation Debate

Bill Nye
TV's "Science Guy" Bill Nye speaks during a debate on evolution with Creation Museum head Ken Ham, Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2014, in Petersburg, Ky. ASSOCIATED PRESS / ASSOCIATED PRESS

Here it is. All 150 minutes of it.

-13 minutes. The online countdown clock races toward zero. Dramatic music with a heavy bass line begins to play. Hashtags sprout in Twitterspace: #HamOnNye. #CreationDebate. #NyevSham. One could easily add, #OMGWeAreDebatingCreationIn2014. Fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a long 150-minute return of the culture wars, because creationist Ken Ham is about to debate Bill Nye the Science Guy.

-5 minutes. The epic Braveheart-Lord-of-the-Rings-style soundtrack intensifies. Only thing missing is a sweeping camera pan over the horizon as Frodo travels on toward Mount Doom. Ham and his PR team are firing away tweet after tweet about the debate and its importance. Nye, meanwhile, has tweeted about it only once. Al Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, tweets for prayers that the debate will reveal God’s truth.

0 minutes. A cartoon camel, a T-Rex, and a flying monkey flash across the screen. It’s a surprise ad for the Creation Museum in Petersburg, KY, Ham’s (unaccredited) $27-million museum that is the site for the debate. Kids under 12 are free in 2014!

30 seconds. The feed takes us live inside the museum’s Legacy Hall, where a lucky 900 people managed to score tickets to the event before they sold out in two minutes. Some 750,000 other people are watching the debate online. At least according to Ham’s evangelistic organization, Answers in Genesis.

1 minute. CNN’s Tom Foreman appears out of the darkness. He’s moderator, and the guy who wrote Obama a letter every day for four years. This isn’t exactly the same as moderating a presidential debate, but tonight’s symposium gets at something far more important: the origin of life. Foreman introduces the topic at hand: “Is creation a viable model of origins in today’s modern scientific era?”

2 minutes. Nye, in his signature bowtie, and Ham, with his Aussie accent, hop on stage, shake hands, and ready themselves behind their respective Apple laptops (only Nye’s has stickers). Nye stands on the left. Ham is on the right. The cameras pan to an all-white audience.

4 minutes. Ham won the coin toss, so he’s up first with an opening statement: the word science has been hijacked, hijacked by secularists. America’s textbooks have been indoctrinated by Darwin, and we need to take back the terms. He starts listing scientists who believe biblical creationism, and he’s got a slide show to back it up. His voice races as he talks about Raymond Damadian, the inventor of the MRI machine, who is a biblical creationist. Nye just stares at him.

9 minutes. Ham gets in his first Bible references. They are, predictably, about Jesus, not the creation story.

10 minutes. Now it’s Nye’s turn. He launches into an unrelated and awkward story about how someone taught his father to tie a bow tie by making him lie down on a bed.

13 minutes. Moving right along, Nye drops the first references to fossils and the Grand Canyon. The world is not 6000 years old as Ham believes, Nye says. And if America doesn’t get its act together to listen to scientific evidence, it won’t stay ahead. America’s future depends on evolution.

15 minutes. Now Nye and Ham each get 30 minutes (!) to present their full arguments. Everyone who has ever worked in presidential politics is drooling over the generosity of those allocations.

16 minutes. Ham starts saying the words “science” and “observe” so many times I lose count. He is clicking through slide after slide of atheists who are great scientists and scientists who believe the earth is 6,000 years old. The MRI scanner guy story appears on a video again. Then someone else says he and other scientists are afraid to speak out for creationism because they will face persecution. These are Ham’s freedom fighters. “I encourage children to follow people like that and make them their heroes,” Ham announces.

21 minutes. Next point. There’s a difference between what you observe in science today and the making a conclusion about science of the past. Lots of slides of vaccines and smoke detectors and other important inventions. We can agree about technology that put the rover on Mars, Ham says, but we can disagree about the origins of Mars. “We’ve only got the present,” he explains.

23 minutes. Cue graphic of Nye and Ham fighting in a tug of war over a globe of the earth with animals and skulls coming out of it. This image is supposed to represent the fact that both Ham and Nye have the same evidence. It instead looks like toddlers fighting over a balloon.

26 minutes. Ham gives a shout out to his museum’s display of Darwin’s finches. Finches come from a common finch, Ham argues, not another common animal. That’s why Noah only needed one species of dog on the ark. “Dogs will always be dogs, finches will always be finches,” he says. Cuz the Bible. And a recent University of California study. Lots of furrowed brows in the crowd.

30 minutes. Apple is still getting great product placement out of this debate.

34 minutes. Darwin taught that there were higher and lower races — not ok, says Ham. If he had started from the Bible, he’d have realized that Caucasians weren’t the top race. He skips any mention of the fact that the Bible was used to justify slavery for centuries.

36 minutes. Students are being indoctrinated by the confusion of terms. “You can’t observe the age of the earth. You can’t see that.” The camera finally finds the first African American face in the audience.

39 minutes. Time for Ham’s “Seven C’s” of life: Creation, Corruption, Catastrophe, Confusion, Christ, Cross, Consummation. And no, consummation is not the sex kind. Consummation is heaven. (But speaking of sex, stick around for minute 64 — that’s when talk about fish sex starts. Just wait for it.)

46 minutes. Nye begins: “I learned something. Thank you.” He fails to define “something.”

47 minutes. Nye holds up a chunk of dirt. Limestone actually. Kentucky limestone. He found it today, and says it couldn’t have existed if “Mr. Ham’s flood” really happened only 4,000 years ago. “Mr. Ham” is taking notes off to the side.

53 minutes. Nye explains the Kangaroo conundrum. If there was a kangaroo on Noah’s ark, and Noah’s ark landed somewhere in the middle east, and kangaroos ended up in Australia, why haven’t we found kangaroo bones somewhere between Sinai and Australia? “Somebody would have been hopping along there and died and we’d find him.” Something like that.

58 minutes. “Go Seahawks. That was very gratifying for me.” #NyeNonsequitor

59 minutes. Back to explaining why rock formations in Oregon prove Nye’s side of the story.

60 minutes. We’ve made an hour. Crack your neck. Stretch your shoulders. We aren’t halfway done yet. You need all your strength to press on.

64 minutes. Nye says “traditional fish sex” and grabs everyone’s attention. Traditional fish sex is different from the sex that fish have with themselves, he is explaining (and not yet explaining why this is relevant to his point). Nye is now asking: “Why does anybody have sex?” Why don’t humans just make like a rosebush and produce a flower? Or divide like bacteria? How sexy. Nye calls that question a real “chinstroker.” The twitterverse is already talking about “fishionary” position. But never fear! Evolution has the answer: species that reproduce sexually have fewer parasites. How about that for motivation to get it on.

68 minutes. Nye is now talking about the Hubble telescope. But it’s impossible to stop thinking about why he brought up fish sex.

77 minutes. Our fearless moderator chimes in with six words everyone’s been thinking “That’s a lot to take in.” Yup. So, on to the rebuttals. And counter rebuttals. And the Q. And the A.

78 minutes. Ham defends the age of the earth using Hebrew definitions of the word “day” in the Bible. Then there’s something about 45,000 year-old wood being found in millions-of-years old basalt rock that proves his point. “There’s no dating method you can use that you can absolutely age date a rock,” he concludes. Plus there’s only one witness that was actually there, who can actually say the truth about what happened in the past: the Word of God.

83 minutes. Ham starts his rebuttal. My livestream freezes, and then flashes neon yellow streaks, thanks to the more than 500,000 people who are tuning in as well. It pops back on in time for me to hear Nye ask Ham if all animals were vegetarian before they got on Noah’s ark.

94 minutes. The theory of evolution now appears to be hinging upon Noah’s construction skills. Ham insists that even his New England shipbuilding ancestors could not have built a ship like that. Ham: “Why would you say Noah was unskilled? I didn’t meet Noah. Neither did you.” Drop the mic, Ham. Drop the mic.

97 minutes. Nye keeps insisting that America will fail at innovation unless people believe in evolution. America’s future is at stake! Maybe that’s why no one in the audience is laughing.

98 minutes. Now its time to move faster, says Foreman. He’s shuffling the Q&A cards. Fingers crossed that he’s right.

99 minutes. Question one for Ham: How does creationism account for celestial bodies? Ham answer: Easy. God. Perfect moment to launch into what sounds very much like an altar call. Ham is resurrecting his image as the defender of the faith to the big secular world.

102 minutes. Next question for Nye: How did the atoms that created the big bang get there? “This is the great mystery.” Nye, cornered by the creationists. Check.

105 minutes. Ham chimes in: There actually is a book that says where matter comes from: it’s called the Bible. Mic drop #2 for Ham. Nye doesn’t flinch.

109 minutes. Another question for Nye: How did consciousness come from matter? “Don’t know! This is a great mystery!” Mic drop #3 for Ham, even though Nye goes on and on about how much he loves mysteries.

112 minutes: Ham chimes in again: There’s a book that says where consciousness comes from too. Bet you can’t guess what that is…

120 minutes. The light. It’s at the end of the tunnel. Just 30 minutes to go before you will finally understand the origins of life. And get to go to sleep. And stop thinking about traditional fish sex.

121 minutes. Ham points out, yet again, that there are scientific papers, “very technical papers,” on his website that explain real science. Which is creationism. Because he’s freeing the hijacked “science.”

123 minutes: Surprise question: In one word, what’s your favorite color? Because that solves the mysteries of life.

124 minutes. Nye: “Green,” and then he launches into an explanation of the irony that plants reflect green light. This gives Foreman his one shining moment to moderate: “Did I not say one word answer?” Ham’s turn: “Can I have three words since he had 300? Observational science: blue.” It’s his best line of the night.

133 minutes: Question for Ham: Do you believe the entire Bible should be taken literally? He dodges the trap. He takes the whole Bible “naturally,” not “literally.” There’s a difference. Basically, a difference that means, as he says, there were a lot of problems when men used Scripture to justify marrying multiple women.

146 minutes. FINAL QUESTION! What is the one thing more than anything else upon which you base your belief? Why don’t you guess what each man said. If you said, “The Bible” for Ham and “Science” for Nye, you are right! Nye sneaks in, for at least the fifth time, that the United States will be left standing by other countries if it doesn’t listen to science and teach real science in schools.

150 minutes. Ham and Nye agree on one thing: punctuality. 9:30pm and we are out. Foreman warns people there’s a level-two snow emergency outside. Your #TBT(uesday) to the ‘90s creation culture wars is complete. You survived. Now go get some sleep.

Excerpts From the Debate:

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