Ken Ham and Bill Nye, revisited

Watching the Ken Ham-Bill Nye debate on evolution and creation last night took me back to when I was 14. I got familiar with both men’s work that year. My largely-homeschooled youth group was going through a video series put out by Ken Ham’s Answers in Genesis, featuring him doing a lot of talking about why the earth could only be 6,000 years old. After each video, we took a quiz to test our knowledge of it. I remember that I was a little uneasy about replying to the query on what you said to someone who believed in evolution. The proper response was “were you there?” which seemed both belligerent and stupid, but I nodded along, and did better than everyone else at regurgitating what had just been presented. I even had a friendly little rivalry going with an 18-year-old male over who got the most answers right. It was posted, in a list, and I wanted to be at the top of the list.

At the same time, my two-year-old brother was obsessed with watching Bill Nye on PBS, the one channel we got. “Biw Nye, da science guy. Biw! Biw! Biw!” he would sing. It stuck in my head to the point that the echo reverberated when I heard the two were debating: “Biw! Biw! Biw!”

Last night, Ken Ham’s debating points were odd in that they were entirely familiar, and yet it was all hitting me in ways that such words had never hit me before. I can remember saying things he said — specifically the line about how if your neurons are just in arbitrary flux, the result of a billion years of randomness, how can you trust them to mean anything? I remember smugly writing a clever little axiom in a letter to someone: God defines and defies logic. And I remember thinking: there are lots of scientists who believe in God, and all this talk about evolution is just because the rest of them would rather not face the inconvenient truth that they can’t just do whatever they want with impunity.

Something that Ken Ham brought up that Bill Nye didn’t address, likely because it seemed so patently absurd to him, was the claim that all logic comes back to the Christian worldview (despite the fact that by all appearances, formal logic was invented by Greek pagans); that in order to be able to think, you need the assumption that God has designed your brain and the world to compute in an orderly fashion. Sort of a take-off from Descartes: “I think, therefore God is.” That’s all quite interesting from a philosophical perspective, but unfortunately, Ken seemed to have a rather dim grasp of logic. Let’s break some of his arguments down.

  • Premise A: My religion has a story about the origins of the earth
  • Premise B: Evolution is a story about the origins of the earth
  • Conclusion: Evolution is a religion

The logical fallacy becomes more obvious in a simpler example:

  • Premise A: The dishes on this shelf are black
  • Premise B: My cat is black
  • Conclusion: My cat is a dish

Or let’s try this slightly more complex one:

  • Premise A: Mainstream scientists do not find young-earth creationism to be scientifically valid
  • Premise B: There are scientists who believe in young-earth creationism
  • Conclusion: Young-earth creationism is scientifically valid

Here’s the thing: a scientist can believe anything he or she wants. That doesn’t make it scientifically valid. To do that, you need to be able to test the belief using scientific methods — or, if you can’t, to accept that, by definition, it has nothing to do with science. The argument above is not logically valid — just like the following one is not; the conclusion does not follow from the two premises:

  • Premise A: Most kids think the sky is blue
  • Premise B: Some kids believe in a sky where blue does not exist
  • Conclusion: Blue not existing is a valid viewpoint

Something else that struck me was the lengths Ken Ham went to in order to try to explain that what the Bible said should only be taken in the most literal way possible. The whole thing with the Ark seemed particularly weird to me, so today, I decided to calculate just how much space was on the Ark.

Now, I’m not a mathematician, and the sum total of my math knowledge comes from my years of homeschooling. So feel free to check all these calculations out for yourself. I present them because I think that as a 14-year-old, I would have appreciated them, and probably gotten out my calculator.

So the Ark would have, by Ken Ham’s estimation, carried 16,000 animals for a year (two each of 8,000 “kinds,” some now extinct, which he claims is the number of animals God originally created — not including insects et cetera — that would have needed to go on the Ark). Using the Biblical account of the Ark’s size, we translate 300 cubits long into 450 feet long, 50 cubits wide into 75 feet wide, and 30 cubits high into 45 feet high. That give us 1,518,750 cubed feet, though that’s assuming that the boat is square in nature rather than measured at its widest points and rounded off elsewhere, as most boats are. Divided by 16,008 (16,000 animals and 8 humans), that’s 95 cubed feet per being, averaged out. To give you some idea of how small that is, 4 feet by 4 feet by 6 feet is 96 cubic feet. So you’d have a stall (or space) that size for every man, woman and animal — and their food — for a year, if we are going by Ken Ham’s math plus the Bible’s math. Even if all animals were vegetarians and could all somehow eat something with a long shelf life such as hay (again, according to Ken Ham) there’s no way you can fit an average animal and a year’s worth of e.g. hay into a 4 by 4 by 6 foot space. A mid-sized animal such as goat eats around a ton of hay per year. Using modern baling techniques, which pack the hay very tightly together, a ton makes up about 30 to 50 bales. A standard bale of hay is two feet by two feet by four feet, which makes 16 cubic feet. You can fit less than six bales of hay into a 95-foot-cubic space, even when you leave out the animal. And this is, of course, assuming that drinking water wouldn’t need any storage space; that the ocean was somehow unsalted and therefore available to all.

So six bales per animal is not nearly enough to last a year. One elephant eats 300 to 600 pounds of food per day. Even calculating from the conservative end of things, two elephants consume 219,000 pounds of food per year. That’s 109 tons, which given the above calculations requires 52,560 cubic feet of storage. Add two rhinos, two hippos and so on, and you’re quickly running out of storage space. Especially when you factor in the dinosaurs, which Ken Ham believes were on the Ark. Even in an infant state, I can’t imagine dinos slack on the eating.

Basically, the Ark would only work if the animals (and humans) were all in some sort of suspended, non-eating state. Which makes sense, because 8 people really can’t keep up with mucking out 16,000 stalls every day. And I just don’t buy the proposition that there were sophisticated systems available to bronze-age boats for taking care of most of this excrement (and feeding, and watering) automatically.

Eight people, 16,000 animals. All of them, despite teeth and digestive systems designed (or adapted) to various kinds of food, eating vegetation gathered by eight people using bronze-age farming techniques, producing dung, and maybe copulating and multiplying. All of them getting along, none of them getting sick, in spite of the fact that all the world’s germ “kinds” would have needed to be on board as well. All of them sailing around the world in a wooden ship that somehow manages to defy the laws of wooden-ship engineering and stay rigid in the turbulence of a sudden worldwide flood. To assume all of this, at a minimum, you can’t have ever worked with real animals, done primitive farming or worked at wooden ship building. Or you have to assume that none of the natural laws in place today applied then.

And that’s kind of the key to Ken Ham’s whole line of reasoning. Despite what he says to the contrary, he wants us to assume that none of the natural laws of engineering, geology, zoology, astrology and so on apply backwards into history. To apply these laws, in his view, means you’re making up your own religion, because everything, to him, is religion. If any question exists, it can only be answered by the Bible — or at the very least, in accordance with the Bible’s text taken the most literal way possible. If something doesn’t fit with this, it’s perceived as miraculous; unknowable, or else some convoluted justification is presented as fact. And thus any further inquiry is silenced.

5 thoughts on “Ken Ham and Bill Nye, revisited

  1. Speaking of belief, I so want to believe they called this event “An Evening with Ham ‘n’ Nye.” I was writing earlier this week about this whole Science/Religion thing, only I’m seeing it sometimes as a Truth/Story thing – in which Science has the Truth and is Right and Religion has the Story and is Wrong. And I come out with Science is looking for the Truth and I’m glad, because I, too, am curious. But the Story of humanity is just that – a Story. It’s a Story told a thousand different ways, but no matter how we tell it, no matter how we describe the creation of the universe or what that guy Hercules said when he came back to the hut wearing a lion skin? Or was that Samson? They’re all Stories. And the Stories have their own truth.

  2. As much as I admire Bill Nye, he made a big mistake debating someone like Ken Ham. He wasn’t going to be convinced at the faulty logic in his worldview, and it gave him more publicity than he really deserves. Apparently, the proceeds to the event went to the museum. I think we have to be careful in debunking this rubbish while not giving these people more of a platform than they deserve.

  3. Why do people always forget that the animals did NOT just come to Noah in “twosies, twosies”?! The biblical account indicates that there would have been seven of some animals on board: “Take with you seven pairs of all clean animals, the male and his mate, and a pair of the animals that are not clean, the male and his mate” Genesis 7:2

  4. Ah, you have to wonder how many Young Earth Creationists lost their fait because the watched Bill Nye the Science Guy on PBS. My kids used to yell Bill, Bill, Bill, when the show came on.

    Luckily they don’t anymore, the oldest is about your age 😀

    If you get into Science Fiction, you could have a shrinking machine, or you could have the animals housed in Cryogenic Chambers. The possibilities are endless.

    Just keep the kids away from:

    1) Boat Building
    2) Farming
    3) Hunting
    4) Zoology
    5) Botany
    6) Basic Logic

    And you should be OK.

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