Things unsaid in the “Bill Nye vs Ken Ham Debate”

As many of you may know, on February 4, Bill Nye debated creationist Ken Ham at his “creation museum”. For anyone with an open mind, I think Bill Nye was clearly the winner. He delivered a few very good points, particularly his calculation that if all of the species existing today were descended from just 7,000 “kinds” on Noah’s Ark 4000 years ago, it would mean that an average of 11 new species had been created each day over the past 4000 years. This is even more problematic if you consider all animals being descended from just one breeding pair 4000 years ago. If that were the case, there would be virtually no genetic diversity among animals today. Also, the bit about kangaroos was fun.

As for whether it was a good idea, that for me depended on how well Bill did. As long as facts are presented relatively well, I am all for bringing publicity to the debate between science and creationism. With over a third of Americans misled, I don’t think we can afford to be silent. It is time to go on the offensive- something that the creationists have been doing for decades. This gives them the advantage of knowing scientific arguments better than many scientists know creationist arguments, which even Bill Nye suffered from a few days ago. We need a public that is inoculated with enough knowledge of creationism to know why it’s wrong.

Ken Ham, for the most part, brought only religion and philosophy to the table, as well as a few token scientists. There was little actual scientific argument. He did get away with a few spurious claims however, which he should not have done. Bill Nye is not a Biologist, and probably more importantly, he hasn’t spoken with enough creationists to know their propaganda techniques. Considering this, as well as the difficulty of a live debate without access to any source material, he is to be forgiven for a missing a few opportunities in his debate. I will now try to address these.

Above all, I feel Ham scored with his arguments about radiometric dating. It’s no surprise that Bill had trouble with these, because these dating techniques are very complex. Because of this, my section on radiometric dating has ended up being a lot longer than I intended. In fact, it takes up the majority. Feel free to skip ahead. First of all, for a little background, there are many types of radiometric dating. There is Uranium-Lead, Samarium-Neodymium, Rubidium-Strontium, Potassium-Argon, Carbon dating, and at least a dozen others. As the talkorigins link below shows, these totally different methods generally produce very similar results when applied correctly. All of these involve the decay of a parent element into a daughter element with a specific half-life that does NOT change under any conditions thus far produced in a laboratory ( and not for lack of trying). After one half life, half of the parent element has decayed into daughter element. After two half lives, three fourths of the parent element has decayed into daughter element, and so on. In other words, the amount of parent element is 0.5^ N, where N is the number of half-lives that have occurred.

Ken Ham mentions two examples of radiometric dating apparently giving false dates. The first of these is a piece of fossilized wood encased in minerals that were dated at millions of years old by Potassium-Argon dating. The fossilized wood itself, however, was carbon dated at 45,000 years old. How can this be?

Well, one thing that creationists frequently take advantage of is the fact that each radiometric dating method has an optimum time range. This is the range at which both parent and daughter elements exist in large enough quantities to easily measure. So for instance, if only 0.0001% of the parent element is left, it’s practically impossible to detect. Secondly, there’s always a chance of minor “background noise” which is a very small amount of a certain element that causes minor contamination. It’s usually a very small number, but when there’s only a small amount of parent or daughter element, these small errors can greatly skew the results. There’s also such a thing as major contamination, where significant amounts of one of the elements are accidentally artificially introduced to the sample or measuring apparatus.

For example, Carbon dating uses C-14, which has a half-life of about 5700 years. In other words, about half of the initial quantity decays in 5700 years. Now, imagine that you have an organic sample containing 100 micrograms of C-14 initially, and imagine that the background noise or natural contamination is about 1 microgram. This can exist for a number of reasons, due to residue from previous samples, contamination from uranium decay, or due to chemical processing of the sample.

If we take a sample that is 11,400 years old (2 half lifes), it should now have 25 micrograms of C-14, plus 1 microgram of contamination, so a total of 26 micrograms of C-14. In this scenario, the contamination will cause the calculated date to be about 11,058 instead of 11,400. Not bad! As we can see, minor contamination doesn’t do much damage when a sample is only a couple of half-lives old, because the contamination is very small compared to the amounts of parent and daughter element being measured. This is significant, because a couple of Carbon-14 half-lives (11,400 years) is still considerably older than young earth creationists claim the earth is. As we can see, Carbon dating has no problem working in this time range, even with background noise. This phenomenon is explained in greater detail in the second link below. Carbon dating has even been cross referenced with dendrochronology (the measurement of time using tree rings). Together, Carbon dating and dendrochronology can be used together to jointly measure back 11,000 years. Guess what? They agree pretty closely. So even with contamination and background noise, there’s little chance of carbon dating being wrong only 11,000 years back. 

Now let’s look at Ken Ham’s cherry-picked carbon dating scenario. The rocks being dated are millions of years old. This is a problem, because virtually all C-14 has decayed out of a sample after about 50,000 years. So if you try to date anything older, you’ll still just get a result of about 50,000 years. In a perfect world, this would mean 0 of 100 micrograms of C-14 are left. However, don’t forget the background contamination, which let’s again say is 1 microgram. This will make it appear as though 1% of the C-14 still hasn’t decayed, and will give the fictitious age of about 37,620 years, when in fact it is millions of years old. Notice how much more difference a 1% contamination makes in this time range. Fortunately, such high levels of contamination are not the norm.

The 45,000 year date given by Ken Ham seems to have been caused by an even smaller amount of contamination, equivalent to about 0.4% the mass of the original C-14 present in the sample. This small amount is easily explainable, even for something that is millions of years old.

While the 0.4% modern Carbon-14 is clearly no problem except for very old samples, it is also clearly an anomaly. So where did it come from? One thing Ken Ham mentioned that caught my ear is that the wood was found by men who were digging in hopes of establishing a site for a coal mine. If you go to his website, you’ll see he also mentions veins of coal in the area. This made me groan, because, to quote the second link below: 

“Coal is notorious for contamination. Uranium is often found in or near coal, releasing neutrons that generate radiocarbon in the coal from nitrogen. Mobile humic acids are almost always present and can transport more recent carbon to the coal. Microbial growth can incorporate modern carbon from groundwater while in situ and from air after sample collection. Coal can easily adsorb atmospheric CO2 after collection.”

So this is an environment in which we might expect a slightly higher than average C-14 contamination. Sure enough, that’s just what we have Any geologist doing carbon dating in a coal mine would probably adjust the age limit downward slightly, from the usual 50,000.  So 45,000 years would be about what you would expect for a sample that has lost all of its original C-14.

To put this all more simply, this is comparable to an hourglass where a few grains of sand occasionally stick to the roof. Let’s say it has enough sand for an hour. If you turn the hourglass over, and leave the room for 30 minutes, it will very reliably tell you that you have been gone for 30 minutes. However, if you leave for a week, it is possible to misinterpret the result. You may see a few grains sticking to the top, and conclude that you have been gone for less than an hour. Someone more knowledgeable of the hourglasses limitations, however, will know that the last few grains don’t always fall, so they will know they were likely gone for over an hour. 

The next example Ken Ham gives of radiometric dating not working on freshly cooled rock from Mount St. Helens is just the opposite. To extend the analogy, Ken Ham is showing us an hourglass where a few grains of sand are sometimes already on the bottom, even before any sand has fallen. However, this date involves a different dating method, called Potassium-Argon dating, which can measure backwards much further. Whereas Carbon-14 has a half-life of just 5,700 years, Potassium-40 has a half life of about 1,250,000,000 years, so each of these grains of sand are worth hundreds of thousands of years. This still involves contamination (this time of the daughter element, not the parent element) of about 0.055 percent the original amount of parent element. Not terribly impressive. For a brand new sample, it may be a significant error, but for a sample a billion years old, this level of error would barely matter. In this case too, the conditions were less than ideal. The equipment used was not intended for samples of that age. Neither was the dating method. The author of the paper he is referring to also mentioned small inclusions of contaminants called xenoliths. While he tried to remove these, they cannot be ruled out as a factor, especially considering the small amounts of contamination involved, which could easily be missed. 

The other arguments made by Ken Ham are much less formidable. I *think* I can deal with them without talking so much. Hopefully. 

Another of his arguments involves the evolution of E.coli to internalize and consume citrate in the presence of oxygen. He says that this is not a new trait, and simply a *switch* that gets turned on to activate already preexisting information. Surprisingly, this is fairly accurate. E.coli already had a gene for citrate metabolism, but was unable to internalize it in the presence of oxygen. A duplication mutation placed a new copy of this gene under a new promoter, allowing it to be activated under different environmental conditions. This is not a novel gene, just a gene rearrangement. That’s still evolution, of course. Many of the genetic differences between chimps and humans have more to do with rearranged sequences than they do with sequences that are actually unique to either species. About 95% is shared, some of it is just in a different place. So mechanisms such as this are very important to evolution. However, if Ken Ham means to imply that new genes do not arise, he’s wrong, and I think he knows better. Nylonase is an excellent example. Before 1930, nylon did not exist, because it is manmade. So obviously there was no nylon-eating bacteria. The enzyme nylonase, which helps bacteria break down nylon, is absolutely a trait that did not exist until very recently, and is proof that mutation can create a totally new protein product. It may resemble an earlier enzyme, but it has gained a new function while losing the previous one. You can read about it in my third link below.

Ken Ham has also implied that there are large amounts of creationist scientists. In fact, the number is very low. You can find some, sure, just as you can find believers in any fringe science. However, about 97% of American Scientists believe in evolution, as shown by my fourth link. This number is higher outside of the U.S., and also higher among geologists and biologists. I imagine it’s also higher among astronomers, considering that there are visible stars that we shouldn’t be able to see if their light had only been traveling 6,000 years… although somehow Ken Ham found one that was a young-earther. On that note, even Bill Nye did say one thing I thought was iffy. He seemed to imply that these stars that are 6,000+ light years away are measured by parallax, but from what I understand, redshift is more useful at these distances. That said, many of the distance measuring methods (listed in the fifth link below) overlap, and have been tested against one another to make sure that they obtain similar results for the same star. Clearly, there are multiple lines of evidence for stars 6,000+ light years away. All in all, it was a good point that Bill raised, even if he skipped some details.

I may watch the video again and come up with some other things, or comment on other young earth creationist distortions in the future. Even if I’m just putting my thoughts down, I have to say, this has been fun.


1) http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/faq-age-of-earth.html



2) http://www.asa3.org/ASA/education/origins/carbon-kb.htm



3) http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC345072/



4) http://www.people-press.org/2009/07/09/section-5-evolution-climate-change-and-other-issues/



5) http://www.astronomynotes.com/galaxy/s16.htm

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