PETERSBURG, Ky. — Bill Nye the Science Guy and Ken Ham the Genesis Guy fought over the use and the misuse of the word "science" on Tuesday, during a public face-off over evolution that had the air of a presidential debate.
The discussion here at the Creation Museum featured video clips and a breakneck series of slides, a formal back-and-forth schedule of speeches and rebuttals, CNN's Tom Foreman as moderator and a packed 900-seat auditorium.
The live streaming video on YouTube drew as many as 532,000 simultaneous viewers.
The focus of the debate wasn't an election, but a question about world views: Does creationism provide a viable model for origins in this modern scientific era?
Ham says yes. He's the founder of the museum as well as a Christian outreach organization called Answers in Genesis, which marshals evidence for the view that God created the universe just 6,000 years ago.
He led off Tuesday night's debate by making a distinction between two types of scientific inquiry. Ham said there was "observational science," which can be directly tested by experiment; and "historical science," which interprets the past based on existing evidence.
In Ham's view, the biblical account describing the creation of the universe in six days worked at least as well as scientific views that lay out processes taking millions or billions of years.
"I believe the word 'science' has been hijacked by secularists," he said.
Bill Nye — the longtime host of "Bill Nye the Science Guy," a popular TV show about science for kids — countered that natural laws hold just as true for the past as they do for the present. He joked that without that viewpoint, a crime-lab show like "CSI: Petersburg" would be impossible. Thus, he argued, there shouldn't be a sharp distinction between observational and historical science.
"These are constructs unique to Mr. Ham," Nye said.
Nye often leavened his remarks with off-the-cuff humor: When discussing how science reconstructs the past, he noted that everything we observe has happened in the past, due to the finite speed of light. "I'm delighted to see that the people in the back of the room are that much younger than the people in the front," Nye said as he held his fingers just a pinch apart.
Bible as science textbook?
Both debaters focused on whether the Bible was a reliable guide for science. "I'm only too willing to admit my historical science is based on the Bible," Ham said. Radioisotope dating tests may indicate that the world is far older than 6,000 years, but Ham said those tests all were fallible.
"I find there's only one infallible dating method," Ham said. "It's a witness who was there, who knows everything and told us, and that's from the word of God."
Nye replied that it wasn't viable to accept the view that a Genesis-style flood 4,400 years ago could explain all the geological and paleontological phenomena observed in the fossil record. "Mr. Ham and his followers have this remarkable view of a worldwide flood that somehow influenced everything we observe in nature — a 500-foot wooden boat, eight zookeepers for 14,000 individual animals. Every land plant under water for a full year? Now I ask us all, is that really reasonable?"
He noted that Antarctic ice cores show seasonal cycles of high and low temperatures that appear to go back more than 680,000 years, and pointed to tree-ring records going back as far as 9,550 years. If the world were only 6,000 years old, that would imply there were thousands of significant seasonal swings in the course of a year. "Wouldn't somebody have noticed that?" Nye asked.
Nye said the view that the laws of nature didn't apply 4,400 years ago, or 6,000 years ago, were "extraordinary, and unsettling" — and he maintained that the debate was central to America's future as a scientific leader.
"If we continue to eschew science ... we are not going to move forward," Nye said.
Ham, however, played video clips from several scientists — including Ray Damadian, inventor of the MRI scanner — who said they had no problem reconciling their word-for-word acceptance of Genesis with their scientific work.
Genesis at center stage
The world view based on a literal interpretation of Genesis was on full display at the 70,000-square-foot, $35 million Creation Museum. In the exhibit halls, animatronic dinosaurs live alongside humans, and the fossils date back no earlier than 2400 B.C., when the Great Flood occurred. Other displays explain why radioisotope dating can yield wrong age estimates, and how a belief in evolution can lead to social ills.
Such claims are what sparked the debate in the first place: In 2012, Nye recorded a widely distributed video clip that urged parents not to teach their kids creationism. Ham responded with his own video, defending what's known as young-Earth creationism. The back-and-forth that followed eventually led to an agreement to hold Tuesday's event.
Nye's speaking fee and expenses were covered by the museum, which sold out its 900-seat auditorium at a ticket price of $25 per seat. Although the fee wasn't disclosed, Nye's typical fee amounts to tens of thousands of dollars. "The ticket sales won't cover half the cost of this debate," Ham told NBC News before the event.
The museum hopes to recoup expenses by selling DVDs and downloads of the video, titled "Uncensored Science: Bill Nye Debates Ken Ham."
Advocates on both sides of the debate said they enjoyed the spectacle. "It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," said Samuel Schmidt, a pro-Nye guy from Taylor Mill, Ky., who wore a bow tie as a sign of solidarity with the Science Guy.
Sonja Smith, a Ham supporter from Loveland, Ohio, also came away satisfied. "It proved that people can come together and have a respectful conversation about something that people are very passionate about," she said.
NBC News science editor Alan Boyle will delve into the post-debate analysis at 8 p.m. ET Wednesday on "Virtually Speaking Science." Scheduled guests include evolutionary biologist Josh Rosenau, programs and policy director for the National Center for Science Education; and filmmaker Antony Thomas. Thomas' latest documentary, "Questioning Darwin," premieres on HBO on Feb. 10.