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Days after white doves and shofar horns christened the opening of a new Noah's Ark attraction in northern Kentucky, the land-anchored ship welcomed a conspicuous and curious visitor: Bill Nye “the Science Guy.”
The bow-tied man of science — openly skeptical about the exhibit from the time it was announced — was an invited guest at the Ark Encounter, which opened July 7 and is billed as the largest timber-frame structure in the world, at 51 feet tall and 1-1/2 football fields in length.
Nye had to see the voluminous vessel for himself, and set off for the rolling green vistas of Williamstown, a rural community south of Cincinnati.
What he found, he told NBC News, was an eye-catching attraction that was "much more troubling or disturbing than I thought it would be."
"On the third deck (of the ark), every single science exhibit is absolutely wrong," he said. "Not just misleading, but wrong."
State and local officials are banking on the Bible-based theme park to lure tourists and boost the local economy. The project's creator, Ken Ham, hopes it will attract fundamentalist Christians, some of whom are already visiting its nearby sister site, the Creation Museum, built in 2007.
Ham and Nye have been jousting partners since 2014, when they sparred in a debate over creationism versus evolution that was broadcast online from the Creation Museum and racked up millions of views on YouTube.
In exploring the Ark, the famed children's television host was given a personal tour of the 120,000-square-foot structure by Ham, who has emerged as a prominent voice in the "young Earth" creationist movement.
Ham, who was born in Australia and founded the Answers in Genesis ministry, believes the Bible and its Book of Genesis is literal historical fact — which means the Earth would be only about 6,000 years as opposed to the roughly 4.5 billion years estimated by scientists.
As represented in the Ark exhibit, dinosaurs co-existed with humans. That's also a big departure from the science of evolution, which says they became extinct some 65 million years ago — long before mankind emerged.
Noah's story, as told in Genesis, says he built an ark at God’s request in anticipation of a Great Flood. The patriarch packed up his family and corralled two of every kind of animal in the world to live on the ship — and for that, God spared him and those creatures.
To Nye, that's hogwash, although some scholars are open to the idea that a historic flood of Biblical proportions could have happened and inspired the Noah tale. Scientists, however, say there's no evidence to suggest an epic, worldwide flood occurred within the past 6,000 years.
Nye takes particular exception to the dinosaurs on the ark — re-created in cages among rows of other odd-looking animal replicas. (Plans to house live animals on board had to be scrapped, and there are also fewer animal replicas than planned to make way for restrooms for the visitors.)
Nye said the exhibit encourages visitors to trust faith over science and thereby undercuts their ability to engage in critical thinking.
"It’s all very troubling. You have hundreds of school kids there who have already been indoctrinated and who have been brainwashed," he said, recalling how one young girl on the Ark told him to change his way of thinking.
"The parents were feeding her word for word," Nye added.
In a Facebook post, Ham said Nye's visit turned into an impromptu "debate" as other visitors huddled around the pair. The experience gave Ham a chance to "share the gospel" with Nye, he said.
"As we ended our walk through the 1st deck in front of life-size models of Noah and his family who were depicted praying, I asked Bill if he would mind if I prayed, and if I could I pray for him. He said I could do whatever I want as he couldn't stop me," Ham wrote. "So while a large group of people were gathered around, I publicly prayed for Bill. I did ask him if we could be friends, but he said we could be acquaintances with mutual respect, but not friends."
Nye said that while he appreciated some of the craftsmanship details that went into building the boat, which was the handiwork of Amish laborers, something else behind the scenes has troubled him.
He takes issue with a tax break that the commonwealth of Kentucky provided to the Ark Encounter — built at a cost of $102 million. Despite opposition in 2014 by former state officials, a federal judge earlier this year ruled that the Ark could take advantage of a state sales tax rebate worth as much as 25 percent of the investment.
While the Ark was paid for by a mix of private donations and municipal bonds backed by the project’s future revenues — adult tickets cost $40, while admission is $28 for children from 5 to 12 — Ham insists that taxpayers aren't on the hook for any costs.
"Only visitors to the Ark Encounter pay the sales tax that generates the possible rebate," he wrote in an editorial last month in the Cincinnati Enquirer.
But critics say there's another questionable perk: a 2 percent tax on employees' gross wages intended to help pay off the attraction over the next 30 years. The park is looking to hire 300 to 400 seasonal jobs.
A requirement that potential employees sign a statement that they are Christian has also raised eyebrows. The hiring practice was upheld in the federal judge’s ruling, which said an exemption to the 1964 Civil Rights Act actually permits the Ark to have a religious requirement for employment.
Nye said the religious element of the theme park itself doesn't worry him — rather, he's concerned about what it's passing off as fact.
"I’m not busting anyone's chops about a religion," he said. "This is about the absolutely wrong idea that the Earth is 6,000 years old that’s alarming to me."
Ham, on the other hand, has accused atheists of being "intolerant bullies" toward people of faith. He is confident both the Ark Encounter and his Creation Museum will see a shared surge in interest.
It's unclear how much money the Ark has earned since opening. But in its first six days, a spokeswoman told NBC News there have been about 30,000 visitors.
Members of a documentary crew that joined Nye told NBC News the crowd appeared thin on the day he visited and the parking lot was mostly empty.
Ham hopes to attract close to 2 million guests in the attraction's first year.
While he and Nye parted ways without finding common ground, he said having Nye visit during the Ark’s premiere week was beneficial.
"To me, it was so fitting that with the opening of the Ark Encounter, this massive ship is being used to witness to such a well-known personality," Ham wrote on Facebook. "We ended with a friendly handshake."
As for the ark property itself, it's not done expanding. Ham said plans for a walled city and Tower of Babel — intended to warn against the dangers of "prejudice and racism" — will be part of a future phase.