Creation and evolution share the stage
The ice storm did not keep the crowds away, nor the distant location of the Creation Museum in Northern Kentucky, a region known by some as the buckle of the Bible belt.
On Tuesday night nearly 1000 people gathered to hear the US's best known popular scientist, Bill Nye, debate the Australian who has made himself a leader of the so-called Young Earth Creation movement, Ken Ham.
As with other such creationists, Ham, once a Queensland high school science teacher, believes in a literal interpretation of the Bible and in particular of the account of Creation in the book of Genesis. Having studied the genealogy of the Bible and added up the ages of each of the people it mentions from Adam to Christ, creationists estimate the earth to be 6000 years old.
Nye, known universally in the US as Bill Nye the Science Guy, the title of one of his television series, has long opposed the view and warned of the dangers of creationism spreading in the US school system.
"I say to the grown-ups, if you want to deny evolution and live in your world, in your world that's completely inconsistent with everything we observe in the universe, that's fine," Nye said last year in a video posted online. "But don't make your kids do it, because we need them."
It was this video that led Ham to challenge him to the debate.
A man marked with boundless energy and the enthusiasm of a natural teacher, Nye was widely criticised for accepting.
On the Richard Dawkins Foundation's website, Dan Arel wrote: "Scientists should not debate creationists. Period.
"Creationism vs evolution however is not worth debating. Why? Simple, there is nothing to debate. Evolution is a scientific fact, backed by mountains of evidence, peer-reviewed papers you could stack to the moon and an incredible scientific community consensus. Creationism is a debunked mythology that is based solely in faith."
Speaking first, Ham, who sounds very much like the country teacher he once was, sought to draw a distinction between observational science and what he called "historical science". Since no one was around to watch ice layers form or the rings of ancient trees being created, he said, scientists could not claim to be sure how it happened.
He claimed all the scientifically accepted methods of measuring age were flawed.
What he calls historical science is the product of assumptions, he argues, while creationism is backed by the eyewitness testimony of God.
Nye retorted that the distinction between observational and historical science was one unique to Ham.
Nye showed photos of still living trees that would have drowned in what he kept calling "Ken Ham's flood". He showed ice cores bored in the Arctic whose layers revealed 680,000 winter-summer cycles. He asked if it was reasonable to believe that Noah and his family truly did build the largest wooden vessel ever to sail and put 14,000 animals on it. Did Noah have super powers? What about the other estimated 18,000,000 species, he asked. He wondered how the kangaroos got from the Middle East to Australia.
Ham was unmoved and calmly kept referring back to the Bible as evidence for many of his arguments.
When Nye referred to observations of the expansion of the universe, Ham responded that this was described in the Bible as God "stretching out the heavens". He explained that God created the rest of the universe on the fourth day in order to demonstrate his power to man.
For three hours the audience appeared to be captivated, obediently applauding only when given permission to by the CNN moderator. Another 1 million people watched online and at one point the debate was one of the top four trending topics on Twitter.
For all that attention, though, it seemed few minds were changed.
Robin Weir brought her six home-schooled sons all the way from South Carolina for the debate. She said she was disappointed that Nye did not use more detail to explain his case. Her 15-year-old son Harrison thought Nye was engaging and entertaining, but nonetheless failed to make any real points.
Rob Lansdale, a youth pastor from Ohio, thought Nye was a fine debater.
"I love Bill Nye, I love anyone who has that passion, I love his attitude, I love his enthusiasm," Lansdale said. He was also completely unmoved by Nye's argument.
Mark Gregor, an atheist Bill Nye fan, travelled all the way from Boston.
"I love this sort of thing, you never get to see this," he said. He believes the Creation Museum, which displays animatronic dinosaurs grazing happily alongside people to demonstrate that all life was created at once, is evidence of the decline of religion in America.
"I think it is the last spark of deep religion. Religious people are feeling threatened, that's why you have something like this."
Nye, an agnostic, fears that religion in its extreme form remains strong enough to damage the nation.
"Here's my concern," he said at one point, specifically addressing voters watching from home. "What keeps the United States ahead - what makes the United States a world leader is our technology - our new ideas, our innovations. If we continue to eschew science ... we are not going to move forward."
Sydney Morning Herald