Australian creationist Ken Ham is the founder of the Creation Museum located in Northern Kentucky. Photo: Ed Reinke
On Tuesday night during a debate between Australian creationist Ken Ham and American popular scientist Bill Nye, an ice storm blanketed Ham's Creation Museum in a thick pelt of gritty frozen rain.
The road out of the museum, which sprawls on a semi-rural acreage in Northern Kentucky, was not impassable but dangerous and slow, and many who had booked taxis to take them into nearby Petersburg or across the Ohio River into Cincinnati after the debate found themselves stranded and began looking about the audience for help.
An internet entrepreneur and Bill Nye fan who had flown in from Boston to see the debate paid a youth minister from Ohio $200 to drive him - and Fairfax Media - back into town.
Scientist Bill Nye. Photo: AP
As the car slipped and slithered over the uncleared roads, the atheist and the minister talked amiably.
Both agreed that Nye, a communicator who is famous, and even beloved, for his children's television show Bill Nye the Science Guy, had demolished Ham, who, in his unflappable, unflagging monotone, failed to land many blows for his cause.
It didn't matter. The minister remained sure that the world was 6000 years old; the entrepreneur's atheism was unchallenged.
Illustration: Michael Mucci.
Throughout the week the debate continued to attract media attention across the US. Many observers cited a poll taken by an evangelical website that found 92 per cent thought Nye had won the debate.
Even some leading Christian conservatives criticised Ham, most notably Pat Robertson, one of America's most prominent evangelical leaders. Speaking on his TV show The 700 Club - the flagship program of the Christian Broadcasting Network - Robertson implored Ham to, basically, shut up.
''Let's face it, there was a bishop [James Ussher] … who added up the dates listed in Genesis and he came up with the world had been around for 6000 years,'' Robertson began, referring to the method by which so-called young earth creationists such as Ham have dated the planet.
The Creation Museum.
''There ain't no way that's possible … To say that it all came about in 6000 years is just nonsense, and I think it's time we come off that stuff and say this isn't possible.
''We've got to be realistic that the dating of Bishop Ussher just doesn't comport with anything that's found in science, and you can't just totally deny the geological formations that are out there,'' he said. ''Let's be real, let's not make a joke of ourselves.''
Robertson's criticism seemed all the more extraordinary given that he is not a man who is averse to making dramatic biblical pronouncements.
In 1976, Robertson announced on The 700 Club that the world would come to an end in October or November 1982.
''I guarantee you, by the end of 1982 there is going to be a judgment on the world,'' said Robertson, who went on to seek the Republican presidential nomination.
But another school of thought is that Ham won the debate even before it began simply by provoking Nye into taking the stage with him.
''This event is going to make money to support creationism,'' University of Chicago professor Jerry Coyne wrote on his blog Why Evolution Is True. ''The proceeds - except, I suspect, minus whatever fee Nye gets - will go to support the Creation Museum, and Ham, as well as other creationist organisations, are selling DVDs of the video. Even if Nye somehow 'wins' the debate, the dosh will still go to support what he hates: peddling lies about science to kids.''
In Slate, contributor Mark Joseph Stern argued that Nye had no chance of winning the debate because he had the ''burden of being tethered to facts'' while Ham enjoyed ''the luxury to create his own fiction''.
''By seriously engaging with Ham at the international home of creationism in front of more than half a million people watching the webcast, Nye legitimised Ham's creationist lunacy more than any weird and declining museum ever could,'' Stern wrote.
What is not clear though is if the huge amount of attention will be enough to save Ham's $33 million Creation Museum, which, unbeknown to many in the audience on Tuesday night, faced a financial do-or-die deadline just three days later.
Ham first conceived of the Creation Museum as a high-school science teacher in Queensland, he told Fairfax Media in an interview before the debate. He had become convinced, as a religious young man, that evolution was clearly wrong and the only logical explanation of our origins was that the Old Testament book of Genesis was literally true.
Ham came to understand that God created the world, the universe, the plants and the animals in six days about 6000 years ago, a time frame that is established by adding together the ages of people mentioned in the Bible.
Sin was introduced in the Garden of Eden, after which suffering and death appeared. About 4000 years ago, the world was engulfed by the flood. Life today, he believes, is descended from the animals and people saved by Noah on the ark.
According to Ham, during the 1980s and 1990s he taught his students in the Queensland public school system elements of his belief, as well as their course textbooks.
''I just wanted them to think critically,'' he explains. Back then, he says, the school system was much more reasonable about such things. He mused that it would be much easier to challenge the myth of evolution that students saw explained in natural history museums if he could take them to a creation museum.
Ham's proselytising soon took over his teaching. This was, he says, a burden conferred upon him by God. As he developed relationships with US creation groups, he and supporters established the Brisbane-based Creation Ministries International.
Eventually he and others involved in the Brisbane group split bitterly, with an internal report accusing Ham's US organisation, Answers in Genesis, of ''unbiblical/unethical/unlawful behaviour'' towards the Australian ministry. Creation Ministries International eventually sued Ham and Answers in Genesis, citing concerns about the amount of money being spent on directors and the focus on fund-raising. By the time the parties settled, Ham had already opened the $27 million Creation Museum.
Though some call Northern Kentucky ''the buckle on the Bible belt'', Ham says he chose to base the Creation Museum in the area for its location. Here, he explains, the museum is less than a day's drive from two-thirds of the US population.
Last year the museum estimated that since it opened in 2007, it had attracted almost 2 million visitors. Ham acknowledged that although it enjoyed its highest patronage the year after it opened, it was still attracting more visitors than it had predicted. Others aren't so sure, noting that it has since opened a petting zoo and a flying fox as new attractions.
Driving back into Cincinnati after the debate, the minister explained that he had taken several of his youth groups to the museum, but said it was difficult to see why you would buy a season ticket. Once you've seen humans and dinosaurs sharing their animatronic lives once, there is little reason to return.
Dinosaurs are crucial to the museum and feature throughout. By showing people and dinosaurs side by side, the museum emphasises that all of life was created at once. Also, Ham considers dinosaurs to be a shibboleth of those who believe in an ancient earth and evolution.
''We're putting evolutionists on notice: we're taking the dinosaurs back,'' he said before the museum opened, according to the Kansas City Star. ''They are used to teach people that there's no God, and they're used to brainwash people. Evolutionists get very upset when we use dinosaurs. That's their star.''
With attendance stagnant at best, Ham and Answers in Genesis have spent the past few years raising money for a dramatic expansion of the Creation Museum. They want to build a full-scale replica of Noah's Ark. If completed, it would be the largest wooden structure in the US, and it would serve as proof that Noah was able to accommodate the 7000-odd pairs of animals from which life as we know it is descended.
The problem is, the ark is big - and expensive. The 300-cubit craft described in the Bible would be 115.4 metres long. According to a Bloomberg report, the first phase of construction would cost $73 million. Ham and Answers in Genesis raised about $14 million before seeking to raise another $55 million in unrated municipal bonds.
By the beginning of January, Answers in Genesis had managed to sell $26.5 million of the securities. But to avoid triggering a redemption of all the bonds, it needed to sell the other $29 million to investors by February 6, just three days after the debate.
''We still need those ark supporters who weren't able to purchase the ark bonds at closing to prayerfully consider participating in a secondary bond delivery at the level they had indicated to us,'' Ham wrote in an email to supporters this month, according to the Bloomberg report.
Ham told Fairfax Media that underwriters had instructed him not to comment on the deal, but he said of the Bloomberg story: ''Don't believe everything you read.'' He said the debate's timing had nothing to do with the fund-raising effort.
Even if the ark project fails, and whatever the outcome of the debate, many people are still concerned about the continuing impact of creationism on US schools.
Indeed, before the debate Nye explained that this was the very reason he accepted the challenge, saying: ''To allow our students to come of age without the knowledge gained through the extraordinary scientific insights and diligence of our ancestors would deprive them of understanding of nature and our place in the cosmos.
''It would also rob our students of their future. Without scientists and engineers to create new technologies and ways of doing society's business, other economies in other countries will out-compete the United States and leave our citizens behind.''
And although polls found Nye to be the winner on Tuesday night, the prevalence of creationism still troubles many teachers and scientists in the US.
While Ham's young earth creationism remains relatively rare, a recent survey by the Pew Research Centre found one-third of Americans believe humans have existed in their present form since the beginning of time.
There are signs that belief in some form of creationism in America is becoming a function of political ideology and, as the nation divides politically into red states and blue states, even of geography.
Another Pew survey last year found 48 per cent of Republican voters do not believe in evolution, up from 39 per cent in 2009.
Just beneath Kentucky lies Tennessee, where in 1925 the infamous Scopes trial took place. A local teacher had been charged with illegally teaching evolution in the classroom. The teacher, John Scopes, was found guilty, though the decision was overturned on a technicality and the national attention the trial gathered was thought to have discredited creationism around the country.
But today, under a 2012 state law, public school teachers in Tennessee may teach the ''scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses'' of theories that can ''cause controversy'', specifically citing evolution, global warming, and cloning.
A recent Slate survey found that in 14 states similar laws have been enacted to allow public schools - or students being taught in private schools with public funds in so-called charter schools - to challenge evolution or teach creationism.
In Texas alone the Slate investigation found that 17,000 students in the Responsive Education Solutions charter system were learning from their textbooks that some residents of the Philippines were ''pagans in various levels of civilisation'', that feminism forced women to turn to the government as a ''surrogate husband'', and that ''some scientists even question the validity of the conclusions concerning the age of the Earth''.
In Texas, as in many states, elected school boards approve textbooks. As far-right conservatives have organised in the wake of the Tea Party revolution of 2010, many are targeting school boards as the first step in efforts to take over more senior elected posts.
Though it remains unconstitutional to teach creationism since a 1987 Supreme Court ruling, creationists duck the law by teaching it as one of a handful of ''competing theories'', the Slate investigation found.
Raising creationism to equal footing with evolution was explicitly what Ham sought to do as he debated Nye. He argued that a distinction existed between ''observational science'', which could be tested by observing current phenomena, and what he called ''historical science'', which he said depended on scientists using assumptions to interpret the past.
When Nye listed the myriad ways scientists measured time and estimated age - from the layers of ice cores and tree rings to carbon and radiometric dating - Ham argued that none were as reliable as God's eyewitness testimony.
When, in his frustration, Nye suggested that Noah would have needed super powers to build the largest wooden vessel in history and pack it with animals, Ham implacably retorted that since neither man had met Noah, it was unfair to judge his skills as a shipwright.
It was then that Nye should have realised he was not going to change many minds in the packed auditorium. Even so, Noah and the ark might still bring down Ham, too.