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What Bill Nye got wrong

What Bill Nye got wrong

Science Guy Bill Nye is awesome, and he knows his science, but agreeing to “debate” with Ken Ham was probably the wrong choice.

The Rev. Erik Parker (The Millennial Pastor) wrote a fantastic retort of the Young Earth Creationism: claiming that it’s actually the Bible itself that convinced him they aren’t scientific. He also talks about the Nye/Ham debate in advance:

Creation pseudo science will always sound convincing enough for fundamentalists. They aren’t looking for real answers, they are looking for evidence that will support their biblical claims. If I were to talk to a Young Earth Creationist I would deal only with what the bible actually says, in Greek and Hebrew, in context, and with an understanding of ancient cosmology. I would make them deal with what serious biblical scholars have been talking about for centuries.

If I was Bill Nye, I wouldn’t even bother talking science with Ken Ham. I wouldn’t legitimize his pseudo-science by making it seem debatable. He will have an answer for everything, and that is the only foothold he needs to sound plausible – a real scientist acting as if he is worth debating. Evolution is still a big puzzle being put together, even if we can now tell what the picture looks like. Creation science is a neat little set of pseudo theories and logical fallacies meant to prop up poor biblical understanding.

The Daily Beast’s Michael Schulson called the debate “A Nightmare for Science”:

It was like watching the Broncos play the Seahawks. Nye never had a chance. Ham won this debate months ago, when Nye agreed to participate. By last Friday, when I spoke with Ham, Nye hadn’t even arrived in Kentucky, but Ham was already basking in the glow of victory (Nye didn’t respond to my request for comment). “The response,” Ham told me, “has been absolutely phenomenal.” He talked about the media attention. He talked about how professional the stage was going to look. He talked more about the media attention. “It’s going to create a lot of discussion. I think that’s very healthy,” said Ham, in reference to the raging scientific debate over whether evolution actually happened. “In many ways aggressive atheists have shut down that discussion.” But, Ham continued, “the public wants to hear about” origins. Fortunately, Nye has given them that chance.

When I asked whether the debate would bring any financial perks, Ham hastened to talk me down. “The ticket sales won’t come to half the cost of the debate,” he explained. The publicity, though, may be priceless. The last time Ham gained national media attention, it was for his failure to raise enough money to build the enormous Noah’s Ark theme park he’s been planning as an accompaniment to his slick creation museum. This time, he gallops onto the national stage as defender of the faith—a stance that may open some pocketbooks. Perhaps Ham will dedicate a plank in the replica ark to his bowtied benefactor.

Ham had nothing to lose. When you exist on the cultural fringe and make your living by antagonizing established authority, there’s no form of media attention you don’t love. All Ham had to do was sit still for two-and-a-half hours, sound vaguely professional, and pander occasionally to his base. Sure, if you listened closely, what Ham was saying made absolutely no scientific sense. But debate is a format of impressions, not facts. Ham sounded like a reasonable human being, loosely speaking, and that’s what mattered.

ABC News, in it’s coverage of the debate, quoted concerns pre-debate as well:

Jerry Coyne, an evolution professor at the University of Chicago, wrote on his blog that “Nye’s appearance will be giving money to organizations who try to subvert the mission Nye has had all his life: science education, particularly of kids.” Coyne pointed out that the Creation Museum will be selling DVDs of the event.

Coyne, on his blog “Why Evolution is True”, believes that Nye actually won the debate, listing both general reactions and his own thoughts. But he gives this warning:

I hope that, in the future, Nye is not so emboldened by his success in this debate that he starts debating creationists. Eventually he will run into one that is not as Ham-handed as Ham, and he’ll lose badly. Moreover, as I’ve said repeatedly, debates are not the place to resolve scientific issues, and only give credibility to creationists. Would it be useful for a famous geologist to debate a flat-earther on the topic “Is the earth round?”

My advice to Nye is this: keep talking and writing about evolution, but not in a debate format. You’re charismatic, funny, and, most important, have the truth on your side. Learn a little bit more about radiometric dating, and about the crazy arguments that Biblical literalists are wedded to—like the bizarre and unscientific concept of animal “kinds”. Talk to people about how there’s no real difference between the accuracy and value of “observational science” and “historical science.” It is the combination of eloquence and truth, not his skill in a rhetorical contest, that will bring Nye his victories.

TIME and NPR offer play-by-play coverage of the debate, along with video.


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barbara snyder

Roughly half the population of America does believe in some form of creationism or another. Half. Given that creationism is provably wrong….

The category he’s defining as “Creationism” also includes, I do believe, people who believe that “God created the heavens and the earth.” Which is basic Christian belief, and not in any way “provably wrong.”

I would change my mind if I saw some actual numbers, and the categories involved; but he hasn’t linked to any, so we don’t know what he’s talking about.

Flat statement like that do not reflect the complex reality, at all. I do agree with his point about needing better science education, though.

barbara snyder

(They also add that “More people in the NSB science literacy survey didn’t know that the father’s genes determine the sex of a baby, thought all radioactivity came from human activities, or disagreed that the earth goes around the sun.”)

barbara snyder

In 2009, 31% of Americans believed in young earth creationism.

As far as I can tell (from this Pew Study), this 31% figure is a ticking-off of the choice that says “humans and other living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time.”

While it would certainly be better to get people more on board with evolution, this doesn’t necessarily mean they hold to “Young-Earth Creationism,” which is a specific, different, thing.

Anyway, responses to questions about evolution are notoriously shifty, depending on how they are posed. For instance, from this page comes this paragraph:

In 2009, Bishop ran a survey that clarifies how many people really think the earth is only 10,000 years old. In survey results published by Reports of NCSE, Bishop found that 18% agreed that “the earth is less than 10,000 years old.” But he also found that 39% agreed “God created the universe, the earth, the sun, moon, stars, plants, animals, and the first two people within the past 10,000 years.” Again, question wording and context clearly both matter a lot.

That last article estimates the number of true Young Earth Creationists at about 1 in 10, no more.

Kurt Wiesner

Phil Plait starts where I’m at (bad idea, Bill Nye) but then moves along Scott’s lines:

“But I’ve thought about it, and here’s the important thing to remember: Roughly half the population of America does believe in some form of creationism or another. Half. Given that creationism is provably wrong, and science has enjoyed huge overwhelming success over the years, something is clearly broken in our country.

I suspect that what’s wrong is our messaging. For too long, scientists have thought that facts speak for themselves. They don’t. They need advocates. If we ignore the attacks on science, or simply counter them by reciting facts, we’ll lose. That much is clear from the statistics. Facts and stories of science are great for rallying those already on our side, but they do little to sway believers.

About last night’s debate, my colleague Mark Stern at Slate argues that Nye lost the debate just by showing up, and I see that same sentiment from people on social media. But I disagree. We’ve been losing this debate in the public’s mind all along by not showing up. Sure, science advocates are there when this topic comes up in court, and I’m glad for it. But I think that we need to have more of a voice, and that voice needs to change. What Nye did last night was at least a step in that direction, so in that sense I’m glad he did this….

I can’t stress this enough. The conflict over the teaching of evolution is based on the false assumption that evolution is antagonistic to religion. This is why, I think, evolution is so vehemently opposed by so many in the United States. The attacks on the specifics of evolution—the claims about irreducibility of the eye, for example, or other such incorrect statements—are a symptom, not a cause. I can talk about how we know the Universe is old until the Universe is substantially older and not convince someone whose heels are dug in. But if we can show them that the idea of evolution is not contrary to their faith, then we will make far, far more progress.”

Adam Wood

The mere existence of the debate is stupid, and the essential “disagreement” is based on ignorance, bad history, bad theology, and pile of centuries-old lies. Unfortunately, many atheist scientists (including, apparently, Bill Nye) have bought into the “conflict theory.”

Almost all Catholics and Mainline Protestants know that there is no essential conflict between scientific inquiry and the Christian religion.

Anyone who has read the New Testament should know that you can explain Christianity quite logically, but you can’t PROVE it with reason.

Everybody who has read even the Wikipedia article on Thomas Aquinas knows that “evolution” (or “Big Bang” or whatever else) qualifies as a “Secondary Cause” and does not diminish God’s role in any way whatsoever.

And even the supposedly benighted theologians of “The Dark Ages” knew that Biblical astronomy (for example, a flat Earth or the notion that the Moon produces its own light) was sometimes METAPHORICAL AND NOT LITERAL, and that this in no way diminishes the Authority of Scripture.

If you think deeply held, orthodox faith is in any way anti-science, or is in any way “in danger” should one or another scientific theory be provably true – or if you regularly deal with people who think so – you need to read the book God’s Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science.

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