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.
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.