Editor’s note: The following post was written as a preview to the Bill Nye-Ken Ham “debate,” held Feb. 4, 2014. For our reaction following the spectacle, see here.
The old online adage “Don’t feed the trolls” is well-known within the evolution-creationism debate, though it’s worded a little differently: “Don’t debate with young-earth creationists.”
Richard Dawkins is well-known for his stubborn refusal to debate creationists, whether they be the extremist science deniers like Ray Comfort or the more moderate academics like William Lane Craig. Dawkins’ succinct reasoning for his repeated declinations is the same as the esteemed professor Robert May’s immortal riposte to a similar request for a public sparring: “That would look great on your CV, not so good on mine.”
It’s an undeniably good point. Regardless of what is actually said during the debate, going toe-to-toe with a world-famous and influential scientific figure like Dawkins would lend legitimacy to whatever position he agreed to oppose. On the other hand, a “real” scientist agreeing to formally trade words with the likes of Banana Ray carries about as much upside as debating, well, this guy.
It’d be like Manny Pacquiao accepting a prize fight against a one-armed ballerina. It’s a big, humiliating step down, and even if you win, you lose.
What’s more, any modern-day public debate over the fundamental tenets of creationism is a sham, a mockery of real discourse. That’s because there is no scientific debate to be had over whether the earth is billions of years old, or whether life shows strong evidence of common descent, or whether a global flood occurred within the memory of modern man. These questions (particularly the first and third) were settled by the experts who are paid to study such matters long before any of the would-be “debaters” were even born.
So, seriously, what’s the point? As long as we’re seeking to move the human race backward, shall we also take up the questions of “Is the earth flat?” and “Does thunder mean the sky is angry?” This is why the very act of debating a young-earther is a false pretext; it gives audiences the illusion that there is some valid controversy worthy of spirited argumentation, when, in reality, the participants are discussing a long-settled issue in which one side has simply refused to admit defeat (for reasons that have nothing to do with the evidence).
And, as the rednecks say, “If it ain’ broked, don’ fix it.” Under the “Don’t feed the trolls” mandate, young-earth creationism is safely shut outside the scientific discourse, where it belongs, with any and all other ideas that are directly refuted by the preponderance of available evidence. Sure, we all have to suffer through stuff like Answers in Genesis President Ken Ham’s annual complaint that “the mean scientists won’t debate me ’cause they’re scared,” but, for the most part, the world just keeps spinning.
Alas, the logic of all this is apparently lost on Bill Nye — the science educator best-known for his popular 90s-era children’s series on PBS — who has agreed to debate the great K-Ham at his own Creation Museum Feb. 4.
No disrespect at all intended to Nye, but I can’t conceive of why he would do such a thing. And though I won’t deny that I enjoyed joking about “Bill Nye the Science Guy vs. Ken Ham the Anti-Science Man,” I can’t help but feel he’s making a big mistake. And not just for the general reasons above.
But there’s more. Being fairly well read in K-Ham’s work, mainly his books and his blog, I say with confidence that the man’s ministry is not fundamentally one of rational appeal; it is fundamentally one of emotional appeal, with a healthy dose of scare tactics for good measure. If Nye comes on to Ham’s home court thinking logic and reason will win the day, he is sorely mistaken. And he will lose.
Even the evidence — as powerful as evidence can be — won’t save him, because evidence changes only the minds that are open to it. And those of Ham and his followers are not. They’re not looking for the truth, they just want their truth, and since they firmly believe they’re doing God’s work, they’re really not that interested in anything that contradicts it.
Finally, the question that Nye agreed to take up for this debate won’t do him any favors, either. According to AiG, the topic will be “Is creationism a viable model of origins?”
When I was the editor of a Christian magazine at the University of Maine, we once published a point/counterpoint piece on the topic of evolution. And, being a covert Darwinian operative myself, I deliberately worded the question in a way that I thought would be the most “fair” to the author arguing in favor of the E-word: “Is evolution compatible with biblical Christianity?” Notice that the affirming author did not have to prove that evolution was true, or that creationism was false, or even that his view was the best. He needed only to demonstrate that an evolutionary perspective is a workable view within the framework of the Christian faith.
I see a similar strategy at play here. Let’s be honest, all the word “viable” really means is a proposition that is logically and internally consistent. It just has to work. And, I may think young-earth creationism is unscientific nonsense, but I’ll also be the first to admit it does have a elegant simplicity to it. I completely understand why it would be pretty attractive to ordinary folks who don’t really care what a “nested hierarchy” or “homologous structure” is.
Notice, as well, how the topic is subtly focused on “origins,” which remains one of the most difficult and hypothetical regions of scientific inquiry, due to vague and limited evidence. It is really only in this realm where creationism (which also has very little evidence, but far more relentless certainty) has even the most remote chance against empirical science.
How it will all turn out remains to be seen. In the end, Nye is a grown man, and he’s fully entitled to make his own decisions and debate whomever he chooses. I’m sure he has some good intention in mind.
I just hope he knows what he’s doing.