Why Bill Nye was right to debate Ken Ham

Yesterday, at a place in Kentucky called the “Creation Museum”, creationist preacher Ken Ham (an ex-pat Australian and fundamentalist Christian) debated scientist Bill “The Science Guy” Nye (a much-adored communicator of science on US TV). The question: “Is creation a viable model of origins in today’s modern scientific era?

Even though Ham was on home turf and the audience was stacked with creationists, Nye appeared to win the debate with a combination of humour, passion for science, honesty & humility regarding unanswered questions and a willingness to admit his mind could be changed by evidence. Ham, on the other hand, was rigid, inflexible, kept touting the Bible in answer to every question and went on record saying that nothing could possibly change his mind about Genesis being a textbook, essentially stating that his mind was closed to even the possibility that he might be wrong. To many, that was the moment he lost the debate.

Questions arose as soon as the debate was announced: Would Nye be out of his depth and out-talked by a man on home ground used to giving slick presentations about Biblical “truths”? Would this event look far better on Ham’s CV than on Nye’s? After all, many prominent scientists and atheists are on record saying that to debate a creationist is to provide the illusion that creationism is compelling enough an explanation for life and its diversity to be discussed on equal footing with evolution. One of the most common questions was this: is there any more point in debating a creationist than debating a flat-earther or homeopath?

I say, in the right context and with the right people, these debates are worth having.

It might seem incredibly silly to most of us in the democratic and more or less secular world, but it’s unfortunately necessary in the United States of America. The reason this debate took place is because the US is infested with a political brand of creationism that is constantly attempting to insert itself into government and into state education, in violation of the Constitution which forbids official endorsement of religion. Despite the Constitutional ban, state high school boards are nonetheless under constant pressure from overtly religious lobby groups (and some who pretend they’re not religious, like the “Intelligent Design” advocates) to teach kids about “alternatives” to evolution or to “teach both sides” of the evolution “debate.” The most underhanded attempt to undermine the teaching of science – the “Kitzmiller v Dover” case of 2004 – saw creationists humiliated by a Bush-appointed conservative Christian judge, who called their decision to (among other things) introduce a blatantly unscientific creationist textbook into biology classes (and then blatantly lie about it) one of “breathtaking inanity”. Numerous attempts to legislate in favour of teaching creationism to state students have been made before and since. The goal is always the same but the language is always evolving to try and stay one step ahead of the law – from the 1970s onward, “creationism” has morphed into “creation science”, then “intelligent design”. Now, creationist advocates talk of “academic freedom” – an innocuous-sounding phrase which is designed to excuse teachers preaching their personal beliefs to state students. The more they try, the more they get shot down in court and the more they have to dilute their language.

Creationists want to insert creationism in science classes as part of the ongoing culture wars; it’s an attempt to secure complete hegemony over children’s minds – they’ve already got homes and churches and most everything else, but the fundamentalists know that kids getting a real education is the biggest threat to their social dominance. They know, being fundamentalists, that a single crack in the edifice of faith could bring the whole thing down. Not just that, but with specific regard to evolution, creationist binary logic says that if we’re not special creations of God then we’re just animals – chemical machines – and therefore cannot be moral, will live lives of hedonism and sin and cannot be “saved”.

While it’s trivial for, say, the UK or Australia to dismiss fundamentalists like Ken Ham, the US is filled with people who think, like him, that education is the enemy of Christianity – especially the biological sciences. These people aren’t just in isolated, insular churches, they’re in every level of government from district school boards to Washington DC. They have such influence that Republican party nominees um and aah when questioned publicly about evolution (questions which wouldn’t even be asked of a UK or Australian politician), because they know their nomination and subsequent political career could easily depend on blowing the correct right-wing Christian dog-whistles.

Debates like this are often cautioned against by scientists with the reason being they’d look better on a creationist’s CV than on a scientist’s, but I think they can be worth doing – not to instantly change the mind of the hardcore creationists or win converts to atheism, but to reach fence-sitters, moderate believers and any believer who might have questions that their pastors don’t have satisfactory answers to. Debates like this are a great way to expose people to information they may well never have heard before – especially the actual facts & theory of evolution and not the caricature so often presented by creationists. They’re also a great way to demonstrate to children of fundamentalist parents that their faith need not be completely irreconcilable with science; that it is possible to be a fulfilled believer and still appreciate both the body of scientific knowledge and the methods used to obtain that knowledge. And, as Bill Nye demonstrated, debates like this can teach people that, as opposed to Ken Ham thumping the Bible and answering every question with “God did it!”, the statement “I don’t know” is a perfectly acceptable answer to a question – simply because it’s honest. If you can follow it up, as Nye did, with “Let’s find out,” all the better.

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3 thoughts on “Why Bill Nye was right to debate Ken Ham

    • I’m aware Ham’s is a fringe viewpoint and Bill Nye said as much a couple of times during the debate; I am also aware that moderate Christians quite happily reconcile science and faith all over the world, all the time. The reason Ham needs to be challenged is because of (as I mentioned) the power creationists have in American politics. Their attempts to undermine education didn’t begin and end with Kitzmiller and in fact are still going on, with creationist-friendly legislation defeated in numerous US states last year. Until the social cost of being a political creationist becomes high enough to deter people from attempting to sneak their mythology into science classes, they will continue to do so and rational people must continue to expose them.

      As for the charge of it being a PR event for both participants, it was definitely so for Ham, a born huckster – indeed, one of the chief objections to Nye participating was that it would give the false impression that creationism was on some kind of equal footing to evolution (although that fear was rapidly laid to rest). Ham’s Creation “Museum” also made over twenty thousand dollars from ticket sales and he hopes to sell DVDs of the event. However, anywhere outside his own creationist circles he was judged to have lost badly; even moderate believers were calling the event for Nye and calling Ham an embarrassment.

      Nye, however, saw this as an opportunity to publicise good science and attempt to correct the parade of errors and misconceptions routinely promulgated by creationists. It was a little more than a naked PR stunt and I think he won a few new fans for science. As for maligning Nye’s credentials by putting him in the same category as Ham; that’s simply ridiculous. Bill Nye has a lifetime of speaking for and about science behind him and has built a solid reputation as a dependable and trustworthy communicator of science. You don’t need credentials to speak persuasively about science; what you do need is passion and knowledge, which Nye has in spades over Ham.

      I’ve not heard of the Ruse/Rana debate and might well block out some time to watch it. Your choice of phrase “a debate by real scientists” is interesting though – as if only academic scientists are allowed to speak publicly about science. But a debate between “real scientists” was obviously not the point of Nye debating Ham – the point there was to publicly promote the understanding of real science and to combat the pernicious dishonesty of creationists (who, oddly enough, would call moderates and theistic evolutionists “not real Christians” or “not representative” – which of course begs the question “how do you tell them apart?”); I feel that on both points Nye acquitted himself very well.

      As for dissections of certain Bible verses to discern what they actually mean – and long-standing textual arguments between sectarians, I’m completely uninterested, having been a part of this conversation for a long time. Lack of evidence (much less plausibility) for deities aside, the existence of so many religions and so many (frequently warring) sects is a point in favour of scriptures being unreliable, malleable, human contrivances. Let us confirm whether any of what these scriptures say (whether mundane or miraculous) is true or even plausible before debating the correct translation of a single word and then debating its correct meaning. Surely supreme beings, should they want their will to be known to and done by all humankind, can do better than set us millennia of alphabetical sudoku and stand idly by as we tear ourselves apart arguing over what we think they want.

  1. Pingback: Nye/Ham followup: Kute Kreationist Kwestions! | Everything Sucks

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