The end is … Nye?
Okay, so the news has been out for a while that Bill Nye, the persona behind one of the big science education TV shows of the 90s, a former vice president of the Planetary Society, and a big advocate for science literacy, will be debating what would appear to be his Bizzaro-world double, the famous creationist Ken Ham. Ham is perhaps best known for being the head of the organization Answers in Genesis and its Creation Museum in Kentucky.
The topic of the debate seems to be focused on the topic of what explains the world better: the modern scientific consensus on astronomy, geology, biology, and physics, or the position of a large number of people with little to no scientific background but have a peculiar reading of one Ancient Near Eastern text. However, in the minds of many on Ham’s side, this is really a battle between “True” Christianity and atheism. And many in the secular community look at this as the continuing fight between science and religion, which in a sense also makes this a debate about God rather than science.
More importantly for many atheists and other non-believers is the question if such a debate in principle should happen, let alone between Bill Nye and Ken Ham.
Some, such as Brian Magee of AHA, Dan Arel of RDF, and biologist Jerry Coyne, are very direct in how this entire venture is wrong-headed, both in in concept and in this particular instance. Richard Dawkins has said in numerous past statements that debating creationists in general is counter-productive. Others, such as Maggie Ardiente of AHA, find there to be more than just a silver lining; rather, it is a potentially great thing to happen. At the Thinking Atheist radio show, there was a great number of perspectives on this subject, as can be heard here:
While my sense is that the secular crowds are more against this debate than for it, I think it’s worth considering first the idea of having these debates in the abstract, and then come down on the points of how the upcoming debate is good or bad, based on the Platonic Form of the ideal debate.
To start, let’s consider if such debates should happen at all. A lot of people point out that these sorts of debates provide the illusion that there is something to debate. After all, biologists are almost all in agreement on the reality of evolution via natural selection, and not to mention the cosmologists’ consensus on the Big Bang Theory, geologists on the age of the earth, and so on. Creationists have failed to provide a single piece of evidence that even makes special, magical creation in the recent past a better explanation than the naturalistic processes that have become so well understood by non-dogmatic, scientific pursuits. Debating such people can only give them credibility, especially if they are going up against a famous advocate of evolution, such as Dawkins or (in this case) Nye.
However, consider the poll numbers: for decades now, about half of the adult population of the United States has sided with special creation. That is, for a large segment of the population, the creation model already is the most credible. In which case, how can any science advocate make it seem more credible in the eyes of such people? As for those who are on the side of the scientific consensus, how could having the debate actually convince them against it if the creationists continuously fail to provide evidence indicative of magical generation of the world over anything else? We must also realize that people are not convinced of creationism because of facts or evidence, but so much of it is because of misconceptions of evolution and because of religious motivations. As such, there is little in the way of what an “evolutionist” could do to make creationism seem more viable. I simply don’t buy the argument here, but there is a point where it could be correct. Suppose instead the argument was about how the earth is flat. This is considered absurd by the vast majority of people; having a debate about it would provide more publicity to the idea. Not so for creationism, because it is so popular, wide-spread, and well-known even among those that do not buy into it. If in 50 years a small portion of people cling to young earth creationist (YEC) ideas, then it is probably not worth having a formal, public debate. Until then, this does not appear to be a valid argument.
Another point is that creationists are notorious in how they debate. It’s not just rhetorical ability, but it is in many ways straight-up deception. I talked before how, at least in some cases, creationists are liars for their position, and by ‘liars’ I mean that they know what they say is factually false but still claim it anyways in order to win. On the other hand, science advocates do not need to lie about the facts, as they are in their favor, and there is more of a qualm to lie to people in order to have them believe something, especially if it’s evidently true. That provides an advantage to someone that wants to be deceptive: they can claim things, especially things that their opponent hasn’t heard before, and honesty forces the science advocate to have little to say until the facts are known by him or her. So, as the argument goes, don’t debate creationists, because they will say anything to win, while you will not.
This argument has the problem of not considering that the science advocate can call out the creationist on their lies. Now, that does mean you would need pretty much an encyclopedic knowledge of not just the science, but also how it is abused by creationists. But that is true for all debates: you need to know your position and your opponents’ position better than they do. In other words, this becomes an argument against debate in general. Now, it is the case that debates are not the best way of deciding an issue, and in large measure they are intellectual theater. This then is just realizing what debates are; understood this way, then all it means is that a debater needs to come prepared. Basically, debate is a different thing than a lecture, so you have to do more than just present the facts.
Now, this gets to the situation with the upcoming Nye/Ham debate. Some wonder if Nye is the best candidate for this. For one thing, he isn’t a PhD scientist, though he was an engineer for Boeing for some time before becoming “The Science Guy” we all know. And some don’t think he has the chops for debate, unlike say the late Christopher Hitchens. It may be fair to say that Bill isn’t that up on how to differentiate the femur of a homo sapiens from that of a homo erectus, but it’s probably the case that he knows more than Ham does. Still, there isn’t great evidence that Bill knows how creationists argue in the level of detail that would be needed to anticipate the claims that someone like Ham is going to make. As for debating skills in general, Bill does actually have some experience. He has debated climate change on Larry King Live, for example. How he fared I’ll let others analyze, but at least he does have experience of being in the situation of dealing with a hostile interlocutor. As for Ham, I am unfamiliar with his experience with debating the issue in a formalized manner. With the evidence I have on hand, best I can say is that it’s not clear who would be better when it comes to dishing out the arguments. And as David MacMillan notes, Nye must not underestimate Ham.
Personality-wise, though, Nye has advantages. He has a great sense of humor, the way he explains things does not feel like he is talking down to someone, and he is certainly passionate. Ham has passion as well, but he does not seem to have the sorts of speaking qualities that can work for both sides of the debate; he’ll probably say things that delight his followers, but Nye can more effectively access across the aisle. So while I’m not going to be as enthusiastic as David Silverman was in the podcast linked to above, I think Nye has a decent chance of communicating to those that are against his views.
But perhaps the point that makes this debate seem like a sure-fire bad idea is that it appears to be a money-making publicity stunt for the Creation Museum. Their attendance has steadily been going down, and they are about to loose any chance of funding their reconstruction of Noah’s Ark. But this debate will be at their “museum”, they have sold tickets, they will sell the debate on DVD, and of course it has gotten the “museum” in the news again. This event will bring in the cash for a location that is not doing as well as was hoped, and this is true even if Nye sweeps the floor with Ham. This should have been done at a more neutral venue, one where the profits are not solely to the YEC causes. Also, it seems that almost all of the tickets sold for the event were sold to those sympathetic to the creationism, so there will be a packed house. All-around this is poor strategy.
This debate is moving forward, nonetheless, so instead of dwelling how it should have been set up, let’s consider what would make for an effective way of communicating the science of evolution to a crowd that is hostile towards it.
And that is the first point to consider: talking to the crowd, not winning the debate. Who wins is highly subjective, and with a packed audience there is a snowball’s chance in hell of Nye getting a majority of the people there to favor his side at the end. But what must be done is reach the audience and allow them to feel that they need not be so hostile to the idea of evolution. Again, the reason most people are creationists, especially of the YEC variety, is not because of scientific evidence but because of misconceptions and religious traditions, the latter helping reinforce the former. The fundamentalist Christian mindset is the problem, and no amount of facts or evidence can change that. It’s in the very faith statements of organizations such as AiG that say that no fact could, even in principle, be accepted if it went against their beliefs.
So how to undermine this amazingly rigid sort of faith? If you try to argue against the existence of God, you will almost certainly alienate the crowd. Perhaps atheism is the best cure to the problem that is creationism, but let’s face it: it’s a lot easier to prove the truth of evolution than the non-existence of a deity, especially when it can have any number of properties that baffles people by design. But the real issue is how people believe these things in the first place, and that is because of that insular faith tradition. I think we need to go at this in the way described by Peter Boghossian in A Manual for Creating Atheists. (I recommend that book, BTW.) We need to make it apparent how it is that people claim to know what the Bible means or what God wants based on their faith is epistemically unsound. Now, Boghossian goes for a Socratic dialogue, which is a very good move if you are talking to an individual. However, for a crowd at a debate, that may not work so well.
Still, I find a possible line of attack in the following way: help people realize that young earth creationism is an interpretation of the Bible. This is adamantly denied by those of AiG, and they have to because their entire enterprise is based on the claim that they are taking the stories of the Bible, especially Genesis. literally and without interpretation. But this is a monstrously large vulnerability for them, if you have theological training and a awareness of how ancient literature was composed. The key thing that the science advocate can do at the podium is help the audience realize that even if God and the Bible are truly infallible, your reading of a text and understanding of it is not. To say that you understand such a thing perfectly is to claim to have the mind of God, which seems an obvious blasphemy that makes you a God, or at least his vicar on earth. If you make someone realize that they may be denying reality not because of a clear commandment, but that they may in fact not really understanding their holy text. A speaker should make them aware not just of all of the modern interpretations of Genesis, but also the ancient ones before the knowledge of the universe we now have was made clear. Citations of Origen and Augustine should be at the ready.
Moreover, the speaker needs to show how the stories in Genesis are not just similar to other stories from the Ancient Near East, from a major flood to how humans were created, but that that was on purpose. The person (or persons!) who wrote the stories in Genesis, even if inspired by God, certainly used the sorts of stories that were well-known in that time and region, and how it was changed was the point of the story. Providing a new way to read and actually understand the tales that are used against belief in modern science will promote both science literacy as well as an understanding of history and religion. Also, the speaker must show that the “literal” reading of the Hebrew Bible leads to absurdities. For example, an omnipotent God needing to rest after days of work. Creationists will sight the Mosaic law that says Jews must rest on the seventh day because God did after creating the world as proof that the days of Genesis were literally meant; however, if this is literal, then does that mean God gets tired? And if that is in someway a metaphor or figure of speech, then there goes the literal meaning of days as well; the premise of literality is undermined by the need to invoke a non-literal interpretation of the very same verse. What it shows is that YECs do not take everything in the Bible literally, and they cannot. That means they interpret the Bible. And that means they could be wrong, because they are humans, not gods. To claim otherwise would be to make Ken Ham not just a Christian, but a prophet, the voice of God himself. If they dare make such a grandiose claim, then they’ll be having more trouble rather than less.
So with that groundwork established, allowing the audience to realize that it is not necessarily the case that their God’s existence or honesty that has to be questioned in order to accept modern science, but instead it is their understanding of it that could be at fault, it should allow enough of a doxastic opening to allow for the science to be given a hearing. Indeed, I think many will still reject this, but in order to justify it, they have to claim that their understanding of the Bible is infallible. If pressed, will they really hold to such claims for a long time? The seed is planted, and theology can be reconsidered. And now it’s possible to show the science and how evolution, among other things, is true beyond any reasonable doubt. Again, the point must be made that the only way all of the science can be denied is to claim you have absolutely correct knowledge of God. Not simply absolute confidence that God exists, and it’s the Christian one, but that you know exactly what God means and wants. Make the point that that requires being a prophet; otherwise you are left to your human wits. That humility may just allow for science to get through at to realize that creationism is a shell game, one that can only stand on dogma.
So, I hope Nye can make these sorts of points, that one’s theology is not infallible, that the way the Bible is written is not how modern people write books, let alone divinely inspired ones. That sort of realization may lead to non-belief, but really the goal should be the ability to re-think ones position, and that may just make it possible to get people to listen. Otherwise, this debate will likely change nothing, but galvanize many.
To conclude, I do think debates about evolution vs. creationism are worth having. It may be one of the few ways to actually reach large numbers of those that deny the scientific consensus, and for many now in the secular community, it was debates like this that led them from fundamentalist mindsets to one without faith. Some will realize they have been deceived. But to do a debate well, much must be prepared to make it work. You have to know the science, you have to know how that science is misunderstood and misconstrued, and you have to know how to get your audience to consider its beliefs about creation and evolution are wrong. Bill Nye has a chance of being effective, but it depends on how well he prepares, how fast he is on his feet, and similarly for his opponent on the stage. Strategically, this debate has been poorly set-up, but at least I an others will be able to watch it in livestream for free.
(I should also note: if you do watch the debate, see if you can keep a record of the livestream. There is a history of debates that don’t go well for the creationist/evangelical side are ‘lost’ or edited; this way we can keep everyone honest.)