The big debate between Bill Nye and Ken Ham was tonight. Click here for the video. The whole thing is close to three hours, so get comfortable if you want to watch it all.
I was watching it live, but about two-thirds of the way through I kept losing the signal. I would reload the page, but then I’d get an error message twenty seconds later. So I gave up. They were just starting the “questions from the audience” phase, and I was not optimistic that that would be worth wading through. P. Z. Myers has the live blog if you want the abridged version. I mostly agree with his comments.
Overall I thought it went well for the good guys. After five minute opening statements, each side gave a thirty-minute presentation with Ham going first. This was where Nye shined. He was excellent, both in style and in substance. In clear, eloquent language he pointed to fact after fact that spoke against young-Earth creationism and in favor of real science. I especially liked his section about the absurdity of taking the Noah story literally.
Against this litany of facts, Ham had little to offer. His own presentation mentioned a few scientific points at the beginning, and trotted out a handful of bona fide scientists who share his strange views, but mostly it was all religion and the Bible. He delivered a competent and polished presentation, but he faces a serious problem in a venue such as this. His standard talking points, which involve endlessly repeating, “Were you there?” and pointing over and over again to the Bible, just are not going to fly outside of his small community of fellow travelers. Even people who are not steeped in this issue can see that a person who constantly goes on about the Bible is not really interested in doing science. If you are forced to argue that somehow the natural laws we see operating in the present were magically different in the past, then you are not going to be persuasive to anyone who is not already in your camp.
At any rate, once they got away from their prepared remarks and got involved in rebuttals and counter-rebuttals, things went better for Ham. You really have to marinate in creationist BS for a while before you are prepared to refute it on the fly. Nye just didn’t have that background. At several points I found myself wishing it was, say, Ken Miller or Nick Matzke up there.
Nye was good, and I would not be surprised if even some in the creationist audience found food for thought. Ham spoke ably to the people who already support him, forthrightly expressed his views, and did not make a fool of himself, so I’d say he also had a good night.
But I do think there was a clear loser in the debate: the intelligent design crowd. This was the biggest event in the evolution vs. creationism battle in quite some time, and it was good ol’ young-Earth creationism that was on display. Once you factor in the extensive online audience and the other media coverage, the message everyone will have received is that anti-evolutionism is just equivalent to Bible-thumping obscurantism. This was precisely the notion ID was invented to dispel. Seeing Ham drone on and on about the Bible, to the point of defending the plausibility of Noah’s ark for heaven’s sake, must have had the ID folks seething. It’s one of the endearing features of YEC’s that they make no attempt to hide their religious motivations. This is why they drive the ID folks crazy.
Nye took a lot of flak for agreeing to this debate. As I understand it, this was basically a fundraiser for the Creation Museum, so I do fault Nye for participating under those terms. On the general question of debating creationists, however, I’m not as opposed to it as other folks on my side of this issue.
There are certainly a lot of good reasons for not debating creationists. It takes a tremendous amount of time and effort to prepare properly for such an event. It has to be remembered that most creationists are entirely unscrupulous in presenting utterly bogus arguments with nerve and confidence. (There was quite a bit of this in Ham’s presentation.) It is far easier to spout nonsense than it is to refute it. On top of that, debate is a difficult skill to master, and it is one that academics and scientists in particular are often not so good at. All of our training is directed towards making everything seem complex and nuanced. It goes against our natures to deliver oversimplified but basically correct responses to asinine creationist talking points. But that is what is needed in a debate format.
Those are all good reasons, but there is also a very commonly expressed bad reason. It is sometimes said that by debating creationists you legitimize them. The analogy is often made to holocaust denial. Just by standing on a stage with them you are suggesting that there is a serious point at issue. Creationism, like holocaust denial, is so indefensible on the merits and is so blatantly a cover for other unsavory views (fundamentalist religion in the case of creationism and anti-semitism in the case of holocaust denial) that you should not even acknowledge them as worthy opponents.
Point taken, but I am not convinced. I certainly agree that one should not debate with holocaust deniers, but you have to go to some pretty dark corners of the internet to find anyone who endorses that view. Holocaust denial is so publicly unacceptable that any serious scholar who engaged them really would be helping to legitimize something reprehensible.
That is not the case with creationism. It is already such a socially acceptable view, even socially dominant in some areas, that I’m not so worried about making it seem more legitimate. It is evolution, and science generally, that needs to get the word out. Creationists have no trouble injecting their poison into the public discourse, and they have a lot of superficially plausible arguments to make. Scientists willing to take on the grim task of offering folks an alternative view should not automatically be excoriated for doing so.
So I applaud Nye for taking on this challenge, even though I have some issues with the specific format of this event. An audience full of creationists, as this one was, is precisely the kind we want to address.