Bill Nye takes on Ken Ham – I hope he knows what he’s doing

Ken HamWow, you turn your back for a moment and look what happens – Bill Nye “The Science Guy” is apparently slated to debate with Ken Ham of Answers in Genesis, Young-Earth Creationist and notorious reality-denier, and tickets have already sold out. My respect for Nye is nearly as great as my contempt for Ham, but this worries me immensely.

AiG’s press release gives a very strong impression of how Ham intends to approach this – there’s already a strong element of bait and switch in there, with the grandiose (and breathtakingly inaccurate) claim that “observational science confirms the scientific accuracy of the Genesis account of origins, not evolution”, while the actual topic of the debate is much narrower, allowing plenty of room for handwaving and flannel in the face of such underhand tactics as evidence.

The question to be debated, “Is creation a viable model of origins in today’s modern scientific era?”, is worded to allow God as many gaps to fit into as possible, but still only warrants a one-word response – possibly two, if I stretched it to “Hell, no!” But that hardly makes for a debate. The alternative is to provide chapter and verse on the many sources of scientific evidence that inform our understanding of our origins. That would take far too long, and would be a similarly bad fit with the planned format.

This is my greatest reservation – a set-piece debate, never my favourite mode of discussion, is simply unsuitable in this case. Evolution is a matter of scientific evidence, which is determined by formulating and testing hypotheses – it takes time and effort, but it’s open and rooted in observed facts. It’s not about who can appeal to emotions, raise spurious objections or simply shout the loudest. As Duane Gish showed, a total absence of evidence in your favour is no obstacle to a successful debating career if you know how to blather.

Bill NyeIf I had to predict how this will go, I’d say that Nye will carefully set out the evidence, and Ham will simply insist that he’s wrong, based on misquoted, misrepresented and even fabricated claims about irreducible complexity, transitional fossils, human footprints in dinosaur tracks and all the other multiply-debunked topics that YECs return to like dogs to their vomit (is that Biblical enough for you, Ken?)

Even in the unlikely event that Ham suddenly begins to understand the scientific method and consider proper evidence instead of regurgitating PRATTs (look at AiG’s website for an idea of how remote that chance is), I can’t see this advancing the cause of science. At best, it gives YECs a veneer of credibility as a serious point of view to be tackled. At worst, the YECs who are present (and who Nye presumably hopes to persuade) will become more dogmatically certain that they’re right, thanks to the Backfire Effect.

Of all the people who I think might be able to pull this off, Nye has to be right near the top of the list, but I still fear that any possible positive effects are outweighed by the negatives. I hope he knows what he’s doing.

Images Public Domain and courtesy of Doobie Jefferson, used under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License

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About Recovering Agnostic

I'm Christian by upbringing, agnostic by belief, cynical by temperament, broadly scientific in approach, and looking for answers. My main interest at the moment is in turning my current disengaged shrug into at least a working hypothesis.

6 responses to “Bill Nye takes on Ken Ham – I hope he knows what he’s doing”

  1. jonnyscaramanga says :

    I don’t think he does. Also, he has a record of saying things that aren’t true on this subject, like creationists can’t be engineers. The UK’s most prominent creationist is probably Stuart Burgess, who is also a professor of engineering at Bristol University.

    • Recovering Agnostic says :

      Yeah, there’s no particular reason why creationists can’t be engineers. In fact, I think the regular lists of creationist “scientists” that get trotted out by Ham and his ilk always seem to involve a disproportionate number of engineers, providing more evidence for the Salem Hypothesis. Within its bounds, engineering is much easier to reconcile with creationism than hard sciences.

      It’s so easy to believe that people are basically rational, and will carefully and objectively evaluate the evidence. It’s also untrue.

  2. mgm75 says :

    I’m with Dawkins on this, serious scientists shouldn’t be giving creationists the credibility that they crave by entering into public lectures like this. Invariably, the creationists will use these underhand tactics and will claim victory even when they have been shown to be demonstrably wrong.

    Dawkins also effectively demonstrated the uphill struggle he faced when he went into a school a few years ago to give a lecture on evolution. Many of the kids came out saying “Yeah, what he said made sense but I’m a Jew / Muslim / Christian and I have to take what my holy book says”.

    • Someone says :

      It’s unrealistic to think anyone who doesn’t want to be convinced, ever will be. People are insecure little creatures for the most part, especially religious people, and will only believe what their book/preacher tells them to believe. Why not look at it as just an educational and entertainment opportunity for the open-minded?

      • Recovering Agnostic says :

        I’m happy to educate, but is this really the best way? Creationist myths have been debunked all over the web, but the true believers cling on regardless. The one certain outcome is a propaganda coup for AiG.

        I’d like to believe that this will have a positive impact, and I’d be delighted if that was the case, but my hopes aren’t high.

    • Recovering Agnostic says :

      That quote is quite revealing. Once they’re grown up, they’ll have learnt not to acknowledge any good points, but to hide behind spurious and desperate objections.

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