Bill Nye, Ken Ham, and The Ethics of Debate

I finally got around to listening to a recording of the evolution-creation debate in which onetime Dancing with the Stars contestant (oh, and Science Guy) Bill Nye faced off against Answers in Genesis founder Ken Ham. The event was held at Ham’s Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky on February 4th, and was essentially what I and everyone else expected it would be. Ham gave an impressive-sounding yet fact-free performance, and Nye made an earnest – if less silver-tongued – effort to explain how we can be quite sure that the Earth is not 6,000 years old.

Nye’s decision to participate in such an exchange attracted a great deal of criticism before it even took place. University of Chicago professor and New Republic contributor Jerry Coyne argued, along with many others, that having a well-known scientist appear at an event like this would only perpetuate the false impression that the controversy over creation and evolution is actually a live one among mainstream scientists, and that there are good arguments on both sides.

The notion that some ideas are sufficiently preposterous that one shouldn’t even engage their proponents in public is one that I have mixed feelings about. On the one hand, belief in a “young” Earth is in fact ludicrous, and giving people the sense that such a belief constitutes a serious scientific hypothesis is intellectual malpractice. According to the most recent Gallup poll on the subject, nearly half of Americans believe that the world and human beings were created in their present form within the last ten millennia; the last thing we need to be doing is signaling that science is on the fence about the truth of such a claim.

On the other hand, that nearly half of Americans believe such a thing is an indication that there really is a live controversy here – not among scientists, but certainly in the broader culture. And if mainstream scientists want more people to accept that evolution by natural selection is the most compelling account of the origin of mankind and of all present life on Earth, then they’re going to have to think of new and creative ways to explain the evidence and convince them to change their minds (and to reassure them that modern science does not conflict with most of the world’s major religious traditions). Importantly, they’re going to have to do a better job of talking about evolution in forums where those most skeptical of the theory are most likely to hear them. Refusing to engage creationists at all will only further convince them that they are victims of a hostile secular culture intent on suppressing their freedom to express themselves.

But when it comes to debating fringe ideas, there’s a line to be drawn somewhere, right? Would it be acceptable to debate a neo-Nazi? A racial segregationist? These are difficult questions, but it seems to me that a good rule of thumb ought to be whether the position in question is reasonably widespread among the general population. If it is, then those who are sincerely convinced of its wrongness have a duty to do what they can to combat it, and if that involves walking into the belly of the beast, so be it. In such a situation, the benefit of broadcasting one’s message more widely most likely outweighs the potential cost of lending credibility to the other side.

In any case, the Nye/Ham debate is worth watching even if, like me, you’re already convinced that creationism is based on a category mistake. Nye strikes a wonderful balance between being forceful and polite, assertively pressing the case for evolution while maintaining a corny sense of humor throughout. His tone is one of mild-mannered incredulity rather than raw condescension; he refers to Ken Ham’s arguments about Noah’s Ark as “really extraordinary claims,” for instance, sounding all the while as if he were genuinely a bit surprised to hear what Ham believes about the Great Flood. Feel free to skip the first twelve minutes or so of the YouTube version though, which feature a clock counting down to the start of the event (this video appears to have been less than intelligently designed).

I would have liked to see the two men delve more deeply into the relationship of science and theism/agnosticism/atheism beyond merely reciting their talking points, which for Ham consisted of repeatedly mentioning that the inventor of the MRI is a young earth creationist, and for Nye that billions of religious people accept the theory of evolution, as if a headcount alone could definitively settle the question of whether and how reason and faith are compatible.

But really, the debate just made me nostalgic for the good ol’ days of messing with creationists on Conservapedia. If you’ve never experienced the thrill of having your account blocked for “liberal bias” (e.g. observing that there is no evidence humans coexisted with dinosaurs), then you’ve been missing out.