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.

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Libresco on “Having Better Fights”

Rarely, if ever, does Patheos, a wide-ranging site dedicated to “hosting the conversation on faith,” have to help one of its writers relocate from the atheism section to the Catholicism one. Yet that’s precisely what it had to do in the case of Jewish-secularist-turned-Catholic Leah Libresco, who writes the Patheos blog “Unequally Yoked: A Geeky Convert Picks Fights in Good Faith.” Libresco’s announcement of her conversion in June of 2012 took many of her readers by surprise and brought her a great deal of media attention, including an appearance on CNN.

I only learned of Libresco a few weeks ago, and as I was reading through some posts by and about her I came across a video of a talk she gave last March at Chicago Ideas Week entitled “Having Better Fights About Religion.” I immediately felt some kinship when she mentioned her background as a debater and her tendency to be “a little too pugilistic for her own good.” Chris and I have been friends since serving together on our high school’s debate team, and I can certainly sympathize with the fact that there sometimes seems to be a tension between having fun arguing with people and wanting to build bridges and bring everybody together. I have a strong, reflexive impulse to play Devil’s Advocate whenever anyone makes a confident assertion about anything, but I also want people to think I’m a nice person! What to do?

I like to think that the tension is really an illusion, and that my love of argument serves my love of getting people to agree with each other by helping to illuminate areas of common ground and to get to the bottom of what a given disagreement is fundamentally about. It was great to hear Libresco articulate this and to describe “all debate as being about building a more accurate model of reality.” She critiques the mindset that sees argument as a sport, and explores various ways in which we can have “better arguments” that are structured so as to make sure people “lose the ones they ought to lose” (she describes her conversion to Catholicism as the best time she’s ever had losing an argument).

The video offers a number of highly practical tips for engaging in more productive disagreement, something we at RM are always on the lookout for. Chief among them is the concept of an “ideological Turing test”, which Libresco borrowed from George Mason economist Bryan Caplan for an experiment on her blog. The idea is to have people answer a series of questions as if they subscribed to some belief system to which they really don’t, and to see if others can identify whether or not they’re who they say they are. Libresco’s example involved theists and atheists trying to impersonate one another, but the same setup can be used with people who belong to different political parties, etc. Her observations about what makes for a good Turing test are worth listening to in full.

Her talk is also really funny, and belies the stereotypical image of bridge-building and consensus-finding as dry, humorless tasks that are far more boring than the fun times being had by the partisans (just think of the contrast between Paul Krugman’s centrist punching-bags, the “Very Serious People,” and his own colorfully provocative brand of liberalism). I hope to write more in the future about why the “unfunny moderates/hilarious everybody else” dichotomy is a false one, but suffice it to say that Libresco is living, breathing, joke-cracking proof that wit and openmindedness can – or perhaps must! – coexist.

Now go watch the video.