Getting Ready for the Nye-Ham Debate

Tonight at 4 p.m. for us in Oakland, 7 p.m. in Cincinnati, I plan to tune in and watch the debate between Ken Ham the Answers in Genesis frontman and Bill Nye the Science Guy.

They’re debating in the auditorium at the AiG-run Creation “Museum,” in front of an audience of 900 people so rabidly enthusiastic that they snapped up every ticket in mere minutes. The Creation “Museum” is dedicated to the propositions that the Earth is about 6,000 years old, that the universe was created in six 24-hour days, that Eve was made from Adam’s rib and all humans descended from those two, that (non-avian) dinosaurs walked next to humans, that every animal on earth descends from pairs of species on Noah’s Ark, etc. It’s a view that tosses out everything we know about biology, geology, physics, archaeology, and astronomy in service of an idiosyncratic, ahistorical, and illiterate reading of the Bible.

It won’t be Nye’s crowd, and it’s not Nye’s venue. As far as I know, he didn’t pick the question—“Is creation a viable model of origins in today’s modern, scientific era?”—or the moderator or the format of the debate. He’ll be in the lion’s den, and he doesn’t have the faith of Daniel to shield him.

Ken Ham Bingo cardIf Nye had asked me beforehand, I would have urged him not to agree to the debate. NCSE has a longstanding policy against debating creationists, based on our study of past creationist debates. Creationists are famous for using the “Gish gallop,” a rapidfire repetition of supposed evidence against evolution and alleged support for their own claims, reeled off so fast that neither the audience nor the other debater can even keep track of all the claims, let alone refute them in the time allotted. So there’s no chance of the audience learning a lot of good science in a creationist debate, and every chance of it learning a lot of bad science.

Moreover, debate isn’t how scientific questions are resolved, so participating in such a debate just misinforms the audience about how science works. Pitting one creationist against one scientist also creates a false equivalence, making it seem like the scientist and the creationist deserve equal credibility on scientific matters (elevating the creationist and diminishing the scientist), and as if each view represents roughly equal scientific backing (a debate between 99 scientists and one creationist would be more accurate, if less entertaining). Bottom line: the audience will be misinformed not only about the actual science but how science actually works.

Despite all the disadvantages Nye faces, I’m optimistic. While NCSE stands firm in its stance against debating creationists, I think the particular circumstances here make it an even fight. First, debates aren’t about science, they’re about entertainment, and Bill Nye has decades of experience as an entertainer. He’s not a scientist, and doesn’t have to defend all of science. He’s got decades of experience explaining science, and he knows the ways the public often misunderstands science. The audience in the hall will be hostile to his views, but Nye will be presenting to the hundreds of thousands watching the video stream online, not the 900 creationists in the room. And while Nye didn’t select the question, the question places the onus on Ham to demonstrate the viability of his model, not on Nye to defend all of biology, geology, and physics that Ham’s claims would toss out the window.

Could the debate go wrong? Yep. Ken Ham will try desperately to turn the evening into a discussion of theology, a topic he knows well and which Nye hasn’t spent a lifetime studying. If he manages to draw Nye into a debate about what Genesis tells us about the beginnings of life, the universe, and everything, Ham will be Br’er Rabbit in the briar patch. Ham wants everyone to believe that the bizarre theology that forces him to reject all of modern science is the best, indeed the only plausible, way to read the Bible. There are lots of people I’d like to see Ham debate that topic with, but Bill Nye isn’t one of them.

It could also go wrong if Nye gets snookered into trying to defend all of modern science against Ham’s hit-and-run attacks. Ham will do all he can to shift the burden of proof from his creation model to evolution. Indeed, that’s a standard creationist tactic: to posit a false dichotomy between evolution and creation such that any evidence against one constitutes evidence for the other, and then proceed to attack evolution and pretend those bogus, long-discredited attacks bolster the construction of frail reeds they’ve labeled a “creation model.” If Ham launches into a Gish gallop of attacks on evolution, and Nye tries to answer each untruth or mount a comprehensive defense of all that evolution tells us, he’ll run out of time and confuse the audience, and he’ll have let Ham avoid the hard questions about the viability of his peculiar model.

My hope is that Nye will keep his crosshairs centered squarely on the claims that Ham advances in the museum, in his writings, and in his talks to school groups and churches. While Ham’s overarching claim—that an omnipotent supernatural entity created life on Earth—is not testable and isn’t science, the particular claims he advances about the age of the Earth and what we can know about it are surely testable. They’re also wrong. Not just wrong about ancient history, but wrong in ways that would mean the impossibility of useful and neat stuff, like PET scanners and the nuclear-powered laser-wielding robot exploring Mars. It’s wrong about how we find fossils and how we find fossil fuels. It’s wrong about how our bodies work and what we can learn about ourselves by studying other animals.

The most powerful tool in Nye’s arsenal is the amazing connectedness of science. Ham’s creation model involves picking out particular scientific results that conflict with his strained reading of Genesis and pretending that those results are disconnected from everything else we know. Nye has the relatively simple task of showing just a few of those connections, and how tugging on those links brings down the entire rickety edifice of Ham’s creation model.

Nye knows how to make science fun and engaging, and how to connect it to people’s lives. It’s what he’s been doing for decades, and if he gets on stage tonight and does the same, this should be the rare occasion when a debate isn’t such a bad idea.

Update: If you'd like to play along at home or with a crowd, here are some Ken Ham BINGO! cards (PDF) you can print out, cut in half, and share with your friends.

Josh Rosenau
Short Bio

Josh Rosenau is a former Programs and Policy Director at NCSE.