Remember that tonight is the big debate between Ken Ham and Bill Nye at the Creation Museum in Kentucky, which promises to be a lot more entertaining than the Super Bowl. So make your nachos, crack a brewski, and watch the debate (livestreamed here) at 7 pm U.S. Eastern Standard Time (that’s midnight in England, 11 a.m. in Sydney). The topic is this: “Is creation a viable model of origins?”
As I’ve mentioned, I don’t think this debate is a good idea for Nye. First, the issue is settled: evolution is a fact. Issues that are more congenial for real debate—that provoke true thought—are those involving opinion rather than pure fact, issues like politics, abortion, war, and so on. Second, giving creationists a place on the platform with evolutionists (or respected science educators like Nye) simply gives creationism credibility. It’s like putting a famous geologist up against a flat-earther to debate the question, “Is the earth really flat?” What’s the point?
Further, these debates are exercises not in education but in rhetoric, and that’s not the way for the public to adjudicate scientific issues. I have been a bit worried that Nye simply isn’t sufficiently “up” on the data supporting evolution, though (despite his t.v. experience), sufficiently eloquent to debate a preacher like Ham. Finally, if Nye wants to really promote evolution, I’d urge him not to debate creationists, but to write articles and speak to the public—singly, and not in a debate forum—about evolution. That’s what most of the rest of us do when we’re in “public education” mode.
If that weren’t enough, this event is going to make money to support creationism. The proceeds, except, I suspect, minus whatever fee Nye gets, will go to support the Creation Museum, and Ham as well as other creationist organizations are selling DVDs of the video. Even if Nye somehow “wins” the debate, the dosh will still go to support what he hates: peddling lies about science to kids.
Meanwhile, the Lexington Herald-Leader, a paper in Kentucky, has published this cartoon by Joel Pett, and it’s not favorable to Ham’s side:
In the meantime, if you want to do some last-minute boning up, Professor Ceiling Cat has done the legwork for you, finding something to read or watch with each of his four paws:
Alan Boyle, the science editor of NBC News, has a piece on “Will evolution debate blow up in the Science Guy’s face? It’s debatable?” Like many of these pieces (and I’ve talked to four reporters about this in the last week), it’s concerned largely with scientists and others who don’t think Nye—or any science educator or scientist—should be debating creationists.
Boyle quotes Professor C.C. in extenso, repeating my opinion that Nye shouldn’t be debating any creationist. But I was most interested in the principal’s preparation:
[Nye] said he’s been preparing for the debate by consulting with experts via email and studying how Ham and other creationists have stated their case in past forums. . . Ham is preparing as well — in consultation with creation-minded colleagues who have Ph.D.s, such as molecular biologist Georgia Purdum and geologist Andrew Snelling. Like Nye, Ham is researching his opponent’s past statements on evolution. And like Nye, Ham says he’s doing this debate to reach the next generation.
Consulting experts by email is not, to my mind, the best way to prepare for such a debate, though it’s good to read what Ham has said in the past.
Ham also notes that he’s had only one formal creation/evolution debate in his career; this is a deliberate attempt to lower expectations.
Finally, I was interested that criticism of this debate has come not just from people like me, but from advocates of Intelligent Design:
Even among folks who insist there’s evidence that the universe was designed by some sort of intelligent being, such views don’t always sit well. Stephen Meyer, director of the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture and the author of “Darwin’s Doubt” sees pluses as well as minuses to Tuesday’s debate.
“It’s a plus because it generates interest in the topic,” Meyer told NBC News. “It’s a minus because it inhibits an understanding of the complexity of the issue.”
Meyer worries that the debate over evolution will be portrayed as Darwinian materialism vs. biblical literalism — leaving out such ideas as theistic evolution, old-earth creationism and his own perspective, intelligent design. “It would be really terrific if the proponents of the mainstream Darwinian view of origins engaged some of the other critics of their theory, who see evidence of design in nature but are not biblical fundamentalists,” he said.
It would be great if we could somehow get the young-earth creationists to go up against the IDers, deflecting their attention from us. But given that IDers have allowed young-earth creationists like Paul Nelson into their tent, that seems unlikely.
Boyle will be in Kentucky for the debate, and I presume will file a piece afterwards. Stay tuned.
Similar themes crop up in a piece by Kimberly Winston at the Religion News Service: “Ham-on-Nye debate pits atheists, creationists.” The usual suspects oppose the debate:
“Scientists should not debate creationists. Period,” wrote Dan Arel on the Richard Dawkins Foundation’s website. “There is nothing to debate.”
Arel, a secular advocate, is echoing the position of Dawkins, an evolutionary biologist and outspoken atheist who has long refused to debate creationists.
“Winning is not what the creationists realistically aspire to,” Dawkins said in 2006. “For them, it is sufficient that the debate happens at all. They need the publicity. We don’t. To the gullible public which is their natural constituency, it is enough that their man is seen sharing a platform with a real scientist.”
But accommodationists also oppose it, though on different grounds:
“It is this huge stereotype that all Christians reject science and an event like this reinforces that stereotype,” said Deborah Haarsma, president of the BioLogos Foundation, an organization whose motto is “science and faith in harmony.” “It looks like science versus Christianity and it ignores the people who have accepted the science of evolution and have not let go of their faith. . .“A debate like this sets up a false choice” between science and religion for viewers, Haarsma said. “We don’t want them to have to choose.”
Well, if you’re intellectually consistent, you really do have to choose between superstition (and that includes what many at BioLogos espouse—theistic or God-guided evolution) and rationality. You don’t have to choose between science and religion only if you’re a pantheist or someone who maintains that God doesn’t really do anything; but if you’re a deist, a theist, or anyone who believes in a supernatural being or force that actually does something in the cosmos, you have to choose—or suffer cognitive dissonance.
Indeed, Nye is taking what I call the Weasel Approach: he’s an agnostic because he “can’t know” whether God exists. Yes, and we also can’t know absolutely whether Bigfoot, Nessie, and UFOs exist, either, so is Nye “agnostic” about those issues, too? He should just admit he’s an atheist, which would be great for the cause, or not waffle in this way. In fact, the interviewer describes a much more cogent distinction between atheism and agnosticism.
But I urge you to watch Nye’s discussion of the ape-human “similarity of DNA” at the end, which starts about 2 minutes in. He completely screws that up, claiming that we have 2-3% genetic differences from chimps, and asks whether organisms that had 0% ”chimp sequence” be like gods to us, even more intelligent than humans with DNA that resembles those of other apes.
That’s completely bogus. Not only is that diatribe without a point, but it’s wrong. Yes, we have DNA and protein-sequence similarity to chimps, but that doesn’t mean that if we replaced those similar amino acids or DNA bases with different ones, we could be “more” human, or as Nye hypothesizes, like “gods.” But those genetic similarities do not mean that we carry “chimp DNA” that prevents us from being even more godlike and awesome. The similarities, insofar as they function in making proteins, are what makes us human, for being human involves some morphological and functional similarities with other apes.
Listen to this Nye’s discussion yourself; that confusing biobabble worries me that Nye doesn’t even understand what it means to say that humans have a certain genetic similarity to our close primate relatives. And that suggests that he’s not knowledegable enough to have a give-and-take debate about modern evolutionary biology. Further, as Gunnar noted, Nye is neither eloquent nor especially convincing.
Dr. Jerry Coyne, a professor of ecology and evolution at the University of Chicago, called the debate “pointless and counterproductive” in an article posted on his popular blog, Why Evolution Is True.
“If Nye wants to further acceptance of evolution, he should just continue to write and talk about the issue on his own, and not debate creationists,” he wrote. “By so doing, he gives them credibility simply by appearing beside them on the platform.”
Coyne’s comments echo those made by Dr. Richard Dawkins, the world-renowned evolutionary biologist and a public intellectual who has made it his policy to reject invitations to debate creationists.
“Inevitably, when you turn down the invitation you will be accused of cowardice, or of inability to defend your own beliefs,” Dawkins wrote in a 2006 article entitled Why I Won’t Debate Creationists. “But that is better than supplying the creationists with what they crave: the oxygen of respectability in the world of real science.”
. . . Still, Coyne acknowledged his concern that Nye might run into trouble when he squares off against Ham at the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Ky. on Tuesday night. Coyne wrote on his blog that he was convinced Ham was preparing furiously for the “Ham on Nye” debate, adding that “I pray* that Nye is doing likewise.”
What’s the asterisk for? At the bottom of the post, Coyne–like Dawkins, an atheist–explained:
“I am praying metaphorically.”
I’ll be watching this, sans nachos, but probably with a good Lustau sherry and a fine cigar. Good luck to Nye, but I’m not hopeful.
h/t: Steven C., Roo, Gunnar, Steve