I do about a dozen college appearances every year. It’s a privilege that I enjoy immensely. At first, I figured this appearance and this encounter would get about the same amount of notice as a nice college gig. There’d be a buzz on Twitter and Facebook, but the world would go on spinning without much notice on the outside. Not here: the creationists promoted it like crazy, and soon it seemed like everyone I met was talking about it.In hindsight, it is, perhaps, understandable that he would think this, but Ham is a showman, who plays for high-stakes and, because creationists are normally not given the time of day by your average scientist, this presented a golden opportunity to tear down what he honestly believes is the heart of the philosophical naturalism that is turning people away from God. That Nye is not known for his church-going behavior only added fuel to the fire. It didn't matter how important Nye thought the debate was.
I slowly realized that this was a high-pressure situation. Many of you, by that I mean many of my skeptic and humanist colleagues, expressed deep concern and anger that I would be so foolish as to accept a debate with a creationist, as this would promote him and them more than it would promote me and us. As I often say and sincerely believe, “You may be right.” But, I held strongly to the view that it was an opportunity to expose the well-intending Ken Ham and the support he receives from his followers as being bad for Kentucky, bad for science education, bad for the U.S., and thereby bad for humankind—I do not feel I’m exaggerating when I express it this strongly.
The other concern, voiced going in, was that, while Ken Ham eats, lives and breathes creationism, Nye was not an expert in this field. He writes:
I am by no means an expert on most of this. Unlike my beloved uncle, I am not a geologist. Unlike my academic colleague and acquaintance Richard Dawkins, I am not an evolutionary biologist. Unlike my old professor Carl Sagan or my fellow Planetary Society Board member and dear friend Neil deGrasse Tyson, I am not an expert on astrophysics. I am, however, a science educator. In this situation, our skeptical arguments are not the stuff of PhDs. It’s elementary science and common sense. That’s what I planned to rely on. That’s what gave me confidence.What might seem like common sense to him is, by way of every poll I have ever seen, not common sense to a good deal of the population, especially the evangelical Christian subset, the direct taxonomic descendents of the fundamentalists from the 1920s. This is, for many people, no less than a struggle between good and evil and, as I mentioned a bit back, modern evangelical fundamentalism has gotten to the point where if science is seen to conflict with scripture at all, it is to be regarded with skepticism and suspicion and rejected, if necessary. Nye should have seen this as an uphill battle going in.
Nye did, however, have charitable things to say about his debate opponent:
I was and am respectful of Ken Ham’s passion. At a cognitive level, he believes what he says. He really means it, when he says that he has “a book” that supersedes everything you and I and his parishioners can observe everywhere in nature around us. I respected that commitment; I used it to drive, what actors call, my “inner monologue.” I did not choose, as I was advised, to attack, attack, attack. My actor’s preparation helped me keep things civil and be respectful of Mr. Ham despite what struck me as his thoughtless point of view. I’m sure it influenced the countless people who’ve written to me and come up to me in public to express their strong and often enthusiastic support. Thank you all.I am also respectful of Ken Ham's passion but not the results that it produces. I am not respectful of the untruths (here and here) that he and his organization perpetuate in the service of his passion. I am not respectful of his disdain and condescension of mainstream scientists, and I am not respectful of his attacks on other Christians (here and here) who are also trying to find their way in the science/faith maze. Consequently, it is difficult for me to be respectful of Ken Ham as a person, no matter what he believes.