Monday, April 21, 2014

Bill Nye Says He Underestimated Impact of Debate

Bill Nye now says that he underestimated the impact that his debate with Ken Ham had on the evolution/creationism debate.  As he writes in the Skeptical Inquirer:
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.

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.
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.

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.


  1. Ham has interestingly never claimed (to my knowledge) that he won the debate. Merely that he was a winner by getting a debate agreed - a rather different thing. He wandered from the debate topic. No honest person could take from the debate outcome that creation (his version ie the young universe formed in six literal days version) is a viable model of origins in a modern scientific era.

  2. I think his whole plan was simply to be heard and to show that there are scientists out there who accept creationism. That those scientists do not deal with the primary evidence is immaterial. One thing I have found about the AiG website is that Ham tends to offload the "scientific" examinations of evidence to other people and tackles the evil of the old earth model himself. That he cannot seem to distinguish between honest examination of the evidence and "philosophical naturalism" seems to elude him. It is, further, clear that he has no understanding of historical science. His "were you there?" argument is as scientifically facile as they come. Nye could very easily have stopped what he was doing in the debate and said to Ham "You don't how science works, do you?" It would have involved changing his game plan but it would have stopped Ham in his tracks. Because of this, Ham cannot properly evaluate the evidence. That was, I think, a missed opportunity.