The debate between Bill Nye and Ken Ham took place earlier this week and I want to offer my thoughts on it.
The debate received a fair amount of attention in the media leading up to it as well as when it had ended and people took to the internet to comment and laugh about the strange affair. Most of the comments I have seen so far have been pretty similar across the board – mainly just that Nye was presenting scientific evidence while Ham was just pushing assumptions based on the Bible – but I also want to get into some issues about it that not everyone seems to be discussing.
My first impressions
The live stream video of the debate actually began with an advertisement for the Creation Museum. It played a brief message, featuring brightly colored cartoon versions of Ken Ham in the Creation Museum letting people know that kids will receive free admission throughout the rest of the year.
This clearly revealed the event to be a publicity stunt to attract customers to his business, if that weren’t apparent even before the event began. I think these debates should only be held at more neutral venues, because they should be focused on the topic, and not used to support creationist propaganda beyond the words spoken in the debate itself.
I was also worried about the debate format. Formal debates generally follow a terrible format in my opinion, and the schedule listed next to the video described one that was pretty standard. It begins with short opening remarks from each debater, followed by absurdly long opening arguments – in this case, 30 minutes each – with that being followed by an exchange of several 5 minute rebuttals which only totaled 20 minutes combined.
This sort of format results in us witnessing less of a debate than simply two separate presentations. Each side can simply make claim after claim without being challenged, then the following rebuttal section doesn’t leave enough time to discuss everything that has been said.
I think that debates on religion should perhaps limit each side’s opening presentations to 10 or 15-minutes, then have the debate really be a moderated discussion. This prevents either side from flooding their opponent and the audience with too many ideas to respond to, and it enables the debaters to more fully debate each issue instead of just put on separate presentations/shows and ignore important points from the opposition.
For this reason I think that one of the most interesting parts of the debate actually turned out to be the final section, where Nye and Ham were asked specific questions posed by audience members, and they each were allotted one or two minutes to respond depending on who the question was direct towards.
This forced them to focus on specific points one at a time, thus creating a series of brief but interesting back-and-forth arguments. However, again, this too would have been better in a discussion format since one 120-second response is not adaquate to delve into the questions that were raised.
But the format wasn’t going to be changed so we had to see how it would play out.
So how did it go?
Nye could have done better in some places, but he also did many things well. Throughout the debate he brought up some great points – a couple which I hadn’t even heard before – and he repeatedly pointed out that we need actual evidence to believe something, not just claims.
I also liked that he kept saying “the outside” when referring to how real science is done in the world. It was funny, and also not-so-subtely made the point that Ham’s organziations and fundamentlist Christian ideology really exists in its own bubble of delusion.
He also did a good job making the point that most religious poeple don’t even believe in the literal reading of Genesis* so he helped appease the more moderate Christians and establish a bridge to allow creationists to be more open to understanding evolution in a way that won’t force them to deny their belief in God along with it.
And what surprised me most was that Ken Ham was a worse debater than I expected he would be. Instead of using the common apologist tactic of unleashing a slew of bad arguments and mispresentations so that his opponent could not address them all in time, he only presented a few general ones then wasted a lot of time talking about his fundamentalist moral beliefs regarding sin, salvation through Jesus, and so on, which were clearly off topic and merely represented fallacious “appeals to consequences”.
And in doing so, he also made what I thought it was another bad move on his part: advocating that “marriage” is a union between one man and one woman, and thus condemning same-sex marriage by implication. Doing that just demonstrated that his worldview is intolerant and outdated. And by associated, it will not make his creationist position attractive with liberal Christians, or with many undecided people who might otherwise have been nudged toward supporting creationism being taught as science in schools.
Also, Ham really wasn’t prepared to counter the evidence Nye presented. Most of the time he was forced to rely on his flawed “Were you there?” argument, where he claims that since we weren’t around to see the earth form, we can’t be certain that it formed in the way it appears to have formed. The problem with this argument of course is that it doesn’t offer any reason for why we shouldn’t believe in the conclusion suggested by the evidence, and I think most people watching the debate would understand that.
However Bill Nye failed to counter some of Ham’s arguments too. Nye doesn’t come across to me as someone who has had much practice debating creationists or religious people in general, so there were a number of places where he really should have done better. Like I expected, Nye mostly kept to the evidence for evolution and did not seem to be ready to counter – or even understand – some of the stranger arguments Ham raised that are often used by religious fundamentalists.
For example, Ham made the claim that using science and logic at all means that someone presupposes the existence of a creator God, and Nye never even addressed it. He may have just thought it was asinine and didn’t bother with it, or perhaps he was like me when I first heard it, and was just confused about what that argument even meant and didn’t know how to reply.
Also, Nye both opened and closed his remarks in the debate by arguing that we need people who understand science in order for Americans to continue developing the technologies that improve society and which help the United States remain an economic power. But Ham countered this by showing several video testimonials of scientists who believe in young-earth creationism but have also contributed to their professional fields of study and invented great technologies, thus making the point that believing in creationism does not result in the problem Nye claims.
My own response to this would have been to point out that while it is true that believing in creationism won’t stunt the achievements of all individuals, the type of thinking which religious fundamentalism supports is one that foments misunderstandings of science among the general population; it leads to a greatly reduced interest in science, progress, and discovery, and thus to fewer people entering scientific professions and contributing to the work that needs to be done in these areas; and to rejection of scientific knowledge or findings on important issues like global warming and vaccinations. But Nye didn’t really respond to Ham’s examples at all, and I think that was really obvious.
However Nye gained a lot of ground – and I think won the debate over Ham – in the section where the moderator posed questions from the audience. In this area Nye did pretty well, and Ham bombed, admitting his biases and revealing the fundamental flaws in his view of the world.
Nye started off strong and he essentially maintained that momentum. One of the earlier questions which was asked was a great one: “What, if anything, would ever change your mind?”
Ken Ham suddenly did not seem very comfortable or confident with this question and he took several seconds to even begin speaking. He said he was a Christian and that nothing would ever convince him that the Biblical account was wrong. He admitted his presupposition of the Bible’s truth and his reliance on his subjective alleged irreverence with God. To his credit, his answer seemed truly open and honest, but it was not one that made his position in the debate look very strong.
Then as soon as Nye’s turn to speak came, he immediately spoke confidently and began his reply with the simple point “We would just need one piece of evidence” and said if evidence were found that disproved his current views then it would change his opinion immediately.
The contrast in those answers was striking and probably, to a lot of people, that was a remarkable distinction.
And for Nye it only got better from there.
When asked what scientific evidence other than radiometric methods support his view of the age of the earth, Nye laughed a bit as he said “Radiometric evidence is pretty compelling!” Then he made what I thought was the powerful point that the question was akin to saying “Well if things were any other way, things would be different.” Then he simply reminded the audience of the fact that these dating methods do exist and we do have natural phenomena that enable these strong forms of evidence. It was a solid answer and he didn’t make the mistake of falling into a fallacious hypothetical.
Then later when the debate was nearing an end, the question was asked, “What is the one thing more than anything else upon which you base your belief?” Once again this posed a problem for Ken Ham. He answered sincerely and said that he bases his beliefs upon the Bible. I praise him for his honesty about this fact – which many other apologists try harder to evade – but as far as the debate was concerned, it just revealed his position to be one of presumption and religion, not one of science and fact.
And then following that response, Nye gave the enthusiastic reply that his views are based on the process of science and discovery of real answers. The fundamental nature of his answer once again stood out distinctly from Mr. Ham’s, and his passion expressed a lot of positivity for science which is certainly a good thing to see – especially for that audience.
Should we even have debates with creationists?
Both before and after the debate, people in the media and online were voicing opinions on whether or not anyone should even engage in formal debates with creationists. Some people think this gives too much respect and validation to creationism, but I disagree about this, and also think there are good reasons to have these debates:
1. Bad scientific claims need to be challenged. Otherwise the opposition controls the argument in the public’s perception and the bad science ends up having a lot of influence. This let’s anti-science groups and politicians demonize science and discredit important scientific findings in the eyes of mislead people.
2. Some people argue that engaging in these debates gives undeserved credibility to the creationists. While I think this is true, I also think that on a practical level it is inconsequential. This is because the people who need to be convinced are the hardcore believers and people on the fence who already respect creationism and think it is valid. So this is a negligible factor.
3. Many people are often skeptical of science and think that scientists are just dogmatic and don’t want their beliefs challenged. They are so ignorant of the nature of science and why it makes the claims it does, that people end up looking at science as just another type of religion. By avoiding debates, the scientific community (and its supports like us), would merely feed into that misperception.
4. These debates can help get people interested in science because these events are a challenge between two sides. This naturally interests many people due to the element of passion, social tension, conflict, or whatever you want to call it. It gets people to hear about ideas and evidence – like Tiktaalik or trees more than 6,000 years old – that they would otherwise never see due to their own staunch beliefs or lack of interest. That sort of thing can spark a feeling of curiosity in some people and lead them to go on the internet and look into them further. And that may lead them on their journey out of indoctrination.
It’s happens. Not often, but it happens. And to help just a few people out there would make it worth it in my opinion.