Some musings on the creationism debate between science educator Bill Nye and young-Earth creationist Ken Ham.
I didn’t watch last night’s debate between Bill Nye “The Science Guy” and Creationism Museum co-founder Ken Ham for two reasons. First, I had more important things to do, like kissing my kids goodnight, painting my basement, cuddling with the cats, making my wife’s coffee, and getting a good night’s sleep. Second, I’m generally against scientists debating non-scientists on scientific subjects. Most scientists don’t have the personality or the training to do well in a debate setting, even when they’re right. A non-scientist with training in debate and rhetoric could take the position that the sky isn’t blue and still win the debate against an untrained scientist.
I was even more against Nye debating a creationist, not just because he’s a scientist debating science with a non-scientist. Nye is a public feature, a science educator, and the president of The Planetary Society, and as such his participation would only serve to guarantee the debate would gain lots of public attention. And Nye has performed poorly in other, similar debates in the past. Essentially, this debate was high risk with little opportunity for reward.
From what I’ve read this morning, however, Nye did very well and that the risk may have, in fact, paid off. Nye pointed out that there was a living tree in Sweden that is known to be 9,300 years old, significantly older than the approximately 6,000-year old Earth that Ham believes in. And Ham’s responses tended to be along the lines of “no-one was there, we can’t trust the science, and the only eyewitness – God – says the Earth is ~6,000 years old.”
Somehow I’m reminded of a line from the Armageddon satire “Good Omens,” by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett:
The whole business with the fossilized dinosaur skeletons was a joke the paleontologists haven’t seen yet.
I’m also reminded of “Inherit the Wind,” the dramatization of the Scopes “monkey” trial in what remains to this day one of the first and most important debates about evolution, science, and Biblical literalism.
I wonder where the whole science vs. creationism thing will go now. I seriously doubt that more than a handful of people who watched the debate changed their minds. And even if this debate turns out to be a watershed moment for Ken Ham and his Creationism Museum (positively or, I hope, negatively), there is certainly someone waiting in the wings to take up Ham’s young-Earth mantle. After all, Biblical literalism is both simple and easy, while oftentimes reality is complicated and/or difficult (and if issues such as vaccine safety, Fukushima radiation, and industrial climate disruption have taught us anything it’s that a significant minority of people would rather deny reality than accept a reality that is complicated and/or difficult).
I still don’t think the Nye-Ham debate was a good idea. But maybe the debate can be made into something good. It will take a lot of effort on the part of lots of people, but every step away from the intellectual dark age represented by young-Earth creationism is a good thing not just for the United States, but for humanity at large.
- Ben Irwin, Creation Debate Recap: Bill Nye Invites Us to Explore the World, Ken Ham Does Not
- Greg Laden, Who won the Bill Nye-Ken Ham Debate? Bill Nye!
- Tom Foreman, What I learned moderating the ‘creation debate’
- Dylan Lovan, Bill Nye defends evolution in Kentucky debate
- Chris Mooney Why Bill Nye Won The Creationism Debate Last Night