No, The Debate Was Not A Mistake- Stop Saying That
I watched the debate between Bill Nye and Ken Ham surrounded by new friends. I actually stumbled across these people in no small part because this debate happened. A friend of my wife’s on Facebook commented that she might attend- which led to my wife suggesting that this might be an event our 9 year old son might enjoy- which resulted in me confirming my attendance on a Facebook events page that is run by a local atheist group. Bill Nye helped me discover that my hometown has a fully developed and thriving atheist community that I was somehow completely oblivious to until a few days ago.
This, I suppose, is a lesson in unintended consequences.
So when I started my morning by recapping what other people thought of the debate with the intention of helping to clarify my own thoughts, I was sympathetic to the opinion of Michael Schulson in The Daily Beast that the debate was a losing proposition from the moment it was brokered. Facts are not something to be debated. We shouldn’t be lending credibility to creation myths by juxtaposing them with science. Bill Nye is the wrong person to be representing the scientific argument because he is not an expert on evolution. This was a common argument before the debate even aired.
On all accounts I think these arguments are wrong.
Academics Don’t Create Policy, But Somehow They Are The Only People Qualified To Talk About Science
Several people have pointed out that the Creation/Evolution debate is a political issue and not a scientific issue. I agree with that assessment. The question I’d like to ask is this: If people who are passionate about science aren’t going to wade into the political debate over what we teach the next generation- who is going to stand between opportunistic legislators and our children? Can we just assume that rationality is always going to rule the public stage in opposition to the court of public opinion?
Bill Nye is right that we need children that understand the scientific method and how proper science is done. We also need the public to be savvy enough to tell the difference between education and indoctrination. The idea that this debate emboldened creationists by giving them a stage is, I think, demonstrably wrong. First, you need to assume that all creationists are Young Earth Creationists (YECs). Then you need to assume that YECs aren’t already aware of Answers In Genesis, the Creation Museum, or Ken Ham. This is akin to going up to your nerdiest friend and telling them about this great new Star Trek series called “The Next Generation”. This debate didn’t bring new attention to Young Earth Creationism to the target audience for Young Earth Creationism. It brought new attention to YEC to exactly the people we need to see it- the large swath of Christian and other religious parents who think of Intelligent Design or Guided Evolution or some other pseudo-scientific concept when they imagine “teaching the controversy“. These people are embarrassed by people like Ken Ham. They know the earth isn’t 6000 years old, and they understand just how impossible it is to square that belief with observable phenomena. These are the people who are going to be moved by this debate. To assume that all people sympathetic to anti-evolutionary ideas are sympathetic to a literal reading of Genesis is a mistake. Many of those people will be moved by just how absurd it is to teach YEC as science. Some of these people might change their view about science education when faced with the prospect of science class becoming a strict literal interpretation of the first book of the Old Testament.
In this regard, I think that Ken Ham is exactly the kind of person those of us who care about science should debate. He is an extremist, a fundamentalist, an outlier even in Christian circles. Too many of us feel that Bill should have avoided giving Ken Ham a platform- when in fact that platform has already started to lay bare the deep divide among creationists. Pat Robertson has already called on Ham to “not make a joke of ourselves.” Inside the bubble of Young Earth Creationism, the idea of a 6000 year old creation and a big boat that held 10,000 animals while the entire world was flooded for a year seems perfectly reasonable. They think that people just need to see the evidence the way they do and everyone will be forced to concede the truth of their beliefs. It is the people outside this bubble that Bill needed to speak to, and I think he did that marvelously.
Bill Nye Is Exactly What We Need
To the degree that I think Ken Ham is exactly the kind of creationist that science educators need to draw attention to, I think people like Bill Nye are exactly the kind of person we need doing it. We need people who are teachers and communicators. We need people who aren’t going to go on tangents about overly dry and technical aspects of evolutionary theory when simple and focused arguments suffice. We need people who aren’t going to waste their whole half hour talking about the philosophy of science when someone tries to make the ridiculous distinction between observational science and historical science. We need the kind of people who say “there are trees older than you think the universe is.” We need people who can make radio waves and the big bang something I can explain to my 9 year old son. We need someone who can Gish Gallop with easily digestible facts that are memorable and funny.
Many otherwise smart people have claimed that this debate was worthless and they avoided it because neither speaker had the authority to talk about evolution. Public opinion isn’t decided by experts. Policy isn’t made by experts. Hell, High School Biology class isn’t taught by experts. This wasn’t an academic debate and if it was it would have swayed virtually nobody involved in the future of science education. To be blunt, one of the problems in the divide over public science education is that it seems to be difficult for people to grasp the basics of evolutionary theory. Policy will be shaped by ignorance and incredulity if we fail to take interest in education. If the Bible denied that there are integers above 20,000, we wouldn’t insist that only those with a degree in theoretical mathematics argue with theologians. We would send in Warren Buffet and the Manager at TGI Friday’s to compare their purchasing power. When we want people to understand how simply wrong a proposition is, we need people who can speak in terms laypersons can not just grasp but easily internalize. Bill Nye is a brilliant science educator, and he was the perfect person to take on a science obfuscator.
The public is not going to get energized nor swayed by academic debates on the minutiae of evolution. They are going to be easily confused until some charlatan shows up to reassure them.
I think it is insulting to assume that all Christians are going to be moved by a literal six-day creation argument, and I think it’s ignorant to assume that there were no viewers who had positions that could be influenced by a clear and concise argument that science is the best way do science. Many people approached the prospect of this debate with a hyper-simplistic view of those who don’t accept biological evolution whole cloth. It is precisely this kind of superiority complex and lack of understanding that is going to stoke the fires of people who wish to sneak religion into science.
We are so busy thinking about the possibility that Christians are naive and easily duped that we fail to see that, more likely than not, the unintended consequence of this debate is a popular rebuke of literal six-day creation among the larger Christian community- the people who vote, who sit on Parent/Teacher Associations, who choose curriculum guidelines.
I found a community as an unintended consequence of a well marketed, elegantly argued, and entertaining debate about evolution- and I think that it will have the opposite consequence for Young Earth Creationists. Showing reasonable people what God in science class might really mean will make the fringe increasingly isolated.