It’s coming up.
What should Nye say?
Science writer Greg Laden offered this morning a short list of points he’d like Nye to make. In general, Laden suggests that Nye focus on the unscientific nature of creationism. The debate over divinity was real and important in the history of science, Laden points out, but that debate has come and gone. Laden doesn’t use the phrase, but his argument is reminiscent of philosopher Philip Kitcher’s definition of creationism as “dead science.” In this vision, it makes no sense to debate the science of creationism, since creationism is not even bad science. Creationism, rather, represents an understanding of science that has been thoroughly and completely discredited.
Laden’s debate prep brings up two important questions. First, what would people advise Ken Ham to say? And second, do we agree with Laden’s advice to Nye?
First things first: What do you think Ken Ham should say? For those of us who live mental lives outside the boundaries of religious creationism, is there anything he could say that would convince us that his creation science should be taken seriously? For me, the answer is no. I’ve defended Ham in the past and taken heat for it from ardent anti-creationists. But in this case, I’ll be flummoxed if Ham uses any arguments beyond his scriptural stock-in-trade. That is, I don’t guess Ham will try to convince people like me who are not moved by references to Biblical passages.
I’m thinking Ham will likely harp on the scientific merits of young-earth creationism, when in fact his argument would be much stronger if he tried a different approach. To people like me, at least, Ham’s scientific credentials have no leg to stand on. But as religious dissenters young-earth creationists can claim much more wiggle room in education and culture. If Ham wanted to reach out to people beyond the ranks of his current religious supporters, he should argue for creationists’ rights as aggrieved minorities, as a religious group, not as a contender for scientific legitimacy.
But Ken Ham is not likely to take this approach, since he has built his career on the promise that young-earth creationism is better science than mainstream science. He will likely trot out his compelling but ultimately vacuous arguments about observational science vs. historic science. He will likely ask Bill Nye some variant of his ultimately senseless question: “Were you there?” If Ken Ham hopes to maintain his role as the charismatic leader of the young-earth creationist movement, he can’t really do anything else.
Question two: What should Nye say? I don’t think Laden’s advice is the first best answer. IMHO, the most effective answer to young-earth creationists such as Ken Ham is a theological one, not a pop-science one. As do the folks at BioLogos, I think the most effective message young-earth creationists need to hear is that Biblical faith does not require faith in a young earth. As science pundits tend to agree, young-earth creationism is not really science, it is something else. It is an outgrowth of a particular religious understanding. Therefore, the strongest arguments against it are religious, not scientific.
Also, I don’t think Nye should use his precious exposure to creationists to blast the dead-science nature of young-earth creationism. Many creationists will expect a hostile attack on their belief system. They will not be moved by it. They will not be convinced by it, since they will not credit its source. I think it will be more effective for The Science Guy to do what he does best: explain what science is. Young-earth creationism is based on a very different way of defining knowledge. If Bill Nye can explain what real science is—instead of attacking the reasons why young-earth creationism doesn’t meet that definition—he can expose some of the creationists in the debate audience to a very different way of understanding the entire debate.