To Debate or Not to Debate

Bill Nye and Ken Ham will be going a few rhetorical rounds next month.

The mega-popular science educator will broach the creationist lion’s den of the Creation Museum on February 4th.  The topic: “Is creation a viable model of origins in today’s modern scientific era?”

Image Source: Answers In Genesis

Image Source: Answers In Genesis

Are these debates worthwhile?  In the past they had decisive impact on the formation of American creationism and fundamentalism.  But these days such debates are a different animal.

Science pundits don’t like it.  Jerry Coyne warned that Bill Nye will only be putting money and legitimacy in Ham’s deep pocketsPZ Myers wisely concludes that each side will likely only speak past the other.

I agree.  The audience at this debate will likely not be moved by either man’s arguments.  No matter how scientifically accurate or biblically flawless, logical arguments tend not to be the deciding factor in determining one’s beliefs about human origins.

As David Long’s ethnography demonstrated so powerfully, creationists can thrive in mainstream scientific environments without abandoning their religious ideas.  Many creationists have simply been taught to regard mainstream scientists as deeply flawed and bumbling fools.  It is easy to dismiss plausible-sounding talk from someone we have already deemed unreliable.

It’s hard to imagine Ham’s Cincinnati audience won’t be prepared to dismiss Nye’s mainstream science talk out of hand.  I assume Nye is hoping that he may still plant a few seeds of science doubt in the minds of those who hear him.  Not much reason to offer Ham such a plum chance to look like a reputable scientific authority.

At the start of America’s public evolution/creation battles, this legacy of public debating functioned much more powerfully, since creationists had not yet set up alternative institutions.  As I describe in my 1920s book, some of the most influential creationists of the 1920s received humiliating public trouncings in popular debates.

At a talk on the campus of the University of Minnesota, for example, fundamentalist leader William Bell Riley found himself surprised by a student prank.  Someone lowered a monkey onto the stage as Riley tried to convince his audience that creationism was reputable science.  “Every time I hear the argument that this is a controversy between experts on the one hand, and, as someone has said, ‘organized ignorance,’ on the other, I smile,” Riley told the St. Paul Pioneer Press in 1927.  “This is not a debate between the educated and the uneducated.”

Similarly, in London, creationist godfather George McCready Price found himself hooted off the stage in the days following the 1925 Scopes Trial.  He had tried to tell the merciless audience that the theory of evolution was doomed as mainstream science.  Such flawed science, Price insisted, may have worked fine

for the times of comparative ignorance of the real facts of heredity and variation and of the facts of geology which prevailed during the latter part of the nineteenth century; but that this theory is now entirely out of date, and hopelessly inadequate for us. . . .  We are making scientific history very fast these days; and the specialist in some corner of science who keeps on humming a little tune to himself, quietly ignoring all this modern evidence against Evolution, is simply living in a fools’ paradise.  He will soon be so far behind that he will wake up some fine morning and find that he needs an introduction to the modern scientific world.

The audience didn’t buy it.  Price found himself heckled so mercilessly that he could not complete his presentation.  That London debacle was Price’s last public debate.  After that experience he focused his considerable energy on founding alternative scientific institutions to prevent future creationists from needing to convert mainstream scientists.

Back in those days, creationists and fundamentalist scientists still attempted to tell audiences that they represented the true mainstream of scientific discovery.  Such early creationists eagerly debated in a variety of settings in hope of convincing middle-of-the-road audiences that evolutionary science was not real science.

In that context, public debates held promise for both sides.  Creationists hoped to prove that they had better science.  Evolutionary scientists hoped to demonstrate the scientific vapidity of creationism.

These days, both sides have hardened.  Creationists these days are not unaware of the fact that their science does not represent the scientific mainstream.  Evolutionary scientists are not hoping to relieve creationists of their naïve ignorance.

Rather, both sides in these debates enter and exit with the same set ideas.  Each side knows who to trust on that stage and who to ignore.  No matter how persuasive Ken Ham can be, he doesn’t really hope to change Bill Nye’s mind.  Rather, this exercise merely serves to give each charismatic speaker the chance to gain a sliver of legitimacy and respectability in the opposite camp.


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  1. Agellius

     /  January 3, 2014

    “As I describe in my 1920s book, some of the most influential creationists of the 1920s received humiliating public trouncings in popular debates.”

    Humiliating maybe. But the main thing you describe is audiences trying to run creationists off the stage via rudeness and bullying.

    For the record, I’m not a creationist in the sense of a Genesis literalist, nor necessarily anti-evolution. But like you, I believe in trying to understand people where they’re at rather than shouting them down.

    • Excellent point. For the record, I agree. Even now, I predict with great confidence that one of the most common arguments we’ll hear from anti-creationists after the Ham-Nye debate will not be an argument at all. Rather, mainstream science pundits will simply huff and puff about the idiocy and venality of Ham. Very few observers will try to understand why his arguments seem so convincing to his followers.
      The most intriguing element of the 1920s debates was the fact that leading creationists and fundamentalists were SURPRISED by the rudeness dished out to them and their ideas. By now, creationism and fundamentalism have wrapped themselves in generations of intellectual and cultural defense mechanisms. The first generation seemed honestly shocked that their ideas carried so little respectability in circles outside of fundamentalism.

  2. Agellius

     /  January 3, 2014

    I haven’t watched that many debates, but the main thing I have noticed in the debates I have seen between Christians and atheists, is how much better the Christians are at arguing philosophically. The atheists for the most part have seemed content to sneer and crack wise.

    I’m not saying this makes the Christians right. Just an observation which seems to jibe with your prediction.

    • willbell123

       /  January 3, 2014

      That’s because most of the time the Christian/Creationist is a public speaker, while the Atheist/’Evolutionist’ is a scientist, so the creationist is better at arguing.

      • Agellius

         /  January 3, 2014

        Are there no atheist public speakers?

      • willbell123

         /  January 3, 2014

        Yes, they are just few and far between, Bill Nye should be interesting because he has a history in public speaking, unlike a lot of others.

  3. Agellius

     /  January 3, 2014

    I will just say that if Christian debaters are public speakers, that’s mostly in addition to their main vocation. William Lane Craig, for example, is a philosopher by trade, he’s not a minister or anything, who would automatically be expected to be good at public speaking. Being a philosopher does not automatically entail public speaking. But he made the decision to engage in public debates since he thought he could do some good thereby.

    I don’t see why being a Christian per se should make someone a better public speaker. I think Craig is so good at debating because he’s good at philosophy and therefore knows how to organize his arguments effectively.

    • willbell123

       /  January 3, 2014

      There are lots of Christian debaters that are mostly public speakers, look no further than this article, Ken Ham is all about public speaking engagements, some Christian/Creationist debaters are so committed to debating that there are debate tactics named after them, think of the Gish Gallop.

  4. As some of you here may know, the Sensuous Curmudgeon was among the first to write about this, and there has been some interesting discussion. As I noted there, I am among those who consider such debates as worthless work. Science is not a debate, and Ham has no science to present. Thus it will be a ‘debate’ about world view, truth, etc.

    And I just added this over at the SC: Lordy, lordy – was enjoying a nice IPA and some nachos at Turley’s bar and looked up to see the bow-tied Nye on CNN with the runner saying he was going to debate a creationist [no mention of Ham in print]. The volume was off, but I would guess that it may have been interesting…..anyone see it??

  5. I, for one, am very interested to hear the debate. I don’t know much about Ham, and I would love to hear why he dismisses science out of hand. When people speak freely, the arena of public debate is improved. For those of us who are unfamiliar with the YEC, this is a great opportunity to hear that side. I’m a Catholic, and I believe in God guided evolution. Perhaps Nye will have an impact on my own thinking. I hope that the debate is online for viewing.

  6. Personally, I’m excited as hell for this debate. I have heard Ham speak many times and have talked to him personally on a few occasions and he influenced me significantly as a young person. In contrast, I was never exposed to Bill Nye the Science Guy (which all of my peers have lamented as a great childhood tragedy =P) because my family was opposed to TV for religious reasons (and would probably have been especially opposed to Bill Nye, had they known he existed). As such, I still know a lot about Creationism and have never really heard many direct arguments against some of the “evidence” for 6-day creation. My abandonment of the biblical story mostly came once I realized that these beliefs were based primarily on bully and shame tactics rather than actual facts, and thus I saw no real reason to combat mainstream science. I am a physicist, not a biologist, so I never needed to study Evolution in-depth, apart from some basics in my core Biology curriculum, all of which I already knew. As such, this debate sounds fascinating to me. Sure, it’s probably not the most productive thing, but for me personally, it will be very fun to see.

    And it is scheduled on my birthday!

  7. I think the emergence of social media changes things. In the past these debates would be only seen by a partisan audience. But nowadays the debate could go viral for both sides, and it might sway people on the fence. Don’t forget that many young creationists have never heard scientific counterpoints to their beliefs.

    I get why people are concerned about how this might impact public opinion, but it’s been many years since the two sides have engaged in any kind of well-publicized debate, save for the Hitchens-Doug Wilson debates, and those were more about God’s existence rather than just creationism. So creationists have gone decades in an uncontested bubble where they could easily spread their propaganda without scientists engaging them directly. It’s no surprise that they’ve managed to make scientists’ reticence look like a weakness. Maybe instead of looking at it as if we are giving creationists legitimacy by debating them, we should look at the polls and realize that by debating us, creationists are giving us a chance to show evolution’s legitimacy.

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