Debate Analysis

So, the Ham-on-Nye has come and gone.  For those of you who missed it, you can still watch the debate for a couple of days.  Or you can follow our comments and discussion from last night.

I’m very curious to hear people’s reactions.  For me, as someone convinced that humanity had its roots long ages ago in a process that did not need (or receive) any divine guidance, I certainly did not hear anything from Ken Ham to make me question my beliefs.  Though I did find Mr. Ham to be engaging and warm.  Speaking from the “evolutionist” side, I thought Nye did a good job, though I wished several times that he had taken different approaches.  For example, I think it is a bad strategy to focus on the unlikelihood of Noah’s Ark.  As Steve Carrell can tell you, such questions can all be answered with a steadfast belief in the power of the supernatural.  They do not need to make naturalistic sense.

As I describe in my upcoming book, William James Bryan handled this “village atheist” objection nearly a century ago.  When arch-skeptic Clarence Darrow put Bryan on the stand at the 1925 Scopes Trial, Darrow pressed Bryan on the believability of the Bible.  How could Joshua have told the sun to stand still?  Didn’t Bryan know that such a feat would cause the Earth to melt?  Bryan’s reply shut down Darrow’s attack, IMHO.  As Bryan put it, to cheers from the audience, if Darrow had trouble believing in miracles, the problem lay not with the miracles, but with the man.  It does not seem as if Nye understands this fundamental epistemological attitude among many religious people, not only young-earth creationists.

How about you?  Did any creationist readers find Mr. Nye’s arguments new or worth consideration? 

Were there any other parts of the debate that you found surprising or intriguing?

Personally, I thought the best part of the evening were the last section, when both speakers took audience questions.  Questions two and four were the best.  Each asked Nye to explain a fundamental mystery of origins, to which Nye replied in each case, “Don’t know.  It’s a remarkable mystery.”  Then, in each case, Ham rebutted that it was not really a mystery at all.  It was explained in the Bible.  It was a humorous exchange, and illuminated the difference between mainstream science and Biblical knowledge.

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  1. Larry Gerber

     /  February 5, 2014

    Howdy! I thought that Bill Nye did a fantastic job all things considered. I think that the “reasonable man” approach is the best when talking about unreasonable things. I think that pointing out what Answers in Genesis really believes is the best option for most “reasonable men”. Nye’s passion for science was evident. His knowledge was enough to address questions. I agree with you, when asked questions that we don’t know the answer to he said so, but he said we are still working on it.. The problem with this is that those who follow beliefs similar to Ham’s will see this as weakness. All in all, I was impressed with Mr. Nye.

  2. David Long

     /  February 5, 2014

    While my full reaction could probably be a good starting point for a fancier essay, I return to what this debate illustrated about my original interest in the topic on American Creationism and its relationship toward science.

    –Nye, as stand in for orthodox science stressed a narrative that “if we don’t have more scientists, then economic competitiveness will suffer”. I.e. we will ‘lose the future’. That’s all well and good, but there is much, much more to say and to bring onto the table as to why one could be interested in science. Science as a toolbox for unlocking wonder was mostly left off the table. Not surprising, as wonder-talk is often marginalized for its irrational tendencies. The kinds of science that Creationist scientists currently work on in their day-to-day jobs (engineering often, some applied chemistry, etc. See Chris Toumey’s God’s Own Scientists) aren’t in violation of the competitiveness warrant for science, actually they are pretty good servants of it. Nye doesn’t get this or chooses the ham-fisted dualism on purpose. This narrative is also, as Adam Laats can attest, an ongoing touchstone of debates about the purpose of public schooling in general. Can school be something more that preparation for the marketplace of work (or, in the creepier version, the vehicle of class reproduction).

    –Lost in the subtleties is something more interesting, at least to people like me (the anthropologist / philosopher / educator bent type). What is the ‘proper’ relationship to science in the United States, or for that matter in the case of the UK, Johnny S. Given the limits of life (in time to learn, and effects of socialization on interest), we each will only ever know a small set of what is to be known of science. The rest we take on authority, and we understand a lot of it by narrative. That authority may be granted because we trust the systems of universities and institutes which produce that which we call science, and it can also be granted to religious leaders. The point is, an accurate description of human interest for either, or in the even more accurate description of the myriad shades of grey that describe people’s interest in both within what they find significant in their lives, is not best done by Ham or Nye. There are better academic answers to be had, and they are multidisciplinary.

    There’s much more to be said, but not for a single blog entry. Thanks for hosting last night Adam.

  3. I think there’s a space between Bill Nye and Ken Ham. I fall somewhere in there. I thought it was very interesting, and I think there are a lot of questions on both sides that are unanswerable. That definitely doesn’t mean we stop investigating them, but we need to stop pretending we understand everything. I’d like to hear a debate that includes Intelligent Design as well. There are usually more than 2 sides to an issue, but we always end up being polarized by the far sides because they make more interesting news. Also, I’d like to see a debate on paper, with well though out responses to a couple questions from the people in the middle who are unsure and don’t have a pre-formed opinion. But overall I thought it was very interesting, and I wanted to delve deeper into some of it.

  4. Matthew McConn

     /  February 5, 2014

    Adam–I noticed in your live feed that you felt Nye used the “lamentable” argument that teaching creationism will steer kids away from being scientist. You hinted at this in an earlier comment of mine to another post, and cited successful scientists as evidence that this claim is invalid. However, I think your evidence assumes too much. We would have to assume that most, if not all, creationist scientists were taught creationism in place of evolution, yet still became successful scientists, in order for your evidence to support the counterargument. I’m no scientist, but I feel confident that the teaching of evolution–and learning it–is necessary for becoming a biologist, or any scientist in a similar field.

    I think a better argument against Nye’s claim–and mine–is to point out that claiming creationism will take over evolution in the science classroom rests its appeal on the slippery slope argument, which is a poor choice of rhetoric by any standard.

    Great blog, great debate. I really enjoyed it!

    • Right on, Dr. McConn. When I call that argument “lamentable,” I only mean it in a strategic sense. That is, I think it gives creationists an easy point–all they need to do is trot out some scientists with mainstream credentials who are also creationists. That is, in fact, what Mr. Ham did in this debate. And, for the record, I agree that everyone should learn real science in school. Not only to learn a body of scientific knowledge–which YECs can do just as well–but to learn about mainstream science’s understanding of knowledge itself. Knowing is better than not knowing.

  5. Both these guys have a B.S. Neither guy is well qualified to debate the science. It was a PR event for both. And Ham adds to what the Bible says. Most Christians do not accept his YEC view.
    Here was a recent debate by real scientists.

    • I do agree neither of them were the best choice. I had no idea this other debate happened. Strangely enough, it wasn’t all over my facebook feed…. ;/ Thanks, I’m looking forward to taking a look at it later tonight!

  6. Tim

     /  February 5, 2014

    I just posted a blog post giving reason why I believe Ken Ham won this debate whether you agree or disagree with his philosophies.

    • Tim: I read your blog post and I understand why you reached your conclusion. One thing that secularists seem always to be blindsided by is magical thinking.

  7. Poor Bill. He got baited into diving down the rabbit hole: it’s about faith, stupid! There is no way you can begin to scratch the surface of such a debate with a hard core Fundamentalist. If Mr Ham has not discarded his view of the Bible by now, he never will. By the end of the whole thing, the look on Bill’s face was priceless. You can almost see the bewilderment as Bill tries to figure out how he got roped into a debate with Ham who, as Bill tried to point out in dismissive rhetoric, bases everything on “a 3000 year old text translated into American English.” Ham not only fervently believes that the entire Bible is God’s word, but he is proud of it. You can’t win any discussion with someone like that. I know, I used to be a Fundie. I got out, thank God. I say Ham had the upper hand because the audience was mostly on his side, and, again, I got the impression that Bill just couldn’t believe what he was hearing with his own ears. Fundies can have that effect on you.

  8. Tim – interesting rubric and fairly appropriate for a debate. But let’s remember that science is not a debate. Science observes, investigates, measures, and defines the reality that we can observe and thus will tell us about the natural history of origins. Genesis will not tell us this, but rather is a theological statement about origins, and it is only one of hundreds of origin stories that are not meant to be scientifically factual. I am sure that many other groups from Hindus to Native Americans would argue that their origin stories are just as valid as the Genesis story.

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