I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

It happens. Every once in a while, especially in May, some of us leave our computer screens. Sure, we might smell a flower or two, but we miss the torrent of news stories that keeps flowing through the interwebs. Here are some of the stories SAGLRROILYBYGTH might have missed over the past week:

Should schools do more to include controversial issues? An interview with Jon Zimmerman about his new book, The Case for Contention.

Have Jerry Falwell Jr. and other evangelical Trumpists turned themselves into “court evangelicals?” Have they “sacrificed the prophetic voice of their Christian faith for a place of power and influence in the current administration”? John Fea says yes at Religion News Service.

Who is the extremist here? Texas A&M students protest that Professor Thomas Curry is not an anti-white violent radical.

READING man in chair

Words, words, words…

Bill Nye’s new show stinks. Tyler Huckabee argues in WaPo that Nye should have studied evangelical outreach first.

Remember MOOCs? They were going to spell the end of traditional higher education. Why haven’t they? At IHE, Joshua Kim offers three reasons.

Regulating homeschool: A dramatic Kansas case draws attention to the lack of rules about homeschooling. Is homeschooling to blame for this seven-year-old’s murder?

Thanks to everyone who sent in stories and tips.

Why Bill Nye Won’t Save the World

I like Bill Nye. I watched his show with my kid. He’s great. I wish he would call me up and we could go eat french fries together. But he won’t save the world, for two main reasons.

On his new show, Bill Nye Saves the World, Nye repeats the same errors about creationism that he has always made. At heart, Nye seems to believe that the main trouble with America is its lack of knowledge about science, our “science illiteracy.” Nye plans to save the world by clearly explaining real science. It won’t work.

On episode five, for example, Nye gives a quick description of the long history of our planet. He even goes out of his way to ridicule the notion of Noah’s ark. Where did life on this planet come from? We don’t know, Nye clarifies, but possibly it blasted in from Mars.

This sort of approach will have only a negative impact on our continuing creation/evolution squabbles. It will do nothing to bring good mainstream science to the creationist multitudes. Its only effect will be to cement them (most of them, at least) even more firmly in their dissident notion of young-earth creationism.

Why will Nye’s approach be so counter-productive? Not only because it is so hokey and strained. As I’m arguing in my current book about American creationism, the main problem comes from two common and related mistakes.

First, Nye falls prey again to the lamentable missionary supposition. Like many science wonks, Nye assumes that the truth—the scientific truth—is so powerful that mere exposure to it will convince people of its truth.

The notion is so remarkably naïve that it is difficult to know where to start. Consider the similar case of vaccinations. If people are simply unaware of the existence and benefits of vaccinations, then providing information will help. Especially if we do it in a fun, entertaining way. But if people already believe that vaccinations are dangerous, and, more important, if they believe that vaccine-promoters will be targeting them with fun, entertaining falsehoods, designed to confuse and beguile them…then we need a different approach.

Creationism, especially in its American young-earth variant, is not merely an absence of knowledge about evolution. Creationism is not a deficit. Creationism is an alternate, dissenting social system, complete with its own schools, textbooks, museums, conventions, TV shows, and celebrities.

And that brings us to the second, related problem with Nye’s approach. Not only is his show not spreading knowledge, it is actually building resistance. Like a lot of science pundits, Nye heightens the religious stakes by talking about “saving the world.” Instead of presenting this as a question of cool-headed deliberation and policy discussion, Nye’s apocalyptic attitude reinforces religious resistance.

In other words, by talking in all-or-nothing terms, Nye gives credence to religious dissenters who insist that religious people have to choose between their religion and mainstream science.

What should he do instead? He should not water down his I-F*$%&@9-Love-Science message. He should not imply that different views are all equal. He should not truckle to religious sensibilities by suggesting that all scientific ideas—even creation-science ones—have the same merit.

But he should learn more about creationism and American creationists. If he did so, he’d find out that there are plenty of creationists out there who also love science. Real, mainstream science. He should establish working alliances with those creationists to marginalize radical notions about creation and evolution. He does not need to endorse any particular view. All he needs to do is point viewers to religious people who agree with him.

Otherwise, he won’t save the world.

Religious Literacy—Another Dead End?

“Religious literacy.” Nerds say it is a “critical dimension of understanding human affairs.” In some cases, it might be a question of life and death. Even your humble editor makes a plea for it in his new book. But as we’ve seen from other fields, it might just be a waste of time.

waco_compound_religious_literacy_1050x700

The deadly consequences of angry ignorance.

The latest call came from Peter Feuerherd in the pages of JSTOR Daily. He made a strong case that poorly informed religious antagonisms fueled the deadly government assault on David Koresh’s Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, c. 1993. Seventy-six people died. With a little more “religious literacy” on the part of the government forces, Feuerherd argues, the death toll could have been avoided.

As Feuerherd put it,

with a little more patience and understanding of biblical theology, the massive loss of life could have been avoided. . . . Religion scholars argued that the FBI’s impatience at Waco grew out of theological ignorance and unquestioned assumptions. . . . Waiting longer, by offering Koresh the attention he felt his theological views deserved, would have averted the tragedy, said religion scholars who spoke out in its aftermath.

We might dispute Feuerherd’s conclusion, but it seems likely that a soldier who views his enemy as a “desperate apocalyptic cult” is probably going to be more aggressive than one who views his enemy as a “church meeting.”

As the Religious Literacy Project of Harvard Divinity School argues, religious illiteracy is a significant human problem: “it fuels conflict and antagonisms and hinders cooperative endeavors in all arenas of human experience.”

As I work on my new book about American creationism, I too fall into a sort of “religious literacy” argument. People need to understand creationist religion as it really is, I argue, not as some sort of Creation-Museum, Jesus-on-a-dinosaur cartoon.

But are all these arguments about “religious literacy” doomed from the start?

After all, in the field of creation/evolution debates, we’ve seen that notions of “scientific literacy” miss the point. Creationism is not simply an “illiteracy.” Creationists don’t yearn for knowledge of mainstream science. Rather, creationism is a strong and internally coherent alternative science.

If we want to change people’s minds about evolutionary science, thinking about them as “illiterate” won’t help. If we do, we will fall into Bill Nye’s ineffective brand of “save-the-world” missionary endeavor. As Nye sees it, creationism represents one facet of America’s “striking science illiteracy.” Nye’s answer is to go on TV and go to the Creation Museum and explain, explain, explain.

It won’t work. Bill Nye won’t save the world. Why not? Because the notion of “science literacy” is at heart naïve. As science-communication guru Dan Kahan might say, “literacy” is not a helpful concept in this case.

Bill Nye will not save the world by explaining science to it. Creationism, climate-change denialism, and other zombie sciences do not merely reflect an absence of knowledge about science. They do not suffer from “illiteracy.” Rather, they are obstreperous and lively alternative sciences. If we want to convince their adherents of anything, we need to do more than just tell them about better science.

Is the same true with “religious literacy?” I agree wholeheartedly that people can and should be better educated about all religions, especially ones that we tend to think of as threatening or hostile. But precisely because people think of many religions as threatening and hostile, I think we need to do more than just spread information around. We need to think of this as something other than “illiteracy.”

People KNOW things about religion in most cases, but those things can be false and those falsehoods can be dangerous, even deadly. Talking about “literacy” obfuscates this crucial point. So what would be better?

We could copy Dan Kahan and toss out “religious literacy” in favor of “religion communication.” Or, as many activists do, we could switch from talking about “literacy” to talking about “toleration.” Or even “appreciation.”

coexist bumper sticker

Is THIS the goal?

None of those options feels right. We don’t want to imply that we are trying to convert people from one religion to another. We don’t want to fall into the go-nowhere liberal trap of calling on people from different religions to merely “co-exist.” To my mind, anyway, that approach downplays the vital universal claims of many of the religions themselves.

What are we really after? Informed understanding about religious traditions besides our own…right? That’s more than “literacy,” and “literacy” implies that the knowledge is coveted by all and value-neutral. We need another term to describe this important goal.

What is it?

Does Life Imply Creation? Don McLeroy Says Yes

Should mainstream scientists debate with creationists?  This morning we have another chance to discuss the nature of life, science, and evolution with a prominent creationist intellectual. Will anyone take it?

Don McLeroy

Science, c’est moi…

Some mainstream scientists affect a pose of exhaustion. Speaking with creationists, they say, is not worth the effort. Some folks criticize popularizers such as Bill Nye “The Science Guy” for deigning to debate young-earth impresario Ken Ham. Doing so, critics say, only feeds creationist pretensions to the label “science.” Doing so, critics insist, only gives creationists a win; it falsely implies that evolution is “controversial,” a controversy worth sharing in America’s classrooms.

Dr. Don McLeroy, erstwhile head of the Texas State Board of Education, has shared an essay he’s penned about the deficiencies of materialism.

I hope readers will take time to read and consider Dr. McLeroy’s intellectual claims. Dr. McLeroy, after all, is not your run-of-the-mill creationist. While other creationists fume and fuss over new evolution-heavy textbooks, Dr. McLeroy encourages kids to read em. Why? Because, Dr. McLeroy thinks, the truth will out. If students read about evolutionary science, they will quickly see that the evolutionary emperor has no clothes.

In his essay, Dr. McLeroy insists that only “biblical explanations” pass the test of science. As he puts it,

materialist explanations concerning the origin of the universe, the origin of plant life, the origin of creature life and the origin of human consciousness, fail the test of science.

Dr. McLeroy claims allies such as Richard Lewontin, who insisted in 1997 that only our “prior commitment” to materialism makes it seem convincing.

If we can only lay aside for a moment our faulty assumptions in favor of materialism, McLeroy argues, we can see how empty they really are. For example, the astounding suggestion that something—everything—could come out of nothingness only makes sense if we assume that God is involved as the Uncreated Creator.

As McLeroy concludes,

we do see a cosmos that had a beginning and thus had a cause; we do see plants and animals that reproduce after their kind and can be organized into distinct classifications; we do see creatures with a life and not just a living form; and we do see man in a separate class from all the other unique creatures. All these simple observations support the ideas of Genesis; they pass the test of science. Therefore, why not give the biblical explanations a better look? As [Neil DeGrasse] Tyson explained: let us ‘build on those ideas that pass the test, reject the ones that fail, follow the evidence wherever it leads and question everything.’

Are you convinced? More important, if you’re not convinced, why not?

Let’s Fight about Evolution and Climate Change

Put your money where your mouth is. That’s the message Trey Kay explores in his new Us & Them podcast. What happens when creationists and scientists put up a challenge to their foes? Trey talks with a creationist and a mainstream scientist, both of whom have put up big money to lure their enemies into a losing debate.

The two sides are represented by creationist Karl Priest and physicist Christopher Keating. Priest has offered a $10,000 Life Science Prize. Anyone who can debate Joseph Mastropaolo and can convince a judge of the evidence for evolution will win the money. Keating has put up $30,000 to anyone who can come up with scientific evidence against human-caused climate change.

For those of us interested in educational culture wars, it doesn’t get much better than this. Trey talks with both men alone, then puts them together for a culture-war conversation. What makes creationists so confident? Mainstream scientists?

As Trey concludes, both men offer their prizes in an attempt to get attention for their side. Neither really hopes to convince the other.

That’s been the case for evolution/creation debates for a long time now. Some of us remember the recent head-to-head debate between Bill Nye and Ken Ham. As we discussed at the time, this sort of debate tends to preach to the choir on each side. For mainstream scientists, Bill Nye’s arguments sounded iron-clad. For creationists, Ken Ham made his case.

As historian Ron Numbers has documented, these evolution-creation debates have a long and checkered history. Time and again, high-profile public figures have challenged their foes to debate the issue. Does anyone really hope to solve the issue this way?

As Trey Kay explores in this podcast, it is easy enough to talk politely to one another. But once creationists and evolutionists try to debate, we quickly end up just spinning our wheels.

A Brazillion Creationists Out There

How powerful is creationism worldwide? Some pundits have suggested that creationism is unique to the USA. But recent news from Brazil indicates that global creationism may be gaining steam.

The latest report from Brazil comes to us from the National Center for Science Education. Proposed legislation in that country would introduce US-style creationism to Brazilian public schools. My Portuguese is no good, but according to the NCSE report, this bill insists that schools include creationist science, including “the ideas that life has its origin in God, the supreme creator of the whole universe and of all things that compose it.”

Why? Because, in the words of the bill’s sponsor, “the creationist doctrine is prevalent throughout our country.”

Is it? Some science pundits, such as Bill Nye, contend that this sort of creationism is “unique” to the United States.

In this case, The Science Guy is flat-out wrong. Creationism—even if we limit it to just the Christian kind—is a global phenomenon. And the reasons for that globalism matter.

Pundits like Bill Nye might assume that creationism thrives in those corners of the globe that have not yet been incorporated into the global conversation. In some isolated regions, this theory goes, the obvious truths of evolution have not yet penetrated.

But that explanation gets it backward. The reason for thriving creationism in Brazil is not due to ineffective science education. It is due, rather, to explosively effective religious education. That is, Brazilian creationists are not simply religious primitives who have been isolated from the gospel of evolution. Instead, they are religious innovators who have been connected to a global gospel of creationism.

As usual, historian Ron Numbers—my grad-school mentor—put it best. In his book The Creationists, Ron captures this experience with a pithy chapter title: “Creation Science Floods the World.”

A growing force in Brazilian politics...

A growing force in Brazilian politics…

Throughout the twentieth century, conservative evangelical Protestants have successfully spread their religion throughout Latin America, finding a particularly congenial home in Brazil.

As a recent study from the Pew Research Center for Religion & Public Life makes clear, US-style evangelicalism has aggressively moved into Brazil, courting the country’s Catholics and converting them in large numbers.

For a hundred years, evangelical groups have spread via missionary organizations into Brazil. As Andrew Chestnut of Virginia Commonwealth University explains, groups such as the Assemblies of God have been particularly successful in Brazil. With this Pentecostal denomination, at least, Brazilian locals have taken over and made it their own. And they are now asserting their power politically.

For instance, the author of the recent creationist legislation, Marco Feliciano, is an Assemblies of God pastor. And he insists that Brazilians are on his side. Poll numbers back him up. According to the NCSE report, fully 89% of Brazilian respondents think creationism should be taught in Brazil’s public schools. Nearly that many, 75%, think ONLY creationism should be taught.

I’ve argued in the past that evolution educators often have a missionary zeal to spread the truth about evolution. This news from Brazil suggests that evolution’s missionaries are just not as good as the creationist types.

US Government Employs Creationist Scientists

Thanks to the ever-watchful Sensuous Curmudgeon, we learn of plans to open a new, enormous creation museum near Boise, Idaho.  But in exploring the announcement of this planned mega-museum, we came across an interesting tidbit: Two of the creationist scientists involved in this project worked for the US government as geologists.  Does this mean that the government is funding creation science?  And does it prove the creationist claim that their experts are engaged in “real” science?

As reported yesterday by the Boise Weekly, the Northwest Science Museum has big ambitions.  Its founders want to open an enormous display area, 300,000 to 450,000 square feet.  They hope to build a full-size replica Noah’s Ark that could rival the plans of the more-established Creation Museum in Kentucky.

Big Plans for Boise

Big Plans for Boise

Whether or not the Idaho creationists succeed in their lavish plans, they will likely end up adding another stop to those who want to tour the nation’s many creation museums.  More interesting, the announced plans also raise crucial questions about creationism and government support for religion.

In their attempt to raise funds for their new project, the leaders of the Boise museum published a prospectus that includes information about themselves.  According to this document, the leadership team includes two experienced geologists.

Douglas J. Bennett, founder of the museum, has degrees in geology and science education from Boise State University.  For the past eighteen years, Bennett has worked as a geologist for the US Bureau of Reclamation.  Similarly, museum founder Brent Carter earned a degree in geology from a large public university and worked for 42 years as a geologist for the same US Bureau, retiring with the title of Chief Geologist of the Pacific Northwest Region.

More than the opening of a new creation museum, these careers raise important questions for those of us interested in issues of evolution and creationism.

First, some might suggest that long governmental careers for these ardent and active creationists implies government support for religion.  But does it really?  After all, the government likely hired them to do specific jobs.  They had the necessary qualifications.  Whatever they chose to do in their private lives wouldn’t be any of the government’s business.  Nor would the government be supporting these men’s religious work, as long as each geologist didn’t do his creationist research while on the clock.

More interesting, we have to ask what these careers tell us about the intersection of mainstream science and creation science.  In the recent debate between leading creationist Ken Ham and leading science pundit Bill Nye, Nye repeated his charge that creationism blocked kids from learning science.  Ham retorted with several examples of successful creationist scientists and engineers.

The careers of Bennett and Carter seem to help the creationist case.  After all, if they have both had successful careers as geologists, how can we say that creationists can’t do science?  One might suggest that the sorts of engineering tasks these creationists engaged in were not primary science.  But it seems to me a stretch to say that these creationist geologists did not have careers specifically in the science that is contested.  In other words, both of these men worked as geologists, though their religious beliefs gave them very non-mainstream ideas about that geology.

Consider—again from the museum prospectus—the tasks Bennett claimed to have worked on for the US government.  As part of his job, Bennett

Performed surface and subsurface geotechnical studies and exploration programs utilizing diamond drill, power-auger, test pits, tunnels, and other processes to secure data for seismotectonic, ground-water, and other special studies of dams, reservoirs, canals, tunnels, spillways, power plants, and related structures.

One might say that none of this engineering work includes primary geological research.  And if it did, someone who believed in a young earth and a recent world-wide flood would be at a crippling disadvantage.  But anti-creationists sometimes make a different point.  Bill Nye, for instance, has warned that a creationist nation will soon fall behind in technology and engineering.

The careers of Bennett and Carter seem to demonstrate the weakness of that argument.  Indeed, Nye argues that creationism will turn kids away from science-related careers.  But in the case of these two men, at least, it was precisely their religious beliefs that led them to careers in geology.

So does this case show government support for creationism?  Not really.  But it does offer evidence that creationism does not necessarily deter young people from going into science-related careers.  Indeed, because of the tumult over the nature of biology and geology, perhaps creationist beliefs actually drive some young people into careers in science.

 

 

Was I Fair to Ken Ham?

Ken Ham complains that I was not precise enough.  I think I was.

Here’s the issue: On his blog today, leading young-earth creationist Ken Ham chided yours truly for saying “Ken Ham” when I really meant something like “conservative Christians.”  Ham was reacting to a recent post of mine in which I asked about Ham’s inordinate influence over some conservative Protestant colleges.  In that post, I noted Ham’s recent pronouncements about leading evangelical schools such as Calvin College and Bryan College.  I wondered if conservative schools had to bend over backwards to satisfy Christian critics like Ham.  Did schools like Bryan College have to toe the Ham line in order to maintain their support base among conservative evangelical Protestants?

Be More Precise, Please

Be More Precise, Please

Ham said I needed to be “more precise.”  Ham made the fair point that Science Guy Bill Nye often used the unfair rhetorical strategy of reducing all creationism to simply Ken Ham.  Of talking about creationism as if it were just a one-man crusade to bilk taxpayers and fool schoolchildren.

When it comes to Bill Nye’s language, I agree with Ham.  Bill Nye–with whom I generally agree–does not always seem to understand creationism.  In a recent post, for instance, I agreed with Mr. Ham that Bill Nye “Misse[d] the Boat on Creationism.”  I have also agreed with Mr. Ham that Mr. Nye’s use of phrases such as “Ham’s followers” is sneaky and unfair.

But in this case, I was not doing any such thing.  In my essay about Mr. Ham’s influence on conservative Christian colleges, I was talking precisely about the work of Mr. Ham and Answers In Genesis.  If I was incorrect about the influence of Ham in the recent controversy at Bryan College, I’ll apologize.  But I won’t apologize for mistakes I didn’t make.

Ham also notes that I expand my questions to include the state of conservative evangelical colleges and sexual assault.  As ILYBYGTH readers know, this is a question that has been bandied about here recently.  Those who are new to the blog will not be aware that we do not simply attack “fundamentalist” schools as rape havens.  Indeed, our recent string of commentary began with questions about a journalist’s unschooled presumptions about the nature of fundamentalism.  We do not assume that sexual assault is somehow unique to conservative religious colleges, but it does seem that there is a connection between the opaque authoritarian cultures of many conservative colleges and a culture that blames the victims of sexual assault.

The central point of interest to me, though, then and now, is whether and how Mr. Ham has come to wield such authority over conservative evangelical colleges.  In the case of Bryan College, at least, Ham’s worries led to changes at the school.  I can’t help but wonder if Ham’s say-so is of enormous influence at similar colleges and universities.  This is not a question about conservatism in general.  This is not a question about creationism in general.  This is a specific question about the influence of Mr. Ham’s Answers In Genesis ministry.

 

Bill Nye Misses the Boat on Creationism

What does it mean to be a creationist?  Especially a young-earth creationist of the Ken Ham sort?  “Science Guy” Bill Nye argued the other day that creationism represents “striking science illiteracy.”

I like Bill Nye.  I like science.  But Nye’s statement represents a lamentable cultural illiteracy.  In the long run, it doesn’t help the cause of evolution education.  It does not help to bridge the culture-war trenches.

Around minute five of the video above, Nye begins to discuss his recent debate with young-earth creationist leader Ken Ham.  Nye humbly acknowledges that it might not have been a good idea to debate Ham.  But he went ahead with the debate.  Why?  Because Nye worries about the “striking science illiteracy” represented by young-earth creationism in the United States (around 6:23 in the video clip above).  Without science, Nye goes on, there would be no internet.  There would not be enough food for everyone.  Science and especially science education represent basic building blocks of a just and prosperous society.  Nye hopes that high-profile debates might help voters and taxpayers de-fund and delegitimize creationism in America’s public schools.

For the record, I agree that the “Ham-on-Nye” debate was a good thing for those of us who want more and better evolution education in America’s schools.  I applaud Nye’s bravery and his presentation skills.  But I wish he would not rely on this false notion that young-earth creationism represents a simple lack of knowledge about evolution.  It is not true, and it suggests bad policy approaches to improving evolution education.

Consider, for example, our best recent polls about science literacy and creationism.  As political scientists Eric Plutzer and Michael Berkman recount in their book Evolution, Creationism and the Battle to Control America’s Classrooms, creationists are not less scientifically literate than non-creationists.

For instance, one Pew poll from 2005 found that Americans who know about the scientific consensus in favor of evolution still support the teaching of creationism in public schools.  You read that right: Among the 54% of Americans who agree that scientists agree about evolution, large majorities (74%) supported teaching creationism, intelligent design, or some mix of evolution, ID, and creationism in public-school science classes.

Another poll that Berkman and Plutzer summarize found that general scientific literacy was not correlated with belief in evolution.  That is, whether or not one was aware of general scientific information had no relation to whether or not one evinced a belief in evolution.

As Dan Kahan noted recently, even the National Science Foundation has considered removing a question about evolution from its science-literacy poll.  Why?  Because there is no correlation between general scientific knowledge and beliefs about evolution.  What people know or don’t know about evolution does not give us any information about whether they believe it or don’t.

Knowledge is distinct from belief.

Bill Nye’s assumption that young-earth creationism represents a lack of scientific knowledge is more than just an embarrassing ignorance on Nye’s part.  The educational and political tasks in cases of naïve non-knowledge are worlds apart from the educational and political tasks in cases of intentional or constructed non-knowledge.  In the case of evolution education, if creationists were simply unaware of evolutionary science, then outreach programs would have a good chance of success.  The task would be simply to spread information.  But in reality, evolution education must recognize that many students and families are not simply ignorant, but resistant to this form of knowledge.  Educational efforts must strive first to understand the reasons for this resistance.  Only then can evolution educators hope to develop effective strategies to teach evolution.

Consider an example from outside the world of evolution education.  Imagine your task is to deliver polio vaccine in a rural area.  If the people in the area did not know about the vaccine, you could simply publicize the benefits and the location of the vaccination clinic.  Then people would bring their children to receive the vaccine.

But if the people in the area thought that the vaccine was dangerous, you couldn’t simply put up posters and distribute flyers.  You would have to engage in a very different task.  You would have to understand why people thought the vaccine was dangerous.  You would have to get to know the reasoning involved in order to offer counter-arguments that would be convincing.  Only if you could convince people that the vaccine was helpful and not dangerous could you ever hope to vaccinate large percentages of the population.

Bill Nye is talented.  Bill Nye is brave.  Bill Nye is smart.

But he continues to display a puzzling ignorance about the contours of creationism in America.  Instead of using his considerable influence to suggest pragmatic policies to spread evolution education, he continues to misdirect evolution education policy.  He needs to learn about creationism if he wants to debate it intelligently.

 

Ham on Nye: The Debate Continues

He-said-he-said.  Who are we to believe? Bill Nye “The Science Guy” and creationist leader Ken Ham have published reflections on their recent debate.  Nye explains his triumphHam says, not so fast.  To this reader, Ham seems to be on the defensive.

As ILYBYGTH readers recall, the debate itself occurred a couple of months ago.  Bill Nye traveled to Ham’s Creation Museum to tackle the question, “Is creation a viable model of origins in the modern scientific era?”  The debate rollicked over some familiar territory and included some surprises.  Ham focused on his idiosyncratic definition of science, split into authentic “observational” science and illegitimate “historical” science.  Nye piled on the traditional skeptical puzzlers: How could a tree be more than 6,000 years old on a young earth?  Why are there no fossils out of order?  How could an Ark survive?

In the pages of the Skeptical Inquirer, Nye recently offered his reflections on the debate.  He explains his strategy to pile on example after example of young-earth-confounding science.  He explains his decision to spend his first precious ninety seconds on a mild joke about bow ties.  He profusely thanks his advisers, such as the experienced creation/evolution debaters at the National Center for Science Education.  Nye’s tone is profoundly celebratory.  In short, he explains how and why he triumphed.

Perhaps not surprising, Ken Ham took exception to Nye’s comments.  Never one to back away from a challenge, Ham recently published a rejoinder to Nye’s memoir.  To me, Ham’s article seems strangely defensive.  Don’t get me wrong: I’m no follower of Mr. Ham.  But I have defended him against vicious verbal assaults from skeptics.  I have also taken The Science Guy to task for his woeful misunderstanding of the culture of creationism.  But in this case, Ham’s only defense seems to be to niggle around the edges of Nye’s memories.

Ham objects, for example, to Nye’s memory of how the debate came about.  The way Nye tells it, Ham persistently challenged Nye to a debate until Nye agreed.  The way Ken Ham remembers it, however, the whole thing came about at the suggestion of an Associated Press reporter.

Ham also objected to Nye’s repeated suggestion that Ham has a “congregation,” and that all of these museums appeal to “Ham’s followers.”  Such language, Ham protests, seems to be an effort to marginalize Ham’s Answers In Genesis ministry as a fringe cult.  Fair enough.  I would be surprised if Bill Nye knew much about the history of parachurch organizations in American (and Australian) evangelical Protestantism.  For evangelical Protestants, there is often a clear distinction between church and broader organizations that also help the cause.  Missionary groups, Bible leagues, youth organizations, and similar parachurch organizations are a familiar part of the evangelical experience.  Nye really does seem to miss this distinction entirely.  But does it matter?  Does it really hurt Ham’s cause if outsiders think of his work as a “congregation” instead of a “ministry?”  It seems the distinction only matters to members themselves.

Perhaps strangest of all, Ham claims to catch Nye in an embarrassing distortion of the truth.  Nye insists that he had never been inside the Creation Museum before the debate.  One time when he was in the area, Nye explained, he drove around the parking lot, but the museum itself was closed.  Nye says he saw the “infamous” statue of a dinosaur with early humans outside the museum.  But Ham seems to prove that Nye distorted this memory.  Ham produces a photo that apparently shows Bill Nye outside the Creation Museum in 2011.  Ham even notes a 2011 Facebook post that seems to confirm the date and duration (122 seconds!) of Nye’s visit.  The museum, Ham claims, was indeed open at the time.  Plus, there is no statue outside the museum that depicts humans cavorting with dinosaurs.  How could Nye have seen a statue that doesn’t exist?

Nye's 122 Seconds Outside the Creation Museum

Nye’s 122 Seconds Outside the Creation Museum

These sorts of nitpicks put Nye in an awkward position.  Why would Nye embellish his memories of his 2011 visit to the Creation Museum’s parking lot?

In the end, though, they don’t seem to make a difference.  Throughout this post-debate commentary, Ken Ham takes a decidedly defensive tone.  He pokes holes in Nye’s memories, but he doesn’t really challenge Nye’s central conclusion that the debate was a triumph for mainstream science.