There is a growing movement to teach creationism in parallel with evolution in K-12 science classrooms. In Kentucky, “change over time” replaced “evolution,” opening the door for creation as a viable alternative. Commonly known as “teach the controversy,” this movement is obviously problematic as it threatens the integrity of the scientific process. To help shed a mainstream spotlight on this issue, Bill Nye of “Science Guy” fame and creationist Ken Ham staged a public debate on the topic: “Is creation a viable model of origins in today’s modern scientific era?” However, despite good intentions from Nye, this event was met with skepticism among scientists and atheists alike.
The temptation to debate creationists should be resisted according to opinions published by The Scientist and many others. The Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science released an article shortly before the debate stating that Mr. Nye (with an honorary PhD) was not qualified to engage is such a debate and that, in this context, the author feared that the argued cases would be framed as equal. This viewpoint is in line with Richard Dawkins himself, who likens teaching creationism in the science classroom to child abuse.
The non-confrontational logic shared by the Dawkins Foundation and most scientists is potentially shortsighted because it fails to recognize important human factors at play. There are many reasons why voters need to see this confrontation. Most importantly, failure to confront creationists doesn’t serve the need for publicly verifiable evidence. Furthermore, it has the potential of painting scientists as unreasonable, which is the opposite of the truth since reason is inherent in science.
Though there are dangers, debate is defined as only: “a discussion between people in which they express different opinions about something.” There are no requirements on the merits that support the opinions. Debate has the potential to make huge progress in excluding creationists teachings from academic science. As such, I was in full support of the debate. In fact, here are two concepts that made the debate a good idea:
1) Content, Contrast, and Context
The evidence supporting the theory of evolution is very scientific in nature. In contrast, the support for teaching creationism is based solely on faith. With the content fueling both sides in the same context, Nye was easily able to challenge the concept of causal supernatural involvement. Nye also succeeded in deconstructing Ham’s explanations as probably nonsense. The audience (America) compared an overwhelming amount of convincing evidence supporting evolution side-by-side with lack of directly observable evidence besides “the bible says” and “the bible tells us…” Contrast becomes more obvious in a side-by-side context. Simply answering the questions surrounding this debate provides a much needed service for the uneducated voters to make the right choice and keep creation out of the classroom.
Why is this important?
The key battleground is in the minds of young people who will determine what the future holds. They have the choice to not accept the evidence that points to evolution. The danger is that they will be lead to the false conclusion that creation is scientifically legitimate in the critical years before maturity sets in, but I would like to give them more credit. A recent statement by the National Institutes of Health suggests that “although teenagers exhibit a tendency to act on impulse—without regard for risk, in terms of sheer intellectual power, the brain of an adolescent is a match for an adult’s. … The capacity of a person to learn will never be greater than during adolescence.” It is important to allow young people to learn for themselves the difference between the supernatural realm and something that is observable and predicatively powerful.
2) Presence and Prowess
Nye is a smart guy and an excellent speaker. Putting an articulate scientist and a [creationist] believer side-by-side was good move because it revealed the difference between science, which is always open to evidence-based modification (observation/inference/deduction), and creationist belief, which is somewhat totalitarian in presenting the word of god as a literal translation of the bible. If Nye had refused to debate when challenged, he would have been doing the same thing that Ham did in the debate, which was to say “…no, no one is ever going to convince me…” when asked “what, if anything, would change your mind.” Nye’s reply to the same question was “We would just need one piece of evidence.” Not having the debate would have been a failure to address a real problem and a missed opportunity.
How did it go?
From the standpoint of debate, Bill Nye did a great job justifying evolution, winning the debate from the perspective of the public majority. Nye’s support for the importance of choosing the most substantiated model (evolution) was it’s predictive power. The available explanation of human origin is still evolving, but the story is extensively peer-reviewed and scientifically plausible. In contrast, the stories described in the Book of Genesis are not. The evidence for Genesis does not stack up and I have been waiting for a public revelation about it. There needs to be evidence — it’s hard to debate with people who don’t respect and won’t use evidence. To be clear, evolution has nothing to say about the existence of god but it is incompatible with young earth creationism.
While watching the debate, I just wanted Nye to sock it to Ham on every point. And I felt that he did. To test if my emotions on the topic were crowding out logic, I asked my former debate coach, Alfred Snider, to give me impartial feedback. He said:
1. It was a clear victory for Nye to almost anyone watching.
2. Nye was very well prepared, and with a few simple ideas, he was able to destroy the opposing arguments.
3. Nye conducted himself in a very professional manner — he knew he was out to persuade those who agreed with his opponent.
However, despite the fact that Nye held his own, my debate coach was more aligned with Dawkins in that he thought the debate was a bad idea. “One risk is that when you agree to debate something on an even platform you give credibility to their position which might not be deserved, thus actually helping that position.” But again, I have to respectfully disagree.
The debate was a bet with extremely good odds, and was worth the effort. We could forecast long in advance that Nye would back up his claims with solid, well-prepared evidence while Ham would repeatedly use the bible.
In conclusion, the threat of losing predictive power will become a real danger if we ignore and/or misinterprets much of the scientific evidence, which Nye successfully made the case that the Ken Ham model does.