iloveranch asked: Are you excited for Bill Nye VS. Ken Ham?
LONG POST DISCLAIMER: I know when you asked this, you weren’t expecting a treatise, but you’re getting one anyway, because I have Thoughts on this. Strap in.
For those of you just tuning in, Bill Nye has agreed to debate noted creationist Ken Ham on Feb. 4th, the topic being “Is creation a viable model of human origins?”. (I can end this debate very quickly: “No.”)
To answer your question succinctly, no, I’m not excited. I don’t know why Bill agreed to do this. To make it even weirder, he’s doing it at the Creation Museum in Kentucky. That’s Ham’s home court. When you walk into a room where dinosaurs stand next to early humans, you have to understand that logic and reason might not walk in next to you.
Bill shouldn’t be worried about losing the debate on scientific grounds, but he might still lose, just by showing up. He really shouldn’t be having the debate in the first place. NASA scientists don’t agree to debate whether space exists or whether we actually went to the moon. Physicists don’t agree to debate whether gravity actually exists. Because there is no debate. Life arose on Earth from some previously inorganic, self-replicating system. Through the evolution and selection of systems so complex and time so vast that we are quite literally unable to fathom them, Earth’s living world ended up looking precisely like it does today, which is not necessarily the only way it could have ended up.
We don’t understand every step of that process, and scientists readily, even happily admit that, because it means they still have jobs. We haven’t traced life’s origins with certainty. What we know know, and what we don’t, is simply the limit of our understanding, not a lack of it. We may never be able to definitively describe the transition from an abiotic (“non-living”) to a biotic (“living”) Earth, although theories like this one are bringing us tantalizingly close, perhaps as close as we may ever come, or perhaps just closer to taking the next step out of the fading darkness of ignorance and into the nourishing light of discovery, which feels so good on your skin.
I think that religious faith and its attendant traditions can be wonderful, enriching pieces (maybe even corner pieces!) in this complicated puzzle we call human culture, and you should absolutely make them part of your life, but only if you want to. Those traditions should not be confused with real science. When you turn to creation stories as the actual, for-real, “this is what really happened” version of events, you are cutting yourself off from a vast portion of the world, and by “world” I mean the actual stuff of dirt, water, rocks, air, and life. You are choosing to deny logic, observation, and the scientific method. Our knowledge of the living, breathing Earth, its rich history and continuing evolution and its unknown future … that is more satisfying than any creation story, because no matter if you think the world around you is molded by a deity’s hand or simply the wondrous result of improbable chemistry, accepting science adds to your understanding of this beautiful existence, while millennia-old, unchanging creation myths insist on limiting that beauty, and replacing it with stories that by definition, and with great irony, have not evolved for thousands of years.
So that’s one reason I don’t think Bill should be having this debate.
Beyond all these flowery words about watering the rose of your intellect, there’s plenty of other reasons to think this debate is a bad idea. For one thing, the audience will likely be full of people who already squarely land in one camp or the other, ready to eat the proverbial popcorn, and each paying a $25 admission fee, which, since this is taking place at the Creation Museum, I can only assume will go totes into the pocket of Ken Ham and associates. In addition to free money, Nye is giving Ham free publicity, publicity that Nye doesn’t need (he was already on Earth’s premiere ballroom dance show for crying out loud!) and that Ham couldn’t buy in his wildest dreams with a suitcase full of wild dream money. Next, when you sit on a stage to debate, rules usually call for equal time, and that gives the impression, which is horribly mistaken in this case, that the two sides are on equal logical footing. If I was organizing this debate, I’d let Ham say maybe three words, and let Bill talk for the remainder of the time, because that’s how the scientific consensus is weighted against creationism. Instead, Nye will probably spend the time on the defensive, refuting ridiculous claims like that Ham invented the question mark.
Finally, who is this going to convince? I was chatting with Elise Andrew of IFLS about this yesterday (<- humblebrag alert), and I am genuinely curious about this. Are there large numbers of people who are on the fence about whether evolution or creationism is the One True Way? And I mean really, truly “on the fence” in the sense that they could be tipped to one side by the words of either a hero of their elementary school afternoons and Tumblr memes and bow-tie-shipping, or … that other guy? Maybe there are a lot of people out there who squarely straddle that fence, which I imagine must be a painful place to be, but I kind of doubt it. Read a little about confirmation bias and motivated reasoning and maybe you’ll understand why I feel that way.
A poll recently came out from the fine pollsters at Pew, showing that a certain conservative political party’s belief in evolution has dropped 11% since 2009. That could be viewed as bad news, or it could mean that fence-sitters have already jumped on over to munch on the verdant grass of science and left their political party with it.
I firmly believe –scratch that– I know that people can change their minds on this stuff, because I’ve seen it happen. I just don’t think this debate is the way to do it. “So, Mr. Science Man,” you’re surely asking, “what is?” Well, that same Pew poll contained this (look at the last three lines):
More education goes right along with greater acceptance evolution. The more effectively we educate people, all people of all colors and classes, the more people we have on Team Darwin.
THAT’S the plan I’m going with. Join me?