The media is buzzing with news of the upcoming debate between Bill Nye the "Science Guy" and Ken Ham, America's leading young earth creationist the "anti-Science Guy." Much of the buzz has come from allies of Bill Nye, telling him to avoid climbing on stage with Ham to debate the credibility of biological evolution lest people get the mistaken impression that there actually is a debate about evolution.
People who hold marginal positions love debates because it makes their position seem credible -- after all we wouldn't be debating this question if it wasn't a real question would we? We wouldn't "defend" evolution unless it needed defending would we?
Creationists have long used public debates to advance their agenda. Leading creationists have speaking and writing skills that translate well into the rhetorically dominated debate format. By way of contrast, their debate opponents are often more schooled in technical scientific argumentation, where data, expertise, and consensus are far more important than rhetoric. But Bill Nye is an exception to this rule -- a "science entertainer" rather than a scientist and it will be interesting to see how he does.
Unfortunately many of the points needing to be made about evolution -- like the reliability of radioactive dating techniques, the interpretation of fossils, or the role of "assumptions" in science -- are too technical to work in a popular format. As a result, more than one leading scientist has "lost" the debate about evolution. I attended one such debate at Boston University in the late '70s and watched young earth creationist Duane Gish -- the dean of anti-evolution debaters -- humiliate a biology professor who got lost in details that he just couldn't explain to his audience. Such outcomes were so common 40 years ago that a consensus developed in the scientific community that their cause was not advanced by the debate format. Richard Dawkins echoed this wisdom recently in his warning to Nye that debating Ham was a bad idea.
I predict that the upcoming Ham-on-Nye encounter won't be a debate at all, given the radically different agendas of the debaters. Nye will give some evidence for the truth of evolution and argue that we should believe things that are supported by evidence. Ham will spend his time on a rather different topic -- convincing the audience that evolution and Christianity are incompatible. His presentation, like his creation museum, will be based on the idea that the position one embraces on evolution derives from starting assumptions, and not from evidence. Ham's message will be that evolution is the conclusion of one's rejection of God and the Bible. He knows that science is not on his side.
I just participated in a conference looking at Christian views on evolution. I argued that evolution was true and Christians need to make peace with it. One of Ham's associates at Answers in Genesis, Dr. Georgia Purdom, was on the program defending young earth creationism. Purdom referred to the position promoted by Ham's organization as Biblical Creation -- not scientific creationism, as it used to be called. Her argument was not that the data supported her position--although she believes that -- but rather that her position was faithful to the Bible and traditional Christian understanding, and thus the only real choice for Christians. A few months ago I debated evolution with Dr. Randy Galiuzza of the Institute for Creation Research -- where Ham used to work. Like Purdom, Galiuzza spent little time on the question of evidence and focused instead on why evolution was incompatible with Christianity. He also identified his position as Biblical, rather than scientific, creationism.
Ham, Purdom, Galiuzza and the rest of America's young earth creationists know where the real debate lies. It's an intramural debate within conservative Christianity about whether evolution is compatible with belief in God as Creator. Their literature focuses almost exclusively on this, rather than the scientific evidence. And this is indeed a live question and one I have been engaging for some time in what looks increasingly like a quixotic enterprise. Polls show repeatedly that most Americans embrace some form of Christianity and that roughly half of them have rejected evolution as a consequence. Ham's argument is that Christians cannot accept evolution because it is incompatible with their faith. He is not arguing that nobody should accept evolution because it is not true.
So Ham has won the debate before he even steps on stage, simply because Bill Nye does not believe in God. Nye walks on stage with a huge bubble over his head that says "I reject God and the Bible and I accept evolution." Ham walks on stage with a bubble that reads "I believe in God and the Bible and I reject evolution." And Christians will be pressed to choose sides.
The anti-science guy has already won.
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