By Donald Prothero – paleontologist, geologist, and author who specializes in mammalian paleontology
I write this post just a few hours after watching the Ham on Nye “debate” last night. I’m still mulling over the details, and checking on line to see the evolving reactions to the events, but it’s running through my head so much now that it’s time to write it down so I can get back to work. Fittingly, it will post on February 12, Darwin’s 205th birthday. It couldn’t be more appropriate.
Let me start at the beginning. I was at Michael Shermer’s New Year’s Eve party last December 31st. This is not just your average New Year’s Eve party: it’s in Shermer’s magnificent glass-walled view house at the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains with an amazing panorama of the lights of the city below. He had his telescope out on the porch, and we all got a view of the four Galilean moons of Jupiter. The guests include Mr. Deity and “Lucy” (Brian Keith Dalton and Amy Rohren), D.J. Grothe of the James Randi Educational Foundation, lots of scientists including several JPL people, Shermer’s grad students—and Bill Nye. Late in the evening, Bill comes up to me and mentions that he had agreed to debate Ken Ham. He knew I’d beaten Duane Gish back in 1983, and that I was familiar with battling creationism over the past 35 years. After I talked to him and realized that the debate was set and he could not back out, I offered to help him prepare. Then about 3 weeks ago, he emailed me and we made arrangements. He spent a day in Oakland at the National Center for Science Education (NCSE), where a bunch of their staff helped him analyze Ham’s past debates and arguments (they have archives of every creationist out there), and suggest strategies. Since Ham had voluntarily set the debate topic to defend the scientific value and truth of the Bible, Bill was not in the usual dilemma of having to defend and explain complex topics of evolution. Normally, creationists employ the “Gish Gallop” to keep the scientist on the defensive, trying to undo the mistaken ideas and lies the creationist has just said, and replace it with a more complex explanation. Instead, the NCSE staffers recommended that Bill use this to his advantage, and do a “reverse Gish Gallop”: pile on the examples one after another, so that Ham wouldn’t have time or ability to answer them all.
On January 21st, Bill met with me at Shermer’s house, where Michael and I both tried to make additional suggestions and give him some specific examples. We both gave him copies of our old Powerpoints we used against creationists, and I gave him a copy of my 2007 book on evolution and DVDs of my Skeptic Society lectures on those topics. During the ensuing days, I spent a lot of time pasting together Powerpoint slides out of my many older lectures that I thought would work well, and sending them to him. As Bill got his own slides together, he shared them with me, Shermer, and Genie Scott and Josh Rosenau of the NCSE. We tried our own suggestions and tweaks, but ultimately it had to be something he was comfortable with and not words we had put in his mouth.
Bill Nye with the NCSE coaches: (bottom, Steve Newton, Minda Berbeco, Josh Rosenau; Top, Glenn Branch, Ann Reid, Nye, Genie Scott)
Of course, I had a lot of trepidation when the event finally started online with their Lord of the Rings-Star Wars-influenced theme music, and the gratuitous ad for the Creation Museum (“Free for kids with paying adult”) at the opening. Sure, it was on Ham’s home turf with an audience almost entirely of his loyal flock (alldebates with creationists have the audience stacked in their favor). Sure, Ken was going to make about $25,000 of all the admissions from the attendees, plus money from DVD sales and other ancillaries. But what he really wanted is a big win and a publicity boost so he could get backers to fund his “Ark Encounter” project that is about be canceled if it doesn’t sell $29 million in junk bonds by Feb. 6 (which it apparently didn’t) and $150 million by the funding deadline in May, or all his tax deals with the Commonwealth of Kentucky to build him roads and infrastructure will expire. Ken has his own sinking ship to worry about: his “Creation Museum” is losing money as visitation drops, his “Ark Encounter” is about to sink badly, so favorable publicity is the real issue, not the piddling amount he made in ticket sales and DVDs.
The debate itself was pretty much as I expected. Ham won the coin toss, and went first with a 5-minute opening, then after Bill’s first 5 minutes, he got a full 30 minutes to speak uninterrupted (followed by Nye’s 30 minutes). He did exactly as we predicted: play up this phony distinction he cooked up between “observational” vs. “historical” science (more on that in a future post), brag about the handful of scientists in the world who are Young-Earth Creationists (YECs), nearly all in irrelevant fields completely outside the only relevant disciplines: biology, paleontology, or geology. He was trying to make the ridiculous assertion that if these people were good scientists and YECs, therefore YEC must be right. He trotted out the usual phony ideas about how mainstream science was in a great conspiracy to suppress religion, and to rule out the supernatural because we’re all atheists. Toward the end of his 30-minute spiel, he began spouting religion in earnest. During his entire presentation, he presented no evidence from science that supported his cause, only an argument by association with scientists who are closet creationists. Big deal!
Bill’s opening and 30-minute presentation were pretty much his own inventions, with a few ideas we had suggested to him. In his opening 5 minutes, he shot down the ridiculous “observational vs. historical” distinction, emphasized the importance of science in our culture, and set the tone for his entire debate. His first slide of the 30-minute time slot was an idea I gave him: point out that the “Creation Museum” is built on the very rocks that refute the “Flood Geology” model, complete with a hand sample of fossiliferous limestone he got from the local road cuts (somehow, even though several feet of snow were on the ground). Again and again, he reminded everyone that YEC is a narrow sectarian belief held by a tiny minority in the world (including a minority of Christians, and an even tinier minority of Americans), yet they would force their views on the rest of us and interfere with science education. He got off the line about how many real evolutionary scientists are also good Christians, such as NIH Director Francis Collins. But the bulk of his presentation focused on the ridiculous implications of the Noah’s Flood model and of the 6000 year old earth: how we have ice cores with 680,000 annual layers in them (I gave him that one) and tree rings going back over 6000 years; how the “Ark” would have torn apart because no wooden boat longer than 350 feet can survive the open ocean (let alone how it could have been built by 8 people in Noah’s family); how if only the “created kinds” were aboard, they’d have to speciate at a rate of 12 new speciesevery day for the past 4000 years to account for the millions of species alive now (way faster than speciation as we observe it today, and a lot more evolution than most creationists would accept as well). Nye finished with the way science is about discovery and prediction of what we should find next (the opposite of creationism), giving as an example the Big Bang and the cosmic background radiation, and capped it with a reminder that our country, and our kids, need good science education if the U.S. wants to remain competitive in the world of future science and technology.
During the succeeding short 5-minute back and forth, and the 2-minute question session, the themes got somewhat disjointed, as both were no longer on their prepared remarks. Bill kept prodding Ham to suggest any prediction that creation science would make, and Ham dodged it. Even though the audience was supposedly stacked in Ham’s favor, some of the questions given to him were right to the point: they forced him to admit that he cherry-picked the Bible and didn’t take all of it literally; they exposed the shallowness of his science education; and many other questions that put him ill at ease, spouting “There is a book out there…” and falling back on the Bible rather than scientific evidence. Ham really stumbled when Bill pressed him about how a lion used it sharp teeth to eat grass. Ham was flustered, then retorted that bears and pandas eat plants. (Bill didn’t know it, but both bears and pandas also have blunt crushing teeth in the back for this very reason). Best of all, one question about what evidence would cause him to reject creationism forced him to admit that NO evidence would change his views. For anyone who was not already a hard-core YEC, that should have been the slam-dunk admission of defeat right there.
Both speakers had their good moments and fumbles. Many thought Bill should have gone for the jugular and attacked whenever Ham spouted another example of the idiocy of his beliefs, but Bill held back and instead tried to emphasize how Ken’s ideas go against common sense and everyday experience and logic. In few cases, Bill botched the explanation of the science he was discussing (a point only we scientists noticed), but Ham didn’t know enough science to spot it and correct him. Ham kept going on and on from beginning to end about the inferiority of “historical science” and many of us thought Bill should keep addressing it, but he didn’t. As I’ll discuss at length in future posts, Bill didn’t drive home the punch line on several key points (some of which I gave him) as effectively as he might. Not being a geologist, he didn’t know the correct way to shoot down the ridiculous claim Ham made about the 45 m.y. old lava (dated by K-Ar) encasing a 45,000 year old piece of wood (dated by radiocarbon). I coached Bill a bit about radiometric dating, but he’s not spent a lot of time learning all the creationist lies. Thus, he didn’t know that radiocarbon is useless for materials older than 40,000 years, so no real geologist would even take such a date seriously–the wood is radiocarbon dead and not datable. He also could have hit home harder why the ridiculous question about the Second Law of Thermodynamics does not apply to the earth or evolution—it only applies to closed systems, and the earth is an open system getting energy from the sun.
But these are all quibbles. Most of us in the scientific community focus on nit-picking details and scientific correctness, which is why it is so hard to debate creationists who run roughshod over the truth and never look back. A better barometer was immediately apparent as they signed off. A portion of the crowd shouted “Bill, Bill, Bill” (as in the theme song of his old show)—so it wasn’tcompletely packed with creationists. Afterwards, Bill was mobbed at the podium by many well-wishers, while no one walked up to Ham, and he quietly left the stage.
As I monitored the chatter online and in the liveblogs and twittersphere and other media, there were a wide range of reactions. Many were like I used to be, thinking like scientists (“Bill didn’t explain this point correctly”, “Bill didn’t challenge Ham on this tiny detail”) or as experienced debaters (“Bill didn’t attack Ham on this point” “Bill left this outrageous claim unchallenged” “Bill didn’t attack the Bible enough”). But I’ve come to see that they’re missing the point. As Randy Olson (scientist and filmmaker of “Flock of Dodos” which skewers scientists for being arrogant and unwilling to communicate to the general public) points out, it’s not really a “debate” in the normal sense, where the opponents address common points and talk about the same topic, and score when they make an intelligent comeback or delicious riposte or bon mot. Bill and Ken were talking about two completely different topics with almost no overlap, so as in all these events, there is no real “debate” when the two sides don’t even agree on common definitions, common rules, standards of evidence, or even what is real.
What’s really at stake is the meta-debate, the overall impression created by the experience, which is the best way to win the hearts and minds (as they used to say about the Vietnam War). Nothing Bill could have said would change the minds of a typical YEC, any more than Ham’s Bible-thumping impresses real scientists. No, the real audience is the huge number of people on the fence, not sure of what to believe. I found that my 2007 evolution book reached a lot of these people effectively, and these people outside the room were the true audience. As Olson said and the NCSE people coached him, what really counts is to be likable, friendly, positive, upbeat, non-threatening, while explaining the science in a clear simple fashion at fifth-grade level, and not bullying or being condescending to the opponent or looking arrogant or smug as a scientist (These things are very hard for me to do, since I take the creationist’s attacks as a personal attack on my profession and my integrity. Another reason I won’t debate them any more). Bill didn’t attack Ham directly or belittle his idiocy and stupidity (most of us wanted to throttle Ham each time he spouted another lie). Instead, Bill was a gentleman, talking up the absurdity of his position and saying how it “troubled him,” how Ham’s ideas were against evidence and common sense, and generally letting the audience fill in the blanks when they too realized how silly YEC is. Bill has been a TV entertainer and science educator for 30 years, and he (along with Neil DeGrasse Tyson and the late Carl Sagan) are among the few scientists who are good popularizers that we need so badly. Even as the debate was winding up, most people no longer remembered any of the details or who scored points on whom, or who failed to reply to whose challenge. What they DO remember is that they liked Bill and he made science sound fun and interesting and important, while Ham came off as a dogmatic religious extremist who wouldn’t change his mind despite any evidence, and fell back on the Bible rather than scientific evidence each time he was challenged. Bill beat Ham on this issue, hands down!
If you doubt me, just look at the reaction to the debate. Not only did the audience in that room swarm Bill, but the chatter online has been overwhelmingly in his favor.Over 500,000 watched it live on YouTube, and at least a million more on different live stream links, an audience far larger than most scientists can generate except on TV shows. Ham’s own Answers in Genesis website so far has not postedanything crowing about their great victory–just a bland recounting of the points Ken raised without a summation of who they think was the winner! The PR-savvy Discovery Institute website, which always comes back the next day after a debate bragging about how they “won”, instead is criticizing Ham for making them look bad with all his ridiculous YEC nonsense. Now they have a post redirecting our attention to their own Stephen Meyer debating Charles Marshall, trying to steer away from what they call “Ham’s fiasco”. Even Pat Robertson scolded Ham for making Christianity look stupid! But the real clincher was a poll on Christian Today, a site that should favor Ham. As of their last posting, their poll shows Nye won 92% to 8%!
American science is under serious threat from all sorts of science deniers out there, including creationists, climate deniers, anti-vaxxers, quack medicine, and other ideologues who don’t like what science tells us and refuses to accept it. Science deniers currently dominate one of our major political parties, seriously threatening the future of science in this country, and our economic future. As Randy Olson has pointed out so many times, we’ve been hiding in our ivory towers, unwilling to fight back against the forces of science denial, and we’re losing ground. As the Discovery Institute knows so well, PR is important! We need people like Bill Nye and Neil DeGrasse Tyson and others expert at communicating science in a friendly, likable fashion more than ever if we are to hold back the forces of darkness.