Last night was the controversial debate between international science superstar Bill Nye the Science Guy and international man of ridicule Ken Ham. You might have noticed I live blogged the debate as it was happening. That was quite an interesting experience, and I wasn’t sure at the time what I would have to say that I didn’t say more concisely in a timestamped one liner.
So I sat with it.
I feel before I go on that I should reveal that I am not really on either side here. I firmly agree with Mr. Nye that science should be taught in science classrooms, and that it is a failure, not only of our education but our competitive spirit to allow religion of any brand to bully its way into the minds of kids dressed as anything other than what it is.
However, like Mr. Ham, I don’t have any strong objection to the idea existing that an Intelligent Designer might have had a hand in setting this whole circus we call reality in motion. I think such ideas are better discussed in philosophy classes or humanities, or even metaphysics. That’s about as close as I can come to Mr. Ham, and as kind as I’m likely to be to him in the remainder of this wrap-up.
The more I sat with the debate, the more what really stood out to me was the compassion with which Bill Nye treated the whole affair. He was cordial but firm, and he used his time at the podium rarely to attack the ideas of creationism and more to point out the wonder and complexity of the world revealed by science. His simple question, throughout the entire night, was “can your ideas reveal the same wonder, and lead us to discover new wonders, with any reliability?”
I think we all knew that neither side in this debate was going to win, partially because reconciliation between the two is all but impossible because they do not rely upon the same measure of truth. Mr. Nye relies upon testable data and watching whether ideas are useful in predicting undiscovered natural phenomena. He is comfortable with uncertainty (a fact he displayed over and over again during the question and answer phase where his answer was as often as not “I have no idea! Isn’t that exciting? You’ve just asked a great question! Maybe a kid from your state might one day find out the answer??”)
Contrasting that is Mr. Ham, whose premise is that all the answers ultimately are the same, which is “God did it”, and that uncertainty is detrimental to the fabric of society. The fundamental and irreconcilable difference between the two positions is that one treats questions as indications you are making progress, and the other classifies questions into those which are permitted and those which are dangerous.
However, I continue to come back to Mr. Nye’s compassion. I was stunned when during his closing statement, as he quoted his mentor Carl Sagan casually and without credit, saying, “We are a way for the universe to know itself” that I had tears in my eyes. It was then that I began to suspect why Mr. Nye had arrived on that stage, and why he spent his time mostly offering new information, rather than directly attacking his opponent.
Bill Nye didn’t come for the creationists. He came for their children.
Let me state that in a way that sounds less creepy. What Mr Nye’s stated reason for engaging in the debate was to bring a spotlight to the critical importance of science education to the future of America. He repeatedly stated that in order to stay at the forefront of innovation and industry, our young people would have to embrace and be inspired by science.
And then he spent almost every moment on that stage holding out the hand of opportunity to his opponents, saying, “Come with me! We’ll figure it out together!”
I was raised in a pretty Christian home. I wouldn’t say it was “crazy” but I know that as a young Christian I would probably have been made to watch this debate at some point, by my parents, by my church, or through a Christian media outlet. Because Mr. Nye was so kind and so neutral, these Christian outlets will feel comfortable showing their kids the debate. Whereas had he been brutal the debate might have just gone into an archive. But now, what I predict will happen is that an entire generation of kids raised in homes that treat intellectualism like a corrosive acid to the mind who might not otherwise be permitted to be exposed to the complex and marvelous world of science Mr. Nye holds up will get that taste, and in turn, be able to ask the hard questions that lead to discovery.
Bill Nye swallowed his pride as a scientist to do exactly what a science educator is supposed to do: he inspired minds. He didn’t express vitriol, he didn’t treat his opponent with disrespect, he didn’t come armed for bear with a bullet for every argument presented by Ken Ham.
He came with the wonder of science, and the questions that make that wonder possible, and held out a hand to everyone in that room, and everyone watching.
Contrast this to what Mr. Ham used his time to do. From the beginning Mr Ham’s agenda was clear. Rather than answering the question of the sufficiency of creationist worldviews to predict and meaningfully contribute to scientific advancement, he used his time to prove two things: Creationists are being persecuted unjustly, and evolution is a religion not a science. He used his time as a platform, not for scientific inquiry, but for politician style stumping.
It wasn’t surprising at all. It wasn’t a shock that he couldn’t answer the questions the moderator, the audience, and Nye himself asked of him. But I think it is useful to point out some repetitive flaws in Mr. Ham’s reasoning. I do this so that one day, if someone is looking for cogent critiques of the debate, they have a record not just that Mr. Ham was wrong, but the way in which his REASONING went wrong.
I do this because I am not a scientist but I love science. I am a writer, and a rhetorician, and this is the best contribution I can make to this debate. My own mentor, a brilliant woman (and incidentally a Christian), Trish Roberts-Miller, spends most of her time researching and interacting with some of the most heinous arguments and reasoning on the planet. She publishes book on Pro-Slavery rhetoric and Nazis. And do you know what she taught me? The answer to bad rhetoric is not to silence it. The answer is more rhetoric. Bad speech should be responded to with good speech.
This is my attempt at good speech in response to Ken Ham.
Read my critique after the jump