The Richard Dawkins Foundation’s Dan Arel wrote what many scientists have thought for a long time. Don’t debate creationists, it just eggs them on.It is typically the position of scientists to discuss data and how it should be interpreted, but not to simply debate on a larger idea that does not hinge on some critical observation. There are many reasons for this: 1) It’s too large in scope to actually present all the evidence for and discuss it rationally, 2) This debate in particular is coming about more than a century too late (when there was new data challenging the old paradigm, and 3) debate doesn’t actually solve anything.
It was also argued that Bill Nye might not be the best representative of the field of biology and its primary tenet. It would be counter productive to have a debate of questionable utility and then not send the best qualified person for the job.
But it happened. You can watch the whole debate here:
I was fidgeting in my seat waiting for the thing to start thinking, ‘this could go poorly, what do I really know about Bill Nye? By being held at the Creationist Museum in Kentucky, Bill is definitely speaking before a potentially overwhelmingly biased audience. I hope he’s done his homework.’
The two took the stage, were introduced to the audience and the rules of the game were outlined (intro statements, a 30 minutes opportunity to build a case, then shorter Q&A style back and forth.)
Mr. Ham won the coin toss and went first. In his opening statements he spoke very well, redefined a couple of terms for us, like ‘science’ (which he broke into observational science and historical science) and talked a bit about the theory of knowledge (what can we know? What counts as evidence?)
I was thrown off by some of his definitions and didn’t like his assertion that we cannot use observations of the laws of nature today and apply the lessons we learn to the past, but overall, he came off fairly well and charismatically.
Then Mr. Nye took the mike and started telling a story about bow ties. I like bow ties and I think he pulls it off very well, but I didn’t like where this was going. Luckily, he came back to his message and gave a strong introduction that settled my nerves somewhat.
For the meat of his talk, Mr. Ham really went all out to establish the language that could be used and what he deemed admissible as evidence. The short story was, we can’t know anything about the past, except from the eye-witness account of history the Bible gives us (God’s Word). Anything else is ‘Man’s Word’ and inherently faulty.
-Great! we can agree on something! I also believe that humans make mistakes, misremember things, etc. This is why data beats anecdote.
So, what’s troubling about this?
Well, a lot. It means we can’t really learn anything. We cannot expect the same rules of nature to apply tomorrow as they do today. And we can know nothing about the past by studying the world as it is today. This sounds suspiciously, and tragically, like David Hume’s Empiricism, i.e. we may think we observe causation, but this is impossible – and even if we are not wrong, every instance of the world is new and different, so we can’t extrapolate from past experience at all. Mr. Nye, like myself, had a problem with this and repeatedly asked, ‘Where does this leave us? Can we make no predictions about how the world will work? ‘ (not a direct quote)
Rather than getting too hung up on epistemology, Nye did an extraordinary job discussing the Earth, Life on this Planet and What evidence we have for these things. My favorite part of his talk was the example of Kangaroos in Australia. How did they get there? (he relied on Mr. Ham’s story of the flood) If all animals left Noah’s ark, how is it that all the marsupials marched directly to Australia leaving to trail of fossils along the way?
Nye pursued several lines of reasoning, including the kangaroo story above, fossil progressions, plate tectonics and paleomagnetism. I would have included more biochemical evidence for the relationship between all life, but that’s just me.
However, I feel like it all came down to one question. One that, perhaps, should have been asked right at the beginning. If the answer to this one is ‘nothing’ then you just undermined the purpose of your debate.
“What, if anything, would ever change your mind?”
Jonathan Holowoka, writing for the Liberty Voice, claims that Nye’s performance was something that all scientists should be proud of and that he effectively rebutted the concerns expressed by the Richard Dawkins Foundations.
Dan Arel answered, admitting that Nye did not fail in any of the ways he worried about in his first column. However, he remains convinced that the debate was useless and may still have done harm.