The Utility and Futility of Debate

06 Feb

ken-ham-bill-nye-debateOn the evening of February 4 at 7pm EST Billy Nye and Ken Ham debated on the topic of whether “creationism is a viable model of origins in today’s modern scientific era?”

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.’

Dino with a saddle at the Creationism Museum

Dino with a saddle at the Creationism Museum

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.


Posted by on February 6, 2014 in Education, Uncategorized


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3 responses to “The Utility and Futility of Debate

  1. ratabago

    February 6, 2014 at 6:15 pm

    I think the thing that the Dawkins Foundation missed is that these debates are public relations exercises, and that Nye’s career has essentially been in that field. It was also fortunate that Nye was clued in enough to get coaching from Don Prothero, who has been debunking creationism for decades, and is familiar with all the usual creationist machinations and misrepresentations. In other words, despite his weakness in biological sciences, Nye was the best person for this particular job. But I think in general scientists shouldn’t debate creationists. Debates rarely have anything to do with truth, and only establish who is the better debater. Far to often this turns out to be who is the more skilful liar*, and then scientific training becomes a liability.

    As for Ham’s cosmology, it reminds me tragically of Imam Hamid al Ghazzali in the eleventh century, who asserted that there is no cause and effect, only the direct action of Allah, ending the Islamic fertile period by replacing investigation with revelation. The Caliphate would linger on for more than a century after al Ghazzali, until the crusades and Eastern invaders destroyed it. But it ceased to be such a vigorous world centre of new knowledge. The Islamic world’s science base still hasn’t recovered from his influence.

    I must find time to watch the full debate sometime. So far I’ve only seen excerpts.

    *I should point out I don’t think Ham is lying, I think he genuinely believes the incoherent world view he advocates. In this case, the truth counted against him.

  2. downhousesoftware

    February 6, 2014 at 10:59 pm

    Thank you for your thoughts rutabaga. You’re right on the money with your public relations comment. It is something Nye is good at, although you can see him struggling with attempts to make a connection to his audience with humor.
    Be sure to watch it, it’s very enlightening. I would suggest a new title for the debate though:
    “Nye and Ham: Can we really know anything?”
    I think this actually turned out to be the deeper question.

    • ratabago

      February 8, 2014 at 3:22 am

      I finally got around to watching the entire debate. I can see what you mean by :“Nye and Ham: Can we really know anything?”. Hams position does remind me of philosophers much loved “Brain in a vat”, “The world is a computer simulation”, “The world is just a sensory illusion” scenarios. Or, as I already noted, al Ghazzali’s nothing happens except that it happens by the direct intervention of a deity. But I think for all practical purposes the world does act as if it is subject to deductive analysis, and is not in principle capricious.

      I still think Nye did as good a job over all as anyone was likely to, even if some of his jokes fell flat. Hams presented himself well, though his constant references to the Bible as scientific evidence will only convince the home team. I do wish, however, Nye had been able to call out Dr. Fabich for his dishonest misrepresentation of Lenski’s LTEE. I also wish he had asked for a reference for the unsubstantiated, anecdotal claim of 45kYa carbon dating on wood totally enclosed in much older lava flow. I certainly would have. But then, I would have probably been confrontational enough to loose half the audience.:)


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