The Nye v. Ham Debate: a missed opportunity

Bill Nye visits Goddard Space Flight Center

Science communication is a mission I have devoted the rest of my life to, having stumbled upon it rather late. It would make so many things better if more Americans understood science. On February 4, Bill Nye, formerly PBS’s “The Science Guy” and more recently the head of the nerd brain trust known as The Planetary Society, debated Ken Ham, the head of Kentucky’s Creationist Museum. It was a high-profile event, and I tuned in with my eyes focused on how well Nye represented science.

I was disappointed. And I was not the only one. Michael Schulson, writing on The Daily Beast, had this recap:

In one all-too-typical two-minute span, Nye started out by explaining how evolutionary biologists make predictions. He then veered into the sexual habits of minnows, suddenly jumped to the number of bacteria in the human gut, discussed the amount of energy required for roses to produce fruit, told the story about how his first cousin (once removed) died from the flu, and then bounced back to the horny minnows, with reference to certain fish diseases.

Schulson, however, had already decided Nye lost before the debate, just by agreeing to appear at the Creation Museum. Don’t feed the trolls, this argument goes, and Schulson is far from the only one making it. I don’t agree. And neither does Phil Plait, writing in Slate:

We’ve been losing this debate in the public’s mind all along by not showing up. Sure, science advocates are there when this topic comes up in court, and I’m glad for it. But I think that we need to have more of a voice, and that voice needs to change. What Nye did last night was at least a step in that direction, so in that sense I’m glad he did this.

I am too. I just wish he did a better job with this important opportunity. Here are some ways Nye could have done better, and how other science communicators could do better in the future:

1. Pick your message, and stick to it. Nye has been (rightly) outspoken about the rise in publicly-funded schools teaching Creationism instead of science (see a map here). At least, I think that was his main point in the debate. I’m not sure this was the best message to pick, but anyway a more clear formulation of Nye’s position might have been: Creationism is not science at all, but rather religion. Replacing science curricula with Creationism limits our young peoples’ understanding of science, curtails their curiosity, leaves them dangerously ill equipped for life in a technological economy and hampers their ability to be savvy citizens in an era of great challenges. State that up front and then work through the argument. However, I don’t think that’s the best argument to make, even if it’s true.

2. Go positive, not negative. Nye should not have concentrated on the stated question of the debate, “Is creation a viable model of origins in today’s modern scientific era?” because that question is a trap. Ham wanted Nye to consider Creationism as a scientific theory and Nye took the bait. Nye and other science communicators should learn a valuable lesson from politics: a question is simply an opportunity to talk about your own agenda. In my mind this was Nye’s chance to testify to a huge audience, many of them Creationists, what science is, how and why it works, and how meaningful it can be to people of any and all religious beliefs (and none at all). See No. 5 for more on this.

3. Explain how science works:  Nye should not have assumed even a basic understanding of science on the part of the audience; his first job should have been to define and explain how science actually works. And instead of a dry recitation of the scientific method, Nye should have presented an exciting story about curiosity, questioning, experimenting and discovery. He could have told the story of how Charles Darwin’s extensive travels on the HMS Beagle led to his groundbreaking theory. (Darwin’s “I think” moment was unfortunately co-opted by Ham as a signifier of doubt instead of a bold statement of an idea long in the formulation.) The essential point to get across is that “I don’t know” is a starting point for scientists, that science builds knowledge by the collection of evidence to help answer these questions, and that it is self-correcting, that is, if contrary evidence turns up than the accepted theory needs to be adjusted or replaced. Creationism is not science because it shares none of these characteristics.

4. Tell a story. Nye’s first impulse was to fight Creationism with facts and data. He’s right, but also taking the wrong approach. Science’s power comes from two sources, and unfortunately science communicators often rely on one and neglect the other. The first is science’s power to explain and predict. That’s what makes it so useful, and that’s why science has radically changed our lives. But science’s other power is the power of story and meaning. Humanity’s ever-evolving understanding of its place in the cosmos is a grand narrative for our species, with as much ability to provide meaning to life as any religious belief (and yet it doesn’t negate religious believe necessarily). Nye failed to present that side of science effectively. His stories were oddly muted. Carl Sagan, where are you?  Nye would have done well to show a clip or two of Sagan in Cosmos, and followed it with clips of current scientists talking about the sense of awe and purpose they derive from scientific inquiry. Much as we wish it not be so, emotional arguments carry the day. Any science communicator that can move people is more likely to win them. Hearts and then minds.   

5. Call out false binaries.  Phil Plait has argued that Nye could have almost completely undermined Ham’s argument by suggesting that evolution is not inherently atheistic, and neither is modern Cosmology (the Big Bang).  Oddly, fellow fundamentalist Pat Robertson made that point for Nye on his TV show after the debate, basically coming out as a Deist in this remarkable, bizarre little clip. Nye got to this point too late, and it poorly articulated. Nye should have said, up front, that many people of faith believe that evolution and cosmology reveal the very workings of creation, not refute the existence of God. Nye’s goal was not to make Creationists into Atheists (I assume) but rather to make Creationists stop trying to destroy science education in public schools. If evolution is no threat to God, then what’s the fuss?

6. Know a Trojan Horse when you see one: Nye could have freely drawn from Ham’s own argument, and destroyed it.  For example, at one point Ham attacked evolution with evidence of 45,000 year old tree remains found embedded in 45 million year old basalt. How do you explain it? Ham insisted. And Nye hamfistedly tried to answer! Instead he should have turned the question around. Mr. Ham, you don’t believe in anything over 6,000 years old, so you asking me this question contradicts everything you believe.  There were lots of moments like this, but the biggest opening, however, was when Ham explained the divergence of species after Noah’s Ark. Ham tacitly acknowledges the idea of scientific plausibility when he admits that it is not reasonable that Noah had millions of species on the Ark, and this should have been Nye’s first clue of a gaping hole in Ham’s rhetorical armor.  Ham then said that the principle “kinds’ of animals kept afloat on Noah’s Ark started to….evolve. The term he used was speciation, but he was talking about evolution, with trees to prove it. A erroneous understanding of evolution, but evolution nonetheless. Ham’s Creationism has absorbed so much science to give itself credibility that it’s collapsing from within. Nye could have hastened this end by simply connecting the dots.  If Ham believes in evolution as a tool for creating diversity of species…then isn’t it a more beautiful, reasonable, idea that this was God’s method the whole time? Why no evolution and then evolution if God could have started from a single-celled organism and gotten everything from that? Could the story of the Ark be not science fact but powerful religious metaphor? It’s such a small step. Maybe Genesis is a poetic way of understanding creation and evolution, geology and cosmology is a scientific way of understanding it. Instead we have Nye trying to explain how the Ark could have never been built because of structural issues. Wrong move.

7. Keep it simple. Creationism’s strength is the simplicity of the narrative, the lack of unknowns. Science is messy, built on unknowns. As Schulson points out above, Nye was all over the place. He should have stuck to a simple, clear narrative and repeated his main points, as often as Ham mentioned Jesus. His outline could have looked like this:

  1. science is a beautiful and meaningful way of understanding the universe (past, present and future) by relying on evidence to build theories. 
  2. theories are modified or overturned by contrary evidence; science is self-correcting.
  3. evolution is a scientific theory founded upon mountains of evidence
  4. science does not necessarily threaten God or religion. Many religious and scientific people think that science illuminates the inner workings of creation
  5. Creationism should not be taught in schools because it is a religious way of understanding the universe and not a scientific way. And since science does not threaten religion, there is no reason to object to science being taught.

In the days since Nye v. Ham, as I’ve been reading commentary on the debate, I’ve grown in my belief that Nye should be commended for showing up, that he nonetheless could have done better, and that science communicators could learn a lot form this.

Here’s the video of the debate. It’s instructional. How do you think Nye could have done better?

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