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Reasons for Bill Nye 'the Science Guy' to Debate Creationist

Bill Nye debates Ken Ham on the reasonableness of creationism (Part I).

On next Tuesday evening, (February 4th), Bill Nye ‘the Science Guy’ will engage in a public debate with Ken Ham, founder of the Creation Museum and the creationist ministry, Answers in Genesis. The debate, “Is Creation a Viable Model of Origins?”, was initiated by Ken Ham on the heels of comments that Bill Nye made about the dangers of teaching a Biblical literalist version of creationism to children, which is that it threatens their ability to comprehend science by indoctrinating them with claims that are completely antithetical to the knowledge system that modern science has developed. After a YouTube video of Nye on this issue went viral, he was contacted by Ken Ham and was challenged to the debate, to which Nye agreed. (Click here to see Nye and Ham discussing this topic).

The debate has already drawn significant media attention, and not all of which has been positive. Although most creationists are thrilled with the debate as they generally value such publicity, many scientists are concerned that Bill Nye has made a mistake by deciding to partake in this process. For example, famed evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins slammed Nye for agreeing to do the debate, writing that “when you accept to do a debate, you are accepting that there is something worth debating.” The concern of Dawkins and many others is that by sharing the stage with a creationist, the creationist wins by virtue of being granted implicit legitimacy.

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I know a bit about this process and what Bill Nye might encounter because on November 6, 2006, I engaged in a public debate with a creationist. Although I do think the concerns of Dawkins and other critics have some merit, I am ultimately sympathetic to Bill Nye’s decision to proceed. And I believe it is an issue that educated Americans should be cognizant about; that is, we need to teach the controversy. See here for how I would like it to be taught.

Below are some of the reasons I believe the debate might be a good thing. (In a subsequent blog (part II), I share some advice for approaching the debate.)  

1. The Debate Highlights the Reality of Creationist Beliefs. Many Americans, especially educated blue state Americans, tend to be ignorant of the large numbers of people who are anti-evolutionary creationists. Before I looked into it, I had thought beliefs in a literal Adam and Eve beliefs would only be slightly more common than believing the earth was flat or that Santa Claus was real. Yet, the belief is enormously common. For example, Gallup polls have been tracking this issue since 1982. Specifically, Gallup has surveyed Americans regarding their beliefs about human origins with the following question: Which comes closest to your views: 1) Humans developed over millions of years, guided by God; 2) Humans developed over millions of years, God had no part, 3) God created humans as is within the last 10,000 years. The results have been remarkably consistent over time. Between 43% and 47% of Americans endorse the creationist view that God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so, whereas between 35% and 40% endorsed the claim that humans evolved over millions of years with God guiding the process, and 9% to 16% have endorsed the secular evolutionary perspective that humans evolved with no guidance from God.

2. Creationist beliefs are not changing; thus the indirect approach is not working. When I looked into Young Earth Biblical Literalism, I found a fascinating set of justifications attempting to debunk what was labeled origins science (which consisted of geology, cosmology, and most important evolutionary biology) and replace it with what was called creation science. Indeed, it seems to me that the split between science and those who espouse creationist leanings is becoming ever more ingrained in American society, and the academy has not done much about it. At an institutional level, there are now entire accredited universities, such as Liberty University, devoted to teaching individuals the veracity of YEC. The point here is that there is a good argument to be made that these belief systems are deeply entrenched and innoculated from standard evolutionary teaching and avoidance, and they will likely not change without more direct engagement.

3. Anti-evolutionary beliefs are seriously problematic at multiple levels. Like Nye, I am convinced that Biblical fundamentalism represents an enormous sociocultural problem in America. Consider that prior to my debate I went to one of my opponent’s lectures on creationism. In the question and answer period (which included such questions—asked in earnest—as whether or not Adam and Eve had bellybuttons), the hostility toward the "anti-God" liberal elite was palpable. The narrative that emerged in the room was that evolutionary theory was a religious and political movement sparked by hyper-educated atheists who deemed themselves superior to the common man and too narcissistic to submit to the will of God. It turns out this was not an isolated incident but is a central line of thought underlying American social conservatism. In his book, What is the Matter with Kansas?, Frank highlights how the culture wars are central to understanding the political divide in America and that the evolution-creationism debate is central to the culture wars.

These are some of the good reasons to engage the debate. However, there is indeed a genuine risk here. If Bill Nye goes about the debate the wrong way it will be very easy for him to look confused or uncertain. The reason is that, to those educated in modern science, the idea of believing that the earth and universe were created thousands of years ago is essentially incomprehensible. It seems--and in many ways is—akin to believing the earth is flat. Thus, it would follow that anyone who would believe such nonsense is a fool. A video of Bill Nye discussing these issues suggests that this might be what he thinks (see here). This is bad news. If Nye goes in thinking that Ken Ham will not be prepared or not have a coherent approach, he will be sadly mistaken. And then the impression will be that indeed evolutionists have been avoiding the debate out of fear of being exposed. That is the big danger. In my next post, I will share some pieces of advice for avoiding the bad outcomes.    

Gregg Henriques, Ph.D., is a Professor of Psychology at James Madison University.

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