This fifth installment of reaction from the web to the debate has commentary from Nye’s coach.
An estimated 10 million viewers watched the live stream of the debate:
Is Creation a viable model of origins in today’s modern scientific era?
Additionally, as of press time, the YouTube video of the February 4 debate has been viewed over 2.1 million times. Interest and conversation about the debate continues to be intense and vigorous.
Commentary on the Debate from the Web (Part 5)
Evolutionist geologist and paleontologist Donald Prothero is Professor of Geology at Occidental College and Lecturer in Geobiology at Cal Tech. He helped Nye prepare for the debate and provided him with extensive material. Here are excerpts from his debate report Hearts and Minds posted on the SkepticBlog hosted by the Skeptics Society.
(Disclaimer: Links to my own opinion on the debate and to previous installments surveying web opinion are at the end of this article. Those articles refute much of what Prothero says below about the debate.)
I was at Michael Shermer’s New Year’s Eve party last December 31st. … Late in the evening, Bill [Nye] comes up to me and mentions that he had agreed to debate Ken Ham. He knew I’d beaten Duane Gish back in 1983, and that I was familiar with battling creationism over the past 35 years. After I talked to him and realized that the debate was set and he could not back out, I offered to help him prepare. Then about 3 weeks ago, he emailed me and we made arrangements. He spent a day in Oakland at the National Center for Science Education (NCSE), where a bunch of their staff helped him analyze Ham’s past debates and arguments (they have archives of every creationist out there), and suggest strategies. Since Ham had voluntarily set the debate topic to defend the scientific value and truth of the Bible, Bill was not in the usual dilemma of having to defend and explain complex topics of evolution. Normally, creationists employ the “Gish Gallop” to keep the scientist on the defensive, trying to undo the mistaken ideas and lies the creationist has just said, and replace it with a more complex explanation. Instead, the NCSE staffers recommended that Bill use this to his advantage, and do a “reverse Gish Gallop”: pile on the examples one after another, so that Ham wouldn’t have time or ability to answer them all.
On January 21st, Bill met with me at Shermer’s house, where Michael and I both tried to make additional suggestions and give him some specific examples. We both gave him copies of our old Powerpoints we used against creationists, and I gave him a copy of my 2007 book on evolution and DVDs of my Skeptic Society lectures on those topics. During the ensuing days, I spent a lot of time pasting together Powerpoint slides out of my many older lectures that I thought would work well, and sending them to him. As Bill got his own slides together, he shared them with me, Shermer, and Genie Scott and Josh Rosenau of the NCSE. We tried our own suggestions and tweaks, but ultimately it had to be something he was comfortable with and not words we had put in his mouth.
[Ham] did exactly as we predicted: play up this phony distinction he cooked up between “observational” vs. “historical” science, brag about the handful of scientists in the world who are Young-Earth Creationists (YECs), nearly all in irrelevant fields completely outside the only relevant disciplines: biology, paleontology, or geology. He was trying to make the ridiculous assertion that if these people were good scientists and YECs, therefore YEC must be right. He trotted out the usual phony ideas about how mainstream science was in a great conspiracy to suppress religion, and to rule out the supernatural because we’re all atheists. Toward the end of his 30-minute spiel, he began spouting religion in earnest. During his entire presentation, he presented no evidence from science that supported his cause, only an argument by association with scientists who are closet creationists.
Bill’s opening and 30-minute presentation were pretty much his own inventions, with a few ideas we had suggested to him. In his opening 5 minutes, he shot down the ridiculous “observational vs. historical” distinction, emphasized the importance of science in our culture, and set the tone for his entire debate. His first slide of the 30-minute time slot was an idea I gave him: point out that the “Creation Museum” is built on the very rocks that refute the “Flood Geology” model, complete with a hand sample of fossiliferous limestone he got from the local road cuts (somehow, even though several feet of snow were on the ground). Again and again, he reminded everyone that YEC is a narrow sectarian belief held by a tiny minority in the world (including a minority of Christians, and an even tinier minority of Americans), yet they would force their views on the rest of us and interfere with science education. He got off the line about how many real evolutionary scientists are also good Christians, such as NIH Director Francis Collins. But the bulk of his presentation focused on the ridiculous implications of the Noah’s Flood model and of the 6000 year old earth: how we have ice cores with 680,000 annual layers in them (I gave him that one) and tree rings going back over 6000 years; how the “Ark” would have torn apart because no wooden boat longer than 350 feet can survive the open ocean (let alone how it could have been built by 8 people in Noah’s family); how if only the “created kinds” were aboard, they’d have to speciate at a rate of 12 new species every day for the past 4000 years to account for the millions of species alive now (way faster than speciation as we observe it today, and a lot more evolution than most creationists would accept as well). Nye finished with the way science is about discovery and prediction of what we should find next (the opposite of creationism), giving as an example the Big Bang and the cosmic background radiation, and capped it with a reminder that our country, and our kids, need good science education if the U.S. wants to remain competitive in the world of future science and technology.
Most of us in the scientific community focus on nit-picking details and scientific correctness, which is why it is so hard to debate creationists who run roughshod over the truth and never look back. A better barometer was immediately apparent as they signed off. A portion of the crowd shouted “Bill, Bill, Bill” (as in the theme song of his old show)—so it wasn’t completely packed with creationists. Afterwards, Bill was mobbed at the podium by many well-wishers, while no one walked up to Ham, and he quietly left the stage.
…it’s not really a “debate” in the normal sense, where the opponents address common points and talk about the same topic, and score when they make an intelligent comeback or delicious riposte or bon mot. Bill and Ken were talking about two completely different topics with almost no overlap, so as in all these events, there is no real “debate” when the two sides don’t even agree on common definitions, common rules, standards of evidence, or even what is real.
What’s really at stake is the meta-debate, the overall impression created by the experience, which is the best way to win the hearts and minds. …what really counts is to be likable, friendly, positive, upbeat, non-threatening, while explaining the science in a clear simple fashion at fifth-grade level, and not bullying or being condescending to the opponent or looking arrogant or smug as a scientist. Bill didn’t attack Ham directly or belittle his idiocy and stupidity (most of us wanted to throttle Ham each time he spouted another lie). Instead, Bill was a gentleman, talking up the absurdity of his position and saying how it “troubled him,” how Ham’s ideas were against evidence and common sense, and generally letting the audience fill in the blanks when they too realized how silly YEC is.
Bill has been a TV entertainer and science educator for 30 years, and he (along with Neil DeGrasse Tyson and the late Carl Sagan) are among the few scientists who are good popularizers that we need so badly. Even as the debate was winding up, most people no longer remembered any of the details or who scored points on whom, or who failed to reply to whose challenge. What they DO remember is that they liked Bill and he made science sound fun and interesting and important, while Ham came off as a dogmatic religious extremist who wouldn’t change his mind despite any evidence, and fell back on the Bible rather than scientific evidence each time he was challenged. Bill beat Ham on this issue, hands down!
For a different perspective, read the prequel articles on this debate:
Creation-Evolution Debate: Ken Ham vs. Bill Nye – background info & the YouTube videos that sparked the debate.
Ham on Nye Debate Update
Who Won the Ken Ham vs. Bill Nye Debate? – includes YouTube video of debate
Post-Debate Buzz Heats Up for Ham vs. Nye #1 – 4 web commentators
Post-Debate Buzz Heats Up for Ham vs. Nye #2 – 4 web commentators
Post-Debate Buzz Heats Up for Ham vs. Nye #3 – comments from debate moderator and post-debate challenges from debaters to each other
Post-Debate Buzz Heats Up for Ham vs. Nye #4 – Albert Mohler’s assessment
Read the sequel with more web commentary:
Post-Debate Buzz Heats Up for Ham vs. Nye #6 – astronomer, CMI, WORLD mag
Questions to Ponder
- What was the actual point that Ken Ham made by giving examples of good scientists who are creationists?
- How would you answer Dr. Prothero’s assertion that Biblical creation is held by a tiny minority?
- How would you respond to the description of Ken Ham as a “dogmatic religious extremist”?
Share your thoughts on these questions in the comments below. It could encourage or help another reader.
Soli Deo Gloria.
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©William T. Pelletier, Ph.D.
“contending earnestly for the faith”
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(Jude 1:3; 2 Cor 10:4)
Thursday February 20, 2014 A.D.
For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day; therefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day and made it holy. (Exodus 20:11)