For a variety of reasons scientists are generally advised not to debate creationists, thus the certain trepidation when our colleague, the well-known television science educator and CSI Fellow Bill Nye, accepted an invitation for just such a debate about origins with creationist Ken Ham. The debate took place February 4, 2014, at the Creation Museum in Kentucky and was streamed live worldwide. Afterward the Skeptical Inquirer invited Bill Nye to give his own first-person view of this much-watched and much-discussed debate, the circumstances surrounding it, his preparations and strategy, and the reasons he decided to take part.
This whole thing started when a crew from BigThink.com asked me about creationism. I was in New York to promote Internet-based science education. While on camera, I remarked that if you, as an adult, want to hold on to a completely unreasonable explanation of the Earth’s natural history that is useless from a practical standpoint, that’s your business. But we don’t want our kids, our science students, to be indoctrinated into that weird worldview, because our kids are the scientists and engineers of the future. They need to be the innovators that drive the U.S. economy in the coming decades. These were offhand, albeit heartfelt, remarks, nominally off the topic I sat down to talk about. As of this writing, the excerpted video with my observations about creationism has logged over 6.3 million views.
Among the viewers apparently was one Ken Ham, who is the head of a congregation in Kentucky that holds doggedly to the idea that the world is somehow merely 6,000 years old. Furthermore, he has raised millions and millions of dollars for what he calls the “Creation Museum,” a facility across the Ohio River from Cincinnati, Ohio, in Petersburg, Kentucky. He wrote to me and challenged me to a debate. For several months, I put the offer or proposal aside thinking the whole thing would blow over. After all, his challenge was based on a minute and a half of video that exists with little context. He was persistent. So, as the weeks went by and we corresponded, I acceded the challenge. More specifically, I was willing to come to his facility if the topic was: “Is creation a viable model of origins in the modern scientific era?” Note that this title does not include the word “evolution,” nor does it connote or imply that we would discuss evolution specifically.
As you may know, once in a while I am invited to offer my thoughts on Fox News. And I love it—I love being in the studio right there with those reporters with the opportunity to look them in the eyes (or lens). As you may infer, I’m not much for their style, and I usually disagree with just about everything a Fox commentator has to say, but I relish the confrontation. I had that same feeling about Ken Ham’s building. I wanted to be in the belly of the beast. I drove by there when I was on other business in Cincinnati a few years ago. The building was closed, but driving around the grounds I saw numerous depictions of ancient dinosaurs. One infamous sculpture featured humans of apparent European descent astride a triceratops-style ancient animal adorned with Christmas lights. I wanted to see the inside someday.
I do about a dozen college appearances every year. It’s a privilege that I enjoy immensely. At first, I figured this appearance and this encounter would get about the same amount of notice as a nice college gig. There’d be a buzz on Twitter and Facebook, but the world would go on spinning without much notice on the outside. Not here: the creationists promoted it like crazy, and soon it seemed like everyone I met was talking about it.
I slowly realized that this was a high-pressure situation. Many of you, by that I mean many of my skeptic and humanist colleagues, expressed deep concern and anger that I would be so foolish as to accept a debate with a creationist, as this would promote him and them more than it would promote me and us. As I often say and sincerely believe, “You may be right.” But, I held strongly to the view that it was an opportunity to expose the well-intending Ken Ham and the support he receives from his followers as being bad for Kentucky, bad for science education, bad for the U.S., and thereby bad for humankind—I do not feel I’m exaggerating when I express it this strongly.
I believe I am generally not the stereotypical male who refuses to ask for directions. I feel locals usually know the way best. By analogy, to find my way through this debate (which was quickly becoming a big damn deal), I consulted the world’s foremost authorities on arguing or debating with creationists. I flew to Oakland, California, and consulted with the famed, venerable, and formidable Genie Scott, along with Josh Roseneau, and the staff at the National Center for Science Education (NCSE). They schooled me on what to do in great detail. Later that week, I managed to arrange a lunch with Don Prothero and Michael Shermer, two hardcore skeptics. Don even debated the notorious Duane Gish back in the 1980s. All of these people were wonderfully helpful. They were very patient with me and helped me figure out what to say and, especially, what not to say. They said to prefer the word “explanation” to the word “theory,” for example. I just can’t thank them enough.
With that said, and everyone profusely thanked, I was going to be on my own in this thing, and I had to make my arguments come from my heart (a metaphor for my point of view—from my brain).
I am by no means an expert on most of this. Unlike my beloved uncle, I am not a geologist. Unlike my academic colleague and acquaintance Richard Dawkins, I am not an evolutionary biologist. Unlike my old professor Carl Sagan or my fellow Planetary Society Board member and dear friend Neil deGrasse Tyson, I am not an expert on astrophysics. I am, however, a science educator. In this situation, our skeptical arguments are not the stuff of PhDs. It’s elementary science and common sense. That’s what I planned to rely on. That’s what gave me confidence.
With my experience as a science educator, I like to divide elementary science into three categories: life science (biology), physical science (physics and chemistry), and planetary science (geology and astronomy). And so with the remarkable help of the NCSE and skeptics, I chose arguments from each of these three disciplines.
On the slides in my “decks,” as they’re called, I do not use many words. My colleagues sent me dozens of PowerPoint slides for my use. Thank you of course, but my goodness you all, when I watch many of your presentations, it’s like reading a page of book projected on a wall. How can someone in the audience focus on what you’re saying, when there’s a blizzard of words in front of her or him?
Those of you familiar with creationism and its followers are familiar with the remarkable Duane Gish (no longer living—at least as far as we know). His debating technique came to be known as the “Gish Gallop.” He was infamous for jumping from one topic to another, introducing one spurious or specious fact or line of reasoning after another. A scientist debating Gish often got bogged down in details and, by all accounts, came across looking like the loser.
It quickly occurred to me that I could do the same thing. If you make the time to watch the debate (let’s say for free at http://billnye.com—wink, wink), I hope you’ll pick up on this idea. I did my best to slam Ken Ham with a great many scientific and common sense arguments. I believed he wouldn’t have the time or the focus to address many of them.
The night before the debate, I spoke at Murray State University in Murray, Kentucky. The students there were keenly aware of the next evening’s debate. I had a long car drive from one side of the commonwealth to the other. I could not help but notice the layers and layers of beautiful limestone everywhere along the road. We pulled over at a cut where some blasting took place for the road’s right-of-way, and I walked through a few centimeters of snow. I easily picked up three nice specimens of rock revealing several fossilized small shelly ancient sea creatures. I held one up during my opening remarks. There’s an irony that the Creation Museum literally sits atop overwhelming evidence of the true age of our planet.
I’ve got to mention another thing to you all. To a man and woman, all of my advisors, NCSE staff and skeptics alike, strongly felt that the desirable position in a situation like this is to go first. This, many of you believe, puts the onus on the other guy or gal to refute your points. I just don’t see it that way. This may be from experience in television, or it may be my misguided overconfidence; I wanted to go second in the confrontation.
To you go-firsters I say: “You may be right.” I mean you may be right, if this were a debate in an academic session, where there are thoughtful judges from the history department or tort instructors from the law school, who have the ability to determine who said what better than who to whom, per se, et cetera. But this debate was a television show. And my audience was on the worldwide web not in the auditorium. If I get the chance, I go second. I just don’t see it any other way. Whatever Ken Ham talked about, I pretty much planned to talk about what I wanted to talk about.
My agents and publicist induced Tom Foreman from CNN to moderate the event. Mr. Foreman was the ideal man for the job. He’s a thoughtful journalist with a great deal of experience in handling human conflict as he seeks the facts in a story. However, having a respected international journalist sitting on stage with us upped the ante. There would be even more focus and more scrutiny from an even bigger audience. As they say in the theater, if you stop being nervous, stop going out on stage. The key is to take that nervousness or anxiety and convert it to excitement. By the time the debate was ready to start, I sensed that Mr. Ham was nervous, while I was excited.
Tom Foreman, by long debate tradition, tossed a coin backstage. Ken Ham won the toss, and probably taking advice from his people, who were thinking a lot like my people, chose to go first. I was delighted.
From long experience behind unfamiliar lecterns in strange venues, I can tell you: something always goes wrong and you’ve got to roll with it. As I stepped up to my lectern, stage-right of Ken Ham, I realized that I had loaded a previous revision, an unintended version, of my first set of five slides for our first five minutes of presentation. I’ll let you, the viewer, determine which one I intended to leave out. Phew. . . .
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