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Ham-on-Nye Debate and the State of Public Ignorance

February 8, 2014

For the last 5 days, my facebook account has exploded with comments about the evolution-creation “debate” between Bill Nye and Ken Ham. Various news outlets and bloggers have weighed in on who won and who lost, with some claiming that the debate was lost by Nye before it began because participating legitimized the views of the young-earth creationists because they were “in the debate”. This was followed up by a buzzfeed post featuring messages from creationists to “people who believe in evolution”.

There are so many things wrong with the debate as well as posts like the buzzfeed post. First, the debate. I agree with the Huffington Post and the dailybeast in that science lost before the “debate” began. The idea of a debate is that there is an issue about which there are two sides of equal validity and that a bout of rhetorical sparring will help clarify the primary differences. You can debate the value of the death penalty. There are decent arguments on both sides of this issue. I personally think that the number of exonerations after a conviction calls into question the level of infallibility of our legal system that might make the death penalty more palatable. Others argue that it is cruel and inhumane. On the other side, people argue that it serves as a deterrent and that it is the truest form of justice. In all these cases, there are data (for example, data on the use of the death penalty as a deterrent) but even then, the value of the death penalty is a value judgement and creating a cohesive argument and communicating that in a venue such as a debate might actually shift someone’s perspective. Perhaps not likely, but at least possible.

Second, science is science. Regardless of what one “believes”, evolution either occurs or it does not. And there are procedures for determining whther evolution occurs or not. In the end, evidence has the final word in science. Albert Einstein, in response to the publication of Hundert Autoren gegen Einstein (A Hundred Authors Against Einstein), said, “Why 100 authors? If I were wrong, then one would have been enough!” There is a sign that hangs outside my door on which I have written, “Science is not a democratic process.” Essentially, it does not matter how many people believe in something if it ultimately is denied by the evidence at hand. Yet, this is what creationists do on a daily basis. They continue to believe that something is not happening while there is tremendous evidence that it does. This might work in their daily lives but it does not work as science policy or as educational strategy. In science courses in public schools and universities, we should be teaching students how the world works. I would also argue that private schools and colleges, while they have a right to teach what they want, they might consider whether they are living up to their responsibility to educate students to be informed citizens.

Finally, to move beyond the poorly conceived debate, there is a way in which scientists are fundamentally different from creationists. Scientists are not constantly campaigning to get science incorporated into their theology and we are not attempting to get them to rewrite their books to replace the stories that are not consistent with scientific evidence with the scientific view of reality. Creationists campaign relentlessly to to have non-scientific opinions and stories included in science textbooks and school curricula. They want to rewrite what science has discovered over the last 150 or so years without considering the damage that such a rewrite does to our students’ educations. In doing this rewrite, they weaken the status of the logic and process that underlies science and this negatively affects the ability of students to make informed decisions about a range of important issues. And while their goal might be the first, they end up doing the second.

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