Ham vs Nye: Whoever Wins, Who Really Wins?

Question from Jordan:
Hello ATA.

I was wondering how you felt about the upcoming Ham/Nye debate. From what I can tell, most atheists are not happy about the debate. They claim that an atheist should never debate a creationist because there is nothing to debate—evolutionary thinking has already won. They claim that the act of simply debating gives the creationist credibility.

I think it is obvious that this atheistic claim sounds like an excuse. If creationism is so flawed, it should be simple for an atheist to dominate in a debate. Yet creationists keep asking, and many atheists keep refusing. It is as if the atheist is thinking, “I’d rather have people THINK I’m a coward, than for people to KNOW that I’m wrong.” The fact that Bill Nye is willing to debate, shows he is confident in what he believes.

From my experience (as a creationist) on this site, you all seem happy to debate someone on the issue. Are you excited about the upcoming debate (like myself and most other creationists)? Do you see this as a chance for the idea of creationism to be buried, or are you upset with Bill Nye like Dawkins and the many others like him?

Answer by SmartLX:
Whether evolution is or isn’t a fact (it is) is not the reason these atheists don’t want Nye to debate Ham. A debate depends very little on whether one side or the other is objectively correct. It’s the ultimate exercise in rhetoric, where even if you don’t convince a single person you can still be ahead on rhetorical “points” at the end of the debate and thus “win” it.

The mass refusal of evolutionary biologists and other scientists to debate creationists is a relatively new thing. Debates like these went on all the time in the 80s and 90s, which is how people like Duane Gish became famous for doing them. Richard Dawkins even did one at Oxford, when creationism actually had a chance at being taught there. The concerted refusal was later instituted, by Dawkins and other major figures, because of the observed effects of these earlier debates.

– If the audience consisted mostly of creationists or at least devout Christians, as will certainly be the case in the Ham/Nye debate, the debate sounded like a victory for the creationist no matter what was said.

– There are a multitude of creationist “refutations” of evolution (all in the pattern of “evolution can’t explain X, therefore God”) dozens of which can be rattled off in a matter of minutes. Even if there’s a perfectly good evolutionary explanation for each one it takes a lot longer to explain, so some points will necessarily go unanswered and that’s a terrible thing to happen in a debate. The late Duane Gish would throw out as many claims as he could right at the end of a debate, knowing most of them would stand unchallenged purely for reasons of time. To this day, it’s known as the Gish Gallop.

– Even if the creationist was soundly and undeniably defeated, he (I’d say “or she” but most or all of the prominent ones were men) would be invited by other creationists to speaking engagements and radio shows where he could make the same points again, alone and undisputed, as if the debate had never happened. According to Ray Comfort, the main goal of any evangelist is to spread the message, regardless of context; God supposedly does the rest of the work, or doesn’t. When he talks about his televised debate with the Rational Response Squad, the important thing wasn’t that he adequately defended the Gospel but rather that he reached the audience of Nightline. (Also see his book, You Can Lead An Atheist To Evidence But You Can’t Make Him Think.) Any embarrassments during a debate can be buried under a subsequent succession of appearances with sympathetic hosts and audiences, where the combative “evolutionist” can be demonised.

Besides the above, the claim that creationists gain credibility from debating scientists is a valid one. Credibility among the already devout for not being swayed or cowed by the scientific establishment, and credibility among the neutral for appearing with a qualified professional as an apparent equal, even if he gets trounced. The credibility, however, is secondary to the publicity; Ken Ham may have been mentioned more in mainstream media in the last few weeks than in the previous several years, and far more positively because the news isn’t about the imminent financial failure of his Ark Park project. Speaking of which, the proceeds from DVD sales of this debate will go straight into the coffers of Answers in Genesis and prop up the Park, which all by itself is a reason for non-creationists not to support the event.

To summarise, there are plenty of reasons why Nye should not debate Ham even if it’s assumed that Nye will win. Furthermore, there are plenty of ways for Nye to effectively lose even if he is right and Ham is wrong. On a pragmatic note, the simple fact that creationists everywhere are so eager for this debate to happen (and that Ham set it up in the first place) means that they expect their cause to benefit from it one way or another regardless of the arbitrated outcome (if there’s even a judge), and I don’t think they’re wrong. Nye shows no signs of pulling out, so I guess we’ll see what happens.

Update:
Well, Nye is generally accepted to have won the debate by a mile, but AiG received such a boost in financial support and apparent legitimacy that it is at least claiming that it’s secured the municipal bonds necessary to break ground on the Ark Encounter park. No surprises at all.

8 thoughts on “Ham vs Nye: Whoever Wins, Who Really Wins?”

  1. To bolster SmartLX’s point. Debates are in no way a scientific excercise, they are a point-scoring excericise that falls neatly into the realm of Creationist teritory. Creationists are expert politicians, whose main skills are belaying or instilling falses senses of confusion or certainty in their audiences, regardless of the truth behind them.
    Thus why Creationists are eager for this debate to go ahead.

    If you’re still not convinced, simply take the flip side of the coin. If Creationists are so confident of their religious text books veracity, all they have to do is demonstrate this vericity in the realm of science. Publish their theories, get them peer-reviewed and letthe truth speak for itself, this is how science works.

  2. So, I have watched each of the 5 minute opening statements (I am at work, that was all I had time for at the moment) and it seems that Religion is using the only “redefine terms” strategy. Ken Ham’s opening remarks tries to break science into two branches, Historical Science and Experimental/Observable Science. I am interested in seeing where he goes with this but I am not sure there is a difference. Science is Science and nothing more.

    1. Ham kept that distinction up the whole time. It’s one of his big talking points, but it’s a distinction that only creationists make. Scientific evidence can tell us about the past, present or future; “historical” science is not a separate branch. It’s just the aspect that threatens his Biblical literalism most directly.

        1. Honestly, no. I can’t stand him either. I watched bits and pieces coupled with running commentary from several blogs, then read the wrap-ups. I knew what he was going to argue before he started anyway.

  3. I have learned that any discussion with a creationist is an exercise in futility.One has to Want to know the truth to accept and believe it.Until
    such time as the creationist can clear his mind of the lies of the bible and the myticism of religeon He will forever stumble around in the dark, never to comprehend the value of the truth of science. Their minds like mine, were in all likleyhood, warped by the constant brainwashing that is endured from childhood on, for the supposed good of the individual. Fortunately for me, the more I studied the bible, and the more I studied evolution, the more my mind cleared and I could at last see and recognize the truth. Unfortunatley, this is not the case for the majority of people. As I said before, your quest has to be for the truth, and not for unbleivabe, irrational promises that will never come true.

  4. Well, it’s happened now, and very little about it was surprising. Ham stuck to the same talking points he’s always used. Nye stuck to the science. No one who wasn’t already 100% behind Ham rated his performance at all well, but his own supporters thought he’d killed it. Immediately after the debate, Ham taped a one-on-one chat with a sympathiser where he reiterated all his points without Nye there to respond, and a blog post on the AiG website spun the exchange into a triumph. Least surprising of all, a huge donation drive is in effect and centred on the fact that Ham simply stood up to Nye and big bad Secular Science, never mind how it turned out.

  5. I profess I wasn’t very interested in the debate (and I still am not … haven’t gone past the first few minutes of it on Youtube).
    But this Ken Ham seems to be the same fellow that Bill Maher interviewed in his documentary “Religulous”.
    And I am rather discouraged to watch this debate, given this guy’s “performance” in Religulous (although, Bill Maher probably doctored parts of the interview a bit to make it unflattering to Ken Ham).

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