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.

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.