February 8, 2014

The Nye-Ham Debate

Bill Nye the Science Guy at The UP Experience ...
Photo by Ed Schipul (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I have received several questions in the past few days about what I thought of the recent debate between Bill Nye and Ken Ham. Almost every other atheist blog I read seemed to have something to say about the debate, and it received a surprising amount of attention by the mainstream news media. I suppose the notion that evolution would still be debated in 2014 was newsworthy. I didn't watch the debate due to a lack of interest. I rarely find debates worth watching, regardless of the subject or the participants. It just isn't a format I enjoy or find particularly informative. And the idea of debating a subject that really isn't debatable by sane people holds little interest. What will they debate next - gravity?

I enjoy seeing open and honest discussions of relevant issues, but this is rarely what happens in a debate. Most debates are about rhetoric, talking points, making one's opponent look stupid without addressing his or her valid points, and so on. Even some of the expanded versions of debates that have been turned into books are like this. When one party isn't sure how to respond to a point raised by the opponent, he or she just ignores it and responds to other parts of what the opponent says. I find this infuriating even though I recognize it is widely accepted that this happens in a debate.

Yes, I do usually watch some of the debates in the presidential primaries and prior to the general election. These drive me crazy too, but I see them more as a way of getting to know what the candidates are like than learning anything useful about the issues about which they are asked. Assuming I want to learn more about what various candidates are like, how they present themselves, what they are like under pressure, etc., I find these useful even if they are frustrating.

With the Nye-Ham debate, I had little interest in learning more about either of these men. Nye seems like a decent person, and I have been impressed with some of what I have seen from him previously. But he isn't someone I would go out of my way to see more of. Ham lacks the credibility, even within evangelical fundamentalist circles, to be taken seriously in such a setting. I agree with those who have suggested that Nye made a mistake in agreeing to this debate, but this is not the reason I skipped it.

Admittedly, some of the post-debate analysis has managed to be interesting even if much of it is predictable. The distortion one had to expect from the creationist side is on display, and few seem to expect that the debate will change any minds. The most interesting thing I have seen yet in the wake of the debate is that Phil Plait, one of the most notorious accommodationists around, has used it as an opportunity to criticize scientists and make his usual plea for scientists to be nicer to religion. For an effective response to Plait, see this post from Jerry Coyne (Why Evolution is True).