Is the Nye-Ham Debate a Good Idea?

As you’ve probably heard by now, Bill Nye has agreed to debate Ken Ham at the Creation Museum on Feb. 4. Reactions have ranged from excitement to disappointment to dread. I’m somewhere in between. So is Tom Flynn, though I think he’s being a bit naive with this statement:

Planetary Society director and forever “Science Guy” Bill Nye has apparently agreed to debate young-earth creationist Ken Ham on February 4th at Ham’s sprawling Creation Museum in northern Kentucky. At least Ham says so on his website, and I haven’t seen a denial from the Nye camp yet. Opinions are mixed on this, and mine are too — there’s a very real risk that Nye will shine a fresh spotlight on a fading evangelist whose museum has lately been grasping at straws to keep its attendance numbers up. But it’s sure to make for great theater.

Richard Dawkins is well-known for discouraging any prominent atheist/skeptic from debating creationists. In a nutshell, he says such events only give creationists apparent legitimacy. On the other hand, Nye will be going into a battle of wits against an unarmed opponent, and the proceedings are bound to be astounding to watch.

I think this is the first mistake that people make when it comes to debating creationists (or theologians and philosophers, for that matter). They assume that since they believe something incredibly foolish, they’re “unarmed” and will be easy to defeat. But Ken Ham is not unarmed in such a debate. He is, in fact, well-armed with a thousand quips and platitudes and falsehoods. That they are wrong is irrelevant to the question of who “wins” such a debate.

The only good way to approach such a debate is to be prepared with short, succinct answers to those claims, which is something most people fail to do. Will Bill Nye be prepared that way? I have no idea. Given how busy he certainly is, I would doubt it. And that makes me doubt the wisdom of his participation.

I’m not opposed to all debates of this nature, as Dawkins is. But I’ve seen them go pretty badly. I’ll be doing one myself in April on the subject of whether the Constitution is based on Christianity and the Bible. But I feel I’m prepared to answer the specific claims that will be made (and will be even more prepared by the time of the debate, by which time I’ll literally have it “briefed” as we used to say when I was coaching debate). It can be done well, but it takes real effort. If you go into it thinking “I’m really smart and he’s really stupid, so this will be a breeze,” it’s not going to go well.

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  • colnago80

    As I pointed out in a comment over at Jerry Coyne’s web site (he doesn’t like the term blog), it is possible to debate clowns like Ham and make him look bad. Ken Miller wiped up the floor with Henry Morris and the late John Maynard Keynes made Duane Gish look bad. However, Brayton is right. It requires extensive preparation, particularly with regards to anticipating anything Ham might say and preparing short sound bits to refute them. However, it appears that Ham is stacking the deck by only allowing in his acolytes. As Aron Ra, who Ham was too cowardly to debate, reports on his blog, when he tried to sign up for tickets, he was told that the event was sold out, even though he applied a few minutes after the announcement went up on the web site. Apparently, the only video to be made of the event will be produced by Ham, who will undoubtedly edit it to make himself look better. Nye should have demanded a neutral site for the debate. “This is a setup.

  • The only good way to approach such a debate is to be prepared with short, succinct answers to those claims, which is something most people fail to do.

    Also, to head them off at the pass. An opening statement should briefly but succinctly explain that quibbling with evolution doesn’t mean “god did it” and it especially doesn’t mean the christian god did it Nor does pointing at the grandeur of the universe prove the christian god created it – indeed, before the religious want to argue that anti-science means god, they should try to grapple with the many flaws in their theory – namely that there are zillions of religions that disagree about the particulars of eachother’s god, Even within christianity there has never been a consensus (unless achieved at sword-point) like we see in the sciences. The place to hit them on is the point that criticizing someone else’s theory doesn’t make yours true religion fails when its epistemology is attacked, science , like Obi Wan, only gets stronger under those conditions.

    I’d be surprised if Ham actually believed any of the stuff he says anymore. He seems to me to be a sociopathic conman of the sort that will say anything to part a sucker from their money.

  • it is possible to debate clowns like Ham and make him look bad

    I assume that there you’re speaking as an expert in looking bad?

  • Is the Nye-Ham Debate a Good Idea?

    No. Not even as street theater.

  • Howard Bannister

    My daddy was a Creationist and a fundamentalist and a lot of other things. But he gave me some advice that has stood me in good stead.

    “Son, never get in an argument with somebody stupid. They’ll drag you down to their level and beat you with experience.”

  • petemoulton

    I’m hoping for the best, but expecting the worst. Ham may have some seriously foolish beliefs, but he’s as devious, dishonest and utterly shameless about lying for Jeebus as any other creationist. Unless Bill Nye has some real debating skills (for which he’s never shown any evidence), and a heretofore unsuspected killer instinct, I’d say he’s going to get hammered.

  • v. h.hutchison

    I must agree with Dawkins on this. Creationists use such debates to declare: “See, we are important enough to have scientists debate us.” They need to be ignored in all such cases, despite the very few times the result was an obvious ‘win’ for the evolution side (e.g., Ken Miller). Of all such debates I have witnessed, the evolution side was not a very clear ‘winner, due to the Gish Gallup, etc.’

  • Abby Normal

    I’m going with Admiral Ackbar on this one, “It’s a trap!”

    Ed said:

    by which time I’ll literally have it “briefed”

    You’re planning to use your underwear as a crib sheet? I always wondered what those podiums were for.

  • scienceavenger

    Here’s how this is going to go. Ham is going to make claims that are absurd, ask questions that make no sense, and draw conclusions that are total non sequitors. Nye will be stunned into silence that any such person could do such things without being high, and fumble around for a response. This will be interpreted as being stumped. Ham will make absolute crisp assertions. Nye’s will be full of nuance, which will be interpreted as waffling.

    Ham will wipe the floor with him.

  • machintelligence

    According to Aron Ra, Ham is also stacking the deck:

    It’s not just that no atheists are getting in. It’s that there won’t be any publicly accessible unedited video either. You can buy the DVD, but only after it has been sanitized and edited the way answersingenesis wants it.

  • colnago80

    Re the Pennsylvania pissant @ #3

    “I told the truth and they thought it was hell,” Harry S.Truman.

  • Cuttlefish

    Nye should wear several (in case one is spotted) recording devices, to reinforce any accusations he might make of biased editing.

  • Like I’ve said before, we’ve already had this debate back in 2005, and the creationists lost — even though the “moderator” — actually a Federal judge — was widely expected to be biased toward their side. Letting those lying idiots pretend to rehash that debate is a lame idea, and won’t accomplish anything.

  • John Pieret

    Even if Nye does well, what does the science side get out of it? The audience will be all (or nearly so) True Believers™ who, even if they are shaken a little, will soon be back in the fold once the memory begins to fade and their family, friends and fellow congregants give them a little reinforcement. If it is really bad for Ham, that video will never see the light of day.

    In the meantime, Ham gets lots of free publicity for his failing “museum” and the prestige of attaching his name and organization to a famous science advocate. There is little or no downside for him. If he “wins” (is better at debating with the help of his knowledge of all the tricks creationists have used in the past), it is a huge upside in bragging rights and reinforcement for the faithful. If he draws, the True Believers™ will see it as a win anyway … they’ll see anything less than Ham crawling on the floor and begging for mercy as a win.

    The problem is that it can go very badly for science but it is hard to see how it could ever go well for it.

  • Obligatory Admiral Ackbar reference

  • anubisprime

    It does not matter a jot if Nye sweeps the floor with Ham, because no matter the outcome they always claim victory.

    Unless the proceedings change, neutral venue, mixed audience Nye is on a roller coaster to defeat what ever happens debate wise under the present presumed arrangements,.

    No idea why creationists should be bothered with anyway, let ’em swing in the wind….

  • hoku

    Another reason this is a bad idea, is that its essentially just a fundraiser for the creation museum. Nye is directly generating income for a terrible institution.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Richard Dawkins is well-known for discouraging any prominent atheist/skeptic from debating creationists.

    Is this accurate? I notice no source is cited. I would suspect rather that Dawkins discouraged scientists from debating creationists. Nye is a science publicizer, not a scientist.

    Why I Won’t Debate Creationists by Richard Dawkins

  • Michael Heath

    I predict Bill Nye will demonstrate the Dunning-Krueger effect in this debate.

    It’s one thing to have an understanding of evolution. It’s a very different thing to know how to debate and equally importantly, how to counter creationist arguments.

  • Childermass

    If AiG thinks that Nye won the debate they won’t release a DVD. If they think they won, they will release the DVD. What is even worse is they control the “extras” on the DVD which will they get to add and, of course, Nye will have no control. That the audience will be incredibly stacked will make this even worse.

    The only way anyone should ever debate creationists should be under the following terms:

    1) The person or persons debating the creationists must be good at public speaking, be familiar with creationist debating tactics, and be able to prep for the specific creationist.

    2) They must insist that they get a complete copy of the debate and all related materials with full authority to publish and distribute it as they wish with no further permission from the creationists required.

    3) The use of audio-visual aids should be equal and the venue should not be one utterly controlled by the creationists.

  • Michael Heath


    I think you missed at least two important points.

    Science supporters must be able to contribute half of the questions/topics. Creationists should not be allowed to edit these questions/topics, nor should scientists be able to touch the creationists’ questions/topics.

    Science debaters should validate the science supporters who formulate the questions/topics are experts at both countering creationist arguments and arguing the veracity of evolution with creationists.

  • Sastra

    Because the venue is the Creation “Museum” and most of the audience will be creationists, you could look at it as an automatic win for Nye. Unless he does so poorly that people who previously were right on the verge of accepting evolution change their minds (assuming that anyone like that is there in the first place) , any movement among the pious viewers will by default be towards science and away from Ham.

    They already know what Ham is going to say. They’ve heard it a hundred times. But, given that they’ve been carefully sheltered from real science and spoon-fed a cartoonish version of the Theory of Evolution, they don’t know what Nye will say. And Ham is serving Nye the skilled science communicator a naive audience, one which would not otherwise attend a scientific lecture on the theory of evolution. The fears one might have with a neutral venue won’t apply. Consider the starting point.

    I think it’s a mistake to view creationists as an immoveable block. That sounds to me like a cartoonish version of people. In every group there is a range of beliefs, of certainty, and of dispositions. If something Nye says gets even one person to start thinking about something in a different way, it’s an improvement over the status quo.

    I do agree, though, that Nye appears to have bungled the negotiations regarding money and rights. That doesn’t bode well for his skills in debate. Maybe Nye should play sneaky: blow the debate aspect completely and just smile wide and give a fine lecture on evolution, interrupted at intervals by increasingly exasperated puffs of smoking Ham.

  • gardengnome

    If I could believe for one moment that Hambone and company would play ‘by the rules’ I’d say go for it, but past experience suggests otherwise. The man is an arrogant bully and would never have agreed to this if he felt there was any risk of a loss of face.

  • mattb

    just watched one of the Lawrence Krauss/ William Lane Craig debates in Australia. I hate to say it, but WLC wiped the floor with Krauss. He plays to the audience, he kept cool, and if Krauss brings up good points, he uses rhetorical jiu jitsu to bog Krauss down with minutiae – all the while winking at the audience sideways. He puts on a great performance. Meanwhile, Krauss gets frustrated that he uses fallacious reasoning and gets away with it.

    The lesson I learned is this: if you are going to debate WLC, don’t get sucked into discussing the anthropic principle, quantum mechanics or whether or not some models of a contracting universe have arbitrary assumptions about entropy. Don’t talk about cosmology at all, in fact, don’t offer alternative scientific hypotheses about anything. He will lead you on an endless intensive discussion about nothing. Instead, attack his epistemology. It is where he is weak. Krauss offered one good counterexample of a syllogism. He could have offered twenty. His example, side by side with WLC’s proof.

    “You want to discuss cosmology with regards to the origin of the universe and offer your criticisms on the development of a theory of quantum gravity? It is irrelevant to thefact

  • mattb

    To the fact that your thinking is faulty. You know that Jesus of Nazareth was the son of god because some historians feel that the evidence for the resurrection is credible? That is a giant leap. I think Penn Jillette could do better magic than that, and leave more witnesses. We can therefore, (using same WLC logic) assume that everything else Penn says is true. So, there is no god and all women should carry pink pistols on their person at all time”

  • aluchko

    I’m definitely not thrilled with the venue but if someone is going to debate Ham I don’t mind it being Nye.

    The problem with sending in a biologist is that they rely on the evidence, but the audience doesn’t have the expertise to evaluate the evidence or tell which side is just making things up. If you want to beat someone as thoroughly dishonest as Ham you don’t do it on the facts where he’ll just make things up, you do it at a higher level where people can understand what’s going on.

    Nye’s career is as a science communicator, even if he doesn’t have the same level of experience in debating or biology he got the career he has because he’s an exceptional communicator. If there’s anyone who can walk into a debate and explain how evolution or the scientific method works it’s Nye.

  • John Pieret

    Sastra @ 22:

    I think it’s a mistake to view creationists as an immoveable block. That sounds to me like a cartoonish version of people. In every group there is a range of beliefs, of certainty, and of dispositions.

    I might buy that if this was going to be an audience of ID creationists but this will, almost certainly, be mostly YECs. Look at “Morton’s Demon”:

    They have long experience in ignoring contrary evidence.

    Glenn Morton was a geologist who was, nonetheless, a minor celebrity in the YEC world until his work for an oil and gas exploration company convinced him the Earth was old and that at least theistic evolution was true. He kept a famous list of predictions of Darwinism’s Imminent Demise (going back before Darwin). But even he was not completely free of the influence and, not long ago, pulled his website and all his articles off the web because he felt he was being used by atheists.

    And, frankly, I don’t think that one person starting to think offsets the help AiG will get out of this stunt or the hundreds or thousands of YECs who will be energized to spread their ignorance, particularly to their children, if Nye comes off badly.

  • felidae

    NO NO NO, Bill, don’t do it First off, its a fund raiser for Ken Ham–he is in deep financial trouble with his Ark Encounter theme park and may have to cough up 25 million dollars if he defaults on the bonds Second, the place will be packed with Ham’s supporters–tickets sold out miraculously shortly after they went on sale so one from our side will be there. Third, Ham talks fast and throws in every creationist myth in his arsenal, so is almost impossible for a careful, reasoned refutation to be presented in any time limited format. Fourth, don’t give this clown a forum.

    Even if Bill clearly wins, Ham–that paragon of veracity–will claim victory and will use edited excerpts to prove it

    So little to gain, so much to lose for Bill Nye

  • Sastra

    I might buy that if this was going to be an audience of ID creationists but this will, almost certainly, be mostly YECs.

    So? They’re still people and it’s a large group. Even Young Earth Creationists are going to be diverse, with different backgrounds, personalities, experiences, and so forth. They’ve all been told, over and over, to trust science and reason because it supports creationism while at the same time they’ve been insulated, misled, and lied to. This is a dangerous combination.

    Ask any ex-creationist. There are lots of them — which means that you can’t count at all on the hundreds or thousands in the audience being ‘energized’ (as if YEC fundies who go to Creation “Museums” are normally unmotivated and lack sufficient propaganda.) My guess — and it is a guess — is that many ex-creationists will say that if they had been able to hear Bill Nye come right in to a YEC forum and explain what evolution is and isn’t, their apostasy would probably have happened sooner rather than later.

  • No, it isn’t.

    Don’t wrestle with a pig – you both get dirty and the pig likes it.

  • abb3w

    If Bill At least was guaranteed access to the full video/audio, even with the restriction that any distribution had to be noncommercial, it might have been still worth it. At the worst, Bill Nye would be soundly beaten, but others could study what Ken Ham used as tactics, and develop counter tactics; and at best might win.

    However, if AIG has exclusive distribution and editing rights, then they can remix to remove all the best parts of what Nye says and keep all the most persuasive-seeming parts of Ham’s bits. The only gain will be a few dozen teens in the audience getting exposed to evolution from Nye, with Ham possibly using some of the more esoteric bits of his shtick to reduce the persuasiveness. Ham risks perhaps a dozen souls (so to speak) to get a propoganda tool he can probably flog to tens of thousands to bolster the persuasion resistance of a lot more.

    I hope would be debaters soon learn: if you can’t get and distribute video and audio, you should not do the debate.

  • 31: exactly. If you’re going to run a fool’s errand, arrange equal access to the fool’s cameras!

  • steffp

    I wonder if Nye would care to debate an astrologer, someone rectally abused by aliens, or a geomanter…

    Creationism is a rather provincial phenomenon even in the US, and as I see it, someone who can follow Nye is rather unlikely to hold creationist views. Those who side with Ken Ham will do so whatever Mr. Science says. So it’s only an event to fleece stupid fundies, using Nye’s reputation. He should have thought of that…

  • rpjohnston

    Sastra, you’re assuming that 1) “everyone individual is different!” means that a self-selected group won’t share certain traits (Or indeed, that all traits in the total population are randomly and roughly evenly distributed); 2) that people are inherently rational (even after Morton’s Demon was brought up); and 3) that nothing outside that room is relevant (despite this topic’s considerable mentions of the rules, AiG’s finances, and broader propaganda). The point of all that is that a debate isn’t a format for disseminating data, and it’s rhetorical skill, not facts or truth, that matters.

    For my part, I’d say go for it on the condition that Ham cosplays this

  • Ichthyic

    It’s not just that no atheists are getting in. It’s that there won’t be any publicly accessible unedited video either. You can buy the DVD, but only after it has been sanitized and edited the way answersingenesis wants it.

    this is the umpteenth example of someone doing a taped debate like this, and NOT getting editorial rights to any released video.

    seriously, this isn’t fucking rocket science people.

    if there is going to be distributed media afterwards….. FORCE A CONTRACT.

    that said, Ham has already won.

    his goal was to get publicity and money, and this thing is being held at the creation museum.

    case closed.

    Ham won as soon as Nye accepted.

    the debate itself is nothing but fluff.

  • Ichthyic

    Is this accurate? I notice no source is cited. I would suspect rather that Dawkins discouraged scientists from debating creationists. Nye is a science publicizer, not a scientist.

    *psst* reggie…

    so is Dawkins.

  • Ichthyic

    They’re still people and it’s a large group.

    stop this.

    a public debate is not a good place to actually resolve an honest difference of opinion even, let alone try to match up science vs fiction.

    it’s not that outreach is useless, it’s that DEBATES are useless.

    …or do you somehow think that every person attending that debate ONLY has that tiny window to expose themselves to all the related information?

    ’cause if so… let me introduce you to this thing they call the internet.

  • Alex


    *psst* reggie…

    so is Dawkins.

    You’re being silly, are you maybe trying a bit too hard to discredit the guy? Yes we all recognize his numerous failings and weaknesses. That does not change the fact that Dawkins was a Professor and working scientist at Oxford, while Nye did some Engineering for Boeing and then went into the science outreach+entertainment industry. Dawkins, scientist, Nye, not so much. This is also true – and that is relevent for the discussion at hand – for their public image. Dawkins has the label “scientist” (even if he doesn’t publish any more), and would therefore lend Ham more scientific credibility when appearing onstage with him.

  • Ed:

    You’ve got the cred to talk to Nye about this. Tell him that I will sacrifice myself on the altar of unGODliness and appear in his stead. I have awesome debating skilz.


    Ken Hambone: I will support the Proposition, “That the Earth was Created by the KKKrisitian GOD in SIX D…”

    Me: Shut your fucking piehole, you lying sack-o-shit. You lose, dickface.

    I suspect that there will be no video available.

  • Doc Bill

    I am not a big fan of Bill Nye the Buffoon Guy. I find him inarticulate and unconvincing. Maybe he comes across well to children, I don’t know.

    Giving Shambo any publicity is a huge mistake. Thank you, Bill Nye, the Just Screwed Science Education Guy.

    Anybody who has seen the shortest video of Shambo knows he has one view: truth of the Bible.

    Nye can’t argue that, it’s a losing proposition much like Pee Wee Herman chanting “I know you are but what am I?” Nye said on a CNN interview that he’s not going to attack Shambo’s religion, but that’s all Shambo has.

    I’m sure we would all love to watch a video of the IRS interview Shambo about his finances or explain why he takes money from children in exchange for “Ark pegs.”

    Shambo is a simple con man but he will not go down before the likes of Nye! If Nye really wanted to do something for science education he should spend his energy with the NCSE and do something substantial, rather than clown around with Shambo.

  • Michael Heath

    Doc Bill writes:

    I am not a big fan of Bill Nye the Buffoon Guy. I find him inarticulate and unconvincing. Maybe he comes across well to children, I don’t know.

    Bill Nye wades into debates on evolution and climate change where he’s:

    a) fails to reveal the false premises promoted by denialists that are central to upholding their conclusion.

    b) fails to reports on the facts that make acceptance of the scientific consensus impressive and very compelling if not convincing on some aspects.

    So my observation is consistent with your finding him unconvincing.

    So the net result of his engagement is that he supports the false notion there’s two arguable positions for each of these controversies. This is why I noted he demonstrates the Dunning-Krueger effect when it comes to these two topics.

  • jamessweet

    Yeah, I’m pretty much with you, Ed. I don’t categorically reject the premise of debating creationists (and other denialists) the way Dawkins does… but one has to be seriously prepared. One has to understand the nature of the Gish Gallop and have some tactics for dealing with it. And one has to be very familiar with the opponent, so that you can rapidly meet all of her inane arguments. (It is an unfortunate fact that sometimes arguments that make no sense are harder to refute than arguments that are sensible but flawed — if you can’t follow the logical chain, it’s more difficult to point to where it has gone wrong).

    Nye has not given any indication that he’s really prepared here, and that’s worrisome.

  • gshelley

    If Nye goes into this thinking it will be a debate where two people honestly present evidence for their position and evidence against their opponents position, he will be crushed. If he goes into it expecting Ham to lie and misrepresent the scientific position and to cherry pick and twist real data to support his own, then he might be able to prepare for that and can do well.

  • godlesspanther

    Creationists can’t be trusted to be honest about anything. Ken Ham is going to lie because that is what Ken ham does. He is a professional liar. He has lied about Bill Nye publicly.

    Nye should go in with full offense. Hostile, agile, and mobile.

  • I put this up on Mr. Laden’s blog.

    I would like to point out that what we are now doing is in fact why the debates MIGHT be a bad idea. This is the sort of discussion that matters. Digging into supporting facts and information and arguments. You simply do not get this in a debate.

    Debates are about somewhat more advanced chest beating. You don’t get into the details, you trade emotionally overwrought summaries. You paint the other side with hyperbole that captures the essence of what they are in a larger context so that a “ring of truth” remains in the minds of the audience. You go in prepared to verbally grapple on an emotional level and face rapid fire fallacies, redirections, misdirections, and more in a game that bears more resemblance to the sport of grappling than discussion.

    IF Mr. Nye understands this and can give his opponents efforts the proper simple emotional characterizations, with clues to what his opponent is really offering in a fast and meaningful way, maybe. But this will be no discussion or real challenge of scientific ideas, it will be much more base primitive and dirty than that.

  • plutosdad

    In debate team I learned how to construct arguments that were sound to find the truth. Then we learned that none of that matters, and debate isn’t about finding the truth, but about winning.

    My wife, a criminal defense attorney, says trials are not about determining whether someone actually did something – they are about emotions and manipulation and winning.

  • bcreason

    Received an email from Eric Hovind today asking me to preorder the Nye debate for $19.95.

    Proceeds to go to Answers In Genesis. Supposedly they also sold all 900 tickets for the event 2 minutes after they went on sale.

    This seems to be a big money maker for AiG. Whether Bill wins or looses AiG wins. (They’ll never admit defeat anyway.

    Along with the free live streaming, Answers in Genesis has asked Creation Today to partner with them to make DVD’s and Digital Downloads of the debate available to the public. The proceeds for these preorders of DVD’s and Digital Downloads will go to support Answers in Genesis and help offset the cost of hosting this historic event.