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.