Richard Dawkins has gone on the record as saying he would never debate Creationists because “they’ve won the moment you agree to have a debate at all. Because what they want is the oxygen of respectability.”
But now that Bill Nye has agreed to debate Creationist Ken Ham, Dawkins has some advice for his sidekick in science:
1) Focus on the fossils and the cosmological evidence for the age of the universe:
Physical scientists (such as Bill Nye) should play to their strengths in physical science and call the wingnut out on the age of fossils, and cosmological evidence on the age of the universe. Radiometric dating of rocks is solid, irrefutable science. The agreement between different isotopes with overlapping time spans is so strong, it is impossible for anyone to wriggle out of the conclusion that the world is billions of years old, not thousands. Astronomical evidence of the expanding universe agrees.
2) Remember: No fossil has ever been found out of place:
There are of course gaps in the fossil record. In the case of the Turbellaria, a large, flourishing and beautiful group of free-living flatworms, the fossil record is one big gap — there are no fossils — and not even a Young Earth Creationist thinks they were created yesterday. But although there are gaps in the fossil record, it is a very telling fact that not a single fossil has ever been found in the wrong place in the time sequence. To paraphrase JBS Haldane, not a single fossil rabbit has ever been found in the Precambrian.
3) The evidence for evolution is overwhelming:
Even if there were not a single fossil anywhere in the world, the fact of evolution would be established beyond any doubt by the evidence from comparing modern creatures with other modern creatures. Comparative anatomy was highly convincing evidence in Darwin’s time. Today we can add comparative molecular sequences (DNA and proteins) which are even more convincing, by orders of magnitude. Whichever molecule you look at, and whichever bone system etc you look at, the pattern of animal resemblances turns out to be the same branching tree (given normal, expected margins of error). What could that branching tree be but a pedigree, a family tree, a tree of descent with modification?
The pattern of geographical distribution of animals and plants is exactly as it should be, on the assumption that slow, gradual evolution has taken place on slowly drifting (plate tectonics) continents and islands. Archipelagoes such as Galapagos and Hawaii are textbook examples, but the same kind of pattern is seen the world over. Species are distributed exactly where evolutionists would expect them to be (the pattern of distribution is not what you’d expect if they had dispersed from Noah’s Ark on Mount Ararat!)
5) Most working scientists accept evolution and a multi-billion-year-old universe:
It’s never ideal to argue from authority, but the fact is that the VAST majority of scientists working in relevant fields accept the fact of evolution and the fact that the universe is billions of years old. The mutually corroborating evidence spans zoology, botany, microbiology, bacteriology, genetics, geology, physics, chemistry, astronomy, anthropology, geography… the list goes on. As for Ken Ham’s biblical alternative, Genesis is not accepted as literally true by any reputable theologian or ancient historian. And that is hardly surprising when you consider the obscurity of its authorship, and its obvious status as just one of thousands of origin myths from all around the world.
We know all of this is true. The question is whether Nye will be able to convince the Creationists watching that any of this is true. Or possibly true. Or remotely within the realm of truth so that they decide to check out the ideas for themselves.
If there’s any upside to this debate, it’s that Creationists will be exposed to the words of a credible science advocate instead of the sort of fundamentalist theology they usually get inside their bubbles. Nye’s challenge will be to out-perform Ham, get his followers’ attention, and convince them that natural explanations for scientific phenomena are far more promising than they’ve been led to believe.
It’s a tall order, but the debate’s happening whether we like it or not. Might as well hope for the best.