On February 2nd, I watched C-Span’s presentation of the science-creation controversy between Bill Nye and Ken Ham. The two most salient aspects of the program were that each reinforced the attitudes and values of their constituencies without making any converts. This kind of program is not really a debate so much as it is a position statement. They accomplish nothing of value as far as the scientific community is concerned and pay a price by extending legitimacy to the fundies by sharing the same stage with pretenders. In the eyes of the scientifically illiterate public such a program is nearly always a lose:lose situation for the scientific community.
Bill Nye’s performance was acceptable, but while he is somewhat knowledgable about evolution, he is primarily an engineer and not as well equipped to expound on evolution as an evolutionary biologist. After all, when one has a problem with one’s cardiovascular system one does not consult a plumber. Nye missed many opportunities to discredit Ham and his pious platitudes with some examples of evolution that would have been understood by even the fundies in the audience. Nye started his message by wasting precious time talking about bow ties instead of being on message. Not good. He also lost his audience when he got into some esoteric physics to make an arcane point. It would have been far better to have cited some well-known biological phenomena, but he is an engineer.
Ham, like a typical literalist/fundamentalist, still confounds Old Testament mythology with factual history. Nye did not make capital of such tactical errors by Ham. Ham was clear enough when he was sure of his message, but too frequently what he was saying was unintelligible gibberish. I have no way of telling whether the audience picked up on this, or not. Faking it doesn’t seem like a good strategy, but considering the intellectual bankruptcy of his theology, it might have been his only option in a pinch. I am not sure that Ham was deliberately engaged in dissimulation in spite of the widely known objective truths about scientific findings--I think he seriously believes the religious twaddle he promulgates as legitimate knowledge. I think he is a classic example of the reasonably intelligent people whose minds have been so profoundly corrupted by repeated exposure to religious dogma and doctrine at a young age that they are literally beyond redemption as far as reason, logic and critical thinking are concerned. Denial and self deception are infinitely expandable.
Ham stressed that he did not see any conflict between legitimate science and religion in spite of the fact that science and religion are both based on irreconcilable--even contradictory premises. Religion is grounded in a priori “truths,” (the truth is subjectively and arbitrarily determined in advance and then justifications are sought or manufactured to support them), whereas scientific truth is derived from a posteriori objective evidence, reason, logic and critical thinking skills. Methodological naturalism is how modern people search for the truths about the physical and the factual of the universe. Ancient and archaic religious ideas, conceived in total ignorance of all we have learned in the last several millennia, cannot be accepted as reliable or dependable information as we seek the answers to our questions about natural phenomena. Nye did not make any advantage from these compelling ideas in a debate with a fundamentalist--an egregious error of omission.
Ham repeatedly labeled the efforts of “secularists” for “hijacking” the truth about teaching evolution in our public schools. Using pejoratives to bad mouth the world scientific community can back fire on the fundies so now they bad mouth secularists instead. Ham also used some contemporary working scientists with Ph.Ds who endorsed creationism as a legitimate alternative to mainline scientific neo-Darwinism. In any organization as large as the world scientific community, there is going to be a minuscule percentage of nay sayers who constitute a lunatic fringe. Nye did not capitalize on this opportunity by citing the members of the National Academy of Sciences who are the most accomplished members of the American scientific community who whole heartedly endorse the neo-Darwinian Synthesis, sometimes called the Modern synthesis.
Nye did emphasize the need for the USA to teach quality science if we are to remain competitive in the world market place of ideas. Education is our only hope for national survival in a world that burgeons with ignorance, superstition and magical thinking.