There are some who believe that Bill Nye “the science guy” lost the debate with Ken Ham on the question of “is creation a viable model of origins?”
And there are many who assert that he should never have agreed to the debate at all. That even debating Ham was to elevate creationism to the level where it vies with evolution for status as a credible theory.
I will remain agnostic (if you’ll excuse the pun) on the former count, but I will firmly disagree on the latter.
We should always debate those who promote unreason, and we should do so with great vigour and care. Of course, we need to pick our battles, or we’d be hammering away at all manner of fringe views. But we should particularly engage and debate those irrationalists who are most effective at spreading their views and undermining reason and science. This includes creationists like Ham.
This I believe is the case whether Nye “won” the debate or not.
If it is found that Nye has changed some minds, then it reinforces the power and efficacy of debate. If it is found that Nye “lost” the debate, it only underscores the need for us to get better at debating.
After all, if someone agrees to a debate where the standards of rational argumentation and evidence apply, then those of us who believe rational and scientific enquiry are the most reliable means to discovering facts have already won half the battle.
And if someone doesn’t agree to conform to the standards of rational argumentation and appeal to evidence, then we can more easily and clearly flag them as being the irrationalists they are, and call for them to be dismissed from the conversation.
However, as Nye’s performance highlights, we also cannot underestimate the importance of persuasion. Facts don’t speak for themselves. And facts alone don’t change worldviews.
As loath as I am to link to Buzzfeed, this list of questions from creationists to those who “believe” in evolution is incredibly illuminating. It clearly demonstrates that those who believe in creationism hold a radically different worldview from those who find evolution to be the best theory to explain biology as we know it.
Just providing more facts in response to those questions, even if they’re offered eloquently, is sadly unlikely to sway many opinions – particularly if those opinions are informed by a radically different worldview.
What we need to get better at is understanding the way the world looks through the eyes of someone who is committed to creationism. We need to understand that to such a person, creationism isn’t the starting point of their beliefs, it is the end point. From there they work backwards in order to justify their beliefs.
They have often accepted on an emotional level a particular view of the world – one that is emotionally linked with the comfort that comes from believing there is a deity who cares about them – and that worldview itself is largely transparent to them. They are not stupid or bad people. They are simply acting sensibly given a particular view of the world. And we need to understand and respect that.
If they are confronted with an individual fact – or even a slew of facts – that contradict some aspect of their worldview, they are faced with a stark choice: reject their worldview (an emotionally traumatic experience akin to rejecting science or reason for us); or reject the individual fact by challenging it or explaining it away.
In light of that, we must address that worldview more directly. We must make that lens translucent and show how their worldview flavours their beliefs. Then encourage a discussion about competing worldviews and ways of thinking before we entertain a discussion about facts.
Above all we certainly should not allow irrationalists to spread their views unchallenged. Whenever we refuse to debate, we give them free reign to spread their views with the apparent authority that comes from us appearing to be afraid to challenge them.
Reason and science have the great virtue of being the most robust tools for discovering the nature of the world around us. We already have that intrinsic advantage. However, that advantage alone will not win the struggle against unreason.
We must debate. And we must do it better.