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Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Ham on Nye: a new page in YEC public relations

While digging through boxes of fond childhood memories in a parent's basement, I recently came across a set of VHS tapes labeled "Gish vs. Doolittle". They were produced in the late 80's, a full decade before I would stumble upon the intriguing proposal that the Earth is quite young, and mainstream science has it terribly wrong. I engaged my inner nostalgia, remembering little more from that debate beside Dr. Duane Gish's witty remark that he rejected 'Fish-to-Gish' evolution, or what might more appropriately be called 'Too little-to-Doolittle' evolution.

When I purchased this tape set, I was already learning the basics of high school geology and biology—two subjects in which I excelled. Regardless, I lacked the critical capacity to understand Dr. Russell Doolittle's jargon-filled arguments, but caught on quickly to the 'common sense' of creationism. He seemed unprepared, moreover, to be challenged by a qualified non-conformist, and I was ready to root for my side. In retrospect, Dr. Doolittle probably made a good case, but could not make effective rebuttals to arguments he likely never heard before. Even if he had, I (the faithful viewer) could always retreat to the reassuring foundation offered by Dr. Gish: his position was biblical, so in the end, it must be right.

In terms of public relations, these were the glory days of Henry Morris's Institute for Creation Research. Their faithful subscribers would not be swayed by the arguments of 'evolutionist' academics—not even in public forums. Rather, they would reinforce their defenses with the stones that were their fallen debate opponents, saying, "I watched a Young-Earth Creationist debate a university professor...and win!"

These sorts of public interchange had already diminished by the time I caught on to the Young-Earth worldview, so I never got to see them in person. University professors were encouraged strongly not to engage in public debates with creationists, among other reasons, because it gave undue credibility to the young-Earth position. Despite the seemingly arrogant tone of this line of reasoning, it cannot be discredited. Most audience members could not follow the details that ought to be raised in such debates, so their judgements will inevitably be skewed in favor of the one who speaks on a more popular level. This factor tilts any debate strongly in favor of the young-Earth position and only enhances the public mistrust of academia so prevalent in the U.S. today. So the respective apologists pursued less cooperative lines of communication, retreating to non-profit websites and private blogs (case in point).

But now, Bill Nye has turned the page, accepting an invitation to debate Ken Ham at the Creation Museum on February 4th, 2013 [Note: a free live stream begins at 7 PM (EST) and will be available on YouTube for a limited time]. So far, I've seen the event shared enthusiastically by my YEC friends, but more timid responses from the other side. Bill Nye is going against the advice of his peers, including this scathing reproach, which even highlights his lack of credentials. So should he back down? Is the debate worth pursuing? Will this one turn out like the others and work counterproductively to his cause? Is Bill Nye the ideal candidate, or does he lack qualification?

Well, yes and no to all. Despite the concerns raised by all who reject Young-Earth –°reationism, this debate ought to be the first of many to come, and here's why:

1) Nearly half of American voters generally agree with Ken Ham's view of science, Earth history, and to a lesser extent, the Bible. If for no other reason than the future health of our society (and those affected by its frequently misguided policies), Ken Ham's organization should be held accountable for what it teaches, and its subscribers should engage standing criticism. Few creationist viewers will follow up this debate with thorough self-critique, but currently they are allowed to view themselves as a 'bullied minority' held hostage by secular society, which bans them from policy and classroom alike. Bill Nye is in a unique position to speak to millions of creationists at once. He can reassure them "We've heard the arguments put forth by those on staff at the Creation Museum, but they are not scientifically sound. There is no conspiracy to silence creationists; your arguments just aren't very good."As one who has been in that audience before, I hope you'll trust me on how important it is to hear this from a well known and respected scientist.

One of my main reservations is that this debate might be perceived as "Whatever Bill Nye says vs. the Bible", reinforcing the misguided conflation of YEC and Christianity and the false dichotomy between the Bible and modern science. I remain optimistic, however, in considering that Christians not completely sided with Ken Ham's nuanced Biblical views may recognize the scientific ineptitude of his position. My hope is that Bill Nye can wade through Ken Ham's mantra that "we're both interpreting the same data from different starting points of authority" and focus rather on how science works and what it can and cannot reveal about Earth history. Bill Nye is a reasonable choice for the task, because...

2) Bill Nye is not Richard Dawkins. Although Bill Nye would categorize himself an agnostic, his reputation was not built through antagonism toward faith or the faithful. Rather, Bill Nye is a highly respected educator with a sincere concern for the scientific literacy of all. He has made no statement that he wishes to see Christianity or the Bible disappear, but has an established connection with the entire audience, who will not be able to avoid chanting '...Bill! ...Bill! ...Bill! ...Bill!' when he takes the podium. We are more likely to listen to those whom we respect (and to those who respect us).

3) Effective debates on creationism need to be focused, and Bill Nye's approach should provide an appropriate point of departure. Staging a debate such as "Evolution vs. Creation" is almost a mistake in and of itself. No pair of scientists could effectively cover evidences ranging from the radiochemistry of uranium isotopes to the biochemistry of primate sensory receptors to the anatomy of Mesozoic theropods. We should not concern ourselves, therefore, that neither debater has earned research-based doctorates in evolutionary theory. Both have lifetime experience engaging science in public thought, and this debate should focus on the scientific merit of creationism as a theory of origins in language understandable to a wide range of viewers. The more specialized the debater, the more likely they are to lose touch with their opponent's audience.

But if this event goes well, will the Creation Museum be bold enough to invite an expert in say, sedimentology and stratigraphy, to debate Steven Austin on his theories regarding Flood Geology? Could a renown geochronologist debate Andrew Snelling regarding the so-called findings of the RATE team? Not that I'm volunteering myself (because I lack that reputation and experience), but I would love to see this happen. The current setup allows AiG to publish shallow (if not dishonest) argumentation, where readers never have to hear the other side. So I must say "Yes, Mr. Ham, please set that precedent."

Final thoughts and exhortation

Please share this event with anyone that might be interested, and use it as an opportunity to discuss the scientific merits of creationism, public attitudes toward science, and even the threat of creationism to the church. Make the live stream a group event, if possible, and start the conversation you may have been avoiding.

If you pray for this event, pray that it will not be perceived as a defense of (or worse, an assault on) Christianity and the Bible. The center of our faith in practice is still to tend to the orphan and the widow, and there is no shortage of those in need in our communities. Propagating the false dichotomy embraced by Ken Ham only impedes the church from carrying out that mission by replacing the heart of the gospel with an overemphasized appendix.