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A Tale of Two Debaters

Posted on Feb. 12, 2015 by | Comments (11)
Cover of Bill Nye's book Undeniable

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As we celebrate the 206th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin today (Feb. 12), there is both good news and bad news in the continuing culture war over evolution. First, the good news. In a number of places, our political representatives have placed motions on the floor of Congress and several state legislatures to recognize February 12 as Darwin Day. Given the aversion to even the mention of evolution by most politicians today (even those who accept it, but don’t want to alienate creationists), this is very encouraging sign. But of course, this bit of good news is countered by the fact that creationist bills keep cropping up all the year round (see the NSCE website for a litany of recent rashes of creationist attacks). In the school districts of Louisiana, Tennessee, and several other states, there are backdoor ways to introduce creationism into public school science classes, or at least to cast doubt on evolution. This problem never seems to end, although there are good signs in the current polls that the younger generation (especially the millennials) are becoming more and more secular, and reject religious fundamentalism and creationism. Over the long term, that is very good news, because the creationists are no longer growing in numbers, but losing the next few generations and may be doomed to becoming a tiny minority with limited political influence in another generation.

Probably the most publicized event in the evolution-creation wars was the “Great Debate” a year ago (February 4, 2014) between Bill Nye “the Science Guy,” and Ken Ham of the creationist Answers in Genesis (AiG) organization. At the time of the debate, it was hard to tell what the long-term impact of the event was, although it seemed clear that the majority opinion was that Bill Nye had won overwhelmingly. This was not just the opinion of Nye’s supporters, but even of many fundamentalists, such as Pat Robertson, who openly disavowed Ken Ham and his extreme form of creationism! But in the year since the debate, the long-term after-effects are becoming clearer. Bill Nye has seen a revitalization of his career, with a much higher and more favorable public profile than at any time since his original Bill Nye the Science Guy shows ended in 1998. Right after the debate ended with a huge wave of support for him, he cranked out his new book on evolution, Undeniable, which is not only on the general best-seller list, but even #1 on the creationism best-seller list on Amazon.com! Of course, this is an artifact of the way Amazon.com categorized his book, but no other book on evolution (dealing with creationism) has managed to do this, ever. As many of us realized after his performance in the debate was over, Bill did the smart thing. Rather than chase Ken Ham and play a “Gish gallop” and try to defuse his lies and distortions, he calmly and coolly just let the ridiculous implications of Ham’s ideas sink in to the audience, all while maintaining a friendly, non-threatening and non-condescending tone. This is the way to reach “hearts and minds,” and let people see the absurdity of young-earth creationism for themselves, without needing to preach to them.

Then, after Nye’s stellar performance, two questions from the audience really revealed Ham for what he is. One of the questions pushed Ham hard on whether he takes every part of the Bible literally (including some of the patently ridiculous parts), and Ham backed down from his central dogma of no compromise on literalism. In other words, he’s just another “cafeteria Christian” who cherry-picks the parts of the Bible he accepts and those he dismisses as metaphor—and thus undermined his position he’s argued for years that nothing but total literalism is acceptable. But the key question, which really made people shake their heads, was one which asked Ham if there was any evidence that would make him change his mind. When he said “no,” he lost a huge number of people who respect science and recognize that we all must learn and change our ideas when we get new information.

Even more interesting is the long-term fallout from Ham’s performance. Clearly, Ham instigated the debate as a way to get publicity and attention for his organization, and to help raise funds for his “Ark Encounter” park to be built near his “Creation Museum” in Kentucky. But here he has had one setback after another. A recent audit showed the “Creation Museum” has been losing money hand over fist. Ham has been selling junk bonds to raise money for the Ark Park, mortgaging his “Creation Museum” to raise money, but with no guarantee to investors that they will get any money back if he defaults. And there are plenty of signs that he has nowhere near the money needed to complete it. Meanwhile, the tax breaks that the Commonwealth of Kentucky gave him have all been retracted because Ham’s organization openly discriminates in its hiring, especially by religion and sexual orientation. In the latest development, his lawyers are suing Kentucky for withdrawing the tax breaks that he should never have gotten in the first place, all because he violates Kentucky law and cannot receive public monies. In their warped minds, this is “religious discrimination.” As this seems to be clearly losing case in any court of law, Ham is just flushing more good money down the toilet to send his lawyers on a wild goose chase.

Yet Ham and  his minions have managed to further embarrass themselves and get enormous publicity for patently absurd statements that reflect badly on them, even among conservative Christians. It’s one thing to claim that carnivorous dinosaurs used their huge sharp teeth to eat coconuts (as his “museum” and books claim), since carnivory was not supposed to occur until after Adam and Eve’s sin. Something this silly can be debunked by a five-year-old. But lately, every news release about Ham’s AiG organization shows increased cluelessness about how to win the hearts and minds of most people. Why did Ham decide it was useful to preach that if aliens existed outside the earth, they would all go to hell? Why did anyone at AiG think that it was good for their public image to claim that unicorns exist? And in the run-up to Darwin Day today, Ham tried to release a Twitter hashtag #DarwinWasWrongDay, only to see it flooded by snarky comments by his critics. Ham needs to hire a publicist who can prevent him from shooting himself in the foot!

To me, these are signs of desperation, of someone flailing around to get attention on the theory that any publicity is better than no publicity. But if the audits are correct and they are losing money at a huge rate, and have no tax breaks to build their Ark Park, then the days of Answers in Genesis are numbered. It won’t be the first time that a big-name fundamentalist with an overweening ego got too big for his britches, overreached, and then saw his empire collapse. Remember Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker? They once had a big Bible-themed amusement park that is now a creepy ghost town of broken and decaying rides and statues. Remember Kent Hovind? He is still in Federal prison on tax charges, and looks like his activities will extend his 10-year prison sentence that was supposed to end soon. He too built a dinosaur-themed Bible park that was seized by the IRS when he was convicted. In fact, there are number of Bible-themed amusement parks (mostly in the South) that have come and gone over the years, usually because they depend on one charismatic preacher who eventually falters and then the empire collapses like a house of cards. The Bakkers, Hovind, Jimmy Swaggart, and so many other Bible-thumpers have established a longstanding pattern of rapid rise to great power and prominence, followed by an equally spectacular fall from grace. It’s the norm in their business. I, for one, will not shed a tear when this happens to the Hamster.

Happy Darwin Day!

Donald Prothero

Dr. Donald Prothero taught college geology and paleontology for 35 years, at Caltech, Columbia, and Occidental, Knox, Vassar, Glendale, Mt. San Antonio, and Pierce Colleges. He earned his B.A. in geology and biology (highest honors, Phi Beta Kappa, College Award) from University of California Riverside in 1976, and his M.A. (1978), M.Phil. (1979), and Ph.D. (1982) in geological sciences from Columbia University. He is the author of over 35 books. Read Donald’s full bio or his other posts on this blog.

11 Comments

  1. Rob Fargher says:

    As usual, I enjoyed reading Don’s essay. And having seen Duane Gish in person in 1974, when he debated Ken Stewart and Martin Samoiloff at the University of Manitoba, I witnessed the Gish Gallop personally and saw how effective it could be upon those who weren’t able to recognise it for what it was. Ken Ham may be a Gish-wannabe but Bill Nye it would seem to me has found the best approach to handle him: don’t speak over your audience’s heads, don’t get caught up in refutation minutiae, speak openly, honestly and with respect. Nye is, now, a professional communicator and is a far better choice for engagement with the proponents of anti-science.

    Also, along this line, I heartily recommend Don’s own “Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters”. http://www.amazon.ca/Evolution-What-Fossils-Say-Matters/dp/0231139624/ref=sr_1_8?ie=UTF8&qid=1423768876&sr=8-8&keywords=prothero

  2. Alan Macphail says:

    One advantage that religion has is that it is a meme. No matter how degraded or domesticated it becomes, it is always possible to reconstruct its fundamentalist nature. religion must be ACTIVELY eliminated. Tolerance and accommodation are not possible and , in fact, is what religion seeks when it is threatened.

  3. Brandy says:

    I really expected more from Nye’s book. It’s really just a quick set of many forgettable ramblings, short on science and long on “I wanted to take quick economic advantage of my newfound popularity.” A disappointment to say the least.

  4. Joe says:

    I believe where Nye shines is much like how Tyson does which is via the educator angle. Rather than challenge the people they seem to maintain a focus on the absurd ideas. They do this better than Dawkins who can be abrasive which seems to cause some people to dig into a defensive position and stop listening. However, I understand both approaches as stupid ideas can be incredibly frustrating and maybe there is a place for both ways of handling irrational ideas, but I seem to find more effectiveness in not alienating people and would err on the side of the former.

  5. BobM says:

    For years now I have been asking people like Ham what if any evidence would change their mind on various topics, mostly to do with religion but not all. Never ever had a satisfactory reply. Either nothing or complete silence. True believers in the Eric Hoffer mould – all. :-)

    • Max says:

      What evidence would change your mind?

      • Jeff L says:

        “What evidence would change your mind?”

        I apologize for doing a bit of ‘blogwhoring’ and promoting my own site, but I’ve already written there on the very question you’re asking, especially the religious aspect. If you’re interested, here are two of my pages:

        Standards of Evidence for Religion
        How to Convert Me Back to Christianity

        For the short answer, I’ll just quote the last couple sentences from that first link, “Miracles must be well documented, not explainable by natural means, and more than simply unlikely events. And even if a supposed miracle was well documented, we must consider other possibilities before accepting it as evidence for any particular religion.”

  6. BobM says:

    Dammit, nothing should be in quotes – but you get the picture :-).

  7. Steve says:

    I have seen Gish and other creationist spokesmen do presentations and “debates” before audiences of school children. They presented many examples of distortions, misrepresentations, and debaters’ tricks to try to create doubt about accepted scientific conclusions. (Of course, all those points are negative. They never have any evidence FOR the creation myth.) Here is what impressed me most: All these examples have been thoroughly refuted over and over in print, on the Internet, and by live debate opponents; Gish knew that his examples were all false, because it had been pointed out to him again and again — yet he continued to repeat the same false arguments. You would think that he would be uncomfortable about that, but he had no qualms about essentially lying to children to promote his religious beliefs and encourage students to reject scientific literacy. It seems to me that, if my beliefs could only be supported by lying to children, I would want to adopt a worldview more in agreement with evidence and observation.

  8. Dave Rockwell says:

    I agree with Alan Macphail; but the great difficulty in eliminating religion is that the meme is transmitted to the victims in the first few years of their lives, when the brain is most plastic. Changing those structures of belief and thought is then difficult in the long-indoctrinated adult. If religious education were to be disallowed as a substitute for general rational education, the attrition process would be greatly accelerated; but religious education in the US is seen as an essential part of religious freedom, and in many other countries as state policy, and rational education is suppressed instead.

    This weakness in the concept of ‘religious freedom’ arises from the fact that religious memes must compete with each other eventually; they can’t be symbiotic, each being based on absolute certainties which necessarily invalidate all other such certainties (i.e. ‘heresies’).

    • Jeff L says:

      Well, even if the First Amendment didn’t specifically address religious freedom, I’d still want to live in a country that allowed it. Only totalitarian governments try to dictate beliefs. If religion is to be eliminated, it must be in the sphere of public opinion, not by law. Luckily, that seems to be happening in the U.S. Nearly every poll I see shows religion declining in this country. (Here’s an article dealing more with the human side more than just poll numbers, but it’s pretty interesting: http://www.npr.org/2013/01/15/169342349/more-young-people-are-moving-away-from-religion-but-why)

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