There is no debate, no controversy.
The evidence for evolution is overwhelming (see http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2004/11/darwin-wrong/quammen-text).
Ken Ham’s express intentions vis-a-vis the debate are to “bring the creation/evolution issue to the attention of many more people, including youngsters.” Additionally, he claims that “observational science confirms the scientific accuracy of the Genesis account of origins, not evolution.” He is leveraging Bill Nye’s visibility in order to peddle his delusions and/or willful ignorance. For Ken Ham’s complete remarks regarding the upcoming debate see: http://www.answersingenesis.org/articles/2014/01/02/bill-nye-ken-ham-debate/
What are Bill Nye’s reasons for accepting Mr. Ham’s “challenge”?
Richard Dawkins, a prominent biologist, has expressly indicated that he will not debate creationists or young earth “scientists” (another contradiction in terms), see: http://old.richarddawkins.net/articles/119-why-i-won-39-t-debate-creationists. In essence, he contends that such debates lend erroneous credibility to what are demonstrably false manifestations of pseudoscience and non-science. He refuses to legitimize them by debating them.
I understand and respect Richard Dawkins’ perspective, particularly in view of his position as a professional biologist–Bill Nye’s background in engineering is actually an advantage because it demonstrates that the science of evolution is accessible to a wider demographic than just professional biologists. Furthermore, if I am anticipating Mr. Nye’s endgame correctly, I also understand why he has consented to this debate.
Indefinite refusal to engage with misguided creationists and young earth “scientists” supports their narrative of suppression by the scientific community. Likewise, it can be spun to characterize legitimate scientists as disingenuously evasive. While in fact they are simply trying to avoid wasting valuable time, this perception is a potential public relations liability and I applaud Bill Nye for stepping into the breach.
Yes, public relations matter and scientists need to do a better job of relating to the public, because public opinion influences funding etc. through those who hold office at the public’s behest. If the public understands science they will vote science-friendly and we will all reap the benefits.
In any case, Bill Nye is participating in this debate for more important reasons than to simply eviscerate Ken Ham’s arguments with overwhelming evidence. He’s not necessarily trying to convince the average listener of evolution either. In all likelihood, only a few creationists in the audience will yield to rational thinking, logical consequences, and the overwhelming evidence in favor of evolution and revise their beliefs accordingly.
On the other hand, it is extremely doubtful that anyone who understands evolution will adopt Mr. Ham’s views. The six thousand year old fossilized skeleton of a man with no belly button and one missing rib holding an apple with two distinct bite marks inside the gullet of a T-rex would be a good start, but I won’t hold my breath…
Rather, Bill Nye has justified concerns relating to a broader conversation, of which this “debate” is an infinitesimally small part. He holds, as do I, that creationism actually threatens US science, science education, public policy, etc. (see http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0912/81597.html).
Moreover, Bill Nye is undoubtedly aware of the epistemic problems that underpin the persistent and widespread delusion that is creationism. Faith is not a reliable way to understand the natural world (Exhibit A: Thor, unemployed thunder god; Exhibit B: all the numerous and fatal contradictions that are the product of faith as epistemology). In short, faith couldn’t be further from a consensus about the world and has no explanatory or predictive power.
Similarly, science denialism is depressingly widespread in the US and abroad. People who use faith to come to objective truth claims about the natural world and who deny science are rife in the halls of government. These are people who are responsible for public policy, funding scientific research, etc. Mind bogglingly, many are creationists, believe in Satan apropos of no evidence (I’m looking at you, Justice Scalia) etc, etc.
Would we permit people who deny the universal law of gravitation to represent us? How about the cellular theory of life? Denying evolution is tantamount to denying any of the basic theories that underpin our understanding of the natural world (colloquially, a theory is something like a guess; science uses the word differently–in science, a theory is a basic, demonstrable law which describes with great reliability and accuracy how the natural world works). Delusions like this should not go unchallenged or ignored, because the consequences for the rest of us who inhabit reality are simply too high.
So is Bill Nye debating Ken Ham to determine once and for all who is right? Absolutely not. His participation in the “debate” is tactical. His strategic goals are probably to reignite the public conversation (not a conversation about creationism versus evolution). Rather, he is promoting a more crucial conversation about epistemology, substantiating beliefs with adequate and rigorous evidence, and refusing to allow unsubstantiated beliefs to dictate public policy, research funding, education, etc. Supernatural thinking has no place in government (or anywhere else, for that matter).
Consequentially, I applaud and support Bill Nye’s decision to “debate” Ken Ham. He’ll draw attention to the real issues, underscore the irrational thinking that drives creationism, and undoubtedly ignore the farcical and one-sided fray that is creationism versus evolution.
Update: (In response to multiple conversations I have had about this “debate”)
Will Bill Nye raise Ken Ham’s profile by participating in this “debate”? Perhaps, but probably only with people who are already in Ken Ham’s corner. This exchange will also have the effect of parading Ken Ham’s irrational thinking to a wider audience, which is probably one of Bill Nye’s primary reasons for participating.
Could Bill Nye blow it and harm science by association? Perhaps, but only for those who don’t already understand it. You can’t lose by losing on technicalities when the evidence is overwhelmingly in your favor. Sure, Ken Ham will almost certainly resort to rhetorical devices to score points, but it doesn’t change the facts in support of evolution.
Does Bill Nye need Ken Ham’s platform to deliver his messages? Absolutely not. Bill Nye is a boss. A Boss. Most likely, Bill Nye is trying to shake things up and reach a different kind of audience (one that would automatically shut him out in other contexts). Moreover, by leveraging Ken Ham’s own absurd and irrational thinking, Bill Nye will be able to draw unfavorable comparisons between Ken Ham and politicians who hold the same irrational and unsubstantiated beliefs. By so highlighting this delusional thinking, Bill Nye will reenforce his core message about creationism being harmful to our country and our species.
Is Bill Nye taking a risk and are there valid concerns about his participation in this “debate”? Sure. But it is probably a carefully calculated risk and I applaud Bill for trying something new and different to keep plugging away at this stubborn and dangerous delusion. Most people now believe that the Earth circles the Sun–the evidence is simply overwhelming. Similarly, the evidence for evolution is overwhelming. I am optimistic that by continuing to promote evidence, reason, and good science, we can eliminate creationism along with the geocentric model of the universe. In the end, the facts are what matter and the facts are on his side.