Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Why Bill Nye Won the Debate

Last night I stayed up and watched the creation vs. evolution debate between Bill Nye and Ken Ham via livestream. Now, I like a good debate. Two men who know their position inside and out and are willing to go toe to toe with each other on neutral ground is a sight to behold. This debate, however, fell far short of its hype, and in the end left me disappointed and frustrated.

 Now, I suppose I should say from the outset for those who don't know me that I would fall into the creationist camp. That is to say that I believe the Bible and that God created the world. I believe that science is ever "evolving." That is, learning to more accurately describe God's creation, and that it will, in the end, vindicate a Biblical worldview.

Having said all of that. I believe that based on style and substance Bill Nye handily won the debate last night. This is due to several things Mr. Nye did right and some things that Mr. Ham and his team did wrong. Let's begin with what Mr. Nye did right. 

Mr. Nye knew that he was going into the lions den in this debate. After all it was at Mr. Ham's facility. Because of this, he was armed with both facts and charm. (Both of which were generally missing from Mr. Ham's performance.) The sense of humour and humility shown by Mr. Nye was not lost on his audience. His obvious passion for science and discovery glimmered against the dark contrast of Mr. Ham's somewhat dreary description of the Christian worldview. Mr. Nye in his statement was specific in his prepared examples (With the exception of his example of sexual and asexual fish. He kind of lost it on that one.) and was able to access names and facts from memory in the rebuttal. The opposite was true with Mr. Ham. Many times it seemed that he could not remember the names of the four or five scientists that he (ad nauseam) referred to as agreeing with his position.

I believe there were several fatal errors that led to the defeat of Mr. Ham. Most, if not all could have been avoided.

    Humility - A couple of times in the debate Mr. Nye said, "I don't know." Mr. Ham, however was reticent to admit that there were things that the creationist view cannot fully answer. If we as creationists are going to be seen as credible we cannot pretend that we have an answer for everything. We know the ONE who has the answers, but we don't have all the answers. To admit this humbly and openly would be appealing to others and would justify our position as a position of faith as opposed to a position of empirical data.
  The Answers in Genesis Infomercial - Mr. Ham seemed very intent on getting "check it out on our website," "here at Answers in Genesis," and "here at the Creation Museum" into the conversation every ten minutes or so. This infomercial made the creationist position look like just the position of that one organization, and therefore a radical/fringe concept.
 The Choice of Mr. Ham - Now, I know that Mr. Ham was the natural choice for this debate because of his notoriety and position in the organization, but I don't believe that he was the best choice. His accent (he brought it up - not me) and his lesser likeability when stacked up against Bill Nye's charisma and built in North American audience acceptance worked against Mr. Ham. Surely there was someone in the Answers in Genesis camp that had charisma, likeability, stage presence, and a command of the science necessary to debate. This is a mistake that is made often on our side. We think that content is enough. However, people listen to how something is said as much as they listen to what is said.
  Pandering - While I believe that morality, the sanctity of life,  traditional marriage, and the narrative scope of the Bible are important, they were brought up too many times in a debate that was supposed to be about origins. These are the fruit, not the root. Mr. Ham seemed intent upon solidifying his base rather than winning the case. At one point while discussing fossils buried in layers in the Grand Canyon he stated that he had to "say that, because there are those who (expect) me to." When a debater has to make sure his constituency is appeased, he is not giving his full attention to winning the debate.

   The Bible - There is no doubt that the Bible is true and informs the Christian's pursuit of science. However, Mr. Ham would have done himself a favour if he had addressed the science instead of continually making remarks like "there is a Book that talks about that," and getting into areas of the Bible (like eschatology) that had little to no bearing on the debate.

   The Gospel - I believe that Mr. Ham missed the boat on this one. He made an attempt, I'll give him that. However, in his desire to tie the Gospel to creation science and in his need to speed read through his initial thirty minute statement he did not give a clear understanding of what one must do to be saved. It was all so fast and jumbled with creationism that if the proclaimation of the Gospel was the goal, it was not well executed.
 Repetition - When one doesn't have anything new to say, they repeat themselves. In the latter part of the debate Mr. Ham seemed to only be willing to repeat what he had stated in his thirty minute statement. We heard over and over of his idea of two types of science and the four or five scientists that agree with his position. What we did not hear was an articulate and informed rebuttal that brought new information to bear upon the specific questions that were posed.

   Focus on Worldview - Mr. Ham seemed to want to debate two opposing worldviews while Mr. Nye was interested in debating the underlying science. This meant that the two men were nearly talking past each other as they were really involved in two different debates. The Answers in Genesis debate prep team should have seen this coming and prepared Mr. Ham for it.

    Narrative - Mr. Ham allowed Mr. Nye to run the narrative and paint those who believe in creation as narrow, unscientific people who are "fringe" and not "mainstream". In fact, Mr. Nye basically told the viewer that this was Mr. Ham's creationist theory and those who believe it are followers of the cult of Ham. Mr. Nye framed creationism as unpatriotic and unAmerican. Mr. Ham should have taken control of this image game and set the record straight. We cannot allow the opponent to control the narrative.

    Definitions - Mr. Ham spent much time trying to get the audience to accept his parsing of science into observational science and historical science. This just confused the issue. He then went on to say that other words like "evolution" were hijacked by mainstream humanist scientists. While we would like to be able to get everyone on the same page with our definitions of various concepts, it is not possible to do so in a two hour debate format. In order to convince someone of a new concept in a short amount of time you must use words and definitions that they already understand and accept. To begin a debate by trying to redefine words in the minds of your listeners sets you up in their thinking as someone who is trying to twist the truth...even if you are right.

    Format - The debate format gave too much time for statements and not enough time for give and take. This hurt Mr. Ham's cause. Although good questions were asked of each opponent by the other, they could not respond because of the debate format.

I wish that I could say that Mr. Ham well defended the creationist point of view and handily won the debate. However, as I look at it from a simply substance and style point of view I realize that he lost miserably. To pretend otherwise will inevitably lead to making the same mistakes at a future event when the eyes of a nation are once again upon us asking us to give a reasonable explanation for the faith that we hold.

It is my prayer that we learn from this debate and do better next time.

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