Bill Nye the Science Guy blew it by merely debating creationist Ken Ham

Debating the undebatable harms science and elevates its foes

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      On February 4, Bill Nye, “the Science Guy”, travelled to Petersburg, Kentucky’s Creation Museum to face a sold-out audience and debate the museum’s founder, Ken Ham, on whether or not the Earth is 6,000 or so years old.

      As a scientist debating the scientifically undebatable, Nye is doing far more harm than good.

      Mr. Nye and Mr. Ham both have only undergrad degrees—Nye’s B.S. is in mechanical engineering, while Ham’s B.S. may be, well, in B.S. But they looked to be more like ideological gladiators than anything else. And the audience, in person and online, responded in kind.

      Michael Schulson of the Daily Beast called the mere existence of a debate “a nightmare for science”, asserting that creationist Ham had won the moment that Nye agreed to show up. Staunch defenders of science like writer Chris Mooney and the American Geophysical Union’s website crowed over what they saw as a victory for Nye and for science.

      But if some credit Nye with a victory, it is a hollow one. And there’s a lesson here for climate scientists.

      Debating the undebatable

      For his part, Nye wrote on that the spectacle “would draw attention to the importance of science education”. And for what it’s worth, CNN posted the item on its religion page.

      In a postgame interview on Glenn Beck’s website,, Ham was respectful of Nye but said he was “encouraged” by his own performance and that Nye had made “anti-Christian” comments during the three-hour showdown.

      I love Bill Nye. He’s the genial, bow tie–wearing science geek from Central Casting who made science education mainstream as host of the 1990s TV series Bill Nye the Science Guy. It’s still shown in classrooms today. He can be a potent, authoritative science communicator for kids and adults alike.

      If their goal is to convert devout science deniers, there’s not a chance of that.

      But as a scientist debating the scientifically undebatable, he’s doing far more harm than good. Still worse is the willingness of Nye and others, including Sierra Club leader Michael Brune, to debate the most hard-core of the climate deniers.

      Whether they’re sincere outliers or merely liars, the creationist Ham and Marc Morano, the political operative and leading climate denier, have everything to gain by winning a seat at the “debate” table. Nye and company might gain face time, but at a substantial loss of dignity. And if their goal is to convert devout science deniers, there’s not a chance of that.

      Playing different games

      I’ve been to the Creation Museum, in northern Kentucky not far from the Cincinnati Airport. On my two-hour visit there a few years ago, I saw Disney-grade animatronic characters, including a surprisingly risqué Adam and Eve and three disgruntled builders of the Great Ark. In an apparent nod to the builders’ native Aramaic language, the three spoke in an English dialect that sounded like borscht belt comics at a Friars Club roast.

      These and many more exhibits purport to make a scientific case for creationism and draw hundreds of thousands of believers to the museum each year. I didn’t dare engage in debate with a single one of my fellow visitors because this was neither a venue nor an audience that tolerated the changing of minds. Including my own, to be honest.

      In debating Ham or Morano, Nye ought to realize that he’s facing opponents playing different games, in different realms, for different reasons. Unlike Morano, Ham is spiritually rooted—though he’s well-practised at shooting back at eons of evolutionary evidence by asking, “Were you there?”

      By contrast, Morano is a Gatling gun of dishonest sound bites, all designed to serve climate denial the way O. J. Simpson or Casey Anthony’s lawyers drew fire away from their clients. That’s why Morano is attractive to TV hosts like Piers Morgan or John Stossel, who value theatrical conflict far more than legitimacy. The legitimacy is baked in when someone like Nye consents to partnering in the debate.

      Elvis lives?

      Polling shows that about a third of Americans are sticking closely to Creationism—about the same percentage that simply don’t accept climate change. The problem with this is that Americans also poll in the double digits on thinking the moon landing was faked, aliens exist, the UN is on the verge of global domination, or that Elvis lives and is bagging groceries at the neighborhood Safeway.

      But Buzz Aldrin doesn’t dignify the moon hoaxers by debating them, does he? (Ask him if he was there, Mr. Ham).

      The main problem with shoving science through the meat grinder of showbiz is that it validates the central theme of Merchants of Doubt, the landmark book by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway: the longer you “debate” a science issue where there’s no scientific room for debate, the more you enable doubts about the basic truths of science.

      Both Ham and Nye are staying busy in ventures more showbiz than science. Ham is raising money to build a creation-based theme park. Nye made a bold showing on the most recent season of Dancing With the Stars. When scientists take on dance partners like Ham or Morano, they undermine their work and elevate their worst foes.

      Just say no, Bill. Otherwise, you boost your adversaries, harm your dignity, and demean the “Science” in “Science Guy”.



      boris moris

      Feb 6, 2014 at 7:05pm

      That was an incredibly well reasoned assessment of Bill Nye's folly, Peter. I'd love to hear what you think about BC provincial MLA Andrew Weaver's endorsement of a refinery to be located in Kitimat. Dr. Weaver, a Green Party politician, is a noted climate scientist, not a climate change denier and, evidently, a world class flip flopper and waffler. He has been a harsh critic of an LNG development proposal by the provincial government but has no problem supporting a bitumen refinery in an ecologically sensitive coastal area which, of course, would necessitate the construction of a dilbit pipeline from the tar sands through hundreds of miles of British Columbia wilderness which includes many fish bearing rivers and creeks.

      Has Weaver lost his mind?


      Feb 7, 2014 at 12:26am

      To be fair, Weaver wants the dilbit refined to synthetic crude in Alberta, before being piped to the Kitimat refinery. But it's not like the fish or atmosphere will notice the difference, so it does seem like Weaver has lost his mind.

      But Peter Dykstra, what ARE we supposed to do with the climate change deniers, if not debate them? Somehow I don't think offing them in the name of planetary self-defense (no matter how tempting), will go over so well. And I don't think they will just go away, if we ignore them. Do you have any better ideas?

      Cory Redding

      Feb 7, 2014 at 12:30am

      This wasn't a full on debate for the entire world. It was meant for public school systems that teach creationism hand in hand with and sometimes over evolution.

      Bill succeeded in proving his point. Sound Bites from Ken Ham will persuade school systems to give up the creationist moto as an alternative form of science.

      When asked, "What evidence would you accept that would tell you that the world isn't 6000 years old" Ken ham responded in kind "I would say that I am a christian"

      Tada, Bill nye wins the debate and that phrase right there sums up why creationism is absolutely NOT a science. That it should be studied in religious and literature classes. Evolution has proven to be thee most unbiased observance of nature around us. Ken ham all but agrees with this with his statements during the Q&A session at the end. So thank you Bill Nye. Get creationism out of science classes.

      Daniel Williamson

      Feb 7, 2014 at 12:52am

      Nonsense! 6000 year universers have to be stepped on regularly. Letting them get away with their stupidity is stupid. The clowns need to be laughed at regularly.


      Feb 7, 2014 at 1:51am

      Some fossilized questions for a new and healthier debate, for instance: is there evolution if there is no time? How will evolutionary biology meet new physical paradigms about time, space and so on? Will new conceptual changes deny evolution? Or on the contrary, will it become a more extraordinary process, full of astonishing implications? If so, will past human beings and the rest of living beings become something different as science progresses? After all, is life something fix-finite-defined? That is, can one understand it by means of using a flesh brain and its limited words, axioms and dogmas? Does the whole of life fit inside a bone box? Indeed, will science add indefinitely without understanding completely, is there an infinite pool of knowledge and ignorance waiting for us? Otherwise, will religions use the word God forever and ever, as if it were a death thing, a repetitive thing that is part of human discussions? And, in order to speak about God, are they using his limited brain or do they use unknown instruments?

      Mavis Stucci

      Feb 7, 2014 at 2:14am

      Ken Ham is a 'young world' creationist and as such is hardly qualified to debate anything on that subject. The Bible supports a far older universe. Of course one must read what's actually there, not try to make it fit into a scenario dreamed up in the Dark Ages. A debate between Bill Nye and somebody who actually knows and believes what creation involves would make a much more interesting debate. Personally, I stopped believing evolution when i began studying it at university; I don't have the blind faith it requires for its belief system. Evolution is not science. The real issue is that creation requires a creator – and that's where all the panic sets in with the anti-creationist lobby. Cheers.

      Ian Craig

      Feb 7, 2014 at 3:39am

      The wisdom of man is foolishness before an almighty God!
      God is preparing this world for judgment as we speak - read your bible to find out more...

      Jane Anderson

      Feb 7, 2014 at 3:48am

      Bravo Bill Nye. . .it's about time someone took on Ken Ham and his blind followers in the lion's den! The silent majority need a face and voice to expose the far right religious vocal minority on how they are brain washing their children and others to legalism and neglecting to focus on the love,compassion and peace of true Christianity.

      Charles D

      Feb 7, 2014 at 8:35am

      I feel Bill Nye did a world of good by exposing that charlatan. This is an unnecessarily cynical article in all respects. I understand where it's coming from but it's really just too much. Just a bunch of self-righteous hipsterism.