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 CNN.com 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, TheBlaze.com, 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.
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”.