When the Science Guy Misses the Politics

Confession: I didn’t watch the much-ballyhooed debate last night between Bill (“The Science Guy”) Nye and young earth creationist Ken Ham, and this morning Michael Schulson pretty much summed up why I still think I made the right decision:

[W]hen it comes to guys like Ken Ham, you can’t really win. If you refuse to debate them, they claim to be censored. If you agree to debate them, you give them a public platform on which to argue that, yep, they’re being censored. Better not to engage at all, at least directly. Nye may be the last to understand a point that seems to be circulating more widely these days: creationism is a political issue, not a scientific one, and throwing around scientific facts won’t dissuade those who don’t accept scientific authority in the first place.

In other words, I didn’t want to cringe. As the daughter of scientists, schooled on evolution at the dinner table, and as a reporter who spends a lot of time around, talking to, reading about, and reading the works of people who believe evolution is anti-Christian, I would want Nye to be not only well-versed on science (which he obviously is) but also well-versed on his adversary (which I’m not sure he is).

As Abby Ohlheiser wrote at The Wire, Ham won the debate before it even started, because of the framing of “a question from the 1920’s: ‘Is creation a viable model of origins in today’s modern scientific era?'”

In explaining why he decided to participate in the debate, Nye wrote at CNN:

It seems to me that Ham is a fundamentalist. Around the world there are billions of people, who embrace the facts and process of modern science, and they enjoy their faith. By all accounts, their faith enriches their lives. These people have no conflict with their faith and science. Ham is unique in this regard.

Emphasis mine there, to point out the fundamental naiveté and error in Nye’s thinking. It seems that Ham is a fundamentalist? Has Nye checked out the Answers in Genesis Statement of Faith? (Priorities: “The scientific aspects of creation are important but are secondary in importance to the proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ as Sovereign, Creator, Redeemer, and Judge” and “The doctrines of Creator and Creation cannot ultimately be divorced from the gospel of Jesus Christ.”) Seems so. And no, Ham is by no means unique.

The question isn’t whether there are people who are religious and also believe in science, or whether religion and science are incompatible. The question isn’t even whether Ken Ham himself is a fundamentalist. The question is whether one particular religious view, and a highly politicized form of it at that, should be exploited in the public sphere for the purpose of undermining the teaching and practice of science and ensuring that public policy is dictated by a “biblical worldview,” rather than one that is “unbiblical,” i.e., evolution, or church-state separation. The issue is not whether people “enjoy” their faith, but that there are powerful political alliances in the United States, of which Ham is a part, whose participants believe every word in the Bible is God’s infallible word, and should undergird every government action (including decisions about what to teach in public school science class).

From the accounts that I’ve read, including Schulson’s, it seems that Nye came equipped with his impressive ability to explain science, but a lack of orientation about Ham’s religious and political drive. Schulson:

Ham, seemingly aware that debate is a form of entertainment, and that entertainment thrives on human stories, presented testimonial videos from engineers and biology PhDs who hold creationist views. Nye, on the other hand, spent a lot of time talking about the “billions of people” who “are religious, and who accept science and embrace it”—because God knows that Americans love nothing more than conforming to the religious opinions of foreign nations.

Nye said before the debate that he wanted to draw attention to the need for science education in the United States. If he was able to accomplish that, kudos to him. But one can only hope that the debate drew attention to something else: that in debating creationism versus evolution, scientific facts are not the only evidence one needs to bring to the party.