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Bill Nye’s August 2012 video clip “Creationism Is Not Appropriate for Children,” less than three minutes long, has drawn well more than 6 million visits, has inspired well more than a third of a million online comments, and led to Nye’s 4 February evolution debate with the young-Earth creationist Ken Ham. The debate, in turn, has stimulated widespread media coverage.
The Huffington Post summarizes:
Bill Nye, TV’s “Science Guy,” debated the age of the universe, evolution and other matters of science vs. faith with creationist Ken Ham at the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky.
For more than two hours, the pair argued over tree rings, ice core samples, the distance of the stars, vegetarian lions and the technology used to date wood and rock.
Not surprisingly, neither made any revelations that converted the other.
The annotations paint the scene in the museum’s debating hall just before the event started:
The epic Braveheart-Lord-of-the-Rings-style soundtrack intensifies. Only thing missing is a sweeping camera pan over the horizon as Frodo travels on toward Mount Doom. Ham and his PR team are firing away tweet after tweet about the debate and its importance. Nye, meanwhile, has tweeted about it only once. Al Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, tweets for prayers that the debate will reveal God’s truth. . . . A cartoon camel, a T-Rex, and a flying monkey flash across the screen. It’s a surprise ad for . . . Ham’s (unaccredited) $27-million museum that is the site for the debate. Kids under 12 are free in 2014!
Under the home-page headline “Prepare to Believe,” the museum introduces itself as a state-of-the-art 70,000-square-foot facility that “brings the pages of the Bible to life, casting its characters and animals in dynamic form and placing them in familiar settings. Adam and Eve live in the Garden of Eden. Children play and dinosaurs roam near Eden’s Rivers. The serpent coils cunningly in the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.”
Ham founded the ministry “Answers in Genesis,” which professes a desire to train people “to expose the bankruptcy of evolutionary ideas” and which advertised the debate as taking place between “two science guys . . . two men who love science.” Here’s Time’s annotation for the 16-minute point in the debate:
Ham starts saying the words “science” and “observe” so many times I lose count. He is clicking through slide after slide of atheists who are great scientists and scientists who believe the earth is 6,000 years old. The MRI scanner guy story appears on a video again. Then someone else says he and other scientists are afraid to speak out for creationism because they will face persecution. These are Ham’s freedom fighters. “I encourage children to follow people like that and make them their heroes,” Ham announces.
Ars Technica’s thoughtful, engaging news report on the debate carries the headline “Talking past each other.” One passage in particular seeks to convey a sense of the event:
Ham and Nye both led off with short five-minute statements followed by 30-minute presentations punctuated by PowerPoint slides, video clips, and graphics intended to buttress their cases. Unsurprisingly, Ham’s starting point was Genesis, and he kept coming back to the assertion that God’s word as revealed in the first two chapters of Genesis is the definitive authority. All scientific inquiry should therefore begin with and proceed from there.
To make the case that science and creationism were compatible, he showed short video clips of scientists from around the world who believed in a literal six days of creation. “People are going to see what we really believe tonight,” Ham promised. “I believe science has been hijacked by secularists” who seem to indoctrinate folks in the “religion of naturalism.”
Nye countered with arguments from the fossil record, ice cores taken from Greenland, and tree rings to demonstrate that a literal reading of Genesis is unable to account for many scientific discoveries. Given that some of the core samples show over 680,000 annual progressions through the four seasons, Nye pointed that we’d have to experience well over a hundred winter-summer cycles every year to account for that number. “Wouldn't someone have noticed that?” he asked.
One of the points of contention throughout the debate was the term science. Ham made the distinction between “historical science” and “observed science.” The former relates to things that happened in the past, things that cannot be directly observed. In contrast, observed science is the present, that which can be tested, observed, and repeated. Nye rejected those distinctions. He kept returning to the point that there is only one kind of science, and it’s all observational. “On CSI, there is no distinction between observational and experimental science.”
In Australia, Ham’s homeland, where he once taught high school science, a Brisbane Times article carries a headline something like the one at Ars Technica: “Creation vs. evolution: The debate that went nowhere.” The article quotes the Richard Dawkins Foundation’s version of a commonly made point:
Creationism vs. evolution . . . is not worth debating. Why? Simple, there is nothing to debate. Evolution is a scientific fact, backed by mountains of evidence, peer-reviewed papers you could stack to the moon and an incredible scientific community consensus. Creationism is a debunked mythology that is based solely in faith.
Dan Arel, the Dawkins contributor, is writing a book on “secular parenting and why religion is child abuse”—calling to mind last year’s Huffington Post report “Lawrence Krauss, physicist, claims teaching creationism is child abuse and 'like the Taliban.’” Arel’s posting, which appeared before the debate took place, expresses concern that Nye is an engineer, not a scientist. It laments that Nye’s fame will likely boost public awareness and support for the Creation Museum, and it characterizes the supporters harshly:
This debate is being held at the Creation Museum itself and this will ensure that the brain-dead creationist zombies come out in droves to support Ham and loudly applaud anytime he manages to string together and [sic] coherent sentence, or even more likely shouts that his grandmother was no monkey.
In a 13-paragraph straight news article, the 10-year-old ChristianPost.com, which calls itself “the nation's most comprehensive Christian news website,” summarizes the main substantive points of Arel’s Dawkins Foundation commentary. At the New York Daily News, a report emphasizes Nye’s effort to reach out to religious believers:
“I just want to remind us all there are billions of people in the world who are deeply religious, who get enriched by the wonderful sense of community by their religion,” said Nye, who wore his trademark bow tie. “But these same people do not embrace the extraordinary view that the Earth is somehow only 6,000 years old.”
On 30 December, the Pew Research Center offered some quantification of the public’s views when it reported having found that 60% of Americans say “humans and other living things have evolved over time,” that 33% reject evolution, and that 24% say “a supreme being guided the evolution of living things for the purpose of creating humans and other life in the form it exists today.”
Ars Technica’s final paragraph linked the evolution issue’s polarization and divisiveness to the wider question of civic comity:
The debate ended as it began, with the two adversaries shaking hands and then walking off the dais. Were hearts touched and minds changed? Probably not. But two men with starkly different beliefs and viewpoints made their case stridently and respectfully before a rapt, well-behaved audience. Today, that counts for something.
Steven T. Corneliussen, a media analyst for the American Institute of Physics, monitors three national newspapers, the weeklies Nature and Science, and occasionally other publications. He has published op-eds in the Washington Post and other newspapers, has written for NASA's history program, and is a science writer at a particle-accelerator laboratory.