Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Nye vs. Ham, and the futility of debating creationists

Most of you probably heard that last month, Bill Nye made a short film called Creationism is Not Appropriate For Children, lambasting creationists for holding back the progress of science in America, and for brainwashing children:
Evolution is the fundamental idea in all of life science, in all of biology... it's very much analogous to trying to do geology without believing in tectonic plates.  You're just not going to get the right answer...  Once in a while, I get a person who says, "I don't believe in evolution."  And I say, "Why not?"  Your world just becomes fantastically complicated if you don't believe in evolution.  Here are these ancient dinosaur bones... here is radioactivity, here are distant stars that are just like our star except at a different point in their life cycle.  The idea of deep time, of billions of years, explains so much of the world around us.  If you ignore that, your world view just becomes crazy, it becomes untenable.  And I say to the grown-ups, if you want to deny evolution, if you want to live in your world that is inconsistent with everything we observe in the universe, that's fine.  But don't make your kids do it, because we need them.  We need scientifically literate voters and taxpayers in the future, we need engineers.
Well, of course the creationists weren't going to take that lying down.  First, Dr. David Menton and Dr. Georgia Purdom of Answers in Genesis crafted a video responding to Nye, claiming (without any apparent sense of irony) that Bill Nye doesn't understand science.  (If you watch their video, note that Purdom has a Ph.D. in molecular genetics, which I'm not sure isn't the thing about all this that appalls me the most.  How someone could achieve doctoral level work in molecular genetics without accepting evolution seems to me not just astonishing, but nearly impossible.)  Purdom explains that she teaches her young daughter about evolution "so that she can see the problems with it, which include a complete lack of a genetic mechanism which allows organisms to gain genetic information and go from simple to complex over time."

So far, other than Purdom's Ph.D., none of this is particularly surprising.  After all, we knew that Nye was a scientist, and we know that anyone working for Answers in Genesis has already decided that a Bronze-Age document written down in pieces three-thousand-odd years ago supersedes all of modern science.  But now, Ken Ham, CEO of Answers in Genesis, has jumped in... and (brace yourself for the shock) he also claims that Nye doesn't understand science:
Bill Nye has an agenda to teach children not to believe in God, to teach them that they came from evolutionary processes, that they came from slime over millions of years.  In fact, Bill Nye doesn't really understand science...  He says that we shouldn't teach children evolution, because we need engineers... What does engineering have to do with evolution?  Bill Nye wasn't a scientist, he studied mechanical engineering, and he worked for Boeing at one point.  I hope he didn't apply his evolutionary principles to any of Boeing's airplanes, because if he did I wouldn't want to fly on one.  I wouldn't want to fly on anything that was built by chance and random processes.  What does he think, that all the parts are just laid out on the runway, and they just come together or something?...  Bill Nye is implying that if we want to teach children creation, that it's really a form of abuse...  I'll tell you what is abuse, what is inappropriate for children, it's when you take generations of children, and teach them that they're just animals...  Who determines right and wrong?  You do.  Who determines good and bad?  You do.  What is marriage?  Whatever you want to make it.  It's people like Bill Nye who are actually damaging the kids.  Creationists are telling children that they're special, that they're made in the image of God, and giving them a basis for knowledge, that we can trust the laws of logic, that we can trust the laws of nature...  (Nye) doesn't teach children how to think critically, he doesn't teach them how to think about science, he wants to teach them what to think.  If evolution was true, it would be totally obvious to kids.  The way to convince kids about evolution is that you've got to do what Bill Nye the Humanist Guy wants to do.  You protect them from hearing anything about creation, you totally indoctrinate them, you brainwash them, you don't teach them to think critically at all.
And once again, my general reaction was: *yawn*.

But now, the people at Answers in Genesis have thrown down the gauntlet and challenged Nye to a debate.  Dr. Georgia Purdom, the aforementioned creationist molecular geneticist, stated in an interview in the Christian Post that a debate between Nye and Ham "could be held at a public university, using an impartial moderator.  I would think that someone as polished and charismatic as Mr. Nye would relish the opportunity to debate a creationist.  In addition, since Nye will soon be hosting a new science program, I would think he would like to see the publicity generated by his participation in a major public debate."

And here's where I sat up and took notice.

There is no way in the world Nye should accept this offer.  Evolutionists have nothing to gain by debating with creationists, and it has nothing whatsoever to do with being afraid we're going to lose.  (Note that this hasn't prevented me, more than once, from doing just that; in fact, I was once a panelist on a debate between young-earth creationists, intelligent-design proponents, and evolutionists.)  The reason that Nye would be a fool to accept this challenge is that it implies that there is something to debate -- that scientists and creationists actually accept the same ground rules, the same methods, the same standards for evidence.  When you start out from the standpoint of saying, "I believe what this book says because this book says it, it's the word of god," you have trumped any other argument right from the get-go.  You have abandoned the principles of scientific induction and the basis of logical argument.  A "debate" with you would be about as productive as a discussion between two people who are speaking mutually unintelligible languages.

It's easy enough to get needled by the arrogant certainty of the creationists, by their steadfast blindness to mountains of evidence that would be absolutely convincing in any other field.  It's tempting to think, "If I just present it a different way, they'll understand."  The fact is, any debate with creationists only serves to legitimize their views -- and to further convince the public that there is doubt in scientific circles that evolution occurs.  As such, Nye should respond to Purdom, Menton, and Ham with one of his characteristic little smiles, and say, "No, thanks.  But do let me know if you ever come to your senses.  Then we can talk."


  1. "It's tempting to think, 'If I just present it a different way, they'll understand.'"

    This. So much this. Until eventually you understand that human brains don't work that way.

  2. "I hope he didn't apply his evolutionary principles to any of Boeing's airplanes" I literally cringed reading that. Poor da Vinci must be spinning in his grave.

  3. Here in TN, they have taken steps though new legislation to allow creationism back into the classroom. This law turns the clock back nearly 100 years here in the seemingly unprogressive South and is simply embarrassing. There is no argument against the Theory of Evolution other than that of religious doctrine. The Monkey Law only opens the door for fanatic Christianity to creep its way back into our classrooms. You can see my visual response as a Tennessean to this absurd law on my artist’s blog at with some evolutionary art and a little bit of simple logic.

  4. "Evolutionists...?" Way to succumb to the Big Lie and adopt the propagandists' nomenclature. Evolution isn't a belief system whose adherents are termed "-ists". Evolution is an integral part of science. That makes the dispute creationsts vs scientists.

  5. "Evolutionists have nothing to gain by debating with creationists,"

    As true as that is, the public sure as hell doesn't know that. It's been pointed out that science has a PR problem. The creationists are all rhetoric and no substance, but it works on the general public.

  6. The Lenski study showed that not only can evolution bring about genetic complexity, *it can happen over and over again*.

    >In 2008, Lenski and his collaborators reported on a particularly important adaptation that occurred in one of the populations: the bacteria evolved the ability to use citrate as a source of energy. Wild-type E. coli cannot transport citrate across the cell membrane to the cell interior (where it could be incorporated into the citric acid cycle) when oxygen is present. The consequent lack of growth on citrate under oxic conditions is considered a defining characteristic of the species that has been a valuable means of differentiating E. coli from pathogenic Salmonella. Around generation 33,127, the experimenters noticed a dramatically expanded population-size in one of the samples; they found clones in this population could grow on the citrate included in the growth medium to permit iron acquisition. Examination of samples of the population frozen at earlier time points led to the discovery that a citrate-using variant had evolved in the population at some point between generations 31,000 and 31,500. They used a number of genetic markers unique to this population to exclude the possibility that the citrate-using E. coli were contaminants. They also found the ability to use citrate could spontaneously re-evolve in populations of genetically pure clones isolated from earlier time points in the population's history. Such re-evolution of citrate use was never observed in clones isolated from before generation 20,000. Even in those clones that were able to re-evolve citrate use, the function showed a rate of occurrence on the order of once per trillion cells. ~wiki

    And that's just the tip of the iceberg--and a very damning tip to the likes of Purdom. Evidence that is contrary to Purdom's idiot assertion exists in every organism. Not only does the ToE explain the numerous ways that complexity and variation arises over time, it is supported by a mountain of evidence that just continues to grow.

    But what does Purdom have? A bare and untenable assertion. *An assertion of ignorance.*

    Purdom doesn't understand science.

  7. What if this argument is polarized without needing to be. Consider that Western thought systems are often embedded in limiting Cartesian dualisms that make answers either right or wrong, black/white, on/off, etc. What if we included the shades of grey inherent in the debate between the two points. Evolution is impossible to deny or dismiss because the physical evidence is everywhere apparent and conclusive but does that mean that there was no generating Force behind the process in the first place? Could not human being always have been marked out and intended to be human beings even from their earliest days in the slime bogs as single celled organisms? Why is it impossible to believe that evolution is not random but guided? Adaptations and mutations are purposeful. Even sicle cell anemia which kills when it is dominant, provides a certain survival capacity in those who inherit the trait from only one parent in malaria infested regions...

    1. PS I am not an ID proponent, nor am I a Christian. I do however, believe in God (not aliens) and that the complex beauty of all "beings" (in the philosophical sense of the word) are the product of a purposeful creation.