Michael Schulson
Photo by Dylan Lovan/AP

The Bill Nye-Ken Ham Debate Was a Nightmare for Science

In a much-hyped showdown, “the Science Guy” tried to defend evolution against creationist Ken Ham, and proved how slick science-deniers can be. How did the guy who’s right go so wrong?
On many mornings, I wake up and think, “You know what this country needs? More culture war.” As I scramble up a couple eggs, I find myself wishing—fervently wishing—that we could spend more time reducing substantive issues to mere spectacle. Later, as I scrub the pan, I’ll fantasize about how those very spectacles might even funnel money toward some of the country’s most politicized religious groups.Fortunately, Bill “the Science Guy” Nye has heard my wish—which, really, is the wish of a nation. Why else would he have traveled to Kentucky this week in orderto debate Ken Ham, the young-earth creationist founder of Answers in Genesis, about the origins of the world?

Actually, there are two other reasons that Nye might have done so, and I’ve given both possibilities a great deal of thought in the past few days. The first is that Nye, for all his bow-tied charm, is at heart a publicity-hungry cynic, eager to reestablish the national reputation he once had as the host of a PBS show. When his stint onDancing With the Stars ended quickly, Nye turned to the only other channel that could launch him back to national attention: a sensationalized debate, replete with the media buzz that he craves.

Possibility number two is that Nye is clueless—that, for all his skill as a science communicator, Nye has less political acumen than your average wombat.

After watching the debate, I’m leaning toward that second possibility. Last night, it was easy to pick out the smarter man on the stage. Oddly, it was the same man who was arguing that the earth is 6,000 years old.

It was like watching the Broncos play the Seahawks. Nye never had a chance. Ham won this debate months ago, when Nye agreed to participate. By last Friday, when I spoke with Ham, Nye hadn’t even arrived in Kentucky, but Ham was already basking in the glow of victory (Nye didn’t respond to my request for comment). “The response,” Ham told me, “has been absolutely phenomenal.” He talked about the media attention. He talked about how professional the stage was going to look. He talked more about the media attention. “It’s going to create a lot of discussion. I think that’s very healthy,” said Ham, in reference to the raging scientific debate over whether evolution actually happened. “In many ways aggressive atheists have shut down that discussion.” But, Ham continued, “the public wants to hear about” origins. Fortunately, Nye has given them that chance.

When I asked whether the debate would bring any financial perks, Ham hastened to talk me down. “The ticket sales won’t come to half the cost of the debate,” he explained. The publicity, though, may be priceless. The last time Ham gained national media attention, it was for his failure to raise enough money to build the enormous Noah’s Ark theme park he’s been planning as an accompaniment to his slick creation museum. This time, he gallops onto the national stage as defender of the faith—a stance that may open some pocketbooks. Perhaps Ham willdedicate a plank in the replica ark to his bowtied benefactor.

It was like watching the Broncos play the Seahawks. Nye never had a chance.

Ham had nothing to lose. When you exist on the cultural fringe and make your living by antagonizing established authority, there’s no form of media attention you don’t love. All Ham had to do was sit still for two-and-a-half hours, sound vaguely professional, and pander occasionally to his base. Sure, if you listened closely, what Ham was saying made absolutely no scientific sense. But debate is a format of impressions, not facts. Ham sounded like a reasonable human being, loosely speaking, and that’s what mattered.

Nye, meanwhile, spent three-quarters of the debate sounding like a clueless geek, even if his points were scientifically valid. He went on strange asides and make awkward appeals to the obviously hostile audience, which he at one point referred to as “my Kentucky friends.” He spent 10 minutes delivering a dry lecture on geological sediments and biogeography, using the kind of PowerPoint slides that a high school junior might make for his AP Biology class. 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.

In one all-too-typical two-minute span, Nye started out by explaining how evolutionary biologists make predictions. He then veered into the sexual habits of minnows, suddenly jumped to the number of bacteria in the human gut, discussed the amount of energy required for roses to produce fruit, told the story about how his first cousin (once removed) died from the flu, and then bounced back to the horny minnows, with reference to certain fish diseases. All of this talk about sex and germs will make sense if you’re familiar with the Red Queen hypothesis. If you’re not, good luck. Five topics in two minutes, with extensive prior knowledge assumed: science communication in action!

It was around this point that I began drinking.

Ham’s argument, essentially, was that there are two kinds of science—observational, concerned-only-with-what-we-can-touch-and-see science, on which, Ham said, we all happily agree; and historical science, on which we don’t. This is bullshit, of course. We can use evidence from the present to extrapolate about the past. But it’s straightforward, logical-sounding bullshit, which means that it makes for good debate material.

Nye went into the debate, he says, in order to protect and promote science education in the United States. His most important argument was that people like Ham are ruining America’s global competitiveness by weakening science education. It’s a shame that Nye pushed that point so strongly, because it was the one thing he said all night for which he did not have any actual evidence. Creationism in public schools may be a social disaster, but it’s hard to prove that it’s a financial one, too. And Ham was ready. He had a recorded statement in which Raymond Damadian, who helped invent MRI, expressed his firm belief that the world was created in six days, six thousand years ago, as outlined in Genesis. Ham’s message was clear—and accurate: you can be a creationist and invent economically useful stuff.

There are those who will claim a victory for Nye. He did have his moments. Near the end of the debate, Nye found his footing, speaking passionately about the joys of scientific discovery. Doing so, he highlighted the degree to which creationism is a decidedly incurious, insular worldview. Ham was at a loss for words only once during the whole debate, when an audience member asked what it would take for him to change his mind. By contrast, Nye seemed most alive when talking about all the things that he couldn’t explain. The Ham-leaning audience was skeptical. But for anyone who lives in that uncomfortable middle, who engages with the uncertainty and wonder of a universe they don’t understand; and for anyone who doesn’t have a rigid dogma to fall back on, those moments couldn’t help but make Nye seem like a true champion of the common moderate.

But it was too late. Months too late. You don’t need to be Sun Tzu to realize that, when 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.

When I spoke with Ham last week, he happily compared the debate to a football or baseball game. This brings up another, slightly subtler point. Simply put, thanks to the existence of antagonists like Nye, creationism is both profitable and, by all appearances, kind of fun. And profitable, fun activities tend to stick around, no matter what their moral hazards. Just ask anyone who enjoys watching football, concussions be damned.

Near the end of his opening statement, Ham explained that when it comes to the evolution debate, “the battle is really about authority.” Ham might not understand the science, but he gets the politics. A couple minutes later, Nye began his reply on a civil note: “Mr. Ham,” said Nye. “I learned something.”

Let’s hope so.