So Bill Nye just finished debating Ken Ham at the Creation Museum and I actually sat and watched the whole thing live. I have tended to agree with Richard Dawkins about the problems of debating creationists, and the fact that Bill Nye agreed to this intrigued me (since it seems most people agree with Dawkins here, and there have been very few high profile science educators doing these sorts of debates for many years now).
Why We Should Debate Creationists
However, in considering what Nye could do with this debate I started to change my mind. That change was confirmed when I saw the 500,000+ live viewers of the debate on YouTube (and who knows how many more will watch it over the weeks, months and years to come). So apparently there is an appetite for this sort of a debate. Apparently people want to see it. And by agreeing to do these sorts of debates….by going in to the heart of the beast (The CREATION MUSEUM no less), you are getting knowledgeable scientists in front of the very people who most need to hear what they have to say!
Think about that. If Dawkins or Bill Nye went to Tennessee and did a talking tour, would one tenth of that audience have turned up at his lecture? No. But they will turn up to watch their favourite Creationist teach him about the Bible! So this sort of event is a great opportunity for Science educators, what can we do with it?
Don’t Debate – Just Teach
We have the audience we most need to reach, so lets take advantage of that. How do we do that? We focus on teaching them science. Forget the debate. Don’t even bother trying to win it…. just focus on teaching the audience something that they can grasp in the short time you have, and something they will remember. Then keep hammering it home.
And that brings me to the critical part of this article – as much as I love Bill Nye, and appreciate the pressure of performing live in a clearly hostile territory, I found myself mostly disappointed with what he said during the debate. No doubt he did say some great stuff which should have left any creationist stuck for an answer, and hopefully questioning how it is that they believe what they believe, but unfortunately, he also said a lot of things which didn’t do that very well. And the lots of things which weren’t spectacular, can unfortunately drown out the few spectacular things. I know they shouldn’t, but they do. And so the problem is that the audience is quickly distracted away from the strong point which is challenging their beliefs, and they refocus their thought process on this new weaker point which they quickly dismiss because *insert mental gymnastic reason here*.
Watching Bill list of all of the reasons we know the universe is the way it is felt like he just wanted everyone to know all of the knowledge behind all of those facts…but this isn’t how it works. Instead it sounds to the ignorant like Gish Gallop and none of it actually sticks because they don’t really understand what any of it means. It is all just words, until something is actually explained in detail!
There cannot be any assumed knowledge in a debate in the creation museum!
Don’t Skim Many Points. Teach Deeply on Few
I think Bill tried to cover too much ground and didn’t go into nearly enough depth in any of them to actually show how and why they are justified. By skimming across the surface this way, you end up actually coming across to them exactly like they come across to us. “We know radiation exists, therefore we know radiometric dating works, and that is how we date the age of the planet!” sounds as compelling to them as “The Bible tells us God made it” sounds to us. “Radiometric dating tells us” doesn’t actually explain anything…
So, what I really want to encourage future debaters to focus on doing when given this opportunity, is to pick the strongest 2 or 3 pieces of evidence we have for our scientific worldview, quickly put them in context of all of the other pieces of evidence perhaps, but then spend your entire allotted time explaining exactly how it is that we know those 2 or 3 pieces of evidence. TEACH the audience the history of that knowledge. Show them the experiments which verify it. Explain the logic behind it. And then just keep hammering those three points.
If you pick your points well, you can probably structure it so that you can keep coming back to one or the other to address the same questions and claims Creationists will always come up with. Say you pick Limestone creation as one of your points. You can use that (and that alone!) to show how the story of Noah is impossible. And you can use it as corroborating evidence to give us an indication of how old the planet it. And you can use it to show that we know about tectonic plate movement and uplift etc.
Pick a couple of key pieces of knowledge, explain them well, then use only those pieces of knowledge to rebut everything they say, and show how we know what we are talking about. (and of course, occasionally remind them that this is just 3 of hundreds of lines of evidence that we have.)
And if we have more of these debates, and every different debater picks different points to argue from, we might slowly teach the creationists geology, paleontology, astronomy, biology etc…. one subject at a time.