[Disclaimer: this article is a reaction to surrounding media; I’ve not seen the entire debate – oh noes!]
On Tuesday evening February 4, 2014, Bill Nye “The Science Guy” and creationist Ken Ham took to the stage in Ham’s lair (museum) in Kentucky to debate evolution and creationism. The Internet and surrounding media were super excited, but as the debate ended, it was clear not much had come of the debate (except financial gain). According to analyses of the intellectual throw-down, Ham supporters may continue to shy away from evolution, and science folk will continue to exhibit exasperation on the topic of the divine creation of the universe. Pundits everywhere were unable to agree on a clear victor.
Whether or not many people were swayed in either direction, Nye came away with one interesting observation. The science guru and entertainer noted that Ham evaded many direct questions, and brought to the stage many moral ideas as opposed to scientific ones. Observation and evidence went up against the word of god, which of course is never a fruitful dichotomy to argue over. Yes, Nye was thorough in his research, at one point citing the engineering and logistical impossibilities of Noah’s ark, but Ham countered with faith (in my experience something that is felt and doesn’t hinge at all on having to be observed and proven).
And faith is a powerful thing, more powerful to some than any amount of science. Faith offers, in the forms of religion or other practices, a reason to be alive, a purpose provided by some external entity. It also provides morality to certain actions, like sex; a faith-based lifestyle will give the individual rules to live by. Science is an academic pursuit, a method that gives reasoning to observed phenomena. To creationists, science seems very scary because it more or less suggests we are alone with our own consciousness and decisions (evolution is not preordained and chugs along whether we want it to or not). Science helps us understand what in the hey is going on in our world, but doesn’t provide any one code to live by.
Although debates of this kind are entertaining, they don’t seem to function that well unless one party relents at least a little. Nye was ready for science, and Ham came in swinging the sermon bat without stopping. So, two completely different languages with no common ground. What would be better is a manner in which both religion and science can coexist (that being difficult if neither side wishes to give). Elizabeth Stoker from Salon.com argues that the debate should be about morality outside divine writ, and getting folks like him to stop declaring that evolution stomps all over faith (at least to me, evolution has no such agenda).
Nye, according to statements and other information on the net, wanted to enter the debate to promote science education, citing the dangers of only allowing creationist approaches in the classroom. It’s not about disproving god and Jesus either; it’s about offering the best education and allowing students to observe for themselves the phenomena of the natural and social world. Science is not a belief system, but a set of tools and methods by which discovery and examination is possible. Theories can be proven wrong with data (and aren’t laws meant to be broken?).
The message here (Elizabeth Stoker gets this right) is that Ham is not actually Nye’s problem, but the problem of other people who believe similar things. Ham clearly goes against anything but his singular beliefs, and that method is not a good one to spread. Education shouldn’t be completely dominated by any one system, but able to teach everything more or less equally, and in a way that students understand the difference between religious and scientific discipline. Evolution shouldn’t be painted as something that stomps all over meaning; rather, it, and other scientific materials, should be understood as inspiring piles of data.
In a post-debate segment, Nye and Ham debated global warming, and Ham continued to divert the subject. Nye suggested that scientific uncertainty is no reason to deny something unconditionally, which, as it seemed, was what Ham was doing. So the moral (if we have one) is that uncertainty shouldn’t be tossed aside, but accepted as possible further exploration. I like that idea; students of science (and other disciplines) should heed Nye’s hope, that uncertainty inspires the process, not lead to blind faith. The scientific process, what Nye fervently defended, is vital for further generations, the fear being the loss of something Nye uses quite well: friendly but discerning skepticism in a pretty mysterious world.