Thanks for nothing, Science Guy.
You know, back when I was in college (stop me if I’ve told this story here before), a call-in show on one of the local TV talk shows (called “Cracker Barrel”) staged a debate on the existence of God. On the “God exists” side was a religious fanatic named Mrs. Warren who had achieved Boston notoriety by picketing local banks for some reason; my father, in fact, had a confrontation with her in his capacity as a savings bank executive. On the atheist side was none other than Madeline Murray O’Hair, she of the Supreme Court case knocking down school prayer.
The “debate” was idiotic, unfair from the start since Mrs. Warren was a prattling dolt who also spoke in what sounded like a fake Italian accent, like Chico Marx, making it even harder to take her seriously. Mostly it was idiotic, though, because such debates can’t be anything but idiotic—the adversaries are not using the same assumptions, definitions, or modes of analysis. O’Hair would mention a scientific study, and Mrs. Warren would quote the Bible, which had to be true because God dictated it. As will always happen when one is debating a fool, O’Hair was dragged into the depths of stupid argument—and whatever she was, she was not stupid—by recounting that she realized that there was no God when her son was lost on a jungle expedition, and though she prayed for his return, he never came back. After being barely restrained by my roommates from calling into the show and shouting “MOM! I’m back! It’s a miracle!” (for some reason they thought it would be in bad taste), I got a toilet paper roll, put it up to the receiver and called into the show’s call-screener as “Jehovah,”from “Beyond.”
To my amazement, they put me through, and I heard the host cheerily utter the words, “Our next caller is Jehovah. Welcome to Cracker Barrel, Jehovah!” Echoing into my cardboard megaphone in my best Burning Bush voice, I told Madeline that I was the Lord God, and that I appreciated her testing the faith of the righteous with her blasphemy, and that despite the consensus among my archangel advisors in Heaven, I would not turn her into a pillar of salt.” Then the host said, “Thank you for your call, God!” and I was done. O’Hare was laughing.
The much-hyped debate over evolution between Bill Nye, a kids show performer with a legitimate science background, and Ken Ham, an extreme creationist whose views are ridiculous even by creationist standards, was just as foolish as the Cracker Barrel fiasco but far more harmful. To begin with, Nye’s willingness to serve as the defender of reason, science and the progress of mankind from superstition into enlightenment was pure hubris. The last time a well-publicized confrontation on this topic took place was in Dayton, Tennessee, 1925, when atheist lawyer Clarence Darrow maneuvered fundamentalist political legend William Jennings Bryan into an epic grilling on evolution versus the Bible. Ham is no Bryan, but Nye is no Darrow, and while the Dayton showdown left the creationist point of view looking shaky to the point of risibility, Ham was able to deliver what constituted zingers to the ears of those predisposed to assume that a Supreme Being is the answer to all unanswerable questions (or has the answers):
Question: “How did the atoms that created the big bang get there? Nye: “This is the great mystery.” Ham: God! How do we know? The Bible tells us so!
Point for creationism!
“Question: How did consciousness come from matter?” Nye: “Don’t know! This is a great mystery!” Ham: (with a victorious twinkle in his eye): “There actually is a book that says where matter comes from: it’s called the Bible!”
Another point for for creationism!
What a rout! The Bible has all the answers, but the Science Guy just has some, and admits that even those aren’t perfect!
This was a debate that could only persuade the ignorant, the intellectually lazy and the brain damaged. No one who vaguely understands science and evolution was going to be convinced by Ham’s appeals to authority (the fact that some inventors are creationists proves nothing, just as the fact that old wacko Pat Robertson says that Ham’s ridiculous 6,000 year-old Earth position is, well, ridiculous doesn’t prove that it is) and his reliance on the familiar cherry-picking tactic used to discredit everything from the conclusion that Oswald shot Kennedy to O.J.’s DNA to global warming. Most unconvincing of all, and proof positive of alternate evolution of reasoning ability on Ham’s part, Ham kept returning to the creationist’s bizarre distinction between “historical science” and “observational science,” which holds that anything you don’t personally witness can never be proven to have occurred. As I just suggested, this argument sounds solid if there is something the matter with you.
Not that Nye’s line of argument was anything to cheer either. He kept saying, infuriatingly, that the most important reason to teach evolution was that other industrialized nations teach it and the United States will fall behind if its young don’t learn real science. That’s great, Bill: you have over a hundred years of physics, biochemistry, geology, astronomy, and paleontology at your fingertips, and the best argument you have for teaching the accumulated knowledge of our universe in the schools is “everybody does it” and “the ends justify the means”?
The best reason to teach evolution is that it’s the closest thing to the truth that we have right now, and we should be teaching children facts as we understand them, not theological mythology devised for a time when those facts were unknown and unavailable.
Mainly, though, Nye was wrong, as any scientist would have been, to allow such a debate to take place at all. There are some points of view and opinions that have been thoroughly and conclusively shown to advance chaos and impede human progress and civilization, and that are also beyond reconciliation with established facts. Among these are the belief that the Holocaust did not occur, that whites constitute a master race, and that women should be subservient to men. To structure a debate where one side is occupied by any of these discredited views (there are others, of course) creates a false dichotomy that elevates invalid and toxic positions by according them the respect signified by rational rebuttal.
To begin with, rational rebuttal of any of these opinions, or the opinion that the Earth is 6000 years old, is futile, because these are not rational opinions, but unsupported conclusions based on ignorance, denial, or bigotry. More importantly, placing advocates of such positions on the same stage, before the same audience, sharing apparently equal status with their fact-based counterparts only spreads the misconception, much loved by creationists, that these opposing views are merely differing opinions, none necessarily more valid or correct than the other.
Sometimes—rarely, but sometimes— there is an ethical obligation to to deny a forum to a speaker and that speaker’s views, an obligation not to engage, but rather to make sure that those views are marginalized and widely recognized for the unquestionable fallacies that they are. There is a right to free speech. There is no right to have that speech respected. Nye, by dignifying resolute ignorance with the honor of his time, effort and attention, bestowed on creationism a momentary respect it doesn’t deserve. And some people, it is impossible to say how many, are more ignorant and confuses as a result.