Friday, February 7, 2014

Bill Nye and the Creationist Debate

I've said it before, but I need to repeat that writing on this blog is more important to me than it is to you. Whenever I write things down here, it helps me figure things out for myself. Having to explain something to a general audience forces me to defend my positions from all angles, and preparing for that forces me to try (and usually fail) to keep my opinions airtight.

The Bill Nye debate at the creationist theme park is something about which I've changed my opinions on a number of times in the short time since I've heard it until a few days after it happened.

See, I tend to have a very rigid view of science. This is the way things are, this the reason that we know this is the way things are, and if that hurts your feelings or makes you feel uncomfortable, too fucking bad. There's not really anything we can do to change it and you're not allowed to ignore it, so get over yourself.

This leads to me having a very harsh attitude towards people who want to blend science and mysticism, or ignore scientific facts. Oh, you think magic must be real because we can't explain where the first organic molecule came from? Fuck you. That's exactly what I say: Fuck you.

 But, here's the thing: That's not really a good attitude to take when trying to change minds. When I heard that Bill Nye was going to be debating a creationist, my first thought was, "What's the point?" I mean, really, everybody who's even remotely familiar with these types of things knows that we're just waiting for Ken Ham to say something dumb.

Moreover, the debate took place on their turf, with ticket prices going into their pockets. So, just to recap, this was an event that debated things not up for debate, against somebody who would just either flat-out ignore facts ("the bible's all I need"), twist the facts into something that suited him (2nd Law of Thermodynamics bullshit), or use the crudest, most childish arguments to try and win ("You weren't there. So, Jesus."), and all of the money raised by it went right back into this organization. In addition, Bill Nye is no Dawkins or Hitchens. Not only is he not exactly well-versed in the art of debate, but he's not going to lay down any of the hilarious sound bites those two are known for. Finally, all this is ignoring the fact that debating creationists gives them undue credibility. If I told you that I thought Harry Potter was nonfiction and that we should have a debate about it, would you agree with that? Or would you just say, "That's dumb," and move on with your life?

But this is all ignoring what Nye's true purpose was. He wasn't interested in converting Ken Ham, but he wanted to engage the people in the audience, the people on whom this debate actually hinges, the dumb people.

For a few years now, Nye's been going on Fox News and explaining complicated things like, "This is how pollution works" or "This is what the word 'climate' means," and I thought that was admirable. This is essentially the same thing, and Nye has a couple of advantages in this regard. He is not closely related to atheism, which just the mere mention of sends the religious into a fury. He is an entertainer, which means his message is not the rigid one that I advocate, but made to be palpable. He does not have much of an academic career, where debating against a creationist would be embarrassing. He hasn't practiced debating much, but he has "been to the lion's den" once or twice, so to speak, and so is probably much more patient than most.

Dawkins said once that his close in engaging the religious was not to sway the opinion of person whom he was debating, but the people listening in. When you get in someone's face and challenge their opinions, they're more likely to clam up and stick their guns. But if you're just listening to two opposing sides, you're more likely to see which one is making more sense. Usually.

So, there are still a lot of negatives from this encounter, but, I at least see what Nye was trying to get at. Sure, the creationist gift shop got a few extra dollars, but Nye debated on their turf, on their terms, and maybe in doing so changed a few of their minds.

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