He’s not really filling me with confidence

Bill Nye comments on his upcoming debate with Ken Ham:

Oh, dear.

Let’s see, what’s in Nye’s favor here:

  • He’s got the science on his side. He really is arguing from the only rational position.

  • Ken Ham is a palooka with no reputation as a debater himself.

Then there is the stuff that makes me worry:

  • Nye has no clue what he’s in for. Absolutely no clue. I hope he prepares by watching lots of creationist debates, or he’s in for a surprise.

  • Maybe it was an off night, but he didn’t respond well when confronted with Greg Laden’s objections. He needs to be ready with fast, succinct replies to a hell of a lot of different tactics…or he needs to be much quicker on his feet.

  • If his only approach is to talk about the economic advantages of good science, Ham is going to be prepared. I don’t think the people he’s trying to persuade are going to care much about those wicked jobs, anyway — they know you can get filthy rich making duck calls.

If I were making odds on this matchup, I’d say Nye’s chances just slipped a bit with that performance. My own personal bet would be that this is going to be an event in which both sides spend most of their time talking past each other, and that they’ll both flop hard except with their most fervent proponents.

I hope Eugenie Scott and Nye are having conversations right now. Serious conversations.

Aron Ra understands the nature of the show; maybe Nye should have conversations with him, too.


  1. ChasCPeterson says

    So it’s real; I really doubted whether Ham was on the up-&-up.
    Well, shit. Can a “debate” be “won”? I doubt it.

    thanks anyway, Bill.

  2. gerryl says

    Yeesh. His performance in that clip is pretty much like his recent performance on Dancing with the Stars.

  3. xaverius says

    At the risk of sounding unpolite, do you know Nye well enough to get to talk him and warn him about what you said in this blog post? Maybe some tips for the debate?

  4. says

    Eh, well…I don’t know. Perhaps he’ll do better. It does seem he hasn’t any idea what he’s going against. Creationist thinking is not out of the ordinary. It’s very real and very common for much of the population. I’m just about certain that living here near the museum, I know more creationists than non-creationists. I haven’t done an official poll but when I did a research paper over the summer asking people to first identify as creationists, theistic evolutionists or evolutionists my last section was by far the smallest. Anyway, my point being that he needs to spend more time with some creationists or at the very least, their arguments.

  5. nohellbelowus says

    The only hope we have is that Bill Nye’s celebrity will make some sort of difference. I think it’s fair to say that Nye will be the biggest “name” to have ever engaged in a debate of this sort — I’d wager that his name recognition is considerably larger than even Christopher Hitchens, particularly with the younger crowd.

    Bill Nye is a TV star!, some of them might say. That (completely irrelevant) fact alone might cause some impressionable fence-sitters to re-evaluate their own positions on Earth’s creation.

    Best I can do. Otherwise, we’re hosed, because Nye will certainly have no new arguments to present, and his inexperience and scientific open-mindedness will just look like doubt and uncertainty to all the religious wankers, especially with that thick-headed Christian zealot Ham on the same stage.

  6. Andrew says

    So Ham’s main problem is that if anything in the Bible is false, then the whole Christian doctrine must be false. I think Bill need only point out, as his inspiration Carl Sagan did, that most religious people have no problem accepting science. And to paraphrase Steven Pinker: most Christians don’t believe in or even know what’s in the Bible, they just hold it up as a talisman. He would almost certainly respond with a No True Scotsman fallacy, which would probably sound convincing to his audience, but I think it’s the best shot at undermining his position.

    I’d wager that his name recognition is considerably larger than even Christopher Hitchens, particularly with the younger crowd.

    I think that’s the most pernicious thing about this whole debate, and why Ham called out Bill Nye specifically. He’s trying to discredit “the Science Guy” in the minds of children, and make them more likely to ignore anyone who presents science to them.

  7. tsig says

    Looks like he’s going with the “Deer in the Headlights” strategy.

    Think Bambi vs Godzilla with Nye as Bambi.

  8. says

    Gish used to do this stunt back in the day…. get invited to a Uni by the local christian club, debate some knowledgeable, well-meaning, but somewhat naive professor or local expert, and dance verbal rings around him. Nye is a good presenter and popularizer of science, but it takes a down-and-dirty debating expert to challenge the spin and lies of the professional creationists.

    This is going to be painful to watch.

  9. says

    I hate to be the skunk at the garden party, given Nye’s evident popularity among science aficionados of all stripes, but… really: first Dancing With the Stars and now a debate with Ken Ham (in which, as PZ and others have pointed out, he stands little chance of “winning”). Could it be that the latest is just another grasp at fame and fortune?

    Let me be clear, I do not, for even a moment, doubt his adherence to a scientific world view/philosophy, nor his enviable success in lighting the fire for scientific inquiry among multiple generations of students, teachers and the public, in general. Nonetheless, I’ve “been to the rodeo” before, I’ve seen this scenario played-out, and I cannot help but think that this latest– the debate with Ham– is just another manifestation of Nye’s campaign to remain relevant and in the news.

  10. Thumper: Token Breeder says

    @Scott Woody

    Why would he want to “remain relevant and in the news”? People always talk as if that is an end in and of itself, and I suppose for some people it is, but I’ve seen little evidence of such an attitude in Nye’s behaviour.

  11. carlie says

    I think Bill is suffering from the “I’m good at one thing so I must be good at many things” syndrome. Good on a scripted show, even if you wrote it, doesn’t mean quick on your feet against conflict.

  12. Alex says

    Yeah, I find it a bit frustrating that he does not engange with what others say aggressively and clearly enough. I don’t know how that will work out against Ham. Will Nye be able to tell him to his face succinctly and clearly “you just claimed this and this, and it is wrong for these reasons: 1., 2., 3.”?

  13. says

    There is no debate, fullstop. The matter is decided. Any “debate” with a creationist is therefore either to entertain their personal incredulities, or out of hope to accidentally educate someone in the audience.
    I think Nye may be in for a bit of a shock. It doesn’t look like he is aware what dishonest kooks people like Ham actually are.

  14. Alex says


    Yes, maybe that’s what he means. But the guy is smart enough to first look at a ton of youtube videos of debates with creationists, right? Please?

  15. rodw says

    Neither of these guys is a seasoned debater, but its much easier to spout nonsense than to correct nonsense. I predict a slight win for Ham.
    Ham’s strategy should be to stay away from the age of the earth, where Nye has some expertise and go with the more sophisticated anti-evolution arguments used by IDers. Ham could spend half his time just reviewing Meyers latest book.
    Nye needs to have quick, witty answers to a thousand bits of nonsense Ham can throw out. I hope he’s talking to Ken Miller!!

  16. gussnarp says

    I think Bill Nye is most valuable as a science advocate providing explanations in a scripted format, not debating creationists live. Perhaps I’m wrong, but whenever I see him live I see a lot of small stumbles that don’t much matter in a fair interview, but that will be seized on by a motivated opponent in a live debate. For example, when he started to say we don’t want kids exposed to the idea that the earth is 10,000 years old. Ham will leap on something like that to say we’re afraid and trying to censor ideas. What Nye means to say, that schools should not be promoting this idea to students in a manner that suggests it has anything like equal credibility with evolution, can be said in a way that is much harder to twist around. What Nye said there was like throwing raw meat to a pack of feral dogs.

    As long as he’s doing this, I hope he’s preparing well. His strategy should indeed include watching known creationists debate, and especially familiarizing himself with all of Ham’s known arguments, as well as being sure he has succinct defenses of every statement he’s going to make. The one hope for good that can come out of this is that a seed of doubt will be planted in the minds of some viewers of the debate who lean creationist. Nye’s job is to ensure that no doubt is planted in more reasonable minds, and that he plants a seed that gets a few people who’ve never been exposed to anything but the creationist side of this to ask a few hard questions.

  17. dshetty says

    People like Ham need to be debated , in public and prominently (whether by Nye or by some more qualified people is a different question). More people will see the debate than watch scientists tear down Ham on their blogs , no? I believe Sagan too had a similar view that scientists should be willing to stand up to the idiotic theories and refute them, publically. Creationism is a problem and has not gone away with whatever approaches have been tried so far, no?, and its going to be silly to rely on legal challenges to prevent it from being taught (The Texas anti-abortion death of a thousand cuts should tell you that such tactics are going to fail sometime even if the constitution is on your side). We might *lose* this debate or all the debates – but is someone who understands and accepts evolution going to change his/her mind because Nye lost the debate? The people who accept the evidence are not going to be swayed by the debate because ultimately the evidence is there . The people who don’t accept the evidence are the ones who are vulnerable no matter how dogmatic they are.

  18. says

    I don’t see this interview with Bill indicating anything about how the debate will go. In the interview Bill was responding to questions about the debate and why it’s important (referencing Jobs is a valid point). I don’t believe that will be the major substance of his debate about whether creationism is a valid “science” subject to be taught in schools.

    A debate is not designed to sway the beliefs / views of the people having the debate. It is to allow the questions to be raised in the minds of those who are listening.

    Nye will undoubtedly “win” the debate on the substance of creationism vs evolution/science. Will he “win” the debate as far as those who believe with every fiber of their being that creationism should be taught in schools? I don’t much care.

    That such a debate occurs and is available to be viewed by many afterwards – that’s what I want to see.

  19. Jacob Schmidt says


    Can a “debate” be “won”? I doubt it.

    Well, you can make it seem as though you have the better argument to anyone who isn’t willing to dig into the details. For most practical purposes, I’d call that “winning”.

  20. says

    pz: “My own personal bet would be that this is going to be an event in which both sides spend most of their time talking past each other …”

    nye wants to convince people that creationism and biblical literalism and inerrancy is not just wrong but harmful and crippling. if nye wants to make an impression on the audience, my advice is to simply ignore ham and speak directly to them. use every opportunity to reiterate that message, each time with an example of an outmoded “bible fact” or fiat or practice that not even creationists believe or practice anymore. at the turn of the new millenium the catholic church stopped preaching a physical hell. so was jesus wrong? ken ham explicitly demands that the bible has to be right in its entirety — otherwise he’ll have a big sad. and that is his achilles heel.

    nye needs to show that it’s impossible for anyone — even ken ham — to be a complete literalist. the best way to do that is to hold up before the audience the many pieces of the bible that believers have already discarded as mere allegory — such as the number of days god used to create the universe — which defeats the whole point of literalism. every seed of doubt nye can sow helps the cause of science.

  21. says

    I think it would be a good idea for nye to take a page out of jerry coynes playbook and address specific claims made by ken ham (see coyne v haught debate). It worked quite well for coyne; take the fight to ham and destroy his arguments that he has already made.

  22. Alex says

    show that it’s impossible for anyone — even ken ham — to be a complete literalist. the best way to do that is to hold up before the audience the many pieces of the bible that believers have already discarded as mere allegory —

    I’m afraid he won’t do that because he “doesn’t want to attack anyone’s religion”. So he’ll stick to telling science facts. Going through Leviticus and Deuteronomy point by point would be the so much more powerful anti-literalist exercise, but I don’t see it happen with the nice Nye.

  23. gussnarp says

    @coreyschlueter #24 – I don’t think he actually handled the question all that well. Sure, the friendly audience ate it up, and his response was all Hovind deserved, but it’s not actually the right answer, and to someone leaning creationist but persuadable, it looks like an evasion. He should have said, every bit as briefly, that human population growth hasn’t always been exponential. For most of human history, before the development of adequate sanitation, antibiotics, and vaccines, birth rates were roughly balanced by death rates and the rate of population growth was very slow.