Engagement is good, but how about not engaging on their terms?

David MacMillan wrote an op-ed on tonight’s Nye/Ham debate. It turns out he’s exceptionally well qualified to write about creationism.

This debate is more than academic for me. I grew up steeped in creationism. I was homeschooled with creationist curriculum, my family took us to creationist conferences, and I was deeply proud that I knew the real story about evolution and the age of the Earth. I was taught there was absolutely no way the universe could be explained without creationism. Evolution was a fairytale based on faith; creation was good science. I was taught that Christianity wasn’t consistent without creationism… that all “Bible-believing Christians” rejected evolution and long ages in favor of a six-day creation and a global flood.

My proudest teenage achievement was mowing lawns to earn $1,000 so I could help build the Creation Museum. My donation earned me lifetime free admission, a polo shirt and my name engraved in the lobby. I wrote back and forth with many prominent creationists and hotly debated origins with anyone who dared argue in favor of evolution. On two occasions I even wrote featured articles for the Answers In Genesis website — a high honor for a teen.

And then, gosh darn it, he did what every Jebus-lovin’ parent dreads: he went to college. He got a degree in physics. He started reading the scientific literature and comparing it to what the creationists claimed. Before you knew it, he was…lost to Satan!

Because so much of what I’d been taught was flatly false, I had to re-learn practically everything about biology, geology and the history of science. I’m amazed by the amount of evidence I systematically ignored or explained away, just because it didn’t match creation science.

Creationism isn’t just one belief; it’s a system of beliefs and theories that all support each other. We believed that unless we could maintain confidence in special creation, a young planet, a global flood, and the Tower of Babel, we’d be left without any basis for maintaining our faith.

So he learned some science, and now he isn’t a creationist anymore? Ken Ham may have just allowed a serpent to slither into the midst of his flock. MacMillan is much more optimistic about the outcome of the debate than I am.

In a debate like this one, demonstrating even the most elementary facts about evolution and the age of the universe would be a great success.

And that is a very good point. Creationists are very thorough about closing the doors and living in incestuous ignorance, trying to limit access to real scientific information — perhaps the virtue of debates, despite my intense dislike of the format and the implicit bias, is that they are one of the few avenues in which scientists are allowed to speak to the fanatically faithful.

I’m going to have to think on this. Zack Kopplin is also giving the debate his stamp of approval.


  1. Menyambal --- making sambal a food group. says

    I was just looking at the Wedge document, and one of its first goals is to create a debate.

  2. Pierce R. Butler says

    Matt Young posted MacMillan’s piece, or one very like it, on Panda’s Thumb almost two weeks ago; MacMillan himself participated in a lengthy comment thread there.

    Nick Matzke also has a new post about tonight’s, and all, debates with creos.

  3. kevinalexander says

    If I was Bill Nye I’d bring some photos of back storage rooms of the Museum of
    Natural History and point out that, like everyone of the hundreds of science museums in the world, it has so much stuff that they can only fit a tiny bit of it in the displays.
    All of it is evidence!
    What have you got Ken? Besides your money counting machines.

  4. says

  5. Sastra says

    Well, this is nice. It’s still a rotten shame if Nye has allowed the Creation “Museum” to use this for fundraising, but it could end up biting them in the ass in the long run.

    I’ve been arguing that Nye’s choice to have the debate in the Creation Museum itself doesn’t make the agreement worse from a debate standpoint, but rescues it from the main danger of granting pseudoscience too much credibility. If the forum is neither academic, popular, nor neutral — and is instead biased and with an audience which can be assumed to be both hostile and insulated — then it’s an automatic win regardless of the actual debate. Any movement will have to be positive. And a carefully nurtured diet of strawmen is about to be replaced with something nutritious (so to speak.)

    Part of the reason I thought a positive result was possible was because I’ve heard too many former Creationists say that exposure to actual science was a catalyst — and some of them said that getting to hear Bill Nye while still a creationist would or could have been life-shattering. Ham is granting credibility to Nye here, not the other way around.

    The other reason was just looking at the odds. If 99% of the audience is Young Earth Creationist and 95% couldn’t describe the theory of evolution if their life depended on it, giving a science communicator access for a talk (forget the “debate,” he’s going to “lose” that) means that the likelihood is that every person there will take away at least one good idea. Something will surprise them. They will make a “small” concession.

    Eppur si muove.

  6. Sastra says

    Ronja Addams-Moring #4 wrote:

    Salon has this piece by Sean McElwee and Abigail Salvatore. They do not approve of the debate

    I just read this article and am astonished. Wtf? Do McElwe and Salvatore not understand that this is not a “New Atheism” debate against creationism? Do they think Bill Nye is going to argue that there is no God? In this forum? He’s going to attack religion??

    Idiots. It’s a science debate. Nye is a secular humanist who will probably stick strictly to the case for evolution and against creationism. He may very well even engage in the wonderful technique they offer: helpful accomodationist suggestions on ways to be both Christian AND an evolutionist.

    Bill Nye is not a New Atheist. Not publicly, anyway. He’s not a Horseman, he’s not even a pony on the carousel. Nor is he a raving accomodationist — as far as I know. It’s an evolution vs. creationism debate, not one on the existence of God.

    Maybe the article should be re-titled “Salon’s Big Mistake.”

  7. moarscienceplz says

    I share PZ low enthusiasm for debate as a form for establishing scientific fact. But my main source of trepidation for this event is the fact that Ken Ham has absolutely no scruples when it comes to “saving souls”. He is going to issue a DVD, and he is fully capable of editing it to make Nye appear to say that the sun is a balloon that angels inflate every morning.

  8. gussnarp says

    This is yet another case for why the scientifically minded should not be attending, watching or buying DVDs of this debate. The only good that can come of this debate is that people who have been prevented from learning the real science by parents, churches, and Christian schools will be exposed to it. Every butt in those seats at the event should belong to a creationist. Preferably one who’s capable of thinking for themselves and evaluating evidence to some extent if they just had access to it. Those are also the ones who need access to the livestream and copies of the DVD.

    Outside of that, I’m really seeing Ham get a lot of media exposure and his profile being significantly raised, which is exactly what is wrong with doing these debates. It’s exactly what Dawkins warns of. Oh well, I hope Nye acquits himself well and sways a few impressionable young creationist minds.

  9. Nemo says

    David MacMillan is exactly the kind of person we need to represent our side in a debate — an insider, as it were; someone who knows and understands all the creationist arguments, how they can be persuasive (since he himself was once persuaded), and exactly what’s wrong with them. I don’t think Bill Nye has that kind of background… I know I don’t; I’d be hopeless.

  10. says

    I hope Bill just ignores the debate topic and just states “Ken over there is going to tell you what he believes, and I respect his right to his beliefs. What I’m going to tell you about things we’ve learned through science. Things that you can explore and see for yourself. Things that are beautiful and ugly, scary and comforting, things that are real.” Then just ignore anything Ken says and just talk about the science of origins.

  11. brianpansky says

    haha, from the salon article:

    “The solution is not anti-theism but better theological and scientific awareness.”

    but…anti-theism IS better theological and scientific awareness…

    (at least, that is usually how one does anti-theistic activism…)

  12. Azuma Hazuki says

    I am beginning to think the solution is fire. Lots and lots of fire. Hey, it’s the best argument Ham’s side ever had! And they do love the mental image of billions of people roasting in utter, endless agony for all of eternity, so what’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.

    Bloody stupid conscience and laws, stopping me from giving these people what they so richly deserve…*grumble*

  13. David MacMillan says

    Dr. Myers,

    I was scanning through some of the commentary on the debate and just now realized that you had reviewed my op-ed. Thanks so much, I’m really honored.

    The column had also gone up at HuffPost, and they asked me to write a followup as well, which I did. You may find it interesting as well.

    Let me know if I could ever be of any help regarding an inside perspective on creationism and its permutations! I’d love to be more involved if I can.