Bill Nye and Ken Ham Debated Creationism—But Did They Change Anyone's Mind?

Creation Museum debate says more about politics than science―just like always.

There is nothing new under the sun, the Bible tells us. And we all know that there's no business like show business.

The Bible and showbiz came together Tuesday night in Kentucky, where the Creation Museum played host to a debate between Bill Nye, "the Science Guy," and Australian evangelist Ken Ham over whether creationism is scientific.

Such debates have a storied history, kicked off by the 1859 publication of Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species, which advanced the idea that new species evolve through the process of natural selection.

While such faceoffs continue to make news, what may be most remarkable about them is how little the two sides have moved in the last 150 years.

"They don't seem to change anything, do they?" says philosophy of science expert Michael Weisberg of the University of Pennsylvania, who studies how the public understands science.

And it turns out that we have some pretty good ideas about why.

Older Than the Civil War

One year after Darwin's Origin, Thomas "Darwin's Bulldog" Huxley faced off with Archbishop Samuel "Soapy Sam" Wilberforce, in a cage match held in Oxford at a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science.

The "debate" between science and biblical literalism famously flared up again in 1925, with the Scopes Monkey Trial.

Made famous by the movie Inherit the Wind, the trial pitted defense attorney Clarence Darrow against the "Prairie Populist" Williams Jennings Bryan, a congressman and former presidential candidate, to determine whether a state could prevent students from learning about evolution. (A teacher, John Scopes, was found guilty of teaching evolution, but the verdict was dismissed a year later on a technicality by a perhaps-embarrassed Tennessee Supreme Court.)

More recently, the evolution debate played out to a national audience through a 2005 trial in Dover, Pennsylvania, when the school district sought to teach "intelligent design." The trial pitted world-class evolution experts Kenneth Miller and Kevin Padian against intelligent design advocate Michael Behe.

When the federal judge ruled that intelligent design was a thinly disguised form of creationism, the case wound up keeping creationism out of Pennsylvania schoolrooms, so it had a real effect.

Tuesday's "Ham-on-Nye" debate is a different story. Says Weisberg: "I very much doubt this is going to change anything."

Religion's Role, Big and Small

U.S. Gallup surveys have shown that as many as half of the country's residents hold creationist views.

In recent decades, the polls have bounced between 40 percent and 47 percent of respondents agreeing that "God created humans pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years."

National Science Foundation polls have shown similar responses. Yale's Dan Kahan has pointed to the numbers as the one major outlier in ratings of the U.S. public's understanding of science, compared with other industrialized nations.

"If you look at how steady the numbers are—compared to gay marriage, for example—U.S. opinions look remarkably stable," Weisberg says.

Kahan's research suggests that's because people aren't really answering whether they literally believe in Genesis when they answer questions about creationism and evolution.

Rather, Kahan says, they are telling the pollsters what they think their friends and neighbors believe. If you're a car dealer in a conservative Christian town, for example, you don't want your customers to think you aren't one of them or else you aren't going to sell a lot of pickup trucks.

Likewise, a coffee-shop owner in much more secular Boston isn't going to make customers comfortable selling Bible stories alongside the soy lattes.

"Evolution is a special kind of issue," Kahan has written on his Cultural Cognition Project blog. "The position you take on it is an expression of who you are in a world  in which there are many diverse sorts of people and in which there is a sad tendency of one sort to ridicule and hold in contempt those of another."

Essentially, he suggests, when people are asked about their views on human evolution, they are really being asked if they live in Republican or Democratic communities. Such questions are loaded with social pressure.

The resulting divide is one that won't be bridged by any amount of research on how creatures evolve into new species.

"Something deeper is going on with people's thinking when they are asked about science," Weisberg says.

His own public opinion research suggests that understanding the scientific method, particularly the part about being comfortable with sometimes being wrong despite the evidence, makes people more amenable to saying they accept human evolution.

For a century, astronomers thought the universe was likely stable or contracting, for example, but in 1998, new evidence actually showed it was expanding at an accelerating rate, a finding that won its discoverers the Nobel Prize in 2011. In contrast, the Bible may offer more comfort to folks looking for unchanging truths.

Weisberg and others see science education failing by teaching science as textbook stuff, presented as its own kind of inerrant testament.

As for the Nye vs. Ham debate, the reviews on Twitter were mixed:

Slate:

Climate scientist Michael Mann:

CNN Belief Blog:

Eric Berger:

 

Some scientists have echoed Slate's criticism of Nye, saying he legitimized a false debate about the Bible's scientific veracity just by showing up.

Weisberg disagrees.

"There are good arguments for not debating creationists and good arguments for engaging with them," he says. "Just ignoring them doesn't seem to make them go away."

The show must go on, after all, so we can be sure there will always be another round.