Friday, February 7, 2014

Missing the Evolution/Creation Debate

I missed the recent exchange between Ken Ham (the Answers in Genesis Guy) and Bill Nye (the Science Guy). And I have no plan to correct that oversight. I tend to agree with Michael Schulson and Sarah Posner that it was a strategic mistake for Nye to agree to the debate in the first place. Other than offering those on Ham' side the chance to mug for a camera holding silly handwritten signs (and actually face a real prospect of having others look at the results), what exactly is a debate like this supposed to accomplish?

I'm not sure. Science education may have been Nye's goal--but it's not clear that this aim is served by the kind of theater that is expected in this kind of debate. Don't get me wrong. I think there is a place for thoughtful debate. I just don't think that this is what you're likely to get when a science educator who wants to talk about the evidence for evolutionary theory pairs off against a biblical fundamentalist interested in slinging scientifically empty zingers while waving a Bible around.

But if the zingers sound clever and the Bible waving is done with the right combination of earnestness and panache, the fundamentalist may succeed in getting a few cheers out of his base. At the same time, the science educator will face a challenge similar to the one that a high school teacher faces when a disruptive student keeps breaking the flow of the lecture, preventing the rest of the class from concentrating enough to see how all the pieces fit together.

I'd much rather see a discussion of the premises that underlie Ken Ham's capacity to maintain a following, despite the emptiness of his zingers. Those premises are, it seems to me, in tension with one another. On the one hand, Ham treats reputable science as the enemy of faith. On the other hand, Ham apparently thinks that his faith needs the credibility of being "scientific," and so constructs this flimsy "creation science" that aims to look like science to those (and only those) who know next to nothing about science.

What unites these premises is not any sort of internal coherence, but rather a strategic aim. Ham aims to rally people to his "team" by playing to the fear that no meaningful faith can be sustained if real science is taken seriously. And he i able to assuage the attenuated respect for science by offering up a flimsy alternative while portraying legitimate scientists as engaged in a deceptive campaign to discredit religion. For this aim to succeed, Ham has no better friends in the world than vocally atheist scientists like Richard Dawkins.

Here's the thing: the version of religion that Ham peddles is, quite clearly, in conflict with science. Now if that were a problem only for Ham's version of religion, legitimate respect for science--born out of the amazing progress that science has made--would lead religious people away from Ham's version of religion and towards others that fit better with what science teaches.

To save his version of religion from inevitable attrition, Ham needs people to fear that any kind of belief in God or transcendent realities is at odds with science. The more in his religious community who think that, the less likely they are to leave his funamentalist literalism in favor of more moderate and progressive expressions of religious faith. If atheism is seen as the only pathway to genuine respect for science, then Ham is betting that people who grew up in a faith tradition will rather jettison respect for science.

Especially if Ham can then offer up an alternative "science" which gives his followers the illusion of respecting science--an illusion that depends on seeing the scientific community as engaged in some kind of anti-religious conspiracy in which gaping holes in central scientific theories are quietly hidden from view so as to further an anti-religious agenda.

What I'd really like to see is a debate between Ham and a sincere Christian who is willing to take Ham to task for his underlying assumptions about what faith has to be like and about the relationship between reputable science and faith.

Then again, maybe the best bet is just to ignore Ham altogether.

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