SocraticGadfly: #BillNye vs #KenHam — who won? (updated)

February 08, 2014

#BillNye vs #KenHam — who won? (updated)

Yes, it's a rhetorical question, but probably not in the way many are thinking.

The rhetoric involves defining what winning means, who the judges are (since this is like figure skating, not football) who decide who won, within that context, and more.

By that, on at least some counts, Ham won.

No, I won't go quiet as snarky as this Daily Beast story, that claims Ham won the moment Nye agreed to debate, or "debate," because I think Nye was more sincere than this piece claims. (More on those scare quotes in a minute.)

I will say that Nye increased his chances of losing by the way he approached this, as shown on his website. where, in the intro Javascript float for the debate, Nye talks about waiting to "discuss" the issues.

Ars Technica, with a much, much better article than the Daily Beast, gets at the basic point, though: Nye was dumb to do this.

Bill, if you really thought this was going to be a cozy tea-time "discussion," er .... wrong!

If you thought this was going to be a college academic debate, three-quarters wrong.

If you thought this was going to be like high school juniors in their first year of debate class, you're getting warmer, but somehow, I don't think that's the way you approached.

This is why Philip Johnson of the Discovery Institute is so "good" (in print, at least) for creationists. He's a lawyer, and he understands that all such "debates" like this are about out-lawyering the other side, not out-sciencing them.

You don't appeal to reason.

You prosecute him, find contradictions in statements of his, then start nailing his skin to the wall. That's especially true since you agreed to "debate" on his home turf.

With a young-earth creationist literalist, you have to go in there prepared to bring out the ridicule in a can of whoop-ass. On things like the four corners of the Earth, the foundations of the Earth, earth not moving (all in the Bible) Ham's only possible response would be, "but that's poetic language," and there's the "wedge," Discovery Institute petards be hoisted. If he tried to distinguish between "naturally true" and "literally true," same thing.

As for people who think I'm perpetuating a stereotype or something? Not at all.

The word "lawyering" is shorthand for a trial-type presentation. Which is NOT a debate. Which is why I put "debate" in scare quotes. Let me give you a very pertinent example, per a Facebook thread about this blog post.
Lawyering is a persuasive technique! You're trying to persuade 12 people to think and vote your way. I'm using "lawyering" as a shorthand to refer to trial argumentation. Yes, you have to have a certain amount of evidence, but a good lawyer is one who can make weak evidence look strong. Or even more.

Witness the anecdote about a killing in moonlight, and whether it was in a full moon or not. One A. Lincoln handed the prosecution witness an almanac, while keeping his thumb on the top edge of the book. Asked said witness what phase the moon was in the night in question. He said it was nowhere near full. Lincoln then told him and the jury, "Well, you couldn't have seen the alleged crime that well then, could you?"

The almanac was from the year before the killing. Lincoln's thumb kept that hidden. Whether the anecdote is true or not is less important than what it illustrates.

And, that's why Bill Nye approached this incorrectly. Ken Ham's sidestepping showed that, contra Isaiah's "Come, let us reason together," he was prepared to do no such thing. Nor are most creationists, even ones in better command of their rhetoric than Ham. 

Anyway, this ain't new. Some 75 years or so ago, astronomers debated whether or not to get on the same stage as Immanuel Velikovsky. Most said no, but a few, like Harlow Shapley, did, and in the uncritical public's eye, they generally "lost."

I respect the opinion of some humanists, whether secular or not, and certainly of atheists, to go ahead and participate in such social exercises, since I'm still only calling them "debates" in scare quotes. Not for me. Per the Facebook thread, I would suggest that many young guns from today's atheist world read up more on the Velikovsky issue first. They'll realize that those who did debate him gained nothing then. 

Another big issue for being wary about entering to such "debates" in general is financial. Besides Nye raising Ham's visibility, this makes an easy fundraising pitch. "I'm under attack by godless scientists and I need your support" before the debate, followed by "I won, help me spread the message" afterward.

As for the claims that "even Pat Robertson" is attacking Ham now? Well, different fundamentalist and conservative evangelical ministers have gone hammer and tongs for years. It's no proof that Ham lost, or "lost," among his own crowd.

As for a poll on Christianity Today that said 92 percent felt he did lose? It's an Internet poll that got stuffed. Liberal Xns, let alone atheists, who think that poll reflects actual preferences are part of the problem, not part of the solution. 

As for a BuzzFeed post making the rounds with questions from creationists, at the Ham museum, writing questions on pads for Nye? At least some of them could be atheists running a Poe for all you and I know. 

If they really are creationists, a few are flat-out stupid, like the "sunset" one at No. 5. Others, like the "second law of thermodynamics," have been asked and answered for what, a century now, on closed vs open systems. Only a couple are new, and also intelligent, like No. 3 on using logic on the Omphalos theory. (It's logically valid, if properly written as an argument, which shows the difference between logical reasoning and empirical fact-finding.) 


Update, Sept. 24, 2021: This is somewhat why trying to rationally argue COVID antivaxxers out of their stance doesn't work, either. They're not rational actors; they're tribalists.

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