Bill Nye, The Science Guy, will debate Ken Ham, The Creationist Guy, tonight at the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky. They will debate a question from the 1920's: "Is creation a viable model of origins in today’s modern scientific era?" Yes or no? This is a bad idea for everyone but the creationists.
Whatever his intention, Nye is sitting down as a representative of "evolution" against Ham, implying that there are two equal sides to a debate that has already been settled scientifically. By simply agreeing to participate, Nye is simultaneously elevating the proponents of Biblical creationism, while marginalizing his own position.
Ham is a young-Earth creationist. That means he believes the world is only seven thousand years old or so, because if you look at the Bible in the most literal way possible, that's the timeline. God literally created the world in seven, 24-hour days, and so on from there. In a post on CNN promoting the debate (CNN will moderate the event), Ham lamented that "Several hundred well-attended debates [on creationism vs. evolution] were held in the 1970s and 1980s, but they have largely dried up in recent decades." There is a reason those debates have dried up: Ham and his ilk have no factual ground to stand on.
But still, the subject lingers as a topic of national political concern, especially when it comes to the teaching of evolution in public schools. This is especially true in some southern charter schools. According to Pew, about a third of Americans believe in creationism.
But the non-existent evidence for young Earth creationism doesn't matter to Ham and the creationist movement, because the existence of the debate itself is already a huge win. To wit, Ham's Answering Genesis blog has been greeting criticism of Nye's participation with a big smile, because to them it proves their point: atheists are "afraid" that the public might hear the "truth" of young-Earth creationism, and stop believing in evolution. "For they know that as soon as people are taught to think critically and correctly about origins," Answering Genesis writes of atheists, "they will understand that molecules-to-man evolution is a belief system."
Ham's approach is a bit like the guy who rushed the post-Super Bowl press conference to talk about 9/11: any airtime for their ideas, no matter the circumstances, they believe, could change people's minds. Debating Nye, who carries a lot of cultural capital, is just about the best publicity they'll get for their ideas. And in any case, they absolutely believe they'll win. Here's Answering Genesis:
The February 4 debate between Ken Ham and Bill Nye, at its heart, is an opportunity for Ken to influence people for the gospel and to equip believers with solid creation apologetics—while at the same time exposing the assumptions the evolutionary ideas rest upon.
So why is Nye, a strong proponent of scientific education, even bothering? It could be that Nye believes he can change minds on the topic as well. Nye, best-known for presenting a children's science program, is an educator above everything else. He is not an evolutionary biologist, but he is particularly outspoken about the teaching of creationism to kids. In 2012, Nye explained why he doesn't believe creationism is an appropriate idea to teach in schools at all. "If you wanna deny evolution and live in your world that's completely inconsistent with everything we observe in the universe that's fine. But don't make your kids do it. We need them." He added that he believes the creationism theory just "won't exist" by a few hundred years from now.
That's a good goal for an educator to have: to address factually incorrect ideas being passed to children. But Ham is not a foil for an educational debate. Tonight's event was and will be about religious belief, and not a debate over scientific fact. Because of that, Ham and creationist believers uniquely have everything to gain from the publicity. And besides, it looks like the Creation Museum stands to make some money off of Nye: The debate charged a $25 admission price, and all 900 seats are sold out.