Ten Commandments for debates with creationists

Bill-Nye-vs.-Ken-Ham-Debate_f_improf_645x254.pngEveryone seems to be talking about the Bill Nye vs. Ken Ham debate which is occurring in a few hours. I’m not going to watch it, at least not immediately. I’m not 100% against debating creationists, but I do think science-defenders should try to not give the contest away before it even starts.

For a long time I’ve been developing a list in my head of what scientists and science educators should think about even before they even agree to appear in a debate. Bill Nye made all of these mistakes at once, and therefore, even if he and his bow-tie have the best day of their lives, he’s lost on a lot of fronts already. All Ken Ham has to do to win is not break down in tears and admit he’s based his life on a horrible mistake.

Therefore, here are my…


(Actually, I only had time at the moment for Seven Commandments. I will take suggestions and improvements. If you write a sufficiently good one, I will include it and list you as an author; if the Commandments come together well, perhaps we can submit it to NCSE Reports or some such.)

(also, all I know about this debate is based on news reports, and the assumption that if something has not been mentioned, it was not thought about by Bill Nye; please correct me if I get something wrong)


I. THOU SHALT THINK ABOUT THE MOOLAH. Is there going to be an admission fee charged to this event? Where will this money go? In today’s debate, something like 800 attendees are paying $30/each to attend (I forget the exact details). That’s $24,000 on the table right there. Right now, Answers in Genesis (AiG) pockets the whole thing. Not bad for 2 hours of work! It will probably be their single biggest fundraising day of the year, barring one-off contributions from rich donors and the like.

What does Bill Nye get? Perhaps travel expenses. At the very least, the pot should have been split. Speakers should get what they are worth, and Bill Nye is worth a lot. So are you, if you are a Ph.D. scientist and/or noted science educator. If you are feeling altruistic, take your half of the money and donate it to the National Center for Science Education (NCSE). $12,000 would go a loooong way at NCSE – they don’t have nearly as many animatronic dinosaurs to run as the Creation Museum.

If you do donate the money to a worthy cause, announce that you are doing so, so that everyone knows who is benefitting. This will encourage people on your side to do the same, and it will let the creationists know that these debating events, which they eagerly seek out, will no longer be one-sided fundraising events where the naive scientist features as Demon of the Week to be paraded out and rebutted.

As the situation currently stands, Bill Nye has effectively given AiG a $24,000 donation, minimum, just by agreeing to show up! Why didn’t he think about this?


II. THOU SHALT THINK ABOUT THE DISTRIBUTION RIGHTS. All too often, professors get goaded into debates or “discussions” (or sometimes “interviews”), show up like they would to a normal low-publicity academic event, and then discover that the creationists have a full film crew ready to professionally tape the whole thing. Some nice person sticks a consent form in front of them, they sign it, and then the professor is surprised to find themselves featured in creationist videos and documentaries for the next several decades.

These videos often quote the scientists out of context, or wrap whatever the scientist says in a hail of obfuscatory rebuttal material. And they are often for sale at fundamentalist churches across the country, in addition to conferences, in home-schooling catalogs, etc. You don’t see a cent, but by virtue of your signature you’ve signed up to be a fundraising prop permanently, or for at least as long as anyone remembers who you are. Heck, interviews with Jim Valentine from the early 1990s are still circulating in Intelligent Design circles.

Again, if you were thinking about it ahead of time, you would say, at a minimum, that you get half of all sales from subsequent videos etc. Alternatively, you could require that the complete, unedited event, sans additional propaganda, be made freely available on YouTube, and that no subsequent reproduction is authorized without the written consent of all parties.

Certainly, whatever the other details, you need some sort of clause requiring your approval for modified and edited portrayals of the original event.

For smaller scale events, at the very least, you should demand that you get your own unedited copy of the event, to do with as you wish (e.g. to put on the web, or to allow you to check what you said when you later get quote-mined or misleadingly edited).

Alternatively, you get equal rights to make your own recording, do with as you wish – but realistically, the creationists’ recording will be better than yours. They are nothing if not media-savvy. Most professors wouldn’t have the presence of mind to get together a video camera with sufficient battery power and memory, a tripod, a good filming location and/or a person to do the filming.

Either way, NCSE should get a copy of the recording, to serve as a permanent historical record. There’s nothing quite like going back and seeing/hearing Duane Gish “Gish-galloping” in the early 1980s to educate oneself, or future historians, or future lawyers, about the true nature of the pathological bizzarity of what is going on in such events.

Why didn’t Bill Nye think about this ahead of time?


III. THOU SHALT THINK ABOUT THE TICKET SALES. If the tickets will be on sale, who is going to have access? According to reports, the tickets for the Nye/Ham debate sold out in 2 minutes once ticket sales opened up. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find out that the creationists had many of the tickets, or perhaps virtually all of the tickets, reserved ahead of time, for donors, supporters, and the like. We’ve seen deliberate, and sophisticated, engineering of “media buzz” before with creationists, for example with the various ploys the Discovery Institute used to get an initial pulse of sales of the book Darwin’s Doubt, thus placing it on (one of the) New York Times’s bestseller lists (for a week). They’re still talking about how Darwin’s Doubt was a New York Times bestseller!

(And hey – do you think there is any chance that Answers in Genesis, if they reserved some tickets for special donors and sponsors, would sell those now-scarce tickets for more moolah? Do I have an evil mind, or am I just being realistic? You decide.)

This sort of thing ensures that the audience is packed with hard-core creationism supporters – and even if no skullduggery with reserve tickets happened, the creationists’ enthusiasm, and the fact that AiG’s announcements go straight to the fundamentalist churches and schools and supporters’ email lists ensure that they will grab most of the tickets right away. Perhaps this is inevitable, and perhaps it even matches your goals – perhaps you think that with brilliant science communication, you will sway a few of those creationists to learn more about the science and change their minds.

Maybe. But at the very least, don’t you want a few pro-science people in the audience? For example, at least a few bloggers, and some local long-term science defenders like Dan Phelps? Perhaps even a few journalists you know who aren’t crazy? What happens before and after the debate is just as important as what happens during it (see below), and the only way to find out what actually happened on the ground is to have some objective people at the event on the ground.

So: get some tickets alotted to yourself, that you may distribute as you wish.


IV. THOU SHALT THINK ABOUT DONATION APPEALS. You can bet that AiG will be hitting up the audience for donations in some fashion. At the actual event, it could just be donation cards handed out at the entrance, or it could be explicit appeals and passing the hat before and after the event. You can be sure that the video versions distributed to the fundamentalist churches and schools contain donation appeals in some form too. Did you sign up to this debate to help the creationists fundraise? No? Then why didn’t you stipulate that you would refuse to participate unless such donation appeals were excluded?

Alternatively, you could demand that at the event, and in any subsequent videos, NCSE (for example) gets a plug for donations. Obviously, this wouldn’t get many donations from the creationists, but other viewers, especially video viewers who are pro-science, will probably be especially motivated to donate after watching whatever travesty of science that Ken Ham comes up with.


V. THOU SHALT THINK ABOUT PRE- AND POST-DEBATE EVENTS. This never occurs to scientists until after the fact, but on the occasions when evolutionists (or mainstream Bible scholars, or whatever) do get invited to speak before fundamentalist audiences, it is entirely standard for the fundamentalists to have organized ahead of time for the audience to be subjected to post-debate rebuttals from other speakers. This ensures the creationists get the last word and gives them a chance to paper-over any cracks you might have opened up in the mind of creationists in the audience. Sometimes there are pre-debate events also – prayers, preliminary sermons, etc. Did you sign up for the debate to provide a church event and/or bonus brainwashing session for the audience? No? Then why allow it? These events would typically be left off of whatever video is produced for public consumption also. Why allow a mis-portrayal of what actually happened?


VI. THOU SHALT THINK ABOUT EDUCATIONAL MATERIALS. I strongly suspect that for their $30, the audience at the debate will get a bonus armful of AiG propaganda, ads for AiG materials, etc. Why aren’t there any pro-science materials being handed out as well? For a big event, you could require that the creationists buy and distribute such materials, along with the creationist materials. For smaller event, you could require that pro-science groups get equal access to have a table, hand out materials as people stand in line, etc.

Any speaker with only an hour or two to communicate to the audience (and realistically, in a 2-hour event, between the opponent, the moderator, the introduction, the questions, etc., a scientist might only realistically get perhaps 30 minutes of actual talking in) can really only communicate a very few things, most of which will roll by most of the audience, most of whom will get confused or dazed as soon as you use a phrase like “radiometric dating.” But materials in writing leave much more of an impact on the mind, and they provide the starting point for audience members who are curious, or worried if their creationists views aren’t quite as solid as they thought, to go look for more information. The only real route by which creationists change their views is when they get curious enough of worried enough about geology and evolution to get themselves to a library and start reading. Once they do, more often than not they are evolutionists within a few years, whether or not they stay religious. If you are just a talking head, most of your effort is wasted. If you are talking head with the cliff notes written down, with references, you might actually change some minds.


VII. THOU SHALT GET ALL OF THE ABOVE AGREED UPON IN WRITING, AND PUBLICLY ANNOUNCED, BEFORE PROCEEDING FURTHER. None of the above has any point unless it is in writing, legally binding, and agreed to by all parties. Announcing it publicly helps create a tradition of less-than-total-naiveté amongst science defenders, and also lets audience members, etc., know what they are signing up for and what they are supporting with their time and perhaps money.




For all of these questions, it’s worth asking: Did Bill Nye think of these considerations? If not, why not? Of course, if someone has information that he did, and he has some reasoning behind decisions on these matters, then I stand corrected. But it is par for the course for your typical academic/educator type to not think about these things at all, and then get taken advantage of, perhaps for decades, by the creationists, who definitely do think about these things.