What the Commission on Presidential Debates Can Learn from the Nye-Ham Debate

It was clear from the very beginning of the debate that Bill Nye was not completely comfortable with the environment he was in. Nye is a scientist, he is intelligent, but like many scientists he is used to just discussing science topics in an educational way and not the very different format of a debate. It was obvious that Ken Ham, a leading voice for creationism and Nye’s debate opponent, had much more experience with debating than the Science Guy.

This was a major concern many in the scientific community had with Nye agreeing to debate Ham. Nye is not an expert in evolution theory and Ham did not have to present scientific evidence to win a debate.

Ken Ham, despite whatever preconceived notion one may have of a creationist, presented a very articulate and intelligent argument. One of the main arguments he focused on from the beginning is that scientists can be creationists. He presented many examples of people who have made major contributions to science over the years who also happen to be creationists. Some of them wholeheartedly believe that the young-Earth creation model, which says the Earth is thousands of years old, rather than billions, is a viable model of origins.

These are people with Ph.Ds and postdoctorates in various fields of scientific study and it was arguably the most effective focus point for Ham. It didn’t matter if his arguments on the creation model itself could be basically summed up with, “because the Bible says.” He showed young people that it is ok to believe in creation because that doesn’t say anything about your intelligence and he is right. There are many intelligent people who believe is some form of intelligent design: from a purely literal interpretation of Genesis to a much less fundamentalist approach.

This is what members of the scientific community warned Bill Nye about. He can present every single shred of evidence that supports evolution as the true scientific theory of origins, but in the end Nye and Ham have two different approaches. Nye is focused on the science, Ham on the philosophy. While Nye was willing to admit, as a scientist, that we do not know why consciousness came to be, Ham could rely solely on the response that there is a book that tells people exactly where consciousness originates.

As Michael Austin observes, there isn’t just one debate here, but two.

While viewers took to social media to share their opinions of what was being discussed, some people remarked on how refreshing the debate style was. It was similar to a Lincoln-Douglas format. Each debater had an equal amount of time to make an introduction, followed by an equal amount of time to give their presentation in full before submitting questions to each other with rebuttals and counter-rebuttals. The debate then wrapped up with questions submitted by people before the debate and a closing argument by both men.

This is a popular debate style because it requires participants to rely on more than recycled talking points and zingy one-liners. This gives the audience an opportunity not only to understand, in full, the positions of the debate participants, but the participants themselves. Nye’s presentation may have started out uneasy, but the more he got into it, the more comfortable he became because he was able to give a complete presentation that resembled what a college student would get from a professor.

By the end of the debate, the audience — which exceeded 500,000 online — was able to take away useful information on both the scientific and philosophical approaches to the fundamental question of origins. While it is unlikely very many — if any — will be swayed away from a theological belief in creation or a hardline empirical stance on evolution, there is no question that everyone was able to learn something useful about the other side.

Perhaps the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) and other organizations that put together political debates can learn something from the Nye-Ham format because American voters deserve a better discussion on the issues that matter most to them.

In the Nye-Ham debate, there were no silly, irrelevant questions (ok… maybe one). There were no partisan talking heads at the end to keep the audience confined within the left-right paradigm. Viewers had an opportunity not only to learn new information, but to more adequately understand where the other side is coming from. Many people could honestly say they were more informed at the end of the debate than they were before it began.

Voters welcome an opportunity to make more informed decisions at the ballot box. Let’s give them that opportunity.