04 February 2014

Moar debates! Ken Ham vs. Bill Nye, Sean Carroll vs. William Lane Craig

I'm really not a fan of debates. They're a contest of rhetorical aptitude, not a way of disseminating truth from falsehood. And I've seen far too many formal academic-style debates in which the two interlocutors spent most of their time talking past each other rather than in dialogue with one another, so predictably no one's opinions on either side is either changed or challenged. But there are two interesting debates coming up that just might be worth checking out.

1. Bill Nye vs. Ken Ham


So. Bill Nye "The Science Guy" (he's not actually a scientist) vs. young-Earth creationist and Biblical literalist Ken Ham, who is probably most famous for heading up the unintentionally hilarious Creation Museum in Kentucky, as well as heading up Answers In Genesis.

There's quite a bit of hoopla over whether it's appropriate to give someone like Ken Ham a forum for their nutbaggery. There's also concern over whether Nye is actually going to take the time to tackle the arguments with precision, or if he'll underestimate Ham and get his ass kicked.

The thing about creation arguments is that they're laden with just enough science to sound convincing to the layperson. When you toss in the fact that some of the arguments are made by various PhDs, then even the most ridiculous arguments maintain a veneer of credibility. More importantly though, the arguments can be confusing even for someone like, golly I dunno, me, who has a relatively solid understanding of biology. Sometimes it takes a fair bit of specialized knowledge to be able to cut through the crap and expose creationism for the farce that it is.

That also raises the "small fires" problem. One thing that William Lane Craig likes to do in his debates is raise a litany of minor, often unrelated points. His opponent flusters when trying to put out these small fires and fails to make their own case; and if the opponent spends more time making their own case, Craig claims that he won because his opponent didn't address this or that argument. Ham could easily use the same tactic, making small scientific-sounding arguments about creationism for Nye to chase down, in the process distracting Nye from making a more cohesive argument against creationism.

Really, the problem with creationism can be boiled down to what Ken Ham said in an op ed regarding the forthcoming debate:
I have decided to accept an authority our infallible creator and his word, the Bible over the words of fallible humans.
The elephant in the room is that it was "fallible humans" who told Ham what he ought to believe about the Bible. Fallible humans taught him about belief in God, compiled the Bible, and griped for millennia over proper orthodoxy. It's Ham's reverence of the Bible, his belief that the Bible itself is immune to skeptical inquiry and criticism, that renders his creationism a farce.

What I hope happens:

I hope Nye is prepared to make concise rebuttals to specific pseudoscientific arguments while building the case that the free inquiry of science is incompatible with dogmatic reverence of a specific interpretation of an ancient holy book.

2. Sean Carroll vs. William Lane Craig

A more interesting and certainly much more cerebral debate will be been Caltech physicist Sean Carroll and theologian William Lane Craig.

As with the Nye-Ham debate, lots of people are jumping on the train to tell Carroll not to underestimate Craig. But, I don't think this is going to be a problem. Craig can sometimes get a leg up in debates because he's sufficiently knowledgeable in philosophy to bullshit effectively, and he knows enough about science to confuse laypersons into thinking it supports their argument. Carroll should be an effective opponent for Craig, then, in several ways:
  1. Carroll is a physicist, and will have the knowledge to shoot down Craig, who will likely attempt to paint Carroll's views as fringe. But, Carroll should be able to better clarify the concepts that Craig is referencing to support his case.
  2. Many of Craig's science opponents are not well-read in theology and philosophy, and vice-versa; but Carroll is very well read on both subjects. 
  3. While Craig revels in academic-sounding obscurity and semantic ambiguity, Carroll is an effective science popularizer and speaker because he has a gift for explaining difficult concepts in both science and philosophy in layperson's terms.

What I hope happens

I hope Carroll, once and for all, gets Craig off the whole stupid Borde-Guth-Vilenkin Theorem. Not that the theorem is stupid, of course, but that it doesn't actually say what Craig wants his audience to believe it says. Craig's pet argument, the Kalam Cosmological Argument, relies on some serious equivocation, and I hope Carroll confronts him relentlessly on it.

From what I understand, the format of this debate will be more conversational. If that's true, it's great news for everyone but Craig. Craig likes being able to inundate both the audience and his opponent with sophisticated-sounding arguments that are often far too complex to thoroughly rebut in a 20-minute stump, particularly when his interlocutor desires to make their own case as well. A more conversational format could take Craig's greatest strength away – his skill as a rhetorician – and give Carroll more opportunities to prevent Craig from setting too many fires.

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