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SYFY WIRE Bad Astronomy

The Creation of Debate

By Phil Plait

Last night, science advocate Bill Nye âdebatedâ with creationist Ken Ham, the man who runs the Creation Museum in Kentucky. I was torn about the event; I think itâs important that science get its advocacy, but I also worry that by even showing up to such a thing, Nye would elevate the idea of creationism as something worth debating.

But Iâve thought about it, and hereâs the important thing to remember: Roughly half the population of America does believe in some form of creationism or another. Half. Given that creationism is provably wrong, and science has enjoyed huge overwhelming success over the years, something is clearly broken in our country.

I suspect that whatâs wrong is our messaging. For too long, scientists have thought that facts speak for themselves. They donât. They need advocates. If we ignore the attacks on science, or simply counter them by reciting facts, weâll lose. That much is clear from the statistics. Facts and stories of science are great for rallying those already on our side, but they do little to sway believers.

About last nightâs debate, my colleague Mark Stern at Slate argues that Nye lost the debate just by showing up, and I see that same sentiment from people on social media. But I disagree. Weâve been losing this debate in the publicâs mind all along by not showing up. Sure, science advocates are there when this topic comes up in court, and Iâm glad for it. But I think that we need to have more of a voice, and that voice needs to change. What Nye did last night was at least a step in that direction, so in that sense Iâm glad he did this.

But we need more, and itâs not so much what we need as who. Let me explain.

Let me be clear: Ham is wrong in pretty much everything he says; the debate last night gave ample evidence of that. I could list a hundred statements he made that are simply incorrect or grave distortions of reality. I wonât bother; you can find that information easily, including in my own blog posts about creationism.

But Ham is insidiously wrong on one important aspect: He insists evolution is anti-religious. But itâs not; itâs just anti-his-religion. This is, I think, the most critical aspect of this entire problem: The people who are attacking evolution are doing so because they think evolution is attacking their beliefs.

But unless they are the narrowest of fundamentalists, this simply is not true. There is no greater proof of this than Pope John Paul IIâwho, one must admit, was a deeply religious manâsaying that evolution was an established fact. Clearly, not all religion has a problem with evolution. Given that a quarter of U.S. citizens are Catholics, this shows Hamâs claim that evolution is anti-religious to be wrong.

So evolution is not anti-religion in general. But is it atheistic? No. Evolution takes no stand on the existence or lack thereof of a god or gods. Whether you think life originated out of ever-more complex chemical reactions occurring on an ancient Earth, or was breathed into existence by God, evolution would take over after that moment. Itâs a bit like the Big Bang; we donât know how the Universe came into existence at that moment, but starting a tiny fraction of a second after that event our science does a pretty fair job of explanation.

I canât stress this enough. The conflict over the teaching of evolution is based on the false assumption that evolution is antagonistic to religion. This is why, I think, evolution is so vehemently opposed by so many in the United States. The attacks on the specifics of evolutionâthe claims about irreducibility of the eye, for example, or other such incorrect statementsâare a symptom, not a cause. I can talk about how we know the Universe is old until the Universe is substantially older and not convince someone whose heels are dug in. But if we can show them that the idea of evolution is not contrary to their faith, then we will make far, far more progress.

Thatâs not to say Iâll stop talking about the science itself. That still needs to be discussed! But simply saying science is right and faith is wrong will never, ever fix the problem.

And this wonât be easy. As long as this discussion is framed as âscience versus religionâ there will never be a resolution. A religious person who doesnât necessarily think the Bible is literal, but who is a very faithful Christian, will more likely be sympathetic to the Ken Hams than the Bill Nyes, as long as science is cast as an atheistic dogma. For example, on the Catholic Online website, the argument is made that both Ham and Nye are wrong, and casts science as an atheistic venture.

That must change for progress to be made.

And who should do this? The answer to me is clear: Religious people who understand the reality of science. They have a huge advantage over someone who is not a believer. Because atheism is so reviled in America, someone with faith will have a much more sympathetic soapbox from which to speak to those who are more rigid in their beliefs.

I know a lot of religious folks read my blog. I am not a believer, but I hope that my message of science, of investigation, of honesty, of the joy and wonder revealed though it, gets across to everyone. Thatâs why I donât attack religion; thereâs no need. I am fine with people believing in what they want. I only step up on my own soapbox when a specific religion overreaches, when that belief is imposed on others.

So I urge anyone reading this who is a believer of any stripe to speak up. In almost every case, evolution is not a threat to your beliefs. Itâs an important part of science, and the basis upon which our understanding of biology is founded. Itâs like the Periodic Table in chemistry, or Newtonâs Laws in physics; without it, biology makes no sense. And we know biology makes sense.

So overall, I suppose Iâm glad Bill Nye took on this mantle. Debating a creationist may seem to elevate creationism as a debatable topicâand again, to be clear, it isnâtâbut in this case, that may be the price paid to elevate the conversation, and to get the public talking. Clearly, what weâve been doing for decades isnât helping, so it may very well be time our methods evolved.

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