I come from a background where both science and religion were introduced to me at a young age. I have spent time assessing each field, and I knew what to expect from each speaker. Instead of trying to assess who was right, or wrong, I looked to their rhetorical tools. I looked to how they tried to sway their audience one way or the other. The techniques a rhetorician uses can and will inform you of motivation and their internal logic. Here were my observations:
Mr. Ham’s style of argumentation was to provide examples of reputable scientists who believe in creationism. He played videos or testimonials from other scientists who support his viewpoint. He used much of his time reminding people to visit his website for more information. He appealed to the emotions of a crowd who started out on his side.
By contrast, Bill Nye almost exclusively used logos (or classical logic) to illustrate the many inconsistencies in a viewpoint which insists the Earth is six thousand years old. Nye’s appeals for learning were not limited to a website with a specific agenda. He encouraged unfiltered curiosity. He kept telling people, go out and observe the universe. Explore. Be curious. Learn with veracity. There were times in the debate, where I could read sustained expressions of disgust, revulsion and anger on Nye’s face while listening to Ham, but at no point did he (while speaking) ever become aggressive or frustrated by the lack of response from the questions he was posing to Ham. At multiple points he asked Ham, “What can your model prove?” He was given no response.
I understand the frustration the scientific community had when it was announced that Bill Nye was partaking in the debate, but I also understand Nye. For most high minded intellectuals, the idea of engaging in such a discussion was absurd. There are some people who’s minds you will never change, so why bother? But Nye is at heart, an educator. He took the mindset of a teacher who refused to let a student fall behind, or not understand something. His mission statement for his popular science program was to change the world. Unlike Ham, he does not make any attempts to write things off. He is inclusive. He walked into a room that was not on his side, threw out some jokes that (as a comic) I would have been horrified by the stifling response. But in spite of that particular rhetorical tool not working out for him, there was an internal mechanism which issued out a pervasive sense of positivity, curiosity and most importantly, the possibility that he could be wrong.
Ham on the other hand, as the debate was wrapping up and he had plugged all his website plugs, could not address anything that was not prepared. He resorted to mocking Nye at multiple points. Whenever Nye made the honest admission that science cannot currently explain certain things (ie where atoms in the singularity came from, where logic or consciousness originates) Ham would quip, “well there’s this book that has all the answers…” which would consistently draw chuckles from the crowd.
Now, as a piece of rhetoric, and as a practicing comic, I know this move very well. This is a self-defense mechanism usually employed by an individual backed into a corner. It is used by someone who knows they are ill equipped and under prepared in comparison to their opposition. When I was in middle school debate, this technique could work wonders. Because middle schoolers get bored by debates and will side with anyone who can make them laugh. They also enjoy watching a passionate nerd get humiliated. But unfortunately for Ham, he was not speaking to middle schoolers. This is not a debate for middle schoolers. This is a debate as to how we educate said middle schoolers for a better tomorrow.
If this was suppose to be a popularity contest, and at the end of the debate everyone in the audience was to fill out a score card and vote on a winner, then Ham probably would have won because he stacked the deck having the debate held at his venue and filling it with his supporters. But this isn’t a bringer show. The man sold DVDs of the debate. Bill Nye had something he wanted to say. Ken Ham had something to sell.
Eric Wong is a writer and comedian. Science rules.