Some scientists were skeptical that Bill Nye the Science Guy, who made his name as the host of a TV show for children, could hold his own in Tuesday's debate over evolution and creationism — but now that it's over, his performance has won praise from those skeptics, and perhaps some respect from the creationist side as well.
"I think Nye won — and I could have decided he lost if he couldn't hold his own," said Jerry Coyne, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Chicago who has a blog as well as a book titled "Why Evolution Is True."
It may not sound so surprising that Coyne gave the nod to Nye over his debate opponent, creationist Ken Ham. But just last week, Coyne told NBC News that he feared Nye would be walking into a rhetorical "buzzsaw" at the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Ky.
"One of the reasons Nye won is that Ham did such a crappy job," Coyne said. He said that Ham, the head of the museum as well as a Christian outreach organization called Answers in Genesis, hobbled his case by repeatedly referring to the Bible as the ultimate authority on natural history.
Dan Arel, a writer for the Richard Dawkins Foundation who insisted last month that Nye should not give Ham a forum for his views, gave the win to the Science Guy.
Bible vs. evidence?
Ham said no evidence could possibly sway him from his literal interpretation of Genesis — including a six-day creation that occurred 6,000 years ago, and a global flood that killed off all but eight members of the human race 4,400 years ago.
"I'm only too willing to admit my historical science is based on the Bible," Ham said during the debate.
In contrast, Nye said one solid piece of evidence would be enough to change his view of cosmic origins. "If you could show that somehow the microwave background radiation is not the result of the Big Bang, bring it on!" he said. "Write a paper! Tear it up!"
Nye repeatedly challenged Ham to cite a prediction made by creationism that could be verified or falsified by experiment. In reply, Ham challenged Nye to cite a technology that could only have been developed because of "molecules-to-man" evolution.
Nye got in some additional zingers during the back-and-forth. When Ham said that fish didn't suffer from disease until Adam and Eve sinned in the Garden of Eden, Nye replied, "Are the fish sinners? Have they done something wrong to get diseases? That's sort of an extraordinary claim."
Nye also marveled over Ham's claim that all animals were vegetarians before the Fall. "I have not spent a lot of time with lions," Nye said, "but I can tell they have teeth that really aren't set up for broccoli."
On the creationist side of the fence, Ham drew strong support on the day after the debate. "The debate was how viable is teaching of creation in today’s world, and from that perspective I would give Ken Ham the victory," one commenter said on Ham's Facebook page. Another wrote, "Yes, maybe somebody else could have done a better job on defending creation, but maybe God was more interested in people hearing the gospel message! And on that note Ken Ham did a great job."
An unscientific online poll on Christian Today's website told a different tale: Ninety-two percent of the voters said Nye won the debate. However, such polls are notoriously vulnerable to ballot-box stuffing.
Tuesday's debate dwelled on Genesis and didn't consider alternatives to evolutionary theory that are less overtly biblical — such as old-Earth creationism or intelligent design. That led Casey Luskin, an advocate for intelligent design at the Discovery Institute in Seattle, to characterize the event as a "huge missed opportunity":
"People will walk away from this debate thinking, 'Ken Ham has the Bible, Bill Nye has scientific evidence,'" Luskin wrote on the institute's Evolution News blog. "Some Christians will be satisfied by that. Other Christians (like me) who don't feel that accepting the Bible requires you to believe in a young earth will feel that their views weren't represented."
Can minds be changed?
Neither Nye nor Ham expected to win over their opponent on stage. Instead, they were pleading their case to the hundreds of people in the Creation Museum's auditorium — and the hundreds of thousands watching the streaming video online. But is it possible for one debate to change someone's mind?
Antony Thomas, a British filmmaker who talked at length with creationists as well as scientific experts for an HBO documentary titled "Questioning Darwin," said he has found some people who made radical conversions.
"The most interesting cases, of course, are those who were brought up in creationist homes, and I have met many of these, including two scientific experts who appear in our program," he told NBC News in an email. "One of them described to me how she started to hear about Darwin when she was a 10-year-old at school, so took out the family encyclopedia, and found that all the 'DA' pages had been razored out."
Thomas said another case involved a medical doctor who was once fascinated by evolutionary biology, but then experienced a marital breakup and alcoholism, and "decided to let go." The doctor now belongs to a creationist church, he said.
"I think you have to look beyond the shouting matches to the underlying psychological needs to get a true understanding of the picture," Thomas said.
NBC News science editor Alan Boyle delves into the post-debate analysis at 8 p.m. ET Wednesday on "Virtually Speaking Science." Scheduled guests include evolutionary biologist Josh Rosenau, programs and policy director for the National Center for Science Education; and filmmaker Antony Thomas. Thomas' latest documentary, "Questioning Darwin," premieres on HBO on Feb. 10.
First published February 5 2014, 9:51 AM