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Will evolution debate blow up in the Science Guy's face? It's debatable

Image: Creation Museum debate
Bill Nye the Science Guy and creationist Ken Ham are due to debate their views on cosmic origins at the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Ky., on Feb. / Creation Museum

Why on earth would Bill Nye the Science Guy agree to debate evolution and creationism in a place called the Creation Museum? And how on Earth could creationist Ken Ham lose?

The conventional wisdom among evolutionary biologists is that they have much more to lose than to gain from Tuesday's face-off in Kentucky — just as the consensus among creationists is that they're getting a high-profile forum for their views, nine years after suffering a major defeat in federal court.

"I don't think Nye should be getting into this," Jerry Coyne, a biologist at the University of Chicago who uses the title "Why Evolution Is True" for his blog and his latest book, told NBC News. "He may be walking into a buzzsaw."

Meanwhile, the organization that Ham heads, Answers in Genesis, says the debate will "equip believers with solid creation apologetics — while at the same time exposing the assumptions the evolutionary ideas rest upon." Answers in Genesis is already offering the DVD on pre-order.

Debaters get ready
Nye acknowledges that he's getting some heat from colleagues for giving creationists a high-profile forum, but insists that an open debate is necessary. "We're just trying to change the world here, and draw attention to these forces in our society that are trying to get creationism in science textbooks," he told NBC News. "My argument is, this is bad for the country, bad for our economy. We can't raise a generation of science students who are not scientifically literate."

He said he's been preparing for the debate by consulting with experts via email and studying how Ham and other creationists have stated their case in past forums.

Image: Bill Nye
Bill Nye the Science GuyBill Nye

"Many people have been critical of me for taking this debate because I'm not an expert on evolution," Nye said. "But this is not advanced evolutionary theory. This is not high-school science. It might be elementary-school science. That Mr. Ham and his followers don't embrace it is troubling."

Ham is preparing as well — in consultation with creation-minded colleagues who have Ph.D.s, such as molecular biologist Georgia Purdum and geologist Andrew Snelling. Like Nye, Ham is researching his opponent's past statements on evolution. And like Nye, Ham says he's doing this debate to reach the next generation.

On his blog, Ham said he has seen lots of young people leave the church "because they saw evolution as showing the Bible could not be trusted." In a follow-up interview with NBC News, Ham said, "If you're taught that there's no God, that you're just an animal that arose through natural processes, that has great bearing on how you view yourself, and your fellow man, and your morality." 

Some of the handicappers on Nye's side of the fence, like Coyne, worry that Ham is the more experienced debater. Ham, however, said he's taken part in only one formal debate on evolution, back in the 1990s. He also pointed to Nye's years of TV experience on "Bill Nye the Science Guy."

"He's like me. He's a communicator," Ham said. "We're not really used to doing formal debates."

Debating the debate
On each side of the debate, there's yet another debate going on: For example, some of the defenders of evolution education think Tuesday's face-off won't be such a bad thing.

Image: Ken Ham
Creationist Ken HamAnswers in Genesis

"In general, we advise people against doing debates. The biggest thing is that a debate on stage is not how science is decided. It's entertainment, it's theater," said Josh Rosenau, program and policy director for the National Center for Science Education, which defends the teaching of evolution. "But because it's about entertainment, if anyone's going to do it, I think Bill Nye is not a bad choice."

Nye isn't a professional scientist, but a mechanical engineer who became a comedian and then blossomed as a science popularizer. "The thing that Bill has going for him is that he is great at explaining science," Rosenau told NBC News.

He said the way the debate is framed may give Nye an added advantage. The official topic of the discussion is whether creationism provides a viable model of origins in today's modern scientific world. "I hope that means that Ken Ham is actually going to try to offer some sort of scientific claims for his position," Rosenau said. "I think he's going to have a hard time doing that, coming up with a scientific argument."

Bible as scientific evidence
Ham's view is that the Genesis account of the universe's development and the rise of life on Earth is literally true, including the part about everything being done in six 24-hour days. As a young-Earth creationist, Ham contends that the universe is only about 6,000 years old. So what about the 70 million-year-old fossil bones of dinosaurs? The way Ham sees it, those are the millennia-old bones of animals referred to in legends as dragons.

"What we believe about the age of the Earth (that it is relatively young) is a consequence of our stand on biblical authority, and nothing in observational science contradicts that," Ham wrote this week. "You see, we use the Bible as evidence!"

Even among folks who insist there's evidence that the universe was designed by some sort of intelligent being, such views don't always sit well. Stephen Meyer, director of the Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture and the author of "Darwin's Doubt" sees pluses as well as minuses to Tuesday's debate.

"It's a plus because it generates interest in the topic," Meyer told NBC News. "It's a minus because it inhibits an understanding of the complexity of the issue."

Meyer worries that the debate over evolution will be portrayed as Darwinian materialism vs. biblical literalism — leaving out such ideas as theistic evolution, old-earth creationism and his own perspective, intelligent design. "It would be really terrific if the proponents of the mainstream Darwinian view of origins engaged some of the other critics of their theory, who see evidence of design in nature but are not biblical fundamentalists," he said.

It's all about the children
Neither Ham nor Nye expect to convert the other guy on stage. Instead, they're playing to wider audiences.

"One of the reasons we're doing this is to overcome censorship," Ham told NBC News. "The naturalists say, 'Do not debate creationists.' They want to shut down discussion. In the public schools, there's been legislation to protect the teaching of naturalism. Students aren't even allowed to critically analyze evolution."

The teaching of intelligent design in public-school science classes was decisively swatted down by a federal judge's ruling in 2005, but the focus of the debate has shifted to whether public-school teachers should encourage skepticism about the basics of evolutionary biology. Laws in LouisianaTennessee and Texas say that's OK, and similar laws are being considered in MissouriOklahomaVirginia and South Dakota. In addition, there are continuing battles over biology textbooks.

Evolution education has even sparked political controversies in Kentucky, the site of Tuesday's debate. 

"My concern is for the future of Kentucky schoolchildren, and then the future of U.S. schoolchildren," Nye said. "There are billions of religious people in the world who accept and embrace the natural history of the Earth, and our descent from other beings who had DNA. They're not troubled by this. This guy and his followers are outliers."

In December, a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center suggested that 60 percent of adult Americans sided with the pro-evolution perspective, as opposed to 33 percent for the creationist view. But some of the demographic breakdowns indicate that the issue is becoming more politically polarized.  

Will Tuesday night's debate change minds? Both Nye and Ham hope so. Jerry Coyne, the blogging biologist, isn't so sure. "I have found that a debate is not a good way to change people's minds or have them reflect thoughtfully about the issue," Coyne said.

He thinks there are better ways for Bill Nye the Science Guy to make use of all the good will he's earned from his science TV shows.

"I'd tell him, 'Keep going around giving talks about evolution. Write about it. Give lectures.' People love that," Coyne said. "He's greatly beloved by a large number of Americans. But don't get into a one-on-one with a creationist. If you show up for a debate like that, you lose."

More about the evolution debate: and will offer live video coverage of the debate from the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Ky., beginning at 7 p.m. ET Tuesday. NBC News Digital science editor Alan Boyle will be on the scene.

Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the NBC News Science Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding +Alan Boyle to your Google+ circles. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.