On February 4th, 2014, respected scientist, inventor and TV presenter Bill Nye debated religious museum operator Ken Ham. Mr. Nye was arguing that the biological theory of evolution is real. He had thousands of pages of data on fossils, genetics and the weight of virtually all of the scientific community. Mr. Ham was arguing that God created earth in 6 days, that the earth is only 6,000 years old, all of the animals and plants were from 4,000 years ago and that evolution is an illusion. He had his particular interpretation of the Bible and basically nothing else. It would seem obvious, then, that Mr. Nye should have easily won the debate and convinced the creationists in the audience that evolution is real. He didn’t.
Let’s look at how Mr. Ham tries to persuade non-creationists and how Mr. Nye tries to persuade creationists.
1. Mr. Nye starts his speech with a joke, but it falls flat. This has the effect of making him look weaker. Logically, it’s irrelevant, but emotionally this is very important.
2. Mr. Nye concedes that the question of evolution vs. creation is a battle of stories. This is absolutely true, but it makes his facts look like they are only opinions. Once again, admitting the truth is logically irrelevant and even admirably honest, but emotionally it makes Mr. Nye’s position weaker.
3. Mr. Nye appears to think that Mr. Ham’s silly opinions mean that Mr. Ham is also “silly.” In other words, he dangerously underestimates Mr. Ham. This causes a number of huge problems for the goal of persuasion. First, Mr. Nye seems completely unprepared for Mr. Ham’s “observational vs historical science” idea. The audience can interpret this as evidence that “observational and historical science” is a real thing. Worse, Mr. Nye is visibly struggling to remain respectful. He tries and fails to hide a bit of condescension. He refers to himself as “a real scientist” and “a reasonable man” several times. This comes across as arrogant to the creationists. It is almost impossible to persuade people you are condescending to.
4. Mr. Nye calls creationism a dangerous trend that will make the country weak. This is probably true, but by attacking the creationists in the audience and calling them a “force for weakness,” Mr. Nye is making them defensive. People who feel defensive are much less likely to listen. He also indirectly attacks pastors and education in the state of Kentucky (the debate was in Kentucky), much to the irritation of his audience.
5. Mr. Nye clearly has a limited knowledge of the Bible. This shouldn’t be a problem, since they are discussing evolution. However, Mr. Nye forgets that for the audience, the Bible is a much more reliable source of truth than science. This is unfortunate, because if Nye had known more about the Bible, he could have attacked Mr. Ham in the religious terms that the audience understands best. This is a really big missed opportunity mostly because Mr. Ham’s theology is not very good.
By comparison, Mr. Ham seemed to understand the emotional basis of persuasion. Let’s look over some of the strategies Mr. Ham used.
1. Mr. Ham is very good at self-depreciation, or the art of making himself look humble. As opposed to Mr. Nye’s barely hidden contempt, Mr. Ham’s humility invites the audience and online viewers to get comfortable. He repeatedly says that “secularists” believe that “man is the ultimate authority, I don’t.” This humility says “I’m not going to attack you.”
2. Mr. Ham creates enemies for the audience. From a logical standpoint, this is ridiculous. Science and creationism are theories to explain the world, they cannot be good or evil. However, people want to understand the world in simplistic, moral terms like good and evil. Mr. Ham recognizes this and tells us about the evil conspiracy of “secularists” and “the media” who are keeping the truth hidden. He also equates Darwinism with Social Darwinism. Effectively, he is saying “evolution will make you into an immoral racist.”
3. Mr. Ham understands that fear, in this case the fear of death, is much stronger than logic. As such, he explains that believing in evolution means that you must not believe in heaven. He goes on to explain that believing in evolution makes your life meaningless. This is logically nonsense, but on an emotional level, very powerful.
4. Mr. Ham continually talks about “admitting the belief.” While Nye never seems to understand that creationists believe the Bible more than science, Ham immediately recognizes that evolutionists believe science more than the Bible. As such, he makes arguments for secularists on secular terms. In order to persuade, you must do so on your target’s terms.
Post Debate Analysis from BioLogos.
The question of the debate [between Nye and Ham] was whether creation is a viable model for explaining origins. Not surprisingly, they disagreed. Perhaps part of the reason for that was that the question was not specific enough: Viable for what? Viable for whom? Young Earth Creationism is certainly viable for millions of Christians.
It’s not viable for millions of other Christians. From both sides we heard a lot about what is reasonable and what is unreasonable. But “reasonable” like “viable” is a relational term. Individual claims like the age of the earth or the reality of miracles seem reasonable or unreasonable only against a backdrop of other beliefs. If Ham’s interpretation of the Bible is accepted, then it isn’t reasonable to think the universe is billions of years old. So no amount of evidence about the age of the universe will convince him otherwise. The argument instead needs to focus on his interpretation of the Bible before he’ll even consider the science. If Nye’s naturalism is accepted, then it isn’t reasonable to think that God has any role in the world today. So no amount of quoting Bible verses to him will be effective. Perhaps his concerns about suffering and Christian exclusivism need to be addressed before he’ll even consider a Christian view of creation.
1. Logic is important for persuasion, but it is not the only part of persuasion. What, in your opinion, are the most important things?
2. Pretend you are Mr. Nye. How would you persuade the young earth creationists that evolution is valid?
3. When are the best times to try persuading someone else?
Yet another excellent post. It would seem that Mr. Ham rests heavily on his assumption that The Bible is in fact the inspired word of God and is inerrant. Supporting one side over the other in this debate could very easily come down to one’s position on the origin of The Bible itself. On inerrancy, some years ago I attended an adult Sunday school class. The subject for the day was inerrancy. The class agreed that God would not have allowed anything to be written in “His Book” that didn’t meet His approval. At the end of the class session I asked the (female) moderator, “what about 1 Corinthians, 14-34?” That’s the bit about let your women be silent in church. Her response was to laugh and say, “Oh, that was just Paul being Paul.”
I completely agree. Actually, if I were actually trying to persuade Ken Ham, I would leave my evolution books at home and drill him on his, shall we say, odd, interpretations of the Bible.
Persuading someone is all about operating within their own systems of assumptions. To convince Ken Ham of evolution, I’d first have to address his Biblical beliefs. In order to convince Bill Nye of creationism, I’d have to start in empiricism.
Btw, I wanted to thank you for your sales tip. I was able to use that in my class today. 🙂
Glad to be helpful. If you ever want to go into child care photography I’ll sell you a copy of my how-to manual. LOL.