Even before Bill Nye and Ken Ham began their Creationism vs. Evolution debate, there was a meta-argument surrounding the whole endeavor. Many scientists and secularists took the position that to even be on the same stage with Ham was a slap in the face to capital “s” Science. As Slate’s Mark Stern put it “By seriously engaging with Ham at the international home of creationism in front of more than half a million people watching the webcast, Nye legitimized Ham’s creationist lunacy more than any weird and declining museum ever could”. Stern’s not wrong, but I think he’s missing the point, because he misunderstands who will be watching.
When I was in the 7th grade, my biology teacher told me that God had made the world recently (~6,000 yrs ago), but made it look old to test our faith. The scientific establishment was doing the best they could with the data that they had, he said, but The Bible was the best data of all, and without it our scientific knowledge would always fall short. I bought it. My entire support network reaffirmed what I had been told in school, and I can’t remember any dissenting voices in my childhood. It wasn’t until I moved out of Texas that I first heard a reasonable, articulate deconstruction of the myths I’d been sold as fact. I’m pretty sure I could drive a car before I ever heard and grappled with a real challenge to Creationism- and this is why the Bill Nye debate is so vitally important.
Those folks who say this debate shouldn’t have happened seem to be worried that such a debate “legitimized” Ham’s viewpoint. But to who? Who would watch this debate and become convinced that Ham was more logical than they previously thought? I don’t think many people over 20 would have such a conversion (although these things do happen occasionally), and I can’t imagine that anyone with a modicum of scientific literacy would be swayed. I’d submit that the largest relevant audience for this debate is kids raised in creationist communities who have begun thinking for themselves- they’re the only population that would both a) seek out this kind of discussion, and b) be available to change their minds. And to this population, the worry of “legitimization” isn’t valid, because they’ve already been told by their parents, pastors, and teachers that Ham is legitimate. The silence of the scientific establishment doesn’t de-legitimize Ham to these kids, it just lets the creationists pretend that “the scientific establishment is scared of real questioning, they’re the ones operating on faith” (I don’t know how many times I heard and said this particular nugget of bullshit. Probably hundreds). The vast majority of “swing voters” on this topic already find Ham “legitimate”, regardless of what the scientific community says.
If I’m trying to make the utilitarian calculus in this decision, it seems clear to me that many more lives are improved through exposure to a criticism of Ham’s ideology than are harmed through any marginal “legitimization” of such. There’s a 8th grader out there watching this video, hearing challenges to the science of Noah’s Ark for the very first time. That, to me, makes this an obviously worthwhile effort.