During the Q&A portion of the debate, an audience member asked what, if anything, would change the speakers' minds. Ham's reply: Nothing. “No one is ever going to convince me that the word of God isn't true.” Bill Nye responded: “We would just need one piece of evidence.” (Evolutionary biologists typically reply, “A Precambrian rabbit.”)
In those two responses, we were given a clear window into one of our most important cultural issues. We’re facing enormous challenges in the United States and throughout the world, challenges with dire consequences—like climate change, wealth inequality, and rampant human rights abuses—and while those who side with Team Nye ask us to look clearly at the evidence, Team Ham refuses to change its mind on the basis of any conceivable evidence.
The metaphor is too clear and too poignant to pass up. On one side of the stage we had someone explaining reason, adaptability to change, and survival by our efforts; on the other side someone preaching faith, resistance to change, and ill-founded hope in magic. Ken Ham really did say everything that needed to be said. Whether the issue at hand is Ham's facility talking about creationism, an obstinate Republican caucus in Congress denying the facts of climate change, or the Westboro Baptist Church protesting a military funeral, resistance to following evidence where it leads is the enemy of rational consensus.
Beyond creationism or evolution, a vital lesson from this debate should be understanding the consequences of not being able, or not being willing, to change one’s mind in the face of evidence. Ham and others, whether creationists or global warming deniers, hold the beliefs they do precisely because they refuse to revise their beliefs when presented with new data. What was on stage that night was a tragic display of willful ignorance, and with a single sentence, Ham revealed it to the world.
The way forward is to help people recognize the virtue of being willing to change their beliefs when presented with new evidence. Without that willingness, discussion is impossible, and all we have are “debates” that entrench the beliefs of those already committed to one side of the issue. The critical component, then, to taking someone's view seriously is their sincere articulation of what it would take to change their belief. That attitude defines Team Nye, and its rejection defines Team Ham.
The indispensable take-away is hope. Nye cheered, “Bring it on!” when confronted with the possibility of new evidence that would force him to rethink his view of the world. Ham's view completely excludes that possibility, and more than a million viewers saw it exposed. Those on Team Ham, unwilling to follow evidence where it leads, are welcome to their opinions, but it is plainer than ever that we need not take their opinions seriously.
About the Authors:
Peter Boghossian, Ed.D.
Portland State University, Philosophy Department
Author A Manual for Creating Atheists
James A. Lindsay, Ph.D.
Author God Doesn't; We Do: Only Humans Can Solve Human Challenges and Dot, Dot, Dot: Infinity Plus God Equals Folly