I'm aware of the reasons not to debate creationists. The Richard Dawkins Foundation has already issued a statement to that effect along with their reasons for doing so. I even agree with the idea that debating creationists is a bad idea, that it only gives them more press and perceived credence. This debate is also helping Ken Ham's organization, Answers in Genesis, financially. Answers in Genesis needs to come up with twenty-nine million dollars by early February or their Noah's Ark project will probably be over. I don't know if this debate will raise enough to save the project, but if Bill Nye had not taken Ken Ham up on the debate, Answers in Genesis would be sure to be drowning in bad press.
All of that being said, the debate is scheduled and no one can back out now without losing face. To quote Jesus, "It is done, now stop whining about it!" (or something like that, it's been a while since I've cracked open a Bible). To be honest, if I had to pick someone to go toe to toe with a creationist, Bill Nye would be pretty close to the top of my list, and I'll give you three reasons why.
First off, if Bill Nye is anything, he is a communicator. There are a lot of people who have a superior knowledge of evolutionary science, but probably wouldn't be able to summarize that knowledge quickly and in a witty manner. Bill Nye made a name for himself breaking down scientific concepts so that the children watching his show could understand them. The amount of knowledge of evolutionary theory necessary to debunk a creationist is a relatively small amount of the pool of knowledge that we have managed to fill so far on the subject, so I'm not too worried about the fact he doesn't have a degree in evolutionary biology.
Which brings me to my second reason, Bill Nye is good at debating the facts. Most of the time in debates, the facts are agreed upon beforehand, the debate is about presentation and interpretation. The problem with debating a creationist is that they are very comfortable ignoring the facts, and even think they can explain why. Carbon dating is inconvenient? Throw it out, it has been shown to be incredibly unreliable! The fossil record giving you grief? Here's why they don't matter! In the upcoming debate, watch for when Bill Nye makes a statement based on actual science. Ken Ham will come back with the rhetorical equivalent of "Nuh-uh! Nuh-uh! La-la-la-la, I can't hear you!" (just for fun, picture the look on Richard Dawkins' face if it were him).
Bill Nye is used to dealing with this problem, he has also gone up against climate change deniers on a regular basis. When Joe Bastardi throws a graph up on the screen, Bill Nye is ready and waiting with his own visual aid for a rebuttal. Assuming Bill Nye does the same amount of research and prep for this debate, it will be entertaining to watch Ken Ham get caught in his own lies.
The third reason is Bill Nye's personality and demeanor. No matter how frustrating his opponent gets, Bill Nye never gets upset, he never seems unsettled, and it always ready with a response. Ken ham, in contrast, alternates between showing extreme nerves and playing the persecution card. I think that Bill Nye's ability to calmly state his position and support his arguments with a veritable ocean of knowledge will help him win over Ken Ham's preaching and pandering.
All of which brings me to the challenges facing Bill Nye. First off, he is going to have to keep the debate on-topic. Ken Ham's inability to separate religion and science will inevitably lead to him to pulling God into the debate and accusing Bill Nye of being anti-religion. Bill Nye will have to keep the debate squarely on the viability of creationism or Ken Ham will immediately turn on 'preacher mode' and the creationists will consider it a victory for them. Secondly, this debate is taking place at the Creation Museum, and I haven't been able to find out who is going to be moderating the debate. The result of this home court advantage is that Ken Ham is going to get cheers every time he makes a 'point' and Bill Nye will get very little crowd response. If the moderator is biased the home court challenge may be insurmountable. The worse case scenario would be Ken Ham being allowed to preach his heart out and Bill Nye being kept very strictly on-time in his portions of the debate. As a side note, I'm a little shocked that the Creation Museum agreed to do a live stream of the debate. Given the fact they are controlling quite a bit of the circumstances of the debate I would not have been surprised if they had only released an edited DVD. Lastly, there will actually be three debates going on at once. First, the validity of the scientific evidence, second, the validity of the Biblical account, and third, the actual debate on the viability of creationism as a scientific theory. If Bill Nye goes into the Creation Museum thinking that he will be having a reasonable debate only on the viability of creationism, he will be in for a rude awakening. The creationists have had no trouble accepting the Biblical account over actual scientific evidence since Darwin, it would be unreasonable to think that had changed just in time for this debate.
Personally, I've been alternating between anxiety and optimism concerning the debate. If the debate comes off as anything less than a complete loss for Ken Ham, we could see a resurgence in the fight to put creationism into public classrooms, and the public debate could go on even longer. It could be said that even agreeing to have this debate has generated a positive buzz for the creationists. However, on the off chance that Bill Nye manages to bring off an overpowering victory (which to some extent would require a Ken Ham meltdown) it would be yet another nail in the coffin for creationism. Also, if Ken Ham loses the debate, it would have a chance at reducing the influence of Answers in Genesis, one of the largest proponents of young-earth creationism worldwide. With so much riding on the result of the debate, I'm glad we have Bill Nye arguing for our side.
The debate is taking place at 7pm on Tuesday, February 4th. I will have a link posted on this page that morning.