Feb 4, 2014

Debates and dichotomies

When Bill Nye (the science guy) and Ken Ham (of Answers in Genesis) debate tonight, they will likely stake out dichotomous positions. That, after all, is how debates work. One is either/or, for or against, pro or con.

That can have the advantage of clarifying issues and what's at stake.

It can have the disadvantage of masking the diversity of possible positions on an issue, all the variations and variegations that happen when humans grapple with complex sets of ideas.

It's worth remembering how artificial those dichotomies are.

According to a 2012 Barna survey of Protestant clergy, about 54 percent hold the position Ken Ham claims all Christians have to hold. Only 19 percent say they're certain. The other 46 percent hold a variety of other positions, ranging from agnosticism to "progressive creationism" to versions of evolution.

A similar diversity can be found among scientists. Many may take the position one would expect, if one only listened to the dichotomies of debates, but that's not the whole story. Neil DeGrasse Tyson, perhaps America's most popular promoter of science today, pointed this out several years ago. "The notion that if you're a scientist you're an atheist, or if you're religious you're not a scientist," he said, "that's just empirically false."

Oversimplified models of the universe can be helpful. It's important to remember that they're models, though.

The debate will be live-streamed for free at 7 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, here.