Debate in America has Grown Too Fossilized

Take a Journey Outside Your Comfort Zone

Last Friday, April 26, this irreligious Jew found himself in a strange place: the Creation Museum in northern Kentucky. I had heard about this strange place before, but had forgotten all about it until a lady I struck up a conversation with at a Tea Party meeting (which I had spoken at the night before) feverishly recommended that I check it out.

Here I was, around animatronic dinosaurs and humans and continually surprised by the museum’s “narrator” background voice that was reading Bible verses in a Hebrew accent. Sure, I probably stuck out like a sore thumb, and I don’t believe that the world is less than 6,000 years old. But as it turns out, going to a place featuring people who aren’t like you and immersing yourself in ideas you don’t believe in can be a powerful experience.

The wisdom of going outside your comfort zone and talking to people with different beliefs is a surprisingly controversial idea, and it seems that pushback against “the liberal experience” grows with each passing year. Bill Nye was certainly keen on talking to people he disagreed with, when he agreed to debate Creation Museum owner Ken Ham at the Museum itself in 2014.

But in the lead-up to the debate, plenty of left-of-center bloggers and pundits came out of the woodwork to argue against the idea, saying that there’d be little to learn from the debate and the event would only fill the coffers of the Creation Museum. Nevertheless, Bill persisted, and you can relive the multi-hour exchange here. Throughout the debate, Ken Ham uttered plenty of nonsense about how astronomy and radiocarbon dating methods point to a young Earth. Nye went a step further than he needed to, arguing that widespread creationist beliefs are dangerous to scientific innovation in America. On that specific point, Ham had the upper hand and repeatedly played clips of creationist scientists who happened to make important discoveries and contributions to their fields.

When the debate was over, few in the audience likely changed their minds. But if debates and conversations are just based on “converting” people to your side (which is basically the premise of “Intelligence Squared”), participants and viewers are likely to miss out on the (increasingly rare) delicacy of discourse. Even if Bill Nye was never going to turn into a young-Earth creationist, at least he and his fans could stand to learn something from the back-and-forth. Watching the debate at the time firmly on Nye’s side, I came away intrigued by Ham’s evidence that scientists have these zany ideas but still invent MRIs and space technologies.

Talking to employees at the museum and some fellow visitors during my visit, I learned even more interesting things. Currently, the museum and its founding organization, Answers in Genesis, is touting ancient and medieval accounts of human-”dragon” interactions as proof that people and dinosaurs coexisted, instead of being separated by millions of years. A silly leap to be sure, but again, thought-provoking. What if, for instance, ancient peoples came across strange-looking dinosaur bones and used them as inspiration for their tall tales?

Calls for “tolerating” other points-of-view are welcome, but the most interesting thoughts and conclusions come when the mind actually grapples with different ideas about the world.

Sadly, American culture encourages dramatic clap-backs more than thoughtful back-and-forth. When Ben Shapiro challenged Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) to a debate last year, the lawmaker bizarrely refused and likened the offer to a cat-call. If Bill Nye can summon the courage to go to Kentucky and debate Ken Ham in front of a mostly-hostile audience, surely one of America’s most controversial representatives can bite the bullet, explain why the other side’s ideas are wrong, and do some honest soul-searching of her own. America desperately needs this exchange and grappling of ideas, whether in an oversized-ark or in the halls of Congress.