Having had 12 major debates with assorted creationists since 1974 (when I was called upon to debate a Scripture teacher on evolution in my 3rd year as a biology -chemistry teacher and Peace Corps volunteer) McElwee may be right. It seems the other side is always too inured to reason and scientific argument to make a dent. They are citing their Bible quotes, while you are citing Darwin's Origin of Species or his later book on human evolution. So inevitably, the debate ends up only for 'show' since you're not going to change a diehard religious believer's mind (though we will soon see why much more enters into it). The question is 'Why not?'
McElwee argues any debate is a "bad idea for both scientists and Christians". He notes that Ham’s young-earth creationism "represents the distinct tendency of American Christian fundamentalists to reject science and use their religion to defend economic ideas, environmental degradation and anti-science extremism." In other words, the conservative ideological position itself requires this contrarian dynamic to clothe itself in a kind of protective mantle vs. the 'kyrptonite' of scientific inquiry. To do otherwise is to invite massive defeat across the board, from evolution to global warming to economic theory. (Forever slaying the damnable perversion of Darwin's natural selection via Herbert Spencer's Social Darwinism)
In other words, Ham and his cohort know their asses are beaten to a pulp - but they keep the act up of "unsettled science", or "disputed findings" because they have no other option. That's the only wicket open and despite the fact it's a losing one, it's the only one that postpones their capitulation.
McElwee's point that the vast majority of right-wing Christian fundamentalists in the U.S. are evangelicals, or followers of an offshoot of Protestantism, is a good one for two reasons. First, it shows these people are outliers since there are still vastly more non-evangelical Protestants in the world - offering some counter point of sanity. Second, not all evangelicals are as nutty as the most extreme fundies. This is one reason that author Susan Jacoby advised calling out the extremist fundies so they can't hide behind the more moderate "evangelical" front.
As she points out, this bland generic term can encompass “both theological liberals and conservatives”. Hence, it is a disservice to forward- thinking evangelicals to conflate them with a regressive cultist group that would dispatch them to Hell as it does Jews, Roman Catholics, Mormons, and non-fundamentalist Protestants. It is also important not to be so cowardly in the use of terms, because in order to recognize the reach of the Religious Right one needs to know exactly what part of the ideological spectrum is subsumed and pandered to, by the likes of Ralph Reed, Albert Mohler, Jr., Pat Robertson and others.
The problem with U.S. Fundyism, as Richard Hofstadter once pointed out in his classic on Social Darwinism (Social Darwinism in American Thought, American Historical Association, 1955) , is that it became even more perverted by linking up with Herbert Spencer's Social Darwinism - on top of its excessive, aberrant individualism. Once it did so, it lost all claims to providing a moral foundation for anything or anyone and mutated to a cult - like Jim Jones' "People's Temple" in Guyana. As it tethered its goals to those of American capitalism, it lost even more moral capital, until today it's nothing but a chimera or shell - that serves only as a vehicle to exploit the Densan portion of the populace.
But this plays into why Nye's debate of Ken Ham may not be advisable. The hard fact is that on account of its anti-intellectual basis, American Christian right-wing fundamentalism distrusts all experts and inevitably inveighs against their influence. Thus, in every debate, they will seek to frame it in a way to unbalance the expert holding an opposite view to their creationist/ ID stance. But this stance isn't informed by "faith" - which is the point missed by eager secular debaters. Rather, the Social Darwinian, individualistic political and economic views are imposed on Scripture, which is often read without theological rigor. It is not religion that is the problem, but rather the use of religion as an ideological weapon.
Nowhere was this more in evidence than in a debate I attended back in 1986 on 'Creationism vs. Evolution'. ). The presenter was none other than Duane Gish - then of the
Evidently Gish had invited members of the science staff (any of them) based at The Geophysical Institute (affiliated with the University of Alaska-Fairbanks) to debate him. All of them declined. On being notified of this, Gish commented:
"It's rather strange that they wouldn't be prepared to support evolutionary debate because they teach it year in and year out. If it's supported by the scientific evidence then it should be a simple thing to do".
However, the professional scientists at the Geophysical Institute. were not amused. The Head of the UAF Biology Dept., Stephan McLean noted (from The University of Alaska Sunstar campus newspaper that also reported Gish's comments):
"I refuse to get involved personally in debating this issue. In any case, the question that was put forward was extremely biased. The creationist side chose the topic, booked the hall, and made the rules - then invited this very skilled person. The way it was structured allowed the creationist advocate to take the offensive and put the evolutionist on the defensive".
Then Director of the G.I., Professor Juan G. Roederer was less polite:
True to form, the
"rules" allowed freelancing by Gish, and he exploited them to clown
around with specious, irrelevant illustrations ("Anyone here have a grandma
that used to be a gorilla?") that totally misrepresented the
evolution position. In any genuine formal setting, he'd have been hooted out,
but his semi-educated audience ate it up. There is no reason, of course, that this time of farce couldn't be repeated - especially if the creationist side is losing.
All of which suggests, that the best way to confront these ideologues may not be by engaging them in debate, as the Univ. of Alaska scientists showed. The reason is that the religious right’s stance on climate change, economics and evolution isn't informed by their religious beliefs, but by secondary political -economic dynamics. If one doesn't address them, therefore, he or she will only be wasting time in a futile dialectic.
The best way to address the problem is to confront the underlying political and economic concerns that are obscured by religious dogma, rather than attacking the religion directly. Attacking directly will only harden the positions of the followers of the religions, and make them even more averse to accepting the words of them thar pointy -headed intellectuals.
The job of an astute debater then, would be to point out that our problems require an entirely new political and economic paradigm,: one that rests on understanding and empathetic action between people of all faiths or none at all. I touched on this sort of holistic approach in my recent book, Beyond Atheism, Beyond God. The beauty of it is that it enfolds not only our deleterious environmental and climate issues, but also those of economic inequality and corporate power.
Religious reformers, concerned environmentalists, scientists and economists must work together toward a more sustainable and equitable future. Bill Nye is intensely concerned about climate change and evolution, as are we all. However, I suspect he could make more headway by allying himself with progressive religious leaders to combat entrenched knuckle-dragger political, economic memes rather than debate fundamentalists - who will never alter their minds based on a debate. They can't because they understand that the political and economic identities which they uphold are more important, and they require the religious smokescreen to provide cover. In this case, any debate will inevitably prove futile.