The quest for the “perfect message” and why it can stifle progressives

Crossposted from

There was a lot of hand-wringing among progressives/secular types before, during, and after “Science Guy” Bill Nye’s debate with Creation Museum founder Ken Ham on Tuesday night, which was held at the aforementioned “museum” in Kentucky. There is certainly a good argument for avoiding such debates entirely, as Richard Dawkins does. Eschewing them is probably a wise general rule for proponents of evolution since the debate format gives undeserved credibility to evidence-free assertions like Creationism. Also, debates are too often focused on performance over substance and “winners” and “losers”. For example, Mitt Romney “won” his first Presidential debate by boldly lying about his positions and catching President Obama off-guard. But, having watched it, I’m glad that Nye took the risk with this particular debate.

The format of the debate, which you can watch here, was that Ham and Nye both got thirty minutes to present their argument and then answered questions. Ham’s presentation was first and I was both transfixed and nauseated by what a glib, practiced liar he is. He has a similar throw-everything-at-the-wall style as Duane Gish, for whom the internet term Gish Gallop was coined. Ham used impressive-looking power point slides to illustrate his rapid fire of pseudo-scientific bunkum. He also made it clear that he wants Creationism taught in schools and Biblically influenced public policy. Ham said he wants scientists to be trained to see things like diseases as not the result of random occurrences but of “sin”. In other words, he’s a dangerous lunatic who has amassed a considerable amount of money and influence and intends to use it. When it was Nye’s turn to present he did a capable job of defending evolution and poking holes in Ham’s absurd claims, while being his likable self, and pointing out that the future of our children’s education and America’s place in the world was at stake. But that was not enough to stop some liberals from turning into panicky theater critics.

Ham had nothing to lose. When you exist on the cultural fringe and make your living by antagonizing established authority, there’s no form of media attention you don’t love. All Ham had to do was sit still for two-and-a-half hours, sound vaguely professional, and pander occasionally to his base. Sure, if you listened closely, what Ham was saying made absolutely no scientific sense. But debate is a format of impressions, not facts. Ham sounded like a reasonable human being, loosely speaking, and that’s what mattered.

Nye, meanwhile, spent three-quarters of the debate sounding like a clueless geek, even if his points were scientifically valid. He went on strange asides and make awkward appeals to the obviously hostile audience, which he at one point referred to as “my Kentucky friends.” He spent 10 minutes delivering a dry lecture on geological sediments and biogeography, using the kind of PowerPoint slides that a high school junior might make for his AP Biology class. Ham, seemingly aware that debate is a form of entertainment, and that entertainment thrives on human stories, presented testimonial videos from engineers and biology PhDs who hold creationist views. Nye, on the other hand, spent a lot of time talking about the “billions of people” who “are religious, and who accept science and embrace it”—because God knows that Americans love nothing more than conforming to the religious opinions of foreign nations.

I’m not sure this Daily Beast writer and I watched the same debate, which 92% of respondents to the Christian Today poll on it said Nye won. But I’m not surprised that some liberals are fretting over it. It reflects a larger problem we have, an obsession with the perfect “message” so overwhelming that liberals often don’t speak up at all about really important topics for fear of it coming out wrong, or even worse, undermining the cause. I attribute it to the rise of communications experts like George Lakoff (author of Don’t Think of and Elephant and other tomes scolding liberals for poor “framing”), as well as armies of Democratic consultants earning exorbitant fees (that some of them actually deserve), for instilling this demoralizing and demobilizing fear into progressives. It’s gotten to the point that anything a liberal says in public that isn’t perfectly pitched to a precisely selected persuadable audience (soccer moms!), using the most suitably inoffensive yet somehow passionate and inspiring terms, and expressed in the appropriate Nurturing (but not too nurturing!) Parent frame is going to be deemed an unmitigated disaster.

Conservatives, oddly enough, don’t operate under such exacting standards. They say whatever they want and, to be sure, they offend people all the time but they damn sure get their ideas out there, don’t they? The great thing is that liberal ideas have a way of becoming popular and mainstream very quickly when people advocate for them. We have seen this recently with the rapidly increasing public acceptance of immigration reform, gay marriage, and pot legalization, as well as the sudden attention that the public is now paying to income inequality. The most forceful defense of reproductive rights I’ve seen in years helped usher in important electoral victories for Democrats in 2012 and 2013. I do not discount the importance of message discipline and choosing battles wisely but putting so much emphasis on perfection has not done progressive movements a favor. Sometimes you need to seize the opportunity to stand up for what you believe and say what you need to say even if your voice trembles or some Daily Beast writer snarks that you’re boring. No one ever got good at communicating without going out there and failing at it a few times. Where Nye is concerned I agree with Ecology and Evolution Professor Jerry Coyne:

My advice to Nye is this: keep talking and writing about evolution, but not in a debate format. You’re charismatic, funny, and, most important, have the truth on your side. Learn a little bit more about radiometric dating, and about the crazy arguments that Biblical literalists are wedded to—like the bizarre and unscientific concept of animal “kinds”. Talk to people about how there’s no real difference between the accuracy and value of “observational science” and “historical science.” It is the combination of eloquence and truth, not his skill in a rhetorical contest, that will bring Nye his victories.


As for Democrats, the message doesn’t seem to be the problem at all. The majority of the country is already with the Dems on the issues. It’s the physical, economic, and legal barriers to voting that are coming between Democrats and taking over a lot more offices across the country. And Republicans know it, which is why they are working so diligently to suppress voting. Even their most skilled wordsmith, Frank Luntz, is despondently admitting the public is no longer buying his bullshit.


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