Pharyngula

Debating creationists

Last night, Jeffrey Shallit debated a creationist. We must now shun him for violating the code of the evilutionist.

No, not really. But it’s another case where the best tactics aren’t clear and simple. On the one hand, we do want to engage the public in a discussion of the ideas, and sometimes a debate is a good way to do that; but on the other, it’s giving the anti-science opponent a platform and a good deal more credibility than he deserves. I’m confident that Shallit mopped the floor with the twerp, but that’s not the point — it’s that a creationist was given equal standing with science, which is not a good result.

Another concern is that if Shallit had a bad day and did not clobber his opponent, the creationist will have much to crow about. This is a game where the science has nothing to gain and everything to lose.

Mark Hoofnagle has a very good discusion of the to-debate/not-to-debate dilemma. I’ve had a few requests to do this sort of thing, and I turn them down and suggest alternatives. If they’re going to give the stage to a creationist some evening, give it to me or another biologist the next evening; let us discuss the science without have to trudge through the drivel a creationist will yammer about. It also has the advantage of drawing in an audience that is willing to think and learn; creationist debates are typically stocked with committed yahoos from the local church, and the last thing they want to do is actually think.

Another reasonable alternative, if the creationist is going to be up there on stage whether you like it or not, is to propose that he give a short talk in which he gives his dreckspiel, and then bring a panel of experts on stage to handle questions from the audience…real experts in geology and biology and physics, who don’t give talks of their own, but are available to address any issues the audience wants to bring up. Turn the creationist talk into an oral defense of his thesis, followed by the kind of grilling to which scientists are accustomed. Remember, they are the ones with the very weak case, and they should be expected to work to defend their argument.

But these debates do happen, we can learn from them, and good for Jeff for taking a creationist head-on. I’m also going to be in a debate of my own in February (not on creationism, though, but on religion), so I can’t be too much of a purist on these matters. But we should be thinking of different ways of handling these public arguments with creationists other than accepting the format they choose to impose on us.

Comments

  1. #1 tsig
    October 26, 2007

    There’s no way to win with the lie-a-minute crowd.

    Most of the “debates” I have seen were actually sermons.

  2. #2 uraniborg
    October 26, 2007

    The same event was held at the University of Guelph on Tuesday night, “Should a 21st century scientist believe in God?”. Although initially billed as a proper debate having proponents of both the ‘yes’ side and the ‘no’ side, the organizers were unable to find a scientist to take on the ‘no’ side in time. Admitting to this, they pressed on with the event, describing it as a “lecture” on the issue, but a “lecture” on why a scientist SHOULD believe in God. In effect, it was a one-sided debate.

    The result was that the ‘no’ side was portrayed as “not stepping up to the plate” to paraphrase the organizers. This has the effect of a double-edged sword, the event as a whole lacked creditability, but the ‘yes’ side got almost all of the attention of the audience. A brief ‘no’ side argument was given at the end but was limited to a few minutes due to last minute considerations. To reiterate your comment, this certainly qualifies as “another case where the best tactics aren’t clear and simple”

  3. #3 Richard Carnes
    October 26, 2007

    The debate was actually on theism vs. atheism rather than evolution vs. creationism, which is a slightly different kettle of fish.

    Jeff is an old friend; years ago at the University of Chicago I went with him to a meeting of the local libertarian club to debate an NRA rep, and Jeff seemed to enjoy being a lonely voice of sanity and reality in a room full of gun nuts.

  4. #4 Tony Popple
    October 26, 2007

    I think a rate of one lie-per-minute is too kind. The last creationism presentation I saw was a machine gun of lies. I seem to remember that we estimated that the speaker averaged at least one lie every seven seconds.

    It is not much of a debate when one side can bend and break the truth whenever it suits them.

  5. #5 tsig
    October 26, 2007

    “I think a rate of one lie-per-minute is too kind”

    Maybe a shotgun blast of lies?

  6. #6 Glen Davidson
    October 26, 2007

    If you don’t debate (on forums, or more formally), then you’re “scared of the truth”–if it really was dumb you’d point out how. If you do debate, call them on their lies at the Expelled blog or the like, then of course you’re “scared of the truth,” because of course you’d just ignore them if it was really unscientific.

    What’s appalling is that most of them believe this kind of doubletalk, for they have never learned how to do anything but blindly support their side, and find whatever reason they can to disparage and despise the “godless”.

    Glen D
    http://tinyurl.com/2kxyc7

  7. #7 Shaggy Maniac
    October 26, 2007

    My evolutionary biology professor’s practice was to only agree to debate the question of whether creationism is science. I think it was good strategy.

  8. #8 Andrew Chamberlain
    October 26, 2007

    Hey, debates between evolutionists and creationists aren’t always a bad thing.

    I attended a debate between Bryan Fischer, head of the Idaho Values Alliance, and Vic Walczak, of the ACLU, on whether Intelligent Design should be taught in schools. I was an IDer prior to attending this debate. I left convinced Bryan Fischer is a giant idiot. He kept trying to twist Vic’s words and cherry pick data, rather than actually addressing the issues raised.

    This debate started my move away from ID. I doubt I was the only person in the audience who made this transition. If you can trounce the creationists thoroughly enough, it can definitely have an effect on the audience.

  9. #9 SLC
    October 26, 2007

    One should only agree to a debate with a creationist if one is willing to prepare properly. That means reading everything the creationist has ever written on the subject of evolution so that short and to the point answers can be prepared to any crap that he/she brings up. A perfect example of this is indicated in a debate between Ken Miller (yes I know, not Prof. Myers’ favorite biologist) and Michael Behe. Prof. Miller spent several weeks reading everything Behe had ever written on the subject and was well prepared to refute any of the latters’ ridiculous arguments.

  10. #10 Blader
    October 26, 2007

    #8 Congrats for seeing through the BS. But it’s still a dangerous exercise because people’s reactions are unpredictable.

    My first debate was as an undergrad, between a panel of biology prof’s against a panel of ‘creation scientists’.

    I was a naive biochem major, didn’t know or care much about evolution. I went with a friend who was a business major.

    I came out of it convinced the creationist’s were a bunch of snake oil salesmen. I thought they were much slicker and better prepared than my biology prof’s, but even so, that my biology prof’s won it on technical points.

    She came out ‘with a much more solid faith in God.’

    Two bright people, two completely opposite reactions.

    In any event, it taught me that if one wants to debate these people, one better have an encyclopedic command of their nonsense, because they’ll make you look like a stammering fool if you aren’t well prepared for the idiocy.

    That was over 20 years ago, and there is just so much more crap out there, I don’t see how anyone of science or reason who has a regular day job could stomach the effort it takes to get really authoritative command over the creationism crap.

  11. #11 Stuart Ritchie
    October 26, 2007

    Last night we had John Mackay, the famous Australian nutcase, polluting our University (University of Edinburgh) with his creationist nonsense. He was doing a talk in the George Square Lecture Theatre, just feet away from the David Hume Tower (oh, how Big Dave must’ve been spinning in his grave!).

    The Humanist Society of Scotland had been contacted and asked to provide someone to debate him – thankfully, they refused, and instead, those of us in the newly-formed University of Edinburgh Humanist Society leafleted the event with a flyer taking the piss out of creationism and pointing to this new EU resolution. They weren’t too pleased about it, mind, and angrily asked us to stop ‘ridiculing their event’. Needless to say, we continued anyway.

    Then of course at the Q&A session after the bearded loon’s talk, we tore him to bits. Not one question was asked by any of the Christians/Creationists in the audience (they didn’t even have their hands up to try!), and Mackay singularly failed to answer anything satisfactorily. He called an early halt to the questions – I think we may have gotten to him…

  12. #12 OrneryPest
    October 26, 2007

    As a general rule, discussion on science topics should be done in a science arena, that is, peer-reviewed papers in journals, not debates. Unfortunately, the scientifically illiterate public does not see it that way.

  13. #13 mark
    October 26, 2007

    The trouble with having a Creationist one night and a scientist the next night, is they will be speaking to two entirely different audiences.
    How about:
    Buy Acme “How to Do Magic” book and learn contents. Then, on stage, go “poof” and create a rabbit inside a hat. Then explain to the audience that it was just a trick and they are gullible fools if they really believe you poofed a rabbit into existence.

  14. #14 MarkH
    October 26, 2007

    Glad you liked it PZ.

    It’s an avenue of continuing concern for me because on the one hand you don’t want to let them go around spreading nonsense unchallenged. However, the presence of direct debates with scientists only serves their goals.

    The trick is to challenge and defuse their ideas while not allowing them equal footing to actual scientists. It’s a mistake to review their books in Science and Nature, even if it’s only to criticize because then, as we’ve seen, they’ll demand space to respond. Very few editors will have the presence of mind to say, “no, you’re a crank, we get to make fun of you with impunity”, and they surely would be criticized for being “unfair”. The best solution is to totally exclude them from our venues as long as they hide the ideological basis of their ideas, refuse to improve their lack of standards, refuse to provide actual evidence of their beliefs. No scientist would be allowed to pontificate about such outrageous ideas without being subjected to the same standards of proof and evidence (unless they’ve already won the Nobel, and even then…).

  15. #15 rsg
    October 26, 2007

    Would anyone here debate a flat-earth advocate? Then why debate a creationists? Nobody’s mind is changed and nothing of value results. It’s straining at gnats.

    By all means fight school boards as necessary, go to court as needed, and expose creationist nonsense freely on legitimate science and blog sites, etc. Science will NEVER lose in the court, and people will continue to believe whatever they chose. Creationism will eventually disappear as a significant cultural force from its own dead weight (although it may take generations.)

    The last time somebody wanted to debate the issue with me (neither one of us qualified to have a meaningful debate in the first place), I declined but said I would be glad to STUDY the issue in depth with them for 5 years instead. They declined. I suggested then a 5 year study of the Bible (authorship, texts and textual history, etc.) They declined again. We’re still friends.

  16. #16 natural cynic
    October 26, 2007

    Change the ground rules:

    Why not limit the discussion to one particular topic, such as: “Does a nested hierarchy point to a common designer or a common ancestry?” or “What would a transitional fossil [if such a thing existed] look like?” or “Can microevolution of current species from Noachean archetypal kinds be supported?”.

    Narrow the topic and make them do some homework so they have to blather on with no data about anything specific for their alloted time.

  17. #17 Dior
    October 26, 2007

    I need advice then oh mighty PZ. I am a high school science teacher in the reddest of states, and a history teacher, who is a pastor as well (rare around here to see a pastor) wants to re-debate the Scopes trial with updated information in front of his 11th grade history class. I agreed and my opponent will be a christian PhD chemist. I am the co coach of the debate team here as well and I know I can use logic and science to clean his clock. Do you think these debate/re-enactments are not a good idea for our side? (read that the A team).

  18. #18 Peter Lund
    October 26, 2007

    #11: The resolution is from the Council of Europe, which is NOT the same as, or even part of, the EU.

    The Council of Europe has 47 member states (including Russia, Turkey, and three of the four miniature states in Europe, namely Andorra, Liechtenstein, and Monaco).

    The EU has 27 member states (definitely not including those above).

    The EU has both something called the Council of the European Union and something called the European Council, just to make things interesting.

  19. #19 Stanton
    October 26, 2007

    Dior, among other things, point out how Creationism has not contributed anything to the advancement of Science for the last 1.75 centuries, as well as point out that a literal reading of the book of Genesis has no scientific explanatory power, as well as the fact that Bishop Ussher, and not the original authors of the Bible who said that the world was 6000 years old.

  20. #20 Scott Hatfield, OM
    October 27, 2007

    If I may toot my own horn for a minute, I know how to win these debates. You win by focusing on the nature of science and how it differs from snake oil, and then contrasting the actions and claims of creationists with science as it is actually practiced. You can’t do that by recreating the Scopes trial. In fact, the idea that the legal profession has any standing on a scientific question positively undermines the whole affair, and you should make it clear that what is taught in a science class should be based on the judgement of the scientific community, not the good citizens of Dayton, or any other red-state enclave.

    Just my two cents…SH

  21. #21 demallien
    October 27, 2007

    I always figured that the best way to ‘win’ a debate is simply to not debate. Turn up, but each time it’s your turn to speak, you just give a lecture about evolutionary processes. Use the platform as a chance to educate, rather than as an attempt to convince.

    The nice thing about this tactic is that the creationist opposite you, if they want to debate, is going to be obliged to go on the defensive, by replying to your agenda, rather than the other way around. They are far less skilled at rebutting science than they are at rebutting rebuttals.

  22. #22 Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    October 27, 2007

    It’s a mistake to review their books in Science and Nature, even if it’s only to criticize because then, as we’ve seen, they’ll demand space to respond.

    I think that is an important point as well, and I hope to see someone post about it some day.

    The tactic of non-debate outside the professional sphere is a touchy one, especially if universities continue to provide sanctioned debates on scientific matters under the banner of free speech. Another problem is if enough scientists or debaters go along that refusing becomes ineffective.

    you just give a lecture

    I think that is an eminent suggestion all around, provided the format allows and the organizers are aboard. Perhaps complemented by a description of creationist debate techniques and why a debate outside the profession is damaging and best avoided, especially at the time. Unless that comes over as high handed, but I hope there are ways to avoid that. A humoristic description of a Gish gallop, perhaps.

    The suggestion to narrow the scope to a specific topic looks like a middle ground here, because it provides some debate for organizers who has promised one.

  23. #23 Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    October 27, 2007

    It’s a mistake to review their books in Science and Nature, even if it’s only to criticize because then, as we’ve seen, they’ll demand space to respond.

    I think that is an important point as well, and I hope to see someone post about it some day.

    The tactic of non-debate outside the professional sphere is a touchy one, especially if universities continue to provide sanctioned debates on scientific matters under the banner of free speech. Another problem is if enough scientists or debaters go along that refusing becomes ineffective.

    you just give a lecture

    I think that is an eminent suggestion all around, provided the format allows and the organizers are aboard. Perhaps complemented by a description of creationist debate techniques and why a debate outside the profession is damaging and best avoided, especially at the time. Unless that comes over as high handed, but I hope there are ways to avoid that. A humoristic description of a Gish gallop, perhaps.

    The suggestion to narrow the scope to a specific topic looks like a middle ground here, because it provides some debate for organizers who has promised one.

  24. #24 Olorin
    October 27, 2007

    I respectfully disagree with Demallien. Presenting the technical scientific case to a lay audience is a waste of time. They won’t understand it, and the creationists are very good at twisting “common sense” to dismiss it out of hand.

    A better strategy, I think, is that the best defense is a good offense. IOW, turn the creationits’ case against them. Demand that they produce scientific evidence, experiments or data. Insist that they tell you how designs are actually implemented, and when, and how you can test them in a way that differs from evolution. As a subsidiary topic, hit the complete lack of any interest in research or practical applications. What insights does ID offer for curing cancer? How can ID principles be employed to investigate genentic diseases? Don’t let them change the subject; insist on direct answers.

    Several months ago in Science, Chris Mooney et al. in Science advocated the technique of “framing” in presenting scientific viewpoints. Many scientists wrote in to oppose the concept. This, I think, is wrong-headed. Everyone frames issues, knowingly or not. Framing a crerationist debate in terms of their weakest points, and not letting them slither out to another subject, may be the only way to win a debate to an unsophisticated audience.

    And presentation is very important. Never let them see you sweat is a good tactic; this means extensive preparation on creationist ploys and arguments as well as knowledge of your own subject matter. Humor helps. Imagery and analogy help. (A negative example: Debunk the theory that the sun revolves around the Earth. It’s just not “common sense.” You can’t feel yourself move. Centrifugal force would throw you off the ground. The worldwide winds — prevailing westerlies — blow in the opposite direction that they would if the Earth rotated. For 250 years, Copernicus’ main prediction was falsified; no one could observe any parallax of the fixed stars. Dismiss moon landings as conspiracies — creationists love conspiracies.) And go easy on the religious issue, regardless of your personal viewpoint — you can even use the audience’s (possible) faith as a lever against creationism: Is their God really such a cheap magician as ID would have them believe?

    Presentations by scientists and creationists at separate fora is much more comfortable for scientists. But, as Mark pointed out above, then the audiences differ. You are only preaching to the choir, yet the only way to make any progress is to convert the heathen.

  25. #25 Stuart Ritchie
    October 27, 2007

    #18: My apologies. How embarrassing.

  26. #26 John Huey
    October 27, 2007

    The attacking the Creationist claims and demanding their present their evidence could back fire big time. This give the Creationist free reign to spout the nonsense that they have concocted over the years. At a superficial level, some of the stuff appears to be solid science and could easily convince a naive audience. Then you would be on the spot to show in a clear and concise way why they are wrong – not always an easy task.

    I like the idea of subverting the whole ‘debate’ issue by turning it into a miniature biology class. The information would need to be put into bite size nuggets and presented in an engaging way. It would even be a good to tailor the mini-lecture so that it was related in some way to the points made by the opponent, thus perhaps keeping the appearance of a debate alive. Since the attack on ‘evolution’ that creationists present is a straw man version of evolution, presenting the actual details of evolution defuses that approach.

  27. #27 Olorin
    October 27, 2007

    As a (patent) lawyer, I suggested common courtroom tactics in my comment above. In court, you must be as familiar with your opponent’s case as you are with your own. In court, you try never to ask a question that you don’t already know the answer to. This requires lots of preparation in the other side’s case.

    In the Kitzmiller v. Dover trial, the ACLU attorneys shellacked the ID witnesses. Read the transcripts of their cross-examination testimony, and watch how they did it. They hammered the ID claims and did not let the ID witnesses wiggle off the hook or change the subject on anything. (No free rein allowed.) The same tactic was used earlier at the trial in Edwards v. Aguillard. The witnesses were not demolished by a mountain of evidence for evolution, but by a sinkhole of scientific evidence for creationism.

  28. #28 John Huey
    October 28, 2007

    If the format of a debate allows for tough more or less open ended questioning then the challenge technique can be quite effective – no doubt. However, most debate formats don’t follow a court room format – seldom do they allow for multiple follow-ups to the same issue. Also, I think that the process of persuading a Judge (or perhaps a jury) in a trial is markedly different than the target audience in your typical debate.

  29. #29 Olorin
    October 28, 2007

    Polls continue to show that most people have beliefs that are favorable to creationism. But they also have a positive feeling for the benefits of science. The genius of ID is that it allows these people to justify their existing faith by coupling it to “science.”

    However it’s done, we have to destroy this connection. Thinking about the problem in these terms may well lead to more fruitful approaches to debates.

  30. #30 Alex
    October 29, 2007

    PZ, if scientists truly believed they had nothing to gain in a debate they wouldn’t bother. I think we all fall prey to the naïve notion that people can be swayed by logic and reason. It’s the closest thing to “saving souls” that scientists do.

    But there’s the rub: we think (know) that good, decent people are necessarily rational people. Call it an unfounded sense of optimism, but I think we want to believe the best about other people. We want to believe that it’s as simple as appealing to the virtue of rationality to sway religious adherents.

    But that’s the poison of religion, isn’t it? Accepting religion means making a deliberate choice to make reason a second-class citizen in one’s own mind. It means disbelieving one’s eyes and labeling anyone who thinks differently a blasphemer, a devil or a doubting Thomas.

    And that’s exactly why creationists can’t understand science. They think we just believe in a different god. A scientist debating “evilution” with a creationist is like a Muslim debating the relative merits of Islam with a devout Christian. Even if you reach a consensus, no one’s going to sign up for conversion classes.

    So I agree that it is pretty much of an exercise in futility to debate creationists. However, it does a world of good to some people to declare what they believe and why they believe it. For the scientist, it’s a faith-building exercise of sorts. Both parties likely leave such a debate more convinced of their beliefs than ever. It’s important for scientists to remind themselves on occasion why they don’t believe in a creationist myth. In that sense, a debate is less about convincing others as it is reminding oneself of the case for one’s own beliefs, something a creationist cannot do.

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