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.


  1. #1 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.

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