Is Debating Creationists a Good Idea?
The subject of debating creationists came up in the comments section to this post, about whether evolution really was the cornerstone of modern biology. The question is whether evolutionists have anything to gain by debating creationists, or whether we raise their status merely by engaging them.
It's a difficult question. Richard Dawkins came down on the latter side, namely, that debating creationists merely gives them credibility by association. He offered his thoughts on the subject in this column, originally published in Free Inquiry:
Sometime in the 1980s when I was on a visit to the United States, a television station wanted to stage a debate between me and a prominent creationist called, I think, Duane P Gish. I telephoned Stephen Gould for advice. He was friendly and decisive: “Don't do it.” The point is not, he said, whether or not you would “win” the debate. Winning is not what the creationists realistically aspire to. For them, it is sufficient that the debate happens at all. They need the publicity. We don't. To the gullible public that is their natural constituency, it is enough that their man is seen sharing a platform with a real scientist. “There must be something in creationism, or Dr. So-and-So would not have agreed to debate it on equal terms.” Inevitably, when you turn down the invitation, you will be accused of cowardice or of inability to defend your own beliefs. But that is better than supplying the creationists with what they crave: the oxygen of respectability in the world of real science. (Emphasis Added)
That's a fair point, but I do find one serious fault in it. It's that bold-face sentence about them needing the publicity, not us. If the public opinion polls are to be believed the situation is exactly the reverse. Among the public (not among scientists) it is creationism that is the dominant and mainstream viewpoint. We are the ones having trouble getting our message out.
Biologist Massimo Pigliucci expressed this thought well in a rebuttal column also in Free Inquiry. I couldn't find his column online, but here are two excerpts:
First, it is worth noting that the only argument that Dawkins (or for that matter Gould and countless other academics) have advanced against debating creationists is that in doing so a scientist “legitimizes the creationist position” and provides “free publicity” to the creationist movement. There are several ways this point can be countered. For example, the risk of legitmization may be lower than the dangers posed by leaving creationist nonsense unchallenged. Furthermore, the real beneficiary of the publicity debates generate is evolutionary biology, not creationism (creationism, after all, has an opportunity to be heard without opposition every week from the pulpit).
He goes on to say:
But herein lies the greatest misunderstanding that often plagues the whole discussion: evolution-creation debates are not scientific debates. There is no such thing. Scientists exchange ideas at meetings and criticize each other's work in writing, but they don't debate. Rather, these debates are public relations events, in which the two sides wish to communicate that they are each thoughtful and knowledgeable. The ultimate goal of the scientist is to encourage people to dig deeper and to inform themselves; the ultimate goal of creationists, by contrast, is to save souls.
Dawkins and several others of my colleagues seem to feel that public relations is somehow below the dignity of an academic, and that we should not engage in anything that cannot be considered “real” learning. Well, wake up and smell the coffee. Evolution-creation debates, as well as the defense of education and science in general, are a matter of public relations. The sooner we understand that the better, since creationists have known it all along and have a large advantage on us.
Pigliucci is being a little unfair in attributing to Dawkins the view that public relations is beneath his dignity. After all, most of Dawkins' career over the last twenty years has been devoted to the project of educating the public about science. The issue is whether debates are an effective PR device.
I find merit in both positions, but I find more merit in Pigliucci's position. I think Dawkins and Gould were right not to engage in debates. They are such big fish that the propaganda victory to the creationists would be too great if they were to participate. But for us mortals, the danger of not confronting nonsense is greater than the small propaganda victory we give the creo's by engaging them.
There are a few provisos. I certainly don't suggest that any remotely scientific organization should ever sponser such a debate. Personally, I would only participate in such a debate if it were some clearly religious organization that were sponsoring it. It would help if I believed that most of the audience were already sympathetic to creationism. Those are the people I want to talk to. It's not a matter of coming up with some absolute slam-dunk of an argument that persuades them to change their mind. The goal is to show them an how different an actual living, breathing evolutionist is from the caricature they've been spoon-fed for so long. As Michael Shermer has pointed out in a similar context, you can plant seeds of doubt in their mind. And sometimes those seeds will take root.
That leads to the second proviso: If you are going to a debate a creationist you have to be both a skillful debater (most scientists aren't), and intimately familiar with creationist literature. You have to know precisely what their arguments are and be preapred to respond to them in detail. Many of the scientists who debated Duane Gish in the seventies learned this lesson too late. I get very frustrated when I hear someone on my side of this respond to a caricatured version of William Dembski's or Michael Behe's arguments. The real arguments they are making are bad enough. Responding to them in a slipshod way only allows gives them ammunition to claim that scientists refuse to take them seriously.
There is another reason I tend to favor debates: I haven't always been an evolutionist. I can't say I was ever a creationist, but there was certainly a time when I had no opinion on this subject. In fact, when I first started researching this subject in a serious way I was entirely open to the idea that, precisely because they were always being attacked by religious zealots, biologists were overcompensating by exaggerating the strength of their case. I became persuaded of my present view, that evolution is as sound as biologists say and that creationists and ID folks have nothing of value to contribute, only by a detailed consideration of the evidence. I was certainly grateful that first-rate scholars lke Douglas Futuyma, Niles Eldredge, and Phillip Kitcher, among many others, took the time to engage creationist writing in a serious way. And if I could be persuaded by the evidence, why can't the people in the audience at one of these debates?
I wrote an editorial (PDF format) for BioScience magazine a few years back in which I addressed the subject of engaging creationists. I was writing about an ID conference in Kansas City that I had attended. I started the editorial by rhetorically asking why I would bother to attend such a conference. I closed the editorial with this thought:
Efforts to inject creationism into the schools must be vigorously opposed. At the ballot box, the court house, and the state legislature scientists must continue to fight for science, no matter how distatseful the fight might be. But such battles are not the end of the story. There is a time for angry confrontation, and there is a time for calm discussion. The leaders of the ID movement are filling a vacuum left by scientists unwilling to engage the public about the true nature of their work. Interacting with people on the other side is the only way to remedy that situation. And that is why I attended this conference.
I stand by that statement. We are past the point where we must worry about adding legitimacy to creationism. It is already viewed as legitimate by a majority of Americans. I suspect if you held a vote asking people if they wanted ID taught alongside evolution as a legitimate scientific theory, evolution would lose in every state in the union. Echoing Pigliucci's thought, the harm of not confronting nonsense is now greater than the propaganda victory they score by engaging actual scientists.