Sunday, December 05, 2004

More on Debating Creationists

A while back I posted this brief essay on the subject of debating creationists. I argued that on balance the benefits of confronting creationist nonsense in public venues outweighed the harm of giving them a propaganda victory by engaging them on an even footing.

Matt Young subsequently posted this counterpoint over at The Panda's Thumb:

Deborah Lipstadt, the distinguished expert on the Holocaust, refuses to debate with Holocaust deniers. If I remember a radio interview correctly, Prof. Lipstadt said, in so many words, “I do not debate with liars.” In her view, a respected historian’s debating Holocaust deniers would give them and their views stature and credibility they do not deserve. Indeed, the very fact of a debate will imply that there is something to debate, that Holocaust denial is a legitimate intellectual endeavor.

Evolution deniers such as intelligent-design creationists may not be consciously fabricating anything, but their intellectual output is as devoid of content as Holocaust denial. Debating or collaborating with them, it seems to me, will imply that there is something to debate, that evolution denial is a legitimate intellectual endeavor.

This was written as a prelude to a discussion of some of Michael Ruse's recent activities. I will address that subject in a future post, but for now I'd like to stick to the topic of debates.

I see a big difference between holocaust deniers and creationists. Specifically, there is no evidence that holocaust denial is gaining much traction among the public. I know of no attempt to insert holocaust denial into high school history classes, for example. There are no prominent holocaust deniers who are given respectful press coverage. Their books do not sell well and their organizations do not have many members. For these reasons, I believe Ms. Lipstadt as quoted above is right not to debate them.

That doesn't mean they should be completely ignored, of course. Dangerous nonsense must be confronted. I think all serious people owe a debt of gratitude to, for example, Michael Shermer and Alex Grobman for their book Denying History, and to Ms. Lipstadt herself for her book Denying the Holocaust. Addressing the arguments of holocaust deniers in print is far different from sharing a stage with them.

Creationism, in its various forms, is different. Even in its most primitive form it is supported by nearly half the country. Its advocates have had great success in finding sympathetic school boards. Many others know little about the subject, but instinctively support “equal time” laws out of a sense of basic fairness. It's hard to see how engaging them in public debates could give them more legitimacy than they already have.

Also weighing in on this subject is Michael Sprague, who offers these thoughts over at Philosophy of Biology. After defending Michael Ruse against Young's criticisms, he writes:

After acknowledging that Michael Ruse is both my advisor and the financial sponsor of this blog, I must say that I agree with Rosenhouse on this issue. As recent Gallup polls show, creationism doesn't need legitimization by the scientific community to gain acceptance among the public. If anything, it is evolution, more and more, that needs public support. Especially in light of the trend towards the censorship of American public school textbooks and teachers on the issue of evolution, it is plausible to think that many creationists are unlikely to have exposure to the scientific side of the story. If creationism is all you hear, it doesn't matter how illegitimate it may be in the eyes of academics.

We should look at debating creationists not as a propaganda victory for the other side, but as a much-needed opportunity for our side to be heard by people who won't otherwise hear it. Admittedly, not many creationists are likely to be swayed to the side of enlightenment by such a debate, but I should think no reasonable undecided person will be turned against it, because the creationist arguments are just that bad. And if just a few walk away with a better appreciation for the power, the elegance, and the beauty of the scientific explanation of life - and the absolute silliness of the pseudo-scientific nonsense brought against it by creationists - it is an important victory for science.

It's always nice to be agreed with, and I thank Sprague for his eloquent remarks.

I feel compelled to mention, however, that on the subject of Ruse's recent activities my views are closer to Young's than they are to Sprague's. I will address that in a subsequent post.


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