Tuesday, November 23, 2004

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.

Monday, November 22, 2004

Colson, Again

As part of his ongoing attempt to be as dopey and dishonest as possible, Charles Colson offers up these thoughts about the recently awarded Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine. The award went to Lynda Buck and Richard Axel for their work on the olfactory system.

Colson concludes with:

Previous Nobel laureates have researched other senses and found equally stunning complexity. In 1981, laureates David Hubel and Torsten Wiesel investigated the sense of sight. They discovered nerve cells that adjust contrast, detect motion, and perform numerous specialized functions. To explain how the brain makes sense of signals from the retina, their work uses the analogy, “ . . . as if certain cells read the simple letters in the message and compile them into syllables that are subsequently read by other cells, which, in turn, compile the syllables into words, and these are finally read by other cells that compile words into sentences” which proceed to the brain, where the visual impression originates.

Nearly a century and a half ago, Charles Darwin conceded, “To suppose that the eye with all its inimitable contrivances for adjusting the focus to different distances, for admitting different amounts of light, and for the correction of spherical and chromatic aberration, could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest degree.” He wrote botanist Asa Gray, “The eye to this day gives me a cold shudder.” And Darwin didn’t know nearly as much as we do about the sophistication of the signal processing from the eye and the nose.

All of this leads to a logical closing question: If researchers earn Nobel Prizes for discovering such intricacies in our sensory organs, doesn’t the Intelligent Designer of all of this intricacy deserve some recognition?

The first quote from Darwin above is a creationist golden oldie. More sophisticated creo's have outgrown that one, but just in case it's new to you, let us wonder one more time why people like Colson never quote the rest of the paragraph:

To suppose that the eye with all its inimitable contrivances for adjusting the focus to different distances, for admitting different amounts of light, and for the correction of spherical and chromatic aberration, could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest degree. When it was first said that the sun stood still and the world turned round, the common sense of mankind declared the doctrine false; but the old saying of Vox populi, vox Dei, as every philosopher knows, cannot be trusted in science. Reason tells me, that if numerous gradations from a simple and imperfect eye to one complex and perfect can be shown to exist, each grade being useful to its possessor, as is certainly the case; if further, the eye ever varies and the variations be inherited, as is likewise certainly the case and if such variations should be useful to any animal under changing conditions of life, then the difficulty of believing that a perfect and complex eye could be formed by natural selection, though insuperable by our imagination, should not be considered as subversive of the theory.

Colson expresses very clearly here the intellectual craveness of the creationist mindset. Any time you encounter something complex in nature, throw up your hands and chalk it up to God. People like Colson search desperately for gaps in scientific knowledge, convinced that God's glory is revealed in the dark recesses of human ignorance.

Creationism and the Right

Katrina vanden Heuvel of The Nation weighs in with these worthy sentiments. Here's an excerpt:

I've written before about how the Right wants to dismantle the achievements of the 20th century--the New Deal, environmentalism, civil rights and civil liberties. But now rightwing social conservatives, our home-grown fundamentalists, are seeking to unravel the scaffolding of science and reason, and this battle deserves attention from humanists of all stripes. One of the most virulent expressions of the rightwing assault on modernity is the war against evolution being waged in America's classrooms and courtrooms, parks and civic institutions.

And later:

The rightwing assault on the Enlightenment extends well beyond putting creationism on equal footing with evolutionary science. The Bush Administration has truncated stem cell research, promoted abstinence-only sex education, undermined Roe v. Wade and supported federal funding for faith- based institutions. “Respect for evidence seems not to pertain any more,” Garry Wills recently argued in an op-ed.

Sunday, November 21, 2004

Wieseltier on God and Morality

Leon Wieseltier of The New Republic has written an excellent article about the recent election for the November 22 issue of the magazine. Sadly, they make you pay to get the article on line. Here are a few excerpts:

It is not the triumphalism of the Republicans that is so distasteful (victory indeed is theirs), it is the sanctimony; and this is owed to a further refinement of the Republican worldview, according to which moral values are finally religious values. It is philosophically and historically obtuse, of course, to think that morality cannot exist without religion, or that immorality cannot exist with religion; but for the Republicans “values” are the entailments of “faith”. The good are with God, the bad are without God. And since winners are good and losers are bad, it follows that the winners are with God and the losers are without God. What clarity!

And later:

Moreover, the “faith” that is being praised as the road to political salvation, the Bush ideal of religion, is a zealous ignorance, a complacent renunciation of proof and evidence and logic and argument, as if the techniques of reason were merely liberal tools. A few weeks before the election David Brooks explained to his readers that Republicans and Democrats have different notions of leadership. Republicans admire “straight-talking men of faith,” whereas Democrats prefer leaders who are “knowledgeable and thoughtful.&rdquo Brooks was serenely unaware of what a damning admission he had made. There is no reason why liberals, even in defeat, should entertain such a surrender of intelligence.

Perfectly said. I would only add that the problem is not restricted to religious voters. The hallmark of modern conservatism is the simplemindedness of its platform. It is based entirely on slogans. Cut taxes and revenues go up. More guns less crime. Let people keep more of their own money. You can't conserve your way out of an energy crisis. If you dare suggest that the reality is far more complex than these slogans suggest, people's eyes glaze over and the media accuses you of being too complex and nuanced.

One final quote: After a discussion of stem-cell research in which he points out that it is only Catholic and evangelical Christian religion that is offended by this sort of research, not religion generally, he writes:

When I complain about the scanting of my religion in the bioethical debate, I am not being altogether serious. Obviously I do not expect Congress to act on the sanctity of Judaism when it makes laws about stem-cell research or abortion. This is not only because Judaism has too few adherents to carry the day. It is not the politics of a democracy, but the philosophy of a democracy, that requires me to accept these limitations upon the reach of my faith. For my faith is my faith, even if I believe it to be universally true. The reasons of my religion cannot compel the assent of people who do not share my religion. They have the reasons of their religion, which cannot compel my assent.

If all religious people agreed with these thoughts I'd stop worrying so much about religion.