The troubles of debating Creationists

Steven Novella of NeuroLogica has written an incisive analysis of PR strategies that are apparently being employed by Creationists, particularly when it comes to debating evolution and Creationism. I highly recommend reading his analysis, which I present below.Novella writes:

Yesterday I interviewed PZ Myers, author of the popular science blog Pharyngula, for this week’s SGU podcast, which will be posted up this Saturday. We talked (amongst other things) about his recent debate with ID proponent Dr. Geoffrey Simmons. The debate, I think, highlights some of the current strategies favored by creationists/ID proponents in spreading their anti-evolution propaganda.

First, listening to this debate (as well as others with Duane Gish and Kent Hovind) it is clear, at least to me, that these guys do not care one iota about the science. Scientific facts, to them, are an obstacle to overcome, or perhaps something to be manipulated to achieve their end. Simmons, for example, regularly spouted gross and demonstrable falsehoods – and stuck by them. He claimed that there were no fossils showing transitions from terrestrial mammals to whales. He was completely ignorant of the many exquisite transitional fossils showing growing body size, migration of the blow hole to the top of the head, an the slow disappearance of the hind limbs. He simply pretended they didn’t exist. PZ nicely pointed out that such ignorance of the current fossil evidence is unacceptable given that Simmons wrote an entire book on the absence of transitional fossils.

But telling bold-faced lies about the relevant scientific facts is nothing new to creationists. What struck me is that it seemed Simmons was trying to provoke PZ. By making outrageously false statements about the evidence creationists like Simmons hope to strategically place scientists whom they are debating into a no-win scenario. If they do not show proper outrage at the extreme falsehoods, then that creates the impression that we have two scientists who honestly disagree about the evidence. This further creates the impression that evolution is genuinely controversial, and there must be something lacking in the evidence for this “theory.”

If, however, the scientist expresses their sincere shock and awe at the bold lies with which they are confronted, then the creationist will follow up with accusations that the scientist is being mean, is resorting to name calling, and is trying to oppress the poor creationist who is only trying to advocate for open and honest scientific discussion. The upcoming movie, Expelled, with Ben Stein is essentially all about this strategic martyrdom.

This may even explain, in part, why creationists say such ridiculous lies – they are trying to be outrageous as part of their strategy. For them it’s a win-win. They get to spread extreme anti-evolution propaganda, and they may even make the scientists look bad to boot. It’s deceptive, intellectually dishonest, scientifically scandalous behavior. It is made even worse by the fact that creationists do not change their claims even when they are directly corrected on the facts. Simmons is still claiming there are no whale transitional fossils showing the key features of whale evolution.

Which brings up an important question for scientists – why debate creationists at all? Unfortunately, this is a strategic win-win for the creationists as well. If we don’t debate them then they will tell their lies unopposed, and will even taunt scientists for not debating them, accusing them of running scared. If we do debate them, they won’t fight fair and will usually accomplish their goal of smearing evolution and generating public confusion. There is no perfect solution, but I think that perhaps the best counter-strategy for now is twofold. First – we need to expose the strategies of the creationists frequently and publicly. This means using forums where we can dig deep enough into the evidence to show that their claims are hopelessly false.

Second, I think we need to debate them, but we have to be careful to control the venue as much as possible. We need a forum for debate where there will be the ability to control or limit the topics so that enough time can be spent discussing each issue in detail, and to confront the creationist on specific points. Otherwise we will run into the “Gish Gallop” – a reference to the tendency of Duane Gish to throw out more lies in 5 minutes than it would be possible to correct in an hour. Further, scientists need to go into any such debate with their eyes open – fully aware of the strategies of creationists and prepared to deal with them. One tactic is to confront the creationists during the debate on their own deceptive debating tactics. Turn their deceptions back onto them and show the audience that the creationists are not sincere scientists debating in good faith but are simply trying to deceive them.

Scientists should not naively think, however, that simply because they are right that they will win any debate with a creationist and it will be a cake-walk. Many a scientist has fallen into this trap. The best debaters among us need to confront the creationists in venues that allow for a fair and detailed treatment of the facts. The rest should defend science, and attack pseudoscience, on their own – in letters, articles, public appearances, books, blogs and podcasts.

PZ Myers did the best he could under the circumstances, and clearly won the debate. But Dr. Simmons still accomplished his own goals – creating cover for creationism/ID by smearing evolution (which he insisted on calling Darwinism) with as much crap as he could make up. He was successful at this because apparently he is full of it.

4 Responses to “The troubles of debating Creationists”
  1. Stoobs says:

    I have a fantasy about a TV show focused on debates. Each debater has a buzzer. When your opponent makes a statement you believe to be erroneous, you push your buzzer. The fact checkers then sweep into action, and find out the truth. Whoever is wrong then pays a penalty – they have to finish the debate with a clown nose on, or they get a bucket of slime dumped over them, or some such.

    Also penalized in this manner would be ad hominem attacks, question begging, and other logical malfeasance. I believe that this would allow you to hold a serious debate, and yet remain entertaining. More importantly, attaching a visible and humiliating consequence to telling outright lies would dramatize things in a way the average guy off the street can understand.

    Of course, all fact checking would be done on screen, giving the necessary references for the home viewer to check the facts for themselves. It’s sad, but until people who blatantly lie in debates get doused in buckets of slime, I don’t see things improving.

  2. matt says:

    All I have to say to you is:

  3. Clown noses…. buckets of slime……. logical fallacies…. throw in some midgets and you’d have the perfect fetish porn. Genius!

  4. JerryFLA says:

    This article is the closest I’ve seen to my own opinion of these debates.

    The creationists don’t CARE about learning about evolution. It is a waste of time trying to educate them and only emphasiszes the idea of a “two-sided controversy”.

    We should all review the Wedge Document and remember that these people have a long range PLAN to propagate the impression that there is a “controversy” and that the voices of an “alternate theory” are being suppressed.

    The goal of these people is nothing more than to “defeat materialism” (that is largly due to “Darwinism”). They all but admit that they themselves have no particular attachment to intelligent design other than as the “wedge”.

    These people need to be exposed for what they are – religious zealots interested in imposing their “world view” on all of us. Their “Wedge” AND their unstated goal of establishing a theocracy needs to be shoved in their face at every opportunity.

    Only when they are exposed as the extremists they are will they begin to be marginalized just like all the other freak-shows in our society.

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