Critical ThinkingScience

Part 3: Debating creationism – why it is good idea (but not always)

For Bill Nye or anyone else to debate a creationist like Ken Ham makes no more sense than for Neil deGrasse Tyson to debate a flat-earther.  The science of both issues is settled – debates just give credibility to crackpots.

Oh, do I disagree.  Dr. Tyson should debate a flat-earther, but with very special ground rules.  No photos from space, please.  No flying, sailing, driving around the world allowed.  Use only the information the ancient Greeks had about the earth, sun and moon.  Somehow they correctly concluded that the Earth is spherical and were pretty close on the circumference, too (way to go, Eratosthenes!).  I would bet that 99% of the literate, science-friendly people reading this sentence could not explain how anyone before Columbus could know to a certainty that our world is not flat.  (FYI: watching Columbus’s ships drop behind the Earth’s curvature would not work – they would be lost in atmospheric haze well before that point).

So imagine Eratosthenes Tyson going at it with a flat-earther, such as say Kennis Hamogenes. ET would have to use logical and inferential methods.  He would step through again and again the scientific process of “if the Earth is round, then we should see…”.  KH could only toss out the standard retort of “Have you ever seen the other side of the world?”  Or perhaps, “I have a scroll!”

Such a present-day debate on our planet’s shape would show that we can know fundamental truths about an object without direct observation of it.  Simply testing deductive hypotheses about the Earth’s shape led to the correct conclusion long before observation confirmed it.

Similarly, debating evolution versus creation is not about competing sets of facts supporting alternative hypotheses.  It is instead a debate over whether facts have meaning.  Remember the proposition debated by Nye/Ham was, “Is creation a viable model of origins in today’s modern scientific era?”  And both participants answered, “No”.  Bill Nye answered through multiple lines of evidence for an old earth and by debunking biblical alternatives because of the multitude of miracles they required.  Ken Ham ceded the battlefield by stolidly refusing to provide any factual evidence for creation; relying only upon a particular reading of Genesis.  Ham instead trained his fire on modern science.

As I argued in my previous post, the new creationist boogeyman is “historical” science.  Their pernicious claim is that anything that happened in the past can never be definitively determined.  Everyone just has an opinion based on their initial world view.  If I have any criticism of Nye’s performance it is that he did not pound away more about how ridiculous and damaging it can be to suggest that inferential methods cannot be used to understand the past.

There are, nevertheless, real arguments for why Nye should not have debated.  (1) The publicity helped raise money to start building the egregiously anti-scientific Ark Park. (2) Hardcore creationists are simply closed to everything Nye said, so he was preaching to the unconvertible.  (3) It raised the profile of a group that grossly misinforms children about evolutionary science.  Sadly, all of these objections are probably true to some extent.

Although we may never have the data, my conjecture is that the long term positives will still eventually outweigh these immediate negatives.  First off, do not discount the value of having a friendly and knowledgeable voice for evolution and reason.  Many of those who listened to Nye likely would not have spared five minutes for a professor like me.  Clearly Ham and his minions believe they lost the debate as their behavior afterwards attests.  They claim they could have presented a lot of evidence for creation but didn’t want to (and apparently still don’t want to).  They slander Nye as being disrespectful and not a nice guy.  And finally the oft heard refrain of: It’s a conspiracy of the godless, nasty liberal media to deny the truth!  Not what one would expect to hear from the winning side.

Opening the door to reason begins with a crack.  Many who are now firmly in the evolution camp were once creationists who began their journey with a small jolt to their certainty.  I predict one day a number of Nye’s listeners will show up in the classes or on the doorsteps of evolutionary biology professors.  Let the conversion process begin.

Another positive note is that Ham’s dogmatic inflexibility and enthusiastic rejection of science “outed” his intentions.  Even if his personal profile is higher, how many evolutionists did he convert to creationism on the basis of suborning science to biblical authority?  Yes, Ark Park may be built through the donations of present-day believers, but its future depends on suppressing the curiosity that drives science.  In opposition, we communicate the joy of science; to ask and answer all those how and why questions.  If we create a scientifically literate and inquisitive public, who will visit and support a kitschy monument dedicated to a myth?   Debates, properly executed, are a great starting place for educating the public.  Yay for Bill Nye!

Finally, and perhaps most important, the theory of evolution arises from a careful and extensive application of the scientific method.  Understanding this process has multiple collateral benefits.  Imagine a world where decisions and laws about global climate change, reproductive rights, sexual orientation, and medical practices are made based upon facts and observations and not through political agendas or interpretations of ancient texts.  A mind open to evolution is also open to so much more!

My advocating for debates as a wedge to teach science has limits, however.  Debating is usefully pursued only in the context of what science can test.  Science is not advanced through debates about the existence of God.  Certainly debunking Ham’s view on origins rejects one dogmatic, human-derived, notion of God and certain actions ascribed to that god.  Nevertheless, an evolved planet does not preclude the existence of supernatural beings.  Indeed, I will close this series with a whimsical consideration of the attributes of God as revealed by nature.

Avoid also debates where how to do science is irrelevant to the topic.  There are two such “avoids”.  First, don’t debate intelligent design.  Unlike a strict creationist, an ID proponent does not explicitly reject the possibility of the big bang or common, shared descent of all living organisms. (Yes, I know that in private ID proponents may be very creationist, but that is not their public face in debates or courtrooms.)  Their only challenge is in the Designer-of-the-Gaps mode.  Since there are still innumerable things about the universe remaining to be discovered, God could be responsible for any one of them.  The fact that God has yet to be revealed in any gap closed by science is conveniently ignored by ID.  And be assured that the Gap you’ll end up debating will not be in your area of expertise.  A biologist will be asked to explain multiverses; mathematicians the existence of the Higgs boson; physicists the existence of morality; etc.  “I don’t know” will be taken as proof for a Designer.

So if I were forced to debate ID, I would immediately concede.  “Yes, it is possible that a supernatural being has designed something or other in the universe, so let’s move on to debate what the universe around us reveals about this potential designer, who may or may not still be alive.”  This is not the debate any IDer wants, because it forces them to reveal the completely religious underpinnings and motivations of their entire philosophy.

The second “avoid” is the nihilistic rabbit hole of “what is real” espoused by Eric Hovind and his acolytes.  In a nutshell, this approach questions the very existence of logic and science.  Any evidence presented for evolution is never directly disputed, but instead, its reality is questioned.  Thus, there is no debate on whether or not Tiktaalik is a transitional form between fish and amphibians.  Instead, the argument becomes, “How do you know that fossil exists?”  And the, “Couldn’t you be wrong?” chant will follow all of your responses.  In essence, this is the intellectual equivalent of the incessant rejoinder of “Why?” given by three years old children being denied something they want.  Of course Hovind neatly avoids this selfsame problem for himself because God wrote the absolute truth in the bible, and the bible is the absolute truth because it says so. (Palm slap to the forehead is OK at this point.)  Thus, unless you rejoice in arguing endlessly in circles, please avoid this nonsense.

I close with a confession – I like evolution debates.  Bill Nye eviscerating Ken Ham with logic – loved every minute!  I’m waiting for an invite to try my hand at it.  But make no mistake, debates are just interesting sideshows.  The real game is in the classroom.  How to counter the belief that science is just a competing set of ‘opinions’ is what I want to take up in my next posting.  We need to educate the how and why of science and not just recite facts.

UP NEXT: Creationism – when you teach science there is no controversy.

Previous post

Tenure and motherhood, student evaluations, and cultural connections: Required Readings, 5.6.14

Next post

Google Classroom

Peter Nonacs

Peter Nonacs

Professor of behavioral and evolutionary ecology at UCLA. I study the evolution of social behavior and cooperation, and anything that ants may do. And occasionally people, too.

1 Comment

  1. May 6, 2014 at 4:02 pm —

    I think it would be interesting to have Sean Carroll debate a theologian on the existence of God. Certainly his lecture on God as scientific theory was enlightening, and I feel that it would be good to have people see why atheism isn’t “faith in no god”.

Leave a reply