04 May 2009

Science versus creationism: To debate or not to "debate"?

A visiting creationist dared biologists at U.C. Davis to debate him -- and even bet $250,000 no one could show "any empirical evidence for macro evolution [sic]." Jonathan Eisen turned him down:
Discussing creationism - fine. Discussing criticism of evolutionary hypotheses - fine. Having a reasonable panel discussion of science and religion - fine. Meeting with creationists to discuss their ideas about evolution - ok too. But engaging in a "debate" and thus even for a second implying that creationism stands on the same ground as evolution - completely ludicrous.
There's a good discussion emerging below the post; but the consensus seems to be do not feed the trolls. It's a hard position to take -- it certainly goes against my own Aspergers-oid need to refute obvious nonsense when I hear it -- but I've rarely seen such events work out well.

Picture a local scientist who maybe thinks about creationism a couple times a year "debating" some nut who considers this his life's work. Advantage: nut.

Consider further that the audience is overwhelmingly on the nut's side -- and, indeed, are there to have their beliefs confirmed -- so that the nut has no need to make a coherent argument and can instead focus on scoring rhetorical/ presentational points. Advantage: nut.

Finally, recall that scientific knowledge is necessarily tentative and complex, and a good scientist will have to acknowledge that there are things we don't know about the history of life on Earth; whereas the nut has an (allegedly) simple and comprehensive story. Advantage: nut.

Of course, ask the two of them do do actual science, develop an answer to an empirical question beyond "because God wanted it to be that way" -- then advantage: scientist. But that's not what a formal debate is.


  1. Still pondering the best response to this type of thing. I am leaning towards "do not feed the troll" but not 100% sure. Like a good scientist, I think I want to experiment with it and try the debate thing one of these times too.

  2. Maybe do a series with varied proportions of pro-science, anti-science, and undecided audience members? (That's a study I'd be really interested to see done, now that I think about it.)

    I didn't mean to be quite that glib about the debate question, actually -- I'm strongly in favor of engagement, and public engagement, with creationists. I've just seen this format go badly a number of times, pretty much exactly along "Flock of Dodos" lines.