Monday, April 24, 2006

Creationists: to debate or not to debate?

David Heidelberg raised a valid point in the comments section of the previous post about the perils of scientists engaging in debate with creationists. I think Panda's Thumb's Lenny Flank puts the matter rather nicely:

Such staged “debates” don’t accomplish anything. Although many creationist fighters will be overflowing with the desire to get the creationists into an “open debate” and thereby kick their butts in public, there are several good reasons why this is not advisable. Debates like this do not convince anybody of anything, since only the already-converted will show up. It will give the opportunity for the creationists to rally the faithful in every fundamentalist congregation in the county, all of whom will show up, by the busloads, at the debate hall to cheer their heroes on.

Even if the audience were willing to listen to the evolutionist side of the story (they will not be), the usual format for such debates, a forty-five minute presentation by each side, followed by a half-hour rebuttal, will shackle the debater’s hands. The subject of biological evolution is so huge and so complex that people spend their whole professional lives investigating just tiny portions of it. It is simply impossible to give an adequate overview of such a complex subject in the space of a forty-five minute presentation, particularly when one understands the often abysmal level of science education among the audience. The creationists, on the other hand, are helped greatly by these time limits. Since they have no scientific model of their own to present, they will spend all of their time in what is known affectionately as the “Gish Gallop”, in which they skip around from topic to topic spewing out an unceasing blizzard of baloney and unsupported assertions about evolutionary theory, leaving the poor “evolutionist” to attempt to catch up and correct them all. It is an impossible task. Whenever the scientist presents a valid piece of scientific data, the creationist need simply answer with, “That’s not true.” It is then incumbent upon the scientist to spend twenty minutes explaining why it *is* true. Meanwhile, the scientist’s basic message will not be getting out; the creationist’s will.

All such “debates” do is give the creationists a chance to rally their troops, to gain some publicity, to raise money, and to give the false impression that there really is a scientific “debate”.

Don’t help them.

Biologist Fred Parrish gives a blow-by-blow account of a debate with a creationist he was "suckered into" back in 1985, on the American Humanist Association website.

A similar account can be found on the Talk-Origins site.