Despite their latest defeat in a Dover, Pennsylvania courtroom, the Creation/Intelligent Design (ID) movement is not going away; it remains a formidable social force. One of the ways that supporters of this movement attempt to gain credibility with the public is by holding debates with scientists and other advocates for evolution. Several arguments have come forward from supporters of evolution about the merits of debating with Creationist/ID supporters. Some of the best arguments for participating are that:
1. It affords scientists the opportunity to explain evolution and counter the Creationist/ID arguments.
2. Not participating fuels the misconception that scientists are afraid to defend evolution in public because they cannot answer their critics.
3. By not showing up, the Creationist/ID side wins by default.
Some of the best arguments against debating are that merely by participating, false impressions may be created in the minds of audience members, such as:
1. Creationism/Intelligent Design is a serious issue in science.
2. There are two and only two competing ‘theories’ about evolution.
3. Both ‘theories’ are of near equal intellectual and scientific merit.
It seems that there are reasonable arguments on both sides. However, experience has shown that debating creationist/ID supporters is no walk in the park. Any scientist contemplating participating in a public debate should be made aware that there are many potential pitfalls, including:
1. Most Creation/ID verses evolution debates are entertainment venues, not serious intellectual discourse. The majority of attendees arrive with previously formed opinions, often strong opinions! They come to cheer for their side, and to gain psychological reinforcement for their viewpoint. Sometimes, Creationist/ID supporters from local churches arrive by the busload and overwhelm the audience! This can be quite intimidating.
2. Some biologists spend most of their debate time merely explaining evolution. Since this is their specialty, minimal preparation is required. They perform as if they were giving a lecture, and assume that like the lecture hall, the audience will listen attentively, absorb the information, and accept their authority. This strategy is ineffective. Lecturing to a captive audience in a college setting is a much different form of communication than participation in the adversarial atmosphere of a debate. In a public debate, one must use the skills of persuasion and polemics to ‘sell’ ones ideas and arguments to the audience, some of whom are skeptical or hostile to those ideas.
3. Creationists are very adept at blind-siding their opposition with a barrage of novel arguments, often outside of the scientist’s field of expertise. In debates, this strategy has made some professional scientists appear inept, lacking in confidence, or unprepared.
4. In debates, the facts, evidence, and arguments are most effective by the way they are used against the opponent! Pro-evolution debaters cannot ‘win’ by merely presenting a mini-course in evolution. Instead, they must obtain a thorough knowledge of the opponent’s ideas and arguments and use most of their allotted time exposing those flaws. Unfortunately, this requires much time and effort directed toward research and preparation.
5. After major setbacks in the courts, Creationism morphed into Intelligent Design, which is more sophisticated than Creationism and spans many disciplines. Dissecting the flaws in ID often requires specialized knowledge in a diversity of fields. Now, ID has suffered a major defeat in the courts and is ‘evolving’ again. Thus, keeping current on the subject is an arduous task for anyone, including scientists.
6. ID, like Creationism, consists almost entirely of criticisms of evolutionary theory. In debates, this places the pro-evolution side in a defensive position from the outset, and adds more fuel to the misconception that evolutionary theory is weak or in jeopardy.
7. Several biologists have commented that Creationist/ID advocates can spew out more misinformation in five minutes that biologists can possibly dispel in five hours! Thus, Creationism/ID is analogous to a huge ball of tangled twine. It is far easier to tangle a twine than to unravel it, especially in the limited time parameters of a debate.
8. Unfortunately, the information content and the strength of the arguments themselves seldom ‘win’ a debate. Instead, the debater that displays superior public speaking skills usually makes the greatest impression on the audience. Many in the audience perceive qualities such as charisma, salesmanship, sharp wit, effective sound bytes, and even attractive physical appearance as synonymous with superior polemics and/or knowledge! This plays into the hands of the Creationists. Their persistent efforts at evangelizing, sermonizing, and debating, have enabled them to hone and polish persuasive public speaking and polemic skills. In addition, because they perceive “Evil-ution” as a threat to their worldview, they are highly motivated to defeat it. Thus, backed by strong financial resources, Creationists/ID advocates employ an army of skilled polemicists and debaters that work full-time in this effort.
Under present circumstances, it is probably wise that professional scientists not participate in public debates with Creationist/ID advocates. When professional scientists participate in these debates, not only do they cow-tow to the Creationists, they demean themselves and their profession. However, some of the arguments for debating are quite persuasive. Thus, the question of whether to debate poses a difficult dilemma: It seems that heads we lose, tails we lose. However, I offer a way out. I propose a strategy that should satisfy both opponents and supporters of participating in debates, and bring some good P.R. to pro-evolution supporters.
I strongly recommend that when asked to debate Creationist/ID advocates, all professional scientists and academics respond something like this, “Yes, I will participate in a debate and my speaking fee is $10,000!” Of course, the amount of the fee will vary based upon ones credentials, but it should be quite high – I suggest a minimum fee of $10,000! I realize that some will regard this proposal as outrageous. However, the beauty of my proposal is that it allows the scientist to accept the offer to debate and, at the same time, provides a strong deterrent to the Creationist/ID opposition. It places the ball in their court – put up or shut up! In order for this strategy to be effective, all potential debaters must insist that the Creationist/ID group sponsoring or participating in the event is obligated to pay the full amount of the speaking fee.
When asked to debate, scientists should immediately seize upon the opportunity to explain that such debates are really just entertainment venues – that they have nothing to do with real science – that it gives Creationism/ID undue credibility – that scientists would rather spend their precious time doing real science – and most importantly – that if forced to debate, the scientist’s time, reputation, and expertise is highly valuable.
If my proposal is widely adopted, professional scientists could no longer be accused of cowardice by ducking debates. At the same time, it is very doubtful that the Creationist/ID advocates will ever pay such high fees. However, in the rare circumstance that they do accept the offer, the money could compensate for the time needed to prepare or be donated to charity. Another potential benefit is that the fee would help drain some of the opposition’s resources. In summary, I think that asking for high speaking fees can be used as an effective bulwark and public relations tool against Creationism and Intelligent Design.
It’s time to ‘turn’ things around and place the Creationist/ID crowd on the defensive. Adopt my proposal and heads we win, tails we win!
Robert A. Richert