Debating Creationists: Where to Begin?

MANY OF YOU will find yourselves in a debate with a creationist. Whether it’s online, at a local school board meeting, as a caller to a radio show, or perhaps some other situation, unless you’re a professional teacher of this subject you will need to prepare yourself with useful sources of information.

It’s not that you don’t know the science. You probably do. But you’re not prepared for the lies, the distortions, the misquotes, the half-truths, the complete fabrications — in short, the utter lack of integrity which characterizes the other side. You’ll be hit with arguments that seem — and are — absolutely insane. That‘s what you’ve got to be ready to rebut. Knowing reality is one thing; dealing with intentional lunacy is quite another.

We know where the creationists go for their material — to the usual sources of creation “science” about Noah’s Ark, and purveyors of myths about the magical mystery Designer, etc. But where do you go? Sure, there are museums with excellent exhibits, and libraries full of peer-reviewed scientific papers on the subject. You could begin a literature search here: National Academy of Sciences. Or you could lug around an introductory level textbook or two.

But as we’ve pointed out before (Debating Creationists: The Big Lie) one rarely accomplishes anything in such situations by presenting facts. Nevertheless, you need handy sources of reliable information. So where are they?

You’ve come to the right place. First, we want to tell you about one that’s been available for a few months, but we just learned about it. It’s a list of informative links from New Scientist: Evolution: 24 myths and misconceptions. They introduce the list by saying:

Evolution must be the best-known yet worst-understood of all scientific theories. So here is New Scientist‘s guide to some of the most common myths and misconceptions about evolution.

There are other good sources. Most of you know about this from Scientific American: 15 Answers to Creationist Nonsense , which came out in June, 2002. It’s still excellent.

Don’t overlook “15 Evolutionary Gems” (PDF), a new resource summarizing fifteen lines of evidence for evolution by natural selection, provided by the journal Nature, which is one of the most highly-respected peer-reviewed scientific journals in the world.

And (he said humbly) there is your Curmudgeon’s own List-O-Links, in which we tried to provide a link to everything that might be useful when debating creationists. But it’s been a couple of years since we updated it.

Anyway, there are plenty of good places to begin. If you do a bit of reading from reliable sources, you’ll be millennia ahead of the opposition. Now go and write that letter to the editor.

Addendum: Writing letters, making speeches, and similar activities are one thing, but we have misgivings about sharing a live debate platform with creationists. It gives them credibility and creates the illusion that there’s some kind of scientific controversy. It also generates press attention. Creationists are not deserving of this.

There is yet another reason never to engage in a live debate with a creationist: They typically use their time to make numerous rapid-fire claims, often erroneous, all spewed out in a barrage that is impossible to rebut in the time allowed. This is sometimes called the “Gish Gallop,” named after Duane Gish and mentioned in that Wikipedia article about him. We’ve seen the same technique used by others, often in the defense of exotic political schemes, but it’s a well-established technique in the world of creationism.

For a hint of what we’re talking about, look at: Creationist Wisdom — Example Nine. The letter we rebutted had errors in every sentence, factual, historical, logical, etc. It took some time — more than we intended — to refute it all. There’s no way that this can be done in a live debate where each side is given equal time.

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6 responses to “Debating Creationists: Where to Begin?

  1. Is there a list of professional evolutionists such as myself (Ph.D. in Cell Biology) who are willing to debate creationsists? If so I would be willing to offer my services to anyone within driving distance of my home in Georgia.

    When you know both the science and the theological arguments it really is easy to connect with what otherwise might be considered a hostile audience.

  2. If such a list exists, it would be at Eugenie Scott’s National Center for Science Education. You might contact them.

  3. My recommendation would be to never assume that a creationist is a YEC. Get them to state exactly how old the earth and life are – & don’t let them answer the wrong question as they often do. If they concede old life, ask if they agree with Michael Behe that humans share common ancestors with other species. If they act unsure of those basic questions, yet certain that “Darwinism” (a word they love) has problems, they are playing games. Ironically, William Dembski, of all people, offers great advice: Don’t take the bait.

  4. Anyone have a favorite book they would recommend for those who currently don’t accept evolution but are open to looking at the evidence (a limited group, I suppose)? Why Evolution is True by Coyne was good – just wondering if there was anything even better out there.

  5. @Newcomer
    I am currently reading The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution by Richard Dawkins. I was raised knowing evolution to be true so I’m not entirely sure how convincing the book could be, but it’s laid out well, is very descriptive with a wealth of specific examples, and is really just incredibly interesting.

  6. Blackfly: “Any peer reviewed articles on evolution by Dawkins?”

    Rubble: Yes. And many others by many others. I suggest that you start with PubMed, keyword “evolution.”