Creationism: The Debate About The Debate

The Grid of Disputation

The Grid of Disputation

THIS is about another round of the confrontationalist vs. accommodationalist debate being waged by the rational side of “The Controversy” over evolution and creationism. We’ve posted about this before, most recently here: Religion and Evolution: Part III. At that time we suggested another way of dealing with the issue — our policy of indifference (except in the case of overt threats).

Your humble Curmudgeon’s contribution has gone unnoticed — which helps us retain our humility — and the “debate about the debate” is continuing. Here’s the latest, from Discover magazine: The Grid of Disputation

The “Grid” which adorns the beginning of this post appears to be the original work of that article’s author, Sean Carroll, a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. We hope he doesn't mind that we've copied it. We observe that PZ Myers has done so in discussing Sean’s article. But if Sean prefers, we’ll delete our copy and just link to his original.

There’s not much point in our writing at length about this latest round. We’ll let the participants speak for themselves, with bold font added by us. Sean says:

There is a long-running conversation within the scientific community about whether it’s better to publicly debate people who are skeptical about evolution and crush them with superior logic and evidence, or to try to cut off their oxygen by refusing to meet them on neutral ground. I don’t have strong opinions about which is the better strategy

We do have a strong opinion, previously expressed here: The Stupid-Driven Life — Part II. Let’s read on from Sean’s article:

I think it’s important to distinguish between different views that are somehow respectable, and different views that are simply crazy. … There is plenty of room for debate between basically sensible people who can argue in good faith, yet hold extremely different views on contentious subjects. There is no need to pollute the waters by engaging with people who simply shouldn’t be taken seriously at all.

This thought has led me to introduce what I hope is a helpful graphical device, which I call the Grid of Disputation. It’s just a reminder that, when it comes to other people’s views on controversial issues, they should be classified within a two-dimensional parameter space, not just on a single line of “agree/disagree.” The other dimension is the all-important “sensible/crazy” axis.

An excellent point. That’s where the grid diagram appears in Sean’s article. We continue:

There’s no question that there is a place for mockery in the world of discourse; sometimes we want to engage with crackpots just to make fun of them, or to boggle at their wrongness. …


One of the least pleasant aspects of the atheist/skeptical community is the widespread delight in picking out the very stupidest examples of what they disagree with, holding them up for sustained ridicule, and then patting themselves on the back for how rational they all are.

Sean isn’t talking about us, because we’re not in the atheist debates, but does he mean the tactics we frequently use, for example, in our Creationist Wisdom series? No, our criticism is deliberately understated. Sean is talking about hard-edged spokesmen like PZ Myers. At his own blog, PZ Myers comments about Sean’s article as follows:

There is definitely considerable truth in that. Non-crackpot arguments are more challenging and require more thought, and are ultimately more satisfying. However, there is a problem when the focus is on an issue rather than an individual. Some issues, and I would put evolution in this category, don’t match this model well. While the issue is real and red-hot in the culture, the Green Zone of Worthy Opponents is unfortunately rather underpopulated. There is no one in the green box. So what should we do? Simply ignore the mobs of people populating the red box [Crackpots]?


I just don’t feel like sitting back and twiddling my thumbs for a few years because Ken Ham is way too inane to deserve my attention. He’s too successful as a con artist.

So PZ will continue to take no prisoners. Sean also discusses the role played by Richard Dawkins, and then he says:

My own goal is not really changing people’s minds; it’s understanding the world, getting things right, and having productive conversations. My real concern in the engagement/mockery debate is that people who should be academic/scholarly/intellectual are letting themselves be seduced by the cheap thrills of making fun of people.

Okay, that’s how Sean sees it. Now here’s how your Curmudgeon sees it: First, if we want to blog every day, there are times when a cheap thrill is the best we can get out of the morning’s news. But that’s not responsive to Sean’s point about handling The Controversy, so let’s get to that.

We all know there’s no scientific debate about the broad acceptance earned by the theory of evolution. PZ has a point there. The roster of “worthy opponents” is unpopulated. What remains are the Ignorant, Stupid, Insane, or Wicked, and dealing with them is the sole subject of the debate about the debate. They can be dealt with (if at all) at two levels — substance and style. The creationists offer lies and confusion, but nothing of substance, so there is never any reason to engage them on issues like evidence or logic — they have neither. What’s left is style.

The general public — and journalists — know very little about science. They judge things on the style of the contestants. If they see a live debate at which the representative of science behaves discourteously, or perhaps arrogantly, that will strongly affect their opinion about who won the debate. It’s as simple as that. But if we refuse to debate, leaving the creationists screaming in the wind like a pack of moon-landing deniers, that’s the best outcome one could hope for.

The Curmudgeon stands by his policy of indifference. Actually, it’s a watchful and armed indifference, because sometimes the crazies get out of hand.

Update: See Creationism: The Debate About The Debate — II.

Copyright © 2009. The Sensuous Curmudgeon. All rights reserved.

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5 responses to “Creationism: The Debate About The Debate

  1. Beautifully done! I’ve got to come around more often! :mrgreen:

  2. Debating IDiots gives them more creds than they could ever objectively deserve.

  3. izaakmak says: “I’ve got to come around more often! ”

    Please do. We’ve got plenty of room.

  4. While I agree with all that all major anti-evolution activists are in the “crackpot” box, I would put at least half of the science-challenged, sound-bite-fed general public in the green box, and address all arguments to them. Heck, I was there, as a Genesis-believing child in the ’60s, and an “evolutionist” proponent of “teach the controversy” in the ’90s.

    Any discussion with a “crackpot,” whether the most clueless rube or the slickest activist, should be at least 50% about their particular alternative, including how it contradicts other anti-evolution positions (or, increasingly, how it avoids taking a position). Too often the discussion is only about evolution, which only gives the slicker crackpots more evidence and quotes to take out of context.

  5. The Gadfly wrote: “Debating IDiots gives them more creds than they could ever objectively deserve.”

    For “IDiots” if not YECs and OECs, forcing them to elaborate on their particular “what happened when” can be productive, because they will be seen as avoiding debate, not us.