Debating Creationists is Dumber Than Creationism

THIS isn’t the first time we’ve written about debating creationists. We’re revisiting the subject today in order to gather together our thinking, which is scattered throughout several posts over the past couple of years. You won’t find anything here about the substance of such debates. We have a whole series of articles on that, starting with Debating Creationists: The Big Lie.

Nor are we going to talk about the totally separate debate that sometimes flares up among science bloggers, which we call the “debate about the debate.” That issue is whether science should take a confrontationalist or accommodationalist approach to religion. The last time we wrote about it was a year ago, here: The Debate About The Debate — II. One of our earlier favorites is this: Religion and Evolution: Part II.

Instead, we’re talking here about the advisability of any debates with creationists, which is a completely separate question. We’ve written about it several times before, for example Would You Debate Ken Ham?

The next few paragraphs repeat much of what we’ve previously said about debates with creationists — and the futility thereof — so bear with us. Feel free to skip over what you’ve seen before.

What is there to debate? There is no scientific debate as to whether the earth is 6,000 years old, or whether there was a global Deluge in the recent past — those notions have been refuted long ago. Nor is there a scientific dispute as to whether all life on earth evolved over hundreds of millions of years and is related by common descent.

We’re aware of denominational disputes about how to read Genesis in connection with the theory of evolution, but such matters are best left to theologians. See: Statements from Religious Organizations. Each side feels that its arguments about Genesis are overwhelmingly powerful — but those boneheads on the other side somehow don’t agree. That’s how it is with denominational disputes, and that’s why we have so many denominations. What do we learn from this? We learn that neither side has a persuasive theological case. If such existed, it would prevail and there would be no more denominational debates. But they never end.

The interpretation of Genesis is strictly a matter to be decided by the denominations themselves. Scientists are — or should be — uninvolved in sectarian disputes, at least when speaking as scientists. If a scientist is also a churchman (or philosopher), then he can debate theology in that capacity. The best case against the creationists’ theological position was made more than fifteen centuries ago. See: St. Augustine on Creationism.

Writing letters and making speeches in support of science are fine things to do, but we have misgivings about live debates with creationists. It’s bad strategy, because the mere appearance of a respected scientist on the same platform gives creationism credibility and creates the illusion that there’s some kind of scientific controversy that’s worth debating — and that creationists are qualified to debate with knowledgeable scientists. It also generates press attention. Creationists are not deserving of this. (Also, journalists frequently fail to understand the issues, which is yet another reason to avoid such debates.)

There is also a tactical reason never to engage in a live debate with a creationist: They typically use their time to make numerous and often erroneous claims, all spewed out in a rapid-fire barrage that is impossible to rebut in the time allowed — the Gish Gallop. Live debates are fine for politics, but that’s not how science is done.

That’s what we’ve said before. In conclusion we’ll leave you with a few additional thoughts:

Your basic, wandering-around creationist lives his life in a haze of ignorance, and there’s really not much point in debating him. Even if you encounter one who is willing to debate politely, why bother? Thinking is a skill. We’re all born with the capacity to think, but doing it well is like any other activity — it must be encouraged and practiced. Creationists just aren’t good at it (obviously, or they wouldn’t be creationists), and in the case of an adult creationist it’s almost certainly a lost cause. It’s fine to give him the opportunity to read your writings or hear your speeches — it’s conceivable that something may come of it; but engaging him in a personal debate is absurd.

Then there are the professional creationists — the ones who operate websites, creationist museums, write books, make tapes, etc. Why would any sane person debate a professional creationist? By now they’ve read and heard and seen all the arguments and evidence against them, yet they persevere. Why? Some of the answer is here: Ignorant, Stupid, Insane, or Wicked.

If you try to debate such people — be they amateurs or career creationists — you will fail, and the greater your sincerity, the greater the likelihood that you’ll break your little heart. You cannot succeed; their brains are encased in concrete. For an example of what you’re facing, see: Young Earth, Old Earth, or Flat Earth?

So don’t try. It’s just not worth it. Oh sure, they’ll say that you’re afraid to debate. If that happens, then it’s appropriate to respond with the truth: Tell them it’s not fear, it’s aversion to futility.

Copyright © 2010. The Sensuous Curmudgeon. All rights reserved.

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17 responses to “Debating Creationists is Dumber Than Creationism

  1. Curmudgeon, I just want to thank you for this blog. It has given me hope rational thought and sanity may yet survive this crazy world we live in.
    I live in a community where a very small cabal of creationists has been vociferous and persistent in their demands on our public schools and libraries and one got elected to our school board riding on the shirttails of local tea party conservatives. So far, they have not succeeded in making much of an inroad. I hope that continues.

  2. Dave says:

    I live in a community where a very small cabal of creationists has been vociferous and persistent …

    You should think about taking a stand against them — alone if necessary. Reason is very powerful. It may turn out that you’re not as alone as you might think. And if you are alone — so what?

  3. Curmie,

    Excellent post! You are right, debating them at this point seems pointless. Winning or losing a debate doesn’t make science any less true or creationism any less false.

  4. PZ Myers often talks about debating creationists. From a 12/1/09 column, “I’ve learned my lesson on this. I’ve been in a few debates, and what I’ve discovered is that creationists will lie liberally on the podium — they are sometimes quite polished and slick, and sometimes disordered and unprofessional, but they are always in the business of building a rhetorical case on a foundation of ignorance and pseudoscience. What I’ve witnessed here in Minnesota is that even if they get their metaphorical butts kicked around the stage for an hour or two, they use it as a basis for claiming credibility in venues friendly to their ideology — they walk out of their public trouncing straight onto Christian talk radio to play the martyr and present their weak case unopposed. And of course what happens afterwards is that the loons plague me with more demands for more debates. There is no profit to be gained in sharing my reputation with a delusional lackwit; the case is much stronger for someone like Dawkins to turn these guys down.” ( ) PZ has a way with words, huh?

    PZ also had a column from last year about a request from David Klinghoffer writing on behalf of the Discovery Institute to Professor Nicholas J. Gotelli at the University of Vermont, “for a debate about evolutionary science and intelligent design.” Both Klinghoffer’s request and Dr Gotelli’s response are instructive and well worth a read:

  5. Good stuff, RogerE. Thanks.

  6. LRA says: “… debating them at this point seems pointless.”

    There’s always the fine example set by Buzz Aldrin when he was confronted by a moon-landing denier.

  7. Curmudgeon, Buzz Aldrin’s example is a good one, but I’m an old lady with arthritis. Could I just hit them with my purse?

  8. Ellie asks: “Could I just hit them with my purse?”

    I hadn’t thought of that, but sure. Or jab ’em with a hat pin.

  9. In the late 80’s when Edwards was being decided creationism was a big topic in our small town in Oklahoma. The high school held a debate between a “well known” creationist and a “scientist” from California. I forgot the names.

    However, the night of the debate there were two school buses from the local Bible college in the parking lot and about 60 or so students from the college filled the first half-dozen rows in the auditorium. I sat behind them, a few rows back.

    The presentations were awful, even for the day in which an overhead projector was used. The creationist presented all sorts of horrible dreck: Piltdown Man, Nebraska Man, petrified hammers, footprints with dinosaurs, teh Flood and a whole list of cartoon creationist slop. The scientist wasn’t much better basically refuting the main known points, going into too much detail about thermodynamics and generally losing the audience in a barrage of poorly drafted charts and graphs.

    There was point and counterpoint and a few questions from the audience. The Bible college students had been quiet up to this point. At the end, the moderator used “audience response” to determine the winner. The scientist got a smattering of polite applause. However, the students were getting quite excited and when it came time to “vote” for the creationist they all stood up and applauded, shouted, danced, hooted and hollered. It was quite a sight.

    When the diplomatic moderator declared the debate a tie the students were quiet for a few seconds, but then erupted into a loud booing, fist-threatening motley crowd. Again, quite a sight. The professors let this go on for a little while, then ushered the saved back to their buses.

    Later at my house over a few beers my fellow scientists concluded that there was more to this creationism thing than the science and here we are 25 years later no further along, I would opine, than we were then.

  10. retiredsciguy

    A true debate requires that both sides be rational and rely on reason. By this definition, then, you cannot have a debate of evolution vs. creationism. Creationism is strictly religious dogma, unsupported by any rational evidence and is the opposite of reason.

    People who feel the need to believe in dogma are not going to be swayed by any evidence, no matter how rational, reasonable, or compelling.

    This doesn’t mean we should remain silent. We must always insist that those who would determine science curricula understand that creationism and intelligent design are, in fact, religious dogma, and have no place in a science classroom. It should not be in the public school science classroom because it violates the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, and it should not be in the parochial school science classroom because it is not science.

  11. Back in the mid-1980s I attended a debate between creationists and scientists at a Christian Life Center in Vacaville, California. One of the questions asked of both sides was if enough evidence were presented to them that they were wrong, would they change their positions. The scientists all said yes, of course. The creationists all said absolutely not. That sums up their relative positions and honesty rather well I think.

  12. retiredsciguy says:

    It should not be in the public school science classroom because it violates the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, and it should not be in the parochial school science classroom because it is not science.

    And those who don’t understand this shouldn’t be in a position of authority.

  13. retiredsciguy: “….and it should not be in the parochial school science classroom because it is not science.”

    Thank you! I also wish people would stop the “Teach it in Sunday School” nonsense. There’s a huge difference between telling Bible stories that many (most?) students will grow up to interpret as allegorical, and misrepresenting science specifically to promote unreasonable doubt. Teaching what anti-evolution activists demand- especially the “weaknesses” of “Darwinism” garbage that makes no mention of “creationism” or ID – in any class that preaches “thou shalt not bear false witness” is morally outrageous.

  14. The problem arises when one approaches a debate as if it were a search for the truth, a teaching and learning experience, rather than an entertainment based on ritualized combat.
    Scientists have this honorable but lamentable habit of trying to address the issues, rather than practicing the fine art of timing on their one-liners.

  15. retiredsciguy

    Rather than debating creationists such as Ken Ham, perhaps sincere and rational Christians should borrow the guerrilla tactics of PETA and hold a prayer vigil on the steps of the Creation Museum. Of course, they would first alert the local Cincinnati TV stations so that camera crews could record the proceedings.

    “Dear Jesus, please help our brother Ken Ham to realize that life has been evolving on this planet for at least the past 3.5 billion years, and that your universe is about 13.7 billion years old…”

    Would Hambo dare to have them forcibly removed from the premises in front of the cameras? After all, they were only praying.

  16. I venture into the bathroom of Panda’s Thumb and the C/ID threads of Rational Skepticism occasionally, not to debate the C/IDiots.

    Those are absolutely some of the best places to learn about the state-of-the-art science. It’s also a very good place to pick up pointers on how to refute the C/ID position… when it does come up at your school board.

  17. Creationists are not worth the time of real scientists because they have the pre ordained conclusion that creation HAS occured, and they twist all the facts and evidence to reach this conclusion. Since nothing will ever shake them of this conclusion, real scientists are justified in simply ignoring what they have to say and excluding them from the discussion.