(Part 5 of 6, continued from previous message. Copyright 1991 by the National Center for S
(Part 5 of 6, continued from previous message.
Copyright 1991 by the National Center for Science Education.
Redistributed in the Evolution Echo by permission of the author.)
Ray Hyman (1987), professor of psychology and executive council
member of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims
of the Paranormal (CSICOP), has constructed a list of suggestions
for proper criticism of paranormal and fringe science claims which
should also be taken to heart by critics of creationism. His
eight suggestions are:
1. Be prepared.
2. Clarify your objectives.
3. Do your homework.
4. Do not go beyond your level of competence.
5. Let the facts speak for themselves.
6. Be precise.
7. Use the principle of charity.
8. Avoid loaded words and sensationalism.
My criticisms of Price and Plimer have primarily been based
on their violations of 3, 5, 7, and 8. What I would like to focus
on briefly in my final remarks is number 2, the issue of clear
In correspondence with me, Ian Plimer and others have
defended his style on the grounds that creationism is a political
rather than scientific movement. It is my impression that they
think it must be stopped at any cost, by almost any means
available. This view is not only short-sighted, it doesn't seem
to justify the means I've been criticizing. While the heavy-
handed style might convince some people that creationism is
ridiculous and not worth serious consideration by scientists,
misrepresentations are bound to come to light (as they have).
When they do, all of the short-term gains and more are lost.
We must not lose sight of the fact that no matter how silly
creationism looks from an informed perspective, those who adhere
to it are human beings. Most creationists are sincere believers,
even if some of the leaders of creationist organizations are not.
There is probably no hope of convincing an insincere leader, so
why argue rationally with one? Why not just ridicule and abuse
such a person? Because sincere people are watching. Ridicule and
abuse simply confirm their suspicions about evil conspiratorial
evolutionists who are out to suppress the creationist viewpoint.
(This does not require us to forego humor or sarcasm which are not
abusive and counterproductive.)
It is possible to deal with creationists effectively yet
politely--Philip Kitcher's 1985 debate and Ken Saladin's 1988
debate, each with Gish, are prime examples.(8) Presentations like
these are probably more likely to persuade people than those like
Plimer's. Price and Plimer have engaged in the same sort of
tactics we complain about creationists using. The only result of
such tactics can be the loss of credibility.
The creation versus evolution debate is already one which
tends to generate more heat than light. To attempt to gain
converts by means other than reasoned argument supported by
evidence is to engage in a war of propaganda, in which the first
casualty is truth. It is my hope that this criticism will serve
to discourage such counterproductive battles in the future.
Thanks to Robert Doolan of the Creation Science Foundation, who
responded to my every question and provided me with copies of all
documents which I requested, to Ian Plimer and Barry Price for
their cooperation in the early stages of the preparation of this
article, to Erika Mitnik for reviewing early drafts of this
article, and to the editor of this journal and this article's
reviewers, who provided numerous helpful comments on style and
1. All debate quotations have been transcribed by the author from
videotape. Plimer's attacks on Gish included: "They are telling
lies for mammon. Here is Satan [gestures towards Gish]. He wants
God's blessing for the devil's work." (Plimer 1989, p. 12, also
2. It wasn't just the creationists who were unamused. In the
Australian Skeptics' summary of the debate (Roberts and Mendham
1988, p. 13), it is reported that "The adjudicator summed up by
saying that, rather than a debate, the evening was more like a
presentation by Dr. Gish and a series of derogatory replies by Dr.
Plimer. He would award poor marks to both speakers, neither of
whom had properly expounded his point of view as a science." The
same page of the summary states that "Dr. Plimer's style of
speaking excited comments and polarised the passions of quite a
few people. Many Skeptics have said they were disappointed in his
manner of presentation and his handling of the topic, preferring
that he had presented purely the scientific evidence supporting
evolution in a sombre and more scientifically respectable manner."
3. A possible source of Plimer's remark (or perhaps they share a
common source) is Stan Weinberg's (1986, p. 22) report in the
_Creation/Evolution Newsletter_ that "According to [paleontologist
Michael] Archer, Denton acknowledged that before he wrote his book
he had never heard of the mammal-like reptiles. He added that had
he known of them beforehand, he would have written his book
differently. But there are no indications that a corrected
edition is forthcoming." Denton (personal communication, October
1, 1991) says that this is a misrepresentation--his book discusses
mammal-like reptiles on pages 180 and 181 (U.S. edition). What he
did concede to Archer is what I have noted in this article about
the significance of gaps in the fossil record.
4. This remark from Gish was garbled in transcription by
Australian Skeptic Steve Roberts, who wrote in his summary of the
debate that Gish had agreed with Plimer that Denton had recanted
his views on evolution and considered it "possibly now a provable
reality." (Roberts and Mendham 1988, p. 12) This error made its
way into the _Creation/Evolution Newsletter_ (July/August 1988, p.
17) and was recently corrected by me in _NCSE Reports_ (Summer
1991, p. 19). The Australian Skeptics have yet to print a
correction of this and other errors in their debate summary,
though they have admitted them in private correspondence.
It should be pointed out that the Summer 1991 _NCSE Reports_
correction contained a mistake introduced by the editor--that of
referring to Denton as a creationist. He is not. As he wrote to
me (personal communication, October 1, 1991), "I am sure that the
cause of evolution will turn out to be perfectly natural even
though as yet we have no satisfactory naturalistic explanation.
However, I am inclined to the view that when the natural
explanations are elucidated they will represent deeply embedded
laws or tendences in the nature of things which will largely
restrict life forms to designs similar to those actually manifest
on earth or in other words that life's design is not contingent as
Gould claims but directed in large measure by physics in the most
general sense of the term."
5. The CSF says it did not threaten legal action, though CSF
managing director Carl Wieland did write a letter to the Catholic
hierarchy in Sydney, New South Wales expressing concern about
allegedly defamatory statements in the booklet (Robert Doolan,
personal communication, April 10, 1991).
E-Mail Fredric L. Rice / The Skeptic Tank