I Was Suckered Into A Debate--And Survived!
Fred K. Parrish
(C) Copyright 1988 by Fred K. Parrish
Dr. Parrish is an associate professor of biology at Georgia
State University in Atlanta. He received his Ph.D. in
biology from Emory University in Atlanta.
Two years ago I debated Walter Brown, director of the Center
for Scientific Creation, which is located in Naperville,
Illinois. Although I am not unique in this experience, nothing
similar to the way in which I was maneuvered into the debate and
the nature of the strategies that were used has been described in
the literature dealing with creationists. Therefore, I would
like to provide a brief synopsis of the events in the hope that
they will benefit others in future encounters.
It all started in April 1985 when I was asked if I would
talk informally on the creation-evolution controversy to the
Georgia Tech Faculty/Student Christian Forum. I agreed to do so.
Normally, when addressing such an audience as this, my talk
emphasizes how religion and science supplement each other. Since
I have a background in religion, I also discuss the origin,
meaning, and significance of the Old Testament. This talk was
intended to be no exception.
However, a week later, at the end of April, I was asked by
the meeting organizer if I would mind having a local creationist
opposite me so that there could be an informal exchange.
"Fairness" was used as the reason. Having previously debated
several local creationists in the Atlanta area, I had no
misgivings. So I agreed.
A week later I was informed by the meeting organizer that an
out-of-town creationist would be in town at the time of the talk.
It was then suggested that I debate him. By now I was getting
concerned--but rather than withdraw and thereby foster propaganda
that I was afraid to debate the creationist, I again agreed.
On May 16 I received a letter stating that the out-of-town
creationist was Walter Brown. A brochure listing his
qualifications was enclosed: he is a mechanical engineer and
director of an organization whose purpose is to "bring glory to
our Creator." He debates suckers like me all over the country.
By this time I was upset, but more was to come.
A week before the debate, slated for May 30 (during final
exam week at my university), a packet of materials arrived
1. An agreement to debate (which prohibited the discussion of
religion and stated that the creationist was to speak first)
2. A descriptive list of suggested support personnel for such a
3. The text of before-and-after questionnaires for the audience
4. A suggested stage diagram (where the moderator is placed on
the same side with the creationist)
5. A copy of Brown's now famous The Scientific Case for
Creation: 108 Categories of Evidence (which lines up against
evolution an array of mostly physical and chemical technicalities
that take a lot of time to research and refute)
The agreement to debate is illustrative.
STATEMENT OF AGREEMENT
I agree to conduct a debate with _____________________________on
________________________________ at ___________________________.
(date and time) (place)
The debate question will be: Does the scientific evidence better
support the creation model or the evolution model of origins?
I also agree to the following format:
Time (minutes) Activity
1-3 Introduction by moderator
55 Presentation by the creationist
5 --stretch break--
55 Presentation by the evolutionist
10 --stretch break--
20 First rebuttal by the creationist
20 First rebuttal by the evolutionist
8 Second rebuttal by the creationist
8 Second rebuttal by the evolutionist
(Note: Each debater, in his second
rebuttal, may ask his opponent
30 Questions from the audience. Each
debater can give up to a two minute
answer and his opponent can offer a
30 second comment.
I agree that only the nature of science, scientific evidence and
the logical inferences from that evidence will be discussed.
Religious matters will not be discussed. I am aware that the
host organization will administer a questionnaire at this debate.
A debater may exceed his 55 minute opening presentation by up to
two minutes; however, any excess time will be deducted from that
debater's first rebuttal.
After receiving the above material, I reminded the
organizer that I had originally agreed only to a small informal
meeting with a Christian organization, that now this had grown to
a full fledged formal debate, with religion prohibited, in a
large auditorium with the public invited, and that if he wanted
me to participate there would be no more preconditions, no
questionnaires, and no more trickery. He seemed to back off, but
that may have been only because he had already emptied his bag of
tricks on me.
Such maneuvers appear to be common. For example, when Duane
Gish spoke some time back at Georgia State University, the
"debate" was set up by the philosophy club with Gish talking for
45 minutes, three opponents responding for five minutes each, and
Gish taking another 45 minutes to answer. Fortunately I was not a
participant that time!
As I hurriedly prepared for the impending encounter, I
reminded myself that the creationist idea of a scientific debate
is to pick at the scientific literature, keep the opposition on
the defensive, and stay away from the Genesis account (which they
immediately label as out of bounds because it is religion). Most
audiences accept this because they don't understand that the
primary issues in the creation-evolution controversy are
political and educational and they don't realize that so-called
"scientific creationism" is merely religion in the guise of
science. In my opinion, the creation model needs to be
introduced in every debate on the subject. Given the usual
circumstances, however, it is the debater on the evolution side
who has to do the introducing.
Dr. Brown opened our debate with the standard creationist
line of argument. At the end of his allotted time, he posed a
number of questions for me: an obvious strategy to gain the
offensive and keep the opposition busy. I didn't fall for it.
In my opening remarks I included a brief account of how I was
manipulated into the debate and the nature of the creationist
preconditions. Audience reaction indicated a lack of approval
for such creationist machinations. I then pointed out that this
exchange could not be a typical scientific debate in which
participants are stimulated to test ideas in the field or lab.
Rather, this was to be a philosophical discussion in which
nothing would be settled; that even if all of Brown's arguments
were answered he would probably say the same or similar things to
other audiences later, as creationists consistently do. I added
that, for these and other reasons, many scientists feel that such
debates are a waste of time.
Next I proceeded to explain the nature of science:
reproducibility, rejection of authority, concern with the physical
world, description of how the world works by statements,
testability, falsifiability, universality, and so forth. The
scientific approach was contrasted with other ways of viewing the
world. One example I used was law, which is based on authority
and precedent, is variable from court to court, concerns itself
with personal interrelationships, is "moral," and so on. (The
example of law is useful because most people can accept it more
easily than if religion is selected. Once the example of law is
in place, however, religion can then be compared with it and both
together contrasted with science.) I used art as another
perspective, saying "Heaven help the person who has an
appendectomy by a surgeon who studied anatomy under Picasso."
I then pointed out that evolution is a scientific statement,
carefully defined it, and warned of the creationist
misdefinition. My brief overview of organic evolution followed.
Once these points were made, I explained that, in order to
be perfectly fair, the source and nature of the creation model
would next have to be examined. What was the source? I told the
audience that this was revealed in a literature search I had
earlier performed using creationist attorney Wendell Bird's
version of the creation model from the December 1978 issue of
Acts & Facts as a starting point. (I projected Bird's model on
This search was to locate in the library a creation account
possessing all of Bird's points. Over a thousand such accounts
were found, but only one had all seven of his points in order. I
explained that the probability of each point was 10 , so 10
seven times is 10 . The diameter of the universe in inches is
10 , and the chances that the account that I found is not the one
referred to by Wendell Bird is about one in 10 . I then
acknowledged that this use of statistics is ridiculous but typical
of the way the creationists use numbers. The actual probability
that the account I found is the wrong one, I explained, is
possibly one in 5,040 (7 factorial) -- statistically significant
but still highly unlikely.
Anyway, I noted that this one matching account was a
familiar one which originated largely from Mesopotamia but had
been appropriated by a bunch of itinerant sheep herders who
modified it from a polytheistic to a monotheistic form. It was
therefore called the Modified Mesopotamian Model, I said, "well
known" by the acronym MMM (pronounced ummm). I then suggested
that, since further slight changes had been made in it by the
"scientific" creationists, it was now called the Modern Modified
Mesopotamian Model, or MMMM. The MMMM was then explained in full
detail, utilizing "Yes, Virginia, There Is a Creation Model," by
Frank Awbrey from Creation/Evolution Issue I.
Comparing it with scientific statements, I was able to show
that the MMMM is dogmatic, based on authority, can't be
falsified, and so forth. Furthermore, members of some
creationist organizations sign oaths that they believe this model
to be literally true (the text of one such oath was projected on
the screen). I emphasized that scientists don't sign oaths
committing them to hold something irrevocably as true.
I concluded by presenting Brown with about ten questions to
answer concerning the creation model.
In his rebuttal he appeared upset, accused me of introducing
religion (to which I demurred), ignored my questions (as I had
ignored his), and introduced more standard creationist rhetoric.
In my rebuttal I used specific illustrations to outline
general creationist strategies. I also noted that, when I see
how they treat the things with which I am familiar, I have no
confidence in how they treat the things with which I am not.
Some of my examples included:
1. Population statistics (utilizing the "bunny blunder"
described by David H. Milne in Creation/Evolution Issue XIV)
2. Misquotes (using Richard Lewontin's article "Adaptation,"
Scientific American reprint # 1408, showing how creationists had
pieced together phrases distant from each other in the article to
reverse his position)
3. Lies or blunders (referencing figure 2.9 in the creationist
book Origin of Life by Bliss and Parker, wherein they imply no
intermediates between coacervates and eukaryotic cells by simply
leaving out about six phyla)
4. Erection of strawmen
5. Misstatement of evolution
6. Misuse of probability statistics
7. Misrepresentation of the second law of thermodynamics
8. Bringing up of discarded ideas from the scientific literature
(ammocetes, hectocotylus, Piltdown man, and Nebraska man--all of
which were later corrected by scientists, not creationists).
After pointing out such misdeeds, I gave the names of books
for further study. My close was a paraphrase of T. H. Huxley's
final statement from his famous debate with Bishop Wilberforce.
Thousands of people have devoted their lives--many have
given their lives--to better the human condition and to
build the intellectual body of knowledge we call science.
In describing how the physical world works, it is
unsurpassed. In my opinion, use of that knowledge in the
kind of deception characteristic of creationists destroys
their integrity, subverts their credibility, and belittles
the beliefs they try to promote. Is their religion
dependent on subterfuge for validation and sustenance? I
would rather be descended from the lowest worm than be
specially created with great intellectual powers and use
them in such a fashion.
When it was over, I had as many or more of the audience
gathered around my table as Brown did his. If this indicates
that there is something useful in the approach I selected, please
feel free to use it in your own encounters.
This article originally appeared in CREATION/EVOLUTION XXII.
To secure reprint permission, contact the National Center for
Science Education at the address below.
For further information on how you can become active in the effort
to counter the effects of "scientific" creationism, please contact
NATIONAL CENTER FOR SCIENCE EDUCATION
PO BOX 9477
BERKELEY CA 94710-0477
Phone: (510) 526-1674
Through them you can also purchase a subscription to the journal
CREATION/EVOLUTION, which contains more material such as this.