Authors: Richard Trott (firstname.lastname@example.org), Eugenie C. Scott (email@example.com) Title:
Authors: Richard Trott (firstname.lastname@example.org),
Eugenie C. Scott (email@example.com)
Title: Debating Creationists: Some Pointers
Update: July 7, 1994
By Eugenie C. Scott:
Debates and the Globetrotters
During the last six or eight months, I have received more calls
about debates between creationists and evolutionists than I have
encountered for a couple of years, it seems. I do not know what
has inspired this latest outbreak, but I am not sure it is doing
much to improve science education.
Why do I say this? Sure, there are examples of "good" debates
where a well-prepared evolution supporter got the best of a
creationist, but I can tell you after many years in this business
that they are few and far between. Most of the time a well-meaning
evolutionist accepts a debate challenge (usually "to defend good
science" or for some other worthy goal), reads a bunch of
creationist literature, makes up a lecture explaining Darwinian
gradualism, and can't figure out why at the end of the debate so
many individuals are clustered around his opponent, congratulating
him on having done such a good job of routing evolution -- and why
his friends are too busy to go out for a beer after the debate.
The worse situation is that he and his friends think he did just
fine, and remain ignorant of the fact that the majority of the
audience left the auditorium convinced that evolution was "a theory
What usually happens in these debates? Usually they take place at
the invitation of the other side, and usually they take place in a
religious setting or minimally under religious sponsorship.
That's the first problem. The audience that is most anxious to
come, and that will be recruited the most heavily, is the one that
supports the creationist. In the comparatively rare situation
where the debate is held on a college campus, the supporters of
good science and evolution are invariably in the minority in the
audience, whereas the creationist supporters seem to exercize every
effort to turn out their crowd. Don't be surprised to see church
busses from many local communities lined up outside the debate
hall. In some cases, the sponsors advertised only among the
faithful, posting up only a handful of flyers on campus. Guess who
The second problem is that the evolutionist debater has an upstream
battle from the start. Evolution is a complex set of ideas that is
not easily explained in the sound-bite razzle-dazzle of the debate
format. Evolution applies to astronomy, physics, chemistry,
biochemistry, anthropology, biology, geology -- you name the field,
and evolution will relate to it, like as not. Most audiences have
an abysmal understanding of basic science. How are you going to
bring an audience up to par? The goal of a debate (I assume) is to
teach the audience something about evolution and the nature of
science. This is possible in a debate format, but it is difficult
to do well, because it is not easy to do quickly.
Consider that your opponent will offer as proof that evolution did
not occur that Stephen Jay Gould has said that the fossil record
does not support gradual evolution. A good debating strategy: he
is citing a famous evolutionist source, which gives him
credibility. Plus he is confusing Gould's statement about the rate
of evolutionary change with an unmade conclusion about whether
evolution occurs. Plus he is operating from the creationist
enthusiasm for authority ("if famous scientist X says it, it has to
be true.") Gould, like any scientist, can be wrong on any point.
We don't accept "famous scientist X's" conclusions just because of
the fame of the maker, but because of the quality of the argument.
How long does it take to straighten out your audience on this
matter? The creationist has made a simple declarative sentence,
and you have to deal with not an easily-grasped factual error, but
a logical error and a methodological error, which will take you far
longer to explain. As I was writing this, a community college
teacher called to tell me she had trouble convincing her students
they were made out of smaller parts! Now maybe not all audiences
are at such a primitive level that they don't even accept cell
theory, but given the fact that your opponent just has to say, "It
didn't happen" (i.e., "there are no transitional forms",
"radiometric dating doesn't work," etc.) means you have a bunch
more talking to do from the get-go.
Creationist debaters (at least the nationally-prominent ones) are
masters at presenting these half-truth nonsequitors that the
audience misunderstands as relevant points. These can be very
difficult to counter in a debate situation, unless you have a lot
of time. And you never have enough time to deal with even a
fraction of the half-truths or plain erroneous statements that
creationists can come out with. Even if you deal with a handful of
the unscientific nonsense spewed out by your opponent, your
audience is left with the , "Yeah, but..." syndrome: well, maybe
there are intermediate forms and the creationist was wrong about
radiometric dating, YEAH, BUT why didn't that evolutionist answer
the question about polonium halos?" (or some other argument.)
The evolutionist debater is never going to be able to counter all
of the misinformation that a creationist can put out in a lengthy
debate format. And the way these things work is that suspicion is
sowed in the minds of the audience no matter what.
The title of this article brings up a third point. Have you ever
seen the Harlem Globetrotters basketball team play? Years ago
(maybe even now for all I know) they used to play against a white
team called the "Washington Federals" or something like that. It
was great fun to see the Globetrotters dribble basketballs around
these guys, through their legs, bounce balls off each other and
generally goof around making the poor Federals look like dopes. I
think the Federals were probably a pick-up team from the area,
comprised of OK ball-players, maybe on the sub-semi-pro level.
What was sort of interesting was that the Federals did occasionally
get off some good shots. They weren't total stumblebums.
But nobody paid any attention to the good shots of the Federals.
In a creation/evolution debate, the audience is there to hear their
champion, and most of them are there for the other side's champion.
They're there to root for their Globetrotter (an apt term, given
the Institute for Creation Research's travel schedule) and who
cares if the evolutionist gets off a good shot or two? The
function of the evolutionist in such a setting is to be beat up on,
and inspire the troops.
And however well the evolutionist thinks he may have done, the
probability is that he was just fodder to inspire the local fans.
I have been invited on many occasions to debate, and have always
turned them down. The purpose of a debate is to rouse the local
troops, to stir them to action, and inspire them to go forth and
support the teaching of creationism.
Why should we help?
Before you accept a debate, consider if what you are about to do
will harm the cause more than promote it. Many scientists justify
the debate by saying, "creationists will claim that scientists are
afraid to debate them." So what? Who are they going to make the
claim to? Their own supporters? A letter in the local newspaper
that will be read by how many people, and remembered for how long?
If the alternative is to show that scientists are not afraid of
creationists by having some poor scientist get beat up on the
debating stage, are we better off?
And let's face it -- some scientists do it out of a sense of ego.
Gee, I'm really going to make mincemeat out of that creationist,
they think. Well, are you such a big shot debater that you can
guarantee that people in the audience aren't going to go off after
your debate and make life miserable for the local science teacher?
"Gee, Mrs. Brown, I went to this neat debate the other day. You'd
be surprised at how weak evolution is. Are you going to teach it
this year?" Want to lay odds on Mrs. Brown teaching evolution
again? Is your ego more important than students learning
evolution? Think about it.
My recommendation: above all else, do no harm.
I have no objection, by the way, to appearing on radio and TV with
creationists, and have done so many times. In this format, it is
possible to have some sort of point-counterpoint which is (though
it seems odd to say it) not possible in a formal debate format. On
the radio, I have been able to stop Gish, et al, and say, "Wait a
minute, if X is so, then wouldn't you expect Y?" or something
similar, and show that their "model" is faulty. But in a debate,
the evolutionist has to shut up while the creationist gallups
along, spewing out nonsense with every paragraph.
Now, there are ways to have a formal debate that actually teaches
the audience something about science, or evolution, and that has
the potential to expose creation science for the junk it is. This
is to have a narrowly-focused exchange in which the debators deal
with a limited number of topics. Instead of the "Gish Gallup"
format of most debates where the creationist is allowed to run on
for 45 minutes or an hour, spewing forth torrents of error that the
evolutionist hasn't a prayer of refuting in the format of a debate,
the debaters have limited topics and limited time. For example,
the creationist has 10 minutes to discuss a topic on which
creationists and evolutionists disagree (intermediate forms, the
nature of science [with or without the supernatural], the 2nd law
of thermodynamics disproves evolution, the inadequacy of mutation
and selection to produce new "kinds", etc.) The evolutionist then
has a 5 minute rebuttal, followed by a 2 minute reprise from the
creationnist. Next, the evolutionist takes 10 minutes to discuss
an agreed-upon issue, with the creationist taking the next five
minutes, and the 2 minute followup.
With this format, the audience is given digestable bits of
information and is not overwhelmed by a barrage of impossible-to-
answer nonsense. The evolutionist at least has a fighting chance
to teach something about science and evolution.
Of course, whenever the ICR has been presented this option, they
have refused to debate. Which in itself suggests the utility of
using this approach! I think they recognize that they have a lot
to lose in any other than the "Gish Gallup" format. Tough luck.
I can't see any reason why evolutionists should make it easier for
them to rally their troops.
If after all of this, you still think you want to debate a
creationist, then let me give you some suggestions. First, don't
bother defending evolution. Evolution is state of the art science,
taught at every decent college and university in this country,
including Brigham Young, Notre Dame, and Baylor. So why should you
defend it? Tell your audience that there is plenty of information
on evolution in the library, in university courses, and in scores
of science journals. Creation "science" is the new kid on the
block. Let's see if it fits the criteria of science, and secondly,
if its claims and predictions stand up to scrutiny.
And then show the audience how creation science is a bust. Don't
bother trying to explain something as complicated as evolution,
although during your rebuttal you can straighten the audience out
on the creationist's stupider claims. But hit hard at flood
geology, the impossibility of all organisms being descended from
the Ark survivors (some real problems in genetics here, folks), hit
them on the young age of the earth, quote Morris on Satan causing
the craters on the moon, and all the other dumb stuff the
creationists don't want people to know they think.
I have other suggestions, but I won't waste time here. Call NCSE
if you are going to debate or if you hear of someone going to
debate. Get the word out that these practices do not improve the
public understanding of science or evolution. But if it is impossible to
avoid, call NCSE. 1-800-290-6006.
Eugenie C. Scott
By Richard Trott:
On Monday, March 14, 1994, Kutztown University astronomer Carlson
Chambliss debated Institute for Creation Research biochemist Duane
Gish. Chambliss defended evolution and Gish defended creationism.
The debate was a typical example of Gish's ability to control
the terms of the debate and make outrageous statements of "fact"
seem perfectly reasonable to a sympathetic audience. Gish has
debated enough (far over 300 times) to know what to expect from
a scientist unfamiliar with him, and his presentation was expectedly
formulaic and extraordinarily successful. What follows are points,
underscored by the debate, that anyone debating Gish in the future
should be aware of.
POINT #1: KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE
No matter what part of the country you are in and what kind of institution
is hosting the debate, Gish will be well-publicized among the faithful.
Informed scientists will probably not be courted and would probably not
attend anyway unless they are friends of the evolution proponent.
Consequently, you will spend a lot of time dispelling misconceptions
held by the audience that you would not have to deal with if given
a more neutral or scientific audience.
Sitting in the audience at Kutztown, it became apparent that there
was a very small contingent of Chambliss' students (probably fewer
than thirty) and colleagues (perhaps ten or fifteen). There were
also thousands of "Bible thumpers" who were apparently bussed
in from surrounding churches and so on. A review of Gish's schedule
reveals that he spoke at two area churches the previous day, and the
Kutztown University RK club, who sponsored the event, apparently
ensured that there was tremendous publicity to sympathetic churches
in the Reading, Kutztown, and Allentown areas. Geoff Stevens, the president
of the RK club, seemed very enthusiastic about mailing me fliers when
I spoke to him on the phone about two weeks before the event. However,
this enthusiasm seemed to evaporate once it became apparent that I
was not associated with any church group. Although he assured me he
would mail me publicity materials, they never arrived.
POINT #2: DON'T BE THE DULL LECTURER
Gish has been involved in hundreds of debates and has an appealing set
of slides that help make his presentation fun to watch and easy to
understand. Don't be the dull lecturer.
Before the debate began, Gish tested his slides to make sure they were
attractive and visible to the auditorium. When Chambliss tested
his (rather unattractive) overhead projections, I had difficulty
reading them -- and I was sitting in the very first row!
Realizing before the debate that no one would be able to
see his overhead projections, Chambliss used no visuals for the
bulk of his discussion. Chambliss, like most people, does not
possess the charisma of Gish and the lack of visuals only made
the situation worse. During Chabmliss' discussion,
a large group of Mennonites (!) were chatting in the
bleachers. I suspect that very few people in the audience
really paid attention to what he was saying.
POINT #3: BE PREPARED FOR STANDARD GISH EVASIONS
Chambliss began the debate with a one-hour presentation. The resolution
was that the theory of evolution better explains the scientific evidence
than the "theory of creation." Chambliss, rather than defending the
resolution, mounted an attack on Henry Morris' physics. Gish made
nearly all of Chambliss' presentation beside the point by noting that
the debate was not about Henry Morris' beliefs.
Chambliss began his assault by refuting Whitcomb and Morris' idea
that cosmic rays affect decay rates on Earth. Chambliss correctly
pointed out that this is patently absurd. Gish skirted the issue
of the age of the earth by stating that the question is not "when"
things were formed, but "how." Chambliss felt that he could
thwart that argument by pointing out that Morris is the president of
the organization of which Gish is the vice-president, and that one
would therefore assume that the views expressed by Morris concerning
creationism are also representative of Gish's views. It didn't work.
By the end of the debate, Gish asked Chambliss if he would be a
creationist if creationists agreed to a 5 billion year old Earth.
Chambliss had no effective response.
POINT #4: AVOID ARROGANCE, APPEAL TO AUTHORITY, AND SIMILAR ATTITUDES
Chambliss played right into the creationist idea of a scientific priesthood
with statements to the effect of "I trust geochemists." Rather than
defending specific points, it sounded like (whether or not this was
the case) Chambliss wanted people to accept things because "geochemists"
say so. Chambliss sounded like he was (although he wasn't) telling these
people that if they have to choose between trusting God and trusting
geochemists, they should choose geochemists!
In addition to frequent appeals to authority (including himself),
Chambliss often came off as arrogant. And although
they never seem to recognize it when used by their own representatives,
the creationist audience did not fail to note the bankruptcy of
Chambliss' appeals to authority as evidenced by several comments
from audience members around me, including one that sarcastically
responded to Chambliss' argument that he was the expert with "how modest!"
Chambliss kept using the term "young-earth creationist" like it was
a dirty word. Gish denied that the age of the earth was an issue in
the debate, and Chambliss seemed not to realize that most of his audience
was comprised of "young-earth creationists."
Chambliss saved the worst for last, however. After Gish gave his final
word and the debate was officially over, Chambliss insisted on going to
his microphone to rebut Gish's assertion that the sun is shrinking.
Chambliss, over the timid objections of the moderator, said that he had to
rebut Gish because Gish was spouting nonsense. He said he wanted
to use an analogy that he didn't think he used earlier in the debate.
He then proceeded to use an analogy that he _had_ used earlier
in the debate. It wasn't effective the first time and it received
audible derision from the audience this time.
POINT #5: BE FOREWARNED: GISH HAS EXTRAORDINARY CHARISMA AND IS WELL-LIKED
Gish strode to the podium to thunderous applause. Gish noted
that Geoff Stevens was on a Kutztown University hockey team
which had just won a championship of some sort, and he
therefore commended Kutztown University for at least having a fine
athletic program. The clear implication that Chambliss represented
the science department, which was of low quality for teaching evolution
dogmatically, brought much laughter from the audience. Gish's ridicule
did not stop there, and it went over big since Gish is very careful
not to appear mean-spirited. Gish's predictable presentation flowed
smoothly, was very polished, and was easily understood.
Gish managed to get friendly laughs when he quoted _Newsweek_ by
describing it as a scientific journal. No one thought to scoff
that he was, in fact, quoting _Newsweek_ as if it were a scientific
journal. In fact, Gish got laughs just about every time he tried.
Gish has a natural gift for a folksy and relaxed presentation.
POINT #6: GISH GIVES THE SAME PRESENTATION EVERY TIME -- KNOW IT!
Get your hands on as many transcripts and tapes as you can, especially
recent ones. Contact NCSE; they have lots of transcripts.
As anyone who has seen Gish lately would predict, the centerpiece of
Gish's presentation was a challenge to Chambliss to explain how a
butterfly could evolve. (I sense that this is the replacement for
Gish's beloved bombardier beetle example after that example was
exposed as more evidence of Gish's incompetence and/or dishonesty
than evidence against the plausibility of evolution.) Chambliss lamely
declined the challenge on the grounds that it was not his field.
(Chambliss is an astronomer.) Chambliss failed to understand that
the creationist audience would not accept specialization as an excuse,
especially when Gish was all over the board with apparent (although
it was only apparent) competence. An examination of a few transcripts
might have made Chambliss expect this challenge and he might have
prepared a more convincing response of some sort. The same can be
said of almost every claim that Gish made. Chambliss seemed to respond
to extraordinarily few of Gish's claims and this can be attributed
to his unfamiliarity with Gish's presentations.
E-Mail Fredric L. Rice / The Skeptic Tank