Should Scientists Debate Creationists?

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The perpetually-bowtied science educator Bill Nye “The Science Guy” is slated to debate creationist Ken Ham, the founder of Kentucky’s Creation Museum, on Feb. 4.

ABC News quoted Ham as saying that “This debate will help highlight the fact that so many young people are dismissing the Bible because of evolution, and even many young people who had grown up in the church decided to leave the church because they saw evolution as showing the Bible could not be trusted.”

Ham is indeed not the only one who doubts evolution. Despite nearly a century and a half of accumulated evidence for evolution since the publication of Charles Darwin’s “The Origin of Species,” a recent poll found that about one-third of Americans don’t believe in human evolution.

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Those who believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible have long sought historic and archaeological evidence that Biblical events actually happened, including the parting of the Red Sea and the existence of Noah’s Ark. So far those efforts have largely failed.

At first glance Bill Nye looks like the obvious winner, and not just because of his dapper appearance and dance floor moves. With overwhelming scientific evidence for evolution confirmed by nearly every scientific discipline, what could go wrong?

Plenty.

Many scientists are uneasy about the debate — not because they are concerned that Ken Ham will provide new creationist evidence or arguments that will leave Nye cowering and apologizing for his hubris or Darwin’s error — but for other reasons.

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Eugenie Scott, Executive Director of the non-profit educational organization The National Center for Science Education, discourages scientists from debating creationists, but often advises them as to the most effective approaches if they wish to do so.

In an interview with Discovery News Scott explained that “Creationist ‘scientific” claims must be answered, of course, but the format of a formal debate is not the way to do it.

Creationists specialize in the what’s called the Gish gallop — a rapid-fire listing of supposed weaknesses of evolution that, in a limited-time format of a debate, cannot all be properly answered.This leaves the audience with the incorrect impression that evolution is shaky science.

Debate is a sport, not the way we decide scientifically how the world works.” And there are other concerns.

Is There a Debate?

The title of the Nye/Ham debate is “Is Creation a Viable Model of Origins?” which is itself problematic. There is no debate among scientists about whether evolution occurs, any more than there’s a debate among botanists about whether photosynthesis occurs or among physicists that gravity exists.

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Evolution is all around us, all the time. Evolution is why we need to get a new flu shot every year.

By putting a scientist and a non-scientist on the same stage together, there is a real danger of legitimizing creationism and giving the appearance that both sides are equally valid.

CNN would be widely ridiculed if they invited a member of the Flat Earth Society to debate astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson about whether our planet is round.

This is not an issue of censorship. Anyone is free to hold whatever beliefs or opinions they like, no matter how unscientific or false. But there is no obligation to portray both sides as having equally strong or valid scientific arguments, when by any measure they do not.

Differing Assumptions

Another problem is that because Nye and Ham are operating on different sets of assumptions, there will be no meeting of the minds. For a true, fruitful debate, the participants should speak each other’s language and accept definitions that provide common ground for a discussion.

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Ham believes that Earth, the universe, and everything was formed over the course of six days about 6,000 years ago. Based on a wealth of geological and other evidence, Nye believes that Ham’s calculation is slightly off — by around 13 billion years, give or take a few millennia.

To use an example from another contentious topic, consider two people arguing pro-abortion rights vs. an anti-abortion stance. The two may use the term “baby” in very different ways — for example, one insists that a baby exists at conception while the other believes a baby is created at birth. In this case, true discussion is difficult because they don’t even accept the definitions of the words the other person uses.

Scientists and creationists are unlikely to find common ground. For creationists the Bible is their ultimate authority. They are starting with the answer — that the Christian God created the universe as described in the Book of Genesis — and trying to make the facts fit that interpretation or conclusion.

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The problem is that that’s not how science works. The purpose of science is to gather facts in a systematic way and follow the evidence to its logical conclusion, not prove a certain premise.

Faith vs. Evidence

Religions are based, by definition, upon faith instead of evidence, and that’s why debates about religion are often fruitless. A few good points — or, depending on the tone, zingers — may be made, but it’s unlikely to change many minds. Those who walk in convinced that evolution is true (or a hoax) will likely leave the same way.

Appeals to emotion and faith often win the day regardless of what the scientific evidence says. That is one reason why, for example, anti-vaccine propaganda is persuasive to many people.

One of the most compelling “arguments” are vivid, personal stories highlighted by anti-vaccination activists like Jenny McCarthy. It’s a classic case of science versus anecdote.

Statistics and authoritative, impersonal medical information will never be as compelling as an emotional, tearful story told by a mother holding the daughter whose autism she blames on the vaccine.

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All the facts, data and research fades away under the glare of human emotion and faith.

As Eugenie Scott notes, “The people who do best in these debates are those who establish rapport with the audience, and who come across as trustworthy and believable. Affect is all; content is secondary. Which is another reason why formal debate is not the way to educate people about evolution or science in general.”

Changing minds is unlikely.  At best, Bill Nye may be able to — once again — debunk some long-discredited creationist canards, such as that evolution cannot explain the development of the human eye (it can), or that humans are descended from apes (we’re not descended from them, instead we share a common ancestry).

Still, the discussion will continue. As Neil deGrasse Tyson recently said, “I object to religion in science classrooms not because it’s religion but because it’s not science.”

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