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Engaging Creationists

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Engaging Creationists: A Conspiracy of Dunces and Trolls

I love a good debate. When you have two capable groups discussing all sides of an issue, it can illuminate areas of perspective never before considered; yield new insights and break through the wall of ignorance and prejudice. Usually a debate has the objective of seeking truth by performing an autopsy on an issue, stripping away the skin, pushing aside non-essential organs and identifying the causes and effects.

If "Sandra the Astrologer", a new-age 50-something living in Oregon who publishes a web site offering peoples star charts and horoscopes, requested a debate with M.I.T. professor Stephen Hawking on the nature of the universe, would she have a chance of participating in such a roundtable?

If Bob, the likable New Mexico-native, Lithium-prescribed master storyteller of tales of his alien abduction and subsequent visit to the planet Zircon, wanted to debate NASA chief Michael Griffin, who holds multiple PhDs and other degrees in everything from electrical engineering and applied physics to aerospace engineering, what is the likelihood of this event transpiring?

So why then would someone like Kent Hovind, a fundamentalist evangelical preacher with a minimal flock of followers, whose education primarily consists of a degree in "religious education" from a now-defunct unaccredited diploma mill be able to sit down and contain a long string of prominent and respected scientists and mainstream educators on various television and radio appearances?

And why is there a seemingly endless stream of religious and politically-motivated, yet specifically uneducated "expert pundits" parading around online and in mainstream media taking on some of the world's most respected and capable scientists and educators?

Yes, it's funny and amusing. It was funny and amusing, the first hundred times news of creationists having the audacity to challenge atheists that they could prove God exists using their own logic. It was even more amusing the first hundred times a respected scientist engaged an uneducated, layperson, religious figure over the nature of space, time, history, biology, chemistry, genetics, archeology and evolution. Like watching a six-year-old using a set of Legos to show Werner Von Braun the proper way to make a rocket ship.

Now it doesn't seem as amusing. It seems kind of sad, and more importantly, it seems like many respected scientists are falling for a trap set by evangelicals designed to give their irrational claims an air of respectability.

Respected scientists and other freethinkers are getting trapped and exploited to achieve the opposite of what they intend. They're not introducing the rational, scientific side of an issue. They are pawns in a game. They are the intellectual equivalent of Pavlov's Dog. They are serving as examples for fundamentalists to cite the legitimacy of their religious campaigns by means of "controversy." The virus of superstition and mythology, which previously could only sit outside the science building and make squeaking noises that were mostly ignored, has now walked in the front door and into the classroom of many science curriculums across the country, not because it is a viable "alternative" to existing theories that have held up to centuries of scientific scrutiny, but instead because of an implication that these faith-based ideas are credible because so many respected scientists feel inclined to discuss them, hence the "controversy" is substituted for actual evidence, and the trolls win.

Here's what Richard Dawkins has to say about the issue:

Sometime in the 1980s when I was on a visit to the United States, a television station wanted to stage a debate between me and a prominent creationist called, I think, Duane P Gish. I telephoned Stephen Gould for advice. He was friendly and decisive: "Don't do it." The point is not, he said, whether or not you would "win" the debate. Winning is not what the creationists realistically aspire to. For them, it is sufficient that the debate happens at all. They need the publicity. We don't. To the gullible public that is their natural constituency, it is enough that their man is seen sharing a platform with a real scientist. "There must be something in creationism, or Dr. So-and-So would not have agreed to debate it on equal terms." Inevitably, when you turn down the invitation, you will be accused of cowardice or of inability to defend your own beliefs. But that is better than supplying the creationists with what they crave: the oxygen of respectability in the world of real science.

I couldn't agree more. Giving any attention to creationists is like sharing the stage with KKK members or Nazis. They had their time in the sun. It's over. We're not learning anything new from them. They just need attention and publicity and they'll troll anyone and everyone to get it. Their presence and influence in society should be beneath the margin of common sense. Any time one of us engages them, we elevate their ridiculous, illogical agenda. It's not worth it. So even if you win the debate every single time, which isn't surprising, you make their side stronger and create the illusion that the battle is tough and worth fighting on both sides. And you lose the war.

A scientist's perspective on the notion of debating a creationist

A professor at the University of Vermont, Nicholas Gotelli, got an invitation to debate one of the clowns at the Discovery Institute. Here's what they wrote.

Dear Professor Gotelli,

I saw your op-ed in the Burlington Free Press and appreciated your support of free speech at UVM. In light of that, I wonder if you would be open to finding a way to provide a campus forum for a debate about evolutionary science and intelligent design. The Discovery Institute, where I work, has a local sponsor in Burlington who is enthusiastic to find a way to make this happen. But we need a partner on campus. If not the biology department, then perhaps you can suggest an alternative.

Ben Stein may not be the best person to single-handedly represent the ID side. As you're aware, he's known mainly as an entertainer. A more appropriate alternative or addition might be our senior fellows David Berlinski or Stephen Meyer, respectively a mathematician and a philosopher of science. I'll copy links to their bios below. Wherever one comes down in the Darwin debate, I think we can all agree that it is healthy for students to be exposed to different views--in precisely the spirit of inviting controversial speakers to campus, as you write in your op-ed.

I'm hoping that you would be willing to give a critique of ID at such an event, and participate in the debate in whatever role you feel comfortable with.

A good scientific backdrop to the discussion might be Dr. Meyer's book that comes out in June from HarperCollins, "Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design."

On the other hand, Dr. Belinski may be a good choice since he is a critic of both ID and Darwinian theory.

Would it be possible for us to talk more about this by phone sometime soon?

With best wishes, David Klinghoffer

Discovery Institute

You'll enjoy Dr Gotelli's response.

Dear Dr. Klinghoffer:

Thank you for this interesting and courteous invitation to set up a debate about evolution and creationism (which includes its more recent relabeling as "intelligent design") with a speaker from the Discovery Institute. Your invitation is quite surprising, given the sneering coverage of my recent newspaper editorial that you yourself posted on the Discovery Institute's website:

http://www.evolutionnews.org/2009/02/" rel="nofollow" title="">http://www.evolutionnews.org/2009/02/


However, this kind of two-faced dishonesty is what the scientific community has come to expect from the creationists.

Academic debate on controversial topics is fine, but those topics need to have a basis in reality. I would not invite a creationist to a debate on campus for the same reason that I would not invite an alchemist, a flat-earther, an astrologer, a psychic, or a Holocaust revisionist. These ideas have no scientific support, and that is why they have all been discarded by credible scholars. Creationism is in the same category.

Instead of spending time on public debates, why aren't members of your institute publishing their ideas in prominent peer-reviewed journals such as Science, Nature, or the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences? If you want to be taken seriously by scientists and scholars, this is where you need to publish. Academic publishing is an intellectual free market, where ideas that have credible empirical support are carefully and thoroughly explored. Nothing could possibly be more exciting and electrifying to biology than scientific disproof of evolutionary theory or scientific proof of the existence of a god. That would be Nobel Prize winning work, and it would be eagerly published by any of the prominent mainstream journals.

"Conspiracy" is the predictable response by Ben Stein and the frustrated creationists. But conspiracy theories are a joke, because science places a high premium on intellectual honesty and on new empirical studies that overturn previously established principles. Creationism doesn't live up to these standards, so its proponents are relegated to the sidelines, publishing in books, blogs, websites, and obscure journals that don't maintain scientific standards.

Finally, isn't it sort of pathetic that your large, well-funded institute must scrape around, panhandling for a seminar invitation at a little university in northern New England? Practicing scientists receive frequent invitations to speak in science departments around the world, often on controversial and novel topics. If creationists actually published some legitimate science, they would receive such invitations as well.

So, I hope you understand why I am declining your offer. I will wait patiently to read about the work of creationists in the pages of Nature and Science. But until it appears there, it isn't science and doesn't merit an invitation.

In closing, I do want to thank you sincerely for this invitation and for your posting on the Discovery Institute Website. As an evolutionary biologist, I can't tell you what a badge of honor this is. My colleagues will be envious.

Sincerely yours,

Nick Gotelli

P.S. I hope you will forgive me if I do not respond to any further e-mails from you or from the Discovery Institute. This has been entertaining, but it interferes with my research and teaching.


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This article is primarily written and administered by Mark Pile. If you wish to contribute any major changes to the content, use the Discussion/Talk page to suggest changes and improvements, otherwise minor changes and corrections are appreciated.


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