Sunday, May 03, 2009

Should evolutionary biologists "debate" creationists/ID advocates?

Last week I received an email also sent to a group of other local evolutionary biologists asking if one of us would be willing to participate in a "debate" with a creationist who was coming in to town to give some sort of talk.  The email said, among other things:
... we have a creationist (who holds to the 6-literal day creation and young earth 6,000 year position), (name deleted), coming on our campus challenging someone to debate him. 
And, well, I ignored the email as did the others apparently.  Then we all got a second email a few days later:

Dear Professors, 

The Creationist side is offering $300 for accepting the challenge! And another $250,000 to anyone presenting any empirical evidence for macro evolution! 

Why has this offer been out there for years? Where are the experts??? Where is the evidence?? How is  this possible?

If you are convinced that Darwin was right, if you accept it, if you teach it to students, as a career, then WHY DO YOU REFUSE TO DEBATE?!

You betray the students that look up to you!! Come on, Creationist don’t bite!

Sorry for this sarcastic tone, but it doesn't make sense. If you teach it in class you must be the first ones defending it.

We have a philosophy graduate wanting to debate, no science professors yet, especially Biology and Anthropology.

Please respond to this email asap!

Clearly, they people organizing this were trying to get someone to do the debate.  But this strategy just convinced me that debating creationists was an absurdly silly thing.  So I wrote back:

The issue is pretty simple to me.  There is nothing really to debate.  Creationism is not science.  It is a religion driven position that pretends (and does so poorly) to be about science.  I for one have perfectly pleasant interactions with many creationists and I understand their beliefs at least at some level.  But just as I would not encourage physicists to debate with those who deny gravity, and just as I would not encourage chemists to debate with those who claim the periodic table is invented, I think it is inappropriate to evolutionary biologists to "debate" with creationists in this type of setting.  Discussing creationism - fine.  Discussing criticism of evolutionary hypotheses - fine.  Having a reasonable panel discussion of science and religion - fine.  Meeting with creationists to discuss their ideas about evolution - ok too.  But engaging in a "debate" and thus even for a second implying that creationism stands on the same ground as evolution - completely ludicrous.  


Jonathan Eisen
Alas, the people doing the inviting were not particularly impressed with my answer:

You Sir, are a COWARD.
If it is so easy in your mind to refute Creationist's arguments, why don't you do it publically? FOR MONEY?! 
Your words do nothing to change the standing offer of $250,000 for evidence of Macro-Evolution. How about Actions, not Words only?

By denying there is a challenge, and at the same time refusing to accept the challenge you tell us that you're unable to defend your position.
We know why you are fine with a panel discussion: because there is no Looser or Winner, you are afraid to loose, that is the real reason behind your rhetoric.

your answer is a nonanswer

Try again.
I guess they did not get my point.  But anyway - I am asking readers out there - what do you think one should do?  Should one debate creationists/ID supporters?  


  1. They aren't very good at spelling or grammar, either, are they?

  2. I know, but given how badly I type much of the time, I was not going to comment on that ...

  3. I am also wondering if the invitation we received was really from students at this local college of if it was actually from the creationist ... the people who sent the letter claimed to be students but then signed the email with a new email address registered just for this debate. Seems fishy to me.

  4. No. Don't go for it. You might think that it would be easy, given that science actually has, you know, facts, but it isn't that simple. Professional creationists specialize in using the honesty of scientists against themselves -- an honest "I don't know" or "The scientific community doesn't know" is taken as a sign of weakness on the scientific side.

  5. Not in this way. The way you were approached is sensationalist (and plainly insulting in the last mail), which indicates that they're not really interested in an honest debate. Your offer for having a discussion is generous, and by no means cowardly.

  6. @macbruski Posted a useful link on twitter about this --- When and how to debate creationists

  7. Creationists (the smart ones) argue like lawyers. They don;t care about the truth. The better a scientist you are, the harder it is to argue at their level.

    That said, I wish there was a good way to deal with these proposals. But I can't think of one. (Can I claim that means I'm too good a scientist?)

  8. Creationists not only speak a different 'language' from us, they reason(?) in a whole other way entirely. And unlike language/terminology barriers, ways of seeing are almost impossible to translate between one another. They don't actually want to understand and process scientific arguments, for they already have an answer. Once one has a solid, committed answer to something, changing it with mere evidence and rhetoric is unlikely to work.

    For us to do proper science, we must acknowledge the fragility and impermanence of our answers; we must be ready to give up a conclusion immediately in the face of solid contrary evidence. While we are far from perfect at doing that, that's the standard we strive for anyway.

    To them, the above is a sign of weakness and lurking lies. They don't actually want proper debate.

    Lastly, debates are a lame way of deciding anything. Artificially creating a rigid dichotomy between two sides of an argument and setting up a battle to the death does not solve anything -- there is no actual dialogue between the opposing parties, they just fight to convince the audience. New ideas are born of discussion between opposing ideas, not debate. Debating is the intellectual equivalent of a gladiator fight...

  9. Jonathan,

    Not publicly debating these people has been the largest mistake that we scientists have made in the last generation. We need to be out there saying "no, that's wrong, here's why we know it's wrong, here's what we know is happening, here's why that isn't a threat to religion"

    When we refuse to debate them publicly, we not only don't get the chance to educate people, we also allow the creationists to say "Scientists know that evolution isn't real, that's why they refuse to debate it".

  10. WhySharksMatter I am completely with you on the need for responding to and discussing and confronting any attempt by Creationists and ID advocates to have any influence on education/policy/ etc. But this can be done in many many ways, and these debates tend to be little more than a bad Cable News yelling session. Ignoring the issue is a bad idea, I agree, but I have not seen any evidence that these debates are useful ways to spread a message about science.

  11. Personally, I feel that creationists are best ignored and left to their fantasies. Unless, of course, they aspire to a public office that permits them to enforce their opinions inappropriately - such as advising about science education on a school board.

    The latter problem seems peculiar to the US, but surely any such overt attempts are doomed to fail, post-Dover ruling?

    I suppose it might be argued that whilst you will never convince a creationist that they are wrong via rational debate, you might convince some of the "undecided" in the audience. However, I think there are better ways (e.g. promoting science education) than public shouting matches.

  12. I used to be interested in the creationist vs evolution "debate" (I like the use of your quotes) in my early undergraduate days. I have seen quite a few of them either in person or from youtube videos. Sadly, from an outsider looking in the creationist almost always comes out looking like the winner. Usually this is due to the creationist being a better debater, ruder, or just having some quirky science that they bend enough to support their point of view.

    I think there is a real need for a professional evolution debater that can successfully defend science. The best write up I have seen on disproving creationists "facts" on evolution is

  13. Do not feed the troll. Based on my own attendance of a few such events, you're not really missing an outreach opportunity by not going. The audiences seem to consist entirely of (1) unconvertible creationists and (2) irritable scientists.

  14. Yeah Morgan thanks for reminding me about that New Scientist article. I wrote about it a while ago - liked it a lot.

  15. Take the money. This should be a walk-in. Explain some examples of how a scientist is using theory of evolution to produce testable hypothesis to answer tangible questions that people can relate to and challenge the creationist to use his theroies to produce similar testable hypothesis. Don't get mixed up in the great truth about what happend long before any of us was born, but focus on the practical utility of ev.theory. Good luck.

  16. When the offer goes up to $6 million from a mysterious Nigerian widow, then I think you should bite.

  17. Maybe you should ask them why they have to resort to name calling and bribery - if they had hard science, they'd be able to publish papers and support their hypotheses instead.

  18. The $250,000 prize thing is a sham. You probably don't have any secret new evidence that hasn't been published yet. If they didn't believe it when it was published they won't believe it now. If there were some way that you could get them to agree to a hearing from an impartial jury then you might have a chance.

  19. Sure, go ahead and debate them -- but don't expect to accomplish anything. Such debates have merit for entertainment only.

  20. Here are some other responses on twitter:

    @pathoadaptation Yeah - I am still not 100% sure which way this should go. Some good arguments for and against debating ID/creationists.

    pathoadaptation@phylogenomics It's probably a waste of time debating creationists. I fear reasoned evidence will never change their view. But if we don't ..there then remains the risk of someone like this gaining a voice
    about 20 hours ago from Tweetie

    @mrgunn @phylogenomics Homeopathic medicine persists because people stay sick longer and therefore use the treatments more. Same with creationism.

    @iddux@phylogenomics Wasn't meant to scare but to inform. Mission is not to pursue a known truth but to convince others of it.

    @HankCampbell Not what I meant. I do 10^6 fairy tale countering things (e.g., web2.0, public talks, texts, OA). No time for silly debates.

    @HankCampbell @phylogenomics True, there are more of them than you but we can't back down from truth lest people only hear fairy tales.

    @iddux that does not scare me at all . We should pursue the truth whatever others will do with our words . of course care is still helpful

    @iddux @phylogenomics one consideration is that your own words may be turned against you

    @HankCampbell Not sure I agree w/ your premise. Regardless, nobody has unlimited time. Debating creationists is not my top pick for mine.

    @HankCampbell @phylogenomics insecure types worry about legitimizing cranks. Confident people know truth and argument wins with most.

    @MikeyJ There is an Islamic Creationist movement. I even got a book sent to me by Harun Tahya (

    @MikeyJ @phylogenomics Out of interest, have you ever come across any discussion about evolution that involves a religion other than Christianity?

    @macbruski I don't agree. Anyone can schedule a public forum. If there was a public forum on oxygen being fake should chemists respond?

    @macbruski @phylogenomics When and how to debate creationists:

    @macbruski @phylogenomics The trouble is that only 40% of Americans believe in evolution, ~0% of Americans believe oxygen is fake.

    @catoft @phylogenomics IMO a debate is useful only if someone's mind is open to change. Here they want to use you to harden their own position.

    Wondering if evolutionary biologists should "debate" creationists/ID supporters?

  21. if they pay the $300 up front, go ahead and debate them. All good debaters need a good template before they start the debate. here is a good guide:

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  23. Richard Dawkins has debated a few times.

    It never seems to have a positive effect.

    I would just like to ask Creationists a few questions like:

    Why do whales have vestigial leg bones?

    Why are some humans buried 80 feet below the surface of the Earth?

  24. Just ask that they send you the money. if they convince you to debate you can send it back . They just need to have faith n GOd;s power to convince you

  25. halfhenry said...

    "Richard Dawkins has debated a few times."

    I don't think Dawkins has debated creationists. He has debated some theologians about his claims in "The God Delusion."

    That email Jonathan got was pure Kent Hovind crap, right down to the $250K "prize." Hovind is in prison for tax evasion, but his son Eric is carrying on the family scam.

    And I think debating creationists is in general a bad idea. It lends them legitimacy, it is almost always in front of a loaded audience, and it's a pain in the ass to prepare properly.

  26. Why is it necessary for some Creationists to Randomly capitalize Words?