Debating Creationists

 

(This 846th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on June 10, 2007.)

 

Charles Rulon, professor emeritus of Long Beach City College, was asked to debate a Discovery Institute representative on intelligent design. His opening remarks were published in the May/June "Skeptical Inquirer" and, because I believe they are so appropriate, I summarize them here.

 

Although he went ahead with the debate, Rulon offered five reasons why scientists avoid such confrontations.

 

First, to scientists it is "rigid application of the scientific method that counts, not oratory skills." To a largely uninformed audience, it is "the emotional rapport, public speaking skills, likeability and believed authority of the debaters" that counts, not the scientific evidence they have to offer.

 

Second, the creationists have nothing to lose. "If a scientist debates, it's 'proof' to many listeners that a scientific controversy actually exists."

 

Third, "creationists can churn out more scientific misinformation in thirty minutes, than I could possibly refute in a week." They know that their audience "does not have the necessary experience in evolutionary biology, historical geology, anthropology, and paleontology to be able to separate scientifically solid evidence from half-truths, poor logic, outdated references, misleading quotations, selective data, and outright falsehoods."

 

Fourth, debates allow equal time. The scientific method is not about equal time but about all the evidence, which is overwhelmingly on the side of evolution. "To require science teachers to 'teach the controversy,' to give equal time to evolution and ID is, in essence, to require teachers to lie to their students."

 

Fifth, the debates are publicity stunts that increase the membership of campus clubs that spread falsehoods regarding evolution, "thus creating serious obstacles to the ongoing science education of students. To make matters worse," Rulon says, most of these clubs "also hold religious beliefs that can seriously interfere with rational, compassionate, and scientifically informed discussions related to other vitally important areas such as emergency contraceptive pills, the abortion pill, gay rights, death with dignity, and overpopulation."

 

"And then," he adds, "there's the extremely scary Armageddon theology belief currently held by millions of Americans. After all, why be concerned about destroying the planet's life-support systems when the destruction of the world is already inevitable as foretold in Scripture?"

 

Even though he lists those reasons for not debating, Rulon concludes: "Today the United States is being confronted with large numbers [of people] who are locked into ultra-religious, anti-scientific views and who want to force these views on others through our elected officials, our courts, and our schools. That's why I'm here today."

 

I honor Professor Rulon for his views and for the moxie he shows in stepping forward to defend evolution in this kind of unfair confrontation. I am reminded here of my friend Professor Jack Nelson's excuse when he refused an invitation to appear on a Sandy Beach-type radio talk show. "Are you kidding?" he responded. "Talking with them is like entering a boxing ring against a contender with both hands tied behind you."

 

But what does the average biology classroom teacher do, given the challenges with which they are confronted? Sadly, some simply avoid evolution, the driving force behind everything they teach.

 

Happily, for those who do seek to address the challenges to evolution, an excellent new resource is available. It is "The Counter-Creationism Handbook" by Mark Isaak (University of California Press).

 

This book responds to over 400 individual arguments posed by creationists. That number alone suggests how difficult it is for an individual to be able to answer the wide range of attacks. The responses here are organized under philosophy and theology, biology, paleontology, geology, astronomy and cosmology, miscellaneous antievolution, Biblical creationism, intelligent design, and "other" creationism topics. Individual questions offer source quotations, point by point responses and references for further reading.

 

Here, for example, is part of a full page response to the claim, "Many scientists reject evolution and support creationism," made by the Institution for Creation Research: On the evidence, of approximately 480,000 earth- and life-scientists only about 700, that is one in 685 believes in "creation-science" or consider it a valid theory. The section further points out that the concern should be evidence, not conviction.

 

For those on either side of this issue, Isaak also maintains a constantly updated website. Another website contains creationism and intelligent design responses.-- Gerry Rising