The Talk.Origins Archive: Exploring the Creation/Evolution Controversy

Debating the ICR's Duane Gish
Copyright © 1994-1997 by Richard Trott
[Last Update: July 7, 1994]

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 and tactics

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 hardly any challenge at all to 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.

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