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

Debates and the Globetrotters
Copyright © 1994-1997 by Eugenie Scott
[Last Update: July 7, 1994]

During the last six or eight months, I have received more calls about debates between creationists and evolutionists than I have encountered for a couple of years, it seems. I do not know what has inspired this latest outbreak, but I am not sure it is doing much to improve science education.

Why do I say this? Sure, there are examples of "good" debates where a well-prepared evolution supporter got the best of a creationist, but I can tell you after many years in this business that they are few and far between. Most of the time a well-meaning evolutionist accepts a debate challenge (usually "to defend good science" or for some other worthy goal), reads a bunch of creationist literature, makes up a lecture explaining Darwinian gradualism, and can't figure out why at the end of the debate so many individuals are clustered around his opponent, congratulating him on having done such a good job of routing evolution -- and why his friends are too busy to go out for a beer after the debate.

The worse situation is that he and his friends think he did just fine, and remain ignorant of the fact that the majority of the audience left the auditorium convinced that evolution was "a theory in crisis."

What usually happens in these debates? Usually they take place at the invitation of the other side, and usually they take place in a religious setting or minimally under religious sponsorship. That's the first problem. The audience that is most anxious to come, and that will be recruited the most heavily, is the one that supports the creationist. In the comparatively rare situation where the debate is held on a college campus, the supporters of good science and evolution are invariably in the minority in the audience, whereas the creationist supporters seem to exercise every effort to turn out their crowd. Don't be surprised to see church busses from many local communities lined up outside the debate hall. In some cases, the sponsors advertised only among the faithful, posting up only a handful of flyers on campus. Guess who came?

The second problem is that the evolutionist debater has an upstream battle from the start. Evolution is a complex set of ideas that is not easily explained in the sound-bite razzle-dazzle of the debate format. Evolution applies to astronomy, physics, chemistry, biochemistry, anthropology, biology, geology -- you name the field, and evolution will relate to it, like as not. Most audiences have an abysmal understanding of basic science. How are you going to bring an audience up to par? The goal of a debate (I assume) is to teach the audience something about evolution and the nature of science. This is possible in a debate format, but it is difficult to do well, because it is not easy to do quickly.

Consider that your opponent will offer as proof that evolution did not occur that Stephen Jay Gould has said that the fossil record does not support gradual evolution. A good debating strategy: he is citing a famous evolutionist source, which gives him credibility. Plus he is confusing Gould's statement about the rate of evolutionary change with an unmade conclusion about whether evolution occurs. Plus he is operating from the creationist enthusiasm for authority ("if famous scientist X says it, it has to be true.") Gould, like any scientist, can be wrong on any point. We don't accept "famous scientist X's" conclusions just because of the fame of the maker, but because of the quality of the argument.

How long does it take to straighten out your audience on this matter? The creationist has made a simple declarative sentence, and you have to deal with not an easily-grasped factual error, but a logical error and a methodological error, which will take you far longer to explain. As I was writing this, a community college teacher called to tell me she had trouble convincing her students they were made out of smaller parts! Now maybe not all audiences are at such a primitive level that they don't even accept cell theory, but given the fact that your opponent just has to say, "It didn't happen" (i.e., "there are no transitional forms", "radiometric dating doesn't work," etc.) means you have a bunch more talking to do from the get-go.

Creationist debaters (at least the nationally-prominent ones) are masters at presenting these half-truth non-sequiturs that the audience misunderstands as relevant points. These can be very difficult to counter in a debate situation, unless you have a lot of time. And you never have enough time to deal with even a fraction of the half-truths or plain erroneous statements that creationists can come out with. Even if you deal with a handful of the unscientific nonsense spewed out by your opponent, your audience is left with the , "Yeah, but..." syndrome: well, maybe there are intermediate forms and the creationist was wrong about radiometric dating, YEAH, BUT why didn't that evolutionist answer the question about polonium halos?" (or some other argument.)

The evolutionist debater is never going to be able to counter all of the misinformation that a creationist can put out in a lengthy debate format. And the way these things work is that suspicion is sowed in the minds of the audience no matter what.

The title of this article brings up a third point. Have you ever seen the Harlem Globetrotters basketball team play? Years ago (maybe even now for all I know) they used to play against a white team called the "Washington Federals" or something like that. It was great fun to see the Globetrotters dribble basketballs around these guys, through their legs, bounce balls off each other and generally goof around making the poor Federals look like dopes. I think the Federals were probably a pick-up team from the area, comprised of OK ball-players, maybe on the sub-semi-pro level.

What was sort of interesting was that the Federals did occasionally get off some good shots. They weren't total stumblebums. But nobody paid any attention to the good shots of the Federals.

In a creation/evolution debate, the audience is there to hear their champion, and most of them are there for the other side's champion. They're there to root for their Globetrotter (an apt term, given the Institute for Creation Research's travel schedule) and who cares if the evolutionist gets off a good shot or two? The function of the evolutionist in such a setting is to be beat up on, and inspire the troops.

And however well the evolutionist thinks he may have done, the probability is that he was just fodder to inspire the local fans. I have been invited on many occasions to debate, and have always turned them down. The purpose of a debate is to rouse the local troops, to stir them to action, and inspire them to go forth and support the teaching of creationism.

Why should we help?

Before you accept a debate, consider if what you are about to do will harm the cause more than promote it. Many scientists justify the debate by saying, "creationists will claim that scientists are afraid to debate them." So what? Who are they going to make the claim to? Their own supporters? A letter in the local newspaper that will be read by how many people, and remembered for how long?

If the alternative is to show that scientists are not afraid of creationists by having some poor scientist get beat up on the debating stage, are we better off?

And let's face it -- some scientists do it out of a sense of ego. Gee, I'm really going to make mincemeat out of that creationist, they think. Well, are you such a big shot debater that you can guarantee that people in the audience aren't going to go off after your debate and make life miserable for the local science teacher? "Gee, Mrs. Brown, I went to this neat debate the other day. You'd be surprised at how weak evolution is. Are you going to teach it this year?" Want to lay odds on Mrs. Brown teaching evolution again? Is your ego more important than students learning evolution? Think about it.

My recommendation: above all else, do no harm

I have no objection, by the way, to appearing on radio and TV with creationists, and have done so many times. In this format, it is possible to have some sort of point-counterpoint which is (though it seems odd to say it) not possible in a formal debate format. On the radio, I have been able to stop Gish, et al, and say, "Wait a minute, if X is so, then wouldn't you expect Y?" or something similar, and show that their "model" is faulty. But in a debate, the evolutionist has to shut up while the creationist gallops along, spewing out nonsense with every paragraph.

Now, there are ways to have a formal debate that actually teaches the audience something about science, or evolution, and that has the potential to expose creation science for the junk it is. This is to have a narrowly-focused exchange in which the debaters deal with a limited number of topics. Instead of the "Gish Gallop" format of most debates where the creationist is allowed to run on for 45 minutes or an hour, spewing forth torrents of error that the evolutionist hasn't a prayer of refuting in the format of a debate, the debaters have limited topics and limited time. For example, the creationist has 10 minutes to discuss a topic on which creationists and evolutionists disagree (intermediate forms, the nature of science [with or without the supernatural], the 2nd law of thermodynamics disproves evolution, the inadequacy of mutation and selection to produce new "kinds", etc.) The evolutionist then has a 5 minute rebuttal, followed by a 2 minute reprise from the creationist. Next, the evolutionist takes 10 minutes to discuss an agreed-upon issue, with the creationist taking the next five minutes, and this time the evolutionist gets the final 2 minute follow-up.

With this format, the audience is given digestible bits of information and is not overwhelmed by a barrage of impossible-to- answer nonsense. The evolutionist at least has a fighting chance to teach something about science and evolution.

Of course, whenever the ICR has been presented this option, they have refused to debate. Which in itself suggests the utility of using this approach! I think they recognize that they have a lot to lose in any other than the "Gish Gallop" format. Tough luck. I can't see any reason why evolutionists should make it easier for them to rally their troops.

If after all of this, you still think you want to debate a creationist, then let me give you some suggestions. First, don't bother defending evolution. Evolution is state of the art science, taught at every decent college and university in this country, including Brigham Young, Notre Dame, and Baylor. So why should you defend it? Tell your audience that there is plenty of information on evolution in the library, in university courses, and in scores of science journals. Creation "science" is the new kid on the block. Let's see if it fits the criteria of science, and secondly, if its claims and predictions stand up to scrutiny.

And then show the audience how creation science is a bust. Don't bother trying to explain something as complicated as evolution, although during your rebuttal you can straighten the audience out on the creationist's stupider claims. But hit hard at flood geology, the impossibility of all organisms being descended from the Ark survivors (some real problems in genetics here, folks), hit them on the young age of the earth, quote Morris on Satan causing the craters on the moon, and all the other dumb stuff the creationists don't want people to know they think.

I have other suggestions, but I won't waste time here. Call NCSE if you are going to debate or if you hear of someone going to debate. Get the word out that these practices do not improve the public understanding of science or evolution. But if it is impossible to avoid, call NCSE. 1-800-290-6006.

Eugenie C. Scott

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