Debates

Because organized "debates" on college campuses are such a central part of the creationist strategy for mobilizing large numbers of supporters, our strategy to defeat them must be careful and well-thought out. And the opinion of most of the experienced creation-fighters (such as the National Center for Science Education) can be summed up in one short sentence: don't debate creationists.

Although many creationist fighters will be overflowing with the desire to get the creationists into an "open debate" and thereby kick their butts in public, there are several good reasons why this is not advisable. As we have already seen, debates like this do not convince anybody of anything, since only the already-converted will show up. It will give the opportunity for the creationists to rally the faithful in every fundamentalist congregation in the county, all of whom will show up, by the busloads, at the debate hall to cheer their heroes on. As Eugenie C. Scott, director of the National Center for Science Education, puts it, "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?" (Scott, "Debates and the Globetrotters", undated)

Even if the audience were willing to listen to the evolutionist side of the story (they will not be), the usual format for such debates, a forty-five minute presentation by each side, followed by a half-hour rebuttal, will shackle the debater's hands. The subject of biological evolution is so huge and so complex that people spend their whole professional lives investigating just tiny portions of it. It is simply impossible to give an adequate overview of such a complex subject in the space of a forty-five minute presentation, particularly when one understands the often abysmal level of science education among the audience. The creationists, on the other hand, are helped greatly by these time limits. Since they have no scientific model of their own to present, they will spend all of their time in what is known affectionately as the "Gish Gallop", in which they skip around from topic to topic spewing out an unceasing blizzard of baloney and unsupported assertions about evolutionary theory, leaving the poor evolutionist to attempt to catch up and correct them all. It is an impossible task. As Scott points out, "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." (Scott, "Debates and the Globetrotters", undated) Whenever the scientist presents a valid piece of scientific data, the creationist need simply answer with, "That's not true." It is then incumbent upon the scientist to spend twenty minutes explaining why it is true. Meanwhile, the scientist's basic message will not be getting out; the creationist's will.

Because of the inherently stacked deck in these staged debates, most experienced creation-fighters agree that they can do no good and are best avoided.

Debates on TV or radio, however, are another matter entirely. Here, where the creationists cannot set the forum, it is possible to narrow the debate down to a single topic--the age of the earth, or the fossil record--and then debate it through to its logical conclusion. This defeats the Gish Gallop, and also prevents the common creationist tactic of suddenly changing the subject whenever he gets uncomfortable. It also allows the debater to jump in immediately whenever the creationist makes one of his many unsupported assertions or false statements. Not surprisingly, most creationist debaters will refuse to debate under these conditions.

In debating a creationist on TV or radio, several key points must be kept in mind. Richard Trott, who has tangled with creationists numerous times, lists six points to follow when debating someone like Gish (Trott, "Debating the ICR's Duane Gish", undated):

Point One: "Know your audience." The majority of the audience will be hostile to evolution and to evolutionists. "No matter what part of the country you are in and what kind of institution is hosting the debate," says Trott, "Gish will be well-publicized among the faithful." (Trott, "Debating the ICR's Duane Gish", undated) As far as most of the audience is concerned, you will be Satan's representative on earth. The rest of the audience is liable to be interested laymen who will more than likely possess at best a limited knowledge of science and evolutionary theory. You will have to keep your presentation simple, concise and easily understandable.

Point Two: "Don't be the dull lecturer." This is not a biology classroom or a scientific symposium. If you sound like the stereotypical biology professor, you will get nowhere fast. "Gish has been involved in hundreds of debates," says Trott, "and has an appealing set of slides that help make his presentation fun to watch and easy to understand." (Trott, "Debating the ICR's Duane Gish", undated) You too must use a dash of Madison Avenue to get your points across.

Point Three: "Be prepared for standard Gish evasions." If their back is pressed to the wall, some creationists will not hesitate a moment to obfuscate, avoid the question if possible, and flat-out lie if necessary. In July 1983, PBS broadcast a show on the creation science controversy, in which biochemists cited the close affinity of human and chimp proteins as evidence for their evolutionary relationship. Gish responded to this by saying, "If we look at certain proteins, yes, man--then--it can be assumed that man is more closely related to a chimpanzee than other things. But on the other hand, if you look at certain other proteins, you'll find that man is more closely related to a bullfrog than he is to a chimpanzee. If you focus your attention on other proteins, you'll find that man is more closely related to a chicken than he is to a chimpanzee." (cited in Zuber, Strassen and Trott, "A Few Verifiable Instances of Creationist Dishonesty", undated) No such proteins exist, and Gish has, despite repeated requests from several biochemists to provide these sequences, never produced any. It certainly gives every appearance as though Duane Gish lied on national TV by making up spurious data. Be prepared for more of the same.

Point Four: "Avoid arrogance, appeal to authority, and similar attitudes and tactics." The creationists will try and paint scientists as a close-minded arrogant lot who are afraid that their privileged position as an intellectual pseudo-priesthood will be challenged by the creation "scientists". Some scientists are. You better not be if you want to debate Gish.

Point Five: "Be forewarned; Gish has extraordinary charisma and is well- liked." Gish will present himself as the very personification of reasonableness and open-mindedness. Trott points out that he is "very careful not to appear mean-spirited." (Trott, "Debating the ICR's Duane Gish", undated) Furthermore, the audience will cheer their hero's every word, while treating you as an ally of Satan--and the creationist will in turn be making some of the most blatantly false and outrageous statements that you will ever hear. Under these circumstances, it is easy to lose one's cool and resort to ad hominems and personal attacks. Such responses are a definite no-no.

Point Six: "Gish gives the same presentation every time--know it!" Gish has debated hundreds of scientists--he has heard every possible argument dozens of times, and he knows just which clever one-liner can defuse the debater and make him look like a fool. Remember, Gish's purpose in these debates is not to answer the debater questions, or even acknowledge them--his sole purpose is to expose as many people as possible to his creationist spiel. To do this, he will stick with his familiar responses and be very reluctant to depart from his well-rehearsed script, no matter what the debater is saying. As biologist William Mayer, who has debated Gish, concludes, "The debates that I have had were not debates. The creationists come with a prepared script they present come hell or high water." (Montagu, 1984, p. 303)

Because the creationists are so wedded to their prepackaged spiel, one of the primary tactics of the debater must be to force him to depart from the script and wander into unrehearsed territory. The very best way to do this is to force the creationist to argue the merits of creation "science" rather than the more familiar (to him) territory of evolutionary science. In a debate with Canadian creationist Ian Taylor, Robert P.J. Day accomplished this with a simple and clever tactic:

"I compared two scenarios; what we have now, 'Evolution in, Creationism out', with what the creationists, with their demand for 'equal time', seem to be asking for, 'Evolution in, Creationism in'. I then pointed out that, in comparing the two scenarios, there was no difference in the status of evolution; that is, both evolutionists and creationists agree that evolution should be taught and evolution was therefore not the issue here. Rather, the controversy hinged on the inclusion of creation science in the public school curriculum. My task, in wanting to exclude it from science classes, would be to show that it did not qualify as science, while Taylor's job, in trying to include it, would be to defend it. I stated that any attacks on evolution by Taylor would be completely irrelevant, since evolution clearly was not an issue. In doing so, I deprived Taylor of his most effective weapon. . . . It left me free to use my entire presentation to eviscerate creation science." (Day, "Public Debate With a Creationist", undated)

NCSE director Scott echoes, "Don't bother defending evolution. Evolution is a state of the art science, taught at every decent college and university in this country . . . Tell your audience that there is plenty of information on evolution in the library, in university courses, and in scores of scientific journals. . . . 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." (Scott, "Debates and the Globetrotters", undated)

This tactic, at a stroke, forces the creationist to toss out nearly his entire script. The creationists are used to debating the validity of evolution, and have a whole slew of pseudo-scientific arguments to use--arguments which they know so well they can repeat in their sleep. But they are not used to debating the merits of their own "science"--since they know as well as anyone that they have no science. When they are forced to depart from their rehearsed script and answer some hard questions--like defining a "kind", or explaining exactly where the water for their global flood came from, or why their river-influx method of dating the age of the earth gives such widely different dates, or why if creationism is a science there are so many references to religious beliefs in their writings--they will be floundering in no time.

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