Why I Won't Debate Creationists

For good or ill, the late Stephen Jay Gould had a huge influence on American scientific culture, and on balance the good came out on top. His powerful voice will echo on for a long time. Although he and I disagreed about much, we shared much too, including a spellbound delight in the wonders of the natural world, and a passionate conviction that such wonders deserve nothing less than a purely natural explanation.

Another thing about which we agreed was our refusal to engage in public debates with creationists. Steve had even more reason than me to be irritated by them. They distorted the theory of punctuated equilibrium so that it appeared to support their preposterous (but astonishingly common) belief that there are no intermediates in the fossil record. Gould's reply deserves to be widely known:

"Since we proposed punctuated equilibria to explain trends, it is infuriating to be quoted again and again by creationists ? whether through design or stupidity, I do not know ? as admitting that the fossil record includes no transitional forms. Transitional forms are generally lacking at the species level, but they are abundant between larger groups. "

Some time in the 1980s when I was on a visit to the United States, a television station wanted to stage a debate between me and a prominent creationist called, I think, Duane P Gish. I telephoned Stephen Gould for advice. He was friendly and decisive: "Don't do it." The point is not, he said, whether or not you would 'win' the debate. Winning is not what the creationists realistically aspire to. For them, it is sufficient that the debate happens at all. They need the publicity. We don't. To the gullible public which is their natural constituency, it is enough that their man is seen sharing a platform with a real scientist. "There must be something in creationism, or Dr So-and-So would not have agreed to debate it on equal terms." Inevitably, when you turn down the invitation you will be accused of cowardice, or of inability to defend your own beliefs. But that is better than supplying the creationists with what they crave: the oxygen of respectability in the world of real science.

I have followed his advice ever since, and I was reminded of it again in 2001 when I was invited by a third party to take part in a debate with, among several other evolutionists and creationists, the lawyer Phillip Johnson, high priest of the 'Intelligent Design' sect of creationists. I refused, as usual. Johnson then refused too, and his letter (which he copied to me) brought back with a vengeance Steve Gould's words about creationists' real motives. Here is what Johnson said:

"It isn't worth my while to debate every ambitious Darwinist who wants to try his hand at ridiculing the opposition, so my general policy is that Darwinists have to put a significant figure at risk before I will agree to a debate. That means specifically Dawkins or Gould, or someone of like stature and public visibility."

This moved me to write to Gould, reminding him of his advice to me all those years ago. I proposed a joint letter, perhaps to the New York Review of Books, explaining why we don't do debates with creationists, and encouraging other scientists to refuse for the same reason. He enthusiastically agreed, and suggested that I draft a letter and send it to him as a starting point. I did so, but our correspondence was sadly cut short by his last illness. My draft, deprived, alas, of the improvements that he would undoubtedly have wrought, will be published in my forthcoming book of collected essays.

Johnson's motives are similarly betrayed in two further documents. In his 'Wedge of Truth' web site, he reports a debate between his creationist colleague Jonathan Wells (incidentally a long-standing Moonie ) and the Harvard biologist Stephen Palumbi.

http://www.arn.org/docs/pjweekly/pj_weekly_011202.htm

Johnson's triumphalist tone is captured in his headline, "Wells Hits a Home Run at Harvard." But the 'Home Run' turns out to be not a resounding success by Wells in convincing the audience, nor any kind of besting of Professor Palumbi (who told me he agreed to take part, with great reluctance, only because somebody at Harvard had already invited Wells and it was too late to do anything about it ). There is no suggestion that Wells won the debate, nor even any obvious interest in whether he did. No, Wells scored his home run the moment the invitation from Harvard dropped into his mailbox.

The second revealing document is a recently published interview given by Johnson to a religious magazine.

"In October I had a wonderful debate with Nobel laureate physicist Steven Weinberg at the University of Texas. Weinberg, one of the most famous scientists in the world, debates me before an academic audience whenever I come to Austin."

(Look at me, I'm having a debate with one of the big boys. Doesn't that just prove that creationism is being taken seriously in the universities?) Again, it is sufficient that a scientist of Weinberg's stature agrees to take part in a debate with Johnson. The existence of the debate itself is the propaganda victory, not the arguments deployed nor the outcome of the debate.

My own most bizarre invitation, and the most transparently publicity-hungry, is dated August 2002.

"Dear Dr. Dawkins:

. . . Do you really believe in evolutionism? If so, on behalf of Dr. Joseph Mastropaolo I present you with the following challenge. This is the announcement of the Life Science Prize. The rules are like those for a prize sporting event: the winner takes all. The evolutionist contestant puts $10,000 in escrow. This will be matched by a creation scientist for a total of $20,000. If the evolutionist proves evolution is science and creation is religion he wins the $20,000. If the creation scientist proves that creation is science and evolution is religion, then he collects the $20,000. The standards of evidence will be those of science: objectivity, validity, reliability and calibration. The preponderance of the evidence prevails.

Please contact me as soon as possible and we shall begin working out the details for the debate.

Thank you.

Sincerely,

Karl Priest

Who, I wondered, was 'Dr Joseph Mastropaolo'? Evidently a personage so grand that somebody else writes his letters for him. Or was Priest/Mastropaolo a Jekyll and Hyde figure, named Mastropaolo but with a fantasy of becoming a priest? For reasons I have already explained, I had not the slightest intention of accepting his (their?) ridiculous challenge, but I thought I might have some fun before ending the correspondence. With hindsight, that might have been a time-wasting mistake.

Although I wondered in passing about 'calibration', I noted that the standards of evidence would be those of science. I therefore made the innocent suggestion that the judging panel should consist of distinguished scientists, to be nominated by the National Academy of Sciences, the Royal Society, and Nobel Prizewinners. Needless to say, I would never have dreamed of troubling these august bodies with such a silly request. If Priest/Mastropaolo had possessed even a grain of intelligence, he could easily have called my bluff. But of course he did not. Instead (this time beginning his letter as plain Mastropaolo but still signing off as Priest) he accused me of trying to rig the judging process, and ended with ringing defiance:

"If your objective is to stack the jury with evolutionists that will vote you the winner no matter what evidence is presented, then count yourself in default on this challenge. Which is it?"

Priest/Mastropaolo won't let it drop, and he goes on challenging me, with increasing belligerence, to accept or 'default'. At one point I told him I might publish the correspondence for amusement, and received the following truculent permission to do so:

"Be sure you publish the following (and you may sign my name): You, Dr. Dawkins are an intellectual coward. You are scared to defend your faith in evolutionism on a level playing field. You have defaulted out of fear."

I promised that I would indeed publish his words (I just have). I reminded him that it was he who refused to submit a scientific question to the judgment of the world's leading scientists, and I added a further constructive suggestion:

". . . science keeps its playing field level by the rather admirable system of anonymous peer-review. If you have evidence that evolution is false, you are entirely at liberty to submit a paper to the Editor of Nature, or Science, or the Journal of Theoretical Biology, or the American Naturalist, or Biological Reviews, or the Quarterly Review of Biology, or any of hundreds of other reputable journals in which ordinary working scientists publish their research. Do not fear that Editors will reject it simply because it opposes evolution. On the contrary, the journal that published a paper which really did discover a fallacy in evolution, or convincing evidence against it, would have the scoop of the century, in scientific terms. Editors would kill to get their hands on it."

This challenge by me has ? of course ? gone unanswered. On my side the correspondence is terminated, although Priest/Mastropaolo went on bombarding me weekly with increasingly raucous accusations of cowardice. He reminds me of the Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail who continued, as a stump-waving, blood-spouting torso, to shout "Running away, eh? . . . Come back here and take what's coming to you. I'll bite your legs off" at the indifferent back of the opponent who had successively deprived him of all four limbs.

I hope that my recollection of Stephen Gould's wise words will encourage others to refuse all debating invitations from pseudoscientists avid for publicity. Quite a good plan, which I follow myself from time to time, is to recommend that the case for evolution could easily be entrusted to a local undergraduate majoring in biology. Alternatively, I plead a prior engagement: an important forthcoming debate against the Flat Earth Society.

TAGGED: CREATIONISM, RICHARD DAWKINS


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