Everyone agrees that scientists should confront the claims of creationists, but how? Are debates of the sort that creationists love to promote the right arena? Not in my opinion.
Debaters on our side of this issue, I assume, participate in the hope of improving the public's understanding of evolution and the nature of science, leading to increased support for the teaching of evolution in the public schools uncompromised by religious dogma. It is a worthy goal. (Unfortunately, some debate to gratify their egos.)
As I have argued elsewhere (Scott 1994) and as argued by the other contributors in this issue of RNCSE, such debates are counterproductive. They confuse the public about evolution and the nature of science; they increase the membership and swell the coffers of their creationist sponsors; they fuel local enthusiasm for creationism, thereby contributing to public pressure on local teachers to teach creationism or downplay evolution.
"But you've debated creationists," you protest. "I've seen you on Firing Line and Crossfire, and NCSE even sells a videotaped debate with you, Duane Gish, and Hugh Ross! How can you say ‘don't debate creationists' when you debate creationists?"
Well, in fact, I really don't debate. I appear with creationists at public events and on radio and television shows, and sometimes these appearances are called "debates," but they are not formal debates about evolution of the sort that the Institute for Creation Research or Kent Hovind or the Veritas Forum constantly try to organize. I steer clear of such events, and, again, I recommend that my colleagues follow suit.
But I do appear in public with creationists, and you may be asked to do the same. Where, and how, do I draw the line between debating creationists and participating in a public exchange? Here are criteria to consider if you are invited to engage with creationists mano a mano.
- The topic of the discussion should not be the scientific legitimacy of evolution. Evolution is not on trial in the world of science. I will not defend evolution against a creationist, whether young-earth, old-earth, or "intelligent design". I am happy to discuss the scientific illegitimacy of creationism, however. And I am even happier to talk about issues that are central to the controversy in law, religion, philosophy, education, and politics — where, unlike in science, there is real controversy.
- The format should be conducive to educating the audience about evolution and the nature of science. A useful format, in which proponents of "intelligent design" were required to make their case and defend it in the face of criticism, was used at the American Museum of Natural History's forum on "intelligent design" in April 2002 (a transcript is available: Anonymous 2002). To be avoided are unstructured formats allowing presentation of misconception after misconception — what I have dubbed "the Gish Gallop" in honor of its most avid practitioner.
- The setting should be neutral. Why debate evolution before an audience consisting predominantly of conservative Christians? Why be the evolutionist Federals to the creationist Globetrotters? The event should be accessible to members of the general public, so in general, a venue in a church is not the first choice, compared to, say, a university auditorium. On the other hand, if the topic is science and religion, then a predominantly religious audience in a church setting is understandable.
Preparation is necessary for any venue, and it's not enough to know the science: you have to know the pseudoscience, too. (May I suggest my recent book [Scott 2004] and Mark Isaak's new book [Isaak 2005] to help you study?) And it's useful to work on your delivery as well. In person and especially on television, affect is often more important than content, so be nice. No matter how technically brilliant your presentation, the effect will be lost if the audience finds you arrogant, boring, or unpleasant, much less all three.
Instead of a face-to-face debate, consider a written one. On the internet, there is unlimited time and space for debates, including the opportunity for documentation and references, impractical in oral debates. A good on-line debate that showed clearly which side has the real science is a debate hosted by NOVA between "intelligent design" advocate Phillip Johnson and NCSE Supporter Kenneth R Miller (Johnson and Miller 1996). Be warned, though: it is increasingly difficult to find a creationist to debate in such a format!
You can be a voice for evolution even without debating, of course. You can write letters and op-eds to the editors of newspapers and magazines, respond to bogus claims on internet blogs, and even organize your own pro-evolution forums, as the residents of Darby, Montana, and Grantsburg, Wisconsin, did in response to assaults on evolution education in their communities. NCSE's pamphlet "25 ways you can support evolution education" (available on-line at http://www.ncseweb.org/25_ways.asp) suggests a number of ways to contribute.
In short, scientists, and those who are concerned about the quality of science education, should indeed confront creationism in all its forms as well as support evolution education, but they should do so in ways that advance, rather than thwart, the goal of a scientifically literate public that understands and appreciates science.