Reports of the National Center for Science Education


It can start with something as innocuous as a friendly e-mail:
Dear Karen, Would you be willing to debate evolution with a Creationist at a University? I'm curious because as a student I'd like to see one. Currently, I'm in the first stages of finding out how to go about this endeavor. I feel you could have much to offer in way of the evolution side to the debate. Thanks for listening.
As a veteran of such a debate in 1998, I turned Janet down. She did not take kindly to my refusal; in fact, we exchanged another seven e-mails before I finally quit replying. Her responses are very telling, and demonstrate some reasons why I feel that debating scientific issues with creationists is a waste of everyone's time.

Reason #1 not to debate

Initially, Janet claimed:
It would be very productive to have a debate because higher-order thinking and decision making is [sic] necessary to evaluate one's position on origins of mankind.
This leads to the first issue: format. The summary evidence for evolution is not presentable in a 2–3 hour debate to people who have neither the background nor the inclination to evaluate objectively any evidence that you might present. Though Janet appeared open-minded initially, and was a self-described "seeker of Truth," it became apparent that her science literacy was minimal and that she was merely repeating standard creationist rhetoric and urban legends. Some of her earlier comments included:
The importance of this topic is enormous because there is not much objective evidence to support evolution. Isn't the fact that there is so much variation in the planet orbits, numbers of moon [sic], rotation of axis, and more, evidence that maybe, just maybe evolution did not occur and that Someone else possibly created us? If evolution were undeniable, like gravity, then there absolutely wouldn't be all this heated debate. ["What debate?" I asked.] Macroevolution cannot be repeated in the lab nor can it be observed. When you have hard scientific evidence, check out He's offering $250,000 for scientific evidence for evolution. Until then, can you at least not insist on this being in the same realm as gravity? Gravity is a principal [sic]. Evolution is still a theory which, in macro terms, cannot be repeated. Why are you telling me it's so factual, when so many other scientists admit loopholes in fossil record, transitional links, and the possibility of special design? ["Which 'other scientists'?", I asked.]
So much misinformation, so little time. If someone who claims to want to learn more about evolution can make these types of statements prior to a debate, someone like me is not going to make a dent in two hours, no matter how compelling my evidence, no matter how snazzy my slides!

I told Janet that I agreed with her about the importance of higher-order thinking, but that debates are "drive-by shootings" when it comes to critical thinking. One simply does not have time to process the information, much less the misinformation, spewed rapid-fire by many creationist speakers. Higher-order thinking may take place when one studies the evidence over a long period of time, becomes well-versed in the basics of biology, chemistry, and geology, and the fundamentals of creationist arguments, and then can slowly and carefully evaluate them. I said that I would be happy to look at any questions she had on evolution in a reflective, higher-order thinking format. This did not interest her.

Reason #2 not to debate

The second reason not to debate a creationist is that the audience is not really searching for scientific evidence, anyway. Janet's later comments revealed the true area of concern:
He told us through the Bible that Creation was His way. Not evolution, not Gap Theories, not all the other crap theories. The whole base is Genesis, and if it's faulty, then get rid of the whole thing because you cannot have a house built on a shaky foundation, it'll crumble. The gospel message is an eternal one, and when evolution is preported [sic] as truth, then the foundation on which Christians stand, the WHOLE POINT for Christ['s] dying and the origin and consequences of sin, THESE things are meaningless. I sincerely hope you realize this because if I'm wrong then I don't lose anything, but if your [sic] wrong, you lose everything. [Pascal's wager is alive and well.]
Janet had initially proposed a debate about evolution, but it became apparent that her fears and misconceptions were religious and philosophical, not scientific. Anyone wanting to make a serious scientific point thus has a huge hurdle to leap! As a friend pointed out at my 1998 debate: The people in "your audience believed that if they began to accept your views, they'd likely face eternal damnation! Karen, you had no chance."

Reason #3 not to debate

I told Janet that my other reason for not debating: Scientists do not debate whether the earth goes around the sun, whether the earth is spherical or flat, or whether humans have 46 chromosomes; instead, they evaluate evidence. I noted that within the scientific world, there is no debate about the fact of evolution. This is another reason not to debate creationists: in the scientific community, theories do not rise or fall based on debate and rhetoric, but on the strength of evidence. It is wrong to imply to general audiences that this is the way science is done.

Since there is no evidence to support a young earth, a sudden creation, or a global flood, one must be prepared for the main rhetorical devices of the creationist: out-of-context quotations and straw-man arguments. Creationists, including "intelligent design" proponents, have raised this tactic to an art form (see Bartelt 2000; NCSE 2001; Bartelt 2001 for examples). This works because the audience cannot believe that a "Christian" is going to lie, and nothing the opponent says will convince them otherwise. It is a tremendous waste of time for the scientist to wade through half-truths and urban legends before even touching upon the science.

Expect dishonesty; you will not be disappointed. When I agreed to a debate, I verbally agreed to allow a taping. Though I never agreed that this tape could be distributed: a highly edited version is being sold by the creationist. (Yes, if I thought I could successfully sue him, I would!)

Reason #4 not to debate

You will never get a balanced audience, no matter how hard you try, and this audience will not abandon its religious preconceptions. My debate took place in a Universalist–Unitarian church. It was well-advertised there and at my college. Nevertheless, 75% of the audience came from surrounding fundamentalist churches, where they care more about this issue and see the investment of their time in these endeavors as spreading the Gospel. Perhaps the only chance a scientist has of overcoming all the obstacles to an honest, accurate presentation of the science is to find a way around trying to "debate" science in front of a hostile live audience.

First, suggest a written internet debate instead. In this format, there are opportunities to evaluate the "evidence" and respond thoughtfully. One can furnish links to resources that provide additional information. Creationists avidly avoid internet debates, or are easily beaten when they do agree to this format (see NMSR 2000–1). Second, ask to present the evidence for evolution separately, preferably following a presentation by a creationist. I have a standing offer to present the real evidence for evolution — not the skewed straw-man creationist version — to the students at Peoria Christian School. Though I made the offer in December 1993, I am still waiting. I take this as evidence that they really do not want to know anything but their stilted explanations and that a "debate" would also be futile.

The Mother of All Reasons to Avoid Debate

It is easy to see that the creation/evolution "debate" format is not designed to enlighten the audience or to promote higher-order thinking. However, perhaps the best reason to avoid a debate came to me in a reply from a creationist. When I asked creationist Douglas Sharp why creationist websites do not link to evolutionist websites (in contrast, for example, to NCSE's website), he replied:
In the academic world there is an inordinate emphasis and value placed upon debate. This is really a Marxist-humanist idea: thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. Our purpose is to focus and emphasize that which is Truth. Instead of spending so much time trying to answer a myriad of false arguments, we focus on what we know to be true, and continue to refine that as we grow in our knowledge (Sharp nd).
I could not have said it better myself!

By Karen E Bartelt
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.