Debates and the Globetrotters Eugenie C. Scott During the last six or eight months, I have
Debates and the Globetrotters
Eugenie C. Scott
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
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 exercize 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
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 nonsequitors 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 gallups
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 debators deal
with a limited number of topics. Instead of the "Gish Gallup"
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
creationnist. Next, the evolutionist takes 10 minutes to discuss
an agreed-upon issue, with the creationist taking the next five
minutes, and the 2 minute followup.
With this format, the audience is given digestable 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 Gallup" 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
E-Mail Fredric L. Rice / The Skeptic Tank