RNCSE 24 (6)

Reports of the National Center for Science Education
Volume: 
24
Issue: 
6
Year: 
2004
Date: 
November–December
Articles available online are listed below.

Challenging Creationist Debaters

Reports of the National Center for Science Education
Title: 
Challenging Creationist Debaters
Author(s): 
Edward E Max
Volume: 
24
Issue: 
6
Year: 
2004
Date: 
November–December
Page(s): 
39–40
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.
NCSE has long taken the position that it is not productive for scientists to debate creationists (see "Confronting Creationism: When and How", p 23). However, NCSE has figured indirectly in a series of seven debates that I have had since 1989 with Duane Gish from the Institute for Creation Research (ICR).

I have participated in these debates even though I understand the downside of debating creationists: scientific evidence will never convince biblical literalists of the validity of the scientific position, and debates give creationism more stature than it deserves, reinforcing the false claim that evolutionary theory is actively being debated by scientists. However, I have been persuaded by two counterarguments. First, all the debates I have participated in have been attended by some people "on the fence" (see "Then a miracle occurs", p 32) who are receptive to evaluating the evidence for evolution. A few of these folks have come up to me after debates and thanked me for helping them to reposition their views on evolution. For these folks I feel the debate has been a success; and for those unconvinced, I hope they see that it is possible to discuss scientific evidence for evolution without explicitly challenging the validity of religious faith. Second, if no one volunteers to present the evolutionist position, the creationists make hay out of this, claiming that evolutionists have so little to support their view that they are afraid to debate.

One other downside of debating creationists is that scientists who are knowledgeable about evolution are not necessarily knowledgeable about creationist claims and tactics; and if they debate without this knowledge they can be made to look like fools even though their arguments are scientifically sound. I have tried to avoid this pitfall by reading creationist books and articles and by coming to the debates prepared to address specific creationist claims (see "Winning the creation debate", p 36).

I have opened all my debates by explaining that I was not out to destroy anyone's faith in the Bible, but hoped to dissuade the faithful from relying on the flimsy arguments of "creation science". I introduce the idea that creationism is "non-professional" science, that is, it is based on arguments that have not passed peer-review in professional scientific journals. I distinguish between creation scientists (who may have professional degrees, usually in a field unrelated to evolution) and their creationist claims, which are absent from the professional science literature. To pre-empt the creationist response — that professional journal editors are prejudiced against creationism — I assert that the rejection of creationist arguments is entirely justified by their poor standards of scholarship; and I spend a lot of debate time showing examples of that poor scholarship in major creationist claims. In each case I show how the creationist claim is superficially appealing, so that it sounds reasonable to church audiences not trained as professional scientists; then I explain why the claim could not pass professional peer review. My bottom line is that a faith-based view of creation is fine, but that science classrooms should stick to science that can pass professional peer-review.

One of the creationist claims that I have tried to counter at all my debates is that the Second Law of Thermodynamics would be violated by the evolutionist model of species origins. I show that Gish's Second Law claim is flawed because he fails to recognize that examples of localized negative entropy do not violate the Second Law if they are outweighed by positive entropy elsewhere in the system so that the net entropy is positive. In particular, when Gish claims that the evolution of complex life in the biosphere represents negative entropy in violation of the Second Law, his conclusion is completely invalid because he fails to consider whether this localized negative entropy is outweighed by positive entropy effects such as entropy due to energy radiation from the biosphere into space. Thus Gish's Second Law claim is as invalid as that of an accountant who claims a net profit on the basis of a high gross income, but ignores the possibility that the income is outweighed by expenses.

In my first debate with Gish, I argued that a debate before a non-technical audience would not be an appropriate venue to discuss the details of thermodynamic analyses of the evolution. I challenged him to prepare a technical article supporting his argument, suitable for publication in a professional journal. And, after getting agreement from Fred Edwords, then editor of Creation/Evolution, I told him that his article would be granted publication in this journal, where it could be evaluated by scientists interested in creation "science" arguments. He would not have to worry about journal referees rejecting his article out of prejudice; so this venue would be perfect for putting his ideas before an interested community with science training. I had a copy of this challenge distributed to everyone in the audience, and showed a slide of a letter from the journal inviting Gish's contribution. Before each subsequent debate, I have obtained a renewal of the invitation to Gish from the editor of Creation/Evolution and subsequently of RNCSE. So at each of my recent debates, when I point out that creation "scientists" make claims that sound good at non-technical debates, but that they do not even try to meet the standards of scholarship that would be acceptable for professional scientists, I can cite the NCSE's still open invitation to accept my challenge, which Gish has sidestepped since 1989.

Gish's reaction, of course, underlines the inference that we draw from the use of the debate format before a general audience: the arguments do not work in a scientific setting as science. When challenged to a real exchange of scientific ideas and theories, creationists have nothing to bring to the table.

About the Author(s): 
Edward E Max
8800 Rockville Pike, HFD-122
Bethesda MD 20892
max@cber.fda.gov

Confronting Creationism

Reports of the National Center for Science Education
Title: 
Confronting Creationism: When and How
Author(s): 
Eugenie C Scott
Volume: 
24
Issue: 
6
Year: 
2004
Date: 
November–December
Page(s): 
23
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.
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.
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

References

[Anonymous]. 2002. Transcript of American Museum of Natural History discussion on "intelligent design"; 2002 Aug 23; New York, NY. Available on-line via ; last accessed July 5, 2005.
Isaak M. The Counter-Creationism Handbook. Westport (CT): Greenwood Press.
Johnson P, Miller K. 1996. How did we get here? A cyber debate. Available on-line via http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/odyssey/debate/index.html; last accessed July 5, 2005.
Scott EC. 1994. Debates and the Globetrotters. Creation/Evolution Winter; 14 (2) nr 35: 22–6. Available on-line at http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/debating/globetrotters.html; last accessed July 5, 2005.
Scott EC. 2004. Evolution vs Creationism: An Introduction. Westport (CT): Greenwood Press.

About the Author(s): 
Eugenie C Scott
NCSE
PO Box 9477
Berkeley CA 94709-0477
scott@ncseweb.org

Debates

Reports of the National Center for Science Education
Title: 
Debates: The Drive-By Shootings of Critical Thinking
Author(s): 
Karen E Bartelt
Volume: 
24
Issue: 
6
Year: 
2004
Date: 
November–December
Page(s): 
30–31
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.
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.
Sincerely,
Janet
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 http://www.drdino.com. 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!

References

Bartelt K. 2000. Dr Dino's fractured fairy tales of science. Available on-line at http://home.austarnet.com.au/stear/hovind_fractured_fairy_tales.htm. Last accessed May 1, 2005.

Bartelt K. 2001. Quote mining ... the tradition continues: ICR representative Frank Sherwin visits Eureka College. Available on-line at http://members.aol.com/anapsid5/sherwin.html. Last accessed April 30, 2005.

[NCSE] National Center for Science Education. 2001. Setting the record straight. Available on-line at http://www.ncseweb.org/resources/articles/954_Setting_the_Record_Straight_v4.pdf. Last accessed April 29, 2005.

[NMSR] New Mexicans for Science and Reason. 2000–1. The great creation/evolution debate. Available on-line at http://www.nmsr.org/debate.htm. Last accessed April 30, 2005.

Sharp D. No date. Why don't you link evolutionist sites? Available on-line at http://www.rae.org/debate.html. Last accessed May 1, 2005.


About the Author(s): 
Karen E Bartelt
Division of Science and Mathematics
Eureka College
300 E College Ave
Eureka IL 61530
bartelt@eureka.edu

Evolution Activism

Reports of the National Center for Science Education
Title: 
Evolution Activism: The View From Grantsburg
Author(s): 
Suzanne and Blaise Vitale
Volume: 
24
Issue: 
6
Year: 
2004
Date: 
November–December
Page(s): 
11–12
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.
Grantsburg has gone through several religious controversies precipitated by actions of the school board, but we were not involved at the time because we had no children in school. Blaise is the medical advisor for the district and the unofficial football team physician. When the first issue arose several years ago, we wrote a letter to School Board President David Ahlquist, asking him to abstain from voting on religious issues because he has a conflict of interest as a Baptist youth minister.

This time around, Blaise was very interested because evolution is a deeply personal matter to him. He went to Catholic schools in New York before they were allowed to teach evolution. He subsequently attended Cornell University and majored in biology. He initially rebelled against the church for withholding the truth. However, several years later, he regained his faith after continuing to study evolution further. He is now on the church council for Faith Lutheran Church in Grantsburg.

We were appalled when the school board decided to teach "other theories of origin". Hoping that this move was made out of naiveté rather than ignorance or frank religious dogmatism, Blaise immediately started to talk about the issue. This caused some conflict in the health care community. The clinic manager and head nurse at the hospital have strong religious convictions and are conservative Christians. The nursing home's head nurse is the school board president's wife. In the past, she gave Blaise a book entitled Refuting Evolution. Among the supposed refutations is that even Galileo, a church rebel, believed in creation. Of course, he lived several hundred years before Darwin when there was no "theory" other than creationism, but that fact does not seem to trouble the author of that book. One of the other school board members who supported the anti-evolutionary policies works as an X-ray technician.

After the school board presented a guest "expert" promoting "intelligent design" and showed the full 51 minutes of the Icons of Evolution video to a public meeting, we were outraged. The board wants the Icons video shown in biology classes.

We joined with other parents and concerned citizens and demanded equal time — a presentation by scientists and/or science educators to refute the misinformation presented at the board meetings, but the board refused to let us bring a speaker to present the opposing view. In response, we formed a group called Citizens for Quality Education and rented the school auditorium for a forum on evolution. Blaise served as a panelist during the second hour of the program, discussing the medical applications and benefits of evolution.

The reception has not been positive everywhere in the community. We have been talking to whatever town leaders will listen to us. Blaise invited Leona Balek (president of the Wisconsin Chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State) to speak to the Grantsburg Rotary Club, but Rotary leaders refused to let her speak because they thought the talk would be too controversial. In this small town, as in Darby, Montana (see "Shall we let our children think?" by Victoria Clark in RNCSE 2004 Mar/Apr; 24 [2]: 10–1), some longtime relationships ended abruptly, while others sprang up suddenly. We both were pleased by the reactions of many of the 100 or so people who attended the forum. Many people went out of their way to find us and other organizers of the event and thank us for the effort.

We doubt things will change in Grantsburg. As in most small towns, people like us that have lived here for 10–15 years are still considered "outsiders" by many. Those same people never stop to think that none of the "intelligent design" experts that addressed the board — and certainly no one from the Discovery Institute, which provided materials for the school board to use in its anti-evolution policy — could be considered anything other than outsiders. People in Grantsburg, and especially those in our group, have lost friends over this issue and have been accused of being atheists (despite the fact that nearly everyone in the group is an active member in one of the town's churches).

In one sense we were successful. The school board did modify the text of its policy several times, even though the intent remained unchanged. The controversy in Grantsburg also convinced several citizens who support good science education to file for seats on the school board in the spring election. We will continue the educational activism in support of evolution in the science curriculum, and this spring we will join it with political activism. We must have a voice for science education on the school board to resist the domination by the most conservative Christians in the community.

About the Author(s): 
Suzanne and Blaise Vitale
c/o NCSE
PO Box 9477
Berkeley CA 92709-0477
ncseoffice@ncseweb.org

Grantsburg Activists Budge School Board

Reports of the National Center for Science Education
Title: 
Grantsburg Activists Budge School Board
Author(s): 
Andrew J Petto
Volume: 
24
Issue: 
6
Year: 
2004
Date: 
November–December
Page(s): 
9–11
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.
Grantsburg, a small northwestern Wisconsin town of about 1100 people, drew the attention of scientists and educators throughout the state when the school board passed a motion on June 28, 2004, to "direct our science department to teach all theories of origins." Parents and other citizens in the community were alarmed and questioned the school board over the summer about the meaning and intent of the motion. After a number of well-attended and contentious school board meetings, the policy was amended for the first time at the October 12, 2004, school board meeting. The revised statement read: "When theories of origin are taught, students will study various scientific models or theories of origin and identify the scientific data supporting each."

This adjustment made the intent a little clearer, and those concerned about the policy were even more alarmed. When the district's science teachers asked for clarification about the "various scientific models or theories of origin" and about curricular implementation of the policy, the school board responded in early November with a lengthy document consisting entirely of materials downloaded (without attribution) from the Discovery Institute's website, including 42 of the 44 items in the bibliography submitted to the Ohio State Board of Education in 2002 (see RNCSE 2002 Aug/Sep; 22 [4]: 12–8, 23–4; also available on-line at http://www.ncseweb.org/media/Analysis-of-the-Discovery-Institute.pdf). By this time, the local supporters of good science education had contacted NCSE for support, advice, and resources to help them to convince the school board to reverse its policy.

Expert Testimony

Concerned citizens continued to press the school board, asking for clarifications and documentation of their claims that this policy was needed to improve science education in Grantsburg. In response to growing outcry, the school board invited "expert" testimony on the need for balancing the curriculum with alternative "theories of origin". Because none of these experts was a member of the scientific or science education communities, evolution supporters continued to insist that the school board hear testimony from mainstream scientists and educators to respond to the claims made in these meetings by the "expert" witnesses. The school board turned aside all requests, citing a need to "move on" to pressing matters, and one member suggested to concerned citizens that if they wanted a forum to present the scientific side of the argument, then they ought to hold one themselves. Thus, Citizens for Quality Education (CQE) was formed; eventually the group organized, promoted, and held its own half-day forum on evolution and science education.

During October, Grantsburg's visibility rose throughout the state — and in the nearby Twin Cities' media market. Reporters interviewed a number of citizens, and stories appeared in major newspapers across the state. NCSE members also got involved, including Michael Zimmerman, who recruited 44 deans of Colleges of Letters and Sciences (the liberal arts divisions) in all 26 of the University of Wisconsin campuses to join in warning Grantsburg that this policy was bad for science education in the district and potentially detrimental to the future academic success of Grantsburg's students. Zimmerman also engaged in lengthy conversations and e-mail exchanges with Superintendent of Schools Joni Burgin and School Board President David Ahlquist, but soon found that the board was determined to push this policy through. Zimmerman continued to solicit letters from higher-education faculty throughout Wisconsin with specialties in religious studies, anthropology, life sciences, and geology. He also organized similar letters from the Wisconsin Society of Science Teachers and a coalition of clergy throughout the state. In all, there were nearly 1300 individuals signing on to the letters urging Grantsburg to reconsider its policy.

Grantsburg citizens and NCSE members also sought help from the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction regarding Grantsburg's obvious flouting of the directive to maintain evolution as one of the unifying themes of science curriculum in the state:
Students in Wisconsin will understand that there are unifying themes: systems, order, organization, and interactions; evidence, models, and explanations; constancy, change, and measurement; evolution, equilibrium, and energy; form and function among scientific disciplines. (Wisconsin Model Academic Standards, Science, Standard A: Science Connections. Available on-line at http://www.pi.state.wi.us/dpi/standards/scistana.html)
DPI Science Consultant Shelley Lee, a strong advocate of evolution education, provided parents in Grantsburg with documentation of the DPI's official position, but educational standards in Wisconsin are "advisory" and, except for a few items passed into law, cannot be enforced in opposition to decisions such as the one taken in Grantsburg.

The Policy Evolves

The attention did have some effect on Grantsburg, however. Even though Burgin later told the St Paul Pioneer Press (2004 Dec 17) that she and the board were unimpressed by all the protest around the state — "The amount of letters [sic] and the number of signatures does not matter. … The school board feels that they [sic] must do what is right for Grantsburg students and the Grantsburg community" — the board responded in a way. On December 6, 2004, the school board revised its policy one more time, apparently to avoid charges that the intent of the board was to allow (or require) teaching creationism in one of its forms, including "intelligent design". The new policy read:
Students are expected to analyze, review, and critique scientific explanations, including hypotheses and theories, as to their strengths and weaknesses using scientific evidence and information. Students shall be able to explain the scientific strengths and weaknesses of evolutionary theory. This policy does not call for the teaching of creationism or intelligent design.
Despite the school board's claims to the contrary, however, it was unable to provide any examples of appropriate materials that were not based either in "intelligent design" or in other creationist models. In ongoing correspondence with Burgin and the school board, Zimmerman pressed the issue of what it was the policy did call for the teachers to teach. To date, the board has provided no guidance about curricular materials and content other than the material downloaded from the Discovery Institute's website in November 2004.

In the waning months of 2004, Citizens for Quality Education organized a 4-hour program addressing the major issues in evolution education and concluding with a panel of local clergy to address concerns raised in the community about the religious implications of evolution education (see sidebar, p 12, for the program). The program was presented on January 8, 2005, and attracted about 100 people who attended all or part of the program. Among the observers were three school board members, including President Ahlquist, and the high school principal. At the end of the program, there was a feeling of accomplishment and genuine respect among participants and observers on both sides of the issue. However, the school board members did not see fit to make any changes in the policy previously implemented on December 6.

Continuing Discord

In the wake of the school board's decision to let the policy stand, two supporters of evolution decided to take political action and file their candidacies for seats on the school board in the April 2005 elections. On April 6, 2005, the Burnett County Sentinel reported unofficially that incumbents Cindy Jensen and David Ahlquist had retained their seats with 703 and 669 votes, respectively, while the challengers, Greg Palmquist and Steve McNally, received 644 and 614 votes. Although both pro-evolution candidates lost, supporters pointed out that School Board President Ahlquist retained his seat by less than a 2% margin — quite an accomplishment for political novices with a short time to plan an election campaign.

One unhappy outcome of all the controversy in this small town was a sense of division among the citizens. Suzanne and Blaise Vitale provide a first-person account of the effects of this policy on the fabric of the community reminiscent of the experience of citizens in Darby, Montana (see "Shall we let our children think?" by Victoria Clark in RNCSE 2004 Mar/Apr; 24 [2]: 10–1). However, in the end, CQE and its supporters may have underestimated their impact on the quality of education in Grantsburg. One local observer from a nearby community responded this way:
I am truly sorry that this did not turn out the way we all wanted. The [election] results were close, very close. The folks here did a great job trying to educate the public. The results indicate that a significant number of people got the idea. Don't give up. The school board voted 6–0 less than a year ago to teach creationism as science. They spent the better part of the intervening time back-pedaling from one untenable position to another.
With ongoing legal action in Dover, Pennsylvania, and flare-ups in Kansas and Gull Lake, Michigan, the Grantsburg school board may see reason to retreat even more from the original policy. NCSE continues to advise, monitor, and provide resources in Grantsburg.

[Thanks to Susan Spath, Wisconsin NCSE members, and concerned citizens of Grantsburg for information used in this report.]

About the Author(s): 
Andrew J Petto
Department of Biological Sciences
University of Wisconsin
PO Box 413
Milwaukee WI 53201-0413
editor@ncseweb.org

Then A Miracle Occurs...

Reports of the National Center for Science Education
Title: 
Then A Miracle Occurs...: An Obstreperous Evening with the Insouciant Kent Hovind, Young-Earth Creationist and Defender of the Faith
Author(s): 
Michael Shermer
Volume: 
24
Issue: 
6
Year: 
2004
Date: 
November–December
Page(s): 
32–36
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.
Those who cavalierly reject the Theory of Evolution, as not adequately supported by facts, seem quite to forget that their own theory is supported by no facts at all.
—Herbert Spencer,
19th-century social scientist and Darwinist


At 7:00 pm on a balmy Southern California evening, April 29, 2004, I entered the Physical Sciences Lecture Hall on the campus of the University of California, Irvine, to a capacity crowd of over 500 people chock-a-block jammed into a 400-seat venue. I was there at the behest of Pastor Jason, head of the OMC Youth, a campus Christian organization, who invited me to debate Kent Hovind, Young Earth Creationist and Defender of the Faith, on "Creation vs Evolution: Creation (supernatural action) or Evolution (natural processes) — which is the better explanation?"

Before the debate began. Hovind's people were there in force, handing out literature at both entrances: "PhDs who are creationists." (See the National Center for Science Education's list of "Steves" who accept evolution at http://www.ncseweb.org.) "Did Jesus say anything regarding the age of the universe?" (Yes, in Mark 10:6, Jesus said: "But from the beginning of Creation, God made them male and female." Uh?) "Biblical reasons the days in Genesis were 24 hour days." "Does carbon dating prove the earth is millions of years old?" "The Flood of Noah: Ridiculous myth or scientifically accurate?" And a 20-page booklet on "Creation vs evolution: Questions and answers." My associates Matt Cooper and David Naiditch accompanied me, staffing a small Skeptics Society book table where we countered Hovind with our magazine, books, and "How to debate a creationist" and "Baloney detection kit" publications. (Matt sensed the deck was stacked against us when they gave us a puny 3-foot table while Hovind luxuriated with a couple of 8-footers — several complaints netted us parity.)

I agreed to participate in the debate at the last minute, after the first debater could not attend. The local skeptics/freethought campus group contacted me at once, encouraging me not to participate so as not to give Hovind — and by extension all creationists — the recognition that there is a real debate between evolution and creation. This has always been the position of such prominent evolutionary biologists as Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Dawkins, and they are, of course, correct — there is no debate. That issue was settled a century ago, and evolutionary theory won hands down. They are also right to note that public debate is not how the validity of scientific theories is determined. And, in any case, debate is a questionable forum to determine scientific truth because such an adversarial system more closely models the law, as Gould noted after the Arkansas creationism trial:
Debate is an art form. It is about the winning of arguments. It is not about the discovery of truth. There are certain rules and procedures to debate that really have nothing to do with establishing fact — which creationists have mastered. Some of those rules are: never say anything positive about your own position because it can be attacked, but chip away at what appear to be the weaknesses in your opponent's position. They are good at that. I don't think I could beat the creationists at debate. I can tie them. But in courtrooms they are terrible, because in courtrooms you cannot give speeches. In a courtroom you have to answer direct questions about the positive status of your belief. We destroyed them in Arkansas. On the second day of the two-week trial we had our victory party!
I had also been alerted to the fact that Hovind was under investigation by the IRS for tax fraud and evasion (http://newsobserver.com/24hour/nation/story/1295249p-8422005c.html), that he believes income tax is a tool of Satan to bring down the United States and that democracy is evil and contrary to God's law, and the he recommends people read the infamous anti-Semitic hoax, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion (http://www.splcenter.org/intel/intelreport/article.jsp?aid= 205); apparently Hovind received his doctorate from a diploma mill (http://home.austarnet.com.au/stear/bartelt_dissertation_on_ hovind_thesis.htm), and even Ken Ham's creationist organization, Answers in Genesis, disavows many of Hovind's more extreme beliefs in a fascinating web document entitled "Arguments we think creationists should not use" (http://www.answersingenesis.org/home/area/faq/dont_use.asp).

I inquired of Pastor Jason if he was aware of these charges, which he acknowledged he was, saying that his organization had looked into them; nevertheless, they wanted to stage a debate that had nothing to do with Hovind's personal affairs or religious beliefs, and that was solely restricted to the scientific evidence for evolution and creation. Of course, I am aware that there is no scientific evidence in favor of creation, and that Hovind, like all creationists, can do nothing more than attack evolution in hopes that the default conclusion, obedient to the logical fallacy of the excluded middle (also known as the either/or fallacy and false dilemma fallacy), is that if evolution is wrong then creationism must be right. I entered the debate eyes wide shut to such extraneous matters. Hovind did not disappoint.

Defending Science

I wasn't going to write about this debate, but internet chatter on some freethought forums on the validity of such debates led me to pen a response to the larger issue of whether scientists have a duty to defend science when it is under attack (which, of course, we do), and what is the best strategy for marshalling such a defense. I cannot speak for all scientists, of course, but the Skeptics Society, of which I am Executive Director, is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit scientific research and educational organization with a goal (among many) of promoting and defending science. As such, it is our job to stand up to anti-science attacks, of which the creationist movement is surely one. Of course, there are ways to do this without giving public recognition that there is a real debate between evolution and creation, but if such debates are to be staged anyway, unless there is a universal moratorium among scientists to eschew all such activities, I reasoned, they are going to happen, so we might as well meet them with wit and aplomb.

As a general rule that applies to most paranormal and supernatural claims, we may divide the world into three types of people: True Believers, Fence Sitters, and Skeptics. True Believers will never change their minds no matter what evidence is presented to them. Skeptics are the choir at which we usually preach. The battleground is for the Fence Sitters — those who have heard something about the claim under question, wondered what the explanation for it might be, and perhaps speculated on their own or considered what other explanations have been proffered. Lacking a good explanation, the mind defaults to whatever explanation is on the table, regardless of how improbable it may be. For people who do not understand the physics of heat conductivity between hot coals and dead skin, the improbable theories of positive thinking, endorphins, or Chi power for how people can walk on hot coals barefoot without getting burned emerge as probable. Before the science of biogeography was pioneered and developed in the 19th century by Alfred Russel Wallace, the default explanation for the distribution of species around the globe was independent creation and the Noachian flood (or, among more religiously skeptical scientists, Lamarckian evolution and land bridges between continents and islands). Once Wallace and Darwin demonstrated how natural selection changes varieties into different species when they migrate into different climes, the supernatural explanation could be abandoned in favor of a natural one.

So, one reason for participating in such questionable debates is not to convert True Believers (since their positions are, by definition, non-negotiable), but to show the Fence Sitters that there is, in fact, a sound natural explanation for the apparently supernatural phenomenon under question. On a secondary level, we can also reinforce Skeptics with additional intellectual firepower they can use in their own debates with True Believers and Fence Sitters. On a tertiary level, we can witness to both cohorts that skeptics are thoughtful, witty, and pleasant, and sans horns, rancor, and pathos. To wit, I was handed several notes after the debate from professed Christians whose feedback lead me to conclude that at the very least they were convinced that skeptics are not Satanists. Here are two:
I am a believer of Creation. However, I wanted to tell you I respected your professionalism in your execution of what you had to say. I almost want to apologize on behalf of some Creationists present tonight.

I cannot say that I agree with you, but I would like to thank you for your professional presentation, unlike your opposition.
I began my opening statement (I went first) with a question: "How many of you are believers in God?" About 95% of the audience raised their hands. I then looked at my watch and declared, "Oh, would you look at the time," as I began to exit stage left. That put the audience at ease. I then began my presentation with a slide of a crop circle with SKEPTIC.COM carved in the middle of it, noting that in skepticism and science we are in search of natural explanations for phenomena — "Is it more likely that an extraterrestrial intelligence fashioned this crop circle or that a terrestrial intelligence created it with Photoshop?" Skepticism and science are verbs, not nouns, I averred. These are activities to understand how the world works, not formalized positions one must defend regardless of evidence to the contrary. I then showed a slide of a cover of the tabloid World Weekly News featuring Arnold Schwarzenegger and an alien, with the headline Alien Backs Arnold for Governor. "Before we say something is out of this world, we must first make sure it is not in this world," I noted, adding parenthetically that this is the first alien I have ever seen with a buffed build, presumably from an Arnold workout! More mirth.

Then I got serious, explaining that there is no such thing as the creationist position to debate. There are, in fact, at least ten different creationisms, as outlined in Eugenie Scott's brilliant heuristic (http://www.ncseweb.org/resources/articles/9213_the_creationevolution_continu_12_7_2000.asp). These include: Flat Earthism, Geocentrism, Young-Earth Creationism, Old-Earth Creationism, Gap Creationism (in reference to a large temporal gap between Genesis 1:1 and 1:2, allowing an old earth), Day–Age Creationism ("day" may mean a geological epoch, allowing an old earth), Progressive Creationism (blending Special Creation with modern science), Intelligent Design Creationism (design in the world is proof of an intelligent designer), Evolutionary Creationism (God uses evolution to bring about life), and Theistic Evolution (nature creates bodies; God creates souls). I noted that Hovind would have to defend his creationism not just against evolution, but against all the other creationisms.

Then I showed how many Christians fully embrace the theory of evolution — I estimate 96 million American Christians, based on a 2001 Gallup Poll in which 37 percent of Americans (107 million people) agree with this statement: "Human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God guided this process." Since roughly 90 percent of Americans are Christians, this means about 96 million American Christians accept common genealogy, descent with modification, and an old earth. In addition, one billion Catholics worldwide embrace evolution, as endorsed by Pope John Paul II in his 1996 address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences:
New knowledge has led to the recognition that the theory of evolution is more than a hypothesis. It is indeed remarkable that this theory has been progressively accepted by researchers, following a series of discoveries in various fields of knowledge. The convergence, neither sought nor fabricated, of the results of work that was conducted independently is in itself a significant argument in favor of the theory.
I concluded this portion of my opening statement by noting that even Evangelical Born-Again Christians accept evolution, quoting President Jimmy Carter, in his response to an attempt by a Georgia's school superintendent to ban the word "evolution" from state science standards:
As a Christian, a trained engineer and scientist, and a professor at Emory University, I am embarrassed by Superintendent Kathy Cox's attempt to censor and distort the education of Georgia's students. The existing and long-standing use of the word 'evolution' in our state's textbooks has not adversely affected Georgians' belief in the omnipotence of God as creator of the universe. There can be no incompatibility between Christian faith and proven facts concerning geology, biology, and astronomy. There is no need to teach that stars can fall out of the sky and land on a flat earth in order to defend our religious faith.
I then moved to the most important slide of my presentation: the famous Sidney Harris cartoon of two scientists at a blackboard filled with equations, with the words "then a miracle occurs" in the mathematical sequence. The caption has one scientist saying to the other: "I think you need to be more explicit here in step two." Throughout the evening I drove home the point that creationists are doing nothing more than squawking at every mystery: "Then a miracle occurs!" This is the "god of the gaps" argument — wherever an apparent gap exists in scientific knowledge, this is where God interjects a miracle.

I also noted quite emphatically that neither Hovind nor any other creationist would ever present positive evidence supporting the creationist position, because none exists. They can always and only attack the theory of evolution and hope that no one notices that they have said nothing that would lead to a creationist conclusion. They offer no mechanism for creationism, other than "God did it."

The remainder of my 25-minute opening statement was dedicated to showing how the various lines of evidence converge to the conclusion that evolution happened. Here I did not pretend to be able to cover the vast numbers of natural facts that support evolution; instead, I focused on the concept of consilience — the "jumping together" of facts not related to one another. For example, paleoanthropologists have presented us a fossil record of human evolution quite in accord with that developed independently by geneticists. As I noted, it is not as if these scientists all meet on the weekends in some grand conspiracy: "Okay, look, there are these creationists like Hovind out there, so we've got to get our story straight. Let's agree that we'll tell everyone that humans and chimpanzees diverged from a common ancestor between 6 and 7 million years ago, okay?"

Interestingly, this approximates what many creationists think actually happens in science, and Hovind's is the weirdest conspiracy theory I have ever encountered along these lines. In a 1996 article, "Unmasking the false religion of evolution," he wrote:
There is definitely a conspiracy, but I don't think that it is a human conspiracy. I don't believe there is a smoke filled room where a group of men get together and decide to teach evolution in all the schools. I believe that it is at a much higher level. I believe that it is a Satanic conspiracy. The reason these different people come to the same conclusion is not because they all met together; it is because they all work for the devil. He is their leader and they don't even know it.
(Another note given to me by someone who called himself "an Evangelist Christian — Born again," reiterated this fear: "I just want to tell you that we fight against a spiritual world and Satan will do anything to blind your eyes from the truth. I just ask you to consider this as a possibility! I will be praying for you!")

Then the "Debate" Ended

The moment Hovind spoke the debate was over. "I am here to win you over to Christ," he began. "And I'm here to win Michael Shermer over to Christ." Hovind was not there to debate evolution-vs-creation, or natural-vs-supernatural explanations. He was there to witness for the Lord (what we used to call "Amway with Bibles" when I was an Evangelical Christian at Pepperdine University). Everything he said from there on was superfluous: Variations do not lead to new species (dogs come only from dogs). Design implies a designer. There is an afterlife. The Bible is literally true in everything it says. Humans used to live 900 years. There is no right and wrong without God. Noah's Flood explains geological formations and species distribution. Dinosaurs and humans lived simultaneously. Dinosaurs died in the flood. Dinosaurs on the Ark were very young and small. Radiometric dating is unreliable. Jesus said the universe is young. The Bible explains dinosaurs ("behemoth"; "leviathan"). The theory of evolution is a religion that leads to communism, abortion, and atheism. Evolutionists are liars. Scientists are arrogant. Creationists are not allowed to publish in scientific journals. Creationism is censored from public schools. Microevolution may be true, but macroevolution, organic evolution, stellar evolution, chemical evolution, and cosmic evolution are all lies perpetrated by the lying liars who worship at the faux religion of evolution. And, just in case there was anyone present who had not heard, Hovind concluded: "Jesus died for our sins."

Hovind also gave several commercial plugs for his Dinosaur Adventure Land theme park that teaches children biblical-based science. Build a miniature Grand Canyon out of sand to see how quickly it can be done. Participate in Jumpasaurus, a trampoline game where the players toss a ball through a hoop and learn how they can do two things at once for Jesus. And thrill with the Nerve-Wracking Ball, where a bowling ball hangs from a tree limb and the children release it to swing out and back just short of hitting them — they win the game if they don't flinch, thereby demonstrating their faith in God's laws.

I began my ten-minute rebuttal by noting that Hovind is the only guy I know who can deliver a two-hour lecture in 25 minutes (he is the fastest talker I have ever met, with a voice like Ross Perot and a finish to each sentence that seems to say "so there!"). I again emphasized that Hovind had said nothing in support of the creationist position, that he only attacked the theory of evolution in hopes that the audience would then accept creationism by default, and with regard to his divine explanations for the origin of species, I reiterated, "I think you need to be more explicit here in step two." I explained that creationists do not publish in scientific journals because they do not do science; and that creationism is not taught in public school science courses because there is nothing to teach — "God did it" makes for a rather short semester.

Because Hovind had said he was pro-science, I emphasized that if young-earth creationists like him are right, then all of science goes out the window, not just evolutionary biology. If the earth is only 6000 years old, then most of cosmology, astronomy, physics, chemistry, biochemistry, geology, paleontology, archaeology, genetics, and so on are wrong.

I noted that the "fakes and mistakes" of science, trotted out by Hovind and other creationists, were all discovered, publicly revealed, and corrected by scientists, not creationists, and that the self-correcting machinery of science is what makes it so successful. I punctuated this point by noting the parallels between evolution deniers and Holocaust deniers, the latter of whom accuse Holocaust historians and survivors of lies and deceit in the same manner as the creationists accuse scientists, and that the strategy is no more effective and no less malevolent when employed by creationists.

Finally, I suggested a number of tests of evolutionary theory: if Hovind could produce just one example of a trilobite embedded in a fossil bed containing hominids, I would concede that the theory of evolution is in trouble. No such disconfirmatory evidence exists, and creationists know it, which is why they always dodge this challenge.

During my rebuttal Hovind was furiously scanning through his hundreds of PowerPoint® slides, preparing something for every point I made, most of them irrelevant and orchestrated to elicit derision and laughter. Even during the Q&A, Hovind was so facile at this process that by the time the moderator finished reading the question, he had a slide prepared!

The Immediate Aftermath

After the debate I was surrounded by a mob of Bible-toting students, most of whom were exceptionally polite, friendly, and desirous to know "Why did you give up your faith?" The question is genuinely asked out of curiosity, but there is often a substrate inquiry implied in the voice and revealed in the eyes: "This couldn't happen to me, could it?" When I answer in the affirmative that, indeed, it could happen to anyone who is intellectually honest in their search for answers to life's most ponderous questions, I am sometimes accused of a false faith ab initio: "You were never really a Christian." How convenient, and cognitively bullet-proof. But tell that to my annoyed siblings and non-Christian friends, who tolerated my nonstop evangelizing for seven years. The sentiments were quite real.

Who won the debate? Intellectually, I did, with Hovind once again conceding defeat on the last question of the evening: "What is the best evidence for the creation?" He answered: "The impossibility of the contrary" (evolution). In that simple statement, Hovind confessed the scientific "sin" of all creationists: Disproving evolution does not prove creationism. "And then a miracle happens" is not science. To Hovind and all creationists I say: I think you need to be more explicit here in step two.

Anyone who was there and assessed the outcome from audience enthusiasm for either Hovind or me, however, would have perceived a different result: one that was, on one level, foreordained. With 95% of people in attendance for the sole purpose of rooting their team to victory, I stood about as much chance of winning them over as the Los Angeles Lakers would in convincing the fans of their bitter rivals, the Sacramento Kings, that they are the better basketball team, regardless of the score. The home-court advantage is a potent force in intellectual venues no less than in athletic ones.

The problem is that this is not an intellectual exercise, it is an emotional drama. For scientists, the dramatis personae are evolutionists vs creationists, the former of whom have an impregnable fortress of evidence that converges on an unmistakable conclusion; for creationists, however, the evidence is irrelevant. This is a spiritual war, whose combatants are theists vs atheists, spiritualists vs secularists, Christians vs Satanists, godfearing capitalists vs godless communists, good vs evil. With stakes this high, and an audience so stacked, what chance does any scientist have in such a venue? Thus, I now believe it is a mistake for scientists to participate in such debates and I will not do another. Unless there is a subject that is truly debatable (evolution vs creation is not), with a format that is fair, in a forum that is balanced, it only serves to belittle both the magisterium of science and the magisterium of religion.

About the Author(s): 
Michael Shermer
Skeptics Society
2761 N Marengo Ave
Altadena CA 91001

Winning the Creation Debate

Reports of the National Center for Science Education
Title: 
Winning the Creation Debate
Author(s): 
Frank J Sonleitner
Volume: 
24
Issue: 
6
Year: 
2004
Date: 
November–December
Page(s): 
36–38
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.
On May 18, 2000, Duane Gish from the Institute for Creation Research (ICR) offered a workshop on "How to win debates against evolutionists" at a motel in Atlanta. Apparently creationists considered it a success, because now ICR is offering a set of six videotapes entitled Winning the Creation Debate. The first two tapes instruct viewers in "Preparing for your debate" and "Choosing your subject matter". In the remaining four, Gish discusses his favorite debate subjects: "The fossil record", "Thermodynamics", "Origin of life", and "Evolutionists' tactics & closing remarks".

These tapes are also very instructive for anyone who is even considering getting involved in a "debate" with a creationist. They reveal a tried-and-true strategy used by one of the most successful anti-evolution debaters in the last few decades. And if anyone is not convinced by the other articles in this issue that debating an anti-evolutionist is a difficult and non-productive endeavor, Gish's advice might also be useful to those preparing to debate against creationists.

Preparing for Your Debate

Gish points out that debates have proven to be the most effective tool for spreading creationism among the public. They are much more exciting to the public than lectures. Gish has not only an innate talent for debating but also more than 30 years experience, so in this first video he gives his prospective debaters very sound and practical advice:
  • Know your subject (read ICR books on the various topics); have an adequate set of notes (especially helpful in the rebuttal);
  • Use good professional visual aids (PowerPoint® presentation software is recommended, but be sure to have backup slides or overheads for emergencies);
  • Rehearse your presentation for timing purposes (Gish recommends a debate format of 60 minutes for initial presentation with a 10 minute break, a 15 minute rebuttal and a 5 minute summary);
  • Know something of your opponent's background;
  • Use quotations from evolutionists to show that scientists challenge evolution;
  • Entertain the audience with jokes; and finally,
  • Pray!
Gish's record of success in creation/evolution debates suggest that this is good advice, but also shows the formula that creationist debaters will likely follow.

Choosing Your Subject Matter

Gish advises creationist debaters that certain subjects are more successful than others in a debate format. His advice includes:
  • Don't try to cover too many topics — stick to a few powerful examples and arguments;
  • Choose carefully, avoiding arguments that are too technical (the age of the earth) or not focused on the scientific evidence (the biblical record); and
  • Start with your own clear definitions (for example, creationists often define "science" in a way that invalidates evolution: "Science can only deal with properties, processes and events that are repeatable. Neither creation nor evolution are scientific; they are both equally religious." And so on).
In the remaining videos, Gish demonstrates these principles. He especially illustrates how to control the debate by framing the questions and choosing the subject matter. Throughout the series, he produces a seemingly unlimited series of outrageously false statements based on out-of-date information, inappropriate quotes, and incredibly outlandish evolutionary scenarios of his own invention. These establish a rhetorical advantage that has nothing to do with the scientific issues, but everything to do with winning debates.

The Fossil Record

Gish claims that the fossil record totally refutes evolution. Billions of fossils document the appearance of vertebrates in the Cambrian Period, but he says that there are absolutely no fossils of their ancestors in the Precambrian; nor, he claims, are there any fossils of the ancestors of fishes. He further claims that the fossil evidence for human evolution represents either apes or humans without any intermediate forms (for example, Neanderthals were modern humans suffering from rickets) or else fakes and hoaxes such as Piltdown or Nebraska Man.

Of course, Precambrian rocks have a rich fossil record of sponges, cnidarians, annelids, and mollusks. Recent research has also reported fossils of a microscopic bilaterian that could represent the ancestor of all bilaterians — including the vertebrates that creationists argue appeared suddenly in the Cambrian without any fossil ancestors. Other forms ancestral to vertebrates have been found in the Burgess shale and more recently in the Early Cambrian Chengjiang formation of China.

What is lacking in the Precambrian is anything like a "modern" vertebrate, so creationist debaters can depend on the ignorance of a general audience to be impressed by the apparent absence of forms that appear similar to fishes, amphibians, reptiles, and mammals. This is a simple objection that forces the evolutionist into a complicated and technical rebuttal — a sure formula for success.

Even though the taxonomic status of the Neanderthals is in dispute, there is a general consensus that they are not modern humans with skeletal disorders. Again, the rebuttal of this claim — and of the erroneous claims that Piltdown and Nebraska Man have any place in modern human phylogeny — saddles the evolutionist debater with a complex and highly technical set of historical, biogeographical, anatomical, genetic, and political data that are difficult to present clearly in a debate format.

Both these examples from the fossil record show that winning debates is about setting up a rhetorical contest in a way that puts one's adversaries at a disadvantage. Gish is a master at making complex issues in evolutionary biology seem simple and then using humor, incredulity, and ridicule to engage the sympathy of the audience. Even if his opponent successfully refutes one or two of his claims, time always runs out before they can all be refuted.

Thermodynamics

Gish claims that the Second Law of Thermodynamics prevents the natural emergence of order in the universe and of life within it — as well as the evolution of organisms — because that law requires that everything, without exception, goes from order to disorder, increasing randomness in the universe. Matter has no properties or tendencies to go to complexity. He quotes a number of evolutionists who support his definition of the law. But none of them, of course, are specialists in thermodynamics.

There are many problems with Gish's oversimplified, common-sense paraphrasing of the Second Law (see "Challenging creationist debaters", p 39). However, his discussion illustrates the power of being able to define terms one's own way — in this case, an oversimplified definition that makes the appearance and maintenance of order in the universe (and in biological systems) seem impossible without some sort of extranatural input. It does not matter that there is no relationship between Gish's notion of the Second Law and the way that it is used by scientists who specialize in studying thermodynamics. It is enough to make the problem sound insurmountable and to leave the evolutionists to clean up the mess — which will surely eat up most of the debate time and prevent his opponent from making an affirmative case for evolution.

The Origin of Life

To refute the possibility of a natural origin for life, Gish claims that the only way evolution could produce complexity is by pure chance. He then calculates the probability of producing only one of the necessary enzymes. Taking ribonuclease as an example, the probability of the random assembly of the 124 amino acids by pure chance from a giant solution of amino acids is, of course, vanishingly small. Obviously, this approach bears no relationship to the models of the first emergence of life on earth, but the point is to convince the audience that scientists "have faith" in silly things that are so improbable using the laws of nature (as described by Gish) that they amount to little more than "faith" in material causes.

Gish then tries to show that other complex systems could not evolve in order to provide evidence for their design. His favorite example is the metamorphosis of the monarch butterfly. In his Lamarckian scenario, a caterpillar, longing to be able to fly, wraps itself in a chrysalis stage and emerges as an adult butterfly! Since he agrees with biologists that this could never happen, he concludes that metamorphosis could not have evolved and the butterfly life cycle must have been designed. Gish gives the same treatment to homology, Haeckel's embryos, and vestigial organs.

In all these examples, Gish demonstrates the effective use of straw-man arguments: setting up a patently ridiculous or impossible scenario, implying that this scenario fairly represents the position of the scientific community, then agreeing with scientists that the scenario is ludicrous and unacceptable. To the scientifically illiterate audiences, he appears to be refuting evolution, but in fact, he is only destroying his own unscientific misrepresentation of scientific knowledge. It is up to his opponent to try to clean up the mess: explain complex models of probability and the emergence of life or evo-devo models of the evolution of complex life histories, including metamorphosis.

Evolutionists' Tactics and Closing Remarks

In this final video Gish advises his audience how to respond to various evolutionist arguments. He warns that debate opponents may attack the Bible as a source of historical and scientific data. Of course, the audiences will "know" that the Bible is inerrant — which is one of the ICR's central tenets, of course. Opponents may also accuse creationists of quoting out of context. Creationist debaters should have other quotes available, since the opponent cannot possibly know the context of them all. It does not matter whether the person being quoted has any relevant scientific credentials or research record as long as the quote appears to question evolution.

Expect personal attacks on creationists. For example, the evolutionist opponent will become desperate at losing the debate and accuse the creationist of distorting, misquoting, misrepresenting, and confusing the scientific facts. Do not hesitate to "rise above" this "uncollegial" behavior. Evolutionists may insist on positive evidence for the creator, but creationists in the audience need none; they will know and accept that evidence against evolution is sufficient evidence for creation.

Evolutionists will claim various specimens represent transitional forms, but there really are none — at least as creationists define them as one organism "turning into" another. Everyone can see that a horse is a horse, even when it is quite small and primitive, like Eohippus. Evolutionists will try to argue that the laws of thermodynamics apply only to isolated systems not an open system with lots of new energy being added all the time like the earth. Remind them that energy alone does not produce complexity. Even though this is not the argument that you made originally, it sounds like an insurmountable objection to producing complexity by natural processes.

Evolutionists will raise arguments in favor of a very old earth and universe. Your audience will reject this argument as irrelevant because of biblical authority. They may also raise the argument of poor design and vestigial structures; however, you can point out that this is a theological argument (the nature of the designer), not a scientific one. The examples of poor design show God's punishment for the sins of Adam and Eve.

Facing a Creationist Opponent

To be sure, Gish is one of the most accomplished and successful debaters in the creation/evolution controversy. His mastery of the debate format, his ability to present a folksy, common-sense (though usually erroneous) summary of scientific concepts, and his ability to reach and persuade an audience (especially when that audience is packed with creationists) present a formidable combination attested to by his long record of defeating his debate opponents, and these tapes show why.

But more than that, these tapes show that the debate format is not about presenting and evaluating scientific evidence for (or even against) evolution, but rather to present evolution in the most unfavorable light possible without making any affirmative claims for creationism. He expects — and his audiences accept — that creationism wins by default.

This is why trying to have a scientific debate with a creationist — or more recently with "intelligent design" proponents — is a fool's errand. However, those that insist on embarking on this journey could learn a lot from this set of tapes — both about the opposition they will face and about rhetorical tactics that win the hearts of the general public. Of course, scientists are constrained by a respect for the evidence and complete, accurate descriptions of scientific laws, theories, research, and interpretation. Our opponents face no such strictures.

About the Author(s): 
Frank J Sonleitner
c/o NCSE
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