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
PO Box 9477
Berkeley CA 94709-0477
ncseoffice@ncseweb.org