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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.
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
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.